From the Top: City of Rats

"Thinking big" at the municipal level means abandoning the basics.


Washington, D.C., is lousy with rats, and not just of the human variety. I knew that before moving here—you'd always see them scampering around sidewalks and alleys when walking around town—but it took living full-time in the city to appreciate both the awe-inspiring magnitude of the infestation and the jaw-dropping indifference of a municipal government more focused on giving free money to billionaires than addressing the capital's legendary civic rot.

On my very first trip to the supermarket as a bona fide Beltway resident, a little black rat darted between the feet of everyone in the checkout line. While the customers eeked, the Safeway employees just laughed and laughed. At my new rowhouse, I noticed packs of the critters clattering through the neighborhood's front yards, including my own. There were scores of gaping rat-holes in the dirt, and the trees were full of day-rats (otherwise known as squirrels) during sunlight hours. Some time soon after the beginning of the Chinese Year of the Rat, my pregnant wife walked downstairs and reached for her bag on the couch, and out jumped a plump young rodent.

I began making inquiries to exterminators, colleagues, and panicky urban websites, and what came back was a Stephen King hellscape. "We can trap what's inside right now and plug up some holes and establish a perimeter outside," the first rat-assessor told us. "But there's no way to keep them out of your house in this neighborhood—they just come right up through the sewers." Yep, the old rat-in-the-toilet urban legend, only this time it was true. Another exterminator just shrugged and told us to "put pressure on the city," though he knew it was futile.

My colleague Michael Moynihan had rats build a complicated nest inside the engine of his car, chewing through various wires and hoses. While throwing the contents of a second engine-nest into an open dumpster (D.C.'s trash-management tidiness being just a step or two above that of Naples, Italy) he noticed dozens of beady rat-eyes inside staring up at him disapprovingly. Recently, his wife slammed on her brakes in front of an intersection, and a rat plopped out from under the hood.

Vermin complaints to the city government were up 8 percent in 2007. In October of that year, self-described "rodent experts" Dale Kaukeinen and Bruce Colvin released a nationwide study naming Washington the fifth-most- vulnerable city to a major spike in rat population, a prediction that seems more likely than ever after yet another mild winter. The National Zoo has such a bad infestation that two adult pandas were killed by rat poison a few years back. "Mayor Anthony A. Williams declared war on the rats in the late 1990s," Washington Times columnist Tom Knott wrote in February, "and the rats won."

What made my reacquaintance with rodents much more difficult to accept was that it came during the very month that the city was congratulating itself for a gleaming new expenditure of local taxpayers' money—a $611 million stadium to house the Washington Nationals baseball team. Actually, that figure is much too low: Eminent domain settlements with in-the-way property owners added $43 million to the cost, and a handful of outstanding cases could tack on $24 million more. There were also $32 million in municipal infrastructure improvements.

So how much is $710 million in the scheme of D.C.? More than 12 percent of the city's annual local budget. (It receives an additional $4 billion or so from the federal government.) It's almost as much as the $773 million that Mayor Adrian Fenty is proposing this year to spend on the District's notoriously awful public schools. Less than 10 days before Nationals Stadium first flung open its doors, Fenty announced various remedies for a $96 million budget shortfall: postponing a tax cut on commercial property, doubling the cost of a business license, increasing ambulance fees, charging an extra 23 cents for every phone line that can call 911.

Oddly, the Washington Post and other local newspapers didn't draw any connections to the stadium, despite the $38 million in annual debt service it requires—a figure certain to go up during the current credit crunch. Perhaps the paper was too busy with its multiple gushing special sections about the facility, including such headlines as "The City Opens the Ballpark, And the Fans Come Up Winners."

It's not like the non-baseball services Washington provides are famous for their effectiveness. The potholes in the roads would embarrass a Romanian. The neighborhood papers are filled with complaints that violent crimes like carjacking and assault don't rise to the level of police interest. (In 2000, when I reported being mugged during my first visit to the city, the police told me there was nothing they could do except check the Lost and Found once in a while for my wallet.) Our local library admitted that the online book-reservation system is not tethered to physical reality, and that in fact they have no real idea at any given time whether or not they have a book.
It has taken us four visits to the Department of Motor Vehicles to come even close to registering our car locally.

Unfortunately for the rest of you, the chasm between unsexy nuts-and-bolts services and dazzling new municipal-built edifices is the rule, not the exception, of big-city governance. In Los Angeles, my former city representative, Tom LaBonge, was tolerated as an eccentric for being the only member of the 15-member City Council to express genuine interest in street repairs (though the road in front of my house still had craters large enough to hide a baby). When a coalition of black, brown, and lefty-white politicians took over city government early this decade, one local alternative weekly urged the council to "think big" and not get bogged down in mere "pothole politics."

It's a startling mindset to observe up close, as I did for two years of jawboning with civic leaders on the L.A. Times editorial board. Councilmen always talk of "doing deals" and "putting together projects," by which they mean real estate. Nearly two dozen governmental authorities—city, regional, county, state—have some power of eminent domain over the area, and they use it to build five-star hotels, reward campaign contributors, and erect schools that declining enrollment levels have rendered utterly unnecessary. Civic leaders are always proposing some new property-related "moratorium"—on converting apartments into condominiums, fleabag hotels into attractive rentals, and unused patches of hillside into homes. "Thinking big" inevitably means horse-trading bits of the city's famously onerous red tape in return for developers delivering preferred social goals, such as guaranteeing "living wage" union jobs, building "green" rooftops, and providing for "affordable housing" units.

After a while, one starts to feel like a lonely crank constantly criticizing a city for delivering ever-worse essential services while spending ever-more money on government salaries and ever-more time butting into the private sector. Especially when the private sector has given up the intellectual fight.

One of my last editorial board visits was with Tim Leiweke, who owns the Staples Center, the Los Angeles Kings hockey team, and the largest new real estate development in town, a project called L.A. Live. I expected a guy who works with the famous conservative tycoon Phil Anschutz to be at least halfway skeptical about the intersection of City Hall and private real estate development, but when I asked him about his biggest frustration with public policy downtown, he replied: "The gap between the haves and the have-nots." If we don't have more affordable housing and living wage union jobs, Leiweke warned, "There's gonna be a day of reckoning here that's not going to be pretty."

Maybe that's why local politicians line the pockets of billionaire sports tycoons like Leiweke: Give 'em enough money, and intrude enough into their business, and they're almost bound to go native. Now if only they could be trained to care a little less about stadiums and a little more about rats.

Matt Welch
is reason's editor in chief.