Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday faceplant

We've all endured the indignity of tripping in public. Chances are, you haven't had it captured by the Google streetview camera, as was the case for this unfortunate Albany pedestrian. Of course, if you fall twice in the space of a hundred feet you increase your odds of being memorialized. The sidewalks look rather devoid of other pedestrians; I hope the fellow got whatever help he needed.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

An idiot's* guide to the weighted vote

The ever active Victor Mendolia will host a session on Hudson's weighted vote this Sunday at 10AM at Valley Variety, 705 Warren Street in Hudson. There does not appear to be a RSVP, so show up if you are interested and bring donuts for the rest of us.
*****EDIT: Victor has informed me that the Sunday meeting is for those who would like to work directly on the weighted vote issue with Hudson Forward. Potential courses of action will be discussed and debated. It won't be an informational session per se, but all are welcome to attend.*****
I've been slow to grasp the weighted vote issue, and slow to form an opinion on it. I don't know where things settle out for me on it, but I usually learn something by writing about it. So I'll try that here in preparation for Sunday's meeting. If I get some of this wrong, perhaps someone will tell me.

What is in question?
Typically, a city's ward boundaries are drawn to ensure roughly equal populations among them. The boundaries are adjusted every few years (ten, I think) to account for population shifts. Each district has the same number of councilors, giving each city resident equally representation in council voting.

Hudson's system is different. Our wards have different populations, and their boundaries stay the same year after year. Inequalities in ward population are compensated by applying different multipliers to the in-chamber votes of aldermen (councilors). An alderman representing a large district has a large multiplier applied to his or her vote, while an alderman representing a small district has his or her vote reduced by a different multiplier. As populations shift, the multipliers, rather than the ward boundaries, are changed.

In theory, the outcomes are the same. The question is whether our current system is fair in practice.

An independent study concluded that Hudson is the only city in the U.S. that uses a weighted vote. Is this a reason to change it?
Logically, no. We might be the only city doing it right. (And perhaps our extremely small size for a city makes us a special case.) However, this might not be the most useful approach to take.

Does the Fifth Ward have an unfair advantage over other wards?
The Fifth Ward is the largest in the city. When its two aldermen cast the same vote, the large multiplier attached to them means they are 72% of the way to achieving a council majority. In some instances, only two other aldermen would have to cast the same vote to give the Fifth Ward its way. In short, four out of ten could create a majority. Keep in mind, however, that those four councilors would represent a majority of the city's population. So technically speaking the equivalent of a one-man-one-vote system would prevail. The question is whether a technical majority truly reflects the will of the populace, or whether some districts get shortchanged under this system, and who would not be shortchanged under a different system.

I am curious if the current system has distorted any votes to date, and which future scenarios would produce distortions. I hope Victor will provide specific examples.

Does the weighted system undermine faith in votes taken by Hudson's Common Council?
In Council votes, a show of hands in Council does not necessarily indicate the actual voting result. Calculations must be performed before the exact outcome is known. This might seem to add an element of artifice to the process, even if it is technically accurate. Does the perception of artifice outweigh technical accuracy? Is this perception contributing to the sense of unfairness in the current system? Or is perception itself a significant factor; i.e., is public faith in the fairness of a process as important as, or more important than, the actual fairness of the process?  

Do the recent errors in counting First and Second Ward residents and the confusion over whether the Crosswinds development is in the Fourth or Fifth Ward impact the weighted vote discussion?
It seems to me that these are entirely separate issues. If we are having difficulty correctly counting population within wards, or in agreeing on ward boundaries, we are going to have a problem determining accurate representation under any system. Further, a conventional system would leave us debating not only the population count every ten years, but whether a ward boundary should be in front of or behind a given house. Multiply this problem by several thousand houses, and... oh boy.

This probably makes it sound like I am arguing to keep the current system, but I really don't know.

What else might be at work here?
I think the heart of the issue is that the Fifth Ward is the most suburban of the five wards. Its population seems to have a larger percentage of native born Hudsonians and political conservatives than Hudson's more urban districts. The Fifth Ward therefore might be thought to stand in the way of policies that the more urban parts of the city want to implement. I suspect the real sorting out that needs to be done lies in this terrain. Messy, messy, messy. Or fun, fun fun. Or both.

*Me, not Victor.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Friday, October 17, 2014

Waterbound leaf peepers

I was surprised to see a large (for these parts) passenger ship docked in Catskill this week. The American Star, operated by American Cruise Lines, hosts two weeklong scenery tours between Manhattan and Troy. Stops are made in Sleepy Hollow, West Point, Poughkeepsie, Kingston, Catskill, and Albany to check out local attractions, including a land run over to Olana. Prices per person range from $3,440 to $5,955, which is shockingly expensive to me, but the leaf peepers on board appeared to be enjoying themselves.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Million dollar spaceship

A spaceship in the woods isn't everyone's taste, but this example near New Paltz, New York seems as well done as any you are likely to find. Currently used as a bed and breakfast, it's listed for sale by Douglas Elliman Real Estate at $1M.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Correction: How to make it more difficult for the poor to afford an apartment

Yesterday I reported that Hudson Common Council is weighing whether to establish minimum apartment sizes in the city. I erred in reporting that the minimum studio size would be 250 square feet. The correct minimum size proposed is 350 square feet.

While this alters some of the details of my post, my argument remains the same: the provision will make an entry-level apartment more expensive for some individuals on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. This runs counter to the goal expressed within the proposal, namely to ensure that adequate affordable housing is available in the city. Further, there remains a lack of objective evidence in support of the proposal. The Common Council should reject it.

The full text of the proposed law may be found here.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

How to make it more difficult for the poor to afford an apartment

Hudson's Common Council will soon vote on a proposal to establish minimum apartment sizes in the city. The proposed standards are 250 square feet for a studio and 500 square feet for a one-bedroom unit. The proposal presumably aims to protect citizens at the lower end of the rental market by guaranteeing more pleasant dwelling units and limiting exploitation by landlords. But on examination, the proposal does not appear to be rationally justified, self-consistent, or helpful to renters. If enacted, it likely will do more harm than good.

Screenshot from trulia.com
Most people would agree that a larger apartment is better, all things being equal. But in order to turn such preferences into law, we need objective evidence that people's health and well-being are compromised by living in apartments smaller than the proposed standards. Proponents of the measure have not provided this. If there is any evidence to be found, or at least intuited, on the subject, it indicates that the proposal will threaten the well-being of some individuals on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder by increasing the cost of renting an entry-level apartment.

Let's look at an example. Recently, the owners of a building at 949-951 Columbia Street proposed creating two apartments within the existing building shell. One is to be a 420 square foot, one-bedroom unit. This unit might be realized before a city-wide minimum is passed, but the situation will come up again, so it's a worthy example. 420 square feet is small for a one-bedroom unit, smaller than many folks would be willing to live in. But a pleasant, livable unit this size can be realized if it has a proper layout. I once lived in such a unit for a year and a half.

An informal survey of Trulia indicates that the average apartment in Hudson rents for 1.00 to $1.50 per square foot per month. Using a mean of $1.25, the 420 square foot unit will cost $525 per month. If increased to the 500 square foot minimum, it would cost $625. That's $100 more per month, $1200 more per year that the renter would have to come up with. Keeping in mind that such a unit would attract renters near the bottom end of the rental market, this is $1200 that otherwise might be spent on getting to work or clothing a child. I cannot fathom how forcing such a compromise is a good idea in a city in which around one in four people live below the poverty line.

Of course, someone priced out of the one bedroom market could shop for a studio apartment. But this presumes a studio would suit a renter's needs or personal preferences. Further, the proposal is self-inconsistent: In setting a minimum size for a studio apartment, it acknowledges that a person can live, eat, and sleep in 250 square feet. Reasonably, then, a renter can conduct two of these activities, i.e., live and eat, in less space; let's call it 230 square feet. Why, then, does the proposal insist that a renter who wishes to sleep in a separate room rent 270 additional square feet of space? (I am not saying the bedroom will have to be 270 square feet, only that the apartment would have to be this much larger.)

Landlords could face compromises as well. Returning to our 420 square foot example, the owner would have to: 1.) find 80 more square feet within the building; 2.) build an 80 square foot addition; or 3.) remove some existing interior walls within the one bedroom apartment to turn it into a studio. I suspect that at some point in this deliberation, the owner will wonder why city government has inserted itself into the question of whether a renter has a wall between where he sleeps and where he eats.

The proposal for a minimum size apartment ordinance in Hudson is not rational, self-consistent, or beneficial to the public it aims to protect. The Common Council should reject it.
CORRECTION, 10/15/2014: The proposed minimum studio size is 350 square feet. Please see here.