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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, December 20, 2013

Why Calling Slumlords “Maggots” Disrespects Maggots

          I’m going to take a holiday break after this post, and will return on the first Friday of the New Year.  Beginning in January, I will begin to publish, on an irregular basis, a series of posts discussing how things got to be the way they are; what happened to our urban areas after the Second World War.  The process is called “Disinvestment,” and it involves several topics.  Much of it is old news, but still misunderstood.  But I don’t want you to think that the process is over.  That’s why I am going to introduce this series by discussing a continuing source of urban decay, one that still eats away at our urban areas, large or small, to this day.  With both the Holidays and cold the weather upon us, it is appropriate to begin our review of “Disinvestment” with a thought to the people struggling to survive in cold, drafty and unheated hovels, the human victims of the decay that still stalks our urban areas.
     The collective name for this source of decay is “slumlords.”  Compared to the forces that swept over our urban areas in previous decades, they are as microscopic as bacteria.  It’s their numbers that make them harmful, because their numbers are huge.  Decay is what slumlords bring to any town or city they infest.  They are each so small and collectively so pervasive that an afflicted municipality often concludes that going after this source of decay is just not worth the effort.  That’s because a slumlord is often a very minor player, who may own only some, a few, or maybe even just one deteriorating residential building, and who takes more than full advantage of our legal system’s support of private property and the requirement for (expensive) due process.
     Many have referred to them as “maggots,” an enormously pejorative term.  I can’t use it, unfortunately, because it would give maggots a bad name.  Maggots eat diseased or dead tissue.  They can actually be a part of the healing process (remember in the movie Gladiator when Maximus is advised not to brush the maggots off his wound?).  The same cannot be said of slumlords.  They have no redeeming social value.  I am tempted to call them “vermin,” because, as Wikipedia puts it, “Use of the term implies the need for extermination programs.”  But I resist.
     Please do not confuse slumlord with landlord; slumlords are a diseased mutation of an otherwise respectable—and very necessary—type of businessperson.  A landlord invests in properties to maintain and upgrade them; in urban communities, with their high percentage of renters, good landlords are an asset.  Slumlords, by contrast, operate under a very different premise; they simply extract value from properties and let them deteriorate.  Their business model maximizes profit by avoiding maintenance.  They work their mischief on residential buildings.  Large manufacturing or commercial buildings have little value after their industries and businesses have left en-masse, and unless they are lucky enough to be converted into self-storage sites, quickly become the most individually obvious statements of urban decay.  Residences take longer, because they have value to their new owners long after they have ceased to be homes to those that cared for them.  I say “new” owners, because slumlords will have recently purchased those buildings in those neighborhoods.  They got them cheap, precisely because those who called them “home” have left.  This means they have to rent them cheap.  Under such conditions, profit increases as maintenance decreases.  As their properties deteriorate, they rent to less and less desirable people, who make a progressively greater contribution to the decay of the building.  The cycle continues, steadily downward.  When there is no more profit to extract without actually investing money to sustain the properties, they usually abandon them.  If the neighbors are lucky, the city tears them down.  More often they simply become residences for even less desirable occupants.  In this manner the physical plant of a city, the buildings themselves, slowly, quietly deteriorates.   Slumlords undermine the residences of our cities until they collapse, often all too literally.

     Slumlords function best in the shadows, rather like harmful bacteria; prolonged exposure to the light of public scrutiny can be fatal.  Fortunately, there are groups dedicated to exactly that.  Here’s one whose work is particularly needed during the holiday season:  The Tenant Association Of Allentown.  Slumlords are their target, and they are relentless.   They take photos of the sores these slumlords are cultivating in Allentown, identify the addresses, actively seek the names of the slumlords themselves, and publish a “Do Not Rent From” list.  They just keep coming; they build their case plain fact by plain fact, irrefutable photo after irrefutable photo.  All of this in addition to a constant series of posts informing tenants about both their rights and their responsibilities, by the way.  That they have managed to attract personal abuse is testimony to their effectiveness.  The Tenant Association of Allentown is not alone in this approach, nor are such organizations limited to Pennsylvania, by any means (a shout-out here to both Philadelinquency and Baltimore Slumlord Watch).  I support them all, and seek to call your attention to all of them during what should be a time of personal reflection, regardless of personal belief; a brief opportunity to place God over Mammon.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Lessons From the Pennrose Affair, Part III

Here are the Lessons that I have offered to community activists so far:

* Lesson #1:  It’s Not Over; It Never Is

* Lesson #2:  A Lawsuit is Worth a Thousand Petitions

And now, the final lesson:

