Category Archives: Housing

Fresh Thinking on the End of Life

hospiceby John C. Blair, II

Twenty-first century public policy debates tend to devolve into a binary argument between those who favor the choices of individuals amalgamated into a “market” versus those who favor a state intervention to add a dash of “equality” into outcomes.

However, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal touches on an issue that frustrates all political persuasions.  The current end-of-life care choices and care delivery options frustrate nearly every American family. It is difficult to find an American in their sixties or older who does not implore, “Please don’t let me end up in a nursing home.” Whether it’s the smells, the food, the drab interior, the loss of autonomy, or fear of institutions, nursing homes are almost universally disdained throughout the nation.

Being Mortal addresses the question: How did we end up with a society in which so many end up with a nursing home as their final destination?  Gawande’s tome traces the history of American end-of-life scenarios from the literal poorhouse to the hospital to the current nursing home paradigm.

Gawande makes a convincing argument that the nursing home “default” is a product of viewing this period of life through a medical lens rather than incorporating other perspectives. Gawande, a Boston surgeon, writes, “Medicine’s focus is narrow. Medical professionals concentrate on repair of health, not sustenance of the soul.” Thus, values such as autonomy or stoicism are lost in the pursuit of “safety” and “preserving and repairing health.” We end up seeing medical professionals trying to extend “existence” at the cost of what many consider empty and meaningless lives.

Gawande details the tragic consequences that this narrow medical focus can have for individuals, families, and societies as individuals pursue one in a million medical surgeries rather than focusing on the quality of their remaining life. He points to a study that found that forty percent of oncologists offer treatments that they believe are unlikely to work.

Gawande offers some suggestions on how end-of-life care options can become more holistic and loosen the grip of a purely medical perspective on these choices.

One suggestion is to allow and train physicians to practice “interpretive” medicine rather than “informative” or “paternal” medicine. Paternal medicine is when physicians communicate with patients aiming to ensure that patients receive what the doctor believes is best for them. Informative medicine is when a physician simply gives patients facts and figures and leaves the decision up to the patient. Interpretive medicine has physicians ask patients, “What is most important to you? What are your worries?” When the physician determines the patient’s priorities, he or she then maps out a program to best achieve those priorities.

Another suggestion is to better promote hospice care as an option to patients and their families. Gawande recounts his own positive experience with hospice treating his cancer-stricken father. Hospice can provide a much better quality of life than the safety-focused nursing home.

Gawande also points to a community-focused solution to “avoid the nursing home option” in Ohio. Athens Village was a group of a hundred people who banded together to pay four hundred dollars a year. This money went to hire a handyman to take care of each member’s household. Additionally, a director was hired who coordinated volunteers to cook food and check up on the members. A nurse agency provided discounted nursing aid costs. Churches and civic organizations provided a van transportation service and meals-on-wheels. This community allowed its members to remain in their homes and maintain autonomy rather than reside in nursing homes.

Being Mortal offers a lot of food for thought for Virginia policymakers. As the Commonwealth’s population ages, lawmakers and bureaucrats are likely to face more families asking, “What can we do to avoid the nursing home?” Perhaps it would be in the state’s best interest if the General Assembly provided funding for the state’s medical schools to instruct physicians in “interpretive” medicine for end-of-life conversations with patients. Another option would be to see if any legal or regulatory burdens exist that would prevent the formation of a community such as Athens Village.

John C. Blair, II is an attorney who resides in Albemarle County.  

Walkability No Guarantee of Healthy Housing Market

This graph shows how the midsized cities (excluding Arlington) with Top 10 walkability rankings score in WalletHub’s latest ranking of cities with the healthiest real estate markets. Sad to say: High walkability seems to be correlated with moribund real estate economies. The cities are (from left to right): Jersey City, Newark, Hialeah, Buffalo, Rochester, St. Paul, Cincinnati, Richmond and Madison. (Click for more legible image.)

