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Thursday, November 20th, 2014

Lessons On Spending Responsibly

My latest column is now available in the November issue of Governing magazine. It’s called “Lessons from Kokomo on How to Spend Responsibly” and takes another look, obviously, at Kokomo. But my focus here is the intersection of fiscal responsibility and investment. I highlight not just Kokomo, where getting a handle on the budget enabled investment, but also Los Angeles, where losing control of it has resulted in serious infrastructure problems. Here’s an excerpt:

Kokomo can spend money on these items because it took care of fiscal business. Not all debt is bad, but in this case, by mostly resisting the urge to borrow, Kokomo will retain the ability to invest well into the future by not encumbering future cash flow. As a small industrial city, Kokomo still has challenges to be sure, but it appears to be on the right track.

Other cities are in different stages of this process. Consider Los Angeles, which is also making national news, this time for its crumbling infrastructure. The New York Times reported that it faces more than $8 billion in needed repairs just to bring its worst roads, sidewalks and water lines up to par.

Why can’t Los Angeles afford to invest in infrastructure? Because it allowed its budget to get out of control. Some blame this on the city’s fear of raising taxes, but L.A. is hardly a low-tax haven. Instead, as a report issued earlier by City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana notes, while revenues are anticipated to grow 4.4 percent — faster than national GDP — expenditures have been growing at an even faster rate.

Read the whole thing.

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Topics: Public Policy, Sustainability
Cities: Kokomo (Indiana), Los Angeles

Sunday, November 16th, 2014

The Ideology Driven Privatization Backlash

A couple of incidents recently highlight how many communities have taken a sharply negative turn when it comes to privatization. A look at the cases in question however, shows that the objections to it appear to be as much ideological as performance based.

In Indiana, a group of seven counties through which the Indiana Toll Road passes want to buy it themselves from the bankrupt operator and its bankers.

The Indiana Toll Road lease was an unambiguous win for the state of Indiana. Was it perfect? Of course not. But those seeking to portray it as a bad decision always have to cite some peripheral defect. They can’t talk about core matters like the roadway condition, which is in better shape than ever and now with electronic toll collection, nor its operations, which are solid. Nor have I ever seen a critical financial analysis that was remotely credible. (One study in an academic journal that got a lot of airplay used ridiculous discount rates in their analysis, including literally 0% in one of their primary scenarios. This is what they are reduced to in trying to undermine the deal’s logic).

The bid by these counties seems motivated more hostility than logic. La Porte County Commissioner David Decker says, “The nonprofit would not be beholden to shareholders who siphon all the money off. We want to put money back into the road.”

Let’s analyze this a bit. The road is bankrupt, so the shareholders aren’t “siphoning” anything off at this point. I suspect that Cintra and Macquarie (the original lessees) protected themselves well in this deal, however. I’m not crying for them. But the concessionaire did go belly up.

Then there’s the idea of putting the money back into the road. Where were these counties when the state was running the road and letting it deteriorate so badly? There were some truly decrepit stretches of highway, especially in Lake County. Where were all these counties back then? If the public sector is so much more responsive and attentive to public needs, why didn’t the state ever fix this when it owned it? Why didn’t the state ever install electronic toll collection? I started telling INDOT they should install this as far back as the O’Bannon administration, but nothing ever happened. It wasn’t until the privatization deal that money did indeed start getting invested back into improving the road.

Then there’s the counties’ proposed financial structure. The private company paid $3.9 billion and went broke. These counties think that they can pay $3.7-4.1 billion for it, and make a profit of $38-50 million per year even after they – get this – pay a private company to operate the road anyway. How is that supposed to work? Yes, they can issue tax exempt bonds at a lower interest rate. But they want to limit repayment only to the toll road revenues, so that will limit their rate savings. Also, they won’t be able to take advantage of the huge tax write-offs from depreciation and such that the private company had available. I’d have to see the details on this, but it’s quite a financial claim they are making. They are basically saying that they can buy the road back from the bankers and run it at a profit of $50M higher than the bankers could. (Remember, any profits the banks might actually make would surely factor into their sale price). That seems a bit dubious. If it’s really true, every county in American ought to think about turning themselves into a private equity fund to invest in infrastructure assets.

Then there was an article in the Guardian talking about Hamburg voters approving a measure to buy back their electric and gas utilities that were privatized a few years back, or reclaim them when the contracts end.

Again, let’s ask what the problem is. Has the private operator breached its covenants? Have they provided poor service? Have the prices been at issue? No, no, and no. The article talks about pricing as a factor in some “remunicipalizations” of utility service, but not here. Instead what we see is that the real driver is political:

In Hamburg, activists launched the Unser Hamburg, Unser Netz (Our Hamburg, Our Networks) campaign in 2010 after noticing that the city’s existing contracts with Vattenfall and E.On were set to expire. The campaign brought out a wide range of supporters: environmental groups said buying back the grids would give Hamburg more control over its energy systems, and make it possible to really drive the city’s Energiewende transition away from coal and nuclear power and towards renewable energy.
….
The motorways running in and out of Hamburg are lined with giant windmills, slowly churning the air, constant reminders of the country’s ambitious green goals. Shifting the city’s energy transition into higher gear was one of the key promises of remunicipalisation.

The referendum ballot proposed not only to take back the city’s energy grids, but to institute as a binding target “a socially just, democratically controlled and climate-friendly energy supply from renewable sources”.

