Affordable housing is not a product line

Some politicians don’t buy the idea that an additional supply of housing units, at any price point, will lead to more units of affordable housing. They do not accept that increasing the number of units overall, or greater supply, reduces costs.

What they see are swanky high end homes being built and swanky high income people moving in and absolutely nothing happening to the other end of society. So who’s to blame them?

In order to assist in smoothing out some of these misconceptions, it’s necessary to beg people to accept that housing is not an ordinary commodity, like clothing. Everyone needs housing and clothing, but that’s where the similarities ends.

Poli-types and activists talk about affordable housing as if it were one line of housing, like an evening gown is one line of a designer’s seasonal collection. If you only make evening gowns there’s nothing for the average Joleen to wear. We must sew up some practical shirtdresses! It’s that simple: Build affordable housing.

There are two conceptual problems with treating housing like clothing (just pick the right line for goodness sakes!) Housing is a good that is used and reused as opposed to being disposable. And secondly, in part due to this, over time (time is important) depending on how much maintenance it receives (maintenance is important) a home’s usefulness and hence value fluctuates.

When left unattended for too long, the structure depreciates and the land it sits on becomes disproportionately valuable.

Whereas a community doesn’t want too much time to pass with too little maintenance (which creates slums), this is often the scenario playing out for NOAH (naturally occurring affordable housing). A long time landlord may get to the point of not being energized by upgrades and flashy renovations. He or she may be riding out the property’s usefulness as long as the tenants are amicable.

But time never stops. And mechanicals get old. So these situations are only sustainable for so long. When left unattended for too long, the structure depreciates and the land it sits on becomes disproportionately valuable. Down comes the structure to make way for a swanky new one.

Since new is expensive, expensive people move-in. But as long as the new construction is adding units to the pool of housing, and not just being filled with newcomers, then homes are freed up for folks to stair step up through more choices.

Equality at odds with Progress?

There’s a new paper, Lessons from Denmark about Inequality and Social Mobility, by James J Heckman and Rasmus Landerso. Here’s the abstract:

Many American policy analysts point to Denmark as a model welfare state with low levels of
income inequality and high levels of income mobility across generations. It has in place many
social policies now advocated for adoption in the U.S. Despite generous Danish social policies,
family influence on important child outcomes in Denmark is about as strong as it is in the United
States. More advantaged families are better able to access, utilize, and influence universally
available programs. Purposive sorting by levels of family advantage create neighborhood effects.
Powerful forces not easily mitigated by Danish-style welfare state programs operate in both
countries

What I find interesting is the framing of their analysis around neighborhoods. They find that even though teachers in Denmark are paid the same salaries, there are still different outcomes for children which appear to be a result of families sorting themselves by neighborhood.

One good example of this phenomenon is the quality of schoolteachers by clusters of parental
characteristics. In Denmark, teacher salaries by neighborhood are mandated to be equal. That is
a force for uniform quality of schools across neighborhoods. However, uniform quality is not the
actual outcome in Denmark.

The sorting continues down through to the teachers.

There is a strong positive association between the characteristics of parents, on the one hand, and the characteristics of teachers on the other, despite equality in wages.

Even with an equalization of monetary compensation to the educators, the more established families gain the preferred access to education. And thus equal opportunity to education is not being realized.

But is this one of those everything-should-be-equal that makes sense or is counter productive? Are the measures and classifications and groupings done in a way that divvies up into a state of balance?

I don’t think it is a controversial notion that those on the lower rung of academic performance are more likely to be motivated by seeing themselves in their teachers and mentors. And until those teachers and mentors are brought along into this higher level of academic delivery, the system that looks for those mentors will have unbalanced delivery systems. By choice. And this may very well be the best delivery for that moment in time.

Here is a scenario where fine tuning and focusing in on what is thought to be an issue of equality maybe sabotaging the path for greatest progress. By drilling down to the tier of the individual, one dismisses the group. To bring along the child can only be done by bringing along their larger group, including their parents and teachers.

Vintage Stonehenge and the passing of time

Stonehenge summer of 1976

In honor of the alignment of the rising sun on the spring solstice between the ancient stones of Stonehenge, here is picture from my visit in the mid 1970’s. I do remember the now UNESCO World Heritage site as being well attended. And from the lack of grass around the ancient stones, it seems that everyone was allowed full access to the area.

Aesthetics and Solar Roofs

Elon Musk has stated that 2021 will be a key year for the Solar Roof, with the CEO noting that its potential would be evident this year. Considering the company’s ongoing rollout of the integrated PV system and the development of better Solar Roof designs, it may only be a matter of time before more customers of Tesla’s flagship residential solar product would have more design options available. 

https://www.teslarati.com/tesla-solar-roof-colored-textured-tiles-patent/

Aesthetics is one stumbling block in consumers’ embrace of solar energy. A look that blends into the standard architectural asphalt shingles, or clay roof tiles, would be more consumer friendly than panels.

NorthStar MLS

Attractive shingles will undoubtedly command greater appeal than shiny 24 x 24 inch panels set into a large framework.

Tesla’s Solarglass Roof tiles are already among the most aesthetically-pleasing PV systems in the market. A Solar Roof installation involves the setup of both PV and non-PV roof tiles, and according to Tesla, this could present some issues. Since some tiles do not have solar cells in them, there will be some angles or times when it is possible to distinguish which tiles have solar cells and which do not. 

credit: Patentscope

Tesla also produces a lithium home battery, called a powerwall, which can store energy from the panels to be used after dark, during peak pricing hours.

