Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Marion Barry and the missed opportunity for eradicating (or at least systematically addressing) poverty East of the River

While most of the articles on the death of Marion Barry have discussed his personal and professional failures, the best of the obituaries highlighted his early efforts and successes--a bus fare strike, advocacy for home rule, being on the school board, etc. as well as successes during his first administration. His biggest achievement was black empowerment (also see "Black Power and the Pyrrhic Victory" from Corner Side Yard).

Although the articles also attribute the success of U Street and H Street today to moving DC government agencies to those locations during his mayoralty, which is an assertion that I have disagreed with for a long time ("It's time to retire the old saw about the Reeves Center being a great economic development contribution to U Street," "The community development approach and the revitalization of DC's H Street corridor: congruent or oppositional approaches?").

The old phrase about never speaking ill of the dead makes it difficult to sit back and do a sober assessment of Marion Barry's career, although I would say that the Post's obituary in yesterday's paper did so ("Marion Barry's death stuns D.C. politicians and residents").

But the thing is, I think it's fair to ask what could have been done to help DC's ever-downtrodden "East of the River" area to improve, considering Councilman Barry's representation of the area since 2004 and his unparalleled political skills. 

For example see "Marion Barry: As good a negotiator as D.C. has ever seen" from the Washington Business Journal, although the story was more about the Growth Machine/real estate development angle.

Imagine Your Business Name Here, Martin Luther King Ave. SE, Washington, DCDC could have developed a substantive and pathbreaking anti-poverty agenda for the area that focused more than on real estate development (and the city and private company WC Smith have done many great and successful projects EOTR aimed at improving the community, "Why Did Developer WC Smith Buy Up Most of Congress Heights," Washington City Paper).

Other local governments are working to do so, even as DC continues to focus on real estate driven projects, while typically failing to leverage the value of city projects to accomplish multiple objectives ("Public buildings as vehicles for community improvement").

It's fair to ponder on the lost opportunity.
From the RTD story:
... four of the five major recommendations of the Anti-Poverty Commission report focus squarely on employment. These recommendations include: 
• Expand investment in workforce development, building on the city’s successful Workforce Pipeline, which trains workers and connects them with specific employers. 
• Pursue targeted economic development focused on long-term growth industries with significant numbers of jobs accessible to low- and moderate-skilled workers, including health services, advanced manufacturing, logistics and call centers. Development of the Port of Richmond to its full potential also must be an economic development priority. 
• Develop a regional rapid-transit system to increase city residents’ access to suburban employment and create a truly regional labor market. ... Richmond must no longer settle for being in the bottom 10 percent of large metro areas in transit accessibility. 
• Improve the skills of Richmond residents through long-term improvements in the public school system to better prepare children for college or work. Key ideas here include expanded focus on early childhood investments, development of a “Richmond Promise” scholarship fund for college-bound Richmond Public Schools graduates (modeled on a successful initiative in Kalamazoo, Mich.), and greatly enhanced vocational training. 
Taken together, these initiatives will increase residents’ access to jobs, better prepare them for a successful work experience and increase the city’s attractiveness to new businesses capable of employing significant numbers of city residents. 
Over the long term, these initiatives will also increase the skills and educational level of city residents — through improvements in the schools themselves, and because reducing poverty and increasing the number of economically stable families will improve children’s ability to learn and develop to their full potential. 
• The commission’s fifth major recommendation concerns the city’s longstanding large public housing communities. The concentration of public housing in the eastern half of the city is extraordinary and reflects ill-considered public policy decisions made decades ago. But history also teaches us that zeal to tear down the physical symbols of poverty (blight) is risky for impoverished people. The commission therefore endorses redevelopment of these communities.

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At 5:28 PM, Anonymous h st ll said...

interesting links, especially the Dallas one.

At 7:20 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

the problem is, every time I contact Dallas or Richmond, they never respond.

I mentioned these projects last year too.

and hopefully, this next year, I'll finally write a position paper on the topic.

At 7:45 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

There was a lot of comments on there was only Barry, and not "barryism"

I'd argue that is incorrect. We are still dealing with Barryism.

Barryism 1.0 was the massive over employment, ending in in the "Summer jobs" We are still dealing with that. DC could easily trim city employment by 40%, and the amount of deadwood -- say UDC -- is staggering.

Barryism 2.0 wasn't actually invented by Barry, but was a reaction. It is the vast overspending on social services in order to buy off the poor blacks. Williams really invented that, and Fenty took it to a new level with the schools.

Barryism 3.0 is the fear and reluctance to deal with EOTR. Putting bikeshare there. Wasting time with the streetcar. Hell, I'd argue that 11st bridge proposal. All designed to keep Marion happy.

None of it addresses the real issue of poverty. Again, I use Singapore as a counter. It gained independence about the same time as DC got home rule, but went about dealing with its problems better. (poverty, illiteracy, drug use, race riots). Sure it had more levers but the problems were also far worse.

We are so deep in Barry-world we can't see out of the cup.

