Thursday, April 29, 2010

Latest Peacoholics Drama

Housing Complex has an interesting piece today about the latest in what seems to be a neverending drama about the Peacoholics.  It involves their building a 13-unit transitional living facility for at-risk youth, apparently with funds stemming from the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development in Ward 8's Congress Heights. 

The story is the same we've heard again and again about Peacoholics.  It's not that people object to their mission - in fact, they'd find a lot of support from just about everyone.  It's not even NIMBYism.  Rather, the issues with Peacoholics come down to this every single time:

Confrontational approach.  Peacoholics and its leaders seem to take an adversarial, confrontational, and defensive approach to addresssing the community.  Although any other group involved in a development project would come before the Advisory Neighborhood Commission and explain the project to residents, and seek their support at the get-go (the project across the street from theirs indeed did so), Peacoholics addressed the community only after controversy erupted and was summoned by the ANC.  As described in the article, they sat in the back of the ANC meeting, didn't introduce themselves, then lashed out when questioned about their finances.  Ultimately, they accused an ANC Commissioner of seeking bribes from them and sued her for defamation.  I've witnessed a similar meeting in Shaw.

Lack of transparency and accountability.  Peacoholics seem to receive a lot of government funds (fire engine transfer to the DR aside) [UPDATE: Wow, Congress Heights on the Rise has posted documents residents received in response to a FOIA request.  They show that Peacoholics received $1.3 million from the Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services in FY 2008-2009, $4.5 million from the Housing Production Trust Fund in FY 2007-2009, $300k from the Public Safety and Justice budget in FY 2007-2008, and $50k from the Department of Human Services in FY 2008.]  Even after the Council cut off millions in earmarks, here it is again receiving public money.  But even that is not a problem in itself.  While the group declares matter of factly that they have stopped killings in [insert your neighborhood], it will not produce any reports, statistics, etc. that provide a description of precisely what it does, how many youth it serves and in what capacity, a budget/financial statement showing how it spends its money, its accomplishments... results.  The lack of accountability, particularly when public money is at issue, raises concern.

It's really a shame.  Providing support in the form of mentoring and job placement is important for at-risk youths, as is showing them there are alternatives to the cycle of gang violence and retaliation.  Nonprofit groups such as Peacoholics have a role to play that may not be adequately filled by MPD in enforcing the law and government agencies in providing social services.  But the approach, the management, the seeming contempt for anyone who asks questions undermines this organization's effectiveness.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

No Evans for Chair

Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) revealed on Friday's Kojo Nnamdi Show that he is "probably unlikely to run" for DC Council Chairman after all. Video above. Also DC Wire.

Monday, April 26, 2010

UDC to Open NOMA Campus

The Washington Business Journal reports that the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) has signed a 17-year lease for 88,000 square feet of space at 801 North Capitol Street NE.  The office building, which formerly housed the District's Department of Housing and Community Development, Office of Planning, and several other agencies, will serve as the new campus for UDC's community college.  UDC also plans to open additional campuses at the Bernie Backus Middle School at 5171 South Dakota Avenue as well as at Hayes Street and Kenilworth Avenue NE.

Until now, the District was the only major urban center in the country without a standalone community college.  This is an important step forward.  Here's a few interesting facts:
  • Census estimates for 2005 suggest that more than 111,000 working-age adults in the city have no post-secondary education.
    • Among DC's adult population, roughly 36% has no education beyond high school, and one in seven adults has less than a high school diploma.
    • 20% of District adults are functioning at the lowest level of literacy.
  • Brookings Greater Washington Program estimates there are between 51,000 – 61,000 low-income residents aged 16 to 64 in the District with less than a college degree who could benefit from education, training, and work-readiness services. The majority are less-skilled, with a high school degree or less. D.C. residents with a high school degree or less have higher poverty and unemployment rates than those with some postsecondary education and college degrees.
  • In DC's highly-skilled labor market, 45% of all job openings from 2006-2016 will require a bachelor's degree or more, while another 30% of projected jobs will be "middle-skill" occupations—those that require a college credential, but not necessarily a bachelor's degree.
  • "Middle-skill" jobs are projected to continue to account for one-third of DC's jobs in 2016. Projections estimate that DC employers will need to hire over 6,300 workers in middle-skill jobs annually.
    • Six career clusters ranked at the top for the number of middle-skill jobs in 2006: (1) Business Management and Administration; (2) Law, Public Safety, and Security; (3) Health Science; (4) Marketing, Sales, and Service; (5) Hospitality and Tourism; and (6) Information Technology.
    • There is steady demand for auto mechanics, skilled construction trades, and electronic equipment technicians.
    • Many of the local high-demand middle-skill occupations are also projected to grow nationally. For example, registered nurses, computer support specialists, paralegals and legal assistants, legal secretaries, and dental hygienists represent occupations with the largest projected job growth nationally among occupations requiring an associate degree.
    • Together, occupations in the top six clusters account for 64 percent of all middle-skill jobs (in 2006 and projected in 2016). These career clusters are projected to provide over 4,000 middle-skill job openings annually.
  • Environmental technology and green building trades is a potential growth area: construction, architecture, engineering, and landscape design.
  • Brookings estimates that a full-service DC community college is likely to enroll between 7,000 and 9,000 students, or approximately 5,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) students (not including enrollment in noncredit programs).
Personally, I would have preferred that UDC find a more prominent, inspiring location than an old office building for its flagship downtown location (the Franklin School, for instance).  Hopefully, UDC will do a bang up job on the build out of 801 N. Cap. to make it a worthy location for the District's students.  UDC plans to have the building ready for classes this fall.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Franklin, Betts, Shootings, and more...

