NYT Endorses Mt. Laurel, Christie Vetoes Land Bank Bill

The Times editorial page expressed its support for a strong Mount Laurel doctrine, as Governor Christie continued seeking to dismantle New Jersey’s Council on Affordable Housing (COAH). Christie also vetoed the latest incarnation of the foreclosure land-bank for affordable housing, but he seems open to a possible reworking of its objectives through new legislation.

Sexist, Union-Busting Creeps

Erin Hatton, a University at Buffalo sociology professor, makes a compelling case that the temp industry played a disproportionate role in creating the American dystopia of the white-collar office:

“For example, in 1971 the recently renamed Kelly Services ran a series of ads in The Office, a human resources journal, promoting the “Never-Never Girl,” who, the company claimed: “Never takes a vacation or holiday. Never asks for a raise. Never costs you a dime for slack time. (When the workload drops, you drop her.) Never has a cold, slipped disc or loose tooth. (Not on your time anyway!) Never costs you for unemployment taxes and Social Security payments. (None of the paperwork, either!) Never costs you for fringe benefits. (They add up to 30% of every payroll dollar.) Never fails to please. (If your Kelly Girl employee doesn’t work out, you don’t pay.)”

Never Never Girl - KellyOh, how nice. I worked as a temp paralegal in New York City for a while after college, in a workplace that my friend Adam accurately described as a white-collar salt mine: 12-hour workdays, no benefits, rules against speaking (supposedly, a firable offense). On one occasion, a seventy-some-year-old man (presumably, unable to retire) threw up all over himself and his workstation, rather than risk going to the bathroom or (God forbid!) miss a day of work when he was sick. All this occurred in the Midtown offices of a white-shoe corporate law firm. Of course, even temp paralegaling in Midtown had a set of perks that wouldn’t be offered to temps at, say, a billing office in Toledo: We got free little glass bottles of Sanpellegrino, passable comped meals at the firm cafeteria, black-car service home to the suburbs on late nights, and a 34th floor view of Manhattan — not to mention what seemed (as a recent college graduate) to be good compensation for our time. But when the case we were working on looked like it might settle, they fired us all by phone, and cancelled the key-card privileges to the building. No “thank you” from the firm. No offer of a reference letter. In fact, we were curtly informed that we were not to contact the employer for any reason after leaving, and that we could pick up our belongings from the office of the temp agency. So, I should probably express my gratitude to the partners at the firm where I worked for providing me an early object lesson on why big corporate law sucks. And it’s not hard for me to believe that the temp industry, and the lawyers who work with it, have been central to replicating degrading working conditions for people across the U.S.

Fire and the Skyscraper

Triangle FireI found this chilling contemporary account of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, from a 1911 issue of McClure’s magazine. In addition to providing a minute-by-minute description of the tragedy (which killed 146 garment workers — mostly young Jewish and Italian girls from the Lower East Side — and spurred the rise of the labor movement in New York City), the article offers an incredibly detailed description of the use and misuse of industrial buildings in Manhattan, and the building codes that existed, at the beginning of the twentieth century. As heartbreaking and infuriating as the story is, I couldn’t stop reading it.

New Jersey Land Use Update

Scales and Lamp USSCThere were no reported land use or zoning decisions from the New Jersey appeals courts this week. Among unpublished cases, there was just one that centered on land use: Ingenito v. Point Pleasant Beach Z.B.A., a January 22nd per curiam opinion from an Appellate Division panel. It was actually a pretty interesting case. It began as a dispute about whether one of two structures on a residential-zoned parcel could be used to carry on a home-based business, without its owner first obtaining a D-variance from the local board. The plaintiffs, neighbors, pleaded their case on the theory that the business, a yoga studio, was being conducted in an accessory structure, rather than in the primary one, and that the use therefore failed to meet the precise definition of a home-based business. The trial court agreed with the plaintiffs and sent the matter back to the Z.B.A. for a variance proceeding. The court then accepted the variance that the Board subsequently issued. The plaintiffs appealed. Here, the A.D. sided with the defendants — the property owners and the Z.B.A. — finding that the business was being conducted in one of two primary structures, and that, accordingly, no variance had ever been required. In addition, the panel held that even if the variance had been required, the trial court’s blessing of that variance had been proper. The temporary New Jersey Courts link is alive for now, but the opinion will be archived at the Rutgers Law Library next week.

