If you oppose a gallant and sublime effort to help the downtrodden, you must be a heartless beast.
In governmental circles, the fear of an accusation like that can make politicians do things that defy common sense, which is what I think happened in August to a majority of Lehigh County commissioners.
By a 5-4 vote, they approved a $750,000 county grant as part of a $15.8 million scheme to refurbish 70 apartments in Allentown's Cumberland Gardens public housing project. That comes to more than $225,000 for each housing unit. That's not the price tag to build structures; that's just the price tag to restore each apartment.
Throughout this episode, I have not heard the slightest suggestion that the residents who benefit from such housing, provided by other people who actually work for a living, be asked to pitch in and repair some of the damage themselves.
On past occasions, when I said that a beneficiary of subsidized public housing should repair, repaint or otherwise do some work on a residence, trashed by that beneficiary or by his or her brats, I was regarded as a callous brute. Therefore, I can understand why the commissioners may have felt threatened if they bucked the politically correct approach to this mess.
(By the way, bureaucrats no longer like the term "public housing." It conveys the message that productive members of the public are forced to pay for the goodies enjoyed by the unproductive. Therefore, they now use the more palatable bleeding-heart-liberal term of "affordable housing.")
As reported in The Morning Call on Thursday, the county commissioners reversed themselves, displaying a rare act of common sense by approving a new measure to repeal August's $750,000 grant. Commissioner Mike Schware was quoted as saying that "$225,000 per unit is just wrong."
The $750,000 county grant (your federal taxes at work) would provide a special "hold" on six of the 70 refurbished apartments, to let mental health clients "jump ahead" of those on a "five-year waiting list" at Cumberland Gardens. If the repeal succeeds, the county will still be able to spend the $750,000, but for something else to help the downtrodden.
Wednesday night's action to reverse the August action brought a threat of legal action from Alan Jennings, a board member of the Allentown Housing Authority, who insisted he was not making a "threat," but was only promising to ask his authority to take action against the county.
The disingenuousness of such verbal acrobatics brought a response from Commissioner Vic Mazziotti.
"It sounds to me you're saying … that somehow we can be sued for not being willing to spend county money on a project everybody thinks is overpriced," the story quoted Mazziotti as defiantly telling Jennings. "I would say bring that lawsuit on."
I happened to attend Wednesday night's session, and there were a few tidbits, not mentioned in the story, that appealed to me.
Mazziotti pointed out that a private builder can erect entirely new apartment buildings for $185,000 per unit. "It sounds like an outrageously high number," he said of the $225,000 to merely refurbish each Cumberland Gardens apartment, but "we are told that we should just ignore that."
That brought a response from Kyle Speece of Pennrose Properties, the proposed project's developer, who said there are other costs involved in a public housing project, such as managing tax credits.
"Who pays for tax credits? Taxpayers!" retorted Lisa Scheller, chairwoman of the commissioners.
Then Jennings said this: "We're forgetting about the property values … surrounding this development."
In other words, if the county does not refurbish subsidized apartments trashed by their tenants, the resulting slum will have a negative impact on neighboring residents.
That, to me, sounds like a form of extortion — give us what we want or we'll hurt those saps who pay their own way.
As for the benefit the Cumberland Gardens project would have for people with mental health problems, Commissioner Scott Ott pointed out that "$750,000 to help six people a year … is spending an egregious amount of money per unit."
In the end, a motion to repeal the spending plan was approved 5-4 with Ott, Scheller, Schware and Mazziotti being joined by Commissioner Tom Creighton, who had voted in favor of the plan in August. Opposed to the repeal were Commissioners Percy Dougherty, Daniel McCarthy, Brad Osborne and David Jones.
I know there are some deserving souls in Cumberland Gardens and in other public housing projects, and I know that some of them are employed and they even pay varying shares of the rent.
Subsidies are subsidies, however, and little good ever came from taking the wealth of the productive, by force, and systematically giving it to the unproductive, including farm subsidies and bank bailouts. In the long term, all that accomplishes is to grow an ever-increasing herd of parasites.
When subsidies reach ridiculous proportions — when taxpayers must pay more to repair a dwelling than a brand-new dwelling would cost if we gave it to a family outright — it puts the problem in focus.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and FridaysCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun