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

JOBS ARE EVERYWHERE. HOW DO YOU ACTUALLY GET ONE ?

 

Linked In

^^ LinkedIn — a website that suggests vital networking connections but which, after eight years belonging, hasn’t won me a single gig, job, or contract. This actually is a feature, not a bug, as the saying goes.

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The headline is no joke. How DO you actually get a job ? From what I have seen, these past decades of my life, the necessary prerequisite to getting a job is to already have one.

If you have a job, it’s simple to get another one. Your co-workers know people. Headhunters recruit you — because if you have a job, it’s easy for them to fit you into a slot, and headhunters need a slot that can be fit to. Transferring from one slot to another, not so easy; your job-finder has to actually work at it, and headhunters don’t want to work at it, not when their commission isn’t any greater whether they move you from widget painter at Company A to widget painter at Company C, or whether they work to move you from widget painter, first class, to widget packager, third class. But in any case, if you already have a job, you can reasonably expect to move to another one.

And if you don’t have a job ? ( a ) headhunters are really, really glad to get you interviewed for a job selling stuff, especially stuff that nobody will buy. Headhunters have all sorts of such jobs on the shelf — the back shelf in the back room — sent them by recruiters for sales work, recruiters who head-hunters would love to add to their rolo-dex because who knows when these recruiters might actually send Headhunter Joe a job that Joe has dozens of clients ready to fit that slot ? So there you are : Headhunter Joe says, “Mike, I have the greatest job for you, you are SO lucky, it won’t last long. Can I send your resume to my contact ?” And you of course ask, “what is the job about ?” Headhunter Joe : “selling ads for the phone company. Their book is to close in tgwo months and … Mike ? Mike ? Are you there ?”

I hung up. So would you.

I simmer down and call Heady Joe back. “Joe,” I tell him. “I’m looking for a job as an editor. Editing is what I do. Is there an editing job or isn’t there ?”

Silence.

Joe gets his smile on and finally responds : “Editing jobs don’t come every day, Mike. But you know I am looking. Your resume is on top of my desk.”

Sure it is. Like the turd that I shat yesterday is on top of mine.

So that’s how it goes. You can’t get a job doing what you do unless you already have one, and if you don’t have one, it’s off to sell ads for the phone book.

Straight commission, no less. No salary, no expense money.

Thus it was that led me to the job I now have. Because if you don’t have a job, there actually are jobs that you can get. What jobs are these ? Easy : jobs that few people will do. Those, you can get any time you like. It does help to know someone who has one, as with any job; in my case, my wife got the job for me. One phone call, one on-line application — and tens of forms to fill out — and back came the e mail : we are excited to welcome you to our team…”

EXCITED, no less. You laugh ? So did I. What is this job which the company was EXCITED to give me ? I’ll tell you about it later. But first let me offer some more observations about the job world :

( a ) the best time to get one from point zero is at college or high school graduation. Companies are always happy to hire young folks who don’t know shit, don’t have a network in place, unformed brains whom they can train to do things the company’s way. Every year from then on, it gets harder to be hired. The more experience you have ion a job, the less desirable you are as a hire. If you acquire enough experience to become an expert you are totally fucked. You’ll have to start your own business.

I kid you not. Take my own example. I am an expert political campaign manager, and because I know campaign work cold from top to bottom, I am anathema to consultants. To become a campaign manager these days (not in all cases, but in most) you have to not ever have worked on a  campaign and to know nothing about it. Hired to manage one, and they hand you a “voter file” program and tell you that’s what you will use. Not a voter list, oh no, never. A voter list, for the district in which your candidate is going to campaign ? Heavens no. The rule now is, that if you aren’t on a “super voter”: list — those who have voted in each of the last umpteen elections for the office your campaign seeks —then you do non’t get campaigned to. This is how one arrives at the 11 percent (11) turnout in the recent Queens County District Attorney campaign won by a defense lawyer who intends to dismantle the office. But what do I know ? Answer : I know too much.

You wonder why so many voters think the system crooked, or that nobody in it listens ? Just step into a current campaign and you’ll quickly learn that the voters, as always are right. The system IS crazy. And yes, nobody in it does listen to you unless you are already in it. Capeesh ?

Most insurgent campaigns from the left are just as bad. They too use “super voter” files and avoid anybody who hasn’t voted in the last umpteen elections. The difference is that most insurgent campaigns of the let are run by, and peopled by, students — high school and college — and it’s simply a social fact that everybody who is 18 years old, or 22, knows everybody who is 18, or 22 — because they all go to school, mostly in the same system. And so they tell their friends, and the friends tell friends, and a kind of ad hoc, second campaign develops, large enough to beat the default campaigning opponent.

For the rest of us, thus escape valve isn’t open. Once you move into the adult world, you’re too busy with job and family to maintain those close social ties, and gradually you lose contact with one another. By the time you’re 50, you hardly know anybody any more, and if you are already in office, you’re usually running on habit and a familiar name, the enthusiasm and networking of student years long worn away.

