Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

Suggestions to Ease Virginia’s Housing Crisis without Additional State Money


by James C. Sherlock

The Richmond Times-Dispatch, on cue, wrote in an editorial the other day that more state money was needed to fund local housing.


But that is not the first place to look.

The governor wants to condition development aid to local communities on their reforming land-use policies to permit more construction.

I have a few ideas along that line.

Proffers, also known as conditional zoning, are a recognition that real estate developments have impacts on other properties and on services provided by the local jurisdiction. Fair enough.

The money for roads, sewers and schools has to come from somewhere. Proffers make the developers and their customers pay for a share of capital improvements deemed necessary by city/county planners.

Wielded unpredictably, and sometimes unethically, they are also part of the problem. See the excellent article Politics and Proffers by Matt Ahern for the games played with proffers and their cost to the housing economy.

Then there is low-cost housing.

The Commonwealth by law permits but does not require localities to waive fees for low-cost housing. That law, originally and curiously restricted to only non-profit developers, was updated in 2019 to permit the same waivers to for-profit builders.

Send state housing funds only to jurisdictions that do so. Require in law a limit to the costs of proffers for low-cost housing.

Finally, tax Virginia’s astonishingly profitable non-profit hospitals to help them with their mission of caring for the disadvantaged — in this case in low-cost housing. Continue reading

Do Slumlords Contribute to Violent Crime?

This map shows the correlation between rates of violence in the City of Richmond and tax delinquency by corporate landlords.

by James A. Bacon

In the previous post, I argued that the underlying cause of violence in the City of Richmond is social breakdown stemming from erosion of the family structure and the resultant failure to teach children the skills they need to avoid and resolve conflicts.

In the great philosophical debate over the extent to which individuals and communities have agency over their own fates and the degree to which they are victims of outside forces, I stand on the side of individual agency. By contrast, Samuel J. West, an assistant professor of psychology at Virginia State University, belongs in the structuralist camp.

During his post-doctoral research at Virginia Commonwealth University, West led a research team that uncovered a link between urban violence and slumlords who failed to maintain their properties. Their findings were published by PLOS One in the article, “Comparing forms of neighborhood instability as predictors of violence in Richmond, VA.

“It is not the residents of high-violence neighborhoods that have constructed a disorganized environment conducive to antisocial behaviors,” the study says, “but those who hold power over the structural features of these neighborhoods, despite not residing within them.” Continue reading

Culture Wars + Unearned Income Equality = Political Realignment

by James A. Bacon

If you want to understand the political realignment taking place in the United States — and Virginia, of course — you need to read this column in The Wall Street Journal: “Income Equality, Not Inequality, Is the Problem.”

Most commentary on income inequality in the U.S. focuses on income reported to the Internal Revenue Service. It does not adjust for income taxes, welfare benefits, or household size. Once those adjustments are made, Phil Gramm and John Early contend, income differences between Americans in the bottom income quintile and the second from bottom disappear. Indeed, bottom-quintile households make slightly more disposable income than second-quintile households, and almost as much as middle-quintile households.

Actually, the situation is probably worse than Gramm and Early portray. Their adjustments include only “income transfers” — they apparently do not include a vast array of means-tested benefits like those we see in Virginia: electricity rebates for the poor, eviction moratoria, free transit fares, and college scholarships and loans. Nor do they include black market income, which some economists estimate to account for 10% of the economy.

As the sub-head of the article summarizes the picture: “Those in the middle work much harder, but don’t earn much more, than those at the bottom.” Continue reading

Interview with Virginia’s Secretary of Health and Human Resources on Petersburg Health – Part 1

John Littel, Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources

by James C. Sherlock

I have written about the initiatives of the Youngkin Administration to help Petersburg improve the economic situation and quality of life in that city.

Petersburg is last in education of children, last in health outcomes and factors, last in public safety. It is an economic basket case.

The Youngkin administration and the Attorney General are focusing on mitigating the worst case — Petersburg.

They will support the efforts of the mayor, government, non-profits, and industry — including business and the citizens of Petersburg — the way it must be to succeed.

I have applauded the governor’s initiative as both right and brave. These are now what Teddy Roosevelt called “men (and now women) in the arena.” An arena that they created on Monday.

John Littel, the Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources, is in the center of that arena. He knows well where the problems lie.  He knows what has been tried and failed to mitigate them.  He granted me an interview.  

He answered a tough question that I will discuss today. Continue reading

The Public Housing and Education Debate – Who, Exactly, are the Racists?

Norfolk public housing immediately adjacent to old Virginian-Pilot building

by James C. Sherlock

There is agreement on both sides of the political divide in Virginia and the rest of the country that public housing projects were and are hellholes.

