Annual Self-Promotion

As I return from the holidays, I’ve noticed two stories in the news that I just happen to have written about in the past year.

The first of these comes from Flint, Michigan. I’ll refer you to Andrew Highsmith’s Demolition Means Progress for the definitive history of that community and the connections between housing, schools, industry, and institutional racism that have created much of the city’s current state of crisis, which today manifests in the form of acute lead poisoning from the city’s water supply. This poisoning is a direct result of decisions made by appointed emergency managers to draw the city’s drinking water from the Flint River in order to realize a cost savings by withdrawing from a service contract with Detroit’s water utility. Corrosive industrial wastes in the river water have caused lead from antiquated pipes to leach into the water supply, resulting in drastically elevated blood lead levels, particularly in the city’s children.

This is bad enough in itself. But what’s worse is the rapidly mounting evidence that a series of emergency managers and Governor Rick Snyder, who appointed them, ignored both qualitative complaints by residents of bad taste, foul odor, and rashes caused by contact with the water, and quantitative measurements of lead contamination. If statements made by high-ranking Michigan officials are true, the prioritization of cost-savings over public health are reckless indeed.

Jim Lynch of the Detroit News reports:

Dennis Muchmore, Gov. Rick Snyder’s chief of staff, was quoted in a July 22 Department of Health and Human Services email expressing concern about the handling of the water crisis, according to documents obtained by Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards through open records requests.

“I’m frustrated by the water issue in Flint,” Muchmore wrote in an email exchange. “I really don’t think people are getting the benefit of the doubt. Now they are concerned and rightfully so about the lead level studies they are receiving from the (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) samples. … These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we’re just not sympathizing with their plight).”

Despite such concern at the highest levels of Michigan government, lower-level officials continued to downplay the severity of Flint’s drinking water problems for almost three more months. It would take until mid-October for DEQ’s top official to admit mistakes were made and for Flint to be switched back to a different water source.

….

In August, evidence would begin to surface of rising levels of lead in the blood of Flint’s children. It wasn’t until October that Snyder’s administration moved to switch the industrial city’s water source back to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s Lake Huron from the corrosive Flint River.

 

I wrote about the anti-democratic nature of emergency management in an article published by American Studies last spring. I didn’t focus on Flint, but did note the ways that state legislatures have advanced austerity and the hollowing of the public sphere in direct conflict with urban democracy. In Flint, the stakes are as high as life and death.

The second story of note is the re-introduction of legislation in Georgia, as House Resolution 964, to amend the state’s constitution to allow Atlanta’s northern suburbs to separate from Fulton County and form Milton County, breaking away from the poorer and majority-Black city and South Fulton. Rep. Brad Raffensperger of Johns Creek has written his proposal to limit the amendment to allowing the re-creation of a formerly existing county, which would allow north Fulton to separate without enabling a rush of secession movements in other counties (Milton County merged with Fulton County in 1931 while facing financial ruin). The proposal contains some wiggle room in that it requires only “generally similar” boundaries, which would allow parts of Sandy Springs below the Chattahoochee River to also secede, so it’s clear that this reverence for the old Milton County, which was impoverished and rural rather than today’s gilded exurb, is simply a matter of political convenience.

Similar legislation has been a perennial symbolic gesture that has failed to gain sufficient support, but north Fulton legislators who keep introducing it are tapping into deep discontent from their affluent constituents. I’ve argued (in the Journal of Urban Affairs) that this discontent is rooted in systemic racism in the region, and laid out (in the Journal of Urban History) the ways that a 1991 tax revolt crystallized white suburban anger at Black political leadership as a perennial source of discontent.

It should be noted, as Arielle Kass at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes, that Raffensperger also pre-filed legislation to double Fulton County’s property tax homestead exemption, which would drastically reduce county revenues. This is, of course, of a piece with a broader conservative north Fulton political agenda: delegitimize Fulton County government, limit its scope with fiscal restrictions, and foment political polarization while privatizing services in the northern half of the county. If secession fails, then the rest of the agenda–insulating the property of north Fulton residents from decisions made by Atlanta and south Fulton voters–remains intact.

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New Article: “Race, Republicans, and Real Estate: The 1991 Fulton County Tax Revolt”

I’m happy to share the news that this article has just been accepted for publication in the Journal of Urban History.

Here’s the abstract:

A 1991 reappraisal of property in Atlanta and Fulton County, Georgia corrected systemic inequalities in property taxation that had subsidized affluent whites during a boom period. Many of those homeowners responded to reassessment by initiating a major tax revolt. The tax revolt failed to stop reassessment, but won lasting victory in the political arena. Tax revolt politicians successfully linked the economic grievances of taxpayers to resentments against black political leaders and the poor, replaced older, moderate suburban politics with confrontation, and sped partisan realignment and Republican ascendancy in the state. Historical perspective on the politics of the Fulton County tax revolt supports the conclusion that metropolitics were essential to the development of “color-blind” or “laissez-faire” forms of racial ideology that became dominant mode of American racial discourse in the post-civil rights era.

