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Inclusionary but Unaffordable “Affordable” Housing in London

if_you_dont_live_hereLondon     In the dark days of neo-liberalism when cities and states are embracing private developers to impact their profound public responsibilities to provide decent and adequate housing for families regardless of income the whole notion of so-called “affordable” housing seems to have been left in the rubbish at the construction site.  Where recently we thought perhaps the inclusionary zoning type standard for new developments in London requiring 20% of the units be “affordable” might be preferable to some similar initiatives in the United States, on closer inspection it’s a mirage.

Simply put the various borough councils in London have decoupled rent from income in this new doublespeak of “affordable” housing.  Twenty percent of the units must be classified as “affordable,” but that means the rent in those units is discounted so that tenants are only paying 80% of the market rate. In the overheated, gentrified housing market in London that means two things. One that your rent will keep rising, squeezing you out later, rather than soon, if you happened to be in such housing, and, second, that you’re a long way from poor and lower income when you qualified, since in some of these units you would have to be making big money to be able to afford the so-called “affordable” housing.

The Conservative government and its austerity program has put a gun to the council’s heads, but they have also in most cases swallowed the bullets like candy, and continue to sell off council or public housing willy-nilly in various schemes that deplete the housing stock and squeeze the lower income families to other boroughs and out of the city completely. The Guardian reports:

 

Last year, even the Conservative Westminster council warned London mayor Boris Johnson that plans to set new rent levels at up to 80% of market rent would require council tenants in a three-bedroom home in the borough to have an annual income of £109,000 in order to be considered affordable. The council estimated that half its social rented households receive an annual income of less than £12,000 a year.

 

In New York City, the easiest comparable big city to compare to London, inclusionary zoning is voluntary, though Mayor de Blasio is clear that he has his sights on changing that to mandatory, and the rents are targeted to family income, which is good, but there just aren’t enough of them. Hard to say that’s a whole lot better. The families that literally win the lottery and get to live with the rich are still few and far between. And, New York is still an exception since despite some progress in San Francisco, Santa Fe, and a couple of more, inclusionary zoning, pushed by housing advocates, has never been able to trump the dreams and dollars of developers in city halls across the country. That much seems true on both sides of the water. The other startling truth is the crisis in affordable housing and the needs of families for decent and affordable housing are simply not being heard or met.

Gentrification on Steroids as Council Housing Turned over to London Developers

crowdLondon            The dismantling of public housing in the US has been going on for more than 30 years in major cities around the country.  The fight is often around relocation, adequate section 8 subsidies in private housing, and the percentage of units that will be replacement housing for the poor.  Listening to organizers and leaders of an effort to slowdown one of the 40 such redevelopment efforts occurring now around London, if anything, the situation seemed more out of control, if I understand even half of what I was being told.

These organizers were working in the Hendon council estates in the Borough of Barnet one of the largest of the more than 30 boroughs in London based on both square miles and population, located in the northern part of the city.  To hear the story the Council, dominated by real estate interests, has pretty much turned the estate over to a UK-based development company called Barrett Homes, lock, stock, and barrel.

Protests are ongoing and over recent weeks there have been arrests and small actions of tenants blocking deliveries and stopping work as the tension increases.  There’s a fair amount of press interest starting to emerge as various media outlets start to recognize that if they don’t hurry they’ll miss the last working family turning off the lights as they are gentrified out of the city.

In this situation the development company itself was allowed by the Council to do the governing feasibility study on the takeover and as it was related to me the numbers of dedicated units below market rate as “replacement” for existing tenants have now been unilaterally downgraded from the initial promised 30%, then down to 25% of the units now being built.  That might mean 500 units of the proposed 2000 in the new development with the shared equity owners having half and formerly unsecured tenants getting the other 250.  The harder one looks and listens, the more difficult the proposition when it comes to keeping existing tenants and leaseholders in the community rather than being boxed out by reduced prices, an accelerated market, and the impact of the Locality Act which can allow them to be moved into other boroughs.  Confused?  So are the tenants!

Much of the new development is on green space in the Hendon area and looking at the company’s promotional website for Hendon Waterside, as they call it, the market prices for purchase will be from 250,000 pounds to over a half-million pounds.