This graph shows how the midsized cities (excluding Arlington) with Top 10 walkability rankings score in WalletHub’s latest ranking of cities with the healthiest real estate markets. Sad to say: High walkability seems to be correlated with moribund real estate economies. The cities are (from left to right): Jersey City, Newark, Hialeah, Buffalo, Rochester, St. Paul, Cincinnati, Richmond and Madison. (Click for more legible image.)

There is an interesting juxtaposition of news items today. Redfin, the real estate brokerage website, has published a list of the Top 10 most walkable midsized cities in the country. Arlington County (a highly urbanized county) scored third and Richmond scored ninth, based on their Walk Score rankings.

Arlington won kudos for its Ballston-Virginia square neighborhood, where residents can walk to an average of 13 restaurant, bars or coffee shops within five minutes. While the Washington metropolitan area is notorious for its traffic, many Arlington residents live car-free, opting to get around on foot, bike and public transportation.

Richmond earned recognition for the revitalization of neighborhoods surrounding downtown, including Jackson Ward, Shockoe Bottom, Monroe Ward, the riverfront and Manchester. The Fan and Carytown neighborhoods to the west of downtown also stood out for their walkability.

To many urban theorists, walkability is a critical determinant of a community’s livability, ranking close behind the cost of real estate, the quality of schools and the level of taxes in what people take into account when deciding where to live. But it’s no guarantee of prosperity or rising real estate values…. which brings us to the other news item.

The top two midsized cities ranked by walkability are Jersey City (No. 1) and Newark (No. 2). But guess where Jersey City and Newark rank in WalletHub’s ranking of 2015’s Healthiest Housing Markets. Out of 94 midsized cities ranked, Newark scored 94th — dead last — while Jersey City ranked 76th. (Richmond ranked a ho-hum 45th among midsized cities.)

Bacon’s bottom line: I’ll concede that this is a quick-and-dirty analysis based on a comparison of midsized cities only, not a comprehensive comparison of all types and sizes of municipal governments, so it may not reflect the larger reality. But I would advance this as a reasonable hypothesis: Walkability is a wonderful thing, and many people desire it, but it is a relatively minor factor influencing the health of urban real estate markets.


Alpha Natural Resources: Running Wrong

Alpha miners in Southwest Virginia (Photo by Scott Elmquist)

Alpha miners in Southwest Virginia
(Photo by Scott Elmquist)

 By Peter Galuszka

Four years ago, coal titan Alpha Natural Resources, one of Virginia’s biggest political donors, was riding high.

It was spending $7.1 billion to buy Massey Energy, a renegade coal firm based in Richmond that had compiled an extraordinary record for safety and environmental violations and fines. Its management practices culminated in a huge mine blast on April 5, 2010 that killed 29 miners in West Virginia, according to three investigations.

Bristol-based Alpha, founded in 2002, had coveted Massey’s rich troves of metallurgical and steam coal as the industry was undergoing a boom phase. It would get about 1,400 Massey workers to add to its workforce of 6,600 but would have to retrain them in safety procedures through Alpha’s “Running Right” program.

Now, four years later, Alpha is in a fight for its life. Its stock – trading at a paltry 55 cents per share — has been delisted by the New York Stock Exchange. After months of layoffs, the firm is preparing for a bankruptcy filing. It is negotiating with its loan holders and senior bondholders to help restructure its debt.

Alpha is the victim of a severe downturn in the coal industry as cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing drilling has flooded the market and become a favorite of electric utilities. Alpha had banked on Masset’s huge reserves of met coal to sustain it, but global economic strife, especially in China, has dramatically cut demand for steel. Some claim there is a “War on Coal” in the form of tough new regulations, although others claim the real reason is that coal can’t face competition from other fuel sources.

Alpha’s big fall has big implications for Virginia in several arenas:

(1) Alpha is one of the largest political donors in the state, favoring Republicans. In recent years, it has spent $2,256,617 on GOP politicians and PACS, notably on such influential politicians and Jerry Kilgore and Tommy Norment, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. It also has spent $626,558 on Democrats.

