These California Cities Are Breaking Down Long-Standing Silos to Address Homelessness

22 hours 48 minutes ago

A tent city in Calwa, California, near Fresno. (Photo by Joe Green / CC BY-ND 2.0)

Early into the tenure of Mayor London Breed, who was elected in San Francisco in the summer of 2018, she began unannounced inspections of neighborhoods. She was making visible a campaign promise to address homelessness. Tents on sidewalks, encampments in parks — none of this is acceptable, she declared, and neither are the scattered, redundant, and ineffective civic programs addressing the issue.

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This past September, San Francisco announced a targeted and ambitious plan to confront a seemingly intractable truth of the homelessness crisis — people experiencing homelessness are often not just dealing with a lack of housing. Other factors, many of them related to mental health, come into play. Based on this insight, the city created a multi-agency pilot focusing on about 4,000 people that will coordinate housing and healthcare for individuals experiencing homelessness and suffering from mental illness and substance-use disorders. At the same time, the city will increase access to behavioral health services, with expanded hours at the city’s Behavioral Health Access Center.

San Francisco’s approach exemplifies what civic leaders are waking up to: The homelessness crisis demands coordination among numerous city agencies, nonprofit and housing providers, and public entities, such as hospitals, that don’t typically coordinate with one another. Perhaps nowhere is the need for coordination more urgent than in California, which has a staggering number of homeless people compared with the rest of the country. According to federal data, its homeless population in 2018 was almost 130,000, nearly a quarter of the national total.

“Homelessness is a problem that touches almost every aspect of what a city does,” said Sharon Meron, a former FUSE fellow who helped develop a new approach to addressing homelessness in Long Beach, California. Beyond police departments, emergency services, and criminal-justice systems, this crisis affects schools, libraries, parks, community centers — places where people with no place to call home, comprised of a range of demographics, from children to the elderly, spend their days.

A city’s homelessness crisis doesn’t solely fall under the “Department of Homeless Services.” In San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Long Beach, government agencies are taking an active approach to creating a culture of collaboration that extends into the private sector. These are the insights they’ve learned.

Cross-Agency Collaboration Is Imperative

In San Francisco, as part of its participation in California’s Whole Person Care (WPC) program, cross-departmental staff among medical and behavioral health and social service agencies have been meeting regularly to address urgent issues around homelessness. The state program, which San Francisco has helped pilot along with other cities, allocates funding to counties and health authorities for coordinated, human-centered treatment for homeless people who regularly use health and social services but continue to have poor outcomes.

These meetings have identified a major gap. “All these agencies, then departments within the agencies, have their own process for prioritizing clients into their services,” said Erica Medina Stanulis, who worked on the San Francisco pilot as a FUSE executive fellow. “What that does is allow the client to fall through the cracks.”

Though it took a great deal of time and effort to coordinate, the agencies have since collaborated on creating a shared methodology for prioritizing services for the most vulnerable subpopulations of adults experiencing homelessness.

In Long Beach, a monthly inter-agency meeting brings together city departments impacted by homelessness. “It’s a best practice Long Beach has that other cities should look at,” Meron said. It gives different departments the opportunity to cooperate on ensuring that city regulations are properly enforced, while also making sure that people’s civil rights are protected and respected.

As part of its HUD-funded infrastructure, the city also runs a Continuum of Care program that brings together nonprofits focused on homelessness, including city agencies, shelter providers, rehab centers, and emergency services. A new strategy calls for expanding this group to include additional stakeholders, such as housing developers, hospitals, and city departments that deal with housing.

The program runs a number of working groups, including a Discharge Planning group. The collaboration helped identify gaps in how homeless service teams, shelters, rehab centers, hospitals, and police services operate. “There were different ways of operating that did not mesh with each other,” Meron said. The group realized, for example, that a problem existed in how services are provided to homeless people who are discharged from hospitals. “When you discharge from a hospital, it’s usually at night,” Meron said, “but shelter beds typically aren’t available until the morning.”

In response, Meron helped facilitate a city-run discharge collaborative that works closely with hospitals and community partners to assist homeless patients with gaining access to housing opportunities before they are released.

Nail Down a Clearly Defined Vision and Goals

Defining an agreed-upon vision, along with an understanding of why that vision matters, is key to achieving outcomes. But Stanulis cautions against becoming too lofty, such as, “We’re going to be the best healthcare service agency.” Such a broad vision tends to be forgotten, because there’s no clear way to achieve it. She also advises against becoming too focused on day-to-day, in-the-weeds responsibilities, such as how many people to provide services to in a week, because it discourages creative, ambitious thinking.

An actionable vision is aspirational and backed by clear language, Stanulis said. “We want to be the best agency by reducing the barriers of entry and improving the client experience so they don’t fall through the cracks.” This type of vision goes beyond motivation. “It allows for diversity in thinking and innovation,” she said, “and the space to have transparent conversations on why we haven’t gotten there.”

On any given night in Los Angeles, 36,000 people are experiencing homelessness. Include the entire county, and that number nearly doubles. This challenging reality pushed the city of Los Angeles to undertake the behemoth task of developing a Comprehensive Homeless Strategy. The report outlines short, medium, and long-term approaches to addressing homelessness, including how responsibilities can be shared.

Identifying a clear set of goals was crucial to executing the 300+ page report. The team tasked with writing it had to determine where competing goals had been set in the past, according to FUSE alum Geoff Thompson, lead author of the report.

What they found was a big disconnect between the city and county of Los Angeles. “The city and county often did not take a complementary approach toward homelessness,” Thompson said. “They would work in isolation or in adversarial ways at times.”

To align goals, Thompson and his team worked closely with county staff, which was simultaneously developing its own homelessness report. Advanced copies of each report were exchanged between city and county officials to review. “This exchange allowed an opportunity for the reports to reference one another and complement strategies and funding in a way that had not previously been done,” Thompson said. “For most strategies, if there’s some sort of equivalent on the county side, we referenced it.”

The city report also clarified roles across the city, county, the L.A. Homeless Services Authority, and the nonprofit community — and outlined the responsibilities of each. “The final report is structured into ten parts, and at the end of most sections there are literally strategies you could rip out and use to impact or improve homelessness,” Thompson said. “We built those strategies so that the report wouldn’t sit on the shelf. It had an action plan.”

Break Down Walls to Build Trust

Taking on the homelessness issue has been a decades-long challenge in San Francisco. The Whole Person Care program is not the city’s first attempt at centralizing treatment, so those who were asked to participate were skeptical. “There was a mindset of, ‘Here we go again,’” Stanulis said. “They had tried this before. We needed tools to show there is a mindset shift happening.”

Encouraging honest, transparent communication can go a long way in building trust. But given the varying priorities, strategies, and workplace cultures of the agencies and sectors affected by homelessness, this can be a significant uphill battle. “A lot of the time, when you’re in an organization and have worked in silos too long, you cut yourself off from the inter-dependency that does exist between agencies and departments,” Stanulis said. “There’s a bit of a guard up.”

To break this down, Stanulis created a series of workshops that brought together stakeholders from traditionally siloed agencies. The sessions provided a space where participants could feel safe to express their beliefs, needs, and feelings behind their work, while setting a project vision and defining the focus of a pilot for shared interagency prioritization.

To signal change, Stanulis also included a “pulse survey,” collected, tallied, and presented both at the beginning and ending of the workshop. The honest reflections showed the group’s hesitancy about coming to the workshop, as well as their change in attitude with positive reactions to participating in a collaborative, goal-oriented exercise. At the end of each session, participants also presented output from the day. “This helps drive accountability,” Stanulis said.

The bureaucratic environment for planning around homelessness is usually polished, Stanulis said. But presenting transparent, nondoctored feedback — rather than a formal report — encouraged even more opportunities for collaboration. “It created a conversation between participants to review the output and suggest corrections,” she said. “That doesn’t happen when you analyze something in a silo, polish it, and present it.”

Valuing real-time feedback, such as through pulse surveys, creates a sense of vulnerability within the group, said Stanulis, and affirms to people that their honest opinions matter. Using open feedback to co-create solutions and goals also changes people’s thinking from, “Here we go again,” to, “We’re all in this together.”

Share Progress with the Community

City residents who see their neighbors living and struggling with homelessness don’t always understand the layers of complexity causing the crisis and the collaborative commitment it will take to eradicate it. As cities work to coordinate care in innovative ways, they need to share results with the greater public to garner support, said Thompson. It is constituents, ultimately, who hold much of the voting power to increase funding for services.

