Rebuilding the Motor City, and Reconsidering Colonialism in Puerto Rico

July 27, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider post-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy challenges in Detroit, before turning to legislative and legal challenges to Puerto Rico.

A Foreclosed Motor City Future? In Detroit, time is running out for the owners of foreclosed properties under a new program which arose out of a legal settlement two years ago intended to protect the rights of low-income owner-occupants of foreclosed homes to purchase back their properties back for $1,000—a plan which provided that occupied homes on tap for this coming fall’s tax auction will instead be purchased by the City of Detroit and sold to owner-occupants who can prove they qualify for the city’s poverty tax exemption or have in the past—an exemption which would reduce or eliminate property tax liabilities for those who qualify. The plan is an indication of one of the most challenging aspects of fashioning a plan of debt adjustment for recovering from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history: how does one enhance the property tax base by attracting higher income families to move back into the city without jeopardizing thousands upon thousands of the city’s poorest families?

To date, with a looming deadline in a month, the United Community Housing Coalition has received about 140 applications—the foundation received funds from the City and foundations to purchase the homes—with the assistance available to prospective homeowners who can prove they could have qualified for the tax exemption between 2014 and 2017, but did not receive one—and that they agree to sign a sworn statement they would have qualified in the past. The effort matters: Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree estimates as many as 700 owner-occupied homes in Detroit are at risk of being sold at the fall tax foreclosure auction.

Quien Es Encargado? (Who is in charge?) U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain Wednesday stated she would issue an opinion soon with regard to the hard federalism question emerging from the by Puerto Rico versus the PROMESA Oversight Board over their authority, noting at the end of the Title II bankruptcy hearing: “I realize the urgency of the situation,” at the end of a Title III bankruptcy hearing in San Juan, referring to two adversary proceedings against the Board–one brought by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, and the other by the Presidents of the Puerto Rico Senate and House of Representatives—while PROMESA Board attorney Martin Bienenstock described the Governor’s effort to challenge the Board’s efforts to preempt the legislative power and authority of the U.S. Territory’s elected Governor and Legislature as “ineffectual.” Mr. Peter Friedman, representing the Governor and Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (FAFAA), responded that the Governor was just trying to raise a narrow set of issues: they want the federal court to reject the notion that they have no meaningful role in governing.  But the unelected Mr. Bienenstock said the Governor’s challenge is based on five discrete issues intertwined with the PROMESA Board’s ability to revive the economy, regain capital markets access, and do other things mandated by the PROMESA law, as he focused especially on two issues: what he characterized as the Board’s power over “reprogramming” the use of unused Puerto Rico government funds, arguing before Judge Swain that if the Governor were permitted to appropriate and authorize funding to carry out his responsibilities, then the PROMESA Board would have lost control over the budget, fiscal plan, and debt restructuring.

In response to this extraordinary claim, Judge Swain said that while she recognized the Board has some authority, she questioned whether it applies to funding lines that had been authorized before PROMESA’s passage, describing the issue as a “conundrum,” even as Mr. Bienenstock testified that the Governor wants to make it legal to “knowingly and willingly” spend more than the PROMESA Board budget authorizes. This raised an issue which goes to the heart of governance in a democracy: should those elected by the citizens of a jurisdiction have the final say as opposed to those who neither reside in nor come from such a jurisdiction have the final governing authority?

Crossing Swords. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, stated he would not testify before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee unless Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said he was sorry for a Tweet tweeted from the Committee’s account last week: “Call your office, @ricardorossello,” accompanied an invitation to the hearing, where invited witnesses were to be grilled on a management crisis at PREPA. Gov. Rosselló noted the tweet falsely suggested that he was hard to reach. Perhaps more importantly, for the Governor, the Chairman’s comments appeared to reflect a disrespect which would not be shown to the Governor of any State, emphasizing the perception that the federal government has a colonialist attitude toward the Commonwealth, where residents are U.S. citizens, but are barred from having a vote in the House and Senate. Chairman Bishop did not apologize for the demeaning tweet, asserting that its removal meant no apology was required—a position hard to imagine he would make to Utah Governor Gary Herbert.

Converting Swords to Plowshares? With Congress adjourning today for six weeks, Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenifer Gonzalez hopes her pro-democracy project can be discussed by Chairman Bishop’s Committee in September: her legislation, HR 6246, would enable the admission of the territory of Puerto Rico into the Union as a State. Chair Bishop, according to the Commissioner, “has a plan” to move the prospects for statehood forward in the short 19-day legislative window before this Congress adjourns in November. Rep. Gonzalez affirmed that her legislative goal is to incorporate Puerto Rico as a territory, which would be considered as a promise of statehood, and create a Congress Working Group, so that, within a period of just over a year, there would be a report on changes to laws that would have to be put in place to admit the island as a state in January of 2021.

Lighting up PREPA? Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló was a no-show at a Congressional hearing Wednesday afternoon on efforts to wrench control of the bankrupt Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority from Puerto Rico’s government—a hearing, “Management Crisis at the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority and Implications for Recovery,” with regard to which Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) had written: “Despite your recognition of the politicization that has plagued PREPA and your commitment towards allowing for independence, the recent departure of PREPA’s CEO after only four months of service and the resignation of the majority of PREPA’s governing board are the most recent signs of the utility’s continued dysfunction and a sign that ‘political forces…continue to control PREPA.’” The Governor, late Tuesday had announced he would not be able to participate in the hearing—a hearing at which there was to be a focus on corruption within the utility and the possibility of privatization—but at which the Committee was scheduled to receive testimony from the invaluable chapter 9 expert Jim Spiotto, as well as DOE Assistant Secretary Bruce Walker.  In its most recent audit, Ernst & Young had noted there substantial  doubt whether PREPA could continue as a going concern, since it does not have sufficient funds to fully repay its obligations as they come due and is restructuring its long-term debt. (PREPA utility filed for bankruptcy one year ago in the face of accruing $9 billion in debt, under PROMESA’s provisions in Title III.

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Investing in Fiscal & Human Futures

June 11, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the issue of keeping Puerto Rico’s schools open in the face of quasi municipal bankruptcy; then we veer north to assess post-state taken over Atlantic City: What Are the City’s Fiscal Odds for Its Future?  

