Oddities in St. Louis County that led to tensions: significant revenues from fines, permissive incorporation laws

Rodney Balko points out some interesting features of St. Louis County, Missouri that contribute to racial and socioeconomic disparities:

Some of the towns in St. Louis County can derive 40 percent or more of their annual revenue from the petty fines and fees collected by their municipal courts. A majority of these fines are for traffic offenses, but they can also include fines for fare-hopping on MetroLink (St. Louis’s light rail system), loud music and other noise ordinance violations, zoning violations for uncut grass or unkempt property, violations of occupancy permit restrictions, trespassing, wearing “saggy pants,” business license violations and vague infractions such as “disturbing the peace” or “affray” that give police officers a great deal of discretion to look for other violations. In a white paper released last month (PDF), the ArchCity Defenders found a large group of people outside the courthouse in Bel-Ridge who had been fined for not subscribing to the town’s only approved garbage collection service. They hadn’t been fined for having trash on their property, only for not paying for the only legal method the town had designated for disposing of trash…There are many towns in St. Louis County where the number of outstanding arrest warrants can exceed the number of residents, sometimes several times over. No town in Jackson County comes close to that: The highest ratios are in the towns of Grandview (about one warrant for every 3.7 residents), Independence (one warrant for every 3.5 residents), and Kansas City itself (one warrant for every 1.8 residents)…

Sales taxes are the primary source of revenue in most St. Louis County municipalities. Wealthier areas naturally see more retail sales, so the more affluent towns tend to be less reliant on municipal courts to generate revenue. In recent years a state pool was established to distribute sales taxes more evenly, but existing towns were permitted to opt out. Most did, of course. Perversely, this means that the collection of poorer towns stacked up along the east-west byways are far more reliant on municipal court revenues. That means they face much stronger incentives to squeeze their residents with fines, despite the fact that the residents of these towns are the people who are least likely to have the money to pay those fines, the least likely to have an attorney to fight the fines on their behalf, and for whom the consequences of failing to pay the fines can be the most damaging…

“Until only relatively recently, the state of Missouri had almost no rules for municipal incorporation,” Gordon says. “In just about every other state, when a new new subdivision would spring up in an unincorporated area, the state would say, ‘If you want public services, you need to be annexed by the nearest town.’ In Missouri, you didn’t have that.”…

“The state’s one requirement before giving you the power to zone was that you had to incorporate and draw up a city plan,” Gordon says. “That plan could be as simple as getting an engineer to slap a ‘single family’ zone over the entire development. Your subdivision is now a town.”

Some interesting individual cases – of both individuals penalized and municipalities acting badly – interwoven throughout the piece. But, a complex maze of issues: a number of communities with limited tax bases which leads to a heavier reliance on fines, hitting residents with multiple penalties, and incorporation laws that led to a lot of small communities that can set up their own systems and struggle (or if wealthier, thrive) on their own.

While it might be temping to these issues as separate and important issues in their own right, I was struck that this is the sort of system that arises when white and wealthier residents are determined to keep poorer and non-white residents out. This goal was widespread in the American suburbs after World War II but it sounds this mix of communities outside of St. Louis was able to put together a potent system for keeping blacks in other suburbs. Even with civil rights legislation, there are still plenty of “legal” means to limit or harass non-white residents in such a way to keep them out of white and/or wealthier suburbs.

Nevada’s proposed $1.25 billion tax break for Tesla would just crack top 10 biggest tax breaks

Nevada is determining how much in tax breaks to offer Tesla – and the current deal appears to be $1.25 billion.

The tax incentive package assembled by Gov. Brian Sandoval to woo Tesla’s “Gigafactory” battery plant is unprecedented in size and scope for the state of Nevada and is one of the largest in the country.

The overall value to Tesla is estimated to be $1.25 billion over 20 years—a figure that is more than double the $500 million package CEO Elon Musk said would be required to draw the company.

If the deal is approved by the Nevada Legislature, Tesla will operate in the state essentially tax free for 10 years.

In exchange, the company must invest a minimum of $3.5 billion in manufacturing equipment and real property in the state—a threshold that is much lower than the $10 billion state officials say they expect the company to invest in Nevada over the next two decades.