But what do I know ? I know too much. To be hired into the current world of political campaigns I would have to unlearn everything and become an enthusiastic student of bullshit. How else but bullshit would you describe the glossy card stock mailers that every campaign sends out now, usually on the same day ? They look the same because they are the same, and most voters, when they receive this avalanche of picture-color, advertising-lettered fliers, either toss them aside onto the hallway table or throw them into the trash barrel.

They look like ads from the telephone book and are produced by the same mentality that would try to headhunt you for a job selling ads for telephone books.

Which leads me to the job I now have. It pays $ 14.00 an hour, for 30 hours a week,and when added to my social security income, enables me to pay my bills, go out to dinner once in a while, and take the wife on a weekend outing in mid-Coast Maine on Labor Day break. Other than that, I am free to operate my own business — which, as I said, is the fate of those who actually know how to do things — writing and editing, with my partner Heather Cornell, at the website you have now visited, the political and parental advice world of Here and Sphere.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

EDWARDS BACKS A HOUSING MARKET REAL ESTATE TRANSFER TAX. SO DO WE.

 

LyidaCity Councillor Lydia Edwards (District One, Boston) stepped forward recently in support of a proposed real estate transfer tax hike, the money going to help mid-range and lower-range income people buy into the Boston housing market. We also support the proposal. Here’s why :

There are actually two real estate transfer tax hikes before the legislature. The first one, filed by Governor Baker in January, would raise the transfer tax by one-half, the money to be earmarked in support of climate resiliency efforts. Baker’s bill has received plenty of publicity. Less has been given to the second proposal, the transfer tax which is the subject of this column. It would double the transfer tax from the present $ 25 per thousand of value to $ 50 per thousand. Baker, when questioned about this bill, seemed unsure of its details, which is not all that surprising, given the lack of public attention shown this proposal. Would he support it ? We will see.

I would hope that he will do so, and of course that means that Speaker Robert DeLeo will need to support it as well, because neither transfer tax bill will get to Baker’s desk unless Speaker DeLeo brings them to a vote. When Baker first proposed his climate resiliency tax, legislative leaders were shy to sign on. DeLeo and Aaron Michlewitz, the House’s new Budget Chief, opined that they didn’t need the extra money just then. It appears that they have now reconsidered, at least for Baker’s climate resiliency tax. No word yet on the larger transfer tax proposed to fund affordability purchases.

Edwards urges adoption of the second transfer tax, a bill filed by State Representative Mike Connolly of Cambridge, because, so she argues, the affordability crisis is forcing current residents of her District (and others) to have to move, often to far away, in search of housing that they can pay for. This is hardly news. we all know that the Boston real estate market has boomed almost to the breaking point, leaving ordinary earners far behind the wave. Edwards supports the bill’s allocation of its funds to neighborhood housing trusts. I’m not so keen on this specific, but she has mute ideas for battling the housing crusts than that.  Earlier this year she endorsed permitting people to build add–on apartments to their homes, even a small unit in one’s back yard, if need be. She’s got hold of an idea now gathering attention in Boston and other cities.

Alterbatuves to the neighborhood land trust idea are but hard to come up with :

( 1 ) Some Massachusetts cities have had programs granting mortgage money to buyers, with no payback, on condition that they live in the home for at least five years, the money to help pay the buy price of a home. Any funds raised by the proposed transfer tax could allocate to this sort of City program.

( 2 ) Funds might be used to create a kind of city equivalent of the Federal government’s Section 8 certificate program, whereby lower income renters pay market rate, of which they pay only the portion thereof that their income affords, the balance being paid via the certificate.

( 3 ) the transfer tax funds could be applied to the State’s earned income tax credit (EITC), raising eligibility from the present $ 32,000 level (I think that is the amount) to maybe $ 45,000 or even to $ 59,000 — the median earner income in greater Boston — but solely for eligibles upon their applying to buy a home.

i would hope that the Connolly bill, if enacted, might prefer these uses.

It seems that real estate industry lobbyists have spoken in opposition to this transfer tax, saying that it would chill the market. I am not persuaded that a 2 and 1/2 percent tax will turn back a market in which $ 500,000 is below the average sale price and $ 2,000,000 not uncommon even in what used to be working-class neighborhoods of Boston. Presently, if you are a long time homeowner, who bought an East Boston home, for example, in 1980 at $ 35,000, and you now sell for $ 700,000, are you really dissuaded by a tax that docks you $ 35,000 instead of $ 17,500 ? If need be, brokers can absorb some of the tax by accepting a four percent commission rather than the traditional five percent.  When houses in “Eastie” were selling for $ 125,000 — not long ago at all — a five percent commission was $ 6250. Today, at $ 700,000 — not an uncommon price these days — a four percent commission is $ 28,000. Not bad — and let’s note that whereas very few homes sold at the lower price, because fewer people wanted then, today, at $ 700,000, everybody and his cousins want in. Thus a broker who might have sold five houses a year in 2004 might sell 12 houses this year. (Yes, there are many more brokers now; but that’s how it has always been in real estate. Lots of brokers in the boom times, not so many in the bad years.)

