We don’t have those things anymore

Every picket fence a moat

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If you'd like to watch a video of my reading and chat with Ashley Feinberg and David Roth at the Strand Book Store in New York from the other day you can do so here thank you.

In 1762 Ben Franklin came back to Philly after a few years away in London and delivered what would go on to become one of the most stirring and penetrating speeches of his illustrious life: The rent, he said, is too damn high.

More or less that’s what he said.

So begins this alarming but not really because no shit series in The Economist about the disastrous housing crisis in the richer countries around the world like the U.S. and the U.K. and Australia.

Between 2000 and 2007 they write “America’s household debt rose from 104% of household income to 144%. House prices rose by 50% in real terms. The ensuing wave of defaults led to a global recession and nearly brought down the financial system.”

It hasn’t gotten all that much better since then.

Furthermore and probably most relevant to you and to me they write that according to The Joint Centre for Housing Studies of Harvard University “the median American rent payment rose 61% in real terms between 1960 and 2016 while the median renter’s income grew by 5%.

I’ve mentioned this before but our subsisting in a well below market but still expensive apartment in metro Boston one of the most expensive areas in the country is owed entirely to the hanging-by-a-thread and diminishing everyday lifespan of a nice elderly woman downstairs. Once she dies we’re fucked but that’s the market at work baby.

I sometimes marvel at how I was ever even able to live as a young person in Boston. Granted my twenties were quite some time ago ah fuck goddamnit and we would pack like five to seven people in a shitty house but young people still do that type of shit now and its untenable. You can’t even live as a dirtbag in a major city anymore. And buying a home seems no more within reach of the average person than going to the fucking moon.

Up until the mid-20th century prices in housing were relatively stable the Economist explains. Improvements in transportation meant people could live farther away from work meaning there was typically plenty of land outside of cities to develop. I’m much too stupid to read the Economist but I think that’s called supply and demand. Of course the explosion of the suburbs brought with it all other manner of problems but there was less regulation on where and how much you could build at the time both in cities and outside of them. Today “the rate of housing construction in the rich world is half what it was in the 1960s. It has become particularly hard to build in high-demand areas. Manhattan saw permission given to 13,000 new housing units in 1960 alone, whereas for the whole of the 1990s only 21,000 new units were approved.”

And many of them being built now in cities like New York and Boston sit vacant as investments owned by rich people from around the world who never had any intention of living there.

This speculating shit applies to retail real estate as well and it’s fucking up the neighborhoods you used to love.

The reluctance to approve of new and needed housing in cities and closer suburbs today is in part because the generations who are safely entrenched in their own homes have taken a fuck you I’ve got mine attitude when it comes to development. Every picket fence a moat.

“In 2001 William Fischel of Dartmouth College proposed his ‘homevoter hypothesis.’ The thinking runs that owner-occupiers have an incentive to resist development in their local area, since doing so helps preserve the value of their property. As home ownership rises, therefore, housing construction might be expected to fall.”

All of which brings us to me and probably you and what they call the pernicious “creeping dysfunction that housing has created over decades: vibrant cities without space to grow; aging homeowners sitting in half-empty homes who are keen to protect their view; and a generation of young people who cannot easily afford to rent or buy and think capitalism has let them down.”

“The soaring cost of housing has created gaping inequalities and inflamed both generational and geographical divides. In 1990 a generation of baby-boomers, with a median age of 35, owned a third of America’s real estate by value. In 2019 a similarly sized cohort of millennials, aged 31, owned just 4%. Young people’s view that housing is out of reach—unless you have rich parents—helps explain their drift towards ‘millennial socialism.’”

The obsessive cult of homeownership is not a natural part of the human condition they explain. It has not always been this way and in fact it’s a relatively recent development. In other rich countries around the world like Japan and Germany that have a willingness to develop more housing or a culture comfortable with longterm stable renting it is not like it is here.

