The Affordable Housing Coalition We Need

One thing I wish more people understood is that affordable housing politics is not a fight between “greedy developers” and renters.

Properly understood, the political economy looks like this: developers + renters + construction workers on Team Build More Housing, and incumbent landowners on Team NIMBY.

You often see renters working against their own interests by opposing new development, mistakenly believing that stopping new housing from getting built will somehow reverse the upward climb of land prices. They should really be rooting for developers to dump more apartment units on the neighborhood, and quickly, to keep the supply of apartments nice and slack.

Neighborhoods with good connections to center city Philly are only going to see their land prices keep climbing. Whether or not rents stay affordable will be determined by how many apartment units those land costs can be spread across. The more housing units that get built on the expensive land, the lower the rents.

Top Albums of the Year

Trolling one’s own blog is a basic human right, so I’m going to have to interrupt the political blogging with my 10 favorite albums of the year. 2012 was a pretty excellent year for music I like, and it was unusually hard to narrow it down to 10 favorites, so I’ve included an extended list of the top 25.

In no particular order:

1. Shigeto – Lineage
2. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
3. Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse
4. The Alchemist – Russian Roulette
5. Union – Analogtronics
6. Blu & Exile – Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them
7. Mount Eerie – Ocean Roar
8. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. city
9. Tame Impala – Lonerism
10. Heavenly Beat – Talent
Runners up:
11. Diiv – Oshin
12. Jonti – Sine & Moon
13. Daughn Gibson – All Hell
14. Teen Daze – All of Us, Together
15. Teengirl Fantasy – Tracer
16. Kaki King – Glow
17. House Shoes – Let It Go
18. Metz – Metz
19. Jeremiah Jae – Raw Money Raps
20. Roc Marciano – Reloaded
21. Oddisee – People Hear What They See
22. Beach House – Bloom
23. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
24. Tycho – Dive
25. Domo Genesis x The Alchemist – No Idols mixtape

Senate Democrats’ Plan for PA’s Distressed Older Cities Falls Far Short of What’s Needed

I was venting about this on Twitter earlier, but it deserves a proper blog post.

The problems of PA’s distressed mid-sized cities are an issue I care about a great deal. Older cities are badly disadvantaged by state-level municipal finance and annexation policies, which set them up for decline.

Setting up mid-sized cities for success will require changes to a variety of these state-level policies, and so of course I am very glad to see PA Senate Democrats prioritizing this issue. It’s a huge deal that state-level politicians are interested in engaging with these problems, and they deserve a lot of credit for taking this up. What a party chooses to talk about when it’s out of power tends to be a pretty good predictor of what it will try to do when it gets power, so it’s heartening to see metropolitics becoming subsumed into the state-level Democratic political agenda.

That said, the policy ideas that Senate Democrats released fall far short of the scale of the problem.

None of them are bad ideas, but all suffer from the same mistaken premise – they locate the source of distressed cities’ problems at the city level, not the regional level.

Here are some of the big ideas mentioned in Robert Swift’s article on this:

- Provide school district property tax rebates to first-time homebuyers who purchase a primary residence in a mid-sized city school district

- Use table game revenues to reduce property taxes in urban areas to promote home ownership and rebuild the tax base.

- More rigid Act 47 review process with fiscal “stress tests”, earlier disclosure of negative signs like underfunded pensions, and mandates to identify what economic strengths municipalities can build on.

- Give municipalities other than Pittsburgh the option of creating an Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority

- Safeguards for municipal borrowing under the Local Government Debt Unit Act

- Requiring cooperation between cities and school districts on comprehensive fiscal recovery plans

- Consolidating school district transportation services at the Intermediate Unit level

- Surcharge on traffic violations to pay for state grant program for municipalities with part-time police officers

That last idea really gets at the weakness of the Senate Dems’ theory of change. The root problem there is that there are municipal tax bases so small that part-time police officer is a job that exists.

Subsidizing the choice to have tiny political units that can’t afford full-time cops isn’t a solution. The solution is to push those municipalities to:

1. contract for police services from the County government

2. contract for police services from a larger neighboring municipality that can afford full-time police, or

3. disincorporate and allow a neighboring municipality to annex their land area

If the problem is that there are so many political units with tax bases too small to afford professional services, then the solution needs to be enlarging the local tax bases.

