Entries for October, 2006
October 29th, 2006
I’m not sure why I keep attending UNOP events. I guess I just feel compelled to see what they’re going to pull next – it’s certainly not from a sense that I’m “participating;” there’s only so much use that can come of asking people to rank their nebulous Needs and Goals (or Hopes and Concerns as was the case yesterday), and only so many times it’s worth asking. For the record, UNOP, I think crime is bad, flood protection is good, and some affordable housing, schools and hospitals would be rather nice too, if I’m allowed to have that many preferences. So I attended yesterday morning’s Community Congress #1 at the Convention Center’s La Nouvelle Orleans Ballroom, where I was treated to presentations on some of the citywide data that’s been collected and analysed to date, and to the first instance of AmericaSpeaks’ involvement in feedback collection.
Hearing some infrastructure, housing, health care, etc statistics was of some interest – not least because it’s the first substantive product made public from the citywide component of the plan. As someone mentioned at the last CSO meeting, it would have been nice if they’d posted all or some of it for citizens to view and digest before being asked to provide feedback on it, but they promise it will go on The Website (for posterity, apparently). Wait and see…
The debut of AmericaSpeaks, the organization “brought in to support the New Orleans planning effort because of concerns that many displaced New Orleanians, especially low-income African-Americans, have no voice in recovery decisions” and to collect data and citizen feedback, was of some interest as well. I hope they have some fancier tricks up their 21st century sleeves for putting the $3 million they expect their endeavor to cost ($2.3 million already committed by mysterious private foundations they decline to identify) to use in future meetings – one of the first things they demonstrated to the ballroom using their wireless, real-time polling gizmos was that we were decidedly not consistent with the pre-Katrina demographics in race, income, geography or age (curiously, they made a specialpoint of emphasizing that the 15-19 year old age group was dramatically underrepresented, and we should take care to consider their interests – under-14 year olds apparently need not worry). What they intend to do to address the imbalance isn’t quite clear to me. They did note that the Congress would be broadcast on cable access channels in the “diaspora cities” and that viewers there would be able to provide their feedback via the UNOP’s toll-free number, but the staffer who answered when I called hadn’t heard anything about that yet.
Maybe the real outreach component of AmericaSpeaks’ program hasn’t begun in earnest – most of the press surrounding AmericaSpeaks’ involvement revolves around the ultimate December 2 Community Congress, so it’s not impossible. I think it would be of enormous benefit to New Orleans to work with an organization that’s capable of locating enough respondents, both here in town and elsewhere, to make up something approaching a representative statistical sampling of pre-Katrina residents and to gather their feelings on how our recovery should go. Unfortunately, not only is it unclear how displaced residents will be reached, the UNOP is losing the audience it’s already had. Among the ways in which an AmericaSpeaks 21st Century Town Meeting (registered trademark) is supposed to be superior to the old-fashioned public hearing is that the public hearing “primarily engages the ‘usual suspects’ – citizens already civically active on specific issues,” and yet there we were, the usual self-selected suspects, diligently reporting to be put through our paces. And that group is rapidly de-selecting – I see fewer and fewer of the faces I know to still be active in their own neighborhoods and in general recovery-related activities. I guess even morbid curiosity wears out after a while.
