This DC Public Works facility is less than a mile from the capitol, 3 blocks South of South Carolina Avenue.
Public Works functions have consumed less than 7% of DC's budget over
the past 11 years ('87-'97), and some 6% of its total funded personnel.
Its share of the budget has dropped from 7.7% in FY87 to 6.1% in FY97,
but is due to rise again in the near future. Its approved personnel levels
for FY 97 are about 1700 "FTE's". No useful comparisons with
other jurisdictions are available. It should be noted however, that large sums of federal
monies are used for public housing projects. The major components of this DC budget
(Summarized from Oct. 1, 1997 report from Managing Total Performance, Inc./Transmanagement, Inc.)
According to this report, DC's Department of Public Works (DPW) was once praised as a model of innovative public works services. In the 1960s the predecessor agency was the training ground for transportation engineers for other areas of the country. In the 1970s, its parking bureau invented modern municipal parking management. In the 1980s, its sanitation workers were among the first in the nation to streamline operations through the adoption of the large "Supercan" that could be mechanically emptied into the garbage truck.
By 1997, however, most of DPW's systems are in "gross disrepair and its workers under siege". Street repair and maintenance is the worst rated of 27 services provided to DC residents, and over half no longer consider garbage collection "good". There is a chronic shortage of trash trucks resulting in workers charging extensive overtime to operate the remaining units. An extraordinary war against parking meters has left the city with thousands broken or missing, and a revenue loss of $600,000 monthly. A shortage of towing vehicles limits the removal of abandoned vehicles, and costs DC another $100,000 in unrealized revenues. The so-called "City of Trees" now has a backlog of over 5000 dead ones with their attendant threats to property and safety.
The problems afflicting DPW mirror those of other parts of the DC government: insufficient funding; managerial neglect or overcontrol in all ten divisions; a decimated work force; and a lack of accountability permeating the work culture The personnel system is dysfunctional, with long hiring delays, lost paperwork, missed deadlines for serious disciplinary action, and an outdated seniority system that "forces a mismatch of experience and jobs". Remaining employees now blame virtually all service delivery problems on lack of funding; planning and innovation have disappeared; and morale "is at a nadir". The benefits of "information technology" are virtually non-existent in an office environment where telephones, fax machines, and copiers are often not working, and computers have "antiquated hardware and incompatible software". In fact, DPW''s capabilities are so low they "cannot satisfy the federally-mandated (reporting) requirements for federal transportation and motor vehicles".
Concerning the maintenance of streets, bridges, and public space, expenditures have fallen to half of what they were 15 years ago, accompanied by a loss of staff, technical knowledge and management skills. DPW now owns expensive equipment with no personnel trained to operate it. There has been little or no capital investment for the past seven years, growing inefficiencies in the contracting process, and an absence of tools and training to adopt new practices.
Street cleaning is now mainly limited to reacting to citizen complaints, is uncoordinated with collateral services, and has a severe lack of equipment, often due to disrepair. Refuse collection is often spotty, operating on a 20-year old route system with a fleet of obsolete vehicles, many of which are manpower-intensive. As elsewhere, lack of operational equipment produces high demands for overtime.
The fleet of DPW vehicles and equipment is "too old, too big, unreliable, expensive to maintain, consistently out of service for repair, and perhaps unsafe to operate". Its average age is 7.8 years (twice the industry standard). Only 17% of vehicles are repaired within 48 hours, compared to an industry norm of 90%. Over 30% of DC non-emergency vehicles are consistently out of service, and for those that are in operation, fuel availability is often problematic. Equipment problems are compounded by a set of DPW buildings that reflect a "lack of preventative maintenance due in large part to poor management and dramatically increasing the ultimate cost of building repair.
This report, and others in this series, bear a striking resemblance to World Bank reports describing conditions in Third World Countries around the world two decades after emancipation from colonial control, or immediately after release from protracted communist control. Only rarely have occupying powers prepared in their colonies the responsible bureaucratic culture required for independent home rule, democratic or otherwise.
Clearly, however, DC is not the only jurisdiction to have fallen behind in its capital expenditures: it is a national problem. In a recent (5/22/98) speech to the National Press Club, the Chairman of the Rebuild America Coalition (see (RAC) )--and the current mayor of Philadelphia--Rendell estimated that the total price tag for nationwide public works needs at a minimum $853 billion, including:
o $358B for roads, highways, and bridges;
The District of Columbia must contribute significantly to these shortfalls!