The Tesla Powerwall pairs well with solar panel systems, especially if your utility has reduced or removed net metering, introduced time-of-use rates, or instituted demand charges. Installing a storage solution like the Tesla Powerwall with a solar energy system allows you to maintain a sustained power supply during the day or night, as long as you store enough power from your panels when the sun is shining.

https://news.energysage.com/tesla-powerwall-battery-complete-review/

With cost for the battery alone running around $8-9K, installation of an entire solar system is upwards of $20K. For comparison, a forest air furnace runs around $4-5K. That said, people pay extra for all sorts of social reasons. They use their son-in-law for their mortgage despite higher fees, they buy Girl Scout Cookies (OK, they are delicious too) and bid triple the value of a vacation package at a charity auction. There is an additional expense in buying organic vegetables and sometimes loyalty to one’s barber requires a drive across town. There are many circumstances where one pays above the going rate so that a portion of the price supports a social objective. Still- the premium has its limits. And solar power isn’t quite affordable enough to reach the mainstream concerned, yet.

In the end it is all about the payback and reliability, especially in a harsh climate. Natural gas is very affordable, but its infrastructure is not available throughout the state. Homes that rely on electric baseboard heat will most likely be the first to tackle the significant upfront investment and convert to solar.

In Dubious Battle- Steinbeck (1936)

After the first of the year, I wrapped up the novels I was reading and made a promiss to myself to be a little more selective. To only read high caliber writing. That’s how I came upon In Dubious Battle. I wasn’t aware of the buildup to an apple pickers’ strike until I was bending back the binding so the pages eased open in my hands. And strikes are turning out to be very good scenarios for expressions of the social economic side of the economy.

Take what Mac says here to Dr. Burton, who has been brought in to be on hand to mend any of the strikers who get caught up in a tussle. Mac’s trying to figure out why Burton keeps showing up when he doesn’t get paid, nor does he seem interested in the cause. In other words Mac can’t figure out the ambitions for what he refers to as ‘work’ when it falls neither in the private or public sphere.

“Yes, you. You’re not a Party man, but you work with all the time; you never get anything for it. I don’t know whether you believe in what we’re doing or not, you never say, you just work. I’ve been out with you be fore, and I’m not sure you believe in the cause at all.”

Dr. Burton laughed softly. “It would be hard to say. I could tell you some of the things I think; you might not like them. I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t like them.”

“Well, let’s hear them, anyway.”

“Well, you say I don’t believe in the cause. That’s like not believing in the moon. There ‘ve been communes be fore, and there will be again. But you people have an idea that if you can establish the thing, the job’ll be done. Nothing stops, Mac. If you were able to put an idea into effect tomorrow, it would start changing right away. Establish a commune, and the same gradual flux will continue.”

“Then you don’t think the cause is good?”

Burton sighed. “You see? We’re going to pile up on that old rock again. That’s why I don’t like to talk very often. Listen to me, Mac. My senses aren’t above reproach, but they’re all I have. I want to see the whole picture as nearly as I can. I don’t want to put on the blinders of ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ and limit my vision. If I used the term ‘good’ on a thing I’d lose my license to inspect it, because there might be bad in it. Don’t you see? I want to be able to look at the whole thing.”

Burton turns out to be a bit of a philosopher. He’s there putting in the work so he can understand the why of it all. He and I agree the flux will continue. That the whole pricing mechanism is always in motion, and for that reason time must be understood. He also is indifferent to the ‘good’ of it. He isn’t going to shuffle through the risks versus the rewards, he is there trying to understand the beams that turn the wheel and the flow of the water that pushes on the buckets.

In the following few pages Dr. Burton talks about group-men. “I watch these group-men, for they seem to me to be a new individual, not at all like a single man. A man in a group isn’t himself at all: he’s a cell in an organism that isn’t like him any more than the cells in your body are like you. I want to watch the group, and see what it’s like.”

I’m looking forward to reading what else Burton observes.

Radon Be Gone

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.

Background

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.

MN Leading Causes of Death, 2017DeathsRate***State Rank*U.S. Rate**
1. Cancer9,896146.836th152.5
2. Heart Disease8,230119.150th165.0
3. Accidents2,78844.638th49.4
4.  Alzheimer’s disease2,47434.923rd31.0
5. Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease2,46436.339th40.9
6. Stroke2,25032.640th37.6
7. Diabetes1,31219.336th (tie)21.5
8. Suicide78313.838th14.0
9. Flu/Pneumonia6979.948th14.3
10. Parkinson’s Disease67510.23rd8.4
Taken from the CDC’s website

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.

American Cancer Society

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.

Costs

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.

Back to tenements for the poor?

While the government will need to employ short-term measures to avoid a wave of displaced households, one major step toward resolving the underlying problems in the housing market would be repealing an obscure 22-year-old addition to the Housing Act of 1937, the Faircloth Amendment. Passed in an era when the reputation of housing projects was at a low, the amendment prohibits any net increase in public-housing units.

Opinion | Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Knows How to Fix Housing – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Ugh. When politicians are too young to remember the mistakes of the past.

WWF, Neocolonial?

The World Wildlife Fund is the largest conservation organization in the world. Born of the passions of the 60’s, it established a foothold in Kenya when the organization purchased 37,000 acres adjacent to Lake Nakuru in 1973.

Eco-tourism is a big player in Kenya’s GDP, coming in at close to 10%. Despite this economic success, decades of outside influence on the care and preservation of wildlife has some expressing tension around land use.

The conservancy, portrayed in this BBC clip, celebrates the initiatives of local ownership.

Nashulai Maasai Conservancy , is the first ever community led and managed Conservancy which has been created to on the borders of the Maasai Mara National Reserve . The conservancy has been established for wildlife conservation but the local community would also live within the area and share it with both wildlife and livestock . It is a mixed model Conservancy the first of its kind in Mara

The point to be made here is that what was an agreeable arrangement 47 years ago, two generations or so, may no longer have the same feel to it. At that time perhaps there was insufficient home-grown ability to manage the parks, and as the shared objective of wildlife preservation still appealed to all, it was advantageous to have outsiders come in and put everything in place.

What was appealing and profitable in a social, ecological and financial sense, a half a century ago, is showing some wear. Now that the outsiders are no longer needed, they are pirates. They are taking instead of giving. Time has changed the circumstances.

