Durable Growth, Transportation

Affording a $400 sidewalk repair

160425002 Cracked Sidewalk on Broadway(Note: If the message below seems familiar, it may be because I wrote on the same subject a couple of months back.  But new and better targeted quotes have come across my desk that allow me to make the point more effectively.  Perhaps it’s intellectually lazy, but some days are like that.)

Today begins with a one-question quiz.  It’s not an easy quiz, perhaps SAT level or above, especially for those who still believe in drivable suburbia.

Here we go.  Can you spot the logical inconsistency between these two excerpts?

Excerpt One – A question and answer from a City of Petaluma leaflet about a new program to encourage sidewalk repairs, a program that can include financial assistance.

“Question: What can I do if paying for sidewalk repairs is too expensive for me right now? Answer: The City is offering loans, at below-market rates, for qualified property owners.”

Excerpt Two – Taken from “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans”, an article in the current issue of Atlantic.

“The Fed (Federal Reserve Board) asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency.  The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all.  Four hundred dollars!  Who knew?”

Do you see the inconsistency?  It should jump out for those who aware of the financial state of suburbia.

The inconsistency is that the City of Petaluma and the author of the Atlantic article, Neal Gabler, see the financial health of the public quite differently.

Petaluma makes the implicit assumption that any problems in paying for sidewalk repairs are temporary cashflow problems and can be solved with low-cost loans.

Gabler sees a different story.  From the Fed data, he sees that the problem is chronic with nearly half of the population overwhelmed by a $400 expense, much less a sidewalk repair that could run to $5,000.

From personal observations, I find Gabler and the Fed closer to the truth.

I don’t intend a knock on Petaluma by saying that they’re being unrealistic about sidewalk repairs.  They’re trapped, as many are, by the failing finances of suburbia.  By law, homeowners are responsible for sidewalks.  But the City legal staff is concerned about judgments against the City because of a failure to enforce that responsibility.  So the City has adopted a policy that will give it a legal defense, even if staff understands the fallacy of expecting many homeowners to repay even low-interest loans.

I speculate, and the City may also, that the sidewalk fund will soon bottom out as the repayments lag, with the result that few sidewalks are repaired.  But at least the City will be able to point at their attempt to address the problem.  Perhaps it’s a cynical response by the City, but it’s a situation where cynicism may be the only rational response.

Some will suggest that the City should assume responsibility for sidewalk repair and maintenance.  I agree that maintaining walkability would be a government function in a reasonable world.

But a back-of-the-envelope calculation estimated the annual cost of maintaining sidewalks throughout Petaluma at $4 to $6 million, an impossible chunk of the general fund revenues which have painfully climbed back to $40 million after the recession.  And a tax measure to pay the cost would be an attempt to tap many of the same pockets that are already tapped out, so would fail miserably.

Admittedly, many homeowners are within the 53 percent who the Fed found aren’t overwhelmed by a $400 tab, but there are also many homeowners within the lower 47 percent.  From first-hand knowledge as the chair of a non-profit that worked with low-income homeowners, I know the latter to be true.

In Gabler’s analysis, in which he openly acknowledges belonging to the 47 percent despite an outwardly success life, he ascribes the increasing financial struggles of former middle class to three factors, growing income inequality by which the lower quintiles of the public don’t partake of economic gains, the ready availability of credit which encouraged insurmountable debt, and a desire, if not to keep up with the Jones, then at least to have one’s children keep up with the Jones’ children.

Although Gabler writes about the need to leave New York City for a far suburb to find affordable housing, a decision that in turn forced him to focus on keeping an aging car running, he doesn’t point to the current land-use model as a cause of widespread financial stress.  I could argue that his omission is a mistake, but also agree that the three causes he identified might lead the list even if suburbia is included.

Regardless of the role in suburbia in causing the financial malaise in former middle-class pocketbooks, the financial sustainability of suburbia is undermined by that malaise.  Whether it’s fixing potholes or mending cracked sidewalks, we have a problem.  Much of the public can’t pay for the needed repairs.

Suburbia came of age during the 50s and 60s, an era in which the U.S. had income equality that was unprecedented in the history of the world, a fact that allowed suburbia to thrive.  In the absence of income equality, it’s unclear how to support suburbia.

Of course, even if we find the political will to bring income equality back to the levels of the 50s and 60s, we still have the problem with suburbia driving climate change.

Wouldn’t it be easier to move toward a walkable urban world with its lesser extent of infrastructure to maintain?  I think so.

Most years, I write an early April paean to baseball and how it functions as an urban sport.   This year, early April slid past in a welter of other topics.  But we’re still in the latter days of the month, so I’ll my annual ode to the sport when I next write.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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