Friday, August 06, 2021

The rent is too damn due

We've hit another first of the month again. There's one every month!  But this one has been the most first of the month that has yet firsted since pandemic crisis began.  And it has gotten dark.

NEW ORLEANS — Deputies with the First and Second City Courts of New Orleans will be required to get a coronavirus vaccination. Constable Edwin M. Shorty Jr. has mandated all commissioned deputies must be vaccinated as COVID-19 case counts are rising with the spread of the delta variant. All full-time and reserve deputies must meet this vaccination mandate by Aug. 16, the constable said.

Officials said vaccination rates among law enforcement entities are high, but it has not been mandatory in the past. The mandate will ensure SCC deputies are not leaving the public at risk when performing duties of the department and ensuring their personal safety, according to the constable. The use of personal protective equipment will also be mandated while remaining socially distanced when possible and minimizing interactions with other employees or the public when possible.

Shorty said he expects the courts to be at capacity in the coming weeks. He says that we are not out of the woods of the pandemic, and will make sure all CDC guidelines are followed in addition to the mandatory vaccination decision.
What duties will the constables and the courts be performing that will have them "at capacity in the coming weeks?"
Second City Court handles eviction cases for Algiers and the West Bank of Orleans Parish. This decision comes after the federal eviction moratorium expired over the weekend. First City Court officials confirm that all East Bank deputy constables for Orleans Parish are fully vaccinated, and any new deputy constable will be required to vaccinate as well.

Perhaps when the constables go about their busy work evicting people, they could bring some vaccines with them.  It's about time we get a bona-fide door-to-door vax program going in this city that actually reaches the most vulnerable.  Of course this would be the way it happens. 

Evictions are  not just about to spike in New Orleans. They're about to spike nationwide. Some parts of the nation will be spiking harder than others, though. You will not be surprised to see which they are.  The maps in this NYT opinion piece by Sema K. Sgaier and Aaron Dibner-Dunlap show how many renters are behind and how far behind they are on rent in each US county or parish. 

Just the other night someone reminded us, as the South goes, so too goes the nation. The South is not going well at the moment. In Orleans Parish (which, despite much contrary popular myth making, is located in the South) 19.6% of renters currently owe back rent according to numbers cited in that NYT article. The average amount owed is $3,187. Sgaier and Dibner-Dunlap write that state and local governments "can prevent this rental crisis from becoming a homelessness crisis" by speeding up distribution of Emergency Rental Assistance funds made available by the stimulus package known as the American Rescue Plan passed earlier this year by Congress.  But we already know that isn't going to be enough. 

As of last Thursday, the Times-Picayune reported the City of New Orleans had already run through $18 million of the $52 million in rental assistance that has so far been distributed for the entire state processing only 5,000 of 16,000 applications. The state has another $87 million to disperse but it's not clear how that gets divided. That total will still not be sufficient to meet the need so, no matter what, everyone will be waiting on the feds to release the second tranche of ARP funds. But, as we will see, that tranche may not arrive at all. 

Meanwhile, we learn by that same T-P article there are approximately 400 evictions cases queued up to file as soon as the moratorium ends.  This story says 58 were filed on Monday. Which is a very bad time for that to happen because it follows right on the heels of this.

Louisiana residents will no longer receive an extra $300 a week on top of the state’s maximum $247 benefit. The state will also pull out of federal programs that provided jobless aid to self-employed workers and gig workers and allowed people to get jobless benefits past the 26-week state cap.

The benefits were made available by Congress until Labor Day, but Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, ordered Louisiana to stop accepting the federal payments effective July 31 in exchange for support from GOP lawmakers and business groups for a permanent $28 hike to the state’s weekly unemployment benefits, beginning in six months.

The move spells the end to jobless aid for nearly 86,000 residents who make their living as self-employed contractors, musicians, tour guides or gig workers. Another 65,000 residents who have exceeded the state’s 26-week-long limit on unemployment benefits will also get the boot, according to data from the Louisiana Workforce Commission.

For the 35,000 residents who will remain on unemployment rolls, weekly checks will be cut in half – as Louisiana joins 25 Republican-led states that have rejected the $300 supplemental payments under pressure from business groups who argue the payments are discouraging employees from returning to work

Is that $300 pittance discouraging people from returning to their demeaning and dangerous service jobs in the middle of a fourth wave COVID spike? So far there isn't any solid evidence that cutting those benefits has sent them all rushing back

So far, early data suggests that cutting the benefits given to Americans who lost their jobs during the covid-19 pandemic has not led to a big pickup in hiring. The 20 states that reduced benefits in June had the same pace of hiring as the mostly Democrat-led states that kept the extra $300-a-week unemployment payments in place, according to state-level data from the Labor Department. Survey data from the Census Bureau and Gusto’s small-business payroll data show similar results. 

Many economists and business owners say other issues such as health concerns, child-care problems and workers reassessing their career choices appear to be larger factors keeping them home.

The same week that the governor is cutting off the $300 is also the week the landlord wants that $3,000 average back rent or thousands of people are going to be be put out. Hard to imagine they're all jumping on one of those $8 or $10 an hour jobs so they can hope not to get sick before figuring out the math isn't gonna work.  What are people supposed to do?

For much of the past week, the President's message has been that he isn't supposed to do anything. Last week, he insisted that a month old Supreme Court ruling prevented him extending the moratorium without congressional action. On Friday, as congressional leaders were giving up trying to take that action and punting the problem back to him, Biden turned the blame onto governors and mayors saying in this statement, "there can be no excuse for any state or locality not accelerating funds to landlords and tenants who have been hurt during this pandemic." Biden's statement also contained a passive aggressive suggestion that the mayors and governors, "should also be aware that there is no legal barrier to moratorium at the state and local level." 

Neither John Bel Edwards nor LaToya Cantrell has imposed or even spoken in favor of a local moratorium on evictions. Maybe they didn't think Biden was talking to them.  We've already mentioned they seem to be doing an adequate (relatively speaking.. not objectively great) job of spending the rental assistance money so he probably wasn't talking to them about that either. And it's true there are states doing a much worse job. For example, Florida, under the psychopathic governorship of Ron DeSantis, has withheld 98% of its allotted rental assistance funds in what we have to assume is an act of deliberate cruelty. 

Having said all that, we should point out that governors and mayors (not just DeSantis types) are nonetheless reluctant to spend their stimulus funds. Partially this is because Joe Biden and the bi-partisan infrastructure deal making its way through Congress now is about to yank a bunch of it back.  That has already become an issue in New Orleans city government as the Cantrell administration discussed its plans to spend its stimulus funds with the City Council last week.

But officials said they are resisting the urge to spend the windfall immediately to supplement the $633 million budget for 2021. They recommend the money be stretched out until revenue improves. That’s particularly crucial because the forecast calls for the lost revenue from 2020 to total more than $290 million by 2025 -- more than City Hall has received so far from the stimulus, codified in the American Rescue Plan.

“Even if we’re using that ARP money, we could still end up in a deficit,” City Council member Helena Moreno said.

City officials are nervously eying negotiations over President Joe Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan. While such a plan would likely mean more federal money for New Orleans, city officials worry that Congress might cancel the second stimulus payments to cities and counties to help pay for infrastructure.

They aren't at all wrong to be worried. That's exactly what the current version of the infrastructure bill is set to do. And that's not really even the worst of it. The infrastructure bill is best understood as a privatization bill.  The American Prospect's David Dayen explains in this breakdown. He actually thinks it's been improved in the latest negotiation. I'm less encouraged and will explain in a bit. Here is what Dayen has to say.

The revenue offsets did change quite a bit. We knew about Republicans ditching the tax enforcement piece. But there was a big victory here for progressives. A few weeks ago, it looked as if much of the bill would be financed by selling off public assets and allowing investment firms long-term concessions of roads and water and power systems and whatever else they could land. The privatization agenda was extremely dangerous, and in my view enough to oppose the effort entirely.

But it has mostly vanished in this new version. After significant pushback from the left, a good deal of the privatization schemes are gone. That was an important show of force.

There is $100 million in “asset concession incentive” grants to help cities establish public-private partnerships (P3s). Some larger transportation projects will also be required to evaluate a P3 option, to ensure it’s given “a fair shot.” Tipping the scales to P3s is bad news, and these measures give them a foot in the door. But there was talk that the overall bill would save up to $100 billion by offloading the investment to P3s, which would really have been a fire sale. This is definitely more minor.

It's clear that someone in Gilbert Montano's office keeps a close eye on these developments. Not only has the city been anticipating the ARP claw backs from the very beginning of the infrastructure negotiations, they've also started the ball rolling on a "framework" for the privatization component of the bill as well.

Anyway, Dayen's description of the reduced emphasis on privatization is too optimistic. These changes he is describing are just the fluid argument over how to write the bill. The purpose remains the same. To put it plainly, public-private-partnerships (P3s) are privatization. Just putting them into the process this way practically guarantees they will get implemented through the regular corrupt local patronage networks. And the way New Orleans spends public money is especially suited to just that kind of arrangement.