Councillor Edwards, I have to say, is not shy about the stuff she supports. I don’t always agree with her stand, but in far more cases than I had expected, I do support what she supports. (Disclosure : I am a donor to her committee.) It’s always smart to listen to her arguments for stuff. In this case, it’s smart to give her transfer tax argument serious thought even if you have doubts about its success. The affordability crisis is real, and very little of what most Boston politicians are offering as a response makes any real world sense. This proposal makes all kind of good sense.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

SCHOOLS REFORM : A TON OF DISCONNECT

sumner school

^ recess at the Charles Sumner School on Basile Street in Roslindale

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An article in today’s Boston Globe discusses the $ 1 billion gap between two schools funding bills currently before the legislature. The so-called “Promise Act,” backed by a coalition of public school advocacy groups with support from Mayor Marty Walsh, seeks $ 2.4 billion, over seven years, in additional state funds. Governor Baker’s bill requests $ 1.5 billion over the same seven years. You should now read the article here : https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2019/06/16/report-nearly-billion-gulf-between-two-leading-school-funding-bills/KWpejZnLc8QMkhBy8ewJbI/story.html

Many questions come to mind about either bill. First, why must the State be the focus of funds for local schools ? If said funds are needed as urgently as the Promise Act advocates say, can’t they seek Proposition 2 1/2 overrides in the towns or cities thus needy ? I am especially unmoved by the Boston situation. Why does a City experiencing a long and propitious economic boom need State school funds at all ? The City’s tax valuation has doubled in the past ten years, yet the school budget has, in that time, increased only by 40 percent. Clearly a 2 1/2 override initiative is in order, so why isn’t one being — hasn’t one yet been — proposed ? And if many 2 1/2 overrides fail because taxpayers don’t see the need, why should the legislature arrogate to legislate school matters — which are locally governed by locally-chosen bodies mostly elected that localities have voted against ? Returning to the Boston question, I find it completely out of order for a City as real estate prosperous as Boston to ask for more State aid, when Massachusetts has so many cities that aren’t prospering at all and which badly need all the funds they can get. Nor am I moved by the argument that Boston educates so many students whose schooling costs much more than the average : English language learners, special need kids, kids with health issues. If a City as booming as Boston can’t meet these costs, we’re in serious incompetence mode.

But back now to the two funding bills. I quote now from the Globe article : “In Boston, where much of the city’s school funding gets diverted to charter schools, aid would jump from $220 million this year to $323.9 million in seven years under the Promise Act, compared to $232.6 million in Baker’s proposal, essentially the same increase the city would receive if the Legislature doesn’t overhaul the funding formula…” 

The $ 91.3 million dollar difference is almost precisely the $ 96,000,000 that Boston’s FY 2020 schools budget allocates for transportation. Most of that transport is required by the desegregation busing order entered 45 years ago by Federal Judge Arthur Garrity. This order should be terminated. No part of the City is segregated today, as many parts were in 1974. Today, most Boston neighborhoods are models of diversity. So why not bring back community schools ? Activists talk much these days about community — rightly so — but you can’t have true community without community schools. No institution binds neighbors together as solidly as they. With community schools, you also get PTAs, which enable parent-student-teacher after-hours interaction; and nothing improves school performance as effectively as teacher-student-parent interaction.

Campaigning door to door with a Council candidate in District Five, hardly a night of it goes by that we do not hear, from voters at the door, a desire for community schooling. Almost every mother we listen to, of school age children, is thinking of moving out because they don’t want their kids transported all over the place (and by a lottery assignment system that adds another layer of absurdity). Yet not a word of this issue is to be found in either of the two funding bills before the legislature.

The other schools issue that we hear at the door is the school system’s failure, even after 30 years of Federal grant availability, to render its utility usage energy-efficient. We hear of classrooms that are too hot in winter, too cold in summer. In this regard, the FY 2020 schools budget allocates $ 42,369,098 to “Property Services.” How much of that is attributable to wasted heating or air conditioning ? Probably not a little. Moreover, the system maintains buildings to serve 92,000 students, yet only about 55,000 attend. Why can’t the City close under-attended school facilities and end their “services” altogether ? One would think that those who advocate dramatic increases to the schools budget would be demanding this sort of saving. (You can read the FY 2020 budget here : https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BzzLbJ_lC7U2SDB1N0RhUmNMN3A0RWhBemg0RUlzbzlKbmJ3/view )

Again, not a word of this is to be found in either the two funding bills or in the Globe article.

