"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, October 17, 2014

Does West Conshohocken Still Have A Reason to Exist? (Part II)

Last week I began the story of West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.  I pointed out that it came into existence for a very good—and very common—reason.  Its history, I said, at least up until about 1980, was virtually the same as for each of the eight towns on the lower Schuylkill, albeit in miniature.  I concluded, however, by claiming that by 1980, it was clear that the Conshohockens were going to experience a very different future from those towns upriver.  That future would be, by comparison, very much better, but there would be a price to pay.  Both boroughs would pay their allotted amount, but West Conshohocken would pay far more heavily.  That has happened, and to such an extent that I questioned whether the borough still had a reason to exist.  To that end, I asked two questions:

1.  Does the reason for which the Borough of West Conshohocken was created still exist?
2.  If not, shouldn’t the whole thing be eliminated?

Those questions are, in turn, based on a phrase that I as a historian have found to be quite useful: “That was then.  But this is now, and things have changed.”  In the Schuylkill Valley, not only have things changed, most of them have changed a full 180 degrees.  This hold true for the Conshohockens, but their change—and theirs alone—also invokes my mantra, “The more things change ..(you know the rest)”  The Conshohockens came into existence because of the intersection of two travel routes, originally the township line roads, meeting the river at Matson’s Ford.  This time both are being recreated by the intersection of two roads (one of which does follow the path of the river, by the way).  These are not just any roads, mind you, but two Interstate Highways.  The Conshohockens now lie at an intersection that can be reached easily from a great distance (yes, I am ignoring traffic jams here, but so are the developers and buyers/renters).  Upriver, only Pottstown might make this claim, but both its highways and the region they access are not in as good a shape.

The intersection of these two major highways had to go somewhere, and West Conshohocken was that somewhere.  The intersection arrived incrementally, as the second of the two highways—what would eventually become Interstate 476 (the “Blue Route”)—was built in segments.  The initial creation of the Conshohocken off-ramp of what would become Interstate 76 dates back to the early fifties.  Conshohocken got the name, but West Conshohocken got the ramp, and lost ground, residences and borough revenue in the process.  By the time the whole process was completed almost forty years later, West Conshohocken had been gutted; drawn and quartered, as it were.
West Conshohocken’s total area is still listed as .9 square miles.  Its livable area is much smaller than that.  The highways took what they needed, and left the rest.  The result has been unkind to any sense of community.  The new, widened and realigned roads necessary to service the much greater number of vehicles that now pass through the Borough have, in turn, divided its remaining land into pieces, each effectively cut off from one another.  The absolute prioritization of vehicle traffic passing through has rendered it challenging to even walk from one section of the small borough to another.

That is just looking at things from a purely physical point of view.  But what about West Conshohocken’s historic sense of community identity, of its reason for being?  What was once a typical locally-focused Schuylkill Valley community, where people lived, worked and worshipped in the same town, has been rent asunder; much eliminated, parts isolated and everything local de-emphasized.  Can the fragments that remain even see themselves as members of a community at all?  Those who descend from the old days and live in the older residential sections very likely do, but as residents of what, today’s reality, or just a memory?  West Conshohocken’s historic self-image is that of a gritty mill town, overshadowed by its much larger, and even more gritty, neighbor across the river.  Both are no longer mill towns, but is West Conshohocken a town at all these days?

For a long time, the Borough of West Conshohocken served a purpose for both its residents and those in the nearby areas.  It no longer does.  The money flowing into the Conshohocken area does not respect political boundaries, and it has come close to eliminating any difference between West Conshohocken and its surroundings.  The basic components of what makes a grouping of people into an actual community once existed, but no longer. 

Much has changed along this bend in the Schuylkill River, and the pace, as this is written, actually appears to be picking up.  New office buildings and residences have physically replaced the old industries.  What that means is that with a minute number of exceptions, the new residents work elsewhere while the new workers live elsewhere.  That is a fundamental, one hundred eighty degree change from why the Schuylkill River towns came into existence in the first place.  These days, we don’t expect a town’s temporary daylight occupants to show much interest in the community, but what about the new residents, and those who will inhabit the developments currently pending?  Will these new people consider themselves residents of the Borough of West Conshohocken, or will it be just a mailing address for them?  They will pay their taxes, but how many of them will vote in local elections?  Will they support the George Clay Fire Company?  How will they view the community in which they technically live?  As anything at all?

