Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Watered Down

Visiting a roommate's Public Policy class on Local Activism, I got to sit in on and participate in a discussion with Mayor Hieftje. Today's topic: Is Ann Arbor Overrated? From the outset, I was a mite underwhelmed by the class. It was at least a third urban planners and almost all the rest were policy students but no one seemed too eager to discuss policy or activism.

I came down rather firmly on the side that Ann Arbor is overrated, and perhaps more accurately, is overpriced. When I made the statement that Ann Arbor was far more expensive than other comparable Michigan and Midwestern cities, someone actually asked -- somewhat accusatorily -- what city was comparable to Ann Arbor. I asked about the cost of living and the cost of housing in the city as well as asking what is becoming my trademark question on affordable housing. The mayor responded that these were good questions, but that the people of Ann Arbor decided they didn't want to support affordable housing, particularly for students. He then, once again, repeated the canard that the university was to blame for the lack of affordable housing for students in the city because the university hasn't built any dorms in 30 years.

I found this particularly frustrating; at this point in the discussion, I felt more informed about affordable housing in Ann Arbor, historical conditions and present priorities, than the mayor of the city. Let me state my opinion and semi-professional conclusion emphatically -- that the university has no responsibility to house its students except as it feels necessary to promote its educational mission. Of the 168 years since the University of Michigan came to Ann Arbor, it was building dorms for about 30 of those years -- the rest of the time, the private housing market in the city responded to demand. In 1938 and 1939, the WPA made grants to the university for West Quad, East Quad, and Stockwell Halls to provide employment relief during the Depression. In 1950, the federal government implemented a low-interest loan program to colleges and universities for providing student housing. Colleges begged for this aid for five years after the war, claiming (amid senators' and representatives' skepticism) that cities' private housing market could not meet the increased demand for housing that veterans created. This loan program then financed Bursley, Markley, and the Baits and Northwood complexes. Almost all of the university's housing capacity was created in a 30-year period with federal subsidy, and only in response to the city's inability to provide housing (not because it was viewed as a university responsibility). For the mayor and other locals to shirk this responsibility and to blame the university is enabled by ignorance and motivated by politics.

Back to the class. Hieftje moved us away from affordability, and some students suggested strategies for Ann Arbor to take in promoting walkability and quality of life. People asked about grocery stores, about satellite business districts, and about parks. Murph asked about regional cooperation with Ypsilanti. Brandon asked about zoning. The mayor, to my surprise, suggested (or repeated the suggestion) that poor people should not own homes in Ann Arbor. Rather, they should do what the other people in this city have done and live in Ypsilanti, buying a house they can afford there and building equity, moving to Ann Arbor twenty years later when they can finally afford it. I have no words for how offensive I find this idea. I read it a number of times in residents' anti-ADU letters while researching the city's aborted attempt at developing an ADU ordinance. Ann Arbor, which can barely claim the mantle of a liberal community anyway, might as well admit that it is a Republican member of President Bush's ownership society if it takes this idea seriously (and a number of people do). A student from Boulder unwittingly and forcefully contradicted the mayor by talking about his neighbor, who, at 65, lives in the house he was born in, across the street from his parents, having lived in Ann Arbor his whole life and having gone to Michigan. I'm not sure how he possibly accomplished that without building equity in an Ypsilanti home for twenty years, but he seems to have done it.

Having taken his share of the slings and arrows of a grad class tossing underhand softball questions, the mayor decided to puff a little air back into the slightly deflated balloon of Ann Arbor's reputation. First he offered a plaque with the outline of Michigan's peninsulae, adorned with a white wine glass (which he "dinged" with his finger for effect), an award Ann Arbor won for the region's best tasting water. He followed that with one won for bikability, one for his own good work, and, in his estimation, the most complete, objective, scientific evaluation of cities ever done, a Froemmer's guide that rated Ann Arbor as one of the top ten places in America to live. Before time expired on the class, the student from Boulder (a Stifler look-alike) suggested that the way to get walkability was to bring more wealth to Ann Arbor; wealthy tech professionals are the only ones who can make Ann Arbor a livable city. This is doubly odious to me, first in its repudiation of the efficacy of the working and middle classes; second in that Silicon Valley is the exact opposite of what we should be emulating. I've sat in traffic on the way to San Jose -- anyone who suggests Google millionaires are the key to good planning is an idiot. The mayor had had enough, and concluded that despite "what a couple people on a web site might say," Ann Arbor was not overrated.