This is a big financial deal, one that Nevada apparently doesn’t want to let get away. If approved, this would be the tenth largest tax break offered by a state to a corporation:

If approved by the Legislature, the tax incentive package would be the 10th largest in the country, according to data compiled by Good Jobs First, a labor-backed non-profit that analyzes tax incentives. Here are the current top 10 tax incentive deals in the country:

  • Washington: Boeing, $8.7 billion
  • New York: Alcoa, $5.6 billion
  • Washington: Boeing, $3.2 billion
  • Oregon: Nike, $2 billion
  • New Mexico: Intel, $2 billion
  • Louisiana: Cheniere Energy, $1.7 billion
  • Pennsylvania: Royal Dutch Shell, $1.65 billion
  • Missouri: Cerner Corp., $1.64 billion
  • Mississippi: Nissan, $1.25 billion

It would be interesting to know a few things:

1. What happens if Tesla does not provide the jobs or the value projected? Does their tax break adjust downward accordingly?

2. Who is Nevada competing against and what are their offers? With such high stakes, it wouldn’t be unheard of for a party to overbid against themselves.

3. What do Nevada residents think of this? Tesla could lead to jobs and tax revenues a decade down the road but this is a lot of potential revenue that a corporation will benefit from.

With this kind of money being thrown around (or at least theoretically available), don’t most municipalities and states have to play this game in order to attract businesses? And in the long run, who can keep up with this competition?

After 6 days of production, Utopia contestants can’t agree on much

One week into production of Fox’s new reality TV show Utopia, the participants are having a hard time moving forward:

Utopia, Fox’s new reality series in which a group of people are put into a bare-bones camp in a remote location north of Los Angeles County to form a new society and “rethink all the fundamental tenets of civilization,” hasn’t even debuted yet and already the natives — who’ve been there less than a week — are at war with each other.

“Coming to the most basic decisions has been next to impossible for them” just six days into the experiment, EP Jon Kroll said this afternoon on a phone call with the media and Fox EVP Simon Andreae. “Agreeing on anything” is the Utopians’ biggest challenge to date. “I almost think we cast it too well,” Kroll said happily. “They are so incredibly different that coming to the most basic decisions has been next to impossible for them.” A week into the yearlong experiment, there already has been a movement by some in Utopia to secede from the union.

Already, many of the males in Utopia are battling for alpha-dog status, though one of the women is giving them a good run, according to the execs on the call, which comes ahead of Sunday’s two-hour series premiere. And if you guessed it was Hex, described by the show as a “headstrong hunter … six feet of twisted steel and sex appeal” whose “primary game is to bring lessons from Utopia back to Detroit, her hometown” where her status is “unemployed” — you get extra points for understanding the wonderful world of stereotyping that is reality TV casting.

The internecine warfare has been captured on cameras since the Utopians arrived at their new home six days ago – like C-SPAN. Except, of course, when Hex got whisked to the hospital last weekend, for what turned out to be a case of dehydration. That was off limits for viewing by even the experiment’s 24/7 livestream — which already is up and running — because the network and producers didn’t know if her condition was serious, Kroll explained. “We just want to be careful,” he said.

Hard to know how much of this is just hyperbole from studio executives who want big ratings when the show debuts.

Yet, this may have some potential as a reality-TV version of Lord of the Flies. What happens when you put a diverse group of modern-day Americans in a situation where they need to create things from scratch? They have all sorts of learned notions about society and how life should be lived but will be applying them in a new context. However, given the nature of reality TV, it is hard to know how much of the situation on-screen is engineered by producers. I, for one, would want producers to take a more hands-off approach and see what happens but I imagine they will be unwilling to do that, particularly if ratings need a boost.

A side thought: how far away are we from a TV version of The Hunger Games?

Sports talk as a space for bad amateur sociology

Sports talk is a popular genre yet it often involves broad statements about society grounded in very little evidence. Here, Colin Cowherd is singled out for his particular brand of amateur sociology:

It is Cowherd’s job, his peculiar burden and gift, to generate outrage, using only recycled news items and his own slapdash sociology, every weekday morning. But the myopia of his July 29 diatribe, in particular, was monumental. Without meaning to, it crystallized the cognitive dissonance that haunts America’s vast Football Industrial Complex (FIC) at this historic moment.

Which is to say: Those who pose as the industry’s critics have to pretend awfully hard that they hate violence and misogyny and greed and homophobia while at the same time promoting a game that is, objectively speaking, violent, misogynistic, mercenary, and homophobic.

