Politics & Policy

Government Workers Bully and Sexually Harass Low-Income Tenants, a New Lawsuit Claims

Housing project in Chicago, 1973. (John White/Documerica/National Archives

Shanae Barnes hasn’t had central heat in her apartment for two years. She and her young daughter also have to live with regular plagues of vermin, water damage from leaky pipes, and spreading mold.

Ms. Barnes’s landlord employs a handyman whose job it is to take care of these problems, of course. All she has to do is take care of him first: Allegedly, if he is to repair her apartment, he first requires oral sex.

Ms. Barnes is not giving in — despite the fact that threats to her safety accompany these “sextortion” demands. Instead, she’s joining other victims of such outrages in suing their landlord, which happens to be the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. Their stories of mistreatment by city workers and descriptions of the decrepit condition of their government-owned homes are appalling.

But they may be the tip of an iceberg. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, about 1,600 harassment complaints against federally subsidized housing providers have been filed so far this year.

Needless to say, this is not supposed to happen. On the left, it is an article of faith that government is our salvation. Not perfect, of course: We humans are flawed by nature. But public housing, especially, is a means by which the oppressed are assumed to be rescued from the clutches of greedy capitalists, a means by which compassion and social justice triumph over the ugly pursuit of profit.

According to Housing and Urban Development, 1,600 harassment complaints against federally subsidized housing providers have been filed so far this year.

This faith is apparently unshakable, even in places such as Baltimore, where the elders of this government church have been in charge for decades. But evidence piles up daily that government, far from being all-wise and beneficent, can be a source of misery and injustice. There is no better illustration than the history of government’s incursions into urban housing markets, where its initiatives were conceived in ignorance and carried out with callous disregard for their damaging effects on cities and their residents.

Early regulatory offensives — usually codes that limited building heights and ground coverage and mandated bigger rooms and more windows — generally failed to shrink slums, instead reducing housing supply and raising rents. So the campaign against “urban blight” escalated during the New Deal: Federal law encouraged the taking of vast tracts to clear slums, while federal dollars began to flow to get the job done.

RELATED: Baltimore, a Great Society Failure

Over the next few decades, more than 2,000 low-income neighborhoods nationwide were bulldozed and their former residents — often blacks newly arrived in the Great Migration, who would translate “urban renewal” as “Negro removal” — were displaced or offered subsidized space in new high-rises that would supposedly improve their lives.

The epic failure of these projects is well known. They became vertical slums, hot spots of crime and concentrated poverty. Local public-housing authorities’ inability to design, build, and maintain them successfully was legendary; even with generous rent subsidies, many high-rises quickly became depopulated ruins.

#share#Less well understood is that these nonprofit nightmares did great harm even before they were built. The planners and policymakers who thought they were renewing cities by replacing old, rundown buildings with bigger, better ones had overlooked something important: the social capital stored in those old neighborhoods. The networks of relationships and the knowledge and bonds of trust among residents that would help these areas’ newest arrivals to thrive were invisible but important, and they were destroyed along with those old buildings. Little wonder then that cities became more dysfunctional the longer the urban-renewal bulldozer rumbled on.

But bureaucracies learn slowly, if at all. It’s true that Housing and Urban Development (HUD) eventually stopped writing big checks to build horrific high-rises, that many cities imploded the worst of these, and that vouchers became the preferred way to help the poor afford housing. But it’s still popular to use eminent domain to seize and level poor urban neighborhoods in favor of large-scale projects that promise economic-development benefits but destroy incalculable social capital in the process. And it’s still all too common for government to act as a landlord when it is so manifestly unqualified for the job.

RELATED: Poverty, Despair, and Big Government

Progressives erroneously believe that government ownership eliminates profit-seeking. But it really just changes how suppliers of government services pursue their self-interest — and self-interested behavior does not stop when one crosses the threshold of a government agency.

If, for example, one can’t cash a dividend check when spending is kept under budget, why bother to stick to the budget? Instead, spend any would-be surplus on things that make life more comfortable: more job security, more staff, more leisure, or other fringe benefits. These perverse incentives, summed across an entire agency, lead to inflated costs, inferior quality, and unwholesome conduct. Just ask Shanae Barnes and her co-plaintiffs.

Progressives erroneously believe that government ownership eliminates profit-seeking. But it really just changes how suppliers of government services pursue their self-interest.

In fact, it is competition and the pursuit of profit that would be the salvation of oppressed tenants like Ms. Barnes. Local monopolies such as Baltimore’s public-housing agency rob her of both power and freedom; she is stuck in a bad place because that is the only way she can access the subsidy she needs to afford housing. If HUD gave all low-income housing assistance in the form of vouchers, and local governments privatized ownership and management of the properties they still control, Ms. Barnes would have options. Landlords would be bidding for her business rather than sexually harassing her.

Sadly, however, any suggestion that government-owned enterprises should be privatized usually begets protests. Public-employee unions link arms with anti-capitalist progressives to preserve what we might call the “statist quo,” often with pleas that things would work better if only they were funded more generously.

President Reagan used to shake his head ruefully when confronted with such nonsense; he liked to needle progressives by saying, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” We can only imagine how disgusted he would have been to learn that some government minions have felt emboldened to add: “But first, can we have sex?”

— Stephen J. K. Walters is a professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland and the author of Boom Towns: Restoring the Urban American Dream.

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