You can link to a .pdf of the submitted version here.

MConnorRaceRepublicansRealEstateJUH7-9-15

A “Broader Look at Atlanta” in the NYT

Last week I wrote about the Atlanta Braves’ surprise decision to leave Turner Field–their home since the city converted the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Stadium for their use–for a new facility in suburban Cobb County they hope to open in 2017. I suggested that a large part of the motive for the switch was the Braves’ effort to accommodate the preferences of their affluent and largely white fan base to avoid downtown Atlanta and the African American neighborhoods surrounding Turner Field.

Now, although I think the racial politics of the move are quite evident, if subsumed in discussions of transportation access, the geographical distribution of Braves’ ticket buyers, and economic development, that doesn’t mean that the decision is one that’s necessarily bad for the city of Atlanta, or the region as a whole. It’s worth thinking about what it means for the city to let the Braves walk away from a lease, and for the Summerhill, Peoplestown, and Mechanicsville neighborhoods to transition out of the era of stadium-based land use and development models that have dominated the area since the late 1960s.

This is what Kim Severson set out to do in the Sunday New York TimesWhile Severson makes some good points, I think that it’s also worth pointing out where this analysis falls short.

In the big picture, Severson speculates that the Braves’ decision might herald a renewed discussion of regionalism in metro Atlanta.

But now, as the team makes plans to head a dozen miles northwest to a new $672 million baseball stadium in Cobb County, a regional civic conversation has begun: Is the move a blow to a city beginning to enjoy a post-recession urban renaissance, or is it a signal of a new era in which traditional assumptions about the divide between city and suburb no longer apply?

Part of Severson’s problem is that her principal evidence for this claim doesn’t come from a rigorous political-economic analysis of the impact of the move but from asking politicians about it (in fairness, she’s working her side of the street and I’m working mine). To be sure, the move might end up being a net positive to the city of Atlanta, which could benefit from the displacement to the suburbs of entertainment economy activities. If other people and communities take some of the brunt of negative externalities like traffic, air pollution, litter, and the Tomahawk Chop, that’s actually a nice example of regionalism in action.

However, Severson gives far too much credit to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s brush-off of the Braves’ move.

“We’ve got to make a decision — either we’re going to be a region or we’re not,” he said at a packed news briefing the day after the Braves’ announcement. “It bothers me that we have not come far enough as a community that people feel that a team moving 12 miles is a loss to the city of Atlanta.”

This regionalist equanimity might carry considerably more weight if Reed had not, as Severson acknowledges, just put his reelection at risk by brokering a deal for the construction of a $1.2 billion stadium for the NFL Falcons near downtown Atlanta. The deal involved committing the city to revenue bonds and reallocating a state pool of hotel taxes collected in Atlanta that could bring the public share of the cost to a billion dollars over 30 years.

Why was all of this spending necessary? In part because Falcons spokespersons persuaded Reed and allies like Chief Financial Officer Duriya Farooqui that the team would move to Clayton County or some other suburb if the city didn’t support a new stadium. It’s worth noting that these suburbs allegedly lining up to steal the Falcons from Atlanta weren’t even offering to build principal owner Arthur Blank a new stadium. Reed’s rhetorical nod to regionalism after letting the Braves walk shouldn’t be considered outside of his aggressive and probably foolish localism on behalf of the Falcons.

It is interesting that suburban Cobb County taxpayers will foot so much of the bill, both in direct allocations and in the extension of existing property tax surcharges that will be redirected from parks and other uses toward the stadium instead of expiring. As Neil deMause notes at Field of Schemes, the math doesn’t add up to profits for Cobb County, which will reallocate $8.7 billion in property taxes toward bond payments while plausibly reaping about $8 million annually in sales taxes from the stadium and nowhere near the $12 million annually in property tax revenues created by higher valuations to make up the rest of the county’s obligation. In sum,

Cobb County would certainly steal some revenues from Atlanta by virtue of hosting the Braves, which would offset its costs somewhat — but Cobb taxpayers would still likely be looking at a loss in the $100-200 million range. And that’s not accounting for the opportunity cost of taking 15 acres of land and handing it to the Braves tax-free for their stadium, removing the possibility of future development there that might actually pay taxes. Or the opportunity cost of what else the county might do with its $300 million that could increase economic activity (and tax receipts) some other way. It’s not the worst stadium deal ever — that’s going to be a tough record to break — but it still looks like an awfully high price for Cobb taxpayers to pay for a slightly shorter drive to the ballgame.

