Bringing Social Science Rigor to Jailhouse Programs

Sarah Scarbrough interacts with Richmond city jail inmates. Photo credit: Style Weekly.

Richmond Sheriff C.T. Woody spent his early career as a policeman and detective putting people behind bars. As sheriff, he has made his mark by trying to keep people out of jail.

One of the smartest things Woody did was bring on Sarah Scarbrough as director of internal programs at the city jail to deliver programs that give inmates the life skills needed to cope on the outside. One of the smartest things that Scarbrough has done is to subject the jailhouse programs to rigorous social scientific analysis to determine what works to reduce recidivism and what doesn’t.

A recent study by a University of Richmond professor, Lisa Jobe-Shields, found that inmates who enroll in the city’s Recovering from Everyday Addictive Lifestyles program have shown a demonstrably lower rate of recidivism than those who don’t. But the study had an important caveat — the results apply only to those who participate for more than 90 days, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Nationally, recidivism runs between 60% and 70%. In Richmond, where Woody has long emphasized learning and self-improvement programs in the jail, the rate is lower. The Jobe-Shields study found that the rate for inmates who participated in the Addictive Lifestyles program for more than 90 days is lower still: Only 30% re-offended within a year of release, compared to 55% who didn’t. There was no difference in the rate for those who took party for fewer than 90 days.

As the Times-Dispatch describes the program, it “treats jail life like a full-time job where male and female inmates complete classes ranging from remedial math and creative writing to anger management, parenting and drug abuse treatment through a 40-hour week.”

The study provides feedback for improving the program. Noting that the city jail is a short-term facility, some inmates don’t stay long enough to complete the program. Scarbrough said she plans to add evening and weekend sessions to extend the program beyond a 40-hour week. She also would like to provide support to inmates who were released from graduating from the program.

Bacon’s bottom line: I’m not saying that Woody and Scarbrough have devised the nation’s best anti-recidivism program — there may well be programs in other parts of the country that do just as well, or even better. But they are going about the job the right way, and results should improve over time as they incorporate feedback and make continual improvements to the program.

The sociological reality is that many jail inmates come from shattered families and dysfunctional subcultures of poverty, and had no one to teach them basic skills required to function successfully in life. In the Woody-Scarbrough paradigm, jail does far more than keep criminals off the streets — it provides an opportunity for inmate to learn life skills that will enable them to function successfully in society as workers, parents, family members and members of the community.

It is a truism that jails and prisons can be incubators of crime — inmates learn how to be more successful criminals. Likewise, it is a truism that society should invest in giving inmates the skills they need to become productive members of society. Jails offer many programs run by noble-minded people with ideas of how to help. But which skills are most needed to function on the outside? What is the best way to inculcate those skills? Which programs work the best, and what traits make them successful? Virginia sheriffs can’t reliably make those judgments based on anecdotal evidence.

Finding reliable answers requires social scientific rigor. By nudging government programs toward what works, social-scientific insights can save thousands of inmates from lives of crime — and, as a worthwhile bonus, save taxpayers millions of dollars.

In Placid Session, VCU Board OKs 3.8% Tuition Increase

The Virginia Commonwealth University Board of Visitors approved a 3.8% tuition & fee increase for in-state undergraduate students today, which, along with increases on out-of-state students and dentistry students will yield a 6.4% increase in overall tuition & fees — an increase of $25.7 million.

The increases help offset an $11 million reduction in state support in the 2017-2018 budget and cover other rising costs. The budget provides a $5.1 million increase in financial aid to students, $12 million for a 3% raise for faculty and staff, $8.3 million in “unavoidable” operational and academic costs, and millions more in “highest priority” needs.

“This is a lean budget that addresses unavoidable and operational costs and focuses on our highest priority needs,” said VCU President Michael Rao in a prepared statement. “We are mindful of the cost and burden on students and their families and have increased the amount of university financial aid to students. We are also mindful that we must provide a quality education expected by high-performing students at a major public research university. This is what our students expect and deserve.”

The tuition increase will add about $494 to the annual cost of attendance for a full-time in-state undergraduate student. Smaller increases in dormitories, dining and parking will add even more.

