Tag Archives: building

The Oakland Inferno and Government Caused Poverty; Does a Lack Respect for Regulations and Codes Cause such Tragedies or is Poverty Resulting from Regulations and Codes Lead to Disrespect for the Law?

At the 6 Dec 16 meeting of the Committee of the Whole, a commissioner uncharacteristically commented at length on the recent Oakland fire; we heard that the warehouse had not been properly inspected and certified for occupancy for residency or for hosting shows. The tragedy illustrated the need for inspections and enforcement of codes. I would have answered immediately but was taken aback by the unexpected. Also, I lacked even the most basic understanding of the issues involved in Oakland.

Within minutes of arriving home after the meeting, I was looking at NYT articles which presented the Oakland warehouse fire and analysed the reasons why alleged artists lived in that building and tolerated dangerous conditions.

I copied the following snippets from the two NYT articles that are linked in the title;

About the Ghost Ship: “The city’s (Oakland) $2,899 median rent is now among the highest, and just short of median rents in Manhattan….rising rents and fears of eviction can push vulnerable people in a desperate search for housing to unsafe spaces….a vast gray economy of live/work spaces that, legal or not, are regarded as an important source of affordable housing…“You bring these places up to code and you end up pricing out the people who make Oakland such a great place,” Mr. Dolan said.”

Now this is a bone on which a skeptic, such as myself, can gnaw.

I may have written here about my own housing experience. In Texas, where they still respect private property, I paid 400 dollars per month for a furnished one bedroom. This residence would cost me 700 in Kentwood where we have zoning and planning, 800 in Grand Rapids where they add inspections to the mix and 2500 in Manhattan where the residents also have rent control and where the landlords are hated and bled white by innumerable government leeches. Regulations, inspections, taxes, harassment of owners all cost money, something that poor people don’t have and so they gravitate toward the Ghost Ship and others like it. (Parenthetically, over 20 years ago, I knew that over a dozen otherwise homeless individuals squatted in the old Mary Free Bed building on Cherry Street. What happened in Oakland is not unique. There are poor everywhere squeezed by the high cost of real estate.)

The flaws with the “need for inspections” are that 1) I can’t find evidence that inspections of electrical, plumbing, structural and heating projects have any impact on safety or livability. Maybe there is evidence but no one publishes their findings. If someone knows of such a study, please tell me where I can review it. 2) Individuals who want to can easily avoid inspections, or worse yet, bribe, influence or frustrate the inspectors and end up doing what they want. The owners/managers of the Ghost Ship certainly had mechanisms in place to evacuate residents and to hide other evidence of people living there. 3) Many places will escape inspections due to the bureaucracy and ineptness of government. In Oakland, “no one is responsible.” The mayor has deflected criticism from the inspectors who ignored the building even though the program is probably a money maker for the cash strapped city.

We seem to have a chicken and egg problem here. I will concede that there are structural problems that can be detected and corrected by inspections so possibly averting a border line number of tragedies. However, the cost of inspections falls squarely on the poor who are driven to find ways to get around the costs. There are scofflaws who operate below the radar to provide services for these poor people and whose properties are never inspected or worse yet, who bribe inspectors so disgracing the law and government.

I’ll admit that we will never get rid of inspections. Ordinary peaceful folks who obey the law will pay the fees and justify the expense because it makes them feel reassured that someone in authority has blessed whatever project that they have paid for. There is a phrase that I saw somewhere; “Keep the yokels insecure, and the money never stops.”

Less scrupulous folks and the desperately poor who have nothing to lose will collude and easily get around inspections. Some, tragically, will get burned.

