I love this old photo of my great great grandfather Anfinson at a political rally. He’s the one holding the flag. What a motley crew of citizens out and about supporting their favorite politicians. And lest you think there are no women involved in the political process, take a closer gander behind the mule to the left. A covey of proper women folk are gathered.
If they can handle the maintenance and advancement of American democracy, then I’m sure we can too.
One thing that bugs me is the lack of understand that making rules is more than making rules. A problem needs a fix. The answer is to make a rule for that! But requesting an audience to do something is foisting a power over them; it implies an authority and a compliance. It assumes that the work, or inconvenience, of following the rule has been judged to have a balancing positive effect.
More often than not, however, the rule making authority doesn’t follow through with compliance.
Recently, an acquaintance lamented that her town house association board was going through the complex, unit by unit, looking (most literally standing on the sidewalk out front in a little cluster) for unauthorized exterior embellishments. There was a rule on the books that owners were not allowed to litter the grass with such things as quaint stone benches, large urns overflowing with geraniums or petunias, or an artfully decorated signs bellowing WELCOME.
After a bunch of years of non-compliance, the residents of this twenty unit community were now going to be served notice to remove their horticultural self-expression. My friend didn’t want to give up her planters now that she had grown to enjoy them. Phooey on the rules!
How many municipalities set up ordinances which they cannot enforce and code compliances which go uninspected? Having the authority to do so, yet not following through creates complacency. Before you know it people are used to disregarding what is so carefully written down as community guidance. And worse yet, residents get angry and feel a suffered loss once enforcement action gets underway. If no rule had been written to start, wouldn’t the group be better off?
Writing rules, as a rule, needs to be taken seriously.
In the last few weeks, I’ve been listening to a lot of city council people make their pitch for the upcoming election. What has struck me is the number of individuals stressing that city councils are non-partisan in nature and the goal of the (mainly) part-time citizen council is to oversee basic city services. Basic as in getting the streets plowed and the garbage picked up. There is a definite less frills more nuts and bolts type of vibe.
Which is as refreshing as a jump in the lake after twenty minutes in a sauna.
One vibrant gal from a suburb which was built in the 50’s, you know the ones with the oversized, heavily treed lots partially covered by one level homes, won me over immediately when she expressed interest in hearing from all sides of an issue. Her family moved to the area when she was one and she, in turn, had raised her kids blocks from a park with maples and oaks. In her view her role is to preserve what is good about the city so others would settle in, as her family had done.
One issue she mentioned relating to housing was the desire to catch homes that need repair before they deteriorate to the point of being irredeemable. The typical municipal reaction to this is to enforce a truth-in-housing review of homes at time of sale, along with a possible repair obligations. A policy that’s a nice, if not evanescent, thought with absolutely zero effect.
Only a small sliver of the housing in a city is sold in a year. Distress in a building is a process which happens over decades. A roof, for instance has a 22-25 year lifespan. Damage from a leaky roof would result following many years of deferred maintenance. Putting the spotlight on the properties going to market continues to leave those which need help in the shadows.
The concern is real even if the solution is opaque.
Similar homes can have a range of pricing depending on how well they have been kept. Ones with new mechanicals command higher prices. Most properties have some sort of mix; a new hot water heater, old furnace, and ten year old windows. These settle in the middle of the range. And at the lower end the buyers realize they will need to jump right in and start making updates. But in all three scenarios the home is habitable. It is a viable shelter for the new owner. And the price is substantially greater than the price of a lot in the same neighborhood.
When the deferred maintenance meets a threshold where the market no longer feels it is viable- the extra kicker maybe settling cracks in the garage foundation wall, then the price drops noticeably. It hovers only slightly about the lot cost– positioning it for a possible tear down. This is the point where a lot of equity goes wasted. If some of the core mechanicals had been better kept, or the kicker ‘last straw’ flaw been averted, one could dodge the price dip.
Here’s where the city could forestall the shift from habitable to the mainstream, to demolish and rebuild.
The city could first play a roll by abolishing any type of truth-in-sale which is a complete waste of time, and second by directing services towards homes that are on the tail end of a slide. Owners in these situations are likely to be better off living in another type of property. Perhaps they need help decluttering, or with estate sale services, or a variety of non-profits which help with such things. Perhaps health issues are keeping them from making the switch.
Offering information and connecting people to service providers could help them to move before the property becomes unacceptable to main stream buyers. This will not only keep the properties in better shape it will facilitate a difficult move for a resident to a residence better suited to their needs.
Here are some comments from an architect/builder, Sacrinos. (@dnahinga), in Kenya regarding the obstacles to building housing for the average Kenyan. Interesting throughout, especially the land use comments:
The pricing model in Kenya's Construction Sector/Real Estate is Colonial and Punitive.
It is akin to trophy pricing. All clients become as pricey as elephant tusks.
Let us reason together.
Short Thread 1/n.
After the Colonists grabbed Land and the Means, they quickly put up roadblocks to Home Ownership.
One being approvals for Self Expression
A house is the most express image of the Builder. Thus his native language
It was no longer possible to just build
2. Now if you have lost acres of communal and individual land, it is virtually impossible to Express your wealth as a fraction of the same Assets you lost.
You do not have the wherewithal.
So, it is a scorched earth where everyone must rebuild their wealth from scratch.
3. As the First Gatekeepers would have it, it's professional #misconduct to charge unprescribed fees.
A board has all powers to make laws, "for the scale of fees to be charged by architects and quantity surveyors for advice, services, and work done."
AQS Cap 525 (f)
Walk with me.
This is the formal housing cost structure in Kenyas #RealEstate.
So, the Colonists became the Levites in the sector. Basically taking a tithe from everyone that wishes to Build or be Adviced to Build.
What is the market effect? Facebook and Quacks* step in.
These powers need to be returned to the Free Market Mechanism.
This does not in any way encourage anti-competition but allows for competence, supply and demand to calibrate the lowest and highest prices people are willing to pay.
Intellectual Assets do not need Price Fixing.
Price Fixing of Intellectual Assets makes the Consultants unable to offer their services to the people below a Certain Wealth Threshold.
It also ensures and guarantees a thriving Black Market for Unprofessional Services.
It stifles growth in the Sector. We need to ReThink it
The current Top Down Board Sanctioned Pricing Model assumes all people who want to build have all the money.
All the Consultant has to do is to check a schedule and prescribe a % Fee.
It treats housing as a Noun and not a Verb.
Unfortunately, the next generation of Home Owners are:
1. Struggling with Savings.
2. Have practically little to no Assets to extract a %.
3. Can successfully build incrementally.
4. All the insider knowledge is NOT with the Gatekeepers. How will you stop people from building?
Colonial Natives are now Digital Natives.
We innovate or die.
It is time to let the market mechanism allow for creation of an efficient, profitable way to serve the less affluent so we can stop looking forward to building towers only.
Set Architecture Free!
Dear Architect, Engineer, QS et al.,
Q. Have you lost clients because you tried to charge prescribed fees?
Dear Client. Have you lost a Professional because the prescribed fees was Impossible?
Let us see.🙏🏿🏡🏘🔨
If the 1933 Pricing Model was followed, Real Estate consultants would be controlling between 5% to 10% of all value created from their Consultancy Work.
Hypothetically, every 11nth Client would make the Consultant wealthier than any of the previous 10.
When we travel, I’m usually the one who figures out all the logistics. A direct flight to a not so distant destination is easy to plan. After weighing the various departure times and prices, and taking into account the shuttle service to the hotel or condo, the choice is relatively apparent. The type of trip can add considerations, like a ski trip includes extra luggage and a drive up to the ski hill.
Juggling a more complicated journey with multiple flights and modes of transport, requires further evaluation. This is especially true if you are toting along your kids whose complaints from discomfort can grate on you like finger nails on a chalkboard. So the analysis then insures extras like timely food availability and total travel time.
I’ve been having quite a time finding viable air travel to Kauai for our trip over the Thanksgiving holidays. I’m not sure how far west you have to go before Hawaii becomes a popular sunny destination. But Minnesotans generally go south to places like Cabo or Cancun, the Dominican or Costa Rica. It is even much easier to fly to Europe than to Hawaii. As a result the connections to the Aloha State are either quite irregular or considerably more expensive.
