Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Acting for inclusion in a fearful world

Stacey  Walker
Stacey Walker (Source: Linn County)
Our institutions have a responsibility to bring relief to those who need it most, argued Linn County supervisor Stacey Walker at the 28th annual community observance celebration of MLK Day in Cedar Rapids last night at St. Paul's United Methodist Church. The political and justice systems in particular were called out by Walker and other speakers throughout the day for maintaining facial neutrality between white and black, rich and poor; urging those from disadvantaged groups just to try harder (the "bootstrap gospel"); or worse, in Walker's words, "preserving the status of the privileged."

Addressing realities on the ground became a major challenge almost immediately upon passage of major civil rights legislation in the 1960s. Those laws--particularly the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Housing Act of 1968--achieved breakthroughs that had eluded the civil rights amendments to the U.S. Constitution a century earlier, mainly by including enforcement mechanisms. But it quickly became apparent that middle-class whites, having built wealth and individual capacities with decades of better access to jobs and a variety of government programs, were far better equipped than other groups to deal with the economic changes ahead. One outcome of the marketplace is the winners can use their gains to buy advantages in the next round. Here's how it worked in housing:

And that has happened, of course, over and over again, which has served to reinforce not only economic advantages, but also public images of achievement and deviance. (Recall that it was a predominantly-black police department in Prince George's County, Virginia, that was responsible for the death of Ta-Nehisi Coates's friend Prince Jones.) If the face of law-abiding citizenship and professional success is white or Asian, it's easier to exclude blacks and browns from jobs, housing, immigration, and so forth--which replicates what happened in the bad old days.

Hence the emphasis yesterday on institutional responses to systemic racism and implicit bias rather than the explicit barriers of Dr. King's era. In a panel discussion before the event at which Supervisor Walker spoke, Jasmine Almoayed of the Cedar Rapids economic development office cited the need to facilitate access to resources for new residents; Ruth White, CEO of the Academy of Scholastic and Personal Success, the need for the city to address the housing stratification that directly affects resources for schools; and Rod Dooley, a local pastor as well as executive director of equity for the Cedar Rapids schools, the need for public schools to respond to changes in family structure and racial diversity that affect differentials in achievement and gradation rates.

Karl Cassell, CEO of Perhaps Today! Inc. and formerly director of the civil rights commission, urged his audience at Coe College to become politically involved in the struggle over economic inequality. Young people burdened by debt are understandably afraid to "upset the applecart," said Cassell, but while bearing such burdens are not truly "free to live your life." From the audience, long-time civil rights activist Bernard Clayton added "You may not like politics, but politics likes y'all."
Karl Cassell (Source: Perhaps Today! Inc)
Dr. King's eloquent words were summoned on behalf of these arguments, although at the presentations I attended I didn't hear the part of the "I Have a Dream" speech that is often quoted by civil rights conservatives to oppose institutional remedies: I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Is it fair to assume that the removal of explicit racial barriers leaves nothing to judge between individuals but the content of their characters? The stories told over the course of yesterday point to barriers that remain and that require society-wide efforts to overcome, to life prospects that are dramatically different from birth depending on race and economic circumstance, to the need to reshape institutional and individual perceptions shaped by centuries of injustice before we get to a place where opportunity and justice are truly inclusive.

In this context it's useful to remember advice from another talk at Coe College, by Lauren Garcia of the University of Iowa center for diversity and enrichment. She reminded would-be allies to educate themselves about issues impacting the greater community, to listen before acting, and not to make the issue about themselves. The same advice could be directed at those who hear the whole conversation about these issues as attempts to make them feel guilty. To conclude with a point by Karl Cassell: as difficult as all this is, it's made moreso by economic dislocations that make everyone, even the relatively privileged, feel insecure.

Lauren Garcia
Lauren Garcia (Source: University of Iowa)
Her talk at Coe College had a lot of solid advice for would-be allies

Ellen and Allen Fisher accept the 2018 Percy and Lileah Harris Who is My Neighbor Award
Music from Johnson STEAM Academy, directed by Charrisse Martin-Cox

Book recommendations at Coe
The complete text of Walker's talk is here.

LAST YEAR'S MLK DAY POST: "Akwi Nji on Choosing Justice over Comfort," 18 January 2017

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Condition of the state 2018

Governor Reynolds
Governor Kim Reynolds (R), from governor.iowa.gov
The text of Governor Reynolds's address is here.

Governor Kim Reynolds today presented a hopeful message to a joint session of the Iowa legislature, with a vision of an "Iowa overflowing with opportunity" where "everyone has a chance to succeed." The main policy message, though, is that we are continuing our transition to a low-tax, low-service state. Reynolds became governor less than a year ago when her predecessor, Terry E. Branstad, was appointed U.S. Ambassador to China by President Trump.

