Category Archives: Property rights

Why We’re Being Railroaded On “STEM”

 csx engineBy Peter Galuszka

When it comes to education, a constant mantra chanted by the Virginia chattering class is “STEM.”

How many times have you heard that our students are far behind in “STEM” (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics)? We have to drain funding from more traditional areas of study (that actually might make them better human beings like literature, art or history) and give it to STEM. The two types of popular STEM are, of course, computer science (we’re all “illiterate” claims one journalist-turned computer science advocate) and biotechnology.

But how important is STEM, really? And if Virginia joins the STEM parade and puts all of its eggs in that basket, will the jobs actually be there?

The fact of the matter is that we don’t know what jobs will be around in the future and like the famous generals planning for the last war, we may be stuck planning for the digital explosion of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs that is like, so, 25 years ago.

To get an idea where markets may be, look at today’s news. Canadian Pacific is making a play for CSX railroad (headquartered in Richmond not that long ago) because of the unexpected explosion in fracked oil.

CP handles a lot of freight in the western part of Canada and U.S. where some of the most impressive new fracked shale oil are, namely the Bakken fields of North Dakota and Alberta. CP wants access to eastern U.S. refineries and transshipping points, such as a transloading spot at the mouth of the York River. CSX is stuck with dirty old coal where production and exports are down, although it has an extensive rail network in the Old Dominion.

The combined market value of the two firms is $62 billion — a far bigger potential deal than the $26 billion Warren Buffett paid for Burlington Northern Sante Fe in 2010. There are problems, to be sure. CSX isn’t interested and the Surface Transportation Board, a federal entity, nixed a matchup of Canadian National and Burlington a little while back.

But this isn’t really the point. The point is that the Old Steel Rail pushed by new sources of oil and to some extent natural gas has surprisingly turned domestic economics upside down. Many of the new oil fields are in places where there are not pipelines, so rail is the only answer. In 2008, according to the Wall Street Journal, six or so American railroads generated $25.8 million in hauling crude oil. Last year that shot up to $2.15 billion.

So, what does that mean for students? A lot actually, especially when we blather on about old-style STEM that might have them inventing yet another cell-phone app that has a half-life of maybe a few months. Doesn’t matter, every Virginia legislator, economic development official and education advocate seems to be hypnotized by the STEM genie.

A piece I just did for the up-and-coming Chesterfield Observer on vocation education in that county:

“The recent push to educate students in so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) may be case in point. The goal is to churn out bright, highly trained young people able to compete in the global economy with their counterparts from foreign lands.

“A subset of this area of concentration is computer science, which goes beyond knowing the basics and gets into the nitty-gritty of learning code and writing computer languages. By some accounts, such skills will be necessary to fill more than 2 million jobs expected to become open in the state by 2020.

“Critics question, however, if overspecialization in technology at earlier ages prevents students from exploring studies such as art and literature that might make them better rounded adults. And, specialization often assumes that jobs will be waiting after high school and college when they might not be.

“Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has written about such problems of academic overspecialization in national publications such as The Wall Street Journal. He recently responded to questions from the Chesterfield Observer via email.”

“Not many science grads are getting jobs in their field,” Cappelli says. “The evidence suggests that about two thirds of the IT (information technology) grads got jobs in their fields, about the same for engineering. There is no guarantee in those fields. It’s all about hitting the appropriate subspecialty that happens to be hot. There are still lots of unemployed engineers and IT people.”

So there you have it. In my opinion, the over-emphasis on STEM training has the unfortunate effect of producing young adults who have one goal in mind – getting a job and making money, not helping humankind. And, if you insist on STEM, why not branch into something where there are actually jobs namely petroleum engineering, geology and transportation engineering.

I’ll leave the dangers of added petroleum cargoes in trains to another post.

Petersburg’s Renaissance

PetersburgBy Peter Galuszka

Petersburg has been a special place for me.

Years ago, when I’d pass through, I always felt I were driving onto the set of a 1950s or 1960s movie set in the South such as “Cape Fear” starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. A somnambulant ease pervades the place as does the down-home friendliness you don’t get in pretentious Richmond 30 miles to the north up Interstate 95.

I got to know Petersburg a lot better when my two daughters went going to high school there at the Appomattox Regional Governors School for the Arts and Technology. Drawing from localities from Richmond to Isle of Wight and Franklin, the school body was bright, diverse and creative.

