March 31st, 2007
OK, I can’t come up with a New Orleans Recovery palindrome. I tried my hand at some anagrams though, and here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
Mayor of New Orleans – A sworn loony re fame. Parish Recovery Council – A cyclone: ouch, rivers rip. Unified New Orleans Plan – A serene fill-in. Own up: nada. Army Corps of Engineers – If errors, spongy menace.
Best I could do. I’m no Nabokov.
But down to business now, The Man is Recovery Czar Ed Blakely, The Plans are the ones we’re all too familiar with already, plus the new addition of Blakely’s “It’s not my plan, it’s the people’s plan,” and The Canals, well – if the powers that be don’t start listening to vox clamantis Matt McBride, the unholy waters will flow again and the plans won’t be worth the paper they’re written on.
My initial reaction to Blakely’s announcement of his 17 target zones was, like that of some fellow bloggers who were (as usual) quicker on the uptake than me, optimistic, if guardedly so. It’s reassuring to see a commitment to the severely devastated 9th Ward and New Orleans East, and the distribution of the “Redevelop” and “Renew” areas seems reasonable. And it’s fair of Blakely to observe that New Orleans doesn’t have the best record when it comes to finishing projects, and as nice as it would be to address everything that needs attention immediately, chances are that would lead to nothing getting done at all, anywhere. (That said, it would be worthwhile if Blakely and his Parishwide Recovery Committee would let on which areas are under consideration for Phase 2 and beyond – lots more neighborhoods’ futures hang in the balance, and they deserve some idea of what to expect and when.)
Despite my hope that the announcement means that these 17 zones will see some real action in the near future, my optimism guard, as I mentioned, is up and fully armed. As Library Chronicles points out, the Blakely Plan isn’t much longer on specifics than anything else we’ve seen (and the financing is fishy: notably the “blight bonds” and the unlikely waiver of the requirement of the 10% match for FEMA projects). There’s a general opacity to it that doesn’t augur well if it continues.
A Recovery Czar who says in response to reporters’ inquiries about what development in the 17 zones might look like:
“I have a very clear idea” of how the zones will develop, he said. “Developers make a lot of money by getting those clear ideas early and getting the jump in the game. And that shouldn’t happen in the newspaper. You’re a newspaper reporter, not a developer.”
and a Mayor who follows (not surprisingly) with:
“I don’t want to get into specific dates and specific projects with you guys because I know what you do with that: You come back later and you talk about the things that we haven’t done.”
don’t sound like executors of a “people’s plan.”
And for that matter, I haven’t yet found a comprehensive list of who is serving on the Parishwide Recovery Committee, or when and where their future meetings will be held (I would think their proceedings would fall under the requirements of Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law). Also, Blakely has called the UNOP “a critical part of [the] process” (falling somewhat short of explicitly endorsing it – and while we’re on that topic, is the Parishwide Recovery Committee the same as the Parishwide Recovery Council, or is it a pointed snub? I’ve seen it referred to as both), and he seems to invoke it as the basis of calling it “the people’s plan,” but if the UNOP and/or other previous planning efforts are going to be the sum-total of public participation, I’m concerned. Not that I think we need to be put through any more magic-marker-and-red-dot exercises, but the UNOP has its share of woolly bits that could be stretched to fit plenty of interpretations of “the will of the people.” The public deserves comment periods and scrutiny of plan particulars in the media, mainstream- and citizen-varieties. Any developers worth their salt should be able to cope with that.
So, my fingers are crossed that we can get some positive action without more secrecy, otherwise, I’m afraid New Orleans Recovery = CRoWN EVERYONE A LOSER (OK, I cheated on that one – it was just too close to resist).
March 23rd, 2007
Mockingbird, by Bob Hines, United States Fish and Wildlife Service
“The process on how damage percentages is determined is the estimate of the cost of repair compared to the replacement cost of the home, if you had to build it from scratch,” [Robert Evans, Allied American‘s chief operating officer] said. – The Mississippi Press, 8/14/2006
With all the recent fuss over “rebuilding” vs “compensation” regarding Road Home payments and CDBG regulations, I was surprised to hear yesterday that Phase II of Mississippi’s Homeowner Assistance Program (HAP) is basing its grant calculations on cost to rebuild.
