Monday, April 25, 2016

Affording a $400 Sidewalk Repair

(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 (


  1. Sir, I am always happy to read your blog posts, although I mostly do it at work, through an RSS reader, as blogspot sites are universally on the 'entertainment' list of Web Sites That Must Not Be Browsed.

    I have the Gabler article on my nightstand and am now looking forward even more to reading it, as you have piqued my interest in it and drawn the urbanism connection.

    As the head of a New York City household, I have consciously realized that our local rent stabilization program is the best deal around, if you stick in one apartment long enough. Right now I estimate that we are paying about 20% less than market rate for our two-bedroom one bath apartment in an elevator building. But the downside is not anticipating moving anytime soon. So that's our family's way of dealing with high housing prices; find a bargain and refuse to move.

    Apropos the sidewalk question, after reading your post, the question that remains in my mind is this: if 23.5% of Petaluma homeowners (an estimate, half the 47% figure) are unable to afford a sidewalk repair, what does that say about Petaluma's tax base and ability to pay for infrastructure improvements on a broader scale? By clinging to the low-density single-family home model, has Petaluma (and its counterpart communities across the U.S.) failed to develop a business plan that builds wealth and husbands resources over the long term?

    I think in the U.S. we don't have much experience with cooperatives as economic entities, but perhaps if cities moved toward a more explicit cooperative model, this long-term trend toward subsistence living on the part of the civic entity (terrible phrasing, sorry) would become more clear and residents could then take action to do something about it?

    1. Anon, thanks for reading and for writing.

      Yes, I agree that Petaluma and nearly every other community has clung to the suburban paradigm far longer that they should have. I point to the property tax revolt from the late 70s to the early 90s as the sign we all should have recognized, but virtually none did, that suburbia was ill-structured to pay its bills.

      Being a west coaster, I'm not as familiar with the co-op model as you. Although I'm not sure that co-op housing is truly necessary to address the municipal financial issues, I agree that downtown living, which can be a good financial strategy for our cities and towns, can have more elements of cooperative living than the single-family model.

      Now, an unrelated question for you which dawned on me as I read your comment. Studies have shown that percentage of homeownership can be inversely related to economic vitality, as people are stuck in place and can't follow economic opportunities. Might rent control have the same impact? I understand the benefit to your household, but wonder about the macro issues.

      Thanks again for the comment.

    2. It's not just in post-war suburbia. We live in a classic traditional suburb just outside of Philadelphia where every street is lined with a sidewalk on both sides.

      We are currently waging a campaign to bring light to this issue. Most people, including many homeowners right here in Pennsylvania have no idea that property owners must fix the sidewalks in front of their houses. What this has created is an awful patchwork of sidewalk styles and levels of quality that has also brought hardships to some of the families on the hook for this.

      You correctly point out that in a "reasonable world," this would be a government function, but in that reasonable world, that government would also not be building public parking lots primarily to benefit private businesses. This town, Jenkintown, paid $2.4 million to seize and develop a prime chunk of downtown property to build a parking lot, supposedly to help out the struggling retail businesses. We contend that $2.4 million would fix a lot of sidewalks and bring better value to the community as a whole, especially when the town's parking fund still runs a deficit.

      In a reasonable world, cities and towns would get their priorities straight and put our tax dollars where it serves residents best, not on money-losing (name your subsidized project).

      Please see our blog at to read more.

    3. Randy, you make a good point about pre-war developments. Although they may have been built in a form that should have been financially sustainable, it still takes government to correctly use the funds. Too bad about the parking lot.

      Thanks for the link to Walkable Jenkintown. I'd expected to be in your neighborhood this summer, but the plan has moved to the summer of 2017. Perhaps I can drop by for a tour of your sidewalks.

    4. If I'm still living here, I'll be happy to give you that tour.

    5. I've put a note on my calendar and will follow up a year from now.

    6. Dave, New York City is a high-cost-of-living city relative to most U.S. areas; you can compare US General Services Administration per diem rates if you choose.

      But that high cost of living is offset by high salaries as well as New Yorkers are also high-productivity workers, responsible for more economic output per capita than most U.S. areas.

      This creates a constant stream of immigration as people look for high-paying, high-productivity jobs.

      Having a rent-control scheme allows some of the high salary to accrue to the worker, instead of just the landowner. Bear in mind that electricians and carpenters and painters also get paid more in New York, so landlords do have higher costs.

      That's one macro argument for rent control. I think your insightful query focuses on whether the transaction costs of moving make it uneconomical, not on the actual source of the costs. In that respect, renting is great for economic purposes; we can leave any time without having to lift a finger to find a new tenant.