After the release of L.A.’s comprehensive report, City Council approved a $120 million increase to its homelessness budget and voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition HHH, a $1.2 billion bond to more than triple the city’s annual production of supportive housing and help build approximately 10,000 units for homeless residents.

“The homeless issue will take years and years to address,” Thompson said. “It’s a really long road ahead for us. There will never be a silver bullet — it requires spending, and it requires thoughtful services. But where we’ve seen the right investments made, we’ve seen results.”

This story was produced by FUSE Corps, a national executive fellowship program that partners with local government agencies and produces solutions-driven journalism.

Emily Nonko

Embracing the Improvisation of Dockless Bike-Share

1 day ago

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from “The Urban Improvise: Improvisation-Based Design for Hybrid Cities,” by Kristian Kloeckl, published by Yale University Press. In it, the author unveils an urban design theory grounded in digital connectivity and based on unscripted behavior that in many ways resembles improvisational dramatic performance. Although of late, dockless bike-share companies have over-expanded in some markets and then abruptly closed shop, and issues have persisted about mechanical problems and the unregulated nature of the pickup and drop-off system, Kloeckl argues in this excerpt how the impromptu essence of park-where-you-will dockless bike-share is actually a positive expression of responsive urban design.

Today’s latest generation of bike-sharing systems have done away with the docks, consisting in the bikes alone. Bikes can be locked whenever and wherever the user completes a trip. The bikes are physically scattered throughout the urban territory without any planning, and yet they remain connected to a remote sensing platform. This latest breed of dockless bike-sharing systems builds on a remarkable history of bike-sharing modalities that goes back half a century.

In 1965, the Dutch counterculture movement Provo proposed the White Bicycle Plan to solve Amsterdam’s inner-city traffic problem. The plan was for the city of Amsterdam to purchase twenty thousand white bikes annually to be distributed unlocked throughout the city. They were to be considered public property and free for everyone to use at will. When the city of Amsterdam did not take up this plan, Provo went ahead alone, painted fifty bikes white, and distributed them around Amsterdam’s inner city, unlocked and free for everyone to use.

The white bikes were soon taken out of circulation by citizens for private use, as well as by the police, who confiscated white bikes in circulation on the basis of legislation that requires bikes to be locked when parked in public spaces. The bikes were returned to the Provos, who, in a second attempt, installed number locks on all remaining bikes, painting the numeric code onto the bikes to bypass the legal impasse. The system did not live on for long, however, as bikes were frequently damaged and stolen, and the White Bicycle Plan soon came to an end .

The first large-scale bike-sharing systems were installed in 1995 in Copenhagen (the ByCyklen project) and in 2001 in Vienna (the Gratisstadtrad project first, followed by the Viennabike project in 2002). Both systems used dock stations, painted bikes, advertisement on the bikes to finance operation, and a coin-based docking mechanism similar to some supermarket shopping carts still in use today. A coin was used to unlock the bike at the dock, and when locking the bike at another docking station, a coin of equal value was retrieved.

Vélib in Paris launched the third generation of bike-sharing system in 2007, operated as a concession by the advertising and street furniture company JCDecaux. The innovation that set this third generation of bike-sharing systems apart was the requirement of a personal identification and a higher deposit for the use of the bikes. In order to register with the system and unlock the bikes, the use of a credit card or a cellphone number was required. Holding a larger deposit through the credit card and requiring personal identification helped these systems avoid vandalism and theft of the bikes.

Today’s dock-based bike-sharing systems operate essentially in the same way as the Vélib system. The main components are docking stations with wired or wireless telecommunication, a kiosk interface to use with a bank card for registration with the system, and bikes that contain a docking mechanism that is mechanical and contains a digital connection to identify the specific bike connected at each dock.

A key issue for the operation of these systems is the so-called balancing of bikes between the dock stations throughout the day. Trucks move bikes from stations with excess numbers of bikes to other docks with too few bikes. The purpose of this is to balance the system and counteract dynamics by which many people use the bikes to ride from outer districts to inner-city locations in the morning and then the other direction during the evening commute. The precise strategy for rebalancing is complex and also considers predicted demand patterns based on the analysis of historical data.

The latest generation of bike-sharing systems from the past couple of years has introduced a significant innovation to the bike-share operation. It brings bike-sharing surprisingly close to the operational practice of the first system of White Bikes in Amsterdam. This new generation of bike-share system does away with the use of docking stations throughout the city; the system is dockless. The first dockless bike-sharing operator, ofo, launched in 2015 in Beijing after the founding of the company in the previous year by members of the cycling club of Peking University. The company has since expanded to numerous cities internationally. Also, competing dockless systems have entered the scene, such as the companies oBike, LimeBike, and Reddy.

These dockless bike-sharing systems, as the name implies, operate without the need of physical docks to retrieve and return the bikes, as is the case of dock-based systems. The dockless system consists only in the bikes themselves. Bikes are parked anywhere in the city, and trips can start and end at any location. Unlike Amsterdam’s early White Bikes from 1965, however, the bikes are now tracked by a sophisticated use of multiple systems. The bike location is tracked by a GPS system, and the lock mechanism is activated through the operator’s smartphone app. In use, pointing the smartphone’s camera at the bike lock’s graphic QR code is sufficient to unlock the bike and pedal away. In order to conclude the ride, parking the bike in any public location and locking the mechanical lock is all that is required. Finally, using the operator’s online map in the smartphone app helps to locate parked available bikes that are not in direct sight from a user’s location.

The way these kinds of systems work technically varies slightly from system to system and from town to town. Some bike locks contain built-in GPS and cellular units. These systems always know the location of all bikes at any moment, during a ride and when parked. Other systems only have a Bluetooth connection in the bike lock and make clever use of the user’s smartphone to get GPS location and cellular data transmission via the smartphone’s Bluetooth connection. In this case, the system only receives the location during the locking and unlocking of the bike.

Where to park the bike is entirely up to the users in these systems, and this clearly provides room for interpretation and conflict. Several operators, such as oBike and LimeBike, give credit points to users for returning bikes to designated bike parking locations. The credit system deducts points for parking the bike in illegitimate locations and for not locking the bike. Credit is also given for reporting bikes that are illegally parked or broken.

A System Designed for Openness

The dockless bike-sharing system appears to be characterized by a high degree of openness and invites users to take initiative. During everyday operation, and once you are registered with the system, whenever you see a yellow bike (in the case of ofo bikes) parked, you can walk up to it, unlock it, and pedal away at will.

The system reduces the cognitive and operational overhead. Riding a bike comes close to the immediacy of Amsterdam’s White Bikes. When you see a bike in plain sight or virtually on a digital map, you walk up to it, unlock it with your smartphone, and start riding it, to then leave it parked at any spot. It is a strength of the system that it is so inviting and easily accessible; people come up with new ways of integrating these bikes into their daily routines that they themselves did not consider before.

The openness of the dockless bike-sharing system lies in that it offers enormous room for interpretation of how to appropriate and integrate the service within one’s everyday routine: ad hoc acceleration of trips that add the convenience of a bike to what was planned to be a walk or public transport trip or the use of a bike alone or together with friends for a bike tour of an entire day, without the need to return to any specific location, are just some of many possibilities. While writing this book, I saw a little boy ride his own bike, accompanied by his parents both on yellow ofo bikes. A family bike ride was made significantly more accessible because of the availability of these bikes. The bikes are painted in bright colors so that they stand out visually. Everybody who rides such a bike becomes an apparent model for others to see with regard to what can be done with the bikes, where they can be parked, and where they can be found.

The structural vitality of the project comes from the effective orchestration of functionalities from networked technologies and system governance. The GPS of the user’s smartphone locates the bike during the unlock operation, and the phone also provides connectivity to communicate the bike’s location and the user’s identification to the bike operator’s system. The QR code, scanned by the phone’s camera, has finally found a worthwhile use, after having been around for years in search of a meaningful application. Implemented in this way, the QR-based bike-unlock mechanism turns a limit of the QR code into a feature: the requirement of a direct line of sight to visually scan the code ensures that whoever unlocks the bike is physically present at the location of the bike; a remote unlocking by users becomes impossible due to the deliberate use of the constraints of a technology.

The fields of possibility in this bike-share system are quite strikingly circumscribed by the omission of elements. Taking the docks out of the equation, the field of possibility is continuously re-created by the users of the system and their choices of where they park the bikes. This is a significant change to pay close attention to: the users of the system cause a continuous redesign of the system itself. This is not a system based on balancing average ridership demand, as is done in the case of dock-based systems.

