Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Social segregation … in schools and crime …

  Yesterday I argued for a assigning some blame to social segregation in the mortgage-backed financial crisis.  Today, I relate two other stories from the American scene that highlight the role of social segregation, which is often fostered by our exclusive land use laws.  In a recent edition of the Atlantic Monthly, Any Waldman reported intelligently in popping popular narratives surrounding the “Jena Six” and racial politics in Louisiana; she reports on the racial gerrymandering that keeps most blacks in the area out of the city boundaries. 
   Another story, by Matt Miller, in the same issue argues that the leading federal education law, No Child Left Behind, has failed in large part by allowing individual states to set their own standards for achievement.  His proposed solution?  A uniform set of national standards, which would butt against both traditional conservative dislike of Washington-imposed solutions and liberal distrust of testing to assess educational quality.  But a national system would help in the battle for spending and other forms of equality in our socially segregated school systems.

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September 30, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, September 29, 2008

Social segregation and the financial crisis …

   How could it be that some unwise mortgage loans made during a time of national prosperity threaten a collapse of the American financial system?  There is, of course, plenty of blame to go around.  But today I want to highlight the role of social segregation –- segregation both allowed and fostered by our land use laws –- in the financial disaster.      

Housestreet    The mainstream media tends to highlight the risky loans “urged” on families who couldn’t afford them, especially because of complicated loan terms that increased payments beyond the borrower’s reach.  The whispers of a correlation between subprime loans and members of racial minority groups occasionally pops up in an obnoxiously worded comment on Fox News (see the story here) or in some oddly muted stories about lenders “targeting” minorities (see here). These characterizations fit easily into simple political attacks.  But a truth is, at least in some big metro areas, a significant problem (among many others, including the stupidity of lenders and those of bought collaterized mortgage packages) appears to have been that many borrowers were not as careful as they should have been, and that a disproportionate number of these borrowers were members of racial minority groups.

   In Prince William County, Virginia, a once-booming exurb of Washington, for example, anecdotes abound about Latino immigrants who apparently failed to comprehend the details of their complicated mortgage loans.  Foreclosure notices have arrived at about the same time as the county’s legal efforts to discourage illegal immigrants –- or any Latinos, some critics say –- from staying in the county.  Once again, there is plenty of blame to go around, but surely a significant share belongs to the social segregation that continues to plague the nation.  Isolated by land use laws and social politics, many borrowers failed to hold the language skills, the healthy skepticism of complicated contracts, and checklist of cautionary restraints that American families traditionally have held.  And unfortunately, the fallout from the subprime mortgage crisis may only to make it harder for minority families to get decent loans and to break through the barriers of social segregation.         

  Tomorrow: more vignettes from social segregation in America …

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September 29, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Why not a landmark? Yankee Stadium and elsewhere …

Yankeestadium1957    In many American cities, any famous and historic building that was more than 80 years ago, even if it had been remodeled thirty years ago, wouldn’t be torn down. Why?  Because it would be designated an historic landmark, even if its owner didn’t want the designation.  So why wasn’t Yankees Stadium, which hosted its final game last night, made a landmark?  I’ve wondered this, and here’s the New York Times' less-than-definitive answer.  Once can speculate that the owners didn’t want the designation, and the city didn’t push it on a building that is useful only as a baseball stadium, but one that is outmoded in an age that demands maximum luxury and profits from such a venue.  Surely the city, which contributed to the cost of the new stadium complex, wanted the old building to disappear, even though some shed a tear. 
   What’s the lesson from this?  Perhaps the lesson is that not all historic designations make sense, and that sometimes a building simply outlives its usefulness and demolition should be allowed.  And not just for plans that will bring a lot of tax revenue and publicity to the city government …

September 22, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Of billboards and beautification ….

   In a week in which the lines between private business and the government became blurrier than ever, it’s worth thinking about the line between land boundaries.  Although we often think of property boundaries as being absolute, we know that one sometimes can cross the line without violating the law, as polluters one.  But what about “sight lines”:  Do or should certain property owners have a “vested” Billboardold right to have a view of another location?  Or, should a business venture have a vested right to have its business sighted by the public?  What if government is doing the action that blocks the view?  In Florida, the state legislature has enacted a law that prohibits government “beatification projects” with trees that block the view of an existing billboard.  (The provision is entitled “Vegetation Management,” Fla. Stat. sec. 479.106.)  And in Osceola, the local government was ordered by the state transportation authorities to cut down certain trees that blocked “view zones” of billboards.  Now, I have never been a rabid billboard-hater; some billboards in fact provide visual interest.  But if one constructs a billboard, as with any land use, isn’t the usual rule that one takes the chance that something else may be built next door, in accordance with existing local land use laws, even if it blocks the view?

September 19, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Land use law and the Gulf of Mexico, today and tomorrow …

   “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”  Many beachfront communities along the Gulf of Mexico have in the past few years experienced hurricane devastation that is all-too Galveston1900hurricane predictable, based on the history of colossal storms hitting the area.  In 1900, a massive hurricane caused an estimated 6000 deaths in Galveston (then the biggest city in Texas) –- arguably the worst natural disaster in American history.  As a result, much of development in south Texas moved inland to the city of Houston.  But the allure of the coast remained strong in a recreational age, and life in coastal Galveston was once again devastated last week.  Only better advance warning avoided a large loss of life.
   Should government use its powers of land use law to prevent people from living on vulnerable coasts?  As elsewhere, authorities in Texas are debating whether to discourage rebuilding along the barrier islands of southeast Texas.  Advocates of restrictive construction policies argue that even buying up land use rights now might prove, in the long run, to be cheaper than paying for reconstruction and relief in the future.  So why does government so rarely do this?  One reason is that it is easier to get government and taxpayers to accept payments to people who have been hit by hurricane damage, than it is to pay people to avoid by being hit by such damage in the future, especially when the date of the next decimating hurricane is so uncertain.  Perhaps this is an inevitable result of human nature and human politics.  And it ensures that billions of taxpayer dollars will flow toward rebuilding along the Gulf –- perhaps not until 2108, perhaps as soon as next year ….

September 16, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Lessons from the memorial process …

Wtc2001    A depressing repetition each September 11 is a story about how the slow progress, or lack of progress, of the rebuilding at the former World Trade Center site in Manhattan.  Here’s a story from NPR today, along with companion stories about greater progress made with regard to memorials in Boston and outside the Pentagon.  Although one should tread cautiously in any comments about the handling of post-9-11 action, one possible lesson to learn from the quagmire since 2001 in New York is that a land use policy that seeks to achieve consensus from all “stakeholders” is bound to more difficult than it first may seem. 

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September 11, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, September 8, 2008

Making future fannies and freddies think twice …

   The federal government’s takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac may do some short-term good in “reassuring financial markets,” we are told, with the result that housing credit may be loosened somewhat, meaning that fewer Americans will lose their homes in foreclosure and that more Americans will be able to buy a home over the next couple of years.
    But at what cost?  While populist politicians repeat platitudes about “making sure this doesn’t reward fat cats,” a far bigger concern is the effect that such bailouts, as well as the precedent of trying to save Bear Stearns, may have on the psychology of private executives in the financial world.  If such companies are indeed “too important to fail,” we should worry mightily that the managers of other large companies will recognize this and engage in risky behavior (often in order to give themselves short-term gains), with the knowledge that the government stands behind them.
    Here’s an idea that I first heard from George Will many years ago and that has been repeated elsewhere, including by Martin Hutchinson this summer:  Executives of bailed out companies should be treated as if they were government employees, with CEOs making at most the top federal pay (around $200K per year) and other executives making less.  Such a pay cut would make a manager think twice about putting the company at risk of a federal bailout.
   What?  You say that executives would simply resign en masse immediately rather than accept such paltry salaries?  Well, perhaps we could condition a bailout on their returning some of their big money returns over the past few years.  This would impose an unwise cautionary fear on executives, you say?  Gimme a break, it’s not often that one gets to play the populist! …

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September 8, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The roller coaster of preservation laws …

    Should government pay special attention to the effect of land use laws on distinctive private land uses?  Should government act affirmatively to try to preserve these distinctive land uses?
    Today brings a sad announcement:  The operator of Astroland, the unique beachfront amusement Coneyisland_2 park on Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York, has announced that it will close the business for good this weekend.  Astroland, which opened in the outer-space-besotted America of 1962, offers vintage rides and bizarre carnival acts.  But this kind of entertainment is no longer as popular as it once was, and some complained that both the city and the owner of the land might prefer more high-income-oriented land uses.  The operator reportedly complained that it was unable to get more than a one-year lease.  Government officials are already acting to encourage Astroland to stay.   
   If your image of Coney Island is the famous Cyclone roller coaster (operated by Astroland for many years), worry not:  it is a designated historic landmark and won’t be closing.

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September 4, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

While Gustav misses, the rebuilding from Katrina remains off target …

  While we can be very thankful that hurricane Gustav did not batter Louisiana and Mississippi nearly as badly as Katrina did three years ago, the anniversary also brought some assessment of the government Neworleanskatrina land use projects that were adopted after the feeling of shame over government failings in the days immediately after Katrina.  Both the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the New York Times printed stories that were highly critical of the multi-billion-dollar federally funded project that was supposed to pay for Louisiana residents who lacked decent insurance to return and rebuild their homes.  The chief problem has been that the state government has imposed so many bureaucratic hurdles and delays –- in large part to avoid fraud, always a concern in Louisiana –- that the money simply has been too slow for most former residents.  Those who could pay to return have done so, and many who hoped to rely on Road Home assistance have found the bureaucracy quite maddening.
  This story offers a lesson for proposals to help those in mortgage crises and for other federal land use assistance plans.

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September 2, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)