As in other areas, the Washington Post daily headlines record the current problems--and planned remedies (see below).
DC's Department of Public Works recently provided the Post with an unusual opportunity to explore what the DPW is doing to change its ways, and the results are quite encouraging, though still mostly in the form of promises--and statistics against which future progress (and budget requirements) can be measured.
The current Director of DPW, C. C. Bernadino, was in line to be fired by Mayor Barry for complaining about the lack of resources. He resigned and was subsequently reappointed by the Control Board to the same job--but "under new management". He has brought in an outsider as deputy director who had recently revamped the Indianapolis trash collection system. Both believe in competition between government workers and private contractors. Bernadino blames Barry for what the consultants have called a "culture of mediocrity":
"The mayor's legacy is a culture with a seriously eroded work ethic . People think they are entitled to their jobs. What you end up with is a lot of government that doesn't understand its contract with citizens to deliver services. " (emphasis added)
It is abundantly clear that the city has for many years supported personnel featherbedding at the expense of equipment maintenance and capital investment-- the most criticism against inept Third World Governments worldwide. Bernadino acknowledges that it will take years to overcome the backlogs in these areas. Here are some typical examples of the magnitude of the job:
In this highly visible function, the city has failed miserably due to a lack both of equipment, and of contractors willing to tolerate DC's failed contracting system. Some new equipment has been procured, and contracts are now in place, providing a total of 152 DC-owned trucks, and 214 under lease. These 366 trucks include some smaller vehicles better suited to the secondary residential streets, and are estimated to be able to completely clear a six-inch snowfall in 24 hours. The cost and average age of the DC fleet is not provided, but annual procurement of 10-20 vehicles should bring the average age down to five years in a reasonable time.
DC has almost 70,000 street lights, of which over 1000 still date back to the '20s and '30s. Using both federal highway funds and city funds, the backlog in maintenance and upgrades is expected to be competed in 1999.
The "City of Trees" counts some 109,000 city-owned trees, and has now accumulated some 5000 dead ones and paid out several half-million dollar damage claims resulting from trees falling on passing cars. In 1989+1990, DPW trimmed 26,400 trees, cut down 5600, and planted 5500. In 1996+1997, they trimmed 2300, cut down 1600, and planted less than 400. DPW hopes to use three contractors to reduce the backlog to 2000 dead trees within 1998, and eliminate it in 1999. The cost of keeping up with the problem is not large.
The City operates some 15,000 parking meters, which should bring in about $2.5M per year to city coffers--although many are currently damaged or destroyed. After a long and contentious process, the city has now contracted with a reliable pair of firms to replace them--for $25M!
The City also operates 9500 fire hydrants, and it is currently estimated that about 400 of these are not operational.
The city operates a total of some 2400 vehicles, primarily trash collection trucks, most of which are so old and so poorly maintained that the city has been paying $200,000 monthly in overtime to operate the few that run. The city now plans to look at the relative advantages of privatizing most of that effort--as well as reinstating curbside recycling (unavailable in the nation's capital for several years).
But the most costly DPW problem is the deterioration of the city's 400+ miles of thoroughfares, 600+ miles of side streets, and 260 bridges and tunnels. Roughly 25% of these streets and bridges are now overdue for major repair, according to federal highway experts called in to help solve these now-overwhelming problems. They claim that it will take 12 years to work off the backlog at current spending levels, 6 years if the budget is increased by $135M annually. Federal funds are already being used to repair many of the major thoroughfares. In recent years, DC has been spending about $4,200 per mile for street repairs, while the Maryland suburbs spend closer to $25,000 per mile, and Virginia, $16,000 per mile.
The city counts some 4000 potholes and 8000 temporary patches over utility cuts. In an unusually charitable move, three major utility companies have now agreed to repair their own cuts, instead of waiting for the city to do it, while the city now hopes to take care of all its potholes by the end of 1998--no doubt helped by one of the mildest winters on record. Such steps are laudatory, but still beg the issue of the proper funding level for DC's public works for the long run. CMO Barnett, however, has made it clear in her talks to local neighborhood and advocacy groups that she fully understands the importance of preventative maintenance and intends to include proper funding in future budgets.
Public Works Chief Bernadino has recently (June 1998) requested funds from the Federal Highway Administration to assume responsibility for tending some 86 miles of "major thoroughfares" within DC--roughly the equivalent of "state highways" elsewhere--and recognized by Maryland and Virginia as "gateways to the nation's capital". (DC has just over 1100 miles of roads altogether.)
