Wednesday, July 31, 2013

An apartment's reversal of fortune.

This summer has obviously been a pretty dry spell in terms of blog posts, but now that I just arrived back in the country a few days ago, I hope for the pace to pick back up before too long.  August may end up a tad scattered, since I will begin the month with a move to Detroit and a new immersion program.  But I also expect this change in locale to elicit some exciting new topics for contemplation, reinvigorating the continual learning process.

Keeping up the theme of continuous learning, I offer a groundbreaking post today.  While it isn’t my first revisit of an old blog topic, this is the first time I’m gone back to view an old site precisely with the purpose of showing how my assumptions and conclusions were apparently originally wrong.  Late last fall, I covered familiar ground by delving into the Westminster Apartments,
Upon first glance, Westminster was a pretty run-of-the-mill place: an auto-oriented, low-rise complex dating from around 1970 that manifested the telltale signs of decline: visibly worn common space, wooden decks and siding that were sufficiently rotted to compromise the overall stability, meager landscaping, obvious vandalism of the buildings through graffiti. 
Like many apartment complexes in Indianapolis and across the nation that date from this time period, what began as middle-class rental housing had devolved over the years, as newer, more modern buildings opened in the vicinity, featuring newer appliances and other amenities.  The property management team for Westminster could have maintained the buildings, but, because federal Section 8 benefits will guarantee them secure tenancy no matter how poor the condition of the buildings, the owners had no real incentive to improve the structures.  After all, even though Section 8 caters to a clientele with incomes far below middle class standards, the institution writing the majority of the rent checks—i.e., the government—always pays in time, meaning that landlords actually get an incentive for letting their property deteriorate to the point that it only can attract Section 8 tenancy.  It appeared last November that this phenomenon was exactly what had afflicted the Westminster apartments.  It’s happened to dozens of buildings in the suburban reaches of Indianapolis over the past 20 years, where suburban units that previously attracted young professional families are now overwhelmingly lower-income.  The result is that suburban districts of Indianapolis that were virtually crime free in the 1980s are now hosting concentrated poverty and all the concomitant social woes.

But there’s a catch: Westminster is not in the Indianapolis city limits.  This building sits just south of County Line Road, squarely within the Indianapolis suburb of Greenwood.  And Greenwood remains a fast-growing, desirable, middle- to upper-middle class suburb, with well regarded schools, a flourishing mall, an expanding greenway network, and a growing logistics/trucking industry that capitalizes on the suburb’s strong access to Interstate 65.  By all metrics, the Westminster should not need to downgrade; it could remain attractive to middle-class people if only the property managers had bothered to maintain it.  But since they hadn’t, it had suffered the same malaise as numerous complexes in Indianapolis city limits, where school districts are often much spottier and crime a persistent concern.  What went wrong with Westminster?

Nothing, apparently—I was wrong all this time.  It fell under new ownership last November and promptly underwent a significant renovation.  They’ve already rebranded the place with a new logo.
And it looks like those renovations are substantial—much more than just a slick new sign at the entrance.  Gone is the spraypainted graffiti, the sagging gutters, the termite-infested wood. Here’s what some of the new ones look like:
Notice the newly planted shrubs, and the sapling in the second photo.  Obviously the buildings received a facelift, but were the changes more than superficial?  A glimpse at some of the buildings still under renovation would suggest that the process has been comprehensive.
The new owners, Van Rooy Properties, closed off a number of the buildings, vacating them completely during the renovation process.  Notice that the doorways are completely boarded shut.  The renovation team also hasn’t forgotten about the rights-of-way.
The asphalt appears to be newly resurfaced and striped.  But the best evidence that the Westminster Apartments are enjoying a thorough renovation are the buildings in which the process has not yet begun—some “before” photos.
Unlandscaped, sagging gutters, peeling paint...they look just awful—worse than anything else I’ve seen on the south side of Indianapolis.  And yes, the unrenovated units still reveal those half-hearted attempts to hide the graffiti tags.

The juxtaposition of the pre- and post-renovation Westminster units should provide enough evidence that the buildings were in a sorry state, but, last November, I had my doubts that they would ever undergo a complete renovation.  The fact that Van Rooy has taken such an initiative clearly speaks well for the survivability of Westminster (though, frankly, I’m surprised the owners didn’t alter the name of the units, as frequently happens when apartment buildings change hands).  However, this initiative does not speak well for the future of equivalent rental properties in Indianapolis city limits.  While I am certain that at least some of the 1970s-era units in Indianapolis proper have undergone a renovation, I’m not aware of any in particular on this side of town.  But, just south of County Line Road, these Greenwood apartment units might benefit from enough of a shot in the arm that they once again attract middle-income tenants.  While Westminster may seem like a modest indicator, the fact remains that the property’s owners determined that its location was sufficiently desirable to invest in comprehensive uprgrades—an action I don’t anticipate seeing among Indianapolis apartments on this side of town any time soon.  In fact, the dominant demographic of the suburban-style apartments in Indy’s Perry Township (just a mile or two away from the Westminster) are Burmese immigrants, who depend on rock-bottom leasing rates.