Driving my children if they missed the bus from Chesterfield was a pain but the effort was worth it since they had some fine teachers and avoided the White Toast trap of entitlement one gets into in more affluent suburban schools.

That’s when I was introduced to Petersburg’s nascent arts community. I went to plenty of “Fridays for the Arts” celebration and hung out at Sycamore Street with the kids.

Returning again recently, I found that the arts scene is really taking off. They  seem to be at a sustainable critical mass.

It is due primarily to the city’s policy of remaking itself by setting up an arts district that is nationally recognized as historic and offering tax credits and abatements for newcomers to renovate properties they buy from the city. The big expansion at the Fort Lee military base in 2005 really helped (although it’s due for a cut).

I wrote about it in a cover story in Style Weekly. The heroes and heroines are far-sighted city officials, arts willing to risk a lot remaking some truly historic buildings and the next wave, restaurants that aren’t owned by franchises, coming in.

Not everything is wonderful. Petersburg still has a weak public school system and a poverty rate of 28 percent, a point higher than Richmond’s. But it also doesn’t have the in-fighting among powerful interest groups that far bigger Richmond does. There’s no endless debate over building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom (to line pockets of developers) or keeping it at the Boulevard.

There’s no high level brinksmanship about where to put a Children’s Hospital.

In Richmond, you see, ball fans and sick children are the last ones to be worried about. What matters is Mayor Dwight Jones, Bill Goodwin, Michael Rao, the Timmons Group and the editors of the Richmond Times Dispatch. They are important and you are not.

You don’t get that in Petersburg. The little city (population 32,000) that has a historical richness than rivals Richmond’s doesn’t think it is better than anyone else.

RAM, Coal and Massive Hypocrisy

The Pikesville RAM clinic in 2011. Photo by Scott Elmquist

The Pikesville RAM clinic in 2011. Photo by Scott Elmquist

By Peter Galuszka

Sure it’s a photo op but more power to him.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe is freshly arrived from the cocktail and canape circuit in Europe on a trade mission and is quickly heading out to the rugged and impoverished coal country of Wise County.

There, he, Attorney General Mark Herring and Health and Human Resources Secretary William A. Hazel will participate in a free clinic to help the mountain poor get free health care. The political opportunity is simple: Many of the 1,000 or more who will be attending the Remote Area Medical clinic are exactly the kind of people getting screwed over by the General Assembly’s failure to expand Medicaid to 400,000 low income Virginians.

RAM makes its Wise run every summer and people line up often in the wee morning hours to get a free medical and dental checkup. For many, it’s the only health care they get all year unless it’s an emergency. Another problem: Distances are great in the remote mountains and hospitals can be an hour away.

Mind you, this is Coal Country, the supposedly rich area upon which Barack Obama is waging war and harming local people by not going along with coal executives’ demands on environmental disasters such as mountaintop removal, keeping deep mine safety standards light and avoiding carbon dioxide rules.

The big question, of course,  is why if the land is so rich in fossil fuel, are the people so poor and in need of free medical care? It’s been this way for 150 years. And now, coal’s demise got underway in Southwest Virginia in 1991 when employment peaked at about 11,000. It is now at 4,000 or less. It’s getting worse, not better.

In June 2011, by coincidence, I happened along a RAM free clinic in Pikesville, Ky., not that far from Wise when I was researching my book, “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.” My photographer Scott Elmquist and I spotted the clinic at a high school. There must have been hundreds of people there —  some of whom told me they had been waiting since 1:30 a.m. It was about 8:30 a.m.

Attending them were 120 medical and dental personnel from the U.S. Public Health Service. They were dressed in U.S. Navy black, grey and blue colored fatigues. The University of Louisville had sent in about 80 dental chairs.

Poverty in Pike County had been running about 27 percent, despite the much-touted riches of coal. Pike is Kentucky’s biggest coal producer.

One man I spoke with said he had a job as a security guard, but he doesn’t qualify for regular Medicaid and can’t afford a commercial plan. In other words, had I interviewed him more recently and had he been a Virginian, he would have been lost through the cracks of Medicaid expansion. Alas, he’s in luck. In 2013, Kentucky opted for a “marketplace” expansion system where federal funds would be used to help lower income buy health plans through private carriers.

