Gardening in Rented Lawns

Having finally figured out what the heck is going on with our lease to some moderate degree of certainty (broken only by the prior tenant who came home from Turkey at 1 am and climbed through a window, having found the locks changed, to be distraught at the fact that his stuff was all missing), we're mostly moved in. Still disorganized, but at least all sleeping here.

Yesterday, therefore, Michael and I tore up a section of the backyard to plant things in (having received permission from the management company's maintenance people when they came by to mow our lawn - in a very, "the less we have to mow, the happier we are!" sense). I commented that one of the benefits of putting a garden in a student rental's yard is that we can have a high degree of confidence, due to the condition of the "grass", that neither artificial fertilizers nor herbicides have been used on the ground recently. (On the other hand, we have no way of knowing what may have gotten into the lawn that probably shouldn't have.) Over the course of imparting my gardening knowledge to Michael (it didn't take long) and discussing tangentially related topics like composting human waste, we planted 12 tomatoes and 4 zucchini.

We then adjourned to the farmers' market, where Cara and I bought a flat of marigolds, and organic herbs (parsley, cilantro, basil, lime basil, hops (cascade), stevia, lavender) from the beautiful hippies, and then rode the bus home, where Cara planted 20 marigolds interspersed with the tomatoes and I dug up some more lawn to put in three more zucchini and found a largish pot to contain the hops. I've got tomatoes and zucchini seedlings left over for anybody who wants some, and still have to plant the rest of the herbs and obtain some mulch.

The $300k curb-cut?

Now that we're living in a neighborhood, I find myself noticing driveways. Notably, that each driveway means a loss of one on-street parking space, appropriating a piece of the public realm into the private. Regulations encourage this; every dwelling unit in A2 generally requires 2 off-street parking spaces, which require a curb-cut to get to. Every time you make a curb cut, though, you're subtracting one parking space that anybody can use, turning over regularly, to create two that only the owner can use. This is where there's a good argument for shared driveways or alley garages, or just plain not having driveways, in order to maximize the public utility.

Perhaps we could charge for curb-cuts at something approaching their value. It's obviously less in residential neighborhoods, but a downtown on-street parking space generates $300,000/year in revenues for local businesses. Does this mean that anybody who wants a curb cut downtown should pay $300k/year for what they're taking out of the public realm?

A better first step in A2, though, would be to get rid of the zoning requirement for off-street parking. Most homes, I imagine, would still have it, but there are those who would be perfectly happy to tear up their driveways for extra gardening space, parking their one car on the street, and the zoning shouldn't get in the way of that.

Detroit Deannexation

Dale posts on Detroit's annexation-crazed past, stating,

As people discuss city government (too big and bloated, they say), so it is with the geography of Detroit. The city has about 950,000 residents (and falling) and about 138 square miles within its boundaries. There is nary a walkable neighborhood in what used to be called the "City of Homes." The myriad problems of the city are compounded by its sprawling urban form. The city itself is sprawling.

Something I've pondered occasionally is the idea of Detroit de-annexing some of the territory around its edges. Split off a few square miles here or there to become a new inside-the-inner-ring suburb, or cede it to an adjoining, existing 'burb. Imagine if a chunk of vacant land on the Far East Side were transferred from Detroit to Grosse Pointe Park - a square mile of vacant land today would be a square mile of houses, condos, and stores a year from now, as the old line that, "they're not making any more of it," is momentarily waived.

This could be good for everyone, if done right - which is a large bundle of "ifs". Detroit gets to hand over some of the land that it just plain can't take care of anymore, and stop trying to maintain the infrastructure on it. The inner-ring suburbs, all currently suffering from Headlee-incuded build-out pains, would get land to create new ratables on, bouying them fiscally. Some arrangement would, ideally, be reached such that a share of the property tax collected on the ceded land is returned to the City of Detroit. If Proposal A covers change in value due to change in locational desirability (I don't know if this has ever been tested), then existing residents would be sheltered from sudden tax assessment hikes. Some of the demand for housing would be drawn inwards, rather than moving outwards, as new land became available in "nice" neighborhoods.

What would this require? Most likely, an Act of Legislature, a willing Detroit administration, and an interested pilot suburb. Anybody have Tom Barwin's number?

Real Estate final project: People's Place

I've uploaded the final version of my real estate class project, People's Place - I'll warn that its a reasonably large PDF, though.

General idea: ground level People's Food Co-op, below-grade dedicated food co-op parking, second floor public parking, 3rd-5th floors have 40 co-housing units (25% permanently affordable through a land trust), usable green / garden roof. Note no parking included for the residential - they can buy permits from the DDA or do without cars. They do live an elevator ride away from a full-scale grocery store . . .

It needs a real architect. And an engineer. And probably some significant revisions after those two get through with it. But, for now, it's a good proof of concept.

Adventures in Tenantland, day 0

We're all set. We pick up keys to half the house tomorrow, can move into everything by Monday, get half a month's rent on the whole place knocked off for our troubles, and have had some side concerns promised attention as well. There's just the little matter of getting the written version of this in order . . .

PLANetizen refuting Reason's New Urbanism arguments

I've only skimmed this so far, but it looks like something I want to devote attention to: Urban Myths, a PLANetizen op-ed addressing Reason's continued silliness over New Urbanism.

Adventures in Tenantland, day -2

As of yesterday, we've found out now from our Landlord that there are actually currently _three_ people in the house. One, we're assured, has been on a month-to-month lease that is now done, and should be gone. Another, says the Landlord, has a contract until August, but "is willing to be out in a few days," though we have no independant confirmation of this. The third is the woman we first met, who was most certainly not planning to leave, and thus needs to find another place that will take her dog and get moved before she can be out. The Landlord's initial offer to her, she says, was, "Why don't you just leave? You don't really want to stay here with a bunch of people who don't want you here, do you?"

Tragically, he's trying to use his bullying-gullible-undergrad tactics on a bunch of people who know better. When I talked to the existing tenant on the phone she said, "I don't know how long you've been in town, but I'm sick of the way landlords act around here, and it seems like it's just gotten worse since the Tenants' Union disappeared." She knows, and we know, that the Landlord is on very shaky legal ground here, possibly to the point of our contract being void because he signed for something he couldn't deliver. If we're working from a position where his getting our rent for the whole house - rather than our just going elsewhere - is dependant on his doing right by both the previous tenant and us, so much the better for us.

But we'll figure out some of those details when the previous tenant, Michael, and I hopefully meet with Student Legal Services today with our conflicting contracts and see what they think we can/should do.

Meanwhile, I've got a new project for the summer. Since the management company kindly provides a listing of all of their properties (about 60) on their website, it will be that much easier for me to go door-to-door practicing my community organizing skills and creating our own little Tenants' Union within this company's properties to ensure that they can't get away with anything, ever.

Adventures in Tenantland, day -4

Last night we visited Jorvik, with the management company's promise that, if the tenants were gone (their lease ended yesterday) and it had been properly cleaned, we could take possession immediately; otherwise, they'd be cleaning as late as Monday and we'd take possession on the real start date of our lease, Tuesday. The Landlord (shorthand throughout for "our representative from the management company") was dodgy all day, then finally agreed to meet us at the house in the evening so that we could walk through it - a few of us still hadn't been inside, and those who had had foggy mental maps from six months ago that they needed to refresh.

The house is a duplex, which we're leasing both halves of. The back half is basically empty, and it sounded like they could possibly clean it today and we could be in tomorrow or Monday. (Good, because that's the half Cara and I are to be in, and we risk bumping from our room at the co-op as early as tomorrow; others have a little more flexibility.) When we went to the front half, though, problems rapidly became apparant; there was obviously a lot of moving out left to be done. We tromped around, annoyed at the old tenants for being in our house past the end of their lease, a few hours earlier, with the Landlord complaining/apologizing about their not being gone, until we encountered one (and her dog) in her room. At this point, the story rapidly hit a Plot Twist.

The woman seemed pretty unhappy that we were tromping around her house and asking to come into her room with a tape measure. I think most of us generally thought she was being unreasonable, and the Landlord was acting as though she was totally in the wrong, until it came out that she actually has a lease for her room until August, and hadn't been told by the Landlord that anybody was moving into the front unit. Not only, therefore, was she not moved out, but she hadn't been planning on moving out for months, didn't have anywhere to go or plans for getting there, and had a legal right to stay. Poop. Apparently, she had made some comment, back in October, about intending to sublet out over the summer, and the Landlord had planned to make one of us (signing whole-unit leases) her subletter for her single-room lease. This had not been communicated to us, nor had the Landlord ever worked anything out in writing with her, and her October intent to sublet out had waned. Oops.

