Category Archives: Housing

Rocky Mountain High Real Estate Values

Street scene in Aspen, Colo.

Street view in Aspen, Colo.

by James A. Bacon

According to a 2011 Wall Street Journal article, Aspen, Colo., could boast of having the most expensive real estate in the country. I don’t know if that’s still true, but I wouldn’t be surprised. As I sit here blogging at Ink! Coffee, looking upon a patio filled with Pellegrino umbrellas and baskets of bright mountain flowers while perusing the real estate ads in The Aspen Times, it quickly becomes clear that this is a place where I could never afford to live. A 3,414-square-foot home with a view of Aspen Mountain and within walking distance of downtown is on the market for $4,995,000. Select neighborhoods in Manhattan might be more expensive on a per-square-foot basis — I don’t pretend to know the national real estate market — but there cannot be many places that are.

Prone as I am to over-thinking absolutely everything, I have been asking myself, how did Aspen get to be one of the most desirable locations in the planet, while small mountain towns in Virginia with comparable natural beauty slide into senescence? Does Aspen provide lessons that Virginia communities can learn from — not with the unrealistic aim of becoming a playground of the one percent, but with the modest goal of attracting tourists and retirees, supporting jobs, lifting the tax base, and paying for amenities that make life more enjoyable for the people who live there?

In the article that follows, I will endeavor to address those questions, fully cognizant that anything I say is based upon the hasty and superficial impressions. My methodology is simple: I stroll around town with iPhone camera in hand and an eye to observing land use, architecture, transportation, and the retail scene. As always, I pay attention to the quality of the public sphere and the “small spaces.” When possible, I engage people in conversation. As it happens, Aspeners (or Aspenites, whatever they call themselves) are incredibly friendly and eager to talk about their fair city.

Aspen got its start in the late 1880s as a silver-mining boom town. When the silver boom went bust, so did the town. Fortunes did not revive until 1946 when Friedl Pfeifer, a former Austrian skiing champion, linked up with industrialist Walter Paepcke and his wife Elizabeth to form the Aspen Skiing Corporation. The town’s most enduring resource, as it turned out, was not silver but world-class skiing.

The inter-mountain west has many  popular ski resorts, but none has done as well as Aspen at winning name recognition and attracting the super-rich. One key to its phenomenal success, I would suggest, is its silver-mining inheritance: a downtown laid out in a classic grid street pattern, a number of handsome brick buildings, and a municipal government intent upon preserving that heritage. Aspen has something that many of its ski-resort peers does not: walkability. Admittedly, Aspen isn’t the only walkable ski town — Jackson, Wyoming, springs to mind — so pedestrian ambiance is not exclusively responsible for vaulting it into the real estate stratosphere. But a comparison with Virginia/West Virginia ski resorts such as Wintergreen, Snowshoe and Massanutten lacking downtown districts suggest that walkability is a critical differentiator.

Downtown Aspen, comprising about two dozen blocks, is a destination in itself, and real estate ads tout houses’ proximity to the urban center. While the “Mountain Modern” style of architecture often presents a jarring contrast with the 1880s-era buildings, the overall effect is still magical. Visitors come to Aspen, fall in love, and gladly pay a premium to buy a house or condominium that allows them to live here.

Aspen5

Not only are historic buildings from Aspen’s silver-mining past architecturally distinctive but they help define the walkable street space.

Walkability

One of the first things my wife, friends and I noticed when strolling around downtown was the paucity of cars. Traffic was negligible. I assumed the empty streets reflected the lassitude of the summer season at a skiing destination. But a friendly acquaintance, a commodities trader who moved here from Chicago, assured me otherwise. We were, in fact, experiencing peak downtown traffic. Summer tourism is booming, and a lot of people bring their own cars and four-wheel drives to take advantage of the hiking, fishing, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting.

While cars may be scarce, human beings are everywhere. The ability to live here without driving is a prime attraction. People can meet most of their daily needs by walking and biking. The commodities trader said he goes a week at a time without ever stepping in a car. Another acquaintance, a native Philadelphian who lives here eight months of the year and does business in New York, said when he recently sold a Jeep he’d owned twelve years, it only had 15,000 miles on it.