Grass Growing Across the Sidewalk

On this Tuesday’s COW we are being asked about who should pay for the replacement of 4 segments of a sidewalk. There are a half dozen fuzzy pictures of the damage. As far as I can tell, the walkway is flat, there are no places where a skateboarder or a walker might trip, so I’m not sure why this an issue.
What does entertain me however, is grass growing out of the cracks where the sidewalk is segmented. No one uses this “walkway” which is at an intersection of two important streets (Jefferson and 44th.)
The sidewalk in front of my condo is also broken, but one person does walk on it, an older lady who is up at dawn wearing a robe and encouraging her dog to urinate on my patch of lawn. She does pace around, back and forth, once a day and so my sidewalk has no grass, but, of course, my grass has small brown patches (small dog.) I’d include a picture, but don’t want to offend pubic decency.
But returning to Kentwood’s stance. Why would anyone spend money for something as useless that is nothing more than a public conventional bromide, namely that we have to have “walkable communities”, or parks that are empty, or Farmer’s Markets staffed by hucksters?
I’m going to vote against this outrage.

Ramming Kentwood into More Debt, Raising Taxes by the Back Door

We got the Parks and Recreation Commissioners’ minutes for the last 3 months in the latest city commission packet. We’ve been missing a lot more than just delayed reports.

The commissioners are Emily Bridson, Bob Coughlin, Brian Dickey, Mimi Madden, Dustin Moseley, Kevin Small and Chair Bob Jones. Mr. Terry Schweitzer of planning is usually present at their meetings. Mark Rambo, Deputy City Administrator was there in March, the laying on of hands by our City Hall so to speak.

It seems that there are actual plans to replace the Kent Activities Center (KAC) on 48th and to spend more money on other recreation opportunities for “new families” and “new businesses” that will be moving to Kentwood. (And the whole time I thought that we were merely serving the same old long suffering taxpayers and shopworn residents, shame on me.)

The Parks and Rec Commission has been using Federal Community Block Grants, DNR, and some of the money left over from a now expired parks millage to fund new acquisitions and upgrades, and doing just fine. The operational money comes from the city’s general fund and I’m told that we will be in surplus as we pay down our bonds.

The Parks and Recreation Commission envisions expansion of facilities although the amount land in Kentwood hasn’t changed in 5 decades and the city is thought to be 90% “built out.” It’s hard to justify expansion if the supply of park services has been adequate for 50 years; do they think that our aging population want more grassland on which to play soccer or to jog?

There is a saving grace of caution in these minutes that comes from City Hall. I have been asking for data documenting how much our parks and rec facilities are actually used since I was elected in 2013. Are they near capacity, or are they, as my personal observations seem to show, almost abandoned? The Paul Henry Bike Trail that my wife and I did on the Fourth of July was busy enough but not long enough for serious biking. (We were really put off by the traffic along 60th Street and it’s hard to see where this path could be expanded to make it more natural.) We saw a half dozen small parks along the way, all empty on the biggest summer holiday of the year.

Mark Rambo in addressing the Commissioners’ request for guidance in borrowing the money for their new projects, suggests being sure that there is a need for more recreational facility and providing documentation.  If we need to renew the Parks Millage we should know how much is needed, and for what.  The Commission needs to identify activities that are missing in the Kentwood area that the public can’t get when it flocks to Planet Fitness and MVP voting with their own money.

Our Parks and Rec department read the statistically flawed, push-poll-generated parks study from 2 or 3 years ago and apparently wants to rush us past the gritty Kentwood realities to get to some sort of promised land that might be valid in California or in the minds of academic dreamers who state that a community needs a swimming pool for every 20,000 residents. (Where do these numbers come from?)

Just as our police use crime data to focus their resources , the Parks and Rec commission need to show usage, picnic tables occupied by families on holidays, kids playing sandlot baseball on weekday afternoons and young couples watching birds and flowers in nature preserves ere we pile yet more debt and the taxes on our indebted populace to pay for this stuff.

The Silver Line, Form Based Building Codes, the Hard Pressed Taxpayer whom I Throw under the Bus.

 

I’ll start with a direct quote from Wikipedia;

“Form-Based Codes foster predictable built results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle, with a lesser focus on land use, through municipal regulations.” (I will ignore the self serving “results in a high-quality” blather in this article.)