The top-tier talkers manage to sound utterly convincing, even as they craft arguments of dazzling fraudulence and obdurate illogic. It appears never to have occurred to Cowherd that football might be a culprit in America’s cult of violence. No, that crisis can be pinned on brutes from the lower castes hopped up on sadistic fictions. It is the feral inclinations of such men — and not, say, the fact that football is vicious enough to cause brain damage among its players — that keeps Cowherd from taking his son to a game. The poor lad might be subjected to a brawl in the stands.

What marks Cowherd as a true pro is his ability to tap into the meta-narrative of grievance that undergirds all punditry. It turns out the Rice case really isn’t about football at all — it’s about governmental negligence and corporate greed! Fortunately, there are intrepid voices inside the FIC willing to speak truth to power.

Cowherd may have his own style but this sort of explanation could apply to lots of sports talk hosts (as well as many other talk radio hosts). The genre works because people like arguments and opinions as well as the ability to be a part of the endless conversation about sports. Yet, the arguments tend to involve little evidence and a lot of opinion and anecdotes. Some of this can be quite engaging but it often requires making broad statements about individuals, teams, fans, cities, and society that are not always thought through. Granted, erudite conversations about sports don’t exactly fit this genre yet it is too much to ask that sports talk hosts think a little bit more about the big picture in addition to their personal opinions?

Sociologists: home-cooked meals may not be worth the stress, money

A new study examined mothers and families in order to look at the value of home-cooked meals:

But while home-cooked meals are typically healthier than restaurant food, sociologists Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott, and Joslyn Brenton from North Carolina State University argue that the stress that cooking puts on people, particularly women, may not be worth the trade-off.

The researchers interviewed 150 mothers from all walks of life and spent 250 hours observing 12 families in-depth, and they found “that time pressures, tradeoffs to save money, and the burden of pleasing others make it difficult for mothers to enact the idealized vision of home-cooked meals advocated by foodies and public health officials.” The mothers they interviewed had largely internalized the social message that “home-cooked meals have become the hallmark of good mothering, stable families, and the ideal of the healthy, productive citizen,” but found that as much as they wanted to achieve that ideal, they didn’t have the time or money to get there. Low-income mothers often have erratic work schedules, making it impossible to have set meal times. Even for middle-class working mothers who are able to be home by 6 p.m., trying to cook a meal while children are demanding attention and other chores need doing becomes overwhelming…

Beyond just the time and money constraints, women find that their very own families present a major obstacle to their desire to provide diverse, home-cooked meals. The women interviewed faced not just children but grown adults who are whiny, picky, and ungrateful for their efforts. “We rarely observed a meal in which at least one family member didn’t complain about the food they were served,” the researchers write. Mothers who could afford to do so often wanted to try new recipes and diverse ingredients, but they knew that it would cause their families to reject the meals. “Instead, they continued to make what was tried and true, even if they didn’t like the food themselves.” The saddest part is that picky husbands and boyfriends were just as much, if not more, of a problem than fussy children.

The researchers quote food writer Mark Bittman, who says that the goal should be “to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden.” But while cooking “is at times joyful,” they argue, the main reason that people see cooking mostly as a burden is because it is a burden. It’s expensive and time-consuming and often done for a bunch of ingrates who would rather just be eating fast food anyway. If we want women—or gosh, men, too—to see cooking as fun, then these obstacles need to be fixed first. And whatever burden is left needs to be shared.

It seems like there is a bigger issue here: while such meals may be healthier but more stressful and expensive, the bigger issue is the idealization of home-cooked meals. In other words, the standard of “normal” mothering and home life is one that is difficult for many people to regularly meet. When they fall short of the standard, mothers feel guilty because society suggests this is one of the markers of a good mother. If it came down to it, might the particular food on the table be less important than the fact that the family regularly eats together?

Building a 2,100 foot bridge while it carries 80,000 vehicles a day

Drivers tend to complain about highway construction but it can be quite complex, particularly when a long span and lots of cars are involved:

Bridges are particularly challenging because they require intricate, and potentially dangerous, work to be done while cars whiz past below, officials said.

Think about those girders, for instance. Work crews use two cranes to lift each girder into the air and then lower it onto the frame of the bridge. The cranes don’t release the girder until it has been bolted into place, officials said.

After the girders are in place, protective plywood shielding is installed between them. The shielding supports workers as they pour the concrete “floor” of the bridge.

The whole process requires only short, intermittent lane closures, Lafleur said.

“We do most of the work overnight to keep traffic interruption at a minimum,” she said. “But of course, night work presents its own challenges, with lighting and visibility especially.”