In 2014-2015, it was the ninth largest donor in the state. Dominion was ahead among corporations, but Alpha beat out such top drawer bankrollers as Altria, Comcast and Verizon. The question now is whether a bankruptcy trustee will allow Alpha to continue its funding efforts.

(2) How will Alpha handle its pension and other benefits for its workers? If it goes bankrupt, it will be in the same company as Patriot Coal which is in bankruptcy for the second time in the past several years. Patriot was spun off by Peabody, the nation’s largest coal producer, which wanted to get out of the troubled Central Appalachian market to concentrate on more profitable coalfields in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and the Midwest.

Critics say that Patriot was a shell firm set up by Peabody so it could skip out of paying health, pension and other benefits to the retired workers it used to employ. The United Mine Workers of America has criticized a Patriot plan to pay its top five executives $6.4 million as it reorganizes its finances.

(3) Coal firms that have large surface mines, as Alpha does, may not be able to meet the financial requirements to clean up the pits as required by law. Alpha has used mountaintop removal practices in the Appalachians in which hundreds of feet of mountains are ripped apart by explosives and huge drag lines to get at coal. They also have mines in Wyoming that also involve removing millions of tons of overburden.

Like many coal firms, Alpha has used “self-bonding” practices to guarantee mine reclamation. In this, the companies use their finances as insurance that they will clean up. If not, they must post cash. Wyoming has given Alpha until Aug. 24 to prove it has $411 million for reclamation.

(4) The health problems of coalfield residents continue unabated. According to a Newsweek report, Kentucky has more cancer rates than any other state. Tobacco smoking as a lot to do with it, but so does exposure to carcinogenic compounds that are released into the environment by mountaintop removal. This also affects people living in Virginia and West Virginia. In 2014, Alpha was fined $27.5 million by federal regulators for illegal discharges of toxic materials into hundreds of streams. It also must pay $200 million to clean up the streams.

The trials of coal companies mean bad news for Virginia and its sister states whose residents living near shut-down mines will still be at risk from them. As more go bust or bankrupt, the bill for their destructive practices will have to borne by someone else.

After digging out the Appalachians for about 150 years, the coal firms have never left coalfield residents well off. Despite its coal riches, Kentucky ranks 45th in the country for wealth. King Coal could have helped alleviate that earlier, but is in a much more difficult position to do much now. Everyday folks with be the ones paying for their legacy.

Neighborhood Inequality and What to Do About It


by James A. Bacon

Neighborhoods in the Richmond metropolitan area are the most segregated by wealth and income in Virginia and the third most segregated of any region in the United States, according to data crunched by Urban Institute fellow Rolf Pendall. By the same token (assuming I read the fine print in tabular form correctly), Fredericksburg is the least segregated by wealth and income of any region in Virginia and the country.

As the income gap widens in the United States, so does the gap between the most affluent and the poorest neighborhoods, contends Pendall in a new report, “Worlds Apart: Inequality in America’s Most and Least Affluent Neighborhoods.” This polarization has occurred despite the urban revival of many U.S. metros.

“Though not as far apart in space from the bottom neighborhoods as affluent suburban and exurban enclaves,” writes Pendall, “top neighborhoods in central cities still are separate worlds from those of the nation’s lowest-income residents. And even the modest physical distance between top and bottom neighborhoods is often interrupted by physical barriers like Washington’s Anacostia River, the San Francisco Bay, and Interstate 35 in Austin.”

Instead of preserving islands of privilege, he argues, public policy should encourage the creation of mixed-income neighborhoods and districts in central cities and suburbs and invest more heavily the nation’s poorer neighborhoods.

One could argue with Pendall’s policy prescriptions — what should we do — but his description of the facts on the ground — what is — seems pretty straightforward. Insofar as most of us would like to see more equality of opportunity in our society, and insofar as an individual’s opportunities are shaped by his or her neighborhood environment, it is discouraging to see such wide disparities in the Richmond region where I live.

