Four votes against the proposed leasing of city parking spaces should do the trick
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Four votes against the proposed leasing of city parking spaces should do the trick
August 16, 2018
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
Transportation is a subject I address frequently in my columns. But, as is often the case in journalism, it’s usually necessary to write about it piecemeal given various editorial constraints. So I might cover flooding subways one week and a gonzo proposal for sky gondolas over the Seaport the next. But rarely do I have the luxury of looking at such a major policy area in its entirety. Which is nonideal because a good journalist is always interested to spark discussion and debate—and it’s difficult to have a proper conversation with readers if they aren’t aware of my general views on the topic at hand.
Such was the case a three weeks ago when I published a piece that took a dim view of Bird Rides dumping its dangerous electric rental scooters all over Cambridge and Somerville without first discussing the move with officials in either city… following a nationwide pattern of flouting relevant laws that is clearly its business model. About a day later, a few wags took to Twitter to slam me for having the temerity to suggest that motorized skateboards with handlebars might not be the ideal vehicles to allow on area streets in numbers. On both political and safety grounds.
I didn’t mind the hazing, of course. But it was vexing to watch Bird fans that clearly hadn’t even bothered to read the article in question—let alone my broad and deep back catalog—attack me as some kind of car-loving anti-environmental reactionary in the service of flogging their hipster transportation fetish du jour. Be they paid marketers or merely geeks with an idée fixe.
With that in mind, I thought it would be useful to run through my general views on transportation policy in this epistle. To clarify why I don’t think that any electric conveyance thrown at us by sociopathic West Coast frat boy CEOs is automatically the best way to save the planet while safely getting people around town with their groceries and pets. I will, however, leave long-distance intercity travel by land, sea, and air aside for now for the sake of space.
It’s not possible to hold forth on transportation without first addressing the absolute necessity that humanity stop burning carbon to meet our civilization’s power needs. If we fail to shift from getting power from oil, gas, and coal to clean renewable energy sources like wind, water, and solar, then we are well and truly doomed. Not in centuries, but mere decades from now. Among the largest sources for global warming inducing carbon emissions are cars, trucks, and motorcycles. And with carbon multinationals like ExxonMobil dominating American politics, it’s going to be extremely difficult to institute the major changes that will be required to replace those vehicles—and the “car culture” that has built up around them—with zero carbon alternatives that will be acceptable to a broad array of communities. Yet without such a transition, anything else we might do will merely be tacking colorful bunting onto our species’ collective coffin. That said, any decent transportation network will have to be based on electricity. Unless some of our cleverer scientists and engineers come up with sufficiently powerful and portable renewable power sources (tiny cold fusion reactors, harnessing evil spinning gnomes, etc.) that don’t require plugging vehicles into charging stations for periods of time every day or three.
We’re not going to be able to move millions of people to new green transportation alternatives without redesigning the places where they live and work. One appealing way of doing that over time is to build dense clusters of housing and offices around major multimodal transportation hubs that are connected to each other by mass transit. Which will, among other salutary effects, help solve the “last mile” problem of getting commuters from such hubs to their homes and workplaces in weather conditions that are only going to get more unpredictable and dangerous as climate change accelerates.
But while it’s become fashionable and profitable for developers to build such high-density enclaves for rich people, it is generally not being undertaken for everyone else. Until it is, it’s going to be extremely difficult to successfully introduce the transportation alternatives we need. Probably the toughest issue will be converting existing urban neighborhoods and suburban tracts based on square miles of individual atomized domiciles over to sort of more compact and connected urblets without upending people’s carefully constructed lifeways by government fiat. Though, ironically, the global warming-driven imperative of our moving entire cities like Boston away from flooding lowlands onto higher ground—and eventually northward to cooler climes—will provide us an opportunity to start development from scratch in many locales. Since given the choice between staying in aging housing stock with ever worsening service and transportation options, and moving to new clusters of high-rise and low-rise buildings hooked up to a robust grid, people will likely move of their own accord.
