Washington, D.C. is unique in a number of ways. With the distinction of being the nation’s capital, it functions both as a city and a state. Population-wise, the District of Columbia is larger than the states of Wyoming and Vermont. It has a larger budget than 12 states, pays more federal taxes than 21 states, pays more federal taxes per capita than any state, has a larger gross domestic product than 17 states, has a triple-A bond rating, and is currently running a budget surplus rather than a deficit.
But it is a city, not a state. Therefore, it is the only city in America where Congress directly oversees the city’s budget and laws by Constitutional authority. For years, Congress functioned as the sole legislative body where city residents had no elected representation. A limited form of self-government was granted when Congress passed the Home Rule Act of 1973, signed into law by then-President Richard Nixon. It allowed D.C. residents the right to elect their own mayor, council, and a non-voting member of Congress. Washington D.C. is the only jurisdiction without the power to appoint its own judges. While D.C. voters have no federal voting representative on the ballot, the outcome of the 2022 midterm elections could have substantial consequences for the city’s autonomy, let alone its pursuit of statehood.
With House Republicans pointing to the rising number of homicides and homelessness in the capital, along with the mayor’s COVID-19 policies, some in the GOP ranks have expressed their desire to take greater control of the city. Currently, there are House members who would go as far as to see the Home Rule Act of 1973 eliminated if Republicans are successful in winning control of Congress. Rep. Andrew S. Clyde (R-Ga.), a member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which oversees D.C. affairs, is developing legislation to return exclusive control of the city to Congress by repealing the act. Washington D.C. is a city that is no different than other urban communities experiencing similar increases in crime and homelessness; Republicans who are using this to justify cutting D.C.’s self-governance know this.
We see high-cost cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco struggle with this same humanitarian nightmare—this is not solely a D.C. problem. The GOPs’ political motives are clear with D.C. being a heavily Democratic city but policy-wise, how will Republicans on the federal level address the increasing growth in homelessness and its root causes? The shortage of affordable housing is a national crisis that should be treated as such by federal officials from both political parties. There are no reasonable means of fixing the complex homeless crisis anywhere in America without adequately addressing the housing shortage and poverty.
Bernie Sanders recently gave a speech on the Senate floor suggesting a “unanimous resolution congratulating the billionaire class” for amassing more wealth during the pandemic even as the remaining U.S. citizens suffered economic loss. This stance is not new to him. By now, some people may have become deaf to his message, but the senator’s constant point is not just about economic disparity but a gap in humanity. His speech illustrates a widening gap in being humane toward others.
There is a gap between how much we care for the less fortunate and how much we don’t, as a society. To many people, homelessness is only an issue because it is visible and makes them feel uncomfortable—and we know how triggering being ‘uncomfortable’ can be for some— as they are forced to deal with the “eyesore” every day. We have a viable option in the Build Back Better (BBB) legislation which includes historic investments in affordable housing.
It represents a critical step in solving the multipart problem surrounding the homeless encampments we see nationwide. Since proposed legislation is in place to address root causes, how can one in good conscience say they are sincerely concerned about chronic homelessness and yet reject the BBB? Yes, it is a heavy price, but not compared to years of doing nothing, spending millions on temporary fixes, not having safe streets or parks, and making bad policies out of desperation, not to speak of the toll on human life and suffering.
There are other underlying causes of homelessness which “law and order” proponents must factor in. Many people who commit criminal offenses do so to survive, but many also have underlying mental health and substance abuse issues. It is hard for the chronically homeless to maintain stable housing due to these addictions or mental health issues. In many jurisdictions, the growing rate of homelessness is rapidly outpacing the drug and mental health services made available. And let us not forget how the humanity gap widens due to special interests and campaign funding by donors who want to relax affordable housing requirements. Many housing developers prefer building more profitable and expensive housing, increasing their supply while decreasing affordable housing options. In many cases, developers receive subsidies (tax incentives) with the promise of providing public benefits such as jobs, affordable housing, and green spaces. Unfortunately, the community may not always receive the promised benefits.
The national issue of homelessness needs coordinated efforts by local lawmakers on the front lines and those making effective federal policies in Washington. A homeless person most likely will not be casting a vote in November, but their fate hangs on the outcome. We should keep this in mind when we all vote this year. Unfortunately, the future of D. C. residents also depends on the results of House races nationwide.
David W. Marshall is the founder of the faith-based organization, TRB: The Reconciled Body, and author of the book God Bless Our Divided America. He can be reached at www.davidwmarshallauthor.com.