At every thought of my offsprings’ (and spouse’s) objections to waiting out layovers in the likes of Phoenix or Las Vegas, the dollars I was willing to spend for one versus two connections kept mounting. Then it occurred to me that they really needed to be in on the choosing. Since all the choices are middling to poor, we would have a more favorable experience if everyone decided on the deal.
It’s so easy to take something on and make the decisions. But to deny others the overview of choices is to deny them the ability to process two layovers and fourteen hours of travel. If the choice is made for them, and all the choices are subpar, then they will be dissatisfied no matter what.
It is similarly easy for elites, or politicians, or heads of non-profits to make choices for the vulnerable people they serve. Many times these choices are from a selection of far from ideal circumstances. But when the recipients are denied the ability to make a choice, they are denied the practicality of seeing how the result is still incrementally better than another option.
My most underrated source of interesting books come from estate sales. You never know what you might come across, which is part of the fun of it. But you can be sure to see books that are not on the front tables at the bookstores. And you can actually stand there as long as you want sifting through them creating two piles: ‘maybe’ and ‘definitely.’
It’s a treat to come across a collection of philosophy books. Partly because people’s shelves often hold various genres of novels, but fewer homes house books on thoughts. I brought home a bundle a few weekends ago which included a Cornell University Press soft cover on the expansion of Rome. Chester G. Starr Jr notes:
If we are to understand the significance of Roman history and the reasons for the expansion of Rome, it is worth stop ping a moment to investigate this Roman character, as revealed in traditions and in religious beliefs. The traditions, which were preserved mainly in the family and so passed from father to son for generations, were often tied intimately with landmarks about the city; points such as the Tarpeian Rock, the Lake of Curtius, the Sister’s Beam, and others each had its tale pointing some patriotic virtue. Together, these traditions reveal a patriotic people who were above all else obedient to established, legal authority–the family, the state, and the gods.
When writers use the word tradition in this setting I really think they are referring to the work of the family, which ends up being in large part the work of women. The guys are off leading, soldiering or earning money. The women are maintaining the traditions. But note how clearly the groupings by mutual objectives are stated: family, state and gods.
Did the Romans understand better than anyone in their day that each of these obligations created an economic ecosystem or platter? That the mission of Rome could be an overarching ambition which left the families and their local cities free to pursue their priorities?
It appears that the Romans expanded across territories with a clear deal on the wind. Give us a few of your good men and you will be protected under the umbrella of the Empire. Other than that, we won’t tax you and you are free to go about your business.
As they advanced, the Romans opened up roads along strategic routes and established colonies of Roman and Latin families as permanent garrisons at key points. Land hunger certainly must not be discounted as a reason for the expansion of Rome; it has been estimated that conquered states on the average lost one-third of their land for the benefit of Roman settlers. Otherwise the defeated were not unduly penalized. They yielded control of their foreign affairs, they entered a permanent alliance with Rome by which they agreed to furnish a set number of men to the Roman army, but they paid no taxes and retained autonomy in their local affairs.
Furthermore the Roman infrastructure of roads, bridges and aquafers benefited the general public. The Romans understood how to give in public goods so that could gain what their warring faction desired, an army of the most physically able. A balance of exchange was struck between the multiple groupings of the public and the private.
Cracked crumbling asphalt is an unusual site in the more affluent suburbs of the Twin Cities. In fact the number of areas that would be considered distressed across the metro is pretty slim in relation to its size. So it’s a bit of a puzzle why the Four Seasons Mall in Plymouth, a relatively wealthy third tier suburb, has been left unused for the past twelve years.
First Wal-Mart purchased the site, but the neighbors said ‘no.’ It would draw too much traffic off the well traveled State Highway 169 which connects the Minnesota River Valley with the far northern points of the state, where the outfitter town of Ely serves as a portal to the boundary waters. That whole thing took a handful of years.
Then the city spent some time on getting a mixed use project approved on the sixteen acre site which included upwards of several hundred affordable units. Not bad for a fairly wealthy area of town. Here’s a news clip Plymouth Approves Four Seasons Mall Redevelopment – CCX Media explaining the project, and here is a commercial real estate synopsis on the site.
Just recently the whole project came apart because the tax credits were allocated to another project by the Fed’s scoring system. Two years after the community said ‘yes’ to welcoming a housing product that is often rebuked, a chart put together by bureaucrats says ‘no.’ Although I’ve been unable so far to find out where the subsidies were put to use, the feeling seems to be that the funding went to an area with greater need. Which I assume means an area with a higher density of people living in poverty.
The program structure can promote the concentration of units in poorer places. Although the program only requires that 40 percent or more of the total units in the property be set aside as affordable, most properties are developed with affordability restrictions on all units to maximize the equity investment because only the affordable units qualify for tax credits. The allocation structure also provides an incentive to build in low-income communities designated as Qualified Census Tracts or Difficult Development Areas.
On the one hand political units like the Metropolitan Council maintain pressure on the greater metro to come up with their fair share of affordable housing unit, on the other hand the means of financing such rehabilitation and new construction can by politically allocated to neighborhoods already carrying more than their share of disadvantaged citizens.
If I were to house people who needed a little extra help in life, I would make the argument that it is sensible to do so in a community with a little extra time and expertise on their hands to help out. But I can’t choose where to house folks as I am not able to purchase tax credits along with friends and neighbors of similar minds.
The process simply isn’t that simple. Here’s a visual that is helpful.
Needless to say the multiple layers of bureaucracy add cost to the process.
LIHTC is an economically inefficient method for producing affordable rental housing. The process of allocating and awarding tax credits is time consuming and complex. A study produced by the State of Washington found that it frequently takes twice as long to put together a LIHTC-financed project than one that is market rate, in turn contributing to higher legal and other transaction costs (Keightley 2017; Mitchell et al. 2009). Costs are also driven by the complexity of some LIHTC deals. A GAO (1997) study found that the process of syndication (pooling resources from multiple investors) can claim between 10 and 27 percent of project equity. LIHTC projects also have few incentives to keep costs low because reducing development costs would result in not using the full tax credit issued for the project (Mitchell et al. 2009).
From what I gather, low income tax credits are sold to any corporation who wants to invest in them. There is no mission, there is no sense of service. It is a pointy penciled transaction sketched out by a corporate CPA. Does it make more sense that a scoring system by the Federal government with a tongue twisting list of acronyms (CDBG,HOME,AMI, and 60% of this and 30% of that) be the mechanism for matching supply with demand rather than a neighborhood saying yes to affordable housing?
Honestly– the serpentine system seems to be more about keeping people out of the conversation than in it.
Public goods often exist in a nested structure. The household, the neighborhood, the ward, the city, the state. The classroom, the elementary school, the district, the states’ Department of Education. At what point is it clear that a rung on the ladder needs help in its delivery of the good?
Earlier in the month it was reported that a charter school, Cedar Riverside Community School, would be closing. It serves a neighborhood of high rise subsidized housing nestled between downtown and the University of Minnesota. Lauded as culturally sensitive in its delivery of education to a mostly Somali immigrant community, it has been plagued with threats of closure due to poor performance for more than a decade.
There are many good intentions, hopes and aspirations at the ground level for these types of grass roots public goods to be successful. But when are the price signals strong enough to cause the rung up the ladder to engage, and supplement the production of the good. When is the loss great enough to tip the efforts away from the local level and demand services from a superior level?
With the bright flood lights of the world stage focused on our metro and its racial disparities, it’s hard not to imagine that the closure comes in the wake of last year’s events. It seems pretty costly and inefficient to wait for a crisis to fess up to the fact that these kids were not being served by their neighborhood school.
Maybe the better question is what are the powers in play which dampen or misalign the the signals of lost public good delivery? What stops the natural interactions of feedback and improvement that occur through the system elsewhere?
