Mugged by Reality: Sedgwick Gardens Edition

Lawrence Hilliard moved to Sedgwick Gardens to escape the ghetto. Then the ghetto came to him. Photo credit: Washington Post

A conservative, as the saying goes, is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. Well, it appears that a large number of liberals in the affluent Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C., have been mugged by reality. Whether they become conservatives remains to be seen.

In a social experiment that could have implications here in Virginia where the idea of mixed-income housing is all the rage, the D.C. Housing Authority increased in 2016 the maximum value of vouchers to 175% of fair market rent as set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That meant, according to the Washington Post, that vouchers could be used for one-bedroom apartments renting at up to $2,648 per month.

At Sedgwick Gardens, a historic Art Deco apartment complex overlooking Rock Creek Park, one-bedroom apartments rented for about $2,200 per month in 2017. The apartment complex, located in D.C.’s predominantly white Cleveland Park neighborhood, is, as the WaPo puts it, “a bastion of urbane liberalism where only one in 20 voters cast a ballot for President Trump in the 2016 election.” The reaction of many Sedgwick Gardens inhabitants to the influx of tenants directly off the streets, however, was less than warm, tolerant and embracing.

Tenants filed complaints about panhandling, excessive noise, pot smoke in the air, feces in the stairwell, and other incidents that made them uneasy. They issued 121 calls for police service in 2018, up from 34 in 2016, although police determined that actual crimes had taken place in only five of the incidents.

Also, it turns out, in the WaPo’s words, “some tenants have fled.” Indeed, one  might describe Sedgwick Gardens as a modern-day example of white flight, considering that so many vacancies opened up that two years later nearly half the units now are comprised of voucher holders.

But maybe it would unfair to refer to the negative reactions as a white thing. The situation has gotten so bad that African-American voucher tenants are upset, too.

“It’s not about the voucher program. It’s not about racism. It’s about people’s conduct and behavior,” said Lorraine Starkes, 61, a formerly homeless woman who moved into Sedgwick Gardens using a voucher about two years ago.

Starkes, who is black, said some of her fellow tenants with vouchers were not properly screened by city officials before moving in. Now, she said, those residents have overwhelmed her new home and “are trying to turn it into a ghetto.”

Lawrence Hilliard, an African-American and a 69-year-old Marine Corps veteran, also moved into Sedgwick Gardens under the voucher program: “It was away from the violence and the foolishness, man, that’s the main thing. And then the violence and the foolishness came up here.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Most people like to live in peace and quiet, free from drugs, free from fecal deposits, free from noise, and free from crazy people. That’s not racist. That’s not bigoted. That’s human nature. Whites and blacks, especially the elderly who feel more physically vulnerable, see things largely the same way.

Intellectuals Yet Idiots (see Nicolas Nassim Taleb for a definition of IYIs) have all sorts of noble ideas about how to help the poor and downtrodden through social engineering. But they have no skin in the game. They suffer no repercussions when their theories blow up. But they have plenty of victims. It appears that a few dozen Washingtonians — most of them likely to be nice, well-meaning liberals — have experienced first-hand the phenomenon of unintended consequences. One can only hope that they learn something.

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12 responses to “Mugged by Reality: Sedgwick Gardens Edition

  1. “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching”
    “reprobate mind” …

  2. I used to live in Cleveland Park on Woodley Road when I was just out of college. Sedgwick Gardens was popular with people coming to Washington to work in Schedule C and above government jobs which were going to be temporary by the nature of the political system. Very nice digs in those days. Ah, yes…social engineering.

  3. Peter Jamison of the Washington Post wrote a very fine article on an important topic in Washington Post’s back yard. That is a good sign.

  4. The theory has not blown up. It was just poorly implemented. The city has not properly screened people nor, most importantly, followed up on those who need help. It reminds me of the push to move people out of mental health institutions and into “community” settings. That sounded fine. The problem has been that community settings and treatment are scarce and these people are on their own. That seems to be the case in Washington. There were homeless people who had addition and other mental health problems. Rather than “home first”, the city workers seemed to have adopted a “home alone” approach by giving these people a housing voucher and then forgetting about them.