Even “leaseholders,” who are actually owners that have to be bought out are getting a raw deal.  The council and the company have set the price for their buyouts almost 100000 pounds below the market established by independent appraisers, putting these “buy in” owners behind the wild inflation in London housing and likely unable to afford anything near replacement housing.  This kind of eminent domain practice for commercial development is now anathema in the US for conservatives, but paradoxically it is the Conservatives in charge of Barnet who are forcing these “CPOs” or compulsory purchase orders, as they are called down the council flat owners’ throats.

This seems little more than gentrification on steroids and targeting public assets for private development in partnership with local governments.  I was told in fact that the Conservatives here have even managed to repeal their own conflict of interest ordinances so they could fast track these developments.  In another eviction proceeding being resisted in another council estate, several dozen young mothers are protesting being “reassigned” housing all over the UK, including Glasgow, for a developers’ plans.

Housing issues seem to be cropping up everywhere in London, and I’m scrambling to get my arms around what I’m hearing.  Organizers are hoping that they might be able to unify many of these fights into one overarching campaign to deal with so many of these high-end, anti-people developments.

Time seems to be running out the clock though.  They showed me a Mayor’s question period on YouTube a couple of months ago with Boris Johnson, who is talked about as a potential candidate for the Conservative Party for Prime Minister, when he was questioned about a landlord’s practices in Barnet.  The Labour assembly member asked a couple of seeming hypotheticals about some unethical practices by a landlord in his area and Mayor Johnson agreed that it seemed to be illegal practices ripping off the public purse as well as tenants, until the trap was sprung and the landlord in question was revealed as a Conservative Party colleague, the Mayor of Barnet, in which case London’s Mayor Johnson parried with a couple of jokes and asides, and it was clear there would be no action taken.

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Wow! We’re Not Alone in Seeing Comcast as a Bully!

London      I hit the ground in London around noon their time. Ok, that overstates it. After flying overnight from Houston, it would be more accurate to say that I stumbled out of the plane like the rest of my flying comrades to an overcast and raining day, totally different than the weather I had convinced myself that I would find. Two hours later I was in a Starbucks waiting for the ACORN London organizers and their volunteers on the doorknocking push before their first meeting.

And, here’s where it got good! The esteemed and influential media columnist for the New York Times, came out powerfully with our position that Comcast had finally showed its true self as a bully extraordinaire. Better, Carr argued, as we had, that this will encourage the FCC to look at them more closely. As the old saying goes, “hubris comes before the fall,” and finally Comcast has tripped on its own arrogance and contempt for the pubic and its customers, putting their monopolistic ambitions in the crosshairs finally. Stopping them is still dicey, but there’s real hope for serious scrutiny and the chance of victory.

But, I don’t want to go all David Cohen and start gloating or suffering from premature certainty. Let the Times’ Carr make the better case instead:

Growling by Comcast May Bring Tighter Leash

SEPT. 28, 2014

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A demonstration in Philadelphia, across from the Comcast Center, against Comcast’s bid to buy Time Warner Cable. Credit Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Comcast has a long corporate tradition of smiling and wearing beige no matter what kind of criticisms are hurled at it. That public posture is in keeping with the low-key approach favored by Brian L. Roberts, the company’s chief executive, as he seeks to take over the world. It’s worked very well so far.

But in a filing submitted to the Federal Communications Commission last week in defense of its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable, the company lashed out uncharacteristically at its critics. And David L. Cohen, Comcast’s chief lobbyist, continued the salvo in comments to reporters and in his written remarks.

Watching Comcast’s ballistic response to opponents of its $45 billion takeover bid was a bit like watching a campaign debate go off the rails. The front-runner, ahead by 20 points, is besieged by ankle-biters who suggest he is a lout and a bully. He finally loses it and goes off on his opponents in a fury, generally acting like, well, a bully.

That’s one way to make a big lead go away.

In baring its teeth, Comcast sought to show that the companies now opposing the deal were using public interest arguments to advance private business agendas. It said these companies had privately sought $5 billion in concessions from Comcast before going public with their opposition.

In a thick document bristling with arguments on its own behalf, Comcast used quite a bit of ink and hot rhetoric on those who would lay it low, saying in part: “The significance of this extortion lies in not just the sheer audacity of some of the demands, but also the fact that each of the entities making the ‘ask’ has all but conceded that if its individual business interests are met, then it has no concern whatsoever about the state of the industry, supposed market power going forward, or harm to consumers, competitors, or new entrants.”