The Governance Challenge for Schools and Demographic Changes. Puerto Rico Superior Court Judge Santiago Cordero Osorio has ordered the suspension of the closure of three of the U.S. territory’s schools in Morovis, pending an explanation from Secretary of Education Julia Keleher of the reasoning behind her orders. His ruling came as part of a lawsuit brought by the Municipality of Morovis challenging the closures of Alverio Pimentel, Manuel Alonso Díaz, and the Second David Colón Vega schools—and in the wake of the Judge’s earlier decisions ordering the closure of six other schools in the Arecibo region—closures also being challenged by the Teachers’ Association. In his order, Judge Osorio noted that all these claims will be evaluated in a court hearing scheduled for this morning—one to which he has invited the Secretary of Education or a representative to attend, noting: “This Court appreciates and recapitulates that the State must come prepared to justify in accordance with its regulations the closure, not only of the schools subject to this interdict, but of all the schools of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico that the Department of Education has under its jurisdiction, and that it pretends according to the regulation to close.”

For his part, Mayor Carmen Maldonado of Morovis explained the suit was filed in the wake of a non-response to her request for a meeting with Secretary Keleher, stating, in a press release: “Today we are taking an important step in the defense of public education for Moroveño children. To all parents, principals, teachers and school staff, I invite you to attend that hearing on Monday at the Arecibo Court, so that together we can continue to fight to keep schools open. As I assured them in the many meetings we had, although the power is in the hands of the central government, the reason is on our side and we are going to defend that reason. The fiscal and governance challenge-as we had experienced in Detroit’s chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, is a state versus local authority issue. Indeed, as the Department’s legal division stated: “The opening and closing of the schools is under the authority of the Secretary of Education and this is established by Law 85 of 2018 (Law on Educational Reform).”

The Rebirth of an Iconic American City?  Victor Fiorillo, writing in the Philadelphia Magazine, asked in his article, “The Re-Re-Re-Birth of Atlantic City,” what if everyone was wrong about the fiscal implications of the closure of the city’s famed casinos. Writing that Atlantic City had first drawn him in about 15 years ago with the opening of the Borgata Casino—at a time when “most other casinos in Atlantic City were in various stages of decay, and here was this brand-new Vegas-style resort with casino restaurants that were actually good and the best shows in town.” But he also noted that, back then, it was really a family focus: “My wife and I spend as much of the summer as possible on the A.C. beach with our 10-year-old and 12-year-old, opting for the relative solitude of the town’s southern end, far from any casinos or bars.” But in revisiting the municipality today, he noted he is not one of the only “believers in Atlantic City,” noting there are “some surprising signs of life these days, not to mention some serious investment—from small ventures, like Longacre’s projects, to big bets like Stockton University’s new beachfront campus and this month’s opening of the $550 million Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in the old Trump Taj Mahal.

Betting on the City’s Future. Mr. Fiorillo then turned to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing sports gambling, noting: “There’s more money pouring into A.C. right now than in all of Philadelphia,” according to development mogul Bart Blatstein, but, as with gambling, quoting Temple Professor Bryant Simon, author of 2004’s Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America: “Atlantic City has risen and fallen innumerable times: “This is the story that has been told for a hundred years.” He added: “The irony, of course, is that this new resurgence is happening just a few short years after nearly half the city’s casinos went under, thousands of jobs disappeared, and Atlantic City itself seemed to be left for dead. Then again, maybe there’s no irony here at all. Maybe this more organic, up-from-the-ground rebirth of Atlantic City is exactly the kind of action that could mean sustained success for the city by the sea.”

Leaving on a Jet Plane. Mr. Fiorillo examined the city’s road to its state takeover from a non-fiscal perspective, writing: “It was right around this time that Atlantic City began to fade. Dissertations and books have been written about the many factors that led to the resort’s demise in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but a big one was the sudden ease of jet travel. You could get on a plane after breakfast and be on a beach in Miami for lunch. Atlantic City? Pfft. The Shore town began to disintegrate. By the mid-’70s, the city found itself at a pivotal crossroads. It could do nothing, ride out the downward trend, and see what happened. Or it could come up with some novel and wholly artificial way to inject new life into itself. It opted for the latter, betting that gambling would be Atlantic City’s salvation. Until that point, Nevada was the only place in the United States where you could open up a full-fledged casino. But in 1976, New Jersey citizens voted to make slots and table games legit in Atlantic City. The first casino, Resorts—which just turned 40 and is still standing — opened less than two years later.”

Noting that, for a time, business was booming, he credited Atlantic City’s casinos for bringing hundreds of millions of tourists to the Boardwalk during Atlantic City’s gambling heyday” “Some years, this city of 40,000 residents topped 34 million tourists. But outside the casino walls, the city struggled. The casino owners—including, for a time, Donald Trump—got fat, politicians got their kickbacks, and the impoverished residents of Atlantic City remained just that: And then everything went wrong. The new Atlantic City created in the late 1970s was premised almost entirely on maintaining a casino duopoly with Nevada; once casinos started popping up all over—including in Pennsylvania in 2006—Atlantic City imploded.”

Noting, as we have traced, the city’s fiscal nadir came to a head in January of 2014, when the Atlantic Club, which had opened as the Golden Nugget in 1980, collapsed, followed by Showboat, followed by the Revel, followed shortly thereafter by the Trump Plaza, noting: “Finally, in October 2016, one month before its namesake was elected to the Oval Office, the lights went out at Trump Taj Mahal. In just two and a half years, five casinos vanished, their cavernous buildings shuttered. Atlantic City had bottomed out economically in the most spectacular fashion possible.”

Tracing a Fiscal Turnaround. Writing that when assessed property values drop low enough, neighborhoods become more and affordable—and, ergo, more attractive to developers who could “pick up buildings for pennies on a dollar,” he noted that “Atlantic City suddenly became a risk worth taking”—adding: “Investing in Atlantic City now makes a lot more sense than it did five years ago, but it’s hardly a no-brainer. The city, with its 37% poverty rate) is overwhelmingly poor. Taxes are overwhelmingly high. And walking around on Atlantic or Pacific Avenue, the city’s two main north-south boulevards, which run parallel to and within blocks of the Boardwalk—can be nerve-racking after hours. In daylight, panhandlers accost and prostitutes solicit. Politically, things are hardly ideal: Then-governor Chris Christie instituted a state takeover in 2016.

John Longacre, who has acquired a reputation for building a business by spotting potential where others see potential disaster, and he works primarily in South Philadelphia, where he specializes in recovery projects that save buildings, convert seedy bars into trendy restaurants and turn vacant eyesores into neighborhood hubs, told Mr. Fiorillo: “Every bank in the region is terrified of Atlantic City.” Indeed, Mr. Longacre added: “If you look at the policy surrounding everything that exists in Atlantic City, it’s the perfect storm to keep investors out: From the state handling the zoning to the tax base to rent control, everything that happens from a policy level makes it seem like New Jersey is trying to make Atlantic City fail.” Nevertheless, he seems convinced the fabled city will not fail. Or, as Mr. Fiorillo described it, there are a new breed interested in the fabled city who likely will play an essential role in the city’s future: “It’s not about Aunt Edna and Uncle Fred and their casino bus trips anymore. It’s about younger people who aren’t into Atlantic City for the gambling. It’s about people who don’t just feel comfortable in but desire urban environments, with all their flaws and character. It’s about people who respect and require diversity. It’s about people like me and my wife, who, to be honest, cringe when we drive into a place like Avalon.”

Describing this fiscal and physical revival, he writes about the relationship of small projects complemented by large ones: “The Hard Rock Hotel is finally going to open on the Boardwalk later this month, where the Taj Mahal was until October 2016. Pottstown native Todd Moyer, senior vice president of marketing for this new outpost of the rock-and-roll-themed company, got his start in the casino business in 1990, when he worked as a tuxedoed greeter at, coincidentally, the Taj. I was working for Hard Rock out West, when I got the chance to come home: I jumped at it. Sometimes I would be at a bar or restaurant and hear people talking about Atlantic City being dead, and I’d jump in. I’m a defender and a giant supporter of A.C. We’re building hotels all around the world, but really, all the focus lately has been on Atlantic City.”

As for Mr. Longacre, his view is that he would “love for every casino to go out of business and see Atlantic City re-create itself without them, as an urban beach town.” Nevertheless, he believes there is one massive Atlantic City development which will be a game-changer: Stockton, the nearly 50-year-old public university, which has its main campus in Galloway Township, about 20 minutes from the Boardwalk: it is set to debut a brand-new beachfront Atlantic City campus this September, when one thousand students will use the campus, and many of them plan to live in town. Thus, he notes: “Stockton is huge. It’s the first real institutional investment in years that’s not a casino.”

Rolling the Fiscal Dice? As significant as these fiscal changes appear to be, they almost seem to pale against the city’s real world challenges: Atlantic City has a poverty level three times higher than the statewide rate: more than three times the number below the poverty level—and a disability rate among non-poor residents of just under 25%. In its rental housing, the percentage of residents below the federal poverty level is over 90%. A consequent governing challenge for the post-taken over city and the Garden State remains. Mr. Fiorillo notes that whether the gambles being made by Mr. Blatstein, Mr. Longacre, and others are successful remains to be seen—as does the question with regard to whether all the investment will put much of a dent in Atlantic City’s poverty rate or help the town’s current residents. He adds: “And it’s not going to be this summer or next summer when we find out who, if anyone, wins. Nevertheless, he wrote: “When I consider Point Breeze circa 2008 and that same area today, I have hope for this complicated Shore town. There will always be casinos here, for better or worse, and there will always be crime and poverty and grime. This is, after all, a city. But, 10 years from now, when my own kids are (I hope) in very good colleges, it’s not too hard to imagine us spending a summer weekend at some boutique hotel on New York Avenue. We’ll stop into the Boardwalk La Colombe for a draft latte, served up by a very hip-looking third-year Stockton student on break. For lunch, HipCityVeg down in the inlet. Happy hour will be at some John Longacre-owned brewpub overlooking the Atlantic.”

Motoring Back from Chapter 9 Bankruptcy

March 9, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the state of the City of Detroit, the state of the post-state takeover Atlantic City, and the hard to explain delay by the U.S. Treasury of a loan to the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

An Extraordinary Chapter 9 Exit. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan yesterday described the Motor City as one becoming a “world-class place to put down your roots” and make an impact: “We’re at a time where I think the trajectory is going the right way…We all know what the issues are. We’re no longer talking about streetlights out, getting grass cut in the parks. We’re making progress. We’re not talking all that much about balancing the budget.” His remarks, coming nearly five years after I met with Kevin Orr on the day he had arrived in Detroit at the request of the Governor Rick Snyder to serve as the Emergency Manager and steer the city into and out of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, denote how well his plan of debt adjustment as approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes has worked.

Thus, yesterday, the Mayor touted the Detroit Promise, a city scholarship program which covers college tuition fees for graduates of the city’s school district, as well as boosting a bus “loop” connecting local charter schools, city schools and after-school programs. Maybe of greater import, the Mayor reported that his administration intends to have every vacant, abandoned house demolished, boarded up, or remodeled by next year—adding that last year foreclosures had declined to their lowest level since 2008. Over the last six months, the city has boarded up 5,000 houses, sold 3,000 vacant houses for rehab, razed nearly 14,000 abandoned houses, and sold an estimated 9,000 side lots. The overall architecture of the Motor City’s housing future envisions the preservation of 10,000 affordable housing units and creation of 2,000 new ones over the next five years.

The Mayor touted the success of the city’s Project Green Light program, noting that some 300 businesses have joined the effort, which has realized, over the last three years a 40% in carjackings, a 30% decline in homicides since 2012, and 37% fewer fires, adding that the city intends to expand the Operation Ceasefire program, which has decreased shootings and other crimes, to other police precincts. On the economic front, the Mayor stated that Lear, Microsoft, Adient, and other major enterprises are moving or planning to open sites: over the last four years, more than 25 companies of 100-500 jobs relocated to Detroit. On the public infrastructure radar screen, Mayor Duggan noted plans for $90 million in road improvements are scheduled this year, including plans to expand the Strategic Neighborhood Fund to target seven more areas across the city, add stores, and renovate properties. Nearly two years after Michigan Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) shepherded through the legislature a plan to pay off the Detroit School District’s debt, describing it to his colleagues as a “realistic compromise for a path to the future…At the end of the day, our responsibility is to solve the problem: Without legislative action, the Detroit Public Schools would head toward bankruptcy, which would cost billions of dollars and cost every student in every district in Michigan,” the Mayor yesterday noted that a bigger city focus on public schools is the next front in Detroit’s post-bankruptcy turnaround as part of the city’s path to exiting state oversight. He also unveiled a plan to partner with the Detroit Public Schools Community District, describing the recovery of the district as vital to encourage young families to move back into the city, proposing the formation of an education commission on which he would serve, as well as other stakeholders to take on coordinating some city-wide educational initiatives, such as putting out a universal report card on school quality (which he noted would require state support) and coordinating bus routes and extracurricular programs to serve the city’s kids regardless of what schools they attend.