Here, every single decision of where to park a bike matters, and each decision impacts the system significantly with regard to what possibilities are offered. A bike might just be parked literally outside your door one day and offer you a ride.

There are limitations to the openness of the system, however. Dockless bike-sharing systems largely require the possession of a smartphone as well as a credit card for payment. Some exceptions exist. LimeBike in Seattle, for example, introduced cash payments in 2017. People can prepay in cash at a physical office in the city and then call a number from any phone to have a bike unlocked. These systems also tend to be limited to municipal boundaries; they rely on agreements with municipalities. In 2018, thousands of dockless bikes were being deployed in towns around Boston. “Notably absent from that list [of towns] are Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville—the four communities that use the Hubway system. Their agreement with the private company that operates Hubway bars other bike-share systems,” comments the Boston Globe. This is an interesting new territorial condition that is created by commercial agreements and that is defeated by the very nature of bikes being mobile enough to cross municipal boundaries anytime.

Rebalancing the system becomes even more of a challenge with dockless bikes than with their dock-based equivalents, as the individual bikes are spread out and often hard to locate. The system does get unbalanced, with bikes being rare near subway stations during the evening commute, as users are keen to use them for the last mile of their commute. Rebalancing strategies, however, do exist and are either truck based or user based via dynamic pricing/crediting schemes.

A System Both Timely and Serendipitous

The quickness of the unlocking operation in bike-sharing systems matters. Dockless systems are very quick. You point your phone’s camera at the lock’s QR code, and in only a couple of seconds the lock opens. The immediacy is essentially at the level of Amsterdam’s White Bikes from 1965—we have come full circle. There is no looking for the nearest bike dock, no payment or other phone interaction needed, and no kiosk interaction. The quickness of the interaction and the physicality of it matters in this service. The system uses sophisticated digital networks, but it also uses the physicality of the bike and its lock as an effective interface.

There is no need for a user to decide upfront on the destination of the trip. There is no need to identify dock locations at the end of the ride and whether dock spots are available to park the bike once arrived. The timing of the system is based on kairos, the opportune moment. You see a bike and decide there and then to use it. There is nothing else to consider to make this work operationally; it is an effective low-stakes commitment.

Rhythms, ever-changing locations of the bikes, emerge where bikes can be found at different times of the day. As a user of the system, one becomes acutely aware of the rhythms of fellow bikers using the system and the flow of bikes from one part of the city to another and back again.

When parking the bike, a user becomes aware that the place the bike is parked will condition the next use of the bike: whether it will be found easily and whether it is parked at a place with much foot traffic. It is an element of anticipatory design that invests and involves the user directly. Essentially, as a user, you design the future findability of the bike and the point of access to the system on every ride.

A System That’s Visible and Always Changing

The dockless bike-sharing system is in constant flux. Bikes are parked in different locations all the time, and the system, in this way, is capable of adapting to changing conditions of traffic, housing, residency, and so on. Precisely because there are no predetermined docking stations, the parked bike locations remain relevant in the context of constantly changing urban conditions, as the locations are an expression of actual use.

Cues about the state and the behavior of the system are provided directly by the visibility of the bikes in the urban environment. Bikes are very visible, as in the case of the bright-yellow ofo bikes. It is easy to spot them when they are nearby, and it is easy to spot accumulations of several bikes at specific locations at certain times (such as subway stations, schools, and office buildings). It is easy to observe also that at these same locations, there can be no bikes at all at other times.

The system is understood by the physical and visual presence of the bikes in urban space when parked as well as when ridden. You become aware of these bikes visually when they ride by you. You see these bikes when they are parked on the sidewalk or at other public spots. You use the system when you ride the bike, and you observe the system when others do so. When observing the system, you are also using it, as you learn from observing the ever-changing locations and concentrations of the bikes in your immediate environment.

Parking dockless bikes is fundamentally different from parking dock-based bikes. Where to park becomes an open question for the biker. There are indications of where to park: rules from the operator that urge users not to block the pedestrian way of passage. In the real context of sidewalks, finding an adequate spot to park leads users to become aware of the intricacies of public use of any particular spot. Parking these bikes is an excellent example of situated action, as you find yourself negotiating the affordances of tight sidewalks, lamp posts, and other elements to park the bike, abiding by the operator’s rules as well as negotiating the contingencies of the actual characteristics of place.

Accountability beyond the bikes in plain sight is provided through the tracking system and the online maps. The bikes are GPS located, and wherever they are parked, they can be located. The trips of the bikes are also linked to the identity of the user, and thus there is accountability for potential damage to the bike, parking in spots deemed inappropriate by the operator, and similar criteria.

A System That Expects the Unexpected

Today’s dockless bike-sharing systems are wild systems. They are similar to Amsterdam’s White Bikes. It is clear that anything can happen to these bikes, and a lot already has happened to them, from being “parked” on top of trees to being recovered from rail tracks and rivers.

Bikes that do not have a built-in GPS unit can be transported to a different location while locked, and in this way, they can get off the grid quite literally. Their actual location no longer corresponds to the virtual one that is maintained in the operator’s system and that is visualized on the digital maps of the system. Cases exist in which bikes have been hidden behind dumpsters and bushes to “reserve” them for personal use at a later point, with users exploiting leeway in the system. Bikes are also frequently driven beyond municipal boundaries and dropped off in neighboring cities that have exclusive contracts with competing bike-share providers. This triggers operators having to recover bikes directly.

These uses are idiotic, [to use the phrase] as described by philosophers Isabelle Stengers and Gilles Deleuze, in that they are acts by citizens that do not play by the publicly accepted rules. They do not contribute to the common cause of the system in the way that the citizen is expected to contribute but instead represent personal interpretations of the system. They “slow things down.” They are, however, by being idiotic, also a valuable manifestation of what is possible.

The otherness of the system is that you never know where to find a bike in advance. You can never be certain to find a bike nearby. That is different from dock-based systems, which are more predictable due to their limited number of bike locations, which concentrates bike availability, and across which operators balance availability. In a very concrete way, you cannot count on dockless bike-sharing systems, and yet they appear to work and fulfill a role. The balancing of the system does not refer to docks but literally to the entire urban territory. Some days a bike is outside your door; then again, on other days, the nearest bike is a several minutes’ walk away. It is a system that does not allow you to settle in a “usual” mode of operation; it keeps surprising you, keeps you on your toes. The operation of dockless bike-sharing systems is fundamentally based on otherness. The system is always other than expected. It is a system that, in its current form, exists beyond control.

Adapted from “The Urban Improvise: Improvisation-Based Design for Hybrid Cities,” by Kristian Kloeckl, published by Yale University Press. Copyright © 2020 Yale University Press. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

Kristian Kloeckl

As Seattle Seeks to Tax Amazon (Again), What Can It Learn From California?

3 days 19 hours ago

Supporters of Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and of a tax on big businesses like Amazon gather for a rally announcing the campaign to "Tax Amazon 2.0." (Photo by Greg Scruggs)

On a frigid Monday night in January, fiery speeches about Amazon’s perceived tax avoidance and poor labor practices warmed up a capacity crowd in Seattle’s Washington Hall at the launch of a new campaign to tax the tech giant to pay for affordable housing, homeless services, and Seattle’s Green New Deal — rehashing a bruising political fight from 2018 that captured national attention about the symbiotic yet fractious relationship between city government and powerful corporations.

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From socialist politicians to union organizers, the speakers echoed their 20th century forebears who barnstormed for political causes in the historic fraternal lodge. Today’s rabble rousers are eager to translate recent city council election momentum into a grassroots movement to tax Amazon. The ongoing battle to raise and spend revenue for similar needs in San Francisco offers a mirror for how Seattle might proceed as campaign backers start drafting a new tax proposal this weekend.

In May 2018, the Seattle City Council passed a $275 per-employee tax on companies grossing over $20 million annually. City analysts expected the progressive tax to raise about $47 million annually for affordable housing and homeless services - Seattle declared a civil state of emergency on homelessness in 2015 — from roughly 3 percent of Seattle’s businesses. The total amount was a compromise after Amazon threatened to slow down its growth in the city.

Although a city-appointed progressive revenue task force proposed the so-called “employee hours tax,” socialist city councilmember Kshama Sawant branded the policy as the “Amazon Tax” and led rallies outside the Amazon Spheres. After passage, a coalition of businesses affected by the tax — including Amazon — mounted a referendum campaign. With unfavorable polling numbers, the council preemptively repealed the tax in June 2018, their voices in the city council chamber drowned out by activists chanting “We are ready to fight / Housing is a human right.”