Primer Podcast for Affordable Housing

Lots of great topics covered in this Econ Talk podcast with Katherine Levine Einstein. Russ Roberts and the assistant professor of Political Science at Boston University tackle the obstacles developers face in building higher density homes, as well as affordable housing units.

Katherine explains that the title of her new book, Neighborhood Defenders, comes from the notion that people who show up at city council meetings feel they are speaking on behalf of their neighborhood; they view themselves as representatives of that public.

So, first on the motivation side, the term NIMBY implies sort of a selfish motivation. It implies, Not In My Backyard, a very individually motivated view. And, in our research, we actually find that the folks who show up to oppose the construction of new housing often view themselves as representing their community’s interests and are motivated by protecting their neighborhood, their surroundings. Right? So, their motivations are not so individualistic.

The conversation flushes out the reality that people who have time to devote to the work of public affairs do not necessarily reflect the width and breath of the constituency. In fact there are noticeable groups missing from these planning and approval meetings. As Russ says:

So, talk about that tension between the idea behind saying ‘a public hearing.’ Wouldn’t you want a public–I mean: Let the public be heard. And yet it’s not really the public.

Groups are further delineated in the failure of the California legislature to approve SB 50 which would have streamlined the approval process for developers. It seems that the environmental folks found common ground with NIMBY’s.

So, one set of interests, which doesn’t surprise anyone, would be opposed to something like this is communities like Beverly Hills. Like, very privileged places with lots of white homeowners who are strongly opposed to the construction of new housing. So, those folks were like, ‘No, we do not want to have fourplexes all over the place here.’ So, they were a natural oppositional constituency.

But, other groups also came out in opposition. So, Sierra Club and a few other environmental groups were strongly opposed because they thought this would lead to the degredation of sort of existing green spaces.

And, that I think, and this is the oppositional group that was to me most interesting, is sort of left-leaning tenants’ rights organizations and some of the socialists organizations in California that are quite powerful, especially in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Those groups worried that this up-zoning would actually lead to gentrification. If we think about areas in Los Angeles that are near transit stops, that many of those are less -privileged areas with larger Latin X or black populations. And, that those were places that might face development pressures, and, you know, the construction of new luxury housing, should zoning codes be relaxed.

And, so those really diverse constituencies all came together. Both times they killed SB-27 and they essentially killed SB-50 as well.

As they pull apart the thorny issues around community support for affordable housing, they not only talk groups, interests and work, but also how the public’s impact on timeframes have economic consequences.

Usually it would take like three to six months, I assume, to build a grocery store–I don’t know, maybe. But, for some reason it takes forever. And, of course the answer is, ‘They didn’t get the permit yet. They’re working on it.’ But, talk about–these things, some of them are ten years. And, after the 10 years, they get a building of four units down to three. But these are often 90 units of affordable housing were planned and they end up with, like, 40, ten years later.

In addition to these public sphere definitions and mechanics, they talk externalities and corruption. Well worth a listen!

Gifts and Gratitude

Credit due to an unknown source

There are a lot of exhausted moms out there on Christmas day. What accounts for the value they find in gift giving? To bring joy and a little material well being to your kids is within the realm of comprehension. But what about all those other gifts?

Business people see something in the cards with lots of scrolls that go out to clients, thanking them this time of year. Showing gratitude is over and above any monetary payment, even if there is a business angle to the effort to nurture their contacts.

Figuring out who makes the list is an accounting of sorts. Your very best customers may get a holiday wreath along with the message of good cheer. Teachers may receive gift cards to Caribou Coffee, whereas uncles and aunts step up to Pendleton socks and scented candles, but your secret santa pick warrants an outright custom purchase.

A gift is, by definition, something that is given with no expectation of return. Yet thankfulness is often a notion in the gift giving tradition. It’s a recognition that there is somebody out there thinking about you. Being thankful affords you a moment of recognition for all those loose and untimed interactions that structure a more pleasant life, including perhaps the $15-and-under gift put before you.

Instead of rolling your eyes when you pull back the tissue paper hiding the token of appreciation in the little gift bag, consider what type of gratitude is wrapped up in it. The gesture asks you to take the time to think and remember when that cousin picked you up after hours from the bars, or Aunt Bee was at home on that below zero day when you were locked out of your home, or how the mailman put your package in a shelter spot on the front porch.

Appreciation allows you to gauge different levels of merit. A fine tuning of need, something that seems to be sorely lacking in some of our large institutions. Gratitude is an important player in the ballgame of human interactions, right up there with empathy or greed. It is one to cultivate.

For Christians today is a day of thankfulness for the birth of Christ, the Savior. The lessons of gratitude and thankfulness are carried out through gift giving. All the others who are simply setting up a tree with presents all around are still listing out their sets of priorities. In this way they benefit from this lesson, believer or non-believer. That’s something to be thankful for.

To all of you–Merry Christmas and good night!

Book Club

One of the benefits of raising a child is that you get to follow them through their interests and endeavors. My college sophomore was required to tackle two novels for his class on colonialism: The Poor Man’s Son and God’s Bits of Wood. Feraoun is the product of French Algeria and Ousame is from Senegal, part of Afrique Occidental Francaise (AOF) until 1958. Both tell stories of the struggles of their countrymen and women during the era of New Imperialism.

Unlike the conversation of today, both authors describe many more groups than the simple division of colonial power and the colonized, of oppressor and oppressed, or of those who take what is not theirs and those who are left without. How exactly the goods, services and resources are shared and divided between all the players is a preoccupation for both men.

Details such as, 180 francs– the amount of Feraoun’s scholarship to Ecole Primere Superieure, and 100 francs–the amount he turns around and sends back to his family in Kabylia. Then there is 25 francs and a container of barley–the amount that shows his family’s extreme financial distress. And 600 francs–the amount the headmaster hands over to allow him to continue his education.