#3:  It’s All About the Benjamins; It Always Is

     Lesson #3 is actually an old expression, long popular with historians.  Okay, so I updated the words a little; the principle hasn’t changed.  A generation ago my cultural reference might have been, “follow the money;” it means the same thing.  It always has been, is now and ever shall be the best road to understanding how and why something happened the way it did.  It also explains why Norristown municipal government wanted the Pennrose project to go through. 
     Other motives were advanced, of course.  One member of council claimed that subsidized apartments on the location were consistent with the community effort to develop an “Arts Hill,” as it would provide low-cost housing for low-income artists.  This is patent sophistry, of course, but even sophistry has a cause to support, however deceptively.
     It was actually all about the Benjamins, or, put more properly, REVENUE.  Norristown needs more, and the project would have provided some, in the form of property tax revenue at the very least.  Norristown residents are always pointing out how little services they receive for the taxes they pay (sound familiar, anyone?).  They are right (as are you in other towns), but the unpleasant fact is that EVERY municipality is in a constant struggle for more revenue.  Many face a declining tax base, but even if it isn’t, or is actually rising, the cost of municipal services rises at a greater rate.  Everyone is aware that over the past few decades municipal governments have been shedding what have been traditional services financed by the general fund, instead transforming each, one by one, into a specific service financed by a specific tax (excuse me, I meant “fee,” of course).  Municipal services from trash collection to emergency response have been subjected to this, all for the same reason: revenue.
     As I mentioned in my first Pennrose post, the fact that the project was subsidized housing led a group of residents (who are otherwise among those who clamor for greater municipal services) to oppose the project despite the revenue it would generate.  They had a very valid point (remember, I celebrated their accomplishment), but we should at least recognize that this wasn’t a one-sided issue.  I have no problem believing that Municipal Council would rather have had a more appropriate use for the site, but they were willing to accept the Pennrose offer.  Why?  Because they need revenue badly, and probably believed that this was the best offer they were going to get.  That’s a harsh judgment, but I suspect it hews all too closely to the financial facts of life today.  Recognition of the realities facing municipal governments should, I believe, serve to mitigate the moral judgments that too often follow their unpopular decisions.
     Speaking of harsh realities, let’s focus on the figure at the heart of the unpleasant choice that Council faced.  That figure is 5,000.  That is the square footage of the building’s ground floor allotted to commercial space.  It’s smaller than the project’s footprint, and the reason why the plan included apartments on the ground floor.  The variance granted for this departure from the zoning code led to the project’s demise, because it was why the lawsuit against the project was filed. 
     Pennrose was quite clear as to why they sought the variance.  Here’s how the Times Herald article phrased it:
“Pennrose alleged that it cannot construct more commercial space on the ground floor
because 5,000 square feet of commercial space is what Pennrose is comfortable with, that constructing more than 5,000 square feet of commercial space would present a leasing risk to Pennrose, and that it would effect [sic] the development budget making the development infeasible.”

     That conclusion was not the result of any corporate animosity toward Norristown, or a desire to stick the municipality with yet another “Section 8” housing project.  It derived from a dispassionate analysis of the condition of Norristown today, expressed in strictly financial terms.  It was all about the Benjamins, and how much risk they were willing to take to make some.  At no time did Pennrose even consider whether Norristown “needed” what it planned to build.  It follows that all arguments about what Norristown needs or doesn't need expressed in opposition to these projects are irrelevant; soul-satisfying to utter, yet inadmissible in the court of capitalism (that was Lesson #2).
     As difficult as it may be to admit, no individual, board or corporation involved in this affair meant to do harm.  Those who fight for their communities must never forget that, to your opposition (to borrow an expression from another milieu), “it’s nothing personal, it’s just business.”  The result to Norristown from this common and legal application of that belief, however, may have been as deadly as to the unfortunate individual who heard those words from someone whose intent was considerably less legal.  That makes it very personal on the receiving end.

     Therein lies the challenge.  Your opposition looks upon all this as strictly business, and the percentage of their victories should indicate how important such an attitude is, whether in the midst of the fight or during the interval between the last one and the next one (remember Lesson #1).  The most important thing is to maintain a constant—yet dispassionate—vigilance.  Every community activist knows, however, that this most important thing is also the most difficult task you face, to retain that spirit which fueled and animated the effort you take pride in.  I would add to this truth my belief that retaining the structure (i.e., communication) you developed during your effort is as important—and as difficult.  Your opposition, whose very business it is to retain both structure and spirit, expect—with considerable reason—that you will not be able to retain either.  Thus they go about their business, and if the ever-shifting arrangement of funding sources presents another opportunity for such a project, they will seize it.  It’s what they do; it’s why they exist and operate under the more-than-full protection of the law in a market economy.  After all, giving those with money the advantage is the American way.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Lessons from the Pennrose Affair, Part II

     In my previous post, I offered a depressing Lesson #1 for all those who have fought, or are fighting, the imposition of an inappropriate development in your communities:  It’s Not Over; It Never Is.