Uncongested streets are the result of thoughtful design. Aspen hews to the rules of classical urbanism. For starters, the buildings define the street space. Rather than standing out and saying, “Hey, look at me” with egocentric starchitect designs, they conform with one another in size, height and relationship to the street. By abutting the sidewalks, their facades delineate the public space of the sidewalk realm. While you won’t see many cars driving around, plenty are using the on-street parking — and that’s a good thing. Parked cars and building facades bracket the pedestrian domain as a distinct space. This pedestrian realm, as I shall describe, is adorned by flower gardens, rain gardens, statuary, street seating, and window shopping that make it extraordinarily inviting. Continue reading

What Virginia Millennials Are Looking For

indicators

Source: Wason Center for Public Policy. Click for legible image.

by James A. Bacon

Three out of four Virginia Millennials (belonging to the 18- to 36-year-old age cohort) are largely satisfied with the quality of life in their communities. But local quality-of-life indicators often fall short of what Millennials are looking for, and many are open to moving to other parts  of Virginia or even to other states. So finds a new survey of 2,000 young adults in “Virginia Millennials Come of Age” by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.

The survey covered a wide range of topics, including political involvement, civic engagement, personal financial outlook and news sources. But of particular interest to this blog are the questions relating to quality of life. Given that creative and educated young adults contribute disproportionately to a region’s innovation and vibrancy, community leaders need to understand the factors that attract and drive them away.

Judging by the metrics selected, Millennials in Northern Virginia are most satisfied with the quality of life in their communities (despite the traffic!), followed by Hampton Roads. They are less satisfied in the Richmond region, and least satisfied in South/Southwest Virginia.

The metrics include: access to public transportation, walkability, proximity to work and/or school, proximity to parks and shopping, a mix of housing, good public schools, safe neighborhoods, proximity to family, a diverse population, and having enough people of their own age. (Those are all reasonable metrics, but I would argue that the list is incomplete and, therefore, gives an incomplete picture. How about the cost of living? Or the quality of the food scene? Or proximity to arts and culture? Or opportunities to engage in the community — a factor rated highly by Millennials, according to the survey?)

The survey asked respondents to evaluate how important these quality-of-life indicators are when thinking about moving somewhere new, and how well each one describes their present community. The "gap" represents the difference between the two.

The survey asked respondents to evaluate how important these quality-of-life indicators are when thinking about moving somewhere new, and how well each one describes their present community. The “gap” represents the difference between the two. (Click for larger image.)

Wason didn’t analyze the data this way, but I find it interesting that proximity to amenities — work, schools, shopping, entertainment, parks and recreation — all ranked in the top half of the list. The desire for compact communities is reinforced by the identification of “walkable areas” as a priority. It stands to reason that neighborhoods in which amenities are “close” are also more walkable.

Virginia policy makers should pay close attention to this finding as they think about transportation and land use priorities.

The desire for proximity and walkability does not translate into a wholesale endorsement of the Smart Growth agenda, however. The desire for a “range of transportation options” — which presumably includes mass transit — was second lowest on the list. The perceived gap between the ideal and reality was negligible.

Likewise, the desire for a “mix of types and values of housing” was only middling. However, I’m not sure that most respondents had a clear idea of what the question meant. Did they think it referred to communities in which housing was integrated with offices, retail and other amenities — the Smart Growth desiderata? Or were respondents focusing on the importance of “affordable” housing? Two very different things A follow-up survey might delve deeper.

Also interesting is the fact that a “diversity of people in the area” ranked lowest on the list. That may not be a topic that preoccupies the average Millennial as much as it does the academic community.

The old-fashioned values of safe neighborhoods and good public schools also rank high. (It would be interesting to see how Millennials without children compared to Millennials with children in evaluating the importance of public schools. I would be willing to wager that parents consider school quality a lot more than singles do.)

All things considered, the survey results suggest that Virginia lawmakers and civic leaders have cause for concern if they want the state to remain an attractive location for young people. Virginia Millennials are highly mobile, with 65% saying they are thinking about moving within the next five years. Of those, 38% say they would consider moving to somewhere else in Virginia, and 27% somewhere outside of Virginia. Within Virginia, Northern Virginia is by far the most popular destination. Regions in the rest of the state have their work cut out for them.

