illustration of mayoral debate
David Serota

City responses to problems with family homelessness and affordable housing provided two of many flashpoints in the District’s first 2014 mayoral debate.

With the District’s Nov. 4 general election less than seven weeks away, candidates Muriel E. Bowser (D), David A. Catania (I), and Carol Schwartz (I) faced off on Sept. 18 in a small auditorium at American University.

At many moments, the event overflowed with emotion and interruption. All three candidates become so combative that at one point, NBC4 reporter and moderator Tom Sherwood chastised them, saying, “it sounds like you need a class on behavior.”

A discussion about the future of the city’s troubled family shelter at the former DC General Hospital provoked a range of remarks. Deteriorating conditions at the facility made headlines last winter as hundreds of families sought shelter. The March disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd with a shelter janitor added to concerns about the safety of the shelter. The janitor was found dead of an apparent suicide; the child remains missing. DC Mayor Vincent Gray has called for the closing of the facility, but efforts to move homeless families into affordable housing have not been fast enough to empty the shelter. Now, as another cold weather season approaches, city officials are bracing for a new influx of desperate men, women and children seeking beds there.

Schwartz, a former member of the city council, touted her volunteer work with the homeless since her arrival in the District more than 48 years ago. Schwartz called for the immediate cleanup of DC General, but noted that the facility is “not a bad place to house families.”

When asked whether cleaning could be completed within the year, Schwartz was very certain, saying the project would be one of her “first priorities” as mayor.

Front-runner Bowser, a city council member who beat Gray in the city’s April 1 Democratic primary,  emphasized her belief that DC General is not a long-term solution for homeless families. Instead, she said the District needs to step up the rapid rehousing program that aims to move homeless families into affordable apartments. She also explained the city should do a better job of serving families placed in motels when the shelter system overflows. Homeless families need to be provided with services in addition to a place to stay.

“If you just stick people that have a lot of needs in any place, they’re going to fail there, and it won’t be a better situation,” Bowser said.

Catania, an at-large D.C. councilmember, stressed that DC General needs to be made usable for the coming winter. But he also used the discussion on family homelessness as an opportunity to criticize Bowser for not supporting measures that would have created additional beds for homeless families at the former Hebrew Home at 1125 Spring Road NW.

Catania went on to attack Bowser for not doing enough to address the shortage of affordable housing in the city while she served as chair of a council committee that oversees housing issues. Catania said Bowser and other officials left $100 million on the table that should have been used for low-income housing.

A heckler in the audience also assailed Bowser, shouting “Park Southern! Park Southern!”

The crumbling Park Southern apartment complex in the Southeast part of the city which houses more than 700 working poor families, has been a source of controversy for Bowser.

Bowser has called the apartment complex “disgusting.” However, the council member’s  opponents contend she only intervened in the city’s takeover of the financially-troubled complex to protect Rev. Rowena Joyce Scott, a campaign supporter who serves as the president of the nonprofit that owns the complex.

The ongoing problems with Park Southern have dogged Bowser in recent weeks. However,in a city heavily dominated by Democrats, many believe her party affiliation will assist her in an easy victory in the upcoming election.

Catania and Schwartz, both running as Independents, are former left-leaning Republicans.

According to a poll released on September 17 by NBC4, The Washington Post, and Marist College, Bowser is the leading candidate by 17 percentage points, with 43 percent of those polled choosing her. Catania had 26 percent, while Schwartz came in with 16 percent. Fourteen percent of likely voters remain undecided.