That same chant reverberated in Washington Hall earlier this month. 18 months after progressives lost their first effort to tax big business for housing, some version of the Amazon tax is back on the table. How?

First, other West Coast cities facing similar challenges — ballooning unsheltered populations and affordable housing crises amidst a tech-fueled economic boom — took Seattle’s head tax idea and ran with it. In 2018, San Francisco voters approved Prop C, a gross receipts tax on earnings above $50 million, and residents of Mountain View, Google’s hometown, passed a $150 per-employee tax.

Second, Amazon donated a record-breaking $1.5 million to a chamber of commerce PAC in an effort to flip the city council in last November’s election. Their gambit backfired dramatically, with only two of seven candidates endorsed by the chamber winning their races. The election was widely seen as, in part, a de facto referendum on the head tax — and Sawant, the policy’s most vocal proponent, won a hotly contested race.

That combination of events fuels Sawant’s effort to resurrect some form of a progressive tax on big business. An appearance at the rally by Seattle city attorney Pete Holmes — who declined to speak on stage — suggests that the city bureaucracy is willing to defend an eventual law against legal challenges.

What form that new tax will take, and how it will become law, are open questions that will assume center stage January 25 for an “action conference” where progressive thinkers, labor organizers, and renters’ rights activists will convene to hash out a proposal in a messy act of grassroots democratic sausage making.

Thus far, Sawant’s only public commitments are that the tax should be bigger than 2018’s compromise — totaling at least $300-$500 million per year, she said in a press conference — and that while she will propose city council legislation, the social movement backing the tax will also pursue a ballot initiative. Confidence that Seattle voters would approve a head tax is a 180-degree turn from the political calculations of June 2018.

Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant cheers at a rally announcing her campaign to "Tax Amazon 2.0." (Photo by Greg Scruggs)

While Sawant was mum on the specific mechanisms of the tax, other than insisting it would tax big business and not workers or small businesses, she did signal a willingness to learn from Seattle’s peers. “Movements are learning from one another. What we have learned is that what we do inspires working people elsewhere and when working people win victories based on inspiration from us, we have to take that inspiration back on our shoulders and win something here,” she told Next City. “If San Francisco can do it, so can we.”

San Francisco “did it” by pursuing a radically inclusive process to build a movement, keeping the measure straightforward, offering a detailed spending plan, and meeting with business leaders to craft compromises.

“It was important that they had a coalition and that people like [Salesforce CEO] Marc Benioff and other business leaders participated in the campaign and showed that it was not that all business was going to oppose all business taxes,” Kristy Wang, community planning policy director for Bay Area’s urbanism think tank SPUR, told Next City.

No Seattle-area business leader of any stature — much less a Benioff-like figure — publicly supported the 2018 head tax. Given the intense business-backed opposition to the head tax, imagining Microsoft’s Brad Smith or Starbucks’ Kevin Johnson endorsing a hypothetical Seattle sounds like pure fantasy, especially when Sawant said on election night, “It is not about inviting the billionaires to the table, because for God’s sakes they own the whole goddamn table.”

But long before Seattle’s new tax proponents will have to decide whether or not to meet with the chamber of commerce, they must come up with a vision.

“We’re not claiming to end homelessness,” Prop C’s principal architect Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness, told Next City. “We wanted to do something big and bold but we wanted it to be doable.”

Like Seattle is starting this weekend, the San Francisco initiative draft did not come out of a smoke-filled room. Friedenbach described exhaustive consultations with housing providers, policymakers, and city department staff. The coalition submitted FOIA requests to acquire background data on the unmet need for housing, mental and behavioral health services, shelters, and eviction prevention.

When it came time to design Prop C, the coalition kept the math and the messaging simple. One-half percent on gross receipts after the first $50 million, with 50 percent going toward housing, were round numbers that resonated with the public. While the class warfare language of the slogan “tax the rich, house the poor” stirred up animosity from the city’s tech elite, it ultimately galvanized popular support, as Seattle’s rallying cries seem to do as well.

“We tried to make it really impossible to fight against — it only kicks in after $50 million, half a percent — while making it really cleanly progressive,” Friedenbach said. Where Seattle faced pushback from high-overhead businesses like grocery stores that feel they were unfairly targeted alongside tech companies, Friedenbach has a simple solution to neutralize the opposition: “Just exempt them.”

In San Francisco, a detailed spending plan describing how the revenue would scale up existing city programs, from financing affordable housing to treating drug addictions, helped silence critics and bring on endorsements, from urbanism think tank SPUR to the feisty older homeowners that make up the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods to influential Chinese-American groups — with 800 Chinatown families living in single-room occupancy apartments, inadequate housing cuts across the city’s demographics.

“The biggest thing we’re up against is this sense that the issue can’t be solved,” Friedenbach said. “If you can demonstrate this can be solved and this is how you do it, that goes a long way toward inspiring a level of trust and people can take a chance on it.”

That kind of messaging has been an uphill battle for Seattle, where 2018 head tax critics alternatively derided a perceived lack of a spending plan, balked at the plan that was presented, and doubted the city’s ability to spend new revenue efficiently. (Next City’s reporting showed that demand from affordable housing developers for shovel-ready projects in 2018 far outstripped supply, which the head tax could have supplemented. The city’s Office of Housing did not respond to a request for comment about 2019 housing funding.)

With Prop C held up in court, the city has collected the money but not yet spent it, so the jury is still out on the initiative’s efficacy.

While Seattle has its fair share of skeptics that any public action beyond stricter enforcement can make a dent in homelessness, the numbers are encouraging. From 2018 to 2019, the metro area’s homeless population decreased for the first time in seven years, suggesting that something is working. For one, the city appears to be on board with permanent supportive housing. A new civic alliance favoring that approach, calling itself the Third Door Coalition, arose from the ashes of the head tax debate. In August, the mayor and city council took advantage of a new Washington state law allowing the city to retain a portion of sales tax for affordable housing and announced a $50 million investment. Last week, one of the city’s leading affordable housing developers broke ground on 91 new units of permanently supportive housing on a city-owned parcel backed with city dollars.

If Seattle’s homeless tax proponents wish to follow San Francisco’s lead, they will have to hold up these ongoing efforts as proof that public investment delivers results.

Gregory Scruggs

Economics in Brief:  State Court Allows Minneapolis $15 Wage to Stand

3 days 20 hours ago

Protestors rally for a $15 minimum wage in Minneapolis on April 15, 2015, as part of a nationwide action to demand a $15 minimum wage. Two years later, Minneapolis voted to raise the minimum wage to $15, but the wage increase has been in the courts since then. (Photo by Fibonacci Blue / CC BY 2.0)

State Court Allows Minneapolis $15 Wage to Stand

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The Minnesota Supreme Court unanimously upheld Minneapolis’s $15 minimum wage Wednesday, the Star Tribune reports.

Minneapolis passed a $15 minimum wage in 2017 with the pay increase being phased in gradually until 2024, the Tribune says. But Graco Inc, a manufacturer based in Minneapolis with locations throughout the state, sued the city.

The company said it moves employees between its locations in Anoka, Rogers and Minneapolis and could do so because the pay and benefits throughout the state were the same, at the state-set minimum of $10 an hour. With Minneapolis’s move to a higher minimum wage, “it’s no longer an option to move employees … and no longer a fair system for the affected employees,” a spokesperson said.

The state court ruled that the Minnesota Fair Labor Standards Act set a floor, not a ceiling, for minimum wages.

The decision ends a three-year fight over the city’s authority to set pay, but the statewide fight is not over: Minnesota Chamber president Doug Loon released a statement calling on “state policymakers to explicitly prohibit [minimum wage] ordinances so employers can spend less time understanding and complying with duplicative or inconsistent laws and devote more time to innovating, growing and hiring new employees.”

St. Louis Churches Erase $12 Million in Medical Debt

St. Louis-area churches have forgiven 11,000 families’ medical debt, St. Louis Public Radio reports. The churches purchased $12.9 million in medical debt for literally pennies on the dollar: by spending just $105,000, they eliminated nearly $13 million in debt.

The churches worked with RIP Medical Debt, a charity founded by two former collections executives and touted by the likes of John Oliver.

