Two women seeking equality in a state where some couples are more equal than others.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Michiganders: Reject "Necessity" of Inequality


My heart still aches for Flint. I don't think it will ever stop. We've seen emergency managers step down, a few other officials resign, Snyder is heckled in Ann Arbor, national politicians have come, lots of speeches, lots of bottled water.

And in some ways, we've seen Michigan do what it does best. I know Michiganders to be kind, charitable people, compassionate when they hear about suffering. The amount of bottled water sent to Flint is an example of that.

We're also independent, stubborn, gritty, and I think some of the rhetoric coming out of this - about holding people/leaders accountable - comes from that.

Much has come out about the failure of emergency financial management. Articles have explained the deep problems with austerity budgeting. People have countered with the risks of stimulus spending. No one is 100% wrong.

Here's what I haven't heard mentioned (although it's impossible, at this point, to keep up with every thinkpiece on the Flint Water Crisis):

Michigan, in the last 100 years, has lived on the boom and bust cycle, perhaps more than any place except Wall Street. We watched as auto production boomed, and the wealthy built things like the world's largest art object - the marble and fresco-covered Fisher Theater in the New Center - while paying workman's comp and prioritizing employees. And then in 1929, things crashed. And it was terrible.

Then World War II came along, and Detroit became the Arsenal of Democracy. Rosie the Riveter was a Michigander. The state, and especially metro Detroit, kept the military stocked. People bought houses. The suburbs expanded. And then the war ended, some stuff stayed good, some stuff got messy. Racial tensions ran high. Inflation became an issue. Like I've said before, pick up The Origins of the Urban Crisis.

Here's what seems to happen in every Michigan bust:

The state slashes budgets, especially to urban centers. They cut back funding to education and other services. They allow infrastructure to deteriorate and swear they will put money back when they get it, when the economy improves.

And here's what happens in the subsequent boom:

Most of the time, they don't really put the money back in urban centers (possibly with the exception of a new tax-exempt stadium for the suburbanites to visit). They leave the budget cuts in place. Lately, that seems to have resulted in lagging economic recoveries compared to other states. If leaders have extra money, they either squirrel it away or spend on . . . consultants? Tax credits? Retreats? Beats me where the money is going in the good years, since it never seems to fix roads or run down school buildings or municipal budget shortfalls or city water systems.

And so the boom and bust seems always to result in less money for urban areas, which means that most cities end up trying to spread butter over too much bread. Crumbling infrastructure costs more to fix than routine maintenance. Poor students cost more to educate than rich ones.

So I'm calling on Michigan politicians and citizens NOT to give some money back in booms or to austerity budget or overspend and stimulate in busts.

I'm calling on all of us to reject the boom and bust cycle.

I'm calling on all of us to seek sustainable growth, sustainable funding, routine maintenance, adequate services, 100% of the time. We can do that through promoting equality, improving employment, and making sure every child has access to education. We can increase our tax base by welcoming diversity and improving services. Let's not set a quota for a number of students on to college that can be met by gathering every wealthy suburbanite into the fold. Let's set the expectation that every child can and should learn.  Let's not accept that much of the state is headed for a lead poisoning issue much like Flint's. Let's not keep joking about how bad the roads in Michigan are without any end in sight. Let's become a state where employers provide training and invest in employees.

Let's be Michiganders. Let's solve problems. Let's show compassion. Let's be gritty and inventive and stubborn.

I can't accept the alternative.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Mythbusters: #fixerupperdetroit edition

As most of you know by now, Rebecca and I closed on a fixer upper in Detroit about a week and a half ago. We've been doing the #househuntersdetroit journey since roundabout May, so it's been a long time coming.

During our voyage into homeownership, I've heard a lot of comments about Detroit - many wonderful, true, and encouraging. Some true and discouraging.

Some false, though. Some pretty serious misconceptions about the city have come up. And I'm not an expert, but I've grown up in the metro area, worked in the city on and off for several years now, spent the last seven months looking at homes in different neighborhoods, know and love many Detroiters, and have a somewhat captive audience (that's you, reader! even though I know you're not that captive - thanks for choosing to read on).

So here are some of the myths I've heard mentioned, explicitly or implicitly, during the last several months.

1. Detroit is a wasteland/slum/vacant.

I didn't realize how many people believe that no one really lives in Detroit anymore, or that the only people who live there have no choice, or that all the housing stock there is ruined and terrible. Driving through the city for even a short while will debunk this, so see myth #2.

2. Some areas of Detroit are good, but if you get lost and leave them, you are in trouble.

This is a popular one, in part because it sounds less prejudiced or more knowledgeable, I think. Many areas of Detroit are good. Many are okay but not great. Some are in bad shape, but here's something I want you to read out loud until you believe it:

People visit Detroit every day. Many of them get lost because the city is confusing to navigate. Everyone I know who has ever visited Detroit has gotten lost at some point. I don't know anyone who has been harmed. You probably don't either. You are unlikely to become the exception.

Certainly, some neighborhoods have problems. I'm not suggesting you seek them out and wander them at night alone announcing that you have a lot of cash on you. But readers, you know you probably wouldn't do that in any city. If you mind your own business and are polite, you will find more help than harm. Detroiters are some of the friendliest people in the world, as a general rule (it's true, ask anyone who's been).

3. The neighborhoods that are doing well are where the hipsters have moved in.

Yes, Midtown is at 100% occupancy with waiting lists. Yes, prices have risen in the New Center and Corktown and Downtown. Yes, a lot of hipsters live there.

But you know what other places are doing well? Indian Village. A lot of the Villages, really. Greenacres. University. Palmer. Sherwood. A host of others. You're hearing about the places the hipsters have moved to because it makes a better story - it's news. There are a lot of neighborhoods that maintained very high occupancy rates even during the Recession, though. There are a lot of people who chose to stay because they loved the city, have had their house for 15, 20, 40, 50 years, not because they can't leave but because they don't want to. It's not news that someone stayed in their house because they love it, but it's what has happened. Sure, the hipsters have filled up certain areas, but Detroit was never vacant, and there are great neighborhoods not inhabited primarily by college student hippie young professional art and tech types.

4. Buying property in Detroit right now is a good financial investment.

Honestly, no one knows if this is true. No one ever knows in real estate, but Detroit is a new situation. They had no natural disaster - they had a financial disaster instead. The city does appear to be coming back, but there are a lot of hidden costs to living there. For us, it doesn't make financial sense to move there, not really. We're doing it anyway because we love the neighborhood and are now blessed enough to be able to make decisions not completely based on finances. It's looking like our house may appreciate in value. If it doesn't, as long as we are able to pay it off, we'll be okay. Buying property in the city is definitely not for the faint of heart, and it's not easy money at all. Holding costs and taxes are higher. I'm not telling you not to buy. I bought a house. But the financial payoff isn't guaranteed. Not everywhere in the city is a "hot" market. Neighborhoods aren't casinos. Gambling like they are has consequences. And some of the best places just aren't going to be a good investment because the prices are already much higher and/or the homes don't need flipping.

5. Houses in Detroit all cost $1000 (or $500 or $5000, or some other small number).

Yes, there was a time during the housing crisis when you could calculate the average home price to be under $10,000 if you managed the data a certain way. Yes, there are programs where houses are auctioned starting at small amounts. Like I said, there are a lot of hidden costs - often, the back taxes, very significant renovations, back utility bills, etc. Not all houses are essentially "free" as I've heard some people implicitly believe. Even on a two income salary with one of them a physician's salary (albeit lower for now because my helpmate is a resident) there are a LOT of homes out of our price range. And with the economy improving, you're not going to snap up that move-in ready 5,000 square foot Tudor for $10,000. In a lot of neighborhoods, homes are going for over the listing price.

