Friday, September 29, 2017



For many years, a common complaint has been that the provisions of the Federal Internal Revenue Code, and most state income tax codes, favor homeownership in the form of major tax deductions for mortgage interest and property taxes. With the exception of those who reside in government housing of some type (subsidized apartments, public college dormitories, military housing, jails and penitentiaries), the homeless, almost all U.S. residents either live in a home they, or their family, owns or is paying off the mortgage, or they rent. Therefore, when looking at tax subsidies for home ownership, the valid analysis is not just to total these subsidies, but to compare home ownership subsidies to the tax benefits to owners of residential rental property – and, more to the point, the renters who live in them.
Although the widespread conventional wisdom is that homeowners get huge tax benefits, the reality is that renters actually do far better. Typical is this statement by Kenneth Harvey in the LA Times
“In all, homeowners will split about $102 billion in direct federal largess (in fiscal 2002). Renters, meanwhile, will receive zero in direct federal transit subsidies.”
(See also these from the Brookings Institution and Matthew Desmond in the New York Times.)
The key in the above is the word “direct.”
Almost every homeowner, and many non-homeowners, is very aware of deductions for home mortgage interest and property taxes from Federal income tax returns. Further, they know that residential renters do not have mortgages, nor do they receive property tax bills, so they have nothing to deduct on their tax returns.
But it simply never occurs to many people (particularly renters) that their landlords do have these tax deductions, and many more – and that the resulting tax savings to the landlord are largely passed through to the renters through lower rents. There are even CPA’s that get caught up in this error.
Yes, homeowners can deduct mortgage interest and property taxes – and virtually nothing else in most cases (Note 1). In contrast, landlords can deduct these, plus depreciation on the capital cost of the property and, depending on the details of the rental agreements, insurance, maintenance and repairs, most other taxes and assessments, utilities, and many other valid business expenses.
I’m going to focus on the third of a recent series by Devon Marisa Zuegel (Note 2), “Exempting Suburbia – How Suburban Sprawl Gets Special Treatment in our Tax Code.” I’m using Ms. Zuegel’s work because she puts so many of the usual flawed arguments in one place.
This paper has three major headings; the first is: “Homeowners get major tax breaks” – which is, of course, true, but the comparable, even more favorable, tax treatment of residential rental property and rents is absent from her paper.
The second, “Profits on home sales is not taxed;” is, as Ms. Zuegel acknowledges, not totally correct. Under current law, capital gains on sales of homes where the taxpayers meet the requirements are not taxed on the first $250,000 gain for singles and $500,000 for couples. She also points out that, pre-1997, taxes on sales of homes could be delayed – or, in many cases, even eliminated entirely – by reinvesting in a home of equal or higher value.
However, for landlords, the art and science of minimizing taxes on disposal of residential rental property is very well developed. For example, a “Section 1031 like-kind exchange” works almost exactly as the pre-1997, buy-a-more-expensive-home-and-don’t-pay-any-taxes provision – except that, it applies to residential rental property. The residential real estate portion of this provision is still very in place and is well utilized.
Also, if the “active” owner of a residential rental property sells at a loss, that is tax-deductible; if a personal home is sold at a loss; no such benefit is available.
The third heading is “New construction is a tax shelter.” Again, true, but, the points above clearly make residential rental property a far bigger tax shelter than home ownership.
Interesting, Ms. Zuegel leads here with a quote from Brookings fellow Steven M. Rosenthal in the New York Times, “There’s probably no special interest that’s more favored by the existing tax doe than real estate.” Somehow, she misses that this article is entirely about the real estate “industry” – such as the likes of the National Multifamily Housing Council – the trade association of apartment owners, managers, developers, and lenders – with only one brief mention of home ownership in the article.
One very important point to keep in mind is that the value of tax deduction to a taxpayer is directly proportional to the taxpayer’s marginal tax rate and that while there are certainly home owners in the highest tax brackets, there are also many in lower ones. This explains why many owners of residential rental property covet it since they generally are in high tax brackets where the deductions for these rental properties have major value.