Let’s put it another way: do they have any reason to feel of sense of community about today’s West Conshohocken?  What does the Borough—and being a part of it—contribute to their lives? 
The core of West Conshohocken has always been its ethnic churches, just as with every other town on the lower Schuylkill.  St. Gertrude’s, the Borough’s first Catholic church, founded in 1888, is now closed.  Does Sunday still promote a sense of community like it used to, and if not, has anything taken its place?  A community’s youth was the medium in which the old traditions were passed along, accepting some of those they were taught, changing others and then passing them along in turn to their children.  The Borough no longer has either an elementary, middle or high school.  The ties between the Conshohockens were not strong enough to keep their children together.  West Conshohocken students attend the Upper Merion School District, while those in Conshohocken are part of the Plymouth Whitemarsh School District.

The answer to my first question, then, is clearly "No."  What about the second one?  That's up to the residents of West Conshohocken whether to even ask, let alone decide.  It should be clear to anyone who looks that the reasons for West Conshohocken's birth no longer exist, and the reasons it sustained itself so long for so well no longer exist either.  Both these facts are true for the other towns on the lower Schuylkill as well, which is why their futures remain uncertain.  The difference is that the Conshohockens are having that future forced on them.  Conshohocken's crisis lies in which path it will follow, but at least it has a choice, albeit a limited one.  The problem surrounding West Conshohocken lies in the strong possibility that it has no choice at all.  The forces arrayed against its continuation a a coherent community arise from the exercise of the free market economy, and they are hugely more powerful that those that can be marshaled to protect the borough's traditional community identity.  The name may remain the same, but what else will, really?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Does West Conshohocken Still Have A Reason To Exist? (Part I)

Across the entire scope of human history, there may be nothing more constantly present, regardless of time or locale, than this defense of the status quo:  Why do we do it this way?  Because we have always done it this way!”  Our very human love of predictability, and perhaps even more of ritual, have set among us a great many structures that easily fit into that process I introduced last week, Instruments that have become Institutions.  Some, like Federal welfare departments, are under sufficient duress from enough people that the ideal of actually eliminating one seems tantalizingly close to possible.  Others, like the Pa. LCB, are understood to be pointless relics by just about everyone, but remain somehow resistant to dismantling.

Then there are those institutions so deeply ingrained into our everyday lives that we literally never think of changing them, unless something major comes along, and often not even then.  Religions are the most obvious example, but secular governments are not far behind.  Just about every American wants to change the U.S.A., but few want to eliminate it (even Clive Bundy was just blowing smoke, to cover his legal debts).  The occasional western county tries to secede from its state, because they believe in democracy up to the point where their conservative ways no longer hold sway over the rest of the state, then not so much.  Nothing comes of this, of course.  Any U.S. territorial subdivision that has survived thus far can be the focus of much controversy, but can also pretty much count on no one questioning whether or not it should exist at all.

Except me.  I am going to offer the most fundamental question of all about a very small municipality on the lower Schuylkill River in Southeastern Pennsylvania:  Does the Borough of West Conshohocken still have a reason to exist?  Mind you, I do not ask if West Conshohocken should continue to exist.  Such a question must arise from within the Borough itself, and be tested in public discourse.  I, simultaneously a historian and focused on the future of our small towns, confine myself to asking of West Conshohocken the very same two questions I applied to the Pa. LCB in my previous post:

1.  Does the reason for which the Borough of West Conshohocken was created still exist?
2.  If not, shouldn’t the whole thing be eliminated?     

Last week I said these two questions had wide applicability, and I meant it.  I recognize no sacred cows as exempt from the basic scrutiny that we should apply to all institutions, particularly those that have an automatic call on our money.  If the answer to the first question is “No,” then the second question is legitimate.  Everybody seemed to agree when the subject was the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.  Now I’m going to briefly point out why the same answer of “No” applies to West Conshohocken.

This is not about what most people would point to: West Conshohocken’s declining population.  The Borough has always had the smallest population of any town on the lower Schuylkill; those numbers peaked in 1930 at 2,579, and have declined since.  As of the 2010 Census, only 1,320 people still call West Conshohocken their home.  For a sense of perspective, consider that at any given daylight hour, there are more people than that at the King of Prussia Mall.  But numbers alone are an insufficient reason to question the Borough’s continued existence.  A great many towns with smaller numbers exist all across the country.  Of course, they tend to be surrounded by large swaths of farmland, not big-city suburbs with a population density close to—or perhaps greater than—their own.  That presents a fundamentally different situation, because those great many towns still continue to be different from their surroundings and continue function differently within them.  West Conshohocken does neither.

If we remain at a general level, the story of West Conshohocken is simple.  The Borough came into existence for the very same reason as the seven other towns on the lower Schuylkill and, I expect, a great many more towns all across the country.  Only the specifics differ.  This particular locale had seen people gather for the same combination of reasons as that of other towns along the Schuylkill: a fording location to cross the river and nearby creeks capable of powering the small manufacturing of the times.  For a great many years the area was simply a collection of people, an unincorporated village within the Township of Upper Merion. 

At some point, however, the area’s “leading citizens” concluded that their location had become significantly different from that of the rest of the governmental subdivision to which they belonged.  For all eight locations along the Schuylkill between Reading and Philadelphia that evolved into towns, West Conshohocken most definitely included, this meant they had become focused on manufacturing and commerce, not agriculture.  Their leading citizens were active in those occupations and saw the opportunity to add politics to their sphere of influence.  Equally important was the fact that the residents of these river locations lived very closely together, and thus were consumers, not producers, of food.  As their numbers increased and remained crowded together, these small, unique areas began to need such basic improvements as streets and a water supply.  

The townships that surrounded these locations, however were rural, meaning their residents lived far apart, working their farms, consuming much of their own agricultural produce and often shipping the remainder no farther than the more densely populated river locations.  Within each township, these people had the numbers and the traditional influence that went with working the land.  They held the political power, such as it was, and their self-contained lifestyle saw little reason for public expenditures (meaning taxes) on general principles, let alone those to aid just one part of their township.  Those leading citizens of manufacturing and commerce at each river location knew that the taxes necessary to construct the necessary public improvements would not be forthcoming from an agricultural tax base.  And so they acted, petitioning the Commonwealth to create a new municipality; small, but busy and prosperous.

It used to be a lot easier to secede from one locality and form your own, and it was done often (although not often enough, as some devotees of Pottstown history would proclaim).  That’s how the other Schuylkill River towns came into being, even Norristown.  The Montgomery County seat had been an unincorporated village for twenty-eight years before Norristown incorporated as a borough in 1812.  Its status as the county seat did not matter; Norristown’s reasons for incorporation were the same as everyone else’s.

West Conshohocken stands out in this regard only because of its late appearance; it did not become a borough until 1874, taking land from both Upper and Lower Merion because, as the West Conshohocken chapter of The Second Hundred Years put it, “residents wanted a separate government suited to the community’s industrial character, which was totally unlike the other parts of the two townships.”  Conshohocken, by contrast, had taken this step in 1850.  That gave it a major head start, which it has never relinquished.

West Conshohocken, despite remaining by far the smallest town on the lower Schuylkill River, managed to carve out its own little niche in Pennsylvania history.  As small as it was, its transportation connections—local roads that led to Matson’s Ford, and the railroad along the river itself—sustained an industrial base, and thus a closely-grouped population.  Its earlier and much larger neighbor across the river largely prevented West Conshohocken from ever developing much of a commercial district, however.  So the Borough lived out its life as a miniature version of an American mill town; hard-working, locally focused and proud of itself.  At least it did until about a decade or so after World War II, the 1950s, the sunset period of a golden era of growth, work and prosperity.  Then several things began to change simultaneously, and every town on the Schuylkill suffered largely the same fate.

By 1980, however, investment money had begun to flow into the area once more.  Within a few years it was clear that the Conshohockens had embarked on a very different historical arc from that of the other towns upriver.  What was not clear was the price that would be paid, and that West Conshohocken would have to pay by far the heavier one.  That price has become much clearer to everyone in recent years, and I focus on that part of the story next week.

Friday, October 3, 2014

From an Instrument to an Institution: Why Do They Still Exist?

