Sunday News: From the Editorial pages


BIDEN'S OFFSHORE WIND PLAN A BOOST FOR NC: President Joseph Biden announced a plan to generate 30-gigawatts of east coast offshore wind power by the end of the decade. That would be enough to power more than 10 million homes. He will speed up permitting, provide low-interest loans, fund improvements to ports and pump more money into research and development resulting in the creation of “thousands of jobs.” This announcement comes a month after the state Department of Commerce released details of a study that showed the state was in a strong position to capture a good bit of the more than $100 billion that is expected to be invested in developing offshore wind over the next 15 years. Not only is there the potential from developing prime wind energy resources off the state’s coast, but North Carolina hosts researchers, manufacturers, equipment installers and others poised to address supply chain to developers throughout the east coast.

MY SON WAS KILLED IN THE UNC CHARLOTTE SHOOTING. CAN WE STOP THIS CRISIS?: Riley, my first child, died the way he lived – looking out for others. Riley was shot and killed that day, as he tackled the gunman. One other student was murdered, and four others were wounded. My life, our family, the victims’ families, and the whole UNC-Charlotte community will never be the same. Like so many others before me, I’ve taken my trauma and turned it to advocacy. And right now, Sens. Burr and Tillis, and their colleagues in the U.S. Senate can protect lives and communities across our nation and honor those killed and wounded by gun violence by acting on strengthening our background checks laws to ensure that people who shouldn’t have guns can’t buy them at a gun show, from someone they meet on the internet, or from a total stranger with no background check and no questions asked. It’s a common-sense, constitutional policy that’s supported by 93% of Americans, including 89% of Republicans and 89% of gun owners. While there is no one law that can diminish or wipe out gun violence on its own, the collective effect of stronger gun laws can change what is happening in households, schools, and communities all over our country. In the moment when Riley knew that he was facing his last breaths, he chose to act to save lives. Our elected leaders, by working together and securing federal action on background checks to safeguard the well-being of our families and communities, can save lives as well.

PENALTIES FOR CORPORATE CRIMES NEED TO BE MORE THAN FINES: Earlier this week the owners of a former drug testing lab in Charlotte agreed to pay more than $7 million to settle federal charges that they defrauded taxpayers with phony medical claims involving urine tests. Federal prosecutors said the lab offered kickbacks to doctors in return for sending patient urine samples for drug testing. The lab then billed the federal Medicare program for senior citizens, for millions of dollars in false claims. How many people are sitting in North Carolina prisons and jails for violations of the law related to opioid addiction and drug abuse? About 20 percent of those who enter state prison are there due to either drug possession or intent to sell. Yet there’s almost never prison time for nearly all white-collar criminals, whether the operators of the Charlotte lab or top executives with banks like Wells Fargo (which was forced to pay $3 billion following a criminal and civil probe and admitting to fraudulent business practices that included creation of millions of savings and checking accounts without customers knowledge). Regardless of whether the perpetrator is on a street corner or in an executive suite corner office, those who do the crime should serve the time.

A PARALYZED DEMOCRACY CAN'T PROTECT US: In a period of just a few weeks, our nation has been reminded yet again of its vulnerability to mass gun violence — and the shameful powerlessness of our political system to do anything about it. The killing of at least four people, including a 9-year-old boy, in Orange, Calif., last Wednesday barely merited front-page treatment. We now see slaughter as routine. On March 16, a 21-year-old gunman killed eight people, six of them Asian women, in a rampage at three Atlanta-area spas. Less than a week later, another gunman, also 21, killed 10 people at a grocery store in Boulder, Colo. These mass shootings are part of the gruesome daily death toll from gun violence. In 2020, according to the Gun Violence Archive, 19,384 Americans were killed by guns and another 24,156 used guns to commit suicide. And the urgency level in Washington? It sure seems like zero. Well, not quite zero. Five days before the Atlanta shootings, the House passed two bills to expand and strengthen background checks for gun buyers. They were hardly revolutionary proposals, but they would do something useful. They’re also popular. A Morning Consult/Politico poll released last month found that 84 percent of registered voters supported requiring background checks on all gun sales, including 77 percent of Republicans. But in that other branch of our national legislature, the place where good bills go to die, nothing has happened because some senators think even these modest-as-modest-could-be proposals are too much — and because the filibuster rules mean that it would take only 41 votes to kill them. Background checks are just one of many issues on which the wishes of a substantial majority are ignored by governing institutions. The filibuster, gerrymandering, anti-voter rules such as those recently enacted in Georgia — and aggressive conservative judicial activism — have undercut both voting rights and limits on the power of money in politics.

