Coffee heat rising

Police Presence and Property Values

Ever wonder whether frequent cop helicopter buzzing affects the property values in your neighborhood?

About ten minutes ago one of the cop copters came blasting in, low enough to rattle the windows in the house, and started circling about three lots to the west of me. This is a not-infrequent occurrence here, because my part of the neighborhood forms a buffer between some very upscale, Old Phoenix streets to the east and a cluster of slummy tenements to the west. The residents of the people kennels get up to all sorts of mischief, from petty theft all the way to shooting and killing Phoenix’s Finest. So as you can imagine, the police are somewhat sensitized.

I used to live closer to the tenements. Since I moved about three blocks deeper into the neighborhood, the cop flyby’s haven’t been so noticeable, but in the old house, which stood near the intersection of two main drags just south of a war zone, I could set my clock by the 11:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday night flyovers. They literally would park right over my house while they ran spotlights around the area and hollered down at perps from their bullhorns.

Besides shattering the peace and quiet (well…there’s not that much quiet to be shattered when you’re right on top of two six-lane thoroughfares), these episodes are disturbing. I figure if I were a perp and the cops were on my heels, I would try to get inside someone’s house and hide. If I were armed, I’d be well equipped to intimidate the residents—or worse.

So every time the cops come flying over (again!), I get up and go close and lock the doors and windows. Annoying, especially when the weather’s nice and you’d like to have fresh air moving through the house. This evening when I got up to do that, I found I’d left the back door hanging wide open the last time I let the dog out. Reassuring…

If you were to look at the city crime reports for this neighborhood, you’d see that the crime rate in this area is relatively low. It’s much lower than it is where my son is living, just two or three miles to the south, and we have fewer sex offenders living nearby. So, in theory, if a buyer were sensitive to that issue, the ubiquitous cop helicopters wouldn’t make much difference to the sale of your house. How, anyway, would a person know that we live under a cop helicopter traffic lane without being here to observe it?

On the other hand, middle-class residents’ nervousness about crime, especially in the presence of nearby low-income housing, has its effect.

When SDXB got up in the middle of the night and found two dudes climbing in his front window (he chased them off with a pistol…far as we know, they’re still running), the first thing he did the next morning was alert all the neighbors. Literally. He went from door to door telling the neighbors that he’d caught a couple of cat burglars in the act, after they’d quietly lifted out one of the windowpanes.

Within days, his next-door neighbor put his house on the market and moved away. He underpriced the place so as to unload it quickly, because, being a middle-class homeowner, he could afford to do so. He bought a house in Sun City, where property values are surprisingly low, and pocketed 60 grand in the exchange.

The buyer? Mr. B***, a.k.a. the suspected vandal.

As soon as this guy moved in, he started buying up houses in the neighborhood, often from elderly original owners who had no idea what they were worth. Before long he owned seven houses in this six-block-square neighborhood, five of which he converted into rentals. He added a tumbledown summer kitchen to the house next-door to SDXB, illegally connecting to the city sewer line. He did all the repair and fix-up on the other houses, always without benefit of building permits—apparently in the Old Country building codes, if they exist at all, are most honored in the breach.

These activities served to push property values down, leading to conversion of still more homes into rental properties; hence Biker Boob and Bobbie McGee in the house across the street.

You could argue that it was the absence of police protection that led to this state of affairs. It was an hour before the cops showed up after SDXB called 911 and said he had a .45 trained on two men who were clambering in his front window. And he made a big point of complaining to the neighbors about that, too.

At least nowadays the cops do show up (if noisily) when you call. A 45-minute to an hour’s wait used to be SOP; if someone actually was breaking into your  house, the trick was to open a door on the other side of the building and start screaming FIRE!!! This would usually bring the neighbors, who’ll come out to watch your house burn down but will hide behind locked doors when they think a crime is under way.

Still. There’s no question that when people who can afford to move don’t feel safe in a neighborhood, they will move. One of our long-term neighbors just moved out, before her house even sold, saying she wished to live “closer to people like herself” (read more white folks, less brown folks).

I wonder if too much police protection, especially when it’s conspicuous, is bad for business. The real estate business, that is.