Both authors detail workplace struggles. Feraoun’s father leaves for a time to be a laborer in Paris. When a workplace accident lands him in the hospital he is able, after two attempts, to secure a settlement of $3000 francs along with a quarterly stipend. Ousame describes the 1947 railroad worker strike with specifics on pensions and wage scales and family benefits.

There is a counting amongst the women as well in the home life of the railroad workers. There is the rice that the local grocer is forbidden to sell them, and a fight with the french soldiers over a leg of mutton. Feraoun finds his financial obligations to his northern Algerian family growing as his sisters’ husbands leave them for greener pastures. He counts thirteen dependents on his teacher’s salary.

There are many groupings in these stories; there are the workers, and the women, and the missionary, and the soldiers, and the french educators, and the French who show up to help with the strike, and the elders who feel disregarded–all pulling in many different directions for people’s time, talent, and assets.

It’s as if these authors are trying to sort through two spheres of economic activity, particularly set in contrast by private affairs and public affairs, by looking after the individual and being obliged to the family, as well as by outsiders and insiders. And the good and the bad make an appearance in every cluster.

Without a doubt, the richness of these detailed accounts of choices is far more interesting than the conversations of today.

Gentrification-a swear

Not by dictionary.com’s definition: [ˌjentrəfəˈkāSH(ə)n] NOUN the process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste.

That doesn’t sound too controversial. People go in and clean up an area, make it more livable. There must be more to it to explain how the word gets heated up and shot out like a bullet. This popped up on the CDC site under Health Effects of Gentrification:

Definition:

Gentrification is often defined as the transformation of neighborhoods from low value to high value. This change has the potential to cause displacement of long-time residents and businesses. Displacement happens when long-time or original neighborhood residents move from a gentrified area because of higher rents, mortgages, and property taxes.

Gentrification is a housing, economic, and health issue that affects a community’s history and culture and reduces social capital. It often shifts a neighborhood’s characteristics (e.g., racial/ethnic composition and household income) by adding new stores and resources in previously run-down neighborhoods.

I’m truly not sure how the Center for Disease Control underwrote a housing topic. Gentrification= Disease? (to be fair, they do start the page with this disclosure: “This website is archived for historical purposes and is no longer being maintained or updated.”) However this definition does a great job of setting up the issues which incite a passionate response. And setting up the issues is all this first post will do for this complex scenario.

Straight off, in the first line, is the accurate observation that the process of replacing roofs, tightening wobblily rails and putting in new windows increases property values in a neighborhood. This should not be controversial–ideally owners at all levels of housing can keep up on maintenance (and if you own a home you know that this is a dependable demand). The controversy arises when the change in the value of property, and hence rents, makes it unaffordable to the current residents.

Be sure to understand that this is about value, and who ends up with it. The motivation to build equity drives, in part, the purchase and renovations of a home. A home to do with as you choose and to make your own. Property owners increase their net worth when more buyers want to move in. So gentrification is a good thing, not bad for those whose names are on the deeds.

The passionate objection to gentrification lies in the garbled mess of the second paragraph. Let’s try to pull it apart–but first understand the scenario. An investor, or a homeowner, has to receive some compensating factors to dive in and do the work to repair a home which is begging for all the big ticket items: new heating systems, siding, windows, roof. And that’s before you even get to all the interior stuff like new kitchens, bath, maybe even rewiring the old knob and tube wiring which is known to cause house fires. The compensation is a higher valued home.

To turn a whole neighborhood, where the majority of houses find themselves in a similar state of deferred maintenance, would take a while. We’re not just talking one spring sales season following a year of living with contractors coming and going. Elevating a neighborhood to a new standard is pushing a decade’s worth of work.

Gentrification is described with a sense of immediate turnover, which simply isn’t how it happens.

What is upsetting to people is that a sweeping renovation to an area produces a negative externality for the folks who were benefiting from the low cost of substandard housing. Furthermore, if these renters leave the area, they may leave behind favors accumulated through other social groups with geographic anchors. They take a loss for the chits left on the table for non-fungible work.

At the core of much of the renter’s rights activism you will find this concept of value and who gets it. There is a sense that despite contributing to their neighborhoods of their time and activity, renters fail to earn value. Only property owners do. So the policy is to divert equity from property owners to renters through initiatives like TOPA.

We can do better. But first we have to understand how to calculate value.

Time and Transactions

This picture may remind you of the children’s book by Virginia Lee Burton, The Little House. A home starts out on a country road and is gradually engulfed by the big city, before it is moved back out to a quiet hill in the country. Over time the land use around the home had changed, so the story puts the house back where it belongs.

Some folks decided Burton’s book was a critique of urban sprawl, despite her objections. She countered that the book, which won a Caldecott Medal in 1943, was designed to illustrate the passage of time. Over time things change. It doesn’t have to be good or bad that change happens at difference tempos. It simply is.

Here’s the satellite view of the 50’s built shoe repair shop, encircled by apartments built in early 2000’s.

Over time the land use around this shoe repair shop had changed as well. The whole city block was ready for something new, but not the shoe repairman. His transaction time table did not match with the everyone else’s. He must have been a hold out as the builder/developer I’m sure would have preferred to bulldoze the whole section and not have to build around the storefront.

The inside of the shop shows all the signs of a long time resident: layers of leather chaps tacked to the walls, boots stacked up on shelving, a bit of dust everywhere. Here’s a small business owner approaching the tail end of his career. Selling his shop would have been retiring, and he clearly he wasn’t ready to retire. The rest of the block might have been working on a commerce time frame, but the cobbler was working on a career time frame.

The parties must have worked out a compromise as the shop still sits on what looks to someday be parking. Someday– when the time is right.

