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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Channeling the Ghost of Anatole France

Around a hundred years ago, Anatole France, famous French anti-authoritarian, said, "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." I don't think I have ever encountered a more succinct summation of the situation of so much of humanity - and the attitudes used to justify it in capitalist societies that pay so much lip service to equality before the law.

That is, until today. The East Valley Tribune ran an article by John Leptich about the booming homeless population in Scottsdale. For those who don't know, Scottsdale is one of the Valley's richest cities. In a recent census, the number of recorded homeless in the city jumped from 69 last year to 104 this year. The number certainly underestimates the reality, but the trend is probably right.
On Wednesday, a homeless man named Jerry, who didn’t give his last name, sat on a bench in Chaparral Park. He said he moved to Scottsdale to be with relatives five years ago and lost his job in 2004. At 56 and in declining health, the former Detroit resident said Scottsdale treats him and others like him well. Jerry, a former tool-and-die maker, said he’d like to find a job but hasn’t been successful.

“As long as we don’t bother nobody, we’re OK,” Jerry said. “The cops usually leave us alone.”
Thanks to rising global temperatures, warm, dry weather in Phoenix has permitted some increased autonomy for Valley homeless, making it easier for them to sleep outside rather than submitting to the regulated, crowded and often dehumanizing shelter and social services system.

Scottsdale detective Sam Bailey echoed Jerry's sentiments. Scottsdale cops treat homeless folks like any other resident, he claimed. Of course, being treated equally isn't always the best solution to homelessness in a capitalist society, as Bailey unwittingly observed.
“It’s a violation to sleep in the park for anybody, not just the homeless,” Bailey said. “Our officers give them cards with numbers they can call for help and ask them to move on. No tickets are given out. They usually comply and find somewhere else to go.”
It's like the ghost of Anatole France channeled through a cop's mouth.

But, there's really not a housing shortage in Phoenix. In fact, yesterday a national research firm that does analysis for the industry declared the Valley to be number one in the nation for single family housing starts. Some studies disagree on the actual number, but everyone agrees that there were more than 60,000 housing starts in town last year. About the same as last year. There are some signs of slowing, but when you add in the 20,000 homes for sale right now, that's a lot of available homes. The rental vacancy rate in town is above ten percent.

And it's not a shortage of money that's keeping the homeless out of doors. Ira Fulton, CEO of Fulton Homes (older, in better health than Jerry and likewise forbidden from sleeping in public parks), donated $100 million dollars to Arizona State University last year. The housing industry, and rising home prices, is making some people very, very rich. And that's not all of it. It would be rude of me to neglect to mention that this gigantic donation of stolen money comes on top of the $58 million dollars Ira has already donated to ASU. This guy has a lot of money.
If all goes as Fulton hopes, the College of Education will be renamed the Mary Lou Fulton School of Education, after his wife, who graduated from the college.

"That's her Christmas present from me," Fulton said. "What can you buy your wife who has everything? I'm going to get her a college in her name."
Ira made a special point of singling out ASU President Michael Crow as a primary reason for the donation:
"I feel so fortunate to have that man running our university," Fulton said. "I don't give this kind of money away to people. This guy deserves it, earns it, and he'll invest it properly."

Crow described the gift as "unprecedented and magnificent."

"It's tremendous and an important recognition of their understanding that the university needs to be built by the entire community, not just the government," Crow said Friday.
Valley elites love Crow, and he does indeed stand out - not just for the increases in tuition that he has presided over, increasingly pushing college in Arizona out of the reach of working class families, but also for his drive to focus the university increasingly on high technology research. And, then there's the CIA connection. Crow headed up In-Q-Tel Inc., the Agency's venture capital arm.

But back to Ira. Fulton also gives his millions, stolen from the community through exorbitant home prices and surplus value, to the Mormon Church, where he's a major contributor as well. "I'd be crazy at 75 to be working this hard if I didn't have a cause," he said.

If I may briefly digress, housing isn't the only way to make money in Arizona. Raytheon, the biggest missile manufacturer in the world - and home town favorite - reported that it's "fourth-quarter profit rose 13 percent on higher sales of surveillance gear and defense electronics for the war in Iraq. The company also raised its 2006 profit forecast."

Mary Anne Sudol, a New York analyst said, “There was strength across the board, and Raytheon has been insatiable about expanding profit margins.” Insatiable.

Meanwhile, like the weapons industry, downtown building business is booming (pardon the pun). The influx of yuppies and wannabes, following on a wave of artist-led and ongoing city-subsidized gentrification, has brought wealthy developers to downtown. Not to provide good housing or services for the area's poor and working class residents (some of whom were homeless), but to drive them out and replace them with lofts, condos, coffee shops and high priced dinner joints.

The Arizona Republic today reported today on San Diego developer Joe Pinsonneault's plans to build a 30-storey tall, $120 million condo project downtown.
Residential developers are transforming Central Avenue from an office hub to an "urban living" haven. They are motivated by a new interest in city living, a planned light-rail line that runs along the street and by the quick profit potential of building and selling condos compared with building and owning an office project.
The more than 300 condos will sell for between $600,000 and $700,000 each.

The as yet unfinished light rail, a heavily subsidized and expensive project aimed almost exclusively at attracting yuppies downtown, has begun to succeed already. When Thomas Gorny decided to relocate his web-hosting business from Santa Monica to Phoenix, the downtown housing and future light rail counted for a lot.

"I found that a lot of developers and IT people don't like to drive," said Gorny, chief executive officer of iPowerWeb Inc.
He hasn't plumbed his employees' psyches to understand why, but he estimates 20 percent of his 120 workers carpool, take the bus or bike to work, anything to avoid the car commute.

When rail opens in late 2008, Gorny figures he'll be perfectly positioned at 919 E. Jefferson St. to use the rail as a perk for his transit-loving staff.

Light rail has appeal to economic-development officials, who are banking on the electric-powered train to transform central Phoenix.

Bo Martinez, program manager for transit-oriented development for Phoenix's Downtown Development Office, said that $600 million in private and public investment is expected along the 20-mile rail line in the next few years. That includes such big projects as the downtown campus of Arizona State University, such housing developments as the Portland Place condominiums and relatively modest office projects such as iPowerWeb.
The masturbatorily self-identified "knowledge worker" demands public subsidy - and that is exactly what she gets.

Of course, one of the reasons so many homeless people have had to move out of their old haunts is precisely because of downtown gentrification. Heavy-handed policing and the consolidation of homeless people and services away from development has provided the impetus for many people, not just the homeless, to move. Unsurprisingly, and despite the defensive protestations of the elite class to the contrary, Phoenix recently scored a spot on the "20 meanest" cities for homeless folks in the nation. Last summer, the heat and a lack of services that the indigent want to use combined to kill many of the Valley's homeless population.

Some things never change.

But, police harassment aside, Jerry finds the ramadas in Scottsdale parks great places to sleep. And, as for any apparent ironies that might arise from being homeless in one of the Valley's richest cities, he'll have none of it.

“To me, it don’t matter. It could still be Detroit,” he said. “Being a rich city don’t mean nothing. We didn’t pick to be here because of that. We don’t have money, no matter where we are.”


Anonymous Alia said...

Thank you for the link to the "$30,000 Millionaire" article. Now I can be more wary when choosing potential suitors!

Fri Feb 03, 05:41:00 PM 2006  

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