As with my last report on a discussion with a local politico, keep in mind that I am an excitable, righteous advocate of students and renters.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Accelerated Depreciation

Christopher Leinberger, a new professor in the Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Planning, gave a job talk last spring talking about his philosophy and practice of real estate development, as well as some of his research work in that realm. If you go to his Web site, cleinberger.com, you can read his article on the 19 standardized products of real estate, or his thoughts on pedestrian-oriented developments. In the course of his job talk, he presented his idea of the 19 standardized products, and talked about financing buildings. One of his points that resonated with me was that in developing buildings, though they were formerly built with a 40-year obsolescence, the prevailing financing horizon is only about 7 years now. The idea stuck with me, though Leinberger offered no explanation for the change. He went on to discuss how these shorter-term financing deals made developers turn to disposable buildings like strip malls with smaller startup costs and the ability to sell or abandon them after the initial profitability period.

I was led to an article on tax policy and real estate development today, where I found an adequate explanation (American Historical Review, October 1996, pp. 1082-1110). With the Wilson-era expansion of the Internal Revenue Code, building depreciation was written in as tax deductible, though regulations were limited. By 1931, deductions claimed by businesses nationwide for buildings and equipment actually exceeded total business profits, nationwide. Thus, in 1934 the tax code was rewritten, establishing "straight-line" depreciation, meaning that the depreciation was assumed to be linear, taken in 40 equal annual increments. After a recession in 1953, the solution for this short-term situation was thought to be a long-term change in the tax code. In order to spur investment in industrial production, the term of depreciation was accelerated so that the life of buildings was taken to be something like 10 years. Another tax provision compounded this so that it really was more affordable to build new than to renovate old. While this may have promoted new construction, this, in conjunction with new developments in cheap, standardized building materials, meant that companies could build for the short term as profitably as they could build for the long term.

Think about every cheap, strip mall, ugly building you hate that took the place of a gorgeous, old, solid building that was torn down. I used to lament the change in the built world as a change in taste -- that people actually wanted these kinds of neighborhoods. In fact, it's tax policy. It all comes back to public policy.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Another Anti-Daily

Columbus, Ohio, as you probably know, is home to Ohio State University. The New York Times reports that the OSU student newspaper, The Lantern, is getting some competition from a for-profit corporation.

I say good. When I worked at WMU's Western Herald, we found competition in the Kalamazoo Gazette, the city's afternoon daily. The Gazette sucked then and still sucks now, in much the same way that the Ann Arbor News sucks. The Gazette just wanted to inflate their circulation numbers so they could charge national advertisers more and didn't tailor their coverage to students in any fashion. It seemed to be more or less a flop. However, I would have welcomed a serious challenge to the Herald, because we could have used the competition to make us develop some actual reporting skills. While I was opinion editor and a columnist, our news editors sucked -- they didn't even know what was going on in the city generally, let alone having the wherewithall to do some investigative reporting. As the author of the daily editorials, I was regularly stymied by having to wait for the news department to do a story on a topic before I could editorialize about it, which could take days or weeks.

From what I've seen, campus newspapers generally suck (with the Michigan Daily being merely mediocre), so to anything that can help better inform students and/or increase total newspaper readership, I say "bully!"

Sunday, November 13, 2005


The resources of the University of Michigan are, in a word, unbelievable. In doing some research for a professor in planning, I came across the ICSPR, the Inter-University Consortium for Social and Political Research. I had a foggy idea that it existed -- books by Olivier Zunz on Detroit and Sam Bass Warner on Philadelphia noted in their acknowledgements that the statistical data they created and relied upon was stored at UofM within the Institute for Social Research. Warner's, in fact, said that the data was on punch cards.

Anyway, I just came across it (along with some stuff from Wayne State's Center for Urban Studies) and all I can say is "wow." I love the study of history.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

"Dems Sweep City Council"

So claims the Michigan Daily. I said it before and I'll say it again, Democrats and Democratic values had a middling showing in this election; it was the establishment -- and particularly the Democratic machine -- that won out.

