The PJ Tatler

If You Build It, They Will Slum: But Can THEY Build It? Yes, They Can!

NYCHA

When the federal government began trimming subsidies to the New York City Housing Authority (Nycha) more than a decade ago, the agency let the its repair list grow, to the point where overdue fixes and upgrades now run into the billions of dollars. U.S. taxpayers cover 80% of the agency’s funding.

But Jayne Merkel, seeing the rundown state of NYC public housing, and the still-high unemployment rate, synthesized a great idea, and it was published Monday as an op-ed in the New York Times. (Yes, the very one.)

Why couldn’t Nycha train tenants to do basic maintenance? Nycha’s professional staffs would still do the complicated work — roof repair, for example — but with some solid training, almost anyone can replaster a wall. At the same time, training for such work can be a first step toward a steady job.

Of course, this could never happen, because…unions.

But let’s run with that idea anyway. Some 650,000 New York Citians live in housing paid for (in part or whole) by taxpayers, according to Crain’s New York. They live there, many don’t have full-time jobs, and yet some $18 billion in repairs and upgrades languish on a government wait list. What would be wrong with teaching a new skill to some of the beneficiaries of this federal entitlement, and letting them spruce up their own surroundings?

While the idea may appeal to both fiscal conservatives and residents of the decaying structures (for differing reasons), the greatest benefit of such a project would be what it does for the sweat-equitists who do the work.

In Marvin Olasky’s book The Tragedy of American Compassion, he quotes U.S. Surgeon General Thomas Parran (1936-1948) , who told a Senate committee that…

“…self-reliance, the satisfaction of work, the joy of acquisition, the sense of equality, the opportunity of leading a normal family life” were vital to good health. He noted that our destitute citizens [must have] an opportunity of a livelihood earned by individual effort. I emphasize useful work; no other type fills the mental needs [or repairs] losses to human character and mental health….

Parran’s concerns echoed those of his boss.

In November 1933 [Franklin] Roosevelt stated, “When any man or woman goes on a dole something happens to them mentally and the quicker they are taken off the dole the better it is for them the rest of their lives.” And early in 1935 Roosevelt added, “We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also their self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination.”

Later that same year, FDR said, “Most Americans want to give something for what they get. That something, in this case honest work, is the saving barrier between them and moral disintegration. We propose to build that barrier high.

With inspiration from FDR and his surgeon general, I’d like to take Ms. Merkel’s concept a step further.

Every resident of public housing should help to maintain the common areas and facilities, in addition to cleaning his or her own residence, as a condition of the lease. That work can range from raking leaves, to rewiring a breaker box, depending on ability. This not only relieves budget problems, but fosters a sense of community, and chases off the deadbeats who want merely to live off the exertions of others. (I believe the latter cohort comprises a relatively small cluster.)

It’s time to restore dignity to the folks who’ve fallen on hard times with a plan that just might reduce their numbers, by  increasing their employment prospects.