A Public Housing Success Story

Berth Gilkey is a 39-year-old black woman from inner-city St. Louis, Missouri. And a most remarkable woman she is. Thanks to her and some others she gathered around her, a public housing development has been radically transformed. The experience is a shining example of what could and should be undertaken in urban areas of Michigan.

The place is Cochran Gardens, in a neighborhood notorious for crime and filth. This is how The New York Times describes what it was like just 10 years ago: "A squalid den for narcotics dealers; bullet holes in the walls and pools of urine in the hallways; tenants, most of them welfare recipients, virtual prisoners of the 12-building complex; people throwing garbage out of the windows; hallways lined with garbage bags stuffed with month-old food and mice jumping out of the trash."

Now, however, Cochran Gardens says the Times, is "a showcase of urban ingenuity" where tenants "sweep the hallways every day and dare not mark the freshly painted walls."

What made the difference was that Bertha Gilkey and a few friends, in the mid-1970s, got fed up, and took some initiative and worked to clean the place up. They organized the more responsible tenants into cleaning crews and sold pigs' feet and chicken to raise the money to replace broken doors and windows. They put the heat on the police to do their job, with the result that crime began to recede.

Then, Bertha and friends convinced both the local and federal governments that they could actually run the entire complex themselves. In 1976 they signed a management contract with the St. Louis Housing Authority that provided them an annual fee for their management services. Their success has prompted a senior domestic policy analyst at the White House to remark that the organization "is more than collecting rent and making sure broken windows get repaired. It makes residents feel they are part of a community."

Bertha now heads up the tenant management group and she runs a tight ship, as if the place were her very own. "We run Cochran like a real estate manager would, not like a social program," she says. "The buildings aren't writing graffiti on themselves. They're not tearing themselves down. There are consequences now for that kind of behavior, and the consequence here is that we're going to put you out."

On one occasion, Bertha heard that some cable television crews were afraid to send crews into low-income neighborhoods like Cochran Gardens. So what did she do? Complain, protest, demonstrate in front of city hall? None of that. She organized her group to train the residents in cable installation. Now they receive 10 percent of the revenues from each household the group serves. "What becomes a problem for other folks becomes a market for us," says the enterprising Bertha.

Now that she and her group have inspired pride and respect in the tenants, Bertha wants to take the next logical step. They want to purchase the complex outright and in its entirety. That's possible now under legislation signed last February by President Reagan. The Cochran Gardens development will probably secure approval to go private in the next six months. The transformation of a housing development from a bureaucrat-controlled city dump into a respectable neighborhood with the incentives for residents to throw off the worst aspects of the welfare dependent culture will then be completed.

Meanwhile, Bertha Gilkey is finding time to travel to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, training low-income residents and preaching the message of tenant management and private ownership. She's serving as a consultant for more than two dozen tenant management endeavors in four states. That's quite an achievement for someone who was poor herself not so long ago. Bertha Gilkey is living proof that the American dream is still alive, that you can make it happen even if government subsidies try to pay you to stay poor and dependent.

In Britain, Margaret Thatcher has privatized more than a million public housing units by selling them off to the tenants themselves. Like what happened at Cochran Gardens, the British experience has proven that the closer the management of such places is to the very people who live in them, the better cared for and the happier the tenants. What a difference a little incentive and private enterprise can make!

From Bertha Gilkey in St. Louis and Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain, Michigan's lawmakers should heed some potent instruction. Get bureaucracy out of the housing business and put real people--and private enterprise-- in charge.


Mr. Reed is President of The Mackinac Center, a private, non-profit educational and research organization in Midland. Permission is hereby granted to print this article with appropriate credit given to the author and to The Mackinac Center.