Governance & Fiscal Recovery

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eBlog, 04/03/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery efforts in Ferguson, Missouri; then we return to the Motor City to assess what and how home ownership might have changed in the wake of the city’s recovery from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, before returning to the azure waters of Puerto Rico to assess its most recent fiscal developments.

A Recovering City’s Future? Ferguson, Missouri voters tomorrow will pick between Mayor James Knowles III and Councilwoman Ella Jones in the Mayoral election–for a 3-year term: Mayor Knowles was first elected Mayor on April 5, 2011, after serving on the Ferguson City Council for six years: he became the youngest mayor in Ferguson’s history when he took office at the age of 31, while Councilwoman Jones became the first African-American woman to be elected to her position. But tomorrow could mark a check point in the wake of the dramatic leadership changes since the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown put the St. Louis suburb at the center of the debate over the treatment of blacks by the nation’s police forces–and on the brink of insolvency. Mayor Knowles, who is finishing his second term, noted: “These past three years have been very difficult, but I’ve been the one who has shown I can lead through tough times…That I can take the heat, but also make the changes, the reforms necessary to make the community move forward.” Nevertheless, in the wake of the killing of an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer nearly three years ago, Mayor Knowles has borne the brunt of considerable anger, as Ferguson went from a mostly unheard-of St. Louis suburb to a flash-point of racial unrest. After months of protests following the shooting, people rioted that November when a grand jury declined to charge the officer, who resigned that month. There was further unrest the following March when the U.S. Department of Justice cleared the officer of wrongdoing—and issued a scathing report alleging racial bias and profiling by the small city’s police department and courts—a report which appeared to lead to the resignations of the city’s police chief, city manager, municipal judge, and city attorney. Indeed, of all the city’s top officials, only Mayor Knowles remains—and that notwithstanding threats in phone calls and emails, a stolen identity, and having his home’s windows broken.  In contrast, Councilwoman Jones has lived most of her life in Ferguson: she is serving her first term as a Councilwoman, and, in her campaign, assert she wants the Mayor’s office to be “inclusive for everyone, instead of exclusive,” noting: “We have to listen and stop turning our heads and turning a deaf ear to people, because they’re just like you and I. They want to be heard and they have a right to be heard.”

Whomever the voters elect will confront a daunting fiscal challenge: the city lost millions of dollars of revenue after municipal court reforms were implemented following Mr. Brown’s death: sales and use tax revenues dropped as businesses victimized by looters were burned and closed: many have not returned. Similarly, the city has more than a dozen police vacancies: the city lacks sufficient budget resources to compete with larger, better funded governments in St. Louis County—and still is handicapped by its unfunded costs of compliance with U.S. the Justice Department imposed consent decree to improve the police and municipal court systems and eliminate racial bias: an unfunded federal mandate projected to cost the impoverished city budget and taxpayers more than $2 million. The city of about 20,000, which actually experienced a population decline of nearly 6% since 2000, nevertheless has experienced a gradual increase in median income to $43,998 by 2015—approximately 86% of average statewide household income.

And, irrespective of whom the voters select, this is not a position of responsibility that pays much: the Mayor’s pay is $4,200 annually; rather, as the incumbent notes: it’s the love of their community and the opportunity to be its face to the outside world: “These past three years have been very difficult, but I’ve been the one who has shown I can lead through tough times…That I can take the heat but also make the changes, the reforms necessary to make the community move forward.” In contrast, Councilwoman Jones said she wants the Mayor’s office to be “inclusive for everyone, instead of exclusive…We have to listen and stop turning our heads and turning a deaf ear to people, because they’re just like you and I. They want to be heard and they have a right to be heard,” she said.

A Lost Fiscal Decade? Joel Kurth and Mike Wilkinson, writing in Bridge Magazine, note that still, today, home mortgages remain a rarity in Detroit: “Home sales with mortgages are rare in Detroit, occurring in just a few areas: Miles from downtown Detroit and its debates about gentrification, a more modest question surrounds the real estate in many city neighborhoods. Cash or charge?” The pair found that “sales with mortgages are rare in Detroit, occurring in just a few areas.”  Their piece outlines remarkable oscillations in assessed property values, noting that the average home sale price in the city went from $84,109 in 2001 down to $12, 517 in 2009, and then back up to $50,308 by last year—still far below the unadjusted 2001 level—albeit they found that the average price last year for homes purchased with a mortgage was $155,650. In comparing homeownership rates, they noted that last year’s rate of 47% remained under the year 2000 rate of 55%. Thus, they found that obtaining a mortgage continues to be challenging in outlying neighborhoods across Detroit, with the vast majority of homes sold for cash to landlords and investors, rather than homeowners, according to sales data and numerous interviews—posing hard questions about who will benefit in a revival rooted in downtown and Midtown in what remains the nation’s poorest city—a city where, according to the Census Bureau, 39.3% of people live below the poverty line (defined as $24,250 for a family of four), making it “the poorest in America with more than 300,000 people, followed by Cleveland (39.2%), Fresno, Calif., (30.5%), Memphis (29.8%), and Milwaukee (29%), albeit finding the Motor City’s rate has actually decreased from 2012, when it was 42.3%. The authors quoted a real estate agent: “Detroit is evolving into a new place, but outside of hot areas, neighborhoods just aren’t where they need to be to increase property values enough for banks to lend money.”