The assistance would include resurfacing, landscaping, and snow removal. These would include the major commuter routes into the city, such as Connecticut, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Rhode Island, Georgia and New York Avenues; the major ceremonial avenues including Constitution, Independence, and Pennsylvania; and 15 miles of major interstates crossing the city (I-295, I-395, and I-66). NARPAC, Inc. believes that this is a typical area in which either Federal or regional assistance is fully in keeping with making our national capital as good as all Americans can make it. It is also in keeping with the need to single out the costs of state- and federal-level functions the city cannot afford to bear.
Release of Deferred HUD Funds
Another encouraging sign is that $70 Million in deferred HUD funds have just been released (April, 1998) through the revamped DC Housing and Community Development Department, now under the direction of Richard Monteilh, brought in from Atlanta. Some 400 single family homes and over 1300 apartments will be built or renovated, along with other measures to spruce up neighborhoods all over the city. About $10M will go "East of the (Anacostia) River," while over $16M will go to the Adams Morgan area. DC's continuing troubles utilizing federal grants is discussed in a separate section of the chapter dealing with other problems associated with the DC budget .
DC'S DOWNTOWN PARKING SITUATION
There is less than full agreement whether there is sufficient parking in downtown Washington. New buildings are required to provide parking for some large fraction of their residents or office workers, and there are still a number of surface lots scattered around where new construction has not yet started. In fact, there is still 25 acres of surface parking around the Capitol building for staffers. The vast majority of the city's spaces are for day-long parking and the city has no requirement that some spaces be remained for short-term use, such as shopping of visiting restaurants. The city has no public facilities primarily for short-term parking, and no real plans to build any.
Pressed by environmentalists who seem to think that it is better for drivers to spend hours 'circling the block', it appears that the city is unlikely to take a firm stand in favor of the merchants. This is in stark contrast to such "edge cities" as Bethesda and Alexandria who have recognized that readily available parking equates to greater business and greater revenues for the local jurisdictions. The result is that regular commuters have better access to parking and less incentive to use public transportation than consumers who are far less likely to switch to public transportation, and thus tend to avoid coming 'downtown'.
In the spring of 2001, NARPAC was given a tour of one of DC's supposedly "notorious" trash transfer sites, operating within a few blocks of Union Station. To this author's amazement, it is housed in what was once the DC Colosseum (where he had take his young kids to the circus in the '60s). That big Quonset Hut shaped building was once DC's major entertainment center, closed when the (now US Airways) Arena was opened on the Beltway. After laying fallow for years and becoming a haven for the homeless and addicted, it was converted into a dance hall, and after that into a house of worship! (The neighbors have objected to each incarnation.) And a few years ago, it was again converted--this time by removing most of its inner structure to become a fully-enclosed trash transfer site owned by a private contractor who has since merged into the $12 billion a year Waste Management Corporation.
The sole purpose of this installation is to provide a neighborhood-friendly site for unloading the city's public and private local garbage trucks, and reloading their trash into larger, long-haul, open-road trailer trucks for transfer to privately-owned landfill sites around the East Coast. The transfer process involves huge, expensive front-loaders and tracked cranes that can fill a 20-ton trailer in 10 minutes. The process also obviously involves noise, odors, traffic, and pests. Yet this installation at 3rd and M street NE seems to be a model of efficiency and consideration. It is a private, profit-motivated company that makes money by operating efficiently and avoiding fines. It controls or subcontracts the process from the incoming loaded garbage trucks to the final covering of full landfills, and seems to recognize the need to be neighborhood-friendly. The firm operates throughout and beyond the metro area and therefore performs its job "regionally". Over 40% of the trash entering this particular site comes from outside DC.
No garbage at all is left overnight in the facility (to eliminate pests); special fans and moisturizers limit the odors; all trucks are weighed and covered before departure to meet highway standards; driver and truck records are computerized for infractions, etc. The company monitors the routes used by the trucks near the station, and maintains a neighborhood patrol against litter from the plant. Pest control wise, the firm is certain that it does a far better job that the wholesale meat and produce markets just up the street! It appears to be a successful and non-threatening commercial business with very little negative impact on its immediate surroundings.
The fact that it is so difficult to find places to put the sites seems quite irrational. City officials would do well to look for special locations based primarily on easy access to major road, rail, or water routes, and away from local residences. Furthermore, specially-designed facilities (rather than second-hand uses for decrepit buildings) could greatly improve the acceptability of these installations, including the main building, employee parking, and the desired entrance and exit roads, ramps, scales, doors, washers, etc.