Drummers

Often at night, when Cassie the Corgi and I are strolling, we can hear someone in the park banging a drum. The sound is steady, fast, monotone, and it reverberates through the neighborhood: boomboomboomboomboomboom.

Since I don’t go in or even near the park after sundown, I’ve thought it was some New Age nut case drumming up the Earth Mother or resonating to herb-induced vibrations. From several blocks away, the sound is eerie and vaguely spooky.

Ah, but no! Yesterday afternoon we went over to the park shortly before sunset. It was a gorgeous evening, a near-full moon already high in the turquoise east as the sun prepared to bed down in the magenta west. And a steady thrumming called.

As we approached the grassy meadow, what we found was not one drummer but four: a drum circle! In the shade of a spreading elm, four American Indians—a man, a very gravid woman, a boy about eight, and a younger man about sixteen—sat on the ground. The older man was pounding the deep-voiced drum that rumbles through the surrounding streets. The boy played a smaller drum, and the teenager accompanied them with a pair of gourd rattles. The man was chanting, just loud enough to be heard in one corner of the park.

Wonder! What a find!

It’s why I love my neighborhood. You’d never hear that in an HOA. You’d never hear it in Sun City. In these beleaguered parts, HOA’s have taken to suing people whose homes have been foreclosed, trying to suck continuing payments out of them for vacant properties. Give me Dave’s Used Car Lot, Marina, and Weed Arboretum any day…and along with him, I’ll take the Indian drum circle, thank you.

Only a slightly nightmarish day…

Over at A Gai Shan Life, proprietor Revanche features a very beautiful chicken soup, comfort food she cooked up after an extraordinarily rough week.  Meanwhile, Frugal Scholar, feeling a little anxious after links to her site in Funny’s recently gone-viral post pulled traffic upward there, too, also covets comfort food, in her case a lush-sounding broccoli soup with an egg-parmesan swirl-in…glorioski!

Cassie and I could use a little comfort food ourselves, and as a matter of fact we have some chicken that I could cook up into a lovely soup. What a wacky day!

I’m sitting here in the counting house along about 2:30 this afternoon, trying to figure out how to finesse payment for the mountain of clothes I bought this week, when all of a sudden I smell…mothballs. Really, really strong stink of mothballs.

Mothballs? What? That would be 1,4-dichlorobenzene these days, a slightly less toxic product than the stuff that used to grace this common household insecticide, naphthalene, replaced because of its flammability. The newer ingredient is known to be carcinogenic, and god only knows what it does to 25-pound dogs.

No mothballs reside in my house, and the strong stench is fast getting stronger. I get up to see what the heck, wondering if there’s some sort of fire in the attic or something that’s releasing fumes. The closer I get to the center of the house, the stronger the stink is.

I’ve left all front, side, and back doors open because it’s a spectacular day and, after the recent cool snap, probably the last comfortable day before summer sets in. Outdoors I either can’t smell it or the odor is much fainter than inside the house, where the fumes are so strong they make my eyes water.

Leash up the dog and get outside. It occurs to me that maybe the workmen at Biker Boob’s former abode are using some sort of chemicals, so I go over and ask—nope, they’re not doing anything with any chemicals, not even Dap or paint. Walk back toward the alley behind the house, where the stench is now very powerful. I again wonder if it’s originating inside my house.

The young mom across the street is hauling soccer balls out of her SUV. She also smells the odor and wonders what it is. After some speculation, we decide to call the fire department.

Fire dudes show up in due course. They explore the alley. At first they think it’s coming from the big garbage bin between my house and Sally’s–possibly illegal dumping. Proceeding up the alley, they find oily stuff on the ground. Now they’re thinking maybe it’s dioxin. (Firemen must love these little adventures!) 🙄

By now Sally has come out, and Manny across the street from her has joined the party. Fire dudes ask Sally if she’s sprayed or used any chemicals. She says not. But the guy two houses up the street is installing a swimming pool…could there be any industrial chemicals involved in that?

The firemen proceed up the road and interrogate the suspect homeowner.