What is even more important is that many renters pay little, if anything, in Federal and state income taxes and, even for those that do, many do not itemize, and/or are in low tax brackets, and would receive little, if any, benefit from tax deductions on their own returns. In contrast, if their high-tax rate landlord gets major benefits from such deductions, the renters get a major share of these benefits passed on to them through lowered rents.
An interesting comparative perspective can be found in a recent paper by Margaret Morales for the Sightline Institute, “Why Seattle Builds Apartments, But Vancouver, BC, Builds Condos:”
“When it comes to condominium development, Cascadia’s two largest cities couldn’t be more different. Last year nearly 60 percent of new housing starts in the city of Vancouver, BC, were condominiums; meanwhile, Seattle saw no new condominium buildings open. And that’s not changing anytime soon: less than 10 percent of all building slated for downtown Seattle in the next three years will be condos. What’s the difference—why the blossoming of condominium construction in one city and the almost complete dearth in the other? The short answer is economics. In Vancouver, apartments are saddled with an unfavorable tax code, making condos the more lucrative multi-family housing investment even despite high rental demand. In Seattle’s skyrocketing rental market, one that’s climbed even faster than the condo market in recent years, apartment buildings are much more financially attractive, while condos come with bigger risks and, typically, lower returns.”
While Ms. Morales discusses other factors that impact the huge difference between home ownership and residential construction offerings in Seattle and Vancouver, it is very clear that she sees the difference between U.S. and Canadian tax treatments of these as the most important factor.
The conventional wisdom is that the U.S. (and most state) tax codes provide great advantages to U.S. homeowners, advantages that can be seen as subsidies of home ownership. While this is certainly true, it is, unfortunately, very rare that the authors and advocates who make such statements take their analysis any further to the real – the whole – truth: that the U.S. tax code greatly favors almost all owners of real estate – and that, in many cases, there are far greater advantages for owners of residential real estate in the form of many more deductions, of greater value, than the mortgage interest and real estate taxes that a homeowner can utilized.
Also, because of these greater tax advantages, residential real estate has been a major tax-advantaged investment for high-income taxpayers for decades, often combining positive cash flow, little or no current income tax payments, potential for long-term gains, and, frequently, opportunities to delay, minimize, or even escape taxes on ultimate disposal. Because an effective real estate market demands that the major share of these tax advantages be passed on to tenants in the form of lower rents, much of these residential real estate tax breaks ultimately wind up favoring tenants – who are often in such low income tax brackets, if they pay income taxes at all, that they would receive no significant advantages if they directly paid real estate loan interest, property tax, depreciation, insurance, utilities, or any of the other expenses that are deducted – in a major way, for the tenants’ benefit – by their landlords.
Yes, homeowners get significant tax breaks – but renters are generally the beneficiaries of far more.
Note 1: Yes, a fire, earthquake, flood, etc. could produce a major casualty loss for tax purposes, this is hardly a common situation anticipated by homeowners when they entered into home ownership.
Note 2: Ms. Zuegel indentifies herself as a software engineer at Affirm, a section leader for introductory programming classes at Standard, and Editor Emeritus of The Stanford Review, who blogs on a number of topics: This is the third of a three-part series by Ms. Zuegel. The first two, “Subsidizing Suburbia – A Forgotten History of How the Government Created Suburbia” and “Financing Suburbia – How Government Mortgage Policy Determined Where You Live,” are both accessible through the above link. While the primary focus of these is an exposé of U.S. governmental actions which Ms. Zuegel believes have led to the undesirable result of American suburbia, my instant purpose is on the impacts of tax policy on home ownership vs. renting; therefore, the relative pro’s and con’s of suburbia is a topic left for another day.
Tom Rubin has over 35 years in government surface transportation, including founding the transit industry practice of what is now Deloitte & Touche, LLP, and growing it to the largest of its type. He has served well over 100 transit agencies, MPO’s, State DOT’s, the U.S. DOT, and transit industry suppliers and associations. He was the CFO of the Southern California Rapid Transit District, the third largest transit agency in the U.S. and the predecessor of Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Citizen Marin Candidate Forum, Novato, Fairfax, San Anselmo, & Sausalito