All in all, the Westminster case study suggests that I was wrong: aging apartments in fast-growing suburbs genuinely are more likely to benefit from a renovation, while the counterparts in the primary city continue to languish.  Maybe I can explore this dichotomy again a few years from now, when another apartment complex on each side of the boundary will inevitably deteriorate to a similar condition as the Westminster pre-renovation.  But at this point, it appears that the affordable housing policies that ostensibly discourage apartment owners from renovating buildings in the old central city of a metro—the portion of the metro typically with the weakest school districts—don’t have the same impact on their suburban counterparts.  But, in another 20 years, the Westminster Apartments of Greenwood will inevitably need another renovation in order to remain viable; at that point in the not-so-distant future, shifting suburban fortunes will determine whether or not the buildings get another face-lift. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Speed surveillance scamming spreads statewide.

I don't usually highlight topical events, and certainly not in a way that they become central to a blog post.  But in this case, I just couldn't resist--the news is too timely, and it eerily echoes a subject I've covered on this blog as well as a rewrite at New Geography: the jurisdictionally defined speed trap.  More often than not, a tiny community—a village, an impoverished town, a designated special services district endowed with a certain degree of autonomy—will harness whatever police power it has and turn it into a source of revenue.  I've explored this trend in East Cleveland, a impoverished inner-ring suburb of Ohio's largest metro, which has struggled to raise revenue after decades of watching its middle class tax base dwindle to nothing. 
Based on the placard, it would appear that entire city is hotwired with cameras and radar detectors, and that apparently is the reputation the city carries with it among locals.  Speeding carries a stiff penalty in East Cleveland, but a jurisdiction with high poverty, notorious struggles with violent crime, persistent population loss, and failing schools has few alternatives to raising revenue for city services.  Thus, it issues rampant traffic citations.  Here’s another, more permanent warning about speed limits just a few blocks away from the placard:
In most jurisdictions, school zones employ even more aggressive enforcement and result in particularly steep fines.  East Cleveland is inevitably no different.

A more subversive example featured on the same blog, is (or was) the Village of New Rome, a tiny municipality of less than a tenth of a square mile in size and less than 100 people, which Ohio's capital, Columbus, nearly surrounded.  New Rome had little to its name beyond a notorious stretch of U.S. Highway 40.  By passing an ordinance that shifted the speed limit from 45 to 35 mph years ago, the Village used this road segment within its jurisdiction as a ruthless bait to catch unsuspecting motorists.  This twilight photo, though not winning any National Geographic prizes, still conveys the ordinariness of the stretch of road that snagged so many unwitting speeders.
While speeding served as the public justification for New Rome's many, many citations, the police force would flag motorists for dirty plates, burned-out tail lights, driving too slowly, name it.  Eventually, many motorists had learned that they had to circumvent this stretch of the highway to avoid getting ticketed.  Further research from concerned citizens—who founded the now-defunct website New Rome Sucks to inform the community of this village's perfidy)--revealed that New Rome was funding its own government solely through traffic citations.  In 2004, the Attorney General of Ohio ruled that New Rome had displayed persistent corruption and incompetence in self-governance, and he forced the town to disincorporate, to the relief of just about everyone beyond New Rome itself.  For decades, New Rome managed to exploit its size, relative obscurity, and its jurisdiction over a major arterial to enrich its constituents throw citing motorists just passing through.

Linndale, a micro-suburb on the south side of Cleveland, suffers a similar reputation as New Rome for being a speed trap that, within its pinky-toenail boundaries, makes the most of a clipping of I-71 that passes through it.  I only covered the village peripherally in my blog post, first because I only learned of its reputation ex post facto, but also because the Supreme Court of Ohio has defended the town's right to patrol its boundaries as an appropriate use of police power--apparently the village's leaders have not indulged in the same duplicity in local governance as their Columbus counterpart.   However, Gov. John Kasich did sign a bill in late 2012 dissolving the Mayor's Court for villages with fewer than 200 residents; Linndale had 178.   Mayor's Courts are the primary means of processing and collecting fines for traffic tickets.  While this law does not inhibit the right for municipalities to enforce their speed limits, it ostensibly targets errant jurisdictions that the State feels have abused their police power.  Linndale and other municipalities aggressively appealed this decision but failed to thwart it; Assistant Ohio Attorney General Richard Coglianese and Senator Tom Patton have supported it, conceding that it clearly targets "rogue villages gone wild" through their issuance of speeding tickets.  The Assistant AG provided a telling analogy: if the entire State of Ohio issued tickets at the same rate as Linndale, state's police would have given out 531,140,644 driving citations in 2012--over 1,000 times more than it actually typically issues.  Linndale has little hope of winning the suit, and Village leaders say they will continue to handle speeding cases through Municipal Court of Parma, a much larger neighboring suburb.  But Sen. Patton, whose jurisdiction includes the Cleveland suburb of Strongsville, admits that he hopes this measure forces the leadership of Linndale to reconsider its methods of collecting revenue. “This really gives law enforcement a bad name, “ Patton observed. “I've never seen a Linndale police officer trying to offer assistance to a stranded motorist or help an older lady fix a tire or write up an accident report. They're there to write tickets.”

Now, what’s the latest kerfuffle in Ohio regarding speed traps?  This time, the controversy heads south to Cincinnati, where the adjacent suburb of Elmwood Place (surrounded on three sides by Cincinnati limits) hired an outside company to install speed monitoring cameras last year, in order to record traffic violations and hand out citations to motorists passing through, largely in response to a pedestrian fatality the previous year.  Like its counterparts of Linndale and New Rome, Elmwood Place is tiny (about one-third of a square mile in size), and hugs some major arterials: though I-75 only skirts the edge of the village, two other arterials intersect in the heart of the town.  And like New Rome and the much larger East Cleveland, Elmwood Place is not prosperous: most estimates place the poverty rate of the population at well over 20%, and it lost about 20% of its inhabitants between 2000 and 2010.

Needless to say, the speed trap was an economic boon.  Within a month of installing the cameras, the Village issued 6,600 tickets—more than three times its population.  But the negative fallout was almost immediate: Facebook pages encouraging a boycott; a lawsuit issued in part by a pastor whose attendance plummeted after more than half of the parishioners received tickets on a Sunday after Mass; decreased patronage by the local businesses; increasing hardship by the already low-income population that has also received these citations; the resignation of four councilmembers and push for the Mayor to resign.  A county judge has labeled the practice as a “scam”—an initiative that fosters more ill-will toward law enforcement than it does at promoting a culture of improved road safety.  If litigation succeeds in making Elmwood Place pay back all the fines collected plus legal costs, the Village will suffer greater hardship than it ever experienced before the installation of the cameras.  Meanwhile, continued implementation of the speed monitoring may eventually kill off long-standing businesses due to diminishing patronage.

Interestingly, none of the articles regarding the Elmwood Place controversy show any awareness that this situation has reared its head in Ohio in the past—repeatedly.  Are the parties involved in litigation at Elmwood Place aware of the long-brewing trouble in Linndale and New Rome?  The national attitudes toward speed cameras or other speed traps seem bipolar.  According to the Yahoo article, even as 12 states have banned speed cameras and nine have banned red-light cameras, overall use has increased fivefold in the past decade—and is growing.  At the same time, Ohio seems to be retreating from its practice of monitoring motorists.  Aside from the Assistant AG’s clampdown on Linndale mentioned earlier, a bill passed 61-32 in late June by the Ohio House proposes to outlaw both speeding and red-light camera monitoring.  During the hearing for the bill (which showed little partisan divide), defenders of cameras argue that overwhelming evidence shows that they do improve safety.  Most law enforcement supports the cameras; so do private citizens who have lost family members to other people’s reckless driving. Meanwhile, the opponents of these cameras nearly always recalled the apparent history of moneymaking schemes; one Democratic representative evoked Elmwood Place as evidence of corruption, specifically referencing how 40% of the proceeds collected for tickets go directly to an out-of-state private company whose primary profit motive encourages it to issue as many tickets as possible.

While these scenarios might finally have reached the boiling point in Ohio to impel more statewide unity in traffic safety enforcement, the overall approach to camera monitoring is likely to remain fragmented at the national level.  One might suspect that the international controversy regarding Edward Snowden’s revelations of National Security Agency’s intensive monitoring of private citizens might provoke further backlash, but at this point no evidence suggests that state lawmakers are correlating the Snowden affair with traffic cameras.  By and large, complaints against speed traps have little to do with privacy invasions—after all, the monitoring virtually always takes pace on public ROWs—but the interest of public roadside safety may have helped spawn the proliferation of surveillance infrastructure across a variety of other settings, both public and private.  Ohio may be icing the sting from this practice a bit more vigorously than most other states, but the persistent resurfacing of this issue suggests that the real ethical questioning at a national or even global level has yet to come.