Neighborhood design, the foreclosure crisis and the death of Trayvon Martin

Neighborhood design?  Is she nuts?  What does that have to do with Trayvon Martin?  Isn’t his death related to race, guns and stand your ground laws?  My reaction when I saw the headline in yesterday’s Boston Globe.  But after reading Zach Youngerman’s op-ed, it all became clear.

PUBLIC OPINION about the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., shifts every time new evidence emerges, as though each of them had a fixed character that could be revealed as easily as a video recording can be enhanced. But behavior is not simply a matter of character; it is also a matter of setting. Less than 1.2 percent of the population in Sanford walks to work, and the subdivision where the killing took place is designed for driving, so something as human as walking is odd behavior. Suspicious even.

“It’s raining, and he’s just walking around, looking about,’’ Zimmerman told the 911 dispatcher during his first exchange. Martin was in front of the clubhouse at the Retreat at Twin Lakes. He may have been looking for a sidewalk.

Depending on which way Martin entered the subdivision, he would have found at the clubhouse either a rare length of sidewalk merging into a parking lot or leading away into a sort of jogging path encircling an artificial lake. If Martin chose simply to cross the street from the corner where he was, he would have been forced to transgress in the most literal sense. The 30-foot street (enough for two driving lanes and one parking lane on Mass. Ave. [in Boston or Cambridge]) doesn’t have a painted crosswalk. Probably because the other side only has private lawns and driveways.

Most of the Retreat at Twin Lakes lacks a conventional sidewalk – a public pedestrian thoroughfare parallel to vehicle traffic but protected by a curb. Together with a landscaped tree belt, parking lanes, and occasionally bike lanes, sidewalks and roads make up what is called the public right of way. Without public rights of way, we would all be constantly having to trespass on private land or pay tolls to get anywhere. This was the situation Martin faced inside and outside the gated subdivision. On his mile walk to the nearest convenience store, the sidewalk ends twice and becomes a no-man’s-land of grassy highway shoulder. If Martin were trespassing, he had no choice but to do so.

So you have a place with wide streets, few sidewalks along the street and those not connected, and a rainy night with a teenager walking and not driving.  You can see how George Zimmerman might have been thinking that Trayvon Martin was casing the neighborhood.  Youngerman goes on

After a tragedy, we try to imagine alternatives. What if we change the laws? What if we raise awareness? To those important questions I would add: What if we design places differently, places for people?

Houses with front porches rather than driveways bring residents outside even in rainy weather and put “eyes on the street,’’ as the pre-eminent urbanist Jane Jacobs described it. When houses are closer to the property line and on narrower streets, residents feel like they are more responsible for what happens outside. Zimmerman was a self-titled neighborhood watch volunteer. Design can make residents neighborhood watch volunteers naturally.

In a place meant for people with a denser residential street, maybe the man and the boy might have felt less like they were all alone. In a place meant for people with sidewalks and street lights, maybe they would have been less alone. Maybe a couple of neighbors could have stopped the altercation before it got out of hand.

Of course, some people did hear the altercation after it started and there are accounts from the 911 tapes, Trayvon’s girlfriend, and some neighbors so this was not a totally isolated incident.  But Youngerman does have a point:  a kid walking in the that community, for at matter, anyone walking in that community was unusual enough that George Zimmerman followed the walker. 

I wanted to see the location myself to confirm Youngerman’s description so I did a search for The Retreat at Twin Lakes and like a lot of Florida, there are a number of houses for sale including bank owned properties (REO’s) and some on the market as short sales.

This is one of the REO’s.  The picture is a little fuzzy since I had to enlarge it, but it does show some of the surroundings.

Property Photo

This is a better picture of the surroundings.  It appears there are sidewalks but not, as Youngerman pointed out, conventional ones parallel to the street.