Between the legislating going on on  Beacon Hill and the actual concerns of actual voters, there seems total disconnect. One would think that in a democracy, the concerns of actual voters would come first or at all; yet in schools matters, such concerns seem blocked. Parents of school age have been moving out of District Five, to the suburbs in search of better schools responsive to parents since the 1980s : yet in that time nothing has been done to relieve this exodus. The voters just don’t seem to matter.

This is why I protest as I am now doing and will continue to do until the legislators dealing with schools priorities finally listen.

Which is not to say that I don’t support reforming the 1993 funding formula. If we are top have schools funding by the State at all, the formula for allocating it should, as argued by advocates, favor those districts most in need of outside funds. Districts that in 1993 made that cut may well not be the ones making the cut 26 years later. My only reservation is that if State funds are to be allocated to local school districts, they can’t simply be doled out. Specific improvement priorities should accompany them, as well as a state monitor to assure that said funds do in fact get spent in pursuit of these priorities.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

 

A THIRD TERM FOR CHARLIE BAKER ?

 

Baker

^ aligning openly and purposefully with City Democrats : Governor Baker at Boston’s pride flag raising

 

The header is framed as a question because I’m not sure that he really does mean to seek an unprecedented third term as our state’s Governor. If he DOES mean it, however, significant reasons support his doing this. The Boston Globe article that appeared this morning quotes Baker thus : ““I really want to fight for this approach to governing that’s based on the idea there is such a thing as a bipartisan, pragmatic approach to governing,’’

There was more: Baker said he and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito will be heavy presences on the campaign trail in this year’s municipal elections across the state. They plan to back candidates, including Democrats, most of them incumbents, running for mayor.

“I am going to make sure that I and the lieutenant governor support and help incumbents this year on both sides of the partisan aisle who have helped us and we will also work for folks running for office in 2020.”

Let these two quotes sink in for a minute…

In effect, Baker has become an independent in all but name. To hear a Governor say this is new, but the fact is not. Since 1990, when our state elected Bill Weld as Governor, our Governors have, with the exception of Deval Patrick’s two terms, all been centrist Republicans who have, in effect, governed in partnership with the legislative leadership, non-partisan in policy, bipartisan in action. That said, Baker, by committing to campaign for Massachusetts Mayors who are enrolled Democrats, is going beyond what even he has yet done. Until now, he has always campaigned for only Republicans. Now, by aligning himself on campaign turf with Democratic Mayors, he is setting a level of bipartisan example quite bold for any Governor, much less one as cautious as Baker.

Think also of the context. Nationally, America is divided viciously along party lines. If you’re in a party, you are forced to be in that party and only in that party– the other party is the enemy. Baker told the Globe this : “bipartisan interactions at the State House stand in distinct contrast to what is going on around the country.’’

Baker has avoided critiquing Mr. Trump directly, but from Day One of Mr. Trump’s election, baker has acted in specific contrast to the Trump method; and in his first State of the State speech, he made that explicit :”I represent Massachusetts to Washington,not Washington to Massachusetts.” Baker has, by example, governed the opposite way to Mr. Trump, and by doing so, he has also helped to keep Massachusetts politics free of the partisan zealotry that has made useful Federal governance all but impossible. The move that Baker is now contemplating, and the basis that he has set it to, raise his anti-Trump example to a next level.

As the Globe notes, Baker has also separated his political operation from the state Republican party. The party has its offices on Merrimac Street in Downtown Boston; Baker’s operation uses offices on West Street, two miles away. Nor is Baker making any secret of his opposition to the ultra-conservative new regime at Massachusetts GOP headquarters : “Baker acknowledged he will again wade into the elections for the 80 members of the GOP state committee when Republican presidential primary voters go to the polls next winter,” wrote the Globe reporter.

The same report notes that Baker, by not having control of the state party, lost the cash-raising advantages that control of it accorded him. Yet his commitment to oust the current regime seems just as motivated by policy as b y money. Baker has no problem raising vast sums, whether he controls “Merrimac Street” or not. Policy, however, is another matter. The present right-wing rejectionism being voiced by present GOP leadership rejects almost everything that baker’s politics embrace.This is not without consequences. Canvassing voters door to door, I have found that registered Republicans are far more likely to dislike Baker than are unenrolleds and Democrats.

In this context, Baker’s commitment to campaign for Democratic mayors –and to govern openly in partnership with the legislature’s Democratic leadership — practically gives the finger to the folks at Merrimac Street and those who endorse them. One can almost hear what baker will never say, “You don’t like the initiatives I’m working on ? Don’t like that I’m doing them with Democrats ? Tough ! I have a state to govern, a state to reform, a new era to prepare us for!”

Perhaps in the end he will turn the reins to Lieutenant Governor Polito and take his two terms as the nation’s best-liked Governor home to Swampscott. That’s still the more likely outcome. But if he does decide top seek a third term, he will represent the deepest political desire of the overwhelming majority of voters : let us get things done, Democrats and Republicans together, and stop the insanity !” Don’t bet against it.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

REFORMING BOSTON’s PUBLIC SCHOOLS

IMG_6046

^ a Roslindale parent has a schools decision to make. Will the system allow her the best decision, or not ?

