D.C. Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser may have had a wonderful time celebrating a hard-won and impressive election victory this week, but there will be no honeymoon.
The mayoral campaign suffered from an insufficient debate about the direction of the city. There can be no denying that the District faces significant challenges that demand swift and deliberate responses. In other words, it’s time to govern.
The homelessness crisis isn’t just a conversation centerpiece for public policy wonks. Rather, it’s the predictable result of operating for years without a viable housing strategy. Elected officials have not advanced a deliberate plan for helping low-income and working-class residents meet the District’s ever-escalating rents and rising home prices. Consequently, many people live on the edge, one month away from eviction.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) recently released a proposal to shutter D.C. General again. When it was closed more than 15 years ago, D.C. General was arguably the worst medical facility in the city. Then, it was allowed to morph into an equally deplorable shelter for warehousing poor families. Now Gray and other elected officials want to dot the city’s landscape with mini-shelters.
A shelter by any other name — or size — is still a shelter. Bowser’s administration should reject that proposal. Properly dealing with the homelessness crisis requires a comprehensive, interlocking scheme that addresses unemployment, affordable housing, mental health and substance abuse. More important, however, the new mayor should gather residents in the public square for a serious conversation, raising these difficult questions: Should the city repeal or amend its homelessness law? As a practical operational and financial reality, can D.C. afford to take all comers?
“We’ve become a haven for people from all over the region,” said Ward 5’s Mark Jones, expressing the sentiments of other residents with whom I spoke. “We have to decide who should get housing first.”
Speaking of evaluations, Bowser promised to reassess the new school boundary system Gray imposed. That’s a good thing. But isn’t it also time for a full and candid appraisal of the Education Reform Amendment Act?
A minor cult seemed to have developed over the past several months around D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson. But as her predecessor, Michelle Rhee, often cautioned, this isn’t about the adults. It’s about the children — only the children.
“We have spent absolutely breathtaking amounts of money on this. It’s time for a come-to-Jesus moment,” said Peter MacPherson, a Ward 6 resident and education advocate. Taxpayers have paid more than $3 billion for the modernization of buildings and administrative and other operational costs for traditional and charter schools.
In about four years, more than $1 million has been spent just on Henderson’s salary, benefits, pension and other perks, according to government documents. Should the chancellor’s performance evaluation be publicly released?
Despite those public education expenditures, the District has one of the widest achievement gaps in the country . “We’re not making progress with African American and Latino boys,” said Jones, a member of the State Board of Education. “I don’t think anyone has paid close attention other than to offer platitudes.”
“We need to drill down,” Jones added.
Economic development also requires a deeper dive. The District seems to have no targeted development plan or agenda that directs and commits the government, as former Montgomery County executive Doug Duncan did with downtown Silver Spring.
Some District officials might cite Nationals Park and the Southwest Waterfront to dispute these criticisms. Even there, the city mostly has left economic development to the whims of developers. That has meant Ward 8 doesn’t have a white-tablecloth, sit-down restaurant. Georgia Avenue continues to suffer the absence of upscale retail despite a sizable middle class in Ward 4.
Naturally, the mayor-elect alone can’t forge a new and prosperous direction for the city. Others are needed, including a new city administrator and a deputy mayor for planning and economic development. For city administrator, some have suggested George S. Hawkins, the general manager of DC Water, or former city administrator Michael C. Rogers. Milton Bailey, a senior executive at the Department of Housing and Community Development, has been suggested as a good pick to run economic development. All three have impressive records of service.
But whomever Bowser appoints to the cabinet, let’s hope cronyism and nepotism won’t overwhelm the selection of qualified professionals. If so, it would be business as usual, and you can bet the District’s pressing problems will remain unsolved.