The policy part of the speech promised continuation of the mix of conservative ideology and shouts to constituent groups (lobbying for the national renewable fuels standard, e.g.) begun with Republican ascendance in Iowa earlier this decade. Any problems those policies have created so far were either mysteriously attributed--including the always-amusing phrase "mistakes were made" when Medicaid was privatized--or ignored altogether. She touted her balanced budget without mentioning it required tapping reserve funds after earlier tax cuts produced a revenue shortfall. Big moves were promised on water quality without mentioning why the state has a water quality issue. (Large-scale farming operations have saturated the soil with fertilizer, which gets into groundwater, municipal water supplies, rivers, and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico's ever-expanding dead zone. It is also impossible to overstate the importance of this constituency to Midwestern Republicans.) At least it got mentioned, though, unlike all other environmental problems.
Dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico (Source: USAPP)
The small towns that historically served the legions of small farmers have had a rough adjustment to an era of corporate agriculture, and face an anxious future. "When I go home," Reynolds notes, "I hear the disappointment and I share the frustration when another storefront closes." There is a role for government in managing the transition--Reynolds will appoint a task force to explore statewide broadband, and proposes various health care and education initiatives--but there are limits to what even an activist state can do. (And will there be some consideration of return-on-investment when we build broadband across the state?) Anyhow, government is mostly portrayed in the speech as as alien and unwanted: The primary response to rural and small town stagnation is to double down on tax cuts. (We're not Kansas, at least not yet.) Reynolds promised tax changes with the goal of reducing individual and eventually corporate rates. It's appealing to say "Iowans will keep more of their hard-earned money," but assumes those Iowans will not miss the government services that will be cut or eliminated.

West Branch, Iowa, birthplace of Herbert Hoover,
depicted by Grant Wood (Source: wikimedia.org)
Reynolds lingered over the virtues of Iowa's small towns while virtually ignoring its cities. She claims "the heart, soul and spirit of Iowa will always remain in our small towns and rural communities," but, as in other states, urban areas are now where the Iowa economy happens. An increasing proportion of Iowans live in urban areas: 64 percent in the 2010 census. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Iowa had just over 2 million jobs in 2016; over half of them are located in eight of our 99 counties. All of these eight have average wages or salaries at or above the statewide average, and even with widely varying performance among them their combined net migration in the 2010s is nearly double the state total. In other words, without these eight counties, Iowa loses population and is underwater financially. The governor thankfully omitted most of the culture war gunk (anti-immigration, repealing gay rights, crackdowns on violent crime, e.g.) in her address, but neither was there anything on affordable housing, public transportation, small business incubators or other ways to support Iowa's cities do their stuff (see Florida 2017). More emphasis on worker training could help develop the middle-level skills Iowa needs, but cutting state services, busting unions and rooting for the end of the Affordable Care Act won't help those workers deal with a likely future of uncertain, contract-based employment arrangements (Vinik 2018). Nor will they help Sioux City and Waterloo, two historic cities which lag behind in the post-industrial age. Nor will help my city avoid having to close eight elementary schools.

From 2011-2015, Iowa lost population among key age and skill groups. Half again as many younger workers with college degrees left the state as moved in, with particular losses among those with high-level technical skills (Swenson and Eathington 2017, esp. Table 8 and Figures 2-16). Meanwhile, large cities across the country are seeing sharp increases in those aged 25-34 with four year degrees--even downtrodden cities like Detroit and Buffalo (Cortright 2018, Griffin 2018). Can the young educated people leaving Iowa be won back with a new round of  tax cuts? By partying like it's 1874? Will those workers and the firms that employ them be attracted by the legislative accomplishments Reynolds touted for 2017: voter ID laws, looser gun control, reformed collective bargaining, and defunding Planned Parenthood? Or were these accomplishments aimed at pleasing those who already live here and are nostalgic for some golden age before everything started changing?

(Source: "FY2019 Budget in Brief," State of Iowa Department of Management)

The opposition party typically keeps a low profile on Condition of the State days. (There aren't the silly canned responses that follow the U.S. President's State of the Union addresses.) Senate Democratic leader Janet Peterson praised Governor Reynolds's delivery and some of her proposals, but said legislative Democrats about how they would be funded given tax cuts and stresses on existing programs.

"Iowa Community Indicators Program," Iowa State University: aggregated and original data as well as economic analysis
Joe Cortright, "Cities Continue to Attract Smart Young Adults," City Observatory, 2 January 2018
Richard Florida, "Anti-Urban States Aren't Just Hurting Their Cities," City Lab, 21 December 2017
Jennifer Griffin, "The Future Success of Cities Depends on Urban Kids," Strong Towns, 10 January 2018
Dave Swenson and Liesl Eathington, "Evaluating the Higher-Level Skill Content of the Iowa Workforce and Its Competitiveness with the Rest of the Nation," Department of Economics, Iowa State University, September 2017
Danny Vinik, "The Real Future of Work," Politico Magazine, January-February 2018

James Q. Lynch, "Iowa Gov. Reynolds Focuses Speech on Solving Problems," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 9 January 2018
Joyce Russell, "Reynolds Touts Republican Achievements in Condition of the State Address," Iowa Public Radio, 9 January 2018

"The Republicans' Tax Revolt," 22 December 2017
"Condition of the State," 14 January 2014

Monday, January 1, 2018

The future of religious spaces (IV)

Source: faithandform.com
"Community-based sacred space" is a prominent theme in Faith and Form's 2017 International Awards for Religious Art and Architecture, which were announced in the current edition of that magazine. One of the jurors is quoted: "There seems to be more emphasis on what the role of the community is, and the sharing of liturgical space, and that is a breath of fresh air." Editor Michael J. Crosbie notes this trend possibly is connected to religious institutions' needs to adapt existing facilities as they face both declining membership rolls and tight budget constraints.

As I concluded my post on last year's awards I listed, off the top of my head, five functions religious buildings are expected to perform. These functions are at best complimentary and can often be contradictory in practice: are houses of worship places for action or contemplation? in the world or apart from it? familiar "home" or a place to welcome strangers? I mention these again because, as much as a blog devoted to promoting common life is looking for churches to be parts of or even anchors of their neighborhoods, it's important to remember that these places have other responsibilities as well. 

Having said that, a religious building, however beautiful or original, that is situated like this 2017 award winner for new facilities...
Liberty United Methodist Church, Liberty MO (Google street view capture)
...or this 2014 winner...
Watermark Community Church, Dallas TX (source: faithandform.com)
...is a place unto itself, accessible to members in cars but not to its neighbors if anyone actually lives nearby.

So we are pleased to take our hats off to this year's winners in the renovation and adaptive re-use categories, whose exterior pictures inevitably include sidewalks and nearby structures. These congregations have chosen not to flee to open spaces but to stay in their neighborhoods and be part of them--to consider them to be, to use Christian parlance, part of their ministry.

Here, for instance, is Westport Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Kansas City, Missouri, which won an award for renovation. They reopened in 2016 after the former, 107-year-old building was destroyed by fire in 2011.
(Source: faithandform.org)
They adopted a resolution in 1983 that they call the Westport Declaration: We intend to use all resources available, without reservation, to minister to, with, and in the community defined as Westport (31st Street to Brush Creek, Troost to State Line). In the years since the church has been an important neighborhood resource, playing host to a variety of groups including Boy Scouts, senior meals, addiction services, child care, dance, choral music, hospice care, gays and lesbians, environmentalists, computer classes, a chess club and an investment club, as well as concerts and films. The current pastor has "worked with police to improve security in the area."

Their main entrance is up a long set of stairs, but there's an alternate entrance right off the street. The parking lot is behind the church, as it should be. The church presents the street with a mix of windows and walls, but on balance is interesting to see and inviting to enter.
Great approach from a side street (Google maps screen capture)
Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Memphis, Tennessee, won an award for adaptive re-use/re-purpose:
(Source: faithandform.org)
The church was founded in 2006 by the Rev. Jeffrey Lancaster, who has a particular calling to plant churches in urban areas. Memphis is our home, they say on their website. We are privileged to live in one of America's most notable, influential, vibrant and storied cities. Its history, beauty, people and opportunities make Memphis our favorite city. Yet, like homes all over the world, she is not without her needs. Like every home inhabited by humans, she can be a paradox--joyful and sad, together and lonely, friendly and cruel, chaos and calm.

Note how the front door opens onto the street, the windows in the worship space provide an interesting view for the passer-by as well as "eyes on the street," and the parking lot is off a side street so neither worshiper nor passer-by has to negotiate a lot of pavement.

Another view, from redeemermemphis.org
Among other award winners, First Congregational Church in Bellevue, Washington, moved to this converted office building in 2016.
atelierjones, llc
(Source: faithandform.com)
The new building is embedded in the same neighborhood they've served for over 100 years. Its parking lot is on the side so neither pedestrians nor members have to cross a lot of pavement. Pictures of the interior are impressive, but their exterior presents a giant gray wall--a "snout house" at prayer?

SGI New England Buddhist Center in Brookline, Massachusetts, won an adaptive re-use/re-purpose award. Note the light coming from the many windows, particularly at street level. In the Google Street View, it must be said, the windows are all covered with blinds; they face south, so must be closed on sunny days.
Touloukian Touloukian Inc
SGI New England Buddhist Center, Brookline MA (Source: faithandform.com)
Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City won an adaptive re-use/re-purpose award for their synagogue chapel, but the exterior opens directly onto East 85th Street and passers-by will soon be intrigued by large window displays celebrating the five books of Moses.

Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (Google Maps screen capture)
These buildings have won awards because they're artistically built. I salute those architects and their institutions for doing so while also enabling connection with the world outside their walls.

Which brings me to the end of my post, except I feel like I've been avoiding an important aspect of this topic. Prompted by Faith and Form's fascinating issue, I've been talking about buildings and how they play with each other and with their streets. But, as the cornball songwriters Richard Avery and Donald S. March put it back in the day, "The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple... the church is people." Just because the doors and windows are in the right places doesn't guarantee everyone will feel welcome, nor that everyone will be welcomed. It doesn't even ensure that the doors will be unlocked!

Religious institutions have varying ideas about community, and some are frankly more comfortable with including difference than others. And people outside the doors have varying degrees of comfort with religious institutions. That includes me, for whom gays and lesbians are the canaries in the contemporary religious coal mines. If they're not fully welcomed, valued for who they are, without qualification, then I'm not welcome, either. (So, why am I still a United Methodist? Gosh, this conversation is getting complicated.)

I go back to the fundamental premises of this project: that Americans in the 21st century are going to become more interdependent, whether we like it or not. Dealing with all the challenges that make it so requires an ongoing conversation which is open to everyone on a basis of equality. That means something other than a like-minded community, regardless of whether I'm sympathetic to its viewpoint. It says a lot for any group to choose to be part of a neighborhood, part of a city, and whoever they are, I will salute them and welcome them.

We all have things we can learn from each other, and there are some research findings that suggest inclusion can build on itself.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Republicans' tax revolt

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) celebrates passage (swiped from nytimes.com)
There can be no more caviling about the accomplishments of the Republican-led federal government in 2017: the tax bill that cleared December 20, and was signed by President Donald J. Trump two days later, represents major policy change. Unfortunately, in addition to achieving some legitimate objectives the bill pushes policy in some very dubious directions.

