Monday, November 30, 2009

Declining property values

Good summary, Nick.

One statistic you should have included is the proportion of homeowners - and the proportion of new homeowners - who are underwater now: trapped by a mortgage whose principal amount is higher than the market value of their property. That number is very high, and climbing.

But the engine that is driving the property values in Worcester down and driving our City toward a fiscal and housing disaster is the shocking collapse of the market value of the three-deckers!

Abandonments are spreading. The banks that take foreclosed properties when no one will bid on them are walking away from them. Boarded-up buildings are a fire and crime threat, and drive down the value of surrounding properties. With no one maintaining them, they quickly go to ruin. The effects are felt in Tatnuck as falling home values and declining City services.

This is the central challenge we need to tackle together to save our City.

Khazei, Capuano and Afghanistan Demo

Khazei and Capuano both look good to me. I'm glad Khazei is taking a stand now against the escalation in Afghanistan. We can't afford to replace Kennedy with a centrist. President Obama is a great speaker, but he needs a backbone, and Kennedy was part of his backbone.

But the problem is much bigger than elections, and a lot of folks who voted for change in 2008 are giving up, because we aren't getting the change we voted for.

Obama is catching a lot of heat from Wall Street and has taken the representatives of the great financial houses into his Cabinet. He talks big, but starts from a compromise position and then compromises that away under pressure. Electing Khazei or Capuano to the Senate will help, but what it will really take to save the Obama Presidency and the change we voted for is the people organizing to pressure him back.

Starting with the demonstration against the escalation in Afghanistan at Lincoln Square, on Wednesday at 4:30!

With enough pressure from the street, the people we elect and send to Washington may yet deliver. Without that, Washington just swallows them up and the things we voted for just disappear!

Posted by ChrisHorton

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Worcester man dies in custody

It would be so good to be able to look at a story like that of the unfortunate Kenneth Howe and be able to assume that what the police are saying is probably true. We need to be able to trust them to know right from wrong, do the right thing and 'fess up when they mess up.

But it is clear from these comments that this is not the situation today.

Police are working people, not so different from you or me. They have been organized into a semi-military corps, trained in the use of violence, and sent out, armed, into the streets every day to deal with the ugliest and most dangerous situations and out-of-control people that most of us wouldn't want to go anywhere near.

To do their job well they need the support and cooperation of the community - the entire community. Including support when they have to get rough with someone who is resisting or endangering them or endangering others. To earn and keep that support, they need to protect their reputation for honesty, integrity, fair dealing and following the law without favor, discrimination or prejudice.

But it is unfair to expect the police to police themselves. It is totally natural for working people to stick up - and cover up - for each other; all the more so when they are comrades-in-arms who need to completely trust each other in life-and-death situations. And it is only human to take better care of those who have power, money, reputation, manners and influence than those who have none.

The bottom line is that every city or town needs an independent civilian review board, so that in cases like this we can have confidence - and they will know - that the truth will come out. We need that - but the police we send into harm's way every day need it at least as much!

The police work for us, not for some boss who gets his orders at the Country Club. They must be held responsible to us. From that will flow the respect, understanding, appreciation, cooperation and support they need from us.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Prince from the Black Planet

Thank you Diane for your defense of free speech.

When I was little there was a TV show, Captain Video, which had on it an episode about the Prince from the Black Planet. On that planet, if you ever lost a contest, you became an Inferior ... for life. The Americans on the space ship knew better and showed him the light. But our treatment of ex-offenders is turning America into the Black Planet!

Millions of people are being labeled Inferiors .. for life. The outrage about letting Mr. Levasseur speak - some 30 years after his crimes - is part of this very-un-American tendency.

The American tradition is that when you commit a crime, you do your time, and then you get a chance at a fresh start. We're losing that, folks. CORI laws, off-limit occupations, security checks, lifetime sex-offender registries and the like make it very hard to start over.

During the city election campaign I talked with many young men who said some version of "I can't vote, I'm a felon." So many that we have to think someone must be telling them this.

This is wrong. First of all, once you're out of prison you are an "ex-felon", not a "felon". You are not a statistic or a probability or a risk, you are a free person ready to try again to make a life for yourself. Second, once you are out you have the absolute right in Massachusetts to register, vote and participate in public life.

And to speak at a University if people want to hear your story!

The Foreclosure Issue

Foreclosures is the Elephant in the Room that most Council candidates are dodging.

Worcester has had one of the highest foreclosure rates in the state for the last 3 years. Banks are emptying buildings and leaving them to go to ruin. This blight brings rising crime and homelessness, plunging tax revenues, emptying schools and plunging property values, with a huge proportion of new homeowners throughout the City now “under water”.

Only Grace Ross has made this a central issue, organizing residents and shepherding bills through the Council to keep people in their homes and direct public money for home-buying to city residents rather than outside speculators.

District 4 results

To me, the big story of this District 4 race was that - as Clive and many others predicted - the "infrequent voters" Grace Ross was trying to engage did not turn out.

The unofficial results of this race were

Haller 62%,
Ross 38%.

The vote totals were almost exactly the same as for the Haller-Simonds race two years ago. Perhaps mostly the same people, voting the same way.

But the real winner was "Not Voting".

As percents of District 4's 14,985 registered voters, the results were

Haller 8.7%
Ross 5.3%
Not Voting 87.0%

I did a little playing with numbers from Wikipedia, and came up with an estimate that District 4 has about 24,500 adults age 18 and over. As a percent of that, the results were

Haller 5.3%
Ross 3.8%
Not Voting 91.4%

Many say that those 87% (or 91%) who didn't vote just don't care, but I've been in enough peoples homes, listening to them talk about their issues, their concerns and their feelings, to know this isn't true.

The problem is that most working people don't believe their vote will matter, that it will make their lives better, or that anyone they send off to represent them will remain on their side. And they are afraid of stirring up a struggle that they aren't ready for.

We're not going to just talk them out of those beliefs. We will have to be there talking and working with them, organizing and leading them and teaching them how to struggle and win *between* elections.

One ray of hope came from an election worker I sat next to at a polling station. At 4 pm he pointed out that there were entire streets where no one had voted, but then there were a few - no different from the others to look at - that always had a good turnout.

He used to live on one of those streets, and he had organized his neighbors to get out and vote, and to get each other out to vote.

Eleven years after he moved away they were still doing it!
It's still taboo in America to speak the truth about how the current disaster for women in Afghanistan began; but it was the fruit of the CIA-organized, funded and equipped war against the Afghan revolution and then against the Soviet troops who came into Afghanistan to defend it.

But I remember the accounts every week of US-supported "Mujahadeen" entering towns, burning the school and the health center, killing the doctors and the teachers, and fleeing into the mountains.

And I remember a letter from an AFSC volunteer in an Afghan village who was present when the civil war began in '78, before the Soviet intervention. The revolutionary government in Kabul issued a series of decrees, taken up by the town's revolutionary committee. These were, in order (if I remember it right): a decree that women could appear in public without a veil; a decree that women must be allowed to speak at public meetings; a land reform, redistributing the holdings of the feudal landlords to the peasants; a decree that all girls had to receive a 4th grade education just like the boys; a decree granting women equal rights with men to a divorce; a decree granting women the right to attend college;

and finally a decree abolishing the right of husbands to kill their wives.

It was on the Friday after the last of these decrees that the Mullahs led the outraged faithful (men) out of the Mosques and on a rampage, hanging any communists, supporters of the government or unescorted women they could lay their hands on. Thus began the civil war, with the US supporting one side (with arms so advanced that even its NATO allies weren't allowed to have them) and the Soviet Union supporting the other.

Many young people I've told this story to are unable to guess which side the US was on; but of course it was on the side of the wife-killers. And it was in protest of the Soviet intervention - and in support of the wife-killers - that Jimmy Carter (Lord bless him) withdrew the US athletes from the Moscow Olympics and initiated the rapid arms buildup that marked the beginning of Cold War II - which did not end in the obliteration of our civilization, but could have.

Virtually no one spoke against this madness, because our terror of being accused of being soft on communism was still so great. Even most of the US anti-imperialist movement shied away. The Soviet move seemed outrageous because they no sooner had entered Afghanistan then they presided over the arrest and execution of the Afghan President Amin, who had begged and pushed them to send troops.

They claimed to have proof that he was a CIA agent, who had deliberately sabotaged the revolution by leading a campaign of wanton killing of enemies. This seemed like quite a whopper at the time; but now, in hindsight, I'm not so sure.

Rails to Worcester

In 1959, through trains (4 each way daily) made the run from Worcester to Boston in 58 minutes, with stops with baggage handling at Framingham, Wellesly Farms and South Station. The run from Springfield to Boston took 2 hours and 1 minute, with additional stops in Auburn and Palmer.

With the tracks in comparable condition, including restoring double-tracking where necessary, and using modern rolling stock - not super-trains, just light-weight high-speed cars, with traction on every axle, that lean into the turns - it should be possible to average 20% higher speeds. Cut 2 minutes from every 1959 stop for no baggage and higher acceleration, but add a minute each for 10 or 12 commuter stops, and commuter trains could run hourly from Boston to Springfield in less than 1 hour 40 minutes, and less than 50 minutes from Worcester to Boston.

Expensive? Yes. Pie in the sky? No.

Passenger service never did make money directly. The railroads recouped the expense of providing commuter and inter-city passenger rail service by 'speculating' in land, purchasing it low and re-selling at a huge profit when its value was increased by their investment and service.

As a society we have to start doing that kind of accounting, looking at the value added to our communities by government investment and services - and at how to recover some of it for the cost - not just looking at the bottom line of government balance sheets.