My posts for the past several weeks have focused on the disconnect between Bureaucracy World and the real world.  The bureaucracy in question has been that of the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and its local extensions, the local public housing authorities.  My take on them has been critical, but not compared to what else is circulating on the Internet.  A quick look at Facebook alone will reveal how much national discontent with HUD exists, and how far it has spread (check out the “Occupy HUD” page, as just one example).

At the core of the disconnect is the lamentable fact that HUD has ceased to be an Instrument, and has become an Institution.  Understanding the difference between the two, and why the latter seems to be the inevitable fate of the former, will help to clarify what has gone wrong, not only with HUD, but the rest of the “War on Poverty,” and why we have situations like the concentration of Housing Choice Vouchers in poorer communities.  Such an understanding will also help with the analysis of just about any group or organization.  So much so, in fact, that I will use it beginning next week to address the situation in the Conshohockens, where a very different reality is underway.

I was blessed during my undergraduate years to study under a history professor who impressed several lessons upon me, all ultimately about the difference between knowing something and actually understanding it.  These lessons were already old when I first encountered them in the mid-1960s, but they have stood the test of time.  One of them is the distinction between an Instrument and an Institution.

An instrument is designed to fulfill a function, and when first organized, its focus is on doing just that.  With the passage of time, however, the purpose for an instrument’s continuation diffuses, morphing into a focus on maintaining the physical structure—size, personnel and most of all, budget—more than actually accomplishing the task for which it was formed.  The instrument becomes an institution.  This slow, almost imperceptible transformation seems to be the fate of all instruments, and certainly those that arise from good intentions.  The organization survives, it may likely grow, but it increasingly solidifies its right to continued existence by the fact—and length—of its existence itself.

The rule of an instrument’s inevitable deterioration into an institution applies to virtually all creations of man as well as to man himself (See Paterno, Joe), but I will take a very narrow perspective, and offer the following thesis: American history has taught us that government-created instruments are more liable to suffer this transformation, and are much more resistant to correction.  The general impossibility of the formal goal such instruments are charged with, from winning “The War on Poverty” to protecting “America’s National Interests”) is tacitly accepted, and keeping things from getting worse is considered success.  So the instrument enters the fray, slowly but surely recognizes the impossibility of “victory,” and turns the inevitable disillusionment into individual methods of balancing continued commitment with career advancement and eventual retirement.  Those who labor within an institution must accept their obvious inadequacy and the ultimate futility of what they are trying to accomplish.  How they work through that dilemma determines whether they are on the instrument or institution side of the bureaucracy’s internal struggle.  Staying on the instrument side is difficult to sustain, and those who manage to do so should be celebrated, not cast into the same rhetorical pit with those “bureaucrats” we all love to castigate.

Let’s not forget the military in all of this; the Pentagon has pretty much defined How To Succeed at Bureaucracy, but then again, “America’s National Interest” is a very elastic phrase, and one that trumps “help the poor” just about every time.  But I digress.

The Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which administers the housing subsidy programs, is excellent an example of this unfortunate evolutionary process.  It is simultaneously a sad commentary on how even a failed approach must be continued to avoid making things even worse.

I’ll bet that each and every one of you can quickly name another program—or even an entire department—of the Federal government that you believe fits this description, one that has ceased to serve the purpose for which it was created, and now exists largely to perpetuate its own existence.  Like shooting fish in a barrel, right?

But how about closer to home?  Let’s start with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania itself.  In searching for such instruments-become-institutions at the state level, we need look no further than how alcohol is sold in Pennsylvania.  Few examples of my subject—at any level of government—stand out more blatantly than the Pennsylvania State Liquor Control Board.  Does the reason for which it was created even still exist?  If not, shouldn’t the whole system be eliminated?  Anything further I might add to that subject would be just piling on, but those two questions should be asked of each and every institution, particularly those of government.  Tune in next week for that.

Okay, that was easy.  Dare I come still closer to home?  I know full well the passion that can arise when certain local sacred cows are questioned, as I have sat through a number of such confrontations (and, in truth, contributed to a few).  Local police forces are one.  For a very long time, separate township and municipal police forces were necessary.  These were the days of slow travel and even slower communications; crime was overwhelmingly local, and best combatted by locals who knew the territory.  But that was then.  This is now, and things have changed.  Criminals routinely use the highways to range over the territory of several municipalities, and their information gathering systems range much farther than that.  Still, periodic trial balloons floated about combining local municipal police departments into more regional ones go down in flames before the impassioned opposition of local residents.  Paradoxically, these traditionalists are sustained by the information revolution, which greatly facilitates local law enforcement while keeping the payroll down.

