One of my conservative friends the other day was extolling the virtues of what he described as the ''new and innovative'' ideas advanced by the administration and some of its black advisers. He was particularly enthusiastic about one idea; permitting public housing tenants to purchase their rental units.
I'm afraid I disappointed him by saying, '' I thought that might be a good idea over 10 years ago when the Urban Coalition tried to do it.''
The ensuing conversation led us all the way back to the '50s, when the distinguished social scientist, Hyland Lewis, recruited me to assist in a small way in his segment of a national housing study. I was dispatched to Bringham, Ala., to help develop information for a comparative analysis of housing and home ownership patterns among blacks in Birmingham and Atlanta.
Some things stuck with me from that experience.
One was that although blacks in heavy-industry Birmingham had higher per capita incomes than Atlanta blacks, home ownership among blacks in Atlanta was significantly greater.Several factors were responsible, but it became clear that the original breakthrough in black home owenership in Atlanta had bee made possible by the eistence of three black-owned financial institutions; The Atlanta Life Insurance company, Citizens Trust Bank and Mutual Federal Savings and Loan. Once they had made land acquisition and mortgage loans for blacks possible, Atlanta's white financial institutions became convinced that they had been overlooking a significant market.
There was something else going on in a new low-rise public housing project in Birmingham. Because the city then lacked the combination of black financial entities and the more firmly establised home-ownership tradition of Atlant's blacks, some of Birmingham's young black working-class and middle-class couples had found their way into what was the best bargain in modern low-cost housing for blacks.
Thus, instead of a concentration of the poorest of the poor living only in this public housing enclave, ther was for a hort time a mi of very poor families and upwardly mobile families. The interaction that resulted proved beneficial to both groups in a number of small but significant ways - among them role modeling and a mutual consciousness of the needs and merits of both groups. The link persisted into the '60s, when the civil rights movement came to Birmingham.
The recollection of how residents of these low-rise projects had grown flowers and vegetable gardens and developed a proprietary interest in their units was reinforced years later when the same pattern was evident in those bleaker barracks of intitutional housing for the poor in the North.
A young Yale-educated black lawyer on our staff, Ward White, researched the possibilities of home ownership by tenants, looking at the relatively low indebtedness remaining on some of the low-rise units. We discovered what looked like a promising target of opportunity in a large midwestern city, where a major national firm had decided to construct its nationl headquarters in an area adjoining a public housing project.
After months of meetings with the officers of the company, residents and federal and local officials, we had come to the point where the coverings and furnishings were being debated. But a number of other factors -- including the rigidities of existing policy and our own faliure to gauge and cope adequately with the complexities of local politics -- finally led to the abandonment of the effort.
In the interim, the strike leaders at Newark's Stella Wright Homes aided by Gus Heningburg and the Newark Coalition had demonstrated the hunger of many tenants of public housing to have a stronger say in the management of their projects. The later successes of tenant leaders, such as Kimi Gray of Washington, have proven what dertermined, effective ledership, reinforced by support from within and without, can achieve.
As the current federal budget squeeze reduces options, it will be important not only to press the fight against unfair social cuts but also to look carefully at all proposals that promise to create opportunities to increase the economic strength of the poor and of minority financial institutions and enterprises. Some of the solutions currently being advanced from various quarters may rightly be regarded with skepticism; others may deserve closer examination.
A number of initiatives now lumped in with other less effective programs and policies worked so well that some of their beneficiaries now enjoy media attention for urging the wholesale elimination of everything devised in the '30s and '60s to address the problems of poverty and equity.
It is not possible or advisable to repeat the New Deal and the Great Society in the '80s and '90s. But we must retain the ability to discern whether proposals now being advanced are in themselves adequate substitutes for some of the partial remedies already in place. For example, the power of tenants to purchase or manage public housing will probably not suffice if there are not funds for rehabilitation assistance or if the stock of available low-income housing is so meager that the families are sleeping in cars.
Poor blacks and other poor Americans should not be forced into either-or decisions between self-sufficiency and government action -- any more than defense contractors and affluent and middle-class Americans are. In this context, ideology and "newness" are less important than responsible efforts to determine what seems likely to work in a time of constricting opportunities for those who risk being locked into a permanent recession.
The truth is that neither liberals, nor moderates nor conservatives have done so well at helping the poor and jobless change their circumstances that they can claim a monopoly on the truth. Since the current era of good feeling and laissez faire is not quite so glowing for blacks and the poor, there is more than enough work to be done by those of whatever political persuasion who still profess an interest in their well-being.
Much of the current debate over leadership and ideas of whatever vintage mean little to blacks and others who are either scrambling to survive or have given up altogether. If we are serious, false cures should be rejected, whatever their origin. What has served well should be fought for and kept.
And if an initiative surfaces that seems to have prospects of working and making a real difference, it ought to be given a try -- whether it is indisputably new or whether it comes from the approved ideological camp.