Such a purchase works because when debts don’t get collected, they are sold to a collections agency. That agency may sell the debt at an even cheaper price to yet another agency. Eventually, the debt balance is still intimidatingly high, but the value on the debt-buying market is a fraction of its original worth.

Church officials used the occasion to push for more comprehensive health policies, such as expanding Missouri’s Medicaid program. If Medicaid were expanded to provide insurance to single parents and adults earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line, there’d be significantly less debt to forgive, Rev. Traci Blackmon of Christ the King United Church of Christ told the station.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Proposes Universal Basic Income for Former Foster Youth

Santa County County Supervisor Dave Cortese has proposed creating a system that would provide former foster youth a short-term universal basic income, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

The idea is still in its exploratory stages but if approved would be the first such program in the country.

County staff are leaning towards a $1,000/month stipend for one to two years. It could target youth aged 18 to 21 who are in extended foster care or are ineligible for extended care, or those 21 to 24 who have aged out of the system.

The county currently has 58 youth transitioning out of foster care and another 195 in extended foster care. To provide for just the 58 youth would cost $700,000 a year. Cortese says he’s exploring philanthropic partnerships to fund the program.

Next City

Housing in Brief: After Eviction, Moms 4 Housing May Reoccupy Oakland House

3 days 22 hours ago

Dominique Walker, left, and Sharena Thomas, both from the group Moms 4 Housing, cheer during a rally outside of City Hall in Oakland, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Land Trust May Acquire Oakland House Occupied by Moms 4 Housing

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Last week, two Oakland women were arrested after being evicted from a vacant, investor-owned home that they had occupied for two months, as part of a campaign to bring awareness to homelessness and property speculation in the city. This week, Moms 4 Housing’s fortunes appear to be changing. The Mercury News reports that Wedgewood, the group that owns the property, had agreed to sell it to the Oakland Community Land Trust as part of a deal negotiated by Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.

The Moms 4 Housing story has made national and international headlines — “Mothers Against Vampire Real Estate,” The New Republic wrote — an indication of how successful the campaign has been. And the impact may be more widespread. As the Mercury News reported, “Wedgewood also agreed to allow the city, the land trust, or other affordable housing organizations the right of first refusal on all of the dozens of properties it owns and had planned to sell in the city.”

Schaaf also reportedly said she was hoping to create laws that give tenants and nonprofit groups a right of first refusal for apartments that go up for sale in the city as a way to create more affordable housing, similar to the Community Opportunity to Purchase Act in San Francisco.

“I cannot condone unlawful acts, but I can respect them, and I can passionately advance the cause that inspired them,” Schaaf said, according to the paper.

Striking Tenants May Face Eviction in D.C.

Across the country, another housing standoff is underway in Washington, D.C. Tenants of a building in Columbia Heights have been withholding rent from their landlord since early December over concerns related to “mold, rodent infestations and inadequate security,” according to reports for The Affordability Desk at WAMU. The owners of the building have taken some of the tenants to court in a possible early step toward eviction, but tenants believe they have a strong argument for withholding rent in light of the property’s conditions, according to the report. The rent strike at the building was in the works for months, according to an earlier WAMU report. Tenant advocates in Washington, including some of the organizers behind the rent strike in Columbia Heights, are hoping to expand the city’s rent control law, which expires at the end of the year.

Washington State Republicans Push a ‘Law and Order’ Approach to Homelessness

A group of Republican state senators in Washington are backing new laws meant to address homelessness through both a “market-based approach” to building new affordable housing and a “law-and-order” approach to dealing with the behavior of homeless people, according to The Spokesman-Review. Some of the lawmakers were proposing bills reducing impact fees on new construction to reduce the cost of housing, according to the paper, while others were sponsoring rules related to public behavior. One of the proposals “would allow officers to take a person who exhibits ‘poor personal hygiene, unpleasant aroma, unexplained injuries, exposure to elements or other unsafe behavior’ for a 72-hour evaluation. The evaluation would try to determine if they suffer from addiction or mental health issues.”

Other proposals would require prosecutors to charge people who commit “repeated property offenses,” and “set up a special type of guardianship that would allow local governments to appoint a family member or a social worker to be responsible for a homeless individual who needs treatment for addiction or a mental health issue,” according to the report.

“It has to be about law and order, and I don’t say that without compassion,” said State Sen. John Braun, according to the Spokesman-Reviews. “The services do no good if you don’t have rules that you follow within society.”

Jared Brey

A City Employee Walks Into a Podcast Studio ...

3 days 22 hours ago

Meka Harrell, front left, and Monique Hibma, front right, co-hosts of the Tea With Meek & Nique podcast, chat with guests Colby Harrel and Pierce Hibma in Press Play Studios, a podcast studio in Greensboro, North Carolina. (Photo courtesy Press Play Studio)

Editor’s note: Next City is covering solutions and challenges in Greensboro ahead of hosting our 2020 Vanguard Conference in the city. Applications are now open.

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Podcasts have become ubiquitous, and Josh Sherrick, the city’s arts and events superintendent and self-proclaimed “podcast-o-phile,” figured they could help the City of Greensboro, North Carolina. Sherrick saw podcasts as a different way to engage with Greensboro arts and culture fans as well as a new way to use the city’s Cultural Center, a city-owned building that houses 16 local organizations focused on visual and performing arts. Sherrick connected with entrepreneur Brody Cohen-Glaze, who was already planning on launching a podcast production studio, and the pair negotiated a deal that has enabled Greensboro to carve out its own space in the podcasting world.

In 2017, Cohen-Glaze built a wall in the cultural center and took over the area used to hold vending machines to build Press Play studio, which offers space and technical assistance for people who want to record a podcast. While Cohen-Glaze was responsible for renovating the space to hold the studio, he also received a break on the rent. Sherrick allowed the studio to operate without paying rent for the first three months.

“I’m not entirely certain [that] … our ability to produce podcasts and do what we do would be possible” if not for the deal struck between the city and Cohen-Glaze, Sherrick says. Cohen-Glaze says that because he had a full-time job when the deal was struck, he was able to pay for the renovations without taking out a loan. Today, Cohen-Glaze’s podcast studio still pays a “much-below market-value” rent, Sherrick says. In return, the studio provides reduced-rate podcasting services to city agencies and free services to the nonprofits in the cultural center.

Most groups in the cultural center have been slow to take advantage of the podcasting offer, but a couple of city agencies have. Two shows that illustrate the medium’s potential are Gate City Chatter, which focuses on arts and cultural events in the Greensboro area, and History Notes, from the Greensboro History Museum.

Sherrick says the Gate City Chatter podcast has more than 500 episodes. “We’re well over 5,000 download/listens,” Sherrick says. The average listens per episode number between 300 and 400, he says. “We are a very local podcast, talking about the creative people and cultural happenings in Greensboro,” Sherrick says.

The podcast doesn’t garner tens of thousands of listeners, but Sherrick says other, similarly local podcasts garner a few dozen downloads. “We’re actually doing really well in this space that we are in,” he says. “The engagement that we get from our listenership, that is really important for us,” Sherrick says. He notes that there are people from various parts of the U.S. who listen, as well as a consistent listener in, for some reason, Ireland.

Gate City Chatter is recorded every Friday, live at 10am EST. Cohen-Glaze is front left. (Photo courtesy of Press Play Studio)

Rodney Dawson is the curator of education at the Greensboro History Museum, and he says he saw the podcast as a way to fill a need for area teachers. “Coming from teaching, one of the things that wasn’t one of my favorite things was developing lesson plans,” Dawson says. “So, I was looking for tools a teacher could use to develop a lesson plan.” Dawson’s History Notes podcast began airing at the beginning of this school year. The first season will include 20 episodes.

One episode Dawson highlights features a local educator who brought aerospace education to the district. “Back in the 80s, they had an educational space program,” Dawson says. “She was one who went to NASA and was trained, and she helped bring the moon rock program back to Guilford County Schools back in the mid-80s,” Dawson says. That program lent rocks brought back from the moon to schools and museums for classroom lessons. The episode describes the steps this woman had to take to obtain security clearance and enter the training program as well as some of the measures taken to protect the moon rocks brought to the schools for students to study. Another History Note focuses on the integration of Durham County schools.

Another production underway comes from the county Registrar of Deeds, Jeff Thigpen. His office handles vital and property records for the county. While the office gets joyous visits for marriage and birth certificates, deep emotions surround death and dying. Thigpen says that often when people come into his office for death certificates, they are “fighting through grief and sometimes dealing with innumerable questions about how to resolve estates. Notifying people, choosing a funeral home. How much it all costs. Veterans having questions about resources that could be there for them in terms of grief and mourning.”