I wrote about the “worst of both worlds” scenario Louisiana’s Road Home Program was facing the other day at Think New Orleans: in a nutshell, the LRA was allegedly told when designing the RHP that they had to cap awards at the pre-Katrina appraised value of the home even if the estimated cost to repair/rebuild was greater, because basing awards on rebuilding costs would make it, aptly enough, a “rebuilding program” and thereby trigger torrents of onerous requirements and regulations. And just lately, HUD “discovered” that the method of Road Home payments constituted a “rebuilding program” as well – maximum burden for the minimum award.
Mississippi’s HAP is using a phased approach: Phase I was for homeowners with homeowners insurance (although not necessarily flood insurance) living outside the pre-Katrina FEMA designated flood zone. Like the Road Home, it also had an ultimate $150,000 cap, and beneath that cap, the upper limit was based on the value of the home – in this case, the insured value of the home, plus 35%. Meaning that, should the damage estimate, determined by the method described above, exceed the insured value of the home (or the appraised value, for that matter), a higher award could be calculated. What exactly is being “compensated” here, that’s not compensable in Louisiana?
Phase II is directed at homeowners with a household income beneath 120% AMI with Hurricane Katrina storm surge damage. The HUD-approved action plan makes no mention of insured or appraised value. This award is capped at $100,000, but up to that amount, the award is based exclusively on the official damage assessment – insured homeowners receiving 100% of the estimate, uninsured receiving 70%. And yet, “In consultation with HUD, and due to the nature and design of the Homeowner Assistance Grant Program, the State has determined through its environmental review that project level actions are categorically excluded and not subject to related laws for Phase II.” No NEPA.
I don’t begrudge Mississippians any additional money they may be awarded via their damage assessments; I also wouldn’t be surprised if the assessments were erratic or out of sync with today’s real costs of rebuilding, as the rest of the Mississippi Press article cited above suggests. But I’d really like to understand why Louisiana can’t have similar latitude for the Road Home. Granted, there are a number of other differences between the programs, some of which may influence which requirements might apply, but on their faces, both states’ programs have very explicit rebuilding components, sometimes favoring rebuilding over relocating, and as far as I can tell, the only difference between “rebuilding” (i.e. triggers-multitudes-of-onerous-regulations) and “compensation” (i.e. you-might-get-some-money-in-this-lifetime) is smoke and mirrors.
Was the LRA Housing Committee really too thick to rephrase their “compensation” package to permit greater consideration of rebuilding costs? Is there some secret catch to Mississippi’s plan that would make its rebuilding-cost “compensatory” provisions unfavorable to Louisianans somehow? Or does the fact that the nebulous nature of CDBGs requires negotiating with HUD, currently headed by Alphonso “heck of a crony” Jackson, mean that our marginally-Blue State will be held to a different standard no matter what we do? Or is it some combintion of all three?
Or am I completely missing the point?
March 21st, 2007
I missed this last year, but surprise, surprise, Bush appointed HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson was found to have “urged staff members to favor friends of President Bush when awarding Department of Housing and Urban Development contracts,” (Washington Post, 8/22/06). This after an anecdote he told at a Real Estate Executive Council forum in Dallas last April, about revoking a contract awarded for “a heck of a proposal” (is “heck of a” a required phrase in Bush Administration circles?) after the chief of the firm said he didn’t like the president (Dallas Business Journal, 5/5/2006).
Alphonso Jackson, Alberto Gonzoles, Michael Brown…
I have to doubt that HUD’s intervention in the Road Home Program at such a late stage was entirely on behalf of the beleaguered citizens of Louisiana.
I wonder whether self-lamed duck Blanco will find a stronger voice regarding “her” Road Home Program (with ICF, HUD, or anyone else) now that the re-election pressure is off, or whether she’ll wilt. Waterfowl can get pretty aggressive when they want to. (Seriously. There was this goose once, on my uncle’s farm…)
March 6th, 2007
photo by Fiona Cooper
A belated hat-tip to Maitri for pointing out that the glowing quotes from Andres Duany about New Orleans being “the most organized, wealthiest, cleanest, and competently governed of the Caribbean cities,” and singing the praises of our music, food and culture are excerpted from a BusinessWeek.com article culminating in the recommendation of
“…an experimental ‘opt-out zone’: areas where one ‘contracts out’ of the current American system, which consists of the nanny state raising standards to the point where it is so costly and complicated to build that only the state can provide affordable housing – solving a problem that it created in the first place.”
There’s another name for the sort of “opt-out zone” he’s proposing, and that’s shantytown (he’s not the only one: economist Tyler Cowen explicitly suggests a shantytown reconstruction here). Duany, who is famously prickly about affordable housing (preferring, in true New Urbanist form, fantasies of past “good” poor neighborhoods bustling with Sesame Street-like cheerful activity), has finally announced what sort of decanter he’d like to pour the monoculture of poverty into, but he hasn’t yet proposed where to put it. Probably not in the vicinity of the Cuban-esque Marigny Creole Cottage that inspired his epiphany about New Orleans culture.
