The District's Housing Crisis

August 30, 1994

Little by little, the District of Columbia is losing control over its own destiny.

For years the city has been struggling with budgetary woes that threaten to force Congress to bail it out. Several District agencies already have entered court-ordered agreements to improve their services under the watch of special court masters. Earlier this month, the most devastating blow yet fell when a judge ordered Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly to surrender control of the city's public housing department, saying the District government can no longer manage the $150 million-a-year agency.

It was a major defeat for the District's effort to run its public housing, which federal officials rank as the worst in the nation. It also is a body blow to Mayor Kelly's re-election campaign in the Democratic primary next month. Turning the troubled housing department around was a major campaign promise. The court's scathing description of the poor condition of District public housing is an embarrassment for an incumbent mayor already running third in the polls.

Ms. Kelly's woes may not benefit her biggest competitor, former mayor Marion S. Barry, who is trying to win back his old job after being elected a city councilman two years ago. Mr. Barry is the front-runner. Yet the court ruling criticized Mr. Barry for not addressing the agency's myriad problems during his administration. Thus, the political beneficiary of this court action could be Councilman John Ray, running second in the polls.

Many cities face severe public house problems. Funds were drastically cut back during the Reagan-Bush era. Many cities, including Baltimore, allowed a bad situation to worsen through mismanagement and neglect. The District, for example, failed to spend $143 million in federal modernization funds though when 20 percent of its 11,796 public housing units were vacant and 151,000 people were on waiting lists for subsidized housing.

Washington's woes should sound the alarm in other cities. Something similar could happen Baltimore if officials do not carefully monitor the way public housing is managed. Washington's tragedy is the result of a gross failure of political leadership. Baltimore must not follow that example.

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