A beagle sings Bluegrass.

New York City Mayor Attacks Private Property, Praises Socialism

New York City Mayor Attacks Private Property, Praises Socialism

By Alexandra DeSanctis — September 6, 2017

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Here are the 20 most expensive places in America to die

Here are the 20 most expensive places in America to die

Published: Sept 27, 2017 1:02 p.m. ET

President Trump’s proposed tax plan would eliminate the federal estate tax

Some U.S. states have punitive ‘death’ taxes.


With the current relatively generous federal estate tax exemption of $5.49 million for 2017 — doubled if you are married — most folks are free of any federal estate tax worries. Also, President Trump’s proposed tax plan would eliminate the federal estate tax. And 30 U.S. states have no estate or inheritance taxes. That’s the good news, at least for those who don’t want to pay it.

The bad news? Some 20 states and the District of Columbia currently impose their own estate or inheritance taxes, or both, for 2017, and some of them have exemptions well below the federal amount. If you live in one of these jurisdictions, you could be exempt from the federal estate tax but still exposed to a significant state death tax hit.

On Wednesday, a group of 130 individuals — including Robert Crandall, the former chairman of American Airlines AAL, -0.61% Arnold Hiatt, former CEO of Striderite and Leo Hindery Jr., former CEO of AT&T T, -0.27%released a letter saying estate tax is only paid by a small fraction of the wealthiest Americas. “Now during a time of stunning wealth inequality, Congress wants to abolish the tax,” Morris Pearl, chairman of the group and former managing director at BlackRock.

Don’t miss: Retiring? How to find a tax-smart state to live in

Given state-level estate taxes, however, you may want to be careful where you die. If you are considering moving to avoid state death taxes, be sure to consider all the potential tax hits in the new state, including those that will pertain while you are still alive. Finally, if you decide to move to a lower-tax state, be sure to do what it takes to establish that you are no longer a legal resident of your old higher-tax state. Otherwise, your old state may claim that you still owe taxes back there.

14 states and D.C. have their own estate taxes

The lowest maximum estate tax rates are 12% (Connecticut and Maine). The highest rate is 20% (Washington). The other states and D.C. all charge a 16% maximum rate.

For 2017, 14 states plus the District of Columbia have their own estate taxes (as opposed to inheritance taxes). Like the federal estate tax, these state-level estate taxes are based on the entire value of your estate in excess of the applicable exemption. Exemptions vary from a low of $1 million to a high of $5.49 million.

Delaware, Hawaii, and Maine have $5.49 million estate tax exemptions for 2017, which is the same as the federal exemption. New York’s exemption is $5.25 million. So in these four states, there is much less risk of unanticipated estate tax exposure. That said, wealthier folks in those states can be exposed to both federal and state estate taxes. Massachusetts, Oregon and D.C. have exemptions of only $1 million.

What Is the Public's Opinion on Tax Cuts?

Six states have inheritance taxes

For 2017, six states impose inheritance taxes, which are assessed on the value of specific inherited assets. In contrast, estate taxes are assessed on the entire value of an estate in excess of the applicable exemption. Another big difference is that inheritance taxes are paid by the person who inherits the money or property while estate taxes are paid by the deceased person’s estate before making distributions to heirs. The last big difference is that inheritance tax exemptions are zero or negligible.

Some more good news: property passing to a surviving spouse is exempt from state inheritance taxes, and only Nebraska and Pennsylvania tax inheritances passing to children and grandchildren.

Maryland and New Jersey charge both an estate tax and an inheritance tax. In both states, the inheritance tax exemption is zero and the maximum tax rate is 16% (in addition to the 16% maximum estate tax rate).

Thankfully, the federal and state tax rates are not just stacked on top of each other — because state inheritance and estate taxes are subtracted from the value of your taxable estate in calculating the federal estate tax. Despite the subtractions, you can wind up with some pretty horrific effective combined tax rates, if you add up federal and state estate taxes, and state inheritance taxes. The federal estate tax rate is a flat 40% on the value of your estate in excess of the exemption ($5.49 million for 2017).

Editor's Note:  Senator Scott Wiener (of SB35 fame) is considering putting a bill for an estate tax in California if the estate tax is repealed with the Federal Government. 