Fresh Thinking on the End of Life

hospiceby John C. Blair, II

Twenty-first century public policy debates tend to devolve into a binary argument between those who favor the choices of individuals amalgamated into a “market” versus those who favor a state intervention to add a dash of “equality” into outcomes.

However, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal touches on an issue that frustrates all political persuasions.  The current end-of-life care choices and care delivery options frustrate nearly every American family. It is difficult to find an American in their sixties or older who does not implore, “Please don’t let me end up in a nursing home.” Whether it’s the smells, the food, the drab interior, the loss of autonomy, or fear of institutions, nursing homes are almost universally disdained throughout the nation.

Being Mortal addresses the question: How did we end up with a society in which so many end up with a nursing home as their final destination?  Gawande’s tome traces the history of American end-of-life scenarios from the literal poorhouse to the hospital to the current nursing home paradigm.

Gawande makes a convincing argument that the nursing home “default” is a product of viewing this period of life through a medical lens rather than incorporating other perspectives. Gawande, a Boston surgeon, writes, “Medicine’s focus is narrow. Medical professionals concentrate on repair of health, not sustenance of the soul.” Thus, values such as autonomy or stoicism are lost in the pursuit of “safety” and “preserving and repairing health.” We end up seeing medical professionals trying to extend “existence” at the cost of what many consider empty and meaningless lives.

Gawande details the tragic consequences that this narrow medical focus can have for individuals, families, and societies as individuals pursue one in a million medical surgeries rather than focusing on the quality of their remaining life. He points to a study that found that forty percent of oncologists offer treatments that they believe are unlikely to work.

Gawande offers some suggestions on how end-of-life care options can become more holistic and loosen the grip of a purely medical perspective on these choices.

One suggestion is to allow and train physicians to practice “interpretive” medicine rather than “informative” or “paternal” medicine. Paternal medicine is when physicians communicate with patients aiming to ensure that patients receive what the doctor believes is best for them. Informative medicine is when a physician simply gives patients facts and figures and leaves the decision up to the patient. Interpretive medicine has physicians ask patients, “What is most important to you? What are your worries?” When the physician determines the patient’s priorities, he or she then maps out a program to best achieve those priorities.

Another suggestion is to better promote hospice care as an option to patients and their families. Gawande recounts his own positive experience with hospice treating his cancer-stricken father. Hospice can provide a much better quality of life than the safety-focused nursing home.

Gawande also points to a community-focused solution to “avoid the nursing home option” in Ohio. Athens Village was a group of a hundred people who banded together to pay four hundred dollars a year. This money went to hire a handyman to take care of each member’s household. Additionally, a director was hired who coordinated volunteers to cook food and check up on the members. A nurse agency provided discounted nursing aid costs. Churches and civic organizations provided a van transportation service and meals-on-wheels. This community allowed its members to remain in their homes and maintain autonomy rather than reside in nursing homes.

Being Mortal offers a lot of food for thought for Virginia policymakers. As the Commonwealth’s population ages, lawmakers and bureaucrats are likely to face more families asking, “What can we do to avoid the nursing home?” Perhaps it would be in the state’s best interest if the General Assembly provided funding for the state’s medical schools to instruct physicians in “interpretive” medicine for end-of-life conversations with patients. Another option would be to see if any legal or regulatory burdens exist that would prevent the formation of a community such as Athens Village.

John C. Blair, II is an attorney who resides in Albemarle County.  

Walkability No Guarantee of Healthy Housing Market

This graph shows how the midsized cities (excluding Arlington) with Top 10 walkability rankings score in WalletHub’s latest ranking of cities with the healthiest real estate markets. Sad to say: High walkability seems to be correlated with moribund real estate economies. The cities are (from left to right): Jersey City, Newark, Hialeah, Buffalo, Rochester, St. Paul, Cincinnati, Richmond and Madison. (Click for more legible image.)