Lucky the man isn’t from here. The marketplace plan is exactly the kind that McAuliffe has proposed and exactly the one that stubborn Republicans such as Bill Howell in the General Assembly are throttling. The feds would pick up the bill for expanding Medicaid to 400,000 needy Virginians, at least initially.

Yet another irony. Expanded medical benefits are available just across an invisible border in two states whose coalfield residents somehow never got the great benefits of King Coal.

Finally, Some Sense on Climate Change

mowbray archBy Peter Galuszka

Pulling the state’s head out of the sand, Gov. Terry McAuliffe has reversed his predecessor’s policy on addressing climate change.

He has reestablished a 35-member panel to see what the state can do to deal with what many scientists believe is an impending crisis. McAuliffe revived the panel first created by Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine and then left to wither away by former Republican Gov. Robert McDonnell.

Ironically, the new panel includes Michael Mann, a former University of Virginia climatologist who was the target of bitter and petty attacks by former arch-conservative Atty. Gen. Kenneth Cuccinelli over his view that mankind was responsible for carbon dioxide-driven greenhouse gases that are helping warm up the earth, melt polar ice caps and potentially flood huge sections of coastal cities such as Norfolk.

It’s about time that Virginia rejoined the 21st Century. McDonnell took the state backwards on environmental issues by gutting commissions such as this one and creating others that were devoid of ecological viewpoints and stacked with members of the fossil fuel industry and utility executives.

McAuliffe’s new commission has utility people like Dominion Virginia Power President Robert M. Blue and Bernice McIntyre of Washington Gas Light Company. But it is also well stocked with green types such as the Sierra Club, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Southern Environmental Law Center whose views were pretty much in the wilderness during the McDonnell term.

It is finally time for the state to realize that climate change is real. Study after study shows that the state is vulnerable – from agricultural impacts brought on by different weather patterns to rising water in coastal areas. One area worth study is doing more to speed the switch to renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

McDonnell had pushed a policy that would make Virginia “the Energy Capital of the East Coast,” but the effort excluded renewables in favor of offshore oil and gas companies, nuclear power and coal.

Curiously, McAuliffe also favors such endeavors as offshore petroleum development. That raises questions in the face of massive fracking onshore for natural gas and the revolution it has sparked. Perhaps the new commission can provide some guidance.

It is refreshing that Virginia is finally emerging from the intellectual horse blinders that kept the debate stuck in Benghazi-style debates over emails at a British university or trying, unsuccessfully, as Cuccinelli did, to harass scientists globally over a ridiculous claim that Michael Mann had defrauded Virginia taxpayers by asserting what most climatologists do – that climate change is real and mankind is a reason for it.

Finally. . .

Two UMW Daughters of the ’60s

Birmingham By Peter Galuszka

Just a few days ago, Elena Siddall, a Mathews County Republican activist and Tea Party Patriot, posted her account on the Rebellion of being a social worker in New York in the 1960s and the wrong-headedness of Saul Alinsky, a leftist organizer who had had a lot of influence back in the day, among others. I won’t comment on Ms. Siddall’s lively account and conservative point of view. But I do notice one thing: she is a 1963 graduate of what is now the University of Mary Washington, which then was considered the female side of the University of Virginia (campuses being segregated by sex back then).

I have a tie as well to Mary Wash, which is now coed. My daughter graduated from there last year and my cousin-in-law, now living in Tennessee, went there was well before moving on the U.Va. nursing. Our family experience at Mary Wash has been a big positive and I support the school. So, it is with considerable interest that I noticed that the Spring 2014 issue of the University of Mary Washington Magazine had a cover story of a different kind of graduate than Ms. Siddall with some very different views.

So, in the interest of providing some equal time among women who came of age during those years of intense ethical and political awareness, I thought I’d toss in the magazine story to further the debate and show that not every Eagle from Mary Wash thinks like Ms. Siddall (no disrespect intended).

The story has to do with Nan Grogan Orrock, class of ’65, the daughter of an Abingdon forest ranger, who got the civil rights fever when it wasn’t always easy for a young, white woman in Virginia to be an activist. But activist she was, from exhorting her classmates to join protests, to spending summers and other time in the Deep South demonstrating with African-Americans in SNCC, to staring down the real possibility of being beaten or killed and to even today, when she’s been active in the Georgia legislature shaking things up, such as trying to get the Confederate flag off public buildings.