First, the good news. The bill includes a long-overdue overhaul of corporate taxation. The U.S. relies to an unusual degree on business taxes, and the complex provisions of the tax code had pushed the top rate (which nobody really pays) far above that of other advanced democracies. The current bill closes some loopholes and reduces the top tax rate from 36 to 21 percent, making American business taxation more transparent and possibly more internationally competitive. Some advocates expect this to result in more hiring with higher wages. (I'm dubious, given that corporate profits have already been doing well for most of this decade, far outpacing wages.) The provision is not revenue-neutral, but could have been offset with higher individual rates. (It wasn't.)

I'm also fine with what's happened to the home mortgage interest deduction: the amount of debt on which interest is deductible was reduced from $1,000,000 to $750,000 for homes purchased after 2017, and nearly doubling the standard deduction drastically reduces the amount of people who will take it. This provision of the code has inflated prices, encouraged communities to sprawl and individuals to over-build (see Zuegel 2017 and Williamson 2017); the presumption that homeowners make better citizens was dubious from the start.

Other positives: Using chained CPI to make year-to-year adjustments should more accurately reflect the impact of inflation on taxpayers, even though it will mean lower benefits from, say, the Earned Income Tax Credit.... The child allowance has been increased for the first time in awhile, to $2000, albeit offset by eliminating personal exemptions. For low income filers, $1400 of that credit can be refunded in a sort of "negative income tax"... And some ideas got removed from earlier versions: reducing or ending tax credits for historic preservation, as well as provisions affecting higher education like taxing tuition benefits for employees of colleges and graduate student fellowships. (Maybe those last are neutrals rather than positives, since nothing was changed.)

If the bill had gone only that far, it might have been more widely supported, in and out of Congress, although that's hard to say given Washington's toxically partisan divide. But the sponsors had to go and:
  • skew the individual cuts to the wealthy. In part that's because the wealthy pay most of the income taxes in America, but that's not true of all taxes. (ITEP 2017 shows the distribution of tax payments by income level, and how that would have been affected by an early version of the 2017 tax bill.) This exacerbates an already-widening income and wealth gap in America. The skew does appear worse if you include the expiration of individual cuts after ten years, which was included to make the bill fit under budget caps, so a lot of opposition analysis focuses on 2027 numbers. In fact those cuts may or may not expire, but if they don't, they will clearly worsen the bill's impact on the deficit (discussed below.)
  • double the estate tax exemption, which was absurdly high even before Republicans tried to end it in their 2001 tax cut. The ability of the very rich, some but not all of whom got that way by doing socially-productive things, to pass on huge fortunes to their heirs, all of whom got that way simply by coming out of the right vagina, is absolutely contrary to an opportunity society. We're making the world safe for aristocracy, pure and simple. And since whites got several centuries' head start on making money, this approach does racial harm as well.
  • expand pass-through provisions, by which individual income can be taxed at the lower business rate. This option is not available to typical working people, of course, only to those in a position to declare themselves independent contractors. A special provision related to real estate partnerships will provide substantial benefits to the Trump family as well as Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), a late convert to the yes column, all of which is giving cynics a field day.
  • retain the obscene carried interest loophole, whereby the income of financial wizards is taxed as capital gains rather than income, and therefore at a much lower rate. This has cost the government $18 billion over the last ten years, besides which it irrationally favors financial wizardry over any other work. Hello-o-o, 1 percenters!
  • run as much of a deficit as they legally could claim. The official estimate of revenue loss, $1.4+ trillion over 10 years, assumes a substantial economic stimulus effect, which as I said may or may not result, and steady and considerable economic expansion throughout the period. Otherwise the impact on the deficit is substantially worse. Fiscally stimulating the economy at all in the eighth year of a bull market with the country at or near full employment is hard to justify. The capacity of the federal government to deal with future events (natural disasters, security threats, economic downturns, funding for retirement and health care programs, maintaining infrastructure), not to mention regular disruption in our high-tech economy, has been damaged, which is inexplicable. In the near term, higher deficits would trigger funding cuts for Medicare and Medicaid.
  • add legislative matters to the bill. Republicans have repeatedly attempted over the years to repeal the individual mandate provision of the Affordable Care Act and open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, without success. Both are included in this bill. The ACA change cuts health care policy off at the knees--"We have essentially repealed Obamacare," President Trump proclaimed Wednesday--roiling individual insurance markets, without any recourse for the most vulnerable.
  • do all this in an all-fired hurry, without so much as a committee hearing. Senator John S. McCain (R-Arizona) complained last summer about his leadership's abandonment of "regular order" in considering legislation. This bill was a most egregious example, but he supported it anyway.
The tax bill does some good, but considering its effects on vulnerable individuals as well as American society as a whole, it does a lot more bad.