Regionalists have long argued that cities subsidized the construction of the suburbs (taxpayers in built-up areas financed extending infrastructure outward) and continue to subsidize their operation by hosting governmental facilities, public hospitals, jails and other regional infrastructure, and artistic, cultural, and sports venues. This is all  real estate dedicated to regional uses but supported by local municipal services and frequently exempt from the local tax rolls. The Cobb County play for the Braves is a historical turnaround, in that fans from Cherokee, Forsyth, Gwinnett and north Fulton Counties (and I suppose even some from Atlanta) will use the facilities while Cobb foots the bill, hoping to capture economic development impacts–hopes that, in general, end in disappointment. We could call this by a lot of names, and Cobb County getting fleeced seems like a good place to start, but I don’t think regionalism fits just because the suburbs have begun making some of the moves that cities have historically made in the game of competitive localism.

The story gets weirder still when Severson starts quoting politicians about the racial and demographic divisions of the region. Of course, like everywhere else in the United States, suburban Atlanta is growing more diverse. And the city’s population is becoming whiter and more affluent with gentrification and redevelopment, to the point where the city’s black majority is shrinking and white mayoral candidates have made serious noise in recent campaigns. The city limits are not the racial boundaries the were in the 1970s, and the region’s racial dynamics today aren’t captured by the trope of white flight.

But that doesn’t mean that the divisions among metropolitan places don’t matter, as some of Severson’s subjects argue.

Andrew Young, the civil rights leader who became Atlanta’s mayor in 1982, said the geographic boundaries that once divided the 10-county region are as much a part of history as its once-deep racial divisions.

“One of the things I learned when I was mayor is that nobody pays any attention to jurisdictions but elected officials,” he said, adding that one of the region’s problems is that it has always segregated the city from the outer communities.

“The truth of it is,” he said, “it’s one big economic unit.”

The circumstances of the stadium deal alone belie Young’s argument; Cobb County is offering to foot a huge part of the bill for a new stadium in the belief that the resulting economic benefits of baseball will redound to Cobb County alone. If the region is one big economic unit, somebody forgot to tell the Cobb County Commission (and Kasim Reed for that matter).

Indeed, in metro Atlanta today there’s a profound concern for jurisdictions because of the ways that those kinds of boundaries structure the social and fiscal conflicts of metropolitan life, facilitate resource hoarding, and divide communities of opportunity. We’ve seen incorporation movements in north Fulton County spread to DeKalb, and though leading state House Republican Jan Jones has grudgingly acknowledged that the movement she leads to split Fulton County is at a political stalemate, it’s not going away and there’s no reason to suppose that if Fulton County splits legislators from DeKalb or any other internally diverse metro county won’t push to follow suit. The politics of race are deeply woven in these jurisdictional conflicts.

Maybe the Braves’ relocation will prompt a deeper conversation about regionalism that actually leads to practicing regionalism. This might particularly happen if Cobb County learns a lesson the hard way–being on the hook for bonds that new revenues and property value increases don’t cover, or watching the Braves pull up stakes in thirty years. But learning the hard way doesn’t factor in the Times piece when it comes to the significance of metropolitan jurisdictions or the politics of land use around the new stadium. Severson is particularly sanguine about the prospect of a New Urbanist residential and retail development around the new stadium.

The Cobb County site is actually more in line with a new ethos of urbanism that rewards smaller, walkable communities, said Chris Leinberger, a professor at the George Washington University School of Business.

I’ve taken some issue with Leinberger’s analysis here before; I don’t disagree with his general conclusions that markets are shifting to favor the kind of amenities that the affluent want, which include walkability and some semblance of integrated residential and commercial life. But public policies matter too; there just isn’t enough market demand for New Urbanism to make it anything other than a lifestyle amenity at this point, and one mixed use walkable development around a baseball stadium is not going to impact the way that Atlantans navigate the already built-up spaces of the region. So, while Leinberger isn’t wholly wrong here when he states

“The real distinction in Atlanta now is between those places that are walkable urban areas and those that are drivable suburban areas,” he said. “Where they are doesn’t matter as much,”

Cobb County politicians aren’t showing signs that they view the stadium as part of a shift away from an automobile-centered single family home mode of development. While Leinberger elsewhere insists that metro Atlanta’s underdeveloped transit infrastructure is holding back the progress of walkable metropolitan places,

“Metropolitan Atlanta has been under-investing in the rail transit transportation infrastructure that greatly assists the walkable urban development the market and economy is now demanding,” the report stated. “Investing in rail transit in the early 21st century is as important as building of freeways in the 1960s and 1970s was for the economic growth of the Atlanta region 50 years ago”

Cobb County isn’t buying. As the chair of the Cobb County GOP put it:

“It is absolutely necessary the (transportation) solution is all about moving cars in and around Cobb and surrounding counties from our north and east where most Braves fans travel from, and not moving people into Cobb by rail from Atlanta.”

So I suppose there’s a boundary that still matters after all.

I should acknowledge that Severson identifies and identifies the opportunity to cultivate a conversation around regionalism in metro Atlanta. But that conversation is not yet here.  Cobb County might be entirely delusional about the chances of the Braves’ stadium becoming a paying proposition, but they expect to come out winners and they expect to keep the spoils of victory to themselves. Kasim Reed’s regime in Atlanta let the Braves walk because they had just put Atlanta taxpayers all in for the Falcons. The rhetorical nods to regionalism that Severson’s found here amount are just table talk: Atlanta politicians trying to spin the fact that they folded weak hands in the game of localism. 