Palo Alto "gets real" with Government Services and Pensions. (Time for Marinwood to do the same)

City pension woes hit home as shortfall hits $405 million

Daily Post correspondent
As the city of Palo Alto looks for ways to reduce its massive employee pension shortfall, residents might soon start feeling the impact, officials said.
City services could be reduced. Pay and benefits for city employees might be affected. And the pension gap could influence how often the city hires outside contractors to perform services.
The city doesn’t pay pension benefits for the contractors, and so outsourcing might make sense in more situations, city council members said during a meeting of the City Council Finance Committee this month.
During the meeting, City Manager Jim Keene warned council members about challenges that may arise from tackling the pension issue.
“We haven’t at all talked about the real-life realities … about implementing changes that force reallocations,” Keene said. “Even outsourcing in and of itself can be quite challenging to the community — particularly when you’re not in a crisis mode. We all just know human nature. The thing is, ‘why are you guys doing all of this? Why do I have to have a contract street sweeper? It was so much better when Public Works did it.’ There will be a hundred issues
like that, potentially.”
The city of Palo Alto’s shortfall for covering employee pension costs shot up by nearly 20% in one year, reaching $405 million as of June 2016, according to new data that was presented to the Finance Committee.
The $405 million figure is an increase from a pension shortfall of $338 million as of June 2015 and $250 million in mid-2014, according to the projections by the California Public Employees Retirement System, or CalPERS. The new figure is close to double the amount of the city’s $210 million general-fund budget for this fiscal year.
The unfunded liability
The pension shortfall — also known as the unfunded liability — is the difference between what will be needed to pay employee pensions into the future and the amount that’s been set aside.
CalPERS determines the unfunded liability amount by estimating how much will be needed to pay for pensions of current and future retirees. Another variable is how much CalPERS will earn from investments of the money it collects. A lower rate of return means that cities will need to contribute more to cover pension costs.
CalPERS announced in December that it would start using a lower rate of return in its calculations, decreasing the rate from the current 7.5% to 7% over three years starting next fiscal year. That’s expected to cause a sizable increase in the city’s annual CalPERS payment, and will also increase the amount of the pension shortfall.
Palo Alto officials are concerned that the actual rate of return will turn out to be 6.5% or even lower. Councilman Eric Filseth, who chairs the Finance Committee, said in May that the city’s pension gap could actually be between $500 million and $800 million.
At this month’s committee meeting, Filseth said he wants to “get the numbers right” before developing strategies to reduce the pension gap. “Because once the other stuff starts, once we start on a funding strategy, even the numbers, there’s going to be a tendency to try to politicize those,” Filseth said.
Explaining the problem to the public
Finance Committee members said this month that they want to find a way to explain the pension dilemma to the public in easy-to-understand terms. For example, the city’s payments to CalPERS thus far could be viewed as similar to making a minimum payment due on a personal credit card. The minimum payment does little toward paying off a large outstanding balance.
Councilman Greg Tanaka said when the city discusses the cost of employees, the expense of pensions should be considered as well as salaries. The pension costs should be a factor in situations such as labor negotiations and in deciding whether to contract out a job rather than have a city employee perform it, he said.
“That’s really important to have every figure for labor framed as our true cost,” Tanaka said.
The Finance Committee will continue discussing the pension issue in a series of meetings this fall, and is expected to make recommendations on how the city can approach the issue.
City attempts to reduce the debt
Chief Financial Officer Lalo Perez told council members that they could decide to “bite the bullet” and pay off a large portion of the pension gap in a short time. The question would be how such a move would impact city services, he said.
The city has been reducing pension benefits to new employees over the last several years by increasing the pension eligibility age and decreasing the amount paid.
Another issue is how much the worker pays toward their pension, Keene noted.
“The distribution of the cost between the employee and employer is not set in stone,” Keene said. “That can be renegotiated and actually, in some ways we’re behind some other jurisdictions as far as shifting more of the growth and the increasing cost to the employee.”