This graph shows how the midsized cities (excluding Arlington) with Top 10 walkability rankings score in WalletHub’s latest ranking of cities with the healthiest real estate markets. Sad to say: High walkability seems to be correlated with moribund real estate economies. The cities are (from left to right): Jersey City, Newark, Hialeah, Buffalo, Rochester, St. Paul, Cincinnati, Richmond and Madison. (Click for more legible image.)

There is an interesting juxtaposition of news items today. Redfin, the real estate brokerage website, has published a list of the Top 10 most walkable midsized cities in the country. Arlington County (a highly urbanized county) scored third and Richmond scored ninth, based on their Walk Score rankings.

Arlington won kudos for its Ballston-Virginia square neighborhood, where residents can walk to an average of 13 restaurant, bars or coffee shops within five minutes. While the Washington metropolitan area is notorious for its traffic, many Arlington residents live car-free, opting to get around on foot, bike and public transportation.

Richmond earned recognition for the revitalization of neighborhoods surrounding downtown, including Jackson Ward, Shockoe Bottom, Monroe Ward, the riverfront and Manchester. The Fan and Carytown neighborhoods to the west of downtown also stood out for their walkability.

To many urban theorists, walkability is a critical determinant of a community’s livability, ranking close behind the cost of real estate, the quality of schools and the level of taxes in what people take into account when deciding where to live. But it’s no guarantee of prosperity or rising real estate values…. which brings us to the other news item.

The top two midsized cities ranked by walkability are Jersey City (No. 1) and Newark (No. 2). But guess where Jersey City and Newark rank in WalletHub’s ranking of 2015’s Healthiest Housing Markets. Out of 94 midsized cities ranked, Newark scored 94th — dead last — while Jersey City ranked 76th. (Richmond ranked a ho-hum 45th among midsized cities.)

Bacon’s bottom line: I’ll concede that this is a quick-and-dirty analysis based on a comparison of midsized cities only, not a comprehensive comparison of all types and sizes of municipal governments, so it may not reflect the larger reality. But I would advance this as a reasonable hypothesis: Walkability is a wonderful thing, and many people desire it, but it is a relatively minor factor influencing the health of urban real estate markets.

— JAB

Alpha Natural Resources: Running Wrong

Alpha miners in Southwest Virginia (Photo by Scott Elmquist)

Alpha miners in Southwest Virginia
(Photo by Scott Elmquist)

 By Peter Galuszka

Four years ago, coal titan Alpha Natural Resources, one of Virginia’s biggest political donors, was riding high.

It was spending $7.1 billion to buy Massey Energy, a renegade coal firm based in Richmond that had compiled an extraordinary record for safety and environmental violations and fines. Its management practices culminated in a huge mine blast on April 5, 2010 that killed 29 miners in West Virginia, according to three investigations.

Bristol-based Alpha, founded in 2002, had coveted Massey’s rich troves of metallurgical and steam coal as the industry was undergoing a boom phase. It would get about 1,400 Massey workers to add to its workforce of 6,600 but would have to retrain them in safety procedures through Alpha’s “Running Right” program.

Now, four years later, Alpha is in a fight for its life. Its stock – trading at a paltry 55 cents per share — has been delisted by the New York Stock Exchange. After months of layoffs, the firm is preparing for a bankruptcy filing. It is negotiating with its loan holders and senior bondholders to help restructure its debt.

Alpha is the victim of a severe downturn in the coal industry as cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing drilling has flooded the market and become a favorite of electric utilities. Alpha had banked on Masset’s huge reserves of met coal to sustain it, but global economic strife, especially in China, has dramatically cut demand for steel. Some claim there is a “War on Coal” in the form of tough new regulations, although others claim the real reason is that coal can’t face competition from other fuel sources.

Alpha’s big fall has big implications for Virginia in several arenas:

(1) Alpha is one of the largest political donors in the state, favoring Republicans. In recent years, it has spent $2,256,617 on GOP politicians and PACS, notably on such influential politicians and Jerry Kilgore and Tommy Norment, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. It also has spent $626,558 on Democrats.

In 2014-2015, it was the ninth largest donor in the state. Dominion was ahead among corporations, but Alpha beat out such top drawer bankrollers as Altria, Comcast and Verizon. The question now is whether a bankruptcy trustee will allow Alpha to continue its funding efforts.

