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Clumsiness does not moot truth behind juror comments

Perhaps Bossier Parish Police Juror Wanda Bennett wished she never had opened her mouth during the Jury’s Jun. 17 meeting. But despite the criticism she has received regarding her remarks, the ensuing debate addresses a serious policy public matter that she may not have been intellectually or forensically able to articulate yet nonetheless needs attention.

The Democrat and former Bossier City Council member famously reacted negatively to an announcement by the Housing Authority of Bossier City that it would seek Neighborhood Stabilization Program Community Development Block Grant Funds, courtesy of “recovery” bills initially passed in the waning days of the Pres. George W. Bush and then as part of the spending orgy triggered by Pres. Barack Obama. Bennett said then, and tried to defend later, that the plan would attract apparently undesirable “lower socioeconomic people” to what is known as Old Bossier because they can cause the quality of life to deteriorate for the city as a whole. This sparked criticism from many who averred at best it was insensitive, at worst (because the poor disproportionately are racial minorities) racist.

Lost in all the invective and knee-jerk reactions is a thorough, dispassionate analysis of the policy in question, what is being done in Bossier Parish regarding public housing, and the merits of the move. The grant money would permit HABC to take possession of, renovate, and to rent out potentially dozens of single-family structures, many of which already are in adjudication, to very low-income families, which by law would have to be no higher than 50 percent of the existing poverty level because at least 25 percent of program funds would have to go to this purpose. It is restricted to this area, near the Louisiana Boardwalk, and would have to be a part of a consortium of public housing authorities in the state (totaling at least 100 units involved across the state) by law.

First, it is worth noting that the parish can not influence these plans in any way. HABC is governed by five appointees to staggered fixes terms by Bossier City, and receives all of its income from its own activities and in grants from the federal government. As long as matters such as zoning are met successfully, HABC can buy, renovate, and rent out to low-income families as many houses as it wants. The only way even Bossier City, if it wanted (no objections were raised by its council members at a similar presentation to them), could alter these plans and only over the long run, if at all, would be to replace gradually board members with others that would be against them.

Second, the parish never has been in the business of providing government-owned public housing. Instead, it administers a voucher program (colloquially known as “Section 8”) of federal government money that typically pays for at least half the market rate of rent for qualifying families. For this about 30 apartment complexes across the parish provide almost 1000 units, and some single-family residential houses also are enrolled in the voluntary program for landlords. By contrast, HABC owns the Riverwood/Eagle Pointe complex near the intersection of I-20 and Benton Road where a couple of hundred units are maintained as public housing units and others used for Section 8 and market-rate purposes. Thus, the proposal would be the first HABC ownership of single-family residential houses in Bossier, in a concentrated fashion.

Third, having a concentration represents a different philosophy than typically happens under the voucher strategy which has a greater potential to scatter recipient families throughout the community, and gets at the heart of the controversy. The most utterly misunderstood aspect about poverty is its origins. Many mistake the symptom for the disease when they define being in “poverty” as having a lack of income and/or assets because the “system” somehow is “biased” against them. Rather, “poverty” results from a set of attitudes within individuals that discourages the behaviors that create potential for these people to accrue wealth. That is (as history and research amply demonstrate), the large majority of the long-term poor are so not because something structurally about the economy or society prevents them from gaining wealth, it is because they adopt a present-oriented outlook that encourages, on the whole, even just a handful of actions that bring ephemeral, short-term benefits but with excessive long-term costs that could irretrievably shape their entire lives.

Thus, the concentration strategy has three detrimental effects. First, densely packing so many people together with the same inferior attitudes tends to feed on itself, intensifying the effect as well as increasing the chances the physical assets owned by the taxpayer will fall into disrepair if not be outright vandalized. Second, for those poor who have a future-orientation and the desire to move out of poverty, surrounding them with many who don’t feel the same way and therefore act in ways detrimental to themselves also then makes it more difficult on these others who do want to progress. These deviant behaviors not only are a bad influence but can be harmful to those who resist the influence. Third (and the point Bennett inelegantly tried to make), attraction of such people by government provision of inexpensive housing and their subsequent concentration makes it easer for a critical mass of these behaviors to form and spill out into the larger community that largely does not share these views, bringing social problems.

Neither, however, is a voucher strategy effective in dealing with the issue of housing provision for the poor. It has the potential to spread the problem widely out within the community, but, more to the point, both strategies rest on the mistaken notion that without government intervention, housing would not be available for the poor. Research has shown that (not for the elderly or disabled, the two other and smaller kinds of public housing clients) the private and nonprofit sectors can provide adequate, quality housing. In fact, the provision of cut-rate housing tends to bolster attitudes of entitlement and disregard of long-term planning and thrift, the very feelings that contribute to having to live in poverty.

Therefore, the optimal solution would be for Bossier City and Parish to dramatically alter its philosophy of dealing with public housing. Unfortunately, federal law provides many constraints in using grant money and is perhaps the greatest impediment to addressing the issue realistically (and is unlikely to change soon given Obama’s checkered history on this issue). But at its margins things could be made better. More along the lines of Shreveport with its Concordia Place development in the Stoner Hill area, HABC if it pursues this development should do so under the auspices of federal programs that encourage acquisition of the properties by tenants, with zero tolerance for those families that do not fulfill their end of the deal.

In the end, criticism of Bennett would be deserved only because of the clumsy way in which she delivered the message. The essential truth that she seemed unable to explicate, if understood by all policy-makers, would promote finally heading in the right direction in housing policy.

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