Why should we have to deal with these whack jobs?
On the city’s failure to address the housing crisis
At the Roast of Worcester last Wednesday Bryan O’Donnell made fun of me for writing posts that are way too long and everyone laughed so today I’m gunna show that dickhead and all the dickheads who laughed and the rest of the world for that matter that I can be short and punchy I just choose not to be.
The Roast was a very good time by the way. And it raised some $2,000 for Compassionate Care ALS. If you missed it, you can watch the whole thing on the Wootenanny YouTube page:
My set, which I’m actually quite proud of in an earnest and not self-involved sort of way (?), starts at around the 1:10 mark. It was my first time doing stand-up and it was terrifying. It’s like a musical performance if you were naked and there was a camera trained on your dick and balls the entire time and the feed was projected onto a Jumbotron. I have a newfound respect for anyone who even tries to do it and a newfound awe for people like Shaun Connolly and Bryan who do it well. I think I’ll stick to my silly little posts. Please consider a subscription so I can keep doing them 🙂
Today we’re talking about housing, focusing on the proposed inclusionary zoning policy oozing its way through the City Hall sausage grinder. But first, I want to document one of the most bizarre and hilarious pieces of writing I’ve ever seen. Some anonymous savant with a stunningly avant-garde approach to the English language took to the apartment rental section of Worcester Craigslist on March 10 to go full Martin Luther. They used a listing for an apartment on Plantation Street as a sort of Trojan Horse. The listing read “$1,200 / 2br - 680ft2 - Two bedroom apartment plantation Street (Worcester).” Here’s the body of the post in all its glory:
Placing the ad, to tell people about these real estate rejects, in the Worcester area. Every single one of them, are a bunch of psychotic wack jobs ,that just lie 24/7. They lie more than the Democratic party. Does You have Wally RE -Agent ,then you have Daniel Di Roberto, J &J real estate. Seven hills rentals. You have this kid Leo on Grafton Street ,another whack job. Then you have we rent rentals on Kelly square. You catch every single one of these people in lie after lie. They are complete psychotic whack jobs to even try to work with.Dan Di Roberto says in his REVIEWS, that he does not do real estate rentals, when he has numerous rentals listed on craigslist. You have these numerous rental agencies out here in Worcester county that are all RUNNED by psychotic whack jobs, every single one of them. Obviously they can't make it in life. And actually work a normal job. They have to live off of a commissions. First off, they have no agencies that control these out of control people that lie non-stop. About everything They have. No so-called agency for protecting the CONSUMER'S , from these out of control. Real estate people ,that lie 24/7 but that is the biggest joke I have ever seen in my life. There is no commission. These people get away with absolute murder. They rip off everybody. Maybe the department of Justice should start looking into real estate agencies, especially the rental ones. First of , they should not even be involved in a transaction with a landlord, and a tenant. It should be just between the tenant and a landlord, but these middlemen low lives, have to interfere in a transaction that has nothing to do with them, in the first place. All because they want to make a commission. Find a different career, find a life.An A REAL JOB.They Total liars 24/7. As potential tenants, we need to work together to get rid of these LOWLIFE'S, for good, and send them back to the psych ward that they escaped from ,or let them find a real job. That doesn't interfere with people that are just looking for a place to live. Why should we have to deal with these whack jobs that just lie 24/7 and get away with absolute murder? Go find a real job. That means going to a job that doesn't interfere in other people's lives. By the way, I do not have an apartment for rent ,this is a post for the public to read to tell them to stop dealing with these psychotic rejects. And let them go find a real job, instead of interfering with our lives ,when they actually have no rights to interfere with us finding a place to live. Go find a real job. It's not our problem. You are too lazy to go find a full-time regular job. We don't pay these people rent. We paid the landlord the rent. Let these landlords advertise their own rentals. I blame them as much as these rental. Realtors, landlord should advertise their own rentals. And keep these low lives out of the whole process
It has since been flagged for removal. But it’s a piece of art if you ask me so I’m glad I’ve preserved it here. At times it’s extremely funny—“You have this kid Leo on Grafton Street ,another whack job.”— and it names some names that really should be named and it exudes a feeling of frustration which I’m sure is not unfamiliar to any renter reading this. Most importantly, though, it asks the right essential question: why is the process of renting an apartment mired in so much obviously predatory bullshit?