I can only speculate from afar, but it seems to boil down to two components: structure of (for pay) jobs and positions of power. An enterprise, whether a company or a school is composed of an interlocking group of paid employees. These are entities composed of W2 workers whose livelihoods depend on keeping the boat afloat. A company will sink if it fails to attracts consumers. As long as a school has a pool of students within its attendance boundaries, it will receive funding.
In a typical neighborhood, people with school age children will leave the neighborhood if they feel the schools are inadequate, while others would-be-buyers into the neighborhood will look to settle elsewhere. The dynamics is a little different in a neighborhood like Cedar Riverside as many of the residents are tied to their housing through subsidies. The lack of mobility creates a type of monopoly on the residents both for their support of the school as well as the political structure.
The end result is that the price signals–the signs that the pupils are failing to receive the public services which inevitably are an expense to them and their communities later in life–are muted. They are not able to exit. Their presence in the group is taken for granted by those in paying jobs and those with political power.
The first surprise this morning was that Minnesota did not loose a congressional seat as feared. It appears we kept our seat whereas New York lost one. Our population keeps on growing despite the cold winters temperatures!
The second bit of surprise news is the large field of right leaning candidates in the Minneapolis city council race. All thirteen councilpersons are up for reelection this fall. The council president has chosen not to seek office.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could put a frame around a conversation so when voice(s) try get a hold of the markers and run straight off the canvas on some doodle, they’d hit the edge of it and come ricocheting back to finish the project at hand?
The ability to reframe an image quickly has taken a lot of uncertainty out of successful modern photography. Whereas one once spent time manually capturing the image through the lens, now one worries mostly about high resolution. Unhappy with tipping or cropping? A few clicks and it’s done! Take one photo and clip it four ways to tell four stories.
Framing topics of discussion is not so simple. There can be lack of guidance as to what information is admissible, as to the boundaries of the topic. And that’s just the subject matter, data, facts. Then there is the obscurity of the wealth, or limitations, of your interlocutor’s personal experiences.
Roya Hakakian, an Iranian-American poet, has a new book out: A Beginner’s Guide to America for the Immigrant & the Curious. In an interview today she explained that her writing is a way of showing the American people what is like to be an immigrant in a foreign land. And through this process help people to reframe issues.
But what if the audience in question has very few points of reference?
For instance, when I returned to the US in the early 80’s to attend a small liberal arts college, I befriended woman who had never been allowed to venture to downtown Minneapolis. The 8 mile trek from her affluent first tier suburb was considered to risky. To entertain a meaningful discussion about safety when the granular degrees of life’s experience are so excessively narrow in one instance, and so comprehensively broad (so as to include a childhood immersed in revolution and an eventual flight from one’s homeland) seems improbable.
And what is challenging in public conversation, is that more times than not, you do not know your interlocutor’s framing. Are they looking at the river in the upper left photo, concerned primarily about water quality? Are they focusing at what is going on beneath Hennepin Avenue Bridge? Do they just have the bridge in focus as a source of river crossing and transport? Or are they in those tall condos valuing the view of the river and the Minneapolis skyline beyond?
When two people fail to find common ground for the basis of a discussion, the outcome is frustration and a few slurs on Twitter. Irritating yes, but there are worse things. Here is a case where lack of framing leads to detrimental rule making.
Say a city was weathering a period of fast rising rents. Maybe this inflation was even due to a catch-up period as real estate prices had been atypically low in preceding years. But the acceleration scares people. Especially young people with short time horizons. So they rally and want action. They point to the recent data to convince the public that markets must be constrained. If not the 4%, 5% increases will continue to 6%,7%,8%!
The data over a long term, however, shows a modest increase in annual rents of, let’s say, 2%. The city council members prefer to keep their framing on the short term as this is most effective. It seems there maybe a role here for the Federal Government. If rescue funds were made available (like Covid funds are now) to the truly needy after a sharp increase in rent, then the gut reaction to impose rules would be muted. The demand for action satisfied.
Having a rescuer of last resort whose view isn’t immediate, whose view expands to a longer timeline framing, who steps in to ease the burden of those disproportionately effected, this could deter four year politicians from rewriting rules with over a century of good standing.
Whereas less rules keep us nimble in our special combination of an open economy and liberal democracy, erroneous rules take time to undo, reek havoc and prevent progress. Every tier of government can use its framing to ease demand for bad policy.
A few days ago I suggested that home buyers and sellers, at least while in the process of a transaction, do not place monetary value on a city’s truth-in-housing process (TISH). Whether the city mandated point-of-sale ordinance contributes to the transfer of property is not a new discussion. It’s not even controversial in the sense that the handful of cities which require the inspections are steadfast in the process and very few new cities have ventured down the road of its implementation. You can read the Minneapolis Realtor Association position statement on the matter here.
Let’s consider the expense of the regulation in a modest suburb of 23,000 households which experiences a ten percent turnover in any one year. The city collects a fee of $250 x 2300 or $575K to cover the costs of TISH. By design this fee pays inspectors on staff and the administrative burden of processing the certificates. Financially it is a wash through the city coffers.
What exactly do the residents get for the $575K? The idea, of course, is that the condition of the housing stock is elevated to some degree. As you can read in the position statement this reasoning is flawed, at least in a relative sense. The properties that come to market have been prepped and prettied up. Buyers often require sellers to do repairs before closing based on their own private inspections. Furthermore new owners, in their excitement, invest further in mechanical and cosmetic improvements. Just ask Home Depot.
The truth-in-housing process does double duty to the private process of a more comprehensive inspection. The city is perhaps better prepared to catch failures to pull or complete permits, but that is also covered in the disclosure process required my Minnesota law.
Regulations are needed. They are desired. Let’s just be as efficient with them as possible. If the objective is to elevate housing stock, I would argue that constituents may choose something other than TISH. They may choose for the $500K to be shoveled back into clearing up permits for the least advantaged households in their community. They may choose for the city to carry out TISH on properties that have not pulled a permit in the last fifteen years.
Many mechanicals have an average 15 year lifespan: appliances, hot water heaters, even furnaces. In a fifteen year window roofs might be replaced, window and doors. There’s a good chance that these households are not pulling permits because they either suffer from lack of money or the ability to tackle large projects. Wouldn’t this be a good use of half a million? To aid those who are not able to help themselves with their housing maintenance?
I don’t claim to know how a city’s population would respond. But I know the present system doesn’t even allow the conversation to happen. (And those with the most expertise in the process are quite deliberately left out on the permis they are only capable of self-interest.) Establishing a periodic rethink of regulations refreshes the figures, and the costs, the possible alternatives, and the goals.
Wouldn’t it be great if truth-in-regulations were right there, printed on glossy paper, with all the other summary reports of a city’s performance?
The housing market is marching to pomp and circumstance as apartment dwellers and condo owners are graduating to detach single family living. As this Star and Tribune weekend article announces, “In risky move, buyers waive inspections in red hot Twin Cities home market.”
Everyone benefits from an inspection. Buyers learn what it is they are buying, and sellers are far less likely to hear about conditions issues after the fact. The average home owner has somewhat limited knowledge of all the mechanicals in a house, and first time buyers are truly limited in their understanding of not only how it all works, but more importantly which items are costly.
It is risky for the average buyer to accept a home without an inspector’s professional opinion. The fear is that hidden behind some panel is a terrible crack in the foundation or behind an electrical panel cover is a box about to be set alight by over-fused breakers. So wouldn’t you think there would be some value placed on a city’s truth-in-housing process? This is a process where the city requires the soon to be seller to have a city inspector come to the property and do a less thorough review, yet still a systematic evaluation of the structural features of the home.
The city collects a permit fee somewhere in the $200-250 range, produces a report, and sometimes request repairs. Yet never once in over twenty-five years have I heard a buyer say, “I don’t need to get this home inspected because I know xyz city has done one already.” Even in these fiercely competitive times when buyers are bidding on three, four, five houses before securing a purchase, they hang onto the inspection contingency.
If the actors in the market do not value the city inspections, who is receiving a benefit from the $250 being spent on the housing market? The seller is simply complying with the rules. The buyers, even the ones who only want assurance that the home won’t collapse around them on the day of move-in, don’t value it. Anyone not involved in the transfer of property, pay no attention to it.