And what are the cheaper, ubiquitous, and more efficient transportation modalities that will get us to a carbon-free future? I think trains, trolleys, monorails, and similar mass transit options will still play a vital role in moving large numbers of people from neighborhood to neighborhood and city to city. In fact, I believe we need to massively expand rail lines to reach far out into the exurbs. And figure out ways to use such lines for cargo containers as well. Buses—with dedicated lanes—will remain vital in many areas. Especially where it’s too expensive or impractical to build out rail lines. Boats can also be very useful for the same purpose in most weather conditions in areas adjacent to oceans, lakes, and rivers.
And cars? Well, that’s a big complicated discussion, but here’s my brief take. Carbon-burning cars need to be relegated to museums and antiquarian societies for collectors and hobbyists. But there’s no getting around fact that despite all their myriad problems, most people currently like being able to jump into a car and go where they want to go. So what can replace that? At first, shifting over to electric cars will be a big help. Then there will be a debate over robot cars. And that’s a tricky one because that technology won’t work well at first, and will displace many driving jobs if not introduced deliberately without corporate malice aforethought. Don’t be surprised, therefore, if you see me attacking “public-private” initiatives to shove such cars down people’s throats.
Nevertheless, society will gain much if we can make the new technology work. Because fleets of robot cars can likely replace the individually owned car entirely. Allowing people to get between areas well away from major transportation hubs at will—simply by using the future equivalent of a rideshare app to order a robot car for the trip. Robot trucks will be able to deal with moving cargo point to point. And simple electric golf carts—either robotic or not—will suffice for trips around neighborhoods.
We can then gradually reduce or eliminate motor vehicle traffic from many roads over time—allowing bicycles (on ubiquitous dedicated bike lanes) to really come into their own. As for electric scooters? In most locales it will probably be best if they remain an idiosyncratic vehicle choice for young individuals who like to stand out from the crowd, and not accepted as a serious transportation alternative. Because they’re not. Meanwhile, flying cars, jetpacks, and the like will have to be a topic for a future article.
Building out transportation alternatives needs to be seen as an opportunity for new job creation, not just an excuse for job destruction for the purpose of corporate profit extraction. Such jobs should be “good jobs” with living wages, shorter work weeks (something we’ll need worldwide to compensate for the rise of the robots), and generous benefits. People losing jobs in the existing transportation sector should be retrained at government expense and get priority placement in jobs in the new transportation sector. All of said jobs should be unionized.
As many of these transportation alternatives as possible should be public. Leaving our transit future to private companies like Uber, Lyft, Lime, Bird Rides, etc. is a prescription for disaster. Because all such corporations look out for their bottom lines first, and the public good second (if at all). And every entrant to that new sector has sought to end-run public planning processes and government regulators in a never-ending quest to make a fast buck—to the point of Uber purposely designing their payment algorithm so that their drivers would keep driving while making as little money as possible, according to Vanity Fair.
So if we’re going to ensure that commuters have a voice in a reasonably democratic and rational transportation planning process going forward, then we have to expand public transportation to control the commanding heights of its sector. And regardless, the role of privately owned vehicles must be minimized if we’re going to reduce carbon emissions enough to save ourselves from the worst depredations of human-induced global warming.
That’s my basic thinking on at least regional transportation. Happy to participate in civic dialogues on the subject any time.
Thanks to Suren Moodliar, co-author of the forthcoming A People’s Guide to Greater Boston [University of California Press], for ongoing ever-illuminating conversations on transportation, housing, and many other policy areas.
Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
August 7, 2018
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
We don’t get much news about Western Mass in Boston. And since the population is relatively small in the largely rural western counties of the Commonwealth, it can be easy to miss significant stories. Because the scale of noteworthy happenings is naturally smaller there. Because our diminished metro news outlets have trouble covering the entire state. And because, let’s be honest, Bostonians don’t usually care about what happens west of, like, Brookline.
So at first glance, word of a homeless encampment out in Greenfield isn’t something that would get much attention hereabouts at the best of times. But for a city with a population that fell by more than 500 people to 17,456 between the 2000 and 2010 censuses—with a median household income of $33,110, and 14 percent of residents below the poverty line—it’s an important enough development to warrant a series of articles in the local press. And I think it deserves coverage here in the Hub as well.
Especially when the encampment is on the Greenfield Common, opposite the Greenfield City Hall (better known as the Town Hall prior to a recent change in nomenclature). Something unusual is definitely afoot.
It seems two local homeless people began camping on the common a couple of months ago. A number that quickly grew to 20 regular residents in as many as a dozen tents. According to the Greenfield Recorder, their “de facto spokeswoman” Madelynn Malloy “and others have said previously they are camping on the common because there is no other place that is safe for homeless residents to go and because current city law allows them to stay there day or night. There are no requirements for licenses or permits to be there and the homeless residents’ actions are not considered loitering, but public assembly. The city has an ordinance prohibiting loitering, but it only applies to sidewalks.”
A city count of last January pegged the homeless population at 39, but area charities have said the actual number is significantly higher—as they noted during the brutal cold snap at the end of 2017 when their shelters were so overwhelmed that the Salvation Army put up $1,600 to house people at Days Inn. Since that time, the Greenfield Human Rights Commission and homeless advocates have been pushing for the city to do more. Meanwhile, the encampment has put a very human and public face on the crisis, and has sparked meetings and debates in local government about how to find housing for the homeless.
Unfortunately, there seems to be at least as much concern from Mayor William Martin to get the city council to pass rules effectively banning camping on Greenfield Common as there is to find ways to house local homeless people. The latter being the obvious policy priority, if for no other reason than to relieve overwhelmed private social service agencies.
Most recently, a breakthrough of sorts—also reported in the Greenfield Recorder—happened when the city council voted to put a port-a-potty closer to the common than the one local churches previously made available. “According to the Department of Public Works, the cost of a temporary restroom is $150 a month and includes emptying it. The mayor’s office said the first two months of the portable toilet would be paid for by the Interfaith Council and an unnamed local business. There is no plan currently in place for funding after the two months.” The council also voted, apparently contrary to the mayor’s wishes, to decrease “regulations on churches to set up temporary shelters” and open “the former Wedgewood Gardens property on Kimball Drive as a possible site for an encampment.” The mayor then vowed to “attempt to find temporary housing solutions through a ‘rapid re-housing team’” made up of “city officials and social service and humanitarian agencies.”
Baby steps perhaps. But it would not do to underplay the difficult situation Greenfield government finds itself in. It’s going to take officials time to find even a stopgap solution. Large cities like Boston aren’t doing a great job of dealing with a growing homeless crisis either; so it’s obviously more difficult for smaller municipalities with fewer resources to house and provide services for even a few dozen people.
Particularly when, as was pointed out in a DigBoston op-ed by Lawrence social services executive Joe D’Amore in January, many communities in Massachusetts ban people from sleeping in public spaces or even “loitering” there. Which merely shifts the burden of dealing with homelessness to more densely populated and tolerant locales with more social services like Lawrence. Or Greenfield.
Hopefully people will retain the right to sleep on the Greenfield Common overnight when needed, and the city government will cobble together some longer-term housing options for its homeless population before winter sets in.
Yet however things turns out in the largest burg in Franklin County, the situation is interesting not because it is unique… but because it is sadly commonplace. Across Massachusetts and all over America the story is the same. Despite claims of a “strong economy” from Republicans and many Democrats, homelessness is ever more persistent and ever more desperate.
To see an actual strong economy in a place like Greenfield, one has to look back to the 1950s—when the city was home to major metal-working concerns, the largest being Greenfield Tap & Die. But that plant was sold off to a larger company in 1958, and most of its jobs disappeared over decades. The city’s last major manufacturing business, Lunt Silversmiths, went under in 2009 during the Great Recession.
