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.

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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.”