Editor's Note:  The Marinwood Fire District receives $2.8 million in local taxes (plus funding from the State for strike team services and "insurance reimbursements" when ambulance services are rendered.    CSA #19, a fire service district consisting of Santa Venetia, Los Ranchitos and Country Club pays the city of San Rafael only $1.7 million dollars to cover fire protection for a MUCH LARGER area.  Marinwood Fire Department spends 2/3rds of its service time OUTSIDE of Marinwood CSD serving North San Rafael FOR ALMOST NO COMPENSATION from San Rafael.   
Marinwood CSD pays more than ONE MILLION DOLLARS more for fire service and it gets used 2/3 of the time in neighboring San Rafael.    We Marinwood CSD taxpayers are getting a raw deal.  Of course we are proud of our fire department but the costs should be spread fairly between us and neighboring jurisdictions.    We need to OUTSOURCE our fire protection just like we do with Marin County Sheriff.  Our costs should ONLY reflect what is serviced in Marinwood/Lucas Valley and not subsidize protection elsewhere.
The pensions for the fire department ALONE amount to millions of dollars in liability. 2300 homeowners in Marinwood CSD cannot be expected to carry this burden alone.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Suburb of the Future, Almost Here

The Suburb of the Future, Almost Here in Housing /by Alan Berger

Millennials want a different kind of suburban development that is smart, efficient and sustainable.

The suburbanization of America marches on. That movement includes millennials, who, as it turns out, are not a monolithic generation of suburb-hating city dwellers.

Most of that generation represents a powerful global trend. They may like the city, but they love the suburbs even more.

They are continuing to migrate to suburbs. According to the latest Census Bureau statistics, 25- to 29-year-olds are about a quarter more likely to move from the city to the suburbs as vice versa; older millennials are more than twice as likely.

Their future — and that of the planet — lies on the urban peripheries. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma made clear that, especially in suburbs, the United States desperately needs better drainage systems to handle the enormous amounts of rainfall expected from climate change.

They also made clear that new, sustainable suburbs can offer an advantage by expanding landscapes that can absorb water.

Housing affordability is a major driver of the appeal of suburbia, which has historically been, and still is, more affordable, especially for first-time home buyers.

Yet millennial suburbanites want a new kind of landscape. They want breathing room but disdain the energy wastefulness, visual monotony and social conformity of postwar manufactured neighborhoods. If new suburbs can hit the sweet spot that accommodates the priorities of that generation, millennial habitats will redefine everyday life for all suburbanites, which is 70 percent of Americans.

How can technology, revolutionary design and planning transform suburban living?

Climate will determine how environmental goals can be achieved in a given place: solar in the Sunbelt, say, or advanced water management in the rainy regions like the Pacific Northwest. Suburbs of the same age or size don’t share the same potential benefits or needs. Here are some ideas to shape future suburbs into smart, efficient and more sustainable places to live.

Existing suburbs were developed to maximize house and lot sizes, and some are often locked into aesthetic compliance, like mowed lawns. These communities were also built around cars. Many residential developments offer small parks or playgrounds within walking distance, but require cars to get to bigger recreation areas.

In sustainable new suburbs, house and lot sizes are smaller — in part because driveways and garages are eliminated — paving is reduced up to 50 percent and landscapes are more flexible. The plant-to-pavement ratio of today’s suburb is much higher than that of cities, but the next generation of suburbs can be even better at absorbing water.

House and open community spaces are set among teardrop-shaped one-way roads, which encourage predictable, safe separation of pedestrians and moving vehicles. New suburban developments will utilize technology like autonomous electric cars (parked at solar-powered remote lots) and smart street lighting, which minimize energy use and harmful environmental impact.

Communities will share neighborhood amenities like public access areas, drone ports for deliveries, car pull overs (a wider shoulder in the road for pickup and drop-off) rather than private driveways and open common spaces.