WHERE ARE THE LEAST FORTUNATE AMERICANS SUPPOSED TO LIVE?: In 2019, according to Harvard’s 2020 State of the Nation’s Housing report, 37.1 million households — or roughly 30 percent of all American households — were “housing cost burdened,” meaning that they spent 30 percent or more of their income on housing. Of those, 17.6 million were “severely cost burdened,” spending half or more of their income on housing. Renters were more cost burdened than homeowners, and low-income renters were in the worst position of all. Eighty-one percent of renters earning less than $30,000 a year were cost burdened, and most were severely cost burdened. Low-incomes and stagnant wages are one part of the problem. Rising rents and home prices are the other. And behind those rising costs lie a severe shortage of homes, affordable or otherwise. Across the country, the number of homes for sale has plummeted, from a total of nearly one and a half million in 2016 to 468,000 in 2021. “Much of the housing market has gone missing,” my Times colleagues Emily Badger and Quoctrung Bui wrote in February: “On suburban streets and in many urban neighborhoods, across large and midsize metro areas, many homes that would have typically come up for sale over the past year never did.” The United States is also building substantially fewer homes than it did. This is especially true in the rental market, where there is a serious shortage of affordable housing. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the United States has a shortage of 6.8 million homes for extremely low-income renters. The fact of the matter is that any serious attempt to reduce inequality and increase workers’ share of income has to make housing a priority. High costs are a tax on workers, paid to landlords, banks and affluent homeowners who reap the gains of tight supply and high demand. It’s that last point that raises an important question about the politics of the administration’s housing proposal. The college-educated, high-income voters who helped put Biden in office are also some of the same voters who oppose most new affordable housing construction, especially when it might be near them — voters whose supposed liberal openness does not extend to their own neighborhood.


JESSICA SPARROW: PASS THE SAVE ACT FOR NURSE PRACTITIONERS: I am a psychiatric nurse practitioner in Raleigh and own my practice. I pay a “supervising” physician to sign a piece of paper twice a year so I can remain in compliance with the nursing board. That physician has never been to my practice or participated in the care I provide in any meaningful way. If passed by the state legislature, the 2021 SAVE Act would cut outdated red tape for nurse practitioners and bring North Carolina in line with long-established national standards. Without it, the care I provide is in jeopardy. I have new patients scheduled as far out as May 17, waiting for mental health care. I’d love to hire another nurse practitioner but worry about finding a supervising physician for him/her and the cost of, yet again, satisfying this outdated regulation. This is a small business issue and about access to care. Adopting the SAVE Act solves both issues.

JOE MORAN: AMERICANS OWN WAY TOO MANY GUNS: There is a correlation between the prevalence of guns and the high number of gun deaths and injuries in our country. According to the 2017 Small Arms Survey, U.S. civilians make up about 4% of the world’s population but possess 46% of the world’s firearms. That’s about 393 million civilian-owned firearms. With that many guns around it’s inevitably going to be easier for a mentally ill person, an enraged driver, a person with a business grudge, or a self-styled “patriot” bent on righting political wrongs, to access a weapon and commit violence. As long as lawmakers and judges hold that this many guns in our midst is perfectly normal, and that the high number of gun deaths is an acceptable price to pay for private citizens amassing this many weapons, then their public prayers and laments ought to be taken with a huge grain of salt.