Where Are the Housing Bubbles Now?

In Canada and Hong Kong, apparently. It’s interesting. I’m kind of suspicious of these straightforward economic analyses of housing, though. They never seem to account for the artificial shortages that are created by calcified land use regulations in otherwise thriving regions. All of the supposed bubbles are in densely-populated, highly-regulated regions. I’m not an economist, but it seems to me that the combination of growing demand and constrained supplies will distort the prices of individual units upward; and that when one’s social and professional ties are concentrated in a particular region, then housing there is not a very elastic commodity. That is to say, cheaper housing that lies beyond the socializing/commuting frontier is just not a plausible alternative. Also, while creating a ratio between rents and purchasing costs might make for a useful rubric, the apparent disparities between the two may simply represent discrete snapshots in time, along a continuum of alternation between the two eternal models of housing occupancy. Right? Thoughts from readers more quantitatively-inclined than I am — and that would be most — would be appreciated.

Incentives and Human Motivation

Here’s an interesting thought from Sam Harris about the role that bad incentives play in making society toxic. He writes:

“A prison is perhaps the easiest place to see the power of bad incentives. And yet in many other places in our society, we find otherwise normal men and women caught in the same trap and busily making life for everyone much less good than it could be. Elected officials ignore long-term problems because they must pander to the short-term interests of voters. People working for insurance companies rely on technicalities to deny desperately ill patients the care they need. CEOs and investment bankers run extraordinary risks—both for their businesses and for the economy as a whole—because they reap the rewards of success without suffering the penalties of failure. Lawyers continue to prosecute people they know to be innocent (and defend those they know to be guilty) because their careers depend upon winning cases. Our government fights a war on drugs that creates the very problem of black market profits and violence that it pretends to solve….

“We need systems that are wiser than we are. We need institutions and cultural norms that make us better than we tend to be. It seems to me that the greatest challenge we now face is to build them.”

Posted in Law

Israel: Affordable Housing Still Not Getting Built

It looks like Israel may be in for its own version of the Mount Laurel experience. A year and a half ago, the government there ostensibly addressed the public’s demands for more affordable housing by adopting some reforms that included incentives for the construction of new rental apartments. Recently, after the fires had died down, Ha’aretz reported that the government began claiming (in response to a lawsuit) that its plan, as written, is ineffective; that it has no power to really accomplish much of anything.

I feel like I’ve read this story before. In New Jersey, it took a decade of toil in the courts and political branches to get from acknowledging the need for affordable housing (Mount Laurel I, 1975) to the development of a framework that could even plausibly begin to address the shortage (Fair Housing Act of 1985). And New Jersey is still one of the hardest places in America in which to find decent, affordable housing. The Mount Laurel cases represent an important legal principle, but it’s one that was drawn from the New Jersey Constitution, and whose footing in other common law jurisdictions remains unclear. These things are maddeningly slow.

My faith in the legal and political systems’ ability to solve the crisis of metropolitan housing affordability is not strong. First, the incentives aren’t there: Property owners, who benefit from high land values, tend to stay and vote and contribute to local politicians; people who can’t afford housing tend to move away. Second, the land market itself is too much of a moving target to lend itself to legislative interventions that will yield predictable results. We’ve seen evidence of this in all of the well-intentioned planning debacles of the 20th century. Given these problems, it’s hard to imagine all of those Israeli kids, who were out in the streets in 2011, now waiting for this to work its way through their country’s version of the system.

If I were there, I would support the litigation and press for policies that would yield more housing — obviously. But I would also re-read Herzl. A limited-equity (LE) model was central to his vision for the country, and it has also worked (at times) to create affordable housing in America. The most promising aspect of the LE model is that, when it works, it truly frees its participants from depending on the sluggish and often capricious actions of the state, and allows like-minded individuals to autonomously pursue their interests outside of the system. Some have even sold their own demand to initial investors, paying out modest distributions to capital investors in exchange for their relatively low risk profiles.

