St. Petersburg, Florida
It is as though the Archangel St. Michael looms over the Florida Panhandle, gazing upon mile after mile of devastation, while the lead article by columnist John Romano in the Saturday Tampa Bay Times plaintively asks: “Why is Florida risking future hurricane misery?”
He then goes forth to blame the people of Florida:
“When it comes to storms, we’ve got the best experience misery can buy. We’ve been hit by major hurricanes in the Southeast (Andrew) and the Southwest (Charley). We’ve had hurricanes slowly creep south to north (Irma) and east to west (Jeanne). We’ve taken repeated hits (Opal, Dennis and Michael) in the panhandle every 10 years or so.
“So let me ask you this: Why are we so slow to learn? … The problem is our leaders get lax. We allow them to be forgetful.”
Romano then goes on to review the blunders of the Florida State Legislature:
“Under former Gov. Jeb Bush, the Legislature passed some of the strictest building codes in the nation in the early 2000s. And then? We slowly lost our minds.
“It might have begun in 2011 when the Legislature began chipping away at growth management laws. Gov. Rick Scott obliterated the state’s growth management agency and cut funding to Regional Planning Councils. In the name of jobs and development, Florida was rolling back reforms that had been in place since the 1980s and were meant to manage and control the state’s building boom.
“After that, the Legislature began taking aim at those building codes that supposedly caused housing prices to rise and resulted in too much red tape. That effort culminated in a law passed last year that essentially made Florida a disinterested participant in international building standards.”
Romano notes building in flood zones, or paving over wetlands and destroying the natural buffers that protect against flooding. He criticizes the state’s chipping away at building codes to appease hungry developers, so that the Florida Building Commission now “picks and chooses which codes it likes.”
Romano then plaintively wails: “For a state that understands disaster better than most and spends billions on rebuilding, it’s ludicrous to think our recent laws, policies and attitudes may invite future damage. Will we never learn?”
One might well ask, will reporters like Romano never learn? The answer is partially found in his own conclusion: that the state “spends billions on rebuilding” and those billions go into somebody’s pockets.
A disaster like Michael provokes the pundits to ask why, oh why? But while an official disaster brings things into focus, more answers are found in the day-to-day operation of the entire structure of the Florida economy, and the operations of politicians, developers and planners. We know that corporate Florida is driven by sheer greed, and the politicians are essentially hired to make sure that greed is satisfied. But isn’t it the job of our planners to, well, plan? To see coming challenges and create solutions to those challenges?
Okay, I suppose the question is disingenuously naïve. The American Planners Association (APA) bills itself as ““The largest membership organization of professional planners and planning resources available. Your leading authority on making great communities happen!” They held a September conference in West Palm Beach and a member of the Green Party of Florida Stop Gentrification Working Group had the opportunity to sit in on its sessions and send us his notes. They offer insight not only into planning issues per se, but also give us a look at the planners themselves as frustrated human beings trying to face up to the enormous problems looming in Florida’s future.
Below are rough summaries of workshops on Mass Transit, Education, and Affordable Housing (or the lack thereof).
Speakers were administrators from Hillsborough, Polk and Lake Counties. There are lots or problems. Maintenance is a huge cost, regardless of how the properties are utilized. Yet the district’s budget of $3.012 billion faces a $1.2 billion shortfall. Growth of charter schools, especially elementary schools, complicates planning terribly. Charter schools are wild cards. They are part of the regular school system, yet they have separate school boards. School boards don’t even know how many students they are going to have to service in a given year.
They don’t even talk about innovative solutions. They talk about why innovative solutions are impossible. The killer bind is that they are not allowed to put forward any plans for a given year that exceed the budget allotted by the State Legislature. So their problems are defined as primarily doing the same old stuff within cost.
The workshop is pervaded by cynicism. They discussed how transit development seems to be stalled, choked off by “organized opposition” to mass transit, lack of funds, and the need to navigate among nine different counties. “Fricking local governments … and the Democrats are as bad as the Republicans. … Transportation is the 3rd rail politics.” “We can’t just build our way out of congestion. … Rolling out a transit program can take years. And years. And years.” Transit depends on private enterprise. They actually need to cut bus routes in order to fund their “core routes.” They admit, “The system is not working for getting the workforce to work.
