“OPPOSE a public housing project! You might just as well come out against Mother and Social Security.”
In the face of this typical defeatist attitude, the rejection of a federal housing project in three successive referendums in Winsted, Connecticut, is of more than local significance.
The issue first arose in this New England mill town of 10,000 people in December 1957 when the local housing authority brought before a Town Meeting a proposal for fifty federal housing units. Despite public apathy, the proposal was defeated by the tiny vote of 20 to 16. However, it was re-submitted the following month and approved by a voice vote.
The townspeople seemed largely unconcerned through the next two years of preliminary preparations for construction. But in January 1960, a young housewife’s letter in the local paper questioned the whole idea of public housing, pointed to some of the likely injurious consequences, and berated citizens for letting it be imposed upon them by default. In short order, 550 signatures were secured petitioning for a referendum on the project; and when the vote was counted in April 1960, after the largest referendum turnout in recent history, the project had been rejected two to one.
By then, however, the local housing authority had spent some $20,000 of federal disbursements; and housing proponents petitioned for another referendum, which was held in August 1960. The vote, even heavier than that of April, again spelled a resounding rejection.
The next move came when the federal Public Housing Authority called a meeting of selectmen and local housing officials to offer what it called a “redirected” program. The earlier proposal had involved 40 low-rent units and 10 units for the elderly. The new alternative was to reverse that ratio. And in some unexplained way, the adoption of the “redirected” program would also absorb the $20,000 otherwise to be billed against the town.
Their “concern for the elderly” prompted the selectmen to call for a new referendum. On April 28, 1962, aroused but weary voters rejected the program for the third time — a most remarkable showing of integrity in the face of formidable pressure.
In Connecticut, the state enabling act for the creation of local housing authorities by municipalities sets the official tone. The statute declares that a serious slum condition exists, unrelieved through private enterprise. This supposedly justifies the use of tax-collected funds to provide housing accommodations. As in other states, local housing authorities are given autonomous status which shields them from both the town governing body and the voters and thus fails to encourage responsible action.
The statute is so drawn that the members of the housing authority, who serve without pay (which can be very costly), may delegate all powers and duties to the executive director. This had been done in Winsted.
The statute does not require that local housing authorities make any housing surveys or other studies before proposing public housing. When the law itself encourages rather than safeguards against abuse and bureaucratic dominance, freewheeling and irresponsible projects are likely to result. Unrestrained by legal standards and used to public apathy, housing officials at federal, state, and local levels are prone to assume that they need only decree a project to have it carried out.
Under the U.S. housing law, the local authority is permitted the use of federal funds to acquaint the public with any housing proposal. Prior to each of the first two Winsted referendums, the authority drew upon federal funds for newspaper advertisements in behalf of its program, for “progress,” “growth,” and “sympathy for one’s less fortunate neighbors.”
Need for Information
A group of citizens, sought to break the authority’s monopoly of significant facts, requesting the selectmen to send the authority a list of questions concerning costs, consequences to the Town, and the alleged need for the project. But, secure in its autonomy, the authority rejected brusquely this bid for public information. Such agencies can maintain their secrecy with near impunity, since resort to the courts is expensive and time-consuming and seldom satisfactory, anyway, in suits against housing authorities.
To rely on the popular vote is not an entirely satisfactory alternative. A majority decision may be unjust, though democratic, and the rights of a minority may be violated. Moreover, the right to vote is impaired in substance when there is not access to information upon which to base judgment. Nevertheless, the referendum appears to be the only remaining practicable way for citizens to check the actions of housing authorities. Giant government has outgrown the capacity of the institutions designed to restrain its encroachments and abuses.
The Winsted experience revealed much lack of understanding as to how the lives of people are affected by public housing.
“I am against public subsidies but I want to get back our share of the tax dollar instead of having it go to some other city.”
“It’s free, so why not grab it?” “We pay high taxes, let’s get some of it back.”
“This project doesn’t cost the Town a red cent and it is being offered to us. Thousands of towns have low rent housing, hundreds more want it. Anyone who wants Winsted to grow and progress should vote for it.”
