It may not be the start of the Great Middle American Revolution, but the reaction of residents in Lima, Ohio, to a heavy-handed public housing plan shows that some Americans are still willing to stand up for their communities. A declining industrial city of 45,000, Lima has seen its share of hard times in recent years. In the city’s south side are hundreds of acres of rotting industrial hulks where steel was forged and locomotives were built. Lima has lost several thousand jobs in the past few years, and now British Petroleum has announced the closing of its refinery, which employs 470 workers.

To add insult to injury, the county’s Metropolitan Housing Authority (an agency funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development) has announced plans to build 28 new housing units throughout Lima’s dwindling middle- and working-class neighborhoods. The last time Met Housing, as it is unaffectionately called, did its handiwork, it built scores of ranch houses that have the architectural finesse of bomb shelters. They were plopped like brick elephants in some of Lima’s finest older neighborhoods.

Combined with its inept management of the federal Section 8 program, which subsidizes low-income tenants in privately owned homes. Met Housing has turned many stable, well-kept neighborhoods into enclaves of run-down rental housing. It is no surprise that more than half of the city’s houses are now rental units and that Lima often tops those national rankings of affordable housing.

In typical bureaucratic fashion, agency officials never bothered to tell the community about their plans. The mayor, a liberal Democrat who was a public housing bureaucrat before being elected to his post, did not see any reason to raise this “divisive” issue, either. (As his top community development official told me, people in the community are not capable of having a rational discussion about such matters.)

After the Lima News reported about the plan in early January, residents simmered with anger. They knew from past experience that Met houses brought a wave of crime, drugs, and lower-class culture onto their blocks. And they bitterly resented the fact that the agency was spending $96,000 per home for welfare moms in a city where a typical house costs about $50,000. But there was also a sense of resignation—and fear. More than a few residents told me about the threats and harassment they endured from Met Housing tenants after they filed a complaint with the housing agency.

The policies imposed on Lima are the same ones the feds are inflicting on cities throughout the country. We know what happened after HUD built those dehumanizing housing complexes in big cities across America in the 1960’s. Instead of providing affordable housing for America’s poor, HUD-funded apartment blocks turned into some of the nation’s most dangerous places.

Never let it be said that bureaucrats are deterred by ignominious failure. HUD’s new plan is to scatter low-income tenants throughout middle-class neighborhoods so the underclass won’t be isolated in public housing ghettos. In other words, if the “racist” and “class-conscious” middle class won’t move to the inner city, the feds will move the inner city to the middle class.

The encouraging news is that after the Lima News ran a series of columns that raised these points, residents began to speak out and city council members moved the issue to the top of their agenda. The response by the agency was swift and furious. Model public housing tenants were trotted out to show the lifechanging results of the agency’s programs. The local code czar claimed there are no more problems at Met properties than any other properties (she conveniently neglected to check police logs filled with calls relating to Met-owned properties). Met Housing supporters castigated agency opponents as meanspirited racists.

This paragraph that I wrote in a bylined column came under heavy fire:

We’re assured that, this time, the house designs will be more sensitive to their surroundings. I’m more concerned, however, about who lives inside the houses than what they look like from the outside. People who work hard and invest their hard-earned cash in a house tend to make better neighbors than government dependents.

But instead of running for cover, two city council members publicly supported my column, and scores of residents wrote favorable letters to the editor. After the ensuing debate, the council voted 7-2 to declare a moratorium on the building of the 28 houses until a study is done to document its impact on neighborhoods.

The vote was largely symbolic. The agency is accountable to a local board conveniently stacked with public housing cheerleaders and to federal officials in Columbus and Washington. When the agency, as expected, ignored the council’s vote, the council refused to back down. The council is now seeking an injunction to stop the project after learning that the agency ignored an Ohio law requiring it to gain approval from the county planning commission before proceeding with construction. In response, HUD sent an attorney from Columbus to bully the city into dropping its resistance. “The federal government is saying, ‘If you don’t let MHA break the law, then we will cut off CDBG [community development block grants] funds,'” one council member said. “If the federal government withholds funds, then we need to sue them for violating the law as well.”

The Lima City Council voted 7-2 to proceed with the lawsuit after members pointedly said that HUD could keep its block grants. Only at this point did HUD and Met Housing agree to a public meeting to discuss the scattered-site plan. Despite their efforts to stack the meeting with pro-public housing advocates, angry residents showed up in droves and documented the damage Met Housing policies have inflicted on their neighborhoods.

No one in Lima is entertaining serious hopes about stopping the agency’s latest folly. But we have stirred a much-needed debate, annoyed some overpaid bureaucrats, and proved that charges of racism and heartlessness do not always carry the day. That may be a modest achievement, but it could be a first step toward taking back our city from an arrogant elite.