From the Ashes of Municipal Bankruptcy

September 17, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report, again, on the remarkable fiscal and neighborhood recovery of Detroit—a demonstration of how chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy can lay the foundation for extraordinary fiscal and physical recovery. Then we look south to consider a new strategic plan for Puerto Rico—a U.S. territory surely on notice that it cannot count on FEMA in a major, life-threatening disaster.  

The Phoenix of American Cities? Detroit, the once and mayhap future automobile capital of the U.S. and one-time Motown music capital, filed for the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy five years and two months ago in the wake of a loss of more than a million residents, cuts in state aid, and collapsing real estate values—forcing the city to borrow to meet its operating costs. It came in the wake of the city experiencing periodic episodes of corruption and mismanagement for years—a critical consequence of this former great American industrial city’s dysfunction had been its erosion as a core for jobs: employment had fled the urban core, at a time it was rising in the metropolitan area—even as other cities were seeing something of a city-center revival. The Motor City’s ability to borrow in the municipal markets was exhausted after years of issuing long-term debt to pay its operating bills: the city had listed liabilities in excess of $17 billion—equal to $25,000 for every remaining resident. In his report, the city’s Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr, described the city as “dysfunctional and wasteful after years of budgetary restrictions, mismanagement, crippling operational practices and, in some cases, indifference or corruption.” For residents, escaping these debts and physical deterioration accompanied by high violent crime rates and unperforming schools meant moving to the suburbs: of the 264,209 households in Detroit, only 9.2% were married couple families with children under 18; another 78,438 households, or nearly 30%, were families headed by women.

Now, as the ever insightful Daniel Howes of the Detroit News has written, the city’s neighborhoods are in play: he wrote: “Three months after Ford Motor Co. confirmed plans to convert Corktown’s dilapidated Michigan Central Depot into its center for mobility and self-driving vehicle development, a consortium backed by $50 million from the Kresge Foundation is planning a cradle-to-career educational complex on the campus of Marygrove College at Wyoming and McNichols.” He was referring to the city’s historic district near downtown, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods—and one listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is not just an old part of the city, but one which gained its heritage in the middle of the last century when, in the wake of the Great Irish Potato Famine in the 1840’s, the great Irish migration to the U.S. made Detroit the city with the largest new home—with many Irish settling on the west side of the city; they were primarily from County Cork, and thus the neighborhood came to be known as Corktown. Kresge’s CEO, Rip Rapson, at the end of last week answered “unequivocally ‘yes.’ The time for the pivot to the neighborhoods is now,” in what he deemed an “an unprecedented model of neighborhood revitalization.”

A critical element to this revitalization could come from the physically and fiscally depleted Detroit Public Schools—so physically dangerous and unperforming that they served to discourage families with children from wanting to live in the city; yet, now, as Mr. Howes wrote: “The symbolism is striking. The Detroit Public Schools Community District board, burdened with a legacy of underperforming schools and labor troubles, is wagering it can create a new model for traditional public education by partnering with the University of Michigan’s School of Education, Starfish Family Services, and Marygrove to teach local students and teach their teachers…Borrowing from the residency programs used in medical education, the Ann Arbor university founded 201 years ago in Detroit would leverage its reputation and expertise in what University President Mark Schlissel calls “teamwork in service to the public.” That is, the effort is to anchor community redevelopment, as Chicago did, by education: the Detroit Public School District would operate a K-8 school and a high school carved from the former Bates Academy on the east edge of campus, while the University of Michigan would operate an undergraduate “residency” program for aspiring teachers.

Mr. Howes went on to write that, even as Detroit’s downtown and Midtown attract billions in private investment, especially from mortgage mogul Dan Gilbert and the Ilitch family to big corporate relocations and small business investment, neighborhood residents and the civic groups representing them have continued to ask: ‘what about us?’ The answer, it seems, is driving in: the Ford Motor Co. reports it will invest $740 million to build out the Corktown campus. Kresge is spearheading numerous community initiatives. A JPMorgan Chase program continues to invest in small-business creation.

On the elected front, Mayor Mike Duggan, seeking re-election, has made neighborhood revitalization a key issue in his campaign for, as Mr. Howe noted, two reasons: “It’s politically potent in a city that struggled for decades to provide basic services, and, second, it’s the next obvious step in the city’s revitalization: Reinvesting in downtown and Midtown, essentially the spine of Detroit, helps bolster tax base, fuel economic activity, and create tax-paying jobs. Reinvesting in neighborhoods and improving traditional public education strengthens community and gives Detroiters a reason to stay, to reap the benefits of rising property values.”

Kresge CEO Rip Rapson, a critical player in Detroit’s physical and fiscal recovery, notes: “What this town needs to be shown again and again is you can take big ideas and make them real…So many people are waiting to see efforts like this fail.” The heart, as Mr. Howes noted, of the so-called “P-20 Partnership” is Detroit’s reconstituted public school district, a campaign backed by Kresge’s contributions, the University of Michigan’s commitment to train teachers to teach Detroit’s youth— and the courage of its leadership to develop a new model for educating the city’s kids, right in the heart of a neighborhood.”

A new Strategic Plan for Puerto Rico? While FEMA has approved a new document for emergency response for Puerto Rico, it is a plan with a critical MIA: municipios—and this with time uncertain, as Hurricane Isaac is lurking in the Caribbean and FEMA is caught in a quagmire over the President’s assertion that fewer than 50 lives were lost in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria. FEMA’s Deputy Federal Coordinating Officer in Puerto Rico, Justo “Tito” Hernández has asserted that the “The Strategic Plan was revised. And we are already doing exercises based on the plan. That is already finished,”in an interview with El Nuevo Día, claiming the changes are intended to correct errors which were made before, during, and after the hurricane. In addition, the document already required amendments, in line with federal regulations. (As a rule, the Strategic Plan is modified every five years; the current one was created in October of 2014 and revised after Hurricane Maria.) Yet, even though this plan for the Commonwealth is ready, the Emergency Management Plan for each municipio has yet to be certified by the Puerto Rico State Agency for Emergency and Disaster Management or FEMA, according to Commissioner Carlos Acevedo, who noted: “The plans, I am waiting for the company (hired to develop them) to deliver them to me. And they should be handing me the plans tomorrow (today).” However, both Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares and Commissioner Acevedo have pointed out, in separate interviews, that the government is prepared to face the challenges of the new hurricane season. Gov. Rosselló Nevares stated that now the “people” have an emergency plan, noting there have been workshops “throughout Puerto Rico on how to develop those personal emergency plans,” that changes were made at federal, state, and municipal levels regarding the distribution of food and medication, and that another “public health response” will be implemented. Nevertheless, Gov. Rosselló Nevares recognized that the island’s infrastructure, including the homes of thousands of families that still have blue tarps on their roofs and the power grid, remain vulnerable, stating: “It is no less true that, although there are parts that are more robust, it is a somewhat more fragile (power) grid. Therefore, we want to change and transform it,” he added, referring to the process he has begun to privatize PREPA, the Electric Power Authority: “There are significant improvements, particularly in the area of preparation, but without a doubt, Puerto Rico remains vulnerable, particularly in the infrastructure area.” The Governor added that this scenario will require quick action to transform the power grid and “a bit of luck that an event like María or even a lower-category one, does not impact Puerto Rico, again, and further collapse areas that are already vulnerable.” In addition, he noted, that already, unlike last year, when the government contacted the American Public Power Association with a month of delay after the cyclone, agreements with energy companies have been reached, albeit noting that other initiatives “take time, but are being executed,” and that 64 people are being trained to exercise “very particular functions” amid any new emergency.

With regard to addressing the dysfunction of the government during Maria, the Governor said that “people have been trained based on these new protocols.” Even so, emergency management experts have indicated that unsettled issues in critical areas with regard to the Commonwealth’s role in future emergencies remain: the preparation that the government claims has been questioned by the former executive Director of the former State Office for Emergency and Disaster Management, Epifanio Jiménez, who reiterated that the problem after Maria was the lack of implementation of the existing plans—or, as he put it: “They’re using Maria’s category 5 as a pretext—which is true, it’s a precedent—but they use it as an excuse to justify the collapse of agencies and agency leaders because, when Hurricane Georges hit, the leaders knew their work and the island recovered after 32 days.”

