The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Posts tagged ‘housing’


When the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America began a program to create a half-way house for runaway underage children, they looked in various Chicago neighborhoods to find a suitable structure.  This was in the mid-70’s.  Their idea was to create a safe haven where these children could find shelter and have some semblance of security.

Many of these kids had run away from abusive family environments.  Others were emotionally confused, unable to cope and chose a life away from home as an escape.  Most sold themselves for sexual favors as a way to support themselves – and others found themselves the victims of sexual predators.

As you probably know Chicago is a city of neighborhoods.  If your background is Polish or black or Italian or Irish or Hispanic, there are one or more neighborhoods where you probably live with other people who share your ethnicity.   People jealously guarded their invisible borders and did not welcome the intrusion of “outsiders”.

I happened to live in one of the most socially-liberal communities not only in Chicago but probably anywhere in the country.  Not surprisingly, when word of this project spread among my neighbors there was a huge groundswell of support that rose from them.

Well, the Church tried neighborhood after neighborhood to locate their half-way house only to meet with community resistance and rebuke.  The people of these neighborhoods simply didn’t want these outsiders living among them.  In order to establish a half-way house a change in zoning was required.  If an alderman in a particular ward opposed giving a variance, that essentially ended the matter.  And the neighborhood residents had their aldermen’s ears.

Then the Church had its Eureka moment.  Like Saul on the road to Emmaus suddenly they saw the light.  Why were they beating a dead horse when there was a very obvious solution to the problem?   They would locate their half-way house in a neighborhood where, from the inception of this project, they had received the full support of the community.  They would bring it to my neighborhood.

To paraphrase the popular song, “What a difference a neighborhood makes.”  What had been active community support when the project was to be located elsewhere, suddenly met the exact same opposition when it was proposed that it be placed within our hallowed borders.  The project never came to fruition.

The purpose of this post is not to indict “phony morality” or point fingers at anyone.  That is neither my right nor is it a responsibility I want to accept.  I’ll leave that to a higher power to make those judgments.  But recalling this episode gave me an idea which fits my goal of “thinking outside the box” as a way that we might address some of our social and economic issues.

If there is any one thing that we could say about our major cities it is that they all have their populations of people who are homeless.  Studies suggest that many of these have mental challenges and that is the reason for their situations.  But with the continuing sputtering of the economy and the burst in the housing bubble there are some who used to have a home and have found that the bank foreclosed on them.  They have entered the ranks of the people of the street.

Every analysis of the housing market suggests that we have at least a two year inventory of housing available that will have to be absorbed before housing prices stabilize.  The banks are holding increasing numbers of non-performing assets (foreclosed homes) on their books.  They would love nothing more than to be able to sell those – but there are no buyers for them.

So here’s the idea.  The government has spent trillions of taxpayer dollars, trying to get the economy stimulated.  The results so far have been less than impressive.  So what if the Federal government were to purchase some of these foreclosed homes from the banks and turned them over to a non-profit agency – perhaps Catholic Charities or The Salvation Army.  These houses could become shelters for some of the millions of homeless who inhabit our cities.

The Federal government would own the properties – but the ones they purchased would reduce our existing inventory of unsold homes, hastening the recovery in the housing market.  The agency or agencies which had charge of these properties would require that all people who accepted residence there exchange their services for the roof over their head.  Is this a mere pipedream – or might there be some merit to it?

Yesterday I was out and  happened to see a man at an intersection.  He was holding a cardboard sign which asked those who passed by to help him with a donation.  I pulled into the gas station which was behind where he stood, got out of the car and walked over to him.  I asked if he would spare a few minutes of his time.  He seemed eager to talk with me.

I explained that I had an idea for helping people who were homeless and asked him if he were indeed one of those.  He said that he was.  So I asked if , rather than living on the street, he would be willing to live in a house with a number of other men and in exchange for housing do some kind of work for which he was qualified.