The Mayor, who at the end of last month unveiled a $2 billion balanced budget, noted that once the Council acts upon it, the city would have the opportunity to exit active state oversight: “I expect in April or May, we’re going to see the financial review commission vote to end oversight and return self-determination to the City of Detroit,” adding: “As everybody here knows, the financial review commission doesn’t entirely go away: they go into a dormancy period. If we in the future run a deficit, they come back.”

His proposed budget relies on the use of $100 million of an unassigned fund balance to help increase spending on capital projects, including increased focus on blight remediation, stating he hopes to double the rate of commercial demolition and get rid of every vacant, “unsalvageable” commercial property on major streets by the end of next year—a key goal from the plan he unveiled last October to devote $125 million of bond funds towards the revitalization of Detroit neighborhood commercial corridors, part of the city’s planned $317 million improvements to some 300 miles of roads and thousands of damaged sidewalks—adding that these investments have been made possible from the city’s $ billion general fund thanks to increasing income tax revenues—revenues projected to rise 2.7% for the coming fiscal year and add another $6million to $7 million to the city’s coffers. Indeed, CFO John Hill reported that the budget maintains more than a 5% reserve, and that the city continues to put aside fiscal resources to address the  higher-than-expected pension payments commencing in 2024, the fiscal year in which Detroit officials project they will face annual payments of at least $143 million under the city’s plan of debt adjustment, adding that the retiree protection fund has performed well: “What we believe is that we will not have to make major changes to the fund in order for us to have the money that we need in 2024 to begin payments; In 2016 those returns weren’t so good and have since improved in 2017 and 2018, when they will be higher than the 6.75% return that we expected.” He noted that Detroit is also looking at ways to restructure its debt, because, with its limited tax general obligation bonds scheduled to mature in the next decade, Detroit could be in a position to return to the municipal market and finance its capital projects. Finally, on the public safety front, the Mayor’s budget proposes to provide the Detroit Police Department an $8 million boost, allowing the police department to make an additional 141 new hires.

Taking Bets on Atlantic City. The Atlantic City Council Wednesday approved its FY2019 budget, increasing the tax levy by just under 3%, creating sort of a seesaw pattern to the levy, which three years ago had reached an all-time high of $18.00 per one thousand dollars of valuation, before dropping in each of the last two years. Now Atlantic City’s FY2019 budget proposal shows an increase of $439,754 or 3.06%, with Administrator Lund outlining some of the highlights at this week’s Council session. He reported that over the years, the city’s landfill has been user fee-based ($1 per occupant per month) to be self-sufficient; however, some unforeseen expenses had been incurred which imposed a strain on the landfill’s $900,000 budget. Based on a county population of 14,000, the money generated from the assessment amounts to roughly $168,000 per year, allowing the Cass County Landfill to remain open. However, the financing leaves up to each individual city the decision of fee assessments. Thus, he told the Council: “The Per Capita payment to the landfill accounted for about .35 to .40 cents of the increase.”  Meanwhile, two General Department heads requested budget increases this year and five Department Heads including; the Police Department and Library submitted budgets smaller than the previous year. Noting that he “never advocate(s) for a tax increase,” Mr. Lund stated: “But it is what it is. It was supposed to go up to $16.98 last year and now we are at $16.86, so it’s still less,” adding that the city’s continuous debt remains an anchor to Atlantic City’s credit rating—but that his proposed budget includes a complete debt assumption and plan to deleverage the City over the next ten years.

Unshelter from the Storm. New York Federal Reserve Bank President, the very insightful William Dudley, warns that Puerto Rico should not misinterpret the economic boost from reconstruction following hurricanes that hit it hard last year as a sign of underlying strength: “It’s really important not to be seduced by that strong recovery in the immediate aftermath of the disaster,” as he met with Puerto Rican leaders in San Juan: “We would expect there to be a bounce in 2018 as the construction activity gets underway in earnest,” warning, however, he expects economic growth to slow again in 2019 or 2020: “It’s “important not to misinterpret what it means, because a lot still needs to be done on the fiscal side and the long-term economic development side.”

President Dudley and his team toured densely populated, lower-income, hard hit  San Juan neighborhoods, noting the prevalence of “blue roofs”—temporary roofs overlaid with blue tarps which had been used as temporary cover for the more permanent structures devastated by the hurricanes, leading him to recognize that lots of “construction needs to take place before the next storm season,” a season which starts in just two more months—and a season certain to be complicated by ongoing, persistent, and discriminatory delays in federal aid—delays which U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin blamed on Puerto Rico, stating: “We are not holding this up…We have documents in front of them that [spell out the terms under which] we are prepared to lend,” adding that the Trump Administration has yet to determine whether any of the Treasury loans would ultimately be forgiven in testimony in Washington, D.C. before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government.

Here, the loan in question, a $4.7 billion Community Disaster Loan Congress and the President approved last November to benefit the U.S. territory’s government, public corporations, and municipalities—but where the principal still has not been made available, appears to stem from disagreements with regard to how Puerto Rico would use these funds—questions which the Treasury had not raised with the City of Houston or the State of Florida.  It appears that some of the Treasury’s apprehensions, ironically, relate to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s proposed tax cuts in his State of the Commonwealth Speech, in which the Governor announced tax cuts to stimulate growth, pay increases for the police and public school teachers, and where he added his administration would reduce the size of government through consolidation and attrition, with no layoffs, e.g. a stimulus policy not unlike the massive federal tax cuts enacted by President Trump and the U.S. Congress. It seems, for the Treasury, that what is good for the goose is not for the gander.