Robert Holsworth, a former dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, was the only board member to question the tuition increase. Referring to the budget presentation by Karol Kain Gray, vice president of finance, he noted, “There hasn’t been a slide that deals with student debt. We now have the largest student debt of any public university in the state. Other universities have done a better job with affordability.”

VCU is “doing a lot of good things,” Holsworth said, but “I am concerned that we’re … losing our commitment to affordability.”

There followed a train of comments by other board members deploring tuition increases and high student indebtedness but justifying the hikes as necessary to maintain academic quality in the face of state budget cuts and increasing expenses.

The one concrete proposal from that exchange came from G. Richard Wagoner Jr., former CEO of General Motors. Instead of budgeting in one-year cycles, he suggested, perhaps VCU could adopt a longer perspective and ask what kind of tuition policy it wants to have. “What’s a desirable policy?” he asked. Zero increases in tuition? Tuition increases that keep place with inflation? Tuition increases that equal inflation plus two percent?

“I could not agree with you more,” said Rector John A. Luke, Jr., former CEO of MeadWestvaco, although he noted that over the long term the increase in tuition “almost mirrors exactly” cuts in state support. He said VCU needs to find a way to avoid being “held hostage” to the state’s budgetary needs.

William M. Ginther,  a retired banking executive, suggested that VCU needs a “business strategic plan” to accompany its budget plan to develop new revenue options and identify cost-cutting opportunities.

No action was taken on any of these ideas. But the board did vote to adopt the budget and tuition increases. Holsworth voted no.

Bacon’s bottom line: I have attempted to fairly describe the meeting highlights above. Now for some analysis. The board meeting saw little substantive discussion about the budget. Other than Holsworth, not one board member pushed back on the administration’s presentation of the budget or its justification for raising fees. I did not attend the earlier finance committee hearings in which the budget was examined in greater detail, but no one alluded to any disagreements in those meetings either.

VCU’s “unavoidable costs.” Click the thumbnail for a legible image.

The administration almost pre-determined the outcome by the way it framed the budget presentation. The FY 2017 budget was taken as a baseline — nothing was questioned — and new costs and programs were layered on top. Click on the thumbnail to the left to see the list of $8.3 million in “unavoidable” costs: everything from shuttle service and library journals to faculty promotions to operations & maintenance on new buildings.

Highest-priority needs. Click for legible image.

To those costs VCU added “highest priority needs” such as $1.8 million in merit-based financial aid, $3 million in need-based financial aid, and implementing a 3% increase in salary and compensation for faculty and staff. These and other priorities amounted to $19.3 million.

VCU picked a tuition increase — 3.8% — that closed most of the gap. A $3.8 million budget shortfall remains, which will be addressed “at the unit level across the university,” according to the press release.

VCU administrators provided data showing how state funding is chintzy compared to that of other states — as, in fact it is. Virginia’s $4,930 per student ranks 44th among the states, far less than the $6,966 national average.

But in a nearly $1.2 billion budget, there are many ways that VCU did not explore to make up the loss of $8 million in state support. For example, the administration provided no analysis of what private businesses would call product line profitability. VCU supports a wide variety of schools and departments — academic product lines — but the public, and board members, have no way of telling whether the courses are fully subscribed or ill attended. Businesses sell or shut down unprofitable product lines. VCU’s approach to the budget effectively treats every budget and department as sacrosanct. Continue reading

Another Dead End in Bacon’s Never-Ending Quest to Explain Runaway College Tuition

This post gets a little wonkish, but hang in with me. Useful conclusions are reached by the end. The heart of the scientific method is to propose falsifiable hypotheses. You frame a hypothesis, make a prediction, and check the data to either verify or falsify the prediction. In my own clumsy, untutored way, that’s what I do when I can in the messy realm of public policy.

So, I’ve been working on a series of articles on the success, or lack of it, of higher education policy in Virginia since the enactment of the watershed 2005 Restructuring Act. I am asking whether Virginia’s system of higher education has met the goals articulated in that legislation — in particular, of primary interest to me, the goal of ensuring affordability and accessibility. What are the drivers of higher ed’s ever escalating costs?