Every home you do not buy or every apartment you do not move into is a closing off of a potential future you imagined for yourself however briefly. The light in here is very nice you think as you’re walking from room to room. I could see myself living in that light for a long time you think.

I was thinking about that as we got the news earlier this week that yet another home we had attempted to let a bank rent to us for thirty years went to a higher bidder. This home in question was… fine. It was basically fine. It was updated and had a finished basement but it was on a steep slant and who knows maybe water would come in during storms and wasn’t the street kind of busy and the fake stone in the kitchen was a little tacky I guess and there was a random fire hydrant in the middle of the lawn. These are the types of things you tell yourself after the fact to soothe the loss of that potential life you had briefly imagined for yourself within those walls. Fuck that place you think. Fuck that potential life we might have made there. It’s like when you get rejected or dumped by someone and instantly all of their flaws you had managed to overlook become readily apparent.

This last place had over thirty bids on it I guess so what hope did we have and when homes and condos even an hour outside of Boston where we’ve been looking start at like $400,000 it is just out of the realm of possibility for even two forty-ish relatively stable professionals to say fuck it you want $400,000 how about $450,000 just to get the ball rolling and sweeten the pot. But that’s how it works now so I guess we’ll just go fuck ourselves.

I just read a story about how in the rich liberal city of Newton not far from where we live now citizens are rip shit about an already approved plan by the city for a new housing and commercial development project. People there are doing everything they can to reduce its size or to make sure it does’t happen at all. The group behind the push to stall the project is called RightSize Newton because I guess it’s the right size now and any bigger would be bad.

“A total of at least 1,900 units and potentially over 2,600 new unit means more residents, more traffic, more pressure on our schools, services and infrastructure,” the group writes. “Growth can be good, but only when it addresses the issues that it creates. This is too much too quickly,” they write and you probably recognize the pandering fuck you in that type of comment. Yes yes the idea of making things better for more people is good in theory but we have to forestall it for as long as possible and in the meantime if they decide to build homes for a bunch of unwanted people elsewhere then so be it.

That’s the same type of thinking you hear from deranged liberals who use the term “purity test” by the way. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of good they say by which they mean I don’t want to deal with any of this hard stuff now so shut the fuck up.

Sometimes you look at a house or apartment or condo and the fucking guy in the suit is showing you how the light switch works and you’re going haha and he’s going haha and you go how recently was the vinyl siding put on and he says I’ll have to check and then you walk around and you see a room and your entire life expands to fill that room. 250 square feet of a life and you think I could see myself dying in this room someday but you won’t you’re going to die in some other room and you don’t know what it looks like yet. Some room you can afford to die in.

It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day today and I was reminded of this piece from New York last year about whether or not we’ve realized any of his dream as of yet. Racial relations in America have indeed improved since then it explains and that seems true. But all of the sharper edges of King’s dream have long since been sanded down and forgotten. Racial equality wasn’t enough on its own he said at the time.

Whether we have made any progress toward realizing King’s more radical dream — the one he was chasing at the time of his death — is far less clear. In 1968, King was not dreaming of an America that would judge the worthiness of its people on the basis of their individual character, regardless of their skin color; rather, he was dreaming of one that would judge all its people as being worthy of guaranteed health care, housing, employment, and/or an unconditional, living income, regardless of their character. And King understood that the realization of the former ambition in no way guaranteed the subsequent triumph of the latter one.

“We must see that the struggle today is much more difficult,” King said in “The Other America,” the sermon he spent much of the last two years of his life preaching. “It’s more difficult today because we are struggling now for genuine equality. It’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job. It’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality.”

Still got a long way to go on that part buddy!

Margie Maric is the manager of Travel Inns in Branson, Missouri where she’s lived for seven years. There are about fifty other tenants there this story in the Springfield News-Leader explains. For now.

“Out of all my tenants, 90 percent of them aren't just tenants. They are my friends,” she said. "More than half been here three-plus years. Some longer than I have.”