Gee, Comcast, don’t sugarcoat it. Say what you really mean.

The word extortion is usually applied to guys with names like Nicky who wear bad suits and crack their knuckles a lot. If this is how the company acts in the wooing stage, imagine how charming it will be once it actually gets what it wants.

The company named names, plenty of them: Netflix, for complaining about interconnection plans it freely negotiated with Comcast; Discovery, for asking for sweetheart carriage deals before its current contract is even up; and Dish, for whining about enhanced competition.

Its opponents were surprised by Comcast’s ferocity — and overjoyed. An air of inevitability has been hanging over the merger since it was announced in February — Comcast has a legion of allies in Washington, and a formidable advocate in Mr. Cohen — but the opposition that has built up in the ensuing months seems to have driven the company around the bend.

Comcast executives are offended. They genuinely believe that it will take a company of its scale and growing technological innovation to deliver the next generation of programming and data services.

Opponents of the merger are convinced that granting a beefed-up Comcast dominion over much of the country’s broadband would stifle innovation and tilt the field in unhealthy ways.

Both sides believe they hold the key to a consumer-friendly, high-functioning Internet.

Right.

What is actually going on is both more basic and more interesting. Programmers are worried that if Comcast takes over Time Warner Cable, it will have the leverage to dictate prices. Web-based services like Netflix foresee a giant that will extract significant fees for providing high-speed performance.

Comcast, which agreed to all manner of regulation to complete its acquisition of NBCUniversal in 2011, does not want to hand out so many bonbons to other players that the proposed merger becomes noneconomic. There is no breakup fee on the deal and Comcast could still walk, especially if it feels that a merger would lead to the regulation of broadband access as if it were a public utility.

Opponents are trying to enlarge the merger debate to include the broader issues of net neutrality and monopoly control, and there are signs that these efforts are gaining traction in significant places. On Sept. 4, Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the F.C.C., surprised many, including Comcast, when he said in a speech that in terms of broadband that can support streaming on multiple devices, 82 percent of Americans have only one choice in providers.

Regardless of motive, the issues raised in the filings are hugely important and won’t be brushed aside by bombast or counterattack.

From the start, Comcast has sought to frame the debate more narrowly, portraying it as the merger of two cable operators that do not compete, which is sort of true and sort of beside the point. The future, as anyone with a router could tell you, is all about broadband; a merged Time Warner Cable and Comcast would control more than 35 percent of the broadband market with easy access to far more households and would be the dominant presence in 16 of the 20 largest cities in the country.

Comcast is aggrieved that the people it has seen across the negotiating table — with their hands out — cocked a gun after they didn’t get what they wanted, but in terms of the public debate, Comcast is at a disadvantage.

From the consumer perspective, Netflix provides a wide array of programming for $8 a month, and Discovery delivers abundant reality programming along with lots of furry and furious animals. Comcast is the cable guy with the drooping pants, the one who collects money for everyone else by issuing big, fat monthly bills — and then sends much of it right back out the door to programmers.

A senior executive at Comcast agreed that its aggressive response was “uncharacteristic,” but said, “Enough was enough.” This executive spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy.

“The increases that these companies are looking for in exchange for not opposing the deal are exorbitant,” the executive said. “Programmers don’t expect to get called out on this stuff, but the industry is reaching a breaking point, and we needed to stand up for ourselves.”

It sounded sincere and very likely is, but going on the attack is probably not good strategy. Comcast has always combined its political might with restraint of tongue, a brutally effective combination that it has temporarily abandoned. In reminding the F.C.C. to scrutinize motives behind the arguments it will hear as it weighs whether to approve or challenge the deal, Comcast seemed defensive and frantic.

I remain unconvinced that giving Comcast a bigger footprint is good public policy, but I understand its frustration. No one, even big, powerful companies, likes being ganged up on by opponents whose own motives are open to suspicion, but their response could create more problems than it’s worth.

When I was young and stupid, my friends and I tried to cut through a yard full of turkeys just for the thrill of it. The turkeys surrounded us and immediately began hitting us with their wings, protesting the intrusion. My farm-raised pal cautioned me just to ignore it, but after a while I couldn’t stand it anymore and gave one a nice swift kick.