It seems pretty obvious that the drive to buy back the utility was driven by greens, who hope to use political control to implement their preferred energy generation schemes. In short, it’s about ideology. The article quotes a professor saying that privatization itself is promoted for ideological reasons, but here we see de-privatization happening in the same way. A touch of the increasingly anti-infrastructure bias of the German electorate comes through as another ideological factor.

Lest you say “it’s about climate change, not ideology,” the policy response to climate change very much falls within the political and ideological sphere. The German greens are, as the article notes, anti-nuclear. The Green Party driven, legally mandated decommissioning of Germany’s zero emissions nuclear infrastructure is a big reason why the country is still constructing coal plants in the first place. That doesn’t seem very green to me.

I’ve not hesitated to rake bad privatization deals like the various parking meter leases over the coals as bad public policy. But in these cases we see moves to cancel privatization deals coming from a root of ideological bias, not the public interest.

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Topics: Public Policy, Transportation

Thursday, November 6th, 2014

Building the Responsive City

The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data Smart Governance
by Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford

Technology, and especially the use of data and analytics, has been transforming the way cities manage service delivery. Former Indianapolis mayor New York City deputy mayor Steve Goldsmith, and his colleague at Harvard Susan Crawford, recently wrote a book called “The Responsive City” looking at this technology revolution. I recently read the book and posted some thoughts in a review posted at City Journal. Here’s an excerpt:

The book chronicles more than just technology’s potential; it also highlights what some local governments have already achieved with innovative approaches. After several fires resulted in the deaths of five people, New York City built a system to identify buildings at high fire risk, using predictive models and integrating data from multiple sources. City inspectors are now aggressively targeting those buildings for upgrades. To fight its rat problem, Chicago is using data analytics to predict where rats will gather, instead of waiting for resident complaints. Boston has developed a civic customer-relationship management system, with mobile-device apps, to link residents more easily with city services. Mimicking the way that Yelp collects restaurant reviews, Washington, D.C. uses a website to solicit ratings of city services. Cities around the country are adopting open-data portals.

Goldsmith and Crawford are candid about the challenges facing their responsive-city vision. Progressive-era reforms designed to eliminate corruption also curtailed government employees’ discretion, leaving them with narrowly defined roles and limited ability to respond effectively to real-world problems. Rigid job descriptions, such as “temporary full-time permanent intermittent police officer,” are common in cities like New York, which has more than 2,000 such classifications. Procurement rules require that detailed specifications be prepared in advance, unlike in the private sector, where technology and other solutions are often developed iteratively. Government’s rigid contracting processes make it tough to respond to findings during development.

You can click over to read the entire thing

I also sat down with Steve Goldsmith recently to talk about the book, and some of the challenges and pitfalls of this technology-drive approach. If the audio embed doesn’t display for you, click over to listen on Soundcloud.

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Topics: Public Policy, Technology

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

Investing Cheap Money by Charles Marohn

[ Many of you have probably heard of the web site Strong Towns. If not, you should definitely check it out. They focus on the long term financial consequences of current development and transportation investment patterns. They also publish their content under a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike License. So I’m taking advantage of that to repost this piece by Strong Towns front man Charles Marohn – Aaron ]

Interest rates are at historically low levels while local governments have a huge backlog of infrastructure needs to address. It seems logical that this presents an opportunity for earnest city officials.

Yesterday’s post on domain dependence was a prelude to answering the question posed me last week on Facebook.

How can we best invest cheap money to sustain growth in the future and not squander this opportunity?

There are two types of transactions where cities are justified in taking on debt. The first I will call a “true investment” and the second I will call “legitimate cash flow”. This is true regardless of how cheap money is.

True Investment

In the public realm, we call a lot of things investments that really are not, a lot of things assets that are really liabilities. So when I say a “true investment” I am referring to an expenditure that has the following properties.

  1. The expenditure has the potential to lead to an improvement of the city’s financial position.
  2. That improvement is measurable in terms of dollars.
  3. The actual return in dollars is measured, accounted for and used to inform subsequent investments.

Note that this doesn’t preclude speculative investments, and I’ve indicated that I support a certain level of speculation. My public project portfolio for nearly every American city in 2014 would include many small projects spread out over a large area as opposed to one, two or a handful or large projects. I would also never borrow more money – in terms of term and payment amount – than my current cash flow could cover if the investment went bad.

I would never take on debt speculating on future growth if the repayment of that debt depended on the growth. Never. Cities are not private businesses, property owners aren’t shareholders. The local government has a responsibility to be prudent stewards of the public purse, not gamblers at the casino, regardless of how confident they are that the slots are loose.

Should we be using cheap money to make a true investment? I wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with that, and the cheapness of the money certainly lowers the threshold for success. I would be extra careful, however, to fight the impulse to ignore the need for a return on the investment simply because the money is cheap.

Legitimate Cash Flow

Most cities borrow money for cash flow purposes. In doing so, they are mistaking their insolvency problem for a simple cash flow problem.

Let me give an example. Let’s say a city has four streets. Each street lasts four years before it needs to be repaired. One street was built each year and so they are on a nice four-year maintenance rotation. If the city is solvent – if there is enough wealth in the community where the tax revenue can cover the city’s long term obligations – then there should never be a need for debt. Each year, each street produces 1/4 of the tax revenue needed to fix the street and after four years every street is fixed and the process starts over.

Cities don’t generally have their maintenance obligations so nicely staggered. Often they come in bunches, an echo of the hasty timeframe in which they were originally built. Let’s say that all four streets need to be maintained in the first year. In that case, the city could tax four times the normal amount the first year and nothing the last four OR they could take on debt in the first year to cover the project and then pay it back in the next three. (Note: Obviously this is very simplified and so I’ve not bothered with interest.)