Well, one reason is there’s very little political will in this city to stand between renters and those who prey on them. We see that bleed through the ongoing debate on inclusionary zoning. In an effort to be short and punchy, I’m not going to spend any significant time re-litigating my position on this policy and what it should look like. I did that at length in a post from last September.
The battle lines articulated in this post have only calcified in the intervening months. There’s a coalition of housing activists and experts pressing the city to make the inclusionary zoning policy one which would do something—anything at all, really—to help people struggling to afford housing in increasingly untenable market conditions. Then there’s the city administration and the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, who support the idea of inclusionary zoning but are unwilling to do anything that might in practice cut into a developer’s bottom line.
How these two visions of inclusionary zoning policy differ is murky and confusing and I did the best job I could of explaining them in the post I linked above. In the simplest terms, the coalition’s version would mandate the creation of more affordable housing units. The city’s version is more of an encouragement for developers to create such units, with more “flexibility” on just how affordable those units will be.
The coalition sees the city’s proposal as one which really won’t accomplish much of anything. And they’re not even claiming that their proposal is all that useful either, but at least it would do something. The city/chamber sees—or, at least, say they see—the coalition’s proposal as so onerous to developers they wouldn’t build any more housing. And the city/chamber uses this claim to neg the coalition. We need more housing, they say, so you can’t do anything which might impede the creation of new housing. If “the market” as they like to call developers “reacts poorly” to affordability restrictions then they won’t build! And if they don’t build, then what?
Left unaddressed in this rhetorical cudgel is the fact that almost all the new housing that’s been created in recent years is geared toward the high end of the rental spectrum. They’re “luxury” units. “Market rate.” The creation of more of these types of apartments doesn’t “alleviate pressure” on the lower end of the housing market in Worcester so much as it creates new space for the high-end rental market to expand westward from Boston.
No one is building high-end apartment buildings in Worcester with lower income renters in mind. Suggesting that the correct path to helping rent-burdened residents is creating as much high end housing as possible without restriction is, at best, credulous. Much more likely it’s a deliberately bad faith argument. A way for people who don’t want to help to rationalize not helping. Actually we can’t help, the logic goes. Helping will hurt. The way to help really is by not helping.
What the coalition is really asking for, at the core of it, is that the city government leverages its authority over prospective developers in service of the quality of life for city residents. That’s the easiest way to understand inclusionary zoning as a policy idea. It’s saying that if you want to build here, you gotta do something to help our people out. You have to build a certain number of units that are reasonably attainable for most people. Doing it requires a certain confidence. To say: You want to build here because our city is a great place to build. But our city is also a great place to live. You don’t get to build here if you don’t do something to help the people who live here. As an idea, it’s a pretty great idea. But the whole concept hinges on a city government understanding—and then using—its leverage over developers.
It’s a million times more complicated than that obviously but at its basic essence it’s a leverage tool. It can only really be used by a city government that wants leverage. And that is just not Worcester City Hall. Not under the political class which currently controls it.
We do not see ourselves as having the power to negotiate with developers. Only the power to bend further backward than other places The impetus in Worcester is to facilitate development at all costs. Remove all potential barriers. Pursue any available avenue to make itself more attractive to developers. It’s about giving the biggest tax incentive packages you can and all the other “tools in the toolbox” as our city officials love to say to rake in as much development as possible. A recent example: the city is considering an $11.3 million tax break for a large housing development on Franklin Street. This amounts to some 70 percent of what such a project would pay sans-break. It looks like every other project we’ve seen since these projects started coming here.