How to accurately sample a population of which more than half is displaced may be one of the many stretches of uncharted territory New Orleans is faced with right now, but how to compose survey questions to elicit worthwhile, unambiguous answers isn’t. Polling is a pretty well-developed industry. The Usual Suspects may provide an incomplete data set, but they’re by and large an earnest bunch, who give recovery matters a lot of thought, and their responses as individuals count as much as anyone else’s. So what was made of their sacrifice of three hours of a beautiful Saturday morning? Not much, as far as I could tell. I’m not sure how the questions were crafted – I’m sure UNOP told the AmericaSpeaks people what they wanted to ask, but my impression of how AmericaSpeaks conducted the polling suggested that they were more involved than mere readers and tabulators, and anyway, I’d expect an organization that purports to specialize in citizen-led contribution to decision-making to have some expertise how best to craft that opportunity to contribute. A lot of the questions were of the no-brainer variety: it won’t come as much surprise that I’m not the only New Orleanian who thinks hospitals are important. And when issues aren’t so trivial, it isn’t so trivial to design a statement so it can be rated on a 1 to 5 scale – but it isn’t rocket science either. Anyone who’s ever had to answer “on a scale of 1 to 5…” (which is just about everyone) has run across the dilemma conditional situations. It may not be possible to eliminate that entirely, but you can go a long way with a little common sense. I wish I’d saved the 5 page paper questionnaire we were asked to complete, or better yet, just not turned mine in for all the good it’ll do, so I could quote some of the howlers verbatim – one example off the top of my head:
On a scale of 1 to 5, 1 equalling “reason to return to New Orleans” and 5 equalling “reason not to return,” rate the following: adequate levee protection.
Does that mean I’ve returned because I think the levee protection is adequate, or does that mean I would return if it were? After presentations that included current and projected levee status, which is allegedly back up to its pre-Katrina level and undergoing further improvements, I really don’t know which to assume. It didn’t get any better on the rest of the pages.
Also eyebrow raising were a couple instances when AmericaSpeaks president Carolyn Lukensmeyer prefaced questions with admonitions of what to consider while voting. In one case involving funding for parks and recreation areas, she told us to remember the presentation we just heard, and how important it was For The Children (who were probably out enjoying parks and recreation areas rather than sitting in a dark ballroom pretending to be a market-research focus group). If you’d like to capture the true Voice of the People, AmericaSpeaks, you’ll do well to let us remember what to consider on our own. In another case, regarding whether it’s important or not for New Orleans to be the most populous city in the state, Ms. Lukensmeyer brought up Galveston and Houston, raising the specter of becoming a tiny, boutique tourist town while all the real industry moves upriver. Although that happens to be a concern of mine, I don’t think it was AmericaSpeaks’ position to frame the issue in a way that steered attention to an all-or-nothing sort of view while there’s still legitimate room for debate about a smaller, but still vital city. It really isn’t their position to remind us of anything.
So I’m left with the bitter feeling that this is just another UNOP photo-op – the citizenry raptly attentive to the big screen with their very own thoughts and feelings reflected back to them: how democratic (at one point the Founding Fathers were even invoked). And this time they’ve literally outsourced it.
The Ballroom has spoken.
October 20th, 2006
I first read the BGR’s report on Road Home’s rental housing a couple weeks ago, and it really got under my skin. And now it’s been cited in yesterday’s Times-Picayune front page article on the fate of public housing and the directions being taken toward affordable housing in New Orleans, it’s crawling out from where it’s been festering.
“Although ostensibly a recovery program, the Road Home rental program is at heart an affordable housing program.”
The Road Home Rental Housing Program: Consequences for New Orleans
Bureau of Governmental Research
First of all, it’s been my understanding that HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program is intended, in their own words “principally for low- and moderate-income persons,” so the LRA couldn’t not focus primarily on affordable housing even if it wanted to. Unaffordable housing ought to be able to take care of itself, as the BGR itself aptly pointed out back on August 24, 2005, in that other lifetime when Katrina was just a newly named tropical storm preparing to swat Florida.
Second, the spirit of alarm (gasp! an it’s an affordable housing program? in the
Orange County I mean, Orleans Parish, recovery effort?) is telling. The BGR recognizes that the many legacies of poverty have hurt our city and citizens, but their high-minded, “objective,” “pure facts,” “no spin” (is there ever a clearer warning to keep your seatbelt fastened and your arms inside the ride until the Tilt-A-Whirl comes to a complete stop?) conclusion is that the remedy is to remove the poor, or a sizable number of them anyway. And being the ever-thorough BGR, they detail at great length their endorsement of the best means to accomplish this feat – move over Voodoo, there’s a new sympathetic magic in town: Feng Shui.
