Raleigh’s Bright Post-Pandemic Future. (Don’t Screw It Up.)

Catch up in 10 minutes: One shot and go + the era of superstar cities is over + what Durham thinks about Durham + where to see Rush Limbaugh’s legacy + does Ted Cruz’s own mother love him?

Fri., Feb. 19, 2021 

TGIF, y’all. More clouds and rain this morning, but that strange fireball will return to the sky this afternoon — and come back Saturday and Sunday, too. We’ll have a cold weekend, but at least we’ll be rid of the gray doom. (WRAL

Breaking: In an emergency meeting last night, the DPS school board voted to return to in-class instruction on March 15. The reversal comes in response to SB 37, which — if Governor Cooper signs it or the legislature overrides his veto — will force the issue. (N&O)


Before we begin: I wanted to make a quick addendum to yesterday’s post on Sen. Richard Burr’s censure. The more I thought about it, I worried this line required more explanation: “Even if [Burr was running for re-election], I doubt [the censure] would affect his fundraising or support. If anything, it would show how irrelevant the NCGOP — like other state parties — has become.” So here goes: 

  • The state party, as an institution, is weak. But the Trumpian cult of personality that led the NCGOP to censure Burr certainly reflects a large swath of North Carolina Republicans. 

  • Had Burr sought re-election, it’s possible he would’ve faced a primary challenge. But that wouldn’t have been the NCGOP’s doing, and his success or failure would have had nothing to do with his censure, which will be forgotten by everyone who’s not a politico or journalist by the time I’d done typing this sentence. And to the degree anyone remembers it a year from now, it will reflect more poorly on the party than the man. 

  • The state party is a marginal player compared to the PACs and high-profile influencers who call the shots. 

  • As the GOP Senate primary takes shape, no one will be watching the state party. Everyone will be watching Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell. 


Today’s Number: 93

  • Effectiveness, in percent, of one dose of the Pfizer COVID vaccine after two weeks, according to a letter in the New England Journal of Medicine

  • The letter’s authors suggest giving high-priority people their first shot now: “With such a highly protective first dose, the benefits derived from a scarce supply of vaccine could be maximized by deferring second doses until all priority group members are offered at least one dose.” 

  • Moderna has previously reported that its vaccine has 92% efficacy after one dose.

  • In separate letters to the NEJM, Moderna and Pfizer reported that their vaccines had proven effective against all variants except for the South African one. 

  • Pfizer said its lab tests had shown reduced neutralization of the South African virus. Moderna said its vaccine’s effectiveness against the South African variant isn’t clear. 

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+TODAY’S TOP 3 

1. Raleigh’s Post-Pandemic Future

That Raleigh made another Best Whatever list isn’t news. For a while, that seemed to happen every other week. To wit: 

Raleigh ranking fifth on the Milken Institute’s 2021 list of Best Performing Big Cities — up from 11th last year — is hardly earth-shaking. In short, the city scored comparatively well in job growth, tech growth, and affordable housing (I said comparatively). 

But if you dig into the report, the numbers tell a story that’s not really about what Raleigh’s doing but a shift in corporate culture that could work to Raleigh’s benefit if it plays its cards right. 

Let’s begin with a look at the top-performing big cities, which Milken calls Tier 1: 

  • What’s not there? San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Boston. 

  • Milken: “The center of gravity of the Best Performing Large Cities — and many high-tech industries in general — has shifted from its traditionally dominant centers in California and Massachusetts to the Intermountain West and the South.”

  • Why? “[They] demonstrated wage and job growth levels far above the national median and concentrated high-tech sectors. They also had relatively affordable housing costs and very high levels of broadband access, indicating inclusive growth based on housing and infrastructure.”

Most of the data the Milken Institute used to compile its rankings — GDP growth, tech GDP growth, wage growth, job growth, broadband access, affordable housing — date to before the pandemic. But the think tank also included job growth from October 2019–October 2020 to measure COVID’s effect. 

  • “California metros such as San Francisco (ranked No. 1 in BPC 2020), San Jose (No. 5 in 2020), and Riverside (No. 25 in 2020) dropped to Tier 2 due largely to high costs of housing. A negative shift in the short-term job growth indicator also played a role in this drop, as all three cities ranked outside the Top 100.” 

  • “This may indicate the outsized effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on so-called ‘superstar cities’ that have suffered the most local job losses and the migration of high-tech workers to lower-cost areas as they work from home.”

The pandemic changed how we live, which will change how we live. Here’s how the Milken report explained it: 

  • “The shift to remote work that took place over the course of 2020 has become permanent in many firms and industries, including some of the highest-profile high-technology firms in the country.” 

  • “Even for companies that do not permanently shift to remote work, hybrid models — whereby workers are only required to report to an office to complete certain tasks or are assigned to staggered schedules with their colleagues — could become increasingly common.” 

