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D.C. Wrestles With COVID-19’s Economic Effects

Jacquay Henderson, president and founder of Square Peg Technologies in southeast D.C., has had to weather the coronavirus like other entrepreneurs in the District.

Henderson’s company, which supplies data analytics to the United States intelligence community, had an economic scare earlier this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, like many of the District’s housing and commercial sectors. Nevertheless, Henderson, speaking at a Nov. 10 business town hall meeting sponsored by the District’s Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development John Falcicchio, said he will endure the coronavirus’s negative effects on the local economy.

“Early on during the pandemic, I was trying to keep my people confident that I could drive the ship,” he said. “I wanted to give my people that sense of comfort.”

Henderson seeks to navigate the District’s COVID-tainted climate at a time when 18,173 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and 657 people have died between March 24 and Nov. 9. The city faces a downward spiral in employment in the hospitality and tourism industries with tens of thousands having lost jobs and hundreds of businesses shuttered due to the pandemic, according to the D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer.

That office released a report on Oct. 29 articulating the city’s new construction and housing woes. The report said the number of multi-family housing permits issued in the 12-month period ending in August dropped 20 percent compared to the same time last year. Permits for housing dropped from 6, 800 permits issued in August 2019 to 5, 600 three months ago. The report also revealed other dour statistics: multifamily unit average rents declined 1.4 percent during the second quarter of 2020; office construction in the District fell 2.4 million square feet in June as opposed to the prior year; August property sales at $12.2 billion, down 23.5 percent from the previous year; and August hotel tax collections, 10 percent of the previous year.

The District’s downtown sector has suffered economically since the onset of the pandemic, according to data from the D.C. Downtown Business Improvement District (BID). Its latest quarterly report showed economic activity in the area just 18 percent of what it was in the fall and up slightly from the 12 percent the area posted this summer. Many employees worked from home as a result of the pandemic, the report said, but 10 percent are back working in their downtown offices as opposed to five percent in the summer.

The BID report said downtown shops sales in October ranged from 40 percent to 60 percent of 2019 levels and July sales registered 30 percent to 50 percent of 2019 levels. Restaurants in the downtown corridor, the report said for October posted 30-50 percent of 2019 levels and in July registered 20-40 percent levels.

The District government faces its own set of problems with a four-year budget deficit at $782 million, according to data from the chief financial officer. In late September, Bowser, after hearing the report of the District’s chief financial officer, said everyone will have to share the pain to balance the budget for the next four years. By law, the District must balance its budget each fiscal year or face the return of a federal managing authority to manage the city without being accountable to leaders or residents.

However, former D.C. Council member Vincent Orange, who served on the legislative body from 1999-2007 and 2011-2016 and recently led the District of Columbia Chamber of Commerce, said the city government could use grants and tax incentive alleviate some of the pain stinging the housing industry and downtown retail corridor. However, Orange, who chaired the Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs at one time, said a plan is needed.

“The city leaders don’t have a consensus plan,” he said. “We don’t have any planning taking place. We have a piecemeal approach that will not work. The D.C. government and the business community are not on the same page.”

Orange said Bowser and the D.C. Council to work together to formulate a plan like the one forged in 1999 to bail the city out of financial paralysis and into growth.

Henderson said he realizes the District lingers in an economic quandary but remains optimistic the city will rebound from COVID-19.

“I tell people not to let a good crisis go to waste,” he said. “The keys to success are perception and direction. If you have to, make a pivot and don’t let opportunities go to waste.”

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