Archives for January 21, 2013

Dennis Lieb for Easton City Council

I really would like to see Dennis Lieb run again now that Mike Fleck has decided not to seek reelection. I thought Mike Fleck had a pretty good voting record on Easton City Council, but I think a man of his talents can serve the Democrats better as an organizer and campaign manager than as an elected official. And much as I like Mike, Dennis is more interested in many of the land use issues I’m blogging on here. Easton could use a strong urbanist perspective on City Council.

LV’s Worst Democrats To Endorse Bob Donchez for Bethlehem Mayor

Interesting style contrast with Willie Reynolds’s announcement in front of his own house. Donchez will be endorsed by two other Democrats who badly need primary challengers :

Bethlehem Councilman Robert Donchez will formally announce his mayoral bid Saturday, his campaign announced today.

Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli and state Sen. Lisa Boscola are listed as the hosts of the event, which will take place at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Hotel Bethlehem.

The only person missing from this line-up is Joe Brennan.

(Thanks: Lynn Olanoff)

Joe Brennan’s Still Working for the House Democrats

Wife-choking drunk Joe Brennan will be eligible for work-release next month to go back to working for House Democrats as a research analyst.

Colin McEvoy makes the Democrats look appropriately terrible, sandwiching Bill Patton’s comments between descriptions of Brennan’s crimes:

Brennan abandoned his bid for re-election to the 133rd District seat after his August arrest. His blood-alcohol level was 0.22, nearly three times the state’s legal limit.

In November, it was announced he would go to work as a research analyst with the the House Democratic caucus’ Legislative Policy and Research Office, thus remaining on the House payroll and keeping his state health benefits and pension.

Bill Patton, a spokesman for the House Democratic caucus, said Brennan remains employed as a research analyst, but is currently on leave without pay or benefits.

“Whether his status will change has not been determined,” Patton said.

Authorities say Brennan assaulted his wife outside their Fountain Hill home Aug. 15 and then drove away. Police said he grabbed her by the neck, choked her with both hands, slapped and punched her in the face and wrestled her to the ground on their front porch.

I don’t think there’s very strong evidence that extra long sentences provide extra deterrence. But obviously there are some really dangerous people out there who we’re better off keeping locked away so they don’t hurt others. I don’t know if Joe Brennan’s in that category. He’s not a murderer or a career criminal or anything, but clearly he can be a violent asshole when he’s drinking, and that’s put his family in danger. You can’t just send him back to live with them.

This is also an embarrassing unforced political error on the part of the Democrats. Triage is the appropriate response here. Brennan’s not going to be running for higher office, especially after this. He was just a back-bench House member. He’s not going anywhere, and the party doesn’t owe him anything. Why are they bailing him out?

Could Lehigh County’s Affordable Housing Efforts Work Better?

Tom Creighton’s wrong about the Lehigh County Affordable Housing Trust, but everybody should be open to the idea that the County could be spending the public’s tax dollars in a higher impact way, in trying to achieve a goal such as affordable housing.

One thing we know is that spending on foreclosure prevention really saves local governments a lot of money. Each foreclosed property costs the community about $20,000. Pennsylvania’s HEMAP program is one of the best, most effective foreclosure mediation programs in the US. It’s false economy to cut spending on this, especially when the $11.50 fee recording fee is so low.

That is the opposite of what Percy Dougherty is proposing. He deserves credit for being one of few Republicans on the Commission willing to seriously engage on this issue, but I have to disagree with part of his proposal here:

Dougherty also said the fund should concentrate on brick and mortar rehabilitation projects rather than operating programs, such as downpayment assistance and foreclosure mitigation, which require more administrative overhead.

“I don’t think it’s really working the way we want to see it working right now,” Dougherty said. “I don’t think the money is going through to the people who need it. When it goes toward paying people’s salaries, I don’t think that’s a good use.”

County law caps administrative costs at 15 percent of money collected, Feinberg said, and typically are below that. She said the fund supports a mix of brick and mortar projects and support programs, which do carry higher administrative costs.

“But they do help a lot of people,” she said. “The counseling programs are very important.”

Foreclosure prevention is a very high-impact way to spend money, even though it costs money to administer. But is this really the best way to pay for that? What about charging a $20,000 foreclosure mitigation fee to banks who initiate foreclosures? Lots of these banks turn out to be terrible neighbors who don’t keep up their properties, dragging down neighbors’ property values. If they have to pay a $20,000 mortgage mitigation fee in order to foreclose, they’ll be more likely to modify mortgages instead of foreclosing. The fee should be used to pay for the County’s foreclosure prevention program.