That is a legitimate cash flow problem that the local government can solve with a judicious use of debt. I fully support it.

Let’s say, however, that all four streets need to be maintained in the first year but the city’s tax rate is only half of the prior example. In other words, the city is not collecting enough money from each street – there is not enough wealth there to collect – to cover the cost of maintenance. As in the second scenario, the city takes on debt to cover the maintenance cost but, when we get to the end of the fourth year and need to fix the streets again, they have not been able to pay off all that debt.

Scenario 3 is a case of confusing insolvency with a cash flow problem. The local government believes they have a cash flow problem – there’s plenty of wealth there, just not right now – but what they really have is an insolvency problem. They don’t have the money to maintain everything they’ve taken on. By taking on debt at this point (good interest rates or not), they are piling more obligations on top of the unfunded liabilities they already have. This is a recipe for disaster.

Here’s the scary thing: all cities that take on debt for infrastructure maintenance believe they have a cash flow problem. They believe this despite not having the actual analysis to determine whether or not this is true. My example is four streets over four years. Cities sometimes have hundreds of miles of streets with maintenance occurring over decades. You have to be pretty intentional, organized and disciplined if you want to discern your true financial status.

Most cities don’t. They want to believe they have a cash flow problem because it is convenient, because insolvency is too difficult to fathom, especially when everyone else appears to be doing the exact same thing. Could everyone be wrong? Could we all be insolvent? These two questions probably cost me a total of six years in the intellectual wilderness as I clung to the notion that what I was seeing and measuring could not possibly be true, that a wisdom greater than mine had to be at work that I hadn’t perceived.

While I’m not going to say that low interest rates are a bad thing (they absolutely wouldn’t be if they were real, not artificial), they have the desired effect when it comes to local governments: it induces them to borrow and spend more. This is my primary critique of our current monetary policy, and Federal Reserve intervention, in general: it assumes an underlying economic model that is functioning. When the economy slows or stalls, the theory says to create the liquidity needed to get it back going again. What if it is stalling because it’s broken? What if it shouldn’t go on? Short of total collapse, where is the painful financial feedback that is going to force a change?

Some would argue that this is why we need good policy. Sure, but the smartest minds at the time – from both sides of the political spectrum – believed that suburbanization was a good thing. Same with urban renewal. Same with the nationalization of automobile transport policy. What is a good policy and how can we ever have the confidence to put the overpowering weight of the U.S. economy behind what we think it is? And what if it is a good policy, but only to a degree? Is local nuance even possible with such a highly centralized approach?

The Growth Ponzi scheme has three predictable phases: growth, stagnation and then decline. During the growth phase, everyone is a genius as the new revenue pour in and all the maintenance liabilities are decades away. During stagnation, the debt climbs as we fail to deal with the insolvency problem, mistaking it for simple cash flow. When we are finally forced to deal with insolvency in the decline phase, we have to do it with a crushing debt burden already in hand. Unfortunately, this fate awaits a great number of our places.

So, how can we best invest cheap money? With a Strong Towns approach to debt centered on true investments which pay a measurable return and legitimate cash flow in a city that understands its true balance sheet.

This post originally appeared at Strong Towns on September 9, 2014.

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

The Urbanophile Interview: Portland Mayor Charlie Hales

I was out in Portland, Oregon last week and while there I sat down for an interview with Mayor Charlie Hales. We talked about the real Portland vs. the idea of Portland, the city’s industrial base, retrofitting suburban infrastructure, and a lot more. If the audio doesn’t display for you, click over to Soundcloud.

Mayor Charlie Hales. Image via Wikipedia

Here are some edited highlights of our conversation. For those who prefer reading to listening, a complete transcript is available.

Mayor Hales rejects the idea that we will have to strategically abandon infrastructure because the finances don’t add up:

My point here is that this is about political will. It is not inevitable or immutable that America is going watch its infrastructure decline. It’s a choice. It’s a bad choice to dither and do nothing. And it’s a good choice to step up and do something. And I think you’ll see more cities doing what we’re doing here in Portland. Which is to say, we’re going act locally, and then keep the pressure on Congress and the State House to do their part too.

Regarding how hard it really is to find a job in Portland:

Not hard. In fact, I think it’s 4.8% – the unemployment rate – among 25-34 year olds here – lower than New York, lower than a lot of places. We’re the 3rd greatest city in terms of college educated immigrants moving here deliberately. They move here, and then not long after, they find work. Or they create work by starting their own business because we’re a very entrepreneurial city as well. I did this in 1979. It’s not an original thing for Portland. In fact you could say it’s been happening since Lewis and Clark that we – that people immigrated here from elsewhere because they saw some opportunity here. We’ve been absorbing those people as they come to Portland. They find work. But that’s the value set of that 25-34 year old cohort. They care about quality of place, quality of life, and what they’re going do when they’re not working. And that doesn’t include, say, sitting in traffic in suburbia. So they like the idea of living in Portland, and they come here and try to make it work. And most of them do. Again, we have a better employment situation for those folks than New York City does. So it’s not true that young people come here and are stuck in jobs that they’re way over qualified for indefinitely.

About how the real Portland differs from the idea of Portland people have from the media:

Like all good caricatures, Portlandia makes fun of some things about us that are true. I mean, we do love localism, so Colin the Chicken is somebody that we would care about here in Portland. And we are relentlessly earnest about our values.

There some other ways that we don’t. We’re still an industrial city. We’re a big hands, port industrial city. We build boxcars and barges. We just cut the ribbon on the biggest dry dock in North America last weekend. So we employ a lot of welders and steel fitters and plumbers and pipe fitters, and all those hands-on trades. We build trucks here. We build boxcars. We make steel pipe. There’s a lot of traditional “old economy” industry here.

