Stop all subsidies Design Assistance Program Increased code enforcement
w/ need-based assistance
Encourage restoration Comprehensive Community Revitalization Avoid takings and givings Warning:
Dangerous Fad Alert
Marginal neighborhoods first Receivership Program for neglected properties
- Stop all public subsidies for new housing construction — The public sector should stop all subsidies and government assisted planning for new neighborhoods or housing plans inside the city, in suburban areas, and in the surrounding rural countryside. In a decreasing population such as we have in southwestern PA, new capacity only hastens the decline of the region's existing communities and neighborhoods as it moves people out of existing structures.
Fewer people occupy fewer homes — it's a simple arithmetic fact! So even without any new construction there is already a debiltating pressure to abandon the existing housing stock in southwestern PA. Move any of the region's people into new homes and you must move them out of existing homes — this exacerbates the abandonment of existing housing stock!
It similarly doesn't help at all when the new homes are bought by people who move here from outside the region. Certainly, when they buy new, they are not purchasing any of the region's fine, available, older houses. If the subsidized new housing were not on the market, many of these newcomers would be looking at more existing homes and settling in the traditional communities.
It doesn't matter much where you build it — whether center city, suburban surrounds, or the rural countryside — with the region's continuing decline in population, the construction of new housing capacity hurts our communities, and subsidizing it is a prescription for municipal suicide! TOP /\
- Encourgage and support the restoration of existing structures — The region's traditional neighborhoods and communities constitute its greatest asset. Yet, they are presently the victim of a public policy that has abandoned them, or worse, has targeted them for destruction. All this has occurred in order to facilitate suburban real estate speculation and its conversion of farmland into the sprawling congestion we call modern suburbs.
The irony is that the traditional towns and boroughs were built to a human scale which is superior in many ways to the automotive scale of modern suburban sprawl. Given an equal chance, these communities could have easily continued to be healthy and vibrant. That they exist at all today is a testament to their staying power after decades of official abuse.
It is the traditional architecture of the traditional communities which embodies their urban character and gives them their advantage. If the region's traditional communities and neighborhoods are ever to be revitalized, it will be by championing their authentic historic architecture, restoring it rather than destroying it! TOP /\
Dangerous Fad Alert
Beware the "new urbanism." There is an architectural "movement," first started among a small core of architects, which seeks to imitate the traditional form using a design scheme that they have labeled "the new urbanism." After slowly growing in popularity, it is sweeping across the nation as a dangerous fad among planners, architects, and speculators.
In their best light, the faux urban designs of "new urbanism" look great in the two dimensions of drawings or photographs, and they are raved about by those whose memory of the real thing may have faded or is second hand; on closer scrutiny, however, they tend to be merely fantasized allusions to the real thing. To the wary eye, this seemingly benign movement shows itself to be, at its base, a marketing ploy designed to increase business and profits for its promoters. — These in themselves may seem OK, except that their consequences will be born by society, as the "new urbanist" designs and their promoters' strategy have now become the greatest threat to the country's older, traditional communities!
The human scale and traditional urban form of many older communities has significant advantages over the automotive based modern suburbs, and these advantages can be used to attract new residents to restored neighborhoods. Yet as a solution to the problems of traditional communities, some supporters of "new urbanism" have advocated tearing down all or part of them and as a replacement building the "new urbanist" halfway imitations. While not going so far, others are using the new urbanist designs for in-fill among the traditional form. Whether sprinkled or in large glops, whether in blocks or whole sections, the intrusion of this less-than-real form only dilutes the traditional character that is the strength of urban neighborhoods, much the way counterfit money undermines the value of official currency.
But even if the new urbanism produced exact, indistinguishable replicas of the real thing it would still be one of the greatest threats today to older, existing, tradition communities. The major focus of new urbanism is attracting buyers to new suburban construction by seemingly importing many of the elements of the urban form and ostensibly capturing the advantage of older, traditional neighborhoods and towns which will be left behind to decline. As such, it encourages and continues the present nomadic practice of abandoning the old and moving on to the new that is built elsewhere.
The goal of new urbanism is to become the dominant form of both cities and suburbs alike. The danger this brings is more subtle and thus likely the greater. As the "new urbanism" is overlain upon all types of communities, it will create an amalgam of sameness that eliminates the contrast between urban, suburban, and rural settlement patterns. About the only difference left will be that the new construction in new communites avoids the social and economic baggage of old communities, a distinction that will doom the traditional communities to further decay and our society to a greater and more destabilizing stratification.