ANNE CASSEBAUM: IT'S TIME TO END AMERICAN ASPIRATIONS TO EMPIRE: March 20 marked the 18th anniversary of our war on Iraq. It’s time for Americans to ask how our empire and its wars are working. We prefer to talk about protecting vital interests, nation-building, human rights, anything but empire. But empire is what our endless wars and our 800-plus military bases are about, and why though Iraqis have voted for them to leave, 2,500 troops remain. Has sending most of our taxes to the Pentagon to maintain an empire worked for us? Our communities feel the drain. Only a few profit from war and weapons production. Are we safer for attacking others? The State Department’s advisory against travel to Iraq due to “terrorism, kidnapping, armed conflict and Mission Iraq’s limited capacity to provide support to U.S. citizens” just scratches the surface. Is our democracy stronger? Empire wars have brought illegal spying, government by executive orders, extraordinary rendition, denial of habeas corpus and secrecy. The Constitution put war decisions with Congress, not the president, to guard against the urge for foreign domination. Will the Biden Administration pull back from empire? Secretary of State Antony Blinken, an avid supporter of the Iraq War, announced that the world doesn’t organize itself without American leadership and that he wants to reclaim that leadership. Images of millions displaced, cities in rubble and Abu Ghraib come to mind as the continued hype of Russia and China as enemies and the bombing inside Syria signal the empire will continue. And it will, unless we pressure Congress to repeal the blanket Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) and to cut the Pentagon budget. Congress must insist on its responsibility to check the use of war. We can be a great country or be an empire. Our founders knew we could not be both.



On affordable housing and misconceptions

First off, let's make one thing abundantly clear: $1,200 per month for rent (or mortgage) is not affordable housing, regardless of what your statistics may tell you.

The median annual household income for Raleigh is about $67,000, and 60% of that (most affordable housing efforts use similar metrics) is over $40,000 per year. Even making $15 per hour only generates $31,200 per year. The gap between what we think is affordable and what actually is affordable is so wide Evel Knievel would never have contemplated jumping it.

A big part of that problem is personal prejudice. I'm not talking about elected officials looking down their noses at those on the lower rungs, although that does come into play sometimes. I'm talking about the inability of somebody earning $85,000 (or $185,000) per year of even grasping a tenuous thread of just how bad our income inequality has become. It simply doesn't register, in the minds of way too many of our elected officials. Call it a blind spot if you will, but it exists. And it has colored our affordable housing debates for too long.

$1,200 per month equates to $14,400 per year. That's over 46% of that $15 per hour wage worker's annual income. Calling that "severely cost burdened" is accurate, but it also has a slight stench of academic indifference. These people need more than a research category, they need a damn roof over their head.

Understand, the market won't provide that. Incentives to developers to dedicate x% of their units to an affordable housing formula that is flawed from the beginning won't provide that. Even providing government subsidies to take some of the sting out of that $1,200 per month won't solve the problem, not for very long, anyway. Because developers are still getting a sweet return on their investment, so they will continue to build for higher prices.

So, what are our options? Preserving naturally-occurring affordable housing, an issue that Raleigh activists are focusing on now, is an important step. Taking a hard look at property taxes is a critical part of that. Gentrification has pushed property values up, so somebody living in a modest home in a "prime" neighborhood now has to cough up another chunk of that $31,200 to cover a tax burden that's equivalent to a McMansion in the suburbs. And if you're renting that modest home? Forget about it. The landlord/owner is probably already planning a tear-down and replacement that will sell for $400,000.

But preserving those units here and there, just like converting outbuildings into granny flats, simply won't provide the sheer volume of affordable housing that is needed. Break out your smelling salts, because I'm about to cross the Rubicon: We need government-constructed, it-won't-pay-for-itself housing projects. I'm not talking about Section 8 housing, where the government pays the private-sector landlord part of the rent. I'm talking about (local) government using its borrowing ability to purchase, build, and manage the property, charging truly affordable rents. Like $500 per month, and to hell with what "the market" would dictate.

Of course it would lose money every year. But government is not a business, it is a (collective) effort by society to provide structure and security, and a certain level of quality of life. For everybody, not just x% of the population.