6. Everyone in Detroit is poor.

I realized people believe this when someone indirectly suggested that people in our new neighborhood make under $15,000 a year. This seems to accompany a lot of the other myths - that people would move out of the city if they could, or at least out of any neighborhood that the hipsters aren't currently living in. Many Detroiters are living in poverty, it's true. Unemployment is unacceptably high, especially for certain populations. Underemployment and stagnant low wages are also deeply problematic. We need to do more to get people employed in good, stable jobs. But many Detroiters are middle and upper class. After all, someone must be living in the homes Rebecca and I can't afford.

7. The schools in Detroit are terrible.

Many are. Yes. I won't deny that. I have worked in several. The school district has many issues. But some of the schools - Renaissance, FLICS, Cass, DSA - produce very talented graduates. A blanket statement that there are no good public schools in Detroit is wrong.

8. Detroit is so much better now that it has Meijer and Whole Foods.

Detroit did and does have food desert areas. The places that these stores have gone in weren't really among them. And the concern that these large chains will put smaller, family-owned stores out of business is not misplaced.

9. You'll leave once you have kids.

If we are blessed to add children to our family, we will talk about it then. It's obviously complicated. But many families do live in the city with children, navigate the school system, and make it work. The type of people that choose to stay in the city or choose to move there are used to facing challenges.

10. You need to do specific things to "flip" your home so that it will have value/attract the "right" buyer.

I've heard a lot of opinions about what kind of floors, counters, backsplash, appliances we should put in. Most are based on current HGTV shows. We aren't flipping this home. This isn't Rehab Addict or one of the other HGTV shows based on real estate investment. We intend to live in this home for a significant amount of time. Trends perceived to be "timeless" now will undoubtedly look dated. Our plan is to put in things we like and deal with selling the home in due time. It's not an investment property, we're not looking to turn it over quickly - it's our home. And the idea of the "right" buyer is fraught with classist and racist undertones. Also, I repeat, neighborhoods are not casinos. We're not gambling here. I have a job. Rebecca has a job. Our income is not based on turning over this property. There's nothing inherently bad about doing that, provided it's done ethically, but it isn't our goal.

In conclusion: I know you didn't all believe all of these. Many of you didn't believe any or most. But these myths come from statements people have made, based on assumptions that some people seem to take as fact. I encourage you, if you haven't and can do so, to visit the city. Not just to attend a sporting event or visit a museum. Take a stroll through one of the neighborhoods. Meet people. You might be surprised.

#fixerupperdetroit struggle continues: We meet Detroit Water and Sewertroubles

I'm hoping this problem resolves itself. Quickly.

But given that it involves the Detroit Water and Sewer Department, those of you who know about that department understand my concern.

Our first bill has a credit on it from when I had the water turned on, so it said we owed less than our usage for the first month.

I paid what we owe. On time.

But the account reads like I should pay the amount that the credit is too.

Since I'm recovering from bronchitis, calling or going in person isn't an option, so I sent an email. Our bill is due today.

I hope our water doesn't get turned off while we're getting this sorted.

Not Ruin Porn: #fixerupperdetroit photos in the middle

For those of you who haven't heard the phrase "ruin porn," let me educate you:

The term is used to refer to photos taken, especially in Detroit and other Rust Belt cities, that emphasize the decay and decadence of formerly beautiful structures. Michigan Central Station is sort of the quintessential ruin porn subject because it was so, so grand to begin with - enormous, elegant, luxurious - and then became abandoned, scrapped, vacant (click the link to see a Google image search to prove my point).

The original intention of this post, from months ago when we were still in the #househuntersdetroit phase, was to show you how photographers create that haunting, tragic ruin porn feel. I don't know if there's still money in setting up these types of images. I hope that part of the Detroit story is played out - although if someone wants to do a series on the tragedy that is Detroit Public Schools and the non-vacant ruins children still learn in, in order to promote and finance improvements, have at it.

Overall, though, ruin porn doesn't tell the whole story of the city, isn't empowering to residents, and in some ways, appeals to the worst of human nature: the twisted satisfaction from seeing what was once beautiful now broken, corrupted, destroyed.