This is also a problem with other recommendations like property tax rebates for first-time homebuyers in urban school districts. The actual problem there is that there are urban school districts with separate tax bases from suburban school districts.

Rather than introducing a new tax subsidy that will lose revenue for the state or for school districts (depending on who pays), the obvious solution is to consolidate school district tax bases at the Intermediate Unit level.

Then it doesn’t matter at all whether homebuyers choose homes in the suburbs or in the cities – they’re all paying taxes to the same government. The Senate Dems have a good idea to consolidate school transportation services at the Intermediate Unit level. They should run with that logic, and explore what other savings could be had by consolidating services at the County or Intermediate Units.

Right now the Intermediate Units are deliberately designed to be largely powerless advisory-only bodies, and not real governments. If the goal is to level the playing field for cities by improving the quality of public services and lowering tax rates, then a pretty obvious move is dissolving the arbitrary political boundaries that keep urban areas from getting their fair share of the tax revenue produced by metro economies.

What would a better plan look like? I have a few ideas, and the common thread is leveraging state aid to municipalities and school districts to push them to share services, or consolidate political units.

New Jersey’s state Senate recently passed a bill that Senate Dems should look to as a model. The state would force municipalities to share services or else they’d lose state aid:

For Sweeney, who championed shared services on a county level as a Gloucester County freeholder, yesterday’s 25-9 Senate vote was the latest step in his 22-month battle to hold down property taxes forcing municipalities to share services where savings can be proven. “We’ve tried the carrot. We need to try the stick,” Sweeney is fond of saying. “We need to try the stick.”

“If governments don’t wish to run their towns more cost-effectively, there is no reason the taxpayers of New Jersey should have to foot their bill,” Sweeney said yesterday, referring to the provision in his bill that would give voters the option of approving shared services, but take away state aid equivalent to the projected cost savings from any town whose voters reject shared services. “Taxpayers of this state need a break and shared services is one way to give it to them.”

Sweeney’s bill shifts the principal responsibility for initiating shared services from municipalities to New Jersey’s Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization, and Consolidation Commission (LUARCC), which would be empowered not only to study municipal governments to determine where taxpayer dollars could be saved. If the towns involved fail to enact a LUARCC-recommended shared services agreement, the plan would go on the ballot as a referendum question. Voters in any town rejecting such a shared-services ballot question would lose state aid.

The other idea Senate Democrats need to incorporate into their plan is building Counties’ capacity to deliver municipal services. Chris Briem has persuaded me that the best political strategy for accomplishing this is for Counties to start offering a menu of municipal services that their constituent municipalities can choose to buy. Rather than administering police services in-house, those cities with part-time police officers could choose to contract with their County government for police. They would lower their municipal property taxes since those taxes would no longer pay for police, and they’d pay somewhat higher County taxes.

As Counties deliver police (and fire, and 911, etc) services to more of their municipalities, the per-person costs of providing those services will go down. Property taxes will be lower, and you’ll basically have something pretty close to a regional tax base for public services. Cities will no longer be competing at a disadvantage on service quality or taxes.

There are a lot more good ideas out there for making PA’s older cities more competitive, but what most of them have in common is that they locate the source of the problems at the metro level, not the city level. Any plan that’s going to work will need to enlarge the tax base for public services like police and education, and give cities access to their fair share of the tax revenue produced by regional economies.

What to Do About Gun Safety

Close the federal private sales loophole, regulating ammunition, add military-grade weapons to the National Firearms Act of 1934, mandate waiting periods, increase illegal gun possession as a policing priority:

Ezra Klein talks to the gun policy experts:

That’s where the private-sales loophole comes in: It’s depressingly easy for a gang member to drive to a gun show outside the city limits and bring back dozens of Glocks with few questions asked. That’s something we can, and should, stop.

As for the kind of guns you can buy, a tougher assault weapons ban, with fewer loopholes, and perhaps provisions outlawing bullets built to shatter in the body for maximum damage, would help reduce the lethality of the arms on the street.

“What would that troubled young man have done with less powerful weapons?” says Rick Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. “There very likely would’ve been fewer than 26 victims.”

Another option, says, Susan Ginsberg, coordinator for firearms policy during the Clinton administration, would be to add military-grade weapons — like the Bushmaster AR-15 Lanza used — to the framework set out by the National Firearms Act of 1934, which has been extremely successful in taking machine guns off the streets.