The Landlord seemed anxious to get us moving on, and promised that he would come back inside to talk with her; we quickly exchanged names and phone numbers to ensure that we could communicate directly and not just through the proven-hapless Landlord. Considering that, as far as we can tell, both sets of tenants are legally in the right, and the Landlord is legally f***ed, we wanted to make sure he was held to some reasonable remedy for the situation, and couldn't snow over or bully either of us. (Reasonable remedy, in my mind, would mean either giving her a better unit for her current rent and paying all of her costs of moving plus a little extra to make it worthwhile, or else doing the same for us. Since there are nine of us and one of her, I expect, logistically, he'll try to buy her off.)

All very fun. Now, off to a wedding in scenic Sterling Heights for the day.

Next week, in Jorvik!

The great Valhalla-to-Jorvik move-out resembles nothing so much as an evacuation before an invading army. Our lease at Jorvik begins on Tuesday, but new contracts at the co-op begin Sunday. We don't know how many people are going to show up wanting to move into their rooms here before Tuesday, but we have to disappear as soon as any do show. Additionally, there's a chance that Jorvik may be ready as soon as today; the old tenants are moving out today, and the landlord is going to inspect the house and, if it has been cleaned appropriately by the outgoing tenants, we may be able to move in as early as today. (In which case, what's that cleaning fee we paid for? We'll have to remember that when it's time to move out.)

So we're all packing under an air of uncertainty, fearing the word that the invaders have arrived _now_ and we have to be gone, and waiting for the word from Michael that the promised land is ready to receive us. (It's only appropriate that, on Sunday, Michael led our Seder, and now he's the contact for the landlord to tell us we may move in.

BANANAs with books

(BANANA = "Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything". A step beyond NIMBY's, who just don't want it in their backyard.)

On the new books shelf today at the Media Union, I snagged an R. Crumb compilation (I love that Arch/Planning shares a shelf with Art) and Citizen's Primer for Conservation Activism, by Judith Perlman. (Oooh boy. I hadn't even noticed the subtitle, "How to fight development in your community", until I pulled up amazon to link to. Figures.) The latter, so far, makes absolutely no indication that it is aware of regional perspectives, or that development can be a positive thing, and is entertaining in its apparent obliviousness to irony.

The author left a career as a lawyer, "then a business executive for the derivatives trading unit of an international bank" in Chicago in 1994 and moved to Cleveland, WI, a town of 1300 on the Lake Michigan shore, only to become embroiled in "conservation battles" against "Chicago developers" - defending the village against invading hordes from the city mere months after moving to the village, from the city. The best passage, though, is when she's outlining one of the three battles that she references throughout the rest of the book (emphasis mine):

The Hika neighborhood was clearly opposed to the incursion of condominiums owned by non-permanent residents, but members of the village board valued the potential tax base more than preservation of the neighborhood.

Although my heart was in Hika, my time was largely committed to Point Creek. My next-door neighbors, Otto and Laurel Wimpffen, agreed to take the lead. As neighbors to the site, they had the biggest interest and the most to lose, as well as certain legal rights afforded to contiguous landowners affected by a petition for rezoning. Otto and Laurel live in Chicago and use their cottage in Cleveland on weekends. However, they intend to retire here in a few years and are interested in issues affecting the community that would someday be their permanent home.

To sum up, a lawyer/investment banker who moved to a small town from Chicago and some weekend residents whose primary residence is in Chicago are joining forces to stop an evil developer from building evil houses that evil Chicagoans will come to live in. I don't disagree with the general premise of the book (and I use "general" very strongly here), that sometimes development is insensitive to its context and therefore inappropriate, but the author displays that classic attitude, that Ann Arbor Chelsea Princeton Cleveland, WI, was absolutely perfect, five minutes after she moved in, and that any changes from that point or new residents beyond her would ruin it.

Presumably, there were developments she didn't object to and was not involved in fighting against. I won't give her the benefit of the doubt, though, since anybody writing a handbook on stopping development has a significant responsibility to make clear to the readership that not all development is bad.