But I propose to offer next week an example on an even more fundamental level, that of a municipality itself.  I do so at considerable risk, because I know from experience that when my take on recent urban history gores someone’s sacred cow, their anger and astonishment will be unaccompanied by any continued appreciation of what I am trying to do, however well they understood my point when it was aimed at someone else.

I know better, but I can't resist.  Next week I will ask the question "Does West Conshohocken Still Have A Reason To Exist?"

Friday, September 26, 2014

“Section 8” Is A Myth. What’s the REAL Problem Here?

I was going to conclude my series on Subsidized Housing with some thoughts on the questions you should be asking your public housing authority about why the Housing Choice Voucher Program operates so differently in your real world than it does in Bureaucracy World.  Disturbing news out of Norristown, Pennsylvania—and part of the reaction to it— suggest yet again that many of you have the right understanding of the core issue, but devote way too much of your anger at the wrong target.  So I will instead write about how the news from Norristown helps to put “Section 8” in a better context.  But the questions will be included.
The Norristown case involves those old favorites, cronyism and favoritism (it can be difficult to distinguish between them), and how useful it is to know people in the right places.  It appears that the Norristown’s housing inspector allowed a District Justice to rent out an apartment without a license, and presumably, inspections.  He has been relieved of his job, and everyone eagerly awaits further revelations, or at least news.
Part (and only part, I am pleased to say) of the reaction has been to reflexively lump this case under “Section 8”.  That’s where my problem comes in.  The tenant in this case did not hold such a voucher.  She is a woman who has worked hard all her life, is now elderly but still pays the full rent.  “Section 8” simply doesn’t apply in this case, but it certainly helps to make my point about how people see a housing issue in their community and automatically blame it on  “Section 8”. 
What has happened in Norristown cuts to the very core of the housing issues in many towns.  The Norristown case—and the response to it—offer a microcosm of what takes place in the minds of a great many all over this country.  Some of you have focused from the beginning on the real issue, the (alleged) corruption, but there are those who require little incentive to damn a welfare program before establishing the facts.  The result is no action, exactly when action is warranted.