Some Super Postmodern Remix of Stadium-Based Corporate Welfare, Urban Renewal and White Flight

The Atlanta Braves have just announced their intention to abandon city-owned Turner Field south of downtown when the team’s lease on the ballpark expires after the 2016 season and move to a new, mostly-taxpayer-funded stadium in Cobb County near the interchange of Interstates 75 and 285, the city’s beltway.

The Braves have spun the move as an economic one, bringing the stadium closer to the center of their ticket-buying public, a claim that, as this graphic from the AJC shows, has some validity. Ticket sales are heavily concentrated in the northside triangle of Buckhead and Cobb, Gwinnett and north Fulton counties. And the southside site is outside of that triangle.

But the idea that this move will give Braves fans a quicker ride to the ballpark is dubious. Residents of Buckhead, north Fulton and Gwinnett will be separated from the Cobb County site by the Chattahoochee river and will have little choice but to take the notorious Perimeter highway. As Bookman says,

In transportation terms, Turner Field is admittedly far from perfect. It doesn’t have direct mass-transit access, and downtown traffic on the interstates has been a challenge. However, at first blush the Cobb County site compounds rather than solves both problems. Adding Braves traffic to an already clogged I-285 or I-75 northbound at rush hour to make a 7:05 first pitch — really? It sounds like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

So getting to the ballpark by car is not going to get a whole lot easier. How about transit access? Unfortunately, while Turner Field is not served by a light rail line, MARTA does operate a shuttle bus from the downtown Underground Atlanta development near the Five Points intersection of all four rail lines. I’ve taken it and it involves a walk through a downscale shopping center and a stroll across a street from the bus stop. I’ve taken it with a two-year old, and it’s convenient and easy.

But perhaps the Braves understand the sentiments of their target audience all too well. In a region where new arrivals quickly learn that MARTA “really” stands for “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta,” the lack of even such a makeshift transit service to the ballpark at the Cobb site is a feature, not a bug for many potential fans on the north side. Cobb County voters infamously refused to join the MARTA district in the 1970s. Kevin Kruse ably recounts this moment in the epilogue to White Flight, quoting a Cobb County official who approvingly compared the Chattahoochee to a moat separating Cobb County from Atlanta. Cobb County rejected joining the MARTA district as part of a regional transportation plan as recently as 2011 too. This spirit has clearly not gone away, as Cobb County GOP chair Joe Dendy made clear in offering conditions for party support of the stadium plan:

1.) That Cobb County citizens won’t have to pay higher taxes as a result, and

2.) “It is absolutely necessary the (transportation) solution is all about moving cars in and around Cobb and surrounding counties from our north and east where most Braves fans travel from, and not moving people into Cobb by rail from Atlanta.”

Like Charlie Pierce says,

No, thank you, I won’t be needing the Enigma Machine today.

This is not about race because nothing is ever about race.

Indeed. Let’s not be tempted to look at two maps at the same time….

RegionWhiteBaseMapJUA

And let’s also ignore the fact that anyone from Atlanta who wants to catch a Braves game in 2017  will have to take their car across the Lester and Virginia Maddox Memorial Bridge on I-75 over the Chattahoochee….

Strictly as an aside here, if the good citizens of Cobb County stand behind this scheme and pony up so that all of the greater northside can avoid passing through majority black neighborhoods to see a ballgame, despite the county’s dire school budgets and general austerity, I suppose H.L. Mencken would approve:

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

So, while this move brings parts of the region’s history of white flight full circle by drawing out an anchoring regional institution from Atlanta, it also makes an ironic endpoint for an era of sports-related urban renewal on the south side, a history of promised revitalization that panned out more as community displacement. Reading this long piece by Rebecca Burns in Atlanta magazine a couple of things become clear: the Braves are at the center of a dysfunctional network of community and governmental entities that have consistently screwed up grand proposals to revitalize the Summerhill and Peoplestown neighborhoods that surrounded the old Fulton County Stadium, the 1996 Olympics complex, and current-day Turner Field (read this piece by Charles Rutheiser too). The area remains poor and predominantly African American, and if the ballclub today seems more inclined to walk away from the area, I suspect their fans, or the ones whose dollars they care about, can live with that too.

It’s unfortunate that the Braves have chosen this month to make their announcement, because the City of Atlanta has just sealed off a massive deal with the Atlanta Falcons to pony up hundreds of millions of dollars of city funds and hotel tax revenues collected in Atlanta and disbursed by the state legislature to replace the Georgia Dome in the Vine City area of the near west side. The Georgia Dome, too, is a perfectly functional facility less than 20 years old that is nonetheless insufficiently profitable to the team’s owners. Mayor Kasim Reed is putting a, ahem, brave face on the most recent news, promising

“one of the largest developments for middle-class people that the city has ever had” will go up at the site of Turner Field after the Atlanta Braves move to Cobb

and contending that this deal was just too much to place on the city’s taxpayers’ backs:

Reed said the Braves asked for between $150 million and $250 million for infrastructure improvements for the team to remain downtown. He said that would have left the city “absolutely cash-strapped” and unable to chip away at a nearly $1 billion infrastructure backlog.