The article, written by Mary Carter Bishop, class of ’67, is intriguing. The writer is a career journalist who was part of a team that won a Pulitzer in 1980 for the Philadelphia Inquirer when that paper was one of the liveliest and best in the nation.

As Bishop writes:Nan Grogan Orrock ’65 is among the South’s most veteran and well-respected advocates of social change. She is one of the longest-serving and most progressive members of the Georgia legislature and has left her mark on every sector of social justice: civil rights, women’s rights, worker rights, gay rights, environmental rights.

“She’s chased after cross-burning Ku Klux Klansmen, cut sugar cane in Cuba, started an alternative newspaper, organized unions, led strikes, been arrested a bunch of times, and still stands on picket lines. At 70, she’s far from done. I had to finally get to know her. The week before Christmas, I flew to Atlanta and sat down with her at the State Capitol.”

Please read both accounts – Ms. Siddall’s and Ms. Bishop’s article – and see ideas through opposite prisms of the 1960s involving two obviously very bright women.

Denying Truth on the Outer Banks

Sun Realty

Sun Realty

By Peter Galuszka

North Carolina’s Outer Banks have always been a touchstone for me – in as much as anyone can associate permanence with sandy islands being perpetually tossed  around by tremendous wind and water forces.

The Banks and I go back to 1954 and Hurricane Hazel when I was an infant. They mark many parts of my life. So, I read with great interest The Washington Post story by Lori Montgomery about how real estate officials in Dare County and other coastal parts of North Carolina are trying to alter clear-cut scientific projections about how deeply the islands will be under water by 2100.

State officials say that the ocean should rise 39 inches by the end of the century. This would mean that 8,500 structures worth $1.4 billion would be useless. Naturally, this has upset the real estate industry which is pushing for a new projection of an 8-inch rise 30 years from now. Think of it like a photo in a rental brochure. You don’t choose shots of dark and stormy days. The skies must be blue.

Ditto science. The insanity is that so many still don’t believe what is going on with climate change and carbon dioxide pollution. Over the past several years, Virginians, many of whom vacation on the Outer Banks, endured and paid for former Atty. Gen. Kenneth Cuccinelli’s legal attacks against a former University of Virginia climatologist who linked global warming to human activity. The assaults went nowhere.

Instead of addressing such profoundly transitory events, too many in the region say it isn’t so or pick away at what is really happening as we speak. And as Mother Jones magazine points out, it isn’t because weather change deniers, usually conservatives, don’t understand science.

The Outer Banks are an extreme example because of their incredible fragility. Anyone with even a cursory understanding of the islands knows that they are completely under the thumb because they are where two major ocean currents meet.

The only reason Hatteras has developed at all is the Bonner Bridge, an ill-conceived, 51-year-old span over Oregon Inlet so decrepit that it is often closed for repairs. Replacing it has been constantly delayed by the lack of funding and the threat of lawsuits. The federal government has been complicit for decades by spending at least hundreds of millions on sand replenishment programs or offering flood insurance coverage.

About 15 miles south of the bridge is Rodanthe, a flyspeck village just south of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuse. It is at the point of the Banks that sticks out farthest into the Atlantic and is under the strongest attack by ocean currents and storms. Route 12, the only way to evacuate by car when a hurricane comes, is on a narrow spit of constantly shifting sand trapped between the ocean and Pamlico Sound.

I’ve been going to Rodanthe for years. Starting in the 1980s, friends and I would pool our money and  rent one of the big beach houses. We have been constantly amazed how the distance between the structures and the surf is disappearing. One favorite spot was “Serendipity,” a skinny, tall beach house that we rented perhaps twice and featured fantastic views from the top-floor bar.

It was dressed up as a bed and breakfast in the movie ”Nights At Rodanthe,” a 2008 weeper starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane. The film was panned and the house was equally threatened. In fact, the next year, the owner had the whole thing placed on a truck and moved nearly a mile down the coast where there’s a little more sand.

More hurricanes followed, cutting a new inlet a few miles into Pea Island and its watery bird impoundments. The oceanfront houses we used to rent are in trouble. The ones across Route 12 now have dramatic new views.  A small, new bridge spans the inlet.

