2008-01-25 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

Unintended Consequences: When Good Laws Go Bad
Commentary By Howard Schwach

Having won the 1936 election by a wide margin, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to use his political capital to push some of his favorite projects, one of those being housing for the poor.

"I see one-third of a nation illhoused, ill-clad and ill-nourished," Roosevelt said in his January 1937 inaugural speech. And, he set out to do something about it.

Congress responded in September of that year (would today's Congress work as quickly) with an act popularly known as the "Public Housing Act," but officially called the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act, after its sponsors.

Under that legislation, the federal government, through the creation of the United States Housing Authority, sought to provide public subsidies to local housing agencies that would build and rent housing to low-income families.

And so, on such good intentions, began Rockaway's problems.

The liberals in Congress loved the act because it fulfilled one of their social aims - to house the poor.

The conservatives went along because they too believed that the law would cure a social ill - the crime and illness that ran rampant in the "slums" of American.

The bill was revisited in 1948, in the wake of the return of tens of thousands of armed forces veterans who returned from World War II and the number of housing units that were authorized was greatly increased.

Again, the theory was that decent housing would reduce crime and sickness, cut unemployment and cure many of the world's ills.

Instead, public housing has created a situation that is quite the contrary to its intent, particularly in places such as Rockaway, where multiple public housing units were constructed.

In Rockaway, largely thanks to Mayor John Lindsay and his Welfare Commissioner, there are several.

Starting on the eastern end of the peninsula, right on the Nassau County border is the Redfern Houses. There were two homicides there last year and there has been one homicide already this year.

Moving west, there is the Beach 44 Street Houses, the Edgemere Houses (which cops at one time called "Edgefear" because it was the worst public housing in the city by any indicator you care to choose), Ocean Bay Houses (an amalgam of what was once the Edgemere Houses and the Arverne Houses), Carlton Manor, a singlebuilding unit on Beach 72 Street and the Hammel Houses.

Listen to what Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said just this week about the Hammel Houses.

"There were 11 shootings within the 100 Precinct in 2007. In comparison, there were nine in 2006. Six of the 11 shootings [in 2007] occurred within the Hammel Houses or in the immediate vicinity of the development."

In a study last year, The Wave found that more than three-quarters of the shootings in Rockaway over a two year period (2005-2006) occurred within ten blocks each way of Beach 45 Street, the center of the public housing complex now known as Ocean Bay.

There have been three major drug sweeps in Rockaway in the past two years.

More than 150 people were arrested in those sweeps. More than 90 percent of them lived in public housing complexes on the peninsula.

Take a look at the pages of The Wave over the past three or four years. There can be no doubt that the majority of crime in Rockaway is in one way or another associated with the public housing complexes.

In fact, public housing did not correct the ills of society. It exacerbated those ills by isolating the poor in pockets of high-rise buildings that became the focus of crime that then spread out into the larger community.

Talk about unintended consequences.

Let's move on to another law that has exacerbated problems rather than solved them.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was passed to set some standards in education throughout the nation and to provide some accountability in the educational marketplace.

Instead, what it did was to target schools that are providing a good educational environment as "failing" and provide an incentive for schools to teach to the test rather than to teach to educate.

When test scores become the be-all and end-all to education, we are failing our students, and that's just what NCLB does in our schools throughout the nation. It has forced the schools to provide myriad periods of instruction on test-taking skills rather than on Social Studies, Government and Science.

Take a look at a typical middle school program in Rockaway today. Out of a possible 35 periods a week, there are ten periods of reading, ten of Mathematics, five of test-taking skills, two of physical education, three of Social Studies, three of Science and two of either foreign language or technology.

Sure, kids will do better on the standardized tests, and the mayor will take the bows, but is the student really being educated? I don't think so.

Then, there is the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The law was intended to insure that people with disabilities of all sorts were given a fair shake. Certainly, a lofty goal. The law, however, has served in some ways to drive out businesses that could not afford to make the mandated improvements (access, elevators, bathrooms) and has even meant less medical access than was previously in some cases.

The New York Times Magazine focused on one such case in a recent issue.

A deaf woman who was a patient of an orthopedic surgeon demanded a sign-language interpreter. Under the law, she had that right and under the law, the doctor had to pay for it himself because the interpreter was not covered by insurance.

Realizing that he was going to lose money on the deal (he would be paid $58 for a visit that would cost him $240) because insurance paid so little for her visits in the first place, he almost refused service to the patient. Hardly what the law envisioned.

There are lots of examples of how a law can have unintended consequences.

These are just a few of them.

Next time you read of a bill becoming a law, think about that. Perhaps, you will understand why good intentions sometimes go awry.

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