A simple look at the 2014 Strategic Hurricane Plan, which experts say was not followed, reveals that the Health, Family, Emergency Management Agency, and General Services Administration (SGA) departments, among other government agencies, failed in their respective functions before, during, and after the hurricane; moreover, if all of these agencies had fulfilled their responsibilities, fatalities estimated today at 2,975 (except by the White House) would have been avoided, according to the study by the Milken Institute of the George Washington University.

The Strategic Plan is governed by the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which establishes and defines the entire procedure for emergency management. It is backed by Presidential orders. FEMA develops the plan, theoretically in partnership with state authorities—clearly part of the challenge, as Puerto Rico is in a quasi-twilight zone between being a state or a municipality. This matters, because such a plan is intended to detail the function of what is called the Emergency Support Function, which is nothing more than the function that each agency will have before, during, and after an emergency.

Some of the Changes. The NMEAD Commissioner (Negotiator for the Management of Emergencies and Administrator for Disasters) Carlos Acevedo, said that now the Department of Family Affairs has a list of vulnerable groups. He added that the emergency management center integrated the private sector, and even had training. However, according to Mr. Jiménez:  “That is nonsense,” recalling that the private sector was already integrated into emergencies, because there must be agreements with agencies. To avoid the collapse of communications, Commissioner Acevedo said they now have a voice and data satellite system. The Telecommunications Regulatory Board and the NMEAD have a list of radio amateurs to use analog communication, if necessary, he added, albeit noting: “That has to be refined, and the JRT has to make sure that the private sector responds.” Moreover, Commissioner Acevedo said the services of cell phone companies, which also collapsed in the wake of the hurricane, is an issue that remains in the hands of the private sector. Finally, he noted he has also held meetings with the directors of hospitals and dialysis centers on the island, stressing that each party has increased its capacity to provide services.

Motor City Comeback

September 14, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report Congressional agreement to avert a shutdown, and we report on the remarkable cash purchases of homes in the Motor City, marking mayhap the most dramatic mark yet of Detroit’s Phoenix-like recovery from the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy.  

Keeping the Federal Government Open. The House and Senate yesterday reached agreement to avert a federal government shutdown by passing a large package of appropriations bills, as well as a continuing resolution which will, if signed by the President, fund the rest of the federal government through Pearl Harbor Day, December 7th. The package would keep the government funded past Oct. 1, the deadline for Congress to act. House Appropriations Committee Chair Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) reported that the respective House and Senate bodies had completed work on the Defense and Labor, Health and Human Services and Education annual spending bills—bills which in this case represent the bulk of federal discretionary spending: combined, they total $786 billion, nearly two-thirds of all discretionary appropriations. The anticipation is that by including the continuing resolution (CR) in the package, it will make it less likely the President will make good on threats to shut down the federal government over border wall funding, albeit, last week, the President stated: “If it happens, it happens. If it’s about border security, I’m willing to do anything.”  

Motor City Comeback. There is stunning fiscal reversal of fortune in Detroit, where, after, decades ago, families fled the city, and suburban families wanted no part of moving in from the suburbs—contributing to what triggered the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, suddenly buyers appear to be home shopping—and shopping to purchase homes in Detroit with cash. It seems that affordable housing process, higher income buyers, and growing investor interest—with the investors smelling signal profits from flipping—have made cash deals more common. For the city, a relatively unique one in that it relies on income taxes more than most cities, the impact on assessed property taxes will be icing on the fiscal cake. In the first half of this calendar year, nearly 90% of all single-family and condo purchases were made with cash—more than triple the national average. One cause is that the median price in the first part of this year was only $32,428—which, albeit 20% higher than in the first half of this year: and it seems to be a heck of a bargain: ATTOM Data reports the national median price is $234,000.

So many purchasers are buying for investment purposes: renovating and flipping distressed homes, some as—some as large as 4,200 square feet and with architectural significance—in Detroit’s downtown area and historic neighborhoods. But in older neighborhoods near the regional Federal Reserve offices and the Detroit Institute of Art, home buyers looking to buy those renovated homes—often affluent young professionals or empty-nesters—may also face challenges in getting a mortgage, because those properties are difficult to appraise. Lenders have a challenge in determining the value of a newly renovated home in a neighborhood otherwise filled with distressed properties, because there are few comparable sales to benchmark against. That also makes payments in cash a likely option.

