Shifting resources away from the “fringe suburb[s]”

In an op-ed in the New York Times, an academic argues that “fringe suburb[s]” are dying and we should shift resources to communities that need reinvestment:

Simply put, there has been a profound structural shift — a reversal of what took place in the 1950s, when drivable suburbs boomed and flourished as center cities emptied and withered.

The shift is durable and lasting because of a major demographic event: the convergence of the two largest generations in American history, the baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and the millennials (born between 1979 and 1996), which today represent half of the total population…

Over all, only 12 percent of future homebuyers want the drivable suburban-fringe houses that are in such oversupply, according to the Realtors survey. This lack of demand all but guarantees continued price declines. Boomers selling their fringe housing will only add to the glut. Nothing the federal government can do will reverse this…

For too long, we over-invested in the wrong places. Those retail centers and subdivisions will never be worth what they cost to build. We have to stop throwing good money after bad. It is time to instead build what the market wants: mixed-income, walkable cities and suburbs that will support the knowledge economy, promote environmental sustainability and create jobs.

This is not an unusual argument. Based on survey data, a number of commentators have suggested that the demand for the sprawling suburbs will shrink and builders and governments should get ahead of this shift. The suburban critiques delivered by academics and others since the post-World War II suburban boom may have finally gained some traction as the young and old seek out community over a big, cheap house. How much of this shift will be “durable and lasting” remains to be seen but it would certainly be helped if “the market” goes in this direction.

Two claims in the final sentence of this op-ed are intriguing. The argument that density = greener neighborhoods is common but the arguments about benefits for the knowledge economy and creating jobs is less common. A little more about each of these:

1. I assume the knowledge economy bit is tied to ideas like “the creative class” from Richard Florida. Younger adults, in particular, want to live in places with some culture and neighborhood life, not on the metropolitan fringe in bland neighborhoods. These places become centers of innovation and culture, attracting more residents and businesses.

2. The jobs claim is a bit less clear to me. If money was spent redeveloping older neighborhoods, this could create jobs – but so could building new balloon-frame homes in new subdivisions. Perhaps the creative cities will create so much innovation that this leads to job growth? Does Richard Florida have data that shows a link between the creative class and job expansion overall?

Overall, this is another voice calling for a new urban strategy where the government and businesses stop subsidizing sprawl and start providing money to promote denser, more New Urbanist type developments that some Americans desire.

American cities continue to face falling revenues

A new report shows that American cities continue to face falling revenues, leading to changes in city budgets and governments:

Belt-tightening continued in cities across the United States in 2011, as fiscal crunches forced local governments to cut back. City revenue is projected to decline 2.3 percent by the end of 2011, according to a new report from the National League of Cities released Tuesday, marking the fifth straight year of declines.

One of the main factors contributing to the decline in revenue is a drop in property tax collections, which are projected to fall by 3.7 percent in 2011, the second straight year of declines. Last year’s drop of 2.0 percent was the first year-over-year decline in city property tax revenue in 15 years. To make up for the shortfalls, cities cut jobs, canceled infrastructure projects, cuts services such as libraries and parks and recreation programs and modified health care benefits for employees.

Hiring freezes were the most common personnel-related cuts made in 2011. Half of cities reported salary reductions or freezes and nearly one in three reported laying off employees or reducing health care benefits. Other actions included early retirements and furloughs.

Even in good times, cities are often concerned with boosting property and sales tax revenues. Commercial and residential development proposals are often scrutinized to see how much they might bring into local coffers versus how they might require in new services. But in times of economic crisis, municipalities and residents, worried about possible rises in property taxes, look even more closely at this issue. Additionally, it is more difficult to obtain federal or state monies when those governments have their own budget concerns.

The belt-tightening will continue unless the economy posts a remarkable reversal. In the meantime, cities big and small, from the size of Chicago and a looming $600 million budget shortfall to smaller suburbs, will continue to look for ways to maximize revenues. In many places, this will lead to some interesting conversations about whether the local government should dig itself out of the mess or whether the residents should help makeup some of the loss of revenues.

Whether corporate tax breaks help the average citizen

Phil Rosenthal tackles an interesting question that pertains to Illinois and Chicago after recent news about certain companies threatening to leave unless they get more tax breaks: do such deals help the average citizen? While the conclusion is unclear, here is a bit about the effect of TIF (Tax Increment Financing) Districts which typically generate funds for localized development and infrastructure:

The TIF has become a fashionable way for a municipality to encourage a business to set up shop in a particular locale it might not have chosen otherwise.  Some, however, see TIFs as too often just a handout for businesses that want to go somewhere.

“They’re a very popular tool for economic development,” Rebecca Hendrick, an associate professor in political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, whose book, “Managing the Fiscal Metropolis,” is due out in November. “There are a lot of discrepancies in the empirical research as to whether they’ve had the intended effect. Would the steel company have come in but for the TIF, or would it have come in anyway?”…

“But it turns out that tax rates go up in the entire jurisdiction in the city of Chicago as a result of a TIF being created in the city of Chicago because the way the property tax works is kind of a zero-sum game. If someone gets money, someone else has to pay for it. … Plus, it’s also off-budget.”

Chicago has a lot of TIF districts so this is not a small issue. Of course, there are different ways to measure the benefits of such development for the average citizen: should it lead to a smaller property tax bill? Should it lead to more city and state services since they should have more tax dollars? Should it lead to a better quality of life in rebounding neighborhoods? Should it lead to more jobs? The common focus seems to be on jobs, as the recent offer from Amazon.com to the State of California illustrates. But these tax breaks often lead to a very limited number of jobs.

