TOWARDS A RATIONAL BOSTON PLAN

Boston future

^ future Boston : high water, a market economy, and mobility liberty

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Often I have written about the many challenges that prosperity has brought to Boston but singly rather than together. Let me now attempt to offer a unified plan for the next twenty years or so of Boston governance.

One can sum up the riddle quite simply : ( 1 ) wages and salaries have not kept up with — not even close to — the rising prices of housing ( 2 ) the Mayor’s call for 69,000 new units of housing by 2030 bumped the acquisition price of buildable land by double, even triple ( c ) ( 3 ) the movement of enterprise and jobs into Center City put unanticipated bnurdens on the MBTA and the City’s roads ( 4 ) as jobs moved into Downtown, so did those holding them, followed by shops, restaurants, and bars serving their social needs and commute routes ( 5 ) the coming of Uber and Lyft, to meet those commute needs, put thousands of ride-share cars onto Boston’s streets and ( 6 ) climate change is upon us, requiring structural responses to water control in this very coastal city

As no one — I hope — wants the City’s current prosperity to backslide, but instead to continue, solutions are in order to the radical rearrangements occasioned by the prosperity.

I would hope that everyone involved would want to see workable solutions, but the baleful influence of political agendas puts such a wish in serious doubt. We see, for example, one City Councillor — who would like to be Mayor — calling for the T to be free and “equitable,” whatever that means, and to “unite us all.” I’m sorry, but the T is only one component of a serious Boston plan, and not by any means the most important or pressing, although its upgrade and modernization is certainly a priority for the State. Keep in mind that most of the goods that Boston customers purchase move b y rail and truck. None moves by the T. Only people move by the T, and not all of the people., perhaps only a minority of us. The Councillor who would be Mayor would like to tax car users hard enough to force them onto the T — thereby removing cars’ carbon emissions from the climate, a serious policy goal for said Councillor — and of course the more people said Councillor can feed into the T’s maw, the more grumping can be generated against the Governor whom the Councillor’s supporters and colleagues do not like, all to the political benefit, they hope, of their movement.

So much for the political impediment to a sensible, workable Boston plan. But if we are not to move Boston in the T-only, car-penalizing, future that said Councillor envisions — complete with free T rides, forcing the entire T finance onto state taxpayers — then what future do I suggest for a sustained prosperous Boston ? This :

( a ) support unions in their actions to drive workers’ wages higher, much higher. To live in Prosperity Boston, one needs to earn at least the current median city income : $ 60,000 a year. We can’t legislate a minimum wage particular only to Boston, although we can — and should — legislate an even higher minimum wage than the current $ 12 to $ 15/hour scheduled to take full effect by 2023; but unions can win company-specific, or industry-specific, contracts that achieve the $ 21/hour and more that Boston workers should earn.

( b ) accept greater residential density than the current norm, including micro apartments and tiny houses, and higher structures than current zoning allows. Land acquisition costs are what they are, whether the buyer builds three stories, or five, or eight, or twelve. Thus the large impact that land costs have on current development can be minimized by allowing taller buildings, so that more units can be built on the same lot of land. There is no economic reason why it HAS TO cost a builder $ 500,000 per unit to build. Lower the effects of land acquisition cost, and you can lower the rents or sale prices that a builder has to charge.

( c ) eliminate dedicated bus and bike lanes on City streets. Boston’s streets are narrow enough. Even the main streets in its outer neighborhoods are only so wide. Hiving off lanes for bikes or buses, or for both, is a favoritism that car users — the majority of us — rightly resent. If “Transportation equity,” a term that some reformers talk of, means anything, it means that all forms of “mobility” operate in the same arena, with no favor given to any. You want to relieve some of the traffic that clogs City streets and highways at peak hours ? The last way to do this is to jam car users into smaller and smaller portions of those streets and highways.