Businesses also like locations on urban peripheries. That dynamic is helping to reshape suburbia’s traffic patterns, since many cars avoid urban centers. As cars move to renewable energy, emissions and road noise will diminish. In the near term, we should hope to see more efficient cars and on ride sharing.
Drones at your doorstep

The use of drones will reduce the need for many car errands — and their emissions: With their unrestricted air space, suburban communities are likely to be first to receive package deliveries from the drones being tested by Amazon. They would be either hub-based, at Amazon warehouses, within 15 to 20 miles of customers, or truck-based, as with U.P.S. or Workhorse, in which a truck stops and a drone deploys. Small to medium packages — 86 percent of Amazon deliveries are under five pounds — can be handled by current drones and deliver to covered areas at doorways or at shared car pull-offs.
Cars that park themselves

In a future suburban development, a homeowner will order an autonomous car, via an app, from a remote solar-charging lot. As a car approaches, it will “talk” to a home: Lights and other utilities are activated or shut off for greater energy efficiency. Because these suburban homes will not have driveways or garages, front yards can be bigger, devoted to ecological functions or recreational activities.
A smarter landscape

The neighborhoods will be friendlier for pedestrians, with sidewalks and paths that connect to open spaces and communal areas. Before we had fenced-off backyards. In the future we’ll have common recreation spaces or vegetable gardens. Or they can be designed for shared landscape features like forest, vernal ponds or wetlands that help manage storm runoff and control flooding.

Climate change has resulted in heavier rainfall when storms do come, and there’s a need to store all of this water to prevent catastrophic urban flooding. Less pavement in suburbia means the ground absorbs more rain and snow and less storm water pours into heavily paved urban areas nearby.

Planners need to view cities, suburbs and exurbs not as discrete units but as regions, with one integrated environmental and technological system.

It’s rare that such a profound change of vision for the future is so close to being achievable. And the millennial generation, with their there’s-an-app-for-that outlook, is the one that will adopt it.

They find beauty in the utilitarian, and they know just how quickly radical technologies can change everything — including the suburb they want to call home.

Alan M. Berger is a professor of landscape architecture and urban design at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a co-director of the MIT Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism and a co-editor of the forthcoming anthology “Infinite Suburbia.”

This article first appeared in The New York Times.

"Hang On, Little Tomato" live at Stern Grove Festival, August 11, 2013

The sun has left and forgotten me
It's dark, I cannot see
Why does this rain pour down
I'm gonna drown
In a sea
Of deep confusion

Somebody told me, I don't know who
Whenever you are sad and blue
And you're feelin' all alone and left behind
Just take a look inside and you will find

You gotta hold on, hold on through the night
Hang on, things will be all right
Even when it's dark
And not a bit of sparkling
Sing-song sunshine from above
Spreading rays of sunny love

Just hang on, hang on to the vine
Stay on, soon you'll be divine
If you start to cry, look up to the sky
Something's coming up ahead
To turn your tears to dew instead

And so I hold on to his advice
When change is hard and not so nice
You listen to your heart the whole night through
Your sunny someday will come one day soon to you

Neighborfest: Building a Stronger, More Connected World from the Block Up

Neighbors getting to know each other

Neighborfest: Building a Stronger, More Connected World from the Block Up

As we write this piece, the whole world is watching in disbelief as rain and flooding wreak devastation again along the Gulf Coast and Florida. Upwards of 50 inches of rain fell in parts of Southern Texas, thousands have been displaced from their homes in Miami and Houston, and some residents may never fully recover their livelihoods and homes. The Mayor of Houston called upon neighbors to help each other while first responders did their best to respond to the thousands of calls for help. It is in the shadow of their heroism and grace that we offer the following approach to mitigating the impact of future events in your communities.
“All disasters are local” is a phrase we hear often in the emergency management field. While the initial coverage of large events is often framed at the city level, the narrative soon shifts to the neighborhoods that experience heightened levels of damage and stress. The 9th Ward, Red Hook, and the Rockaways have all become household names due to major disasters which unfolded there. In San Francisco, the Marina district became the center of the world as the media covered the events that followed the famous “World Series” Earthquake of 1989. As the helicopters flew overhead, firefighters desperately tried to stop flames from leaping from house to house but were hampered by broken water pipes. Residents in the area leapt to action. They started guiding their vulnerable neighbors out of harm’s way and took the lead on running fire hoses from the fire boats on the bay up to the fire scene so the fire teams could do their job.
That day, every resident became a first responder.

