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Gentrification, crime questions dominate Ward 1 council race

(Published September 2, 2002)

By JOHN DeVAULT

Staff Writer

Four years ago, first-time candidate Jim Graham ran as a political outsider and beat incumbent Frank Smith for the Ward 1 seat on the D.C. City Council.

This year, itís Graham who runs as the incumbent Ė a status he aggressively and unapologetically defends as he campaigns against four challengers in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary.

"I am not just the favorite, I am the overwhelming favorite," Graham declared last week.

He pointed to endorsements he has racked up from the D.C. Teachers Union, the Minority Business Council, the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and the Sierra Club, among others.

"I have not lost one endorsement to my challengers," the councilman boasted.

He credited close attention to constituent service Ė "helping people take care of everyday challenges" Ė as earning him wide support in the ward.

Graham said he has the phone numbers of 1,700 area residents in his address book.

"I return all my own phone calls," he said. "This morning, before I did anything else, I sat down and answered 60 e-mails. Sixty!"

Grahamís insistence on his attention to grassroots-level detail may in part be a response to a charge heard from some of his challengers. They say that while Graham might be an effective advocate for the middle and upper-middle class residents of Ward 1ís western half, he serves the mostly working-class residents of its eastern half less well.

That issue was symbolized for some when, two years ago, Graham supported a redistricting change to move a section of upper Columbia Heights into neighboring Ward 4.

"He tried to re-district 5,700 people out of Columbia Heights, and most of them were of minority groups," charged Graham challenger Shelore Williams, the recently retired principal of St. Augustine Catholic School.

That same charge was echoed by candidate Tony DePass, a retired paralegal who once taught law and business classes at the now-closed D.C. Correctional Facility in Lorton, Va.

"Graham is a fine person, and I like him," DePass said. "But heís only serving one part of Ward 1. He tried to give up some parts of the ward and to preserve the parts where he feels most comfortable."

Graham rejects the charge that he has favored any part of his ward.

"Wherever I go in this ward," he said, "I never hear, ĎItís about time you showed up.í Because Iíve been there, responding to the requests of our residents."

Still, such concerns also flavor charges from other candidates that Graham has supported new high-priced housing in Ward 1 that, critics say, is driving working and middle-class residents out.

"Graham has sold a lot of city land to build luxury housing, but he hasnít brought one unit of affordable housing to Ward 1," claimed candidate Dee Hunter, a trial lawyer and former council aide whom many observers call Grahamís most formidable challenger.

"Heís selling the ward to politically connected contractors," Hunter charged.

Candidate Hector Rodriguez, a longtime political activist on Latino affairs in the city, said, "Graham is not helping to stabilize the housing situation. Heís part of the gentrification problem."

Rodriguez cited studies projecting that as many as 5,000 working-class households may be forced out of the ward in the next few years. "I donít see any plan from Graham to deal with that," he said.

Graham defended his efforts to bring both residential and commercial development to the ward, especially on Metro-owned land around the Columbia Heights and U Street Metro stations. Graham is vice chairman of Metroís board of directors.

"Weíre on the verge of a veritable renaissance economically," he said, "and development means jobs."

He said that much of the new housing he has helped engineer has not yet broken ground and claimed that at least some of those projects will include below-market-rate housing. He said a new apartment building at the corner of 14th and Irving streets NW will contain some units priced as low as $24,000.

Graham also said he has helped develop financial strategies that have preserved 1,000 units of already existing affordable housing in Ward 1 neighborhoods, mainly in buildings that accept Section 8 housing vouchers.

"We havenít lost one building," he said.

However, Linda Leaks, who heads Washington Inner City Self Help (WISH), an affordable housing advocacy group, said Grahamís claims may be exaggerated. She pointed out that some of the deals Graham struck, such as at Trinity Towers in Columbia Heights, apply only to current residents, and that as soon as a given apartment is vacated, it can be rented at the market rate.

