Monday, December 3, 2007

The Cost of Living

Members of our Saturday morning breakfast club listened as I shared with them my experiences of riding on the city bus. My brief experiment left me with an enormous admiration for the men and women who toil the way to get from point A to point B on public transportation.

It was the inspiration of a previous blog. The bus driver had to make a detour after missing a turn. The mistake meant those on the bus missed the transfer at the downtown bus terminal. After two days of riding the bus, I knew I lacked the stuff to do what those who travel on the bus do each day. I couldn’t handle the inconveniences that come with public transportation.

What followed disturbed me even more. Not one city official responded to my blog post. Not one. I send it to each of them, but no one serving on the city council, no one from the city manager’s office, felt the story was compelling enough to receive a response. Members of the Saturday morning breakfast club helped me sort out this a bit. It was clear to them, and to me, that the lack of reply is an upshot of the economic status of many who ride public transportation.

It saddens me to think of how hard life can be for those with limited resources. Riding the bus taught me a lesson-the people who make decisions for those with limited resources are functioning from the position of privilege. I know because of the assumptions I made before getting on the bus. I too believed that our public transportation system is suitable in meeting the needs of those who have no other option. That is not true. The system sucks!

The disconnection between the poor and those who decide for the poor leaves those lacking resources trapped in a vicious cycle of impairment. One thing leads to another, and another and then another. Public policies coupled with the greed of corporations leaves many left out in the cold with few options to pull themselves out of the muck.

Local examples of how greed, when married with government, can be a deadly combination are legion. As Durham resurrects its downtown and rebuilds the eyesores surrounding these developments, the poor suffer the most. The poor suffer when rent prices increase across the city while few jobs are created for those living on the fringes. Gentrification is a great occasion for those with the means to take advantage of all the change, while serving as the source of frustration for those who lack the means needed to find a way.

What happens to the poor when new things replace those dreaded places? Take a look at what’s happening down in New Orleans. Down in the Crescent City, the housing authority recently approved the demolition of 4,000 public housing units at five projects damaged by Hurricane Katrina. In their place, the authority plans to build mixed-income projects, large parts of which will not be affordable to previous residents.

The number of homeless men and women living under the bridges and in parks has increased. Social services providers say about 12,000 people are living in the city, about double the number before the storm.

Last week, FEMA announced that it would close all the trailer camps it runs by the end of May. More than 900 families are living in FEMA trailer parks around the city. In addition to the housing shortage, the cost for utilities has more than tripled over the past year, leaving many struggling to balance things.

It’s easy for us to point that wicked judgmental finger at officials in New Orleans. It’s always safe to uncover the dirt over there while failing to see the correlation to what you are doing over here.

The biggest threat to the poor in Durham is recent property-tax revaluations. Average assessed property values rose 135 percent. The biggest culprit is the revitalization of downtown. Greenfire, Scientific Properties, Maverick, and other developers, have received incentives from the city in the form of vast property tax breaks, while the citizens of Durham endure increases in their taxes due to the advances that come with the corporate incentive.

Increases in revaluations are passed through to tenants. These increases will impact the cost of renting in the city of Durham, a price that is already higher than in surrounding areas. Increase rent combined with rises in utilities makes it difficult for those void of resources to move past the drudgery of public transportation. They can’t buy a car, pay for the insurance, upkeep, registration and the high cost of gasoline, without letting something else go.

What would that be? They can’t afford health insurance. With rent and other necessities on the rise, they can’t afford to get sick. All of this while facing those with privilege who assume your state of existence is all because of some character flaw.

One thing leads to another. The hardest part is when the people driving their cars have no clue.


  1. Carl:

    Well said, as always. Yet, you don't call for action? The poor have always suffered this way. Rev. King was on his way to the Poor People's March on Washington when he was killed, wasn't he?

    Gentrification is very real and it will drive more people into the streets. Just because it's a slow moving train doesn't mean it doesn't hurt just as much when it hits you.

    Clearly stating the problem is a good first step.

    Keep up the good work.


  2. What troubles me is that there is a subtext in our culture that if someone is suffering economically or socially, it is their fault: "Unemployed persons are, after all, lazy." "Homeless persons are undoubtedly addicts." "If someone lacks health insurance, it is their fault because they are too complacent to go out and find a better job."

    This is patently absurd. Not only does this drastically oversimplify a complex issue, but it reifies the marginalization of entire groups within our community.

    My daughter, a hard-working woman who holds down up to three jobs, but who is still forced to live in low income housing often says, "I wish some of the powerful in the community would live one day in my neighborhood. Then they might understand."

  3. You don't have to be poor to be unable to afford health insurance in this country -- you just have to work for yourself.

  4. Carl, thank you for asking the tough question: why are the poor STILL getting poorer, and the rich STILL getting richer?