Role of Social Capital in Emergency Preparedness

Fast-forward almost 30 years, and the field of emergency management has evolved in the face of mountains of evidence that shows that, while professional personnel and gear are essential, well-connected communities that work together on both challenges and opportunities every day are better positioned to respond to times of stress, experience lower levels of impact, and recover faster to a more improved condition. In other words, they are resilient.
Connections, also known as social cohesion or social capital, serve as the invisible fabric that connects us with our family, neighbors, and friends. These ties make up a critical but underappreciated component of strong neighborhoods and thriving cities. Having more connections and trust makes collective action more likely. We can solve problems more easily and are more likely to engage in planning meetings, attend PTA bake sales, and tackle crime and blight.
When it comes to preparing for large disasters, we may imagine that building better roads, ports, and buildings will be enough to give our society resilience to future shocks. Unfortunately, traditional investments in the built environment to mitigate risks are important but not adequate. Research from communities around the world shows that social, not physical, infrastructure is the key to building resilient neighborhoods and cities. These neighborhoods and towns can recover from any kind of shock to residents, whether they’re extreme weather events or terrorism.
Knowing the importance of social ties, we still must help our residents and their surrounding community get ready to meet the immediate needs of their loved ones and vulnerable neighbors. Social cohesion is great, but they still need to feed and care for each other under intense circumstances — so how do we get them to prepare for that mission without using fear based messaging?
In San Francisco, we’ve developed an easy solution: “Throw a Block Party!”

Introducing Neighborfest

Preparedness messaging to date has been presented as an almost arduous checklist of things that you have to do above and beyond your existing list of tasks. While all would agree these investments make sense, they appear to be more like “homework” than anything else.
When we unpack the phrase “All disasters are local,” it can be either perceived as a clinical assessment of what happened, or a roadmap for an approach that will ensure the health and safety of residents. And there is nothing more local than a block party.
In 2015, the San Francisco’s Neighborhood Empowerment Network partnered with the Red Cross, SF SAFE (a community policing NGO), NERT (our local version of CERT) and the Department of Emergency Management to pilot a new community capacity building initiative that would advance a variety of capacities to increase a neighborhood’s ability to respond to a disaster with little or no support from professional first responders.
The program was called “Neighborfest — the World’s Greatest Block Party”, and eight neighborhood watches signed up to participate. The underlying goal was to create an experiential learning event that would advance the following capabilities:

1. Build a team of volunteers around a unifying mission.

When our hosts come together to organize their block party, we provide them with a framework that builds on the first responder’s Incident Command System (ICS). ICS sets goals, objectives, roles, and responsibilities for times of stress. It’s a simple framework and works perfectly for pulling off a great block party.

2. Develop an asset registry for critical resources in the immediate neighborhood.

Block parties need a lot of different resources, including tables, chairs, bounce houses, charcoal for BBQs, and food. Neighborfest hosts learn to identify needs as a team and then crowdsource each resource from their neighbors, buy it, or get it donated. Practicing this form of asset mining will be an invaluable investment when residents need to work quickly to meet needs — and Home Depot and Safeway aren’t open, the likely situation in a large-scale disaster.

