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?
August 10th, 2006
Reading Karen’s Who Elected the LRA? post and following its links today, I was surprised to find out (where have I been?) that just as the UNOP is supposed to be administered by the CSO, which is overseen by the NOCSF, which was in turn established by the GNOF to manage $4.5 million in grants to create a planning process (acronym and abbreviation help); the information-gathering and planning of LRA‘s long-term recovery planning initiative, “Louisiana Speaks,” is being funded significantly by the LRA Fund, which was established by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation (BRAF), and will be administered by the LRA Support Foundation (created separately from the LRA Fund) once it gets its IRS qualification as a charity. (Gasp. I wish I had a flowchart) For now, as far as I can tell, the LRA Fund Committee is holding the purse-strings.
I shouldn’t be surprised, really. A plan is required to release federal relief funding, but little or no funding is given to the creation of a detailed and comprehensive plan. The city/state/parish is left with no alternative but to look to private donors.
What really surprises me (and maybe this shouldn’t either) is that at the bottom of its home page, the LRASF site declares: “The LRA Fund Committee has voluntarily decided to act in a manner consistent with the spirit of Louisiana Open Meetings Laws.” Kudos to the LRAFC for choosing to be open. I mean that. What concerns me though, is that a private organization that holds the linchpin to the disbursement of billions in public funds (and we’ve been seeing how much the planning of the plan can matter with the UNOP) could chose not to. To be fair, Blanco’s executive order establishing the LRA requires “a mechanism for public input and modifications based on such input,” but the UNOP’s “mechanisms for public input” to date have shown how little and dry a bone the public can be thrown.
I don’t want to suggest at all that private foundations with influence on public spending are all necessarily nefarious evil-doers intent on selling the public lock, stock and barrel to their cronies. But they’re not necessarily saints either, any more than politicians are. Our democracy doesn’t survive by the vote alone; it’s founded on checks and balances and public accountability because it’s just plain bad policy to expect people, even good people, to deny their personal interests for the sake of public interest. Whether it’s willful corruption or the slippery slope of “I have a buddy whose company can do that,” it’s just too easy to drift away from the job you’re entrusted to do when no one is watching how you do it.
It’s an awful lot of responsibility without much obligation I can see that’s not self-imposed. We can hope that personal integrity and/or PR help keep things relatively open (or at least “consistent with the spirit of openness”), but I’m a bit shocked that it would be legal not to.