Another part of Portland that doesn’t show up in the caricature is…the other half of the neighborhoods that were half-baked suburbia when they got annexed into the city. And we’re trying to make them complete communities with a local economy in that neighborhood and those kind of services that you can walk to. And, oh yeah, in many cases, there aren’t even sidewalks, and there’s no neighborhood park. So, we’re spending a lot of effort and money on trying to retrofit those suburban parts of Portland, to not be physically identical to the old neighborhoods, but have those ingredients of a complete neighborhood that Portlanders like to see.

Sunday, October 19th, 2014

Lafayette, Indiana Is Having a Black Population Boom, Powered In Part By Migrants From Chicago

The Lafayette (Indiana) Journal and Courier just ran a major article from a four month investigation called “The Great Chicago Migration Myth” which attempts to debunk the idea that poor Chicago blacks, especially former CHA residents, are moving to Lafayette/Tippecanoe County.

The J&C seems to do a good job of pouring cold water on the CHA idea. But they use that to make a claim they didn’t actually prove, namely that low income blacks aren’t moving to Lafayette from Chicago. What’s more, the data shows that there is material black migration from Chicago to Lafayette, contradicting the clear implication of the article. Additionally, the J&C fails to note the critical context that regardless of origin, Lafayette has been experiencing a black population boom that exceeds even Hispanic growth on a percentage basis.

In sum, this article provides an incomplete and badly misleading view of black demographic change in Lafayette.

Background

Chicago demolished most of its high rise public housing complexes, prompting the obvious question of where the former residents ended up. I’ve been noticing news stories for several years suggesting that former CHA residents have been moving to places ranging from downtown Illinois to small town Iowa. I myself have heard credible reports from generally reliable people I know in public service who say they personally have seen an uptick in Chicagoans in their work.

It has long made me, and I know others, wonder: did Chicago attempt to effectively run its former black public housing residents out of town? I’ve tried to get many journalists who have written on Chicago’s demographics to investigate and get to the bottom of what’s really going on. Ed Zotti did a great series in the Chicago Reader covering some aspects of the issue (see part one, part two, and part three). But there are certainly a lot of open questions in my view and I’m surprised how little investigation I’ve seen of it.

The J&C story is the first part of at least two installments that attempts to do just this sort of comprehensive analysis from the standpoint of Lafayette, Indiana. Greater Lafayette is not the community I would have chosen as my test case. As home to Purdue University, there’s a lot of migration that’s driven by the inflow and outflow of students that can obscure the non-university trend. But obviously from the J&C standpoint it’s their community and so of course they pick it for their work.

Their own words speak for themselves:

Call it the Great Chicago Myth. For decades, the belief has been ubiquitous in Greater Lafayette that thousands of low-income African-American families packed up their belongings and headed down Interstate 65 straight to Lafayette, bringing with them rising crime and worsening drug problems and higher burdens on local social services….The Chicago Myth turns out to be completely untrue. A comprehensive four-month Journal & Courier analysis of data culled from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Chicago and Lafayette housing authorities and other sources shows that, while there has been some migration, relatively few people leaving Chicago end up in Tippecanoe County.

How accurate a portrayal does this provide?

Where Did Chicago’s Blacks Go?

I haven’t personally looked into former CHA resident migration, but Ed Zotti and the J&C convince me that this is not a material contributor to Chicago’s black population decline or to migration elsewhere. I’m sold on that point. However, Chicago has in fact lost a lot of black residents.

It’s well known that the city of Chicago lost 177,401 black residents during the 2000s. But as with out-migrants generally, the default assumption for most of them would be that they moved to the the suburbs and didn’t leave the region. However, the Chicago metro area as a whole saw a decline in black population of 45,689. Considering that there was surely natural increase (more births than deaths) in the regional black population, this implies a huge net out-migration. They had to go somewhere.

As it happens, the Census tells us where they went. I’m leaving metro area analysis for another day. But let’s take a look at the map of net migration of blacks in Cook County, Illinois. Red indicates net outflow, blue net inflow.

chicago-black-migration
Net migration of black residents from and to Cook County, Illinois. Net in-migration in blue (positive), net out-migration in red (negative). Source: 2006-2010 ACS via Telestrian

Unsurprisingly, when you lose a lot of people, they move to lots of places. There are a number of net recipient counties for former black residents of Cook County. Many of them are in Illinois though not all. As you can see, Tippecanoe County is one of the recipient counties.

Are There More Blacks in Lafayette?

When people make statements like “There are a lot of poor black former CHA residents moving in here” there’s an embedded chain of reasoning that goes something like this:

There are more black people in Lafayette.
Those black people are coming from Chicago.
Those Chicagoans are poor.
Those poor people are former CHA residents.

The last statement may well be false without invalidating the others. I’m buying what the J&C is selling on that one. But let’s look at the other ones, starting with the first. Has the black population of Greater Lafayette been increasing? Yes, and by a lot too.

There were 3,752 black residents in Tippecanoe County in 2000. By 2010 that had nearly doubled to 6,913. This was a bigger increase on a total and percentage basis than any other small industrial county in Indiana. By 2013 it had added another 1,638 black residents (23.7% growth). This was the fifth highest total increase in black residents of any county in the state – this in a county that in 2000 had the 14th largest black population. Again, that growth outpaced all peer counties. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that a 128% population growth in black population since 2000 qualifies as a veritable boom, especially by the standards of slow-growth Indiana.

