Gimme Shelter – 2

A Primer on Housing America

Last week, I provided a brief, if somewhat snarly, history of affordable housing in the United States. Today, I offer an overview of the strategies and mechanisms available to create affordable housing today.

Part Two: Creating Affordable Housing Circa 2021

330+ million Americans live in approximately 141 million housing units in the United States. Over two million of us live in public housing, 4.7 million live in Section 8 housing, and a smattering live in other kinds of subsidized shelter. Still, there are only 36 affordable housing units available for every 100 low-income households. Almost two thirds of qualified families either pay too much for a roof overhead, or suffer subsistence housing. What mechanisms do individuals, organizations, and governments have to alleviate this situation?

Public Housing and Section 8. Over 3,000 public housing authorities own and maintain the nation’s public housing stock, much of which is now over fifty years old. Housing Authorities also manage local Section 8 programs, which are split between project-based vouchers (the subsidy belongs to a specific housing development, which is owned by a non-profit rather than the housing authority) and portable vouchers, which a family can use to rent an approved unit of their choice. If you are low-income person lucky enough to land either a public housing unit or Section 8 voucher, you pretty much stay put, as wait lists for these opportunities often span more than ten years. The number of new public housing units being built is nil; the number of new Section 8 vouchers tiny. These are steady-state programs, at best, that won’t make a dent in unmet affordable housing needs.

Non-profit Developer Housing. Since the federal government stopped actually creating new housing, non-profit developers utilize a web of economic development grants, housing set-aside funds, tax-exempt bonds, Community Development Block Grants, low-income housing tax credits, and community reinvestment loans to create affordable housing. These efforts probably do more to provide cover for politicians who want to be able to champion the idea affordable housing than actually generate it. The complexity of permitting and financing affordable housing is a significant reason why affordable housing units cost 25% more to bring online than privately financed housing.

Affordable Home Ownership. Over the past fifty years, the rate of home ownership in America—65%— has been pretty consistent. The percentage shifts in a narrow range in sync with economic cycles, but the average barely budges. Unfortunately, home ownership rates for Blacks and Hispanics are well below 50%. One attempt to increase home ownership rates is to provide affordable home ownership opportunities for moderate income people. Financing these programs is as byzantine as rental programs, but the incentives of ownership are strong. However, most of these programs cap a family’s ability to accrue equity and deny passing a dwelling on to their heirs. As a result, they do not provide the same ladder to economic security that people who purchase houses in the private market and pay them off over their lifetime enjoy.

If there is any bright spot on the affordable housing horizon it inhabits a single word: zoning. More individuals and communities are coming to realize that traditional zoning is environmentally unsustainable, increases sprawl, and exacerbates economic inequality. In the 21st century there have been small, yet significant, moves to reverse restrictive zoning. This can be as simple as reducing parking requirements from two cars per unit to one car per unit, thus increasing the number of units a particular site can accommodate. Several communities now allow accessory-units in any district, including single family zones. This allows folks to make in-law apartments, add a small studio, or create a basement rental unit. Accessory-unit zoning can immediately increase the potential number of dwelling units in a community by 25% or more, while spreading them out among existing structures with almost no additional infrastructure.

There are also two zoning trends specifically targeted at creating affordable housing. The most common is ‘inclusionary zoning.’ Inclusionary zoning requires developers to set aside a certain number of units in new projects for moderate income households. The percentage is pre-determined, and is usually a function of what a ‘hot’ real estate market will bear. In Cambridge, MA, where rents and housing prices are sky-high, developers must provide 20% inclusionary units. In a cooler market, like Des Moines, that threshold requirement doesn’t fly.

Inclusionary zoning provides the ancillary benefit of economically integrating housing on a project level. I’ve met enough people who live in subsidized housing to know that some people welcome this, while others prefer to live among their peers, even poor peers. Inclusion in Cambridge is clear: the subsidized units must be within the development. In other cities, like Boston, direct inclusion is optional. A developer can make a ‘set-aside’ payment to an affordable housing trust fund to build housing elsewhere rather than include subsidized units in their project. Thus, the shiny Seaport District of Boston includes almost no apartments for poor people, while Seaport developers underwrite housing in Mattapan and other traditionally poorer neighborhoods.

Another zoning mechanism for increasing affordable housing is allowing more generous development options for projects in ‘overlay’ districts. Cambridge recently created an ‘affordable housing overlay district’ that increases density, reduces setbacks, and lowers parking requirements for any project that is 100% long-term affordable. This makes the approvals and permitting process easier, and increases the capacity of a given site.

Despite a lot of talk about affordable housing in our nation in 2021, our nation’s political apparatus is hardly primed to invest in directly in building housing, and the financing process for affordable housing remains, well, unaffordable. Many housing activists have redirected their focus from pressing for affordable housing to simply pressing for easier development standards, under the assumption that if more housing can be built, housing will become more affordable as a result. This is a logical argument, but smacks of supply side economics, which leaves me justifiably skeptical.

At this moment, we are losing the battle of creating enough affordable housing. Zoning freedoms may offer increased affordability. Will that be enough to address the need? I doubt it. Next week I’ll suggest some other strategies.

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Gimme Shelter

A Primer on Housing America

A friend recently asked me how we create affordable housing in the United States. It seemed a simple query. Yet, like so many questions, the deeper I delved, the more complex and frustrating it became. Too much for a single blog post. So, over the next few weeks I will offer three perspectives. Today, a brief history of providing housing for folks unable to access the private market. Next week, the current grab bag of ways that government and non-profit institutions create affordable housing. Round out September with ideas about how we can create more housing and stronger communities by reimagining the entire situation.

