Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Suburban Poverty in Our Midst

I read a recent article on the Atlantic Cities website that provoked some reflection on the areas of town affected by the future South Mountain Freeway -- specifically Laveen and Ahwatukee -- you know, because of all the discussion about sorely needed economic development that the freeway promises to bring. The article focuses on a recent study released by the Brookings Institution that explores the growth in suburban poverty rates in the US and offers reports on most metro areas, including Phoenix. While I've heard plenty of anecdotal evidence related to Section 8 housing and otherwise, I wondered if there was a better way to assess this issue as it relates specifically to Laveen and Ahwatukee, and then recommend a plan of action.

In looking for indicators of the recent recession's effects on our area, I decided to see how our school districts were faring with their free and reduced lunch programs (which are offered to students with family incomes at 130% or 185% of the federal poverty level, respectively). The numbers for each district and school are available from the AZ Department of Education, which offers an accounting for March and October of each year. Here's how it looked for the Laveen Elementary School District and the Kyrene School District:

On one hand, I noticed the significant disparity between the proportion of students benefitting from the free and reduced lunch program between the two districts. This raised the question of other disparities, like educational performance, but it looks like both districts are performing at above average levels according to the state's new letter grade system (search here for each school's report card). That is indeed encouraging and should rightfully be a point of pride for both districts. Notice anything else? Let's see the same data as a bar chart:

While the Laveen schools have held somewhat constant over recent years, Kyrene is now servicing almost twice the number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunches. I can only imagine that this creates plenty of additional stress for the district, which has not historically taken on such a great responsibility (*in addition to educating our youth).

More importantly, this illustrates the fact that we have neighbors in both Laveen and Ahwatukee who likely need economic security resources, which are not yet easily accessible in these areas. Our recent population growth has meant that the population numbers were not there to support the need for those resources as recently as five or ten years ago. This is potentially problematic going forward, especially in light of existing challenges our  local non-profit behavioral health providers have faced in trying to serve these populations (if you've attended public meetings in recent years, you've likely seen representatives from Southwest Behavioral Health Services and/or others desperately reaching out to our community). But this is apparently to be expected.

From the above referenced Atlantic Cities article:
As Luis UbiƱas, the president of the Ford Foundation, put it... "Today's poverty is no less painful. But it looks different." 
Primarily, it looks different because so many of the people experiencing it don't live in densely populated inner-city neighborhoods, where they have, if nothing else, community. Poor people who live in high-rise apartments and dense urban blocks have neighbors who can pool childcare, or point each other to social services, or share rides to work. They have access to public transit, because transit follows density, too.
There is a land-use component to the shape of poverty (and the kinds of solutions we can build to address it): Poor people who are spread out from each other, and from the kinds of services that grow up to serve concentrated poverty, have the least resources of all.
The article continues, noting that suburban populations are much more car dependent than urban populations, regardless of income. This "dramatically changes their relationship to each other, to services, to job opportunity."

So, how do we best address this growing challenge? We need to bring the resources and dependent populations closer together. On one hand, this means increasing access to public transportation in Laveen and Ahwatukee -- we really should strive to become less car dependent. However, we have seen slow progress in this regard thus far, and I wouldn't expect major advancements in the near term. Therefore, we need to literally bring the requisite resources closer to the populations that need them and also bring better jobs into our community. So far, the only economic development tool I've seen that can make this a reality is the same one that will bring  more retail and healthcare to the area: the Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway. I am open to other suggestions, but have yet to see a comprehensive plan that helps in a meaningful way as urgently and completely as the freeway promises to help.

From the "Confronting Suburban Poverty in America" Toolkit (highly recommended reading):
The metropolitan-level strategies could focus on measurable outcomes that are judged to be most important for the economic advancement of lower-income populations in that metropolitan region. The goals of these interventions could include, among others, locating more affordable housing near good jobs or high-quality schools; stimulating economic development along key corridors that span distressed urban and suburban communities; scaling the delivery of social and health services to reach underserved areas; or coordinating the provision of workforce training and child care to help more adults prepare for in-demand careers.
Here's a final thought: Please review this graphic, which I've shared previously, from the Loop 202 EIS. It highlights projected population growth and overall economic growth in our region. And then please take a look, below, at the primary drivers of suburban poverty in Phoenix, and consider how many more members of our community we want to leave feeling isolated and helpless, without the services we need here. I vote for zero -- let's start moving forward now, before we fall hopelessly behind.

From the Brookings Institution report (

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Part I of II: Questions for District 8 Candidates

First let me preface this with the fact that these initial questions are not my own. I have followed an AZ ex-pat blogger/journalist for many years now, Jon Talton, who was recently asked by a group called "Democracy for America-Maricopa County" to offer a few questions for Phoenix City Council candidates. Mr. Talton currently calls Seattle home, but he once wrote a business column for the AZ Republic and he apparently still owns property here in Phoenix -- plus, he writes his own blog that keeps tabs on our fine city, and I read every post. While we do not see eye to eye on all issues (Loop 202, for instance), I greatly respect his views on downtown Phoenix and other vital issues that impact our city/metro region. Therefore, I found it entirely appropriate to ask if I could perchance borrow his questionnaire to ask our District 8 candidates where they stand on important issues.

While I may no longer live in Laveen, I still live right down the street in District 8 and therefore have a few opinions myself about these issues. So I'm starting this two-part series by offering my responses off-the-cuff (as Socrates said, "an unexamined life is not worth living"), and will continue this miniseries with the responses from our candidates in a later post. Here are the questions, followed by my responses:

1. Please detail your connections to the real-estate industry: Properties you own; do you work in the industry and if so, doing what?; have you served on boards that make recommendations on land use?; have you profited from land-use decisions made by public bodies, including the approval and siting of freeways?

My personal response: I work in real estate as a residential agent (realtor); my wife and I own our previous Laveen residence and rent it to a wonderful tenant, plus I own a vacant lot in south Phoenix that will hopefully soon become the future home of our business, ZonieBaskets; I have in the past served on the LVPC and on a city of Phoenix development services ad hoc taskforce. I feel that these experiences, as well as my past work related to hotel real estate, are valuable in my ongoing learning about land use and regional planning. To the best of my knowledge, I have never profited from policy decisions related to real estate, although I'd like to think that my public involvement has helped preserve value in the neighborhoods where I've volunteered my time and energy, including my own.

2. Do you support light rail, including expanding the system and adding more frequent service?

My personal response: Yes, yes, and yes. The ongoing light rail corridor study for S. Central is vitally important to the greater south Phoenix area, including Laveen. I am a strong advocate for its furtherance, and I'm optimistic that it will move forward. Same goes for the western extension along the I-10 corridor, which will likely provide an important link to future transit options that benefit Laveen.

3. Do you support increasing transportation options in Phoenix with better bus service, and connecting the suburbs with commuter rail?

My personal response:  Yes, absolutely. Please see my above response. However, I'm still frustrated by the choice of 27th Avenue and Baseline for Laveen's first park & ride, instead of 35th Avenue and Baseline (see my previous blog post here). I also think we can better utilize Laveen's greenbelt system for biking and walking, by providing better major roadway crossings (see here).

4. What is your position on additional annexation?

My personal response:  County islands? Sure, why not. Further annexation for the sake of growth? No thank you. Please let Scottsdale, Cave Creek, and Peoria fight over further annexation to the north.

5. What is the city's role in downtown economic development?

My personal response:  This to me is paramount. We all benefit from a stronger downtown, and our current downtown lacks residential density. If we want the amenities that a strong and vibrant downtown can provide, then we must support and encourage infill growth there.

6. What is the city's role in creating more effective economic development for Phoenix as a whole? As things stand, Phoenix keeps losing assets and jobs to the suburbs, and it lacks the headquarters companies, high-paid jobs and economic diversity of other large cities, or even many smaller ones such as Seattle, Denver and Portland.

My personal response:  Firstly, we need to keep supporting and promoting local businesses, which our current mayor and council appear committed to do. We need to do more with business incubators that help provide resources necessary to scale up existing local companies, and this needs to happen in our core and elsewhere throughout our city. A couple of vital components in helping local businesses are our treatment of adaptive reuse projects and creating more streamlined permitting processes. While we have made progress in these areas, much work remains to be done.

Secondly, our city government needs to better appreciate the comparative advantage of areas like Laveen when competing for greenfield development against Phoenix's suburban areas -- especially once we get a decision on the Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway. One way that we can make this happen is to ensure that our city's own economic development department is well versed in promoting our positive attributes, but we also need to exert more pressure on our regional partners, like GPEC and the Arizona Commerce Authority.

And finally, we need to support our local businesses by getting far more creative in recognizing when they are doing something good -- even when we don't really understand it. For a prime example related to Laveen, please see my post regarding the automotive businesses located on Broadway, titled "Laveen-SoMo, Motor City?" As our streets and transportation department struggles with plans to beautify the area, they've made clear that they completely fail to understand this street's occupants and their needs. Meanwhile, our city planners are hearing from multiple people that plans for city redevelopment needs to do more to "celebrate unique communities" in Phoenix, whether residential, commercial or otherwise (as was shared with me recently by a city planner). Thank goodness they're listening!