“Atlanta is not that liberal with our spending,” said the mayor.

That’s a statement that takes a lot of guts, as Neil DeMause of Field of Schemes explains, since

as a best guess for how much the Falcons deal would cost the public, “more than half a billion dollars” is an excellent starting point.

I can only imagine that Reed plans on being long gone when the NFL team bolts for greener (i.e. whiter) pastures in twenty years.

As it ever was?

In 1972 the American Civil Liberties Union represented a group of plaintiffs, many members of the Atlanta chapter of the National Welfare Rights Organization, in a suit that demanded the adoption of a metropolitan school integration plan that would have functionally consolidated the school systems of the city of Atlanta and Fulton and surrounding counties. The US Supreme Court’s decision in Milliken v. Bradley, which overruled the Michigan Supreme Court and declared that suburban school districts could not be compelled to join in a similar metropolitan desegregation plan for Detroit, essentially rendered Armour v. Nix moot. You can and most definitely should read about Armour within the long and contentious context of school desegregation in Atlanta in Tomiko Brown-Nagin’s outstanding book The Courage to Dissent

I’d like to focus a bit on how the defendants in Armour invoked the differentiation of metropolitan space as a foundation of freedom and liberty. In a 1973 motion asking for dismissal, the defendant school systems invoked an understanding of federalism worthy of junior high social studies, in which

the far greater worth of strong city and county government really lies in keeping that ultimate reality of all political life, “the power to decide,” as close to the people as possible in as many areas affecting their daily lives as possible.

What the Armour plaintiffs pointed out was that one person’s or community’s power to decide to maintain a political division between their school district and neighboring ones severely impinged on others’ power to realize integrated and quality education for their children. This observation was glaringly obvious, even in a cultural context where local control carried the ideological weight for segregation. The defendants were compelled to admit that 

In education, as elsewhere, of course, the price (if it can be called a price) of keeping government close to the people is lack of uniformity. When the power to decide is in the hands of the many rather than the few, it is to be expected that decisions will differ….

Needless to say, county to county and city to city diversities of this sort permeate local governmental activities generally. The differences are accepted as an inherent consequence of the very existence of local government (the power to decide obviously being inclusive of the power to differ). Nor have these diversities ever been thought of as posing problems under the “equal protection clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment.

This blithe dismissal of the consequences of political fragmentation as the outcome of decisions the residents of different localities made represents an opportunistic application of public choice theory to rationalize deep spatial inequalities (a subject I’ve addressed here), but it also signals a particular historical turning point for American racism toward the strategic embrace of color-blindness. Just as public choice as a theory evolved in dialogue with changing spatial practices in suburbanizing America, the invocation of individual choice to explain away glaring racial inequities was an ideological maneuver rooted in the metropolitanization of America and the adaptation of white supremacy to a new spatial form and a mode of expression characterized by privilege more than oppression.

Indeed, one of the most effective rhetorical maneuvers of color-blind racism–placing the burden of proof on claimants of racism–was in full effect in the defendants’ motion:

The fact that there is a concentration of black citizens in Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and virtually all other major urban centers of the United States is generally known. Yet there seems to be little if any agreement as to the reasons for this demographic pattern. We think it unlikely that any precise, all-inclusive answer, will ever be arrived at to replace the present speculation.

Since there was absolutely no way to ever reach the conclusion that racism accounted for this admittedly severe deviation from random population distribution, then courts supporting metropolitan desegregation would be engaging with social engineering that, for dubious benefits, risked not the particular prerogatives of the region’s white suburbanites but liberty itself:

plaintiffs would deprive the State and its citizens of a long established political liberty (i.e. the right to establish and maintain autonomous city and county governments for the control of public education, police power, and the numerous other functions and services in which local governments have traditionally been engaged)….

One of the difficulties I have as a historian with much of the sociological literature on color-blind racism is that, for all its sophistication in identifying rhetorical constructions and their usefulness in particular social contexts, that literature tends to assume a sweeping change in the dominant ideological expression of white supremacy without exploring how that change took place–i.e., after the Civil Rights movement, it was no longer socially acceptable to invoke biological racial difference as a justification for white supremacy, necessitating subtler ideological constructs. But if ideologies are in one sense interpretive frames through which one makes sense of the world, they are also strategies for getting what one wants. Ideologies don’t work in the abstract; they can reproduce and spread only to the extent that they work in repeated iterations of similar circumstances. In this case, what the defendant school systems in the counties around Atlanta and their nearly all-white constituencies wanted was to avoid integration, and they could get it by invoking local control, exercised through their county school systems, as a pillar of Americanism while simultaneously playing dumb about why the metro area’s black residents overwhelmingly lived in Atlanta.