Nevertheless, a joint report by Bridge and Detroit public radio station WDET did find some grounds for optimism, determining that home sales and prices are increasing citywide after bottoming out after the mortgage meltdown, which left in excess of 65,000 foreclosures; the report noted that in some neighborhoods, prices are rising so swiftly that they are creating bidding wars, albeit the gains are uneven, and mortgage lending is mostly confined to more affluent neighborhoods, according to records from Realcomp Ltd. II: last year, only 19% of 3,800 Detroit homes sold by conventional means were financed with mortgages, demonstrating signal disparities: homes with mortgages sold for an average of $155,000; cash sales averaged $30,000—an imbalance Mayor Mike Duggan fears could “cripple” the Motor City’s recovery, according to Erica Ward Gerson, Chairwoman of the Detroit Land Bank Authority, which assembles and sells properties: she deemed the number of cash sales a “serious, serious problem,” because they can deter home ownership and depress property values, noting that cheap sales are usually rentals or vacant houses, while pricier sales are often out of reach for ordinary buyers. Most home sales in Detroit require cash; only 19 percent of the 3,800 sales in 2016 involved a mortgage, reflecting the difficulty to secure loans in a city where property values are less than half what they were a decade ago. 

In response, Mayor Duggan has sought to team with banks, foundations, and nonprofits to offer a number of programs to increase the availability of home loans; to date, as one non-profit in the city notes, the programs have demonstrated some success; however, most focus on stable neighborhoods, e.g., not where the most serious challenges remain: in more impoverished east side neighborhoods, homes last year sold for $4,000 to $40,000 in cash, according to Realcomp data—even as, a few miles away in downtown and Midtown, homes and lofts sell for $250,000 or more, according to records. Indeed, according to the Urban Institute, in 2014, 97% of Detroit homes sold for cash—nearly thrice the national average of 36%; cities with comparable populations, such as Memphis, Columbus, and El Paso, last year had at least five times as many mortgages as the approximately 710 mortgages sold in Detroit, according to data from RealtyTrac, a California-based company that tracks real estate. Indeed, according to the Urban Institute, Detroit once had one of the highest rates of home ownership among African-Americans nationwide; but, today, the city is majority renters: since 2000, the percentage of renters has increased to 53 percent from 45 percent, according to the U.S. Census.

Don’t Bank on the City’s Future. A key fiscal issue appears to be the reluctance of banks in Detroit to offer home mortgages for less than $50,000, a figure higher than many Detroit homes are worth—a seeming legacy of the sharp withering of assessed property values after the real-estate crash. Moreover, acquiring clear titles necessary for mortgages has become more difficult, because all too many Detroit homes have liens, and way too many are in such disrepair that making them livable can multiply purchase prices. Then, almost as if adding injury to insult, current federal regulations promulgated after the crash have increased the cost of issuing mortgages. Indeed, according to the Urban Institute: only one in five Detroit residents have credit scores high enough to obtain a mortgage. Erica Ward Gerson, Chair of the Detroit Land Bank, notes that Mayor Duggan, even before he took office three years ago, had recognized how critical mortgages would be to the city’s fiscal recovery: he went, in 2015, to Denver to the Clinton Global Initiative America to plead his case to the former President and leaders of foundations and banks: afraid that low appraisals and the refusal to loan small amounts would undercut any long-term recovery chances for the city. That leadership turned out to be key: In the wake of Mayor Duggan personally taking at least one bank leader on tours of stable neighborhoods in Detroit where lending was impossible, Ms. Gerson noted that in “lightning speed,” five banks, community foundations, and nonprofits teamed to form the Detroit Home Mortgage program, which removes barriers to lending and issues mortgages for up to $75,000 more than appraised value. Now, in this new initiative, announced in February, the Mayor hopes to secure financing for 1,000 mortgages over the next 3-5 years.