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Is there anything in the new contract agreement fore Boston school teachers that moves the system toward reform ? Not really. Teachers get a two percent pay raise ? Nice, but teacher pay is not a reform item. The system will hire 22 new full time school nurses, and another 22 aides will also be hired : these will be good news for parents of children in need of mental health monitoring and for the kids, too. Still at issue is the request, made by some, that classes for English language learners be staffed by two teachers each.

Yet these small adjustments do not equal school reform. The so-called achievement gap — the disparity between kids of various skin colors and national origins wit.h respect to test results and graduation rates — will likely remain. Nor does the new teacher contract alter, in the slightest, the two fundamental misdirections impacting Boston’s public schools : first, the school committee is appointed by the people; and second, that kids are still being transported all over the city, per school assignment lotteries established under a Federal Court desegregation order issued 45 years ago.

There is much talk about “the community” in various Boston neighborhoods these days, but you cannot have community without community schools. Community schools bring the kids of a community together. They encourage parent-teacher involvement. The Federal Court order destroyed the PTAs that governed Boston schools, that monitored their excellence and required teachers to not just teach their hours and go home. The old PTAs ensured that the local school community would continue after the school day and during school vacations. This was community  for real. The school community powerfully motivated parents to stay in the community. Just the opposite is the case today for parents seeking neighborhood schools. If you’re not lucky enough to get your kid into Boston Latin School or the Latin Academy, and you are not chosen by the charter school lottery, you will almost certainly move to the suburbs, or strongly consider doing it. (The exception that parents make for the Latin and charter schools results from parents’ confidence that at those schools  their kids will be rigorously well educated, diligently enough that they’ll trade  community for excellence. Correctly or not, parents have no such confidence in Boston’s standard public schools despite the City’s  $ 1,270,000,000 FY 2020 schools allocation.)

I think that parents are right to opine that community schools are the only workable alternative for kids who do not get into the Latin or charter schools. Community, at least, assures that the standard school — funded by fully one third of the entire annual City budget — will not settle for a default minimum, or tolerate teacher failure — the new contract “makes it easier” for teachers unassigned because no school will have them to work their way back to being hired. Community PTAs might well be what they once were, a bulwark of teacher diligence.

It is certainly time to move beyond the 1974 Federal Court order. The City’s neighbor hoods are no longer racially segregated. Residential diversity isn’t uniform, but there no more neighborhoods that are 99 percent Caucasian — nor 99 percent people of color. Door knocking in District Five this year, getting past the Federal Court order — and the $ 99,000,000 that it costs to transport kids — is by far the most frequent schools demand that voters make. It is time to do it; to eliminate the assignment lottery and recreate community school districts.

Taking this step would make an even stronger statement of reform if it were accompanied by City charter change re-establishing an elected school committee. I have proposed an elected  committee according to a district election system which gives five  committee seats to the current large assignment district, four seats to the next largest, and three committee seats to the small district. The Superintendent would then be the 13th member, or else the Mayor ex officio. Granted, that an elected school committee would bring political considerations into the mix : but school issues ought to be a major subject of politics and election. The $ 1,270,000,000 budget requires direct citizen involvement, and sol do major school decisions : curriculum, staffing, administrative autonomy for each school. The Mayor, who appoints the present committee, is chargeable, but he is equally charged on every other major City administrative matter. It is almost impossible to make his re-election depend upon his schools decisions, nor is it a best practice to do so. Best is to elect school officers whose focus is solely schools.

It is time to reform our public schools.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

IS THERE AN ANSWER TO THE “AFFORDABLE HOUSING” CONUNDRUM ?

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^ four candidates spoke and answered questions at last night’s District Five candidate forum

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Last night, at a forum for candidates seeking District Five’s City Council seat, the question of “affordable housing” came up, as it always does these days in Boston policy discussions. Amid the standard answers given by most of the candidates, that affordability should be a priority — though no one proposed a means for achieving it — one candidate vowed to impose a “20 percent minimum” on Boston developers seeking City permissions. Such an imposition is self-defeating, as I shall show, and that it can be seriously suggested at a forum makes clear just how useless, even damaging, is today’s conventional wisdom about house pricing.

