Tag Archives: neighborhoods

Strong Towns:  Investing in Old, Lower-Value Neighborhoods, not More Infrastructure

New Orleans       On the sometimes lonely march to try to advance and rebuild low-and-moderate income communities, it’s always a welcome relief to stumble on fellow travelers moving on much the same pathway.  At least that’s how I felt preparing to interview Chuck Marohn for Wade’s World, the author of Strong Towns:  Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity and the president and co-founder of the nonprofit also called Strong Towns.

Marohn argues against the grain of the pro-development at any price crowd as well as the infrastructure ideologues both of which to his engineer’s mind, just don’t add up.  It resonated with me when he offered an example of the added value on every bottom line of investing that is achieved putting money into lower income neighborhoods where fixing streets, sidewalks, and simple maintenance could increase the value of a family’s home and citizen wealth from $50,000 to $55,000, a ten percent jump.  He compared this to a municipality supporting a suburban or new development of $250,000 and above homes where they had to build all of the streets and infrastructure, lay the water and sewer lines, and everything else, which would never pay back, and in thirty years would need to be replaced again.  Similarly, he knocked the fake urban incentive plans and gave an example from his town in Minnesota where they essentially gave a 25-year tax break to move a fast food operation three block, getting nothing from the move and creating abandonment and less value in the former area.  Amen and hallelujah!

When it comes to roads and other big infrastructure projects, he states flatly that we could not build or expand another highway for decades and still have more road capacity than we need.  I thought of ACORN’s fight against the intercity expressway in Little Rock, then the Wilbur Mills and now the I-630, and a number of similar highway projects, including recent proposals in New Orleans 9th ward, and wished we had had him with us when we needed him then.  Our endless fights against the expansion of the Industrial Canal in New Orleans are another example, but they are endless.

Part of Marohn’s argument is that the so-called cost-benefit claims of many of these projects are fake-math as I called it, and that he called almost too kind.  The way bond markets, Wall Street, and the feds have hornswoggled cities and towns is their successful lobbying of accounting standards that makes water lines and miles of roads “assets,” as if they were producing income and revenue for a city, rather than depreciating liabilities that require constant maintenance and replacement without an income stream that supports the cost. An investment in a block of residential houses that produces more tax revenues on the other hand is usually recorded as a liability, despite the change in value.  Similarly, Marhon made a devastating argument that the math behind loss work time because of traffic and job creation through construction which are used to support highway development are totally specious, because there is no relationship to the saved minute on a commute necessarily creating addition income at all, much less for the various levels of government paying the bill.

You get the message, Strong Towns, organization and book, are worth a good luck, forcing these arguments into the public policy and budgetary debates around the country.  Recently, a real estate developer was elected as the new mayor of Nashville on campaign promises to end business incentives and to slow down or manage growth better for existing citizens.   Maybe change is coming?  If we can redirect this energy and dollars from the shiny new things to rehab and restoration of our existing neighborhoods and facilities, we will have a win for all of us.


Neighborhoods Matter a Lot in Determining the Future

Demolition of housing project in New Orleans

Demolition of housing project in New Orleans

New Orleans   A new study being prominently reported argues powerfully that the neighborhood where you live and are raised may have way more to say about determining your future than many families or policy makers or government officials may have been willing to admit. That’s scary for many considering the abandonment of much of urban policy and investment by the federal and other branches of government in recent, and likely coming years, unless there is a major, almost revolutionary shift. Implicit, but unstated, in the dry report melting economics and math together, is how important strong community organizations, like the ones build by ACORN in lower income neighborhoods, could have had the ability to dislodge the depressing path of the future.

Justin Wolfers, an economics professor at the University of Michigan, reported on this harder look at the numbers in The New York Times, reviewing a dissertation being completed by one of his students, Eric Chyn, that is finding that the impact of neighborhood, always understood to be powerful, is even more devastatingly so than earlier assumed. Previous studies have found that children relocated from more difficult environments at a young age outperformed their peers economically by a substantial amount. These studies looked at winners and losers of a lottery in a public housing project, comparing the winners, those who were given a housing voucher to move out, with the losers, who those who were trapped inside. Chyn found that the impact was understated, because everyone entering the lottery was motivated to win, so that the real difference was between those who wanted out, and those who were stuck there. He looked at a more random set of people moved in and out as public housing buildings were dismantled in Chicago and the figures jumped out like screaming demons in an everyday Halloween.

The lack of a serious national housing policy that allows families better odds of emerging in the future is ignored by the right with their pretense of personal responsibility and not pursued as a mission on the order of the search for the Holy Grail on the left. It’s not a two-handed problem, where on the one hand this, and the other hand that. Unless we dramatically improve living conditions – and – opportunity in low-and-moderate income neighborhoods and force economic and racial mobility in communities, health opportunities, educational offerings, and job prospects, then the only thing we seem to be doing is making careers for economics to calculate the level of our failure.

And, part of the equation has to be support, one way or another, of vibrant and aggressive community organizations, and developing the organizers who build them, so that the ways and means to carry on the fight and have people participate in the push will be in place, as well as the ability to hold government and institutions accountable for making the changes that can redirect dismal futures to ones with hope and promise.