Benjamin Thomas Speaks Out

Benjamin Thomas, who turns 91 this month, is still active in his community. The Washington Post named him “unofficial mayor” of Washington DC in 1998. Photo: Benjamin Thomas

The Washington Post once called Benjamin Thomas an “unofficial mayor of the city,” due to community advocacy work in his Benning Heights neighborhood. “This government doesn't hear very well,” the Post quoted him, “but I don't give up very easily.” That was 16 years ago. “I feel so disappointed in what's going on now,” said Thomas, who will turn 91 this month. However, he is still speaking out against an unresponsive government.

Commitment to the Community

A DC resident since 1938, Thomas moved to his Chaplin Street home on Jan. 30, 1958. However, he has been active in community service since age 18. Over the years Thomas served as president of the Benning Ridge Civic Association, vice-chair of the Far-North Southeast Council, and chair of the Sixth District Citizen Advisory Council. He was also an elected delegate to the 1980 White House Conference on Aging and Families. But he is most known for serving for 18 years as an advisory neighborhood commissioner on Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 7E. One of his proudest accomplishments was successfully lobbying to get a traffic light at the intersection of Benning Road and Southern Avenue. “I fought for 10 years to get that light,” Thomas said. He also helped limit the amount of illegal activities occurring around Davis Elementary School. Today he regularly attends community meetings and gives advice to neighbors needing help.

The State of Ward 7

“When something happens, people usually call me,” he said. As a result he often writes, calls, and faxes government entities on behalf of neighbors. “But,” Thomas explained, “I can't get anything done.” He described his frustration, for example, at playing phone tag with government officials during a recent water-main break and receiving little to no response. “No one made an effort until I called the Ward 7 councilmember,” he said. Thomas is also worried about the high crime rate. “Some seniors are afraid to go out of the house,” he declared.

Thomas recounted recovering stolen purses, getting carjacked at gunpoint, having someone steal two tires from his wife's car, and seeing six cars getting burned near the corner of Burns Street and Hillside Road. Thomas noted a lack of response from city services. “Those of us in Wards 7 and 8 complain about the problems to no avail. Our complaints fall on deaf ears,” he wrote in an undated open letter. “The police officials only let patrol officers patrol certain areas, the ambulances get lost, and it takes two years to replace a damaged super can.”

On Property Issues

Another issue Thomas finds problematic involves falling property values in Ward 7. “In the last few years tax rates have gone up and property values have gone down,” he said. “I wrote to four councilmembers and no one responded. In one letter addressed to Councilmember Yvette Alexander (Ward 7) he referred to her Sept. 9, 2013, response to concerns about property-tax liens. “I am concerned about the practices of these investors who take advantage of the current tax lien sales procedures by increasing legal fees, making it nearly impossible for homeowner to pay their property tax bill,” she wrote. “This unfair practice is affecting many of our residents who are long-time homeowners now living on a limited income, such as our senior citizens and disabled.”

In his letter Thomas wrote about his lower property assessment and then-high citywide tax rate ($0.85). “For the last three years I have contacted the Office of Tax and Revenue (OTR),” he wrote. “They have refused to give me [an] appointment to discuss the reason for this biased and unfair increase.” He hoped Councilmember Alexander would bring up his concerns with OTR. While he did not receive an answer, he was disappointed with Mayor Vincent Gray and the council's response to the tax-lien scandal: passing legislation that dealt with the effects but not the causes.

Time to Speak Up

With primary elections next month, Thomas hopes that residents pay closer attention to who they want representing them. “People don't realize this, but the government has something to do with everything you do,” he said. “If you don't have the right people representing you, who knows what could happen?” He is also worried about the lack of resident participation in community affairs. “Community meetings used to be packed with people,” Thomas said. “I know 18 men on my block. I'm the only one who regularly attends meetings.”

While community meetings are places to present opinions and concerns, a lack of response from elected officials can get frustrating, which is why Thomas left his ANC position after one term in 2008. “I gave up. There was no point in going on,” he said. “You couldn't do anything because they wouldn't respond.” However, he is still making his voice heard as an activist. “Other people won't speak up, but if you're right, you're right,” he said.