    For me, that's the fundamental question. It doesn't surprise me that government does a crappy job taking care of poor people. Throughout history, I've never found a government that supported poor people in a way that we would find acceptable, much less desirable. If someone can point me to shining examples to the contrary, I would love to learn about them!

    I've always been MUCH more impressed with the efforts of private organizations (churches, communities of faith, or other service groups). These organizations have the freedom, and flexibility, to try a BUNCH of different approaches. If their approach works, they attract more funding and get bigger. If they're unsuccessful, they try something else, or fail.

    Ironically, that's the reverse of how government programs often work -- things that work poorly are targeted for "more funding", since it is too often assumed that more money alone will make the difference!

    So back to the problem -- how do we "deal with" this "underclass"? (Aren't those horrible words???) An alternative approach is to decriminalize what the poor and disenfranchised do in an effort to survive, and empower them to improve their own position.

    This isn't to suggest that there is some blanket policy prescription that will "fix" poor people. There isn't -- the problem *is* complex, and every homeless person has a different story, strengths, and weaknesses. This complexity further emphasizes the value of private organizations -- there's no limit on creativity or number of approaches, and someone like Jim Brown can come in with Amer-I-Can where the city's thought process has stagnated.

    Imagine, however, a society where we did not tax income at all. And at a certain level, there was no regulation on attempts to engage in commerce. Imagine a guy standing on the street corner with a sign. But instead of begging, he's actually selling something that he purchased with a microloan, and turning a profit with each sale to a satisfied customer. He didn't have to sign up with the city for a permit, and he's not an unindicted criminal because he's not declaring his income to the IRS.

    Or take it up a notch -- what about a guy who lives in transitional housing and has a pair of hair clippers? He loves talking to people, and he's good at trimming hair, so folks in his complex start showing up and paying him $5 for a trim and a good conversation. Is that criminal behavior, and should he be reported to the licensing authorities?

    What I've just described is more than a possibility, it's a LIKELY outcome of getting government OUT of our lives. I'm proposing a solution that's not MORE government trying to "help" (when the help always gets diluted by payouts to politically-corrected cronies...), but LESS government so that poor people are actually free to improve their own situation.

    Would the world come to an end if poor people started presenting themselves as undocumented but successful "small businesses"? Or cutting hair in their apartments without a license and permit? Or might folks just learn that there's a DIFFERENCE between "capitalism" and "corporatism"?

    In my humble opinion, we've confused those two -- we're enslaved by corporatism, and we could be freed by capitalism.

    Check out this post for one way we can start this transition.

    Oh, and in case you're wondering why I'm not running for office... I am. It's not yet been formally announced, but I will be shortly declaring my candidacy for Congress in North Carolina's 4th District.

    I've been a passionately concerned citizen for a long time now, but things are to the point that it's no longer acceptable for citizens to sit on the sidelines. Get involved in the dialog, run for office, and let's try to live up to the ideals of our Declaration of Independence:

    "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

    BJ Lawson

  5. You can not attempt to solve problems like poverty without taking into account human nature, specifically how incredibly difficult it is for people to CHANGE how they see themselves and how they perceive the way others see them -- the two biggest motivators of human behavior, IMO.

    In other words, to have a hope in hell of empowering people and making them believe they can do more than hold their hands out and hope for the best, you better get them young-- very, very young -- and make them believe in themselves and other possibilities for their future. Then give them the opportunities to put their belief in a better future for themselves into action, without feeling bad or guilty (or letting others make them feel that way) at leaving where they came from behind.

    And you better be prepared to write off all the generations above them, because it's too late to change their mindsets. Not one in ten people can rise above an upbringing of being made to feel not good enough. All you can do is take care of them and call it the cost of being able to sleep at night.

    But, for god sakes, let's get started on the younger generation. There has to be a beter way.

  6. Carl,

    I really liked much of your piece. The bus service in Durham and the greater triangle is an interesting issue that could be fixed if enough folks cared. Look at what is done in San Francisco and the greater Bay Area. Hopefully your piece can raise some interest on that issue. Your digression into New Orleans & tax assessments, well not so much.

    I appreciate and share your concern for the plight of the Katrina ravaged city, but its 1000 miles from here and the bus problem is right here.

    The tax issue that you raise and that Steve Matherly characterized as "Gentrification" is far afield and probably just simply wrong. The development in downtown is not an example of the "re-gentrification" that is typically complained of when poor folks loose housing opportunities because values and prices go up in areas where they live so much so that they can no longer afford to live there. The downtown development that is currently occurring is not causing any re-gentrification because it was essentially a vacant area before American Tobacco was redeveloped. So poor folks are not generally being displaced.