Another of Duany’s good-old-days fantasies is that:
“Until recently this [building by one's self, or by barter] was the way that built America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. For three centuries Americans built for themselves. They built well enough, so long as it was theirs. Individual responsibility could be trusted. We must return to this as an option,”
forgetting that if one’s home burned down, flooded or collapsed, one was left with nothing, however individually responsible one was. Also forgetting that New Orleans’ building-code history actually pre-dates our Anglo-American period that Duany insists will kill our culture – when the Spanish acquired Louisiana and decided it was a bad idea to keep letting the Vieux Carre burn down every few years.
Could there be less red tape in permitting? Of course. Is building according to safety standards more expensive than not? Naturally. Will debt be hard to bear for those who must rebuild or restore homes that were previously paid off? Afraid so, although it seems like addressing that problem ought to entail putting insurance companies feet to the fire, eliminating the Road Home restriction to awards based on “pre-storm value” rather than real rebuilding costs, and holding the Army Corps of Engineers accountable for its negligence, before throwing up our hands in defeat and suggesting that standards and safety should be considered luxury commodities.
The materials for these new pioneer opt-out homes had better be damn cheap or free (maybe salvaged off of the moldering ruins of abandoned properties – blight and affordable housing, two birds with one stone!), since no lending institution is going to approve even a modest amount for a building with no insurance, which is another item this experimental zone will be opting out of. (And, should another disaster occur, the naysayers who question New Orleans’ “right” to exist in the first place will crow the world’s loudest told-you-so.) Will Entergy turn the gas and lights on with no assurance that the wiring etc. was professionally done? (No doubt it’s more romantically Caribbean to dine by candlelight.)
No insurance also means no legitimate business even if one has the means to start up without a loan. Liability, workers comp, and other forms of insurance required are hardly likely to be obtainable either, let alone business, as opposed to building, permits. But no matter – illegitimate business is full of the plucky New World entrepreneurial spirit, and organized crime already loves “lending” and “insuring.” Maitri wrote that one of her first thoughts on reading about what a well-run Caribbean city we have was “tell this to the families of murder victims whose killers walk the streets due to inefficient government.” A criminal justice system is one of our government “nannies,” and ours is so abysmal right now that faced with an Opt Out Zone, opting out is probably what it would do too.
Maitri explains better than I can how wrong it is to conflate laissez-faire culture with laissez-faire governance – under the latter, the bon temps doesn’t roule so well. But beneath the fawning over the Caribbean value of enjoying quality of life before retirement, sometimes by sacrificing a bigger salary (but not necessarily by not working much, as he implies – someone should remind him of how much laundry gets done on Mondays while those red beans are slowly simmering) laissez-faire economics are what “New Orleans: The Wealthiest City of the Caribbean” is all about. And plenty of lives were just as nasty, brutish and short in the Old Free-For-All Urbanism that the New kind selectively appeals to as they are now (what shall we opt out of next? child labor laws? wouldn’t little chimney sweeps be cute, crawling up the flues of all those gas- and electric-free houses? how retro).
Someone please tell me that The Onion bought BusinessWeek, and a super-star urban planner did not just go down that road, or I’m going to have to opt out of what little sanity I have left.
February 4th, 2007
To everyone who doesn’t think repopulation is an issue; to everyone satisfied with a half-size New Orleans, who think it’s for the best economically, socially, and risk-wise; your fondest wish is about to come true – if you live anywhere on the East Bank, you too could be a participant in the grand “house swap” proposals promoted by the “clustering” crowd. Get ready to trade your Uptown townhouse, your Warehouse District loft, your Marigny Creole Cottage – whatever you call home right now – for whatever’s available wherever they’ll have you on the West Bank, because the White House is recommending that as much as $978 million be moved from East Bank Orleans Parish flood wall improvement, levee raising, and breach repair budgets to West Bank flood control projects, with no commitment to when, how or whether they’ll restore those funds. (Perhaps even worse, the Corps says that’s OK, because they weren’t going to be able to spend that money by the end of their fiscal year – September 30 – anyway. “They say they need more time to finish designing.” I beg your pardon? You can’t find any levee repairs projects to spend money on? Clearly they’ve assigned their best designers the job.)