So I thought that I was going to have a photographer friend take a few examples of #fixerupperdetroit and set them to look like ruin porn to prove a point. I figured that after demolition and before renovation would be the best time. How hard could it be to get the bones of my house to look sad?

My friend Nick Fenton met me at the house recently to take a series of photographs. I explained what I was trying to do, and he's been following the story for a while. I told him about our plans for each room and our goal for the home overall.

I picked the wrong photographer for this project.

Not because the photos aren't amazing.

They are.

But because Nick got the story too well. He was able to see the potential, the resolution of the story. He, like me, doesn't see the house as ruined. And his art reflects the story that we see in this house.

Sure, she's in a rough spot right now, as you can see here:
Kitchen - only the bones left (and not even some of those) - she's down to the subfloor, the shiplap, the studs, and a little insulation.

A view of the kitchen from the dining room. The view through this cutout sets up a juxtaposition, since we're doing very little to the dining room right now even though the kitchen is a total rehab.

The flip side of that juxtaposition. You can see how little we've done to the dining room compared to the kitchen.

The stairs are likely getting new floor and a new banister, and you can maybe see in the very corner where a new lavatory will go, but again, look how much of the living room will stay as-is.

Here you can see the stairs, stripped down to the original hardwood (now cracked and splintered in a few spots), next to the demolition in the kitchen and the spot we've prepped for the new lavatory.

I love the perspective on this one. Here you're looking through the space we've demo'ed in preparation for the lavatory. The hallway is in rough shape right now, but you still catch a glimpse of our gorgeous bay window and high living room ceiling.
This is the boiler room in our basement. The boiler has been replaced, and new boilers are much more efficient and therefore smaller, so the room is awkward and a little creepy - but I defy you to find a basement utility room that isn't a little scary. We'll be fixing a lot of the hookups in here, and some parts of the heating system have been repaired since about a week after we purchased.
Even in the photos that show the worst conditions, I can't see anything but potential. I don't get that haunting, sad, frightened feeling that certain images of the train station or old theaters give. I can't imagine any amount of editing will evoke that. Maybe that's because I love #fixerupperdetroit so much and am still so deeply grateful to have been able to purchase a home this wonderful. Maybe I'm an eternal optimist.

And then there are the other photos. The ones that would never be ruin porn, because there's absolutely nothing ruined in them. Have a look:

This is a family room/study in the basement. We're pretty sure that fireplace is hooked up for gas, and the built-ins are in solid shape. A new valve on the ceiling radiator, and all this room needs is a deep clean, lamps, and lounge furniture.

This will be Rebecca's study when the home is finished. Some of the doors need a little work, and a few panes of glass must be replaced, but the room doesn't need a true rehab.

This is the upstairs full bath. It's been redone since the house was built, so it isn't original. Someday, I'd like to restore it to a more late 1920s feel. But it needs only minor cosmetic and plumbing work for the most part (except that a new sewer line will have to be run, since the sewer lines hadn't been replaced since 1928, and it's time).

This is the attic. It needs insulation and probably new windows, but again, it's a great space with only some minor work. When it's done, it will be a guest bedroom and small office area designed to hold a couple and a small child. My mother-in-law is taking the lead on decorating this space - stay tuned.

Remember how I said we're not doing anything major to the dining room? Or Rebecca's study? This gives you a sense of how much of the ground floor will be staying more or less as-is. (Photograph taken standing in the living room and looking through to Rebecca's bay window.)
This photograph is taken standing in Rebecca's office and looking through the dining room toward the living room bay window. Notice the pile of boards on the floor on the right side? That's trim that Rebecca managed to save during demolition, so that we can add back some of the original elements once we near the end of the renovation. Also, yes, a snow shovel! We had to buy one to clear the sidewalk. Since we've always rented before, we never needed one. Also great for picking up tiny chunks of plaster from the floor . . .
We're not in the beginning of this story, when the house was new and Detroit was booming. If this house could talk, I have a feeling she'd tell you that she belongs to the Club to Whom the Unimaginable is Now Imaginable - she's been through a lot.

But she's not done. She's not ruined. She was waiting for her story to pick up again. These photos prove that she's in the middle of the story and doesn't know her ending yet.

That reminds me: I'm not ruined either.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Land Bank Strikes Again: This Time it's Worse

Edit: I'm waiting for more details to come in about this.  Action steps #1 and #2 still apply. Action step #3 should be put on hold until further notice.

Remember my Open Letter to the Detroit Land Bank Authority that so many of you read and were appalled at? Remember the struggle we had a month ago to make sure that #fixerupperdetroit stayed ours? Remember the problems I articulated with the land bank?

The land bank strikes again, this time at something INFINITELY more important than #fixerupperdetroit. 

You see, even worst case scenario, if the Detroit Land Bank Authority had taken my property away and I had ended up homeless with ruined credit, it would just be me.

Now, a Detroit institution very near and dear to my heart, one of the reasons we bought in the city in the first place, a group that has helped me think and love more deeply about food and money and friends, a group that feeds neighbors, stabilizes the community, preserves the environment, and keeps me posted on how much #detroithustlesharder has been hurt by discriminatory Detroit Land Bank policies.


The Detroit Land Bank has been selling side lots to try to stabilize neighborhoods. This in itself isn't a problem. Having lots owned by residents of the community is beneficial, as they are more likely to be maintained.

However, many lots were already being maintained by neighbors or urban agriculture groups. There actually were policies that approved this type of behavior (it gets complicated to explain, but suffice it to say that Detroit benefited). Faith Farm CSA was one group in a large network that was helping substantially to maintain neighborhoods, feed people, stand in the food desert gap, educate people, and farm sustainably. In fact, they have distributed more than 2.5 tons of food to the needy.

I heard months ago that some of the parcels they were maintaining (but they didn't own) were up for sale with the land bank and they were trying to file to get them permanently. At that point, Rebecca and I went all in, bought a community-supported agriculture share, and determined that we WOULD be living in the city by the time it started, whatever it took. #fixerupperdetroit ensued. Faith Farm had at least some of the cash in hand they needed to purchase the lots that they should have had precedence for.

Now Faith Farm has been notified that someone else, someone who wasn't already doing all of this maintenance, was successful in purchasing the side lots, and the farm will have to move everything to a new location. This will cost them a lot of time and money, just like when we were staring down our unreasonable rehab agreement.
I made this risotto with ingredients from my Faith Farm share. Their veggies always inspire me to cook my best!

Faith Farm eggs are absolutely delicious. You'll never eat fresher. Because their chickens eat a more varied diet than commercial chickens, their eggs are richer, creamier, and more flavorful.

This Faith Farm tomato was exquisite. Flavorful, juicy, the perfect counterpoint to fresh mozzarella and basil.

Here is what I am calling on every reader to do:

1. Financially support Faith Farm CSA by purchasing shares for this summer.

You can purchase a share for yourself or for an urban family (Faith Farm makes sure families with children and seniors in their neighborhood have fresh foods whenever possible). The food is absolutely top notch, and pickups create an opportunity for you to meet new people, learn new things, and visit their chickens and turkey. Although the amount might seem like a lot up front, when you divide it out for 18 weeks, it actually is a very reasonable price for a weekly local, organic grocery budget. And it's not a handout. It's a hand up. You will be investing in something that is directly changing Detroit neighborhoods. Faith Farm still has a chance to buy other lots from the land bank to continue production, but they need to make sure they have the resources to do so. Our direct support is essential.

If you can't buy a full share, consider donating what you can. Some of you offered to support a Gofundme for our legal fees, and I trust that you will put that money to good use now that #fixerupperdetroit is in the clear but another important group isn't.

2. Volunteer at a Faith Farm workday

If you are around Detroit and have time, Faith Farm organizers are looking for help, especially if you have access to tools and equipment. This is a great chance to meet new people, get your hands dirty, and see permaculture in action.