New Jersey Land Use Update

There were no published New Jersey decisions on land use this week. In the unpublished world, an Appellate Division panel affirmed the trial court’s holding in Bisceglie v. Oz, et al. in favor of the defendants. The plaintiff, a next-door neighbor, sued the Ozes, whose newly-planted cedar trees had obstructed his view of the New York City skyline. The plaintiff claimed that the trees constituted an illegal fence under a borough ordinance. The original case was not decided on its merits, but on a finding that the plaintiff had not exhausted his remedies with the Cliffside Park Z.B.A. The A.D. affirmed, noting that the plaintiff had sought more than just an interpretation of law, and that a number of fact-specific questions could have been developed through the zoning board process. The original opinion is available (for now) from the New Jersey Courts website, and will be archived at Rutgers next week.

New Jersey Land Use Update

Scales and Lamp USSCJust a couple of unpublished opinions from the Appellate Division this week: In Rosenblum v. Z.B.A. of the Borough of Closter, et al., the court reversed a Law Division ruling that had affirmed the zoning board’s granting of a D variance for commercial uses, finding that the requisite criteria had not been met. The winning appeal was argued pro se by the plaintiff — an aggrieved neighbor. Meanwhile, in Gourley v. Monroe Twp., the court affirmed a Chancery decision to deny plaintiffs’ claims, including a reverse condemnation claim that they had brought against the township for damage from storm water runoff that may have been exacerbated by adjacent, permitted land development. The temporary New Jersey Courts links are alive for now, but the opinions will be archived at the Rutgers Law Library next week.

Ada Louise Huxtable on New York City

There were some priceless quotes from Ada Louise Huxtable about city planning and architecture in this retrospective piece on her career as America’s first newspaper architecture critic. One of my favorites:

“For those in positions of power, architecture has no redeeming value; it is a frill to be eliminated as a virtuous, cost-cutting, vote-getting measure; it can be abandoned without regret. It took today’s mean mentality to see cathedrals and courthouses as ‘waste space.’”

Unfortunately, it’s a mean mentality that’s been coming since the end of World War II, and one that continues. Another good one:

“The peculiarity of New York is that while the avenues are its show, the side streets are its soul.”

Absolutely. Unfortunately, in the oversold city of today, those building blocks are being replaced by show, now, too. Finally, there was this from the late Senator Moynihan, on Ms. Huxtable:

“You must love a country very much to be as little satisfied with it as she.”

Huxtable died this week at the age of 91.

Wills For Heroes in Newark

A Wills for Heroes event will be held this Saturday in Newark’s Ironbound. Volunteer lawyers will help local firefighters, paramedics, police officers, and other first responders to prepare the legal documents that people in dangerous professions can’t go without. Basic services will be provided free of charge. If you think you might like to participate in this event, send me an e-mail and I’ll put you in touch with the organizers who are signing up volunteers.

Transfer Taxes and the Fiscal Non-Cliff

Deborah Jacobs, the house estate-planning expert at Forbes, has a nice roundup of the rules that Congress set to begin in 2013.

When all was said and done, not much changed.

  • The Lifetime Exemption has been now codified at $5 million, plus inflation. This agreement preserved the non-permanent status quo that had existed on the lifetime exemption, and represented a major concession by the Dems, who had sought to lower the transfer tax threshold by about 30%. The outcome will keep the tax bar high enough to avoid imposing liabilities on the vast majority of Americans’ estates — including most large estates.
  • The Unlimited Marital Deduction has been made permanent. So, essentially, a married couple’s lifetime exemption will remain twice that of an individual. Unsurprisingly, we heard nothing about expanding this benefit to include same-sex spouses.
  • Exemption Portability remains. So, a portion of the personal lifetime exemption that is not used at the end of one’s life may be passed along to one’s spouse. Again, nothing new for same-sex spouses.
  • The Top Rate has gone up narrowly, from 35% to 40%.
  • The Annual Exclusion on gifts has risen to $14,000, per recipient.

(Please note that this is not legal advice: Speak with a licensed and qualified attorney in your own jurisdiction about your own unique circumstances before making any important legal decisions.)