The BGR is probably too “advanced” to believe in elemental natures like Air, Fire, and Water, but that doesn’t mean they’re above the Move Your Poor, Change Your Life strategy of urban self-improvement which is so popular these days (they have plenty of company in HUD, and even the LRA to some extent, however harshly the BGR takes them to task).
It begins with skimming the excess: Poverty doesn’t have to go away entirely – you still have to take the yin with the yang, the dishwashers with the doyennes – but
“The geographic allocation formula [ i.e. - dispensing funds based on the percentage of damage] would continue to concentrate the region’s low income subsidized housing in New Orleans.”
That’s right, the BGR is so confident that the New Feng Shui will have us manifesting effortlessly that they’d rather New Orleans get less funding. Granted, they’re not without paternalistic concern for the less well-off: “So much of the money and jobs have gone to suburbs,” BGR President Janet Howard told the Times-Pic. We should “help lower-income people relocate closer to jobs that would help them climb the economic ladder.” Go off to a better life in other parishes (of course, not St. Bernard – you’re not welcome there unless you’re a blood relative). Don’t worry about us market-raters – we’ll soldier on alone, here in this economically stagnant, jobless hell hole.
After skimming the excess comes deconcentration. Too much of the Element in one place is just no good, however benign it may be in small amounts. Sure, there’s research on correllations between high concentrations of poverty and problems like crime and teenage pregnacy (although the correllations vary more from place to place than you might guess from casual mentions), but causation is far from proven, and doesn’t appear to be getting any closer. Nevertheless, Mixed-Income is a rallying cry far and wide, despite results that at their rosy-lensed, optimistic best have been, well, mixed (and whose relative successes aren’t necessarily measured by the lives of the “deconcentrated,” but by the real estate).
The mixed income strategy (or strategies, since the implementations have been all over the map regarding what sort of mixes, what income levels, ratios, building styles, etc., which makes the BGR report’s repeated conjuring of a “classic mixed income development” especially baffling) is least effective where it’s most predicated on trickle-down socialization. Did I say move over Voodoo? Maybe I spoke too soon – the one thing that can be said for supply-side economics is that we can all agree what side the supply is on. The notion that the above-AMI crowd is in exclusive possession of morals, work ethic, and all around upright behavior is rather less certain. If only being evil really did make you poor… Curiously, one of the BGR report’s harshest criticisms of the LRA and LHFA is that it has “attempted to achieve predetermined social outcomes” with this program by backing off somewhat from their original plan to engineer mixed income developments with high market-rate to low-income ratios.
What’s especially disturbing about this report is that the BGR doesn’t even believe it’s own rhetoric. Would any “research” organization worth its salt concede this: “Limited evidence exists to support the theoretical benefits of mixed income developments,” and still proceed? Would the weasel-worded “Many policy makers and scholars have expressed their preference” pass professional muster anywhere else? (The answer is sadly, yes, all too often, but it shouldn’t anyway.) No matter – the point isn’t to lift individuals out of poverty, it’s to reduce the Element. Why? Lest we “Impede the Growth of the Tax Base.”
The BGR is hardly without company in the stance that cities are made of tax bases first and citizens second – perhaps one among the “many policy makers and scholars” consulted was New Urbanist Andres Duany (speaking of Feng Shui spatial fixes), who’s said in the past that “affordable housing is not what cities need. Because they don’t pay taxes. They bankrupt cities.” (In another discussion with New Urbanism critic Alex Marshall, Mr. Duany gives us the delicious phrase: “to decant the monocultures of poverty.” ?!? Add alchemy to the growing list of mojos in play.) Does New Orleans need a stronger tax base? Of course. Should we watch what public subsidies are doled out for development projects and how? Like hawks. But are there really legions of well-heeled taxpayers lined up out there to fill the market-rate portions of these projects and solve all our economic problems if only we filter out the Element adequately? (Need a quick financial fix? try
green candles Green Condos in your Wealth Corner.) A moment ago, New Orleans was such a wasteland that low-income workers were counseled to settle in other parishes post-haste – there’s no “economic ladder” to climb here, we kicked it away.