According to the Republican, Lunt had 800 employees in 2001. And only “12 to 15” by the end. It’s difficult for even larger cities to recover from that kind of blow to their job base, let alone a small city like Greenfield.
It will thus shock no one that the rise of the opiate crisis tracks closely to this decline in the city’s fortunes. And it’s therefore ironic in the extreme that the former Lunt plant is now home to two drug treatment facilities, Franklin Recovery Center and Northern Hope.
The opiate crisis relates directly to the homeless crisis. And both relate to the ongoing jobs crisis. Increasingly unregulated capitalism, as I often write, is clearly incapable of providing good jobs for our population. As the job base collapses, people in Greenfield, Boston, and around the nation are stuck with lousy part-time, temp, contract, independent contractor, and day labor gigs. Or with no jobs at all.
As these downwardly mobile people see their lives collapsing, they turn to opiates. Maybe because they got injured in their precarious pseudo-jobs and got put on addictive pain killers by well-meaning doctors being suckered by criminal conspiracies like oxycontin-maker Purdue Pharma of nearby Stamford, Connecticut. Or maybe because they couldn’t take the humiliation of no longer being able to provide for themselves and their families, and reached for the strongest, most reliable, and readily available chemical solace. And soon enough, more and more of these folks end up on the streets.
Without public jobs programs, new public housing, and cradle-to-grave public healthcare, local, state, and federal governments will not be able to fix these related crises. Even if they wanted to. Which they don’t in this era of gangster capitalism. Nor will “private” charities. Many of which already rely on shrinking pools of government money to do what little they can do to stem the tide of rising poverty.
So it’s critical that people in big cities like Boston—especially press and policy makers—pay careful attention to small municipalities like Greenfield. They are canaries in the coal mine of a political economic system that can only be called failing, the less it is able to provide for the growing number of people on the bottom of our societal pyramid.
As such, we ignore the Greenfields of our nation at our peril. We must act now to stop the rest of our communities, large and small, from continuing their rolling collapse. A task we can best begin by rebuilding government at all levels to focus on the human needs of all of its denizens. And stop privileging the schemes of the rich and powerful few over the livelihoods of the struggling multitude.
Townie is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. His Apparent Horizon column is winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
December 12, 2017
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
Big local corps quiet about huge profits to come from Repub tax scheme… except GE
An interesting WBUR article, “Largest Mass. Companies Are Mostly Silent On GOP Tax Plans,” asked the top 12 corporations in the Commonwealth to comment on the recently passed Republican scheme to transfer vast amounts of money from the working and middle classes to the rich and the corporations they control—euphemistically called “tax reform” in most of the major news media. Unsurprisingly, Bay State business leaders didn’t want to take time away from rubbing their hands together and cackling with glee about all the free money they’re going to get—choosing instead to remain mum for the moment.
But WBUR did get a statement out of General Electric after the Senate vote on the tax plan:
GE commends Congress and the White House for their commitment to comprehensive tax reform. GE supports the Senate tax reform plan because it would upgrade the U.S. to a territorial tax system, bring rates in line with other countries, and allow U.S. businesses and workers to compete fairly around the world, so it’s the quality of our products that determine whether we win global deals, and not tax differences.
No surprise GE would say that, since it will benefit tremendously from the drop in federal corporate tax from 35 percent to only 20 percent. But it will also get to repatriate as much of the lucre it’s been offshoring as it would like at a one-time tax rate of merely 12 percent. And now that the feds are “upgrading” to a “territorial tax system,” the company will make even more money. Why? Because a territorial tax system means that all the profits multinationals sock away in offshore tax havens will be taxed at a rate of zero percent. You read that correctly. Nada. No taxes at all on foreign profits.