(If I were like some participants in this blog, I would go, “Oh, Urban Institute, that’s a liberal think tank, therefore it’s biased, therefore, I can disengage my brain and discount anything it says. But I try not to work that way. Pendall’s methodology seems perfectly reasonable, and if there are uncomfortable realities that must be grappled with, I will grapple with them.)

A couple of observations about the Virginia data. First, the Washington region (or, more precisely, commuting zone) has the strongest concentrations of wealth of any of the metros, even more than Richmond. But the poverty in its least advantaged neighborhoods appears to be more diluted, while in Richmond poverty is more concentrated.

Second, Fredericksburg seems notable for the notable lack of concentrated poverty. I can confirm this with some anecdotal evidence. My mother lives on Caroline Street, one of the more desirable streets in Fredericksburg’s historic district — but she is only two blocks from a housing project. As Pendall observes, smaller regions tend to have less inequality between neighborhoods, and Fredericksburg is one of the smallest regions covered in his survey.

What to do about it. To a carpenter, as the old saying goes, every problem looks like nail. Urban planners are prone to looking for urban planning solutions to the problems they observe. But solving the problem of extremes in wealth and poverty cannot readily be accomplished simply by mixing poor people and affluent people together. One of the advantages of being affluent is that it affords one the opportunity to separate oneself from crime, poor schools, disorderly conduct. In my observation, even liberal rich people like to live in neighborhoods that are safe and don’t have trash on the street. Politically, it will be difficult to compel the rich, powerful and well connected to do something they don’t want to do. It’s a zero-sum game.

To my mind, the better way to address the inequality of neighborhoods is to address the inequality of the residents within the neighborhoods. One way to do that is to scrap a monetary policy that rewards the wealthy (holders of stocks and bonds) and punishes small savers (whose financial assets reside in bank accounts and CDs). Another way to address income inequality is to embrace a tax and regulatory regime that encourages economic growth, which encourages job creation, which, when the labor market tightens enough,  promotes income growth for wage earners.

Bacon’s bottom line: The phenomenon Pendall describes is real.  But the policy prescription at which he hints addresses the surface of the problem, not the underlying cause.

Why There’s No Swimming Pool at Gilpin Court

gilpin courtBy Peter Galuszka

Heat and humidity seem to have been especially intense this summer. But it can be much worse at an inner city public housing project where there are few trees and other vegetation and lots of bricks and concrete that and retain heat.

So, wouldn’t a swimming pool seem nice, especially when your housing project already has one?

That’s what I thought when I visited Gilpin Court, one of Richmond’s 11 public housing projects. Housing 2,200 residents, many of them children, Gilpin is one of the worst ones run by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority. It was built in the 1940s. Here’s my story in Style Weekly.

There is a swimming pool. But, the indoor basin has been shut down for three years and the RRHA says it can’t be fixed. “The pool is closed for maintenance and repairs and diminishing funds we have available,” a spokeswoman says.

In the meantime, the RRHA has been spending money on other things, according to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

A list:

  • The RRHA spent $1,515 in 2012 to take 55 residents of Creighton Court, another project, for a bus charter to a West Virginia gambling casino.
  • The former RRHA police chief spent $900 on a television and more for cable services for an emergency operations center” that didn’t exist.He and his wife also got to go to a conference in San Diego with a side trip to Las Vegas.
  • Former authority chief executive Adrienne Goolsby, who resigned under a cloud in January, was being paid $183, 800 a year plus a $10,000 bonus. This is well above U.S. Department and Urban Development guidelines of $155,500 a year. The state governor makes less: $175,000.

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote to Goolsby last year asking for answers for these matters. His staff says he never got an answer.

Meanwhile, RRHA is being run by a temporary chief. No one seems to know when a permanent one will be appointed.

Gilpin children say they can swim at other city-owned pools or at Pocahontas State Park, which is 27 miles away.

One other takeaway: one hears a lot on this blog from writers about how the problems of poverty are a lack of personal responsibility. I guess if you grow up in a furnace like Gilpin, you just have to work harder.