One can argue that building on the Banks is madness, global warming or not. There’s a lot of truth to this. But rising ocean water is truly going to accelerate the changes no matter how hard politicians or North Carolina’s real estate industry say it isn’t so.

Tea Party Populism vs. Eric Cantor

teddy roosevelt By Peter Galuszka

Political analysts and the media are still trying to tease out the meaning of soon-to-be-former House Majority leader Eric Cantor’s primary loss last week to an obscure college professor.

Two major themes seem to be emerging. One is what the Tea Party’s role was and what the Tea Party really is. The second is how the Big Media missed the story of winner David Brat’s surprising strength, although a number of local publications did get it, including the Chesterfield Observer, a suburban weekly that I write for (although not about politics) and won a special accolade in this morning’s New York Times.

The Times also had a piece Sunday on its front page noting just how closely tied Cantor is to Corporate America. Aerospace giant Boeing saw its stock plummet just after Cantor was clobbered. Over the years, Cantor has gladly done the bidding of big companies, notably in managed care and finance. His donors provide a ready chart.

He’s backed the continuation of the Export-Import Bank that helps guarantee loans for foreign sales (to Boeing no less) and helped kill a bill that would have increased the capital gains tax made by alpha-seeking and ultra-rich hedge fund managers. Cantor does know about big business because he is a lawyer and has a degree in real estate. His wife, Diana, has worked for such Wall Street behemoths as Goldman Sachs. And, of course, Cantor was hatched and grew up in Richmond’s cliquish business community.

The interesting trend here is how Brat, touching a surprisingly sensitive populist nerve, targeted Cantor’s cozy links to Big Business along with the usual complaint menu about illegal immigrants and government spending. Brat hit Cantor for various corporate bailouts, including TARP, backing Medicare Plan D and two unfunded wars.

Such criticism resonated with his supporters, who are conservatives. But unlike the country club Republicans of yesteryear, these voters might be throwbacks to the Gilded Age during the era of gigantic trusts. I am strolling through Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpit” which looks at Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft at the turn of the 19th century and it is fascinating reading.

Being a Republican then meant being an upstart and independent-minded troublemaker, not a defender of the status quo and big business interests. The public seemed remarkable well informed and the media was filled with brilliant journalists like Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and S.S. McClure who took apart trust-builders such as John D. Rockefeller.

There was a real sense that too much economic power was being concentrated in two few hands and if you look at what’s happening today with the mergers of airlines, cable companies and banks, you get an uneasy sense of déjà vu. The result back then was long-standing legislation like the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and bodies like the Federal Trade Commission. The concerns were inequality, lopsided economic clout and the tendency for big companies to abuse their power.

It is in this sphere where the Tea Party types, whomever they are really, might be on to something. I’m all for leniency and compassion on immigration issues but I have to say that some of the anti-Cantor comments might have harkened back to the days of McClure’s Magazine and Tarbell’s extraordinarily detailed dissection of Standard Oil.

Sadly, the journalist profession has been gutted by cost-cutting, which is one reason why the Beltway types missed the Cantor story and scrappy little papers like the Chesterfield Observer got it. If there is growth in the news media, the hot trend is setting up “data-driven” Websites but as the Times notes, these proved inadequate as well in last week’s election because they relied on imperfect data. In other words, garbage in, garbage out, no matter how lively the prose is. What really matters is shoe leather journalism and not numbers crunching.

On-the-ground reporting can capture important clues such as how Cantor misused his Majority Leader bodyguards and Black Suburban SUVs to keep his constituents at bay on the rare occasions he actually sought them out. Otherwise, he seemed to be sequestered at expensive steakhouses. Voters pummeled by the Great Recession got the message.

Add up all of these trends and you might start understanding why Cantor’s defeat was so important. It posits who exactly the Tea Party is and what they actually stand for. It could be the start of a movement as historically significant as the one 125 years ago.

Lean Urbanism and the Bureaucratic State

building_codesby James A. Bacon

The really big idea to emerge from the 2014 Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) was “lean urbanism.” The idea isn’t entirely new. Andres Duany, New Urbanism guru and the driving force behind “lean” urbanism, has been publicly discussing the idea for a year or more. But he used the annual confab to flesh out the idea in a series of forums and conversations with others. The idea received a positive response — far more people attended his sessions than Duany had expected — but he received at least one reminder, which I shall recount shortly, that bringing about the kind of reforms he envisions will be exceedingly difficult. The fundamental problem resides not in bureaucratic intransigence or political obstreperousness but in the extraordinary complexity of modern democratic society.