A good little book to check out on this topic is Aaron Schneider's Renew Orleans?: Globalized Development and Worker Resistance after Katrina (2018) There, we find an analysis of the city budget based on the processes and institutions in place during the late 00s, which haven't changed a whole lot since then. The big takeaway is there's a lot of activity that goes on "off the books."  A quick excerpt summarizing this point:

The most important finding of this simple comparison (of New Orleans finances to those of similarly sized and situated cities) was that New Orleans taxes not too far below what is to be expected but has far fewer revenues and even lower expenditures. Taxes were only $7 million less than predicted by the model, but revenues were approximately $100 million lower and expenditures were almost $250 million lower than expected. New Orleans appears to tax its citizens the same but undertake less public action than other cities

A reasonable explanation is the proliferation of satellite entities, many of which are off-budget, difficult to monitor, and undertake significant fiscal action in the form of revenues, expenditures, and accumulation of assets. To explore these entities, data were drawn from 2007 and 2008, gathering information from city budget documents, Louisiana Legislative Auditor reports, and accounting documents collected directly from some entities. City budget totals include revenues and outlays by some boards, commissions, and public-benefit corporations, as they are considered component units of city government, and therefore government accounting practices require them to be included in the city's comprehensive financial report. Not all entities are so considered, however, and they vary in the degree to which their accounts appear in the public record. Some provide comprehensive financial reports to the Legislative Auditor's Office, others keep accounts according to government accounting standards but do not report them anywhere, and still others do not keep accounts in any easily comparable fashion. 

What this says in so many words is that New Orleans is crawling with public private partnerships and conceded public assets already. The city is run through an impenetrable network of semi privatized commissions and non profits who operate with almost zero public transparency. Schneider's analysis in fact shows this is actually the largest sector for public expenditures.

Take for example tourism promotion agencies like the mostly private New Orleans and Company seen here preparing to spend millions of dollars in public money on an ad campaign encouraging more people to travel and gather here during a pandemic.  Back in February, NO and CO's head Stephen Perry sent out an inflammatory email to agency clients wherein he blamed local COVID victims for preventing the cabal of tourism owners from making money. Here we see the Convention Center arguing over how to spread half a billion public dollars around to contractors and cronies to renovate and expand its facilities and develop whole new "entertainment district" for private profit while hundreds of New Orleanians are about to be evicted.  And still the Cantrell Administration insists the city gets its #fairshare from these agencies.  Maybe this is because dispersing public money through private conduits and expecting it to trickle down is precisely their idea of "fair."

It's important to understand this context because when you see administrators claim there are multi-year deficits which obligate them to hold back federal relief funds rather than use them to help people now,  you have to question where they actually intend those funds to go.  People are going to be evicted on August 1, 2021  October 3, 2021... actually the moratorium doesn't cover everyone and evictions have been ongoing this entire time. What good does it do them if we are hiding money away until 2025?

The administration is considering setting aside whatever money it might need for the latest 2025 estimates first and then work backward, only adding to next year’s plan at the end, Montaño said. 

Given that we know the city is preparing to implement the privatizing functions of the infrastructure bill, and given that Montano is arguing here that the City Council should butt out of his budget process, we have to conclude that the purpose is to consolidate as much of the pub-private patronage power through the mayor's office as possible.  At least that is one way to read this "efficiencies gained through the pandemic process," comment.

“It’s easiest to go back to the way you were and its easiest to go back to normal, but I’m not willing to lose the efficiencies we gained through this pandemic process,” he said. He added that the council reopening the process “takes away executive authority. The mayor gets to propose what we’re putting in the budget, not an agency director.”

Actually that's pretty much just a naked admission.  It would also explain why the same administration expressing concern over the ARP claw backs is simultaneously promoting the passage of the bill that will make them happen.  They don't care if there is less money than people actually need so long as they get to be in charge of passing it out. 

Why is this acceptable?  Or more critically, why does our political system allow this state of affairs to obtain?  To answer that, let us refer to a book by Arizona Senator and budding professional troll, Kyrsten Sinema. The book, by the bearer of the now famous "fuck off" ring, is titled Unite and Conquer: How to Build Coalitions That Win and Last, funnily enough. In this excerpt, Sinema relays to us some important lessons she learned serving in the Arizona State Legislature. 