Currently, Boston development rules require large projects — those taking charge of 50,000 square feet of living space or more — to offer 13 percent of proposed units under criteria of affordability : some at a price that people making 30 percent of City median income can pay, some at 50 percent. Most electeds whose views I am aware of think the 13 percent rule is quite okay. A few, like the candidate at last night’s forum, think it should be raised to the 20 percent figure. I find both rules self-defeating :

Developers begin with acquisition cost for the land on which they intend to build. The cost of buildable land in Boston has risen almost beyond the markets’ reach. Tom O’Brien of HYM asserts that it will cost $ 500,000 per unit to build his immense Suffolk Downs project. I think he is underestimating, but even if he isn’t — if he is right about the $ 500,000 — the result is that, having to offer 13 percent of his 2200 for sale  units at an “affordable” price means that he must jack Up the price of the remaining 87 percent of units in order to “make the  numbers work,” i.e., to not lose money. I think this result is universal in the world of the 13 percent rule : imposing it may sweeten the price for 13 percenters, but it lifts the price for everybody else.

The 13 percent rule raises the market price of Boston housing by 13 percent.

Because developers are willing to pay acquisition prices that require that 13 percent sale price boost, the 13 percent rule also raises the prices that owners ask when they are looking to sell.

The candidate who proposed lifting Boston’s development rule to 20 percent “affordable” thereby commits to raising the market price of Boston housing by 20 percent — a price lift which will put even more Boston housing out of reach of most Bostonians. In actual life, the 20 percent figure cannot happen. The city of Cambridge imposed a 20 percent rule,. and according to HYM’s Tom O’Brien, development immediately stopped. Perhaps that is the actual objective of proposing a 20 percent affordability rule, though no matter what the objective, no affordable housing is enabled thereby, except by making the market condition even more unaffordable.

Nor has the City administration helped the situation by calling for 69,000 units of new housing by year 2030 and then opening the floodgates of zoning variance to assure the goal is reached in time. The magnitude of the plan, and the hurried time limit, has generated a buying frenzy price war whose results we see all over the neighborhoods close to Downtown. Perhaps it would have been wiser to let the market figure out how to time demand and size it ?

Nowhere in any discussion that i have heard about house affordability is there mention of the real difficulty : that Boston’s median household income is too low. Wage earners, who are the most impacted by the price boom, must find a way to earn more — much more. There are only two ways : raise the minimum wage, as the State has done and will probably do again, or support unions at every turn as they fight to win better wages and benefits for their thousands of workers. Well led contract efforts by Local 26, SEIU”s locals, the Stop & Shop workers, utility workers, and others have brought better times to thousands, and more money, which means more ability to pay today’s high rents or buy prices. The union labor push is, I hope, far from finished. People who already live in Boston must take charge of the market, and they can only do that if they earn much higher wages.

Higher wages also benefit the economy generally, but the City cannot merely stand aside as it happens. City administrators should rethink having an “affordability percentage” rule at all. It doesn’t work, any more than any other attempt to circumvent the ironclad laws of numbers. Hopefully candidates running for open Council seats in Districts 5, 8, and 9 — and for Althea Garrison’s fill-in at-large seat — will begin to offer smart answers to the affordability challenge instead of surface responses that sound good but can’t survive fiscal analysis.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

WILL THE SUFFOLK DOWNS MEGA-PROJECT PEAK THE MARKET ?

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Last night I attended the last public meeting for the initial phase of HYM Group’s huge Suffolk Downs development. For the past two years HYM has hosted these public affairs, at every sort of East Boston and Revere  neighborhood association and to other sorts of locally resident communities. I’ve seen it so often that I’ve practically memorized the presentation. It is worth remembering, because it involves 10,000 units of housing — 2200 of them for sale — as well as 50,000 square feet of commercial space, 40 acres of open space, and an estimated cost of $ 320,000,000 just to build the necessary infrastructure, not to overlook $ 23,000,000 in so-called “mitigation payments” — in reality a kickback — to the City of Boston and probably an equivalent kickback, er “mitigation,” to the City of Revere.

In effect, HYM proposes to build an entire City, occupying — so its CEO, Tom O’Brien, tells us — 20 years to complete it.

I have no problem with the presentation. HYM has gone the extra mile, maybe an extra ten miles, to involve everyone it could reach out to, assuring that the public is fully aware of its plans and all the details, which are long and manifold. I also have no problem with the proposal. If HYM’s investors want to take the risk involved, that’s what capitalism is, and kudos to its capitalists for accepting risk when they could just as easily own Treasury bonds.

My two problems, which I will now discuss, are with the nature of the capital risk and the strong likelihood that HYM’s 10,000 units of housing will peak the market, moving maybe the entire northern half of metro Boston toward oversupply, with all the consequences. Don’t call me alarmist. I’ve seen many real estate projects — huge ones — top off a market easy to topple, given the immense degree of borrowed-money leverage that real estate markets always take on. We think today that there’s no stopping the Boston building boom, that people in need of housing will continue to clamor to live in Boston; but these trends can change, and quickly. In 2004 there seemed no end to the rush for suburban McMansions, yet by 2008 these over-sized houses far from Downtown were almost unsaleable. Who of today’s home buying generation wants one ? not many.

Those who live in Boston — and who are not homeless — already live in a housing unit. New housing is Boston needed only for those who do not yet live here. So : will 10,00 new residents be available for HYM’s 10,000 units ? Or, if current residents decide to live in the HYM’s city, will those 10,000 current units find 10,000 people to rent or buy them ?