Arthur Rimbaud-French Poet

I jumped on Wikipedia to look up information on Arthur Rimbaud after reading a reference to Rimbaudian savagery. I’m somewhat of a Francophile and know a lot of things French and was a little surprised the name didn’t ring a bell. Happily I read through the entry filling a gaping hole of knowledge about a premier poet. But when I came to this section of the article the photo put my brain into a bell tower at high noon.

I visited Harar as a child so I went digging, and sure enough.

There it was there amongst the shots of winding streets, colorfully scarves vendors in the marketplace and city gates that lead into this ancient walled city on the eastern edge of Ethiopia.

The mind is an awesome and perplexing thing. More often than not it won’t recall a name at a gathering, leaving me, once again, socially awkward. But then–out of the blue, it will recognize an image from deep in the past.

New city, new energy

From the BBC:

On the edge of the Saudi Arabian desert beside the Red Sea, a futuristic city called Neom is due to be built. The $500bn (£380bn) city – complete with flying taxis and robotic domestic help – is planned to become home to a million people. And what energy product will be used both to power this city and sell to the world? Not oil. Instead, Saudi Arabia is banking on a different fuel – green hydrogen. 

Rain drops

‘At least the weather has been nice’ has been a passing phrase in 2020; a Minnesota nice way of putting a positive spin on a dreadful year. The stretch of sunny 60 degree days in our forecast has me deciding which outdoor tasks I can still accomplish. Some readers may not appreciate these temps, but just a few weeks ago an early storm wrapped the landscape in a four inch blanket of white, catching the Autumn Blaze Maples startled with all their leaves yet to drop.

The proper order of things is for the leaves to turn their brilliant oranges and golds and reds, then drop, then get raked up before the snow flies. It’s not the end of the world if the leaves don’t get raked up but blow around in the back yard until snow covers the landscape for a good chunk of the calendar. Come spring, however, when the thaw comes out of the ground, you’ll contend with a soggy mess. There’s the possibility that south winds will dry them out over the course of March, April and May. But the grass will emerge yellow and thin.

Having a patchy pelouse doesn’t make your home inhabitable. It doesn’t come under the must-respond-immediately-and-fix like a furnace when twenty below temps are testing your weather stripping. Heat is essential in a Minnesota winter. Water drips are up there with heat. As water on the loose tends to leave unsightly stains and make things moldy. There are things that you can’t do without and there are things that do damage if you pay them no mind.

A whole host of chores nag at you even though only a few are desperate. Take cleaning the gutters, for example. With an Indian Summer rolling in I get a second chance to get out the ladder and use rubber gloved hands to dig out the leafy debris. Otherwise a stream of snow melt off the roof will overflow, dripping persistently right next to the foundation. A few years of neglect does little damage, but eventually water digs its passage, and seeps through the foundation. Decades go by and the whole foundation wall starts to bow due to the water drops hitting like bullets into the soil and down against the walls. Something as simple as not cleaning the gutters can cause the foundation to collapse.

Community work shares this housework feature, that there are different levels of need that pull one into service. There are those tasks that need immediate attention and receive it. You can’t very well drive by an abandoned crying child at the side of the road. That’s a pull over no-matter-where-you-are-supposed-to-be and help moment.

Then there are those itty bitty items that get pushed aside like the intersections that really need a stop sign. Busy people have yet to get down to city hall and insist on better measures. When a tragedy rustles neighbors into action, there’s a lot of head shaking as to how that risk hadn’t been better assessed.

Assessing long term risks and drawing them all the way back to the present day, into the everyday lives of busy moms and dads, takes the memories of grandmas and grandpas. A shared knowledge of what eventually could happen if you put off the small maintenance items is vital. Only tackling the immediate emergencies, and burning all other time on cosmetics will pull you up short. At the worst time (inevitably) you discover that all the mechanics in your house need replacing, and the foundation is about to blow. Communities are like houses.

It takes decades to run down a house to the point of it being a tear-down. At any juncture, owners can jump in with enough willpower and enough resources to set it straight again. The better path is for people to evaluate all the long term risks, and use this knowledge to divvy up the present day work. Estimating the relative value and effort necessary to maintain and build-on what is already in place. It’s better when several generations supervise and assess the risks and rewards of the work which needs attention.

Remote real estate

Saint Helena hangs in the Atlantic between the eastern reaches of South America and the west shores of Africa.

It is one of the most isolated islands in the world and was uninhabited when discovered by the Portuguese in 1502. It was an important stopover for ships sailing to Europe from Asia and Southern Africa for centuries.

A five day ferry ride from Cape Town takes Napoleon buffs to his final resting place on the island. See more great photos from The Atlantic.

Counting Intentions

If you could count intentions, package them up and gift them, the residents who had their homes rebuilt by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, following the devastation unleashed by Hurricane Katrina, would be wealthy. Instead, the 109 property owners of the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans are taking legal action against the Hollywood superstar for “unfair trade practices, deception, fraud and negligence.”

Just a little earlier this month, another home in the development was demolished. As Federal courts pull apart the issues, it will be interesting to see how judges view the dynamics and assign responsibility. On the one hand you have the wealthy part-time philanthropist, full-time mega-movie-star, versus a group of mortgage paying homeowners, but then throw in architects with a penchant for environmental activism, builders, suppliers and the crime scene quickly gets muddied. The setting has changed from what Oprah.com describes here in 2010:

Leggett-Barnes and her family are some of the first homeowners in what will become a 150-house community constructed by the nonprofit Make It Right foundation, established by Brad Pitt in 2007 to build environmentally sound residences for low- and middle-income families. “We’re cracking the code on affordable green homes,” says Pitt, who envisions the Lower Ninth neighborhood as “a ‘proof-of-concept’ for low-income green building nationally, maybe even worldwide.”