Now:   Lesson #2:  A Lawsuit is Worth a Thousand Petitions

     As I observed in my previous post, the Pennrose project in Norristown was “wired.”  Municipal leaders (a majority, at least) and planners were expeditiously removing all obstacles to its final approval.  Then everything came to a sudden halt.  Why?
     At the risk of offending some dear souls in Norristown Nudge, the Pennrose project was not stopped by the petition against it, or by the public pleas of outraged residents.  Municipal Council might have been swayed by this expression of popular opinion had the issue ever actually gotten to it, but I seriously doubt it.   This tactic, exercised alone, had two chances of success:  slim and none.  Many of you in other towns might have your own evidence that this is true.
     Don’t get the wrong idea here.  I hold that there are few rights in a democracy more precious that the ability to petition for redress of grievances.  That right was exercised during the Pennrose Affair, in its modern, digital, form.  For that, I offer kudos all around.
     At this point in my life, I have long ago forgotten how many petitions I have carried, let alone how many I have signed.  I have not kept careful track, but it is entirely possible that not one of them was successful.  Maybe I am just the patron saint of lost causes, but I think there is more to it.
     A petition has two fundamental weaknesses.  First, it is virtually impossible to get an absolute majority of any body politic to sign a particular petition.  You always get far fewer than that, and in this day of urban community apathy the percentage of signatures you get is hugely smaller.  Thus anyone can dispute your claim to be voicing "the will of the people."
     The second weakness is more fundamental, and ultimately, unanswerable.  A body of elected officials may choose to heed your petition, or they may choose not to.   Their job description allows this kind of judgment call, albeit with the attendant electoral risks down the road.  It’s part of our republican form of government (that’s small “r,” by the way), as is the deliberate inclusion of “down the road,” via scheduled elections, to keep the people’s representatives from being removed at the people’s whim.  
     Please understand: I am in NO WAY denigrating the importance of petitions; only suggesting that people should have a realistic understanding of how, where and why petitions are important.  Everyone who initiates or carries one believes in its cause; this naturally leads you to believe that once its obvious rightness is brought to the attention of your leaders, they will recognize the justice of your cause and take remedial action.  When this doesn’t happen, the resulting hurt and anger too often lead to a rejection of further efforts: “They didn’t listen!  They never do!  It’s hopeless!  The game is rigged!”  Been there, done that.
     You should treat a petition, first and foremost, as an organizing tool.  Keep track of who signed; you should not only contact them the next time something similar appears on the horizon, but also keep them informed in the interim.  A series of ad hoc unconnected campaigns that have to repeat the organize-and-build-enthusiasm part each time is a waste of energy and resources that could be better applied to achieving your goal.  Nevertheless, a petition is still a virtual requirement in order to obtain the needed publicity for your cause; the fourth estate (even in digital disguise) always pays attention when the word “petition” is mentioned.

     It is important to understand, however, that the petition opposing Pennrose did not bring the project to a halt; a lawsuit did.  Opponents of the project filed a lawsuit appealing the variances the project had been granted.  That lawsuit is still pending.  The simple existence of the suit, pending though it is, was sufficient.  The lawsuit meant that Pennrose was not in position to "build by right” when a deadline approached, a necessary precondition for construction loans, regardless of their source. 
     That’s the difference between any number of petitions and one lawsuit: confronted by petitions, a representative governmental authority has the right to say yes or no; confronted by a lawsuit, it has no choice but to respond, in the legal arena, not the political one.  In that arena, political skills and connections count for a lot less; the citizen and his government are a lot more equal.
     Unsure about how the lawsuit will turn out?  Worried that you might lose?  Don’t be.  A lawsuit is not about winning or losing; it’s about delay and expense.  You file a lawsuit to inflict both on the other side.  In our legal system, few lawsuits are judged without merit and dismissed.  “Everybody deserves their day in court.”  That day will take some time to arrive, and attorneys charge by the hour.  The goal of a lawsuit is usually to force the other side to the point where it no longer makes financial sense to continue the struggle.  The problem here is that the developers utilize the law on a more or less continuous basis; they have deep pockets and the names of attorneys on speed dial.  Civic organizations do not.  That’s all the more reason to keep your ear to the ground and your people (the ones who signed your previous petition) on standby.  You never now when or where the next one is coming from.

Next time:  Lesson #3, and why Pennrose wasn’t a simple issue.