Now, this isn’t to say the West Bank doesn’t have legitimate, urgent even, flood control needs. But as even Senator Vitter noted, this is robbing Peter to pay Paul. Read between the lines: “Why pay to protect the bulk of the city that’s basically empty, or horror of horrors, encourage people to come back to it?” In a classic example of the recency effect logical fallacy, funding will go to the areas that are “safe” because they weren’t utterly devastated all that lately. But also because they’re presently populated.
No repopulation effort, no more East Bank New Orleans. And Peter hasn’t got much more to steal, for Paul’s sake or anyone else’s.
January 26th, 2007
January 6th, 2007
The eldest went first into the room where the slipper was, and wanted to try it on, and the mother stood by. But her great toe could not go into it, and the shoe was altogether much too small for her. Then the mother gave her a knife, and said, ‘Never mind, cut it off; when you are queen you will not care about toes; you will not want to walk.’ So the silly girl cut off her great toe, and thus squeezed on the shoe, and went to the king’s son. – Ashputtel (Cinderella), Grimm’s Fairy Tales
The F-word is in the air again. Or rather, it’s conspicuously not in the air, since the BNOB taught everyone what a dirty word footprint could be. Now, the buzz is about unrestrained rebuilding in “risky” areas, thanks in particular to the Washington Post’s New Orleans Repeats Mistakes as it Rebuilds article yesterday. The blogosphere is once again awash in “why are we letting those idiots spend our to rebuild below sea level?” rants (note, though, mominem’s lonely voice of dissent ranked on the first page of Google’s blogsearch). Oddly enough, the Post’s previous day’s story on Sacramento’s potentially catastrophic flood risk, observing that (surprise) it’s levees are substandard, didn’t warrant much blogland comment that I’ve been able to find.
I wouldn’t give the footprint topic the time of day if it were confined to knee-jerk New Orleans haters who think that our massive losses are costing them somehow, as if some enormous Save New Orleans tax were being levied on them personally. But I’ve heard the variations on the “you have to shrink the footprint” line from too many friends and relatives out of town – people who sincerely love New Orleans, visit here, visit more than just the French Quarter and Jazz Fest Fairgrounds, and want the city to survive almost as desperately as we residents do – to brush it off.
After all, it does seem eminently logical both to consolidate the population for the sake of providing services, and to run like hell from the worst-flooded areas. It’s true that we can’t expect to come back to pre-Katrina population density any time soon, if ever (and no one here wants their neighborhood to suffer the jack-o-lantern fate, or be surrounded by blight and vacant lots), and it’s completely fair to ask why one should rebuild in the deepest flood-risk zones. The trouble is, I’ve never seen the inevitable, costly consequences of a smaller footprint adequately addressed, even if race and class inequities could be somehow swept aside. And it does cost. It’s not an abstracted matter of so many puzzle pieces to be shuffled around, or cars in a valet parking lot. It’s a question of where real people can live, and how we can afford to make decent housing available in a timely manner.
Even the UNOP’s Community Congress II acknowledged that one of the “cons” of the scenario of requiring people to resettle in ill-defined “clusters” was the greater cost than letting people rebuild where they lived before. If you think the Road Home program is falling short now, just imagine when homeowners are forced to take the buyout offer rather than renovate/rebuild, and the real costs of relocation come to the fore. I’m a little surprised that the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act hasn’t been invoked yet, given that it’s a federal project that deprived the majority of New Orleans of their homes, but you can be sure that if or when people are denied the option to rebuild, the meaning and value of “comparable replacement dwelling” in the post-Katrina real estate market will be a magma-hot flashpoint.
Plenty of pundits (including Recovery Chief Ed Blakely, cited in the Post article) have proposed some vague sort of “lot swap” between badly flooded homeowners who want to return and scarcely flooded homeowners who have left, but would someone please show me these high-ground lots ready and waiting to be swapped? I know there are lots of people with high-ground properties who have relocated to other cities due to work or disgust, but which are the ones who aren’t seeking their newly boosted market value? What do we honestly have to offer people who are willing to sacrifice their immediate sense of home: their house or apartment, for their general sense of home: New Orleans? (Incidentally, the Post article notes that “Officials in St. Bernard Parish … rejected closing off a particularly hard-hit 36-block section of Chalmette because they could not afford to buy out property owners.” That doesn’t influence their conclusion that we’re Repeating Mistakes as We Rebuild, though.)