The average driver won’t even think about any of this when making their way over the bridge. But, if the predictions in the article are correct, they will enjoy the 35% reduction in travel time through the area.

Preparing for a lot more baby boomer friendly housing

An aging population means that more Americans are going to be looking for housing that meets their needs – and there may not be enough of it:

While affordability is a problem on the horizon for some older residents, accessibility challenges are virtually guaranteed for all. While increased life expectancy and a factor that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development cites as “compression of morbidity” means that older generations (even beyond the Baby Boomers) are living actively later into life, disability eventually affects almost everyone. One of the great equalizers in life, disability arrives without any deference to income or race. (Privilege in these realms often makes it easier for people to adjust to disabilities, of course.)…

The housing stock built for Baby Boomers largely wasn’t designed with accessibility in mind. There are five universal-design housing features that tend to address a variety of disabilities that residents face as they age: no-step entries; single-floor living; switches and outlets set at lower heights; extra-wide hallways and doors; and lever-style doors and faucets. Nearly 90 percent of existing homes have one of these features, according to the report—but just 57 percent have two…

Homes built more recently are more likely to accommodate all five universal-design features. Among these universal-design features, the one that’s most common in homes today is the single floor. More than 86 percent of homes in non-metro areas features single-floor living. These figures for cities and suburbs are high as well: 74 and 72 percent, respectively.

Yet these detached, single-floor, single-family homes—and the automobile-centric society that comes with them—are only going to fall further out of step with the needs of residents over time. And sooner rather than later. Homes can be retrofitted with lever-style handles and no-step entries (albeit at great expense). It’s much harder to turn exurban and rural communities where older Americans live into places that nurture seniors rather than isolate them.

A range of issues to consider from design to the layout of communities. Given the retirement savings of Americans, how many of them could afford to move to a new or retrofitted home as they age? One benefit of aging is that these Americans could theoretically have already paid off their homes or gotten close to that point, capping how much they spend on housing. How many want to search out a new mortgage or pay for potentially costly renovations? Some possible solutions:

1. Building more housing for all ages that meet these guidelines. Accessibility can be an issue even for younger residents.

2. Finding funds at a federal or lower level of government to help people retrofit their current residents to better meet these standards. This has the benefit of helping them do what many want as well as letting them stay engaged in and involved with the communities they care about.

3. Aging Americans living in suburbs is a tougher issue as it often requires dependence on a car and it is more difficult to distribute social services. This might require finding ways to make single-family homes multi-unit or building pockets with suburbs that cater to older residents (and not necessarily creating whole new communities like Del Webb).

Drought leads to more lawn spray-painting, lawn removal in California

Painting the lawn is not new but the practice has picked up in California with the big drought underway:

For about $300, the New York Times reports, homeowners can transform their sun-baked brown lawns into lush, bright shades of green. According to the Times, “there are dozens of lawn paint options available, from longer-lasting formulas typically used on high-traffic turf such as ballparks and golf courses, to naturally derived products that rely on a highly concentrated pigment.”

Drew McClellan, who launched a lawn-spraying business in July, told the paper he has more requests than he can handle…

According to LawnLift, a San Diego lawn paint manufacturer, sales of its “all-natural, non-toxic and biodegradable grass and mulch paint” have tripled this year.

In April, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order that limited the watering of “ornamental landscape or turf” to no more than two days per week. Violators are subject to fines of up to $500…

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California told The Associated Press that the consortium received requests to remove 2.5 million square feet in residential lawns in July, up from 99,000 in January. The Municipal Water District of Orange County is taking in 20 to 30 applications a day, the AP said. The Santa Clara Valley Water District, which serves Silicon Valley, received more than 1,700 requests.

Between the ripping out of lawns and painting the lawn, this is a rather large project. Two quick thoughts:

1. I wonder if this signals a long-term shift away from lawns in California. The drought may answer this question, particularly if it lasts a long time, but it would be interesting to see what happens if the drought ends soon: would people go back to lawns?

2. Could a green lawn now become even more of a status symbol, symbolizing that a person has the means to keep it going even under these dry conditions? Or, perhaps the shift away from lawns will be accompanied by the development of new status symbols in yards.