Currently, companies like GE stash profits in other countries because, although they have been technically taxed on all profits—foreign and domestic—at the base 35 percent rate (basically a total joke since there are so many corporate tax loopholes that big companies like GE actually end up with a negative tax rate some years, but let’s play along for the purpose of this explanation), they are only required to pay those taxes when they “repatriate” the money back to the US. Which has often been never thanks to a complicated system called “transfer pricing” where corporations book profits in low tax countries, and take deductions in the US and other higher tax countries. And then borrow cheap money on the strength of their foreign bank accounts to make more profits.
The result will be even more offshoring of both money and jobs by megacorps. Because why would a company like GE not move more of both away from the US if foreign profits are tax free—without nearly as much of the tricky accounting that’s currently needed to play the transfer pricing game? Just really bad news for Mass workers. And for boosters of the GE Boston deal. And anyone who thinks big companies like Amazon are going to have much incentive to add lots of jobs anywhere in the US going forward.
BPDA “PLAN: Glover’s Corner” protested in Dorchester
As the neoliberal capture of the government and the public sector continues apace, earnest technocrats at the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA, formerly known as the BRA) still find it necessary to play the communitarian “public meeting” game when trying to sell bad deals that advance corporate interests to the working families who are all too often the targets of such deals.
Communitarianism being the decades-old fad where institutions representing the rich and powerful work hard to make sure that “every constituency has a seat at the table” when they want to do something that will harm those constituencies. But, of course, the power relations remain unchanged. The rich and powerful remain rich and powerful. Everyone else does not. And “the table” isn’t the real table—where bankers, CEOs, and top government leaders meet to make policy decisions happen. Usually behind closed doors. It’s basically a kiddie table where regular people can pretend they have some impact on a process that’s over before it begins.
Which is why it’s nice to see that housing activists with the Dorchester Not For Sale coalition decided to crash a recent BPDA transit-oriented public meeting on its “PLAN: Glover’s Corner”—which is slated, among other things, to add hundreds of units of housing that will be mostly unaffordable to current Dot residents.
According to the Bay State Banner and the Dorchester Reporter, the Dorchester activists are taking a page from JP and Roxbury housing activists with the Keep It 100% for Egleston coalition who protested the larger BPDA PLAN: JP/Rox—which might ultimately involve thousands of units of new housing—until the city relented and mandated that 36 percent of the new units (and 40 percent overall, including units currently permitted for construction) must be affordable.
The definition of “affordable” for the JP/Rox plan area is pegged to percentages of the average median income of the Boston region set by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). So, for example, according to an August Spare Change News article, some “affordable” units being rented and sold as part of the 3200 Washington complex are being offered to households making 70 percent of the region’s average median income, and some to households making 100 percent.
But JP and Roxbury advocates have continued to protest PLAN: JP/Rox even after it was made official because its definition of “affordable” remains too high.
Spare Change continues, “For the Boston metropolitan region, the average median income is just over $100,000, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average household income for all of Jamaica Plain is $76,968. However, households within the plan’s range have an average income of just over $50,000.”
According to a March Bay State Banner article, activists three goals for the plan are “to deepen the affordability level on designated affordable housing units so that they are attainable by households making less than $35,000 per year; increase goals for the portion of new housing that’s designated as affordable from 36 percent to 55 percent; and require the conversion of 250 market-rate units into affordable units..”
So while their activism raised the amount of “affordable” housing the BPDA planned to offer in the deal from 30 percent to 36 percent, it’s not going to help many people currently living in or near the affected neighborhoods to stay in the area unless the definition of affordable is changed to reflect economic reality. Given that fact, Mayor Marty Walsh’s much-vaunted progress on getting more affordable housing built on his watch is based largely on smoke and mirrors because much of it remains unaffordable to the people who need it most.
The Dorchester activists, meanwhile, are demanding that the BPDA accept a six-month moratorium on PLAN: Glover’s Corner, use the extra time to provide more data to the community on the plan, and do things like provide childcare at public meetings to allow more locals to attend.