It’s worth comparing the trajectory of Tippecanoe County to Bloomington’s Monroe County, home of Indiana University, so I pulled some statistics into the following chart:*

Tippecanoe County (Lafayette) Monroe County (Bloomington)
Total Population
April 1, 2000 148,955 120,563
April 1, 2010 172,780 137,974
July 1, 2013 180,174 141,888
Total Growth (2000-2013) 31,219 21,325
Percentage Growth (2000-2013) 21.0% 17.7%
Black Population
April 1, 2000 3,752 3,615
April 1, 2010 6,913 4,491
July 1, 2013 8,551 4,898
Total Growth (2000-2013) 4,799 1,283
Percentage Growth (2000-2013) 127.9% 35.5%
Black Population Share 2000 2.5% 3.0%
Black Population Share 2013 4.0% 3.3%
Jobs
Total Growth (2000-2013) 1,420 2,057
Percentage Growth (2000-2013) 1.8% 3.5%

As you can see, these communities started off with roughly similar black populations. In fact, Bloomington had a higher black population share. But while Bloomington’s black population has grown only moderately more than overall population growth, Lafayette’s has grown at a substantially faster rate.

I should note that both of these towns have very small black populations compared to bigger cities. But that makes growth more easily visible as well, similar to how many small towns have noticed (and reacted) in the case of even limited Hispanic migration.

I put the jobs number in to see if there might be a pull there. Bloomington has actually done better on jobs. But this shows right away one potential root cause of anxiety over out of town migrants: job competition. Lafayette had added over 31,000 people since 2000 but only 1,420 jobs. Not all of those new residents are in the theoretical labor force pool, but I’ve got to believe more than 1,420 of them are. When you’re only adding 1,400 jobs, it doesn’t take a lot of migrants to make a competitive difference for job seekers. I think this is a big factor nationally in the public souring on immigration reform and it wouldn’t surprise me if something similar were at work here.

Whatever the case, it’s true that Lafayette has seen a significant increase in black population. So the reverse of the Chicago question applies here: where did they come from?

How Many of Lafayette’s Black Residents Are Coming From Chicago?

The J&C uses the Census migration data figures to argue that few Chicagoans of any type move to Lafayette. However, the Census Bureau publishes place to place migration by race from the five year ACS survey, so let’s consult that source.

Migration by race is provided in the 2006-2010 ACS through a special county to county migration data release. You can easily browse it through an interactive online map.

According to this data, 127 net black residents moved from Cook County to Tippecanoe County. That doesn’t sound like a lot. However:

  • This is the third highest destination in Indiana for net black migrants from Cook County. Only Lake County (a Chicago suburban area) and Elkhart County ranked higher.
  • No other county in the United States sent as many net black residents to Tippecanoe County as Cook County did. The second highest county is Lake County, Indiana, which again is also part of Chicagoland.

Other than third place Marion County (Indianapolis), nobody else even comes close to sending as many net black residents to Lafayette as Chicago does.

I should note that Tippecanoe is far down the list of net recipient counties from Cook. So from a Chicago-centric perspective, Lafayette is not a major destination for departing Chicago blacks, who are dispersing across many different destinations. Yet the Chicago region has nearly 10 million people and is losing a lot of black residents. Certainly no small city like Lafayette could ever be the destination for more than a small percentage of those leaving a near megacity region like Chicago.

The university is a major wildcard. You would expect Chicago to be both a big source and destination for Purdue University’s student body, and certainly some of them must be black. Looking at our comparator, there were a net of 38 black Chicago migrants to Monroe County (Indiana University). So Lafayette is seeing a higher migration, but is also geographically closer keep in mind. I took a quick look at other Big Ten school counties and there’s huge variability so I’m not sure what we can say with regards to those schools without data from the universities themselves. The homes of Wisconsin and Iowa are the top net exporters of black residents to Chicago, for example.

To be sure, there’s statistical noise in this ACS survey data. And we only have one survey with race based migration available. The data is definitely limited here. So keep that in mind. But this does show a flow from Chicago.

The J&C did not use this data set for some reason, but relied on the overall migration levels (not broken down by race) between the cities. Regardless, we have a fundamentally different understanding of how to interpret the meaning of the survey data. I generally don’t work with the 5yr ACS, but that’s the only survey in which place to place migration is provided. (The IRS data is not broken down by race).

The J&C treats the migration values as the total migration over the five years of the survey. I actually called the Census Bureau and spoke to someone in their Journey to Work and Migration Statistics Branch that compiles this data. I asked them specifically if the migration values should be treated as a five year total or as a proxy for average annual migration. They told me the latter.

This person could have misspoken but if that’s correct, then the 127 figure would translate into 127 people per year – nearly 1,300 people over the course of a decade. That’s a material percentage of the total black population in town. That’s especially true if we are looking only vs. the increase in black population attributable to net in-migration.

So there does appear to be some data to indicate that part of the increase in the black population of Lafayette is due to migration from Chicago. Also, if the J&C wants to say that Chicago migration is not a material contributor to the robust black population growth in Lafayette, their claim would be a lot stronger if they documented where this increase actually is coming from.

Are Black Chicago Migrants to Lafayette Low Income?

Obviously if any sizable group of people move from one place to another, you’d expect some income diversity and some lower income residents. The J&C actually highlights specific people who made the move from Chicago and who have incomes low enough to qualify for public assistance (e.g., Section 8) though it doesn’t identify their race.