Thinking about “The Language of Houses”

A review of the new book The Language of Houses summarizes what American houses have to say:

Lurie serves as able guide on an opening overview of basic architectural themes: style, scale, materials. Concepts such as formal and informal, open and shut, darkness and light, as well as the influences of foreign and regional idioms, become the building blocks on which she proceeds into her discussion of dwellings. We learn that the simple, unadorned, home intended to convey “green” values, often uses “old bricks and boards that in fact cost more than new ones,” while a suburban McMansion’s pricey entrance is coupled with cheap siding and exposed ductwork out back. She chronicles the evolution of the Colonial meeting house into Gothic worship sites that are mini-theaters with their raised altars, lavish pipe organs, and stage lighting. Gender differences abound: In homes and offices, men prefer what she calls “prospects”; women, “refuge.”

Lurie’s most interesting material limns trends and their policy implications. “The average new home size in the United States was 2,673 square feet in 2011, up from 1,400 square feet in 1970 and a mere 983 square feet in 1950,” she writes. “Meanwhile, though the average size of the American family has been shrinking, the size of individuals has increased.” Has modern architecture contributed to obesity with its elevators and elevated temperatures, she asks? Or this: Second homes often depart in style, décor, and locale from first homes, suggesting an inner void in our everyday lives for which we seek restitution on the weekends.

“[U]nattractive, cheap, badly designed buildings appear to have a negative effect on both mood and morals,” Lurie writes. Rundown and crowded dwellings communicate danger and neglect. Despite these seemingly obvious truths, Lurie informs us, many public buildings are designed intentionally to resist what one sociologist calls “human imprint.” These — prisons, public housing projects, factories and some offices — have few windows or doors, uniform design, and high security. To the list one might add: big-box stores, public schools, fast-food chain restaurants, airports, and low-budget subway stations. As a category, these instances of “hard architecture” occasion “anxiety, irritation and the (sometimes unconscious) wish to leave. Eventually, those who cannot get out will become restless and angry, or passive, withdrawn, and numb.”

Lurie maintains a light touch with such damning observations. But if we take them seriously, it would seem that the funding and design awards for spaces where large percentages of the population spend most of their waking hours demand greater vigilance on the part of urban planners.

Sounds like it has potential: built environments have the ability to influence social behavior. At the same time, the review suggests there isn’t much data to back up these observations and linking the direct effects of environments to behaviors is more difficult.

Perhaps the bigger issue overall is an American culture that tends to privilege efficiency, leading to clunky houses and buildings that function just fine but don’t offer as much in the way of customization and beauty. If the goal is to get a house that offers value and more space for the money, then considerations like quality materials and creating a good fit between the owners and the house matter less.

Converting the first shopping mall into micro-apartments

An indoor shopping mall/arcade built in 1828 in Providence, Rhode Island has recently been converted into micro-housing:

Known as Westminster Arcade when it opened in 1828, the building marked the debut of English indoor shopping concept in the United States. Designed by architects Russell Warren and James Bucklin, the Greek Revival stone structure more resembles a courthouse than a shopping mall, what with its stately Ionic columns and sunlight-filled atrium with its glass gable roof. Shoppers browsed three floors of shops—or at least that was the idea; they never seemed willing to trudge up the stairs to the second and third floors…

The mall was nearly razed in 1944, but preservationists intervened, and it was spared. In 1976, the arcade was designated a National Historic Landmark, though businesses struggled. Even its 1980 renovation didn’t help much, and it ultimately closed in 2008…

Work on the $7M project wrapped in October 2013. Granoff retained the retail spaces on the ground floor and rented them to retail busineses. These commercial spaces are enclosed by bay windows so sound doesn’t drift to the residences above. Inspired by ship construction, each of the 38 rental units—which measure from 225 to 300 square feet—includes a bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, and built-in storage. The homes on the second floor even have guest accommodations in the form of a twin Murphy bed. The Providence Arcade also contains eight larger apartments, a game room, storage spaces, and laundry machine…

Micro apartments are not for everyone—in fact, their clientele are “young kinds that just graduated.” They “are at the bottom-end of the totem pole and don’t have that dining room set that grandma gave them,” Abbott said. “They travel really light. They might have a bike and two suitcases.” The Providence Arcade’s dwellings have also attracted keepers of the shops downstairs as well as second homeowners seeking a place to stay when they’re in town. Rent starts at $550 a month, but future residents better get in line—there is already a waitlist.

If all micro-apartments looked like this, I imagine their popularity would grow. A number of demographics might want a relatively cheap yet newly constructed housing unit within an interesting historic building. Looking at the pictures, i wonder if there is a thriving “street-life” present within the arcade given the retail shops and residences; this would just be a bonus.