  • “As employers shift their calculus, workers will also face different choices with respect to the cities that offer the most attractive combination of opportunity and affordability.”

The more high-value workers are drawn to less-expensive, easier-living cities, the more cache cities like Raleigh and Austin and Salt Lake City will have. But those cities risk becoming victims of their own success. 

  • The influx of Californians to cheaper Idaho is driving up home prices: “Home prices rose 20 percent in 2020, according to Zillow, and in Boise, ‘Go Back to California’ graffiti has been sprayed along the highways.” (NYT)

  • There’s a similar story in Nashville, Atlanta, and Austin, where newcomers with larger budgets are putting pressure on the housing market. (Redfin)  

What does this mean for Raleigh? First, here’s how Milken assessed the city’s pros and cons: 

Raleigh has a tech corridor, a quality education network, and affordable living. So long as that’s the case, it will be in good shape after the pandemic. What could get in the way? 

  • Budget cuts to the UNC system.

  • Sharp increases in housing costs.

  • Policies (e.g., HB 2) or attitudes that discourage young tech workers from wanting to move here. 

—> WHAT ABOUT DURHAM?

The Durham-Chapel Hill MSA is further down the list, but it’s moving up. 

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2. What Durham Thinks of Durham

Earlier this month, Durham unveiled its 2020 residents survey, an annual poll conducted by the ETC Institute. The toplines were more or less what the city council wanted to hear: 

  • 83% say the city is a good or excellent place to live.

  • 82% say the city is a good or excellent place to work.

  • 76% were satisfied with the overall quality of life in their neighborhood.

  • 63% were satisfied with the overall quality of life in the city.

  • 63% were satisfied with the quality of city services. (That’s 21 percentage points better than the average for large cities.)  

  • 42% were satisfied with the value they receive for their property taxes. (That’s 9 points higher than the average rating for cities Durham’s size.) 

  • 69% were satisfied with the city’s response to COVID. (That’s 32 points higher than the national average.) 

The survey is generally positive, but the story is complex. Some less ideal numbers: 

  • Fewer than 60% believe Durham is a good place to play, raise and educate children, retire, start a business, and think the city is moving in the right direction. 

  • Fewer than 50% rate the following city and county services as excellent or good: 

    • Ease of travel (49%)

    • Quality of tax administration services (49%)

    • Code enforcement (42%)

    • Quality of bicycle facilities (39%)

    • The Department of Social Services (38%)

    • Quality of charter schools (37%)

    • Quality of public transit 37%)

    • Quality of pedestrian facilities (36%)

    • Quality of public schools (35%)

    • Maintenance of city streets (34%)

Durham also compares unfavorably to similarly sized cities in satisfaction with: 

  • Quality of life (63% to 70%)

  • The city’s image (50% to 63%)

  • Fire service response (76% to 82%)

  • Police protection (53% to 59%)

  • Public transit (37% to 50%)

  • Public schools (35% to 41%)

  • City streets (34% to 45%)

  • Parks (60% to 66%)

  • Landscaping along streets and rights-of-way (45% to 50%)

The survey also had two red flags: 

  • Satisfaction with police enforcement dropped from 59% in 2019 to 53% in 2020. 

  • Satisfaction with code enforcement dropped from 49% to 42%. 

But we shouldn’t be Negative Nellys. Durham beats the pants off other cities in lots of categories: city employee courtesy, value for taxes, quality of services, and being a good place to live, work, visit, have kids, and retire, among others. And while lots of people like to complain about their hometowns (spend a weekend in Philly), Durham residents think most things are pretty okay.  

The point of these surveys, though, is that some things could be better. So let’s talk about their priorities for government funding (in order): 

  • Public schools

  • Affordable housing

  • Street maintenance

  • Job creation/training

  • Youth programming

Probably what you’d guess, right? There’s also consensus among racial groups.  

  • Black/African-American: Housing, schools, streets, jobs, youth

  • White: Schools, housing, streets, social services, youth

  • Hispanic: Schools, housing, streets, social services, jobs

FWIW: The city passed a $95 million housing bond in 2019 to fund a five-year housing plan (the pandemic put a kink in the first-year plans). DPS is the county’s (funding) problem. And streets … well, I would like to know why the block my house is on is paved, but the blocks to the east and west are dirt roads. It’s really weird. 

Finally, ETC broke down perceptions of safety, policing, community relations, and some city services by race. 

  • Fewer Blacks (50% and Hispanics (48%) rate police protection as good or excellent than whites (56%), though not by a huge amount. 

  • Blacks feel less safe walking alone in their neighborhood at night, and Black and Hispanics feel less safe in the city generally. 

  • Blacks have a significantly less positive perception of the police’s relationship with the community than whites. 

  • Only 32% of Blacks rate the state of race relations as excellent or good, compared to 41% of whites.