One working theory is that the expansion of Virginia’s higher-ed system to accommodate increasing enrollment might have been a significant factor. Between the fall of 2005, the year the restructuring act went into effect, and the fall of 2016, the most recent year for which we have data, enrollment at Virginia’s public four-year colleges and universities increased 10.9% — reaching 215,700 students. By necessity, growing enrollment by more than 22,000 students over 11 years — roughly the equivalent of adding a James Madison University to the system — requires hiring more faculty, erecting new classrooms and dormitories, expanding student services, and hiring new administrators, all of which adds expense to the system. Have higher-ed institutions financed the expansion in part by aggressively raising tuition?

I expected the answer to be yes. I ran the numbers. It appears that I was wrong.

This chart, based on State Council for Higher Education in Virginia data, shows how enrollments surged between 2005 and 2001, then leveled off through 2016.

For each of Virginia’s public, four-year colleges and universities, I plotted the percentage increase in enrollment and percentage increase in annual tuition between 2005 and 2016, as can be seen in the scatter graph below.

The trend line shows virtually no correlation between the two. The R² of .0134 suggests that almost none of the variability in tuition increase over the time period is explained by enrollment increase.

Next, I observed that almost the entire enrollment increase occurred between 2005 and 2011. Could there have been a strong correlation during that period, which was washed out by subsequent years? To see, I plotted the data for enrollment and tuition increases between 2005 and 2011.

The data shows a marginally tighter correlation, with an R² of .0691, suggesting that about 7% of the tuition increase between 2005 and 2011 can be explained by the surge in enrollment. It would be hard to make the case from this data that expanding enrollment had more than a weak, secondary effect on tuition.

If enrollment didn’t drive tuition higher, what did? We know that declining state support per student put tremendous pressure on university administrations to boost tuitions, accounting for half or more of the increase. Everyone knows this to be the case, so there’s nothing new to uncover. Of greater interest is what internal university forces have been driving tuitions higher? One likely contributor has been a push to bolster financial aid for lower-income students. Another possibility I’ll examine is the imperative among research universities to win more external research contracts. One might hypothesize that universities have raised tuition in part to build the expensive labs, hire the star faculty and recruit the promising graduate students it takes to win more contracts.

I don’t know the answer to those questions yet. But I’ll keep digging.

Fifteen Nucleii for the Rebirth of Southwest Virginia

Stephen Moret, CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. Photo credit: Roanoke Times

Southwest Virginia is on track to lose 1,000 residents each year for the next decade, Stephen Moret, chief of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, told attendees of the Southwest Virginia Economic Forum in Wise, yesterday. The region needs to add 250 new jobs per year over and above the new jobs already coming just to stay stable.

Achieving a 1% annual growth rate will require adding three times the number of new jobs each year, he said, as reported by the Roanoke Times. “Yes, it’s a big challenge. Yes we’re up against a lot nationally, but this is something we can achieve if we’re focused enough, aggressive enough, committed enough.”

Moret proposed a six-point plan to jump-start the region’s economy. As summarized by the Times, he recommends:

  • Expanding computer science programs at higher education institutions.
  • Increasing workforce development training to match business needs.
  • Altering Virginia’s tax structure to reduce taxes on technologically advanced manufacturing businesses.
  • Offering higher incentives to companies willing to relocate or expand in rural Virginia.
  • Spending money to market rural Virginia — something the commonwealth doesn’t currently do.
  • Creating mixed-use developments attractive to young professionals as a way to improve quality of life factors.

You can download a copy of Moret’s presentation from Google Docs. The presentation begins his aspirational goals for Virginia and VEDP, then places Virginia’s rural development challenges in a national context, and ends with a few ideas to advance economic development in the coalfield region (i.e., far Southwest Va.)”

Bacon’s bottom line: These ideas all sound reasonable… but five of the six require more money, either directly through higher expenditures or indirectly through tax breaks. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of extra cash floating around, either at the state level or the local or regional levels. Perhaps the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, which has an annual budget of about $30 million, is in a position to fund the workforce training initiatives, incentives and marketing programs. Perhaps the higher-ed sector can reallocate funds to expand computer science programs. But it won’t be easy finding the resources for new initiatives.

The most original idea — indeed it’s such a departure from the usual thinking about rural economic development that it slaps you like a mackerel across the face — is the recommendation to create mixed-use development attractive to young professionals. This notion has much to commend it, not the least of which it doesn’t require subsidies or tax breaks, and is fully within the power of local governments to implement, subject to market constraints.

