The red line that won’t fade

JSblog

Please see our February 2016 blog post for an update

A few months after Fairfax County gave Verizon approval in October 2005 to offer cable TV and Internet service in the county, a company representative visited my office and excitedly told me Verizon would be rolling out more than 300 cable channels and high speed Internet access in our area as soon as the summer of 2006.

Verizon did rollout fiber-optic broadband internet access, which it calls Fios, within inches of our apartment complex, which is located right off Richmond Highway, a main regional thoroughfare. But it never provided service to the mostly poor black and Latino residents that live in the apartment complex, although it hopes to do so this year.

Our experience with Verizon mimics that of poor and minority consumers in Newark, NJ, where tens of thousands of low-income households don’t have access to Verizon’s high-speed internet service, allegedly because of a loophole in state law that permits the communications company to withhold service when it claims it can’t gain access to the property.

Verizon has said that in New Jersey, many landlords voluntarily opted-out of Fios service and chose other broadband and cable TV providers.

In our case, we were eager to have Fios service. And Verizon initially seemed interested in providing it—that is, until they visited our site. What’s more, the company appears legally bound to provide such service to all Fairfax County residents.

In a 2006 filing with the Federal Communications Commission, for example, Fairfax County’s Office of Consumer Affairs stated that the country’s “three franchise agreements guarantee that deployment of competitive cable services and any upgrades of existing cable systems will be made available to all households within a franchise area.” When the county granted Verizon a franchise in 2005, it gave the communications giant seven years to build out its system in the county.

On December 15, 2015 I called and sent an email to Richard J. Young, Verizon’s director of external communications and media relations, seeking comment about why it has taken so long for Verizon to provide service to our site and also to enlist his help in speeding up the installation of Fios on our site. He did not respond.

Verizon only showed interest in wiring Spring Garden Apartments about three years ago after I called a friend of mine, who had been Verizon’s former government lobbyist. Within months, the company had engineers visit Spring Garden and had a site plan approved.

Since then, things have bogged down. We have had conduit and cable installed for Fios service. But the service has not been turned on and Verizon has not indicated when that might occur.

Having competitive broadband service is not just a matter of status and convenience, especially for poor consumers. The General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) stated in a 2003 report that “cable prices were as much as 15% lower in areas in which incumbent cable operators faced head-to-head competition from another wireline cable provider.” What that means is that while most Fairfax County residents have enjoyed the benefits of price competition between Verizon and the county’s other cable TV provider, Cox Communications, poor people at Spring Garden Apartments have not benefited from that competition for the last decade.

The practice of banks and other institutions circumventing black and Latino communities in favor of predominantly white neighborhoods, is called “redlining” and is often spoken of in the past tense. It is seen as a disparaged practice of a long-forgotten bygone era. But it takes vigilance to make sure the battles for equality our society thinks it has won, stay won. And we need to insure that lawmakers, regulators and businesses alike, embrace that view.

Posted in Uncategorized

Season’s Greetings

xmasWe hope you are enjoying the holiday season. Our next post will be in January.

Posted in Uncategorized

Energizing Virginia

Darius Due to passage of the federal solar Investment Tax Credit and improvements in manufacturing panels that capture energy from the sun, solar power costs have decreased significantly nationwide. However, here in Virginia, communities have yet to benefit.

That could slowly begin to change as a result of an August 7, 2015 decision by the Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC) that allows qualified Virginia consumers to purchase renewable energy from the state’s major utility company, Dominion Power.

The good news is that Dominion will build a 2-megawatt solar facility and add the newly produced electricity to the distribution grid, under a program called Dominion Community Solar. The bad news is that some of the state’s electrical users will have to pay for the plant. The aim is to eventually lower electric costs which rose 3.1% nationally last year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Under the program, Dominion will resell solar power generated by its new plant to consumers and businesses in 100 kilowatt chunks, for approximately $4 per month. Each consumer or business will be allowed to purchase up to 400 kilowatts of energy.

Prior to the decision, there were few, if any, incentives for property owners to use solar energy in Virginia. That’s because unlike states such as Maryland, that supplement the federal government’s solar tax credit program with state incentives, Virginia does not provide direct solar subsidies to individuals or businesses.

Of course anyone in Virginia can install a solar system on their home or business and reduce their reliance on the power grid. We’ve been thinking about doing that at Shiver Management Group before an expected reduction of the federal solar tax credit by the end of 2016. But in Virginia, solar system sizes are capped at 20 kilowatts for residences and 500 kilowatts for business.

So while the SCC’s ruling is a small step forward, it is unlikely to spur widespread adoption of solar energy in the Commonwealth.