Think about it. Stephen Rapundalo and Marcia Higgins, both narrow winners in their wards, were until recently Republicans. What distinguished both of them from their opponents was not their values (nearly indistinguishable), but their experience within city government: Rapundalo has served on several city advisory committees and Higgins has been on council for several years. In contrast, Tom Bourque and Jim Hood were relative newcomers to city politics, having worked as a lawyer and a mortgage lender, respectively, in addition to serving the community in other ways. As Bob Johnson said, responding to some students before the New West Side debate, "You've got to pay your dues" to get elected. What this means is that you have to kiss the ring of the local Democratic party, support the party candidates year in and year out, and schmooze, schmooze, schmooze until its your turn at the front of the line. People who have been following City Council know that decisions are made at caucus, not in Council chambers.

Machine politics ironically arose in the 19th century as a means of organizing immigrants in American cities into voting blocks, to secure positions and patronage within city government. The Irish, Italians, Germans, and Poles all employed this strategy to work their way from the margins into mainstream society. I said "ironically arose" because in Ann Arbor, it is the most privileged in this city who are organized to fight back marginal groups like students. As Johnson indicated, no matter how charismatic or able a citizen might be, not until they have slogged away at cocktail parties and on the Historic District Commission will they get their chance to have their name next to the magical capital D on election day. THAT's why Eugene Kang lost in August.

Well, I think that sucks. I think the way for students and renters to break the middle-of-the-road Democratic and establishment stronghold in the city is to take it on full force. Let's employ the real Democratic strategy and run a student or renter in every ward and for Mayor next year. First we'll run in the Democratic and Republican primaries, and if we can't win there, we'll run independents. The Democrats of Ann Arbor are not serving the interests of a large portion of the city -- perhaps even the majority of Ann Arbor's citizens. It's time for a change.

Send this link around to your friends and relatives who are dissatisfied with the status quo. Send me an email if you're ready to run. There are 9 months until the primaries and 12 months until elections. Who's ready to fight for affordability, accessibility, equity, and progressive values in the city of Ann Arbor?

EDIT: Quotes in title.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

For the Record

You may have seen an old Web page I put together linked to in the comments on Ann Arbor is Overrated. You may have cringed or been upset when you looked at it. Let me sum up my thoughts and feelings on the subject: get over it.

I ran 3 MSA campaigns when I was an undergrad at Michigan, 1997, 1998, and another in 1998. In each case, I made fun of the political scene on campus, which I thought was totally ridiculous, self-serious, and knee-jerk liberal. Feel free to Google "Dale Winling AND MSA" and see what the internet has left from those years. One poster my sophomore year showed me holding my fist in the air like John Carlos and Tommie Evans from the Mexico City Olympics. Several people on campus thought this was offensive and complained. I sent one person a nasty email that was forwarded all over campus and I was branded a racist. I was investigated by DPS and I believe a complaint was made against me as violating the student code of conduct. There was never any merit to the claims. The following semester I ran again: the linked page was from that campaign.

I thought the materials were deleted when I transferred out of Michigan; it turns out they were not, and remained for someone who was clever enough to root around in my UofM Web storage area. When I realized they still existed I was embarrassed and removed them from the Web. For some reason Peter Honeyman felt it was worth saving, obtained a copy, and put it on his own Web site. Now I hear someone sent a link to the mayor. (What the mayor's interest might be, I have no idea.)

Here it is, for the record: if crazy pranks that 20-year-olds pull bother you, move out of Ann Arbor RIGHT NOW. I am telling you this for your own good. You will only be unhappy around an institution of some 30,000 undergraduates. And I can say with certainty, 20-year-olds do some crazy stuff. Just like you did when you were 20.

If you have any comment, save it; I don't want to hear it. I have real work to do and I don't have time to whimper around with people who don't know the difference between Stuff That Matters and Stuff That Doesn't.

Friday, November 04, 2005

LaDale C. Winling for City Council

I am a write-in candidate in the 5th Ward.

So if you live and are registered basically west of Main St., north of Stadium, and south of M-14, you can vote for me on Tuesday, November 8th. It is VERY important that you write in "LaDale C. Winling," because I filed with my full name. It sounds like most other versions won't be tallied for me. For a semi-detailed ward map, click here.

How about we get 100 votes for a student-renter candidate?

Campaign Platform