  • Only 32% of Blacks rate the city’s progress in addressing racial equity as good or excellent, compared to 49% of whites. 

  • And 65% of Blacks say they are dissatisfied with the availability of affordable housing, compared with 53% of Hispanics and whites. 

—> WHAT DURHAM WANTS

The poll asked respondents to rank the importance of planning goals — which, considering how much oxygen land-use fights consume, seems like a subject worth discussing. 

  • What we say we care about: Getting notice of new developments (59% = most or very important), making it easy for residents to have a say (49%). 

  • What we say we’re ambivalent about: More racially and economically integrated neighborhoods (41%), shopping and employment opportunities near where I live (26%).

  • What we say we don’t care about: A greater variety of housing types and sizes in my neighborhood (17%), character of my neighborhood should remain the same (13%).

To recap: Nobody wants their neighborhood character to stay the same, but a large majority says a variety of housing types is very unimportant, we can take or leave integrated neighborhoods, and everyone wants a chance to object to development decisions near them — though state law often binds the city’s hands — but we also say affordable housing is our top priority. 

Ask me again why I didn’t go into urban planning. 


3. Big Freeze, Hot Air 

Rush Limbaugh, a horrible human being, died Wednesday, leaving behind “a conservative movement shaped by his voice and his politics,” former Republican congressman Joe Walsh writes. “He also leaves behind a conservative movement no longer interested in truth.”

If you want to see that legacy in action, just look to Texas, where politicians have pinpointed the true villain of the deadly winter storm.  

Crenshaw’s not the only one blaming renewables. 

  • Gov. Greg Abbott told Sean Hannity that the 4 million who were without power following the freak cold storm “shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America. Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis. ... It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary.”

  • Former energy secretary Rick Perry one-upped him, posting, “If wind and solar is where we’re headed, the last 48 hours ought to give everybody a real pause and go wait a minute. We need to have a baseload. And the only way you can get a baseload in this country is [with] natural gas, coal, and nuclear.” 

  • Perry continued: “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” 

That might be news to the tens of thousands of Austin residents still freezing and without water— particularly once they learn the real cause of the outages: Natural gas plants couldn’t operate in the cold.

  • “While wind power skeptics claimed the week’s freeze means wind power can’t be relied upon, wind turbines — like natural gas plants — can be ‘winterized,’ or modified to operate during very low temperatures. Experts say that many of Texas’ power generators have not made those investments necessary to prevent disruptions to equipment since the state does not regularly experience extreme winter storms.” (Texas Tribune)

  • “What has sent Texas reeling is not an engineering problem, nor is it the frozen wind turbines blamed by prominent Republicans. It is a financial structure for power generation that offers no incentives to power plant operators to prepare for winter. In the name of deregulation and free markets, critics say, Texas has created an electric grid that puts an emphasis on cheap prices over reliable service.” (WaPo)

Texas — unlike everywhere else — has its own energy grid, which doesn’t cross state lines so as to be independent of federal regulators. In the early 2000s, Texas decided that not only should its power system avoid federal regulators, but the state should simply let power companies decide when and how to build power plants. 

  • “Following a near-identical episode a decade ago, federal regulators warned Texas it needed to take steps to better insulate its power plants,” the Houston Chronicle reports. 

  • That didn’t happen, and at least 21 people have died because of it. 

  • Things were very nearly much worse: On Sunday, the grid was seconds away from collapse.  

  • The finger-pointing at the Green New Deal — in a state run entirely by fossil fuel puppets, no less — is an exercise in deflection.   

—> CRUZ TO CANCUN

While this tragedy was unfolding, Sen. Ted Cruz — a man who imagines himself a future president — hopped a flight to Cancun with the fam. Everything else aside, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bigger act of political malpractice from someone so ambitious. 

  • When Cruz got caught, he offered this excuse: “Yesterday my daughters asked if they could take a trip with some friends, and Heidi and I agreed, so I flew down with them last night, dropped them off here, and now I’m headed back to Texas and back continuing to work to try to get the power on.” 

  • Like everything else that comes out of his mouth, this was bullshit: “Text messages sent from [Heidi] Cruz to friends and Houston neighbors on Wednesday revealed a hastily planned trip. Their house was ‘FREEZING,’ as Ms. Cruz put it — and she proposed a getaway until Sunday. Ms. Cruz invited others to join them at the Ritz-Carlton in Cancún, where they had stayed ‘many times,’ noting the room price this week ($309 per night) and its good security.”

  • “If Mr. Cruz intended to leave the impression that he meant to stay for only a day, his large suitcase and the group text messages Ms. Cruz had sent planning a longer itinerary suggested he had cut his trip short.” (NYT)

  • Also:

  • Oh, and it turns out that Cruz went to Jamaica for the Fourth of July last year, flouting public health pandemic recommendations.