The article also hints that certain kinds of economic change receive press coverage while others do not:

A steel company moving to Chicago gets our attention. One person losing his or her home generally doesn’t. Even 100 people losing their homes might not make the papers.

“One hundred people losing their mortgages may involve the same amount of money as a steel company moving to Chicago,” Bowman said. “One of the reasons that TIF money is provided to these businesses is it does get more attention, and people feel like, ‘Maybe things are starting to turn around if Chicago’s more attractive than Cleveland.'”

So is this more of a journalism problem? If newspapers and other media sources are more interested in the “movers and shakers,” typically politicians, business leaders, and entertainment/celebrity figures, does this help the average citizen? I assume the media would suggest that they are the public “watchdog,” helping inform people about abuses of power. But, the media, often in big corporations themselves, can also easily be cozy with these bigger interests and also want to be boosters and help improve the image of their community.

In these poor economic times, I imagine we will be hearing more about corporate tax breaks and whether local, state, and national governments should be in the business of handing them out.

Social inequalities in accessing open government data

Some governments are providing more open data. But, this may not be enough as citizens don’t necessarily have equal access to the data or abilities to interpret the information:

At least 16 nations have major open data initiatives; in many more, pressure is building for them to follow suit. The US has posted nearly 400,000 data sets at Data.gov, and organizations like the Sunlight Foundation and MAPlight.org are finding compelling ways to use public data—like linking political contributions to political actions. It’s the kind of thing that seems to prove Louis Brandeis’ famous comment: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” But transparency alone is not a panacea, and it may even have a few nasty side effects. Take the case of the Bhoomi Project, an ambitious effort by the southern Indian state of Karnataka to digitize some 20 million land titles, making them more accessible. It was supposed to be a shining example of e-governance: open data that would benefit everyone and bring new efficiencies to the world’s largest democracy. Instead, the portal proved a boon to corporations and the wealthy, who hired lawyers and predatory land agents to challenge titles, hunt for errors in documentation, exploit gaps in records, identify targets for bribery, and snap up property. An initiative that was intended to level the playing field for small landholders ended up penalizing them; bribery costs and processing time actually increased.

A level playing field doesn’t mean much if you don’t know the rules or have the right sporting equipment. Uploading a million documents to the Internet doesn’t help people who don’t know how to sift through them. Michael Gurstein, a community informatics expert in Vancouver, British Columbia, has dubbed this problem the data divide. Indeed, a recent study on the use of open government data in Great Britain points out that most of the people using the information are already data sophisticates. The less sophisticated often don’t even know it’s there.

This touches on two issues of social inequality that are not discussed as much as they might be. First, not everyone has consistent access to the internet. It may be a necessity for the younger generations but for example, there are still problems in doing web surveys because internet users are not a representative cross-sample of the US population. Making the data available on the internet would make it available to more users but not necessarily all users. This ties in with some earlier thoughts I’ve had about whether internet access will become a de facto or defined human right in the future.

Second, not everyone knows where the open data is or how to go through it. Government information dumps require sorting through and some time to figure out what is going on. There may or may not be a guide through the information. As someone who has worked with some large sociological datasets, it always takes some time to become acclimated with the files and data before one can begin an analysis. This should legitimately become part of a college education: some training in how to sort through information and common databases. If we get to a point where the average informed citizen needs to be able to sort through government information online, wouldn’t this be a basic skill that all need to be taught? As the commentator suggests, the trained and sophisticated can take advantage of this data while the average citizen may be left behind.

The idea of having more open government information should cause us to think about how the internet might help close the gap between people (though I don’t hold any utopian expectations about this) rather than sustain or exacerbate social inequalities.

Sporting events and human rights

With FIFA’s recent awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qater, some commentators have discussed whether the expansion of football (soccer) was the overriding principle in the decision. Ann Killion of Sports Illustrated suggests the decision didn’t really account for human rights at all:

Amnesty International and Freedomhouse.org raise serious concerns about Qatar from a human rights perspective. A 2010 report by the Office of the United Nations high Commissioner for Refugees rated Qatar “not free.” While women have been granted some rights in recent years, in practice they have very little ability to pursues those rights. In 1996 a gay American citizen was sentenced to six months in prison and 90 lashes…

Using a mega-sporting event as an instrument of social change is a dubious proposition. Did human rights improve in China after the Beijing Olympics –or are restrictions on freedom even greater now?

Is Qatar going to magically transform for one month of football 12 years from now? Are football fans going to be able to freely drink a cold beer in the 120-degree heat? Are women and gay visitors going to be accepted?

Somehow I don’t think the 22 men of FIFA’s executive committee really care.

Should a sports body, such as FIFA or the Olympics, take human rights into consideration? This is an interesting discussion. FIFA claims to be about football all over the world, hence their recent plans to have the World Cup be hosted on multiple continents. But whether this spreading is motivated solely by money or about truly sharing the world’s game is another matter.

If a sports body did require certain levels of human rights for countries to host (or to be able to send athletes), could this change any policies anywhere? And if it didn’t change state policies, would it be harming individual athletes who are not responsible for the stance of their home nation? The only example I can think of is that of South Africa where they were not allowed to participate in the Olympics until the apartheid policies changed.

On the basis of human rights, would athletes and nations be willing to boycott a worldwide sports body like FIFA or the Olympics?

Ultimately, we may have make a judgment about whether human rights or money is a bigger motivating factor for sporting bodies and nations. And if money does seem to be the main factor, the task for human rights advocates is to figure out how to counter.