Tax Policy Center: http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/publications/distributional-analysis-conference-agreement-tax-cuts-and-jobs-act/full
Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy: https://itep.org/finalgop-trumpbill/
American Planning Association: https://www.planning.org/blog/blogpost/9140260/
US Treasury Dept: https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Documents/TreasuryGrowthMemo12-11-17.pdf 

William G. Gale and Leonard Burman, "Congress Missed an Opportunity to Reform the Corporate Tax," Up Front, 26 December 2017
Alejandro Ortiz and Kathleen Powers, "So, What's in the Tax Bill?" Vote Smart, 13 December 2017

Friday, December 15, 2017

Bill Byrnes on law enforcement and the black middle class


Criminal justice policies that result in large-scale incarceration of young black men have spillover effects throughout the black population, middle class as well as poor, according to new research by Bill Byrnes of the Center for Research and Learning presented at one of the Center's Friday morning seminars last month. Byrnes's talk was entitled "Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Black Middle Class and Mass Incarceration." My fellow middle-aged white men who can't understand what Colin Kapernick and the kneeling NFL players are on about would do well to draw near and give heed.

Byrnes's Ph.D. research is based on focus group interviews with blacks and whites in suburban Cook County, Illinois (the county that includes Chicago) concerning friends and family members who have been incarcerated as well as their own experiences with the police. It builds on existing research that traces dramatic increases in prison populations nationwide after 1978 not only to increases in violent crime from the late 1960s to the early 1990s but also the effects of de-industrialization, public calls for more policing, federal wars on crime and drugs, longer sentences and stricter parole rules. The United States already had imprisoned a greater percentage of its population than other advanced democracies, but now the discrepancy is huge. Moreover, it disproportionately affects people by social class, neighborhood and particularly race: in Cook County, blacks comprise 24.8 percent of the total population but 66.9 percent of the prison population.
Bill Byrnes
Bill Byrnes (Source: Center for Urban Research and Learning)
Byrnes's focus groups revealed that both blacks and whites suffer emotionally when friends and family members are incarcerated, but whites "seem on the whole better cushioned." Blacks are more likely than whites to know someone who has been incarcerated; to bear financial burdens for family members in jail; and to themselves have had some negative encounters with police. Byrnes's middle class black respondents "have to negotiate their safety in public spaces in ways whites don't have to," relying on extremely proper demeanor and professional clothing to get them through situations (although that doesn't always help, as witness the 2016 killing of Philando Castile in suburban Minneapolis).

Byrnes concludes that "mass incarceration is about resource allocation," redolent of Harold Lasswell's definition of politics as who gets what, when and how. Blacks and whites start from different social places, and their interactions with the state "are not equivalent." This not only puts an "unjust" burden on the poor--greater police presence means more incarceration and afterwards higher unemployment, persistent poverty, and lack of access to education and housing--but extends those burdens to the nascent black middle class, whose economic position does not insulate them from incarceration of friends and family, or from their own awkward interactions with police.

Why should this matter to people who aren't black? Byrnes cites three reasons:
  1. The economic costs of mass incarceration diverts state resources from other programs. "Million dollar block" is an expression for a neighborhood where the state is spending over a million dollars incarcerating its residents. "Do you want to know why it costs $40,000 to go to U[niversity] of I[llinois] now?" Byrnes asked rhetorically. He could have added: Or why we struggle to maintain transportation infrastructure or fund schools or treat the mentally ill? 
  2. Mass incarceration may endanger public safety as much or more as it protects it. Where areas of concentrated poverty are also areas of concentrated ex-inmates, the lack of economic opportunity as well as ongoing encounters with law enforcement breed desperation, which actually increases the likelihood of crime.
  3. Democracy itself is compromised by a policy approach layered on top of existing social and economic inequalities that creates "two-track citizenship" defined to a large extent by race. To this I would add that the era of economic mobility in America ended about 1973, just as black civil rights were beginning to be protected. The subsequent economic arrangements have frozen in place a wealth and opportunity gap that for historical reasons favored whites. The current House and Senate tax reform efforts, most egregiously the proposed end of the inheritance tax but going beyond that in many ways, can only add to the problem.
I will add a fourth reason. It has been a core assumption since the beginning of this blog project that we will not in the coming century be able to live as separately as we have been doing for the last 75 years. Whites are going to figure out how to live with blacks, and vice versa, and policy approaches that reinforce and extend racial inequalities are making that very very difficult.

'The Latest Bad News and Our Common Life," 17 December 2014. For more from Holy Mountain, please choose "race" from the list of labels in the right-hand column.

Ta-Nahesi Coates's essay, "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration," which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 2015, is reprinted along with his own commentary/update as chapter 7 of his We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (New World, 2017). It is particularly useful for his copious citation of sources. Coates was interviewed by Krista Tippett at the Chicago Humanities Festival, and that is here.

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2012)
Charles Marohn, "It's Time to End the Routine Traffic Stop," Strong Towns, 31 October 2017

Monday, December 4, 2017

Re-Zoning Cedar Rapids

Community residents at ReZone Open House,
New Bo City Market, October 2017
Cedar Rapids's adoption of form-based zoning will be targeted in scale and proceed incrementally, according to city planners Seth Gunnerson and Anne Russett. The two spoke last week to the Corridor Urbanism group, following an input-seeking open house in mid-October. (I am a member of the ReZone Steering Committee, which has met occasionally since March 2016 to discuss formulation with planners and the consultants from SAFEbuilt Studio.)