Myths are accepted, not fought, and “Section 8” is a myth.  Not the program itself, but what putting the term in quotation marks signifies, that so many layers of spin and misinformation that have been lathered on the reality as to hide its actual shape.  There is truth at the core of every myth; but once people have coated it again and again with their personal/political agendas, the truth is obscured beneath them, and by accepting the myth people believe what the spin doctors want them to, not the truth. 
The most pernicious aspect of the “Section 8” myth is how it discourages people from actually doing something about the housing problems they see all around them.  When people drive by a depressed neighborhood, past the dilapidated residences and trash-strewn yards, where residents seem to have nothing better to do but hang out all day, how many do you suppose quickly think “Section 8”?  Once they do that, the battle is lost.  After all, It’s Section 8; it’s a Federal giveaway.  We can’t do anything about it.
There are two misstatements contained here.  First, it’s probably not “Section 8,” and second, you can do something about it.  You can call your local housing authority and complain.  Here’s where those questions I was going to focus on come into play.  Don’t just call and complain; know what violations are taking place and ask the right questions to find out why.  Remember, in the absence of you pointing out a failure to comply with a regulation, a government bureaucracy isn’t going to do anything.  Here are just a few of the basic questions; you can take it from here.
Does the authority’s employees perform those required inspections, or does it contract them out?  What do they look for?  There is pretty much a standard building code in place across this area, so are its standards the same as those of the municipality?  Do re-inspections take place?  If so, how often and for what reasons?  I suggest you obtain copies of the “Housing Assistance Payments Contract” that I mentioned previously to find out what the landlord should be doing.  Anyone interested in doing something about HCV problems in their neighborhood should start with obtaining a copy of that contract.  Armed with that and your own eyes, locate a specific problem and report it to the housing authorityRemember my earlier point about attacking each case on an individual basis; have the basic facts—dates, addresses—available when you call.  Wait for follow-up, then repeat as required until results are achieved.  Notice that I did not use the word “names”.  It’s actually best to avoid them; the safeguards for personal privacy are many and unforgiving.  I’ll bet we never learn exactly what the Norristown Codes Inspector actually did, because that comes under “personnel matters” and will be kept private.
If it’s not “Section 8,” you can call and complain anyway; just call the phone number for the Codes Enforcement department of your local municipality.  In fact, always call that number first.  After all, shouldn’t the supervision you want to see in the HCV Program also be taking place next door, where no voucher exists?  Can you tell the difference between a house not properly monitored by the MCHA and one not properly monitored by your municipality?  And besides, aren’t ALL houses supposed to be subject to municipal standards, whether inhabited by a HCV recipient or not? 
What’s the Real Problem Here?  Aren’t we really talking about slipshod work, overlooked violations, cronyism and favoritism in the administration of our towns themselves?  Does it really matter whether the house is “Section 8” or not?  Shouldn’t ALL housing be held to the same standards of codes and regulations?
If all you really want to do is bitch, then by all means complain about “Section 8”.  You’re right actually.  The Federal Government is not going to do anything about the program until the next major shakeup in Congress, and it is certainly not going to do anything based on your request (or mine).  Thus you get to do what you really want to do—complain—secure in the knowledge that the target of your ire will be unaffected, and therefore available to you in the future.
But if your goal is to actually make things better, stop obsessing on "Section 8," Housing Choice Vouchers, Public Housing or any of that.  Events in Norristown offer an opportunity to focus on what I less than humbly suggest is the much bigger problem.  The emerging--but already smelly--story in Norristown is right on point about conditions in too many of our municipalities today, and says a lot more about how money, connections and the corruption that results from their intersection than any individual "Section 8" abuse story ever could.  It's a bigger issue, because it can encompass many "Section 8" components and still rank them rather low on any cost-to-our-communities scale. Communities the size of Norristown and Pottstown, Pennsylvania--not to mention larger ones--face housing issues with many facets, and all the "Section 8" programs lumped together are actually just a component of them.  Abuse in these programs exists alongside abuse that has nothing to do with it.  Let's stop using a buzzword to explain away a problem and instead learn more about the real world before we identify the villain and demand reforms.  The root of the CORRECTABLE problems in both Norristown and Pottstown--and I submit, elsewhere--lies in the porous collection of inspections, corrections and follow-up that is supposed to see that the rules are actually being followed regardless of whose rules they are.  That's why you pay taxes to your municipality as well as to the Federal Government; not just to write laws and regulations, but to enforce them.  Complain about taxation--and what it is spent on--all you want, and see what it gets you.  But if you unite and offer specific positive suggestions, your voice in your community can actually change things for the better.  It's up to you.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Surprise! For Landlords, It IS All About the Benjamins

