Sunday, February 10, 2013

Dear Commissioners, Let's Talk Price

Dear Montgomery County Commissioners Josh Shapiro, Leslie Richards and Bruce Castor:

Thanks for coming to Pottstown tomorrow night to hear what we have to say.

Hopefully, some of our more thoughtful residents will show up to greet you and help you understand what ails us.

In case they don't, it seems prudent to jot down a few thoughts for your consideration:

Well just one thought really. You see, as complex as modern life it, the issues here in Pottstown boil down to a pretty simple equation.

Concentration of low-income housing + lack of living wage jobs = high crime, high taxes and low quality of life.

Look, you need not waste too much time Monday night explaining to us why things are done this way.

We get it.

In a lot of ways, it makes sense for Montgomery County to steer its poor to places like Pottstown and Norristown.

After all, it's where all the social service agencies are located already (although that's a chicken-or-the-egg example if ever we saw one); they both have bus systems and people who can't afford cars can walk to places more easily than out in the middle of the cookie-cutter sub-divisions where you need a car to get your mail.

And when it comes to housing vouchers (read Section 8), then you spend less public money in places where the rents are cheaper. After all, those federal subsidies for housing vouchers are tax money as well; best to get the most bang for the public buck.

On the other side of the coin, you could hardly pick worse places to concentrate low-income housing than in places like Pottstown and Norristown, at least not in terms of what's best for those communities.

Those still hanging on by their fingernails to home-ownership and jobs there are doing so under the burden of the highest tax rates in the region,

They're sending their children to schools with more special needs students than the wealthy suburbs that surround them, all under a state aid formula that gives them less funding than those same wealthier neighbors.

Their children walk to those schools through streets with a higher crime rate than their quiet suburban neighbors, whose children ride to school in buses or SUVs.

They're protected by police forces that must feel like they're running to stand still in terms of keeping up with the constant crime that shadows all concentrations of low-income life.

And their classmates are living in sub-standard apartments because the housing authority and the borough both lack the resources to ensure those places are kept up to code.

In case I'm not being clear, here is a good summary of what the impact of the county's policy of sending low-income families here, courtesy of the Brookings Institute's Metropolitan Policy Program:
  • Lead to increased crime rates and poor health outcomes. Crime rates, and particularly violent crime rates, tend to be higher in economically distressed inner-city neighborhoods.Faced with high crime rates, dilapidated housing stock, and the stress and marginalization of poverty, residents of very poor neighborhoods demonstrate a higher incidence of poor physical and mental health outcomes, like asthma, depression, diabetes, and heart ailments.
  • Limit educational opportunity. Children in high-poverty communities tend to go to neighborhood schools where nearly all the students are poor and at greater risk of failure, as measured by standardized tests, dropout rates, and grade retention.Low performance owes not only to family background, but also to the negative effects high-poverty neighborhoods have on school processes and quality. Teachers in these schools tend to be less experienced, the student body more mobile, and additional systems must often be put in place to deal with the social welfare needs of the student body, creating further demands on limited resources.
  • Reduce private-sector investment and increase prices for goods and services. High concentrations of low-income and low-skilled households in a neighborhood can make the community less attractive to private investors and employers, which may limit local job opportunities and ultimately create a “spatial mismatch” between low-income residents and employment centers. In addition, lack of business competition in poor neighborhoods can drive up prices for basic goods and services—like food, car insurance, utilities, and financial services—compared to what families pay in middle-income neighborhoods.
  • Raise costs for local government. The concentration of poor individuals and families—which can result in elevated welfare caseloads, high rates of indigent patients at hospitals and clinics, and the need for increased policing—burdens the fiscal capacity of local governments and can divert resources from the provision of other public goods. In turn, these dynamics can lead to higher taxes for local businesses and non-poor residents.
  • Hinder wealth building. Many residents in extreme-poverty neighborhoods own their home, yet neighborhood conditions in these areas can lead the market to devalue these assets and deny them the ability to accumulate wealth through the appreciations of house prices.Moreover, the presence of high-poverty neighborhoods can affect residents of the larger metropolitan area generally, depressing values for owner-occupied properties in the region by 13 percent on average.
To Pottstown residents, the Brookings Institute just described conditions in our town.

Pottstown might have absorbed a portion of this county-sponsored burden if it were still a thriving community in which people with high school educations made a living wage at the local plant.

Indeed, wages that could support a middle-class family in Pottstown would solve many problems here simultaneously.

But the days of the labor-intensive factory are gone forever.

This kind of work isn't around here anymore
Those who wish for their return must realize that the manufacturing that remains in America is extremely specialized and high-tech.

A high school education is rarely enough to secure one of those jobs.

Good jobs to have certainly, but those who work there can no longer walk down the street the day after graduation and sign up for a place on the assembly line.

In fact, the people who get those jobs are those best prepared by a superior education system, which brings us right back to the Catch-22 with which we live every day here in Pottstown.

So presuming the county commissioners can do little to bring jobs to Pottstown, what should we ask for, other than their apologies for the decades of neglect at the hands of a flawed housing policy?

So what can Josh Shapiro, Bruce Castor and Leslie Richards do for us?

What can they offer us when they arrive at 7 p.m. Monday at the Montgomery County Community College's West Campus here in town?

They're here on a "listening tour," with no other purpose than to hear what we have to say. So what should we say?

I propose the following:

Let us recognize the reality that any suggestion that more low-income housing be directed toward wealthier communities will never come to pass.

It's a fool's errand folks. That's where the money is, and no politician is going to get campaign donations from a community where they just located a low-income housing project like Bright Hope.

Fair? Sure. Likely? Never.

Further, let's recognize that people who live in low-income housing are people, not statistics. If they're voting on where to live with their vouchers, they are going to live where they feel comfortable and where their dollar goes furthest, just like the rest of us.

How happy is a family living on $30,000 likely to be surrounded by neighbors who all make $250,000?

Also, we must recognize that barring a major structural change in county government, Leslie, Josh and Bruce don't have full control over this issue.

The entity which sends us voucher upon voucher is the Montgomery County Housing Authority, an independent agency not under the control of the county commissioners. It's not a county department.

So even if they agreed to, the commissioners could not stem the flow of vouchers.

What is in their power, is to pay the price for the policy.

So let's look at this like the capitalists we all claim to be.

The truth of the matter is we're providing a service for Montgomery County.

We are taking in their tired, their hungry, their poor, so their wealthier constituents don't have to. There's a dollar value to that service.

The real problem is we just aren't charging enough and we're going out of business as a result.

It's not that hard to document the increased costs Pottstown and Norristown take on with each low-income voucher that crosses the borough line.

So let's demand a better price -- an agreed upon amount of county dollars that go to the borough and school district for each housing voucher that comes this way.

Fortunately for the county, the borough and the school district share the same borders, so the accounting will be easy.

In the schools, that money can ONLY be used to pay for special education costs, or tutors for low-income students in homes using vouchers.

In the borough, that money can ONLY be used for things related to the costs those vouchers bring:

  • To pay for increased policing; 
  • To pay for more (and better-trained) code inspection officers to ensure the buildings at which these vouchers are being used are kept up and not contributing to the degradation of the neighborhood;
  • To pay for increased recreational opportunities for the children in those households, giving them a place to recreate other than the streets. (By happy coincidence, we have a community center located right in the center of town where such programs could be located);
  • To pay for adult training programs to help the adults in these households get the jobs that exist today. (By happy coincidence, the previous county commissioners had the foresight to locate a college campus right here in town, which makes for a handy training location.)

Those are just a few suggestions for concrete things the county commissioners could do for this community.

But for Monday's "listening tour" to have any real value, I don't think the commissioners should leave Pottstown without having committed to real help.

Anything else will just be vague promises, happy talk and smoke.

Been there, done that. And we know what it's worth.


  1. I was again going over the 5 year Montco Housing plan last night working on questions and solutions. You have summed up a lot of my thoughts here, yet I have to ask, has no one learned the lessons of Detroit? Detroit is the best example of large growth, unions, factories, technological progress, and today's interactive global economy, aka progress and changing times, not unlike Pottstown.

    The old ideas of paying people through programs and putting them into a low job prospect area like Pottstown is an obvious self reinforcing cycle of dependence. You must ask yourself if this is not done on purpose after many decades of doing the same thing with the same results. If you want people to succeed, you simply cannot pay people to live in an area where they cannot find work unless you are never really expecting them to climb the ladder.

    Long ago, when there was much less need for an income tax, in the days before the government safety net, when an area ran out of work people left. People left because they could not survive and moved to where the work was. They did not starve and they did not die, they just up and left for greener pastures, a very simple idea that just worked! Some may have stayed in these areas and that left less burden on the few resources available, which in turn allowed the community to survive the bad times to again prosper to new heights later on. Pottstown has a lot going for it, most notably location, but by creating such an area of depression it holds it back from its true potential. Today we pay people to live in these areas with no hope of ever leaving creating an area of more depression that what would occur naturally. WHY?!

    Wouldn't it be a great idea be to only allow a small percentage of vouchers or any other form of welfare based on the real economic numbers of the area? The more successful an area the more vouchers available? Would that not give every one the best fighting chance to better themselves? I would bet that more and more people would find success, and over time the cycle of dependency would shrink. Of course no one wants it "in their back yard", but what of these communities we are creating just like Detroit all over the country? We choose to ignore them but it's time to face reality that all too many of them really do exist. Sooner or later they are going to be living in your back yard because there is no where else to go and no one left to pay for it. Or hasn't that already happened? Isn't that why we have to keep raising the debt limit? There just isn't enough money coming in? I doubt anything will change today, but it would be nice to start the conversation and stop ignoring the problem as what we are doing now simply isn't working very well.

    To sum up a couple questions for Montco; Why is it not a better idea to limit the percentage of dependents by economic region? Why is it not better to move people to areas where the jobs are? And on another note, after reading the 5 year plan, and referring to page 66, what is the status of the plans to demolish Bright Hope and build a larger "mixed income" community? And what exactly is a "mixed income" community? Are there any plans we can see and have any ideas been brought the the Pottstown government and people yet?

  2. Why was this meeting scheduled on the evening of a council meeting? Councilors should surely be in attendance at this meeting to hear what the people of Pottstown have to say as well as the commissioners.

    1. I asked that question and was told by Frank Custer, the county's communications director, that it was an oversight and when they realized it, they tried to see of the council could change their meeting and he was told it would be too difficult.

    2. With all the burning issues in Pottstown, one would think someone would have rescheduled. I hope at best a councilor is sent to the meeting after all they were elected to represent the people. They always have the "Mayor" available to break a tie vote should the need arise!