I would like to expand upon the idea. By my count there are four cities — Bristol, Radford, Galax and Norton — in Southwest Virginia and more than 40 incorporated towns. The towns range in size from Blacksburg (population 44,200) to Clinchport (population 67) in Scott County — both the largest and the smallest in the Commonwealth. Many of these cities and towns have walkable Main Streets or downtown districts capable of supporting mixed use development.

Blacksburg is a unique case. Its vibrant downtown district is an extension of Virginia Tech, an economic powerhouse unmatched elsewhere in the region, and its success cannot be replicated. But I have frequently referred to the example of Abingdon, which I believe can serve as a template for communities not endowed with a major research university. Abingdon has built an attractive, walkable downtown around the nucleus of the historical Barter Theater, the Martha Washington Inn and a stock of historic brick buildings. The town has become not only a place where people want to visit but where people want to live.

Counties, cities and towns need to fundamentally shift their thinking — as embedded in zoning codes, comprehensive plans, and capital spending plans — from subsidizing rural sprawl to creating walkable urban nucleii. Capital spending plans should invest in expanding the grid street networks from their Main Street/downtown cores. And if they have any cash to spare, municipalities should invest in sidewalks and streetscapes (and, if demand exists, cycling lanes) with the goal of making streets more hospitable to pedestrians. But they need to do it right. Place making is a complex discipline, and investments should be guided by the principles of Smart Growth or New Urbanism. Finally, cities and towns need to get comfortable with the idea that mixing offices, retail and residential is a good thing — it’s what more and more people want.

The big challenge is overcoming stagnant or shrinking populations. It’s hard to justify investing in new buildings in walkable, mixed-use districts if there is little demand. That’s where a regional marketing plan could prove invaluable. But instead of spending marketing dollars on trying to attract light industry (as I presume Moret intends), or even young people, who will be a hard sell without abundant jobs, I would suggest spending it on attracting retirees looking for inexpensive places to spend their leisure years. Such a campaign should not aim at retirees generally but (a) emigres who may have sentimental or family attachments to the region, or (b) retirees seeking to live an active, outdoors lifestyle.

By my hasty, back-of-the-envelope calculation, Southwest Virginia has at least 15 communities of sufficient scale to create small, intimate, walkable places where people with significant disposable income might be willing to live. (My list is hardly definitive, and likely would need to be revised, but the guiding idea is sound.) These are the potential nucleii for rebirth. These are where the tobacco commission should be investing in broadband, where the state and counties should be funneling infrastructure dollars, and where institutional assets such as schools, colleges, museums, libraries, community centers should cluster.

Southwest Virginia needs to reinvent itself for the 21st century economy. Light industry, data centers, solar farms, call centers and back-office operations are all part of the equation. But creating places where people actually want to live is indispensable as well. Kudos to Moret for raising the issue.

Farrell Defends Dominion’s Environmental Record

Dominion CEO Tom Farrell

Under continual pressure from politicians, protesters and even shareholders to develop more renewable energy, Dominion Energy (which has changed its name from Dominion Resources) offered a vigorous defense of its environmental policies at its 108th annual meeting in downtown Richmond today.

Since 2000 the company has cut nitrogen-oxide emissions 81%, sulfur dioxide emissions 95% and mercury emissions by 96% — a performance exceeded by only one other electric utility in the country, CEO Thomas F. Farrell II told shareholders.

Dominion also has reduced the carbon intensity of its electricity by 43% between 2000 and 2015, Farrell said. Carbon intensity measures the pounds of carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions per megawatt hour of electricity produced. Dominion’s performance compares to a 23% reduction for the electric utility industry as a whole.

Carbon intensity will fall another 25% as Dominion expands solar power generation to a projected total of 5,200 megawatts within 25 years. “Solar is growing very rapidly,” Farrell said. I know that a lot of folks would like all of our power to come from renewables. That’s not realistic. That’s not affordable.”

Of greater interest to most of the shareholders in attendance, Dominion reported an 11.8% increase in earnings in 2016 and an 8.1% increase in dividends. But numerous shareholders, some owning as few as one or two shares, lined up to take the microphone during a Q&A session. They pressed for changes to Dominion’s governance practices, urged more aggressive adoption of solar power, and chastised the company for construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP).

Several shareholders argued that Dominion should reduce its corporate exposure to environmental risks, especially those resulting from severe weather or drastic regulatory changes implemented in response to climate change. One formal shareholder proposal recommended the company nominate a director with environmental expertise; another asked Dominion to evaluate alternate technologies as a way to comply with Paris Agreement accords to cut CO2 emissions. All shareholder proposals were voted down.

Farrell unapologetically defended the company’s environmental record, citing its achievements to date and its plans for the future.

Dominion was one of only four electric utilities to file a brief in favor of the Obama administration’s controversial Clean Power Plan, Farrell said. The plan, the status of which is now up in the air under the Trump administration, mandates major cuts to electric-utilities’ CO2 emissions, although the amount would vary depending upon how each state implements the plan.

While some have suggested that the Trump administration will scuttle the Clean Power Plan, Farrell insisted that carbon regulation is here to stay. An EPA endangerment finding, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, declared that the EPA is required to regulate CO2. “I have no idea what that’s going to look like. Neither does anyone else,” Farrell said. But some form of regulation is unavoidable.

In the meantime, a McAuliffe administration task force has been looking at the CO2 issue and is expected to announce its recommendations for the General Assembly next month. “There’s going to be carbon regulation, and to suggest otherwise just isn’t true,” Farrell said.

The carbon-regulation issue is particularly sensitive to Dominion because critics have argued for a rollback of a rate freeze put into effect two years ago in response to the Clean Power Plan. Now that the plan is likely to be overturned, they contend, the justification for the rate freeze — to provide rate stability amidst regulatory uncertainty — no longer exists.

Farrell also defended the “urgent need” for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a 600-mile pipeline that would bolster natural gas supplies to “grossly under-served” communities in Virginia and North Carolina. The pipeline has inspired fierce resistance from property owners along the route, especially in the steep mountains of western Virginia where environmentalists have raised concerns that construction on steep slopes and narrow ridges will lead to erosion and disruption to water fragile water supplies.

Large chunks of eastern Virginia and North Carolina have reached the limits of existing natural gas pipeline capacity, Farrell said. Furthermore, much of North Carolina is served by only one natural gas pipeline, Transco, making the region vulnerable to supply disruptions. He cited a recent outage on Transco that interrupted the gas supply to the company’s Brunswick Power Station near the North Carolina border, forcing it to halt generation temporarily. The ACP would provide an alternate pipeline to serve Brunswick and the nearby Greensville Power Station, which will be the world’s largest combined-cycle natural gas plant when construction is complete, as well as to Duke Energy power plants in North Carolina. Continue reading

Ralph Northam’s Plan to Empower Virginia’s Political Class

Under pressure from his rival for accepting money from Dominion, Democratic Party candidate for governor Ralph Northam has called for a cap on campaign donations and a ban on corporate contributions.

“Virginia’s campaign finance system is a boondoggle that alienates its citizens and makes them lose faith in government,” Northam said in a statement. “Virginians across every part of the political spectrum want a system that is more responsive to the people, and less reliant on big checks from a few donors.”

Reports the Washington Post:

Northam’s plan would limit donations to $10,000 (with political parties excluded), bar businesses and corporations from giving and require nonprofits trying to influence Virginia elections to reveal their donors.

Hmmm. Interesting plan. Let’s see how it would work out in the 2017 gubernatorial race.

Based on campaign contributions reported so far on the Virginia Public Access Project website, the $10,000 cap on donations would hurt Northam but cripple his opponent Tom Perriello. Northam would lose $832,000 from the capped donations while his radical chic opponent, reliant upon a handful of well-heeled donors, would lose $1,243,000. The ban on business contributions would harm Northam to the tune of $220,000 while not touching Perriello at all — not one business entity was reported to have contributed to him — but the sums of money contributed by business are trivial compared to those donated by individuals. (For purposes of this analysis, I counted only business donations of $1,000 or more.)

If Northam’s plan had been enacted in this election cycle, it would have effectively knee-capped his opponent for the Democratic Party nomination. As the party-establishment candidate, Northam would have surged from a two-to-one fund-raising advantage over Perriello to a more than four-to-one advantage.

Of course, if Northam’s campaign-finance plan were enacted, it would apply to future elections, not this one, so no one can accuse him of designing it with the idea of taking out Perriello. But the numbers show how campaign reform proposals potentially can have an anti-democratic effect. Personally, I have no use for Perriello or his leftist brand of populism. I believe that Perriello would be a disaster as governor. But I do believe he injects a healthy competition into the democratic process.

Virginia’s political process is dominated by a two-party oligarchy which has erected all manner of rules to maintain the status quo. Northam’s plan would stifle the democratic impulse even more by making it even more difficult for outsider candidates to make a credible run at office.

Yeah, Virginia’s system of unlimited campaign contributions sucks. It gives rich people far more influence over the electoral outcome than ordinary Virginians. But is the alternative any better — bequeathing the advantage to those who rise up through the political machinery of the two-party duopoly and freezing out outsiders? The only way a third party — a Libertarian Party or a Green Party — stands a chance to make a successful run in Virginia is if an insurgent can persuade a handful of deep-pocketed sponsors to underwrite his or her campaign.

You can count on the two-party duopolists re-writing campaign donation laws to benefit themselves and squelch competitors. Northam proposes to outlaw business contributions. Why would he not also outlaw labor union contributions? Because labor unions donate overwhelmingly to Democrats — duh! It’s an iron rule of politics: People in power rig the rules to perpetuate their hold on power.

How about donations cycled through “leadership” committees? Northam would specifically exclude political parties from his caps and bans. As it turns out, he has received $110,000 from Common Good VA, a “leadership” committee set up by Northam’s political ally Governor Terry McAuliffe. Since 2014, the committee has raised $8.6 million in donations. Under Northam’s plan, contributions by Common Good VA to candidates would be exempted from the ban. Less clear from his press release is whether big donors would be permitted to contribute more than $10,000 leadership committees like Common Good VA and similar entities on the Republican side.

Northam’s plan does include a couple of good ideas. It would ban the personal use of campaign funds, and it would mandate donor disclosure for nonprofits seeking to influence Virginia elections. But the main effect of his proposals would not be to rid money from politics, but to fortify the control of Virginia’s political class over the money and suppress insurgent candidates. I don’t know anyone who thinks that’s a good idea but members of the political class.

McAuliffe Signs 11 Renewable Energy Bills into Law

Governor Terry McAuliffe has signed 11 solar and renewable energy bills into law.

Quasi-community solar. The most significant is SB 1393, which creates a mechanism for Dominion, Appalachian power Co. and Virginia’s electric cooperatives to sell solar-generated electricity to subscribers. While the law does not provide everything that solar enthusiasts would like, it does open up economic space for more local, small-scale solar development, and it provides consumers a green-energy option they didn’t have before.

Agricultural solar. HB 2303 and SB 1394 create a framework whereby farms can generate renewable energy and sell it to utilities.

Energy-efficiency. HB 1565 allows localities to establish “green development zones” providing special zoning and tax treatment for buildings and facilities that are deemed to be energy efficient or manufacture products beneficial to the environment.

Battery storage. SB 1258 expands the mission of the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority to include promotion of battery storage technology.

The Fauquier Times enumerates all 11 bills here.

Note to Readers — Another Misfire!

I’ve been working on a four-part series about Virginia higher-education policy since the enactment of the 2005 Restructuring Act. In juggling and updating different pieces in WordPress, I accidentally hit the “Publish” button for one of them. I have taken the piece offline, but email subscribers will get a copy in their in-boxes.

While the article, Part II in the series, is close to complete, it is subject to revision as I work on Parts III and IV, and also in need of final fact-checking. Please ignore it until I can publish at the proper time in proper sequence.

Yes, Virginia, There Will Be a Third Party Choice this Fall

Cliff Hyra

The major media took absolutely no notice, but over the weekend the Libertarian Party nominated a candidate for governor: Cliff Hyra, a Richmond-area patent attorney. His top three issues are economic growth, criminal justice reform, and adding choice to the education and health-care systems.

Rick Sincere, a libertarian blogger, covered Hyra’s nomination for Bearing Drift.

Hyra’s advocacy of cutting taxes and regulations echoes the national priorities of President Trump. But he has a very different approach to law-and-order issues. Virginia should de-criminalize marijuana and stop arresting 35,000 to 40,000 people a year for victimless drug crimes. He also would “introduce elements of competition and choice” to education and health care, he says.

Hyra’s first challenge is obtaining 10,000 valid signatures of registered voters, including a minimum of 400 from each of the eleven congressional districts, in order to get on the Virginia ballot. The deadline is June 10. Bo Brown, chairman of the Libertarian Party of Virginia, said that he had about 7,000 signatures in hand or turned into the State Board of Elections.

Should Historic Neighborhoods Be Allowed to Evolve?

Empty lot in Union Hill where a mixed-use, three-story building is now arising.

Empty lot in Union Hill where a mixed-use, three-story building is now arising.

Union Hill is a run-down neighborhood adjacent to its more famous neighbor, Church Hill, in the City of Richmond. Some of its working-class houses predate the Civil War, but the years have been unkind. For decades, the population was predominantly poor and African-American. Many of the lots are vacant, and many of the houses that remain are dilapidated. There is little commerce — not even retail — and jobs are far and few between.

But the gentrification wave that swept over Church Hill has spilled into Union Hill, and some of the old gentrifiers, drawn by the stock of inexpensive historic architecture, are unhappy with what some of the new gentrifiers are planning. In particular, residents are objecting to a building with four apartments and ground-level retail that is under construction on an empty lot. The building would… horrors!… be three stories tall, and totally out of character with the neighborhood of mostly two-story buildings.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch describes the “thorny issues” associated with revitalization, which, remarkably enough, does not appear to involve the poor, African-American residents who have long lived in the neighborhood. This debate does not pit hip, young urban gentry against the poor, powerless and displaced. Rather, the controversy poses a philosophical question of interest mainly to the affluent: Should a neighborhood be frozen in place architecturally in order to preserve its irreplaceable historic character, or should it be allowed to evolve in ways that provide more amenities to residents? Then throw in a question that goes unaddressed in the article, what right should neighbors have to obstruct a building that demonstrably does them no harm beyond offending their architectural sensibilities?

Developer Matt Jarreau is erecting a modern, three-story edifice on an empty, triangular lot on N. 23rd Street. He’s not tearing down an older structure. Nor is he building a structure that is wildly out of place for the neighborhood — a large, hulking church stands across the street. A rendering depicts a restaurant with outdoor seating, a valuable amenity for a neighborhood with precious little retail presence. But the rendering also pictures a building with flat brick walls, plain windows and minimal adornment that is neither attractive nor in keeping with the architectural character of the neighborhood. Jarreau is planning an even bigger, three-story building with 27 apartments on another vacant lot around the corner.

From the city’s point of view, Jarreau’s real estate investments surely are seen as a bonus. By building on vacant lots, he is creating taxable value. Union Hill is endowed with under-utilized streets, water, sewer and other infrastructure, so the incurs no additional cost. From a fiscal perspective, the two projects represent all gain, no pain. Even better, Jarreau is not displacing anyone — no structures are being torn down, no poor people are being evicted.

“We’re creating a little village. This is exactly how the community operated 100 years ago,” says Jarreau. It would have been cheaper and easier to go with two-story apartments and minimal commercial space. The community needs more services within walkable distances.”

Not everyone is buying that logic. Dixon Kerr, a Union Hill resident for 39 years, says the large buildings diminish neighborhood character because they do not suit the context of one- and two-story, 19th-century buildings, the Times-Dispatch reports.

As seen in other Richmond neighborhoods such as Church Hill and the Fan, historic neighborhoods that are stylistically and visually consistent are viewed in the marketplace as charming. Charm enhances real estate values. Conversely, disrupting neighborhood integrity by erecting buildings that are architecturally jarring or out of scale kills the charm and ruins property values.

Bacon’s bottom line: Both points of view are valid in their own way. I’m torn. I lived in Church Hill for many years and appreciated the historic-district guidelines that prevented people from doing idiosyncratic things like painting houses bright Wahoo orange and blue that would detract from neighbors’ property values. But, then, Church Hill had something worth preserving. Truly, the historic district was, and still is, an architectural gem.

At the risk of sounding like a snob, I have to say that Union Hill is no Church Hill. Some of its buildings may be old, but they are architecturally undistinguished. Moreover, so many have been torn down that restoring the neighborhood to its 19th-century prime is impossible. If people want to preserve the old buildings that remain, that’s fine. But that desire should not discourage others from investing in the neighborhood, creating new housing options, building new amenities and bolstering the city tax base.