The Census also publishes net migration by household income level, which you can view in the same flow tool I linked to before. I didn’t look at all tiers, but I checked out the bottom few. Keep in mind these aren’t sliced by race. This is overall migration. Unlike in the race data, which appears exhaustive, this data has some suppression for privacy reasons.

According to that data, at the lowest level only a tiny net migration to Lafayette is reported – two people, which I suspect is within the margin of error of the survey. A couple of the higher tiers up actually show migration towards Chicago (87 in the $25K-35K range, for example).

Additionally, the J&C reports that they identified every single Section 8 permit that was transferred between Chicagoland and Lafayette, and found that there was actually a net flow towards Chicago. This data is also not classified by race, but is consistent with what I found in income migration.

So there does not appear to a flow of low income residents into Lafayette when race is not considered based on this survey data (which has similar limitations to the race data I gave above).

I would say based on the data sources I have that there’s no evidence that the black migrants from Chicago to Lafayette are disproportionately low income, though I don’t have a direct stat that speaks to the matter. As I said earlier, it seems pretty clear that there aren’t many former public housing residents (if any).

Conclusion

The J&C article takes what appears to be a fairly strong claim – that former Chicago public housing residents are not moving to Lafayette – and uses that to try to bolster the far weaker, though not implausible, claim that there aren’t low income blacks moving from Chicago to Lafayette. And to imply that basically no blacks at all are really moving from Chicago to Lafayette – something the available evidence contradicts. What’s more, it completely buries the lede on the strong growth in the local black population there.

I think this piece shows how black Americans are, as Ellison observed, simultaneously the most visible and invisible population in the country. The black population in Greater Lafayette has grown by 128% since 2000. That’s faster growth than even the Hispanic population (up 82%). Though the black population grew on a smaller base, the total adds weren’t that far off (4,799 black vs. 6,451 Hispanic).

In a community the size of Lafayette in a slow growth part of the country, that’s Big Deal growth, but it isn’t mentioned in the piece and I wasn’t able to find anything else written on it with a quick google. You can believe if a few thousand of a more exotic minority showed up, it would have been noticed. (In Indianapolis, for example, it’s news article stuff when a few thousand Burmese refugees or Sikhs arrive on the scene).

Statistics about black growth and migration from Chicago almost seem to be treated as embarrassing when in fact it could be something worth celebrating. See my headline for a potentially different way the J&C could have told the story. (Also look at how Amos Brown covers the census estimates release in Indianapolis).

I’ve observed before that black Chicago is not really part of the future success strategy of the city. Its black residents seem to be increasingly agreeing as they are heading for the exits. This creates a significant addressable talent market for savvy cities to target. Everybody and their brother is going after the same narrow demographics of 20-something app coders, artists, etc. So there are opportunities for people who spot an underserved market. As I noted less than a month after starting this blog all those years ago:

For the city that starts taking its black community seriously, and engages with it not just around modest goals but no less than in making that community a major force pushing the city forward, I believe there are huge competitive advantages to be reaped.

I’d still say that today.

A lot of small Midwest cities have an opportunity here to lure Chicago’s departing black middle class before it moves somewhere else. The industries so many of these places are targeting like transportation and logistics are always complaining about labor supply challenges. Why not, for example, go show black truck drivers from Chicago the quality of life your town has on offer? IIRC, that’s exactly what brought of those Sikhs to Indianapolis. I seem to remember reading that many of them were truck drivers in California who took one look at what kind of house their salary would buy in Greenwood and took the plunge.

But in order to do that, you first have to perceive your black community as an asset. That’s something I hope Lafayette and its newspaper can achieve.

* The decennial census uses a different racial classification scheme for race than the population estimates. I pulled “Black Only” population from each but I want to caveat that these are not strictly apples to apples.

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Topics: Demographic Analysis, Public Policy
Cities: Chicago

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

Teardowns Are Transforming the American Post-War Suburban Landscape by Suzanne Lanyi Charles

[ The London School of Economics has an American themed blog called USA Policy and Politics. This piece on teardowns originally appeared there and I’m grateful for their permission to repost it – Aaron.

Suzanne Charles 80x108In many older American suburbs single-family housing is being demolished and replaced with new, larger single-family housing. “Teardowns” are dramatically transforming suburban neighborhoods. Using the inner-ring suburbs as a case study, Suzanne Lanyi Charles finds that teardowns occur in a variety of places ranging from modest middle-income neighborhoods to very highly affluent neighborhoods that often share a common proximity to well regarded schools. Teardowns began in areas with high property values, and as house prices rose rapidly through the first half of the 2000s, they expanded into adjacent, less affluent neighborhoods, contracting again at the end of the decade.

As older suburbs have aged, some have begun to experience declining populations, investment, and incomes, increasing crime, and shrinking tax bases. However, at the same time, others are receiving a significant amount of reinvestment. In some inner-ring suburbs the single family housing stock is being transformed through “teardowns”—the process when an older single-family housing is demolished and larger single-family housing is built in its place. An oft-cited teardown scenario is one in which an older, often architecturally significant house in a leafy, very affluent suburb is demolished and replaced. However, a more nuanced redevelopment process has been occurring in inner-ring suburbs. Teardowns occur in a variety of neighborhoods and manifest differently in different places, presenting varying implications for inner-ring suburban neighborhoods.

Though not ubiquitous, teardowns have had a substantial impact on many suburban neighborhoods. Rates of teardowns in the inner-ring suburbs of Chicago range up to 17 percent per census block group and are primarily confined to areas north, northwest, and southwest of the city of Chicago. (See Figure 1) In 99 census block groups, over 4 percent of single-family housing was redeveloped, and twenty census block groups experienced redevelopment of over 8 percent of single-family housing. However, over 60 percent of the census block groups (which include 56 percent of the housing stock) did not have any single-family residential redevelopment whatsoever between 2000 and 2010.