Last week I closed with the question of why would a potential landlord even consider entering the Housing Choice Voucher Program.  Why get involved in a program that essentially encourages its beneficiaries to lie, cheat and steal? 
If you doubt this, look at it from the voucher holder’s point of view:  The program punishes you for being honest.  If you report an increase in income—even if it’s legal—your voucher amount stands to go down.  Need to take in an extra family member, even temporarily?  Don’t tell the MCHA; that’s changing your “household composition,” and it could cause problems.  Unhappy about how your landlord is treating you?  Better keep your mouth shut if you don’t have the time or the resources it will take to interface with the bureaucracy, because you landlord probably does, at least enough to deal with the likes of you.  All things considered, what’s the reason for being honest, outside of being caught for being dishonest?
That might be your potential tenant’s point of view.   Why rent to the type of people who would cheat the very program that benefits them?  If they would do that, they would cheat you, right?  This is not exactly a formula for a smooth landlord/tenant relationship.
And then there’s the Federal Bureaucracy to deal with, forms to fill out, the additional inspections of your property, and all that.  Why then would landlords want to be in the program, if they have to deal with both low class tenants and the Federal Bureaucracy?
Okay, let’s acknowledge the reliability factor.  A substantial portion of the rent is paid not by the tenant, but by the MCHA directly to the landlord.  The tenant may have more excuses than cash on the rental due date, but the check from the MCHA is going to arrive unless there is a postal strike.
But you know the real reason, of course.  It’s all about the Benjamins.  The HCV Program is a financial boon to those who, in my humble opinion, deserve it the least.  They would be the landlords who own and rent out the cheapest half of the housing in our towns and cities.  That’s because the HCV Program financially benefits the bottom feeders in the urban real estate market.  Housing Choice Vouchers are a guaranteed source of additional income to these landlords, much more than they would make did the program not exist.
This wasn’t part of the plan, but it is a major part of the result.  These low-rent landlords (I mean that as much figuratively as literally) purchase the cheapest houses they can find, all too often in Norristown and Pottstown.  If just rented out, these housing units would not command even the local community’s median rent, let alone that of the county.  If a voucher holder is about to move in a cheap apartment, or if an existing tenant receives a voucher, the landlord can raise the rent, quite legally it seems, as long as it does not exceed the “Fair Market Rent”.  Profit is rent minus expenses, and they know that if they accept HCV recipients, a higher rent is basically forced on them, courtesy of the taxpayers.  Who would refuse such a deal?  Besides, bottom-feeder landlords are not overly concerned with building maintenance, because that eats into the profit.  You don’t think they purchased those old houses to help preserve our irreplaceable stock of existing urban housing, did you?  As I pointed out above, renting to HCV tenants greatly lowers the chance that those tenants are going to complain about substandard conditions.  Unrepentant exploitation of the HCV Program fattens thus such a landlord’s profit from both ends.
This is where the true evil of concentrated Housing Choice Vouchers in specific communities becomes more apparent.  Towns like Norristown and Pottstown suffer from having so many voucher households end up there, some of whom are not exactly a benefit to the community.  On top of that, the concentration imposes a financial penalty on the non-voucher households that live in the community.  That’s because the Housing Choice Voucher Program artificially maintains a higher local rent than the neighborhood and the housing units would otherwise warrant.  The HCV Program’s commitment to the “Fair Market Rate” artificially raises the average rent across an entire neighborhood, affecting everyone.  The MCHA pays the extra for the voucher households, but all other renters in the neighborhood have to pay the difference out of their own pocket.  If you are not on the program and live in the neighborhood, you pay a higher rent because of the program.  All this, of course, in neighborhoods where conditions are already at the lower end of the scale, because that’s where the money is in such a skewed real estate market.  Any landlord with an apartment that is good enough (and located in a good enough neighborhood) to command above the “Fair Market Rent” simply has no economic incentive to enter the program.  His neighbors might not be too happy about it either.  This last can be important in a community that has few (or no) housing choice vouchers.  When the local municipality joins in the exclusion effort (unofficially, of course), the resulting peer pressure helps to keep vouchers out.  Those towns already swamped with vouchers end up getting more; it’s a vicious, self-reinforcing circle, lowering the condition of a community while keeping rental costs artificially high.  When disgusted homeowners leave, the low-rent landlords swoop in, pick up the property for a depressed amount, and look for equally low-rent tenants.  That’s why I bet all such slumlords would sanctimoniously support a funding increase for the HCV Program; much of it will end up in their pockets. 
Yes, the HCV Program encourages its recipients to cheat, but it encourages landlords to cheat more, because they stand to make more.  If landlords properly maintained their properties and exercised care in their rentals, the biggest money leaks in the system would close, and it would make tenant cheating both more difficult and less rewarding.  Of course, if wishes were horses, even beggars would ride, so we will have to take a more difficult approach if we want to actually see results. 
Next week we will simultaneously narrow and broaden our focus and ask the question: What's The Real Problem Here?