I have written that the bipartisan response, vouchers, run into lack of supply virtually everywhere.

Cue the debate about causes and solutions.

Let’s take a look at the evidence. Continue reading

Capitalism is the Solution To, Not the Cause Of, the Affordable Housing Crisis

by James C. Sherlock

My colleague Dick Hall-Sizemore posted a column here on housing for the poor. He titled it “Little Guys Lose Again.” His opening:

A recent article on this blog about the high cost of housing generated a considerable amount of discussion. Much of the discussion centered around the role of government in contributing to the affordable housing shortage.

I offer another reason: good old-fashioned capitalism.

Interesting perspective, but I disagree.

I offer a question directly on point: why have federal antipoverty housing programs failed in their missions? Why is there not enough low cost housing for the poor?

We will pursue the answer. Hint — the problem isn’t capitalism. Not even a little bit. Continue reading

What the Wind Project Costs You and Who Pays

The annual revenue required from Virginia customers to finance Dominion Energy Virginia’s offshore wind installation. It peaks at about $800 million in 2027, driving the amount to be collected on monthly bills. Source: SCC Testimony. Click for larger view.

by Steve Haner

If the project goes as planned, the consumer cost for Dominion Energy Virginia’s offshore wind installation will rapidly rise to a peak in 2027 and then descend annually over the following 20 years. If it produces power for 30 years, in the final phase the revenue related to the project will exceed the remaining capital costs.

What is this going to cost Dominion’s captive ratepayers?  There is also a related but often ignored question: which of those customers did the Virginia General Assembly exempt from those costs, effectively bumping up the price to those not exempt? Continue reading

The Affordable Housing Crisis Intensifies

The Washington Post has published an interactive graphic showing how much rents have increased across the United States over the past year. Average rents in Virginia increased most rapidly in Hampton Roads, the Richmond metro, and the Fredericksburg area — up 20.4% in Spotsylvania County and 20.2% in Bedford County outside Lynchburg. Among localities that provided data, rents declined in only one county: Wise County.

Housing affordability has been a long-festering issue in Virginia. With the cost of housing skyrocketing over the past year, it is rapidly becoming a social crisis. Poor households are being displaced, forced to double up with family and friends. The poor are (rightfully) blamed for many problems of their own making, but unaffordable housing is not one of them. That is the outcome of temporary, COVID-related market forces and decades of anti-development housing policy in Virginia.

The Youngkin administration needs to get ahead of the curve on this issue with market-based policies to promote new housing construction. Otherwise, you can be sure that Democrats will come up with policies of their own that, if initiatives in other states are any indication, require government subsidies, interventions in the housing market, and short-sighted panaceas like rent control that will make matters worse.


More Ignored News: Bag Tax Coming to Richmond

From American Progressive Bag Alliance flyer opposing local bag taxes.

by Steve Haner

The plastic bag tax recently approved in Roanoke and several Northern Virginia localities, created by the General Assembly in 2020 as a local option, is also coming to the City of Richmond. It was promised in the same September 13 Richmond City Council “climate crisis” resolution that implied a future closure of the Richmond Gas WorksContinue reading

Wait, What? Renter Credit Scores Are Improving?

Average credit scores. Graph credit: Consumer Protection Finance Bureau

by James A. Bacon

Who would have guessed? For all the angst over the “eviction crisis” precipitated by COVID-19-related job losses, it turns out that the financial condition of low-income renters improved overall as the epidemic wore on, according to a new report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The federal bureau credits stimulus payments, stepped up unemployment insurance benefits, and the suspension of college loan repayments for the change.

Virginia advocates of tenant rights used the eviction crisis as justification for the partial moratorium on evictions through June 2022. (Before evicting tenants for unpaid rent, landlords need to give tenants 45 days to get rental assistance approved.) At one level, the crisis appeared to be very real. The Virginia Unemployment Commission fell far behind in processing unemployment benefits to workers who lost their jobs, which seemed a plausible explanation for why so many were falling behind on their rent payments.

Administrative failures may be responsible for Virginia’s eviction crisis, but the CFPB report suggests that the story is more complicated than commonly portrayed. Continue reading

SCC Hikes Electricity Bills For New PIPP Subsidy

By Steve Haner

All customers of Dominion Energy Virginia and Appalachian Power in Virginia will begin soon to pay an extra monthly charge related to the coming Percentage of Income Payment Program, the General Assembly’s new electricity cost subsidy for low-income residential customers.

The PIPP was initially created in the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act and then revised with a bill in 2021, but just when then bill subsidies begin is still to be determined. The Department of Social Services, which will determine eligibility, still needs to devise the program. No start date is specified in the law. Continue reading

Wake Up, People! This Is Me Telling You That the Old Answers Are Not Working!