The man’s eyes lit up and he said that he was a “handyman” and could fix just about anything.  In fact he had supported himself that way for many years but when the housing market turned down, people either put off doing repairs or learned to do them themselves.  That’s when his slide into homelessness began.  He had been on the streets now for almost two years.

Obviously, this is just the beginning of an idea that is not  yet even at the talking stages among those who could make it happen.  I felt sad if I had given this man, Andy a sense of false hope.  I thanked him for speaking with me, gave him some money and left him on his corner.

If this idea ever gains traction I am going to recommend that Andy be allowed to participate in the program.  I know where he works.


When I lived in Chicago I had several friends who were members of the city’s police force.  (I met them at the local deli where they regularly had lunch).

One day I asked one of them if it was true that the city had a “quota” for how many tickets each officer in traffic enforcement was required to write each month.  Despite the police department’s official statement that “no such quota system exists”, my friends admitted that there was indeed such an animal.  (As we became more PC, the “quota” was re-named an “index”.  But as the immortal bard said, “What’s in a name?”)

The city derived a lot of revenue from the issuance of these citations and the collection of the fines.

About two and a half years ago I wrote a letter to Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman.  We were in the throes of the recession and Obama-bashing.  The unemployment rate was rising as fast as the housing market was careening downward.  I offered a plan which could both provide employment and bring in a large amount of revenue to the city’s rapidly dwindling coffers.

While I didn’t expect to be featured on one of the nightly news shows as ‘the genius who saved Las Vegas” I did expect to receive a response from the good mayor.  None was ever forthcoming.  Maybe I’ll find the original and send it to his wife who succeeded him in that office.  (Massachusetts had the Kennedys, Chicago had the Daleys and we have the Goodmans).

The plan was simple and sound.  It addressed the disdain that most automobile and truck drivers have for obeying the posted speed limits within the city.  Here was a terrific source of new revenue for Las Vegas.  All the city had to do was to enforce the laws it had already created for the safety of its citizens!

I suggested that the city hire 120 people to be called, “Traffic Speed Enforcers”.  They would be paid a salary of $50,000 per year and be assigned in three shifts of 30 around the clock since Vegas is a 24/7 town.  The extra TSE’s would fill in for those who had days off, were sick or were on vacation.  Their sole empowerment would be to arrest drivers who were speeding.

We would need to purchase 100 vehicles (10 to be held in reserve for repairs) for the use of these TSE’s.  I estimated an inflated cost of $100,000 for the purchase of each of these.

We would modify the speeding ordinance so that apprehension by radar would result in a  MANDATORY fine:  from 6 – 10 miles above the limit – $25 a mile; 11 miles or more over the limit the fine would be $50 a mile.

I assumed that each TSE would actually work for six of his or her eight hour shift –giving them time to get to their street location, to return their vehicle to the garage and allowing for a meal, breaks and relief stops.  I also assumed that they should be able to write two tickets per hour – one low fine and one high fine.

Based on these reasonable assumptions, each of them would produce $4,200 a day in revenue for the city – or $378,000 a day for the three shifts.  That works out to $138 million a year.  But let’s say that much of that is uncollectable so we’ll call it $100 million a year. I think that’s reasonable.

After one year in effect, the city should show a net profit (after having fully paid for the vehicles, TSE salaries and a very generous allotment for gas, auto maintenance, insurance and “administration”) of at least $75 million dollars.  And all this paid for by people who are flagrant scoff-laws.

I see a hand in the audience.  Your question ma’am?

For those who didn’t hear the question the young lady asked let, me repeat it.

‘“Wouldn’t people stop speeding, thus reducing the income to the city?”

In answer to your question, if that did happen we would have hit THE JACKPOT!

We all would be rewarded by being safer when we drove.   Ultimately, the improved safety should translate into lower insurance rates for all Las Vegas drivers.  That would make Las Vegas a better place to live, work and drive.

Well that’s one example of how government can fund itself.

It’s a thought.

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