A few blocks up the street from the trash transfer site is the Florida Avenue Market where small independent wholesalers provide specialty foods and meats to local retailers. Rats are said to prefer the menus available here. (It is also one of the city's highest crime areas.)
Trash/garbage processing is an essential part of urban life: it is a profitable commercial business, and an inescapable by-product of our consumer society and economy. It is time to stop treating the needed facilities as leper colonies and start incorporating them into the city's infrastructure--like hospitals, post offices, parks and parking garages.
As described under DC's housing stock is relatively meager. An unusually low percentage of DC residents own their own homes, and single family homes are relatively scarce compared to apartments, many of which are in deplorable condition. Just as there is a "shortage" of middle income residents, there is a dearth of middle income housing. But there is no shortage of vacant, abandoned, and derelict houses which have "de-gentrified" over the years and become attractive nuisances (to say the least) for use by the homeless, crack purveyors, prostitutes, and any number of other illegal activities. In the more blighted areas, there may be ten such houses per block. The Williams Administration is now trying to make up for decades of neglect in this area a key element in improving the quality of life for lower income residents.. Four agencies, plus many subagencies, are involved in trying to provide better housing for all residents below the middle income level.
The DC Housing Authority (DCHA)
Some of the worst housing conditions in DC six years ago were the federally-supported public housing projects which had been allowed to run down to deplorable conditions. This eventually led the courts to turn over the Housing Authority to federal receivership, which NARPAC has treated extensively. The turnaround has been truly dramatic: thousands of substandard units have been torn down, and most of the rest renovated. The DC government has now regained control of DCHA.. The new public housing projects are mixing public, subsidized, and affordable housing together in order to avoid the isolation and negative reinforcement of the city's poorest residents. DCHA now also manages the new federally-sponsored HOPE VI programs as well as the use of Section 8 vouchers. Public housing in DC is probably in better shape than those in the poorer segments of the private sector, where unscrupulous landlords have often mistreated their tenants and many tenants have degraded their meager accommodations.
DC's Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD)
According to the DC FY02 Budget document, the 150 employee DHCD has a high priority mission to "increase home ownership opportunities by offering financial assistance to low- and moderate-income residents" and to "support efforts to maintain affordable housing and promote the purchase and renovation of aging and abandoned houses". It also has responsibilities for finding shelter for the homeless. DHCD receives extensive federal grants ($42M of its $58M budget plus another $8M from 'other' sources), leaving DC contributing only $7.7M from its own revenues. These federal grants include a Community Development Block Grant; a Home Investment Partnership Grant; an Emergency Shelter Grant; and a Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS Grant.
DHCD provides home-buyer assistance through its Home Purchase Assistance Program (HPAP); the DC Housing Finance Agency (DCHFA); the Home Ownership Developers Incentive Fund (which defrays some of the costs of newly constructed units for eligible purchasers); and the Tenant's Apartment Purchase Program. To help preserve home ownership, there is a Single Family Residential Rehabilitation Program ; and the Senior Citizen Home Repair and Improvement Program. Recycling of abandoned and vacant housing is conducted through the Homestead Housing Preservation Program.
Outside DHCD, but linked to its efforts, the independent DC Housing Finance Agency issues mortgage revenue bonds which lower the cost of financing single-family home purchases, and the cost of developing rental housing. It was founded in 1979 "to help stimulate and expand DC's tax base by facilitating home ownership and rental housing opportunities". It appears to be a relatively modest effort ( see below) with an operating budget of $4.7M proposed for FY02.
HUD also offers a variety of grant programs to encourage the private purchase by both pubic and non-profit housing developers of both public housing units and housing that is either owned by local government, or obtained through foreclosure under federal insurance programs. This provides one mechanism for renovating abandoned properties and returning them to private ownership. DC is committed to increasing the availability of affordable housing both through new construction and the renovation of aging housing stock. This is, in fact, Goal #1 of the new City-wide strategic plan's Priority III: Promoting Economic Development".
DHCD has adopted a number of specific target performance measures for FY02 to support these objectives which provide an indication of the magnitude of their efforts
DC's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA)
This 376-person agency has the unenviable task of regulating enforcement programs associated with business activities; land and building use; construction safety; historic preservation; rental housing and real estate, alcoholic beverage control (soon to become a separate agency ABRA); and occupational/professional conduct. It takes legal action against businesses and individuals who violate DC laws. Within DCRA, the Building and Land Regulation Administration regulates all building and land use, approves building plans, approves land use, and conducts inspections re public health, safety and welfare. DCRA's Goal #4 is to "identify troubled housing units as candidates for nuisance property abatement", and the FY02 performance measure is to "clean and abate 1750 nuisance properties."