But there is more to be lost. Differences and contrast enhance our choices. An option among peas, asparagas, or eggplant offers more of a selection than an option of hot or warm rice. By eliminating contrast between traditional urban neighborhoods and their present modern suburban counterparts, the "new urbanism" is removing real choices of community form and this threatens to undermine one of the greatest freedoms bestowed by the American experiment, an ability to choose among lifestyles. As Oprah Winfrey said of her experience filming Beloved, a movie set in the South during the post Civil War reconstruction period, "I realized that freedom doesn't mean anything, if you don't have choices."
It doesn't matter that many, if not most, of the "new urbanist" architects have convinced themselves that this is the best thing in the history of human society. — The new urbanism, with its new urbanist designs, is a wolf in sheep's clothing, and it is something of which leaders in traditional communities should be extremely wary! TOP /\
- Implement a design assistance program to provide restoration advice — Contractors with bad taste or unscrupulous intents are usually more interested in selling their product or services than they are with its impact upon a property's design or value. Without an opportunity for unbiased advice, property oweners are frequently mislead. Such a program, well publicized and widely used, can help raise community standards in a non-punitive way. TOP /\
- Implement Comprehensive Community Revitalization programs — Comprehensive Community Revitalization (CCR) consists of concentrating a coordinated array of programs upon a managable segment of a community in order to foster its revitalization to a point where its vitality is sustainable on its own. The idea is to turn the current trend of decline around, get the target area on its feet again, and wean it as quickly as possible from the programs so that their resources can be concentrated upon the next targeted area.
While this approach does provide an opportunity for some new, innovative programs, by and large, it is designed to integrate a number of traditional programs for maximum impact. Where many of these may have had mixed results when used only piecemeal or in isolation, it can still be useful to resurrect them if they failed because their benefits were diluted. In this respect, CCR is analagous to the new integrated therapies in modern medicine in which drugs that had limited benifit alone are combined with a synergistic effect. TOP /\
- Target marginal neighborhoods first for comprehensive revitalization — The marginal neighborhoods of a community provide the optimum target for initiating community revitalization. These are the neighborhoods which are starting to slide but still have a lot of strengths upon which to build, and they require less funding to revitalize to their traditional standards.
Targeting marginal neighborhoods does not mean ignoring the harder pressed neighborhoods at any point. What we are talking about is using monies now going into speculation subsidies to fund extra programs that can have the most impact when used to turn around marginal areas first.
So why not use the same money for new construction or use it on the worst off neighborhoods? Because the same amount of money spent in a marginal neighborhood can affect a larger area than it could if it were spent upon all new construction (even when used, as it is now, for partial subsidies). Conversely, it would also affect a larger area than dropping the same monies into relatively few high cost projects sprinkled over destitute neighborhoods where it would be diluted and have little impact.
The strategy of providing the most initial bang for the buck is important. On the one hand, it shores up the adjacent better neighborhoods so they will need no special assistance. On the other, the prospects of the worse off neighborhoods are improved as neighborhoods in their proximity improve. This can attract new investment to the poorer neighborhoods in anticipation of their future revitalization.
This approach is in stark contrast to the present strategy of draining existing neighborhoods of their more affluent residents (i.e. those who are best able to maintain and improve their properties) by enticing them into subsidized, barrier protected enclaves, while the decline of the surrounding community accelerates. Whereas the present strategy seeks to segment and stratify the community by financial class, Comprehensive Community Revitalization strives to retain the better off residents in their present neighborhoods and encourage them to invest in their properties as the first line in the revitalization of healthy, integrated neighborhoods. TOP /\
- Couple need-based assistance with increased building code enforcement —One option in the revitalization arsenal is to increase building code enforcement to ensure that the quality of the building stock is retained or improved. By specifically analyzing each property for deficiencies and directly ordering maintenance, strict code enforcement is quite possibly the most effective tool for immediately shoring up the quality of private properties.
Unfortunately, it can also create a severe hardship for poorer residents who are hit with a list of needed repairs that have accumulated over the years. After suffering decades of a public policy that has fostered the disinvestment from their traditional neighborhoods, this is most unfair to those who can least afford it. So, what can we do? Well, the answer is to couple an increase in code enforcement with a need-based assistance program for owner occupied structures. There are already a number of mechanisms for accomplishing this, ranging from direct grants, to low or no interest installment loans, to unexercized leins against a property that are collected upon the property's sale or from the estate after its owner's death. (This is in contrast to the millions, if not billions, of dollars presently being given as direct and indirect subsidies to wealthy real estate speculators).
