25 August 2016

Rust Belt Appalachia Musings

There have been numerous reports as of late of towns within the Rust Belt that are trying to crack down on slum rentals by demanding inspections. Just recently in New York they put forward a proposal to grant interior access to inspectors which would force renters to allow government officials into their homes.

Obviously not all renters are thrilled with this prospect, nor are the landlords.

The authorities cite examples of rentals with no utilities. I think in many cases they are misunderstanding what is happening. Landlords tend to get rather upset if they find the utilities shut off. There are some rental situations that include utilities in the rent. This is often in old converted duplexes and other types of odd situations where the landlord didn't want to pay for separate services and the cost of partitioning electrical and gas lines.

There are some bad landlords out there. There are others who are not doing well and genuinely don't have the money to fix the place.

Years ago I was called to fix some plumbing on a rental. This was one of the bad ones. Your gag reflex kicked in as you walked in the door. You couldn't see the floor due to the clothes, plates with mouldy week-old food, dog feces, toys, fast-food wrappings and newspaper. You literally had to just walk on the stuff, dodging the poop of course. The place was an abomination and within a few minutes I left, sucked clean air for a few minutes, and called the landlord back. I told them I wasn't going to work there. It wasn't worth it to me. I was not going to lie down on that nasty floor and fix the bathroom sink just inches from a toilet that could probably be qualified as a biological weapon.

We are not neat freaks and take more to the Scots-Irish in us rather than the German but this was over the top. Clutter and dust I can deal with, not rank filth. Ill-kept and trained pets always make it worse.

I asked if they had trouble getting people to do work for them. He said they did. Many had turned them down. I asked why they put up with it? He said frankly they knew that the place would have to be gutted once the tenant moved out and they didn't have the money. So they figured they'd let the tenant stay, giving her a place to live and continue to collect rent.

They had a point. The woman living there was probably 400lbs and would probably struggle to find another place to live. She stunk and in addition to being overweight, she looked unkempt and dirty. No one would want to rent to her. She might even have trouble in a HUD housing complex, if she could even get in. She might have other issues. And yes, the place would need to be gutted or something close. It would literally cost thousands to make it habitable.

I say this as someone that's very familiar with poor housing and urban poverty. I've been in plenty of places that would make Middle Class suburbanites and HGTV fans horrified and yet, they're fine, not that bad. This one was bad... really intolerable.

Here's the thing. If cities bring in a code regime like this, what will happen is that many rental units will be shut down. Landlords will throw in the towel and give up. If they're handed a compliance list that requires them to drop $10k in the next 120 days, it's over. They'll evict the tenants and put the place up for sale.

This will lead to increased rents and a housing shortage.

With that situation landlords can afford to be picky. They'll start running credit checks on tenants. I realise this already happens in many locations but it's atypical in the Rust Belt, Appalachia and even much of the rural Midwest. Credit and background checks mean there will be a whole class of people that are effectively driven out of the market and will end up homeless. This is already happening in many places.

There is a large homeless population in this country that is more or less unseen. I'm not talking about panhandlers and bag ladies. There are couples and whole families living in motels paying weekly and monthly rates... and getting nowhere. They might try to save money in the summer and move into a campground but depending on the arrangement that can also get expensive and it's a lot harder to function and stay clean.

Of course the many people living this way tend to flock south and west where the winters will be more tolerable. You don't want to be homeless in Pennsylvania or New York, at least not in the winter. We have summer homeless people that take to the forest-lands. There are plenty of unofficial camping areas but of course they have no hook-ups.

One nearby town hired a zealous code enforcer who tried to implement this type of regime and starting citing homeowners for unfinished projects, yard clutter etc... He ended up being driven out and rightly so. A few more years of him, and the town would have been emptied. You end up driving out all but the exclusive residents, except there are very few of those around here. His vision was unrealistic.

Dealing with downgrade is difficult. Pittsburgh did it very well. Buffalo did not and it's a mess. Pittsburgh realised the jobs weren't coming back and they moved on and transformed their city. Today it's pretty clean and prosperous a far cry from the gritty depictions in 1970s movies like 'The Deer Hunter'. Buffalo on the other hand has a dystopian feel about it.

In the small towns of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, all too often they've been slow to realise the winds of change. In many cases they should have started planning 25 years ago. Many counties are racing to shut down schools and consolidate which is only furthering the decimation of some of the smaller communities. They've failed to take into account their shrinking populations which increasingly are skewed toward the elderly. The young people are leaving in droves. There's no future in these towns, that is if you're looking for a middle class lifestyle.

The roads and infrastructure are deplorable. That's not restricted to this area but there are other problems due to the shrinking tax base. The leaders in many cases have not grasped the reality and think they can turn things around by bringing in a call center with fifty $8hr jobs or even better, a Wal-mart. In some ways these leaders are the worst enemies these communities have. Hungry for revenue they pushed for hydraulic fracturing and yet that actually did little to help the communities. Most of the jobs were filled by outsiders. Some of the local excavation companies and supply outfits experienced a bubble. The roads were torn up and now in many cases those jobs are gone as well. Eventually we'll find out about the environmental costs although some have already experienced water well troubles.