This is not unique to Worcester or Massachusetts. As we very clearly saw in Amazon’s 2018 Hunger Games-style competition for the municipality which could best debase itself for the chance of hosting a headquarters, pretty much every city in America operates this way. A servant of the market before anything else.
But in Worcester there are deep overriding feelings of insecurity and shame and self-loathing which make it especially primed to debase itself and adverse to exercising leverage. Like a teenage boy taking a quick kiss from a girl to be a tremendous personal triumph, Worcester officials have a long history of celebrating large one-off development projects in the downtown as political victories. The costs are irrelevant. The impact on the urban fabric is irrelevant. Just getting someone to build something here is the ultimate goal and is celebrated as such by the whole political culture. As such our downtown is quiet as a Western movie set after 6 p.m. and for the keen-eyed urbanist a gorgeously curated Museum of Bad Ideas.
So if you and everyone you know is primed to define success by the mere ability to court a development, you’d look like a god among men if there was a natural surge in development interest under your watch. That’s what happened with former City Manager Ed Augustus and “the Renaissance” (R.I.P. 2014-2020) and the inability to look at this influx of capital as anything short of a divine intervention of Ed’s design. The market turned its Sauron’s Eye west to Worcester and the flashy “luxury urban experience” proposals started flowing in and the tax breaks were graciously doled out and the entire local political class and attendant media apparatus took it as a personal victory. They did everything they could to keep the tap flowing and there was no talk of consequences—any attempt was written off as “naysaying.”
The real estate speculation and media hype and extremely tight rental market at all levels except for the new high-end market led to an insane surge in rent prices for normal apartments while the conditions of those apartments stayed the same or got worse and the neighborhoods got no cleaner or nicer or safer. The people who comprise the “working class” communities and “diversity” lauded by politicians as so integral to the city’s identity were made to bear the consequences of this unfettered pursuit of development capital. That continues to be the case and will continue to be the case for a long time. The city is already struggling to maintain a workforce because they have forced the lower income rungs of their workforce out of the city.
We saw this happen in so many cities over the past several decades and when our number was finally called we did absolutely nothing to consider the consequences or mitigate them. We weren’t in the first wave like Brooklyn. We had countless cautionary tales to reference. Yet the political class only started talking about affordable housing in earnest within the past two years. Almost a decade after the gentrification train arrived at our station and dropped off a box with “gentrification” stamped all over it in red. We looked at the stamps and went “gentrí... ficatión. Must be Italian!” and gleefully pried the box open.
Outside the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which may or may not generate significant affordable housing units (we’ll see), this inclusionary zoning policy is City Hall’s first real stab at addressing the problem as a problem instead of just wantonly creating said problem. By the housing coalition’s own admission, their version—the more aggressive one—is a paltry intervention that won’t even do all that much to curb the problem. It will do something though, and on that meager possibility they have fought for this thing in rallies and press releases and closed door meetings and public meetings. Hundreds of people have pleaded that the city be more aggressive. All the while the city refused to budge, even on this admittedly tepid policy, and instead stuck to a proposal which won’t accomplish anything at all.
This exchange will come to a head at the March 28 City Council meeting, where the 11-member body will choose between the two versions. The city’s version is going to win. The progressives are going to take another fat punch on the chin. It is going to be depressing. If there was even a slim chance of this going the other way, I wouldn’t be saying this. But there isn’t. It’s over. Even though it’s going to a vote, the coalition’s push for a better policy really died last week, at the hands of Councilor Sean Rose of all people.
Rose was the dissenting vote in a 2-1 decision to advance the coalition’s version of the policy. And you might think hey the coalition won that round! But no. Khrystian King and Sarai Rivera, the other two members to vote, are just two of the four votes for the coalition. Rose, who isn’t running for re-election, had an opportunity to break with the majority position and in doing so give the coalition a small glimmer of hope. He chose not to. He sided with the mayor and the chamber and the city manager and he reiterated the talking points about the “market response” and made a dramatic show of motioning to dedicate $1 million of ARPA money to rental assistance as a consolation. He repeated the motion with a pause and spoke slowly so everyone heard him correctly.