In effect, for the Motor City, this could be a phoenix moment of its fiscal and physical recovery: Quicken Loans is working with Home Depot and the Detroit Land Bank Authority to return Detroit’s vast stock of vacant, abandoned, and foreclosed property to productive use. Under the city’s “Rehabbed and Ready” program, the Authority selects properties in its inventory for Home Depot to rehab; Quicken preapproves interested buyers for mortgage financing; and the homes are purchased—all part of an effort to stabilize the market and create comparable sales to help future buyers.

Quicken Loans Community Fund Vice President of strategic investments, Laura Grannemann, noted: “Tax foreclosure is a force that has generated blight, increased speculation, and driven property values down…But by creating strategically placed sales, it has a ripple effect across the community and allows other individuals to refinance their home and get some equity out or to sell that home and buy a new one.”

Popping the Cork in Corktown?

August 14, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider some of the fiscal and physical challenges and changes to one of Detroit’s oldest neighborhoods, Corktown, before venturing to the warm Caribbean waters to witness incipient signs of fiscal and physical revival in Puerto Rico.

Motor City Revitalization. The City of Detroit, first settled in 1701 by French colonists, was the first European settlement above tidewater in North America, founded as a New France fur trading post, before becoming, by 1920, a world-class industrial powerhouse and the fourth-largest U.S. city. One might describe it as a unique municipal center of nations, as the first Europeans to settle there were French traders and colonists from the colony of La Loisiane, today’s New Orleans—traders who were forced to vie with the powerful Five Nations of the League of the Iroquois—setting the stage for what became the Beaver Wars in the 17th century. The greater Detroit metropolitan region of those times flourished as a center of the nation’s fur trade, so that the Crown’s administration of New France offered free land to colonists as a means to attract families to the region—a perennial challenge, and one of the city’s greatest fiscal challenges today. It was in late 1760 that Fort Detroit was surrendered to the British, in the wake of the fall of Quebec—so that control not just of the Detroit region, but of all French territory east of the Mississippi River, was formally transferred to England via the 1763 Treaty of Paris. By 1760, a British census counted 2,000 hardy souls in the city in the wake of the Seven Years’ War—a head count which, as would happen in this century, dropped 30% by 1773, a decade after the English had reserved the territory, under the Royal Proclamation Act of 1763 for the Indians—land eleven years later transferred to Quebec. In a census taken during the American Revolution, Detroit’s population had soared to 2,144, making the city the third-largest city in the Province of Quebec.

Today, Corktown is the oldest surviving neighborhood in Detroit, with the neighborhood named for its early Irish immigrants, who by the early 1850s, made up half of the residents of the 8th Ward (which contained Corktown), but it is a part of the city which has been reduced in size over the years by dint of numerous urban renewal projects, the construction of light industrial facilities, and the construction of the Lodge Freeway. What remains of the residential section is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a neighborhood slated for change in this time of radical changes wrought by the emergence of the self-driving car era—so the Ford Motor Co.’s plans to renovate the historic Michigan Central Depot has raised apprehensions with regard to the potential impact such a large-scale project could have on the area and surrounding neighborhoods with regard to affordability and diversity—enough of a concern that Detroit’s leaders and officials have commenced what is to be a yearlong process to gather feedback from the community regarding the future of the neighborhood. That municipal effort is coming in tandem with a separate effort by Ford to collect input on its proposed plans to revitalize its iconic 100-plus-year-old historic building.

Officials with the city and Ford say they are committed to working with the community as they navigate their plans. The company, on June 20th, had announced its intentions to purchase the abandoned Michigan Central Station, a hulk of a building just blocks from where Kevyn Orr had his office on his first day as the City’s Emergency Manager charged with taking Detroit into the nation’s largest ever chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—and fashioning a plan of adjustment to be approved by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. That 18-story building, which starred as a set piece for the flick Batman v. Superman, has been described as representing a “deep, complex wound…a physical reminder of what the city was, and what it many thought it would never be again.”

