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We want to forget how the other half lives

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By JAN GLIDEWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 3, 2002

It was a long, long time before I lived in a house that I owned myself.

When I got out of the Marine Corps in 1967, I started my first newspaper job at $67 per week, out of which I had to pay $60 per month in rent and feed and clothe a family of four.

It was very difficult, but I and my wife and two children were decently clothed, ate three meals a day and sometimes went to a movie.

For the ensuing 19 years, I and my family (in admittedly various configurations) lived in rented apartments and houses, trailers and, for a while, when I was single, in a motel room where a red neon "vacancy" sign flashed on and off outside the window all night.

We endured our share of sneers. "Did you buy the place?" a neighbor in Bradley, Ill., asked one day as I was moving into a house on a nice shaded street.

"Renters," he yelled to his wife, turning away in disgust as I told him that was what we were.

Worse yet, renters with children.

It was at a time when there were very few incentives for builders to build apartments for people with moderate incomes.

"Affordable" housing tended to mean "substandard." We lived with bad plumbing, roach infestations, crumbling plaster, inadequate heating and, in one instance, a nearby alligator.

I guess the point I want to make is that we weren't bad people. We paid our rent and bills on time, kept our lawns neat, made sure our kids didn't bother anyone and tried to fit in where we generally were only tolerated.

We and our children didn't commit any crimes against our neighbors.

We were the kind of people who probably would be moving into the proposed apartment complexes that are creating such a stink in Hernando County: young couples with kids and jobs (like most in Florida) that don't pay a lot of money. In a service economy, they tend to be the people who teach your kids, patrol your streets, hook you up to an EKG when you have a heart attack and check your groceries.

Some of them are also from racial and ethnic minority groups, a factor that most of the housing opponents would strenuously (and in many instances falsely) deny affects their prejudgment of neighbors they don't yet have.

Having people with moderate incomes living nearby would affect their property values, they say.

And they say it with near-hysterical vehemence.

Many of them will say, in decidedly un-Floridian accents, that "outsiders," meaning out-of-town newspapers, have no right to comment on their situation.

This from people who moved here from somewhere else and now consider their residential enclaves sanctuaries that shouldn't be approached by the real world.

I can't help giggling that Hernando County is also the home of a massive planned community whose residents, in large part, have screamed bloody murder when we refer to their neighborhood as "upscale" and claim it isn't. But residents there adamantly opposed one-year rental villas for elderly people who need meal or housecleaning services -- because they would lower their property values.

And let's be clear: Hernando isn't alone in its near-violent rejection of people who have the temerity to want to live near those who are better off.

Pasco residents recently threw the same kind of hissy fits, including one over a group home for six adults with Down's syndrome. The most vocal opponent was a woman who had been placed on probation for dealing drugs and whose husband had been convicted of committing a lewd and lascivious act with a child younger than 16 and was arrested on drug charges during the group home controversy.

Then again, maybe I am wrong.

Maybe there is no place in our society for those who are financially disadvantaged, or old and sick, or mentally disabled.

Maybe they shouldn't be out here trying to live with those of us who have made it and who have been gifted with strong and healthy bodies and brains (although the recent conduct of some attendees at a Hernando County Commission forum raises questions about the latter.)

Surely we can find someplace to keep them where they won't bother us decent folk.

I mean, how much can barbed wire cost, anyhow?

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