Housing Affordability for Millennials


by James A. Bacon

As the global epicenter of technology innovation, Silicon Valley creates a massive amount of wealth — but the housing supply, hemmed in by geography and zoning regulations, is incredibly restricted. The resulting housing crunch is so severe that Millennials are hard pressed to live there. The median income for Millennials in the San Jose metropolitan area is the highest of any of the 50 largest metropolitan regions in the country — $53,000. But the median home value of $925,000 requires an income of $133,000 to pay a mortgage (not to mention a 20% down payment). The earnings gap, according to a new housing index published by Bloomberg, is $80,000!

If Millennials are the life-blood of creativity and innovation for metropolitan economies, the cost of housing could be Silicon Valley’s Achilles heel. The housing supply is so out of whack, as it is in neighboring San Francisco, that, as much as Millennials are drawn to the excitement and glamour of working at companies like Apple and Google, they simply can’t afford it unless they’re willing to live five or six to an apartment.

According to Bloomberg, housing is unaffordable for thirteen of the 50 largest U.S. metros. The biggest affordability gaps are on the West Coast, but Boston, Washington and New York are on the list as well. Young people are willing to tolerate sub-par living conditions for a while, especially while they are single. One of my daughters shared a tiny rental apartment with four roommates while living in Jackson,Wyoming, which, due to its awesomeness, has similar affordability issues. But she rented her own place when she moved back to Richmond. And now that she is getting married, she and her fiance have no trouble affording a comfortable starter home in a nice neighborhood near the University of Richmond. When educated Millennials are ready to get married and start families, the idea of sharing a house with four or five roommates is not a serious option.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are metros like Detroit, Buffalo and Cleveland where housing is easily affordable — but job opportunities for Millennials are scarce. If your goal is to recruit and retain educated Millennials with the hope of stimulating the creative economy, it appears that the sweet spot is the middle of the affordability range in which jobs are available and housing is affordable.

Millennials consider many other factors when choosing where to live, to be sure. Larger metros have appeal because the supply of potential mates is larger. They also look for coolness, hipness and authenticity, indefinable characteristics that are difficult to measure but definitely apply to places like San Francisco, New York, Austin and Portland. But once young people have found their mates, the size of the mating pool is no longer a consideration. And once they have children, hipness no longer looms as large.

Metros like Richmond and Virginia Beach will have difficulty competing with San Francisco and New York in luring single Millennials right out of college. But the comparative advantage shifts dramatically in their favor when Millennials are ready to settle down. In the competition for talent, the best bet for downstate Virginia communities is to target educated Millennials at that life-stage. How to target them is quite another question. It’s a question that Virginians need to give more thought to.

New Film Documents Horrors of Coal Mining

blood on the moutain posterBy Peter Galuszka

Several years in the making, “Blood on the Mountain” has finally premiered in New York City. The documentary examines the cycle of exploitation of people and environment by West Virginia’s coal industry highlighting Massey Energy, a coal firm that was based in Richmond.

The final cut of the film was released publicly May 26 at Anthology Film Archives as part of the “Workers Unite! Film Festival” funded in part by the Fund for Creative Communities, the Manhattan Community Arts Fund and the New York State Council of the Arts.

Directed by Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman, the film shows that how for more than a century, coal companies and politicians kept coal workers laboring in unsafe conditions that killed thousands while ravaging the state’s mountain environment.

As Bruce Stanley, a lawyer from Mingo County, W.Va. who is interviewed in the film and has fought Donald L. Blankenship, the notorious former head of Massey Energy, says, there isn’t a “War on Coal,” it is a “war waged by coal on West Virginia.”

When hundreds of striking workers protested onerous and deadly working conditions in the early 1920s, they were met with machine guns and combat aircraft in a war that West Virginia officials kept out of history books. They didn’t teach it when I was in grade school there in the 1960s. I learned about the war in the 1990s.