Instituting a real waiting period has helped reduce suicides. The evidence shows that if people can’t get a gun quickly, they often don’t kill themselves. A week should do it. And for the life of me, I can’t understand why I should need to take lessons and pass a test to drive a car, but I can, in many states, get a gun immediately, and with no demonstrated ability to use it safely. So perhaps some mandatory training could be part of that package, too.

Once people have guns, says Phil Cook, a gun control expert at Duke University, we should sharply increase the attention to and penalties for illegal gun possession. Many cops are told to prioritize drunk driving and drug possession well above unauthorized possession of a firearm. Top police departments across the country are learning that focusing on firearm possession can cut homicides. That’s a lesson the federal government could help other police departments learn.

Recruit Donna Taggart for Bethlehem Mayor

No, I have not heard that she has any interest, but my greatest hope for the 2013 municipal elections is that Donna Taggart will emerge as a candidate to run against Bob Donchez in the Democratic primary for Bethlehem Mayor.

Bethlehem deserves a Mayor with real vision and expertise in economic development, who wants to take the city to the next level. The city can’t afford to take 4 years off from growth and redevelopment under Bob Donchez.

Here is Donna’s bio from the Taggart Associates site:

Donna Taggart has been involved with economic development efforts for 25 years. She began her career as Director of Administration for the Lehigh Valley Industrial Park for 11 years before becoming Executive Vice President of the Bethlehem Economic Development Corporation (BEDCO). During this tenure, Donna was involved in multimillion dollar redevelopment projects for the City of Bethlehem, including key historic building renovations. BEDCO became part of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation in the early 1990s and Donna assumed the role of Vice President of Regional Development. Her work at LVEDC resulted in the transition of the Easton Economic Development Corporation into the Greater Easton Development Partnership (GEDP), parent of the Easton Main Street Initiative, which is recognized as the most successful Main Street programs in the State.

Donna has worked with dozens of boroughs and cities to help them improve their economic competitiveness and quality of life. Her extensive knowledge of federal and state programs has helped many communities achieve major milestones in their redevelopment efforts. During her career working in the public and not-for-profit sectors she packaged dozens of key community economic development projects, leveraging over $30 million in public financial incentives.

As a contract employee through Taggart Associates, Donna served as Program Coordinator of GEDP and the Easton Main Street Initiative. GEDP duties included administration of all loan programs, CDBG reporting and compliance and daily oversight of the Main Street Initiative. With Donna’s assistance, GEDP embarked on a multiyear, multimillion dollar fundraising campaign that included the public, private and academic sectors. A portion of these funds were used to implement a hospitality and cleaning program for the downtown area known as the Easton Ambassadors. This fundraising was the precursor to the establishment of a Business Improvement District to sustain these efforts.

In 2007, Taggart Associates partnered with a nationally known company in the area of Business Improvement Districts to form New City America East. Donna’s experience with Pennsylvania economic development programs and government, coupled with New City America’s experience with the formation of over 55 Business Improvement Districts across the U.S. gives Taggart Associates’ clients another option when seeking financing for their downtown revitalization efforts. New City America East is currently working in the Cities of Bethlehem and Easton to implement Business Improvement Districts to sustain their current improvements and programs.

The City of Easton, Lafayette College and the Delaware and Lehigh Heritage Corridor hired Taggart Associates to manage a $20 million project to redevelop areas along a portion of the Bushkill Creek. The projects include the redevelopment of a former industrial property, the creation of a City Gateway and the development of a recreation facility. Coordination of all interested parties and soliciting timely public input to the decision making process are key elements in this redevelopment effort. Taggart is currently leading the community visioning effort for the redevelopment of the 14-acre Silk Mill property into mixed use, retail, commercial and residential uses with a focus on the creation of an arts community including artist live/work space. This property contains approximately 334,000 square feet of existing building space, much of which is architecturally and historically significant.

Donna is also contracted with other local developers and municipalities to find unique funding strategies to make critical projects happen despite budget constraints.

Donna holds a B.S., Business Administration with a concentration in Finance; Minor: Economics from Cedar Crest College. She gives back to the community by serving as a Board Member of Northampton Community College’s Foundation Board and Executive Committee, ArtsQuest Board of Trustees and Executive Committee and Past Chair, VIA Board of Directors, and Past Board Member and Secretary of the Pennsylvania Economic Development Association.