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A lesson for Harvey from the Katrina housing recovery

I’m reading and retweeting the Harvey news, thinking of Hurricane Katrina.

[Update 8/28/17: This post is a “lessons learned” comment, not current advice. For early news you can use, see:

Although Houston had no initial mass evacuation, some people in the Harvey flood zone are going to need temporary places to live if their housing has become unusable, especially as mold begins to form.

Whatever keeps people closest to their own homes is best — if people in low-density areas can get trailers to live in next to their houses or apartments, for example, that’s great — but it seems likely some may have to leave the area outright in search of a safe place to stay while they recover.

For those kinds of moves, individualized conventional housing is always better than mass states of exception — camps, barracks or stadiums. Remember the Superdome and shudder.

With all that in mind, I want to note a lesson from twelve years ago:

When Katrina hit in late August 2005, I was blogging from San Francisco about federal subsidized housing for a trade magazine, Affordable Housing Finance. It has been some time since I’ve written professionally about housing regulatory issues on that level, so I don’t know how many lessons from Katrina may already have been worked into current federal policy. Your mileage from the following may vary.

But in case it’s helpful, I want to talk about a problem with the Katrina housing recovery. One whose memory got buried under later public discussion of the worse errors and crimes in that recovery process.

The problem is that in 2005, FEMA, IRS and HUD authorities imposed a bottleneck on connections between displaced tenants in need, and public officials in areas outside the storm damage who wanted to make individual open units available as emergency housing. They required, but mismanaged, a central registry system for available units of public and subsidized housing, including housing subsidized with low-income housing tax credits (LIHTC).

For example, if you ran a subsidized building in a city in Georgia where ten units had just been renovated, and those units didn’t yet have tenants, you could offer those units to Katrina evacuees. Announcements were made providing addresses of Web sites and email accounts to receive the offer. But then time passed, and it was not clear that the units were being promptly offered to anyone in need.

Part of the problem in the September 2005 Katrina recovery was that owners and managers of available tax credit properties were required to list them on particular emergency management sites, mainly one run by the SWERN regional disaster management entity, to receive tax waivers for use of LIHTC properties as disaster housing. The National Multi-Housing Council eventually helped in getting some clarity on this — it ended up advising housing managers to list the properties both in the officially required places and also with an online referral entity that had actually begun to work pretty well.

The online referral entity that best combined authoritativeness with effectiveness in 2005 was the “hurricanehousing” referral site, created by New Orleans area university and real estate people and belatedly adopted by federal emergency responders. That, and Craigslist, and a few other privately created registry efforts, finally started to connect actual displaced people with actual small-scale offers of conventional housing.

The 2005 housing referral picture was all needlessly difficult, and it seems likely that the confusion caused some people to end up in those notorious camps who could have ridden out the recovery in individual conventional housing units instead.

Another emergency measure taken in 2005 — one that probably wasn’t used sufficiently — was to open up closed foreclosed houses owned by Fannie Mae as emergency housing. HUD itself also is an owner of foreclosed houses, and I don’t know if those were used for storm evacuees then. It would be worth finding that out, and worth considering whether it can be done now.

In case it’s worth reading how the confusion developed and was eventually addressed, here is the archive of my September 2005 AHF housing blog.

Hoping people have learned. Hoping it will help that we now have far better referral systems run by entities like AirBnb.

Hoping this time better housing connections can save some lives and keep some people out of awful conditions in the next several weeks.

[Update August 28, 2017: Texas Appleseed, working with the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, published a densely informative “lessons learned” paper two years ago: “Lessons from Texas: 10 Years of Disaster Recovery Examined.” Detailed advice on structures, rules and application processes for relief and recovery programs and why it is especially a mistake to waive civil rights and fair housing rules.]

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The ‘Great Red North’ vs Northern CA

Early this month the New York Times‘ Thomas Fuller wrote up a round of interviews with prominent men from the old-school power structures of Northern California inland towns. He portrayed them as speaking for a “Great Red North” (red as in Republican) that feels unrepresented by California state government, viewing it as dominated by urban liberals.