The cycle of coal mine deaths,environmental disaster and regional poverty continues to this day. In 2010, safety cutbacks at a Massey Energy mine led to the deaths of 29 miners in the worst such disaster in 40 years. Mountains in Central Appalachia, including southwest Virginia, continue to be ravaged by extreme strip mining.

As Jeff Biggers said in a review of the movie in the Huffington Post:

“Thanks to its historical perspective, Blood on the Mountains keeps hope alive in the coalfields — and in the more defining mountains, the mountain state vs. the “extraction state” — and reminds viewers of the inspiring continuum of the extraordinary Blair Mountain miners’ uprising in 1921, the victory of Miners for Democracy leader Arnold Miller as the UMWA president in the 1970s, and today’s fearless campaigns against mountaintop-removal mining.”

The movie (here is the trailer) is a personal mission for me. In 2013, after my book “Thunder on the Mountain, Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal,” was published by St. Martin’s Press, Mari-Lynn Evans called me and said she liked the book and wanted me to work with her on the movie project. She is from a small town in West Virginia a little south of where I spent several years as a child and thought some of my observations in the book rang true.

I drove out to Beckley, W.Va. for several hours of on-camera interviews. Over the next two years, I watched early versions, gave my criticisms and ideas and acted as a kind of consultant. Mari-Lynn’s production company is in Akron and I visited other production facilities in New York near the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Interesting work if you can get it. My only forays into film making before had been with my high school film club where he videographed a coffin being lowered into a grave (in West Virginia no less). I was greatly impressed when I saw the movie at its New York premiere.

Mari-Lynn and Jordan have been filming in the region for years. They collaborated on “The Appalachians,” an award-winning three-part documentary that was aired on PBS a few years ago and on “Coal Country” which dealt with mountaintop removal strip mining.

They and writer Phyllis Geller spent months detailing how coal companies bought up land on the cheap from unwitting residents, hired miners and other workers while intimidating them and abusing them, divided communities and plundered some very beautiful mountains.

Upper Big Branch is just a continuation of the mine disasters that have killed thousands. The worst was Monongah in 1907 with a death toll of at least 362; Eccles in 1914 with 183 dead; and Farmington in 1968 with 78 dead (just a county over from where I used to live).

By 2008 while Blankenship was CEO of Massey, some 52 miners were killed. Then came Upper Big Branch with 29 dead in 2010.

At least 700 were killed by silicosis in the 1930s after Union Carbine dug a tunnel at Hawks Nest. Many were buried in unmarked graves.

While state regulation has been lame, scores West Virginia politicians have been found guilty of taking bribes, including ex-Gov. Arch Moore.

The movie is strong stuff. I’ll let you know where it will be available. A new and expanded paperback version of my book is available from West Virginia University Press.

Blankenship is scheduled to go on trial on federal charges related to Upper Big Branch on July 13.

Dave Brat’s Bizarre Statements

 By Peter Galuszka

Almost a year ago, Dave Brat, an obscure economics professor at Randolph- Macon College, made national headlines when he defeated Eric Cantor, the powerful House Majority Leader, in the 7th District Brat Republican primary.

Brat’s victory was regarded as a sensation since it showed how the GOP was splintered between Main Street traditionalists such as Cantor and radically conservative, Tea Party favorites such as Brat. His ascendance has fueled the polarization that has seized national politics and prevented much from being accomplished in Congress.

So, nearly a year later, what has Brat actually done? From reading headlines, not much, except for making a number of bizarre and often false statements.
A few examples:

  • When the House Education and Workforce Committee was working on reauthorizing a law that spends about $14 billion to teach low-income students, Brat said such funding may not be necessary because: “Socrates trained Plato in on a rock and the Plato trained Aristotle roughly speaking on a rock. So, huge funding is not necessary to achieve the greatest minds and the greatest intellects in history.”
  • Brat says that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is a step towards making the country be more like North Korea. He compares North and South Korea this way:  “. . . it’s the same culture, it’s the same people, look at a map at night, half the, one of the countries is not lit, there’s no lights, and the bottom free-market country, all Koreans is lit up. See you make your bet on which country you want to be, right? You want to go to the free market.” One problem with his argument:  Free market South Korea has had a single payer, government-subsidized health care system for 40 years. The conservative blog, BearingDrift, called him out on that one.
  • Politifact, the journalism group that tests the veracity of politicians’ statements, has been very busy with Brat. They have rated as “false” or “mostly false” such statements that repealing Obamacare would save the nation more than $3 trillion and that President Obama has issued 468,500 pages of regulations in the Federal Register. In the former case, Brat’s team used an old government report that estimated mandatory federal spending provisions for the ACA. In the latter case, Politifact found that there were actually more pages issued than Brat said, but they were not all regulations. They included notices about agency meetings and public comment periods. What’s more, during a comparable period under former President George W. Bush, the Federal Register had 465,948 pages, Politifact found. There were some cases, however, where Politifact verified what Brat said.
  • Last fall, after Obama issued an executive order that would protect up to five million undocumented aliens from arrest and deportation, Brat vowed that “not one thin dime” of public money should go to support Obama’s plan. He vowed to defund U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services but then was told he couldn’t do so because the agency was self-funded by fees from immigration applications. He then said he would examine how it spent its money.

The odd thing about Brat is that he has a doctorate in economics and has been a professor. Why is he making such bizarre, misleading and downright false statements?

Beware Stalling Growth in Northern Virginia

northern virginia mapBy Peter Galuszka

For at least a half a century, Fairfax County, Alexandria and Arlington County have been a growth engine that that has reshaped how things are in the Greater Washington area as well as the Old Dominion.

But now, apparently for the first time ever, these Northern Virginia localities have stopped growing, according to an intriguing article in The Washington Post.

In 2013, the county saw 4,673 arrivals but in 2014 saw 7,518 departures. For the same time period, Alexandria saw 493 arrivals and then 887 departures. Arlington County showed 2,004 arrivals in 2013 followed by 1,520 departures last year.

The chief reason appears to be sequestration and the reduction of federal spending. According to a George Mason University study, federal spending in the area was $11 billion less  last year than in 2010. From 2013 to 2014, the area lost 10,800 federal jobs and more private sectors ones that worked on government contracts. Many of the cuts are in defense which is being squeezed after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The most dramatic cuts appear to be in Fairfax which saw a huge burst of growth in 1970 when it had 450,000 people but has been slowing for the most part ever since. It still grew to 1.14 million people, but the negative growth last year is a vitally important trend.

Another reason for the drop offs is that residents are tired of the high cost and transit frustrations that living in Northern Virginia brings.

To be sure, Loudoun County still grew from 2013 to 2014, but the growth slowed last year from 8,904 newcomers in 2013 to 8,021 last year.

My takeaways are these:

  • The slowing growth in NOVA will likely put the brakes on Virginia’s move from being a “red” to a “blue” state. In 2010, Fairfax had become more diverse and older, with the county’s racial and ethnic minority population growing by 43 percent. This has been part of the reason why Virginia went for Barack Obama in the last two elections and has Democrats in the U.S. Senate and as governor. Will this trend change?
  • Economically, this is bad news for the rest of Virginia since NOVA is the economic engine for the state and pumps in plenty of tax revenues that end up being used in other regions. Usually, when people talk about Virginia out-migration, they mean people moving from the declining furniture and tobacco areas of Southside or the southwestern coalfields.
  • A shift in land use patterns and development is inevitable. The continued strong growth of an outer county like Loudoun suggests that suburban and exurban land use patterns, many of them wasteful, will continue there. The danger is that inner localities such as Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria, will be stuck with more lower-income residents and deteriorating neighborhoods. The result will be that localities won’t have as much tax money to pay for better roads, schools and other services.
  • Virginia Republicans pay lip service to the evils of government spending and have championed sequestration. Well, look what a fine mess they have gotten us into.