That’s a disappointment to Scott Surovell, the newly elected state senator from Virginia’s 36th district.

“Dominion’s program is a great advance that will provide consumers with more choices and the ability to choose less-polluting, renewable energy,” said Surovell, who has long been an ardent proponent of renewable energy.

But he added that he believes the best way of spurring wider adoption of renewable energy is “allowing groups of individuals or businesses to do this independently,” through financial and policy incentives.

Posted in Uncategorized

William’s Way

JSblogAfter we became friends while attending college in upstate New York, my best man and fellow real estate developer, William D. Manns Jr., would always introduce me as: “Jube Shiver, the only person I know who has a street named after him.”

In truth, “Shiver Drive” and “Jube Court” in Fairfax County, Virginia are named for my late father, Jube Shiver, Sr., who also was a real estate developer. William knew that, but he still delighted in introducing me as someone singular—always pausing, for effect, to add: “do you know anybody with a street named after them?”

The answer to that question is now “yes” for everyone who knew William.

On September 29, nearly seven years after William succumbed to cancer, about 100 of his friends, dignitaries and other New Jersey residents gathered in downtown Newark to dedicate a street to the beloved lawyer, real estate developer and Renaissance man.

WMway

William earned the honor by mentoring scores of New Jersey’s youth, building a distinguished and potent law practice and developing the largest real estate project ever built by an African-American in the City of Newark—the Nevada Court Mall.

In an event organized by the tireless efforts of William’s wife Emily Winslow and family friend Renee Greenleaf-Shaw, dozens of people including former Newark Mayor Sharpe James, City Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins, and William’s longtime friend and business partner Ruben Johnson watched, applauded and cheered as “William Manns Jr. Way” was affixed to the top of a street pole on Louise Epperson Plaza.

According to the Newark City Clerk’s office, the one-way street will now have a dual name, that of William as well as Epperson, a Newark community activist.

William, too, was a community activist and force of nature. He was always counseling, consoling, teaching and fighting for his friends and clients. He represented the dispossessed as well as the famous, such as the late poet/play writer Amiri Baraka, the father of current Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.

Newark attorney Maurice Snipes, who calls himself William’s adopted son, credits William with rescuing him from the streets of Newark and mentoring him through law school. But William also made time to write poetry, listen to his collection of blues records or party the night away in a city that he unabashedly loved.

He was particularly proud of joining with famed criminal defense lawyers Johnnie Cochran and Barry Scheck to bring a number of lawsuits against the State of New Jersey for racially profiling black motorists on the New Jersey Turnpike during the 1990s.

A friend of mine and I were among the victims of that practice: on a December day in the mid-1990s—en route to New York to go Christmas shopping–a New Jersey state trooper ordered us to pull over. The trooper proceeded to search my friend’s red Mercedes Benz coupe, without any legitimate probable cause that we could think of nor, as it turned out, that the trooper could articulate.

“You looked like you might have been carrying drugs in that type of car,” he said before letting us go.

Years later, after telling William about that stop, he told me I was lucky my police encounter didn’t end more tragically. He had represented people who had been shot at or severely injured after being stopped by state troopers.

Indeed, William was always fond of tempering tragedy or misfortune by quoting a line of his poetry that read: “Still, the river flows.” The line had a dual meaning to me: that life goes on but that the river—and real life—carve out new paths, over time.

Posted in Uncategorized

Back to School Respite

We are off this month. Hope everyone enjoyed their summer. Our regular blog posts will return in October.

Posted in Uncategorized

Across the Pond…

Darius Last Spring, I traveled to London, Paris, and Amsterdam for vacation but also managed to spend some time comparing U.S. housing to homes that folks live on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

First stop London. I was fortunate enough to stay at a friend’s “flat”, which is the equivalent of an apartment in the United States. The unit was very compact, living space-wise. In addition, its heating system and appliances were very energy efficient, compared to most apartments in the U.S.

To maximize the use of space, for instance, the flat had a stacked washer and dryer unit instead of separate, freestanding, washer and dryer units. The flat also had a “tankless” water heater to provide on-demand hot water and eliminate the huge 80 gallon water heater typically found in most American homes. What’s more, the flat’s windows fully rotated or flipped to allow cleaning of the outside glass from inside the unit.

In one curious way, however, Europeans are expansive in the use of space when it comes to bathrooms: the flat’s toilet, for instance, was partitioned off from the rest of the bathroom for privacy and unlike most American homes, even many non-luxury homes in Europe have a bidet in addition to a toilet. What’s more, many European bathrooms I saw typically had a hot and cold shower and/or bathtub knobs instead of the single lever faucet control found in many newer American homes.