She and the other tenants and the tenants of a number of other extended stay motels in Branson may soon face eviction because they do not have the proper licensing and inspection the city now requires and that is fine places where people live should indeed be held to a certain standard but what happens to all the people living in them if they cannot get things in the proper order?

“There are more than 20 decades-old extended-stay motels on and near the Branson strip,” the story explains. “They are mostly hotels and motels built in the 1980s and 1990s when Branson was in its tourism heyday.”

As tourism waned and vacancies multiplied, owners began converting them into extended-stay motels where folks could pay by the week and reside more or less permanently.

Over the years, the motels gained a reputation for high crime and unhealthy living conditions. But for many of those employed by Branson's tourism industry, the extended stays are their only affordable housing option.

In recent years, it's been estimated there are about 2,500 people living in Branson's extended-stay motels. Of those, some 600 are kids.

Some of the people who live there say if they’re forced to move to a less central location they will not be able to get to work. Others say there is no way they could afford the deposit required to move into a more traditional apartment.

I don’t know maybe those people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps you might be thinking if you somehow stumbled upon this newsletter by accident and are a terrible person.

Last year I wrote a piece on MLK Day which you can read here although it’s paid-subscriber only. Part of it went like this:

I just watched an interview King gave in 1967 to NBC and the interviewer asked him what it was about the negro uniquely among other groups of “immigrants” (lol) to America that has prevented them from assimilating and he explained it like so:

“White America must see that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. That is one thing that other immigrants haven’t had to face. The other thing is that the color became a stigma. American society made the negro’s color a stigma.”

“America freed the slaves in 1863 through the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln, but gave them no land, or nothing in reality, as a matter of fact, to get started on. At the same time America was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and Midwest, which means there was a willingness to give the peasants from Europe an economic base. Yet it refused to give its black peasants from Africa, who came here involuntarily in chains and worked free for 244 years, any kind of economic base. So emancipation for the negro was really freedom to hunger, it was freedom to the winds and rains of heaven, freedom without food to eat or land to cultivate. Therefore, it was freedom and famine at the same time. And when white Americans tell the negro to lift himself by his own bootstraps, they don’t look over the legacy of slavery and segregation.”

“Now I believe we ought to do all we can and seek to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps, but it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And many negroes, by the thousands and millions, have been left bootless as a result of all of these years of oppression and as a result of a society that deliberately made his color a stigma and something worthless and degrading.”

Still though maybe some of those people could get a nice honest job like being a teacher?

Here’s another story from the News-Leader. It begins with a second year teacher in Everton who makes under $27,000 which is just above the state minimum for teachers of $25,000.

“[Tiffany] Gladden takes home $1,740 a month or roughly $400 a week.”

“I made more money in retail than I do as a teacher,” she said.

“There are nearly 80,000 public school teachers in Missouri, and 2,300 are paid a salary below $32,000.”

The state average is $32,465.

I couldn’t give much of a fuck about the prosperity and health of the New York Times or the Washington Post. They both seem to be doing very well and that is great for them. Last night the Times had an hour and half reality show on TV about who they were going to endorse for the Democratic nomination lol. They made a whole ass glossy NFL Draft selection show about themselves being reporters. The only thing that was missing was a bunch of Bernie supporters booing the shit out of them in the audience like cursed Jets fans.

But newspapers like the News-Leader and many others around the country — the type of newspapers I get a lot of my Hell World stories from like this one I wrote about in here from the News-Leader last year about a dying man whose hospital room was raided by police because someone said they thought they smelled marijuana — are fucking struggling man. They cannot afford to produce a glossy TV show they can barely even afford to produce a newspaper.

A lot of the disappearing newspapers are even being turned into luxury condos which conveniently for me ties today’s two themes together nicely.