(2) How will Alpha handle its pension and other benefits for its workers? If it goes bankrupt, it will be in the same company as Patriot Coal which is in bankruptcy for the second time in the past several years. Patriot was spun off by Peabody, the nation’s largest coal producer, which wanted to get out of the troubled Central Appalachian market to concentrate on more profitable coalfields in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and the Midwest.

Critics say that Patriot was a shell firm set up by Peabody so it could skip out of paying health, pension and other benefits to the retired workers it used to employ. The United Mine Workers of America has criticized a Patriot plan to pay its top five executives $6.4 million as it reorganizes its finances.

(3) Coal firms that have large surface mines, as Alpha does, may not be able to meet the financial requirements to clean up the pits as required by law. Alpha has used mountaintop removal practices in the Appalachians in which hundreds of feet of mountains are ripped apart by explosives and huge drag lines to get at coal. They also have mines in Wyoming that also involve removing millions of tons of overburden.

Like many coal firms, Alpha has used “self-bonding” practices to guarantee mine reclamation. In this, the companies use their finances as insurance that they will clean up. If not, they must post cash. Wyoming has given Alpha until Aug. 24 to prove it has $411 million for reclamation.

(4) The health problems of coalfield residents continue unabated. According to a Newsweek report, Kentucky has more cancer rates than any other state. Tobacco smoking as a lot to do with it, but so does exposure to carcinogenic compounds that are released into the environment by mountaintop removal. This also affects people living in Virginia and West Virginia. In 2014, Alpha was fined $27.5 million by federal regulators for illegal discharges of toxic materials into hundreds of streams. It also must pay $200 million to clean up the streams.

The trials of coal companies mean bad news for Virginia and its sister states whose residents living near shut-down mines will still be at risk from them. As more go bust or bankrupt, the bill for their destructive practices will have to borne by someone else.

After digging out the Appalachians for about 150 years, the coal firms have never left coalfield residents well off. Despite its coal riches, Kentucky ranks 45th in the country for wealth. King Coal could have helped alleviate that earlier, but is in a much more difficult position to do much now. Everyday folks with be the ones paying for their legacy.

Neighborhood Inequality and What to Do About It

neighborhood_advantage2

by James A. Bacon

Neighborhoods in the Richmond metropolitan area are the most segregated by wealth and income in Virginia and the third most segregated of any region in the United States, according to data crunched by Urban Institute fellow Rolf Pendall. By the same token (assuming I read the fine print in tabular form correctly), Fredericksburg is the least segregated by wealth and income of any region in Virginia and the country.

As the income gap widens in the United States, so does the gap between the most affluent and the poorest neighborhoods, contends Pendall in a new report, “Worlds Apart: Inequality in America’s Most and Least Affluent Neighborhoods.” This polarization has occurred despite the urban revival of many U.S. metros.

“Though not as far apart in space from the bottom neighborhoods as affluent suburban and exurban enclaves,” writes Pendall, “top neighborhoods in central cities still are separate worlds from those of the nation’s lowest-income residents. And even the modest physical distance between top and bottom neighborhoods is often interrupted by physical barriers like Washington’s Anacostia River, the San Francisco Bay, and Interstate 35 in Austin.”

Instead of preserving islands of privilege, he argues, public policy should encourage the creation of mixed-income neighborhoods and districts in central cities and suburbs and invest more heavily the nation’s poorer neighborhoods.

One could argue with Pendall’s policy prescriptions — what should we do — but his description of the facts on the ground — what is — seems pretty straightforward. Insofar as most of us would like to see more equality of opportunity in our society, and insofar as an individual’s opportunities are shaped by his or her neighborhood environment, it is discouraging to see such wide disparities in the Richmond region where I live.

(If I were like some participants in this blog, I would go, “Oh, Urban Institute, that’s a liberal think tank, therefore it’s biased, therefore, I can disengage my brain and discount anything it says. But I try not to work that way. Pendall’s methodology seems perfectly reasonable, and if there are uncomfortable realities that must be grappled with, I will grapple with them.)

A couple of observations about the Virginia data. First, the Washington region (or, more precisely, commuting zone) has the strongest concentrations of wealth of any of the metros, even more than Richmond. But the poverty in its least advantaged neighborhoods appears to be more diluted, while in Richmond poverty is more concentrated.

Second, Fredericksburg seems notable for the notable lack of concentrated poverty. I can confirm this with some anecdotal evidence. My mother lives on Caroline Street, one of the more desirable streets in Fredericksburg’s historic district — but she is only two blocks from a housing project. As Pendall observes, smaller regions tend to have less inequality between neighborhoods, and Fredericksburg is one of the smallest regions covered in his survey.

What to do about it. To a carpenter, as the old saying goes, every problem looks like nail. Urban planners are prone to looking for urban planning solutions to the problems they observe. But solving the problem of extremes in wealth and poverty cannot readily be accomplished simply by mixing poor people and affluent people together. One of the advantages of being affluent is that it affords one the opportunity to separate oneself from crime, poor schools, disorderly conduct. In my observation, even liberal rich people like to live in neighborhoods that are safe and don’t have trash on the street. Politically, it will be difficult to compel the rich, powerful and well connected to do something they don’t want to do. It’s a zero-sum game.

To my mind, the better way to address the inequality of neighborhoods is to address the inequality of the residents within the neighborhoods. One way to do that is to scrap a monetary policy that rewards the wealthy (holders of stocks and bonds) and punishes small savers (whose financial assets reside in bank accounts and CDs). Another way to address income inequality is to embrace a tax and regulatory regime that encourages economic growth, which encourages job creation, which, when the labor market tightens enough,  promotes income growth for wage earners.

Bacon’s bottom line: The phenomenon Pendall describes is real.  But the policy prescription at which he hints addresses the surface of the problem, not the underlying cause.

Why There’s No Swimming Pool at Gilpin Court

gilpin courtBy Peter Galuszka

Heat and humidity seem to have been especially intense this summer. But it can be much worse at an inner city public housing project where there are few trees and other vegetation and lots of bricks and concrete that and retain heat.

So, wouldn’t a swimming pool seem nice, especially when your housing project already has one?

That’s what I thought when I visited Gilpin Court, one of Richmond’s 11 public housing projects. Housing 2,200 residents, many of them children, Gilpin is one of the worst ones run by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority. It was built in the 1940s. Here’s my story in Style Weekly.

There is a swimming pool. But, the indoor basin has been shut down for three years and the RRHA says it can’t be fixed. “The pool is closed for maintenance and repairs and diminishing funds we have available,” a spokeswoman says.

In the meantime, the RRHA has been spending money on other things, according to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

A list:

  • The RRHA spent $1,515 in 2012 to take 55 residents of Creighton Court, another project, for a bus charter to a West Virginia gambling casino.
  • The former RRHA police chief spent $900 on a television and more for cable services for an emergency operations center” that didn’t exist.He and his wife also got to go to a conference in San Diego with a side trip to Las Vegas.
  • Former authority chief executive Adrienne Goolsby, who resigned under a cloud in January, was being paid $183, 800 a year plus a $10,000 bonus. This is well above U.S. Department and Urban Development guidelines of $155,500 a year. The state governor makes less: $175,000.

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote to Goolsby last year asking for answers for these matters. His staff says he never got an answer.

Meanwhile, RRHA is being run by a temporary chief. No one seems to know when a permanent one will be appointed.

Gilpin children say they can swim at other city-owned pools or at Pocahontas State Park, which is 27 miles away.

One other takeaway: one hears a lot on this blog from writers about how the problems of poverty are a lack of personal responsibility. I guess if you grow up in a furnace like Gilpin, you just have to work harder.

Why There's No Swimming Pool at Gilpin Court

gilpin courtBy Peter Galuszka

Heat and humidity seem to have been especially intense this summer. But it can be much worse at an inner city public housing project where there are few trees and other vegetation and lots of bricks and concrete that and retain heat.

So, wouldn’t a swimming pool seem nice, especially when your housing project already has one?

That’s what I thought when I visited Gilpin Court, one of Richmond’s 11 public housing projects. Housing 2,200 residents, many of them children, Gilpin is one of the worst ones run by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority. It was built in the 1940s. Here’s my story in Style Weekly.

There is a swimming pool. But, the indoor basin has been shut down for three years and the RRHA says it can’t be fixed. “The pool is closed for maintenance and repairs and diminishing funds we have available,” a spokeswoman says.

In the meantime, the RRHA has been spending money on other things, according to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

A list:

  • The RRHA spent $1,515 in 2012 to take 55 residents of Creighton Court, another project, for a bus charter to a West Virginia gambling casino.
  • The former RRHA police chief spent $900 on a television and more for cable services for an emergency operations center” that didn’t exist.He and his wife also got to go to a conference in San Diego with a side trip to Las Vegas.
  • Former authority chief executive Adrienne Goolsby, who resigned under a cloud in January, was being paid $183, 800 a year plus a $10,000 bonus. This is well above U.S. Department and Urban Development guidelines of $155,500 a year. The state governor makes less: $175,000.

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote to Goolsby last year asking for answers for these matters. His staff says he never got an answer.

Meanwhile, RRHA is being run by a temporary chief. No one seems to know when a permanent one will be appointed.

Gilpin children say they can swim at other city-owned pools or at Pocahontas State Park, which is 27 miles away.

One other takeaway: one hears a lot on this blog from writers about how the problems of poverty are a lack of personal responsibility. I guess if you grow up in a furnace like Gilpin, you just have to work harder.

Housing Affordability for Millennials

millennial_affordability

by James A. Bacon

As the global epicenter of technology innovation, Silicon Valley creates a massive amount of wealth — but the housing supply, hemmed in by geography and zoning regulations, is incredibly restricted. The resulting housing crunch is so severe that Millennials are hard pressed to live there. The median income for Millennials in the San Jose metropolitan area is the highest of any of the 50 largest metropolitan regions in the country — $53,000. But the median home value of $925,000 requires an income of $133,000 to pay a mortgage (not to mention a 20% down payment). The earnings gap, according to a new housing index published by Bloomberg, is $80,000!

If Millennials are the life-blood of creativity and innovation for metropolitan economies, the cost of housing could be Silicon Valley’s Achilles heel. The housing supply is so out of whack, as it is in neighboring San Francisco, that, as much as Millennials are drawn to the excitement and glamour of working at companies like Apple and Google, they simply can’t afford it unless they’re willing to live five or six to an apartment.

According to Bloomberg, housing is unaffordable for thirteen of the 50 largest U.S. metros. The biggest affordability gaps are on the West Coast, but Boston, Washington and New York are on the list as well. Young people are willing to tolerate sub-par living conditions for a while, especially while they are single. One of my daughters shared a tiny rental apartment with four roommates while living in Jackson,Wyoming, which, due to its awesomeness, has similar affordability issues. But she rented her own place when she moved back to Richmond. And now that she is getting married, she and her fiance have no trouble affording a comfortable starter home in a nice neighborhood near the University of Richmond. When educated Millennials are ready to get married and start families, the idea of sharing a house with four or five roommates is not a serious option.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are metros like Detroit, Buffalo and Cleveland where housing is easily affordable — but job opportunities for Millennials are scarce. If your goal is to recruit and retain educated Millennials with the hope of stimulating the creative economy, it appears that the sweet spot is the middle of the affordability range in which jobs are available and housing is affordable.

Millennials consider many other factors when choosing where to live, to be sure. Larger metros have appeal because the supply of potential mates is larger. They also look for coolness, hipness and authenticity, indefinable characteristics that are difficult to measure but definitely apply to places like San Francisco, New York, Austin and Portland. But once young people have found their mates, the size of the mating pool is no longer a consideration. And once they have children, hipness no longer looms as large.

Metros like Richmond and Virginia Beach will have difficulty competing with San Francisco and New York in luring single Millennials right out of college. But the comparative advantage shifts dramatically in their favor when Millennials are ready to settle down. In the competition for talent, the best bet for downstate Virginia communities is to target educated Millennials at that life-stage. How to target them is quite another question. It’s a question that Virginians need to give more thought to.

New Film Documents Horrors of Coal Mining

blood on the moutain posterBy Peter Galuszka

Several years in the making, “Blood on the Mountain” has finally premiered in New York City. The documentary examines the cycle of exploitation of people and environment by West Virginia’s coal industry highlighting Massey Energy, a coal firm that was based in Richmond.

The final cut of the film was released publicly May 26 at Anthology Film Archives as part of the “Workers Unite! Film Festival” funded in part by the Fund for Creative Communities, the Manhattan Community Arts Fund and the New York State Council of the Arts.

Directed by Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman, the film shows that how for more than a century, coal companies and politicians kept coal workers laboring in unsafe conditions that killed thousands while ravaging the state’s mountain environment.

As Bruce Stanley, a lawyer from Mingo County, W.Va. who is interviewed in the film and has fought Donald L. Blankenship, the notorious former head of Massey Energy, says, there isn’t a “War on Coal,” it is a “war waged by coal on West Virginia.”

When hundreds of striking workers protested onerous and deadly working conditions in the early 1920s, they were met with machine guns and combat aircraft in a war that West Virginia officials kept out of history books. They didn’t teach it when I was in grade school there in the 1960s. I learned about the war in the 1990s.

The cycle of coal mine deaths,environmental disaster and regional poverty continues to this day. In 2010, safety cutbacks at a Massey Energy mine led to the deaths of 29 miners in the worst such disaster in 40 years. Mountains in Central Appalachia, including southwest Virginia, continue to be ravaged by extreme strip mining.

As Jeff Biggers said in a review of the movie in the Huffington Post:

“Thanks to its historical perspective, Blood on the Mountains keeps hope alive in the coalfields — and in the more defining mountains, the mountain state vs. the “extraction state” — and reminds viewers of the inspiring continuum of the extraordinary Blair Mountain miners’ uprising in 1921, the victory of Miners for Democracy leader Arnold Miller as the UMWA president in the 1970s, and today’s fearless campaigns against mountaintop-removal mining.”

The movie (here is the trailer) is a personal mission for me. In 2013, after my book “Thunder on the Mountain, Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal,” was published by St. Martin’s Press, Mari-Lynn Evans called me and said she liked the book and wanted me to work with her on the movie project. She is from a small town in West Virginia a little south of where I spent several years as a child and thought some of my observations in the book rang true.

I drove out to Beckley, W.Va. for several hours of on-camera interviews. Over the next two years, I watched early versions, gave my criticisms and ideas and acted as a kind of consultant. Mari-Lynn’s production company is in Akron and I visited other production facilities in New York near the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Interesting work if you can get it. My only forays into film making before had been with my high school film club where he videographed a coffin being lowered into a grave (in West Virginia no less). I was greatly impressed when I saw the movie at its New York premiere.

Mari-Lynn and Jordan have been filming in the region for years. They collaborated on “The Appalachians,” an award-winning three-part documentary that was aired on PBS a few years ago and on “Coal Country” which dealt with mountaintop removal strip mining.

They and writer Phyllis Geller spent months detailing how coal companies bought up land on the cheap from unwitting residents, hired miners and other workers while intimidating them and abusing them, divided communities and plundered some very beautiful mountains.

Upper Big Branch is just a continuation of the mine disasters that have killed thousands. The worst was Monongah in 1907 with a death toll of at least 362; Eccles in 1914 with 183 dead; and Farmington in 1968 with 78 dead (just a county over from where I used to live).

By 2008 while Blankenship was CEO of Massey, some 52 miners were killed. Then came Upper Big Branch with 29 dead in 2010.

At least 700 were killed by silicosis in the 1930s after Union Carbine dug a tunnel at Hawks Nest. Many were buried in unmarked graves.

While state regulation has been lame, scores West Virginia politicians have been found guilty of taking bribes, including ex-Gov. Arch Moore.

The movie is strong stuff. I’ll let you know where it will be available. A new and expanded paperback version of my book is available from West Virginia University Press.

Blankenship is scheduled to go on trial on federal charges related to Upper Big Branch on July 13.