Another glaring omission from the footprint argument is the acknowledgement that ours was an unnatural disaster, and that that fact figures significantly into both what risk property owners and dwellers thought they were assuming before Katrina, and what risk we’re facing after. The Post does acknowledges that “the levees … proved catastrophically fallible,” but doesn’t factor in what every local now knows – that our degree of risk has far less to do with elevation than with the x-factor of where the next breaches might occur. Given that so far, the levees have been repaired mainly where they breached, and that miles of levees are still as substandard as before, everywhere but the repaired breaches will be under the same strain as before should a Katrina-like event happen again, with no telling which spots might give way first. And heaven forbid that the next threat should come via the river rather than canals to the lake, because then the highest, “safest” ground will be obliterated. We just can’t evaluate true flood risk while it’s more contingent on man-made negligence than natural vulnerability.
And encompassing both the population-consolidation issue and the flood-risk issue is the self-fulfilling prophecy dilemma. Repopulation is a matter of both just compensation to those who lost their homes and everything in them, and prevention of becoming a theme-park rather than a city. People weren’t stupid or foolhardy to choose to live and work in New Orleans, any more than people are stupid or foolhardy to live in Sacramento, San Francisco, or any coast, riverside, lakeside, barrier island, earthquake zone, tornado-swept prairie, blizzard, or avalanche territory. Offering and encouraging the option of return to the people who were flooded out is a moral imperative as well as an imperative to preserve the viability – not just of neighborhoods – but of the city. We need our population to back our deserved political clout at the state and federal level, and to remain a diverse city – racially, industrially, and economically. To retreat to the Sliver by the River is to cement our past history of inequality into an even more go-nowhere status as a low-wage, low-opportunity tourism town; a barely-get-by-ism that we will deserve to lose to another hurricane if we’re the ones who let it happen.
There’s no Fairy Godmother to tell us how to deal with flood risk and population shrinkage, but more importantly, there’s no Prince Charming who will take care of everything if we only make ourselves fit someone’s idea of what size slipper we should wear. We have excruciating decisions to make, but no one is in a position to tell us which toes can do without, any more than the knee-jerk New Orleans haters can say that the nation can do without us – our neighborhoods are no more socio-economic islands than we are as a city or a region. Nor can anyone tell us that sacrificing the 9th Ward, Lakeview, Hollygrove, Gert Town, or any of the flooded neighborhoods will make us a Queen who won’t need or want to walk. We’ll be crying “let them eat bread pudding” all the way to the guillotine if it ever comes to that.
December 5th, 2006
I’ve been in a bit of a blogging funk lately. It feels like beating a dead horse sometimes, and my flogging arm is getting worn out. If only you could mechanize it some way… But wait, you can if you have 2.4 million dollars, and you can beat it from five different cities simultaneously! Yes, I let morbid curiosity overcome me again, and I attended UNOP/AmericaSpeaks’ Community Congress II last Saturday.
I have to give them some credit – this Congress came much closer to pre-Katrina demographics where race and income were concerned, although not on age or planning district residence. This Congress was rather more participatory than the last one as well. Rather than voting exclusively on pre-ordained options, the “Theme Team” synthesized alternative scenarios besides the ones presented by UNOP based on the submissions of each table. It’s a good thing, too, because “scenario” is a strong word for what the original options were on each of the six topics. For example:
Roads, Transit and Utilities
Spread available funds evenly throughout the city. Concentrate available recovery funds in areas of the city with the greatest need* Raise additional funds, possibly through higher taxes or user fees, so that all infrastructure can be repaired and improved.
- (note: “greatest need” wasn’t explicitly defined, but from the pros and cons section of the handout, it was clear that UNOP equates greatest need with greatest population, not level of damage)
More (but not all) of the scenarios and alternatives can be seen in the Preliminary Report.
Someone remind me again – how many months of planning has it taken to come up with these “scenarios”? I thought at first that this sort of narrowing the scope – from extremely vague to somewhat vague – via citizen input might have been a good thing to have done back in July or August. The sort of information produced strikes me as where to start planning, not refine it. But then I got sticker shock:
6 topics approximately 2,500 participants $2.4 million (for just this session)
At $400,000 per topic and roughly $960 per participant, what do New Orleanians really gain that’s of lasting value? Is that really all the public input we can buy for $2.4 million? I hope the funders are watching.
