The power struggle over several blighted properties in Anacostia boiled over this week with the chairman of the D.C. Council accusing Mayor Muriel Bowser of illegally awarding contracts to redevelop the sites.
“The city’s announcement that it has awarded $1.6 million and six properties in Historic Anacostia to two inexperienced nonprofit organizations is a waste of money and violates the law,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, said in a scathing statement Wednesday evening.
On Tuesday, the Democratic mayor had touted a deal to rehabilitate the six properties in Ward 8 in an effort to create cheaper housing options for low-income residents. Two of the properties are vacant lots and the other four are the site of historic but dilapidated homes.
Mr. Mendelson charged that the four sites with houses should have been turned over for redevelopment to the L’Enfant Trust, a nonprofit that specializes in preserving historic architecture, in line with a city law passed late last year.
It was an unusually open clash between two of the city’s most powerful politicians. The chairman, who has generally been averse to public fights with Miss Bowser, also dinged the mayor for costing the city what he said was more than $1 million dollars after the trust promised to do the work for free.
Residents in Anacostia have long considered the rundown, city-owned properties to be an eyesore in a community looking for more economic opportunities. That prompted Mr. Mendelson last summer to push legislation to give to properties to the L’Enfant Trust. According to its website, the trust “acquires and rehabilitates distressed historic buildings where such rehabilitation will have a positive impact on community revitalization.”
The law was passed unanimously in December by the city council at the urging of Mr. Mendelson and Council member Anita Bonds, the at-large Democrat who heads the Housing Committee. It went into effect without the mayor’s signature in March.
But the Bowser administration ignored the law, saying the council had overstepped its bounds by not only telling the executive what to do with the properties, but also by dictating who should get the contracts. The mayor instead handed over the four properties in question to the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights (DCCH), a private, nonprofit community development corporation.
It’s unclear whether DCCH has done any work on historic properties, but the organization’s website says its goal is to boost economic development in the city by “increasing commercial, business, industrial and housing development with a particular focus on opportunities for socially or economically disadvantaged persons.”
Despite the chairman’s charges this week, the Bowser administration maintained that under the Home Rule Act that set up the city government nearly 45 years ago, the council has no right to tell the mayor how to dispose of city-owned property.
The relevant section of the act says the “executive power of the District shall be vested in the mayor” and that all functions that had been granted to District’s commissioner — an executive position analogous to mayor in the city’s pre-home rule days — will continue to be exercised by the mayor.” That includes dispensation of District government property.
“This is in the purview of the mayor. We’re confident that we’ve done nothing that violates the law,” administration spokesman Joaquin McPeek said Thursday.
Mr. McPeek said the process Miss Bowser conducted was more competitive and transparent than the one set out in the 2016 law. Instead of handing the properties over to the L’Enfant Trust as a fait accompli, the mayor engaged in a competitive bidding process.
Despite his criticism of Miss Bowser’s move, Mr. Mendelson hasn’t indicated any action he might take to wrestle the properties back. He did offer a final critique, though, accusing the mayor of not having the city’s best interest in mind.
“The course this administration is now taking — to ignore the legal transfer of title, to unnecessarily spend precious dollars, to disregard the Anacostia community, and to award the houses to an inexperienced developer — is not governing in the best interest of the District,” he said.
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