They love slogans. “Transportation is the backbone of the area.” “We need a Comprehensive and Connected transportation system.” “Wholistic Comprehensive View.” “Global view.” “Comprehensive Global Way!” “Strong partnership with our municipalities.”
The second half of the Transit discussion was dominated by planners who are part of the system. Development must have local money on the table first. Unlike Education, they are heavily dependent on private funding. They shilled for the Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit (SMART) plan, which various Chambers of Commerce and communities have now approved. $8 billion has been allocated for a 40-year plan. But that $8 billion is “back-end loaded,” meaning money comes in toward the end of the 40 years.
Unlike Education, the transportation system has to be able to run at a profit, which means competing with cars. The public is referred to as “customers.” The mantra is “You have to build it first, then you’ll get ridership. If you build it they will come. You can compete by being more customer-focused. Other companies have done this.” But they admit that trains are badly maintained and congested. “No maintenance, no respect for riders. Cattle-cars. A respect-free environment.” One planner joked that it was “cheaper to buy everyone in Miami-Dade a Cadillac than to allocate the federal funds.”
Too bad that “as planners, we can’t impact that.”
One planner bragged about how he had solved his own transportation problem. “I moved my office closer to my home.”
Opening statement: “Housing in is Florida becoming less and less affordable, even though the Florida economy is supposedly booming.”
The fundamental problem is that people don’t have enough income. With 35% of income going to housing and 30% going to transportation, people just can’t make it with 35% of their income for everything else. “You need to earn at least $35,000/year to survive. Even those making $35-50,000/year are facing hardship. That’s the income range we planners want to focus on. Just growing the economy doesn’t deal with the fact that there are structural issues. Developers want to push housing ownership, not rentals. The big need is for stable rental housing. Yet companies need to be able to maintain their workforce, and that ownership emphasis is not working. We need a whole other kind of builder.”
Now people are living in motels, paying $1,200/month. That may seem more expensive, but it’s paid weekly and it has the advantage of putting people next to better transportation, since the public transportation system is so bad. We are still totally dependent on cars.
“People need to take care of each other.” “People aren’t designed to sit at home and do nothing. … They need to have a purpose inside the community.” But developers do home-building, not community-building. We have to reinvent our entire system.
So we have the Survivors, the Schemers and the Dreamers, all paralyzed, mired in the La Brea Tar Pit they have walked into, and can’t walk out of.
The Survivors have no prospects of making any significant changes in the educational system. All they can do is keep the schools barely running. They know it. State law makes clear that they are not even allowed to try doing anything. They continue to do their jobs.
The Schemers in the Miami transit system are well aware that their system is dysfunctional. While the consequences of a school system that fails to educate can be kicked down the road, the costs of workers being unable to get to work on time are felt immediately and daily. The Schemers plan this, they plan that, but they wittingly or unwittingly admit that the improvements they work on are no match for the sheer scale of the Miami Metropolitan Area transit mess. State Policy is to “Stimulate and support privateinvestment in modern infrastructure,” with the “Emphasis on private over public spending and growth.” So gradual changes have to compete in the free market with an entrenched system that at least works, sort of. Especially for those who have the luxury of saying, “I moved my office closer to my home.” Temper your scorn. They may once have had dreams as well.
The Dreamers also know that building affordable housing on a mass scale is not the preference of the free market. Developers see more money in up-scale and luxury housing, and when they are forced to build something they call “affordable housing,” one can only smirk and ask “affordable by who?” They do see the need for a massive public policy shift. The total dependence of the state on cars has to be challenged. Their workshop also reflected a broader vision, for a revolution in values.. “People need to take care of each other.” “People aren’t designed to sit at home and do nothing. … They need to have a purpose inside the community.”
The Dreamers are on the right track. But the fundamental problem they all faced is their utter powerlessness.
The Green Party Gentrification Working Group did a study on St. Petersburg Gentrification. The picture that emerged (typical of the state) is that the city’s “Development” policies are run directly by the Chamber of Commerce, through “Master Plans” such as the “Grow Smarter” plan, through agencies both public and private that are virtually unknown and completely unaccountable to the people of the city. (See For a United Front Against Gentrification.)