Simultaneously, the city is seeking to create a strategic framework for the Greater Corktown neighborhood to address the area’s potential for growth, even as it seeks to preserve its heritage and integrity, officials say—a framework which is to detail both a short-term implementation plans and long-term goals for the neighborhood’s development: Detroit’s Planning and Development Department expects, before the month is out, an RFP for a consultant to conduct a series of community meetings in Greater Corktown, with said selection to be announced by the end of next month: the study itself is projected to lead to a recommendations of a final framework in a year.

Not Self-Driving. The city’s plans for Greater Corktown, just one of the city neighborhoods in various stages of planning, was in the planning stage prior to Ford’s depot announcement, creating some governing challenges, or, as John Sivills, the project manager with Detroit’s Planning and Development Department, put it: “The Ford announcement certainly does add a great sense of urgency to it so we can have a plan in place rather than tail-wagging-dog scenario.” That is, as he added: “That the city can have a plan in place such as bring in Ford and provide for inclusionary growth.” Similarly, his colleague, Steve Lewis, central design director for Planning and Development, noted that Detroit’s plan will craft “a vision for the future of the neighborhood that either by optics or by reality is not seen as being dictated by Ford.” Their study is expected to address challenges and opportunities for a number of issues, including zoning, landscape, historic preservation, and housing development.

Will They Drive in Tandem or Self-Drive? Ford is planning to create a 1.2 million-square-foot campus with its anchor at the Michigan Central Depot, with plans to occupy the depot by 2022: the project will include the Grand Hall, which will be open to the public, along with retail space: the 18-story tower will have office space as well as residential space on the top two floors. In addition, Ford intends to develop other buildings on the campus, including the former Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, where Ford plans to house its autonomous vehicle business on the Corktown campus. Ford is, at the same time, seeking community engagement for its Corktown expansion, with the company asserting: “Detroit and Corktown, North Corktown, there’s opportunity and so much potential, and they’re already doing such amazing work that Ford can really just be a platform to shed a light on the work that they’re doing…Maybe help them scale.”

Indeed, scale, as in any city, is an issue: because of the large-scale of the project, it falls under the city’s Community Benefits Ordinance, one approved by Detroit voters in November of 2016, which targets developments worth at least $75 million, if the development gets $1 million or more in property tax abatements or $1 million or more in value of city property sale or transfer: under said ordinance, a neighborhood advisory council is assembled to provide feedback in meetings during the ensuing two months, with the advisory council subsequently working with Ford to create a community benefits agreement.

To date, Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones has selected Hubbard-Richard resident Aliyah Sabree, a Judge in the 36th District Court; City Councilwoman Janee Ayers chose Sheila Cockrel, a Corktown resident and former Councilwoman. The community elected Jerry Paffendorf, co-owner of Loveland Technologies, and Heather McKeon, an interior designer with Patrick Thompson Design. The Detroit Planning and Development Department will name four appointees, and City Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López will name one appointee.

Concurrently, Ford has feedback boards and comment boxes in its Ford Resource and Engagement Center, where questions posed include: “Where do you go to get ___ in your neighborhood (nails, hair, dry cleaning, etc.?); What are the top three things you want to see changed in your neighborhood?”; and “Who is an unsung hero, organization and/or business in your neighborhood?” The company reports that it has already received feedback from excitement to issues of apprehension on issues ranging from housing, to jobs, to traffic, and to culture,” adding: “We really love that the community values the diversity of the neighborhoods from Corktown, North Corktown, and Southwest Detroit. We’re really understanding the importance of that. We’re also understanding the importance of workforce. Recognizing that there’s not only potential construction jobs, but also long-term what are some ways we can build a pipeline or clear pathways for some of the other jobs that may be available in the future. Technology jobs, things of that nature. Jobs around (electric and autonomous vehicles.).”