The plan started with everyone on the same page. The recently homeless needed to return to plots of land, which for some, had been in their families for a couple of generations. Brad Pitt pledged 5 million dollars to take the edge off costs and provide the seed money for what ends up being a 27 million dollar project (that’s $247K per house). But then a new public objective starts to emerge, one driven by an environmental passion. Oprah.com notes:

A Make It Right house is eco-friendly from top to bottom, using at least 70 percent less energy than a conventional house of the same size. “We don’t just want to make homes ‘less bad’ for the environment,” Pitt says. “We want them instead to have an environmental benefit.” Thanks to their ventilation systems and solar technology, Make It Right houses emulate trees, purifying the air rather than polluting it and harnessing the sun’s rays to produce more energy than they consume. The homes are available exclusively to people who lived in the Lower Ninth before Katrina, and Make It Right guides families through the financing process.

It wouldn’t be the first time two objectives were tackled simultaneously: Help families rebuild their homes and make the structures energy efficient. Both admirable. But don’t miss that last sentence, ‘help them through the financing process.’ And just like that we’re off the philanthropy playing field and into the private market game. In this venue the owners are expecting to purchase from a developer, not an actor-philanthropist-activist. They sign for a mortgage. The most common number for the debt was around $150K, bringing the final cost per house to somewhere around $397K.

Just for comparison here is a listing for a new construction home in New Orleans posted on Realtor.com today.

Even at $397K (not including lot cost) one might say the extra money was well spent on energy conservation measures and intended health benefits. One might say that, if the properties hadn’t started deteriorating within a few short years.

By 2015, as most construction concluded, the project had cost almost $27 million. But complaints about the construction and materials used in the homes had already emerged.

These transactions had a philanthropic and environmental and private market component to them. The additional inflow of funds to cover the environmental objectives came in, but the new owners of these properties do not appear to have engaged as critical consumers for the core product. They didn’t check into the materials or the mechanicals or the plans. Just talk to a builder rep if you question whether consumers who build with them hover (daily) to ensure they are receiving what was written up in their purchase agreement. Perhaps due to the power of stardom, or the actual dollars being spent on their behalf, the home-buyers seem to have stepped aside and allowed others to do their bidding. Until as the New Orleans Advocate reports:

In September 2018, homeowners Jennifer Decuir and Lloyd Francis sued Make It Right for what they alleged was deficient construction that caused mold, poor air quality, structural failures, electrical malfunctions, plumbing mishaps, rotting wood and faulty heating, ventilation and cooling.

The dynamics of philanthropy allows for an individual (or group) with extra funds to choose a public need and steer their resources accordingly. The recipients are asked only to consider reciprocating at some future date, should they find themselves in a similar situation. If the courts place the blame on Brad Pitt will that inhibit the flow of goods and services from the wealthy to those in need for fear of liability? Were the end consumers not responsible in a buyer-beware type of way to check out what they were buying? From what the articles (USA Today, NPR), they had owned and maintained homes in the past.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. The architect John C Williams collected $4 million in fees. There were permits and inspectors and building codes. And maybe some blame should end up at the lenders’ door for not questioning the innovative, but untested systems, going into the project. In the end they are on the hook for the paper if a homeowner walks and abandons their property. But mostly, in the for-profit market, the relationship between the developer-builder and the home buyers establish the acceptable combination of durability, green components and price.

The problem wasn’t a lack of intentions. The problem was that the philanthropist-activists bypassed the marketplace and all the small interactions that make it up. The fatal flaw was the thought that with enough money, and passion, all the feedback and tussles between consumers, and inspectors, and building code committees, and brokers, and city planners, and developers, and real estate agents, and electricians,…that all those players interacting in a market setting, just doesn’t matter.

The market continues to shuffled through the consumer choices when judging the environmental impact of products. Standards are set by producers of furnaces and A/C units; power companies offer home energy audits and neighbor consumption comparison; neighbors talk to each other; contractors share incentives; all in the effort to advance a public goal of energy savings. But at each step that goal must be incorporated into the overall integrity of the purchase at hand, or homes will fall apart just like those in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Praise for Brad Pitt remains high, and the contention remains that his intentions were and are completely genuine. It looks, however, as if he will pay dearly for moving toward an ambition without vetting it through the market system. This story shows us that it is not enough to imagine a better world, and poof! It will happen. Progress takes the engagement of all players, giving feedback through action and pricing. Progress depends on markets.

Neo Liberal–Twitter

A thread by Ben Winegard

“Neoliberalism is a complete failure”

I mean unless you care about poverty, literacy, life expectancy, and freedom. Oh, but neoliberalism really is a catastrophe to social conservatism, you say. Think again!

Nonelites can now read. That’s kind of cool!

Another cool thing: Children are not dying anymore.

If you are into political freedom, we even have something for you!

Messing with Time- Disney

Disney has added a warning at the beginning of its classic films (Lady and the Tramp, The Aristocats, Dumbo to mention a few) to pre-empt them from being torn down, ripped up or cancelled in some fashion. The disclosure is basically a reminder that society changes over time.

While these cartoons do not represent today’s society, they are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.

Does Disney have the cultural capital to quell the mob? To take away the quills from the Robespierres before they write another dozen orders of destruction?

As groups decide how to proceed with the statues that were gingerly removed after 90 odd years of barely any note, I hope they look to Disney for more than just entertainment. Because remembering the past is vital to understanding the work that needs to be done to step up the stakes for tomorrow.

I’m not sure if Disney’s common sense approach will work. To point out that one might not agree with the actions of decades gone by seems too simple. To remind people that, should they feel embarrassed, disappointed, or enraged with the habits of their forefathers, they can use those sentiments to forge a better future; that the future is in their hands, not the dead guy on the pedestal.

Time will tell.

A public of Two

When I was young 50th wedding anniversaries were common. The local golf course was the venue for gatherings and cake, and for testimonials from friends and relatives. Stories about the young couple’s meeting and courtship, and then marriage and the crazy baby years, were spun out over the white table clothed tables. Maybe there were even stories of difficult times and persistence. In today’s world an announcement about an anniversary surpassing the 30 year mark is commented upon, oddly with: WOW! Congratulations!!