This isn’t good! Yes it’s good we still have venerable journalistic institutions but like think about even quality top level analysis like the shit from the Economist I included up above. It’s very interesting but it doesn’t tell you anything that a local story about people who live near you being ground to hamburger wouldn’t tell you more effectively. It’s just statistics when it’s written from that far a vantage it’s not human beings. As more local newspapers disappear or are shaved down to bare bones especially after the recent Gannett and Gatehouse merger which consolidated 266 newspapers under one group of scum-sucking money turds that outlook is probably not going to get much better.

While you may get a story in a national paper about say a housing crisis in Missouri or despicably low pay for teachers there or in any other state there is a difference in how it is covered. The national reporter goes ah look at that that sucks then they’re like ok see ya later and they go back to New York or D.C. It’s just different when it’s covered by people who have to live in the community they’re writing about. They have skin in the game.

One such reporter at the News-Leader is a fella named Greg Holman who wrote that piece about the dying cancer patient the cops fucked with. Sensing foreboding things to come after the merger Holman and his colleagues at the paper decided it was time to unionize. I spoke with him about their reasoning for doing so and about the state of local and regional newspapers in general.

What were the conditions that lead to the decision to unionize?

First some background: The Springfield News-Leader is Southern Missouri’s principle newspaper. It’s been owned by Gannett for forty years. We have fourteen staff journalists in the newsroom for a metro area of about 460,000 people. Ten years ago the number of staff in the newsroom was more like sixty.

On January 6 every full time non-manager signed a union card. We’ve been working on this since early November and it looks like the election is going to happen on January 31.

You said other similar sized papers are looking into it as well?

Nine days after we announced, unbeknownst to us, a paper in Indiana, the South Bend Tribune began unionizing too. They have roughly thirty staff journalists and the vast majority signed cards. They were bought by Gatehouse about a year ago, but now as of November it’s all New Gannett. They have about 260 newsrooms roughly now.

Does the merger worry you?

Basically at both of these sites the big feeling is a fear of layoffs. We’re talking about extremely Midwestern polite people. Extremely non-ideological, frugal, and ethical to a fault. In Springfield this is a leaderless movement. Basically what happened is in November as the merger was happening there was story out of a blog in Detroit about how the Free Press, a Gannett paper, was getting notice they were going to have to cut like four out of one hundred jobs in the newsroom. Here in Springfield we weren’t getting any kind of communication about what might happen. They had this all-corporate Skype meeting that didn’t say much other than yeah there will be a staff reduction.

I got pissed off. I thought what’s good enough for Detroit is good enough for Springfield. One night after work I texted all my colleagues and before I knew it everyone was meeting in my apartment.  Everyone was fed up. The big thing is we want the company to at least provide the option for voluntary layoffs and decent severance. It seems like anybody over forty here has a huge target on their back because they make “all this money,” as reporters, in Southern Missouri.

Another frustration of ours is wages and benefits.  We have executives with golden parachutes. The company proxy report last year said our CEO at the time was making $5.2 million which is one hundred times the median wage for Gannett employee.  Here most people in our newsroom are not making that median wage, only around $44,000.  Now we have two CEOs because of the merger, one of whom works for a management company so his salary is undisclosed.

In layoffs here after the merger it turned out we let go our front desk staffer. So if you come to our newspaper you can’t even come in. We learned about this after the fact. We also no longer have any capacity to take a payment. There’s a sign on the door saying you have to call an 800 number.  In a rural community like this that is received so bizarrely.  If you get a call to go to the front desk because someone wants to talk to the newsroom you’re going to see some elderly person trying to pay their bill. This is normal in a small town. We’re no longer accommodating that.

One of our execs takes a plane from Virginia up to New York for sales meetings. That may be very normal behavior in D.C. or New York, but for us when we have a young sports reporter who is told you can’t even travel for your beat, that’s weird.

How has the decision to unionize been met by management?

