September 10, 2018

Unless there is some major catastrophe, which some people might see as a miracle, Mayor Muriel Bowser is sure to be re-elected in the November general election. Undoubtedly, she’d like enough votes to declare a voter mandate — something her mentor and predecessor, Adrian M. Fenty, received, and before him, Anthony A. Williams.


There was no mandate for Bowser in 2014, and there won’t be one in November.

After all, in the June Democratic primary nearly 20,000 people either voted for Bowser’s opponents, wrote in someone else’s name or simply chose not to make a selection in the mayoral contest. And a whole bunch more people weren’t inspired enough to even go to the polls. Such a mediocre showing indicates real Bowser dissatisfaction.


Bowser is no ostrich. She knows she has to grow her fan base. That may be why over the past several weeks she has been hustling, acting like a first-time candidate instead of an incumbent with no real opposition. She issued a 42-page report of what she claims are her first-term achievements; it’s a perfect campaign document filled with lots of numbers and smiling faces. She cut the ribbon on about a half-dozen modernized schools, although she has yet to deliver on that exalted pledge of “Alice Deal for everyone.” Deal is the premier middle school that has instigated some people to move to Ward 3 to ensure their children would be admitted.


It may be too late in the game for a full-blown critique of the Bowser administration. She’s approaching 2.0. So, what should she do in the next term?


As she sets her agenda and looks at agency managers, Bowser might want to consider that 2017 Washington Post poll, in which a whopping 55 percent of respondents gave her thumbs-down on creating and maintaining affordable housing. Sure, she has announced in recent weeks loans to developers while touting the pending senior citizens development at Walter Reed. Those are crumbs for a community desperate for low-cost housing.


The fact that Bowser has not lived up to residents’ expectations is due in no small measure to failure of her housing team: Melinda Bolling, director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA); Polly Donaldson, director of the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD); and Johanna Shreve, the head of the Office of the Tenant Advocate (OTA).


Individually and collectively, their agencies play a role in ensuring the construction of new housing or the preservation of existing rental apartments. However, they have shown themselves to be incompetent bureaucrats, incapable of revolutionizing government systems to appropriately address the housing need. Nevertheless, each has drawn a six-figure salary.


Does this sound like a rant?


When the position of tenant advocate was created in 2006, it was perceived as a bulldog, trained to protect renters, who make up two-thirds of the city’s population. Shreve, the only person to wear the title, has talked a good game. In meetings with tenants she has brought a sufficient quotient of righteous indignation; that has petered out, however, becoming for many — though not all — renters nothing more than a bitter serving of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo with a side of government manuals and forms. Only a few tenants report receiving measurable and significant assistance from Shreve.

The same is true for DHCD. Donaldson has been a disaster almost from the beginning. That assessment has been made by both developers forced to do business with the city and residents who have looked to DHCD to preserve affordable housing and ensure the construction of high-quality, low-cost rental units.


Donaldson’s failures are too numerous to present here. Consider that since 2015 she has promised the release of regulations to implement the District Opportunity to Purchase Act, which would allow the government to buy troubled rental apartments to stabilize the market. Tenants and advocates still are waiting while critical housing goes off the market.


At DCRA, the city’s primary regulatory agency, residents and developers often reported waiting seemingly forever to receive business licenses or construction permits. Now, they just have to grease someone’s palms — literally: Bolling established  a couple of high-cost expedited permitting systems in response to complaints about delays.


“If the DCRA Coordinator approves the project for fast-tracking, the applicant pays a $5,000 non-refundable deposit,” according to the agency’s website. In other words, residents and businesses who already are paying taxes for a fully functioning government agency are being forced to pay more money for what they should already receive.

Yes, this is a rant. 


If it’s failing developers and homeowners with money, you can imagine what it is doing to low-income residents who rely on DCRA to serve as a bulwark against slum landlords and to prevent, through enforcement of the city’s housing code, the decline of the affordable housing stock. We need only reflect on the saga of tenants in Congress Heights, whose pleas to DCRA to levy fines and take action against the complex’s owner went unheeded. Only after media reports and pressure from the Office of the Attorney General did Bolling and her team do what they should have done months earlier. That same story of tenants’ dependence on DCRA and its blatant neglect is repeated throughout the city.


If Bowser wants to improve those 2017 poll numbers and have greater success in her second term, she may want to hire more experienced and imaginative people — people capable of providing quality service to District residents who pay hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes and have a right to expect better government performance.


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