The concept of lean urbanism arises from Duany’s observation that municipal zoning codes and building codes are so complex and onerous that they make it exceedingly difficult for young people, artists, gays and other small-scale players with a high tolerance for risk to gentrify and re-develop decaying urban neighborhoods. They simply lack the scale to hire the architects, planners and lawyers needed to push their projects through City Hall. Without the risk-oblivious pioneers to pave the way and demonstrate the viability of a neighborhood, big-money developers stay away unless government mitigates the risk through partnerships and subsidies, which, of course, are highly risky and expensive for government.

Duany experienced what he calls an “aha” moment, however, when touring Detroit not long ago. He was astounded by hot spots of revitalization where young people had moved into neighborhoods and begun rebuilding under the radar. Detroit’s bankruptcy, he contended, had forced the city to pare back its code enforcement apparatus, with the result that the Millennial pioneers no longer faced the bureaucratic obstacles that had halted re-development before. Was there some way to replicate that experience by, in effect, pre-negotiating a stripped down set of codes and regulations for districts targeted for development?

Lean urbanism, as best I could decipher it from the CNU sessions I attended, moves along two tracks — one on the private-sector side, the other on the public-sector side. In a series of sessions, a succession of lean-urbanism advocates presented papers on different strategies and tactics for bringing down the private-sector cost of re-development projects. Duany sat in attendance as commenter and interloculator.

Thus, David Brain, a board member of the National Charrette Institute, made a presentation on how to reduce the cost of charrettes, which are visioning and design sessions conducted with extensive public input. Charrettes are manpower-intensive and run up significant bills for the developers who hold them. Perhaps the idea could be re-tooled, Brain suggested, by bringing in smaller teams that focused on incremental changes rather than grand visions and by settling for rougher sketches without the complete documentation. There would be trade-offs, to be sure, but the result would be a tool that can “do more with less in the way of financial resources.”

Another concept was to build on the idea of tactical urbanism, in which planners, non-profits and/or volunteers mock up changes to the cityscape by repainting traffic lines, bringing in trees and bushes in planters, installing movable street furniture and holding events to show people what is possible. The idea is to undertake small, inexpensive experiments. If they fail, they can be scrapped at little cost. If they succeed, municipalities can follow up by making permanent changes.

One CNU session highlighted an example of “lean sprawl repair” for the Oak Hollow Mall in High Point, N.C. That project visualized transforming an abandoned mall into a business incubator with space for live-work studios, artisan workshops and a culinary institute. Parking lots would provide space for cheap, pop-up business quarters in the form of shipping containers. Cheap. Fast. Low risk. Other presentations explored the potential for making greater use of live-work units, using lean urbanism to revitalize small towns, and adopting the vernacular architecture of the Philippines to increase energy efficiency of American buildings at low cost.

But achieving public-sector reform is a tougher nut to crack. In yet another session, Richmond, Va., attorney Daniel K. Slone tackled the prospects for reforming the building code. Rules in the building code exist for a reason, he said. They are designed to protect against hazards common to the construction of buildings and they have constituencies that will fight to preserve them. Responsible builders prefer having codes because they protect against competitors underbidding them by doing shoddy work and because hewing to accepted best practices protects them against lawsuits if something does go wrong. When Millennials in Detroit ignore the permitting process, they take on risks — or pass them on to others — that they may or may not be prepared to deal with.

Unlike many government standards, which are imposed from above, building codes come from a grassroots, bottom-up process in which government plays a negligible role in setting the standards. The process is open to anyone who wants to participate, and the results reflect a give-and-take between stakeholders. The 1990s saw important updates to the code as environmentalists pressed for alternative building designs for such things as green roofs, adobe houses and putting outdoor lighting in trees rather than on creosote phone poles. Another wave of reform resulted in the creation of a Rehab subcode that recognized that the renovation of existing buildings justifies different rules than does construction of new buildings, achieving some of the goals that the Lean Urbanists are agitating for.