At the end of last month, Gov. Rosselló sent a letter to Congress concerned that the Treasury was now offering only $2.065 billion, writing that the proposal “imposed restrictions seemingly designed to make it extremely difficult for Puerto Rico to access these funds when it needs federal assistance the most.” This week, Secretary Mnuchin stated: “We are monitoring their cash flows to make sure that they have the necessary funds.” Puerto Rico reports it is asking for changes to the Treasury loan documents; however, Sec. Mnuchin, addressing the possibility of potential loans, noted: “We’re not making any decision today whether they will be forgiven or…won’t be forgiven.” Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA, a non-profit devoted to the forgiveness of debt on humanitarian grounds, believes the priority should be to provide assistance for rebuilding as rapidly as possible, noting: “Almost six months after Hurricane Maria, we are still dealing with real human and economic suffering…It seems everyone is trying to work together to get the first installment of financing sent and it needs to be urgently sent.”

Part of the problem—and certainly part of the hope—is that President Dudley might be able to lend his acumen and experience to help. While the Treasury appears to be most concerned about greater Puerto Rico public budget transparency, Mr. Dudley, on the ground there, is more concerned that Puerto Rican leaders not misinterpret the economic boost from reconstruction following the devastating hurricanes as a sign of underlying strength, noting: “It’s really important not to be seduced by that strong recovery in the immediate aftermath of the disaster: We would expect there to be a bounce in 2018 as the construction activity gets underway in earnest,” before the economic growth slows again in 2019 or 2020, adding, ergo, that it was “important not to misinterpret what it means, because a lot still needs to be done on the fiscal side and the long-term economic development side.”

Federal Tax Reform in a Post-Chapter 9 Era

December 4, 2017

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s Blog, we consider the fiscal and governing challenges that the pending federal tax “reform” legislation might have for the nation’s city emerging from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, before returning to the governance challenges in Puerto Rico.  

Visit the project blog: The Municipal Sustainability Project 

Harming Post Chapter 9 Recovery? As the House and Senate race, this week, to conference on federal tax legislation, the potential fiscal impact on post chapter 9 Detroit provides grim tidings. The proposed changes would eliminate federal tax credits vital to Detroit’s emergency from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; the elimination of low-income housing tax credits would reduce financing options for the city: the combination, because it would adversely affect business investment and development, could undercut the pace of the city’s recovery. Most at risk are historic rehabilitation and low income housing tax credits: the House version of the tax “reform” legislation proposes to eliminate historic tax credits—the Senate version would reduce them by 50%; both versions propose the elimination of new market tax credits. The greatest threat is the potential elimination of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LITC), proposed by the House, potentially undercutting as much as 40% of the current financing for low income housing in the Motor City. While both the House and Senate versions retain a 9% low income housing tax credit, the credit, as proposed, would limit how much the Michigan State Housing Development Agency may award on an annual basis—putting as much as $280 million at risk. According to the National Housing Conference, the production of low income housing could decline by as much as 50%. The combined impact could leave owners and developers of low income housing with fewer options for rehabilitation—an impact potentially with disproportionate omens for post-chapter 9 municipalities such as Detroit.   

Is There Promise or Democracy in PROMESA? Since the imposition by Congress of the PROMESA, quasi-chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy legislation, under which a board named by former President Obama appointed seven voting members, with Gov. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló serving as an ex officio member, but with no voting rights—there have been singular disparities, including between the harsh fiscal measures imposed on the U.S. territory, measures imposing austerity for Puerto Rico, even as the PROMESA Executive Director receives an annual salary of $625,000—an amount 500% greater than the executive director of Detroit’s chapter 9 bankruptcy oversight board, and some $225,000 more than the President of the United States—with Puerto Rico’s taxpayers footing the tab for what is perceived as an unelected board acting as an autocratic body which threatens to undermine the autonomy of Puerto Rico’s government. Unsurprisingly, the Congressional statute includes few incentives for transparency, much less accountability to the citizens and taxpayers of Puerto Rico. Indeed, when the Center for Investigative Journalism and the Legal Clinic of the Interamerican University Law School, attorneys Judith Berkan, Steven Lausell, Luis José Torres, and Annette Martínez—both in one case before the San Juan Superior Court and in another before federal Judge Jay A. García-Gregory, as well as the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press submitted an amicus brief seeking clarification with regard to the legal standards of transparency and accountability which should be applied to the board, the PROMESA Board asserted that the right of access to information does not apply to it. 

Governance in Insolvency. As we have followed the different and unique models of chapter 9 and insolvencies from Central Falls, Rhode Island, through San Bernardino, Stockton, Detroit, Jefferson County, etc., it has been respective state laws—or the absence thereof—which have determined the critical role of governance—whether it be guided via a federal bankruptcy court, a state oversight board, in large part determined by the original authority under the U.S. system of governance whereby the states—because they created the federal government—individually determine the eligibility of municipalities to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. In Puerto Rico, sort of a hybrid, being neither a state, nor a municipality, the issue of governing oversight is paving new ground. Thus, in Puerto Rico, it has opened the question with regard to whether the Governor or Congress ought to have the authority to name an oversight board—a body—whether overseeing the District of Colombia, New York City, Detroit, Central Falls, Atlantic City, etc.—to exercise oversight in the wake of insolvency. Such boards, after all, can protect a jurisdiction from pressures by partisan and outside actors. Moreover, the appointment of experts with both experience and expertise not subject to voters’ understandable angst can empower such appointed—and presumably expert officials, to take on complex fiscal and financial questions, including debt restructuring, access to the municipal markets, and credit.  Moreover, because appointed board members are not affected by elections, they are in a sometimes better position to impose austerity measures—measures which would likely rarely be supported by a majority of voters—or, as former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry said the District of Columbia oversight Board, it “was able to do some things that needed to be done that, politically, I would not do, would not do, would not do,” such as firing 2,000 human-service workers. 

In Puerto Rico—which, after all, is neither a municipality nor a state, the bad gnus is that these governance disparities are certain to continue: indeed, despite the PROMESA Board’s November 27th recommendations, Gov. Rosselló announced he would spend close to $113 million on government employees’ Christmas bonuses-an announcement the PROMESA Board responded to by stating that its members expect “to be consulted during the formulation and prior to the announcement of policies such as this to ensure the Government is upholding the principles of fiscal responsibility.” (Note: it would have to be a challenge for PROMESA Board members to observe the current federal tax bills in the U.S. House and Senate as measured by Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office and believe that Congress is actually exercising “fiscal responsibility.”)