City officials when considering a truth-in-housing ordinance say things like, ‘preserve the housing stock,’ and, ‘get in there and look around,’ and, ‘make sure they are keeping things up.’ I doubt the money is a profit to the city, maybe a breakeven. It seems that the $250 times thousands of transactions per year is the expense to feel like something is being done.
It wouldn’t be that hard to investigate the subject, especially in this market. There is an advantage for a buyer to waive the inspection as the seller will consider the offer more favorably over another; the sellers will not have to wait a handful of days to know the transaction is finalized. Simply tracking transactions between two cities, one with a truth-in-housing and one without would determine if there is any consideration given to the report.
In the reports that city’s send out to constituents pie charting out how they spend their tax dollars, it might be beneficial if city’s also had to justify the benefits of their permitting expenses. Instead of a truth-in-housing, a truth-in-regulation.
After a steady stream of buyers came through my new listing today, it’s hard to believe some people are out preparing for what is being presented as an inevitable wave of short sales.
When I sold this mid-century modern home to my clients in 2010 the listing sheet bragged that it was not a short sale, that the folks on title as owners did not have to beg permission from a lender to sell their home. A little over a decade ago buyers in the marketplace had become weary of dealing with corporate interests who had to forego of some profits in order to allow a sale to proceed. What we call a traditional seller was a valued party to the transaction.
With demand for single family homes peaking as inventory shrinks, the days of bank owned properties are part of a foggy past. But maybe it makes sense that the reason for the inventory shortage is in part due to the protections in place for all those distressed sellers who would have had to jump in the game and let their homes go to market. Once a past due seller realizes they can live rent and payment free, why not coast it out.
If the incentives are there, that is exactly what should be anticipated.
One fellow realtor went to a class recently offered on the topic, and said the presenter had some pretty astounding numbers. They are predicting a tsunami of distressed property once Covid protections are lifted. Time will tell how demand absorbs it all.
Biden’s 1.9 trillion relief plan is a little too enormous for me to get my head around. The magnitude of federal numbers just makes my eyes blur over the page. There is no anchoring the size of these things to my everyday life.
But if I can’t talk about magnitude, I can talk about structure. The goal of the bill is to engage the US economy as well as shore up people’s unexpected and uncontrolled loss of income; to keep their lives right side instead of upside down (which subsequently causes an economic drag on their greater groups). And then to get them back to employment where income can be feathered back in to the economic apparatus.
I’m all in favor of transfers for the first part. They work efficiently.
But I think there is a missed opportunity in the second part. Engaging idle labor from folks who are not destitute nor in need of transfers is low hanging fruit. As explained in this post about The Crafter The Contributor and The Covid Tracker, there are high skilled individuals available to donate labor if they are enticed by the objective at hand.
There are successful national service programs like AmeriCorps and the National Guard. Would it be so hard to have a property repair civil service? Ask any builder about the shortage of construction workers. What about a write-off for plumbers and sheet-rockers and electricians who’d be willing to have an apprentice tag along to fix a faucet at the local homeless shelter, sheetrock in a storage room at the food shelf, or replace all the gym lights with LED fixtures at the community gym?
A money transfer won’t teach a trade, nor will it make a connection between a potential employer and up-coming employee.
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Some Minneapolis City Council members are preparing a new plan that seeks to replace the city’s police department in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
Phillipe Cunningham, Steve Fletcher and Jeremy Schroeder are working on a proposal to create a new public safety department that removes the police department as a standalone department from the city charter.
The three are still working on their plan and expect to release it by the end of January, the Star Tribune reported. It would require voter approval.
Cunningham told the newspaper that the proposal might place oversight of the new department on par with many other city departments, giving the council legislative authority while the mayor would retain executive authority.
The EPA has designated January as National Radon Awareness Month. “Test. Fix. Save a life.” is their tag line.
Those of us in the business of helping folks buy and sell homes, have been hearing about the health concerns emanating from radon seeping into homes for the past twenty years. In the first part of the 2000’s, health department officials encouraged buyers to test for radon at time of purchase. Radon was listed alongside a variety of other environmental concerns on the state of Minnesota mandatory seller’s disclosure.
Consumer response to radon did not match the government’s concern, and in 2014 the MN Radon Awareness Act went into effect. The variation in apprehension is best represented by the amount of space now dedicated to the topic in the seller’s disclosure. Lines 279-309 (2020 version) of the body of the disclosure speaks to radon alone–more lines than wells, septics, or any other topic. And two pages of information regarding the detection and harm of radon gas were tacked onto the end. Out of a twelve page disclosure virtually three pages, or one quarter of the document, is now devoted to radon (as opposed to foundations, or water penetration, or roofs).
The new disclosure established an industry standard which dictates the seller is obligated to mitigate a home which tests above the 4 cPi/L established by the EPA. It’s unclear if buyers request the install due to fear for their health, or because they don’t want to be the sucker-who-got-stuck-with-the-bill at a later date, when they go to sell.
Over the course of implementing tests and installations there have been some inconsistencies which have resulted in the need for a final arbitrator. For instance, a few years ago an inspector turned off the air exchange system that a seller had installed in his 1920’s home to enhance the heating and cooling functions. The EPA guidelines state that HVAC systems should be running as normal during the test. However, since this air exchanger was located in the attic (not in the basement) the inspector felt it was an extraneous appliance and turned it off.
The reading came in slightly over the benchmark of 4 cPi/L. As it had already been a contentious negotiation the seller refused any additional compensation. The buyer choose to use $1200 (compensation negotiated for a cracked clay chimney flu) on a radon mitigation system that would not be necessary had the exchanger been left running. They chose between fire safety and radon safety.
By early 2019 licensing of inspectors who perform radon testing was implemented to handle the inevitable variations in the use of the testing apparatus, including decisions regarding air exchangers. Since the MN Radon Awareness Act went into effect, a whole industry of inspectors (tests range from $180-$240) and mitigation installers (system installation ranging from $1000-$1800) as well as a bureaucracy to monitor and deal with complaints, has been established.
The story the Minnesota Health Department has been stressing is that cancer is the leading cause of death in the state. But the leader is all cancers. Mortality rates for cancer vary within demographic groups, but generally, lung cancer makes up around 25% of cancer fatalities. Radon is called out as the second leading cause of lung cancer after cigarette smoking. What they don’t say is that radon is lumped in with second hand smoke and accounts for just 12% of the cases of lung cancer.
Feel free to chime in if I’m doing my math wrong, but a quarter of all cancer cases is around 2500 (lung). Then twelve percent of that number is 2500 x .12 = 300. In other words, death due to radon isn’t even on this top ten chart. It accounts 38% of the souls that commit suicide.
From the keys on my calculator, I have death from radon registering in at no more than 5 per 100,000. Below this grouping of accidental deaths which make up 6% of all deaths (from MN Department of Health):
Falls (2.7%): 21.1 per 100,000 population
Accidental poisoning: (1.6%) 12.8 per 100,000 population
Motor vehicle (1.0%): 8.1 per 100,000 population
The average Minnesotan is four times more likely to die from a fall, twice as likely to be accidentally poisoned and slightly more likely to die in a car crash. The claim that more than 40% of homes in Minnesota are contaminating people’s lungs with radon gas and killing them is not jiving with consumers’ personal experiences.
Nationwide Agenda from the EPA
One has to assume that the MN Health Department is following a directive for radon procedures from the EPA’s national agenda. However the EPA offers not one article newer than 2003 on its website to validate research tying lung cancer to levels of radon in homes.
A paper from Korea, which looks at the topic using measures of radon in homes, was published in March of 2016 and is the most recent academic paper I could find. It too references almost exclusively research papers written prior to 2000. Ji Young Yoon et all (Department of Humanities and Social Medicine, Ajou University School of Medicine, Suwon, Korea) wrote “Indoor radon exposure and lung cancer: a review of ecological studies” which was published in The Annals of Occupation and Environmental Medicine. There had been no studies to date in their country. They found:
For Korea, we observed tremendous differences in indoor radon concentrations according to region and year of study, even within the same region. In correlation analysis, lung cancer incidence was not found to be higher in areas with high indoor radon concentrations in Korea.
