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Eli Lehrer Headshot

A D.C. Neighborhood's Ills: Bad Policy Knows No Party

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For the first time in the 15 years since I graduated from college and moved to the Washington, D.C. area, I feel like I'm working in a real city. The small think tank I run just moved to new offices across from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in a neighborhood called either Mid-City or Mount Vernon Square. It's a great place to have an office. While it's a short walk to the national chains and bright lights of the increasingly bland Chinatown, the immediate neighborhood has an urban vitality that I love. Indeed, I'm writing this in a cool pop-up coffee shop that takes over a local bar during daylight hours. The immediate neighborhood also has my favorite "home cooking" joint in D.C., and a bunch of funky, interesting private businesses. While I could go on about my affection for the area where I work, I'll also be the first at admit it has problems. And these problems are a veritable museum of misguided public policies that have so damaged the urban fabric of D.C. and many other large cities -- and an good demonstration as to why good policy transcends hot button ideological issues.

Let's start with the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. As a piece of architecture, it's the handsomest public-built convention center I have seen (although the competition is really, really weak) and, because it doesn't cut off any streets and offers ground-level retail, actually fixed the obvious problems of convention centers that have blighted other cities. Unfortunately, the taxpayer-funded facility just hasn't worked as many hoped in the late 1990s; many conventions have gone to the privately-run Gaylord National Harbor (it has a built-in headquarters hotel that the D.C. center will lack for another year) and only two of the center's retail spaces are occupied. Given its problems, it would almost certainly have gone into foreclosure if a private developer had built it. As a public facility, it raises hotel room and other prices throughout the city and imposes a sizable liability on taxpayers.

Parking is also a lot more difficult than it should be. This is largely because D.C.'s planning mandarins have decided that the city shouldn't have any true parking ramps and instead has to hide all parking underground or in ugly surface lots. This makes parking much more expensive to build and means that I'm stuck risking parking tickets or crossing busy streets to the only parking lots that typically have space.

The presence of a lot of public and Section Eight housing also creates a problem in the neighborhood. It isn't crime, best as I can tell. Statistics show the neighborhood is reasonably safe, there's no blatant drug dealing and I've never personally felt endangered. Instead, it's a lot simpler: concentrations of poor people tend to concentrate pathologies as well and make it hard for neighborhoods to turn around or develop the amenities that make them more attractive for everyone (the poor themselves included).

I could go on but the point remains: misguided public policies have done a lot of damage. Insofar as D.C. is a one-party state under the Democratic Party, furthermore, the local officials who have overseen all of these bad ideas have all been liberal Democrats. All that said, as a conservative I can't credibly argue that the public policies I'm most enthusiastic for on the national level would have any real short-term consequence for this neighborhood. Things like Right-to-Work laws, pro-growth tax reform, school vouchers, greater protections for the unborn would do almost nothing to solve the problems I've described. But policies that are favored by many on the left like a relaxation of welfare/work requirements, stronger government unions, higher taxes on the successful and construction of new public housing almost would probably be downright damaging. Sensible policies -- leaving old buildings in place, investing in core infrastructure, focusing on income supports rather than trying to have the government run things, and making sure that schools spend their money on classrooms rather than bureaucrats -- would probably do a lot more good for the immediate neighborhood than either liberal or conservative wish lists.

Frankly, publicly-financed convention centers and silly zoning restrictions aren't particularly liberal or conservative at all: people on the Left and Right have embraced them with equal enthusiasm at various times. Although public housing schemes now have a lot of support on the Left, peacetime federal public housing policy really began under the (Republican) Eisenhower administration and conservative Republican Jack Kemp probably did more to shape housing policy than any other politician of recent vintage.

My neighborhood shows that bad urban public policies had no party. Undoing their damage shouldn't either.