Governing from Afar. It is now expected to take the PROMESA Oversight Board several more months to set up the administrative structure to pass judgment over the budgetary impact of every law enacted by Puerto Rico; nevertheless, the announcement that this process will be set in motion marks the consolidation of Puerto Rico’s public finances, coming just as Puerto Rico bondholders and bond insurers have repeated a request to the Oversight Board to initiate immediate debt negotiations. The Ad Hoc Group of GO Bondholders, which had requested the negotiations get started last week, had joined with other creditors in asking the PROMESA Board to commence negotiations this morning in New York City, with the creditors having rejected the Board’s request for a mediator to oversee the negotiations. The creditors complained it would take too long to set up the mediation ground rules and that there are only a few weeks to complete the debt negotiations, writing they had “all agreed not to participate in a mediation that lacks basic process,” seeking to trigger the PROMESA provision on a consensual debt negotiation process, which can run until May 1, when a stay on litigation allowed by PROMESA and the board will end. PROMESA Board Chair José Carrión III, for his part, has claimed that his plan is not to create a “super government,” at least in terms of the amount of people in the organism, notwithstanding that the Board’s new executive director and former Ukraine Minister of Finance, Natalie Jaresko, has been tasked with creating an office which, among other things, should have the capacity to pass judgment over the fiscal impact of each law passed in the last few months and those which might be ratified from now onward—or, as the Chairman describes it: “She will start hiring (personnel), of whom the vast majority will be Puerto Rican. We are searching for people who don’t just see this as an employment opportunity, but as a patriotic duty.”

To date, the PROMESA Board’s primary task has been to certify a long-term fiscal plan, but now the hard part of agreeing on the details and putting the legislative process under the magnifying glass commence—much like the long and painful process of reaching resolution of a plan of debt adjustment under chapter 9. To date, via letters addressed to the Governor and the leaders of the legislative chambers, the PROMESA Board first established a work calendar to which the Puerto Rico Legislature is to comply with the budget the Governor must submit before the end of the month—then granting the legislature just two weeks in May to assess and amend said budget—upon which the PROMESA Board will have the final say. Indeed, if, by the end of June, the Governor and the Legislature have not complied with the Board’s mandates, the Board—which has powers greater than Puerto Rico’s elected officials—could impose its own budget for Puerto Rico’s FY2018 year that begins on July 1st.

The process, in contrast to chapter 9 in local governments, will not include all branches; rather, the PROMESA Board is expected to continue to makes its exchanges with the Governor—not the legislators, which make up a branch of government with two leaders and where, at least on paper, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz promises to ignore the members of the fiscal authority. Indeed, according to PROMESA, the exchange related to the revision of every law is made directly with the Governor, to whom the Board has granted seven days—after the statute is adopted—to present the fiscal impact estimate, if any, on the Governments revenues and expenditures. Or, as former Senator Fernando Martín, who is the executive president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, put it: “As long as they take their draconian powers seriously, I believe they will do what they announced: examine passed legislation; repeal any legislation that proves contradictory with the fiscal plan; or, to soften the blow, try to make the Legislature modify it,” adding that the PROMESA Board’s defense against the Government of Puerto Rico’s bondholders is to be rigorous in controlling expenses: “Paraphrasing the current Governor’s father, the worst is yet to come: austerity, by itself, cannot be a recipe,” rather they will have to encourage solving “the structural problem in the relations between Puerto Rico and the U.S., since the solution means ending colonialism”.

Mr. Martin believes that the Governor—as the leader of the Executive branch—, the Senate President, and the House Speaker could have the judicial strength to sue: “If the Governor accepts my call to challenge the Board and the intervention in the Island’s governmental affairs, I am more than willing to help combat the Board. If I was Governor and they rejected a law I signed, I would challenge the Board’s actions in court.” However, because the PROMESA Board was imposed by Congress, in exchange for offering Puerto Rico the possibility of a quasi-chapter 9 territorial bankruptcy procedure, and because the federal law bases the Board’s control over the Island on the power Congress has to legislate through the territorial clause of the United States Constitution; it would seem his advice would be unlikely to pass judicial muster—even as Mr. Martin notes: “The Governor of Puerto Rico is Ricardo Rosselló, elected by the people’s votes. It is not Mr. Carrión. Even though Ricardo Rosselló does not belong to my party, I respect the position he holds and the power he has according to what is established by our Constitution.” Ferrer added.

Donde Estamos? Currently, while the PROMESA Board is still reviewing the workday reduction for public employees and the elimination of the Christmas bonus if its members believe that there will not be enough cash in the coffers by July 1st, the tax reduction for doctors would cost $185 million per year. Thus, the Representative from the New Progressive Party, José Enrique “Quiquito” Meléndez, opines that Governor Rosselló’s government has had “a particular worry,” which is if the Board’s power over Puerto Rico’s laws includes measures passed before the certification of the fiscal plan. Ergo. Rep. Meléndez considers that the one with the greatest cost will be the doctors’; however, among the laws which would be subject to the Board’s review would lie the financing for the plebiscite and the office of the Inspector General—or as he described it: “The plebiscite’s impact is not substantial, even without the $2.5 million that the federal government can grant.” The cost of the plebiscite—whose possible celebration is mentioned in PROMESA, has been estimated at $5 million at least—an amount that Mr. Martín does not foresee that the Board would want to say that holding a consultation on Puerto Rico’s political future, even under a Board that could only exist under the territorial status, to be “a superfluous cost.”

The Uneven Shape of Colonial Governance. Because of the PROMESA Board’s absolute power over Puerto Rico’s elected officials and even the finances of the Puerto Rico Judicial Branch, the governance situation appears to be without precedence since Congress granted Puerto Rico a structure to form a local government.

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