3. Contact the land bank to complain*

You can comment about Faith Farm on the Detroit Land Bank Authority facebook page or leave a negative review, tweet @1DLBA, or call (313) 974-6869. The land bank is already suffering from negative publicity due to actions that have targeted homeowners like us.

*Please hold off on this as we await further details.

My heart is breaking that such good people doing such important work will have to allocate resources they don't really have because of the bureaucratic failings of their city.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

My Heart Broke a Little Today: Urban Teaching isn't for the Faint

This conversation transpired with one of my students today:

Student: Miss Erin, will you get him? (points to a student next to him)
Me: That's not really something I can do. If he's bothering you, you can move to a different seat.
Student: He keeps poking my leg!
Me: That does sound distracting, and I'm sorry it's happening. The fastest way to fix this right now is for you to take a seat someplace else.
Student: Maybe I'll just punch him.
Me: Okay, think about what's going to happen if you do that. Who's going to get in trouble, you or him?
Student: Me.
Me: And they'll probably suspend you or put you out of class, which is definitely worse than this distraction.
Student: Yeah.
Me: Look, I know this sucks, but you know that as a young African American man, the world is looking for a reason to blame you for things and get you in trouble. Don't give them that reason.

And this student did something I'm not sure any of my African American young men have ever done - he reached his hand out for my hand and bent his fingers around mine. I'm not skilled at this kind of handshake, though I've seen them done a lot. I can't verbalize exactly what it meant that he did this, but it was an acknowledgment of sorts.

In that moment, my heart broke a little bit, that I had to say that to him, that it was true, that the world is looking for a reason to put this student out of class. It's my job to teach him how to play the SAT game so he can get a score to go to college, but there's another, bigger game that he has to play even to graduate high school and to live long enough to get to college.

I pray he does.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

DPS, MBA, disaster: Sickouts came from somewhere

I attended GMAT training this weekend and last weekend. My employer was looking for a few more instructors, and I had put in interest, since it's similar to one or two other tests that I teach and would allow me more flexibility.

 But the other reason that I am attending GMAT training is that I am trying to figure out next steps. I am planning to go back to school eventually, probably when Rebecca finishes her residency, and I am considering what degrees I could best to leverage to improve Detroit.

There are many options, given that Detroit has many problems. For a while I considered a Masters of Public Health, so that I could address the environmental issues facing the children of the city. For a while I considered a law degree so that I could make sure that students with special needs were receiving the services that the law guaranteed that. There was a time when I thought that an Ed.D. in something related to education was the best choice, or perhaps a PhD in second language acquisition.

I haven't completely ruled out any of those choices. All of them sound interesting, and do much to research and apply new concepts of problem-solving. I know people with each of these degrees, and I deeply admire the work that they are doing.

However, there is a new field of study that I am considering after pondering what degrees I've been seeing used in decision-making lately.
Robert Bobb? MS in Business Studies.  Roy Roberts? Bachelor's in Business Administration. Darnell Earley? Master's in Public Administration (and Ph.D. in poisoning entire cities). None of the emergency financial managers had a background in education (although Robert Bobb did attend a school superintendent training program created by business mogul Eli Broad).

Governor Snyder has a JD and MBA. 

What degree do many of those controlling the vast majority of the wealth in Detroit have? Business degrees. Administration degrees.

My wife pointed out, at one point, that even in Flint, people with PhDs, DOs, and MDs were ignored for months when they insisted that Flint children were being poisoned by the water. They've also been ignored when they've insisted that the children in Wayne County are being poisoned and shortchanged. Given how long med school is, add some residency, add a high level of difficulty for those doing residencies particularly at urban hospitals, and it is very puzzling that the state has ignored those with that kind of degree, but they did.

And so I believe that I may need to get an MBA to get people to listen to me. Given my nontraditional background for business school, I feel that it would be important to my application to have a very, very high GMAT score. So I went to training to learn more about the test, because I doubt my background in education will count in my favor if the state is unwilling to listen to educators about things like school conditions and curriculum.

After all, what could a teacher know about the business of schooling?