Scanning the bio’s of the faculty at the College of Design at the UMN, not one cites an interest or expertise in radon. There seems to be a lack of interest in funding or pursuing this topic.
How can we be following guidance that doesn’t appear to have been updated or even reviewed in the last ten years?
That was then this is now
Furthermore there has been a dramatic decrease in lung cancer’s claim on lives.
The death rate from cancer in the US declined by 29% from 1991 to 2017, including a 2.2% drop from 2016 to 2017, the largest single-year drop ever recorded, according to annual statistics reporting from the American Cancer Society. The decline in deaths from lung cancer drove the record drop. Deaths fell from about 3% per year from 2008 – 2013 to 5% from 2013 – 2017 in men and from 2% to almost 4% in women. However, lung cancer is still the leading cause of cancer death.
The American Cancer Society estimates deaths from all lung cancer in MN in 2021 will come in at 1950. Twelve percent of this is 234.
Time has changed the circumstances but there has been no release, or at least, re-evaluation, of the protocol. It’s like everyone moved-on and no one told the bureaucrats. So they keep RADON at the top of their checklist of ‘to-do’s. Meanwhile a whole industry of inspectors, installers and licensing and compliance people are settling into a new market.
It’s that mindset that if, ‘We can save one life!’ Then it is all justified. Yet–if 2020 has taught any lessons it is, that even in lives, there are trade-offs.
In 2019 closed home sales in the 16 county greater metro area (Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors) came to just shy of 60,000 transactions. Take out new construction (10%) and townhomes (25%), and take out a few for opting out of radon testing assuming 36,000 test were performed. A radon test performed by a now licensed inspector averages $200. The (conservative) amount spent on radon testing in 2019 totals $7,200,000.
The MN Department of Health estimates that 40% of homes in MN will test over the benchmark set by the EPA as hazardous to one’s health, or 4 pCi/L. That would lead us to expect that 40% of the homes tested high and negotiated the installation of a radon mitigation system into their purchase. At an approximate average cost of $1200, that comes to a total expenditure for the state of MN to (36000 sales x .4 x $1200) $17,280,000.
Based on these numbers, Minnesotans spent nearly $24,480,000 on mitigating radon in 2019. The tag line from the ‘EPA Test. Fix. Save a life’ promotes an image of each install resulting in fewer deaths to cancer. But is that true?
The amount of money our metro community spent on radon is a flash in the pan compared to a state budget or even a (metro) county budget. But $24,480,000 for community associational groups, who are on the ground interfacing with those struggling with mental health and substance abuse, it is a pot of gold. And that’s where the money should be going. When a 70+ year old passes, it folds into the course of life. The impact of a father OD’ing, leaving young children behind, or the death if a youth, high on the latest street drug, will galvanize community effects that reverberate, even to the point of burning down a mile stretch of buildings.
Wouldn’t our communities be better off by spending that $24,480,000 on mental health to deter suicide? Wouldn’t this, for instance, help with community policing? I say yes.
Motivations and Spheres
The difficulty, of course, is that we can’t transfer the $24 mil from the radon pocket to the mental health pocket. Government used their ability to pressure a commercial endeavor to set up the radon industry. In fact, with the death rate for lung cancer dropping, it almost feels like the health officials are spurred onto be more aggressive. “We’re doing so well making widgets, lets make more!”
Unfortunately this is a business mindset, for work in the private sphere, one that seeks to expand and grow. The public good mindset is quite the opposite. Since the work in the public sphere is often performed to prevent something from happening–as in this case, to prevent lung cancer. Once that is accomplished, activities should cease, and resources reallocated to other demands of the public that now climb up to a higher priority.
In the meantime, the industry standard for radon testing, at time of a house purchase, has created paying jobs for inspectors and bureaucrats. Quite naturally, their motivation will be to support this new structure from a private point of view. It is not part of their employment to evaluate whether this the best use of societal funds. The inspectors and installers and continuing ed teachers and state licensures and public health workers will support the process because it pays the bills that support their families.
What happened to the feedback loop? Where in the system should there be a check to see if programs are on the right track? Feedback has been stifled because to criticize the noble cause of saving life has not tolerated.
What I am and what I’m not saying
I am not saying I have the expertise to validate or deny the tie of radon in homes to lung cancer.
I am pointing out that public health officials have struggled to get this issue to take traction in the public mind. I am saying that no research in the last fifteen years has validated our present path to safety (and one study has countered it). I am saying that an industry, in the private sphere, has sprung from these government actions, draining over $24,480,000/year from community funds for this issue. I am saying death rates from lung cancer have plummeted in the last ten years. I am saying there is no feedback loop to public officials to demand a review. I am saying it is no longer good enough to make one agenda and then push it through for a decade without any consideration that time alters all things.
For a generation there has been the activist approach in government. Select a cause; implement it nationwide; get the talking points out to all the communication outlets so it is heard in stereo; then never relent. I am saying that this is no longer good enough.
I’ve been a big fan of Meryl Streep ever since Sophie’s Choice (1982), but for some reason hadn’t gotten around to watching her portrayal of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2012, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, a British film director and producer). It seemed like the perfect match-up for a Saturday night: the story of the first women to rise to the highest political office in the UK brought to life by a favorite actress.
Yet-I found this movie perplexing. The film opens with a batty old lady stumbling around a shop, buying a pint of milk. I could barely make out Meryl and was confused how this could be Thatcher, who putters anonymously along the streets of London. Getting wise to the technique of starting a story at the end of a life, and then filling in the important stuff in a retrospective, I sit back and wait.
And wait. Nearly half the film is about an elderly lady hallucinating about her kind and beloved husband. It’s a touching story, but not exactly what the most powerful woman of the western world in the twentieth century is known for. The message seemed to be that this woman had a supportive father as well as a devoted husband- lucky girl! That’s how she managed to enter the halls of power.
Even when the film gets around to her accomplishments, they leave out interesting details, like that she was a chemistry major. No information or encounters in her subsequent academic pursuits, or early years. We do discover her husband was a businessman and also a family man, but isn’t the story about her?
More often than not the portrayal of her career lands on the tragic- such as the scene where she is writing letters to the families of the servicemen who died in the Falklands War. No mention that the conflict was provoked by an Argentinian invasion on April 2nd, 1982, and was wrapped up with a decisive victory by June 17th. What does a girl have to do to get a little recognition?
An overt concentration on the loosing side of her political career continues through the whole film, from the riots following her proposal of a “community charge,” to the waning of political judgement after so many years in office, to the tears that spring to her eyes when she resigns. Yet the voice of her husband pipes in, “Chin up old girl.” There’s Denis with his unfaltering support.
This representation of Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher, the longest serving prime minister of her generation, blessed as a dementia patient so she doesn’t have to relive a faltering political career, is more than a little odd. Any female who started in a grocery store and rose to lead men, not listen to them, must have been– spellbinding.
It’s not even difficult to find her admirers. Check out the level of reverence in William F Buckley Jr’s voice as he introduces her in this clip from Firing Line. Meanwhile, she sits in her chair composed and alert, neither aloof nor nervous. Just present. This was 1977. Two years into being the leader of her party, and two years away from being elected to the top job.
It would have been far more interesting to tell the tale of how she discovered and cultivated her ability to captivate her male (and female) counterparts. Instead of showing how two men coach her into a new hair do and enhance her elocution skills (ho hum), how about the moments she went from awkward to confident, from nervous to calm, from hesitant to determined? How did she come to realize her je-ne-sais-quoi?
Meryl Streep took home the best actress Oscar for her performance. I just don’t think she was playing Maggie Thatcher.
The building, located at 350 South Fifth Street, is an example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture. The design is based upon Henry Hobson Richardson‘s Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Washington School, the first schoolhouse in Minneapolis west of the Mississippi River, was demolished to make way for the new building. Groundbreaking took place in 1889, and the cornerstone was laid (a story off the ground) in 1891. Construction did not officially end until 1906, although the structural exterior was essentially complete by the end of 1895. The county began moving in to its side (4th Ave.) in November 1895, while the city (3rd Ave.) side was not occupied until December 1902. Cost was about $3,554,000, which works out to 28¢ per cubic foot ($10/m³).