What's the Status of the Franklin School RFP?  Based on a statement made at the April 7 Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2F meeting, which had supported Yu Ying Public Charter School's proposal for use of the Franklin School as a Chinese language immersion program, there is speculation the District has again rejected the idea.  At the meeting, ANC2F Chairman Charles Reed reported that the Deputy Mayor's office commented that there was "a glitch" in the Yu Ying proposal.  That would leave the boutique hotel option, which includes a restaurant and culinary school of some sort.  No award of the RFP yet.  The Coalition for Franklin School continues to push for an educational use for the building, as discussed in The Intowner.

Brian Betts. According to Friday's Washington Post, police believe that at least two people were involved in the beloved Shaw principal's shooting. Also read Petula Dvorak's column exploring the impact of Betts' death on the many young lives in which he played an important part. The DC Agenda also has a story on Betts - please refrain from the gay conspiracy theories, really. There will be a memorial service for the public at Strathmore Hall (5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, Maryland) on Saturday, May 1 (time TBD). There will also be a school tribute for students, parents and staff at Shaw at Garnett-Patterson on Thursday, April 29.

Shootings are Back.  This past Monday (4/19), we had two shootings in Shaw around the area of 5th/6th and N NW at about 8:30pm and then again at about 9:30pm.  [UPDATE: The bullets keep flying. There was another shooting on Saturday, 4/24 at six in the afternoon around the same location.]  The warm weather is here.  I am told that MPD recovered a discarded gun after the first shooting and questioned some potential suspects.  Fortunately, no one was hit.  There's a crime camera right above the site.  Hopefully, MPD will be able to make an arrest.  Amazing how secure the neighborhood was during the Nuke summit.

DC Refund Comes in Last.  My wife and I filed our federal, District, and Maryland tax returns at the same time -- in late February or early March. We received our tax refunds from the federal government and Maryland about one month ago. The District's has yet to arrive.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Doesn't Pay to Keep Property Vacant

The Washington Business Journal reports today that Mayor Fenty is on board with a system of steep graduated registration fees for vacant houses and commercial properties in the District:
The existing vacant property registration fee is $20 per residential unit or $20 per 400 square feet of commercial space. Fenty proposes to charge $250 the first year, $500 for the first renewal year, $1,000 the second, $2,500 the third and $5,000 the fourth.
According to a District spokesperson, the revenue from the fees will provide more resources for the District’s nuisance abatement program, such as site visits for enforcement purposes.

The new registration fees would replace the prior vacant property tax, which the D.C. Council abandoned after it had doubled the tax from $5 to $10 of every $100 of assessed value.  The quick and substantial increase in the tax, elimination of frequently abused exemptions, and more consistent enforcement by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs led to an outcry that led to its repeal.  The $10 tax now applies only to "blighted" properties, and very few properties meet the criteria.
“It’s really just to spur people to put their properties back into productive use,” said City Administrator Neil Albert. “It is a graduated schedule of fees that should provide the incentive not to have their properties sitting around gathering dust.”
It's not just dust.  Vacant properties are also a significant public safety issue, and particularly so when vacant they become concentrated in an area.  Even when properly maintained, when a property is vacant it means less eyes on the streets... more muggings, more shattered car windows, more loitering, more prostitution, and less people to call police and report when someone is in trouble.  It also tends to mean that the neighbors are left to pick up accumulating trash, deal with illegal dumping, and shovel the snow.

At this point, the proposed registration fees are not law -- rather, revenue estimates from the fees are included in Mayor Fenty's 2011 budget.  I testified in late January at a hearing on the legislation proposed by Councilmember Bowser that adopts this approach.
The old system was working -- and by that I mean the $5 tax with consistent DCRA enforcement. There was a need to eliminate frequently abused exceptions -- the ability to put up a "for sale" sign or take out a work permit to avoid the tax entirely.  The sudden doubling of the tax, and rare situations where it was mistakenly put on an occupied properly and the error not quickly and fairly addressed, led to its demise.
Whether the new approach will work will depend on DCRA's ability to enforce the registration requirement as well as any loopholes in the law.  For instance, if an owner can reset the graduated fees simply by showing a water or utility bill for a month or two on the property, the fee will not provide much of an incentive.  DCRA will need to be able to impose the fee if an owner does not voluntarily register the property.  Would there be a penalty for failure to register? 

It is also important to note that the current proposal does not include vacant lots -- only vacant "improved" properties, such as houses or commercial buildings. 

The law will need to recognize some legitimate situations in which it would be unfair to impose a registration fee, such as deployment in the military or long-term medical/nursing care.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Loss of Brian Betts

I was saddened to learn this morning of the tragic death of the principal of Shaw Middle School, Brian Betts. 

When I first met Brian, he had only been in his new position for a few weeks.  It was summer and he made time to meet with me to discuss the challenges he faced and the future of the school even as he interviewed a stream of candidates for teacher positions at the school. 

What impressed me most about Brian was his optimism.  It was different, refreshing, and real, not contrived.  He firmly believed that by placing confidence in his students, developing relationships with parents and the community, and through hard working teachers, even students facing the greatest challenges could and would succeed.  He set high goals for himself and his team.  His devotion was appreciated by all.

My thoughts go out to his family, colleagues at DCPS and Montgomery County, and to his students. 

I hope that the police and media will soon provide us with more information on the suspicious circumstances surrounding his death.  Detectives are asking anyone with information regarding the whereabouts of the victim's dark blue Nissan Xterra blue 2007 Nissan Xterra (MD plate 562M222) to call the police non-emergency number of (301) 279-8000. Anyone with other information pertaining to this death is asked to call homicide detectives at 240-773-5070. Callers may remain anonymous.