Archive for March, 2009|Monthly archive page

Konkel for D2, Eagon for D8 (March 2009)

[This article originally appeared in the March 31st 2009 issue of the Badger Herald]

If history is a guide, most of you don’t care, but for those paying attention the real action is in the Common (City) Council races. On Tuesday, Wisconsin heads back to the polls for the nonpartisan elections. Of the campus-area races, there are two clear choices: Brenda Konkel in the east and Bryon Eagon in the heart of campus.

Brenda Konkel has served four terms as alder of District 2 (my own district), and her record makes it clear that she should continue to serve. Brenda has been a steadfast ally of students, standing with us with important votes on sensible alcohol policy, public safety and transportation. She is an expert on housing issues and has helped maintain Madison as one of the most tenant-friendly cities in the nation. Brenda addresses basic services not just by thinking how much should we charge, but how we can deliver them more effectively. Brenda also has a better definition of “basic services” and includes the social programs and quality-of-life measures that help make Madison a great place to live.

Brenda is relentless in support of our district. There is no harder worker on the Council. She has always been incredibly responsive to constituent contacts, created e-mail lists to keep the neighborhood informed, kept up with neighborhood association meetings and facilitated many neighborhood meetings to discuss specific projects or issues. When neighbors band together to accomplish something, we have always been able to count on Brenda to be there with us. Brenda’s blog is the best available source of information on city government happenings. The entire city relies on her blog to cover issues that local news organizations no longer do.

The mayor sought out a challenger for Brenda and is the only currently elected official to endorse that challenger. Brenda has tremendous support from elected officials at all levels: other alders, nearly the entire Madison Metropolitan School Board, state Assembly representatives, the Democratic Party leader and District 2 resident Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison.

Brenda is known for her attention to detail and never serves as a rubber stamp. No other member of the Council examines the material with the depth and critical eye that Brenda brings, and countless times she has saved the city from inadvertently passing ordinances with unintended consequences or spending taxpayer money in needless or inefficient ways.

Brenda is known for her commitment to social justice and her insistence that government be done in an open and transparent manner. These values, combined with her attention to detail, mean she’s not afraid to ask tough questions. The answers are often embarrassing and uncomfortable because they reveal just how many people our best efforts fail to serve. For her trouble, Brenda is often labeled an obstructionist because it is easier to attack than to acknowledge the truth. I, for one, am proud she is standing up for those who need it most.

Brenda’s opponent, Bridget Maniaci, takes similar positions on nearly all of the same issues as Brenda does. Bridget asks us to vote for her because she will bring a different leadership style to the district. Style is something that you have to have an opportunity to demonstrate, so I am willing to take a leap of faith and trust she could deliver. However, Bridget also asks us to take a second leap of faith and trust that she is as prepared to represent us as Brenda already is. In the District 2 debate, and in looking over her website, I am reminded of the “West Wing,” when Jed Bartlett challenged his debate opponent to give “the next 10 words” of his answer. Bridget has all of the talking points right but hasn’t yet demonstrated that she’s ready to go in depth. Perhaps she can do it, but if her only advantage is an unnecessary change in leadership style, then I am not prepared to take that risk.

Bridget would do well to take a lesson from Bryon Eagon. Also a newcomer, Bryon is doing all he can to assure District 8 voters he is ready for the challenges ahead. He has been tirelessly meeting, researching and publishing plans that give him the foundation he will need to excel as an alder. Bryon does not ask us to trust him; instead he is trumpeting that he has to come up to speed and is showing us exactly what he is doing to get there. District 8 residents should know he is doing it exactly right, and no other new alder will be as prepared as he is on day one of his term.

In fact, Bryon has met with many more people than necessary so he could figure out who he needed to know and who he should bring together. These collaborative efforts — combined with the in-depth policy statements he has on his website — show he has all of the skills necessary to be a successful alder. His opponent, on the other hand, has done so little in this race that he does not merit more than a sentence to say he’s not prepared to serve.