That is the risk that HYM’s investors are taking on, and I am not convinced that it’s a slam-dunk. The enormous costs of building housing in Boston already motivate builders to seek outlying locations. Why else is the Governor’s zoning reform bill so powerfully backed by Mayors and realtors ? HYM has it even worse : it can’t only build. It has to implant the entire infrastructure that on existing streets is already in place : electric lines, sewers, water mains, cable, and roads. O’Brien told last night’s meeting that the total cost of building a Suffolk Downs unit is $ 500,000. I think he’s under-estimating. That might be the cost now, but he is committed to use union labor — which is a good thing — and union wages rise over time, as do the costs of materials and permits. Remember : the HYM proposal will be built in four phases over TWENTY years.

The other problem is that Tom O’Brien asserted that his investors have accepted a 5.7 percent rate of return (ROE). If he is correct — and I’m not convinced — then his investors are taking way too great a risk of market change. Most REIT’s look for ROE’s of 11 to 15 percent. Given the immense degree of leverage — borrowed money — involved in major real estate projects, if sales fall short by ten percent, or if mortgage borrowers’ default rate is higher than the usual two to three percent, an ROE of 5.7 runs a substantial risk of default or loss. HYM’s record of success with big projects may well have induced its investors to accept a 5.7 ROE; but reputation is not immune from market change. A 5.7 ROE by itself suggests that our market is peaking, because no serious investor would accept less, and very few would accept 5.7. If this is the present price level, it is one that likely can’t be sustained without major boosts in our region’s median family income.

Speaking of median income, some activists showed up at last night’s meeting asking, or demanding, that HYM offer more “affordable” units than the 13 percent required by City development rules. Personally, I don’t see why there should be any such rule. It’s the investors’ money. They are risking it, they should be free to set the rules. The 13 percent requirement has squeezed developers already. Anything more than that would likely stop development altogether. I think the entire notion of “affordable” in our housing market has gone for the duration and won’t return unless family income rises significantly — a subject of itself , well worth discussion — or the market turns seriously down — in which case we’ll have, as a City, worse economic problems than affordability. In any case, the affordability demand with respect to HYM seems to get the market wrong. I think you will see HYM doing some serious price cutting well before its 20 year build period ends.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

A DISTURBING DEVELOPMENT

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^ 119 Leyden Street : a beautiful, 1880s gem, to be torn down, according to a proposal that should never be allowed.

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Last night I attended a monthly meting of the Orient Heights Civic Association — my first since January. What I saw surprised and concerned me.

The 75 or more locals who saw and listened to two development proposals expressed the usual — and correct — objections to a development process in which the City’s Zoning Board of Appeals approves proposals that aggressively alter, rather than support, the character of the Orient Heights neighborhood. These normal objections should be honored by the Zoning Board, but they are not. I have written before this about the duty given by State law to Zoning Boards of Appeal : that any variance they may give from an area’s zoning designation must enhance and carry out the purposes of that designation. In Boston these past several years, the opposite is the rule, and people are right to dislike that.

Yet what I saw at the Orient Heights meeting went beyond the usual Zoning variance case. In both the proposals offered, 119 Leyden Street and 192 Gladstone Street, two perfectly good, well maintained homes, one an 1880s gem, are to be torn down and replaced with, respectively, a nine unit and six unit condo building. I headed this column with the photo of that 1880s gem to illustrate the audacity of what was being asked. By what whim has development in Boston now reached a point where dwellings that enhance the character of a neighborhood are to be torn down and done away with ?

To put it another way : Are we now at the point where houses — normal houses that establish a neighborhood’s personality — are to be eliminated entirely, purchased by a developer who can afford to pay more than any ordinary, resident home buyer because he or she can turn the parcel into 6 to 9 units each selling for almost the price of a single home ? Well, yes, we ARE at that point, if developers know that the Zoning Board of Appeals will grant them the variances they need to make such an outcome work. And if we are at that point, then neighborhoods like Orient Heights, where normal homes sit on lots large enough for developers to build 6 to 9 condominium units, have no defense. Might as well cash out and say goodbye to a neighborhood that has worked well for a century.

Fortunately for the rest of East Boston, the same strategy cant work. Homes in Jeffries Point and most of Eagle Hill sit on much smaller lots. There’s no room to do what the 119 Leyden and 192 Gladstone developer is trying. Not that downtown East Boston hasn’t its own weaknesses against the moves of grand-design developers; but at least they aren’t naked to this one.

It’s also an easy tactic to counter. The tear-down proposal can’t work if the City won’t approve the necessary variances. That’s all it takes to safeguard the character of Orient Heights, as the State’s zoning laws were adopted to do. Why won’t the City administration put a stop to it ?

