Saturday, September 25, 2021

Solving Our Housing Disgrace

Housing has been in the news. Roughly 500,000 are homeless any given evening. "The number of poor, renter households experiencing a severe housing cost burden (i.e., those paying more than 50 percent of their income toward housing) totaled 6,902,060 in 2016." ["The State of Homelessness in America."] "The United States may be facing the most severe housing crisis in its history. . . . [An] estimated 30–40 million people in America could be at risk of eviction in the next several months." [Emily Benfer et al., "The COVID-19 Eviction Crisis," Aspen Institute, August 7, 2020.]

What are our values and goals regarding the provision of housing?

Our international housing value and goal is expressed in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including . . . housing. . ..”

Presumably, we can agree to a standard at least as high as what the Iowa Legislature provides for animals.

Iowa Code Section 717B.3 provides the penalties for “animal neglect.” “A person commits animal neglect when the person . . . fails to provide the animal with . . . ventilated shelter reasonably sufficient to provide adequate protection from the elements and weather conditions . . .. The shelter must protect the animal from wind, rain, snow, or sun and have adequate bedding to provide reasonable protection against cold and dampness.”

Can we at least start there for humans as well?

Having agreed on the goal, the next step is to explore the alternative means of reaching it.

Private ownership. Most housing is created and provided by developers, contractors, and landlords who “own” the housing and price it at “what the market will bear” – that is, maximizing profits up to the amount beyond which the increase in price so diminishes demand that overall income is reduced. This system works well for the owners – and is satisfactory for the buyers and renters with incomes of $75,000 and up, unless a “housing shortage” drives prices beyond what they would be in a more competitive market. But it tends to shut out the homeless and those working for the minimum wage, or otherwise in the bottom 20% of the population as measured by both income and wealth.

Private-government blend. TIFs, Section 8 and other programs are designed to incentivize owners with cash payments from taxpayers. This model is used throughout our economy, including housing. Its limitations are (1) often a disproportionate focus on and benefit for the middle class rather than the low income and poor, (2) the amorphous standard of “affordable housing” can include making a $400,000 condo available for $200,000, and (3) little to no limitation or regulation regarding how much profit (from taxpayers’ money) goes to owners.

Government housing. While government housing programs must play a role, they have had their problems as well.

Churches, other non-profits, and organizations. It is a wonderful, community-building thing that individuals are willing to come together to fund, organize, and provide additional housing for those most in need. Building a Habitat for Humanity dwelling does create a house that becomes someone’s home, an improved community spirit, and for those who build it a worthwhile sense of having done some good in this world for others. But it cannot, alone, make much of a dent in the 500,000 homeless sleeping on the streets, and the millions more low-income folks sleeping in their cars.

Keeping on keeping on. Of course, we need to continue to do what we can with what we have while endeavoring to bring more attention, commitment, and resources to housing for all.

But the bottom-line reality and shame that hangs over our nation’s housing failure will stay with us until over a majority of Americans, and their elected officials, set a top priority goal of creating and providing decent shelter to every American – and then pursue that goal with the determination and perseverance we applied to winning World War II, or putting a man on the moon.

Failing to provide shelter to animals is a violation of law called “animal neglect.” Can we not agree that failing to provide shelter for humans, “human neglect,” is as worthy of legal protection?

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Monday, September 20, 2021

America's Democracy September 2021

From its birth, America's democracy has been under attack -- from a number of directions, by different (usually relatively small) groups of people, with varying results, up to and including our Civil War and the January 6, 2021, insurection.

So it's useful to take its pulse from time to time to see how it is doing.

I have written about this in the book Columns of Democracy, numerous newspaper columns and blog posts. But I've just watched the report by Stephen Schmidt and now believe it to be one of the best analyses I've heard or read -- no screaming or wild claims, "just the facts, ma'am," as Dragnet's Joe Friday used to say. []

Schmidt played major roles in the Republican party for years. Schmidt was communications director of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and the National Republican Congressional Committee, during President George W. Bush's administration he was a deputy assistant to the president and counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney. In 2004, he was a member of the senior strategic planning group, led by White House adviser Karl Rove, that ran President George W. Bush's re-election campaign and oversaw the reelection "war room". He was the White House strategist responsible for the U.S. Supreme Court nominations of Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts. He was campaign manager for the re-election campaign for California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and headed up the day-to-day operations of the McCain presidential campaign. []

I don't lay this out to make the case that he's a dues-paying member of the Trump Cult. He's not. He was in on the creation of The Lincoln Project -- an organization he has now left. [] He has also left the Republican Party.

Here's the video. Watch it and judge for yourself:

Amanpour and Company, PBS, "Lincoln Project’s Steve Schmidt “There’s a Battle for Control of MAGA Empire," posted Sept. 15, 2021,

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Defending Wilderness Parks

Defending Wilderness Parks

Nicholas Johnson
The Gazette, September 12, 2021, p. D2

Iowa City’s Hickory Hill Park wilderness was recently protected from developers by the City Council. Not all wilderness has been so lucky.

Why wilderness? Everyone has stories. Here’s mine.

Over 100 years ago President Teddy Roosevelt warned, “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone ….” He created the U.S. Forest Service and 150 national forests plus five national parks – 230 million acres in all.
[Photo credit: Nicholas Johnson; downhill trail from "The Rock," Hickory Hill Park, Iowa City, Iowa]

Did Iowa heed that warning? Apparently not.