It might be useful, suggested Slone, to examine the concept of sovereign immunity that protects public officials for the negligent actions of government. Sovereign immunity has eroded over the years as citizens, legislators and courts have sought to hold public officials more accountable. Understandably, government officials are reluctant to expose themselves to the risk of lawsuits by modifying the building code. Clarification or expansion of sovereign immunity may be one of the most overlooked aspects of achieving lean regulatory reform, Slone wrote in a draft white paper. However, reformers should expect the possibility of resistance from the plaintiff’s bar and consumer advocates. Continue reading

Mobile Homes, Wealth Accumulation and the Poor

trailer_parkby James A. Bacon

Manufactured dwellings — mobile homes, trailers, call them what you will — are a major source of affordable housing in the United States. But a few market reforms would make them even more affordable to lower- and middle-income families and make them better vehicles for accumulating wealth. That was the message from a session Friday morning at the 2014 conference of the Congress of the New Urbanism in Buffalo, N.Y.

The great advantage of manufactured housing is that it costs less than site-built housing– $44 per square foot on average compared to $86 per square foot, not counting the value of the land, said Doug Ryan, director of affordable housing initiatives for the Corporation for Enterprise Development. But there are drawbacks. Many homeowners don’t own the land beneath their trailers and they cannot obtain long-term mortgage financing like other homeowners can. Also, zoning codes often marginalize manufactured housing, relegating trailer parks to undesirable locations, if permitting it at all.

Many problems with the industry originate from its origins decades ago when companies manufactured mobile trailers primarily as recreational vehicles. Over time, the trailers evolved into houses set in semi-permanent locations while campgrounds evolved into trailer parks. In 1976 legislation formally recognized the difference between “recreational vehicles” and “manufactured housing” but the underlying business model – RVs/mobile homes sitting on land owned by someone else – did not change.

Severing the connection between home ownership and land ownership created at least two big problems. First, trailer owners were subject to the whims of the landowner. In most states, trailer park owners could evict tenants for undesirable behavior or any other reason with only 30 days’ notice. If the landowner wanted to sell to a developer – boom – long-term tenants found themselves uprooted and forced to move to another location, if they could find one, at considerable expense.

Second, financing companies classified trailers as “chattel” property the same as RVs, which meant that homeowners could not access mortgage financing which charged lower interests rates and stretched out payments over longer periods. The second problem was tied to the first: The disconnect between the trailer and the land beneath it made it less desirable collateral for financiers.

Fortunately for mobile homeowners, a non-profit movement has arisen to address those problems. As Lisa Davis, program officer for the Ford Foundation, described it, reformers are moving across a broad front: changing the law to get manufactured housing titled as real estate; improving product quality with a focus on energy efficiency; solving the land-tenure problem; and reforming the financing system.

ROC USA, a not-for-profit enterprise, is addressing the land-ownership issue by converting trailer parks into land-ownership co-ops. It is impractical to subdivide trailer parks into individual lots for individual trailers, said Paul Bradley, president of ROC USA. But giving trailer tenants an ownership interest in a communal property does several positive things. It gives them equity ownership in the land, and it gives them security against the landlord selling the property and evicting them. Thirty years of experience has shown that homes in resident-owned communities sell faster and sell for more, allowing homeowners to build more equity.

Next Step Network is working on several initiatives to help trailer owners. The organization provides education and credit counseling to trailer buyers to ensure they make intelligent consumer decisions, and it works with the industry to make the costs and risks of ownership more transparent, said Dave Betler, marketing and operations specialist with Next Step. The group urges homeowners to look beyond up-front costs and look at life-cycle costs, which include energy payments. Manufacturing trailers to Energy Star specifications can lower monthly payments and increase re-sale value. Energy expenditures loom large for low-income families – twice the percentage of their income compared to average households.

Bacon’s bottom line: For the most part, I find these initiatives to be highly commendable. Instead of seeking government subsidies or engaging in social engineering, they are trying to make the market work more effectively. The goals of greater transparency and consumer education are laudable. Addressing the land-tenure issue by converting trailer parks into co-ops is inspired. Nudging the financial industry into providing mortgage financing sounds reasonable, although there may be complicating issues, such as the use of long-term mortgages that extend longer than the expected life of the trailer, that the panelists did not discuss.