The Tampa Bay Times had a story about the community on March 25 which  pointed out that there were to be 263 houses built and at the time of the story 40 were vacant and half were rented not owned.  This is what happens when the housing market bottoms out and you have a foreclosure crisis.  Whether the property is under foreclosure or not, no one can sell.  The community was not stable.  This is the kind of place where break-ins happen and they had started there. 

This picture from the Tampa Bay Times makes the place look like an apartment complex, different from the real estate sales pictures appearing to showing single family homes or Youngerman’s description.  But the sidewalks in the picture are between buildings and not near the street.

Cheryl Brown, with the family’s boxer, Sake, says she and her family are rattled by the fatal shooting inside their gated community.

So the density that Youngerman was looking for might have been there, but the layout was poor with sidewalks between building, but none parallel to the street and with people moving in and out and lots of vacancies, Retreat at Twin Lakes may have contributed to the confrontation between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin that lead to Martin’s death just by its design and circumstances.  The bottom line:  Zach Youngerman is right about the impact of design if not right about all of the details.  This was a driving community, not a walking one and people did not know their neighbors.

Banks and Our Money

Are the banks using TARP money to – successfully – lobby the Senate?  Sure looks that way.  I first heard this story on Keith Olbermann’s Countdown when he interviewed Arianna Huffington.  But the best story  is by Ryan Grim on the Huffington Post.

The Senate on Thursday rejected an effort to stave off home foreclosures by a vote of 51 to 45. It was an overwhelming defeat, with the bill’s backers falling 15 votes short — a quarter of the Democratic caucus — of the 60 needed to cut off debate and move to a final vote.

The death of the bankruptcy reform measure — which would have allowed a small number of homeowners who met strict conditions to renegotiate mortgages under bankruptcy protection — is a major tactical win for the banking industry. But allowing the foreclosure crisis to continue unabated may end up being a failed strategy for the financial sector.

A little background from the Washington Post.

The measure would have allowed bankruptcy judges to modify troubled mortgages, lowering the interest rate or principal balance, a process known as a cramdown. Bankruptcy courts can already make those changes for a second home or investment property, but not a primary residence.

This would impact owners who are seeing home values drop to the point that the mortgages are larger than what the home is worth.  Sentator Richard Durbin was the primary sponsor and the bill was back, a little tepidly, by the Obama Administration. So back to Ryan Grim.

The Chamber of Commerce has deemed the vote a crucial one that will be heavily counted in its annual scorecard, and those who voted yes will pay a financial price from the Chamber and the banking industry.

Other Democrats stuck with the banks against the homeowners. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) was wheeled into the chamber and pointed his finger in the air, signaling a yes vote, then dramatically swung it down, as if taunting the backers of the bill.

Sens. Jon Tester (Mont.), Mary Landrieu (La.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.) all voted with the banks, as they told the Huffington Post they would. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) voted no, as did the new Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Sen. Michael Bennett (D-Colo.), Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) voted no as well.

Earlier this week, Durbin concluded that banks that “frankly own the place.”

How much did the Senate go for?

The banking and real estate industry has funneled roughly $2,000,000 into Landrieu’s campaign coffers over her 12-year career, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. The financial sector is Nelson’s biggest backer; he’s taken $1.4 million from banks and real estate interests and another $1.2 million from insurance firms. Tester has fielded roughly half a million in his two years in office. Lincoln has taken $1.3 million from banking and real estate interests.
Carper has raked in more than $1.5 million. Baucus, chair of the finance committee, has been on the receiving end of $3.5 million over his career. Specter has hauled in more than $4.5 million and Johnson has gotten some $2.5 million.

So don’t these Senators realize how we got into this mortgage mess to begin with?  I see crazy loans made way above a homes value even in good times whose owners are now in trouble.  Where are the mortgage bankers getting the money to lobby?  I thought they were in trouble and needed taxpayer help.  I say, no more bailout for any mortgage bank which lobbied against this bill.

By the way, there is also a list of Senators who voted their consciences:  Evan Bayh, Mark Warner, Jim Webb, and Ted Kaufman (who is not running for re-election).  We need to thank them for their votes.