These questions and issues prompted him to create the “Good Grief” podcast. “Nobody has gotten out of life alive,” Thigpen says. “How we talk about this is really important. I mean, we have to be serious, but the idea is of normalizing [death] and saying ‘Y’know what? We should talk [about it] and not feel ashamed or deny it.’” Thigpen says that funeral costs shouldn’t push families into bankruptcy and says he’d like to cover alternative arrangements, such as green burials, which allow bodies to decompose naturally, in one episode.

For Sherrick, the project has had to overcome challenges such as a lack of familiarity with the podcasting medium and the idea of on-demand listening. “There is a large learning curve for getting into the space,” Sherrick says, noting that different age groups and demographics have varying levels of experience with podcasts. “I think what [Cohen-Glaze] learned early on is that you can’t assume that people know the value of what you’re doing,” Sherrick says.

In his first year, Cohen-Glaze says he invested roughly $18,000 running the studio that he didn’t earn back. However, because he had a full-time job, he was able to continue with the studio. Cohen-Glaze hopes that as people grasp the value of podcasting, his business will grow and prosper. Meanwhile, he says, the podcasts are opening up new paths for local arts organizations. “I think Greensboro is really thinking about how can different organizations help support the arts instead of these five or six big [foundations],” Cohen-Glaze says.

Zoe Sullivan

A Look Back at Michigan’s Six-Year Farm-to-Institution Program

4 days 22 hours ago

In this photo taken on Aug. 12, 2009, Carolyn Meekins stands by her wheat field on a vacant lot in Flint, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Michigan is home to one of the most diverse agriculture industries in the nation, famous for its prized Honey Crisp apples, Traverse City cherries, as well as peaches, asparagus, broccoli, and more.

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Yet many medium and small farms are struggling to survive, and more than half of Michigan residents can’t access fresh food on a daily basis.

In an effort to both provide local farmers with a more steady stream of income and help local produce get into the bellies of more local residents, public health experts and advocates are making more of a concerted effort to make sure that the food supplied to these institutions come from local sources.

That’s why the Michigan Farm to Institution Network launched Cultivate Michigan in 2014. The goal at the time was ambitious: that Michigan institutions source 20 percent of their food from Michigan sources by 2020.

Cultivate Michigan is just one aspect of the Michigan Good Food Charter, published in 2010 and developed with leadership from the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan State University, the Food Bank Council of Michigan and the Michigan Food Policy Council. In it were six goals to tackle during the 2010s that aimed to make it easier for residents to access locally made food and to connect Michigan farmers with more ways to keep that food in-state.

For Cultivate Michigan’s part of that overall vision, members involved in the campaign — farmers, distributors, public health figures, institutional leaders — would select four new seasonal foods each year to market and promote. Food service buyers could sign up to participate and be connected with farmers interested in selling their products to sources in Michigan. Participating institutions would report their purchases. Cultivate Michigan leadership would use that data to track progress and continue to improve relationships between the two groups.

“The overarching motivation was to provide access to healthy food to residents and support farmers and producers in order to foster strong local communities and healthy people,” says Kathryn Colasanti, a senior specialist at Michigan State’s Center for Regional Food Systems. “This campaign touches on those ideas and recognizes the important role that institutions play in providing food to people, particularly for children and schools. There are many children who may not have access to food outside of school.”

Participation in the campaign has been fledgling. To date, only 79 of the roughly 12,000 institutions — including hospitals, schools, universities, and assisted living facilities — across the state have signed up to participate.

Colasanti says it’s been difficult for institutions to keep track of their spending with Michigan sources making it hard to complete the surveys they’re given each quarter. A 2017 Cultivate Michigan data brief shows that very few institutions had returned surveys as many reported not having all of the purchase information available. Without that data, tracking whether the institutions were getting any closer to reaching their 20 percent goal has been a challenge.

Colassanti and others involved in the campaign say part of the problem that Cultivate Michigan experienced with encouraging institutions to go local is there is little financial incentive to do so. Choosing a seller that’s close to home from a small or medium-sized grower tends to be more expensive than sourcing from a much bigger grower out of state. Another key to influencing institutions is to educate them and growers alike that a local supply chain does in fact exist and letting them know how to tap into it.

Brandon Seng, co-owner of Farm to Freezer, a supplier of produce to Michigan institutions and a longtime supporter of Cultivate Michigan, says even though this initial campaign hasn’t reached its goal, it’s an important first step to begin moving the needle.

“It may have been aspirational, but it is pushing the movement forward,” says Seng.

Farm to Freezer was founded in 2013 after Seng and his wife had been handling the food service program at a Catholic school in Northern Michigan. The couple had founded the nonprofit Manistee Community Kitchen, which focuses on addressing food insecurity in the area. While at the school, they started freezing small amounts of locally grown produce to serve during the school year. They had realized that many of the students were missing out on ever trying these foods because school was out during the harvest season.

The business has gone on to focus most of its efforts on supplying produce to more than 200 institutions across Michigan. Co-owner Mark Coe works with 30-40 Michigan farmers to supply the produce, which is picked at the peak of freshness and then minimally processed and frozen so that they can be enjoyed no matter the time of year. Seng says Farm to Freezer regularly creates custom vegetable medleys for the schools the company sells to. For example, at suburban Detroit Warren Consolidated Schools, he’s created a custom parsnip bag, featuring multi-colored carrots. At Frankfort High School in Northern Michigan, Farm to Freezer has developed a custom bag of purple and yellow cauliflower to match the school’s colors.

Establishing a network of institutions that are interested in buying locally will help open doors to farmers who’ve otherwise have traditionally been left out, says Seng. The challenge, he says, has been that farmers haven’t wanted to take the risk of growing produce at the scale institutions demand if they didn’t have a way to connect with those buyers in the first place.

“Connecting growers with institutional buyers directly has been absolutely essential throughout the process,” says Seng.

And that, he hopes, is helping to get the movement started.

Serena Maria Daniels

Sharing a Legal Template for Investing in Racial Justice

5 days ago

The Boston Impact Initiative has invested in businesses like Democracy Brewing, a worker-owned microbrewery in downtown Boston. Now, it's taking what it's learned national. (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

When Deborah Frieze goes out in search of new investors for the Boston Impact Initiative Fund, her pitch starts out with some pretty lofty goals, but then it goes a few degrees beyond some of the loftiest-sounding investment funds out there.

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The closest conventional models for Frieze’s fund are private equity funds, venture capital funds or hedge funds, all of which pool dollars from multiple investors and then turn around to build a portfolio of multiple investments according to some particular strategy.

As stated in the its disclosure documents for investors, Frieze’s fund has a strategy of investing in “local enterprises that improve the productive capacity of communities of color in Eastern Massachusetts,” and it is “dedicated to pursuing economic justice, promoting social welfare and combating community deterioration by encouraging and facilitating investment in opportunity for all – especially those most oppressed or abandoned under the current economic system.”

But there actually are plenty of other community development loan funds, as well as credit unions, banks and even some venture funds all around the country that have some kind of mission to make loans and investments in historically marginalized or underinvested communities.

Frieze’s pitch takes things a few degrees further when she gets to the part where she explains that her fund’s board of directors, which makes all final investment decisions, combines investment professionals with community organizers working in Boston’s historically marginalized communities. It goes even further when she gets to the part where she says the fund is open to investors from those communities, and if the fund goes bankrupt, the community investors will get partially refunded before any outside investors. Usually the bigger investors are first in line.

Despite the fund’s unconventional model — or in some cases because of it — there’s been enough interest from investors that Frieze recently had to start turning some of them away, at least temporarily. “We’ve raised faster than we’ve deployed,” Frieze says. “So we’ve actually just put a pause on our fundraising with the exception of community notes, which will stay open.”

In time, Frieze hopes she’ll be able to direct some of those investors to similarly structured funds working in historically marginalized communities across the country, including places as far-flung from Boston as the Hmong refugee community in Minnesota or native women-led business networks in New Mexico and elsewhere. The Boston Impact Initiative (BII) recently announced members of both of those communities will be part of its new BII Fund-Building Cohort, an 18-month program bringing together teams from twelve sites across the country to learn from each other and from BII how to build and run an investment fund that works hand-in-hand with community organizers to bridge racial and gender wealth gaps.