Some have criticized aspects of the Community Benefits Ordinance and the Neighborhood Advisory Council process. Alina Johnson, a resident of the nearby Hubbard-Richard neighborhood, which will also be impacted by Ford’s project, said she feels residents should be trained in advance on advisory council work in order to be most effective on a tight timeline—or, as she put it: “Right now, the main concern is making sure that the folks who have been selected will be able to be inclusive and able to communicate to the public and serve everyone and not necessarily their community in terms when they’re discussing benefits by those impacted by the train station development.”

Blowing Fiscally Back. Despite a double fiscal and physical whammy of hurricanes, and being in the beginning of this year’s hurricane season, Puerto Rico FY’2017 General Fund revenue came in 1.5% higher than budgeted: total revenue was $9.31. Puerto Rico Secretary of Treasury Teresita Fuentes noted: “The level and behavior of tax collections during the past fiscal year in comparison with other years is considered unusual due to the economic effect of hurricanes passing through the island.” That is a sharp fiscal blowback to FAFAA Executive Director Gerardo Portela Franco’s warning last December 5th that he expected Puerto Rico’s fiscal year General Fund revenues to be 25% less than budgeted.  Secretary Fuentes reported that unexpectedly high revenues from April to June had allowed the government to exceed the budgeted number, while Puerto Rico Secretary of the Interior Raul Maldonado noted: “To a large extent the [revenue] increase is attributed to the temporary economic activity of companies associated with recovery tasks and the flow of insurer and federal government money after the hurricanes.” He noted that the greatest increase was derived from the island’s corporate income tax—some $260 million; however, Puerto Rico’s sales and use tax revenues returned $26 million less than projections from the start of the year. Secretary Fuentes said that many businesses had either been closed or had operated partially in the weeks following Hurricane Maria and that in the period the sales tax on restaurant food was temporarily eliminated; however, the sales and use tax revenue rebounded in the last quarter, with Secretary Fuentes pointing in particular to hardware stores and department store sales.

Back to Escuela.  Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares has announced the territory will provide more than 2,000 regular slots to temporary teachers—a step by which he hopes to alleviate the recurring challenge of recruiting educators at each school start—as teachers are often attracted to more generous salaries and benefits on the mainland.  His stated goal is for these educators to be recruited under 10-month contracts by September:We are going to make an effort to convert thousands of temporary places in permanent seats in the education system.” The Governor noted that his action is intended to make it possible to clarify the system and end current uncertainties which have left teachers in the dark with regard to whether she or he still has a job—an apprehension not just of teachers, but also parents, who are confronting their own choices with September looming.

Two years ago, in the midst of an election year, the Governor acted to convert some 1,519 temporary teachers to become full-time employees, noting, then: “You have teachers who were not sure, and now they are going to have certainty, and you have a school system that did not have visibility, now we are building that visibility,” adding that, in his view, this governing decision would not have an adverse impact on Puerto Rico’s budget—and, ergo, not trigger PROMESA Oversight Board fiscal preemption: “If there is any philosophical consideration that they may have, that is another thing. For us, it gives certainty to the system, particularly in the area of needs that we are going to have to supply.” The Governor explained that the measure was possible thanks to two fundamental actions: the creation of an electronic platform which has facilitated the ability of Education Secretary Julia Keleher to assess where staff is needed, especially with regard to what levels and subjects: that is, via the human resources platform, the Secretary can assess, as the Governor noted, the educational organization of each campus, including how many teachers are transient and what subjects they teach. This could be a valuable fiscal step, because online registration will facilitate the ability to confirm the number and location of students—a critical step for the completion of the school consolidation process.

Sec. Keleher has explained that the system will take into account, first, the educators who occupy places where recruitment has proved difficult, such as Special Education, English, and Math—noting the human and fiscal challenges: “You have to honor the transient teacher. It does not seem fair or correct in terms of the reality we want to offer. This is not a good deal for a person who is giving 100% for their students: The Secretary noted the determination is aligned with the anticipated tax revenues. Her request, this year, is for over 5,500 transitory positions—or, as she notes: “The idea is to have the teachers ready for the start of classes, the week before they know where they are going.” Puerto Rico’s statute 85-2018, the Law on Educational Reform “establishes that the Department, in areas of difficult recruitment such as teachers of English, Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry, will promote the permanence of the same within the term of one year, if fiscal availability of the square and of being the same vacancy.”