Turns out this moron has sprayed Ortho’s Groundclear all over his entire backyard and up and down the alley! He claims he’s mixed it according to the package instructions, but it seems highly unlikely that applying it according to the instructions would fill a distant neighbor’s home with choking fumes and stink up the air for four city lots in all directions. Though this stuff is supposed to be relatively benign, IMHO nothing that smells that foul can be good for you.

So I load the dog into the car and drive down to M’hijito’s house. Takes an hour for the nasty aftertaste to clear out of the throat and nose. Ugh!

We leave the dog in his house and make a Costco run. Now that I’ve decided to go back on Atkins to pare down about 10 pounds, I need a lot of lettuce and other low-carb veggies, plus a ton of meat. And meat for Cassie the Corgi. This occupies a couple of hours. We loaf around for a while. When it becomes clear that M’hijito wishes to go hang out with his friends, Cassie and I return to the war zone. By now the fumes have died down. A steady wind is blowing away from the house and has probably dried the oily liquid this clown has dumped all over a quarter-acre and 100 feet of alleyway.

Moving on: now it’s almost 7:00 p.m. I’m hungry; Cassie has no food prepared and neither do I. The bookkeeping isn’t done, the house is an even more incredible mess than it was last weekend when I hadn’t cleaned for four weeks.

M’hijito having fed me a bottle of ginger ale by way of clearing the vile taste, I guess I’m off Atkins today. That is, I expect, a good reason to serve up either the dregs of the wine or a bottle of beer. And so, to work…

Cost of commuting

Here’s a trade-off for you: Buy a house in the far-flung suburbs to save a few bucks and end up spending half your income on the combined costs of housing and transportation.

In a recent Play-Nooz story, ABC’s Phoenix television station reports that people who think they’re saving money by purchasing in remote suburbs have to pay so much more on automobiles and gasoline that the combined costs of housing and transportation consume about 45 percent of their family income, an amount generally considered unaffordable. Anything this outfit says has to be taken with a large grain of salt, because the reporting can be…well, pretty laughable.

So I checked out this interactive map by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a nonprofit that promotes urban sustainability. Indeed, it appears that when you combine housing and transportation costs, a large part of the Phoenix Metropolitan Area becomes unaffordable. Factoring in housing costs alone does cause a larger region to consume less than 30 percent of the family income. Add transport to the mix, and you see that more people spend 45 percent or more of family income on driving plus housing.

At first glance, this sounds credible, given the astonishing cost of gasoline. I have no car payment, yet in the past month I’ve paid almost $110 just for gas—and I haven’t gone anywhere except up to the college and to a few stores, most of them on my way to and from the college. If I had to pay $300 to $600 a month for a car, as many people do, transportation expenses would run 18 to 32 percent of my income—when I’m teaching three sections. In the summer, when I can’t get a job, such costs would consume 31 to 71 percent of net income.

Spend a few moments studying the housing-only map, though, and you’ll see that large parts of the “drive until you qualify” burbs never offered any bargains. The Southeast Valley—Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, Tempe—is pricier than the close-in districts to start with. Granted, they’re new, shiny developments (so shoddily built that they won’t stay that way for long…), and granted, the city of Phoenix has done everything it can to thump centrally located neighborhoods. (The city and the county are run by developers—they take office on boards of supervisors and the city council. It’s in their interest ensure that the central city deteriorates, fostering white flight, so that people will buy their plaster-and-Styrofoam houses in the ever-expanding sprawl.) Scottsdale has always been ridiculously expensive; it’s an enclave of whiteness that has worked to develop a upscale reputation. The area to the northwest is largely occupied by retirement communities; cost of housing and taxes are lower there because of the downward pressure exerted by the demographic. The area to the south of the central city has been low-rent from the git-go; much of it is dangerous slum, schools are horrific, and few who can afford to live elsewhere willingly settle there.

So, I would argue in the first place that new suburban housing is more expensive than centrally located middle-class housing. It’s not true that people buy in the sticks to save money; they buy in the sticks for demographic reasons (if you don’t know whereof I speak, consider the latest bit of hilarity from the state house, which reflects the tenor of our elected leadership) and because they hope for schools that are more or less adequate. People who buy for those reasons don’t concern themselves with the cost of transportation—they regard it as just part of the cost of living.