At 8:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Barry never cared about poverty- he only cared about being in the spotlight and keeping up the pressure on "the Man" whatever that may have been. His was an enterprise of shakedown economics- strictly concerned with extracting concessions from the guilt ridden liberal elitists who ran DC west of the park and in other gentrified areas of the city like CH that never completely turned into hard ghetto. He wanted money for himself and his friends. Given enough time he would have moved his act out to PG County as many of his associates have already done. Most of th epeople he hired to work in DC jobs do not live in the city. He cares not a whit for running a city and making it work- only what he and his constituents can get out of the rest of us who happen to live here. It is an obsolete system enabled by white fears and by white flight and abandonment of cities in general. It is an abberation of history and the rightful role of cities as true centers of culture instead of dumping grounds for socially ostracized or poor has come to an end. The cities were once shining examples of what COULD be done- not of "opportunity" for those who seek to promote themselves at the expense of the less fortunate as Barry often did while he proclaimed to work for their good. He was the ultimate master of pulling the wool over the yes of the citizenry.

At 10:32 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

well, in _The Future Once Happened Here_ you have both 1.0 and 2.0. I don't think that human services spending escalated that much beyond Barry. Schools, at least the construction, yes I guess so.

The 3.0 problem is complex. Definitely the city is focused on real estate driven big projects (Skyland, St. Elizabeths, a Reeves Center at the Metro, to some extent the 11th St. Bridge Park, Poplar Point--although the split between park and nonpark portions probably favors parks too much in terms of economic efficacy) along the lines criticized by Roberta Gratz in _Cities Back from the Edge_.

Of course, fixing poverty from the people side is infinitely harder. I can't claim to have the answers.

But I do know that doing very little or focusing on St. Es or yes, even the streetcar wastes a lot of time and energy.

Although I will say that the equity concerns were honorable, driving Catania and others to launch the streetcar first in Anacostia.

One of the points I make is that many DC neighborhoods are f*ed up not just because of disinvestment, but also because of intra-group activity and legacy leadership that is hermetic and flawed.

I haven't read the Barber book on "mayors being the salvation of politics" but I was thinking about the thesis in terms of the reality that there aren't that many supra-great visionary mayors.

I mean, face it, Mayor Williams' vision was a city that could function, do what it was supposed to do, and that would attract residents and other investment. How visionary is that really? But maybe that's enough.

At 10:45 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Well there has been an argument back and forth that mayors can't do much about macro conditions.

And I agree. It is why the "World conference of mayors" thing is a bit of hoax.

That said, it shows what the real task is, is given the macro making a city livable. And more livable than the competition.

Barry might have only been able to exist because of the strong market conditions. I'd say DC and the DC metro area are the strongest in the country for the past 40 years. NYC might be more?

So only in a DC would there be enough money to be that wasteful and have the ability to do deals with developers.

At 11:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

correct me if I am wrong but I heard that Barry was responsible for keeping our DC residentail property taxes among the lowest in the region- he repeatedly advocated keeping a lid on property taxes- and if this is true [ I was too distracted to really remember any of this in detail] he actually made the resurgence of the city possible . Low property taxes have been a huge reason why DC came "back" after the riots. Of course- over time- DC developed high real estate prices which balanced out the low taxes

At 12:27 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I don't know about the property taxes, but I remember a conversation with a Stanton Park Neighborhood Assn. who had a PhD in planning (he was one of the key enablers of what became H St. Main St.) where he said it seemed there was an evident but unspoken policy to keep property taxes low in African-American neighborhoods. Living in the H St. neighborhood, I definitely benefited.

2. But I don't know how much that is really true, other than keeping property taxes a bit lower in black neighborhoods--your point about DC coming back because of low property taxes.

DC had low property taxes because the properties had low values. Plus, the city collects income tax, which means it isn't as dependent on property taxes compared to traditional center cities. Most cities don't. (VA local jurisdictions don't get income tax revenue. But Maryland's counties get 1/2 of the "state" income tax.)

Plus the commercial property tax, of which revenues were rising coincident with the increased development (perhaps in large part attributable to the Metro, which started to have impact once Barry was first elected).

So the city wasn't driven to the same level of property tax escalation typical of other cities. E.g., when I looked at Detroit's property taxes about 8 years ago, a $200K house had $8K in property taxes, more than 4X the rate in DC. OTOH, a $200K house in Detroit might be worth $800K in DC.

3. Again, to recap, it's true that comparatively, DC's residential property taxes are lower than surrounding jurisdictions. But I would say that is also a function of the city's strong commercial real estate market + rising income tax revenues.

At 12:41 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

First, it's absolutely true that location, location, location is key. In other words, yes, a Mayor (or Governor) has little control over macro conditions.

The DC thing is tough. Yes, the conditions were very good in the beginning of Home Rule, despite white flight and the 1968 riots and the crash of the residential property market, because of the rise of the commercial property market, in part in association with the Metrorail system but also the increase in size of the lobbying, lawyering, association community, which led to an increased demand for office space proximate to government.

Clearly, though, there was a financial ceiling that the city passed, because of the city's rising financial problems in the 1980s and 1990s, culminating in the receivership in the mid-1990s.