The other reason I prefer this approach to many other affordable-housing initiatives is that it does not bilk taxpayer or turn lower-income people into wards of the state — it turns poor people into property owners and gives them a means to accumulate at least a small amount of wealth. That builds a much healthier society.

Brat and Cantor: Two Unsavory Choices

BratCantorWebBy Peter Galuszka

The hottest political race coming up is the Republican primary this Tuesday involving the 7th Congressional District now represented by Eric Cantor, a powerful conservative who is House Majority Leader and could possibly one day be Speaker of the House.

His opponent, college professor David Brat, has gotten much national attention because Brat is trying to out-Tea Party Cantor who tried to shed his Main Street background and led the insurgent Tea Party parade during their days of glory back in 2010.

But if you want to see just how intellectually barren both men are, read what they wrote in opposing columns in the Richmond newspaper this morning. They show just how out of touch they are and how they are dominated by a tiny group of hard-right fanatics who have split the state GOP.

Brat is an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in the quaint railroad town of Ashland that might be a set for a Jimmy Stewart movie.

He spends a lot of time debunking Cantor’s ridiculous claim that he is a “liberal” college professor but the very fact that he is doing this is a throwback to the Old Virginny days of yore. First, off, what is wrong with being a “liberal professor?” Are we supposed to have academics that pass a litmus test? Maybe Brat would have House UnAmerican Activities Committees on colleges to make sure that “liberal” professors don’t poison young minds.

Secondly, the use of the term is an exercise in euphemism that smacks of the Massive Resistance days when a candidate was accused of being a “social engineer” if he or she backed integration and civil rights.

And while Brat makes some fair points about Cantor masquerading as a budget hawk, his ideas on finally dealing with undocumented foreign-born residents are downright scary and are obviously intended as a populist ploy to the lower elements of voters.

Indeed, Brat’s column raises serious questions about just how well he understands economic reality, especially when it comes to immigration. Forces are aligning for some kind of long-overdue resolution of immigration. He claims Cantor backs amnesty for undocumented workers. (If so, what’s wrong with that?)

Brat paints a weird picture in which “illegals,” working in collusion with giant corporations, are stealing jobs from “real” Virginians. I won’t go into the borderline racist and nativist aspects of his statements. They smack of the older days of the No Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan that wanted to keep non-Protestants, such as Catholic Irish, Poles, Germans and Italians, or Chinese or Japanese, out of the country.

Strangely and even more troubling, Brat simply doesn’t understand the American labor market. One of the reason so many immigrants are in some sectors of the economy, such as construction and poultry processing, are because the jobs are dirty, messy and there aren’t enough native-American workers willing or able to do them. That is why turkey processing plants in the Shenandoah Valley have so many hard-working Hispanic immigrants. Ditto construction jobs.

At the other end of the spectrum, Professor Brat ignores the dilemma at the high-end of the economy. American universities are not producing enough software and other engineers so we have to import them through visa programs. Some companies are so hungry for foreign intellectual talent that immigrants end up working just across the border in Canada where it is easier to get visas although their efforts support American firms.

This may come as news to Brat in his little college town, but the world is becoming more global and, like it or not, there will be more foreign-born people working here and elsewhere. His complaint that illegals are getting soldier jobs that Americans might want is strange. The military needs to wind down after 13 years of war. One wonders if Brat even has a passport and has traveled overseas.

Cantor’s column is the usual Eddie Haskell boilerplate. He spends a lot of time tearing down the Affordable Care Act. Republicans have launched at least six unsuccessful assaults on it and still refuse to accept the Supreme Court’s decision of a couple of years ago.

Generously funded by the managed care industry, Cantor raises no alternatives to the current health care system that is plagued with overbilling, a lack of transparency and has cruelly prevented millions from getting coverage because of “pre-existing conditions.” Granted the roll out of exchanges was a mess last year, but health care sign ups have exceeded expectations in Virginia. The expected number was 134,800 in enrollment plans under the ACA. At the beginning of May it was 216,300.

Neither candidate talks about crucial issues such as income inequality, climate change or America’s changing role in world diplomacy. Neither talks about about poverty or smart growth or student debt.

Cantor is likely to win Tuesday but neither man seems worthy of leadership. They are just more evidence about how the right-wing fringe has been allowed to highjack the agenda. As this continues to happen, Virginia will be stuck in its ugly past.