Poverty won’t be solved by any one magic bullet, spell, charm, or fetish, and if pretending we’ve neutralized it draws attention away from the needs of actual people in actual neighborhoods, we could leave city and citizens alike just as bad off as before (I’m really tired of the rationale that whatever we do couldn’t be worse than before just as long as we do it differently). Not to mention, lingering any longer on trying to attract developers and these mysterious market-rate renters to fill out the 60-80% units it’ll take to justify the 20-40% affordable units just limits repopulation (the tax base, the tax base!). The Rental Road Home plan may not be an absolute gem, but it’s time now to start getting people into homes again, not play mad social scientist. What color candle do we have to light to do that?
October 14th, 2006
Their slide presentation suggested that they’ve already compiled a lot of information about the district, its neighborhood groups (besides the “official” eight city-defined neighborhoods they’ve identified 28 actual functioning groups), and plans for particular areas that are already in existence, both pre- and post-Katrina. H3 principal John Hoal indicated several times that this information would be on “the website,” which, when I asked about it later, proved to be the UNOP site. No luck with that yet, unless it’s squirreled away somewhere pretty clever. The too predictable Deliverables & Support Documents page is still “coming soon” as of this post. Too bad, because it really does look like they’ve been doing they’re homework, including walking every foot of sidewalk and driving every street in the district. The maps they produced for their slideshow, of the varying conditions of streets, sidewalks, housing, etc would be great resources. H3′s own website was, sadly, one of those Flash affairs (I had to download an upgrade just to see it at all) that amounts to nothing more than a set of incredibly fancy lists. There are some teasers of maps and renderings that show up when you hover over the lists, but no links to close-ups, at least not in Firefox. It’s also completely unsearchable. It’s frustrating to see such an incredible potential information source so overdesigned and – I was going to say underutilized – but it’s really flat-out unutilized.
It was good to see key members of the planning team in attendence and leading the proceedings, including John Hoal, Derek Hoeferlin and Laura Lyon. Besides the slide presentation on the course of the UNOP meetings to come and on the research H3 et al have done to date, the rest of the session was devoted to small groups reviewing the Needs, Vision and Goals already collected by H3, and then selecting their top three concerns from those listed or their own devising. There was a lot of consensus when the small groups reported back – I guess we’re not a very contentious lot around here, fortunately. Crime, schools, decent affordable housing in historically appropriate styles (rehabilitated historic homes wherever possible), community health care, and closing the above/below St. Charles divide were big hits, but the applause-winning show-stopper was actual enforcement of existing zoning. All valid and interesting enough, but a bit on the woolly side – who’s pro-crime or anti-education? The devil is in the details, after all (hence, I think, the support for enforcing zoning), and we’re still a long way from knowing how and when those will be developed and implemented.
October 3rd, 2006
The anniversary of Rita’s landfall passed back on September 24, not completely without fanfare, but with rather less than Katrina’s. The fourth-most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, and still no respect.
That means that it must have been just about a year ago today that I was heading back to Houston from Austin, leaving a day later than I’d planned while I waited for my cat to come out of the hole in the wall he found in my brother’s closet. Some friends and I had just made plans to head back into New Orleans for the first time, just to see how things stood with our apartments – I thought at that time that it would be a quick trip and that I’d still need to stay in Houston for some time to come. So I left the recalcitrant cats with my aunt and uncle, and a couple days later (I can’t remember quite how long), I was back on I-10 eastbound, wondering belatedly how far it would be before I reached a parish with an open gas station, and eyeing roadside shrubbery in case nature called before I found a town that wasn’t still wiped out.
It feels like almost the anniversary that August 29 was.