by Jack Cashill
My future was decided on an elevator in a New York City hotel. I was there for the Modern Language Association convention, to which would-be profs came to find jobs, me among them.
There were three of us on the elevator. The white woman asked the black guy how many job interviews he had lined up. He had fourteen. He asked her. She had eight. By the time the elevator reached the lobby I was contemplating new career options. I had none.
Fortunately, I was married to a female Ph.D. All I asked was that she take a job in a city big enough to support me. She chose Kansas City, a happy medium, and we have been in Kansas City ever since.
Once here, I applied for any and all kind of jobs, including one at the Housing Authority of Kansas City. The black executive director [ED] asked me a bit skeptically what I knew about public housing. I grew up in it, I told him. And not just anywhere, I continued, but in Newark, N.J., the reigning Mecca of urban dysfunction. My Newark “cred” impressed him. He hired me on the spot.
In that the Authority staff was largely black, there were refreshingly few barriers for a white guy like myself. The ED encouraged me, and soon enough I found myself director of management with 100 managers and maintenance people reporting to me.
At about the same time, the ED hired a new finance director, a woman who had escaped Nazi Germany as a child and feared little since. The ED encouraged us both to clean up the joint, and we gleefully proceeded to do just that.
Scarcely a week went by without us uncovering some new employee scam—the paint scam, the gas scam, the lawnmower scam, and my personal favorite, the hot water heater scam [an article in itself].
Rent, however, offered the most opportunity for mischief. Some years back, the nation’s good-thought thinkers had convinced themselves that fixed rents were unfair. They decided it would be much fairer to charge rent based on income, the lower the income, the lower the rent.
This, of course, provided still one more incentive to disenfranchise the old man. A full time father on the lease would only force up the rent, cut down the welfare, eat into the food stamps and knock the whole family off Medicaid.
So the projects filled up with full-time single moms and part-time “boyfriends.” Working couples meanwhile promptly headed out of Dodge, which the projects were unfortunately coming to mimic.
When I wrote an article for The Star on how government was unwittingly destroying the black family, the city’s do-gooders raised holy hell, and the ED had to intervene to save my job. I wish I were kidding.
Worse still, sliding rent invited cheating and turned just about everyone in public housing shy of sainthood into a scam artist, employees included. The de-scamming decimated our staff, but the good ones were thrilled that their virtue and hard work would finally be rewarded. In time, we had systematized just about everything and were running a public housing authority about as well as it could be run, given the self-defeating and often delusional regulations we all labored under.
And then, the community organizers showed up. There were probably only about a half dozen or so, but they seemed like a veritable army of the clueless and confused, “volunteers” all, except, of course, they were being paid by you and me.
Managing the mayhem of these young VISTA grunts were the folks at the Legal Services Corporation, or Legal Aid as it was generally known, also paid for by you and me.
“Make the enemy live up to their [sic] own book of rules,” Saul Alinsky wrote in his book “Rules for Radicals,” a guideline that has influenced just about every community organizer worth his or her glowing self-esteem.
From the organizers’ perspective, we at the Housing Authority were the enemy. Their goal was not to reform us—the “rules” are always beyond any institution’s ability to honor—but to break us.
As a perfect example of the same, our eager young idealists organized the tenants at the West Bluff housing project to demand better groundskeeping. Specifically, they insisted we sign a promise to clear all the weeds on the property. I agreed. We did that routinely anyhow.
Then—gotcha!—the organizers flourished the original deed. The property did not end at the fence, as we had thought, but dropped precipitously and unseen to the railroad tracks a few hundred yards below.
Now, they demanded that we clear those weeds too.
OK, sure, I told them. I would pull all the maintenance workers from the other nine projects, senior projects included, and we would get to work pronto. And, to give credit where it was due, we would send out a press release attributing this innovative maintenance strategy to the always helpful community organizers from VISTA. They backed down but, to say the least, not graciously.
I ran into the volunteers next at Wayne Miner, a high-rise blight on Kansas City’s skyline, long since removed. They were organizing a rent strike. One problem—most of the tenants did not pay rent. In fact, once their utility subsidies were factored in, we actually paid many of the tenants to live there.
As I explained to the organizers, if these tenants went on a rent strike, they would end up having to pay us. From a financial perspective, in fact, we were better off if they all just moved out, empty apartments being more profitable than full ones.
I think this is about when the folks at Legal Aid wrote to denounce us as“fascists,” which the finance director, Margot Goldberg, found particularly amusing.
I wrote back that taxpayers would not be happy to know that they were subsidizing a goofy shadow administration to undo the half-way competent work of a real one.
Gosh, how the organizers hated to concede that the same people were paying all our salaries, especially given that they were “volunteers.” Now, we were making some serious enemies.
We could scarcely afford them as we were fighting a two front war. Our scambusting had led to the ultimate source of the authority’s corruption, the chairman of the Housing Authority board, a thuggish labor goon later convicted of interstate theft. He was threatening to fire our boss unless he backed off our internal housecleaning.
Margot, myself and three other department heads threatened to quit if the chairman fired the ED. He did, and we did, and The Kansas City Star denounced us for creating a “three ring circus.” Even then its editors shared their well-padded bed with labor unions, Legal Aid, community organizers and just about any other dependable “D.”
As I cleaned out my desk, preparing to launch a new career as babysitter to our newborn, the chairman’s handpicked ED offered to escort me out. I had met him along the way. He was from Legal Aid. How about that? Notice the improvement in public housing since?
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