In a recent paper, Balancing Purse and Peace:Tax Collection, Public Goods and Protests, Benjamin Krause from UC Berkley evaluates state capacity in Haiti. From the abstract:
Strengthening state capacity in low income countries requires raising tax revenue while maintaining political stability. The risk of inciting political unrest when attempting to increase taxes may trap governments in a low-tax equilibrium, but public goods provision may improve both tax compliance and political stability.
The author predictions are very intuitive: 1. decreasing pubic goods (in this case garbage collection) and fines decreases tax collection. 2. increasing public goods increases tax collection. What is interesting to me are the variables he chooses as benchmarks. The research measures the public willingness to pay taxes while tracking their voice as expressed in graffiti and the amount of time some members may spend on barricade building.
… I introduce two novel metrics for independently measuring political unrest. First, to measure political speech, I conduct a census of and geo-tag the graffiti across the city. I then use the presence, prevalence, and tone of political graffiti specifically as outcomes of interest. Second, to measure the most violent or destructive political unrest, I track the construction of barricades in neighborhoods which are built, and often lit on fire, as a form of protest in this setting. Tracking both where these are constructed and which areas are affected provide additional outcomes of interest. As a result, I am able to provide novel experimental evidence of the effects of both tax collection and public goods on political unrest – and on violent or destructive unrest in particular.
In my model I propose that in the public sphere, goods are provided when the voice of the group expresses a need and people are willing to do work on behalf of the objective.
In this paper the author measures voice by tracking graffiti. Lack of graffiti speaks to an endorsement of the state or a sign of favorable response to provision of garbage collection. And he measures work as the number of hours spent building barricades to protest against the state. Where lack of work is an endorsement of the state.
Exciting to see something similar appearing in an academic paper.
TOPA (Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act), a proposal to offer renters the first right of refusal when their landlord wants to sell the property, is back on the front burner at Minneapolis City Hall. Some politicians see giving tenants part of a landlord’s property rights as a way to mitigate the expense of housing. The only perspective where this is at all rational, is from the view that property owners are simply sitting on a sack of gold coins which they refuse to share.
A story which is meant to support the tenant’s first right of refusal as a valid policy is told here: Tenants of Five Minneapolis Buildings Now Own Their Homes. Yet this suite of buildings was owned by a truly poor landlord. And because the guy was a fraud, the tenants acquired the buildings without TOPA. It will be interesting to watch the unfolding of this tale as more than likely these properties are run down and will have expensive repairs in the coming years. I’m expecting buyer’s remorse.
To understand the process and in turn the length of time a property could be tied up before sale, here are TOPA process charts from Washington DC. The financial power behind owning an asset is the ability to sell it and obtain your investment. When that ability is in question, markets do not respond well, hence value is affected. The TOPA process is considerably uncertain.
I attended this TOPA forum at the UMN presented by CURA. The presenters were Dominic T. Moulden is a longtime resource organizer at Organizing Neighborhood Equity and Michael Diamond, Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center, teaches corporations, contracts, and a seminar in affordable housing. The non-profit housing community in attendance seemed skeptical.
NBC news covered how TOPA rules tie up the sale while parties arbitraged the TOPA rights to the highest bidder. (video) Although in effect since the 1980’s, it was more or less forgotten until Andrew McGuire Esq started a business ‘getting renters maximum dollar’ for their TOPA rights. He estimates it’s a 100 million a year market.
In San Franciscothey call it COPA. And it is not the tenants who make the purchase but a pre-selected non-profit. Also from 2019:
If approved, the COPA would give the first right to purchase (this includes a first right to offer to purchase and a first right of refusal to match an existing offer) vacant lots or residential rental buildings with three or more units to nonprofit housing organizations. This means that when an owner of a multi-unit building puts it up for sale or has received an offer to purchase, nonprofit housing organizations that are pre-selected by the City would have a chance to bid on the building first or to match an existing offer.
According to NorthStar MLS, of the 699 duplexes or triplexes sold in the last year in Minneapolis only 14 of them were built after 1970. For fifty years this simple multi-family form of housing has more or less been ignored. They are few and far between in suburbs, undoubtedly for the same reason.
So significant were the feelings against this type of housing that, despite having lifted single family zoning in Minneapolis earlier in the year, additional obstacles are preventing their creation. Restrictions such as building heights and parking throw enough of a question mark into the approval process, that developers are bailing on the idea before even approaching the planning commission.
Over the years I’ve heard of individuals using duplexes as their first steps to becoming real estate investors; then there was a story of elderly sisters going in together on a building so they could live out the remainder of their lives as neighbors. Small multi-family buildings fit right in with single family homes unobtrusively. It would be nice to see more of them.
On Friday the Minneapolis City council voted 7-6 to fund hiring outside police from the Hennepin County Sheriff’s department to assist with the crippling crime increases within the city. This pecuniary decision to support the MPD is the first since the defund announcement in June. The discussion between the council members and Chief Medaria Arradondo was tense. You can find a recording of the full meeting here.
Fortunately, reporter Mark Vancleave with the Star Tribune, reduce the two hour meeting down to a 9min video clip of highlights:
The council members come at the discussion for approving the funds from a variety of viewpoints. The strongest defund voices place all the work of street safety at the policeman’s door. Money is raised through taxes, salaries are paid to cops, crime statistics measures their performance. The deterioration in safety is all on the police so there is no economic reason to purchase more of a failing service.
The mid-road view is best expressed by Lisa Goodman. She provides several examples of her constituents being assaulted and carjacked and being afraid to leave their homes. She mentions some of the extenuating circumstances following George Floyd’s death including the riots and the retirement of a large segment of the force. In her view, they are purchasing more police power for better response times and general police work.
The wholistic view of policing is voiced by Andrea Jenkins (8min). She maintains that the community must engage with the police force. That the community is also involved in the work to maintain order and safe streets. She is probably the only one who could have voiced this view when put at odds with the defunders.
This view isn’t new. Back in the 1960’s Jane Jacob’s spoke to eyes on the street. Although it is accepted informally that community participation makes a difference, there is no accounting for this type of work. National night out, block watch groups and such are one of those ‘oh isn’t that neighborly’ things that people do. Not a hard cash-in-your-hand transaction.
If public safety was accounted for not only by city budgets to pay officers, precincts, detectives and administrators, as well as by public participation, prevalence of criminal elements, then we would have a universal accounting of the forces that contribute to safety. We would not only want to considered the time people put into surveillance but also the losses people incur when they go back on their group and turn in a criminal.
Instead, some council members are accused of being disingenuous for trying to deny this very real system. They deny it in order to advance another objective which lays beyond their power. But whilst they hijack one economic process in order to engender a social outcome elsewhere, Minneapolitans are getting shot.
I’m not tuned-in to how new construction is done in China, but I can say why this would never happen in Minnesota. Clients are on a time-line. They would not proceed with a purchase agreement until a somewhat (within 30 days or less) firm closing and occupancy date was clearly possible. The project would have to be far enough through the city approval process to be assured of no delays. With the hint of a builder’s lack of ability to retain tradespeople, buyers will shift to a builder that has deep enough pockets to hang onto good workers.
In a very hot market, buyers will put down money to hold lots or condo units pre-construction. This dollar amount is a small fraction of the total cost of the unit. If the developer went bust, those funds could be at risk. Only in the relatively small number of custom built single-family homes do clients risk a construction loan, where the builder receives disbursements from the bank over the six month period it takes to build a home. But the timing would never put the buyer on the hook for the full amount of the mortgage.
The presidential race gets the lion’s share of election attention, but communities all over the US are taking care of business. Barber Township sits down on the Iowa border and needed to establish who was responsible for the ditches on the town roads.
Straight north to the Canadian border, International Falls said yeah to chicken coops out back.
Drop down past Black Duck and Leech Lake Reservation to Rogers Township where they pulled a draw on whether or not to appoint a treasurer. Four votes, split 50-50.
