A Green New Deal for Bloomington

posted on Jan 3rd, 2020

In his inauguration day speech, the Mayor proposed a .5% increase in the LIT to create a climate justice fund. This would generate about $8 million for the city. He didn’t propose how that money would be spent.

Here’s the thing about the LIT - it’s a flat tax, which means it’s regressive. The sting of that tax is going to be felt much more deeply by low income people who can ill afford any tax increase.

That means, if this is truly going to be a climate justice initiative, then the money needs to be spent first and foremost on programs that will help those who are struggling.

Climate justice now - Attribution: Markus Spiske (https://unsplash.com/@markusspiske)

It’s important to know, in this discussion, that a progressive income tax is off the table for us. Like so many things, it’s banned at the state level. The battle for home rule is one we need to fight at some point, but we need climate response now - it cannot wait.

The idea of a 0.25% increase in the LIT to support the public transit system has been on the table since the Spring’s Democratic primary campaign. Everyone in those conversations is very hesitant to propose raising the LIT, because they all recognize its a regressive tax.

With that in mind, I spent all summer desperately trying to find stuff we could cut to create money for climate programs. I came up blank. There just isn’t much in the city budget, at least with the granularity that I’ve got access to, that we can cut with out directly impacting programs people rely on.

We can bond for climate programs, but bonds are not free money. We have to pay them back, with interest, out of the budget. Most of the stuff on the table that we could cut - parking garages, for instance - is bond funded. I believe we should cut those and spend the money on busses and bike lanes, but we would still need annual income to run those busses.

If we’re going to hit the IPCC’s targets for 2030, we need to install $1 billion worth of solar just in Bloomington (or weatherize to cut emissions in half), in the next 10 years. In addition to that $1 billion, we need to cut our transportation emissions by 45%. We need to cut our natural gas use by 45%.

The entire annual city budget is $90 million / year. The whole thing.

Obviously, we’re not going to hit that target on our own. But we also cannot pretend someone else can do this for us.

We’re not going to survive this with out making some sacrifices.

Prior to the Mayor’s proposal, having spent a summer and fall desperately trying to come up with funding for a climate justice program, I had started quietly exploring the idea of using the LIT to fund a wide range climate justice initiatives. Since the Mayor’s kick started the conversation, I’m going to go ahead and put this idea/proposal out there. A counter proposal to the Mayor’s. And where the Mayor didn’t propose a use for that money - I will.

Call it a Green New Deal for Bloomington.

The Proposal

Here’s what I propose, don’t stop at 0.5%, we’ve got a lot to do and we need the money to do it, so max it out. We can go to 2.5% total LIT, we’re at about 1.25%, so raise it the remaining 1.25%. That generates about $20 million /year in revenue for the city.

Here’s how we use it:

Transit: Give $10 million to the transit system. Make transit fare free. That doubles the Bloomington Transit system budget. It allows them to implement full Saturday and Sunday service. It would allow them to massively expand service - more frequent busses, more routes. And it would be free - saving low income people $300 / year (the current cost of an annual bus pass).

Housing: Put $5 million into the city’s affordable housing fund. Require that it be spent on non-profit housing and public housing that helps low income and homeless people. By restricting it to non-profit and public housing, it assures that it’s going to permanently affordable housing and building capacity in organizations that will continue to work towards affordable housing outside of the city government. Eventually, we could build a strong enough cooperative, community land trust, and public housing sector that they could begin to force the overall cost of housing down.

Solar: Put $2.5 million into a zero interest solar loan program that prioritizes low income families. Structure the loans so that they are zero down payment and so that the monthly payment is equal to the average previous electric bill. For those in the lowest income brackets, offer a grant program. Last year, Indiana Solar for All helped install 12 solar systems. This money could fund upwards of 125 per year. Since part of it is structured as a loan program, the amount of new systems installed would increase every year, as the recipients paid back their loans through their utility bills.

Weatherization: Put the remaining $2.5 million into weatherization grants. Prioritize low income and marginalized people. Weatherization can have massive returns in emissions reduction, and poorly insulated housing is a huge cost for a lot of low income people. So give grants to low income home-owners to weatherize and insulate their homes. This will help them cut their utility bills and their emissions.

For someone making $20,000 a year, a 1.25% tax costs them $250 /year. They make that back on the bus fares alone. If we can help reduce the costs of housing, and their utility bills, at the same time, then this tax will be a net benefit to low income people, rather than a burden. And that’s a start for local climate justice.

On Economic Ownership

posted on Dec 1st, 2019

Should the bank be allowed to demand a proportion of my output because they gave me the money to purchase my house? I’m a remote software engineer and my house is my office, I use it to produce quite a bit of value.

If an investor gives me the money I need to buy tools and spend the time necessary to create a business, he’s allowed to demand a share of ownership of my output (of that business), in return.

A house - Attribution: Scott Webb (https://unsplash.com/@scottwebb)

When that business hires someone, it is allowed to demand complete ownership of the output of the person it hires, and return only a portion of it to that person as salary.

We’d all agree that the bank demanding ownership of my output in return for my home mortgage is absurd, but we take the other two relationships for granted.

A free market libertarian would claim that these are all voluntary contracts between free people, and I’d be free to tell any of them to go to hell.

But indentured servitude was a voluntary contract between free people, and we’ve all agreed that it was too abusive, too exploitative to be allowed. We’re not allowed to own people, even temporarily.

So why are we allowed to own their output?

Capitalism doesn’t mean “free markets”. Capitalism is an economic system where we allow investors and banks to buy the output of other people, in return for money.

And there is an alternative. One that doesn’t involve handing over control of the economy to government central planners.

Democratic socialism is an economic system where you own your output, and no one is allowed to buy it from you.

When you grant your output to a business, you gain a share of ownership of that business (for as long as you are a participant in it) and a voice in its governance. If you need money to start a business, you can get a loan and pay it back with (reasonable, regulated) interest. When you go to hire someone, you have to give them a share of ownership and a voice that matches their contributions.

This is Democratic Socialism: a democratic economy, where we’ve overthrown economic tyranny just as we did political tyranny.

What Does a Low Carbon Transporation System Look Like?

posted on Oct 16th, 2019

Last night we learned that transportation emissions actually account for 27% of Bloomington’s emissions, in line with the national averages. It makes it even more stark how our local governments, county and city, are utterly failing to respond to climate change appropriately.

Local government has almost full control of our transportation systems. It can choose what the roads look like, and what modes of transportation they prioritize.

A bus and a bike

If we were actually responding appropriately to climate change and cutting emissions, we’d be aggressively re-engineering our transportation system to put the lowest carbon modes of transportation first.

That means we’d be making it easiest to walk or bike, then take the bus, and only then drive.

What would that look like?

That would look like making sure there was ample space on all of our roads to walk or bike - FIRST. And then finding space for cars.

It would mean making most roads, where we have a neighborhood grid, one way for cars with no street parking and giving the rest of that space to bikes or pedestrians. It would mean protected bike lanes on every road and sidewalks allowing four to eight people to walk side by side (right now they barely allow two). It would mean a bike first zone at every intersection (like the green paint at 7th and Walnut). It would mean a bike cycle at every stop light - 10 to 15 seconds to allow bikes to clear the intersection first before the cars can go.

It would mean a bus system that covers all of the city, runs late enough and runs frequently enough that you can get to your destination in a reasonable time. It would mean all of the major thorough fares get protected bike highways, and bus only lanes. If that means going down to one lane each way for cars and no street parking, so be it.

In this system, you could still access everywhere by car if you needed to, but we’d be making it a lot easier to walk or bike. We’d be showing through the allocation of our space and infrastructure dollars what modes of transportation we’re prioritizing: the ones that don’t emit carbon.

Instead, bikes are an after thought in the vast majority of our transportation system. We have one major thoroughfare for bikes and pedestrians (the b-line) and a couple of other trails here or there. We have unprotected bike lanes that are not continuous on a few roads. We have no bus only lanes.

And we’re spending $50 million on new parking, but only about $7 million on new bike trails. That should be inverted. Or more, we shouldn’t even be building new parking right now. We should be building out the alternative and freeing up existing parking by getting people out of their cars.

We need the city and county to prioritize low carbon forms of transportation. We need them to do it now.

Let's Talk About the UDO

posted on Apr 20th, 2019

Okay, lets talk about the UDO. And since this is going to get long and detailed, I’ll go ahead and frontload the highlights.

  1. Single Family Zoning is not sustainable, especially when built around quarter and third acre lots, it necessitates cars to get around. And we cannot afford to keep driving at anything like the rates we do now in the face of climate change.

  2. Single Family Zoning is also known as Exclusionary Zoning, and it has a classist and racist history.

  3. Increasing the housing supply by introducing density does not - on its own - necessarily correlate with affordability, but holding it constant in a growing city does correlate strongly with unaffordability and an inexorable rise in housing prices and rents.

  4. There are some really great ways we could be pushing back against speculation and working for affordability. Refusing to allow neighborhoods to densify is not one of them.

Neighborhood Overhead - Attribution: Tom Rumble (https://unsplash.com/@tomrumble)

The new UDO is a great start. But it’s just that, a start. We need density. We need it in the core neighborhoods. We need it to build a sustainable city for the next generation and to push back on a century of racist and classist zoning policy that has quietly segregated our city.

But we also need to apply a huge range of tactics to create affordability. Increasing density is an important part of the equation. But it’s just part of it.

The new UDO isn’t really an attack on single family zoning. It allows multiplexes on corner lots and ADUs by right. That’s a pretty gentle tweaking of existing neighborhoods.

But even if it were, we should be seriously questioning whether exclusionary, single family zoning is worth protecting.

I’ll dig into the details of each of these points, and I’ll provide citations to backup these claims.

Single Family Zoning Isn’t Sustainable

First, Single Family Zoning is not sustainable. To be a sustainable city, we need density. Density is walkable, it’s bikeable, it’s easy to build transit around, it uses up less land leaving more to return to the wild or for agriculture, and we need all of these things.

Every single policy guide for sustainable city planning has phrases like this one from the American Planning Association’s Sustainability Policy Framework:

Development and stewardship of communities that exemplify sustainable living practices with higher densities that support high capacity transit use and walkability, and include open spaces, habitat connections, complete streets, diverse housing, local employment, neighborhood schools and other appropriate community facilities, and local-serving businesses that meet the daily needs of residents and reduce vehicle trips and Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG emissions).

So we need a dense city.

Most of Bloomington is currently zoned Single Family on quarter acre and third acre lots. That just isn’t sustainable and it can’t last. It makes it that much harder to build out walkable, bikeable, and transit oriented infrastructure. Introducing ADUs and multiplexes into the existing neighborhoods is a very gentle way of densifying them with out significantly changing the built character of the neighborhoods.

Single Family Zoning Has a Racist History

Second, Single Family Zoning has a deeply problematic history. It’s also know as Exclusionary Zoning, and this is a much more apt name for it. It was created as an intentional attempt to redesign America’s cities around an idealized nuclear family. From the beginning, it had the effect of reducing the amount of affordable housing and displacing low income families and families of color through “urban renewal”.

Single Family Zoning became racialized pretty much at its inception. It was immediately used as a tool to skirt anti-discrimination laws. It segregated neighborhoods by class, and thus, by race. Originally, this effect was intentional. At some point, people stopped using it with the intention to segregate by class and race, but it still had the same effect. That effect lasts to this day, and recent research has shown that exclusionary Single Family Zoning still acts to segregate our cities, locking low income people and people of color out of middle class neighborhoods.

You can see these effects in Bloomington today. I grew up in Elm Heights. It was heavily segregated. I can barely remember seeing a single person of color among my childhood neighbors.

Density is a Necessary Piece of the Affordability Puzzle

Third, the impacts of housing supply on affordability. The primary argument of the UDO’s density opponents is that allowing multiplexes and ADUs will destroy the affordability of the core neighborhoods.

Where ADUs are concerned, there is solid evidence that they do provide affordable housing - both in that they make the lots they are built on more affordable to the homeowner by providing rental income and in that they themselves are often rented at affordable rates. Studies found that 20% of ADUs in Portland and comparable cities were rented for no rent or very low rents. Many of the remainder contributed to making the lot they were built on more affordable for the homeowner through their rent. They are a very gentle way to add dense, affordable housing into an existing neighborhood.

The relationship between upzoning and affordability in general is a lot harder to tease out. The study I posted in the section about Single Family Zoning’s connection to segregation and racism found a connection between upzoning - increasing density of single family neighborhoods - and affordability.

There are some cities, Denver and Seattle being two notable examples, that have maintained high levels of new home construction (including market rate homes) to keep up with their growth. And after doing this for years (alongside a number of other affordable housing strategies), they’ve both recently managed to achieve a drop in the median rents. (They still both very much have affordability crises, because the need for housing in a growing city is an endless treadmill.)

However, a recent study of an instance of upzoning in a Chicago neighborhood found that it increased property values. Important caveats being that it only looked at the 5 years immediately after the change (development usually moves more slowly than that) and only looked at property values (not rents - which, if you’re upzoning, properties are probably going to go up, but rents are the important factor for affordability).

If you step back and look at the whole conversation around density and affordability (and I could link article after article on it - we are far from the only ones having this discussion), it seems pretty clear that the jury’s still out.

That said, most affordable housing advocates and urban planners will tell you that density was never meant to be some affordability silver bullet. It was only ever one part of a much larger and more complex equation for creating affordability - but a necessary piece of it. Because is a given that - barring housing market crashes like 2008 - land, rent, and housing prices pretty inexorably go up. And if you hold the supply constant, it gets worse.

So in conclusion, ADUs probably do add to affordability. But where density and affordability are concerned, we might be damned if we do, damned if we don’t. Or density might be a necessary piece of a much larger affordability puzzle. But I can find no evidence to support the idea that holding the housing stock constant, especially in a single family neighborhood, will create affordability.

What Else Can We Do About Affordability?

So what about the fears of speculation? And what are some of the other tactics we can use to create affordability?

Well, some tools are off the table for us. The biggest one being inclusionary zoning - it’s preempted at the state level. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have options. There are any number of tools in our toolkit to create affordability, and we need to use all of them.

Community Land Trusts are a way of holding housing permanently affordable in existing neighborhoods while still allowing residents to own their homes and build equity. They’re being used to great success all over the country, often by marginalized populations as a way to push back against gentrification and keep people in their homes.

Housing cooperatives to manage rental housing is another tool. We have one housing cooperative, Bloomington Cooperative Living, which currently offers dorm-style, communal affordable housing. But a housing cooperative can offer any type of housing - apartment, single family, suites, you name it. The thing that makes it a cooperative is that it is governed, democratically, by its residents. The primary barrier to housing cooperative’s success is financing and training.

Bloomington Cooperative Living has a really solid foundation, and a board that is ready and eager to help it grow. We could help a lot with financing. And we could help other housing cooperatives start up and get stable. If we get enough of them into the rental market, they could undercut and outcompete the speculators and rental landlords, potentially driving rents down and making it less profitable to speculate.

We can also explore things like taxing vacant properties and increasing restrictions around wholesale demolition to push back against the possibility of speculation.

And, personally, I’d be interested in finding out whether we could restrict multiplex conversion to only buildings of a certain size and age, rather than allowing it by right on corner lots. Allow conversion only for buildings older than 20 years. Allow those over 2000 square feet to become duplexes, those over 3000 square feet to become triplexes and those over 4000 square feet to become quadplexes. This might better preserve the buildings we have, and prevent demolition of perfectly good buildings in order to upzone them. Plus, homes of these sizes in our core neighborhoods are pretty much guaranteed not to be affordable, so we don’t risk losing any affordable housing this way.

I prefer this to placing owner-occupation limitations, because I worry that they might be too onerous and would prevent us from achieving the density increases we need.

And there are more beside these. I’m personally making a note to go read Generation Priced Out, because it sounds like a pretty comprehensive survey of approaches to affordable housing across the country and I’m betting there are even more good ideas in there.

In any case, the point is we have a lot of tools we can apply for affordability. But restricting density is not one of them.

Please Support the Density in the UDO

So, to take us back to the beginning, the new UDO is a great start. But it’s just that, a start.

We need density. We need it in the core neighborhoods. We need it to build a sustainable city for the next generation and to push back on a century of racist and classist zoning policy that has quietly segregated our city.

Resisting increases in density to ostensibly protect affordability is completely self defeating. That’s just not how that works. At worst, we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t where density and affordability are concerned. But at best, density is an important piece of the affordability puzzle.

Either way, we know we need density to build a sustainable city. And we know that exclusionary, single family zoning is inextricably tied up in a history of racists and classist segregation. We might not be able to create affordability by just increasing density. But we can start to undo and make amends for that horrible piece of our history, and we can create a more sustainable, livable city for the next generation in the process.

So please support the UDO. And please, help push back against those “defending single family zoning from attack”. Exclusionary zoning is not worth defending.

The 4th Street Garage Was a Bad Call

posted on Apr 5th, 2019

Any way you slice it, Wednesday night’s decision to rebuild the 4th street garage was a bad one.

Parking Garage - Attribution: Aldo Delara (https://unsplash.com/@okvisuals)

Repairing the garage for 5 years would have cost $1.4 million. That works out to about $280,000 per year. Rebuilding the garage cost $18.5 million up front and $11 million in interest for a 50 year lifespan. So the total cost is $29.5 million or about $590,000 per year.

In other words, the repair could have cost almost as much as $3 million before it would start to be more expensive than a rebuild. Rebuilding it doesn’t make financial sense.

Okay, what about business? Wouldn’t it be disruptive of business?

Repairing the garage would mean it could open again in 4 to 6 months. The rebuild will keep it closed for 18 to 24 months. Meaning all those businesses struggling with the loss of customers due to parking, would get the parking back a year, to a year and a half sooner than with the rebuild.

But aren’t we going to just have to close it again in 5 years?

Yes, but by then the Trades District garage will be open with an additional 300 spaces easy walking distance from the 4th street garage. It’s pretty unlikely there will be very much development in the Trades District by then (judging by the pace of the last 4 years). So those spaces could directly replace the spaces in the 4th street garage if we do need to tear it down and rebuild it, making that whole process much, much less disruptive than tearing it down right now with nothing to replace those spaces.

But we might not even want to rebuild it in 5 years when we consider the context of climate.

Huge Changes, Very Little Time

We have to cut emissions by 45% in the next 10 years. And then to zero 20 years after that.

Electric cars are not going to achieve that. Adoption can’t come fast enough, they’re extraordinarily expensive (buying everyone in America the cheapest electric car on the market would cost more than it will to completely power America on Solar energy using today’s prices), they have large amounts of embodied emissions (transferring emissions to industry during their production instead of eliminating them), and we’d need to add that much more solar production to the grid just to power them!

So we need to cut driving rates. Drastically.

We know how to do this. Yes, Bloomington’s transit sucks. Yes, we don’t have a bike infrastructure. Right now you cannot get around by bike or transit effectively.

We know that. We need to build the transit and bike infrastructure so that people can get around by bike and bus instead of their cars.

The opportunity cost of this garage – the things we could have paid for instead of it – are protected bike lanes on every single on of Bloomington’s major thoroughfares (Walnut, College, 3rd street, Kirkwood, 17th street, Winslow, Hillside, College Mall to Sare, Rohrer) and at least 13 electric busses.

Our current bus fleet has 39 busses. So that’s at least a 33% increase in fleet capacity.

That’s just the up front cost. The opportunity cost of that $11 million in interest is at least another 10 electric busses.

So for the full cost of this garage, we could have put protected bike lanes on every, single major thoroughfare in Bloomington and almost doubled our bus fleet.

If we did that, there’s a good chance we could have gotten a lot of people biking and taking the bus. People who are currently driving downtown. 60% of people would bike more if the infrastructure were there to support it. Right now about 3 - 5% of trips happen by bike. Even if that number only went up to 15% or 20% it would drastically cut the need for parking downtown. A lot of those who can’t bike, would be happy to take the bus.

This would do far more to relieve parking pressure in downtown than the 200 spaces we’re buying with this garage rebuild and upgrade.

We could have given businesses the garage back in 4 to 6 months, and then spent the next 5 years building out the low carbon transportation infrastructure we need with the money we saved, relieving the immediate parking problem much faster and then doing far more to relieve the long term problem than the new 4th street garage will ever do.

We Have to Do Better

We can’t afford to do things like this. We cannot afford opportunity costs like that right now. Not if we’re going to survive climate change.

Everyone has to do their part. Every individual, every city, every county, every state, and every country. We don’t get to sit here and say “It Starts Here” if we’re not doing our part.

We’re not going to get through this with out taking some risks. We’re not going to survive climate change with out some disruption. There won’t be a future for the next generation unless we’re willing to change our behavior.

Repairing this garage and using the money to build out the low carbon alternative transportation wouldn’t even have been a risk. It would have been less expensive and less disruptive than the rebuild path we chose.

Bloomington screwed up on Wednesday night.