Some tenants who had recently argued with their landlord thought the project would be “healthy competition.” Others favored the project on the ground that it would bring more people, especially elderly couples, to Winsted. Finally, it was widely asserted that private enterprise would not do the “job” (not described) so public funds bad to be used.
Presenting the Evidence
To inform the townspeople about the nature of the housing project was a difficult task. Common conviction and concern brought together a small number of citizens from various occupations. They set out, each in his own way, to talk about the project and why it should be rejected. By telephone, personal contact, letters to the local paper, they implemented their belief that right will prevail when given half a chance to be heard. What was their message?
1. Public housing involves an annual subsidy by local taxpayers as well as an initial and continuing subsidy by all taxpayers. Federal housing projects pay 10 per cent of collected shelter rents to the Town in lieu of taxes. This amount is usually one-tenth of what that property would pay in local taxes were it fully taxable. Consequently, an extra burden is shouldered by private property in the form of a higher property tax.
2. Public housing pushes private housing toward deterioration and away from expansion. The private sector must pay for public housing which, in turn, takes away their tenants from whom income is derived to pay the taxes in the first place. “It takes the fruits and chops the roots,” as one old-timer phrased it. The more public housing, the more difficult for owners to keep their property in repair and the weaker the incentives for people to want to own their own homes. Instances were found where potential home owners held off buying until the outcome of the referendums was known.
A vicious circle begins to operate; as private property is undermined by public competition, private investment is discouraged by the threat of more public housing. As local taxes increase, the prospects diminish for new or expanding industry.
Public housing accentuates that which it professes to alleviate, creating conditions that will raise the call for more public housing. It will destroy the incentive to build new dwellings and to develop creative methods of private financing.
3. Consider the proposed project itself and the people who would occupy it — the drab, uniform, barrack-type existence. Living under the government as landlord neither teaches children the value of property (which is one reason why public housing deteriorates so quickly) nor produces the environment for the exercise of independence, self-reliance, and, above all, citizenship. Any government intrusion into the economy deters the alleged beneficiaries from voicing their views or participating in civic life. The reason for this goes beyond the stigma of living in subsidized housing. When public housing becomes, as it has over the nation, a source of additional patronage for local distribution to contractors, repairmen, and tenants, the free expression of human beings is thus discouraged.
4. The local housing authority was discredited by exposing its policies to the public. It had made no attempt even to produce a housing inventory before spending vast sums of money. It had never explored the possibilities of any private housing solution to alleged needs, but always assumed the public way. It viewed its function as obtaining more and more public housing in spite of repeated referendums to the contrary. In this way, it was trying to wear down the voter.
5. An average of 75 decent dwellings for reasonable rent were shown to be regularly available in Winsted, where dwelling space per capita had increased over the situation ten years ago. A check of housing facilities showed quite the opposite of what the local authority had been alleging without substantiation.
6. Finally, there was the appeal to principle. People were asked whether Winsted should be like other towns who had succumbed to the Lorelei of “getting our share of federal funds before somebody else does.” Would Winsted be different by being responsible, by showing community integrity? Is Winsted to admit that the resourcefulness of its citizens has reached the low level of rushing, hands unfolded, to the service state? It was discovered that holding people to high standards can bring about an encouraging response.
In summary, the approach employed to defeat the repeated onslaughts of public housing proponents was to explain the cost, the abuses, and the consequences to the Town. The steady bit-by-bit erosion of private property was clearly described along with the explanation of what private property contributes to the Town. All this required leg work, the tedious but essential job of reaching people and overcoming their apathy and “can’t fight city hall” attitudes.
A Vital Lesson
If there is a single lesson to be learned from Winsted’s experience, it is that freedom, to be meaningful, must find direct expression in practice as well as in principle. Articulations of principles of liberty may provide the understanding, but these must be practiced to give freedom objective existence. Freedom is a process of being and becoming, in our laws and their enforcement, in our institutions and the purposes for which they are used, in our policies and methods and daily behavior. The faster our way of life changes, the greater the danger of service-state dominance and the greater the need to strengthen the “tools of freedom.” Principles have their noble pedestal in man’s life but to defend their living substance requires continual citizenship in action. One must act, as well as articulate; and in each community the success with which these are fused will spell the gain or the loss of the blessings of liberty.