I showed up all right. And for the first several months, I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, coming to work every morning full of vim and vigor, ready to face off for justice—which made me rather annoying. I’d stand up four or five times a week on the floor of the house and give scathing speeches about how this bill and that bill were complete and utter travesties of justice, and the paper would capture one or two of the quotes, and then we’d vote on the offending bills and they’d pass with supermajorities. I’d get righteously indignant and head back to my office, incensed that my colleagues could not only write but actually support and vote for such horrid policies!

Meanwhile, everyone else went to lunch. In short, my first legislative session was a bust. I’d spent all my time being a crusader for justice, a patron saint for lost causes, and I’d missed out on the opportunity to form meaningful relationships with fellow members in the legislature, lobbyists, and other state actors. I hadn’t gotten any of my great policy ideas enacted into law, and I’d seen lots of stuff I didn’t like become law. It was just plain sad.

At this point the reader may begin to wonder. Is Kyrsten "just plain sad" that the bad laws are passing? Or is this more about missing out on all those terrific sounding social opportunities?  It's not entirely clear yet, but it's not a great sign that the "offending bills" and "horrid policies" are left undefined while the author's self-image and personal comfort level becomes the center of the narrative. Anyway let's read on.

I spent the summer figuring out what I wanted to change. I knew that I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing because it wasn’t working for me and I hated it. I had, without actually planning to do so, fallen quite easily into the role of the loyal opposition, the righteously indignant crusader, the bomb thrower. In legislative lingo, a bomb thrower is a legislator who chooses to yell from the sidelines, cackle at the rest of the body, and generally raise hell from the corner of the room. A person who chooses to be a bomb thrower in the legislature is choosing to remove himself or herself from the work of the body: negotiating on bills, working to find compromises, and sometimes teaming up with unusual allies to promote or kill legislation. This person plays an important role at the capitol because he or she calls out the body on a regular basis (which is needed, especially considering that the general public hears or reads roughly 0.3 percent of what happens each day inside the legislature). However, the bomb thrower has made a choice—whether consciously or not—to be excluded from the actual process of negotiating proposed legislation. You can’t play both roles in the legislature; if you choose to be a bomb thrower, you will not get the opportunity to amend bills, participate in bipartisan meetings to craft good legislation, or work with people on the other side of the aisle to kill bad legislation. I unwittingly chose to be a bomb thrower my first session, which led to my unhappiness and regret.

Over the summer, I consciously chose to reject the bomb thrower role. For me, it was not a hard choice to make. I was miserable as a bomb thrower. And since I hadn’t consciously chosen that role, I was even more depressed when I realized that I had become a bomb thrower and worked my way right into that lonely corner. It didn’t fit me. I do love to give fiery speeches. But I also love people. I love talking with people, working together, and making friends. The bomb thrower doesn’t get to make friends much (understandably so), and she certainly doesn’t get to work with all the people she’s throwing bombs toward.

Remarkably, the younger Sinema was wrong about all of this.  Now at the apex of her career she has figured out you really can throw bombs and make friends at the same time.  As long as you make sure the bombs fall on the appropriate people outside of the Senate, you'll never be lonely inside of it.  

There's a kind of class politics at work here. But it's the politics of a consensus class within the halls of power charged with managing the hyper-concentration of societal wealth into ever more exclusive circles.  That retreat has been going on since the 1970s but it took a significant turn in the response to the 2008 financial crisis. That's when we learned capitalism can sustain itself just by passing around federally guaranteed credit among the wealth hoarding class and leaving a growing class of surplus humans to more or less fend for themselves. As we've tried to show over the past year, the pandemic response has been a continuation of this project. Anyway that's why a completely captured political apparatus can be indifferent to a homelessness crisis and cut off already miserly safety net payments in the height of a pandemic. It's just doing its work of laying down terms of the harsher readjusted social contract. 

So that about sets the table for the rest of the year. We're looking at another round of political buck passing to cover for a national policy of austerity and privatization. Locally, this will set off a bonanza of petty patronage delivered through local pub-private and non-profit networks. Come October, the new moratorium will expire. By that time, nothing will have fundamentally changed for the renters facing eviction, and we'll have another version of this same argument. Only by then, Biden will have celebrated the success of his bipartisan Infrastructure Week, Sinema will be back from vacation, and, in New Orleans, the same mayor and  (basically same) city council who are running with no meaningful opposition will be on their way to reelection.  And so at every level of government, the next round of calls to "do something" will be one degree easier to ignore. 

Of course the rent will still be due.  Just like every month.

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