When you add the cost of automobiles to the cost of housing, you do get a total that consumes way too much of net income. However, Drachman Institute Associate Director Marilyn Robinson’s claim that “If a household can get rid of one car, they can increase their available income by approximately $8,500 a year. They can do that if they have access to good and frequent transit service and if their neighborhoods include amenities like shops and recreation within walking distance” is an absurdity, at least where Arizona cities are concerned.

Few central or suburban neighborhoods are within walking distance of “shops and recreation.” The two  grocery stores closest to my house are in unsafe areas and are overpriced specifically because residents living nearby can’t afford cars and so form a kind of captive consumer base. These stores can charge anything they please, because too many of their customers can’t easily shop at the competition. The closest grocery store where I feel safe to get out of my car in the parking lot is three and a half miles from my house. Bicycling over the homicidal streets is out of the question, and you can be very sure I’m not walking seven miles in 110-degree heat to buy a few groceries.

There is no credible public transportation here. Buses are slow, unholy inconvenient, uncomfortable, and full of unwashed and often scary transients—the homeless mentally ill, of whom we have a large population, use the buses and lightrail as rolling air-conditioned space. They ride around and around to stay cool (or, in winter, warm) and to come out from under the oleanders for awhile. The lightrail system is a cute novelty but less than useful for commuting and shopping. Though a bus does run up to the college, the city is about to discontinue that line by way of cost-cutting, and it’s not a viable means to get there—even if the buses were comfortable and safe, I wouldn’t think of spending an hour or more to make a ten-minute drive.

Thus there really is no part of the city where a family with two adults, both of whom work, would not genuinely need to own two cars.

So the Housing and Transportation Affordability Index doesn’t tell you much, except that owning a car is expensive and that housing in the aging central part of the city is cheaper than housing in the shiny new suburbs.

Try the maps on a metro area that does have decent public transit, such as the San Francisco Bay Area, and you get a different picture. Housing costs there are so high it doesn’t much matter whether you have to drive. Another highly desirable area, one supposedly designed for sustainability, is Portland, Oregon: again, housing costs in the outlying suburbs appear to be far higher than those in the central city; add the cost of transportation, and few areas are affordable. In New York City, equipped with a large and much-used public transit system, mode of commuting seems to make little difference in affordability. Houston residents, however, pay a high premium for commuting. For people who live around New Orleans, commuting apparently is quite a burden; however, that may be a function of low incomes there. Change the demographic on the maps from “regional typical household” to “national typical household” and the cost of living looks pretty moderate, whether you drive to work or not.

So, I don’t know what all this means. It’s not cheap to drive a car. But on the other hand, riding public transportation isn’t cheap, either: riding buses and trains costs something, and cities with full-service systems have high taxes and a high cost of living. While I’m not pleased about having to pay $110 for gasoline—almost twice what I budgeted for—the cost is far from drastic enough to get me out of my car. Even if it were, there’s really no choice, and so the issue is moot.

How much does it cost you to get around your city? And if you add your typical cost of transportation to your cost of shelter, what proportion of your income does the total consume?

So…you thought YOU were having a bad hair day?

There you are, driving along one of the mainest of the main drags in the fifth-largest metropolis in the nation. You get into the left turn lane of the Vast Main Drag A so as to turn south onto Vast Main Drag B, you pull into the intersection preparatory to making your turn, and….your car bursts into flames!

Soon all the employees of the nearby bank and the various grocery stores, expensive boutiques, insurance  and financial offices, and local corporate headaquarters are standing on the sidewalks watching your car self-immolate.

The Fire Department comes roaring up and stops traffic in all four directions. Now scores of homicidal drivers are cursing your name (if they don’t know your name, they make it up). Collective eons of time are wasted. Your insurance adjuster no doubt thinks you are…well, just another pain in the tuchus.