Could Barry have focused on improving outcomes, not just hiring people? And not wasting all that money?

E.g., I went to an ANC meeting in 1988 in Dupont Circle because I was interested in the concept and heard a DPW spokesman speak. He was well dressed, but almost completely unintelligible. I was floored.

And I remember my boss saying "once someone worked for DC Govt. for 5 years, their mind was mush."

And when I was trying to sell books for teachers and the owner of such a store in DC said that he couldn't use books higher than a 7th grade level. And I said "these books are for the teachers, not the students." He said, "yes, I know..."

Or when I did a presentation at Eastern High School and the teacher said her home ec. class was where many of her students first learned how to eat dinner with others.

Or seeing "New Jack City" at a theater on 8th St. SE and being the only white guy in the audience.

The people like me who were moving to the city back then wanted to do so for personal-political-social reasons. But back then it came at a great cost. The city was dangerous, declining.

As I say a lot, up til 2003, there was still no sense that the city we are getting today was even imaginable or attainable.

At 12:56 PM, Anonymous h st ll said...

Interesting comments.

I will say, as an owner of properties both WOTR and EOTR that I can discern no notable giveaways in EOTR property taxes. In fact I have been able to consistently (with a lot of work and paying cash) purchase homes for lower than what the assessor has them assessed at. I attempted to appeal the assessment since I paid so much less on one of them and was rebuffed.

At 1:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

no question DC has significantly lower property taxes than either Maryland or Virginia. IN fact- in Baltimore- a house worth 200K has property taxes of about8-10 K whereas - if you can find a property that cheap in DC- you'd pay way less than 5 K- probably more like2K tops. DC is a deal and many people realized this and took advantage of it. It only became equivalent in the early 2000's when values began to escalate as the city improved rapidly. It is still cheaper tax-wise here. The same house in Mount Ranier DC - same size- has a far smaller tax bill- and when you jump across the street into Maryland the taxes shoot way up- WAY UP- but the price of the house itself goes down.

At 2:20 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

h st. ll -- the conversation I am referring to was probably back in 2002 and the experience I am thinking of was in the 1990s especially. And I think it took awhile for OTR to ramp up and reassess across the city.

anon -- wrt your comment about Mt. Rainier... in PG County and Takoma and Rockville, the cities have a supplemental tax + there is the county tax (they are supposed to get a rebate from the county for city-provided services but it isn't equivalent).

So you're absolutely right that the property taxes are skyhigh. Takoma Park is double that of DC.

We lived in Mt. R briefly and thought about living there (or at least I did, when I didn't think we could find a great place in DC, fortunately I was wrong, having been introduced to a part of NW that up til then I didn't know much about), but the thing that pushed us back to DC for sure were the property taxes.

+ fortunately for us, buying in Mt.R would have been a disaster. With the recession and the foreclosure problem in PGC, property values totally tanked in Mt. Rainer, and still probably haven't recovered, where in DC values have held steady, with some burps here and there along the way.

You haven't been to our house... the backyard is 90 feet long and almost 50 feet wide...

and if we had the $, it would be no problem to redo the garage over into a carriage house.

At 9:04 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Well as the old saw goes, you pay more in MoCo but you also get a lot more -- in goverment services.

In fact, you pretty much summarized the current tax problem in DC. We don't tax wealth (property enough) and overtax income (espcially for people making under 75K) and sales/gas/parking fees+fines/

It benefits old people, who own very valuable property, but now make less than 30K a year. In other words, Barry's old base.

There was a point a few years ago (96?) when I tried to compare Cleveland's tax base vs DC. I realize Cleveland has shrunk (400K) and DC has grown (700k?) but I think the Cleveland budget is around 1.3, and DC's about 8. 10?

At 9:08 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Ah, though this is the place where DC being a city-state does make a difference.

Some of the city's budget, especially in human services/social welfare, would normally be captured not in a city's budget, but in a county or state budget.

I should know a lot more about this than I do, but the CAFR -- Consolidated Annual Financial Report- is the document to work with.

But your general point, that we undertax residential property, and overtax income is definitely correct.

Definitely the schools are better in MoCo, parks somewhat better. The commercial districts are supported better (the Urban Districts services are partly paid for by the revenue from the coterminate parking districts).

THey do a better job with the waste stream. Some of this though comes from state mandates and oversight. There is something to be said for real oversight.

In counties like MoCo you didn't have the same level of hiring people who couldn't really do the work.

At 9:09 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Of course, undertaxing residential property benefits those of us who are owners.

At 1:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

DC should keep its present level of property taxation and lower the other taxes affecting individuals. We have a growing base of large downtown buildings to tax and other commercial concerns and should back off hitting up the average person. This will also draw more people into the city and strengthen it

At 2:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

DC has had a budget surplus for years running now and there is absolutely no reason to raise taxes

At 3:03 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I think the budget surplus is in part a function of "financial engineering." That revenue projections were underreported.

Given that the city has so little money for various items like road repair, I do think there are tax issues.

It's complicated because we waste so much in terms of capital expenditures (like unneeded new high schools), but that is bond funded.


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