Figure 1 – Housing redevelopment rates in suburban Chicago

Charles Fig 1

Suburban teardowns are often discussed as primarily occurring in historically wealthy neighborhoods. In neighborhoods with high property values, a prime teardown candidate is often the smallest, oldest, and least expensive house on the block. The house is demolished and replaced with a house in keeping with the rest of the neighborhood in terms of size and quality. But during the past decade, high rates of teardowns have occurred in a group of inner-ring neighborhoods that are more diverse in terms of property values, household incomes, and housing type. Figure 2 illustrates a teardown in a modest, middle-income suburb in which the rebuilt house is substantially larger and more expensive than its neighbors.

Figure 2 – Results of a teardown in middle income suburb in Chicago

Charles Fig 2

Teardowns often occur in the wealthiest suburban municipalities, but they also occur at equally high rates in more modest neighborhoods in terms of household incomes and house prices. One thing that these neighborhoods have in common is that they are primarily located in very highly regarded school districts. Teardowns occur in neighborhoods spanning a wide range of middle-class neighborhoods; however they are not racially and ethnically diverse. These neighborhoods include residents employed in high-income, white-collar occupations as well as in middle-income, blue-collar occupations, but they are predominately white and non-Hispanic.

In many areas, a contagion-like effect takes hold, leading to the clustering of teardowns. Several identifiable clusters of teardowns occurred throughout the inner-ring suburbs of Chicago. (See Figure 3) (See here for methodological details as to how these clusters were identified). In general, these clusters of teardowns first appeared in places with the highest incomes and house values and the most highly ranked school districts. As house prices rose rapidly during the first half of the 2000-10 decade, teardowns continued apace and even accelerated in many affluent neighborhoods, while simultaneously expanding into less affluent neighborhoods.

Figure 3 – Clusters of teardowns in inner ring suburbs of Chicago

Charles Fig 3

Teardowns were not observed in neighborhoods where previous disinvestment had occurred, unlike examples of redevelopment and gentrification in central cities. In fact, according to local real estate developers and municipal planners, teardowns occurred in neighborhoods in which original property values were stable or increased prior to the appearance of teardown clusters. Thus, suburban teardowns reveal a redevelopment process that is quite different from that which has been observed in early examples of central city redevelopment and gentrification.

According to local real estate developers and municipal planners, several of the first properties to be redeveloped in moderate-income neighborhoods were not speculative, developer-driven ventures—demolished, rebuilt, and later offered for sale—but were built for particular clients. Having accumulated wealth or perhaps gained easier access to financing, but not wanting to move to another area, these homeowners chose to rebuild a larger house for themselves in the neighborhood where they already lived. These teardowns set a precedent for developers to build much larger, new speculative housing in several of the more modest neighborhoods.

Developers also revealed that they preferred to undertake teardowns in areas where ones had already taken place, leading to the spatial clustering or contagion effect. They cite the increased profitability of these latter projects, as well as the decreased financial risk once the local real estate market demonstrated that it would accept the more expensive redeveloped properties as motivating factors. In some cases, developers created their own clusters of redevelopment by undertaking several teardowns in one neighborhood. Many undertook these projects in the neighborhoods in which they lived, bolstering their reputations as real estate developers by demonstrating their own investment in the neighborhood.

Teardowns have had very different physical impacts in different types of neighborhoods. Teardowns with the lowest ratio of new to original house floor area are located primarily in very affluent suburbs. The highest ratios—where the redeveloped house is over 3.5 times larger than the original house—occur in many places with moderate property values and household incomes. (See Figure 4) In neighborhoods of originally homogeneous postwar housing, the new housing was priced significantly higher than the original houses, and higher than the original residents of the neighborhood could likely afford. The price of a redeveloped house is typically at least three times that of the original house. In originally middle-income neighborhoods with moderately priced housing, teardown clusters have resulted in significant overall changes in the physical form of the built environment.

Figure 4 –Floor ratios for new vs. original houses in suburban Chicago

Charles Fig 4

Teardowns occur in a range of suburban neighborhoods and manifest differently in different places, presenting varying implications for inner-ring suburban neighborhoods. They are often controversial, resulting in the replacement of older housing with that which is more in keeping with currently popular trends in house size, features, and style, attracting new higher income households, raising property values, and creating additional municipal revenue through increased property tax assessments. And they change in the physical character of neighborhoods and reduce the stock of smaller, affordable (or mid-priced) housing. Local policy makers and residents have an interest in better understanding teardowns occurring in older inner-ring suburbs in order to equip themselves to address it proactively.

This article is based on the paper, “The spatio-temporal pattern of housing redevelopment in suburban Chicago, 2000-2010” in Urban Studies.

Featured image credit: Bill Rosenfeld (Flickr, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0)

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USApp– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

Shortened URL for this post: http://bit.ly/1rfjsTk

______________________

About the author

Suzanne Lanyi Charles is an Assistant Professor in the School of Architecture at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. Dr. Charles’s scholarly interests include residential redevelopment and neighborhood change with a particular interest in the changing suburban landscape. Her current research examines physical, social, and economic changes in postwar suburban neighborhoods. Her research has received research grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Real Estate Academic Initiative at Harvard University.

This post originally appeared on October 7, 2014 in the London School of Economics USAPP blog.

