More Than Detroit

I recently read Thomas J. Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. I’m a bit embarrassed that it took so long for me to get around to this outstanding book, but I guess my timing was right as I finished it on election eve.

Sugrue tells what should be a familiar story, but probably isn’t to enough people, with a great deal of nuance and impressive historical research. African Americans from the south migrated to northern industrial cities in great numbers beginning around 1920. In Detroit, as in other cities, they enjoyed some prosperity and upward mobility in the 1920s and 1940s, although that progress was harshly interrupted by the Great Depression.  The war years and the immediate postwar period were times of hope and progress, but that came to an unfortunate end as Detroit and other cities deindustrialized and decayed in the 1960s and 1970s. The deindustrialization of center cities was not a conspiracy against the black migrants, but rather it was a historical coincidence with effects so cruel as to seem designed in malice. The ensuing impoverishment of inner-city blacks conttributed to the social unrest of the 1960s and the social disorder of the 1970s.

Sugrue’s research adds to the familiar story by showing that the roots of the urban crisis were sown much earlier than is typically portrayed; no sooner had WWII ended than the auto industry begin dispersing, both to the exurbs and to other non-urban areas of the country.  Backed with research that is concrete and detailed, Sugure shows that throughout the 1950s the UAW and other labor groups were resisting industrial deconcentration and automation, but ultimately could do little to influence the corporate decisions that threatened their jobs and disrupted their communities. Of course, many white workers were able to follow their employers to the suburbs and beyond, extending their hold on working class prosperity for a few more decades.  The black workers were not even that fortunate, as discrimination in jobs and housing left them stranded in the abandoned city.

Which brings us to the second major theme of Sugure’s book–the unrelenting discrimination and segregation African Americans experienced even in the northern promised lands. I grew up in a predominately white, working class neighborhood of Queens; it eventually transitioned into an exclusively African American and Caribbean neighborhood. The original white residents were on the whole decent people, there was little organized resistance to racial change, and racial transition was by and large accepted passively as a natural and inevitable progression. “White flight” there took place in slow motion over several decades, and when the white residents left they typically “fled” to grandchildren, nursing homes and graveyards. So I’m inclined to see residential segregation as an impersonal force driven by demographic flows and maintained by individual choices.  However, the virulent racism and violent hostility to neighborhood integration in 1950s and 1960s Detroit that Sugrue painstakingly documents is revolting and dispiriting, and underscores that much energetic activism was required to maintain the color line. Although he makes an effort to understand the threats white residents perceived to their communities, his heart doesn’t seem in it and truthfully, by the time I reached those passages, this reader’s wasn’t either.

So as I put the book down on election eve and watched the results roll in from Michigan, I had conflicting emotions. I was saddened by the futility of white Michiganers voting against all logic in the desperate hope that Donald Trump and the GOP would save their jobs and communities or care enough about them even to try. But it was also hard to put out of my mind Sugure’s horrifying narrative of racial animosity and to convince myself that the echoes of it didn’t play an important role as well.

The Los Angeles Homeless Housing Bond

In few cities has homelessness been as contentious an issue as in Los Angeles. The residents of the city have long displayed a live-and-let-live attitude toward the homeless, and in one recent survey of Los Angeles County residents homelessness was cited as the second-most important problem facing the county. Yet, the city has often resorted to a strong-arm law enforcement approach to the street homeless; in 2009 two national advocacy groups anointed it the “meanest” city in the country for its criminalization of homelessness.

In November, Angelenos will have an opportunitunity to express which side of the street they are on, as a referendum authorizing the city to issue $1.2 billion in general obligation bonds to provide supported housing for the homeless will be on the ballot.

Los Angeles has by far the largest population of street homeless in the country.  According to the city’s estimates complying with HUD’s Point in Time enumeration, there were 17,687 unsheltered homeless people residing on the city’s streets in 2015. That compares to 3,200 in New York, 2,000 in Chicago and 500 in Washington DC.  Even allowing for errors in the count, the scale of the problem is severe.  With about 4.5 street homeless per 1,000 housed residents, Los Angeles is second only to San Francisco in terms of the intensity of the problem.

In 2002, under the direction of Police Chief William Bratton, the city began enforcing, especially in the “Skid Row” district near downtown, a 1968 ordinance that prohibited sleeping in or upon a street, sidewalk or public way.  The ACLU of Southern California filed suit on behalf of six homeless individuals, but a district court upheld the city’s sleeping ban. However, in Jones v. The City of Los Angeles the following year, a panel of Ninth Circuit judges reversed the district court’s ruling, finding that the plaintiff’s may have become homeless involuntarily and their choice to sleep on the street was “involuntary and inseparable from their status.”

In 2014, a federal appeals court also struck down a Los Angeles law prohibiting people from living in vehicles, and in 2016 the city was ordered to stop seizing and destroying the property of homeless people left unattended on the street.

In the Jones decision the appeals court ruled that the city could not enforce the prohibition on sleeping on public sidewalks as long as the number of homeless persons exceeded the number of available shelter beds.  At that time, and still, the city has nowhere near the number of shelter beds necessary to accommodate its homeless population, although the shelters that it does provide are rarely used to capacity.