ReZone Cedar Rapids grew out of the city's comprehensive plan adopted in 2015. Form-based zoning is being applied first in the downtown area, as well as four nearby areas that had previously been designated as zoning overlay districts allowing for relaxation of existing zoning rules: Czech Village/New Bohemia, Ellis Boulevard on the Northwest Side, MedQuarter and Kingston Village. The intent is to follow through where there has been ongoing focused planning efforts; these areas can then serve as models for other areas where occupants may seek focused planning in the future (such as the College District).
Citizen suggestions at the open house for future form-based zones included
Mound View/College District (center right cluster)
and along the Highway 100 extension (far left)
The area created by the extension of Highway 100 is currently a blank slate, and currently under the jurisdiction of Linn County, but is likely to be annexed by the City of Cedar Rapids before development, so form-based zoning and even walkable urbanism are open possibilities there. This poster...
...presented by H.R. Green Engineering at a city open house in March 2014 suggested walkable urbanism was at least being considered for future development along Highway 100, albeit there were two other posters there too.

Gunnerson and Russett explained that form-based zoning centers on the form and size of buildings rather than separating uses (residential, commercial and industrial being the three main traditional categories). The code also describes street networks and multiple access, neighborhood character and the relationship of buildings to streets.
Dot stickers indicated citizen support
Typically form-based regulations have buildings fronting the streets rather than existing behind parking areas...

...or green space, and describe pedestrian scale infrastructure like lighting...

and signs...

...although any form including large-lot suburban subdivisions can be part of the code.

The reasons to change the zoning code, besides encouraging more traditional walkable development, is to allow more options for neighborhoods beyond single use, update zoning that is often decades old and not descriptive of certain areas, and simplifying the process of approving or disapproving developments.

The first draft of the code is due this winter; the revised draft following public feedback will be presented to the City Council in summer 2018. The new codes may take effect immediately or be phased in over a number of months.

My guess is the average Cedar Rapids citizen will not notice much impact from this zoning change. In the targeted districts certain types of building will be restricted, but other types can be expedited. Over the long term we can hope for better economic development in those economically-important districts, and aroused public interest in attempting form-based zoning in other parts of the city. I'm more hopeful about the first than about the second.

CORRECTION: The discussion of property along the Highway 100 extension has been amended to clarify the probable sequence of annexation and development i.e. previous false information has been replaced by true information.


City's promotional "trailer":
The city's Rezone website contains display boards as well as results of public input.

"What is a 'Form-Based Code' and Other Mysteries of Zoning," 7 March 2016
"Envision CR Open House," 26 March 2014

Friday, November 24, 2017

Black Friday parking 2017: After the ball is over

This year's observance of the Black Friday Parking tradition took me down 16th Avenue SW, a five-lane stroad that runs west from New Bohemia past the former Lincoln School and eventually connects to old U.S. Highway 30. It's not a shopping hotspot on Black Friday or any day; as an example of first wave sprawl, it mainly features empty buildings, used car lots, and the occasional surviving restaurant. There's activity nearby--Jefferson High School, the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena, and two stadiums that between them in use most of the year--but it produces no spillover effects for 16th's economy. The average daily traffic count of 11500-13700 is mostly on their way somewhere else.

Going out of business

Gone out of business

Gone out of business

This used to be a K-Mart...

...and could be yours for the right price

Strip mall, parking lot about 40 percent full

Theisen's, parking lot close to full

Strip mall, lot about 50 percent full

Sidewalks have been added along parts of 16th Avenue;
I would not support more

Walgreen's parking lot about 50 percent full;
ditto the CVS across the street
Next year I promise to visit somewhere more hopping. In the meantime we should not invest a lot in trying to rescue 16th Avenue... just recognize that shopping areas with giant parking lots end up like this--unless, like Cedar Rapids's former Westdale Mall, the city pumps $10+ million into resuscitation--and maybe we should stop building them.

PREVIOUS VENTURES: 2016 (Edgewood Road & Westdale), 2015 (Blairs Ferry Rd)

Cedar Rapids parking ordinance: https://library.municode.com/ia/cedar_rapids/codes/code_of_ordinances?nodeId=CH32ZO_S32.05DIPADEST_32.05.020PAST

On Twitter, check #blackfridayparking

James Brasuell, "Better Land Use Planning: One of the Best Ways to Improve Transportation," Planetizen, 19 November 2017
Rachel Quednau, "This Week, Join in Our Annual Black Friday Parking Event," Strong Towns, 20 November 2017

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Cedar Rapids City Council runoff 2017

Source: cedar-rapids.org
This month's elections for Cedar Rapids City Council featured races for five of the nine seats resulting in two new members (Marty Hoeger in District 1 and Tyler Olson at large), one member returning after a 16 year hiatus (Dale Todd in District 3), and two races that will require a runoff on Tuesday, December 5. It is to those races that we now turn.

Brad Hart and Monica Vernon are the survivors of an eight-person mayors' race. Vernon led the first round, with 30.3 percent of the vote to Hart's 20.4 percent out of  17,642 votes cast (Morelli). In our city's council-manager system, the part-time mayor is technically just one at-large vote on the City Council, but the visibility of the position allows considerable leadership potential, as outgoing mayor Ron Corbett demonstrated in his two terms. Both are running on their biographies, which are impressive. Both have been public, if not (in the case of Hart) political presences in the city for a number of years. Both surely exceed the threshold of strategic competence, articulated by my former writing colleague Paul J. Quirk as a generalist's ability to recognize the signs of responsible argument on a broad array of issues. As a manager of problems with high levels of personal activity and familiarity with the city, either would be fine.