Thus far, the BPDA is blowing off such demands and trying to plow forward without significant changes to its plan. Boston City Councilor Frank Baker, who attended the Glover’s Corner meeting, agreed with the BPDA in a recent Spare Change article, saying “As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a valid request.”
Seems the fight for housing justice is far from over in Dorchester.
Townie (a worm’s eye view of the Mass power structure) is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
For many people, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is the only time of year that their thoughts turn to the plight of the homeless. Money, food, and presents are donated. And time is volunteered at shelters. All to make sure that people without a home of their own have a nice holiday—at least for a few hours. Worthy efforts to be sure.
However, despite this periodic outpouring of compassion, there’s still an unfortunate tendency to individualize homelessness in our society. As with poverty in general, casual observers assume that it’s personal failings that cause people to end up without housing.
And while it’s a truism that every person bears some responsibility for the straits they find themselves in, there are three major structural problems out of the control of impoverished individuals that best explain the rise of homelessness in Massachusetts: savage cuts to our state mental health system, an economy that creates large numbers of bad low-wage jobs, and the destruction of affordable housing.
Taking these issues in turn, the Commonwealth started shutting down most of its oft-criticized inpatient mental hospitals on budget and civil liberties grounds in the 1970s—leading to the first wave of homeless people with few places to turn for help and little ability to escape their fate. Things have only gotten worse since then. According to Mass Live, over the last 20 years the legislature has cut spending on inpatient mental health services by half and outpatient spending has remained stagnant.
Next, National Public Radio recently reported that wages and benefits “essentially flatlined or declined for four of five Americans between 2007 and 2014.” As big business racked up super profits, and crushed labor unions. Continuing a trend that also started in the 1970s where wage growth has slowed dramatically for most working people even as their productivity has increased. People at the bottom of the economic pyramid have been hardest hit, and ever more working people are finding themselves unable to pay mortgages or rent with the money they make working two or even three bad low-wage jobs with no benefits and little opportunity for advancement.
Then there’s the acute problem of skyrocketing housing costs in the Bay State. Especially in the hot Metro Boston real estate market where either buying or renting has become terribly difficult for poor folks.
This situation began when rent control—which limited the ability of landlords to raise rents in a number of cities in Mass—was torpedoed in 1994 with a state referendum backed by the real estate industry. When rent control ended in 1995, landlords immediately started jacking rents far beyond many tenants’ ability to pay, and housing developers started building luxury apartments and condos at a far higher rate than desperately needed affordable housing. Building new public housing, once a saving grace to poor families, has been taken pretty much off the table on ideological grounds since the Reagan era.
Making matters worse, the devastating subprime mortgage scandal that started in 2007 and caused the Great Recession of 2008 led to nearly 22,000 foreclosure filings in one nine-month period in Mass in 2009, according to the Boston Globe. And there have been thousands more in the years since. A trend which is now accelerating again.
The result? As a 2016 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition points out, the Commonwealth is short 166,960 affordable housing units for extremely low income households making 30 percent or less of their area’s median income. And the Mass Coalition for the Homeless states that the approximately 3,000 night shelter beds for individuals statewide are usually full or beyond capacity—and that there were 21,135 people in Massachusetts counted as experiencing homelessness during the January/February 2015 headcount conducted by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Numbers which barely begin to describe the magnitude of the crisis when hundreds of thousands of hard-working Bay State residents are just a couple of paychecks away from penury.
So if you really want to help homeless people—during the holidays and every day—you should consider joining advocates working to end homelessness. It’s not rocket science. Increasing our state mental health budget, passing living wage laws to make more jobs into decent ones, restoring rent control, devoting public funds to build lots of decent affordable housing, and properly taxing the rich and corporations to pay for such needed reforms will go a long way toward stopping the structural poverty forcing people out of their homes. Making us a better and more compassionate society in the bargain.