The rest of the Washington area is seeing slowing growth, but appears to be better off. The District’s in-migration was cut in half from 2013 to 2014 but it is still on the plus side. Ditto Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties.

NOVA has benefited enormously from both federal spending and the rise of telecommunications and Web-based businesses. It is uncertain where federal spending might go and maybe increased private sector investment could mitigate the decline. Another bad sign came in 2012 when ExxonMobil announced it was moving its headquarters from Fairfax to Houston.

In any event, this is very bad news for NOVA.

Amateur Hour at the General Assembly

virginia_state_capitol502By Peter Galuszka

If you are an ordinary Virginian with deep concerns about how the General Assembly passes laws that impact you greatly, you are pretty much out of luck.

That’s the conclusion of a study by Transparency Virginia, an informal coalition of non-profit public interest groups in a report released this week. Their findings  came after members studied how the 2015 General Assembly operated.

Among their points:

  • Notice of committee hearings was so short in some instances that public participation was nearly impossible.
  • Scores of bills were never given hearings.
  • In the House of Delegates, committees and subcommittees did not bother to record votes on 76 percent of the bills they killed.

“Despite a House rule that all bills shall be considered, not all are. Despite a Senate rule that recorded votes are required, not all are,” states the 21-page report, whose main author is Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. Transparency Virginia is made up of 30 groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, the the Virginia Education Association and the League of Women Voters in Virginia.

The scathing report underscores just how amateurish the General Assembly can be. It only meets for only 45 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered years. The pay is pin money. Delegates make only $17,640 a year and senators earn $18,000 annually.

It is not surprising then that a part-time group of 100 delegates and 40 senators can’t seem to handle their 101 committees and subcommittees that determine whether the consideration of thousands bills proceeds fairly and efficiently.

“A Senate committee chair did not take comment on any bills on the agenda except for the testimony from the guests of two senators who were presenting bills,” the report states. In other cases, legislators were criticized by colleagues for having too many witnesses. Some cut off ongoing debate by motioning to table bills. Bills were “left in committee” never to be considered.

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act requires that open public meetings be announced three working days in advance. A General Assembly session is considered one, long open session. But the FOIA is often subverted by sly legislators who manipulate the agendas of committees or subcommittees or general sessions.

Agendas of the General Assembly are not covered by the FOIA because there is too much work to cram in 45 or 60 days. In the case of local and state governments, similar meetings are, presumably because they meet more regularly. House and Senate rules do not stipulate how much notice needs to be given before a committee or subcommittee session. So, crucial meetings that could kill a bill are sometimes announced suddenly.

The setup favors professional lobbyists who stand guard in the Capitol ready to swoop in to give testimony and peddle influence, alerted by such tools as “Lobbyist-in-a-Box” that tracks the status of bills as they proceed through the legislature. When something important is up, their beepers go off while non-lobbyist citizens with serious interests in bills may be hours away by car.

The report states: “While most of Virginia’s lobbyists and advocates are never more than a few minutes from the statehouse halls, citizens and groups without an advocacy presence may need to travel long distances.” Some may need to reschedule work or family obligations, yet they may get only two hours’ notice of an important meeting. That’s not enough time if they live more than a two-hour drive from Richmond.

The report didn’t address ethics, but this system it portrays obviously favors lobbyists who benefit from Virginia’s historically light-touch approach when it comes to limited gifts. That issue will be addressed today when the General Assembly meets to consider Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s insistence that a new ethics bill address the problem of allowing consecutive gifts of less than $100 to delegates or senators.

The only long-term solution is for Virginia to consider creating a legislature that works for longer periods, is better paid, more professional and must adhere to tighter rules on bill passage. True, some 24 states have a system somewhat like Virginia and only New York, Pennsylvania and California have truly professional legislatures.

The current system was created back in Virginia was more rural and less sophisticated. But it has grown tremendously in population and importance. It’s a travesty that Virginia is stuck with amateur hour when it comes to considering legislation crucial to its citizens’ well-being.