Techwood Homes Atlanta, GA 1935

Part One: A Brief History of Affordable Housing

Before there was ‘housing’ there were simply houses. On farms, in towns, hand built by their owners or erected by developer/builders before those labels acquired their present meaning. As cities grew, building, leasing, and maintaining dwellings became different functions from occupying them, whether you lived along a London Crescent or in a Dickensian slum. Neither The Crescent (exclusive by design) nor the slum (completely lacking in design) fit our current notion of ‘housing:’ intended for the masses yet consciously designed in a manner supposedly morally uplifting. In reality, ‘housing’ is simultaneously generic and architecturally obvious; no one who can afford a private domicile chooses to live in it.

The earliest examples of what we now call ‘affordable housing’ are New York City’s 19th century tenements. A city laid out on simple grid of regular building lots, teeming with newcomers clamoring for shelter, was the perfect place for repetitive blocks of mass housing. Dense, unsanitary, ill-ventilated. These buildings prompted the Tenement Laws of 1867, 1879, and 1901. Although there were already building codes in some US cities proscribing structural integrity and fire-safety, the tenement laws set standards for ventilation and sanitation that acknowledged the connection between private habitat and public health. These well-intentioned laws inadvertently established an operating principle of housing: navigate the law for maximum profit. Before the Tenement Law of 1879, dumbbell apartment buildings did not exist. But once entrepreneurs discovered how that shape met the letter of the law at optimal density, the dumbbell proliferated. Until the Tenement Law of 1901 outlawed such buildings that provided light and air in theory, but were unsafe and unsanitary in fact.

Dumbbell Tenement

In the twentieth century, utopian theorists turned their focus from rural ideals to urban opportunities. Ebenezer Howard and other reformers envisioned ‘garden cities’ where light and space, commerce and leisure entwined. Some failed. A few, like Forest Hills, New York, prospered too well and became instantly affluent. Still others, such as Sunnyside Gardens (also in Queens) retained communitarian ideals for a long time. Although the Garden City movement was too small and too elitist to generate housing on the scale required by 20th century America, it was instrumental in prompting the first zoning ordinances (Los Angeles, 1908; New York 1916; model ordnances by the 1920’s). Zoning restricted development more comprehensively than mere tenement laws. It also established two key attributes to our nation’s development, albeit without stating either directly: density is bad; racial segregation is good.

Forest Hills, New York

The first affordable housing project built by the Federal Government (1935), Techwood Homes in Atlanta Georgia, established the blueprint for economic, architectural, and social standards for a generation of public housing. Techwood Flats was a fourteen-block neighborhood just north of downtown Atlanta, sandwiched between Georgia Tech and Coca-Cola headquarters. The haphazard collection of wood-framed houses, many dating from the nineteenth century, was home to over 1600 families, one quarter of whom were African-American. Atlanta businessmen wanted to remove this blight. The federal government provided $2,375,000 to demolish the neighborhood and construct 604 units in its place. The faintly colonial brick buildings zig-zag across open lawns, thereby establishing one hallmark of public housing: its form does not follow conventional street frontages and is therefore easy to identify as ‘housing.’ The second hallmark: all 604 units were reserved for white people. Later, a public housing project designated for Blacks was built further out of downtown, but by that the time, the original residents of Techwood Flats were long scattered.

This prototype of public housing, in form and disruption, exists all across the United States. Public housing did not carry immediate stigma; being poor was a reality for too many of us during the Depression and through World War II. The apartments were sanitary, with many windows and cross-ventilation. Amenities like full bathrooms, overhead lights, and bedroom closets were welcome. However, during the 1950’s and 1960’s housing projects got larger and larger and became receptacles of people left behind in a society of increasing affluence. In large cities, like New York, Chicago, and St. Louis, wide lawns fronting brick townhouses were abandoned in favor of high-rise buildings. Hives of the have-nots.

Pruitt Igoe Project St. Louis

President Lyndon Johnson inadvertently spelled public housing’s doom when he signed The Fair Housing Act of 1968, which ended segregation in public housing. Richard Nixon’s HUD initiated the Section 8 program, in 1974. The program touted the virtue of the enterprise (and sidestepped integration) by providing vouchers toward private-market rents. Thus began the transition from the federal government creating housing, to the federal government subsidizing housing provided by others, to eventually providing tax credits, dedicated subsidies, and loan guarantees that pretty much ensure everyone involved in developing affordable housing will get their cut, even as creating affordable housing units grows complex and expensive.

At present, the cost of creating an affordable apartment unit is about 25% higher (2016 national average just above $200,000) than a unit in the private market. In pricey states, like California, this cost can exceed $450,00 per unit. In pricey cities, like San Francisco, an affordable unit can cost over $1 million from concept to occupancy.

In the meantime, through the 20th century, zoning restrictions grew ever-more restrictive, allowing fewer units, requiring larger lots, deeper setbacks, and more parking. All of which made housing in general more expensive, and affordable housing more scarce. A general rule of thumb is that families should pay about 30% of their income for total shelter costs: rent or mortgage, maintenance, and utilities. Yet, entering the new millennium, over 40% of all renters paid more than 30% of their income on housing and 20% paid more than 50% of their income for shelter.

Affordable Housing San Francisco

What are we doing today to alleviate the affordable housing crisis? Is it effective? Check in next week.

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History as Fact—and as Gap

Whitney Plantation, Louisiana

Within a few moments of Clint Smith’s recent Harvard Radcliffe Institute Book Talk about How the Word is Passed, I was fully won over by the man and his message. Mr. Smith is a 33-year-old poet and scholar drenched in wisdom deep as it is nuanced. His book chronicles seven places he visited, and the people he met, in search of reckoning the past and present impact of American slavery. I’ve never encountered legitimate anger coupled with such compassion.

How the Word is Passed appeals to me in multiple ways. The book is architectural: Clint’s descriptions of the beauty, the grit, the cramped, and the expansive center us in these places. The people he encounters resonate with their setting, whether generationally-bound locals or passing tourists. His writing is lyrical. He pinpoints the passion and perspective of every individual he encounters. Then gently casts a shroud over their given truth. Some people, some positions, are more generous and humane than others. But no one is completely bad, nor completely good. Mr. Smith grants each human their fallacies, with a dollop of grace.

The seven sites are a junket through the familiar and exotic. I’ve been to two of the locations (Monticello and Whitney Plantation), and was reassured that Mr. Smith’s perspectives resonate with my own. His experience in two other places I know, New York City and Galveston, provide fresh information and insight of each. I only know of Angola Prison and Goree Island from films, and appreciate how Clint’s descriptions gave them fuller life.

Statues of slave children at Whitney Plantation

The remaining place the author visited, Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, VA, was completely new to me. Yet it merits his meatiest essay, the very heart of the book, and best illustrates Mr. Smith’s compassion. He witnesses a rally in honor of Confederate dead. The man stands out, for the obvious reason that Clint Smith is Black. Afterward, he engages in conversations with mourners and reenactors and finds a way to appreciate humanity on all sides. The writer presents facts of history that clearly connect the succession of Southern states to the preservation of slavery. Then he outlines the evolution of post-Civil War narratives that whitewash slavery’s centrality from Reconstruction through today. Yet, he acknowledges the appeal for twenty-first century men to honor the truths that generations of forefathers extolled.

“What would it take—what does it take—for you to confront a false history even if it means shattering the stories you have been told throughout your life? Even if it means having to fundamentally reexamine who you are and who your family has been? Just because something is difficult to accept doesn’t mean you shouldn’t refuse to accept it. Just because someone tells you a story doesn’t make that story true.”

The central thesis of How the Word is Passed is recited in the opening essay, Monticello. Not by the author. Rather by a tour guide at Jefferson’s plantation. David Thorson is a white male, retired after thirty years in the US Navy. He guides the tour that highlights the life of slaves at Monticello. The people owned, and bought, and sold by the the man who declared “…all men are created equal.” Mr. Thorson is the perfect mouthpiece for Mr. Smith’s thesis, because our image of a white retired military Virginian does not correlate with a tour guide who reveals the underbelly of our third President.

“I think that history is the story of the past, using all available facts, and that nostalgia is a fantasy about the past, using no facts, and somewhere in between is memory.”

  • David Thorson, tour guide, Monticello
My tour guide at Whitney

As Clint Smith journeys to seven places particular to slavery, all the way back to Goree Island where thousands of Africans left their shore and their freedom forever, he offers us myriad perspectives. Northern ‘reformers’ who kept their thumb in chattel’s bounty. Eugenicists who proclaimed the scientific superiority of Caucasians. European colonizers who stirred unrest in Africa to generate slaves. African rulers who sold their fellow human beings. Slavers who landed as little as 30% of their original cargo. Plantation owners who bought them and sold them and whipped them and mated them and worked them again and again and again. The liberation of the original Juneteenth. The repression of present-day Angola Prison.

Toward book’s end, Mr. Smith returns to David Thorson’s statement, and relates it to the gaps that underlie our inability to reckon with American slavery. Gaps of information, when one side crafts selective stories and the other side’s story is barely even recorded. Gaps in understanding when we disagree on such fundamental questions as: Who is fully human? Who is granted fully human rights?

How the Word is Passed offers history that is rich and nuanced. It suggests that we can learn it, appreciate it, and apply it toward a more equitable world. Only not through slogans and sound bites. The closing sentence is daunting as it is inspiring. “It is no longer a question of whether we can learn this history but whether we have the collective will to reckon with it.”

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Hope is a Discipline

“Hope is not an emotion…hope is not optimism.”

  – Mariame Kaba, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us

“Optimism is a state of mind in which you are hopeful that things will turn out well.”

– William J. Knaus, Ed D, The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression.

“In the world we live in, it is easy to feel a sense of hopelessness, that everything is bad all the time, that nothing is going to change ever…I understand why people feel that way. I just choose differently. I choose to think in a different way, and I choose to act in a different way.”

– Mariame Kaba, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us

“Unfortunate events happen, but the fatalistic resignation of hopelessness thinking is optional.”

– William J. Knaus, Ed D, The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression.

I suppose that anyone who occupies his long summer days reading Mariame Kaba and working his way through a self-help book to combat depression is, by definition, a man of hope.

Ms. Kaba’s insights into social justice and prison abolition are generous and humane. She commands us to action yet simultaneously recognizes that the timeframe of equity is measured in decades and generations.

As for the self-help, depression is my longest and darkest acquaintance. A foe so comfortable it too often feels like a friend. It feeds on me, as on so many others, during the disconnection and isolation of pandemic. But have you tried to get an appointment with a living breathing therapist lately? That is hopeless.

I first began seriously thinking about hope during my time in Haiti. How people who possessed so little—by our measure—seemed altogether more satisfied than most Americans. Haitian joie de vivre is rooted in an odd combination of resilience and dependence. Life in Haiti is hard. No one is presumptive enough to think he can make it on his own. Yet, Haitians are resourceful in crafting lives on an over-crowded, thin-soiled, institutionally bereft island. We Americans are their polar opposite. Quick and fierce in proclaiming our independence even as we navigate a thoroughly interdependent society.

The laughing and singing I heard each evening as I walked home in Haiti got me thinking, and reading, about hope. At a first order of magnitude, hope is indirectly proportional to affluence. The more you have, the more you have to lose, the more you’re annoyed by inconvenience, the less satisfied you become, the less goodwill you harbor toward the future. The highest levels of hope on this earth are reported in Africa. I don’t know the science behind that declaration, but I endorse its validity. Hope is nourishing, and it’s free.

Nearly ten years later, during pandemic summer 2.0, I encounter the idea: hope is a discipline; and its corollary: hopelessness thinking is optional. I’ve been running these notions round my head because, upon first absorption, they don’t jive. How can hope (all light and spirit) be a discipline (all serious rigor)? How can ruminating on the intractable problems of our era and the demons in our private lives be optional?

By choice. Our thoughts, our feelings, our physical health feed upon and reinforce each other. When we choose hope, it reframes our perspective. We acknowledge our despair, our limitations. We accept that our influence on this planet is tiny and short-lived. Yet our presence, our influence, still has meaning.

So, we seek out the beneficent. We lead with trust. At first we must force ourselves to thinking that’s so contrary to our cynical society. Until hope becomes a pattern. Then a disciple. And we emerge into a more positive way of being.

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One Night in Tallahassee

I embrace Universal Basic Income and envision the end of work as we know it

“Look at you; look at what you’re doing. You’re engaged, you’re learning, you’re sharing. I think that’s useful. We don’t call it work because you’re not doing it for money.”

The Couchsurfing app connects me with Amre. I arrive at his spartan apartment in Tallahassee, Florida with a six-pack. Amre cooks couscous. We sit on his sofa and eat from plates on our laps. The guy hasn’t got a table. In the morning I’ll be gone. We’ll likely never meet again.

“UBI promotes the creative stuff you’re doing. In its purest form, UBI covers essential expenses. You receive it simply for inhabiting the earth.”

As our evening progresses, Amre enumerates the merits of Universal Basic Income. Other folks I’ve met along my journey have used the term, but no one’s explained it with such fervor, or clarity. I’ve been riding my bicycle fourteen months now. Over 20,000 miles. Meandering through all 48 contiguous states. Hundreds of people have invited me to share dinner and shelter. I ask every one of them the same question: “How Will We Live Tomorrow?”

“I like the ‘we’ in your question. It implies community. No one in our social system is asking this.”

Amre embraces my query with vigor. Or perhaps I’ve just become expert at discussing it, this late in my adventure. December, 2016. Florida is my terminal state. I plan to reach Jacksonville by the 21st; then Amtrak up the East Coast to be home by Christmas.

“We are living abnormally.” Amre continues. “It began with the industrial revolution, and has grown more unsustainable ever since.”

Deep and earnest intimacy blossoms between two people who come together over hospitality and intention. I offer snippets of personal history: aspirations; children; career. Amre shares immigrant trials that span Syria, France, India, Venezuela, Miami. The guy’s energetic, articulate, intelligent, movie-star handsome. I can’t imagine an IT support job and a rudimentary Tallahassee apartment will mark the end of his story. His perspective is far too expansive.

“We can proceed for one more generation, perhaps. But your children, and my hopeful children, will grasp that we need to change. That we need balance.”

Amre counters my singular query with questions of his own. “What provoked you to this journey?” How has it changed you?” “What advice would you give to your younger self?” I understand that ‘your younger self,’ means when I was Amre’s age. Our complementary souls mark beginning and end points of American’s central phase of life: the work years. Amre, in his twenties, formal education complete, is embarking on career. I’m in my sixties, retired, liberated from the pursuit of compensation. I am his role model: unjaded survivor of the work world, curiosity intact. He is my inspiration: young man with broader vision than I held at his age.

“Some things will have to be forced in order to achieve necessary balance. There will still be wars and struggles for power. But I am optimistic. I can see that we will get there.”

I didn’t plan my crisscross of America to correspond with a great political drama: the Presidential campaign of 2016. It just turned out that way. I pedaled throughout primaries and conventions, rallies, and debates, while people’s definition of ‘we’ became ever-smaller; their vision of tomorrow increasingly myopic. As our nation spiraled into cynicism and mistrust, I came to see myself as an antidote to our culture of fear: a vulnerable guy; traveling slow; embraced by thoughtful, friendly people, open to exchanging ideas. I found accord with most everyone I met. But I particularly appreciate newcomers, like Amre. Immigrants convey the most prescient insights. They express unbridled faith in our founding ideals. Such is the value of outsider perspective.

“I thought everyone here would be very hard-driven. I don’t find that at all.” Amre notes. “Yet, I believe America still has the idea of freedom. It still has more opportunity than most of the world, much more than Old Europe.”

Amre doesn’t consider UBI a welfare program or political gimmick. He explains the relatively small portion of the public budget it will consume, the bureaucracy it will unspool, the collective trust it will inspire.

“I do not believe this will make people lazy; they will be energized. If everyone who makes a non-economic choice can be happier, then universal income will lead to greater creativity and happiness.”

Amre’s enthusiasm for UBI reinforces other concepts I encountered during my pilgrimage: the exponential labor savings of automation (Detroit); the connection between consumption and sustainability (New Mexico); the ongoing quest for equity (Lower East Side). Over the past 400 years, capitalism has been instrumental in raising life expectancy and living standards. But it’s also thrown humanity and nature out of whack. Capitalism is predicated on continuous production, which yields continuous growth, which results in continuous despoiling of our planet. It straightjackets a person’s value as their capacity to work. Today, it takes so few people to produce so much more than we need. Which is why we must rethink capitalism. Which fundamentally means: rethink income; rethink work. Amre opens my eyes to how UBI acknowledges every human’s intrinsic value by accommodating basic needs independent of paid labor. As such, it offers a path to ease away from capitalism’s destructions.

Five years have passed since my evening with Amre. Much has changed. Although UBI hasn’t been instituted in its purest form, it is the undergirding idea behind the recovery checks issued during the pandemic, and as well as the recently expanded Child Tax Credit. We haven’t eliminated work, though the pandemic and Zoom have modified many jobs beyond traditional definition.

Still, the major mind shift required to redirect from constant growth towards common equity looms distant. All politicians of both parties still clamor for economic growth instead of advocating economic balance. Work is still seen as the primary measure of an individual’s worth.

Universal Basic Income will not eliminate work. Rather, it will make work a choice. Those who might be content with a simpler life can opt to pursue non-economic dreams. Others will choose paid work in order to gain creature comforts. However, having that choice will change the nature of work forever. Rote, low-wage, routine jobs will be automated. Those jobs that remain will be more creative and engaging.

Beyond transforming our attitudes about work, UBI will reframe other challenges. Income inequity could actually increase, though I maintain inequality that accommodates basic needs and offers individual choice is fairer than the economic insecurity many face today. UBI will (hopefully) slow the economy down according to traditional measures, as some opt out of the workplace; make things rather than buy them. A desirable step toward a more sustainable planet. But the most important thing UBI will do, on an individual level, is release us from fear that our basic needs will go unmet. We will be free to pursue whatever makes us most fully human.

Four hundred years ago, the dawn of capitalism and ensuing industrial revolution invented our current definition of work as an activity divorced from the rest of our daily lives, whose purpose is to generate money to survive. The twentieth-century refined that concept; as work conferred status and influence, and defined our identity. In this century, let’s champion the technology that enables us to provide basic needs for all. Let’s reimagine work as a choice.

I’ve never seen Amre again. But the grand vision of UBI he offered me one night in Tallahassee holds clear and bright.

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Nobody Wants to Work Anymore…a Tale of Three Cities’ Trash

“Nobody wants to work anymore.” I encounter the phrase every day. From retiree’s impatient for the waitress to take their order. From people complaining insufferable wait times to be connected to a customer service rep. In media reports of worker shortages in every sector, agriculture to manufacturing.

Perhaps I need to stop hanging around folks who still use the term, “waitress,” and avoid the over-sixty crowd who reflexively chant, “I put in my time.” Still, the phrase, “nobody wants to work,” transcends ideological bounds. Conservatives blame pandemic largesse of extended unemployment, eviction moratoriums, and relief payments. Liberals complain that the shortage of ready workers further erodes our global economic position.

When I hear, “Nobody wants to work anymore,” I keep my mouth shut. Because I totally disagree. People want work. Work that’s engaging, creative, meaningful. Work that lifts their talents and abilities. Which is rarely the work advertised.

Throughout history, pandemics have triggered major changes in how humans organize labor. I’m hoping the current pandemic will do the same. After fifty years of wage stagnation and unravelling safety net, Americans are no longer interested in working for the conditions that companies offer. I envision two distinct yet connected threads of how work will evolve in a post-pandemic world.

The first, obvious, change recalibrates the balance between owners and laborers. Wages will rise, benefits grow, working conditions improve. Management won’t like it and inflation could result, though we might actually make a dent in our nation’s obscene income discrepancies.

The second, less likely but more valuable change, will be that fewer people work. We will (finally) acknowledge that the number of workers required to sustain a basic standard of living is diminishing, while the excesses of our ever-increasing consumer spiral is rending our planet unfit for human habitation. The number of jobs will decrease until, ideally, work becomes optional.

Consider a case study that illustrates three models: current state vs. higher wage and benefits vs. fewer workers. Consider an industry we all use, all need, and all hate to think about. Consider trash removal.

“A putrid problem is piling up in Webster, Massachusetts.” Thus begins NBC-10’s local news story that Republic Services has failed to pick up the trash in the city in over two weeks. Irate neighbors, potential rodents, rising temperatures, even a hint of lawsuit portray the $23-Billion corporation in an unfavorable light. Republic’s requisite company statement tacked onto the end of the expose doesn’t much help. “Many industries are facing staffing challenges at this time, and the recycling and waste disposal industry is no different …” In other words, nobody wants to work anymore.

I investigated Republic Services offerings to new drivers. The Auburn office, which services Webster, advertises a 5K bonus. Average driver salaries are just north of $21 per hour. There’s a nice list of benefits, though several online comments decry that most of the benefit costs must be borne by the employee.

Judging from the trash piling up in Webster, offering someone $45,000 a year to pick up trash isn’t enough incentive to put up with the flies and the smell and the mess.

Where can a trash hauler do better? Consider Cambridge, my hometown, where a trash truck with a crew of three collects whatever I put at my curb every Tuesday like clockwork. Ditto the compost truck, the yard waste truck, and the recycling truck. Cambridge’s sanitation workers, members of the Teamsters union, earn over $24 per hour, with premium benefits. A noticeable notch above what Republic offers. The city places no limits on the number of bins I can put out, removes any furniture, even takes used appliances with a pre-arranged tag. Cambridge provides a high-touch sanitation service that one of America’s most affluent cities can afford, and I’m happy to pay for service so good.

What does sanitation look like with fewer workers rather than premium price? Nearby Watertown deals with its trash more efficiently, though it requires more resident effort. Watertown’s trash and recycling are also contracted to Republic Services, though I doubt NBC-10 will report from there, as I’ve witnessed that Watertown’s system works. The city provides specific containers for trash and recycling. Their website outlines strict instructions for how to place containers along the street. A lone driver navigates the side-loading truck, a lever-arm mechanically lifts each container and empties it into the hopper. A solo driver/collector is less flexible than Cambridge’s three-person crew. But it’s an appealing approach to collecting trash with fewer people, more machinery.

Trash collection offers but one example of post-pandemic work trade-offs. The current state, Webster, is broken because people simply won’t work for the wage/benefit packages of the past. Some individuals or communities, such as Cambridge, will pony up more money to retain a high level of service. Others, like Watertown, will incorporate mechanics/robotics to minimize human labor.

The problem is not human resources. We have enough people to pick up our trash—provided we boost their pay. We also have technology if we prefer to collect garbage with fewer workers. More likely, the problem is human expectation: we want a Cambridge level of service at a Webster price point. Or what to do with sanitation workers who are displaced by mechanical arms. How will we value fellow human beings when they’re no longer needed to drive the economy, even if only to pick up our garbage?

Creating a better world of work requires that we shift from the mantra of full employment to one of worthwhile employment. To decouple human stature from mere capacity for labor. To provide a basic standard of living for everyone regardless of whether they ‘work.’

This will have profound ramifications. We will have to shift our unsustainable narrative of economic growth to one of economic balance. Some, wishing to remain untethered from employment, will choose to live in community, share our cars, tend our gardens, cook our own meals. Live lives that don’t increase the GDP. When we automate the work ‘nobody’ wants to do, we can focus on more satisfying pursuits and celebrate what we create through that liberation.

“Nobody wants to work anymore,” is thin-veiled code for “Nobody will do menial tasks for the pittance I’m willing to pay.” We have the capability to get rid of menial tasks and redefine work as the pursuit of human potential. I am pretty sure everybody will want to do that.

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Tower of e-Babel

Five thousand years ago, give or take a few centuries, the people of the earth, speaking in unified tongue, got together and decided to build a tower to reach the heavens (Genesis 11:1-9). God, ever wary of humans getting uppity, put an end to their folly with two neat tricks. First, she made their utterances incomprehensible to each other. Then, he scattered people across the face of the earth. Thus marks the beginning of widescale human interference with the natural order, and our inability to understand each other.

Fast forward five thousand years, give or take a few centuries, and human hubris bristles anew. Seven point eight billion of us completely dominate the planet. And though we speak over 6500 languages, our communication is seamless as in the days of Babel. Thanks to Google translate and its technology cousins, we can bridge any communication gap.

So why are we suffering through an era of unprecedented miscommunication? Because, as humans are wont to do, just as we smooth out one problem—translation—we create another confusion—format. Back in the days of Babel, we had only the human voice. Plus a bit of stone chiseling. Over time we developed paper and ink, which Guttenberg refined with the printing press. This led to the hard bound book, the penny rag, the Sears Catalog, and Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer. The more paper we printed upon, the less valuable it became, until the only folks who will mess with it hang out at US Post Office. They deposit junk in our mail slots, which we recycle, unopened.

These days, real communication is electronic.

Whoever invented email is my friend. I think it was Al Gore. Anyway, no surprise to anyone that I’m an email kind of guy. Email is perfectly suited to a sixty-six-year-old guy finnicky about writing stuff down, documenting conversation, and keeping it all in order. I keep my Inbox trim, ruthlessly ‘unsubscribe’ from junk, yet maintain years of missives organized in dozens of subfolders. It’s doubtful I will ever need to retrieve any of them, but infinitely reassuring to know that I can.

I read, save, delete or otherwise deal with every message I receive by email. Texts are more problematic. If my phone beeps when I’m out and about, I forget about it. The message gets queued down. It disappears from my consciousness as well as my contact roll. Opportunity lost.

And then there are the other formats. Instagram. Snapchat. Facetime. Zoom. Google Docs. iMessage. eye-yay-eye. No way I can keep up.

Of course, the affinities are flipped for folks who made their primal scream just as ‘You’ve Got Mail” dominated the multiplex. In the recent article, “Could Gen-Z Free the World from Email?” Adam Simmons, age 24, proclaims, “Email is all your stressors in one area, which makes the burnout thing so much harder. You look at your email and have work stuff, which is the priority, and then rent’s due from your landlord and then Netflix bills. And I think that’s a really negative way to live your life.”

I can agree with Adam that an inbox full of work tasks and bills is a negative way to live. Unfortunately, since Adam doesn’t do email, and I don’t Tweet or Signal or Google Group or Substack or use whatever cool format post-Millennials favor this week, I doubt we’ll ever have the opportunity to share a meaningful moment of cohesion on the matter.

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Education…huh…yeah…What is it Good For?

When Edwin Starr released his anti-anthem “War (What is it Good For?)” in 1970, the number of high school graduates in the United States heading off to college was near peak, just north of 50%. The percentage had been growing for over twenty years, thanks in large part to World War II era perks for veterans.

For the previous three hundred years, college had been, more or less, the province of gentlemen, with all the privilege and snobbery that F. Scott Fitzgerald reveals in This Side of Paradise. College cost a relative lot of money and prepared mostly white men for soft-hand positions like the ministry and law, or even loftier pursuits of literature or philosophy.

The GI Bill shook all that up, making college accessible and affordable, just as our thrall with a technology-based consumer society ratcheted the demand for engineering and science. College became more than a place to refine etiquette and noodle your brain; you could also learn useful stuff. Slide-rule meccas like Cal Tech and Purdue flourished. As did niche start-ups, like Berklee School of Music, whose mass-churn business model embraced music’s electronic potential and, within two generations, grew from concept to the largest music school in the world.

Through the 1950’s and 60’s Americans embraced the aspirations of accessible higher education. College was a passage to a better life that provided marketable skills and made us better-informed individuals and more engaged citizens. We had the best institutions in the world, we were the best-educated citizens: indisputable facts (to us) at the time. Neither of my parents graduated from college, but each of their children grew up assuming that we would. It was our honor, even our patriotic duty, to participate in the privilege.

Back to “War (What is it Good For?).”

In 1970, a more immediate benefit of attending college held sway: student deferment draft status to avoid Vietnam. Going to college became a short-term strategy as well as a long-term objective. But the disparity between those who trudged through the rice paddies and those who loitered within ivory towers established the fault lines that define our culture wars to this day.

By autumn 1973, when I was a college freshman, American troops in Vietnam dwindled. The draft was gone. College enrollment declined proportionately. Diminished as well, was college’s aspirational notion. Upper classmen whose political protests had shut down MIT in 1970 and again in 1972 dazzled my emerging awareness. Yet no such activism occurred during my four years on campus. And by the time I graduated in 1977, the riskiest thing a student did was apply to business school.

Also, during those four years, the cost of MIT tuition exactly doubled. A walloping acceleration that’s kept on climbing ever since. Over the last forty years, college costs accelerated at more than double the rate of inflation.

Today, college is big business. Expensive to attend for reasons beyond the hefty ‘list price.’ Expensive because the amount of state and federal student aid has diminished (students and families paid 33% of the total cost in 1980, versus 51% today). Expensive because families contribute proportionately less of that cost, bumping up the amount students borrow. Expensive because student loans are more costly than the direct-federal loans of the 1970’s. (Whereas my 3% interest did not begin to accrue until after I completed college and national service and graduate school—a period of eight years—today’s students accumulate interest from the date they sign the note, often at higher rates.)

As the sticker price of college ticks up, tales of diploma-less success proliferate. The business case for college is skinnier than it was fifty years ago. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are billionaire dropouts. Venture capitalists underwrite genius ideas fresh from high school. If going to college can’t trigger our first million, why waste four years piling up that debt?

There are two fundamental flaws with current arguments against going to college. First, though college is not as ‘lucrative’ as in the glorious 70’s, it’s still a way smarter investment than not. For sure, a student has to be prudent: early education majors graduating with $100,000 in debt will likely never balance sheet to black. But study after study reveal that college graduates enjoy more financial success (twice the lifetime earning of high school graduates), career stability, satisfaction, longer lives, and overall well-being than their less credentialed counterparts.

Second, and I believe more importantly, are the non-quantifiable benefits of education. To cultivate our curiosity, become more aware of ourselves and our surroundings. To be better-informed individuals and more engaged citizens. Growing up emmeshed in John F. Kennedy’s stirring, “ask what you can do for your country,” I was indoctrinated in the idea that education promotes culture as well as craft. Younger folks, nursed on 1980’s dictums that “greed is good,” and “the government is the problem,” don’t even possess a metric for education as societal benefit.

The United States has never been a nation that particularly values education, certainly not for its own sake. We don’t erect statues of great scholars in our city squares, as seen in China. We don’t elect intellectuals as President, as sometimes occurs in Europe. We value the clever and the rugged over the thoughtful.

To be sure, education in the United States is in precarious shape. It’s too expensive, too irrelevant, too internally focused, yet—trigger warning—too sensitive. It indulges the individual, dismisses the collective, and reinforces our demand of rights over our moral responsibilities. How could it be otherwise? A nation’s educational system is the most direct expression of its values; the cultural glue that welds cohesion. And so in this moment, when what most binds Americans is our vast disagreement, education all too accurately reflects our challenges.

Yet, I do not despair.

“The chief wonder of education is that it does not ruin everybody concerned in it, teachers and taught.” Henry Adams penned those words more than a century ago, decrying the futility of a nineteenth-century educational system increasingly irrelevant to his rapidly changing times. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether his years at Harvard might have somehow informed The Education of Henry Adams, named Modern Library’s best English-language non-fiction book of the 2oth century.

Education will survive the internet, the culture wars, legislated revisionist history, even fascism. It will have to shed the too-often tepid approach of bottom-line driven, special interest pandering colleges. It will have to shake off America’s narcissistic, myopic vision of itself via-a-vis the world. It will have to become more inclusive, so that essays reflecting personal experience, like this one, don’t feature so many pics of white guys.

But I am confident that we will do it. For no matter how long fear and narrow visions of power try to rein us in, ultimately, education is the only thing that expands and enlightens human experience.

War…huh…yeah…What is it Good For? Absolutely Nothing!

Education…huh…yeah…What is Good For? Absolutely Everything!

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Comrades! Asexuals of the World! Unite!

I recently copy-edited a Guest Opinion essay by Michele Kirichanskaya for the upcoming issue of GL&R (Gay & Lesbian Review). “How Asexuals Got Organized.” I proof read the article. Made a few grammatical notations. Checked out the website for Asexual Visibility and Education Network. Asexual.org. Yep, It’s a thing.

Then I laughed. Out. Loud.

In our current alphabet soup of sexual identity, LGBTQIA+ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Questioning (old-schoolers like me sometimes mistakenly say Queer) Intersex, and Asexual. We tack on the ‘+’ because, well, we certainly don’t want to exclude anyone from the big tent of identities whose unifying thread is that we are not heterosexual.

Of course, there’s a good chance more letters will be added, as this whole sexual identity business rests on historically recent and shifting sands. Before the mid-nineteenth century, a Lesbian was a person from Lesbos, a heterosexual was a person with “an abnormal or perverted appetite toward the opposite sex,” and the word homosexual had nothing to do with its current meaning. It wasn’t until 1934 that the term heterosexual took on a normative context, until the 1970’s that the terms gay and lesbian came into vogue, and until the 1990’s that RuPaul made it all so fabulous.

Gay…lesbian…trans…the labels occupied a confluence of meanings. Political, to be sure, for people traditionally oppressed. But also fun. They absorbed the gravity of our biologic inclinations, as well as our conscious choice to set ourselves apart from convention. For years after I came out I described myself as homosexual because my life held nothing else in common with what was then heralded as ‘gay lifestyle.’

Now, it’s 2021. Identity politics carves division with surgical precision, and no one’s got even a shredded sense of humor. So, all we have left is a basketful of identities, each stocked with its precious grievances.

Which brings me back to asexual organizing. According to AVEN’s website, an asexual is “…is a person who does not experience sexual attraction.” Okay. Fine. Actually, on a 92-degree July day with 86% humidity, being asexual sounds like a sort of blessing. No chance of getting hot and bothered, when those of us cursed with the urge will only end up wallowing in sticky execution.

Here’s what I don’t understand. Why do asexual folks seek to include themselves in the LGBTQIA+ mix, an umbrella that includes all kinds of peeps whose sexual attractions are so strong we insist on exercising them despite discrimination and rebuke? I can’t construct a political affinity, or a social one.

At the risk of political incorrectness, I cannot even comprehend the point of organizing people whose commonality is what they don’t like to do? How is asexual.org different from CoffeeDecliners.org? ModelTrainsNotForMe.com? IHateHats.biz?

Actually, I can see how asexual people might harbor legitimate complaint, condemned to navigate our hyper-sexualized world. Yet the essay makes no mention of that. Perhaps asexual people want to meet one another away from the Tindr prowl. The article doesn’t suggest that either. Instead, Ms. Kirichanskaya posits that being asexual is a sexual orientation. In fact, it is precisely the opposite: a lack of orientation.

Aha! No orientation? Unacceptable. In this era of identity is everything, robbing someone of a full identity-complement to spill after their name is true harm.

Paul E Fallon: cisgender gay white male. Irish-American. Retired architect. Father. Non-smoker. Pathetic drinker. Writer. Cyclist. Intermittent depressive. I could go on, but no matter how long the list, it will never fully describe. Because, regardless how many adjectives I string, I am human. Sometimes irrational. Often unpredictable. Still appreciative of a shapely woman, identity be damned. Pretty much like seven billion others. Unique in all the world.

Really? What does this slogan mean?

I don’t know what asexuals do when they get organized. (Although I do know what they don’t do.) If someone feels the need to adopt an identity whose chief characteristic is a disinterest, and get together with others similarly disinclined, go for it. But I still find it funny.

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Massachusetts’ Bold Opportunity: Abolish Women’s Prison

Massachusetts S. 2030, a bill to place a moratorium on all prison construction for five years while we evaluate alternatives to our carceral system, is accepting written testimony through August 4. Please consider offering your testimony (link). This post is an essay published in the Cambridge Chronicle that advocates for even more.

The moment I learned that the international architecture firm HDR was selected to create the preliminary plan for a new women’s prison to replace MCI-Framingham, my mind reeled back forty years. 1981. One month out of Architecture School. My first professional assignment: a new hangar for the U.S Navy. I was dumbfounded. School projects had included clinics, housing, arts centers; nothing that challenged the ethics of a bloke who’d chosen to be a VISTA Volunteer rather than a veteran. Next day I explained to my boss why I could not, in conscience, work on a military facility. Today, I wonder how many HDR staff feel compelled to decline working on the new prison.

MCI-Framingham, built in 1877, is the oldest operating women’s prison in the United States. Department of Correction’s (DOC) has determined that the antiquated facility needs to be replaced. To the tune of $50 million.

I suggest we consider a bolder, more cost-effective, more humane option. Instead of replacing the building, let’s replace the system. Let’s change our operating assumption and decide that no woman in Massachusetts will be sent to prison. Period. Let’s create alternative, decentralized methods to deal with criminally accused and convicted women. (Note: the term ‘women’ reflects DOC terminology regarding inmates’ gender identity.)

Massachusetts is at a propitious inflection point that makes abolishing incarceration of women both practical and feasible. In April 2021, there were 162 inmates at MCI-Framingham; across the state 480 women total were held for bail, in jail, accused or convicted. The lowest female incarceration rate of any state.

This is something worth celebrating; unless you’re one of those 480 women, or a member of her family. How much do we spend keeping these women behind bars? Over $117,000 per inmate per year in direct costs; thousands more in collateral human services (over 60% of female inmates leave children under age eighteen behind). Now, we’re proposing to spend over $300,000 per inmate in additional capital expenditure.

The combination of (relatively) small prison population and abundant resources is a perfect opportunity for a pilot program that acknowledges the prison system, as we know it and grow it, is successful in keeping folks we don’t like out of sight, but it’s a failure in enabling them to rejoin and participate in society. It’s time to rise above the illusion of prison ‘reform’ and commit to developing accountability, reconciliation, and restitution within our community. This will be more difficult than putting women behind bars, but it offers transformational possibilities.

If we resolve to have ‘no women’s prison,’ we are free to reallocate resources to address underlying criminal causes: violence, poverty, racism, mental illness. We can replace incarceration with community-based residential support facilities that enable families to remain intact. We can use technology to monitor women during periods of restitution. We can actually create the rehabilitation that prison fails to produce by embedding women in their communities, responsible to their communities, accountable to their communities.

I don’t pretend to know how to create community-based alternatives to incarceration. My expertise lies in quite different arenas. After declining to work on military facilities, I focused on healthcare design, and became a savvy at synthesizing and articulating clinical, patient, and financial demands with soothing polish. So when I hear HDR intone the phrase ‘trauma-informed prison design,’ I’m keen to the phony buzz. There is no such thing as trauma-informed prison design. Prison is, by definition and design, a trauma that we inflict on already traumatized people. Sometimes the convicted have traumatized others. Almost always, the convicted traumatize us: by acting outside norms; by exposing the hypocrisy of societal benevolence.

The economic case against building a new women’s prison is strong. The humane case is irrefutable. Will we take this opportunity to do the truly right thing and commit ourselves to no women in Massachusetts’ prisons? We can replace the oldest women’s prison in the nation with a new paradigm of criminal justice; a model that demonstrates it’s unnecessary to imprison women. Once we develop that, we can adapt the approach to unprison adolescents, geriatrics, and eventually: everyone.

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