Both have fairly elaborate websites (cited below) with separate issue pages. There's a lot of commonality between them. Vernon covers more issues, 12 to 8, while Hart's statements are longer. Both indicate recognition of city needs like jobs, financing and inclusion, but beyond being in support of all three there's not a lot of policy substance.

Employment, for example, is surely one of the core challenges America faces in the 21st century in the face of automation, outsourcing and persistent poverty. Here's Hart:
Brad Hart, AttorneyStrong businesses + workforce = healthy community. People will come to live and work in a community that is welcoming and has a great quality of life to offer--schools, housing, entertainment, recreation, safety. People stay when they become connected to the community and its people. We can all help in that effort by being more friendly, more welcoming, by random acts of kindness. Volunteering will play an important role here, too.

And Vernon:
Opportunity waits for no one. Economic development must be serious business for Cedar Rapids and the Mayor of Cedar Rapids must be a self-starter who will lead the charge with passion. Building and developing and re-developing this city must be done with a "pedal to the metal" mentality. Using common sense and an approach of equal opportunity, we must continue to push forward for progress.

I'm seeing good intentions here in both cases, but nothing one could call a plan, or even a suspicion of a strategy.

The Gazette profiles of Hart and Vernon shook loose some more specific positions. Vernon's more detailed answers include reasonable defenses of city investments in Greene Square and the New Bo City Market. She and Hart agree on the importance of recruiting and retaining major employers, accommodating all means of transportation ("we must also have drivability," says Vernon), getting state/federal support for flood protection, and judicious use of tax increment financing (TIFs), all of which involve a great deal of negotiating with and listening to businesses, state and federal officials, and city residents.

A rare criticism of past policy, besides their agreement that the incremental conversion of one-way streets to two-way has been "confusing," is Vernon arguing that the closing of the 1000 block of 2nd Avenue SE to accommodate Physicians Clinic of Iowa should have included funding for the immediate conversion of the entirety of 3rd Avenue. Funding from... the city (from what pile of cash)? Or from PCI, in which case how does that square with her stated willingness to "fight to keep" major employers, whether the issue is "housing, workforce development, land or infrastructure?"

Hart mentioned as part of an answer on city finances that "We also need to review the street construction requirements for new streets developed by others so when those streets become the responsibility of the city they last for the 40-50 years expected." That's a rare example of the mayor articulating a specific expectation, and it's spot on, although from what I know 40-50 years is optimistic for streets with a modicum of traffic.

District 5

In District 5, Vanorny outpolled three-term incumbent Shields by 60 votes out of 2128 cast, 43.2% to 40.4% (Ramm). District 5 runs along the southern edge of the city, with one northward spur west of 6th Avenue SW that just intersects the Taylor Area neighborhood. (See this map on the county website.) It appears to be the least dense of the five districts, and includes the swath of strip malls on the southwest side.

Councilman Justin Shields
Justin Shields, from cedar-rapids.org
So it is not surprising that one of two issues discussed among Shields's recent Facebook posts, besides his leadership in flood recovery, is the multi-million dollar renovation of the former Westdale Mall. This was an enormous outflow of city money into development that is neither walkable nor sustainable. It is difficult to search for issues on a Facebook page, but there is little evidence that we are going to have to anything differently than we've done in 75 years of the suburban development pattern.

Ashley Vanorny, from her website
Ashley Vanorny is a 32-year-old IT analyst for University of Iowa Hospital. Her website discusses her calling to public service--a courageous statement in these cynical times--and her work with foster children at Four Oaks. Promoting community spirit is an essential quality of a city leader, but while she is critical of past Council actions on "issues regarding panhandling and affordable housing," but that as policy-specific as her content gets.

America, which includes Cedar Rapids, faces some profound challenges. How do we enable a satisfactory quality of life and economic opportunity for our citizens in the face of economic, environmental, racial and financial challenges? Cedar Rapids faces specific issues of a major physical remake of our school system; an overhaul of the zoning code; continued implementation of complete streets policies, particularly funding for sidewalks; development in the MedQuarter, core neighborhoods and new areas created by the Highway 100 extension; and the future of our bus system as well as potential inter-city public transportation. We've managed to have a school board election and two rounds of a city council election this fall without serious debate over any of these. It's no wonder so few people vote.

"Cedar Rapids Mayoral Forum Nov. 13, 2017" (video), KCRG-TV9, 14 November 2017
B.A. Morelli, "Hart and Vernon to Face Off for Cedar Rapids Mayor in Runoff," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 7 November 2017
Michaela Ramm, "Cedar Rapids District 5 City Council Race Headed for Dec. 5 Runoff," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 7 November 2017
Steve Shriver, interviews with Brad Hart and Monica Vernon, 3 October 2017
"Brad Hart for Mayor: Home," www.hart4cr.com
"Justin Shields for Cedar Rapids" Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/JustinShieldsForCedarRapids/
"Ashley Vanorny--A Voice for Cedar Rapids," www.ashleyvanorny.com
"Home--Monica Vernon Cedar Rapids Mayor Candidate," www.monicavernonformayor.com
"Cedar Rapids City Council Runoff," Holy Mountain, 23 November 2013

Monday, November 13, 2017

CRCSD plan

Public input forum at Washington High School, 11/9/2017
The Cedar Rapids Community School District is floating a bold plan to remake our city's elementary schools by 2034. Nearly all (18 of 21) existing schools would be closed under the plan, which is to be officially presented to the school board in December and voted on in January. New, larger schools would be built on ten existing school sites, the three remaining schools (Grant, Hiawatha and Viola Gibson) would be renovated, and the other eight schools would be closed and re-purposed, sold, or something.