In many ways our society is just killing itself with bureaucracy. And of course bureaucracy is never static. It has to grow or die. On the one hand it seems like society is in a state of near collapse, on the other hand we have loony programmes with inspectors trying to get into your house. All too often these programmes are really based on some kind of job-racket. There are many programmes to get help with a utility bill but then you have to let the weatherisation people into your house. I know some of these people. They run around and spend a bunch of time and money, usually funded via a tax grant accomplishing next to nothing. It's largely faux-science and/or faux green energy. There are genuine 'green' things that can be done but few are willing to do them. The primary thing to do is to turn things off and use less. All too often I hear people talking about being 'green' while they're out washing car #3, in the shadow of a 3000 square foot house (with two people living there) and air conditioned by either central air or 5 window units. They then drop thousands to vinyl (plastic) side their houses, vinyl plank their decks etc... while talking about their annual trip to Orlando.

And then it's also absurd because in many cases (around here) the houses aren't fiscally worth the upgrades. Years ago during the economic boom the local EOC office was flush with cash (in the forms of grants) and starting really pushing for lead abatement. They spent almost $60k on one house. If you follow all the guidelines it reaches the point of absurdity. They act as if the lead is radioactive and if you dot all "i's" and cross all "t's" then the labour costs go through the roof.

The problem was the house was only appraised at about $40k. It would have made more sense to tear it down and subsidise a move for the owner.

Now that kind of pricing is unique to certain areas like this one... Rust Belt Appalachia or Northern Appalachia. Around here there are multitudes of houses under $75k, and yet that's not true for most of the country. Although many of the houses are more than 100 years old, some (like mine) are pushing 150. And believe me, my house is worth less than what many people pay for a car. But having a house payment under $300 a month is kind of nice too!

This region is in downgrade and the leadership needs to acknowledge it. Infrastructure and frankly more small business-friendly policies would probably help the area. Right now it seems like they relish the thought  of a new business opening... it's a new source of tax revenue!

Instead the area is dominated by:

Retired people who sold their houses in the city and moved out to the hinterland and paid cash for something much smaller...

The very poor,

And a series of large employers who seem to get away with almost anything. These handfuls of large industries (there are usually 1-3 in every town) seem to hold the cards. They are under-regulated (there are stories that could be told) while small businesses are broken by the bureaucracy.

Meanwhile the large industries are actually shrinking. A few have failed but most are moving operations to the South or overseas. Many of the companies play the re-organisation game which they can use to nullify old labour contracts, renegotiate pensions and then re-hire a new workforce... often out of the area.

They leave behind old crumbling hulks of buildings giving the area a dystopian gothic feel... which I actually love and yet my romanticised feelings aside, the social consequences are dire. The drugs, overdoses and suicides are by many estimates an epidemic. While much of the country is wrestling with these problems it's definitely worse in a place like this.

When we go up and drive along Lake Erie on the stretch between Cleveland and Buffalo the industrial decline and ruination is just stunning. Even Erie Pennsylvania, our nearest city of any consequence has a waterfront littered with reminders of a former industrial age. They've cleaned it up some, but as you poke around and explore the city it's sometimes stunning to come across yet another multi-acre facility just sitting in ruins.

I haven't been to Detroit and yes I know, it surpasses anything I've seen or described.

And if all that wasn't enough, many of the people think Donald Trump is the answer to their prayers.

One thing makes us nervous. This area is permeated with what we call 'camps'... a hodge-podge designation which can refer to anything from a shack to a substantial cottage or even house. They are second or weekend homes owned by people from nearby cities, usually from somewhere in the Pittsburgh-Youngstown-Cleveland metropolitan belt. Some are used regularly. Some haven't been visited in years. Some of the vacant ones get turned into meth labs. We've noticed the 'camp' crowd seems to be growing. Whether this is people doing more of the 'stay-cation' type of weekend and summer holiday or... are these people looking to eventually relocate? We don't know but we hope the area doesn't see a population boost. There are tremendous disadvantages and detriments to living here but at the same time there is at least the blessing of a rural setting, low population and a great deal of nature-enjoyment.

The main complaint is a lack of jobs.

A few entrepreneurs have overwhelmed the Allegheny River with kayaks and canoes and the fishing is definitely not what it used to be. But one thing I consistently notice... people don't get out in the woods much. I hike often and don't run into a lot of people, which is nice. I marvel because many years ago when I used to hike in the Cuyamaca Mountains east of San Diego you couldn't go very long without running into someone else. That doesn't happen here. There are trails I have hiked for nigh on twenty years and I can count the number of encounters on one hand.

Cities like Pittsburgh stayed ahead of the decline while some of the smaller towns failed. At this point they probably need to accept what they are... dilapidated Rust Belt provincial backwaters. They need to downsize and localise. I realise this is difficult due to state and federal laws. The poverty is increasing. Punishing people for it by fines and/or higher taxes doesn't help. If you drive through Western New York, through Cattaraugus or Allegany counties you are struck by the disparity. There are some very nice well kept houses, people that obviously are doing very well. But this is juxtaposed with a rash of dilapidated trailers and old farmhouses. In many cases the people can't afford to fix them and have no incentive to. The more they upgrade, the more they'll pay in property tax, which in New York is horrendous.

Until the power of the bureaucracy is broken and the Wal-mart's are gone there's not a lot of hope for this area. Localised industry will help, if it can find a way to compete on the national and global market. Starting a business in this area is tricky. The banks consider it 'high risk'.

These are distant and unlikely possibilities and cannot succeed unless families are able to function once more. The problems are deep and complicated and it's unlikely the right formula will be found that allow the multiple issues to be addressed in tandem that would lead to a future prosperity. I still contend the best bet is hard times... like the Depression. Values change and grow more conservative and people are forced to rely upon one another. It isn't pleasant but socially speaking it may be for the best.

However I think it would utterly break what's left of this society.