“We have a really strong idea of where we can put this investment,” says Vanessa Roanhorse, a member of the cohort and founder of Roanhorse Consulting, based in Albuquerque. “What we’re trying to figure out is what kind of investment structures make the most sense to get these indigenous women entrepreneurs to where they’re trying to go.”

Since inception in 2013, BII has loaned, invested or granted money to 60 enterprises. Its portfolio companies include businesses like Democracy Brewing, a worker-owned microbrewery in downtown Boston; Maven Construction, a woman- and minority-owned general contracting firm; or Fresh Food Generation, a food truck, cafe and catering company serving locally-sourced foods, based in Boston’s predominantly-black Dorchester neighborhood.

In one particularly illustrative example of how it works, BII provides grant support to City Life/Vida Urbana (which holds a seat on its board), which helps organize the Coalition for Occupied Homes in Foreclosure, or COHIF. In turn, COHIF borrows funds from BII to acquire homes in foreclosure and lease them back to the families already occupying them at rents they can afford (see Next City’s earlier coverage of COHIF).

It took a hefty amount of legal work to come up with legal documents that would allow BII to operate in that way — about two years and 30 pro-bono lawyers of work, to be more precise, according to Frieze. Those documents have allowed BII to raise $6.9 million from 119 investors so far, and will now be central to BII’s Fund-Building Cohort.

BII’s pro-bono lawyers initially directed the group to their firm’s private equity division. “We started conversations with them and I was like, ‘No no no, this is not the kind of fund that I want to do,’” Frieze says.

From Frieze’s perspective, a private equity fund wouldn’t work as a legal structure because it’s geared toward wealthy investors — those who meet the definition of “accredited investor” under the Securities Act of 1933. With certain exceptions, current federal regulations generally define an accredited investor as someone with a net worth of at least $1 million or an annual income of at $200,000 for the past two years.

“Here we are talking about closing the racial wealth divide,” Frieze says. “Imagine if all of our investors were all accredited investors who are making money off of entrepreneurs from low-income working class communities of color. Something’s not right about that.”

Frieze wanted a model that would be open to non-wealthy investors, and also wanted the flexibility to have wealthy investors bear more of the risk by putting non-wealthy investors first in line to get some of their money back in case the fund goes bankrupt. The fund also needed the flexibility to make grants as well as investments.

The Boston Impact Initiative ultimately filed an application with the Internal Revenue Service to form a charitable loan fund, with a minimum investment of $2,000. Frieze cites earlier models as a basis for their IRS application, particularly the Pioneer Valley Grows Investment Fund. Most community development loan funds are also registered as charitable loan funds.

But that wasn’t the end of the legal journey. In order to raise capital from private investors, including community investors, BII needed help from lawyers to craft an offering memorandum — a long document with lots of legalese and disclaimers outlining the terms and risks of investing in the fund, as well as the different investment options for non-wealthy investors and wealthy investors. It also describes the fund’s investment strategy, governance structure, and leadership. There’s also a plan for what happens if the fund goes bankrupt.

BII’s essential legal documents also include its loan and investment agreements for its portfolio enterprises. It’s become standard for BII to include “impact covenants” as part of its investments. For example, if a company decreases the compensation ratio of the highest versus the lowest paid employee, or if it implements a plan to convert to employee ownership, BII might decrease the interest rate on its loan by half a percent. If the highest-lowest compensation ratio increases, it might increase the interest rate by half a percent.

Frieze says there’s about seven or eight impact covenant “buckets” BII has across its investment portfolio. Each investment includes just one or two covenants, and BII lets each company choose which ones make sense.

BII already makes its IRS application documents, offering memorandum and loan agreements available to anyone who might want to use them as a template. As more and more organizations started contacting Frieze to ask about them, she realized a cohort model would be more efficient.

“No one should ever have to [create those documents from scratch] again,” Frieze says.

The BII Fund-Building Cohort will have three in-person gatherings in Boston as well as online webinars and one-on-one support from BII over the next 18 months to figure out how to build their own investment funds with BII’s legal documents as a template.

“I think the opportunity with this cohort is to explore other types of capital and other ways that organizations have packaged deals for their community,” says Mai Moua, another member of the BII Fund-Building Cohort and chief operating officer at the Hmong American Partnership.

In its hometown, BII has already hatched a replication of its model — the Boston Ujima Project, which took BII’s legal documents, tweaked them to fit the particular challenges of a democratically-run investment fund, and launched it last year, raising $1.3 million from investors in 2019 and making its first investment in December. Some of Ujima’s investors came from the same investor networks that were investing into BII.

“We deliberately built relationships with a number of registered investment advisers and donor-advised funds, because those are intermediaries that bring us multiple [investors],” Frieze says. “We want those relationships to be transferable to these other funds as they develop. A lot of these [networks] are national, and they’re investing in Boston because it’s the only racial justice product out there.”

Those networks are not just national, they are substantial. Registered investment advisors collectively manage $83.7 trillion in assets on behalf of their clients, and, while under fire as of late for serving as a tax shelter for the wealthy, donor-advised funds hold another $121.42 billion.

The BII Fund-Building Cohort members are at various stages of readiness to take in some of those private investor dollars. The Hmong American Partnership, for example, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. It already has a bus transportation company with 70 drivers and $5 million in revenue a year, mostly from contracts with three Hmong charter schools in the Twin Cities. It also owns Tapestry Restaurant, located on the first floor of its own building, which doubles as a hospitality industry training program. A few years ago, it started a staffing agency to turn its workforce development and job placement program into a revenue-generating company with more than 100 employee placement partners, from small mom-and-pop shops to Fortune 500 companies. In 2016, it created a small business revolving loan fund that currently has a $1.5 million portfolio.

But the Hmong American Partnership has primarily combined public dollars at the federal or local level along with earned revenues from their own businesses. Moua says they are eager to try their hand at raising private investor dollars using BII’s model.

“We’ve never done this kind of loan fund or investment fund before,” says Moua. “We’re really hoping through this funding cohort we would learn to refine our key messages and pitch to future investors and partners for what we are trying to do.”

Meanwhile in Albuquerque, Roanhorse and her team are busy planning the next Native Women’s Business Summit. They’ve done two annual summits so far. Her colleague Jamie Gloshay is also part of the BII Fund-Building Cohort, and also co-founded Native Women Lead, which organizes the summits. Both have had previous experience supporting businesses led by historically marginalized groups. Roanhorse Consulting is also responsible for designing and managing the Co-Op Capital pilot project in partnership with a local credit union. But they’re hoping the cohort experience will help them build their own new fund as well as gain knowledge about fund-building to share with other native-led groups across the country.

“Long term, from our perspective,” Roanhorse says, “we want to make sure that no matter what happens with whatever fund we’re able to create, that we’re also working with our other native-led partners across the country who are also looking to create some kind of creative ways to receive capital and who are raising capital so we can constantly ensure money that is trying to get into native country through specifically native-led initiatives.”

Oscar Perry Abello

Guangzhou Rail Transit Plan Includes 150 MPH Metro Lines

5 days 20 hours ago
(Photo by Dan Nevill / CC BY-ND 2.0)

Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation projects worldwide.

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Guangzhou Proposes Regional Network of Super-Fast Metro Lines

High-speed rail, meet rapid transit.

In a quest fo achieve an 80 percent share of the regional transport market, the Guangzhou municipal government is proposing a 15-year project that will dramatically expand both the extent and the speed of the world’s third-largest metro system.

According to a Railway Gazette International story, the plan calls for new lines in three categories: regular metro, “express metro” and “high-speed metro.”

Trains in that last system would run at speeds currently seen on only high-speed intercity trains at present: 250 km/h (155 mph). The plan includes three such lines, one of which would stretch 81.7 km (50.8 miles) from Sino-Singapore Guangzhou Knowledge City station to Nansha, with seven stations; the other two lines would serve the Guangzhou airport and connect the city center with Conghua.

The proposed “express metro” lines will also run at speeds not yet seen on rapid transit lines: 160 km/h (99 mph). Work on the first two of these is already underway: Line 18, a nine-station line that will run 65.3 km (40.6 miles) from Guangzhou Dong Railway Station to Wanqingsha, and Line 22, a 31-km (19.3-mile), 10-station line running from Bai’etan to Wanqingsha.

When the proposed network is complete, travel times between cities in the Guangzhou-Hong Kong-Greater Macao Bay region will be no longer than 60 minutes.

Tracklaying Begins on New Istanbul Airport Line

Istanbul’s new airport, which opened last year, is designed to handle 200 million passengers a year. On Jan. 18, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, witnessed the welding in place of the first rail segment on the first metro line that will serve it.

