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The Tragedy of H.R. Crawford

When the history of home rule in Washington is written, the puzzle of Marion Barry will loom large: How could someone so talented have been so self-destructive, historians will ask. How could a great leader who was so committed to grasping power for the downtrodden have come into office and then abused the public trust by turning the District government into a hiring hall for cronies and con artists?

But to understand the mysteries of the mayor-for-life, it's necessary to look beyond Barry's oversized personality, to examine a slew of D.C. characters who enabled Barry and who came to run Washington--to build it into a symbol of black pride and power, even as they disgraced themselves by feeding off the public till.

H.R. Crawford, the subject of Post reporter Debbie Cenziper's rigorous and revealing investigation in Sunday's newspaper, served on the D.C. Council for 12 years, but he has been a less visible powerhouse in the city for three decades.

Virtually no matter where you look in town, there are real estate deals that did or didn't get done because of Crawford. He has served, for good and ill, as a patron of politicians, a pathfinder for developers and other entrepreneurs, a godfather to people down on their luck.

I was in Crawford's office one day in 2004 when the late Effie Barry walked in, looking troubled and weak. Crawford interrupted our conversation, took a thick envelope from his desk, walked over to the city's former first lady, handed her the package and wordlessly exchanged a quick embrace as she went on her way.

Crawford then explained to me that he'd been supporting Mrs. Barry for years, and he asked me not to write about it while she was still alive.

But Crawford's largesse was not limited to the once-powerful. I've seen him deliver food and cash to people who've never been near power and who couldn't do anything in return but express their thanks.

As today's story illustrates, Crawford's business operations are a jumble of contradictions. He sets out to build affordable housing for Washingtonians who've never owned anything in their lives, yet his grand plans often include pushing families out of homes they've had for decades. He promises poor people he will make homeowners of them, yet far too many of the units he's built end up in the hands of people who have political, personal or financial connections to him.

Back in '04, I went with Crawford to Kelsey Gardens, a rundown apartment complex on Seventh Street NW that he managed. He was trying to persuade the tenants to move out so a redevelopment plan could move ahead; his pitch to the tenants was that they'd get a chance to come back when the new building was erected, this time not as renters but as owners.

Many tenants weren't buying the argument. The building was in awful shape, the neighborhood was violent and scary, and the tenants wanted something better. But they were staying put anyway.

"If we go, we're not going to have the opportunity to come back," said Michelle Littles, who was then vice president of the tenants association. "No matter what you say, I know we're not coming back."

Crawford tried to persuade Littles that she'd be permitted to come back, even if many of her neighbors wouldn't. "Some people won't be able to come back because of who they are," he said. "You don't want those people here."

But Littles decided to hold out. "My kids already got used to it here," she said. The deal she had, paying $88 a month in rent for a four-bedroom unit for herself, her husband and six children, could not be replicated elsewhere. The alternative housing she'd identified in Prince George's County was going to set her back $950 a month, and since neither she nor her husband had a job, that was a non-starter.

Later that day, Crawford conceded to me that most of the Kelsey Gardens tenants would not come back to the mixed-income project planned for the site. "You wouldn't want a lot of them back there," he said. "Look, we made too many mistakes by crowding people into the ghetto. Now, this town is booming. You have to disperse these [bad word]-ing crews. You can't cluster and stigmatize people anymore. And this black man has the same right to develop as any white developer. This city is exploding, and sites like this can't just be low-income anymore."

Just as Barry's defenders have always pointed to the region's thriving black middle class--many of whose members found upward mobility in government work--as evidence that there was method to his wily ways, Crawford has always dismissed accusations that his real estate empire took advantage of the poor.

Crawford made the same arguments that most developers make about gentrification, that by deepening the city's tax base, they were actually contributing to the District's ability to care for its most needy residents. And that is certainly accurate. But Crawford also presented himself as something different, as a developer who was going to turn the city's low-income residents into homeowners, into genuine members of the middle class.

And that, as Sunday's story details, has not quite worked out as well as Crawford would have us believe. Has he broken the rules along the way? That's for the authorities to decide. Has he disappointed those who believed his hype? Absolutely. Has he used government funding to create businesses that have boosted the fortunes of some black entrepreneurs? It certainly seems so.

The sad truth about too many D.C. real estate schemes over the past three decades is that vast sums of taxpayer dollars seem to vanish, and neither the federal nor city government cares to provide rigorous oversight or controls. That leaves the rest of us wondering just who is wearing the white hats and who is taking us to the cleaners.

By Marc Fisher |  December 8, 2008; 8:16 AM ET
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Thanks for this non-judgemental , thoughtful story. It illuminates the puzzle without coloring it.

Posted by: joe2chase | December 8, 2008 9:27 AM

Excellent post, Marc.

Posted by: hoos3014 | December 8, 2008 11:32 AM

This was a good one by Marc.

But let's look at the Little family. Six kids, neither parent has a job.

And Crawford is spot on when he says us warehousing the poor in these huge complexes has been a massive failure.

Posted by: HillMan | December 8, 2008 11:52 AM

I concur. Excellent post. Illuminating, and insightful.

Posted by: emrj | December 8, 2008 5:45 PM

Interesting post.

Though I wouldn't describe the neighborhood around the former Kelsey Gardens as 'violent and scary.' That stretch of 7th in front of Kelsey and farther south is a little rough, but the surrounding streets are quite nice.

As planned development occurs, including rebuilding low income Kelsey Gardens into mixed income Addison Sq. (that replaces every low income unit from Kelsey), Shaw will continue to grow and thrive.

Posted by: UncleJessie | December 9, 2008 1:51 PM

Same as Illinois

Posted by: F-4Phantom | December 10, 2008 10:38 AM

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