Archives for November 7, 2012

How to Win the Allentown Water Privatization Ballot Initiative

The break-glass-in-case-of-emergency, last resort political tool of Allentown politics has to be a ballot initiative to repeal the English Only statute in the city charter.

When that racist language was originally inserted in the charter, Latino voters were not nearly as numerous as they are today.

Put the English Only repeal on the ballot in the same cycle as a another popular ballot initiative you want to pass, and your other ballot initiative is sure to benefit from a surge in turnout.

If water privatization opponents want an extra boost to shut down the privatization push, they should also organize to put English Only repeal on the ballot.

What else would people like to see on the Allentown ballot in 2013? I would like to see a ballot initiative directing the Allentown School District to adopt the city’s 5-1 ratio of land to building taxes.

How Philly Politicians Are Unwittingly Adopting the Land Use Toolkit of Suburban Segregationists

Jake Blumgart already blogged Nikole Hannah-Jones’ ProPublica piece at KP on federal politicians’ failure to enforce the Fair Housing Act, and I have a new post up at Demos looking at the state and local policies that the FHA was supposed to combat.

I argue that the main channel segregation works through is local government land use policy:

But as time moved on, segregationists had to resort to less blatantly-unconstitutional zoning practices. No longer able to simply ban black folks from their neighborhoods, segregationists resorted to trying to price them out instead.

The new tools for making white neighborhoods more expensive included regulations like minimum lot size rules, maximum lot occupancy rules, building height limits, and mandatory minimum parking requirements.

It’s not that these regulations are exclusively about race. There are a range of wholesome, if mistaken, reasons why these kinds of policies are so popular with homeowners and municipal politicians.

But make no mistake — these are some of the most important channels that segregation works through, and what they have in common is that they’re designed to cap the supply of housing, and make neighborhoods more expensive.

The real problem isn’t that poor people can’t afford to live in the suburbs, but that central cities are now using the segregationist toolkit and making housing less affordable.

There’s been a lot of optimistic talk about a “back to the city” movement, where Millenials and empty nest Baby Boomers supposedly are rediscovering the appeal of city living. We’ve been seeing some of that in Philly and Pittsburgh the past 3 years. It’s a great trend that I hope to see continue, but already we are starting to see white and fast-whitening neighborhoods using the segregationist toolkit to create fake housing shortages of their own.

Perversely, the politicians pushing these anti-density land use changes often co-opt progressive rhetoric to argue for housing shortage-creating policies.

A recent example is this twisted logic from Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke’s office defending a bill to increase parking requirements and the minimum apartment size:

Although O’Neill introduced the bill, representatives from his office said he did so on behalf of Council President Darrell Clarke, whose staff actually crafted the legislation. In an email, Clarke’s office defended the proposal. A spokeswoman for the councilmember said the bill in question was drafted in response to residents in neighborhoods like Fishtown, Fairmount and the Temple University area, who reportedly complained about hard-to-find parking and students taking parking spots.

Specifically cited was a 40-unit proposal by developers Harman Deutsch, which contained no on-site parking. The idea behind the bill was to prevent developers from pushing a “cost” — in this case the burden of parking — onto residents. The final version of the bill was supposed to be a compromise between resident and developer concerns.

This gets the “cost” argument exactly backwards. Minimum parking requirements are a tax on city residents who own a below-average number of cars, which subsidizes residents who own an above-average number of cars.

Without the parking requirements, curb parking gets tighter, prompting the neighbors who can most afford it to pay for monthly garage parking, and prompting some people to abstain from car ownership altogether.

With the parking requirements, the cost of parking gets bundled into the cost of housing, forcing people who do not drive to pay higher rent. It’s not “developers” pushing the cost of parking onto other residents, it’s the car owners! Likewise, it’s not developers who end up paying more with the parking minimums either, it’s the non-driving renters.

