September 9 - 16, 1998

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The City Politic

by Bill Collins

Gimme The Rent Man!

I'd be less
Had I a decent
Place to live.

Those few blessed saints who still campaign for affordable housing now face a terrible dilemma. National research has come out, based on extensive focus groups, which says that the public really doesn't want to hear any more of that devastating housing data.

That's a problem. If you have a humane bone in your body, how can you resist shouting those dreary numbers from the housetops. And they get drearier every month, despite the booming economy.
Homeless shelters are overflowing, and waiting lists for subsidized units are lengthening. Many agencies, in fact, have stopped accepting applications. How can one keep quiet?

Well, the focus groups did offer one idea. They discovered that most folks actually enjoy hearing about "self-help" housing. They admire people, no matter how poor, who pull themselves up by their bootstraps. As long as a subsidized project has some cooperative ownership to it, voters don' t seem to mind if it includes taxpayer money too. Especially if it goes for child care, education, drug treatment, health assistance, and what-have-you. The Lord helps those who help themselves.

That's what makes this a tough dilemma. While there are surelyplenty such co-op success stories to glow about, it's not easy to start up new ones. There is little money available, and not enough saints to get them off the ground. Yes, wonderful pilot projects of "supportive housing" do flourish in Stamford, Hartford, New Haven, and Windham, and co-op projects do abound. Still, the number of ill-housed Nutmeggers keeps growing. So does the depth of their unrecorded suffering.

The reasons for this quiet crisis are not new. They're just part of the `90s way of life. The General Assembly has been steadily cuffing Connecticut's housing budget for the last five years. in fact 1998 was the first year in some time that it managed to stay level.

The same with Congress... Washington's New World Order emphasizes sell-reliance. The poor deserve a hand up, not a handout. Of course for years they have received neither, so the federal portion of our implied American housing compact has dwindled too. Money for both public housing and Section 8 units has eroded. And soon the problem could get still worse. Rent subsidy contracts entered into with private owners 20 years ago, are now running out. Many owners want those apartments back, so they can make a killing on them in the private market. Wouldn't you?

Locally it's no better. Last year Cheshire banned single-family houses altogether in its industrial zones. Zoners feared that some do-good agency might come along and try to build housing for the poor. So much for shar-ing the wealth.

But we commentators shall continue to hold our tongues about the baleful statistics of Connecticut's bad housing. Those focus groups say they're a turnoff. Instead let's just report that pediatricians claim that kids stay healthier in decent housing. Likewise, educators say they learn better. And, not surprisingly, employers report that workers perform better when they have a safe home.

The trouble is that these costs of bad health, bad learning, and bad working, show up in widely separated parts of our social budget. There's no good way to measure them against the cost of decent housing. Too bad. if that comparison were clear, where we ought to invest our tax money would be a no-brainer.

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