In 2007, the City and the ACLU reached a settlement agreement stemming from the Jones suit, whereby the city pledged not to enforce the sleeping ban until at least 1,250 units of additional permanent supported housing are constructed for current or formerly chronic homeless persons. Although the city has supported construction of some excellent facilities, nearly 10 years later the City has not completed building all of the promised units and the exact count is a matter of dispute.

Continue reading “The Los Angeles Homeless Housing Bond”

What’s Up With Retail?

 

Early this year Macy’s announced that it was closing 40 of its department stores. In April, Sears Holdings said that it would close 10 Sears and 68 Kmart stores. Then last week, Macy’s announced that it would close about 100 additional stores. Do these retrenchments represent just the normal ebb and flow of company fortunes in a competitive marketplace, or is there something more profound going on in retailing?

Well, there seem to be three strong crosswinds impacting the retail sector today, and the large department stores are taking the brunt of them. The three are middle-class income stagnation, globalization and the internet.

Through 2014 (the last year for which data is available), the average real incomes of none of the five household income quintiles had recovered to their pre-recession peaks. However, the recovery of income has been more complete for the higher income groups. While the average income of the lowest quintile of households had recovered to only 88 percent of its pre-recession peak, the average income of the highest income quartile had recovered to 98 percent.  The share of total income garnered by the three middle quintiles declined from 46.9 percent to 45.7 percent, while the share of the highest income quintile went from 49.7 to 51.2.  Retail chains that cater to higher-income shoppers are reportedly doing well, but for many large chains the three middle groups, with annual household incomes from about $21,000 to $112,000, is where the volume is, and income growth for those households has been slow.

Competition between name-brand retailers and discounters is not new, but in recent decades the out-sourcing of dry-goods production to China, Bangladesh and elsewhere has tilted the playing field in favor of the discounters. Epitomized by the Walmart formula, which combines a cheap foreign supply chain with monopsony buying power and a no-frills “supercenter” shopping experience, the discounters have increasingly pressured the department store chains (as well as smaller chains and independent retailers) that traditionally marketed fashion and quality. Warehouse clubs like Costco have also made inroads among middle-income families whose incomes have stagnated. From 2000 through 2014 the number of department stores nationally declined from about 10,500 to 8,000 while the number of supercenter and warehouse club outlets has grown from about 1,800 to 5,300.  Walmart alone operates over 3,400 supercenters. Total retail sales in warehouse clubs and supercenters are now about triple the sales volume of traditional department stores.

Traditional retailers also face intensifying competition from internet sales. In 2015, internet sales topped $432 billion. While that represents only abut 9 percent of all retail sales, e-retailing has captured about 30 percent of the retail sales growth since 2007. As a consequence, in-store retailing has grown at only a 1.2 percent real annual rate over the past eight years, compared to the 8.2 percent growth rate of e-retailing.

Continue reading “What’s Up With Retail?”

Homeownership and Retirement

The New York Times today presented a “Room for Debate” feature on the declining rate of homeownership, which has declined 6 percentage points from its peak. The debaters include Dean Baker, Elyse Cherry, William E. Spriggs, A. Michele Dickerson and Ed Glaser. Though I have some qualms with Cherry’s prescription of mass principal write-downs for underwater borrowers, the debaters generally offer reasonable takes on the pros and cons of home ownership and the implications of a declining ownership rate.

It is surprising, however, how little attention these reasonable commentators give to the retirement security benefits of homeownership. That oversight is particularly stark in Glaeser’s comments, where he states bluntly that “there is little public benefit in pushing people to own rather than rent homes.”

Consider a simple example where two identical families earning $75,000 annually at 30 years of age are contemplating renting permanently or plunging into homeownership. Say the first choses a permanent rental apartment for 20 percent of their gross income (about $1,250/month) and the other purchases an equivalent house with a similar monthly mortgage payment, although they will have to pay another 10 percent of their income in property taxes, insurance and maintenance expenses. To keep things simple, let’s ignore the tax benefits of homeownership and the opportunity costs of the home buying family’s initial down payment. Furthermore, assume that all rental and ownership costs inflate by 2 percent per year, except of course the homeowners’ mortgage expense, which is fixed for its 30 year amortization period.

Initially, in this simple scenario, the buying family would be paying a housing cost premium of 50 percent to own rather than rent. But since their mortgage costs are fixed, that ownership premium falls steadily, so that by the time they are 60 years old they are paying only a 6 percent monthly premium over their renting counterparts. By the time they are 61, their mortgage is fully amortized (No refinancing! No home equity loans!) and their ownership costs drop to 50 percent of their counterparts’ rental costs.

In nominal dollar terms, at age 65 the renter family will be paying $2,451 in monthly rent while the home-owning family will have total monthly housing costs of just $1,225. That difference will make a huge difference in the retirement welfare of the two families, not to mention the benefit of cost predictability enjoyed by the homeowners.

Of course, many embellishments to this simple model can be made, but the basic conclusion will stand under a wide variety of assumptions. The renters would have to display a great deal of savings discipline over their working lifetimes to generate enough investment income to offset their housing cost disadvantage and be better off overall than the homeowner at retirement age. I haven’t done a lit review of renter/owner savings behavior, but I’ll guess that very few renter families would display such savings discipline.

So, if there is a public benefit that the elderly be securely housed there is a public benefit to encouraging home ownership. If there isn’t a public benefit to homeownership in this sense, is there a public benefit to other retirement security policies, such as Social Security or 401-k tax advantages?