Within DCRA, housing inspections and compliance issues are managed through the Housing Regulation Administration (HRA). One of HRA's must promising approaches is their innovative Neighborhood Stabilization Program which is dubbed "a proactive approach to housing code enforcement". It is committed to stopping blight before it starts and thereby "preventing community deterioration and protecting the health, welfare and safety of DC residents." The program revolves around 28 Neighborhood Stabilization Officers (NSO's) that patrol designated sectors of the city (not coincident with any other subdivisions of the city) looking for violations of the DC code, varying from rodent control and abandoned vehicles, to food sanitation, fire and material hazards. They apparently patrol their "beats" on a daily basis, solicit tips from the neighborhoods, and are empowered to take enforcement actions together with the appropriate DC agency. If this program develops as planned, there should be a substantial reduction in the number of vacant, substandard, and abandoned housing and commercial buildings which currently degrade DC's quality of life.
The HRA targets neighborhoods with front-line staff to identify potential problems and initiate solutions in order to protect and rebuild its communities. It operates under five separate authorities:
The District of Columbia Housing Code (14DCMR) requires HRA to conduct inspections to determine if property owners are in compliance with maintenance requirements of residential properties and the premises thereof. Where noncompliance is found, HRA takes appropriate action to obtain voluntary abatements of the sub-standard conditions or to initiate enforcement action to compel compliance. Enforcement of 14DCMR is the impetus behind DCRA's Neighborhood Stabilization Program initiative.Within HRA, the Housing Code Enforcement staff is charged with taking immediate actions to limit the nuisance value of derelict properties. Based on reports from citizens, ANC's or NSO's such properties can be inspected, and if they qualify, cleaned up; provided sanitary and heating repairs; cleared of weeds, dead trees and trash; boarded up; or razed to the ground based on the judgments of HRA's Board for the Condemnation of Insanitary Buildings (!). NARPAC has been provided with the list of actions to be completed within FY01 and we have visited and photographed many of the sites. Perhaps the biggest limitation in this operation stems from the use of a revolving fund to pay contractors for the abatement work (an average of $1000 to tidy up a salvageable home, and $6500 to raze a lost cause). Abatement costs are charged to the owner, but payment is often delayed, if ever recouped.. The pace of abatement, then, depends on recovering costs from owners with little incentive to cooperate. A better funding system for this relatively low cost operation is warranted.
The Office of Tax and Revenue (OTR)
DC's Office of Tax and Revenue is the biggest group with the 1000-person independent Office of the Chief Financial Officer. It collects over $3 billion annually from all sources, and operates with the considerable authorities generally accorded the world's tax collectors. One of its functions is to repossess properties with unpaid taxes and resell them. Annually some 4-5000 taxpayers fail to pay their taxes on time. Title companies and others pick up those deeds at auction but prior ownership is restored on 70-80% within the specified six-month recovery period. Of the remaining, some are actually sold off, renovated if necessary, and returned to the housing market. But many of the real "basket cases" find no buyers since the tax liabilities have grown to exceed any reasonable hope of recovery. In many other cases, there have been difficulties determining legally-binding vacancy/abandonment, assuring real title and ownership, and finding long- departed owners. There are currently some 900 properties caught in this limbo, and it may take another two years to sort them out.
The largely re-staffed OTR has spent over three years developing a new, automated, integrated, geographic-based data system that will soon go on line, permitting full reconciliation of various diverse outstanding tax, fine, and penalty problems for every DC property. It improves on systems already in use by suburban jurisdictions. Encouraging cooperation between the Mayor's office, the CFO, and the DC Council is producing several changes in the local laws that will add valuable new tools to the tax collector's kit. The net result will be that past problems and excuses for letting abandoned properties fester--and other scofflaws go unpunished--will be largely gone. The city fully expects to move from the Stone Ages to the Leading Edge of efficient tax assessment and collection by the end of 2002, and the impact on property accountability will be significant.
NARPAC senses that OTR has an evident distaste for being in the real estate business. Its primary objective and obligation--is to collect all due revenues, and where possible, improve the city's revenue base. Nevertheless it can provide important stimulus in resolving and eliminating problem nuisance properties. It could also develop a more reliable source of funding for the housing code enforcers.