( 4 ) go with the flow rather than fighting it. Measures that seek to impede the effects of big buyer money on the City’s residential economy only divert money/ from one pocket to another. Much smarter to let the price market “work the numbers,” because eventually — maybe soon — the “numbers” will peak. There are signs that these numbers are already peaking. But if not — yet — is it so bad that property owners who invested in Boston when prices were way too low — a thing few of us were ready to admit to, or insure against — and who never had much money or equity other than their property now find themselves blessed with a lottery ticket of money ? Those who are buying are buying from US, not from a stranger. Meanwhile, the new buyers are assuming all kinds of price risk : for markets fall as well as rise, and economies change, and those who buy a three-decker for $ 1,300,000 know they have to find a way out, sooner rather than later. The coming of 10,000 housing units in the new Suffolk Downs, with a meager 5.7 percent rate of return for the investor, has to warn current buyers that the boom is aging. In fact, as I see it, any sensible plan for future Boston should confront the question : what happens to property when the boom turns down ? The history of such turns is not pretty. Take a look at Detroit these past 25 years as an extreme example. When Boston moves into this sort of phase — as it surely will — our future residents will long for the Prosperity Days.

( 5 ) end the Federal Court’s Busing Order so that community schools can revive. Busing serves no one any more. Every Boston neighborhood is now racially and cultural;ly diverse. You can’t have community without community schools, and if you have community schools, families with school age children won’t up and move out of the City, as they have been doing in large numbers since the late 1970s. The most significant reform we can make to the vast Boston Public Schools (BPS) budget ( $ 1.27 billion in FY 2020) would be to repurpose the $ 96,000,000 now spent on  busing kids as dictated by the obsolete Federal order.

( 6 ) do not rely chiefly on the T for all our “mobility” urges. The T only goes where it wants to go and only when it wants to go there. Using the T also involves standing and waiting in all kinds of weather. It often means being crushed in overcrowded trains and buses. The T should be a last resort, not a first. I use it only when I have to go Downtown — which is often — because one simply cannot park a car Downtown except at enormous cost even assuming that one can find an available parking spot. The T is OK for commuting from home to a job, and for the young, who don’t mind ugly weather or crushing in overcrowds, the T can even be fun. Given our T expectations, its a wonder that it works at all; upgrades can basically only be done during the night hours, otherwise major disruption results. I certainly favor expanding the Orange Line to Readville, and the Blue Line to Lynn, and I like the coming Red Line to Blue Line connector. The T definitely has a role to play in the future of Boston people’s moving about. But it is a very rigid system in a culture and economy that correctly values flexibility and liberty. Roads are by far the more useful option for most of us.

( 7 ) we must meet the rising ocean, but people can do it a lot more innovatively than government. I have a lot more confidence in ad hoc, activist groups like The Harborkeepers, to find and put into practice ways of controlling the coming years of high water than I do in government agencies. Controlling high water should not be a subject for political manoeuver. It is rather a challenge for architects, greenspace planners, and, yes, waterside property owners. In this fight, the City is only one among many communities faced with water encroachment. Regional planning can help, but the burden should first fall on those who own property that will either be flooded or safeguarded. I think the owners know best, and if not, then self-starting activists should and will step in, quite beneficially, because these organizations are not bound by pre-existing rules, and they correctly confide in the imaginations of people who think for themselves.

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One other point I wish to make : Boston in the decades from 1970 to 2000 built a ton of senior-citizen housing. I am not a fan of this sort of custodial, supervised living, but it proved a boon to older folks whose kids moved out and away, leaving their parents abandoned in run-down homes and apartments. The City also provides homeowner residents a substantial real estate tax credit. A similar credit should be granted to seniors. (it may already be, I am not sure.) That said, a senior lucky enough to own a Boston home today sits on a pretty substantial fund : at least $ 400,000, more likely a price of $ 700,000 to $ 2,000,000. I find these sorts of situations every day that I door knock in Council District Five for a candidate I am supporting. Given the state’s homestead exemption of $ 500,000, and the prevalence of very low income seniors living thusly, with all manner of home health aides to visit and serve their daily needs, including for company, the current boom gives these old and even very old Bostonians plenty of options for at least financial ease without having to move into a large residential institution in which institutional culture dominates, even suffocates individual liberty.

 

HAVING FUN IS NOT A POLICY PROPOSAL

Having fun

Some of my political friends are having fun today, poking and playing at protest, out in the beautiful July weather, of our MBTA, which is an easy mark for fun pokings. I wish them a good time and hope that they meet  many of our citizens on their way to work and enjoy some fun conversations on this cusp of holiday day.

The fun was invited by a City Councillor who proposed this as a “Boston Tea Party” — as if we didn’t already have enough tea parties. But I guess we didn’t yet have enough, for my friends who are out dancing up this one.