Sunday, October 5th, 2014

The Decline of the Midwest, the Rise of the South

The New York Times ran an article last week that’s nominally about football, but really gives insight into the decline of the Midwest and the rise of the South. Called “As Big Ten Declines, Homegrown Talent Flees,” this piece ties in perfectly with my recent essay on the differing social states of the Midwest and South. The NYT’s money quote says it all:

The SEC sold excellence. The Big Ten sold tradition.

Ironically, it is the formerly stigmatized “backwoods” South that has embraced excellence while the former industrial champion of the Midwest has spurned it. I don’t think that Midwesterners understand how much things have changed in the South. I hear the same stereotypical view of the South that might have had a lot of truth decades ago but have changes substantially. For example, those who think it is both a good thing and bad have quipped that Indiana is like an extension of the South into the Midwest. I don’t think so.

For example, Charlotte built a light rail system. Dallas has poured a billion dollars into a downtown arts district. Atlanta has a multi-billion infill strategy around its former Belt Line railroad. Nashville eliminated downtown parking minimums and implemented a form based code. South Carolina has its German style apprenticeship program. North Carolina built Research Triangle Park – in 1959. Southern cities like Atlanta have proudly claimed and built success around their black heritage. And Charlotte’s Chamber of Commerce CEO said, “To understand Charlotte, you have to understand our ambition. We have a serious chip on our shoulder. We don’t want to be No. 2 to anybody.” Outside of Chicago, does anybody in the Midwest talk like that?

Sure, there are bits and pieces here and there in the Midwest that speak to excellence. But they are the anomalies in a region that has retrogressed. Whereas in the South they’ve massively elevated their game in the last 40 years and are working hard to keep getting better. Sure, low costs and taxes play a role in their success. Climate and the universality of air conditioning as well. But they aren’t content to rest on just that. They want to get better. Meanwhile the Midwest is regressing towards what the South used to be such as, for example, by turning paved roads back to gravel because they can’t afford the maintenance.

The NYT piece brings up an interesting factor driving the rise of the SEC vs. the Big Ten, namely the shift in underlying population ratios over time: “An instructive comparison is Michigan and Georgia. In 1960, Michigan had twice Georgia’s population; in 1990, it was nearly one and a half times as big; today, their populations are roughly equivalent.”

The decline in Midwest population and economic heft brings with it a price that has to be paid. It’s showing up in the football world today. But it’s sure to hit the academic prowess of the Midwest’s major state schools as well. How long can these places maintain their relative rankings of excellence without the financial firepower to play in the big leagues? There’s more inertia on the academic side, but don’t think it won’t eventually happen here as well. The same is true in many other aspects of civic life. Even mighty Chicago has nearly bankrupted itself in its efforts to keep up with other global cities.

The Big Ten obviously saw the writing on the wall and decided to expand outside the region. I dislike this for reasons of, naturally, tradition. But it’s a rational response to a declining marketplace. Similarly, the Cleveland Orchestra established a Miami residency in the pursuit of cash to keep its artistic excellence intact. Might some of these institutions at some point become Midwest in name only? Time will tell.

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

Detroit Water City

Detroit’s bankruptcy judge just ruled that he can’t halt water shutoffs in the city. I make the argument that Detroit should continue with its shutoff program in my latest piece at City Journal called “Detroit Water City.”

To be sure the process was bungled out of the gate. The city first should have started with commercial accounts, for example. But in a country where we have food stamps, Medicaid, Section 8 and a slew of other poverty programs up to an including so-called “Obama phones,” does anyone really believe we never thought that poor people needed water? Of course those with bona fide hardships should get a repayment plan option and assistance where necessary. But those complaining don’t seem interested in validating actual need. The Detroit Water Project, for example, which allows donors to pay overdue water bills on behalf of Detroit residents, doesn’t even ask about whether or not the recipient is in need. It specifically boasts, with emphasis, that there’s “no paperwork required.”

As I put it in the piece:

What Detroit’s citizens need most from their government is well-functioning public services. A water utility with 50 percent delinquencies is a reflection of a city that has failed its basic responsibilities. Fixing DWSD is but one of the many changes necessary to restore Detroit—but if city officials don’t have the stomach to collect long-overdue water bills, how will they undertake tougher reforms?

Click through to read the whole thing.

Also at City Journal, Steve Eide has an article sounding a note of optimism about Detroit, reminding us of the state of the South Bronx in the 1970s. It’s called “Lessons From a Catastrophe.” Here’s an excerpt:

The most important lesson that Detroit can derive from the South Bronx’s experience is that things can get better. Many despaired over the South Bronx’s future during the 1970s out of conviction that New York City was ungovernable. How could a city incapable of preventing 14-year-olds from defacing subway cars be expected to revive a neighborhood resembling post-World War II Berlin? But the skeptics were wrong, as more effective government—as opposed to simply less or more—proved central to New York’s epic crime decline and many other municipal improvements. As encouraging as the news is about its downtown, we’ll know Detroit has turned a corner when local government has shed its reputation for dysfunction in the eyes of independent observers and, even more importantly, local taxpayers.

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

Neighborhood Poverty Dynamics

Carol Coletta is now with the Knight Foundation, where she’s started up a podcast series called “Knight Cities.”

Her most recent episode is an interview with economist Joe Cortright about a study he did about the evolution of poor neighborhoods in America. This is an important, if depressing, study in which he looked at how poverty changed in city neighborhoods at the census tract level from 1970 to 2000.

I’ll use the cover art embed so you can put the face to the voice. If the embed doesn’t display for you, click over to Soundcloud.

By the way, Cortright also posted a rebuttal to the NYT Magazine piece on Portland.

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