“The notion that there are many values, and that they are incompatible; the whole notion of plurality, of inexhaustibility, of the imperfection of all human answers and arrangements; the notion that no single answer which claims to be perfect and true, whether in art or in life, can in principle be perfect or true – all this we owe to the romantics.”
Nathaniel Rachman writes in Persuasion about how the simpleton manifestos originated in the 60’s and 70’s.
In their 1970 classic The Politics of Unreason, the sociologists Seymour Lipset and Earl Raab coined a word for this black-and-white thinking: “simplism.” They defined it as “the unambiguous ascription of single causes and remedies for multifactored phenomena.”
He notes that these one line policy responses were clung to by the political extremes. Whereas now it is fashionable to reduce all policy to a slogan. In the same way that it is now fashionable to be an activist.
If I retell the last four years as a simple story, it would go something like this. America’s Heartland felt sold out and left behind so they hired Trump to shake things up to make fun of the sharply educated, networked and shined-up coastal internationalists. They demanded that the nation refocuse on the nation itself. As a counter-response the 60’s political types went into a high-gear-radical-simpleton response, unleashing their swarm of buzzing bees on all the social media electronic waves.
For months following the election an acquaintance on Facebook spewed like a fire breathing dragon, reposting every negative commentary topped off with an acidic remark. But her sphere was at odds recently when a well funded Melton-Meaux challenged incumbent Ilhan Omar in the primaries and lost. Suddenly her tone changed to high school counselor sorting out a cat fight in the hallway. This was as refreshing as a spritz of Evian water poolside at a Four Seasons Hotel (we can only dream about such things these days) and gave me hope that we’ve reached an exhaustion point on activism.
Have we finally stripped down the old ways so we can rebuild? Because there is evidence all around us that things are not so simple, that the system is complex. It relies on a vast network of interlinked groups freely interacting to produce value. For instance, the simple response to the virus is to lock everyone down, to deny them access to all the networks they rely on in the social structure of their lives. So high school kids are out carjacking cars and dying in high speed police chases, and suicides are on the rise, and who even knows what amount of domestic battery is going unreported.
As Nathan goes onto say in his piece:
Perhaps the greatest danger is that simplism feasts on its failures. Its ineffective policies will not solve America’s problems, so calls for radical action will intensify. In this mood of crisis, norms are obstacles rather than boundaries. Politics becomes two unshakeable poles, which paralyzes Congress and halts the passage of policy fixes. As long as simplism reigns, America’s problems will worsen—and so the process will repeat itself.
Understanding a more complex system, no relying on a more complex system is our path to a free society. The problem is that the old guard is not letting go. The very natural tendency to hold onto the prestige and power they’ve gained over the last fifty years, by fighting off opponents, has us stuck in a Ground Hog’s Day movie. Their implicit power makes it necessary for them to gracefully exit stage right. In the meantime we wait.
Crime has been on the rise since May of 2020. In Minneapolis more than 400 people have been shot and 64 killed so far this year. It’s common to hear residents say they know more people that have been carjacked in broad daylight than have contracted Covid-19.
One neighborhood is organizing to do something about it. When a building in their neighborhood was slated to become a Salvation Army run women’s shelter, the moms went into high gear. Their priorities had changed and the folks in Near North weren’t going to have bureaucrats telling them what they needed.
Residents were vigorously opposed. A Mother’s Love went door-knocking in a multi-block radius of the Gordon Center and found no one knew about the proposal. The Northside Residents Redevelopment Council—the official neighborhood association—filed an injunction to halt the process.
Council member Ellison showed up. Elected in 2017 on the promise “to imagine a future for the North Side authored by North Siders,” he apologized for poor public engagement and encouraged constituents to lay out their concerns. “I don’t at all take skepticism of this project as, like, an attack on homeless women,” he assured them.
Frustrated residents pulled no punches. There were already three homeless shelters within a mile of the Gordon Center, yet the North Side had been without a sanctuary for at-risk youth since the 1980s, they said. Many community-led proposals for the Gordon Center had been rejected over the years.
The residents, who were organizing on their own time, objected to the shelter not because they weren’t sympathetic to the cause. It’s just that in the ever changing landscape of neighborhood needs, the effect of increased crime was more damaging to the youth than the needs of the women.
“I’ve lived here for 43 years,” said Willard Hay resident Esther Adams. “I’ve seen kids shot on this corner, I’ve seen kids killed on this corner. We’re just trying to help the kids here.”
In addition to the granular differentiation of need, the resources necessary for a youth center is thought to be considerably less than the homeless shelter.
The Gordon Center (homeless shelter) will cost more than $4 million to convert into a shelter, but peace activists like Clemons’ group, A Mother’s Love, believe it would cost considerably less for a youth center because of the way the building is designed. For one, it already has a playground.
In this case the system worked. The neighborhood did the work to voice a preference between services for their group. It was close though. The building permit had already been approved for the homeless shelter. If the moms had been too busy to put in the time, or their council member too distance from his constituents or the county’s ambition too strong, there could have been four shelters and no youth center.
It just seems like there should be some general tracking of these things by neighborhood. A hospital wouldn’t go into an area with three other hospitals. Even a McDonald’s wouldn’t have four franchisees within a mile of each other. Some sort of indexing of the mix of services provided to not only serve residents, but also to be sure that various age groups and household formations are being supported.
The enforcement of norms is an everyday event. Whether through disapproving looks across a bin of oranges at the grocery store in response to a parent’s disciplining techniques, or the scoff of disbelief at your friend’s new beau’s use of culturally insensitive language, or showing up to work with a card and flowers for a co-worker who recently lost a spouse. The behavior of shaping, criticizing or supporting of each other is judged and metered out with eye movements, gestures, and offers to help.
Once an infraction is deemed serious, it is made a law- you shall be prosecuted if you leave your toddler in a hot car while you shop. There is a lot of ground covered, a lot of degrees of severity and risk in parental actions, between scolding a toddler over a pyramid of piled up produce and locking someone up for child endangerment. But everyone can agree that we are all better off by formally acknowledging a certain threshold of acceptable behavior and enforcing persecution against those who cross over.
We are all better off knowing we can drink tap water from the faucet and that our houses won’t crumble overhead, and we can feed our kids hotdogs from the concessions stands at the Little League games. Accepting these standards and counting on a system, comprised of a series of reportings and enforcements, will maintain the freedom to move in and between communities safely. This is a social advantage we often take for granted.
It can also be shown that at some point there are diminishing return to regulations as their burdens cause detriments that are costly. Most of these arguments set up a discord revolving around health and safety (often tied in with the environment) versus the ability to supply families with income from a job. But this source of monetary capital also affects a person’s ability to lead a healthy safe life. You end up with this big teeter-totter where on one side all the variables set to maximize production of industry are weighted, and on the other, all the variables set to maximize social concerns piled up. What we want to find is at what point where the board finds balance.
Since this topic will be the question of this century, let’s start with a wide angle view in considering the use of regulation to keep the teeter-totter level.
Regulations for commercial enterprises seem to ratchet-up more freely than to release and reevaluate. There are many indications that the systems in place which regulate commerce, (often bureaucracies like Departments of Commerce and Federal Administrations, but cities as well) are not getting the feedback necessary to properly account for all the downsides to their actions. Things at the city and county level work fairly well. Yet, I propose that in the case of big business the intended beneficiaries of the regulation are removed from the system. They do not receive an accurate evaluation of the issues nor a proper accounting. And except to become activists at times of tragedy, they fail to regularly communicate with the regulating agencies.
For purposes of contrast, first consider water quality which is administered at the city level. Complaints about the water filter up through the city council and can be voiced at open city council meetings. Elected officials respond to constituents, especially those who show up. Even city staff feel the pressure when the seats are all taken in the normally hushed city council chambers. Other than the very notable example of Flint MI (and undoubtedly a few under-reported incidents) potable water is successfully provided to 331 million people in the US.