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

STAYING IN BOSTON : THE HYDE PARK and ROSLINDALE MESSAGE

 

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^ Better schools are the key to having this young mother and her family stay in Roslindale rather than moving out. Nor is she the only young parent who will either stay, as we say we want them to, or leave.

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Having just spent more than a month knocking Hyde Park and Roslindale doors with District Five candidate Maria Esdale Farrell, I have a large plate of first hand voter opinion to offer you on the issue most often on voters’ minds in these two neighborhoods of Boston. What to do about Boston schools ? That is the subject most often voiced.

It was the same way back in the 1980s, when, then living in Roslindale, I ran for a public office based in Roslindale, Hyde Park, and points southwest. Then, however, the almost universal view was that Boston schools were hopelessly mired in busing from a child’s home neighborhood to one far away, a thing parents understandably refused to accept and so moved, out of the City entirely. Thus began an exodus of “Rozzie” and Hyde Park people that continues to this day.

If the turnover of homes continues, especially of the most affordable properties, the school issues that began it have changed. The fundamentals are not the same. In the 1980s, busing was a Federally ordered remedy for school segregation arising from segregated neighborhoods. Today the neighborhoods of Boston — all of them — have integrated racially and ethnically, which means there’s a solid basis for rescinding the 1975 Federal busing order. It is now seriously suggested by people on all sides and is certainly seen as crucial by people who own homes in “Rozzie’ and Hyde Park. Nor is rescission of the busing order the only school reform people in these neighborhoods bring up as they set forth the conditions they require if they’re to stay in Rozzie or Hyde Park — to not take half a million dollars for a home that in the late 1980s was worth maybe 50,000 at best.

Here, then, is a list of school reforms that Hyde park and “Rozzie” voters talk about, along with my own suggestions  generated by what voters told my candidate :

( 1 ) end the busing order. The City’s School Budget allocates $ 96,000,000 to transportation. Imagine what that $ 96 million could do for classroom equipment, teacher aide salaries, school lunches, and after-class activities.

( 2 ) bring back an elected school committee. Voters want to participate directly in Boston schools governance and see the appointed committee as too subservient to the Mayor, who is accountable to the voters on far too many fronts for school accountability to get proper priority. Some voters are willing to allow the Mayor one or two appointees to a reformed School Committee, but they want nine to twelve members elected from three districts exclusively drawn for school elections. (District Five opinion on this issue must take into account Rob Consalvo, who was Five’s Councillor and who now serves, by Mayoral appointment, as the School system’s chief of staff. I see no reason why Consalvo cannot respond to an elected committee as readily as to an appointed one, but his opinion on the change must be respected.)

( 3 ) reconstitute parent-teacher associations (PTA’s), which back in the days before busing assured each Boston schools of its direct response to the concerns and priorities of the parents of kids attending.

( 4 ) be open to alternative schools, because education today is no longer a one size fits all service. Charter schools of many kinds should be available to serve parents who want them, but locating charter schools is the sticking point. The Roxbury Prep proposal currently on offer proposes to occupy the old car dealership premises on Belgrade Avenue, and its proponents strongly believe in the location, close to public transportation; but all three neighborhood associations adjacent oppose the location; the result is that a school which ought to be built right now may not be built at all.

So —- local schools locally attended, directed by principals with power to hire and fire, subject to oversight by a committee elected by those who use the school system, and rigorous administration of a schools budget poorly managed and vastly over-committed to employee wages and benefits (these take up 86 percent of the current budget and have done so in all the last four budgets as well), as well as allowing alternative schools to flourish in local settings — these reforms would do wonders toward persuading current — long-term or recent arrival Rozzie and Hyde Park home owners to stay; to not cash out and leave the City; to feel good about the future direction of these two neighborhoods, which offer the same driveway, front lawn, back yard, and abundant verdure that one finds in much-desired suburbs : and which, unlike many suburbs, offer vibrant community connections, funky businesses, and plenty of social network venues, as one expects of a City setting. Yes, Rozzie and Hyde Park today have all of these, the funky social networking downtowns having come to full fruition only recently; but it won’t matter much if the area’s schools do not respond to what locals insist upon.

Lastly ; there are some who feel that the reason for long-term home owners leaving is “white flight.” I disagree. Those who left thirty years ago may well have feared a neighborhood becoming largely brown people or those who speak different languages. That is not true today. What I heard at the door was the same for every voter I listened to, of whatever skin hue or native language. And why not ? Those who think that people with brown skin or whose native language might be Albanian, or Spanish, or Yoruba (Nigeria) want something different from what Bostonians of prior immigrant origin want could not be more mistaken. Voters of Rozzie and Hyde park all want to be ordinary Americans and live ordinary American lives, no different, no matter what you hear from politicians with an agenda. On the schools front that’s absolutely true. You want Rozzie to remain ‘quirky” and Hyde Park to maintain Hyde pride ? Give them better schools better governed. It really is that simple.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere