Archive for September, 2007


Potential $1B in public-private funds denied to Gulf Coast by region’s own leaders

Following on our trip to Capitol Hill this week, the tremendous efforts of Gulf Coast advocates to bring some much needed affordable housing to the region are beginning to pay off. Word among the low-income housing advocacy community indicates that Sen. Vitter (R-LA), one of two main opponents (the other being GOP Senator Shelby from AL) to the bill is more amenable to negotiation than his earlier hard line comments indicate.

As Vitter’s colleague Sen. Landrieu (D-LA) points out, and as spokespersons from the National Low-income Housing Coalition have reiterated, his criticisms are “inaccurate.” Indeed, to the dismay of many pro-public housing advocates, S. 1668, the Gulf Coast Housing Recovery Act, would allow the HUD/HANO demolition projects of almost 5,000 public housing units in New Orleans to proceed. What I learned this week is that, if S.1668 passes, the existing redevelopment plans for the four developments would have to be *amended* to meet the requirements of the bill. Yes, this would take some time, but, contrary to Vitter’s aides explanation of his opposition on Thursday, the HUD/HANO redevelopment would not “start over.” As anyone familiar with mixed-income redevelopments such as those proposed here knows, it is highly unlikely that the three development plans not currently in accord with S.1668 would fall apart over the bill’s guidelines.

The reason this Act is so important – in addition to bringing desperately needed resources for affordable housing to the region, an area plagued by construction and insurance premiums as high as 200% – is that it meets *two key principles* of low-income housing advocates:

a) No net loss of subsidized housing;

b) Residents’ right to return and participation in planning and development.

These two principles stand in stark contrast to the historical performance of contemporary mixed-income re-development, namely the federal HOPE VI program that ran from 1992 until a few years ago. HOPE VI produced only 60,000 “revitalized dwellingsâ€? after knocking down 100,000 “severely distressed” units between 1993-2003. And though early baseline studies documented the desire of many former public housing residents to remain in the neighborhood rather than be relocated to the suburbs, many relocated residents disappeared entirely in the redevelopment process, or fared as poorly or worse due to displacement.

The redevelopment of Lafitte, controversial as it has been for staunch activists seeking to preserve public housing as it was prior to the storm, stands now as the alternative model for public housing redevelopment under S.1668. It replaces every unit plus adds another 600 or so, with the total of ~1,500 units dispersed around the Treme neighborhood where Lafitte is located. It has worked with residents to gather their input, and provides counseling and social services to residents wishing to return. The redevelopment team is comprised of Enterprise Community Partners and Catholic Charities, widely perceived as some of the best in the business in, respectively, affordable housing development and social services for the poor, children, elderly and disabled. I imagine both would bristle at the idea that their plan for Lafitte is an effort to return to the projects “exactly as they were,” as Vitter maintains.

Furthermore, there has been one positive to HOPE VI redevelopment, which should please conservatives and be an expected outcome of the HUD redevelopment in New Orleans: through HOPE VI, $5B in government seed money between 1993-2003 leveraged an additional $11.4B in investments. That’s over $2 in private funds for every government dollar invested. At that rate, the estimated $464M price tag for public housing redevelopment in S.1668 could feasibly bring over $1B to the region, according to my *rough* back of the envelope calculations.

Effectively, about half of the pre-storm public housing in New Orleans will cease to exist within the foreseeable future, with or without this bill. What S.1668 does is authorize new construction of both public and affordable housing for a range of incomes, as well as expand the number of vouchers available for low-income families (project-basing them to ensure that there is housing to go with them). Via federal leadership, desperately needed in the region right now, S.1668 will spur large-scale private sector development of affordable housing that current tax credits and small-scale, idiosyncratic efforts cannot accomplish without additional federal investment.

Critically, S.1668 acknowledges that the 2005 hurricanes’ devastation and subsequent political battle over the future of the indigent, elderly, disabled, and displaced is not only a New Orleans issue, by mandating affordable housing recovery in MS and LA – and if our advocacy efforts pay off, in AL as well. S. 1668 demands that Sens. Vitter and Shelby lead their GOP colleagues in offering long overdue solutions to an obstructed and grossly unfair Katrina recovery. (Indeed, Shelby was Chair of the Senate Banking, Housing & Urban Affairs Committee when Katrina hit, and could have mandated funds for the region then.)

Finally, as Landrieu noted in last Tuesday’s Congressional hearing on S.1668, this is a *compromise* bill. It will not meet the growing affordable housing needs in the Gulf Coast since the storm. Funding for the bill will be an additional political battle, and construction will ultimately depend on significant private investment. But it’s a start, and the only specifically targeted housing bill since Katrina and Rita displaced over 1M people in 2005, among whom countless remain permanently displaced, paying rent in a temporary home and a mortgage on a home they can no longer afford to rebuild, newly homeless, succumbing to illness and even death due to post-storm stressors, and drawing down on generous public support in regions and communities that would just as soon send them home. Urge your Senators to pass S.1668: the Gulf Coast Housing Recovery Act. You *can* stop the warehousing, evictions and killings of the indigent, elderly and disabled due to a widespread and unacceptable lack of secure and habitable shelter.


Show Biz for Ugly People

Or so politics is known.  And yes, I’m not looking my best at the moment.  But the cherry on top of this week’s political activity was sitting two rows behind Gov. Deval Patrick on the US Air shuttle home from Washington today.  If I hadn’t been so fried and thus buried in a People magazine, I might have noticed him before we disembarked.  Whatever, I’m so cool.  (and starry-eyed, apparently!)



Pressing the System, in an Ann Taylor suit

in the same suit two days in a row, since this grad student only owns one good one! 

I’m in DC all week, on my first advocacy trip to Capitol Hill, for an equitable recovery in the Gulf Coast – long overdue, now two years after the storm.  I’ve discovered my favorite brand of activism: getting spiffed up, arguing over policy, turning up the heat on our alleged leaders, and working with an extremely diverse coalition of folks in the process (race, class, gender, region, skills, etc. etc. etc.).

Please read more about this work here.  Some excerpts:

…some 40 community leaders from four states in the Gulf Coast region will be in Washington DC this week to meet with congresspersons…that two years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, thousands of people continue to suffer from the consequences of the storms and they continue to wait for Washington and state leaders to keep their promises.

The Gulf Coast delegation of grassroots organizations from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas will demand that the Senate move swiftly to pass the Gulf Coast Housing Recovery Act (S.1668) and supplemental thereby releasing the flow of billions of dollars dedicated to the region’s recovery from the storms of 2005.

While members of the multicultural delegation intend to raise issues and concerns that are specific to their communities, they are of one voice in calling on Congress to support their civic efforts to ensure accountability and transparency in the spending decisions made by state and local officials.”

Yesterday, the NYT ran an editorial about the on-going housing challenges in Mississippi wrought by Katrina and unjust, discriminatory local government action since the storm.   Just one example of thousands of the same sad story from AL to TX.  If you want to know where to target your own efforts against a major obstacle to the passage of this targeted and smart housing bill (S.1668), just read this incendiary and inaccurate editorial.  (Tough to rally the nation when you can’t rely on your own officials for support!)

Believe me, in my commutes b/w Boston and the Gulf, I know all about “Katrina fatigue.”  I was nothing but tears last week as I fully internalized the toll of racial and economic injustice that I see and feel through this work.  But as my regional colleagues shouted down an obtuse legislative aid yesterday, those of us policy advocates outside the region may be “working on this” issue everyday, but they are “living this everyday.”

Please, support S.1668 and bringing much needed funding for affordable rental housing and homeownership in the Gulf Coast!!! 


Visit the Katrina FEMA Trailer in DC…

and support the preservation of affordable housing in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast! 

From an email from Advancement Project:

“On Tuesday, Sept. 25 from 9:30 am – 3:30 pm, Advancement Project in collaboration with Turkey Creek Community Initiatives, will host the FEMA Trailer Experience in the Nation’s Capital.  You can tour the trailer; and there will be a press conference at noon with residents of New Orleans. 

Also participating:  Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, Katrina Information Network, Louisiana Justice Institute, and others.


Two years has passed since Hurricane Katrina and thousands of families in the Gulf Coast region lost their homes. Due to government inaction many of these families have spent two years living in desperate conditions-FEMA trailers.  On Friday, September 21, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development formally authorized the demolition of the 4 major public housing developments in New Orleans-Lafitte, St. Bernard, C.J. Peete, and B.W. Cooper.   The demolition will be the largest demolition in the City’s history. It would effectively deprive thousands of public housing families of the ability to return to New Orleans.

In the face of an extreme shortage of affordable housing, the government should not demolish perfectly habitable affordable housing.  HUD plans to replace 7,100 units of housing with 3,100 units, many families will be displaced for years, others forever.  In the meanwhile, many families languish in FEMA trailers.

A FEMA trailer is coming to the nation’s capital, so that members of Congress and the general public can “experience” how gulf coast families of 4 persons or more live on day-to-day basis.  The FEMA trailer is meant to create a chronicle – a living, breathing, and continuous consideration of an event that still hasn’t fully resonated with the citizens of the United States. By giving individuals the proper perspective of how truly terrible the situation is for thousands of gulf coast families, we can keep the flames of blame against the federal government fully fueled and burning bright.

In addition, on Tuesday, September 25, congressional hearings will be held on a bill [S. 1668] sponsored by Senators Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La) that has the potential to provide housing relief for thousands of gulf coast families.  Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) took the lead with this legislation- Gulf Coast Hurricane Housing Recovery Act of 2007- passing it early this year in the House.   

Residents are fighting back! They are inside the fatal fray and on September 25 will share their sentiments by demanding answers from elected officials.  Why weren’t they able to just go back when the flood waters subsided and the rest of the city’s residents went home?  Why did the government spend millions of dollars boarding up their homes instead of repairing them?  Residents are issuing a call to action for the public, politicians, and all justice-minded people to support their right to return home.  

Who:                New Orleans Residents
What:               Press Conference 
When:              Tuesday, September 25, Noon (press conference)

FEMA trailer will be on site from 9:30-3:00 PM

Where: The 900 block of 17th Street

(between I and K on the park side of the street).”

To Redstar readers:

Support S. 1668: The Gulf Coast Housing Recovery Act!!



A more-conservative-than-Redstar reader emails to ask why I’m not covering Ahmadinejad’s visit to NYC.  My only guilt over ignoring this story is if by doing so I’m not living up to my legacy as a scholar trained by the American Jewish community (i.e., a Brandeis grad). 

As I wrote to her – and as regular readers can probably gather – foreign relations, foreign policy, and diplomacy are not issues I spend much time on here.  I simply cannot take the macho-heads-of-state-chest-bumping requirement of national politics, particularly as its come to pass under post-9/11 Bush in our so-called “War on Terror.” Indeed, the reason I don’t read the mainstream “progressive” (also, alleged, as far as I’m concerned) blogosphere more often, is because the predominantly male white authors expend an awful lot of hot air on the diplomatic disaster that passes for our foreign policy these days (though I was totally into Yglesias’s post on Olive Garden – who wasn’t, it turns out). 

I tried tonight to read the NYT coverage of Ahmedinejad’s talk at Columbia, but ended up closing the webpage in dismissal.  I remember at Deis when The Justice student newspaper sold ad space to Holocaust deniers, and the backlash that followed.  I just can’t take such charlatans seriously, even though I know that their statements cause very real pain for people.  And though I’m a card carrying member of the intelligentsia, I find obnoxious and smug the empty provocation of a cocooned place like Columbia allowing that guy to come and speak, which does little more than piss people off without providing much legitimate space for productive debate – not least because his sensationalist rhetoric and comparatively weak political power doesn’t give those of us looking to confront the “enemy” much to work with.  (Although, Andrew Sullivan – among others – takes on his denial of persecuting gay Iranians while scoffing at Columbia’s set up.)

Truth be told, if you want to hear me talk about Iran, you’d suffer a conversational mix of its politics from five to ten years ago and my desire to visit it because of its amazing art, history and hot men – all based on my dating an Iranian-American* in NYC on and off for a few months – before I moved into ranting about Bush and our current “mode” of international relations.  To save myself at this bedtime hour the ire that immediately flares up when I think about (or see or hear) Bush, I’ll let Ezra do the talking for me now:

“From [CBS's Scott] Pelley’s interview with Ahmadinejad:

PELLEY: I asked President Bush what he would say to you if he were sitting in this chair. And he told me, quote, speaking to you, that you’ve made terrible choices for your people. You’ve isolated your nation. You’ve taken a nation of proud and honorable people and made your country the pariah of the world. These are President Bush’s words to you. What’s your reply to the president?

Wow. Pot, meet kettle.”

Now, if we want to talk about keeping alive the history and lessons from the Holocaust, or protecting human rights and preventing hate crimes, I’m your woman.


*Based on these credentials, I’m actually an expert on international and cultural relations.


Another MIT Genius

It wasn’t me, mom.


Black Thursday: Support the Jena 6

A protest rally expected to draw thousands is happening today in Jena, LA, in response to the racist (and excessive) criminal charges and wrongful conviction brought against six black teenagers accused of beating a white teen.  The beating occurred as one of several racially charged confrontations in the tense aftermath of nooses found hanging from an unofficial “whites only” tree on the high school campus after black students attempted to sit there.  People around the country are urged to wear black to show their solidarity with the demonstrators. 

I am a barely audible voice in the blogosphere that’s been instrumental in bringing this story to national attention.  And if I was at the rally I’d most likely be standing on the sidelines and furiously scribbling notes.  But I am in a black t shirt and sweatpants now, and will do my part tomorrow by not changing out of them. 

Even from this distance, it is amazing to see this kind of energy and activism.  Now if we can just expand the public eye’s peripheral vision south towards the Gulf Coast


Nerd Pride

Unsurprisingly, the pretentious creeps at that other Cambridge school fail to realize the hotness of MIT chicks.  (So what if I’m a sample of 1?)

Anyone who’s spent any significant time in Gifted & Talented or other accelerated settings (or watched Napoleon Dynamite multiple times), knows there’s nothing more smoldering (and kinda nasty) than a little geek love. 

As we say at the Institute, if the lab’s a rockin’, don’t come a knockin’.



Weekend Update: Redstar and Weboy visit the Natick Collection

On my third straight day of shopping (it’s Redstar’s “buy my fall wardrobeâ€? weekend), Weboy and I headed to the new Natick Collection.  “Eh,” is all I really have to say. 

I second Adam at Universal Hub re: the vertigo of standing in the old “Natick Mall” section at the doorstep of the suburban retail nirvana that is the new hall of shops.  Readers above the age of 22, beware the second story, where it’s one Abercrombie or their competitor after another.  I asked Weboy, when did we decide that the upscale wardrobe of today consisted essentially of sweatshirts and flip flops?  (If you do make your way out to Natick, check out Ruehl of Greenwich Village.  It’s as if Disney added a Village facade to Epcot, and let fans of shows like The OC and Gossip Girl decorate it according to what they’ve been told is fancy – that’d be fake fireplaces, college basement-party quality lighting and framed photos of half naked boys leaning against the walls.) 

The first floor feels more mature, definitely more pricey, and not quite at full throttle, given about one-third of the stores still are not open. They also need many more pushcarts to fill the dead space in the middle.  (I wonder if they’ll have the one where my dad can have his face emblazened on mugs for Xmas gifts for my stepmom and me.  You know, to go with the one I already have.)

As someone who lives closest to the Chestnut Hill mall, but about equidistant between Back Bay and Natick, I don’t foresee too much siphoning off from these other retail destinations due to Natick.  (I would be worried if I was the Atrium, which is the most generic of all the neighboring upscale spots, lacking the anchors of Bloomingdale’s, Barney’s, Saks, Louis Boston, etc., and having the most stores that I saw replicated at Natick.)  Boston should still have its international set and folks who prefer to shop downtown, and Chestnut Hill still has Jasmine Sola and Bloomingdale’s for the Newton/Brookline crowds.  Given that our parochialism means few of us like to drive further than 15 minutes to get what we need, I only see the Natick Collection adding to Boston’s fragmented retail market, rather than acting as a consolidator of sorts.  If anything, Natick should be avoided as it will bring together the over-caffeinated, hell-on-wheels rich suburban moms that roam the grounds of Chestnut Hill with the more slow-moving, easily confused, thick suburban crowds.

Ultimately, it’s about the kind of atmosphere in which you want to shop.  For the M.A.S., the perfect atmosphere is my living room with a beer in hand as I deliver packages I picked up for him that day at the outlets.  For me, it’s obviously a more sedate, preferably weekday experience where I can wander in peace and still find some deals.  Space and air matter; Newbury St., most outlets and the pseudo-downtowns of places like Mashpee Commons and the one in Hingham that my cousins love – all these are outdoors and offer varying degrees of “street life” and space.  In contrast, I hate “high-rise” malls like Cambridgeside and Providence Place where the stores are narrowly stacked and closing in around on you and the families and adolescent crowds.  Lighting is also key.  The Chestnut Hill Mall and Copley Place have pleasingly resisted the garish lighting that ultimately leaves the Natick Collection feeling stupifyingly similar to its traditional mall roots (or, as Adam at U. Hub put it, like the duty free section of an airport).   