Nevertheless, there might be some help at hand for the U.S. territory: House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Tx.), in trying to mold in conference with the Senate the pending tax reform legislation, is considering options to avert what top Puerto Rican officials fear could be still another devastating blow to its already tottering economy: both versions would end Puerto Rico’s status as an offshore tax haven for U.S. companies—a devastating potential blow, especially given the current federal Jones Act which imposes such disproportionate shipping costs on Puerto Rico compared to other, competitive Caribbean nations. Now, the Governor, as well as Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s sole nonvoting member of Congress, are warning that Puerto Rico’s slow recovery from Hurricane Maria could suffer an irreparable setback if manufacturers decide to close their factories. Commissioner Gonzalez said 40% of Puerto Rico’s economy relies on manufacturing, with much of that related to pharmaceuticals; ergo, she is worried that any drop in the $2 billion of annual revenue these businesses provide would undercut the economic recovery plan instituted by the PROMESA Board. The Commissioner notes: “Forty percent of the island is living in poverty,” even though the federal child tax credit only applies to a third child for residents of Puerto Rico.

Thus, many eyes in Puerto Rico—and, presumably in the PROMESA Board—are laser focused on the House-Senate tax conference this week, where the House version would extend, for five years, the so-called rum cover which provides an excise tax rebate to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on locally produced rum—a provision which Republican leaders appear unlikely to retain, albeit, they appear to be amenable to changes which could help reboot the island’s economy. (Puerto Rico produces 77% of the rum consumed in the U.S., according to the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Agency.) In a sense, part of the challenge is that for Puerto Rico, the issue has become whether to focus its lobbying on retaining its quasi-tax haven status. Gov. Rosselló worries that if that status were altered, “companies with a strong presence on the island would be forced to shutter those operations and decamp for the mainland or, worse, a lower-tax country…This would put tens of thousands of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico out of work and demolish our tax base right as we are trying to rebound from historic storms.” Chairman Brady, after meeting with Commissioner Gonzalez at the end of last week, told reporters the meeting was with regard to “ideas on how best to help Puerto Rico…I know the Senate too has some ideas as well…“Yeah, we’re going to keep working on that.” In conference, the House bill imposes a 20% excise tax on payments by a U.S. company to a foreign subsidiary; the Senate bill proposes a tax ranging from 12.5% to 15.625% on the income of foreign corporations with intangible assets in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, Puerto Rico officials and U.S. businesses operating there describe both the House and Senate versions as putting Puerto Rico at a disadvantage—or, as one official noted: “The companies are asking from exemptions from all of this if Puerto Rico is involved…They want to be exempted from the taxes going forward that would prevent companies from accumulating untaxed profits abroad.” Foreign earnings, which includes revenues earned by corporations operating in Puerto Rico, could be repatriated at a 14% rate if the funds were held in cash and 7% if its illiquid assets under the House bill; the Senate version would tax cash at 10% and illiquid assets at 5%. Companies operating in Puerto Rico would be taxed at the same rate on the mainland of the U.S. and in foreign countries. In addition, the average manufacturing wage is three times lower in Puerto Rico than on the mainland and companies operating there can claim an 80% tax credit for taxes paid to the territorial government, according to officials. Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) noted he wishes to “help Puerto Rico, but not in this tax bill.”

How Do State & Local Leaders Confront & Respond to Significant Population Declines?

eBlog, 04/21/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the unique fiscal challenge confronting Detroit: how does it deal with the fiscal challenges—challenges also confronting cities such as Cleveland, Philadelphia, Toledo, Dayton, Baltimore, and Philadelphia—which are experiencing significant population declines? What to do with vacant lots which no longer bring in property tax revenues—but enhance criminal proclivities?  

Fiscal & Physical Municipal Balancing. While Detroit has emerged fiscally from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy, it continues to be fiscally and governmentally bedeviled by the governance challenge of such a significant population contraction—it is, after all, a city of about 132 square miles, dotting with neighborhoods which have become splotches of vacant lots and abandoned homes: post-bankrupt Detroit, with neighborhoods that have been gradually emptying out, in a physical sense, is a shadow of its former self, with a population nearly 60% smaller than it was in 1950, but with a stock of some 40,000 abandoned homes and vacant lots—space which brings in no property taxes, but can breed crime and safety costs for the city: between 1978 and 2007, Detroit lost 67% of its business establishments and 80% of its manufacturing base. This untoward, as it were, “ungrowth” has come even as the city has spent $100 million more, on average, than its revenues since 2008: Census figures inform us that more than one in three of the city’s citizens fall below the poverty level—ranking the Motor City, along with Cleveland, Dayton, Toledo, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, as cities realizing major depopulation. Thus, while downtown Detroit today is gleaming towers along a vibrant waterfront, one need not drive far from the internationally acclaimed Detroit Institute of Arts to witness neighborhoods which are nearly abandoned as residents continue to move to the suburbs. Thus, with some of the fiscal issues effectively addressed under the city’s approved plan of debt adjustment, Detroit is commencing a number of initiatives to try to address what might be deemed its physical devastation—a challenge, in some ways, more complex than its finances: How does an emptier city restore blighted neighborhoods and link the islands of neighborhoods which have been left? Or, mayhap better put: how does the city re-envision and rebuild?

Here it seems the city is focused on four key initiatives: draw new families into the city (look at Chicago and how Mayor Emanuel succeeded); convert vacant lots from crime havens to community gardens; convert vast empty spaces to urban farms; devise a strategy to fill empty store fronts; and, again as did Mayor Emanuel, create a strategy to bring back young families with children to live in the city.

Already, Detroit’s downtown core is a new world from my first visit when the National League of Cities convened its annual meeting there in the 1980’s—a time when at the front desk of the hotel I was staying, the attendant told me that even though I could see the convention site from the hotel, it would be a grave risk to life and limb to even think about taking the bus or walking—a situation unchanged on a similar day, Detroit’s very first day in chapter 9 bankruptcy, when I had proposed setting out to walk to the Governor Rick Snyder’s Detroit office to meet just-appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. Today, the revived downtown has attracted young people, often in redeveloped historic buildings; but that emerging vibrancy does not include housing options for people at different stages of life. Thus, the city is making an effort to offer more differentiated housing options, including townhouses, apartments, carriage homes and more—as well as housing for seniors. Or, as Melissa Dittmer, director of architecture and design for Bedrock LLC, the company leading the development, notes with regard to an initiative just outside of downtown: “For so long, Detroit had a low-self-confidence issue and was willing to take just about” any residential development: “Now the city of Detroit has crossed a threshold. We can do better.”