    The increased tax assessments to which you point are not, as you suggest, the result of the progress that Greenfire, Scientific, Maverick, Blue Devil Ventures or Capital Broadcasting have made. The incentives sought by Greenfire and that have been granted to the others create more tax revenue from properties that would not otherwise contribute anything to the tax base. The incentives are essentially a partnership between public and private entities to make the development, that will create additional tax revenue, actually happen.

    Having a well developed and vibrant downtown area doesn't hurt poor people in Durham. It probably helps them. For example, many of the problems of the bus system in Durham occur because we don't have enough areas of dense urban development. Bus and other public transportation systems work well in dense urban areas. If most of the jobs were downtown, for example, public transportation down town would have much more economic viability. These systems run into many many problems when they try to serve essentially suburban type development.

    The reassessment of property values is simply a reflection of increased property values in Durham. It is a sign that Durham has a healthy economic base. Buy the way, the reassessment alone results in no higher tax bills. Tax values go up but tax rates will actually go down so that on balance the taxes recovered will be the same. Those who have higher than average tax assessments have seen their property values go up more than most and may see a relative increase.

    At the end of the day, local taxes are based on the amount of money needed to pay for city and county services. Development that increases economic activity can create more tax revenue and reduce demand for tax revenue for regular folks. Denser urban development can be supplied with city services more efficiently than suburban development, generally. So downtown development is not something that poor folks need to fear.

    Durham's problems with taxes are that we are burdened with too much non-taxable activity. RTP, Duke, NCCU, Durham Tech, City and County government are not taxable but consume city services.

  7. Carl - the 135% increase in tax valuations you cite is strictly for downtown properties, many of which were vacant 7 years ago during the last property tax assessments.

    overall, residential properties throughout the city increased in value by 24% (barely above the rate of inflation during that period) while all properites, including commercial and industrial, increased by 30%. Some neighborhoods saw much greater increases than others; some saw their valuations decline.

    I'm not sure how you get around the paradox that when you make a neighborhood more desirable to live by, among other things, removing the criminal element and forcing landlords who neglect or abandon their properties to actually take care of them, you raise the value of that neighborhood, and encourage people with more money to move in.

  8. Carl,

    Thank you for this excellent post -- the more people raising the issue of public transportation and how the current system is woefully inadequate, the better.

    Like Barry, I disagree that the downtown renovations represent the forefront of gentrification. For better or for worse, I put a lot of faith in William Julius Wilson's warnings about the damage that "concentrated disadvantage" can do to those who live there. A person living in poverty faces dramatic difficulties, but those difficulties grow tenfold if that person is surrounded by those in similar straits.

    While it does not represent a complete solution, I strongly support such measures as "inclusionary zoning," where any new development built in the city must build some base percentage (usually 10-15%) of affordable housing. This means that as the areas of deep poverty in the city meet the forces of gentrification, new developments are not closed to those of limited means, and our city could become more economically integrated. It is not a complete solution, but I feel it is a necessary start.

    Additionally, I have to point out that rising prices have a flip effect which isn't always seen. There are more residents in northeast-central Durham than simply poor renters. Additionally, there are plenty of retired factory workers and other middle class citizens who spent a fair bit of their wages buying houses to live in the rest of their lives. The very same styles of houses in Morehead Hill and Trinity Park, some identical down to the floorplan, are now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, giving the working class folks who lived there quite a windfall. Homeowners in Edgemont, on the other hand, have seen the values of their homes rise perhaps 20% in the decades since they bought them.

    I cannot believe that the solution to affordable housing in Durham is to maintain a ghetto where poor people can live.

    The solution in Durham will not be a simple one, but taking the legacies of a history of racial red lining, housing discrimination, urban abandonment, and disinvestment and insisting they be permanent should not be part of it.

  9. Very interesting. I especially understand your point about health insurance. The sad part is the ones that have it complain that the job does not pay enough for it and then do not take the time to understand it. I wonder how much they would complain if they had to pay the true cost of the coverage or the actual doctors bill.

    Second thought is that public transportation teach you patience. I use to be a "bus rider" in college and now I am blessed to have a car. However during those times I truly understand what it meant when they said "the world does not revolve around you" You always had to plan a head for events like a missed turn or traffic or the bus just being too full to even stop. All these things made me more considerate of peoples time. It would be so nice if we had a train or better yet make all the public officials ride the bus for a day or two as part of their evaluation of the city. I am sure they will have a change of heart.

  10. Thanks for addressing the issues of public transportation...As a long time bus rider and friend of a few of the bus drivers I see some great things about our service and DATA and yes even TTA, shucks I am in Carrboro now because of TTA, have helped me get to places I need to be..I am hopeful that the new Transportation center will be even better and I am hopeful that one day we can have a rail system here in the Triangle and who knows has growth continues and we have a greater influx of people from other locations, maybe one day we can even have 24 hour service........and service into parts of the Triangle like Hillsborough, Rougemont, and Roxboro that aren't covered that well right now....