November 3rd, 2006
“Although the Roman empire expanded to a great territory, the Roman republicans were never concerned about the actuality of political participation by citizens living far away from Rome, where the assembly met regularly. In fact, most citizens of the Roman empire probably never attended an assembly, and the situation created a random and skewed system of representation – those living close to Rome became de facto “representatives” of other citizens of the Roman empire.” – Representative Government and Democracy, Bo Li
With all the invocation of Democracy and the Founding Fathers in this latest planning process, one thing that seems to have been forgotten is the role of representation. With all of our actual elected representatives snubbing the UNOP, it’s more and more doubtful how much backbone the UNOP will have as a “Unified New Orleans Plan,” but it’s far from certain yet whether or how much the Lambert plans or any others will bear much fruit with respect to funding and implementation either. Whatever the fate of the UNOP, it’s worth drawing some lessons from its latest venture, especially with regard to what passes for public participation, for posterity if nothing else. The first lesson, I think, is well illustrated by the quote about Roman government above: those living close to New Orleans are not adequate “representatives” of citizens in the uninhabitable or barely inhabitable portions of our city, however well-intentioned (or not). Public hearings, meetings, and comment periods are indispensable to democratic government, but they’re never a substitute for proportional representation. (For a thoughtful, multi-faceted review of public partipication, the lack of it, what’s passed for it, and responses to it in post-Katrina New Orleans – from the BNOB to UNOP’s Community Congress – it’s definitely worth reading People Get Ready’s We have more than that at the 4:00 mass on Saturday post.)
Sometimes, especially times like ours, the representation allowed for by our constitutions and charters – the mayors, city councils, governors, senators, representatives and presidents – aren’t enough; legislation doesn’t conveniently exist for the level of public involvement required for a whole region’s reconstruction. The first step is, of course, actively seeking population samples that reflect the real make-up of the city, not just waiting for who happens to show up. In an era when government models itself so much on business, is it too much to ask that we call the marketing department to see how they survey any and all demographics they want to target? It’s a challenge, to say the least, in the post-Katrina diaspora, but not one that can’t have its margin of error significantly reduced. There’s a name for the sort of “public participation” we’ve been treated to so far: Voodoo Poll. How apt.
“The most common examples of voodoo polls are those which ask for people to phone a number, or to click a voting option on a website, or send back a coupon cut from a newspaper. … The most glaring difference between a voodoo poll and a legitimate poll is that voodoo polls have self-selecting samples…”
But even if we had proportional representation of New Orleans’ citizenry, it’s still all for naught if the questions don’t represent the real issues. Plenty of poll-watchers caution that attention to the wording of poll questions is imperative in interpreting their results. You don’t have to be a bought-out push poller to ask questions that are meaningless, or worse, misleading. This is an area that’s not new ground either. Here’s one of the best articulations I’ve seen of how to approach developing meaningful survey questions, and why it matters:
“Good practice in survey research includes framing the questions in a way that people can recognize their own point of view in the alternatives that they are given by the interviewer. Polling is, after all, the art of putting words into peoples’ mouths. Objective practice demands that the words chosen for the questionnaire come close to the words that advocates of each point of view would use if they were given the chance to frame their opinion without prompting. In scientific or academic surveys, the phrasing of questions is usually drawn from published remarks by leaders of one point of view or another or from “focus groups” in which ordinary citizens are asked to discuss important issues in their own terms. At SRC [Survey Research Center] we supplement these practices by “pretesting” questions in practice interviews. If the respondents to practice interviews have a hard time recognizing their point of view in the questions, then we rewrite them. We try not to have more than one respondent in 20 say they “don’t know” how they feel on an issue unless we feel that the issue itself is so obscure that many people really have no opinion. With a widely discussed issue, a scientific poll should not have more than five percent of answers be “don’t know” (Converse and Presser 1989).
“Advocacy polls, on the other hand, frequently “slant” questions by raising questions in a way that are favorable to one point of view in a debate-
and unfavorable to another-or by posing questions that create a dilemma for proponents of one side (Asher 1990). This practice makes it difficult for persons from one persuasion to answer the questions as stated. They are typically in a quandary because they cannot fully agree with any of the statements offered them, or they cannot choose between the alternatives that are posed because they agree with both or disagree with both. Some poll respondents then refuse to answer the question or say they don’t know which alternative to choose. Others say “both?’ or “neither” as their reply.” – Wording, Polling, and Opinion, Michael Hout
Any group that has the capacity to convene Town Hall-style meetings of citizens and collect their input should perhaps be less concerned with determining citizens’ answers to policy questions than with determining the real questions for which various citizens’ groups have already proposed answers. We can stop asking what New Orleanians’ generalized Hopes and Concerns or Needs and Goals are about recovery, and start asking what are the controversies about how to address them, because the options are well-considered and have been articulated by plenty.
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?