Outside of the downtown area, one sample neighborhood, Fitzgerald, today has 131 vacant houses and 242 vacant lots; but the city’s Director of Housing and Revitalization, Arthur Jemison, notes these lots need not be filled with houses; instead, the city is moving to invest more than $4 million into the neighborhood to renovate 115 homes, landscape 192 vacant lots, and create a park with a bicycle path, or, as Mr. Jemison notes: “We can’t possibly rebuild every vacant lot with new construction…What we can do is rehabilitate a whole lot of houses, and we can have an intentional landscape scene. The landscape is important, because frankly, if it’s done and managed well, it’s inexpensive and people like it.”

But the comprehensive effort also recognizes the city does not need additional housing stock: it needs less; so it has unearthed a program, RecoveryPark Farms, to construct greenhouses on a 60-acre plot, a plot which until recently represented two dozen blighted blocks on Detroit’s east side. This unique project has diverse goals: it eliminates breeding territory for crime, eliminates blight, and creates opportunities for the unemployed, especially ex-offenders and recovering addicts. The program’s CEO Gary Wozniak, who spent more than three years in federal prison, notes farming offers a career with a lower bar for hiring and gives immediate feedback because “plants grow relatively quickly, so people can start to feel really good about building skill sets. Plus, Detroit has a lot of land.” Already, its harvests are purchased by some of Detroit’s top restaurants on a year-round basis, or, as CEO Wozniak put it: “What we’re doing is commercial-scale agriculture in an urban environment.”

On Detroit’s first day of bankruptcy, the walk from my downtown hotel to the Governor’s uptown office almost seem to resemble post-war Berlin: empty, abandoned buildings and storefronts. Thus, another post-bankruptcy challenge has been how to fill the vacant storefronts along Detroit’s half-abandoned commercial corridors—and, here, a partnership between the City of Detroit and other economic-development organizations, Motor City Match, works to create links between selected landlords and new small businesses, with a goal of converting blighted commercial districts to make them both more livable and more effective at providing job opportunities for residents—or, as Michael Forsyth, Director of small-business services at the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., notes: Motor City Match “helps get businesses from ideas to open.” The program awards $500,000 in grants every quarter, assisting businesses in completing a business plan, finding a place to open, and renovating office space: its CEO, Patrick Beal, CEO of the Detroit Training Center, received $100,000 during the first round of the program and matched it with a $100,000 loan. Now, with the help of Motor City Match, the company has trained more than 5,000 Detroiters in construction, heavy-equipment operation and other skills.

Finally, again as with Mayor Emanuel, the City respects the importance of children—meaning it must focus on public safety, and schools—governance challenges of the first order, especially as we have been long-writing, the parallel financial insolvency of the Detroit public schools. Thus, Ethan Lowenstein, the Director of the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition, is working with educators and local organizations in the region to help young people address environmental challenges in their communities, noting that families with children “leave because they don’t see the strength in their community and they don’t feel recognized as someone who has knowledge.” Mr. Lowenstein is seeking to reverse the city’s depopulation trend by working with the Detroit Public Schools. At two schools he works with in southwest Detroit, he says, students were on a walk around their community and noticed tires were being illegally dumped. The schools helped the students and worked with community members to identify areas with illegally dumped tires, and eventually the tires were recycled into doormats.  

In recovery from chapter 9 bankruptcy, sometimes the fiscal part can seem easy compared to the human dimension.

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.

The Challenge of Recovering from or Averting Municipal Bankrupty

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eBlog, 03/28/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing recovery in Detroit from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, before spinning the tables in Atlantic City, where the state takeover of the city has been expensive—and where the state’s own credit rating has been found wanting.

Home Team? A Detroit developer, an organization, Dominic Rand, has initiated a project “Home Team,” seeking to purchase up to up 25 square miles of property on the Motor City’s northwest side with a goal of keeping neighborhoods occupied by avoiding foreclosures and offering renters a path to homeownership. Nearly four years after the city’s chapter 9 filing for what former Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr deemed “the Olympics of restructuring,” to ensure continuity of essential services while developing a plan of debt adjustment to restructure the city’s finances—and to try to address the nearly 40 percent population decline and related abandonment of an estimated 40,000 abandoned lots and structures, as well as the loss of 67 percent of its business establishments and 80 percent of its manufacturing base, Mr. Rand reports he is excited about this initiative by an organization for purchases of homes slated for this year’s annual county tax foreclosure auction. His effort is intended to rehabilitate the homes and help tenants become homeowners. The effort seeks to end the cycle of home foreclosures due to unpaid property taxes. 

This is not the first such effort, however, so whether it will succeed or not is open to question. Officials at the United Community Housing Coalition note that previous such initiatives have failed, remembering Paramount Mortgage’s comparable effort, when the company purchased 2,000 properties, in part financed through $10 million from the Detroit police and fire pension fund—an effort which failed and, in its wake, left 90 percent of those in demolition status. Fox 2 reported that the City “does not support this proposal,” questioning its “ability to deliver on such a massive scale with no particular track record to indicate they would be successful,” adding the organization, if it wants to “start out by becoming a community partner through Detroit Land Bank and show what they can do with up to nine properties, they are welcome to do so.”

At first, the Home Team Detroit development group considered purchasing every property in Detroit subject to this year’s annual county tax foreclosure auction; instead, however, the group focused on the northwest quadrant covering 25 square miles and 24 neighborhoods—an area larger than Manhattan—with founder David Prentice noting: our “game plan is pretty simple: You are going to have a quadrant of (Detroit) with properties that are primarily occupied.” Mr. Prentice believes this initiative would address what he believes is one of Detroit’s biggest problems: halting the hemorrhaging of home foreclosures due to unpaid property taxes—an initiative one Detroit City Council member told the Detroit News was “unique and comprehensive.” Thus, city officials are reviewing the entity’s proposal—even as it reminds us of the Motor City’s ongoing home ownership challenge—a city where, still, more than 11,000 homes a year have ended in foreclosure over each of the last four years. Under the city’s process, the city warns property owners in January if their properties are at risk of tax foreclosure: as of last January, the Home Team group reports its targeted area has 11,073 properties headed for foreclosure.