One of the things that Armour helps us to understand, then, is that shifts to color-blind expressions of white racism quite literally took place–that is, they took the kinds of places, and the kinds of material and social privileges and interests organized by place, that suburbanization created across the nation after World War II.

In Case You Heard Differently, Property Taxes Have Often Helped White People in Atlanta Stay Richer

In my research for an upcoming talk on the 1990s tax revolt in north Fulton County, I’ve had a revelation of sorts about one way in which white privilege is institutionalized and perpetuated (to be clear, this is a personal revelation, not a thought unprecedented in the annals of urban political economy). Ironically, this mechanism, the ad valorem tax on real estate, has been a principal boogeyman in the reactionary politics of privatism, public retrenchment and racial resentments of what George Lipsitz and Barbara Tomlinson describe as

a small cadre of affluent individuals—who comprise what surely must be the most sullen, surly, self-pitying, and sadistic group of “haves” in the history of the world.[1]

How can this be? Aren’t taxes the instrument by which the poor, minorities, liberals, and other members of the 47%  steal from upstanding taxpayers? Let’s do some quick history, drawing first on a Research Atlanta report by David Sjoquist and Drew Warwick [2], whose analysis is the basis for my summary of events below, to frame the conditions of the tax revolt.

In 1989 Fulton County’s tax digest (its list of every assessed property and its assessed taxes) was rejected by the Georgia Revenue Commissioner, who found that the county was

1. Violating state law because its overall tax digest fell nearly 10 percentage points short of the statutory requirement for property to be assessed at 40 percent of fair market value.

2. Assessing property at wildly uneven rates; a few properties were assessed above 40 percent of fair market value, most were assessed less, and some, mostly high-value residences, were assessed at much less than 40 percent.

These determinations were made through a sales ratio study conducted by the state Department of Audits on the order of the Revenue Commissioner. A sales ratio study compares the ratio of tax assessments to the sale price of properties sold in the jurisdiction that year to determine if assessments were in line with market value.

Atlanta and Fulton County’s flunking of this audit precipitated a fateful series of events. Atlanta and Fulton County, and their Joint Board of Tax Assessors, hired the firm of Cole, Layer and Trumble to perform a mass reappraisal of all Fulton County properties (more than 230,000!) based on a comprehensive sales ratio study. Fulton County was forced to acknowledge that it had been breaking state law by underassessing property. New legislation passed in 1988 also forced the two governments and their joint tax board to take swift and decisive action, or face stiff fines from the state. Atlanta and Fulton elected to bite the bullet and impose the assessment hikes all at once, rather than ratcheting up assessments gradually. The results were dramatic; virtually no property owners were spared an upward reassessment, but the most dramatic assessment hikes affected the owners of more valuable properties. It wasn’t unusual for residents of affluent neighborhoods to see their assessments double.

One might think that, since a sales ratio study makes the “free market” the yardstick by which tax assessments are evaluated, political opposition would be minimized, and the right-leaning homeowners who are prone to protest their tax bills would be placated. After all, it wasn’t some county bureaucrat arbitrarily making assessments, but the aggregated wisdom of the “free market”–the same force that was helping them to grow equity.  As Sjoquist and Warwick put it,

Despite the shock that residents face in dealing with the new assessments, the new state procedures should result in more equitable assessments.[2]

Since you’re reading and I’m writing this, you might correctly surmise that many taxpayers focused more on the “tax hike” aspect of the reassessment than on the “bringing assessments into compliance with the law” aspect–let alone any consideration of “paying one’s fair share.” In fact, the reassessments prompted the formation of taxpayers’ rights organizations, and launched the careers of many north Fulton Republicans who capitalized on the convergence of spiking tax bills and the prevailing sentiment that the region’s affluent were being soaked to support welfare recipients. The two most notable of these were Robert Proctor and Mitch Skandalakis, who were joint counsel in a taxpayers’ organization lawsuit against Atlanta, Fulton County, the Joint Board of Tax Assessors, and Cole-Layer-Trumble over the reassessment [3], and who used their new identities as tax warriors as a springboard to further political endeavors. In Skandalakis’s case, this involved a successful run for Chair of the Fulton County Commission and an unsuccessful 1998 run for Lieutenant Governor marred by extensive race-baiting of black Atlanta-area Democratic officials in his Ralph Reed-managed campaign. Proctor continued to sue virtually every government agency in Fulton County over taxes and, significantly, affirmative action, along with representing a Waffle House franchisee accused of discrimination against black customers in a briefly notorious lawsuit. (Ironically, after Skandalakis led a campaign to install a new county tax chief, Proctor served as legal counsel for a realty trust that specialized in buying tax liens at discount from the county and seizing the properties).

Proctor (as a civilian gadfly) and Skandalakis (in county government) were among the leaders of a movement that consolidated taxpayer resentment, white racial grudges about black political power, and a rising base of Republican party strength in Atlanta’s northern suburbs into a force that  transformed the state and has brought political conflict on the congruent axes of race, party, and geography to a head in Fulton County.

The most ironic part of this is that, far from soaking rich northsiders, the property tax system in Fulton County had been actively subsidizing them for decades. The pattern that the CLT study found in 1989 was the same one discovered by an Atlanta Urban League study of tax assessments in 1971, at the height of white flight.[4] A study by Research Atlanta, Inc. in 1975 referenced the Urban League’s study and a similar national investigation carried out by HUD [5], and rather delicately explained how race meshed with the “failure of assessment to keep pace with the rapidly changing property values in the county”:

The geographical distribution of neighborhood assessment-sales ratios mentioned above generally follows the trend of upward and downward transitional property values. Thus, houses in the city’s northern neighborhoods, where property values have been rising, had lower than average assessment-sales ratios. On the other hand, inner city neighborhoods, where property values have either declined or not risen as rapidly as the rest of the city, had higher ratios.[6]

Research Atlanta emphasized that the divergence was an effect of assessments lagging behind changes in the market–assessors devoting limited human resources to assessing newly developed property, for example–rather than deliberate attempts by assessors to favor any racial or ethnic group or any neighborhood area. I would not rule out the possibility that pro-development officials on the Fulton County Commission placed some thumbs on the scales so that rapidly booming northside and north Fulton areas would continue to grow without higher tax assessments, but this kind of malfeasance isn’t necessary to support an argument that tax assessments were racially biased against black Atlantans; the kind of property value instability happening in this era–both in terms of property that fell in value and that rose rapidly–was intrinsically tied to the racial identity of owners and neighbors. Further, if properties were reassessed at long or irregular intervals, that meshed with racial bias in the housing market to structure the tax system in whites’ favor.

In an era when (as David Freund ably argues) white suburbanites crafted a political identity around property ownership and a political agenda of racial exclusion justified by the need to protect property values, those homeowners scored a second windfall when tax assessors, whether through sloth, understaffing, or collusion with development interests, allowed tax bills to lag far behind that rising property value. So, while north Fulton tax revolt leaders like attorney Robert Proctor mounted soapboxes to lament the waste of their tax dollars after reassessment, they were utterly silent about the decades-long diversion of taxes whose collection was mandated by state law from the region’s schools and governments. They certainly didn’t thank any of the residents of low-value neighborhoods, whose relatively high assessments represented both a disproportionate share of the costs of government and public services and an effective subsidy to the underassessed rich.

Put it another way: Every dime of difference between the state-mandated assessment of 40 percent of market value and the actual assessment imposed on homeowners was a theft from the public at large.

Notes:

[1]: Tomlinson, Barbara, and George Lipsitz. “American Studies as Accompaniment.” American Quarterly 65, no. 1 (2013): 1–30. doi:10.1353/aq.2013.0009.

[2]: Sjoquist, Keith R., and Drew A. Warwick. Fulton County’s Mass Reappraisal: Why Was It Necessary? Atlanta, GA: Research Atlanta, Inc., 1993.

[3]: These suits were ultimately decided in favor of the governments. See Lomax v. Lee, 408 SE 2d 788 (GA Supreme Court, 1991).

[4]: Report of the Atlanta Urban League on the Fulton County Property Tax, 1971, cited in [6].

[5]: Arthur D. Little, Inc, and United States. A Study of Property Taxes and Urban Blight; Report to U.S. Dept. of Housing & Urban Development. Washington: U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development; for sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. Govt. Print. Off, 1973.

[6]: Holmes, Donald E., and Robert W. Pinner. Assessment-sales Ratios in Fulton County and the City of Atlanta. Atlanta: Research Atlanta, 1975.

Sine Die for the Georgia General Assembly (updated)

Sine Die is not a rare but catastrophic outcome of trigonometry exam-induced stress (rimshot!) but the end of the General Assembly’s regular session at the Capitol in Atlanta. Barring any urgent business requiring a special session, this particular laboratory of democracy is just about done experimenting until next year.

Although the contemplation of a water war with Tennessee over where the state line crosses the Tennessee River has generated the most attention, far more immediately consequential bills revolve around the collection of taxes in Fulton County. HB 541 proposes doubling the Fulton County Homestead exemption to $60,000, while HB 346 would make the Fulton County Tax Commissioner an appointed official.

note: read here a point-counterpoint between north Fulton Republican and Speaker Pro Tem of the Georgia House Jan Jones and Democratic Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves on the impact of the homestead exemption….

update: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the homestead exemption bill’s supporters on Tuesday had largely given up hope of the bill reaching a Senate vote before the end of the session. It’s on the list of pending bills, but not likely to see a vote. that passage now seems likely (after who knows what horse-trading).