Mark Edwards, after 30-years with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, retains his commitment. Eight years ago, in “A world Without Wildlife,” he wrote:

“We traded 93 percent of Iowa’s habitat for [agriculture], 6 percent for cities and roads. Two-thirds of [Iowa’s 36 million acres are] corn and beans. We killed the native prairies [leaving only] 30,000 acres [less than 0.1%]. All [Iowa’s] county, state and federal public land [combined] . . . amounts to a square less than 39 miles on a side. We have produced the most polluted surface water in America and continue to reduce habitat for most species."

One of my earliest memories of being four years old is lying on my back in the front yard on a windy summer day, looking up at the elms’ dancing canopy, speculating whether it was the moving limbs that made the wind, or the wind that moved the trees.

A few years later, when my parents refused to dictate “my” religion, and I came upon reference to Druids, who had sacred trees, I went looking for Iowa City’s Druid church. Finding none, that quest was abandoned.

As a member of one of the last law school classes permitted to take the bar exam before graduating, and with an awaiting federal clerkship in late August, I spent the summer visiting Teddy Roosevelt’s legacy: all the national parks west of the Mississippi.

Once in Washington, a few steps across a seldom-travelled street bordering my apartment, grew Glover-Archbold Park. Its 183 acres of wilderness and meandering stream ran north from Canal Road for 2-1/2 miles. It was my Walden Pond in the center of a city over three times the population of Des Moines. A place for a daily run, to meditate, to experience a forest through 365 days of sun, wind, rain and snow.

Nor is this the only wilderness area inside Washington. Rock Creek Park is 1700 acres. Glover-Archbold doesn’t even make the list of “12 Top Washington, D.C., Parks.”

Similarly, New York’s Central Park, envisioned in the 1840s and opened in 1858, is only the fifth largest in that city.

Developers seeking profit from a violation of Hickory Hill Park is bad enough. But can you imagine the billions of dollars 1700 acres in Washington or 843 acres in Manhattan would be worth to developers? And yet, to borrow from the Broadway show tune, “they’re still here” – because they had defenders.

We owe our wilderness no less.
Nicholas Johnson, Iowa City, enjoys Linn and Johnson Counties’ wilderness areas. Contact:


Hickory Hill Park and Iowa City City Council. Rylee Wilson, “Iowa City Council changes direction, votes no on Hickory Hill development; After voting to approve a controversial rezoning two times, the motion failed on its final consideration,” The Gazette, July 27, 2021,

Iowa City. Hickory Hill Park is 190 acres; Iowa City 26.14 sq mi (Iowa 56,272 sq mi) “Iowa City, Iowa,”,,_Iowa#Metropolitan_area

President Theodore Roosevelt. “Theodore Roosevelt,” National Park Service, (includes quote); and see (“Conservation” quote)

Iowa wilderness. Mark Edwards, "A World Without Wildlife," Ames Tribune, Nov. 29, 2013, ("We are the most biologically altered state in North America. We traded 93 percent of Iowa’s habitat for agricultural purposes, along with 6 percent for cities and roads. Two-thirds of our roughly 36 million acres are covered in just two annual plants, corn and beans. We killed the native prairies and have only 30,000 acres left. It would be hard to do a better job.//All county, state and federal public land in Iowa placed all together amounts to a square less than 39 miles on a side, and all these areas are losing native species.//We have produced the most polluted surface water in America and continue to reduce habitat for most species.")

Druids. “Celtic Sacred Trees,” Wikipedia, (“Many types of trees found in the Celtic nations are considered to be sacred.” “Pliny the Elder describes a festival on the sixth day of the moon where the druids climbed an oak tree, cut a bough of mistletoe, and sacrificed two white bulls as part of a fertility rite.” With reproduction of the 1845 painting “The Druid Grove.”)

Clerkships. U.S. Court of Appeals Judge John R. Brown, 1958-59; U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black, 1959-60.

Washington, D.C. Parks.
Washington. “Glover-Archbold Park,” (183 acres)

“Glover-Archbold Park,” Birders’ Guide to Maryland,” (stretching over 2.5 miles from Canal Road in Georgetown north to Van Ness Street)

“Washington, D.C.,”,,_D.C. (“The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the district's population was 705,749 as of July 2019, an increase of more than 100,000 people compared to the 2010 United States Census.”)

Des Moines population, “Des Moines, Iowa,”,_Iowa (“The city's population was 214,133 as of the 2020 census.”)

Rock Creek Park, 1700 acres “12 Top Washington DC Parks,” Washington DC Sightseeing Tours,

DC [as distinguished from "Washington"] has 900 acres of parks - District of Columbia Department of Parks and Recreation,

Washington, DC 43, 766 acres. “DC’s 43,766 acres,”
Central Park, NYC. “Central Park,” (843 acres; envisioned 1840s, opened to public 1858)

“They’re still here.” Stephen Sondheim, “I’m Still Here,” “Follies” (1971) (“Good times and bum times/I’ve seen them all and, my dear/I’m still here/Plush velvet sometimes/Sometimes just pretzels and beer/But I’m here/ ….”)

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