It seems that the latest fad in city planning is “The New Urbanism” aka “Smart Cities.” Our Grand Rapids area has bought into it. The idea is that we should live in crowded conditions along linear tracks where benevolent public-private entities arrange our jobs, leisure, shopping and public transportation, all of it ‘’walkable.”

Where to begin.

The public transit is easiest; the government built the Silver Line along our western border on South Division (32 million dollars) and we’re taxed directly millions for its operating budget. It is also planned to restrict the traffic flow along this road.

The rest of this scheme envisions private investors building apartments, stores, restaurants, offices and factories along this corridor so that a population of young, technically savvy  fictive entrepreneurs would move in, start businesses, leave a low carbon footprint and eschew urban sprawl.

In the matter of building the utopia, these urban planning romantics should be embarrassed that Kentwood and most of the Grand Rapids urban area has been built over many years under rules imposed by a constantly changing cadres of academically trained urban planners. The result looks like Fort Dix, NJ-you know, vast groupings of uniform buildings all constructed by the low bidder, painted the same color, bland and aligned, used for the same purpose standing like so many soldiers at attention. A few hundred yards away stands a grouping of a different generation of boring structures representing  the fashion of the day when it was produced by government fiat.

The planning and zoning commissions needed to distance themselves from evidence of their past sins, and sought salvation by trying to copy the few interesting portions of the urban area like the west side of GR and the Hill District that had been built before planning and zoning desecrations.

They think that abandoning the zoning that forced landowners to restrict the uses of their land to do what the government wants to now forcing builders to build structures in shapes and configurations that planners favored but allowing a wider range of uses (housing, retail trade, manufacturing)  all in the same neighborhood would rebuild deteriorated areas. Thus the hallowed “form based building codes.” All new building would be forced to have the same general architecture, in this case looking like what was built during the horse and buggy era,  but would be allowed to have different uses.

Cute.

The planning commission has been studying this for years as have Grand Rapids and Wyoming. Wyoming has actually re-written some of their codes to implement this advance of civilization. Now our planning commission wants 25K to hire a consulting firm to re-write our codes. I asked why we just couldn’t rip off the Wyoming codes? The answer was that our planning commission wanted to do it again, uniquely, or some such balderdash.

I voted with everyone else to authorize the expenditure and for this I apologize. In my defense, my “nay” would have only prolonged the farce. And remember the ancient saw, “Against stupidity the gods contend in vain.”

The Parks Commission Envisions, and Politicians Out Themselves Acquiescing to a Tax Increase.

 

The Parks Commission is a favorite of Commissioner Coughlin and he arranged for that commission to address our early February meeting. Three Parks Commissioners based their presenttion on the statistically flawed and self serving Parks study which cost the taxpayers 50K three or four years ago. Ignoring its weak foundations, the Park commissioner recommended a 1 mil tax increase (about 10% of our property taxes) to fund new acquisitions and buildings proposed in that document, stuff like buying up land, putting up a new activities building and several swimming pools.

Several City Commissioners commented. Commissioner Redmond was enthusiastically supportive, noting that he’d just been elected and would not need to run for another 4 years. Commissioner Coughlin who had arranged for the presentation beamed his approval and lamented letting the previous Parks millage lapse 3 years ago. Our mayor noted that he was not in favor of building pools and that tax increase would have to go before the voters. That referendum would not be possible this year, 2017 was an election year (Did he want to run?) but that it would be great in 2018.

I noted that Grand Rapids had at least 3 pools that they could not afford to open. (I didn’t say anything, but we had also just spent over 80 K on a refurbishing the basketball court and on waterproofing the cement underlying the existing activities building after a natural spring was discovered in the middle of the very expensive new court flooring. I had asked about plans for planning a new activities center when replacing the gym floor was first proposed, and had been assured that there were no plans to replace that building. Truth telling in  City Hall is trivial.)