Take hot dogs at a concession stand. The county public health people have the power to decide the cleanliness of the two-windowed, wood clad concession stand with its pretzel warmer and popcorn popper and slushy machine. It is in their power to have it to meet the same standards as a science lab, of they so choose. But the regulator, who is more than likely a part of the community, knows that if the rules checklist becomes too long, making the workload too great for the already tapped, completely volunteer workforce to handle, it will shut down. No concessions, no extra money. No extra money, no new uniforms or dugouts, or pitcher mounds. Do ballfield concession stands or Rotary pancake breakfasts really need to be run at restaurant level standards of cleanliness to keep people safe? Or is there some other level that is ‘good enough’ that won’t squelch to whole endeavor?
Regulation of businesses, however, are missing the community tie-in. Commercial enterprises are regulated by bureaucracies, where people develop careers and other monetary incentives to successfully develop and implement regulations. It’s their job. The purpose of the position is to protect the consumer, where more protection always seems better.
This system removes the citizens that show up at the council meeting both in favor and against city action from the system. The bureaucrats judge and evaluate. They search for evidence to justify their position, not from the public, but from other detached experts. The consumer who can best express the complete picture of tradeoffs for their particular lot in life, has no routine forum. The next closest party to the transaction is the business person who hears and tries to comply with the requests of the consumers. Yet he/she is considered tainted by a money motive, and hence regarded with suspicion or often disregarded.
With the absence of a consumer evaluator, there is no system wide continual assessment of the costs and benefits of the regulation. There is no dynamic information being provided to determine when the regulation has gone too far and is causing too great of a burden.
So what to do? One solution is to consider how people live, by considering their revealed preferences. Testing, if you will, where the new standards are in relation to what the population expresses as their acceptable risk level. For instance, say you have a city that imposes a rental property review based on a scoring system comprised of a four page list of items. Missing smoke detector 5 points, missing receptacle plate 2 points, no furnace tune-up in the last year 5 point, ripped window screen 1 point, etc.. When the property scores 20 or more the renters must vacate the property as it is deemed inhabitual.
Now let’s say the assessment is used on the other 23 homes on the block. If 75 percent of them failed then it seems that the review checklist is too stringent. The regulator are basically saying to its own constituents that their standard of house maintenance are inadequate and they must move. (How do you think that would go over?)
Think of how this came about. The property regulators were trying to do right by the tenants, trying to get rid of the slumlords. They developed a tool that would allow them to put a handful of bad actors out of business. They get little community objection. Even very acceptable landlords are going to stay quiet when heavy handed regulation is in the mix as they are fearful of retaliation. But by setting a standard well above the average accepted living conditions, the regulators have raised the cost of providing housing. Since cost is reflected in rents, this causes undo pressure on affordable rentals.
Indexing off a general-population-standard may not be the end-all-be-all, but it would provide a starting point for the group. If analysis showed reasons for regulators to require more out of a subgroup (rental property), than at least this could be publicly discussed and agreed upon. But forcing the landlords to provide housing units at a higher standard than the average, and hence places undue costs on the provision of housing, avoids a proper accounting. This leads to endless circular discussions about the lack of affordable housing and whose to blame and whose to pay.
Furthermore when regulations don’t match the populations expectations, people resort to go-arounds until the formal rules are disregarded entirely. The highway speed limit debate that started in the early seventies left the public conversation once States set their driving limit to how fast motorists tended drive.
As a part of the system, development, implementation and enforcement of regulations need to be influenced by all actors. When a bureaucracy takes on an agency of their own, which allows them a power position which in effect rebuffs feedback from the general population. Using an indexing method for the group would at least reveal an average standard. It would provide an initial means of analysis. Ideally, even in situations of complex issues there could be a greater transparency with all the costs at hand. And in this way the average citizen could participate in a continual feedback loop while they assess their costs. Without this participation we are simply creating a power void ready to be filled by bureaucratic czars.
We’ve lost track of regulation by allowing it to jump out of the mechanics of the entire system. Lack of transparency and convoluted agency keep any meaningful accounting of the tradeoffs. In the same way that the business community’s opinion of the issues at hand are tainted by the money motive, so are the bureaucrats. They are incented to build their agencies, find new safety concerns, beat back business with zeal. So why are we surprised when they do so?
The Metropolitan Council was conceived a little over fifty years ago with the foresight that the Twin City Metropolitan Area of Minneapolis and St. Paul would benefit from a multi-county planning entity. Large infrastructure projects like transit and water/sewer in particular would be best coordinated regionally in lieu of by an aggregation of cities. The 17 member council serves at the pleasure of the sitting governor. Here is a nice fact sheet providing an overview of the council’s latest accomplishments.
The council wields a tremendous amount of power for an unelected body. Over the years objections to this structure have been voiced by champions of both the left and the right. But for the time being, it is a structure which continues to influence the growth of residential settlement through patterns of transportation provided by bus and light rail, and through the provision of city and water.
In a presentation last week, Charlie Zelle, the chair of the council stressed that his agency is responsible for planning. In light of this spirit, I would like to propose a new way to frame up some of the research.
There are two new infrastructure projects which will offer circulation options for residents. First off, a new interchange off interstate I94 will provide direct access to the city of Dayton, a third tier suburb. Dayton, with a population of 6,302, was bypassed for development and become donut hole to suburban expansion while the populations of neighboring communities grew: Maple Grove to 71k, Champlin to 25k and Rogers to the NW to 13K. The mayor of Dayton touts the economic potential that will be unlocked by the anticipated increase in vehicle traffic from the off ramp.
The second infrastructure project is the Southwest Light Rail which recently received its Full Funding Grant Agreement from the Federal Transit Administration. This transit option links the four SW suburbs of St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka, and Eden Prairie to the City of Minneapolis.
Excitement around Southwest LRT in not just confined to transportation advocates, already the alignment has seen hundreds of millions of dollars of private investments along the line. From affordable housing to commercial centers, Southwest LRT is making an impact on the state’s economy a trend which will continue far into the future.
Both of these projects will allow a new pattern of circulation for residents. One will experience growth and transformation from rural low density to suburban. The other will allow a built community to circulate more readily to and from the downtown core.
Whereas commuters and businesses are often the focus of the benefits to transit, I would be interested in seeing how all pubic goods in these communities fare following the completion of these two projects. Are there effects to public safety? Are the public schools over-loaded or better-funded? Are people healthier due to better access to medical care?
Maybe part of the concern regarding representation within the Metropolitan Council is for this reason; for the need to voice both the positive and negative impacts of transit and water/sewer infrastructure (restrictions) on the suite of public goods underwritten by a city. Elected officials, especially mayors, manage a boutique of goods for their residents, and they are not seeing the Council take all of them into consideration
A little over a year ago Minneapolis was getting a lot of attention for ending single family zoning which secured one family home for one lot in 70 percent of the city. Politco ran a headline with dramatic vivid language of strangleholds, and further reported on how activists were taking victory laps following the City Council’s 12-1 vote to reverse single family zoning across the city. The Atlantic ran an article. And the New York Times gave Minneapolis‘s story first consideration in their article.
Yet in this first part of 2020 their have only been, drum roll please, 3 permit requests to take advantage of this up-zoning. The reason being, according to the Government Affairs Director with the Minneapolis Realtor Association, Eric Meyers, “even though new zoning laws permit triplexes, the underlying code was still written with single-family homes in mind. Height restrictions are the same, as are setback requirements.” A seemingly simple request to increase the height of a garage peak by one foot drew an extensive and heated debate.
Since demand for housing continues to be strong in Minneapolis –the median sale price has risen 5.5% over the last twelve months– and hence the need for more housing units is unwavering, one would think that the spirit of releasing the stranglehold of the single family home would make the process more forgiving.
Emily Hamilton at Bloomberg explains it best: Want More Housing? Ending Single-Family Zoning Won’t Do It. Regulations that have been built over years won’t be undone with that quickly. Think of this at step one. Now investors are reconvening to put together documentation on the obstacles that stand in the way of the envisioned housing option. They will spend time and resources to go back through the city process and seek approval for building conversions and new builds.
Some investors will call it quits and sit out this process as they fear it is too expensive. But it is in this back and forth between the private and the public that incremental changes are made in order to achieve the goal of more housing units. And in doing so lower the cost of homes.