7. Do you support expanding the downtown biomedical campus?

My personal response:  As a graduate of UA, I'm a tad biased in favor of the biomedical campus. But simply for the sake of our downtown and nearby areas like Laveen, I'm even more for it. High paying jobs, education, research... What's not to like?

8. What would you do to address the problem of empty, blighted land in the Central Corridor?

My personal response:  Getting away from the fundamental issue of individual property rights, this kind of question conjures a carrot and stick analysis in my mind -- incentives versus disincentives. While I do not care for the prevalence of vacant lots in our city, a problem that our municipal leadership itself has exacerbated over the years, I also don't think we can get as far with disincentives as we can with incentives. We don't desperately need for all of them to start building immediately, but we do need to see some progress in this arena.

Increasing the utility of those lots, which can be done by either developing them or at least helping to make them more useful to their surrounding neighborhoods, would offer a big step in the right direction. We could make significant progress by helping the owners of vacant lots mitigate their liability from allowing neighbors to use them. This is a far more detailed discussion than I care to expound upon here, but I think that the city could help facilitate the temporary "borrowing" of vacant lots by neighbors and community organizations -- in part by insuring land owners against liability (or at least helping them to do it on their own) and by promoting such activity in targeted neighborhoods. This provides an incentive to land owners by not only helping to alleviate maintenance issues, but also by adding value to those lots through community strength.

Here are a few Laveen-specific questions of my own:

9.What do you think of the Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway?

My personal response: Read my blog (yep, I just linked back to this blog), or check out the group that I co-created with fellow community leaders several years ago: Friends of the South Mountain Freeway.

10. What do you think are the three most important issues facing Laveen in the immediate future?

My personal response: 1. Traffic/infrastructure (Loop 202, HAWK signals, safe routes to schools, etc. -- all detailed in past blog posts like this one); 2. Business/economic development (again, as outlined plenty in the past, and very much related to the Loop 202 discussion); and 3. Enhanced social services, like healthcare (again, related to the 202) and recreational amenities for kids in the community.

Related to the last one, please expect a forthcoming blog post about suburban poverty and how it has impacted the Laveen and Ahwatukee areas. This was inspired by a recent national report on the subject, published by the Brookings Institution.

Those are all of my questions and answers, so I'll next reach out to our candidates for their responses and then publish those without commentary as "Part II of II" (am I the only one who thinks Roman numerals are fun?). I'll also see if they read my blog and, if they do, suggest that they perhaps try to get a jump on #10 by checking out our recent community survey results from my last post. But first, did I forget anything? What would you ask?

Monday, May 20, 2013

Survey Results Are In

No, not that survey.... You can view a recent press release for the "Let's Build the 202" survey, conducted by HighGround, right here (and read more about the group in my last blog post).... But I'm talking about the informal little community survey that so many members of our community FB group completed last week. Thank you again to everyone who responded.

So did we ask our 60 respondents about the Loop 202, or what? Ha, of course we did! But you'll have to get to know us a little bit before we tell you our deepest feelings about the freeway, so here goes:

Who Took the Survey?

Given that 51st Avenue and Baseline serves as a sort of epicenter for commercial activity in Laveen, we checked our sampling by asking respondents to identify where they lived, based on the four quadrants that extend from this intersection and the streets that form it. Here's our result:

We then wanted to know where people tend to work, and therefore where they tend to commute each day. Here's our result:
*Other = mostly retired or "all over" (or some variation)

Then there are those standard survey questions, like how much do you make, what is your age, and are you a renter or homeowner:

What is Laveen Thinking?

To begin answering this question, I thought it important to start with a question of how Laveen residents view our community, which should echo how we would like our community to be viewed. Here's how resident's answered the question, "With which of the following geographic areas do you think Laveen is generally most associated?"
*Other = a couple of obvious fake responses, not worth examining

Open essay question: "What do you like most about living in Laveen?" Lots of great responses to this one, but it requires further analysis -- perhaps even it's own blog post. For now, let's just say that the clear winners were proximity to downtown and open spaces (often mentioned in the same response).
"What are the three (3) most important issues facing the Laveen community in the next year? (Note: you must select exactly three)"
*Other = police and housing related issues

 So...... Now Can We Talk about the Loop 202?

Okay, fine! Here's what you've been waiting for: "Do you support the Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway? More info available at"
*15 respondents offered varying explanations. Further discussion to follow.

 Conclusions & Summary

This section should more appropriately be titled "More to Come" -- we have made a great start at developing a helpful community profile, but this leads to a need for further discussion and analysis. For starters, a friend pointed out that by only getting 60 or so survey respondents via our FB group (N=780), my sampling might be a little bit flawed. Good point, but this is also helpful info. What I can guess based on my sample size is that I'm allowing a +10% margin of error; but perhaps, more productively, I can learn about our FB group participants by analyzing how they vary from the overall community profile. For instance, I know that our respondents skew high in income and I can guess that they also skew higher than the community for education. Makes sense, since these are the same folks who are most actively discussing community issues via social media.

What I most importantly gained from this survey is a strong reinforcement of how today's high efficacy Laveen residents feel about the freeway (I think that's the correct jargon for smart and involved folks). I can also deduce that Laveen residents generally understand the economic impacts we can expect from the freeway, given the overwhelming support for transportation infrastructure and economic development (*could be a fluke, but I invited people to respond at a time that the 202 discussion was at the forefront). And finally, we have lots more to talk about after making our appearances at the Loop 202 public meeting tomorrow. See you there. Oh, and more to come.... Stay tuned.

Introductions Are In Order: Laveen, Meet Your Newest Pro-202 Special Interest Group

In case you hadn't yet noticed, there's a facebook button on the right side of this blog for the "Friends of the South Mountain Freeway". This is a page that I created in 2010 on behalf of several folks who support the Loop 202, myself included. We have never been paid, we have no budget, and we have therefore been intermittently active or not very active, depending on whether anyone gets inspired to say something important about the 202. Thankfully, that's been somewhat frequent lately -- especially for fellow page administrator and prominent Laveen residents Erika Keenan and Claudine Reifschneider. Erika and Claudine have put in countless hours for Laveen, particularly on behalf of Loop 202 advocacy in recent months (and getting about a hundred Laveen residents to show up to the city's budget hearing to ask for much needed resources). They have not, however, made any robocalls of which I'm aware -- remember, we have no budget for this campaign.

Who's Calling Me?

If you have received a call asking how you feel about the Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway, it was likely from the "Let's Build the 202" people. I understand that they have also sent out pro-202 mailings -- definitely not in our budget. Pleasantly surprised by this campaign, I did a little research after learning about the group's website in our Laveen FB group. My first impression of the website was that this looks like the work of a professional PR team, so my inner skeptic guided me to keep digging. Who in the world is paying these people?!

Luckily, this is not some sort of secretive effort. At the bottom of their webpage, the pro-202 group includes a link to their main organization page, "We Build Arizona". With a little further research, I found that this is an AZ non-profit corporation, listing Ronda Barnes of Perkins Coie as statutory agent. The officers and directors are a who's who of development interests, representing the Arizona Builders Alliance, the Associated General Contractors of America (AZ Chapter), the Tucson Utility Contractors Association, and others. Additionally, we know that District 7 Councilman Michael Nowakowski and District 27 Representative Ruben Gallego have been working diligently with their staff to promote the buildout of the Loop 202 SMF -- they co-hosted a public meeting in Laveen last week to inform residents about the process, and representatives from "Let's Build the 202" were also invited.

What's in It for Them?

Resources and growth. For Nowakowski and Gallego's constituents in Laveen, as well as for Ahwatukee residents, the freeway represents a vital economic development component, as it promises to bring the area much needed medical and commercial amenities. For the builders and their respective lobbies, it means a return of new construction where we need it. According to ADOT's environmental impact study, almost half of the region's near-term growth is anticipated within the area to be served by this freeway. After having been recently overlooked in favor of the far-flung SE Valley and NW Valley areas for new freeway projects, it's about time that we recognize the needs of this rather large swath of south Phoenix -- and recognizing it, we are. So are the business interests that will be building additional homes and those other amenities previously discussed. 

So Here We Are, All on the Same Side

Obviously, the residents of the impacted area and the construction interests share an economic benefit, most obviously to Laveen, western Ahwatukee, and the Gila River Indian Community. This helps explain why in a recent survey of active Laveen FB group members (who tend to skew higher in income and education than the community as a whole), 87% support the freeway. According to the recent HighGround survey, commissioned by the lobbying group, 59% of likely voters in Laveen and Ahwatukee support the Loop 202 SMF, and 64.3% of likely voters throughout Maricopa County agree. I guess those folks located elsewhere are in it for the regional traffic flow benefits, and perhaps they'd like to more easily visit their 75,000+ (and growing) friends and family in the Laveen-Ahwatukee area, or perhaps they want to have some fun at the huge new casino at Vee Quiva. Whatever the reason, I say welcome friends, let's work together to get this done -- and let's use the builders associations' funding to make it happen!