3. Become effective conveners and generate social capital throughout their community.

Humans have amazing potential to come together during times of stress and to help each other overcome overwhelming challenges. The critical factor for magnitude and comprehensiveness of that support is the level of connection that people have among themselves pre-event. In other words, you are more likely to offer or accept help from someone you already know. The Neighborfest program generates social capital from the moment the host committee is formed to the actual event when people are celebrating with old friends and strengthening their connection or meeting new neighbors for the first time.
In order to onboard communities the Neighborfest Program offers the following benefits and resources to hosts:
  • A toolkit that provides them with step-by-step guidance for everything from organizing a Host Committee to cleaning up after the event
  • A suite of tools such as a custom website that they can use to promote their event, door hangers to reach out to nearby neighbors, and free barricades to manage traffic
  • Technical support on how to navigate the City’s permitting system and to remove fees
  • Coordination of first responder resources, police and fire, to arrive the day of the event and engage residents
  • A professionally facilitated “Map Your Resilientville” exercise and preparedness information
  • A bin of disaster supplies comprised of gloves, helmets, vests, and first aid kits to help neighbors help each other in the hours after an event
The first round of pilots were a smashing success and the decision was made to run a second round of pilots in 2016. In 2017, the program was opened up to a wider range of engaged networks and over 35 neighborhoods were enrolled.
Beyond the fantastic food that is a hallmark of a great block party, a real highlight from the last three years is the amazing range of activities that hosts created for their guests. From pinball machine competitions to belly dancing flash mobs, the residents always seem to find a way to build on the foundation of a classic neighborhood street party and add a unique cultural twist that makes it all their own. For the City, we have our own layer that advances our mission in a manner that generates deep impact with very little of the traditional logistics associated with community engagement.
A key requirement of participating in the Neighborfest Program is that hosts allow the City, and its partners, to join the event to table and raise awareness of our programs and initiatives. A very popular activity that complements the provision of the bin of disaster supplies is the “Map Your Resilientville” exercise. This fun and easy game offers participants an opportunity to asset map their community for sources of food, water, power, medical, sheltering, and open spaces resources in their community so they can survive for 72 hours. Once the resident has written their answers on the sheet, they are offered a wide range of culturally competent preparedness information resources which they overwhelming accept. As the event winds down, the hosts bring their guests together for a group photo with their new disaster resources map and bin of supplies. The map is then rolled up and put in the bin to be retrieved at a moment’s notice to guide their response activity should times of stress arrive.
  • For cities considering adopting this program, the process for its implementation is fairly simple. Determine what systems are in place for residents to secure permission to close a street and engage the managing agencies to join the program as partners. (NOTE: Neighborfests are also held in parks, plazas and parking lots)
  • Convene any and all agencies that offer programs and resources to communities and invite them to join the initiative.
  • Use the current Neighborfest toolkit or develop your own.
  • Launch a pilot and secure the participation of reasonable number of neighborhoods that will afford partner agencies enough activations to fine tune planning, operations and logistics responsibilities.
  • Make any necessary adjustments to your Neighborfest strategy and open a second round of block parties. Continue to increase the number of events in reflection of your staffing and budgeting capacities.
Over time, you’ll most likely develop a team of committed volunteers who enjoy engaging people about this important issue as well as being in a joyful environment where people from all walks of life come together and celebrate what they have in common — their neighborhood.
The intent of the Neighborfest program is to be prepared for times of stress that may arrive at any time. However, the social dividends generated literally from the moment the Host Committee is convened are immediate and tangible. Almost everybody wants to live in a community surrounded by people they know and trust, and the Neighborfest program is valuable resource for achieving that goal.
So let’s get local and have a party.
This piece originally appeared on Medium.
Daniel Homsey is the Director of The Neighborhood Empowerment Network (NEN) for the City Administrator’s Office of the City and County of San Francisco. A fourth generation San Franciscan who has a degree in Political Science from San Francisco State University, Mr. Homsey has spent the last 25 years as a communications professional in both the private and public sector. After a long stint in the tech sector, Mr. Homsey joined the City in 2004 and in January 2008 became the Director of the NEN which is a coalition of residents, community supported organizations, non-profits, academic institutions, and government agencies whose mission it is to empower residents with the capacity and resources to build and steward stronger more resilient communities. For more information about the NEN, please visit
Daniel Aldrich is professor and director of the Security and Resilience Program at Northeastern University. He has published four books, more than forty peer reviewed articles, and written op-eds for The New York Times, CNN, and Asahi Shinbun. He has appeared on popular media outlets such as CNBC, MSNBC, NPR, and HuffPost, and has a PhD in political science from Harvard. His research has been funded by the Fulbright Foundation, the Abe Foundation, and the National Science Foundation. Hee has carried out more than five years of fieldwork in Japan, India, Africa, and the Gulf Coast. His newest book, Black Wave: Connections and Governance in Japan’s 3.11 Disasters, is under review, and his articles and OpEds can be downloaded for free from For more on Prof. Daniel Aldrich’s work — please visit Daniel can also be reached on Twitter: @DanielPAldrich.