The coalition’s version now heads to council with, at most, four votes. Per the city’s charter a proposal like this needs a 2/3 majority, what we call a “super majority” and the coalition doesn’t even have a “simple majority.” I expect those four councilors will vote for the useless version after losing on the somewhat useful version. Almost nothing is better than nothing, the thinking will go. The city will have an inclusionary zoning policy on the books, but only nominally. The developers will not be inconvenienced. Mayor Joe Petty will campaign on his commitment to affordable housing and tout the new policy as evidence. Progressives will have a difficult time articulating why that isn’t true because this stuff is wonky and hard to articulate. The critique won’t resonate with voters. It will not become a significant campaign issue, despite the fact it so neatly captures the overarching problems of the city council. Rents will continue to rise. Policy to substantively combat the rents rising will remain politically impossible. The creation of new mid- to low-level rental housing units will continue to lag behind the high-end. Worcester will absorb some of the professional managerial class renters migrating west and the workforce our schools and restaurants and bars and childcare facilities rely on will be pushed north or west or south and it’ll be harder and harder to fill those jobs. After enough restaurants close Ray Mariano will complain that “no one wants to work anymore” in his weekly column in our local paper of record.
The coalition, like so many coalitions before it, will have been told by City Hall to kick rocks and go home. They’ll look at the months they invested in this issue and see it had been time wasted. That the conclusion was always foregone. That their participation in an ostensibly democratic process was merely tolerated for a time but ultimately ignored. They will have received their punishment for caring. They will keep this punishment in mind the next time they consider whether or not to care. The local talking heads will pontificate on why no one “gets involved” in city politics and the question will remain some unsolvable mystery to them.
That’s the main feature today. A mere 3,000 words. Take that Bryan.
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Greatly enjoyed reading, listening and contributing to this WGBH story about why the Worcester City Council is so... Worcester.
Speaking of which, there’s a council meeting tonigh and yes we will be streaming it on the Worcestery Council Theater 3000 program. 6:15 p.m. tonight on Twitch.
Let’s take a quick look at the agenda shall we...
We’ve got executive session (private meeting) with the police unions, which has to do with them getting more money to wear the body cameras. We don’t know how much money yet but we might after tonight. Other than that gotta say this is a pretty light agenda. There are a few council orders but not that many. Joe Petty has an order on about the spotted lanternfly which might be a fun conversation to watch. Otherwise, light fare. Should allow councilors enough time to do what they really want to do which is fan the flames of petty drama. Fun times.
MassLive had an actually good story this week on student homelessness through the lens of one particular student’s experience.
Perdew’s situation is not unique. Over the course of this school year, 2,126 students at Worcester Public Schools have been flagged as homeless at some point as of March 3, according to Maura Mahoney, who works with students experiencing homelessness in the district. On March 3, 1,710 students were considered actively homeless within the district.
I’m reading Jeff Sharlet’s new book “The Undertow” pretty heavily today. It’s loosely about Trump as a religious figure for a new sort of Q-adjacent cultural movement in right wing America. Interesting stuff to consider on this, the day Trump is or is not going to be indicted. I liked this paragraph, from a chapter titled “The Trumpocene” a whole lot:
“Look upon me, you who reflect upon me,” declares the divine voice of perhaps the most famous Gnostic text, a poem called “The Thunder, Perfect Mind.” So it was in the arenas of Trump, thousands of red hats just like his, the hats that at each rally he threw to the crowd, giving of himself. Such were the miracles of Trump, adored for his golden tower, his golden faucets, his generosity. He who has taken the most also gives the most.
Our very own Kevin Koczwara over at the Worcester Business Journal interviewed Sharlet for Esquire and it’s pretty interesting stuff. He also got me reading this book. Thanks Kevin!