>From The Freeman                    OCTOBER 1962





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             How Winstedites Kept Their Integrity

             by Ralph Nader "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.

                           Enabling Legislation 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 ôsympathy 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.

 

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