A constant theme of the Grow Smarter Plan is that “Many in St. Petersburg’s entrepreneurial community identified a lack of capital as the biggest challenge to growing and sustaining local startups. St. Petersburg is not alone in this regard. … Hundreds of millions of dollars has and is being invested in downtown commercial, retail, and residential development. … Outside awareness of the competitive position, assets, and opportunities in the City of St. Petersburg must be broadened. … it will be necessary to formalize a multi-channel program to market St. Petersburg outside of Tampa Bay.”
In other words, Florida is in the midst of a massive buildup — the entire state is to be gentrified — and massive capital is being shelled out, but these plans are dependent on a massive Public Relations campaign. If you build it, they will come. But what if they don’t come?
Miami: Florida planning in action.
There is no question that Florida’s disaster planning has been a disaster (see above). I would argue that Florida’s disaster planning for business-as-usual is also an ongoing disaster every day. Gentrification proceeds in Miami without a letup, with 71% of all large-scale apartment buildings completed in 2017 being high-end. That number has been shooting up in the first half of 2018, confirming the gloomy assessment of the APA Affordable Housing workshop.
The Southeast Overtown /Park West Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) in Miami brags of the CRA’s plan to transform the neighborhoods “into thriving mixed-use neighborhoods while giving special attention to those who have suffered the most and the longest under slum and blight.” Their newsletter explains, “The median household income is less than $18,000 annually. More than half of the Overtown residents live below the poverty level. Thirty-four percent (34%) are unemployed.” That same newsletter brags that they are “attracting new restaurant and entertainment ventures, like celebrity chef Marcus Samuelson , who owns Red Rooster in Harlem.” Go to the Harlem Red Rooster website. Their menu’s cheapest entreé is $20, and the Prix Fixe lunch is $29. That’ll cure somebody’s poverty.
Consider a rather mundane article in the October 12 Miami Herald, “Tourists come for the beach, but don’t stay for much else. Has Miami Beach lost its mojo?”
“But not anymore. The models and fashion industry are gone, ousted by rising rents and stricter permitting. Many clubs have fled across the bridge. Only the best-known brands like Nike and Apple can afford shops on Lincoln Road. Ocean Drive has become a rowdy, tourists-only playground with limited appeal for locals.
“’We rested on our laurels for too long,” said Arriola, now a Miami Beach commissioner, as he passed vacant storefronts wedged between a pawnshop and massage parlor on Normandy Drive. “Look at this. Any space that is occupied seems to be a pawnshop or tattoo parlor. What respectable store wants to set up between businesses like that?” The shuttered North Beach shop is just one of many retail vacancies in Miami Beach — 117, to be exact, says a recent city survey requested by Arriola. That amounts to 4.5 percent of the city’s inventory. … Tourists still come for the beaches, but all too often, they dine and party elsewhere. … ‘That’s just the nature of the market and we can’t just stop the market for existing.’”
The article goes on at great length to detail the many dislocations of “price per square foot” and building codes. Owners in the area are ironically feeling the pinch from — of all things — upscale development in places like Overtown, where that neighborhood’s very devastation has made it a better, cheaper investment.
Will Florida become another Puerto Rico?
The Herald continues:
“Looming on the horizon is sea rise, which worries investors, developers and politicians. The city has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on water pumps and consultants to mitigate the condition. … ‘Sea level rise is an existential threat of proportions we don’t even know,” said Claro Development owner Sandor Scher.’”
Oh, that. Yes, we know. Whether our politicians and titans of commerce are yet acknowledging it, Michael puts the entire Gentrification house of cards on the chopping block, no matter how Smart their plans are. The whole edifice is based on speculation, that if you build it, they will come. At this point, the question after Michael is not “Will the rest of Florida be hit by Category 4 devastation?” With climate change unchecked — and our system guarantees that it WILL remain unchecked — the only question is “When?”
Like wanderers whistling past the graveyard, people have until now been able to suppress a gnawing sense of doom hanging over the entire state. From the planners cited above, to the shop owners of Miami Beach, to the residents of Overtown whose lives are already Category 4, there is a pervading sense of paralysis. The only ones who seem not to get it are the politicians.