And that’s when the trouble really started.

Marching for a Climate Change Turning Point

2014-09-21t181449z_242980738_gm1ea9m064l01_rtrmadp_3_usa-climatechange-march.jpg_1718483346New Orleans    The march in New York demanding action on climate change was hard to get a handle on from a distance.  The Associated Press called the number 100,000.  The New York Times studiously avoided ever giving a number in the aftermath of the march, simply saying there were tens of thousands.  Finally, a week later the Times’ editorial page tagged the number at 300,000.  Between police, press, promoters, and regular people, it’s very difficult to get a handle on facts when it comes to organizing, and when we are looking for the heartbeat of a movement, it’s actually not just a question of engineering, but a way to measure passion, so it is actually very important.  So many mainstream institutions and media are so punctilious about not seeming to support protest that it is virtually impossible to benchmark the truth as opposed to the promotion.

            Talking to Dean Hubbard, national director of the Labor Project for the Sierra Club, on Wade’s World on KABF recently, opened up a different perspective.  Dean said they were astounded by the numbers.   They had expected 100,000 in New York City, but instead they thought the numbers had topped 400,000.  We’ll never know.  He argued, perhaps more interestingly, that the wider footprint of the march could be found in the hundreds of cities throughout the USA that did something on that date and the thousands of cities, large and small, that stepped up to the mark globally.

            President Obama seemed to have used some of this energy to argue more aggressively for action, not only in the USA, which as the worst of the worst, has to be a leader here, but also to challenge China to join the fight as the largest bulk polluter even though we are the greatest per capita polluter.  India, the next in line, seems still unwilling to join the fray.

            It’s Dean’s job to argue that the fight between jobs and the environment is finally reaching détente, and he made the case as best he could, and there’s merit to his argument.  His weakest point might have been the fact that there were 10,000 marchers under union banners in New York City, led by some predictable unions like the Service Employees, but also importantly the giant Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electricians, a critical chink in the armor of the construction trades which have been stubbornly resistant to many environmental arguments with a “jobs are everything” and the devil take the hindmost attitude.  Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement that he supported retrofitting all of the buildings in New York City before he personally joined the march, was a key piece of leadership moving the NYC trades.

            Where Dean and the Sierra Club’s case improved was as he recited the increasing amount of alternative energy development that is replacing standard generation methods, and the number of jobs that are, and will be, produced by such construction, energy creation, and distribution.  It seems impossible to argue whether on the threat of climate change or the ticking time bomb of contemporary resource depletion that no matter the math now or the facts on the ground, that the tide of history is now flowing in the direction of Dean’s argument with the opponents cries simply being the gurgles of dinosaurs on their way to extinction, hopefully not bringing the rest of us with them.

 

Middle Class Squeeze

topicssqueeze3New Orleans         There were a couple of random headlines and a paragraph or two on the wire services, but the recent report, “Middle Class Squeeze,” by the DC-based progressive think tank, Center for American Progress, is actually pretty startling on a closer look.

Here’s the bottom line. Defining the middle class as those individuals and families between the 20% quintile and 80% quintile or fifth of income groups in a dozen years between 2000 and 2012, median income in middle class dropped by 8%. Families with two parents working and two children, who usually do much better on the numbers, saw their income stagnate in this period. While income dropped, basic costs that define middle income life rose significantly by almost $10,000 according to the CAP researchers work. Rents went up 7%, medical costs 21%, child care 24%, and higher education 62%. At one level you just have to gasp, but living through America in this dirty dozen, there are probably few of us who are surprised at these numbers.

Besides the Great Recession, what happened here?

The report underscores that this has not just been the money grab of the 1% through wealth transfer, though tax and public policy has made this part of the rip and run. Other research has established that 98% of the wealth went to only the top 10% of earners from 2001 to 2007. The report underscores the breach of the social contract between business and workers over recent decades when there was a decoupling of growth in productivity with growth in compensation.

 

Productivity growth from 1991 to 2012 averaged 2.2 percent per year, yet compensation growth only averaged 1 percent per year. A worker today is almost 60 percent more productive than a worker in 1991 but has seen only half of that productivity growth translate into higher compensation.