I’m curious to see how the Natick Collection fares.  It’s not too often you see a Sears and Neiman Marcus sit side-by-side as you search in vain for a parking space between them.  It’s a long walk between JC Penney and Neiman Marcus, where the former has bi-lingual English-Spanish signage* and the latter’s snooty customers nonetheless ask for “Stella McCaHTney.”  I’m well aware of the $$ in the suburbs; visitors to the Natick Collection can browse the adjacent opening-in-2008 Nouvelle condos sales office as they wander from Nordstrom to Neiman’s.  But though I felt momentarily like I was in Soho as I passed the same chains that now consume that neighborhood, I thought I’d feel a lot more like I was in our version of Manhasset.  All I can say is, shame on this Masshole for being disappointed in our failure to measure up to Long Island luxury. 


*I’ve noticed many stores like Sears, JC Penney, and Best Buy now have bi-lingual signage, but at what I think was a Nine West I saw my first bi-lingual hiring sign today.


Harried & Messy

…also known as the shopping experience that is H&M.

I’m sitting on my couch with a cup of tea and my feet up.  Three straight days of intensive retail immersion – Newbury St. on Friday, the Wrentham outlets on Saturday, and the Natick Collection (don’t believe the hype) today.  I achieved my goal of filling out the fall/winter wardrobe (though shoes, as always, continue to allude me.  I LOATHE shoe shopping, contrary to the conventional wisdom.), but any gaps likely will be completed on-line.  I am done with the crowds, the schlepping, and the faux lifestyle marketing assault that overwhelms the average consumer these days. 

Shopping for me is a constant battle between procuring quality, muted luxury and a functional if stylish look without exceeding the arbitrary price points I’ve set in my head.  I am proud that this weekend I bought absolutely everything at the outlets, rather than on Newbury or in the “lux” section of the Natick Collection, but that still means I’m buying discount Barneys Co-op, Tahari and Theory, with a LOT of Banana Republic rounding out my closet. (The frequent discounts of BR are a much more significant driver for me than a true appreciation of their clothes, which I find highly unpredictable in terms of quality and, especially, fit.  But after awhile, it feels like they’re giving it away in there.)

Yet, despite the desire to save $$ and not look too flashy nor trendy in my search for quality clothes, I am not a bargain shopper in the traditional sense.  I’m mourning the loss of the original Filene’s Basement in Downtown Crossing as much as the rest – including my mother, who fondly reminisced while I was paying for my Off 5th Tahari pants yesterday about picking up her own pair on her lunch break in the late ’60s, when she was a skinny 19 year old working downtown.  But I miss it mainly for this enduring connection to my family, and not because I was a regular there, like an MIT friend of mine who knew the place so well she led the M.A.S. through and out with 3 shopping bags of his own duds one Friday afternoon in his first year in Boston. (Though she was still alive to grieve for the loss of Jordan Marsh, at least my grandmother passed away before this latest retail blow to our Boston roots.)

I have a pretty low tolerance for bargain hunting.  Blame it on my allergies, my easily irritability, my fastidious Virgo nature, but I hate shopping at places like H&M or Filene’s Basement, where the low, low prices come at the cost of hunting through bins or other people’s mess in the search for that perfect find.  I hate overheating in the lines for the too small, forever crowded, dressing rooms, or checkout, and I can’t blame but don’t want to deal with the snappish attitudes of the sales people (there’s few jobs I’d rather not have than to work in retail).  I’d rather pay more for clothes that I can find on my own, reach easily, not have to hip check someone out of the way for, and not want to wipe my nose on when I’m having an allergy attack in the dusty dressing room. 

I wish I loved bargain shopping like this.  I do; I’d be one of those cool chicks who could tell you how I got this Prada shirt for 75% off, or who’d be wearing the latest trends because my entire H&M outfit was only $70.  Instead, this weekend, the retail victory came in doubling back for a final loop through Off 5th after seven hours at the outlets, to finally find the deeply discounted midnight blue velvet Theory pants that go with the rather expensive Mark Jacobs shirt I guiltily purchased at the Barney’s Outlet earlier.  My victorious smile looked perfect atop the rather 80s-rocker-outfit I modeled for the M.A.S. later that night, who was no doubt conjuring Debbie Harry while I strutted around my apartment – in bare feet, given I still need those shoes!

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