Even the October 14 Tallahassee Democat relates:
“Fierce winds knocked out power to almost the entire grid of 117,000 customers. Downed trees blocked more than 300 roads. Businesses, colleges, schools and state and local government offices shuttered for days. Michael carved a path of destruction as it swung less than 100 miles to the west. More wind than rain, it left in its aftermath wires hung limp, utility poles snapped in half.
“Damage is indiscriminate and random. A red rose remains on its stem, while 70-foot pines tossed about by Hurricane Michael’s winds toppled like dominoes. Yards, streets, roads and highways are blocked with majestic oaks, their tree trunks peeled down to the ground.
“At nightfall, the darkness cloaks the landscape revealing a brilliant starry sky. Black holes sit where marquees used to be. Michael packed unprecedented power; more than 97 percent of Tallahasseeans were left without it.”
The Tallahassee Democrat concludes: “Was Tallahassee lucky in its meeting with Hurricane Michael? ‘A resounding yes’”
After all, what else can the politicians do? Even if they were aware of the peril the state faces? They are locked in by a system of “free enterprise” that is out of their control, that only allows pathetic tinkering. The state can no more deal with another Michael than they can deal with the unraveling of Miami Beach.
What is required is a whole new system!
Enter the Green Party.
You might count us among the Dreamers, but with a difference. By virtue of what we are attempting to accomplish, we are also Planners. But how do we differ from the official Planners referenced above. And how are our dreams any more significant than theirs? Simple. We are committed to engaging the issue of Power — that is the tool that can make those dreams come true. And not so simple, as well.
But as Green Party of Florida Co-Chair Robin Harris states, there are immediate needs that must be met:
Statement by Robin Harris
Co-Chair, Green Party of Florida
It breaks my heart to again be witnessing more communities destroyed by a natural disaster. You can say that these storms and weather calamities are natural, but the responses from our government and elected officials are anything but natural. As Hurricane Michael tore through Florida’s Panhandle and into Georgia and beyond, so many residents were unprepared because they had been misinformed about the storm’s category level, and our government was as usual willfully unprepared for the aftermath. Our hearts go out to those impacted by the event.
As the accounts keep coming in, we have to clearly state that this disaster is a case of “hurricane gentrification.” Climate change is of course a global issue and it affects us all. But marginalized communities will always carry the burden first and worst and longer. Impoverished communities of color, seniors and low income folks — many already living in devastation and poverty — are now left without water, power, food and even shelter. They have nowhere to go. They have no means to evacuate. They don’t have renters insurance or homeowners insurance. They started with nearly nothing and now that little is gone. Survivors are likened to “pioneers” and their “pioneer spirit” is applauded from the sidelines.
Unfortunately, such groups are politically underrepresented and they are routinely ignored. Their voices are silenced. Once again, post-Hurricane Michael, the media does not give full details of their actual situations. Many low-income areas — which there are so many of in places likeTallahassee or Panama City — are crying out that they have been abandoned, still left without the necessities for survival. FEMA, whose very job is disaster relief, is advising people to get on their computers and fill out relief applications. Great news for those without computers, let alone without electricity.
It appears that there is now a policy among the media, our elected officials, and even non-profit relief agencies, to stifle assistance. They can’t afford to let people get alarmed. After all, if people got all alarmed, they might begin making demands for immediate relief for this disaster, and for making preparations for the disasters to come.
This horrific event has taken place in the heat of a gubernatorial race. Politicians will be doing their utmost to reap political benefit from these calamities.
The Green Party denounces the developers and two-party politicians whose poisonous policies and parasitic profit motives have led to the subjugation of our poor communities. The Green Party stands strong against environmental racism. We demand that these developers and politicians be held responsible for the destruction of our environment. We call for complete restoration of all areas that have been destroyed.
Grassroots organizations must rise up to offer assistance. As co-chair of the Green Party of Florida, I commit us to listening and evaluating the needs of those who have been overlooked. We will organize efforts with coalitions that are decentralized and community-centered, in order to offer relief to victims of Hurricane Michael.