Photo credit: WTKR televison

by James A. Bacon

How many children have to be killed, wounded and traumatized before people wake up?

Headline from today’s Virginian-Pilot: “Nearly a dozen children have been shot this month in Norfolk. Communities are hurting…”

And then it adds this kicker: “and activists want change.”

The Virginian-Pilot spoke with elected officials, community organizers, the city’s police chief, and nearly two dozen families impacted by the violence. There are lots of ideas out there — more funding for recreation centers, expanded peer mentorship, getting guns off the street. The usual suspects… all of which have been tried and all found lacking.

The story does extract the beginnings of insight from one person. Councilman Paul Riddick cuts to the quick: “We have no one but ourselves to blame,” he says, referring to city leaders “We have lost control of our youngsters.”

But then he says the city needs to redistribute money from wealthy areas to poor areas to build more libraries and recreation centers. Libraries? Are you kidding me? The City of Norfolk needs to build more libraries to reduce the number of random shootings? Continue reading

Virginia’s New Ruling Class: How Exploitation Works in the Real World

Graphic credit: Axios

Medical debt, which comprises 58% of all debt collections in the U.S., is the leading cause of bankruptcy in the United States. Between January 2018 and July 2020, hospitals filed tens of thousands of lawsuits and other court against against patients, according to AXIOS,  which drew upon Johns Hopkins University data. Until a public outcry compelled them to stop suing patients last year, the two most aggressive debt collectors in the country, by a wide margin, were the VCU Medical Center in Richmond (17,806 court actions) and the University of Virginia hospital in Charlottesville (7,197 court actions).

What do the VCU and UVa hospitals have in common? Several things. First, both enjoy nonprofit status. Second, both generate significant profits. Third, both are teaching hospitals affiliated with large research universities. Fourth, both universities are governed by self-perpetuating oligarchies accountable to no one, least of all to patients. Fifth, both are incentivized to suck every dime they can out of their customers to fund the thing that confers institutional prestige — medical research.

This is what social injustice looks like in the real world: Academic elites exploit the medical patients in their care to bolster profits and research funding. The fixation on racial injustice — obsessing over memorials named after slave holders and Civil War veterans, apologizing for sins that occurred a hundred years ago — is a dodge and a distraction.

— JAB 

How’s Descano’s Social-Justice Prosecution Policy Working Out?

A Fairfax County police car vandalized with spray paint in a 2016 incident.

by James A. Bacon

Steve Descano was elected Commonwealth Attorney of Fairfax County in 2019 on the promise that he would end mass incarceration by winding down the prosecution of marijuana possession and raising the threshold to $1,500 for larceny prosecutions. As he stated in his reform platform, “I will not ruin someone’s life because of an impulsive decision to steal an iPhone.”

It did not take long for his policies to spark a backlash. Charging Descano with pleading felonies to misdemeanors, a failure to punish reckless drivers,  and abandoning victims of violent crimes, a Fairfax citizens group has launched a recall initiative.

With the publication of the Crime in Virginia 2020 report, we have the data to get a better feeling for what Descano was up to last year. The statistics for Virginia’s most populous county indicate that he was as good as his word — he significantly reduced prosecutions for shoplifting and drug-related crimes. The big question is whether Descano’s brand of social justice will make Fairfax County less livable for law-abiding, middle-class families. Continue reading

Free Bus Fares for Everyone Because… Equity

Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine

by James A. Bacon

Once upon a time, Virginia built roads and bridges according to the quaint old principle of “pay as you go,” meaning that the state didn’t spend money it didn’t have. That idea went hand in glove with another quaint concept that the people who used public transportation infrastructure should be the people who paid to build and maintain it. People who walked (which a lot of people did in those days) or rode the trolleys shouldn’t pay for roads.

Now Virginians are much more sophisticated. We tell ourselves that such antiquated ideas originated with Harry Byrd Sr., who was a segregationist and racist, which therefore discredits everything he said and did. Not only do modern-day Virginians borrow billions of dollars to build transportation projects, government now operates bus, passenger rail and commuter rail lines, and we tax everyone to pay for everything. The link between who use and those who pays for transportation infrastructure has dissolved like a corpse in a vat of hydrochloric acid.

Virginia’s original bus lines, trolley lines, and passenger lines once operated for profit. They no longer do. The government owns them and massively subsidizes them — even more than roads and highways (which is a travesty in itself). But apparently those subsidies are not enough. Now the au courant thinking is that subsidized transit fares are a “barrier.” People who ride mass transit should not have to pay anything at all. Continue reading