I am more skeptical about downpayment assistance. It makes sense if the goal is promoting homeownership, but I don’t really see that as an affordable housing strategy. I think the County needs a more robust affordable housing strategy than that, one that focuses on developing the market for multi-family rental housing in Allentown, western Bethlehem and the older boroughs. Allentown is facing what looks like a rental housing shortage right now. In my view, bringing market rents down to an affordable share of income is a more pressing affordable housing goal than helping a relatively small number of people become homeowners. One thing Tom Creighton is right about is that the current programs don’t help enough people, but his solution is to stop trying to help anybody, rather than proposing a more productive alternative strategy.

One way Lehigh County might bring down rents is through a Transferable Development Rights bank. Right now, the County spends money buying up development rights to farmland and then not using them, in order to protect at least some farm land from getting eaten up by subdivisions and Big Box stores. But with a TDR Bank, the development rights would then be sold to developers who want to build beyond the zoning envelope in some other area.

So for instance, even in the “high density residential” zones in Allentown, the maximum building height is 38 feet. That’s not very tall at all for high density.If someone wants to build taller than that, they need to get a variance from Allentown zoners. But Allentown could identify some high growth zones of the city in addition to the NIZ and the waterfront where a developer interested in building taller than 38 feet can buy the right to do that directly from the County, rather than having to apply for a variance with the city. The square footage of farmland protected would be matched 1:1 in new developable air rights.

This would promote affordable housing since it would make sure that there is no loss of developable land in Lehigh County. Any land that the County makes unavailable for housing construction would be offset by an equivalent upzoning in the developed areas. This would help ensure that the County’s efforts to preserve open space do not inadvertently drive up housing costs on the remaining developable land.

Politically, the TDR bank is an idea that could appeal to people who like markets and don’t like taxes, which the Lehigh County Republicans would probably cop to. Instead of the traditional farmland preservation program that just pays people not to develop their land, the TDR bank uses a market for development rights to manage the competing priorities of growth and open space. Best of all, there doesn’t need to be any public money involved, other than administration. Developers buy the development rights, and that money is used to purchase development rights to farmland. At no point is the County taxing residents to buy development rights.

This is a very Republican way to the achieve the liberal end of farmland preservation – an issue that is popular with many suburban Republicans. It could be a way for Republicans to steal one of the Democrats’ more popular issues in the local issue space. Remember that Ron Beitler is running for Lower Macungie Commissioner as a Republican and as a smart growther.

Before this rambles on even further, I’ll just restate the point once again that there are a lot of policy ideas out there to address affordable housing that don’t involve taxes and transfers, if that isn’t your thing, and some of the best ones are very pro-market. Unfortunately Lehigh County Republicans are overtaken by an anti-government faction that’s not really interested in governing or improving quality of life on metrics besides low taxes.

Tom Creighton Doesn’t Give a Shit About Affordable Housing

Tom Creighton is making it very clear that he wants to end Lehigh County’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund for ideological anti-government reasons. It isn’t that he thinks the County could use the money in a higher-impact way. The Tea People think charging $11.50 to somebody buying a $300,000 house is a grave moral problem. They don’t think it’s any of the government’s business trying to help poor people afford housing:

At its height, the $11.50 fee (tacked on to the existing $11.50 fee for recording of deeds and mortgages) generated up to $400,000 a year. It’s expect to generate $200,000 to $300,000 this year, according to Cindy Feinberg, the county’s director of community and economic development.

Adding $11.50 to a $300,000 house sale is probably not going to kill the deal, Jennings argued.

But Creighton called it a “nuisance tax” that has benefited too few people in just a few housing developments, and said it can be eliminated to shrink the size of government.

“I feel it’s just a tax that we don’t need,” Creighton said. “By not having that fee, it makes houses cheaper for everybody.”

Now, it’s true that cutting a flat $11.50 off every home’s selling price would make homes cheaper. But what makes this such a stupid argument is that they would get cheaper by $11.50 – an amount too small to matter to any home buyer or seller. Tom Creighton don’t care though! The Tea People’s single-minded goal is cutting taxes, and they don’t care about what happens to the people struggling with unaffordable housing costs.

People should remember this episode next time they read somebody complaining that Republican politicians aren’t competitive in Allentown. Browsing the comments of most online news articles about Allentown, you see a lot of ugly accusations that lower-income Latino voters are stupid, thoughtless lever-pullers who won’t give Republicans a fair shake. But look at what Republicans are doing! Allentown voters think Republicans don’t care about people getting squeezed with high housing and transportation costs, and Tom Creighton is proving them right. It’s not like Lehigh County Republicans have some competing platform on these issues, some other ideas about how to reduce housing costs. They don’t give a shit, and they don’t even try to pretend they give a shit.

(Thanks: Samantha Marcus)