These bills join others passed last week that redistrict the Fulton County Commission to create a new Republican seat and give the Fulton County legislative delegation power to choose the head of the County elections board. These bills were sponsored by area Republicans and passed to the floor through a gerrymandered Fulton County delegation that tilts Republican despite the facts that Fulton County is a majority-minority county that voted by nearly two thirds for Barack Obama and five of seven County Commissioners are on record as opposing the slate of local legislation advanced by the Fulton County delegation.

This is an effort by a local minority to appeal to a higher level of government to win its agenda. Jim Galloway explains:

Finally, there was H.B. 347, a bill aimed at the Registration and Elections Board, which came under scrutiny last year when mismanagement caused more Fulton voters to use paper ballots than the rest of the state combined. The fix: allow Fulton’s state legislators, rather than the County Commission, to pick the board’s chairman. That would likely make the board 3-2 Republican rather than 3-2 Democratic.

All this would all happen in an overwhelmingly Democratic county that is 60 percent non-white.

When this involves invoking the Federal Voting Rights Act to protect racial minority interests, it’s an intolerable intrusion on liberty. When it involves a state majority engineering a potential partisan advantage in the administration of elections to boost a partisan minority’s chances, it’s democracy in action.

There’s no doubt that the redrawing of legislative boundaries in 2011 was done to pack the Fulton County legislative delegation with white Republicans (but I repeat myself) from the Atlanta suburbs (but I repeat repeating myself) by creating districts that include small parts of Fulton County and larger parts of outlying (and more conservative) counties. I wrote about this issue without specifying the extent of this districting technique. Johnny Edwards and David Wickert explain:

Until this year, Democrats held a 14-8 majority of Fulton County’s seats in the House and a 4-3 majority in the Senate. But in 2011 the Republican-controlled Legislature redrew House and Senate districts across the state based on 2010 census data.

Now Republicans enjoy a 13-12 edge in Fulton County House seats and a 7-4 majority in the Senate. To accomplish that, they extended districts into Fulton that previously had not included the county.

As a result, 13 of 36 state legislators whose districts now include a piece of Fulton live elsewhere. Four live in Cobb County. Two each live in DeKalb, Gwinnett and Fayette counties. Others live in Cherokee, Coweta and Forsyth. Eleven of the 13 lawmakers who live outside Fulton are Republicans.

State Senator Vincent Fort thinks, as this blog does, that this delegation-packing represents an effort to diminish the authority that local black elected officials can wield over white residents through county government:

“You have a bunch of white Republicans who just resent African-American political power and control over resources,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. “They’re willing to do any and everything to take away African-American political power.”

State Senator Mike Crane, who lives 20 miles from the Fulton County line in Coweta and received 835 votes in his recent unopposed bid for reelection from Fulton County voters (out of more than 60,000 total votes), disagrees, and insists that

Fulton will benefit from the quality and principles of the people added to its delegation.

“Give us a little time,” he said. “We’ll prove it to you.”

This blog suspects that increasing the representation of people with two particular qualities–whiteness and Republicanism–were foremost in the minds of the architects of the redistricting. Over the course of this legislative session, those qualities have certainly proven to support a radical redirection of state policy affecting the county.

I also wrote some weeks ago that legislative delegations fall between the cracks of voting rights law. The courts have generally interpreted county legislative delegations as administrative units of the legislatures, meaning that if the districting and apportionment of the whole legislature pass muster under the VRA, then legislatures are largely free to determine the composition of legislative delegations. It doesn’t matter if all of the seats in a delegation lie within the county or not, how much of a county is contained in a seat that is part of the district, if the members of a county’s legislative delegation actually live in the county or not. Most importantly, while the Voting Rights Act protects the ability of minority group voters to elect representatives and guards against vote dilution, legislatures remain free to dilute the power of legislators within local delegations without running afoul of the VRA, on the assumption that these delegations remain subordinate to the legislature as a whole.

State Senator Jason Carter recognizes, in terms that echo this blog’s analysis, that the gerrymandering of the legislative delegation is part of a plan to bypass the Democratic majority in Fulton County, bring local legislation to the floor where the statewide GOP majority aligns with the GOP minority in north Fulton County, and ultimately to give that Republican minority the power to control elections in Fulton County:

“The next thing you do is pack a Fulton delegation with people from outside Fulton County…Then you give power to that gerrymandered delegation over the elections commission. At some point, someone’s going to say you’ve gone too far.

As Jim Galloway explains, this legal doctrine prevented Georgia Democrats from pursuing a suit under the Voting Rights Act to challenge the composition of the delegation. In this the Assembly may have crossed a line that would open the composition of the Fulton County delegation to scrutiny:

When legislative districts were presented to the U.S. Justice Department for approval – as required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act – Democrats declined to protest the GOP delegation packing.

By law, legislative delegations are only advisory bodies, it was determined. They had no real power.

But H.B. 347 changes that. With the signature of Gov. Nathan Deal, the Fulton legislative delegation will be given real, statutory authority over the county’s election committee. Republicans, Carter explained afterwards, may have just provided Democrats the leg they need to stand on in front of a federal judge and mount a challenge to GOP delegation packing.

We’ll see.