"To say heís preserving affordable housing there is pushing it," she said.

Graham said he has also advocated for stiffer penalties for slumlords who donít maintain their buildings.

"Now weíre talking about housing code crimes, not just housing code violations," he said.

He said the current "red-hot" housing market means that most prices inevitably rise.

"Where we really have a challenge is with affordable single-family homes," he said. "People are selling not because of higher taxes, but simply because they bought these homes when they were cheap, and now with the price appreciation, theyíve decided to sell."

But Hunter said more legislative action is needed to keep housing affordable. He said he would push to strengthen rent control laws, if elected.

"I will introduce a measure that no matter how high your rent ceiling is, a cap on your current rent is put in place," he said.

He also called for the city to "take the boards off city properties" as a way to create more affordable housing and for the city to exercise better oversight over community development corporations that get tax dollars to develop housing projects in city neighborhoods.

Rodriguez, calling Grahamís claimed total of 1,000 preserved affordable housing units "puny," said he would push to increase Ward 1ís supply of affordable housing by 8,000 to 10,000 units, and also support the institution of a one-year rent freeze citywide.

Williams said she would push for a freeze on property tax rates for long-term D.C. residents.

And in a nod to Ward 1ís other hot issue, sharply rising crime rates, Williams said she also would push for more police on Ward 1 streets, charging that Graham has failed to respond effectively to the surge in violent crime.

"Now shootings are occurring in broad daylight hours, and we have virtually no police presence in the high crime areas of Ward 1," she said.

"Now that itís an election year, Graham says heís bringing a police substation to 750 Park Road," she said, "but residents have been fighting for this for years, and where was Jim Graham?"

Hunter, too, criticized Graham for a lack of action on crime control.

"Weíve had 14 homicides in the ward this year, but just one arrest," he said. He said other crimes, including sexual assault and burglary, are up sharply too.

Referring to Grahamís general vocal support for Mayor Anthony A. Williamsí administration, Hunter charged that "Graham has been so busy carrying the mayorís bags, heís abdicating his responsibility to fight for police on the streets."

Graham sharply countered those charges.

"The record absolutely doesnít support that," he said. "From very early on Iíve been outspoken in pushing the police department to deploy more officers on the streets."

He said the Park Road police substation, which he called "only the third true substation in the city," will be manned by 80 officers, the entire Third Police District deployment for Ward 1.

"I took up the cudgels on this," he said. He acknowledged that some residents had asked for a substation in previous years, "but the issue was entirely moribund before I took it up again and got action on it.

"There is no other council member who has opened such a facility anywhere in the city," Graham said.

DePass said increased funding for vocational training is the cityís smartest anti-crime strategy. "We need to cut down on recidivism by criminals, and most are drop-outs," he said.

"I found that my Lorton students were among the brightest I had," he said. "You have to give (ex-offenders) an option. If you donít, thatís going to be a threat to all of us."

So far, no Republican candidate has entered the Ward 1 council race. D.C. Statehood Green Party candidate Chico Troy, who is running unopposed in the primary contest, will face the Democratic candidate in the Nov. 10 general election.

Troy, who could not be reached for comment by press time, said on a candidate questionnaire submitted to The Common Denominator that he is running because "Ward One is under economic siege. Problems include: affordable housing, rent out of control, closing of D.C. General" and other issues.

Troy, an account executive with a printing company, also listed work experience as a self-employed contractor, a stockbroker, and said he had worked in the fitness industry. He said he was a co-founder of People Against the Klan, a Greenpeace activist and author of the book "Pollution Protection Begins at Home."

"I live outside the box, and donít just think outside the box," he wrote. "Ward One needs the unconventional solution of statehood, not conventional candidate resumes."

He said he would pursue legislation for "meaningful education (and) meaningful jobs emphasizing D.C. residentsí employment," set up a seed bank for neighborhood-owned businesses and "require affordable housing set-asides before speculative housing."

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator