Ugh. The comments section is particularly rich.
Month: January 2013
NYT Endorses Mt. Laurel, Christie Vetoes Land Bank Bill
The Times editorial page expressed its support for a strong Mount Laurel doctrine, as Governor Christie continued seeking to dismantle New Jersey’s Council on Affordable Housing (COAH). Christie also vetoed the latest incarnation of the foreclosure land-bank for affordable housing, but he seems open to a possible reworking of its objectives through new legislation.
Good News for Independent Attorneys
The New Jersey Supreme Court has accepted last year’s recommendation from the Professional Responsibility Rules Committee and relaxed the bona fide office rule. This change should facilitate simpler, less expensive, and more tech-smart ways to operate small firms. Meanwhile, the I.R.S. is simplifying the tax deduction process for costs associated with home-based offices.
Sexist, Union-Busting Creeps
Erin Hatton, a University at Buffalo sociology professor, makes a compelling case that the temp industry played a disproportionate role in creating the American dystopia of the white-collar office:
“For example, in 1971 the recently renamed Kelly Services ran a series of ads in The Office, a human resources journal, promoting the “Never-Never Girl,” who, the company claimed: “Never takes a vacation or holiday. Never asks for a raise. Never costs you a dime for slack time. (When the workload drops, you drop her.) Never has a cold, slipped disc or loose tooth. (Not on your time anyway!) Never costs you for unemployment taxes and Social Security payments. (None of the paperwork, either!) Never costs you for fringe benefits. (They add up to 30% of every payroll dollar.) Never fails to please. (If your Kelly Girl employee doesn’t work out, you don’t pay.)”
Oh, how nice. I worked as a temp paralegal in New York City for a while after college, in a workplace that my friend Adam accurately described as a white-collar salt mine: 12-hour workdays, no benefits, rules against speaking (supposedly, a firable offense). On one occasion, a seventy-some-year-old man (presumably, unable to retire) threw up all over himself and his workstation, rather than risk going to the bathroom or (God forbid!) miss a day of work when he was sick. All this occurred in the Midtown offices of a white-shoe corporate law firm. Of course, even temp paralegaling in Midtown had a set of perks that wouldn’t be offered to temps at, say, a billing office in Toledo: We got free little glass bottles of Sanpellegrino, passable comped meals at the firm cafeteria, black-car service home to the suburbs on late nights, and a 34th floor view of Manhattan — not to mention what seemed (as a recent college graduate) to be good compensation for our time. But when the case we were working on looked like it might settle, they fired us all by phone, and cancelled the key-card privileges to the building. No “thank you” from the firm. No offer of a reference letter. In fact, we were curtly informed that we were not to contact the employer for any reason after leaving, and that we could pick up our belongings from the office of the temp agency. So, I should probably express my gratitude to the partners at the firm where I worked for providing me an early object lesson on why big corporate law sucks. And it’s not hard for me to believe that the temp industry, and the lawyers who work with it, have been central to replicating degrading working conditions for people across the U.S.
Fire and the Skyscraper
I found this chilling contemporary account of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, from a 1911 issue of McClure’s magazine. In addition to providing a minute-by-minute description of the tragedy (which killed 146 garment workers — mostly young Jewish and Italian girls from the Lower East Side — and spurred the rise of the labor movement in New York City), the article offers an incredibly detailed description of the use and misuse of industrial buildings in Manhattan, and the building codes that existed, at the beginning of the twentieth century. As heartbreaking and infuriating as the story is, I couldn’t stop reading it.
New Jersey Land Use Update
There were no reported land use or zoning decisions from the New Jersey appeals courts this week. Among unpublished cases, there was just one that centered on land use: Ingenito v. Point Pleasant Beach Z.B.A., a January 22nd per curiam opinion from an Appellate Division panel. It was actually a pretty interesting case. It began as a dispute about whether one of two structures on a residential-zoned parcel could be used to carry on a home-based business, without its owner first obtaining a D-variance from the local board. The plaintiffs, neighbors, pleaded their case on the theory that the business, a yoga studio, was being conducted in an accessory structure, rather than in the primary one, and that the use therefore failed to meet the precise definition of a home-based business. The trial court agreed with the plaintiffs and sent the matter back to the Z.B.A. for a variance proceeding. The court then accepted the variance that the Board subsequently issued. The plaintiffs appealed. Here, the A.D. sided with the defendants — the property owners and the Z.B.A. — finding that the business was being conducted in one of two primary structures, and that, accordingly, no variance had ever been required. In addition, the panel held that even if the variance had been required, the trial court’s blessing of that variance had been proper. The temporary New Jersey Courts link is alive for now, but the opinion will be archived at the Rutgers Law Library next week.
Where Are the Housing Bubbles Now?
In Canada and Hong Kong, apparently. It’s interesting. I’m kind of suspicious of these straightforward economic analyses of housing, though. They never seem to account for the artificial shortages that are created by calcified land use regulations in otherwise thriving regions. All of the supposed bubbles are in densely-populated, highly-regulated regions. I’m not an economist, but it seems to me that the combination of growing demand and constrained supplies will distort the prices of individual units upward; and that when one’s social and professional ties are concentrated in a particular region, then housing there is not a very elastic commodity. That is to say, cheaper housing that lies beyond the socializing/commuting frontier is just not a plausible alternative. Also, while creating a ratio between rents and purchasing costs might make for a useful rubric, the apparent disparities between the two may simply represent discrete snapshots in time, along a continuum of alternation between the two eternal models of housing occupancy. Right? Thoughts from readers more quantitatively-inclined than I am — and that would be most — would be appreciated.
Incentives and Human Motivation
Here’s an interesting thought from Sam Harris about the role that bad incentives play in making society toxic. He writes:
“A prison is perhaps the easiest place to see the power of bad incentives. And yet in many other places in our society, we find otherwise normal men and women caught in the same trap and busily making life for everyone much less good than it could be. Elected officials ignore long-term problems because they must pander to the short-term interests of voters. People working for insurance companies rely on technicalities to deny desperately ill patients the care they need. CEOs and investment bankers run extraordinary risks—both for their businesses and for the economy as a whole—because they reap the rewards of success without suffering the penalties of failure. Lawyers continue to prosecute people they know to be innocent (and defend those they know to be guilty) because their careers depend upon winning cases. Our government fights a war on drugs that creates the very problem of black market profits and violence that it pretends to solve….
“We need systems that are wiser than we are. We need institutions and cultural norms that make us better than we tend to be. It seems to me that the greatest challenge we now face is to build them.”
Israel: Affordable Housing Still Not Getting Built
It looks like Israel may be in for its own version of the Mount Laurel experience. A year and a half ago, the government there ostensibly addressed the public’s demands for more affordable housing by adopting some reforms that included incentives for the construction of new rental apartments. Recently, after the fires had died down, Ha’aretz reported that the government began claiming (in response to a lawsuit) that its plan, as written, is ineffective; that it has no power to really accomplish much of anything.
I feel like I’ve read this story before. In New Jersey, it took a decade of toil in the courts and political branches to get from acknowledging the need for affordable housing (Mount Laurel I, 1975) to the development of a framework that could even plausibly begin to address the shortage (Fair Housing Act of 1985). And New Jersey is still one of the hardest places in America in which to find decent, affordable housing. The Mount Laurel cases represent an important legal principle, but it’s one that was drawn from the New Jersey Constitution, and whose footing in other common law jurisdictions remains unclear. These things are maddeningly slow.
My faith in the legal and political systems’ ability to solve the crisis of metropolitan housing affordability is not strong. First, the incentives aren’t there: Property owners, who benefit from high land values, tend to stay and vote and contribute to local politicians; people who can’t afford housing tend to move away. Second, the land market itself is too much of a moving target to lend itself to legislative interventions that will yield predictable results. We’ve seen evidence of this in all of the well-intentioned planning debacles of the 20th century. Given these problems, it’s hard to imagine all of those Israeli kids, who were out in the streets in 2011, now waiting for this to work its way through their country’s version of the system.
If I were there, I would support the litigation and press for policies that would yield more housing — obviously. But I would also re-read Herzl. A limited-equity (LE) model was central to his vision for the country, and it has also worked (at times) to create affordable housing in America. The most promising aspect of the LE model is that, when it works, it truly frees its participants from depending on the sluggish and often capricious actions of the state, and allows like-minded individuals to autonomously pursue their interests outside of the system. Some have even sold their own demand to initial investors, paying out modest distributions to capital investors in exchange for their relatively low risk profiles.
The Streetcars of Philadelphia
In spite of attempts to derail them, America’s classic streetcars have never entirely disappeared. I love the color scheme that’s still used on some of the cars in Philadelphia. I caught this one on West Girard Avenue, in the Northern Liberties section, while visiting a friend yesterday who lives nearby.