Casey Michel, a writer focused on right-wing nationalisms, almost immediately noted that one interviewee in the article, Mark Baird, was not identified as a leading figure in the State of Jefferson secessionist campaign. A proposed statewide ballot initiative to remove California from the Union is again in early qualification stages with the California Attorney General’s Office.

Newspapers covering rural northeastern California in the first half of this year have reflected not only small-government and anti-environmentalist politics, but also fears of losing Affordable Care Act subsidies in rural towns, criticisms of the White Jefferson fundraiser poster - redacted - scaled.jpgHouse budget proposal, and reporting on news such as wildfires fought with state mutual-aid and prisoner labor programs, an April water dispute between Klamath Project farmers and the Klamath Tribes, and fears of immigration raids shared by Northern Californians targeted due to their immigrant status, and also by farm labor employers.

The aggrieved right-wing voices that Fuller encountered are real. At the Pollard Flat diner above Shasta Lake on I-5 there’s a wall covered with right-wing, gun-celebrating, sexist and anti-Clinton bumper stickers — some of them edgy enough that after consideration, I decided not to reproduce them here. The same diner, as of June, displayed the flyer shown here for a Jefferson statehood fundraiser. The flyer, with its conspicuously blond child holding a U.S. flag, was real enough.

But northeastern California is a varied place. Fuller heard from one side of a region that does have other sides. Rather than take the words of local big men, it’s important also to look for voices of people who hold quieter, subtler kinds of stakes in  rural small towns, whether or not they are customarily offered the privilege of speaking for their region.

A reluctant UBI dissent

I’ve been posting mostly on Twitter for a long time. A problem with Twitter is, when you manage to say a thing right, it slips away down the timeline at the same rate as everything you said wrong or halfway.

So this morning I wrote a short Twitter essay on why proposals for a universal basic income are riskier in the United States than in some other places. UBI talk seems likely to persist, so my worries might bear revisiting. Here’s a link to the thread.  Midway in, it mentions an article about how UBI payments helped a village in Kenya. Here’s the link.

Would add that as an old public benefits advocate, I know means tests are terrible things. They’re intrinsically bureaucratic, demeaning and unfair. So it would be great if we could give everyone money instead of making poor people jump through hoops for cash aid. But in the United States of 2017, a UBI bill would be exploited to convert uncapped entitlements into individual block grants. In which case, what would happen to public support for long-term medical and disability needs?

It’s the old story: if we could trust each other in America, we could have nice things. It would be great if we could trust U.S. legislators to enact a UBI, but common sense says they would try to end more public entitlements in exchange. That’s an unpayable price.

Minidoka and Topaz

J&I made a road trip of a visit to the Denver National Archives this month. Across the Great Basin and back.

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We traveled by way of the Topaz and Minidoka camp sites, where thousands of Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. Both camps are desert places. They can be farmed with irrigation, but not easily. Especially not Topaz.

Here are some images from the Topaz site. Topaz Museum director Jane Beckwith said the word spelled out in barbed wire was added, without permission, by antiwar activists who visited the site around 2003. It’s now part of the site’s history, hence left in place.

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Jane Beckwith said the 2003 activist group also placed an antiwar message on the flag at the Topaz camp entry site. Markers in that area include an honor roll for the Nisei soldiers of Millard County, Utah — the county that includes the Topaz camp site. Clearly the flag part of the protest offended some people.

Already it’s possible to look back at 2003 and say, that was in another time.

Her story reminded me of the mood at the 2002 Tule Lake Pilgrimage. To be clear, the Tule Lake Pilgrimage is always carefully authorized and pre-planned, and the 2002 event was no exception. But the 2002 Tule Lake Pilgrimage was full of marked, anxious, edgy focus on current events and current civil liberties concerns, giving such concerns almost as much emphasis as the past wartime camp history. Tule Lake events in more recent years have been a great deal more focused on history and memory, though always with a wary, well-informed sense for current tendencies toward scapegoating in the name of security.

Here is the soldiers’ marker at Topaz. There is a larger similar marker at Minidoka. There isn’t one (that I know of) at Tule Lake, although Tule Lake was a scene of some enlistments as well as refusals to enlist.