We started meeting informally in a colleague’s apartment. We had this emotional come to Jesus moment where everyone was airing their worries. One of them is how is the company going to react to this decision. On January 6 we told our local management, who we get along with perfectly. The Editor in Chief is a friend of mine for 15 years. They were blindsided. We kept it a secret, as any organizing unit should.  They sent in two upper level execs from USA Today as a surprise.  It was a good dialogue. They came in, and after a few minutes, it seemed like they weren’t going to do anything to dissuade us.

In the process of meeting I ran across this instagram account someone at NBC News had created to union bust. It was nonsensical shit. Did you see this? I just thought it was so bad, it actually functioned like an ad for starting our own unionizing movement. I sent it to everybody in our group. It was ludicrous.

I guess to the credit of our executives they didn’t try anything like that with us. The question a lot of us have is, we have the votes, so why are you spending on airfare and hotel to come convince us not to do something we’re already convinced on. Aren’t resources precious around here?

What has been the general reaction to the idea?

The reception has been really good in the local community. Our local government reporter went on AM talk radio. I can’t speak for how it is in Massachusetts but in Southern Missouri AM talk radio is not going to be union drive central. The local business journal ran a nice op-ed. The local CBS affiliate did two stories, public radio did one. I haven’t heard anyone say anything negative in our community. I’ve heard people say they’re subscribing to the News-Leader because we’re unionizing. This is a very socially and fiscally conservative part of the country.  The Arizona Republic was the larger Gannett paper that unionized several months ago. The Morning Call in Allentown has been supportive, as has the Florida Times-Union and the LA Times. It’s been a really strong outpouring of support. I think everyone is realistic. This may turn out to be a futile gesture, like managing decline, but we think it’s important. We’ve emphasized we just want some kind of voice that brings a little bit of discussion back to the community level.

I don’t think people understand that if local papers go away the information diet for the entire country changes. The biggest cities for Gannett are Phoenix, Milwaukee and Detroit. This is not your typical “elite coastal media.”

I talked to a colleague at the Columbia Daily Tribune. They have something like five journalists. Columbia, Missouri and Springfield, Missouri are not that dissimilar in size. That’s the fear, that in the future are we going to be working with that small a staff? We used to have a business reporter, a culture reporter, a health reporter. We don’t have those things anymore. Those are pretty important topics. Everyone is scrambling trying to fit those beats in. I’m supposed to be the investigative reporter, but lately I’ve been doing breaking news. It’s great, I’m happy to do that work, but what stories are we missing?

What is a story your paper has done that might’ve been missed otherwise?

I’m from Branson about forty minutes away. One of my colleagues Jackie Rehwald did a story... Branson is unusual. There are 2,500 residents, 600 of whom are children, who live in extended stay hotels built for tourists in the 80s and 90s. You have people living in these dilapidated hotels. The government is trying to crackdown and make sure they’re up to code. Some of these places are being closed down. Jackie and her photographer went down there to document people living in extreme precarity. Where are they going to go? This is not a story that is going to be told elsewhere. It’s a community of people working seasonally, wages aren’t very high. They work like mules at the paper in Branson, but there’s only so much they can do.

So are you hopeful?

This has been a surprisingly easy process. Because that’s how stark I think things are. There was a lot of conflict surrounding the Arizona Republic unionizing but our experience has been the opposite. Everyone on the team and staff are like-minded. Even our relationship with corporate has been pretty good so far.

Do you have a sense of how many Gannett papers are unionized?

I want to say it was roughly twenty on the Gatehouse side or eleven or something on the Gannett side. Maybe roughly thirty out of 260.

What are some other Hell World-y stories you’ve been covering lately?

It’s not something necessarily that the local community is happy to grapple with, but there are a lot of signs of economic distress here. This past week the newspaper had four stories about companies doing staff reductions. I reported three of them. I don’t think they’d be covered as thoroughly if we weren’t here

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Is there any support or help you would want to ask of readers?

Follow our Twitter. We have things like addresses people can use to contact corporate. The next thing is going to be the bargaining phase. We ask everybody to support us through this.