 

And, that’s just income. The actual wealth of a family has been hammered underscoring the huge gap in inequality.

 

Among the top 20 percent of families by net worth, average wealth increased by 120 percent between 1983 and 2010, while the middle 20 percent of families only saw their wealth increase by 13 percent, and the bottom fifth of families, on average, saw debt exceed assets—in other words, negative net worth. Families of color have fallen further behind white families in building wealth: A survey that tracked white and African American families between 1984 and 2009 found that the wealth gap between them nearly tripled, from $85,000 to $236,500. Homeowners in the bottom quintile of wealth lost an astounding 94 percent of their wealth between 2007 and 2010.

The policy proscriptions focus on doing more to increase the number of family-supporting jobs and aggressively reducing living costs to pull them in line with incomes.
Talk is cheap, but truth to tell, we don’t hear many politicians in this election season speaking to solutions that would loosen the squeeze felt by the vast majority of families.

Criminalizing Immigration in Modern Society

americasvoiceonline-dc-protest600x350pxNew Orleans      Meeting with Suyapa Amador and Erlyn Perez, ACORN International’s key organizers in Honduras in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa recently in Nicaragua, it became clear that we were making progress in winning more security for our neighborhoods, including several important commitment from the First Lady focusing on jobs as well as protection, but we were still putting our fingers in the dike. In Managua they could not stop talking about how much safer it felt everywhere compared to Honduras. For better or worse, the government felt like it worked in Nicaragua, rather than being either ineffective or oppositional in Honduras. We heard amazing stories of what it took for families to raise the $4000 to $6000 to try to allow family members, including children, to escape the violence and, quite frankly, to find jobs.

Bobby Jindal, the ultra-conservative Republican governor of Louisiana and wannabe presidential contender, on this side of the fence wants to know more than he should about the more than 1000 children from Honduras and other Central American countries being held with family in Louisiana. The Jefferson Parish public schools wants to know where they can come up with $4 million to provide the additional support services for these children coming into their system. Another Republican wannabe, Texas governor Rick Perry, has tried to broad-brush these children and others as potential terrorists. Headlines everywhere ask for support for refugees fleeing violence, bombing, and religious persecution in the Middle East, where millions are running for their lives. Departing Attorney General Eric Holder announced support for legal representation for the Central American’s coming over the border. How is it that Republicans and many Americans can pretend to understand refugees in the Middle East, but are confused about our Central American neighbors being human rights and economic refugees in almost precisely the same way?

I listened to a brief presentation and interview recently organized by the New Orleans on-line news service, the Lens with lawyers, organizers, and beleaguered immigrants connected to the Congress of Day Laborers and the New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice.    An unfortunately slim audience listened to a back and forth about whether or not the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program in New Orleans was a pilot or not, and whether or not it was joining with the New Orleans Police Department to target, profile, and raid minority, immigrant communities in the city. New Orleans is part of the Secure Communities program which has been dropped by many other major urban areas. They reported meetings with Mayor Mitch Landrieu that had failed to win commitments to break away from their agreement though won some concessions around study, follow-up, and resources. The voices of the immigrants were powerful, though their stories probably confused many of the listeners, because despite being on message, the main takeaway was less about the police than about the precariousness of their situations, dropping them into the abyss of our broken immigration system.

There were two inescapable points made, one for New Orleans, and the other for everywhere. The Justice Department consent decree for the NOPD forbids it from targeting immigrant communities, but the city’s agreement with ICE on Secure Communities, makes them a handmaiden of the ICE officers in their work. But, the precariousness of circumstance that the two immigrants related settles on the ICE and Obama Administration claim to be rounding up “criminal” aliens, and continuing to allow the criminality to be defined and confused in the public’s mind. For most of these roundups the “criminal” behavior is having broken the law by coming over the border illegally. In the main this is not about robbers, rapists, murders, and drug traffic or terror, but about refugees guilty of seeking America for a better life.

The criminal behavior we heard early in the morning was a trip to the store for a baby and a domestic spat with a husband, both of which have now snared people in deportation proceedings, split their families, and exacerbated the criminality of their immigration. Looking north from Central America, all ACORN can see is a human rights crisis in countless communities, but here we are opening our jails faster than either our hearts or minds.