There must also be a program to assist poor renters whose landlords are likely to try to pass-on the costs for mandated repairs in the form of increased rents. While monthly rent supplements may seem to be an obvious answer, it is not in keeping with the intention of having a community or neighborhood that is self-sustaining. Again this is best pursued with a pallet of potential solutions that can be best applied after an analysis of each particular situation.
It should be noted that there is one blanket solution which can help alleviate some of the financial burden of making property improvements, and it must be investigated upon a community by community basis. A recent law passed by the Pennsylvania Legislature last year enables any borrough or home rule municipality to shift all or part of its taxing from the real estate tax to a land tax. — This can eliminate part of the present real estate tax penalty that is incurred by landlords and homeowners who improve their property and increase its value.
There is one final caveat: Efforts to enhance code enforcement must be pursued upon a community-wide basis. The courts have held that whenever strict code enforcement is pursued peicemeal, on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis, it is deemed to be spot enforcement, and that is not allowed. However, many of the small communities are the size of city neighborhoods, and, with not all proceeding at once, a county assistance program for code mandated repairs would have the same budget impact as if the county was pursuing peicemeal code enforcement, without it being ruled out as illegal by the courts. This should enable the program to proceed while keeping its costs reasonable. TOP /\
- Avoid takings and givings whenever possible — In the past half century, there has grown a lack of respect for the rights of property owners that has been institutionalized in many of our government agencies. In too many instances these agencies have become little more than procurement tools for wealthy speculators who desire properties of owners who do not wish to sell. As major contributors to a few key politicians, these speculators need only express an interest in properties of a less influential owners (e.g. retired senior citizens and small business operators) and the government sweeps in with eminent domain. After forcing the owners out, the property is turned over to the speculator, usually with a subsidy to boot. — This is an egregious abuse of the power of eminent domain, and it must be stopped!
Abusive takings that are based upon the level of wealth or political connections of any individual or corporation undermine the confidence of all small property owners. This only adds to the propensity to disinvest which is already present because of declining property values. Such takings distort the natural balance of a free market and result in less than optimum decision making, both from an individual stand point and from the society's perspective.
Abusive takings are but one side of the coin causing social distortion in metropolitian areas. The other is "givings" — corporate welfare and the direct and indirect subsidies benefitting real estate speculators being among them. The quandry is that subsidies can be used to induce desired behavior to the betterment of society. Yet, with the history of abuse and manipulation accompanying subsidies, it is apparent that, besides using extreme caution, the best way to implement inducements is to do so as an exchange in which the public receives substantive guarantees.
As it is now, when a local government seeks to preserve the historic style of a building, it is met often met with a cry of "takings" and a demand for payment. On the other hand, various agencies give out money as grants for facade improvements in distressed communities, asking no long term guarantees in return. An optimum solution would be to satisfy both deficiencies by purchasing facade easements as part of a program for the restoration of the public streetscapes within traditional communities. In addition to giving monies for restoration, grants to urban property owners should be accompanied by the execution of an easement guaranteeing the public continuing adherence to historic specifications, design quality, and maintenance standards. — If the government is to continue giving direct assistance to property owners for improvements, the public should get something in return. Property rights advocates ask to be paid for a "takings," and it is only reasonable for the public to expect something substantive in return for a "givings" when paying property owners to improve their properties. TOP /\
- Implement a receivership program for neglected properties of absentee owners. — Rather than waiting until old, unmaintained investment properties are put up for sheriff's tax sale, a lengthy period which allows a property to deteriorate further, this recievership program could save the property and help shore up the community.
As a step in this direction, Attorney Jonathan Robison has already set up an arrangement using some of these elements with the consent of the court. This is clearly less of an intrusion into property ownership than the use of eminent domain has become. It provides for due process and just compensation for all parties. Most importantly it can go a long way toward preserving property conditions which have an important impact upon the community. TOP /\
- After the filing of necessary petitions and holding hearings to ascertain that property's situation meets set criteria, a court appointed receiver (a person with interest in the property) could be designated and given permission to perform necessary maintenance and repairs to bring the property up to code.
- The owner could then reclaim the property within a designated time after paying for all repairs plus interest.
- If the owner does not settle, the court could decide to award the property to the receiver for the market value before the work was done or for the final market value minus the costs of repairs and interest.
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