It remains remarkable that some young men agreed to go to war on behalf of a country that was imprisoning their families. It remains remarkable that some young men took the risk of refusing to go to war because their country was imprisoning their families. There will be more conversations about these choices for generations to come.

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Sites of former buildings at Topaz are marked now mainly by concrete and stone remnants of pathways and foundations. Even rocks have to be imported to the dusty former lake bed at Topaz. As a lifelong rockhound, Jane Beckwith can identify many of the stones by origin, hence can identify some of the wilderness places in the area where Topaz inmates may have been allowed to visit on hikes or collecting trips. Some of the rocks are very beautiful.

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At the Topaz Museum, which is in the nearest town of Delta, UT:

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A significant art collection there: Chiura Obata, Miné Okubo, and others from the Topaz Art School. Including some of Okubo’s work in a style very different from the cartoon line drawings of Citizen 13660:

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Also at the museum: a facsimile barrack. And a warning about mud. The cracked earth and dust at Topaz turns into awful sticky clay when damp. Jane Beckwith told us that irrigation farmers in the area had to build special drainage systems under their fields because of that mud. You have to scrape it out of your shoe treads with a stick.

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And then, later, J&I visited Minidoka up in Idaho.

In Twin Falls, the nearest big town, we didn’t see signs or tourist materials mentioning the incarceration site. Actually Twin Falls is quieter about Minidoka than the counterpart town of Klamath Falls, Oregon is about Tule Lake. That is saying something: Klamath Falls still isn’t generous with mentions, though it has improved a lot on the subject over the past two decades.

It’s deceptively green on the way to the camp site — one huge irrigated field after another. Grain, potatoes, corn. Bigger fields than at Tule Lake, which is in a fertile, smaller-scale basin where more emphasis has developed on high-maintenance specialty crops. You’d think Minidoka was more forgiving at first glance, but the weather records show a hundred degrees’ variation in temperature in the course of a year. And the superintendent of the Bureau of Reclamation project at Minidoka wrote about the camp site in August 1942: “The dust conditions in and surrounding the settlement are so extreme as to render the area almost uninhabitable.”

This odd juxtaposition of signs appears on the road to the Minidoka camp site, whose formal address during the war was “Hunt, Idaho”. I’m not sure what the wartime incarceration is supposed to have had to do with remnants of the prehistoric ground sloth. But it has been common, when an area’s first historical markers appear regarding Japanese Americans’ incarceration, for them to be placed alongside commemorations on other subjects — as if it feels safer to pad this particular uncomfortable, recent history with other material that’s more emotionally manageable or at least farther in the past. So maybe the prehistoric ground sloths are there as padding.

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There’s sagebrush in the unirrigated areas of the camp site.

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When you park there after a long drive, flies cluster around the dead-bug crud on your front bumper. There’s a 1.6-mile signposted walk around the part of the camp site that’s now under National Park Service management. It’s a parching walk without water.

This is a remnant of Block 22. The building on the right is a barrack. The one on the left might be a mess hall or workshop.

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Around Tule Lake, where we’ve spent more time, you get in the habit of looking for ex-barracks among the outbuildings of older small farmyards. We spotted a few in the general area of Minidoka. Here’s a very likely one, southwest of Twin Falls, Idaho. The main things to look for are the 20-foot interior diameter and the frequent small square windows.

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The space in that barrack section might once have been assigned to two families.

An odd thing to see in the rear-view mirror on a country road in America.

Commodified marginality on Cannery Row

People in the tourist part of Monterey look at the expensive bronze statuary of the Cannery Row Monument without laughing. Apparently all the time, every day.

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The same mentality that took Steinbeck’s jolliest depiction of marginality and further sentimentalized it as a draw for tourists also sponsored this pole full of prohibition signs a very few blocks away:

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People are like oysters. We don’t deal with the abrasive bits — we cushion them in soft glowy stuff.

A little farther along, people on the pier were cooing and joking and barking back at a raft of sea lions. A few of the smaller sea lions were emaciated. Those pictures are too sad to show here.