{sigh}

Luckily for me, as I was approaching said intersection minutes after the Bad Hair Day Victim’s car decided to destroy itself, I managed to dodge into the bank’s parking lot, maneuver my way onto the perpendicular main drag, and make my way across Vast Main Drag A (now conveniently brought to a halt) into the parking lot of Ridiculously Overpriced Gourmet Grocery Store, the purveyor of the sushi I wished to carry out for lunch. This would be the “it’s all about me” response. In reality I felt very bad for the poor soul whose car was melting down in the middle of the intersection.

Sushi packed away in the Dog Chariot, it was back to the Road Home.

Do I get home without incident?

Hell, no. At the intersection of Ordinary Main Drag A and Ordinary Main Drag B, what do I find but a chain wreck—at least four cars involved, two of which are totaled. Another road is completely shut down. Again, I manage to dodge around the closed road and continue on my way. Otherwise, presumably the sushi (and I) would still be cooking in the 90-degree  heat.

Holy mackerel! Just when you get yourself wound up about every GD light turning red as you drive up to it, you’re snapped back to reality, here on the homicidal streets of Phoenix.

Image: Ben Schumin, Aftermath of a Car Fire in Silver Spring, Md. Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Ominous development

This afternoon the head of our neighborhood association sent this interesting report from one of the residents:

My family and I live in the northwest part of the R*** P*** neighborhood. At 5:15 pm my five children were home together as their dad was working and I’d gone to a school function—about 20 minutes after I left with a girlfriend, whose son was also at my house, a beat-up black Cadillac or that type of car pulled up right in front of our driveway and one man got out and came to the door while three others waited in the car. My oldest daughter (15) watched the man come up to our front door and knock—she didn’t recognize him and got the little ones (4, 3, 19 months) together in my oldest son’s room (11). My son’s room is right next to the front door and he could see the man, in his 20’s, white, buzz cut with light brown or reddish hair and wire glasses. He was also wearing a green shirt that said “Carp” on the back. My daughter said the man didn’t seem too clean and had nothing in his hands to suggest selling something. She said the passengers saw her through our front window and one in the back seat was texting on the phone. The man knocked and then rattled the doorknob for approx 7 to 10 minutes. The man looked into my son’s room through the window and my oldest daughter shut all the shutters and curtains and called the police, but the man and his friends left before the police arrived. My daughter saw the car turn around and drive towards 19th ave. Luckily, we have an alarm and my daughter set it after the police left so she could feel a little safer.

My girlfriend and her son and me and my children were all in my front yard for about an hour before we left to go to the school function, so it makes me think our house was being watched. The odd part is that we had two cars parked in front of our house, so it did look like someone was home. (Normally the cars aren’t there.) Then again, the man definitely saw my daughter and son and heard the younger ones. It seems he wanted in the house.

I’m only going into so much detail because of course I feel terrible that I wasn’t home, but also because it seems like our house was targeted. I’m concerned that these people wanted in the house, that it was daylight, there were obviously children home, and in fact a neighbor’s bike was near our front door but it wasn’t taken.

Holy mackerel! That’s one of the scariest stories I’ve heard in the 17 years or so that I’ve lived in this neighborhood. During that time, we’ve had two home invasions that I know of, but neither involved Bad Guys going after a clutch of children.

The northwest section of the neighborhood is not very good. It’s an area that’s been severely thumped by a series of unhappy circumstances: a slummy supermarket that went unregulated by the City despite chronic code violations; a huge, noisy intersection over which the cops like to park their helicopters while chasing perps; proximity to a set of apartments that have been allowed to turn into tenements and to a blighted district that’s your basic war zone; and most recently the corrosive destruction wrought by the unfinished and apparently never-to-be-finished lightrail train tracks. It was harder hit by the depRecession than any other part of the neighborhood, with the result that even more of the housing than before has been turned into rentals—and they already had plenty of weedy, run-down rentals.

Because of the blighted rentals, it’s reasonable to suspect these characters meant to visit one of their drug-dealing colleagues and had the wrong address. On the other hand, if the mother is right in thinking they were being watched, then obviously they knew only children were home. In that case, it’s very creepy.

I walk the dog at night. And when the weather is nice—as it has been today—I like to have my doors and windows open. Guess I’m going to have to rethink those behaviors…