Home Team is seeking approval from Detroit to purchase the properties via a “right of first refusal,” under which Mayor Mike Duggan and the Detroit City Council would have to approve the sale—and Wayne County and the State of Michigan would at least have to agree to not buy them as well, since both also have the option to buy the properties prior to such public auctions. Home Team claims it has the resources and expertise to buy the properties, rehab the homes, find new residents, and allow it to work with people traditional lenders would not consider due to poor credit ratings or because of the locations of the properties. The group claims its land contract system, or contracts for deeds, under which tenants make payments directly to the property owner and often have no ownership stake until the entire debt is paid, would work as an alternative to traditional mortgages—even as housing advocate groups such as the United Community Housing Coalition warn that land contracts are financial traps, and the nonprofit Michigan Legal Services told the Detroit News that many land contract deals are “gaming the system,” referencing a recent Detroit News story about many residents with land contracts losing out on actually getting a home—and others warning that those families sign contracts may end up owing significantly more than they would by renting, yet, at the end of such transactions, “have nothing to show for it.” (In recent years, the News reports, land contracts have outnumbered traditional mortgages in Detroit.) Mr. Prentice, while agreeing that “most land contracts are designed for the tenants to fail,” suggested his company’s land contracts would come without the high penalties, high monthly payments—payments which increase in time, and rising interest rates which have trapped unwary families in the past—and, he has vowed the company would fix up every property before putting it back on the market.

Detroit City Councilman George Cushingberry, who represents a major portion of the targeted area, told the News: “I like that it’s comprehensive and takes into account that one of the issues that prevents home ownership is financial literacy.” Yet, the ambitious proposal has also encountered neighborhood opposition: the Northwest Detroit Neighborhood Coalition has launched a petition drive to block the plan—and drawn support from eight neighborhood groups, with the Coalition issuing a statement: “We the people of northwest Detroit hereby declare our strong opposition to high-volume purchases of tax-foreclosed properties (10+ parcels) and other high-volume transfers of properties to real estate investors…Proposals like the one currently being circulated by (Home Team Detroit) do not serve the needs or interests of Detroit neighborhood residents. These bulk purchases only accelerate vacancy, blight, and further erosion of our community.” However, Melvin “Butch” Hollowell, Detroit’s Corporation Counsel, said the city opposes the effort, which would require the city to authorize a purchase agreement for the properties, noting: “The city does not support this proposal: We have a number of serious concerns, especially Home Team Detroit’s ability to deliver on such a massive scale with no particular track record to suggest they would be successful. If they want to start out by becoming a community partner through the Detroit Land Bank (Authority) and show what they can do with up to nine properties, they are welcome to do so and go from there.”

Robbery or the Cost of Municipal Fiscal Distress? The law firm of Jeffrey Chiesa, whom New Jersey Governor Chris Christie named to oversee the state takeover of Atlantic City, has billed the State of New Jersey about $287,000 for its work so far, according to multiple reports, including some $80,000 alone for Mr. Chiesa. The fiscal information came in the wake of the release by the state of invoices that showed the law firm submitted more than $207,000 in bills for the first three months of work, November through January—with some twenty-two members of the firm billing the state. In addition, Mr. Chiesa, who bills the State $400-an-hour for his time, reports he himself has billed $80,000 over that same period, noting to the Press those invoices were not included in the state’s data released last Friday, because they have yet to be fully reviewed. He added that the state has imposed “no cap” on the fees his firm may charge—leading State Assemblyman Chris A. Brown (R-Atlantic), who has been critical of the takeover, to note: “The governor handing over the city to a political insider without a transparent plan is like leaving your home without locking the door, and it looks like we just got robbed.”  The release of the data could not have come with more awkward timing, with the figures aired approximately a week after Mr. Chiesa wrote to Atlantic City police officers announcing the state was seeking to cut salaries, change benefits, and introduce longer shifts to save the city money—and as the state is calling for similar cuts and 100 layoffs in the city’s fire department—efforts in response to which Atlantic City’s police and fire unions have filed suit to prevent, with a judge last week ruling the state cannot yet move forward with the fire layoffs until he determines whether the state proposal is constitutional—even as Mr. Chiesa has defended the cuts, calling negotiations with the unions “money grabs.” For his part, at the end of last week, Mr. Chiesa defended his bills, claiming his firm helped negotiate a $72 million settlement with the Borgata casino in a long-running tax dispute with the city, gaining more than a 50 percent savings to the city from the refund it owed in the wake of tax appeals, deeming that an “important success on behalf of the city.”

Nevertheless, as S&P Global Ratings noted last week in upgrading Atlantic City’s credit rating from “CC” to “CCC,” despite assistance from the state, there is still the distinct possibility the city could still default on its debt over the next year and that filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy remains an option down the line.  Nevertheless, S&P analyst Timothy Little wrote that the upgrade reflected S&P’s opinion that “the near-term likelihood” of Atlantic City defaulting on its debt has “diminished” because of the state takeover and the state’s role in brokering the Borgata Casino agreement—an upgrade which a spokesperson for the Governor described as “early signs our efforts are working, that we will successfully revitalize the Atlantic City and restore the luster of this jewel in the crown.”  However, despite the upgrade, Atlantic City still remains junk-rate, and S&P reported the city’s recovery remains “tenuous:” It has a debt payment of $675,000 due on April Fool’s Day, $1.6 million on May Day, $1.5 million on June 1st, and another $3.5 million on August 1st—all payments which S&P believes will be made on time and in full, albeit warning that more substantial debts will come due later in the year, meaning, according to S&P, that the city’s recovery remains “tenuous,” and that Atlantic City is unlikely “to have the capacity to meet its financial commitment…and that there is at least a one-in-two likelihood” of a default in the next year.” Or, as Mr. Little wrote: “Despite the state’s increased intervention, [municipal] bankruptcy remains an option for the city and, in our opinion, a consideration if timely and adequate gains are not made to improve the city’s structural imbalance.”