I only document this episode because I see that the proposed minutes of that meeting did not include much of what transpired. I’ll try to correct the record this Tuesday and expect to be rebuffed and lied to again. But this account should interest some candidates in this summer’s primary elections, and again next year when some might seek re-election.

Our Commissioners Attend the Annual Strategizing Conference. I Emerge Not Terribly Depressed

We “city fathers” and heads of department spent an otherwise sunny Saturday at a well planned and executed meeting in which an imported facilitator led us along the usual pro-forma, management-approved ruts that these affairs always follow. I will relate a few of the bland recommendations. We needed to foster the Kentwood brand, speak well of the city government,  continue to foster the feeling of safety and orderliness that our residents may (or may not) treasure, keep costs and taxes low, and guard against threats coming from the economy, from civil unrest, or from other governments that could derail our plans. By way of boosting Kentwood, the meeting was held in downtown Grand Rapids.

There were no ringing calls for spending money to reach the Promised Land or for imposing new onerous regulations on the citizenry. I participated actively and at the end, had no idea about what future we had designed. The upside is that not having a concrete plan about where we should be going will allow the future to come as a complete surprise rather than as an continuously visible failing goal pinned on every cubicle wall, viewed daily with dread and anxiety.

I am of course not without some personal ideas about what we in the commission should do to manage our future. I start from a perspective of an outsider gazing down from a longer distance, darkly. Kentwood, it seems to me, has numerous threats, both internal and external, any one of which could thwart any well thought out plans.

Some are internal problems that we can address. We have debts and a defined pension plan about half invested in stocks.  Inflation, reaching only 0.7% in the USA last year, has been on a steady decline for 35  years. The inflation rate in much of the industrialized world is less than zero. If deflation takes hold, our equity markets would undoubtedly collapse, shriveling our defined pension plan and plunging the city into deep financial crisis. We should invest the defined pension plan money in long term treasury bonds or offloaded our risk by buying annuity policies for covered employees. We should also pay off our bonds when they are due rather than refinancing them at “low” interest rates. If deflation reaches 5% per annum, our real interest rates will look more like 8% at a time when real estate, income and sales taxes are all falling  making governmental revenues scarce. Deflation threatens the general US and world-wide economy but handled properly, it could make Kentwood with its relatively low debts the shining diamond of our region.

We can’t do much about the rest of the threats that we face.

We in Kentwood are tied in with the economies of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Detroit and Chicago/Illinois with their huge debts; defaults will cramp our finances and economy.

The average Kentwood  income has diminished from 49k to 39k in the last 10 years. I’d argue that the diminution is not because our citizens are working less, but rather because economically less productive residents are moving in.

Our real estate market has not recovered back to its admittedly bloated 2007 level.

Michigan’s DEQ (of Flint water fame) wants all new developments to retain all storm water on the property, but we have impenetrable clay soil and so may not be able to develop empty areas of our city.

The Feds have fantasies about distributing poverty to all neighborhoods in an apparent pursuit of equality, thereby improving our collective protoplasm, or something.

Our diversity, seen unaccountably as a virtue, could turn on itself turning ugly and cause devastating costs and hatreds.

Large portions of our city are were built in the 1920s and are on the cusp of economic obsolescence.

So I would plan working only for our survival. We should bend our energies to forestalling crippling losses and parrying threats that could destroy the vaunted peace and perception of orderliness in Kentwood.

I’m glad that the conference didn’t advance any new adventures in which we would fritter away our money. Opportunities in our city will come irregularly and from eruptions in the private sphere or in nature that no official can anticipate. (Who would have foreseen North Dakotans as being transiently wealthy due to fracking or more recently becoming a center for drone research; they had merely to let prosperity happen.) Hopefully, if and when opportunities come knocking, our city will still be functioning and able to benefit. Our leaders should curb their impulses to snuff out spontaneous and often disruptive innovations with regulations and planning, or, heavens forbid, subsidies.