The National Capital Revitalization Corporation (NCRC)
NCRC, (again according DC FY02 budget documents) "is an independent instrumentality of the DC, created by the NCRC Act of 1998, and codified as DC Code 1-2295.13)" and funded with $25M by the Congress in the FY99 Appropriation Act. Its mission is to spur relatively major economic developments throughout DC, but primarily in neighborhoods of need. Its major thrust is to expand business, but to help remove slum and blight at the same time. As of October, 2001, it has taken over the functions and properties of the Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA), generally considered to have been a monumental failure. It intends to split its effort between 5-7 nearer term projects (less than 5 years) and an equal number of longer term projects requiring up to a decade to complete. In the shorter term, it plans to provide "economic development of areas surrounding relocated municipal facilities and metro stops", among other things, and in the longer range to take on major redevelopment programs such as the Southwest Waterfront and St. Elizabeth's hospital site. Some of these large scale developments will surely involve new housing, some share of which will surely be at the "affordable" end of the spectrum.
More important, perhaps, is NCRC's right to exercise powers of eminent domain (such as condemning substandard housing) in order to assemble sizable contiguous properties for redevelopment. NCRC has the authorities needed to make major differences in the economic landscape of DC including new residential developments. Whether or not it lives up to its general plan and NARPAC's recommendations remains to be seen. It is off to a slow start and there is as yet no demonstration of the extent of its visions for the city. As this article was being written (in 10/01), the DC Council approved the transfer of RLA's 88 separate properties worth some $600M to NCRC. It was one of the Council's first acts after returning to the Wilson Building, apparently satisfied with NCRC's organizational progress. Those 88 properties vary in size from small lots to the entire triangular area 'North of Massachusetts Avenue (NOMA)', including the 'Wax Museum' site east of Mt. Vernon Square. Much of this NOMA site is to be devoted to high rise apartments.
NARPAC concludes that the deleterious impact of thousands of derelict properties in the poorer sections of DC will be considerably alleviated within the next two years or so. The city's major emphasis seems to be on the need to restore these properties to productive use and provide homes for additional DC residents. NARPAC remains somewhat more skeptical that these homes will ever be occupied by households with incomes high enough to contribute significantly more in revenues than they consume in city services. Our unique, if not peculiar, focus on urban people and land productivity suggests that the more immediate first-order priority should be to firmly remove these properties from counter-productive use even if they stand empty. In this latter regard, NARPAC would encourage those who board up run-down homes to at least try to make them look like occupied properties by suitable artwork on those boards.
DC has taken a very significant towards improving housing availability in DC, particularly at the lower end of the income scale. The Housing Preservation, Rehabilitation, and Production Omnibus Amendment Act of 2001, proposed by the mayor, and introduced in the Council on March 30, 2001 by Chairperson Cropp, was passed into DC law on January 8th, 2002. Called the first significant housing legislation passed in DC in two decades, and hailed by the mayor as a "comprehensive package of reforms and incentives to spur the production of housing in DC for people of all incomes", its goals include preserving some 2700 units of affordable housing, and building and rebuilding 4300 units of housing for extremely low-, low- and moderate-income families.
The bill includes eight separate objectives, including:
o providing expedited procedures for notifying interested parties that their structures are deteriorated and requiring them to do something about it or the mayor will at their expense;
o protecting the availability of publically assisted affordable rental housing by providing both tenants and the DC government of such plans;
o providing an income tax credit to owner/occupants of historic homes for certain qualifying rehabilitation expenditures;
o protecting long-term low-income homeowners against rapid increases in real property taxes; o amending the moribund Housing Production Trust Fund Act of 1988 to provide resources to support redevelopment of low-income dwellings;
o providing property tax incentives to encourage inclusion of some low-income affordable housing within new housing developments;
o amending the Homestead Housing Preservation Act of 1985, and establishing a new Homestead Repayment Fund, to expand the market of decent and affordable rental properties; and
o making it easier for the city to acquire and redevelop abandoned or deteriorated properties by demolition or renovation to eliminate blight and unsafe conditions.
A separate bill entitled the Abandoned Property Rehabilitation Incentive Act of 2001 is still wending its way through the DC Council that would allow properties identified by city officials to be purchased at nominal costs by DC residents, exempting the buyers from penalties and interest accrued to that property prior to the date of purchase, and halving any existing tax liens on the property. The lack of such authorities has made it unprofitable for developers to take over such properties since the accrued back costs exceed any realistic return on their investment.