The district's rationale mixes necessity and pragmatism. They cite the need for a total of $241 million dollars of building updates in our current elementaries, while the new schools could be built for pretty much the same amount ($260 million) and could save money on staffing and operating costs. The Physical Plant and Equipment Levy Fund (PPEL) is inadequate to fund needed repairs, and by 2024 the cumulative efforts to patch aging facilities will have exhausted the fund's reserves. Because SAVE money will be available from the State of Iowa beginning in 2020 to supplement the PPEL funds, the district can execute this plan without either a tax increase or a bond issue. Given the district's previous experience closing Polk School, there's also probably something to be said for getting all the pain out of the way at once.
District chart showing PPEL fund's inability to keep up with maintenance needs
I confess to difficulty analyzing the plan, the audacity of which is breathtaking. It is immediately redolent of the "orderly but dumb" top-down comprehensive planning that Strong Towns is always criticizing. In part we are responding to a situation that is created by decades of suburban development with a comprehensive reaction that will probably reinforce that pattern. Five years ago, there were five elementary schools located in the city's core neighborhoods (two in Mound View); after this process is through there will remain two (none in Mound View).

But react we must, probably. I'm going with the district's numbers on this, because I don't have my own. From 35 years in colleges and universities, I can tell you it's impossible to win an argument with an administration who says financial necessity requires us to do something unpleasant. Where opposing perspectives and alternative plans would emerge is during election campaigns, but remarkably, we've just this fall had elections for the school board and city council in which this city-altering proposal was not discussed.

So we're left trusting (or not) that school officials are acting in good faith and with good judgment. Long-term planning is inevitably risky, because they're based on forecasts that by definition amount to guesswork with varying degrees of certainty. Among the arguable assumptions of the plan or its advocates:
  • Building new facilities (the "learning environment") is the most effective use of available money to improve student learning.
  • The improved facilities and professional staffing (like full-time librarians) that come with newer schools cannot be achieved in any other way.
  • Maintenance needs of schools at the back end of the plan (due for reconstruction or destruction in 2030-2034) will not in the meantime affect the overall cost calculus
  • State funding will not appreciably increase anytime soon--OK, that's not really arguable--but we can rely on them maintaining current programs and funding levels.
  • The population of Cedar Rapids will continue to sprawl. While young professionals or empty-nesters might be attracted to residences in the city center, we won't see similar shifts among school-age children.
  • The assessment of infrastructure needs is accurate, and represents needs that must be immediately addressed. These figures are in no way inflated a la the American Society of Civil Engineers' annual report that the U.S. must spend trillions of dollars to bring its roads and bridges into shape (see Marohn 2011).
  • Construction of the new facilities will be of high quality that will last... like some of our oldest schools that have lasted more than 100 years, and not like some of the shoddier stuff that was thrown up in the 1950s and 60s.
  • Transportation costs to the district under the plan can be managed, because not many more students will require busing--many parents are already driving their children to school--and energy costs will remain relatively low.
  • Less than 25 percent of students currently walk to school, so the impact of larger attendance areas will be small. There is no hope of increasing the percentage of students walking anyway.
  • Of the 1200+ students currently choosing to home school or attend out of district, many will be lured back by new facilities with up-to-date features. "People have said to me they chose not to move to Cedar Rapids because they drove up and looked at our schools," Superintendent Brad Buck told the Gazette (Duffy, cited below). [By way of contrast, today's Gazette includes a quote from Coolidge School parent Janelle Lund who argues parents aren't fleeing bad schools, they're fleeing bad test scores: It has nothing to do with how (the schools) look bad on the outside. It's because the proficiency levels are too low. Of course, test scores are driven neither by buildings nor by the quality of the instruction, they're driven by the socio-economic status of the student body. So basically they're fleeing poor people, and they're not the first to do that.]
  • Impacts on neighborhood property values are unavoidable if not negligible. Overall impact on assessed value in the city will be negligible.
  • Something positive will occur on the sites of the closed schools. Certainly, said one person Thursday night, "we don't want [the properties] to become derelict." We should be encouraged that previously-closed Monroe School, on a block with a large number of cheap apartments in poor condition far from existing schools or employment opportunities, is going to become even more affordable housing.
The Facilities Master Plan may need to be comprehensive, but implementation should be considered incremental. In other words, as we learn more about how these closings and consolidations are affecting students as well as the city at large, we should modify or scrap the remaining part. We can only hope that neither the contracts nor the officials themselves are so rigid as to stick to the script when adverse consequences emerge.

A word to the wise: The district's information circulated at the public input discussions noted that future investments in middle and high schools will require going to the voters (p. 27). How the matter of the elementary schools is handled will have a significant impact on the public's receptivity to the future middle-high referendum.

Molly Duffy, "C.R. Makes Bold Pitch for Schools to Parents," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 13 November 2017, 17A, 20A
"Public Deserves More Time to Weigh C.R. Schools' Facilities Plan," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 5 November 2013
"Starting a Conversation about Education," Holy Mountain, 16 August 2015

Acting for inclusion in a fearful world

Stacey Walker (Source: Linn County) Our institutions have a responsibility to bring relief to those who need it most, argued Linn Count...