After experiencing the British lifestyle, I took a day trip to Paris. Paris was everything I had expected and more. The neoclassical architectural style was captivating and remarkable. From the Eiffel Tower to the Louvre, the scenery was beautiful and serene.

As a person who is fascinated by intricate designs, I was intrigued by the conceptual designs behind some of the city’s illustrious structures. For instance, the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, which translates to the Arch of Triumph of the Star, is a staggering 162 feet tall gateway, aligned strategically in the heart of the Place Charles de Gaulle. The Arch was definitely the highlight of my day trip in Paris.

The last destination of my European voyage was Amsterdam, a city in The Netherlands. Exploring Amsterdam’s canals, bicycle paths and other transportation infrastructure was a journey in itself. The houses along the canal were small and narrow but still managed to create visual interest. Also, this is the city of bicycles. They are everywhere and often outnumber cars on the road.

While American homes—especially those in newer “sunbelt” cities in the South and West—often seem built for a market that values spaciousness and amenities like garages, central air-conditioning and garbage disposals, many older European structures lack such bells and whistles. Nevertheless, European housing appears to satisfy the needs and lifestyles of our neighbors across the pond and could provide a blueprint for greater energy efficiency in U.S. homes.

Posted in Uncategorized

Stuck in Traffic

JSblogA huge factor in making housing affordable is access to transportation. If you can’t easily get to and from your job, stores and other public places, transportation costs could actually be a drain on your financial situation and personal time.

The state of Virginia is currently weighing whether to make improvements to Richmond Highway or Route 1, a major north-south thoroughfare that is a key transportation route for our tenants and millions of commuters in the surrounding Northern Virginia area. At a March hearing held by the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, I offered my “qualified” support for expanding Route 1—which is among the least safe and the most congested thoroughfare in the state of Virginia.

Several plans under consideration call for widening four-lane stretches of the highway to create a full, six-lane, Route 1 corridor, from Interstate 495, south past Fort Belvoir to Prince William County. Transportation authorities are also considering whether to add bus lanes to Route 1 and/or extend rapid rail transportation along the corridor. Expansion of a 3.5 mile section of Route 1 near Ft. Belvoir is already underway.

Unfortunately, state transportation officials have indicated that Route 1 improvement plans for Hybla Valley aren’t likely to leapfrog 40 other pending road projects in Northern Virginia. Officials say such plans aren’t yet fully fleshed out and lack “readiness” as well as funding.

However, to the extent the Authority undertakes any transportation improvements, I urge them to not just narrowly target traffic congestion but also address safety, long term infrastructure maintenance and quality of life issues.

For instance, overhead power lines should be buried along transportation routes to reduce the chances of power outages and improve skyline aesthetics. Fairfax County regulators failed to do that when they approved a big box store near Hybla Valley on Richmond Highway several years ago. Residents have felt the consequences ever since, as a spate of severe thunderstorms in the ensuing years have caused a series of power outages.

Similarly, conduit or dark fiber should be installed along the highway to facilitate the installation of advanced telecommunications services. The federal government has been doing this in the wake of a December 2012 executive order accelerating the deployment of broadband in interstate highway construction. However, states should do the same, especially in poor communities, which are often under-served by broadband Internet access.

Finally, every effort should be made to insure that any road improvements don’t compromise safety or reduce affordable housing. There are currently no pedestrian bridges or tunnels serving Route 1 in Hybla Valley, where the highway speed limit is 45 mph, for instance. The busy highway also poses challenges for fire trucks and school buses that  need to make turns at intersections or at breaks in the median. There are many crosswalks controlled by traffic lights on Route 1, but surely there are new road designs and technology that can improve the odds for pedestrians, school buses and first responders trying to navigate this busy highway. We should consider those.

Posted in Uncategorized

Summer Vacation

We are off this month. Our regular blog posts will return in July.

Posted in Uncategorized

Homelessness — A Personal Story

Darius Nearly two decades ago, after relocating from the country roads of Mississippi to the city streets of Alexandria, Virginia, my family became homeless.

Our fall into hard times placed us among the thousands every year who must rely on emergency shelters in the metropolitan Washington area.

According to housing experts, the number one reason people become homeless is the high demand for low-income, affordable housing and the limited availability of vacancies. In many cities, people have a better chance of shaking President Obama’s hand than being placed on a waiting list for assisted affordable housing. Some waiting lists have been remained closed for at least a decade with thousands of people waiting patiently, and often in vain, for a decent home.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, other government agencies and non-profit groups have found creative and practical solutions to address some of the problems. But there are things we can do as well.

For starters, we can educate ourselves and others about the issue. Many people assume the homeless are self-sustaining, or that they lack motivation to live a better life. Such beliefs are far from true in many cases.

Hard-working people with minimum wage jobs often find their earnings are not nearly enough to pay for the rising costs of food, transportation and child care, let alone shelter, according to the federal government.

The more fortunate among us can also support local resources such as the Alexandria Community Shelter, a homeless assistance agency that provides a range of services including shelter, food, housing counseling and job skills. Agencies like ACS can have an enormous positive impact on an individual or family.

Although, I was only six years of age, I had a good sense of the environment. At first, I found it difficult residing with strangers, adjusting to early curfews, and eating shelter prepared foods. I did not have any toys of my own and the toys that were available were for the community. My only true possessions were that of my family. However, as time passed, Mondloch Shelter seemed a lot more like home. The shelter celebrated all of the children’s birthdays and held Christmas parties sponsored by the Salvation Army. For the duration of my residency, Mondloch fulfilled my family’s need for a home without disregarding that “home sweet home” feeling.

Life doesn’t stop when you’re homeless. I was never ashamed to share my experiences with other people for my family’s temporary homelessness, ironically, helped make me the determined person I am today. When dealing with hardships, my mother told me to keep in mind that problems are only temporary. Your “mentality is everything,” she said.

Now, whenever I encounter someone who is homeless, I tell him to always keep a positive outlook even if it appears that life is never on his side. Circumstances can change. My family and I are living proof of that.

Have you done something to help the homeless or have you ever been homeless? Maybe you have suggestions on how to fight this national problem. Share your story or ideas in the comments section below.

Posted in Uncategorized

An Unconscionable Choice

JSblogThere was no way around it.  To obey the law, I had to force my tenant to make an unconscionable choice: drop out of college or lose your home.

This was not the sort of thing I envisioned I would be doing as a part of my work running a business that provides affordable housing to the poor. But three years ago, compelled by federal housing rules aimed at preventing fraud, I had to tell my 22-year-old tenant that he could not continue to attend Ferrum College in southwestern Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains and maintain an apartment in Alexandria, Virginia that was subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The young man faced this housing dilemma after his mother, who was renting the subsidized apartment from me, died of cancer—leaving behind her 22-year-old son and 8-year-old  granddaughter. He decided to return to the Alexandria apartment.

Under HUD regulations, college students younger than 24, who are not married or veterans, and do not have dependent children, are not eligible for subsidized housing.

The perverse impact of this rule is that it rewards poor young people who have children and penalizes young people who pursue higher education if they want to stay in Section 8 housing subsidized by HUD.

Last month I recalled my unease about backing the college student into a corner when I attended a meeting the National Association of Hispanic Journalists arranged with  Julián Castro, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Castro said he was not familiar with the rule, when I recounted my tenant’s story, but appeared concerned and said he would have his staff review it.

Ironically, it was the rich, not the poor, who initially prompted HUD to double down on limiting federal housing subsidies to college students. The restrictive housing policy was adopted in 2006 as a result of several incidents of fraud involving well-to-do college students living in subsidized HUD housing.

One notable case was in 2004 in Iowa, where Brian Ferentz, the son of millionaire University of Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz, was discovered to be living in HUD subsidized housing, despite his father’s wealth and a $700-a-month university stipend for housing, according to the Des Moines Register newspaper.

But in the bid to free up housing for truly needy people, the federal government closed off opportunities for poor people, like my tenant, who pursued higher education in search of a better life.

“This is a categorically bad rule,” said Jim Schaafsma, a housing law attorney for the Michigan Poverty Law Program. “The rule was aimed at preventing dependent children of wealthy families from getting HUD assistance. But it can be too rigid.”

Schaafsma told me that because Congress gave HUD only 30 days to craft rules to crack down on the student housing abuse, the agency didn’t have time to adequately research the problem or solicit and weigh public comments that might have resulted in a better solution.

“The result is that we have a rule that is clearly and indisputably unfair.” Schaafsma said.

Luckily, my 22-year-old tenant’s college administrators were more understanding than HUD. The school allowed my tenant to study on his own in Alexandria and take final exams online, since he was only a semester away from completing his college degree. Since graduation, he has been working part time for Fairfax County.

In the meanwhile, HUD should revise the college student housing rule to make it means-tested or allow landlords to apply for waivers on a case-by-case basis.

Posted in Uncategorized