The most contentious part of this bill turned out to be the application of funds to be provided to the Housing Production Trust Fund by allocating 15% of future property sales taxes. The $16 million or so expected to be so generated would be used to provide loans or grants to renovate or build new affordable housing and/or provide rental assistance. The sticking point became what share of the funds to allocate to the "extremely poor", defined as a household income less than 30% of the Area Mean Income (AMI) (which is now about $85,000!), to the "very poor" (below 50% AMI), or the low income group (50-80% of AMI). While the initial sponsors of the bill wanted to spread the largesse roughly equally across the income groups, the advocates for the poorest of DC residents eventually won out, with 80% to be reserved for those below 50% of AMI, i.e., a maximum of $42,500 for a family of four, and most well below that. Arguments centered on whether to favor DC's thousands of very poor, or to attract a return of the "lacking middle class". In fact, NARPAC would argue that DC should be looking for residents either a lot wealthier than that, or households with very few demands on city services.
Furthermore, there is a tacit assumption in all of these incentive-driven housing assistance programs that if a housing unit is "affordable" for, say, a household at the 50% AMI level, then a household with those means will actually be living in it. To the contrary, recent analyses by the Low Income Housing Coalition indicates that as many as half of those householders nationwide may be able to afford considerably higher cost homes, but have chosen the bargains instead. The losers are those that cannot afford to spend more, but cannot find lower cost homes they could afford. It is not clear what to do about this dilemma, but it does suggest favoring government support at the lowest end of the housing spectrum.
To the extent that both of these bills hasten the removal of thousands of derelict properties, and provide better living conditions (and greater home ownership) for DC's more disadvantaged residents, it is a welcome step in the right direction. The city is certainly obliged to do what it can to improve the quality of life for its many low income residents, and encourage them to move up the economic ladder. It also provides tax incentives for developers to build more housing units within DC, as long as some of them are available to those needing "affordable" housing. But it is not clear that NARPAC's major objective to wean low-income households off rentals and onto home ownership will be encouraged by this bill.
The flip side of this worthy effort, of course, is that households making below $50K annually seldom generate enough in income, sales, and property taxes to pay their own costs in services. It takes 30 households in the $20-30K income bracket to pay the personnel costs for just one teacher, and 17 households in the $30-50K bracket to pay for just one cop on the beat. One in seven DC kids is in special ed, and it could easily take seven to ten low income households just to pay for one of them. Altogether, 70% of DC residents report household incomes below $50K, and they provide just under 20% of the city's residential tax revenues which, in turn, comprise about half the city's total locally raised revenues.
While DC has a strong obligation to improve the lot of its own least fortunate, it certainly has no mandate to attract and embrace any more of the region's poor not already residing in the District. There is nothing apparent in this Housing Bill that restricts its benefits to those already living (and probably renting) in DC. Furthermore, there is no equivalent legislation in DC's wealthier surrounding jurisdictions to improve the lot of their own poor who have been more and more squeezed by the recent economic boom.
If the unintended consequence of this well-meaning initiative is to increase the number of DC residents who do not pay their own way, it will be a disaster.
TURNAROUND IN THE DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC
By the summer of 1999, the face of the residential city was beginning to change, and so were the expectations of its citizens. Daily headlines recorded by NARPAC shifted noticeably from tales of failures in the local government, the public school system, and the Metro Police Department, to reports of progress and new plans for rebuilding all around the city. Not only is there a real estate boom in the upscale and posh neighborhoods, but progress in public housing is becoming evident, and the 'blight' which so broadly infected the city is beginning to disappear.
The new mayor helped his Dept of Housing and Community Development bulldoze abandoned row houses on New York Avenue, and others disappeared along Georgia Avenue as the mayor's new "gateway" projects took hold. Other dilapidated city- owned properties are being sold; properties with delinquent tax bills are being auctioned off; new privately-funded housing developments are beginning to appear in lower income areas; Delegate Norton's $5000 federal tax deduction as well as HUD's Home Ownership Opportunity Fund, the Home Purchase Assistance Program, the Homestead Housing Preservation Act, and a large Fannie Mae low interest home financing plan, are all encouraging first-time home owners. The fraction of home owners in DC is rising significantly for the first time in years. Old homes are being rehabilitated, new housing developments encouraged (and sold out before completion), and neighborhood "streetscapes" and store fronts are being upgraded. NARPAC fully subscribes to the tenet that permanent neighborhood renewal requires long-term tax-paying home-owner investment.
