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America's Poor Millions Need Not Live in Squalor

August 24, 1986|JAMES W. ROUSE | James W. Rouse is chairman of the Enterprise Foundation, based in Columbia, Md

COLUMBIA, MD. — About 36 million Americans live in poverty in 1986, and their number is increasing by a million a year. We act as if we don't see it, but poverty is changing our society.

Of young black men seeking work in America, 48% are jobless. A young black graduating from high school has about an even choice between work or a life of hustle. But he must live, either way--and so the hustle, the alcohol, the drugs and the crime.

The problem keeps creeping out from the heart of our cities, and it is said we have become the most violent nation in the world. Private police in the United States now outnumber public police. We have more people in jail, per capita, than any other country in Western civilization. Think of this judgment on our society.

While poverty increases year by year, decent, affordable housing declines--because of demolition, deterioration and the gentrification process whereby middle-income people take over housing occupied by the poor and rehabilitate it.

With this imbalance of supply and demand, rents go up. The 1980 census showed that 13 million families had incomes below $10,000 a year. And of those families, four out of 10 paid more than half their income for housing.

We are anesthetized about the life of the poor. We don't really see it. We drive through "bad areas," but we don't see the condition of the housing or the lives of the people. If we do see it, we don't believe anything can be done about it. There is no solution. Leave it to the federal government. Yet, here we are, the wealthiest country in the world--with the greatest problem-solving capability in the history of man--and we stand wringing our hands or just ignoring this dreadful condition at the root of our society.

But there are answers--a whole lot of answers.

Fifteen years ago I talked with a little church group in Washington about housing for the poor. I was a very discouraging counselor to this group of 15. I said, "There is nothing you can do about the poor. You are too little. You don't have the resources, or the staff or the organization." The wisdom of the day was that it required a big program--from the federal government, or at least the city.

Happily, they had the wisdom to ignore my advice. They went out to do something about housing the poor. They formed a nonprofit housing corporation--Jubilee Housing Inc.; they wanted to buy two buildings, totaling 90 units, for $7,000 a unit. They figured that with another $100,000, and with volunteer help, they could make these dreadful buildings fit and livable. We worked out the financing.

Then I went to see the buildings. They were a disgrace. There were no doors--the lobby was the street. Mailboxes were ripped off the wall. The elevators didn't work; shafts were filled with garbage and trash. I gagged when I walked in. The buildings were fully occupied.

The week the group acquired the buildings, they were notified of 940 violations of the Washington housing code. Three years later, with some 50,000 hours of volunteer work, those buildings were fit and livable. The stench was gone, and they were good places to live.

Since then, we've seen what conventional wisdom would call miracles. All of this because a small group of people cared about the housing and the lives of the poor. And they believed things could be done about it.

My wife, Patty, who served on the board of Jubilee Housing, and I believed their success could be replicated in other cities--that thousands of people across the United States would work for the poor if they had a process for being effective.

We formed the Enterprise Foundation, a charitable corporation, to help neighborhood groups house very poor families. Distinguished, caring people like John W. Gardner, Patricia Roberts Harris, Robert S. McNamara, Andrew Heiskell, Ernest W. Hahn and many others joined our board and helped us raise money--$20 million to date.

We are now in 25 cities, working with 65 neighborhood groups. We help them to organize and teach them how to acquire housing and do rehabilitation; to raise money at lower cost; set up job placement centers, and find new solutions for old problems. Our purpose is to help build a new system for housing the poor.

Sometimes it means simplified processes for producing housing and for the elimination of frills that architects and contractors might like. If there is a bathtub on legs, and it works--keep it. If kitchen shelves can be made decent and attractive, don't rip them out and put in $5,000 worth of cabinets. Costs can be cut down, and we work at doing that.

More can be done about housing and the life of the poor than our creative, free society has managed to do. All kinds of little problems will respond to little solutions. But nobody's working at it. The government doesn't work at it. Nobody works at trying to build a new system for housing the poor--to take the problem apart; to deal with its pieces, and put it back together with new answers.

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