This most basic public of two, (as the property they share is available to them both and actions of one effect the health, wealth and well-being of the other) continues to be threatened by a considerable risk of dissolution. “About 90% of people in Western cultures marry by age 50. In the United States, about 50% of married couples divorce, the sixth-highest divorce rate in the world. Subsequent marriages have an even higher divorce rate: 60% of second marriages end in divorce and 73% of all third marriages end in divorce.”

You would think the benefits of a longer life would be an incentive for all those folks to stick together. The CDC reports: “Previous studies have found that married persons have lower mortality rates than unmarried persons, attributable to either selectivity in entering marriage (i.e., healthier people are more likely to marry) or health-protective effects of marriage, or a combination of the two (1,2). ” Even in the COVID numbers we find “strong and stable families seem to be more resistant to the pandemic.”

Things only get worse as people age and live alone which leads to a crisis of loneliness. In Minnesota the total number of housing units is 2,477,753. With the total population at 5,639,632 the average number per household ends up at 2.49. So everytime you can think of a household made up of more than two people, there is someone living alone. The estimates I saw came in at 20-23% of the population. That’s a lot of singles.

So what gives when the advantages of coupling are out there for all to see. I’m starting a list:

  • With both parties in the work force, the short term transactional nature of business sub-plants the long term ambitions of a social contract.
  • Fear of being duped -don’t take it.
  • The transactional measure of giving ‘enough’ should be replaced by the social measure of giving their best effort.
  • Lack of celebrations that recognize couples in front of an audience.
  • No standards for friends and family to support or constructively comment.
  • Avoid failing at marriage by not getting married.

The data proves that marriage is good for us. So why folks don’t invest a little more work in staying together is odd to me.

Messing with Time

Such a long list of public statues have been pulled down, defaced, and parkways and buildings have been renamed, that the whole culturally sensitive activity has become banal. Standing in line to do their part are student activists at the University of Kentucky who have been demanding the removal of a mural from the 1930’s, one depicting the settling of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. But not everyone is sympathetic. Long time climate activist, writer and poet, Wendell Berry, is suing.

Now, Wendell Berry — the writer, farmer and longtime Kentuckian — is suing the university over its decision to remove the mural, arguing that because it was created through a government program, it is owned by the people of Kentucky and cannot be removed by the university. (Mr. Berry knew the artist of the mural through his wife, who is a niece of Ms. O’Hanlon. Mr. Berry’s wife, Tanya Berry, is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.)

Perhaps it is time that the courts weigh in on the issue. The period where the passion of the moment, the outrage, perhaps has expired. Voicing a need for change is acceptable, it is desirable. The public square, whether physical or over electronic media, is part of the system. Yet at some point the voicing process is over. At some point destruction to emphasize the severity of the issue becomes destruction to feel powerful. At some point attention to the issue at hand starts to itself erode other worthy causes.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion regarding the appropriateness of alining time with the crime. Even if the law changes at a later date, it ruled that the perpetrator cannot be exonerated if the deed was unlawful at time of conviction.

A defendant is not exonerated within the meaning of Minn. Stat. § 590.11, subd.
1(c)(2) (Supp. 2019), when his conviction has been vacated based on a later clarification
of the law, when the conduct violated the law under existing precedent at the time the
offense was committed.

Shouldn’t it follow that the reverse should also not be allowed? That today’s cancel culture cannot convict based on revisions to laws dictating new standards which make historical actions unlawful? Those artists (in this case a woman-which in and of itself should be revered) and their subjects and the commissions which hired the work be done were operating within the guidelines of their time. Not some future reality yet to be conceived.

If anything these artifacts should be kept around because they are there to tell our story. Sir Bertrand Russell wrote an essay offering some ideas on what history should do for the general reader. Here is a section that points out that a history is needed precisely to address the ever changing nature of ‘human affairs.’ It appears in Portraits from Memory and Other Essays.

Our human story is ever evolving. We operate on a time continuum. Thus it seems, that if for no other reason than to avoid making complete fools out of ourselves, we must evaluate events under the conditions in which they occurred.

Is it Public or Is it Private?

Marginal Revolution University is an incredible source of economic knowledge. In addition to the course work there are videos and games. Here’s one designed to help distinguish between public goods, private good, common goods and club goods. At the end of the game there is a cheat sheet of how to classify these goods and services.

Pure Private Goods/Services (excludable, rival)
● Haircut
● Pizza
● Website design
● Table service at a restaurant
● Snuggie
● House


Club Goods/Services (excludable, non­rival)
● Netflix
● Amusement park
● Uncongested toll roads (highway)
● The movies
● YMCA membership


Common Goods (non­excludable, rival)
● Busy city street
● Hospital E.R.
● Tuna in the ocean
● The meadow where your sheep graze
● Wildlife
● Forests


Pure Public Goods/Services (non­excludable, non­rival)
● Wikipedia
● National defense
● Uncongested city street
● City fireworks
● Air to breathe
● Google
● Asteroid defense

To understand the economic arrangement I talk about in this blog, these categories have to be rearranged. I ask people to consider that there are two natures to every product: public and private. The nature is dependent upon who, or which group, has access to the goods.

Let me give you an example. A haircut seems like a pretty straightforward private good. The exchange is between two individuals where the customer clearly owns the hair. But what if the haircut was given to disadvantaged kids in an elementary school by a barber who was providing the service as a gesture of community involvement?

The purpose of the activity is to enhance a child’s self esteem and in doing so increase their productivity at school. The barbers work for free so no money is exchanged to make this a private transaction. There are no production reports, nor does this get measured as a part of GDP. This service is done as a public service not a private transaction. Mind you not just anyone can get the free haircut. Only the kids at the elementary school in question. Everyone else must pay. So the public nature has to be attached to that grouping: it is a public good for the elementary school kids.