And plans for new commercial construction have begun to rise significantly-- particularly in the upscale (Georgetown) and 'downtown' business areas. The mayor is supporting a new metro station downtown (NYAve/FLAve) and expects the federal government to pick up half the $50M cost. Longer term developments and financial assistance are planned for some of the economically-stressed areas (Waterfront, Anacostia, Navy Yard, etc.). The near-term fixes are making a real difference in DC, and the longer term fixes are beginning to form.
Another sign of improved expectations is the development of a six-year capital investment program which is near-term, rather than out-year loaded. For the years FY2000 through FY2005, over a billion and a half dollars will be spent on DC Property Management ($102.5M); DC Housing rehabilitation ($16.5M); Recreation and Park Upgrades ($71.4); Metro System Upgrades ($129.0M); and all other aspects of the city's transportation system ($1265.8M). At the same time, the Water and Sewer Authority expects to invest some $1450M. These numbers are all very substantially higher (75%) than was spent in the prior six years.
An Overabundance of Activists
Beyond the near fixes, however, the city appears poorly prepared to make positive decisions. There appear to be a remarkable number of residents opposed to virtually anything anyone proposes. The Mayor proposes a downtown baseball stadium, and activists react. The city proposes to dig a 7000-space garage under some nearly empty downtown properties (NoMa) and activists publish alarming brochures of residents forced to wear gas masks. Utilities propose to put cellular phone towers on federal park land (Rock Creek Park), and activists threaten civil unrest. Authorities propose a new prison in Ward 8 so that inmates can be close to their kin, and are forced by public reaction to give up plans for any prison within DC's borders. Residents around a soon-to-be-opened metro station in the middle of town (Columbia Heights) cannot agree on what--if any--commercial development should be allowed. A prestigious DC Committee of professionals is determined to overturn the design of a World War II memorial on the mall, already approved by the responsible bodies; i.e., the National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts. The mayor is personally excoriated because there are still accidental killings in housing projects (East Capitol Dwellings). Gentrification is widely considered a racial slur, not natural economic progress. And there is a rush to classify more and more rundown properties as 'historic sites' so they cannot be replaced by neighborhood-threatening change.
As the mayor himself opined during a recent discussion of democratic governance at an April 6th, 1999 meeting of Harvard's Kennedy School:
....there is an appetite for looking at different ways for government to perform its business. One impediment, though, is the mistrust not just of government but of authority in general. I am not sure whether it is skepticism, or vanity politics, or exalted individualism, or something else, but everyone wants to be involved. No one wants to make a decision, but everyone wants to have a check on decisions...NARPAC, Inc. believes strongly that just as too many tax-spenders can overwhelm the revenue-generating capacity of taxpayers, so too many hyperactive naysayers can surely keep the nation's capital inner city from rising above the mediocrity of multiple "committee decisions".
Catching Up with a Moving Target
Viewed from the broader vantage point of the Washington metro area, however, NARPAC doubts that the inner city is holding its own. Unemployment in DC in the summer of 1999 remained nearly three times as high as in the suburbs. The metro area has the highest growth in new housing starts, but most of it is outside the city. Fairfax County is openly competing to become the second Silicon Valley' for hi-tech employees, while DC cannot find employment for lo-tech workers. Montgomery County is about to build a 24-field 'soccer-plex' for $20M on part of a 658 county-owned park, and has approved a $90M commercial expansion at one of its metro stations near the DC border (Grovesnor). Silver Spring has approved a $132M loan to revitalize its downtown area on DC's border. The Marriott Corporation will get a $74M tax break to keep 4200 jobs in Maryland. Alexandria is verging on developing a 300 acre 'Potomac Yard' site with 2000 housing units, 1.9M sqft of office space, and a 625-bed hotel. The suburbs grow while the District squabbles.
FEDERAL ASSISTANCE TO DC HOUSING AND
May 1998 Update of Federal DC Task Force
o Housing and Economic Development Grants: HUD provided over $100M in FY97 housing and economic grants to DC. The District also received $2.8M through HUD's Drug Elimination Grant program to prevent crime in and around public housing, and $700K for training at risk youth. HUD is also providing technical assistance to support DC's "Transforming Public Housing" program.
The table below presents NARPAC, Inc.'s updated listing of functions and aims within this general category, offering simple goals and approaches for achieving them, and noting the progress (if any) to date. The tabulations and entries are clearly preliminary, but are intended to indicate the full range of steps needed to assure long-range solutions to the District's systemic problems.
Revised Version -- January, 2002 -- changes from original in green
This page was updated Feb 5, 2002
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