    • Dick makes some good points.. If you are trying to help a person with problems begin to live as a functioning member of society, you don’t just get them a home and walk away. You need to help the person with the transition.

      This is a prime example of the many things that makes government such a failure in so many cases. Rather than stick to the basics and perform those functions well, governments and the elected officials who provide direction pay little attention to performance and results and are continually trying to do more, pass more laws, open more programs, expand eligibility to existing ones, while all the time doing a poor job at what they already do.

      A prime example is the quest of politicians and bureaucrats to want to tackle climate change when we can’t stop dumping human waste in the Potomac River.

    • I also agree with Dick, and TooManyTaxes, on this one.

      This event at its lowest level is the all too typical story of our government’s failure to exercise common sense in the moment. But it is also its failure to exercise common sense for the past 60 years after our building one of the greatest, most revolutionary, innovative and successful urban avenues in the history of western civilization. That is a very big statement. It is demonstrably true.

      Indeed, if we wrote a comparative history of Wisconsin and Connecticut Avenues, along with 16th and 14th Streets. all in Washington DC over the past three centuries, most particularly over the past 130 years, we would illustrate the sense of 90% of American history. And at no time, during all those times, would we look more foolish and counter productive than we do today.

  5. There’s also the issue, which I didn’t raise in the post, of the insanity of paying some $26,000 a year to place street people in very expensive housing. $26,000? Good grief. Couldn’t that money have been better spent on some combination of housing and mental health treatment? The whole episode is senseless from start to finish.

    • Yes, you are so right about that latest momentary absurdity. And it rests on the deeper long term absurdity of why a small 1 bedroom apartment cost mostly elderly people $2,648 per month. After that same 1 bedroom apartment was so affordable in such a revolutionary way to so many new classes of people for so long.

      The initial fault lies in my generation, the baby boomers, the most pampered, under / over educated, selfish and small minded generation in US history by far bar none, on average.

    • One of the biggest problems in delivering social services is the huge bureaucracy of government employees, nonprofit employees and consultants who make their money in the social services market. I’m not arguing against fair compensation for people but the overhead is just too high.

      I suggest we experiment with auctions to deliver social services. Qualified organizations, including government agencies (???), would submit bids to deliver X service within Y boundaries for Z months/years for unit price A. One would start small, measure progress, modify the program as appropriate based on performance and gradually expand.

  6. Dear Jim,

    Actually, I think it was Irving Kristol who said that, “a NEO-Conservative is a Liberal who has been mugged by reality.”

    Sincerely,

    Andrew

  7. I am the “poster child” for vouchers working well, within the context of good policies. I briefly benefited from a Section-8 voucher while living in another state. The voucher essentially picked up the difference between my wage earnings and rent, leaving me enough cash for frozen burritos and dog food. The assistance was small but life-changing. It launched me into long-term financial security and self-sufficiency.

    My success might be due to good housing policies. In this program, only moderately priced and modestly priced housing stock was eligible for the program. Rental companies were incentivized but not required to participate. Voucher recipients could not exceed 33 percent of community residents. My own complex thoroughly screened all residents, enforced rules, and maintained working security gates. Best of all, there was a clear exit strategy for voucher beneficiaries. Residents could wean off assistance and transition to traditional leases as their circumstances improved- no displacement. It was truly a model example. Perhaps Virginia municipalities might borrow from it.

    • I agree that vouchers can be a good idea — certainly preferable to government-administered public housing. But voucher programs have to be sanely administered, as they apparently were in the example you cite, and just as obviously was not at Sedgwick Gardens.

      But the best affordable housing solution of all is to give the market more freedom to introduce more innovative housing types. (See my post on container housing.)

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