The next term will be two of the most difficult years in the city’s history as it wrestles with nearly impossible budgets and increasing demands. We need the most qualified individuals possible to represent us. Next Tuesday, give your vote to Brenda Konkel and Bryon Eagon.

Tenant Screening Harmful to Madison (March 2009)

[This article originally appeared in the March 9th 2009 issue of the Badger Herald]

You know what really grinds my gears? People who say, “Madison landlords should do a better job of screening tenants,” when they really mean ” Madison landlords should do a better job of keeping out black people.” I don’t think everyone who calls for tighter screening by landlords is a racist, but clearly people are sensitive to the connotations attached to the idea of “screening” tenants. If you ever go to a public meeting where rental housing is discussed, you can almost always feel the awkward pause that precedes any mention of potential tenants, and the guilt of white privilege or some desire to stay politically correct forces the speaker to be careful in their choice of words. “Better screening” or “the right tenants” seem to be the safe picks.

These discussions are now happening in the neighborhoods right next to campus. For many years, an equilibrium has existed between the number of students and the available housing units immediately surrounding campus. Living downtown or near campus has just not been an option for non-students, particularly the poor. For one, only students tend to rent an apartment eight or nine months in advance of their move-in, and even if by some miracle non-students find an apartment downtown, the poor are usually priced out of it. In the past few years, this equilibrium has been upset by new high-rise apartment buildings practically on campus, catering almost exclusively to students. The increased housing choices have been good for students, and the fact that there are now so many vacant units have helped bring the older housing rental prices more in line with the rest of the city. However, the crumbling of this economic apartheid has meant demographics are starting to change in some parts of the city. Landlords and long-term residents are nervous about who will move into these areas as students begin to move out.

Of course, worries about who will move into a changing neighborhood are not new, and we are deluding ourselves if we don’t think racial factors continue to be part of those worries. This is especially true in Madison, where we have some absolutely stunning statistics to show how deep our problems are. From Dane County locking up 97 black drug offenders for every white offender to the crisis in University of Wisconsin Admissions that created a freshman class of African-American students that would barely fill two dorms floors, we need to do better.

My objection to “better screening” is that it doesn’t actually solve a real problem, it just pushes it somewhere else. The idea of better screening is simple: Tenants with troubles in their past are likely to cause trouble in the future, so landlords avoid renting to those tenants. If a neighborhood is more crime-ridden than others, insist the landlords do a better job of screening tenants and things will improve or at least not decline. There is an inherent flaw in this process, which should be obvious: it only works if there are places that don’t screen as well as everywhere else. Like a pyramid scheme with lives instead of money, people are passed from neighborhood to neighborhood as more landlords adopt the same screening. And invariably, it is the poor who ultimately get ripped off.

Madison deals with this flaw reactively. An area will have “low standards” and become crime-ridden and a disproportionate drain on resources. The city will come in, displace the residents, rebuild and rename the area. A few years later, the cycle repeats. As Broadway-Simpson became Lake Point, Allied Drive hit rock bottom. As Allied gets new developments and names, there remain concerns about what will happen to its current residents (while the new buildings are “hoity-toity” compared to what was there before, the ultimate irony is that the people Gene Parks stood up for will probably not live on the street named for him). Just this past week, the Wisconsin State Journal ran a story about the city’s plan for acquiring and rebuilding crime-infested buildings in the Burr Oaks Neighborhood, and sure enough, tighter screening is listed as a tool to use.

In the same article, one landlord said he didn’t know where his tenants would go, and that’s the question we need to start answering. “Better screening” platitudes need to be replaced with specifics. Why should one neighborhood accept troubled tenants but another should not? And why is that neighborhood usually black? For the people who don’t pass the screening, where do we expect them to go? I have to believe that most people are embarrassed by their answer, and that’s why they don’t go beyond “better screening.” Perhaps they are OK with allowing sad boroughs of last resort for people who can’t get in anywhere else. Or, maybe they imagine that people will live with family or friends, or just wind up on the street. Or perhaps they don’t really care and assume that people will move on to another city and take their troubles with them.