Buzzing up behind the party-celebrants there’s more bad City temper for our much-abused MBTA. Mayor Walsh has proposed that the City be given its own, Boston government seat on the MBTA governing board. At the same time,. the Councillor who hosting today’s caper insists that the MBTA’s six percent ( 6 %) fare hike not go into effect. (Notice : it has.) I’ll deal this suggestion next, but first, the Mayor’s demand for a Boston seat on the MBTA board, which I will dispose of in two brief paragraphs :

( 1 ) the City spent decades getting the legislature to repeal laws by which the Governor had the right to appoint members of the Boston Licensing Board. We were well within our rights to do this. So why, now, does the Mayor think that it is right for the City to have what it correctly insisted the Governor should not have ?

( 2 ) The State governs the MBTA, which receives the overwhelming bulk of its funds from the entire State’s taxpayers, with whom the State has a direct relationship. Why should Boston City hall have any part of that direct relationship ? No City administration is part of state administration; each is elected separately. They should remain separate.

Now I will dispose of the Councillor’s argument concerning T fares, which rose by six per cent today :

( 1 ) the City’s budget for FY 2020 has increased by three percent, thus burdening city taxpayers an extra three percent. Why is it OK to increase the burden on taxpayers, but not on T riders, for whose benefit taxpayers pay most of the T budget ? The T is NOT a taxpayer gift to riders. Riders must pay their share of this service, as we do — I too am a rider, and I am not burdened by an extra $ 4.50 a month. (Some protestors say that this fare hike burdens low income riders. I doubt that $ 4.50 a month — at most — is that huge a burden.)

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Meanwhile, has anybody noticed, or protested, the City’s raising its parking meter fines ? I guess that that’s OK, because it hits only car users, and in Boston today, car users are the devil…

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It is all too tempting for politicians, whose appetite for attention exceeds their capacity, to chew the most available issue candy, the sweetest gripe ice cream, the juiciest policy hot dog. But public policy is not food at a block party. The MBTA — indeed, all of MassDOT — had, in 2014, suffered through at least 40 years of neglect. It cannot be made good quickly, because all of it has to be USED, which means that repairs have to wait until late night hours and on the weekends; and even weekend road and T closures cause mighty disruption. Politicians with eyes bigger than their stomachs want to order the entire menu of taxpayer money, but if the T had $ 80 billion, not just the $ 8,050,000,000 that it now has, it could not repair itself very quickly without massive, cataclysmic disruption. Were the T to institute this , the public outcry would make today’;s caper look like a will o’ the wisp. It ain’t gonna happen.

Fact is, the T will be upgraded and made good, in all its aspects — including its enormous fiscal imbalances that none of the caperers dare talk about — in the shortest time frame that the public will tolerate having T service disrupted. Meanwhile, new trains and electric buses are coming into service — and I’m betting you that not one of todays’ caper-cutters will utter so much as a peep of thank you.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

REFORM = PATIENCE AND PRUDENCE

 

patience and prudence

^^^ The headline has a gimmick in it, for those who remember this singing duo from the 1960s, as I fear too many of the coming generation do not…

Oh well.

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When it comes to politics and government, the first response today is, too often, impatience, which makes imprudence almost inevitable.  Reform of government, and of the laws, is always in play, because human institutions can always do better. They’re attempts and nothing more. That said, my rule, in matters of reform, is that of the physician :  “first, do no harm.” It’s far too easy for a hasty reform to make matters worse, or to exchange one failure for its opposite, or carelessly to miss the unintended consequences of a change that looked good on paper.

Thus we come to the agenda being proposed by a group of Massachusetts activists who all themselves “progressives.” Is their agenda actually a progress ? I will answer that question later. First, let us look at some of the legislation they’re backing, and which they demand that candidates commit to in order to qualify for a “progressive’ endorsement :

( a ) the so-called “fair share amendment,” which seeks to amend the Massachusetts constitution to provide for a four percent surtax on incomes above $ 1,000,000. Currently, the Constitution’s equal protection clause requires that all laws, including tax laws, be applied equally to all. The proponents of this amendment require that this surtax be allocated to transportation and education. My response : writing specific budget items into the constitution ensures that s needs change, the money to fund them will not be able to change without a corresponding constitutional amendment. This is no way to budget state governance, which should be flexible enough to respond to needs as they come current. We should avoid constitutional amendment except where civil rights are involved.