This is the reason a haircut cannot be classified exclusively as a private service. In due time, I will sort through this whole list of goods and services to convert you to the new classifications of public and private! In due time.

Who is NOAH anyway?

It was three to four years ago when the acronym NOAH (naturally occurring affordable housing) started appearing in presentations and in print. The sale of a 698-unit apartment complex in Richfield, a modest first tier suburb adjacent to South Minneapolis, and the subsequent fallout from tenants having to relocate in light of the new owners’ ambitions to rehab the ailing structure, brought this situation into focus. The term emerged from the realization that there can be a time when both landlords and tenants benefit by rents low.

Analysts talk about housing like it is a static product. How many units are for rent, with how many bedrooms, and how many square feet. People talk about housing as if the most interesting thing about it is its physical parameters. But properties change over time. What is brand-new, mechanically up-to-date today, becomes tired and dated in the course of a dozen years. People change over time too. A single adult transitions into married life and a family changing their housing needs.

Housing structures have a cycle. New means no repairs but new also means (relative to comparable used properties) the most expensive. As properties age they can become dated and repairs can start to be overlooked. Usually used properties are supporting some mix of these two: the roof is new but the furnace midcycle; the counters are granite but the appliances from a decade gone-by.

Wear and tear and maintenance can also vary depending on the tenants. A drive around any large University campus will show off some student housing that is a little worse for wear. And some landlords are better than others at keeping up on property demands. It can be that the owners are at a later stage of their investment and are happy enough to keep doing repairs instead of replacements, and ignoring the dated carpet runners in the hallways. As long as their renters are happy with stable rent, all parties allow the property to age.

Keep in mind the economics of the lower rent. The owner, by letting improvements slide and just getting by on minimal repairs, has in effect allowed the building to decrease in value. The lower rent is a transfer of building value to the renters. The decreased building value in the open market attracts an investor who is then motivated to do the renovations. And with this the new investor attracts renters who can pay for them.

This most probably describes the evolution of the large apartment complex in Richfield. Other expenses can also impact an owner’s decision to sell.

Dickens sees NOAH threatened across the region, and said landlords get no choice when property values — and thus taxes — rise. Maintenance costs and upkeep also climb, with costs typically passed to tenants.

Is it not beneficial to the community or the renters for a building to deteriorate to the point of condemnation. So the process of an investor rehabbing an aging building in and of itself is a good thing. The reality is that structures depreciate over time, and repairs can only be ignored for so long. NOAH wasn’t a discovery of something new, it just revealed a situation in the open market where both the provider of the housing and the residents found an agreeable equilibrium. For a time.

The biggest takeaway from the acronym is that there is no secret money tree that will appear and save the most vulnerable from their housing burden. NOAH occurs as a situation where an investor tolerates some devaluing of property which is then reflected in lower rent to tenants. But it cannot be sustained without the building becoming a teardown. In the end, when people can’t afford their housing expense, some other group will have to cover the difference.

The Trick with Triplexes

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.

.

Here’s the deal 101

Our local NBC news outlet recently ran a story about an elderly couple receiving help from neighbors after being criticized for not keeping up the exterior paint on their home. It totaled $67,000 worth of help. There is no name given to this transfer of money. When a private party helps themselves to $67,000 from their employer it is called embezzlement. When a politician helps themselves to $67,000 from their campaign fund it is called corruption.

The old school explanation for this activity is to denote it as a form of charity. But is it really a gift? Neighborliness is a term that shows up on surveys. But what does that mean? I see this exchange between the neighbors of Gloucester is the most basic transaction in a economy of groups. Let’s pull it apart.

It all started with an anonymous note left for the couple which read, “Please Paint Me! 😦 Eye sore – Your Neighbors. Thanks.” Although clearly written by one individual, the message is presented as a community concern. Signed, your neighbors. You’ve probably heard this type of chatter before. A house on a main road is dilapidated, or decorated with eccentric siding. Comments like, ‘I really wish someone would do something about that place.’ Or, ‘Some people are bringing down the neighborhood!’ So although one neighbor wrote the note, thoughts of this nature were undoubtedly mulled over by many a passerby.

A personal residence is deemed the bastion of private property, and property rights are a keystone feature of our economic system. But the note indicates that there is a hazy area not reflected in the legal deed, filed in the county records, which spells out the owners names. The area residents feel they have a right to demand that the exterior meet their expectations. This is not a novel idea. In fact cities even have ordinances which address the exteriors of properties regarding thresholds for debris removal and grass mowing.

The couples’ daughter took to social media to voice her response to the note. She points out that her parents had lived in community for the past 50 years. And that during this long history they had maintained their home, and hence contributed many years of service towards an acceptable streetscape. “My family for many years took care and maintained this house as best they could…” 

The reason for the disrepair could happen to anyone, it was an act of nature. The article reports that “Marilyn, 72, developed multiple sclerosis about 30 years ago and is mostly confined to her bed, and Jimmy, 71, recently recovered from a quadruple bypass…” Health concerns take time and resources away from the couples ability to comply with the norms of the neighborhood.

Once the word got out about the need, once demand for goods and services was established, a voluntary response from the community resulted in a $67,000 balance in a GoFundMe account. Currency is very liquid, yet these funds are not fungible. As the report confirms the money is “to be used for new siding on their home, new windows, roof and stairs.”

There is no reporting of free riding or extortion, even though funds are seemingly extracted from a greater group to a private party. Nor is this activity portrayed in a religious or moral sense. The voluntary transfer of resources to improve the exterior of the home is held together by a communal objective, one that the recipients contributed to over. This transparent and voluntary activity is the most basic transaction in economy of groups.

“People look out for each other in Gloucester,” he said. “If somebody needs some help, we just get together and do it. It’s all just very heartwarming.” What I hear him saying is that Gloucester is a town with a free an open economy. And yes, that is heartwarming.