Raising the minimum apartment size also makes housing more expensive. You’re preventing people from making a trade-off between rent and apartment size. People might want to choose a smaller apartment and pay less rent, but Darrell Clarke’s bill takes away that choice and raises the minimum price of an apartment.

Both these land use changes are going to make housing more expensive and price out poorer residents, but both are being pushed under the guise of helping low-income people.

If city politicians are really concerned about gentrification and displacement of long-time residents, then it is absolutely critical that they do not apply the housing shortage policies of the suburbs to growing city neighborhoods.

Republicans Have Zero Leverage in the Lame Duck Budget Debate

The basic fact about the post-election budget debate is that the Democrats and the Republicans both want to avoid the automatic austerity measures that start kicking in after January. The Bush tax cuts expire in full, the Republicans’ sequester cuts happen, and the payroll tax cut expires.

Republicans have a strong incentive to pretend that we need to strike agreement on a bill before January, because after January they lose all their leverage.

That’s because once the Bush tax cuts expire, what have they got? Tax rates will automatically reset to a higher level, so the only debate will be about how low they should go. If Republicans want to lower taxes at all, they’ll have to move closer to Barack Obama’s position or else there’s no deal and tax rates stay high.

There’s no good reason for Barack Obama to pre-compromise with the Republicans and strike a deal before January.

#HD131: Simmons Hasn’t Locked It Up Yet

Emmaus Patch:

Election night left state Rep. Justin Simmons looking like a winner but county officials today say the outcome of the 131st House race is not yet certain.

Hundreds of ballots are still to be counted. It’s expected to take weeks to finalize the outcome.

“I’d say there are between 750 and 1,000 ballots left to count,” said Lehigh County election official Tim Benyo.

A preliminary tally without those ballots shows Simmons with a 562-vote lead.

“It’s definitely too tight to call this race [for the 131st district] yet,” Benyo told Patch on Wednesday morning.

A Great Night for Progressives, Except for the House

Lots of awesome news for liberals to be psyched about this morning. President Obama won handily with a broad multi-ethnic coalition. Democrats kept their Senate majority despite facing down a very tough map. LGBT issues had a huge night with marriage equality ballot initiatives passing in Maine and Maryland so far, and the election of the first openly gay Senator and first gay Republican House candidate. Marijuana legalization passed in Colorado and Washington.

In PA, Democrats killed it in all the statewide races and narrowed the Republicans’ majorities in the state Senate. The Republicans lead by just 27-23 in the Senate, while the House split will stay about the same. Depending on how the outstanding races shake out, they’ll lead by between 13 and 17 seats.

The bad news is that the American people seriously need a remedial course in how politics works. You’d think by now that voters would understand that picking both Barack Obama and a Republican House member doesn’t produce sensible moderate policies but rather scary debt ceiling standoffs and government shutdown threats. You’ve got to be some kind of idiot to vote for Obama and then also send him an opposition Congressman whose explicit objective is to ruin the guy’s Presidency. That’s the singular goal of an opposition party member! But evidently people really do not understand how this works, because a bunch of Obama voters apparently thought it would be good for him to have to work with John Boehner as the Speaker of the House again.

Ticket-splitting is in long-term decline, but it’s still going to be an annoying part of American politics for a while. I don’t have any particular insight into what we can do to complete the polarization in the short term beyond explaining to friends, family and colleagues why it’s counterproductive to split their tickets.

Over the long term, we really need to organize for voting reforms like Party-List Proportional Representation, where only the names of the political parties appear on the Congressional ballot line, not the names of the candidates. Thinking about the personal qualities of the candidates is what’s screwing people up here. The ballot should put the correct question to voters – which party do you want running Congress?

Luckily, none of the big goals for Obama’s second term involve shepherding legislation through Congress, but rather defending policy wins from the first term that are already scheduled to happen – health care implementation, financial reform implementation, rolling back the Bush tax cuts. As long as Obama doesn’t preemptively cave to Republicans on any of this stuff, they have very little leverage to stop any of it.