Friday, September 12, 2014

Housing Choice Vouchers: Here's What Is SUPPOSED To Happen

In Bureaucracy World, the Housing Choice Voucher Program works precisely like this:
A household seeking a voucher applies to the MCHA.  He/she fills out several forms, wherein he/she lists each person in the household and all sources of income, among other things.
The MCHA conducts background checks, including a criminal one, to make sure that all voucher recipients are of good character and honest.  It totals the household income and determines the critical 30% figure that the household can pay for rent.  It then calculates how much assistance will be given, i.e., the difference between the 30% figure and “The Fair Market Rent”.
With everything in place, the household then seeks out housing for which it has qualified (that pretty much means number of bedrooms).
Once the household has found housing of the right size whose landlord is willing to submit to the rigorous standards that will be imposed on him, the MCHA again enters the picture.
Every potential housing unit is first inspected by the MCHA, thus ensuring that it meets all current code standards.  If any deficiencies are found, the landlord quickly makes them good until the MCHA is satisfied.  The potential landlord then signs a “Housing Assistance Payments Contract” with the MCHA, in which he devoutly promises to follow the rules.
Once everyone is satisfied and all standards fully met, the landlord and the tenant execute a standard lease, and the household moves into its new home.  They faithfully pay their share of the rent—and dutifully report all future changes in either household income or composition—while the landlord ensures that they continue to live in a safe and healthy environment, the MCHA punches another ticket toward its “A” grade, and everyone lives happily afterward.  God Bless America.
What a wonderful world this would be.  Of course, that phrase comes from the song about the guy who “don’t know nothing ‘bout history,” so be advised.
Let’s examine the basic structure of this all-American fantasy for its weak spots, because they are where The Benjamins leak out.  We will climb our way up the leakage scale, because more leakage means more expense to you, the taxpayer.  Let’s follow the money, continuously asking the same question: who stands to profit by not following the rules?
The voucher program is a tri-party arrangement; the housing authority, the income-eligible household and the private sector landlord.  If each fulfills its end of the bargain, then harm is mitigated, and the larger good may actually surpass the local damage done.  Maybe.  If any party fails in its obligations, however, it only encourages one or both of the others to do so also.  An increasing scale of harm results. 
If the failure is on the part of the tenant, it is in the interests of both the landlord and the housing authority to either correct the failure or expel the tenant.  Money is usually involved somehow, but neither the landlord or the housing authority stands to profit (Yes, the landlord may be “in on it,” but let’s keep a reasonable balance here).
If the landlord fails to keep his part of the bargain, things get complicated because the profit motive enters into it, at least for the landlord, who has a very personal understanding of the concept.  Correcting the problem is in the interests of both the tenant and the housing authority, but ratting out one’s landlord is rarely in the interests of the tenant, so the housing authority may not even be informed of it.
If, however, the housing authority fails to do what it is supposed to do—properly monitor the reality of what the other two components are doing—then both the other components have the opportunity for illicit profit.  Both are also prime candidates for seizing such an opportunity, so trouble is pretty much guaranteed.
That’s why we will conclude this financial ascent focusing on the MCHA.  Ironically, that’s where you will find by far the least actual malfeasance, but how diligently the MCHA performs the functions it is supposed to do makes all the difference, either opening or closing loopholes through which the two other components either profit improperly or be forced to obey the rules, as the case may be.
That’s also why I begin with malfeasance by the tenant.  It is frequently the most obvious and is the most castigated because it is the most wrong in the eyes of most people.  I’m going to disagree with that assessment based solely on my adherence to The Benjamins as my guiding criteria, not by comparing the heinousness of various crimes.  Tenant malfeasance in the Housing Choice Voucher Program is yet another example of “gaming the system from the bottom”.  I don’t ignore it, I don’t mitigate it, I encourage relentless pursuit and elimination of all examples of it, but I contend that “gaming the system from the top” costs us all a lot more.  It’s nowhere near as obvious, and easy to overlook.  But if you follow the money, it’s not where you start that counts, it’s where you end up.  That is the route we will follow, and the next post moves up the scamming ladder, because we will add the possibility of profit that is legal, although of dubious morality.  
The real cost of tenant malfeasance is very locally focused, in the immediate neighborhood, and The Benjamins are only one method of measuring it.  That real cost to a neighborhood and its people is the reason I’m going to wrap up this post with some non-advice about what to do.  There is not necessarily any actual difference between malfeasance and crime, so it’s best you stay as far as possible from both.  I don’t want to ignore this enormously important aspect of the problem, but neither am I qualified to make any valuable contribution to those who find themselves among it.  I would never offer any fatuous, from a distance advice to anyone about how to deal with a situation in your neighborhood.  There are several things more important than The Benjamins, and always put them first.
Let me finish with a question.  Why, given “what everybody knows about housing voucher holders,” would a potential landlord even consider entering a program when they could easily—and legally—avoid it and all the obvious hassle?

Gee, what do you think?