( b ) “Debt-free College Act : an act to guarantee debt-free public higher education for MA residents. My response : ( 1 ) the taxpayers already fund the salaries and maintenance expenses of public universities in the state. Why should taxpayers pay the costs of private colleges ? Why should taxpayers fund ANY private institutions ? ( 2 ) if enacted, this act would be an invitation for private colleges to charge whatever they want to charge by way of student tuition, subject only to the state budget process. ( 3 ) the cost of this item would add billions of dollars to our $ 42.7 billion state budget.

( c ) “Medicare for All” was proposed in 2014 by candidate Don Berwick. He admitted that it would be a budget-buster. It’s also unnecessary, as we already have universal health care  via the system enacted here in 2006.

( d ) “Safe Communities Act” would bar all local and state police from co operating in any way with federal immigration agents, including ICE. My response : in my opinion, the actions of ICE and CBP during the current Federal presidency are at outrage, and counter-productive, as immigrants boost the economy no matter how they got here. To that end, many cities have declared themselves “Sanctuary.” Yet the issue is terribly divisive and has actually hardened a fair percentage of public sentiment against undocumented immigrants. Governor Baker is right : leave the issue to each community to decide.

( e ) Ranked choice voting : the idea that voters should be able to rank many candidates,. rather than having to choose only one, sounds good, because it would assure the ultimate winner of having at last 50 percent of the total vote. Yet the system would lead to all sorts of abuses, including the use of “bullet” voting (voting for only one). Alliances among candidates, to create “slates,” would merely duplicate the current party primary system. It would also assure, for voters who do not “bullet,” that fringe and “slate” candidates get votes which in our one-vote system they do not. Let’s leave well enough alone.

( f ) Raising the age of adult prosecution to 21. “allowing offending youth to have better access to treatment and educational services. My response : Is it progress, to lower the voting age to 16, but raise the prosecution age to 21, or is it a strange inconsistency ? A society should have one age of majority, not several. Plus, the act’s proponents load the question by using the term “youth.” Who exactly is a youth in the eyes of State law ? Is someone a youth for one purpose but not for another ? If we raise the adult prosecution age to 21, we should also raise the voting age to 21, and the age of consent for medical matters requiring adult consent.

In all of the above cases, what is proposed either seeks change where no change is called for, or seek laws and covenants that would make state government more rigid, less flexible. These are moves away from reform, and they stand in the way of other “progressive” proposals that are well worth considering :

( a ) An act to seal eviction records, which seriously impair a person’s ability to obtain living quarters. A large share of eviction cases are far more complex than simple non-payment of rent. Defendants in such cases deserve not to have their past disputes hang over their resumes moving forward. (Besides, landlords can always talk to the landlord before the tenant’s most recent one.)

( b ) Gas leaks and pipeline placement — an act which, by imposing fines on utility companies for Grade 3 leaks, would give utilities incentive to prevent and limit such leaks. The Columbia Gas explosions last year in North Andover, Andover, and South Lawrence were only an extreme case of a more general problem of gas leaks all over the state. The state only has so many gas line inspectors. This act would force the gas companies to police themselves. (Note that this act was filed by Senator Mike Rush and State Representative Ed Coppinger, neither of whom anyone would call “progressive.”)

( c ) Visitation Rights. Senator Chang-Diaz’s bill to permit incarcerated persons to receive more frequent visits, in order, says the bill, to allow them to maintain relationships. I see no reason why this bill should not pass and much reason why it should. Being incarcerated should not mean an end to a person’s family bonding. Incarceration has to have a rehabilitative component, and allowing a person to maintain his or her personal relationships gives him or her much reason to reform. He or she may not reform : but why not allow the possibility ? I support this bill.

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Massachusetts is a state built by reform. We believe that our public customs and laws can always be improved and that taxpayers have an interest in supporting these improvements. In return, we promise to ourselves, and to the taxpayers among us, that we will be careful not to ask too much of our taxpayers, or to over-promise, or to hurry processes that require time for second thoughts and testing. We also believe that the State should not be asked to do that which we can do better ourselves, or which basic principles of liberty require us to keep in our won hands.

We’re also very alert to the readiness of some to arrogate the “reform” idea to their own agendas, and that such arrogance almost always signals changes which are not reform but the opposite. The voters of our state know well the difference and guard jealously the patience and the prudence which alone assure proposed changes will actually be reform rather than a special interest plea.

That’s where we at Here and Sphere stand, and where we always will.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere