A small experiment in housing policy

January 04, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE De GRACE -- The ongoing scrum between the federal government and the Baltimore suburbs certainly demonstrates that creating a sensible housing policy is tricky business. But many of us already knew that.

We have a couple of small houses on our place which were once used by farm workers, but because we no longer have employees who live on the farm, nowadays the houses are usually rented out. Over the years this has worked out well for both landlords and tenants.

The tenants get a pleasant place to live. It's nowhere near a mall, but there is wildlife to look at and countryside to walk over. The landlords, in addition to the monthly rent, often get volunteer help for seasonal chores such as plowing snow, cutting firewood, making hay or mowing pastures.

Beyond that, having four families on the premises makes the farm more of a community. And while community life has its inevitable frictions, on the whole the benefits outweigh them. TC Our little farm community is more secure for the children and more congenial for the adults than it would be if only one family lived there. The cats and dogs like it too.

Obviously, in such a small place, whenever there's a change in the resident population it's a big event. How a newcomer fits in can affect the lives of all the other families on the farm. That's why I usually fill the infrequent vacancies by word of mouth, and end up with tenants whom I already knew, or whom somebody I know recommended.

One of the houses is available now, because the widow who was its last occupant has moved to a nursing home. Since she left, the house has been repainted and spruced up, and there have been quite a few inquiries from prospective tenants.

One of them came from a young man I know and like. I'll call him George. He and his girlfriend would like to move in, he said. She's expecting a baby. They're not planning marriage any time soon, however. They want to see how their relationship will ''work out,'' although it seems to me the time for making that little discovery has long passed.

I haven't said no to George yet, but I'm hoping he'll get the message from my non-response. If he asks me directly why I don't want to rent to him, I'll have to tell him. Then he'll probably consider me ridiculously prudish, and our relationship will be damaged.

Serious about parenthood

But it seems to me absolutely fundamental that people who have children ought to provide the very best home they can for them, and that if they aren't willing to begin that process by getting married, then they're not serious about parenthood.

Am I trying to impose these outdated old values of mine on poor George? I don't think so. I certainly wouldn't lecture him about them. But at the same time I don't see why I should compromise them for his convenience, and that's what I'd be doing if I rented him my house. Besides, if someone's unwilling to be responsible for his own children, he can hardly be expected to be responsible about somebody else's house.

At the same time, though, I have to wonder if it might not be good for George to live in our little community. His neighbors work hard and take their family responsibilities seriously. Maybe the new surroundings would do him good.

That's the heart of the theory behind the controversial federal program to subsidize rents for poor families who want to move from the city to the suburbs. In principle it makes sense -- families ought to do better in a good neighborhood than a bad one. It's in practice that the theory often falls apart.

Suburban people who resist government efforts to transplant city families into their neighborhoods are often pilloried by the ideologically enlightened as selfish if not racist in their attitudes. Their concerns about such matters as security and property values are dismissed as unfounded.

In an article on this page, the distinguished Robert Embry noted that most families to be moved would consist of a single mother and her young children. What, he rather ingenuously inquired, could be less of a threat to the security and tranquillity of a neighborhood?

What worries the suburbs, of course, is that those children will grow up inadequately supervised, and that the men who fathered them but do not support them will start showing up regularly -- probably not with the intention of reading bedtime stories or repairing the broken screen door.

A less-discussed worry concerns the size of the program. While a stable neighborhood might easily adapt to one new family, it could be overwhelmed and even destroyed by half a dozen. And the government, as everyone knows, has very little sense of appropriate scale.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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