Metro Report International reports that the line was supposed to have opened last November, but delays have pushed the opening to November 2021. Most of the work on the line’s structures is complete, including tunnels built using three different methods. The line’s nine stations are now being outfitted and communications and train control systems are being installed.

Work is being performed by a consortium of Kolin and Şenbay under a December 2016 contract valued at €999.8 million ($1.109 billion).

The airport will also be served by a second metro line that will connect to the Mamaray suburban rail line; work on that project began last September and will finish in 2022. Bids for construction of a third line, a mainline rail line running from Halkalı that will form part of an outer bypass of Istanbul, have yet to be solicited.

Rx for Overcrowded NYC Subway Stations: Reopen Closed Entrances

With New York City subway ridership on the rise again for the first time in four years, overcrowding on station platforms at times of high demand has become a serious problem. The New York Daily News reports that city Comptroller Scott Stringer is recommending a simple way to ease that overcrowding: reopen hundreds of closed subway station entrances.

In a Jan. 15 letter to MTA New York City Transit President Andy Byford, Stringer wrote, “As of 2015, NYC Transit reported that 298 street stairs were closed to the public at 119 unique stations. Many were shuttered in the 1970s, a period of dramatic decline for the city and the subway system. It is far past time to move beyond that era and invest in a more equitable and accessible transit system.”

Stringer asked Byford to provide detailed data on the closed entrances and a timetable for reopening them.

In response to the letter, MTA spokesperson Tim Minton said that the MTA would be willing to walk Stringer through the process by which it decides whether to open or close entrances. “The MTA makes decisions based on facts and data,” Minton told the Daily News. “We regularly monitor crowding and accessibility at all stations, making adjustments where necessary. As part of station upgrades, NYC Transit opened both previously used and new entrances in multiple boroughs during the last year.”

Know of a project that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

Sandy Smith

The City That Plans to Completely End Homelessness

5 days 22 hours ago

(Photo courtesy Rockford CVB)

There’s a story often told about Angie Walker, the homeless program coordinator in the city of Rockford, Illinois, a city of 150,000 people about 85 miles northwest of Chicago. In addressing Rockford’s population of chronically homeless individuals, she got to know a man who had lived on the streets for several years, resisting efforts to be housed.

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In one of her visits, he expressed disappointment he couldn’t watch the Chicago Cubs play in the upcoming World Series without television. Walker made an offer on the spot: if he agreed to housing in a nearby short-term residency hotel, there’d also be television to watch baseball. He agreed. After the Cubs’ historic win, the pair worked together to eventually secure a more permanent living arrangement.

The story resonates because it’s the kind of determination, creativity and personalized service that’s come to define Rockford’s work with homeless individuals. Since 2014 — when the Obama administration called on U.S. mayors to end veteran homelessness — the city’s Human Services Department has “changed its entire system — everything we do,” according to Walker, to reduce its homeless population to “functional zero.”

Functional zero technically means that the number of people who are homeless is no greater than the monthly housing placement rate. More generally it’s understood as a well-coordinated, data-driven effort that assures homelessness is rare, brief and non-recurring, with no one forced to live on the street.

After Rockford brought veteran homelessness to functional zero, the city did the same for its chronically homeless population. Next was youth homelessness, which Walker expects to bring to functional zero in the coming months. The city’s final focus, to be addressed through 2020, is on single individuals and families experiencing homelessness.

Walker’s efforts trace back to two different initiatives emerging around the same time. The first was the Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness launched by the Obama administration, which prompted Walker to email then-mayor Lawrence Morrissey, encouraging him to sign on to the challenge. The second, which Walker stumbled upon online, was an initiative by the nonprofit Community Solutions that helped cities adopt a goal of functional zero.

The Built for Zero movement, which launched in 2015, includes a framework that goes beyond housing construction and investment and includes an integrated “command center” team collecting real-time, by-name data of everyone experiencing homelessness in a community.

In Rockford, it started as a new coordinated entry system listing every veteran experiencing homelessness in Rockford. The Human Services Department then held “collaborative case conferencing” that brought together diverse stakeholders including the county’s Veteran’s Assistance Commission and VA hospital staff. “For veteran homelessness, if anyone dealt with veterans we invited them to the table,” says Walker.

The cross-collaborative group went name-by-name to discuss the needs of each individual. “If John Smith is on the list, we talk about where he’s staying, ask who has had contact with John, and figure out where we can get John housed at and how fast can we do it,” Walker says.

Four more lists now encompass Rockford’s homeless population: chronically homeless, young adults between 16 and 24, singles and families with children. Each homeless individual who comes into contact with city services is added to the appropriate list and prioritized based on an assessment. Those with the highest need are referred to the next available permanent housing opportunity they’re eligible for — a mix of supportive, subsidized and market rate housing.

When the city is ready to bring a list down to functional zero — as they are now trying to do with youth — weekly collaborative case conferencing allows stakeholders to “work the list” by providing shared information and developing housing plans for individuals. Through this method, Walker notes, the entire team becomes responsible for ensuring individuals receive appropriate outreach with the goal of being permanently housed.

A few key factors mark a departure from traditional homeless services, according to Julia Parshall, a coach that works closely with Rockford’s Built for Zero team. “They’ve got data that makes the team really adept to responding to a complex problem,” she notes.

Built for Zero moves cities away from the one-day, point-in-time count of homeless people, mandated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for jurisdictions that receive homelessness funding. Instead of relying on a one-day count — which only offers a snapshot of a city’s homelessness population — Built for Zero pushes cities to track homelessness in real time.

In Rockford, consistent tracking of inflow, outflow, who’s housed and who’s returned to homelessness helps the team understand the specific needs of each population. For example, the city collects intake data to understand why that individual has become homeless. In analyzing responses from single and family populations, eviction emerged as a major driver. That led the team to identify shortcomings with the city’s Eviction Prevention Program and spearhead a one-month landlord mitigation pilot. “They found that for families during that time period, their inflow did drop,” says Parshall.

The current effort to bring youth homelessness to functional zero revealed completely different data and associated challenges. “Many young people go between homelesness and between friends and family, so often that it’s hard to keep track,” explains Walker. The challenges prompted the Human Services Department to hire a youth case manager who often conducts outreach by texting and Facebook messenger.

Outreach showed that most young people were overwhelmed by the city’s housing market. So the team hired a housing navigator to call landlords and take young people to look at apartments. “We implemented it a few months ago, and it’s been a game-changer,” Walker says.

Trial-and-error through outreach and short-term pilots are a defining part of Rockford’s push toward functional zero: “If the data shows it’s not working, we simply change it,” as Walker puts it. And she knows that lessons learned with the youth population won’t necessarily translate to the latest focus on single and family populations. To her, it’s part of the challenge.

“Every population is slightly different,” she says. “But one of the main things about this work is just believing that it’s possible.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve updated this story to clarify what steps the Rockford HSD took to start to tackle youth homelessness.

Emily Nonko

City of Philadelphia Makes Equity a Priority

5 days 22 hours ago

The Philadelphia Diversity & Inclusion Conference is one of the events positioning the city as a national leader on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. This year's conference will be held Mar. 30-31. At the 2019 conference, speakers highlighted ways in which diversity, equity and inclusion intersected with academic and corporate strategies. (Photo courtesy Philadelphia Diversity & Inclusion Conference)

Sponsored content from Philadelphia Diversity & Inclusion Conference. Sponsored content policy

The City of Philadelphia’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion is now the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion — marking the city’s efforts to place equity as a priority.

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For Nolan Atkinson, the City’s Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, the name change reflects how Philadelphia is attempting to take a leadership role in institutionalizing diversity, equity, and inclusion best practices in the public sector including the development of a Race Equity strategy that looks to identify and eliminate racial inequities created and perpetuated by the government. In addition, Atkinson says the office, empowered by Mayor Jim Kenney, is striving to help build a talented, diverse workforce throughout all sectors of City government.

Kenney recently signed an executive order establishing the office, and adding the offices of LGBT Affairs and People With Disabilities under Atkinson’s watch.

“Our aspirational goal is to have a municipal workforce that looks like the city of Philadelphia,” says Atkinson, who has been a fixture in the city for 50 years. Philadelphia’s population is 43 percent black, 35 percent white, 15 percent Latinx, and 7 percent Asian.

For many, the perception of Philadelphia has largely been defined by its white and black populations. However, in recent years, more efforts have been undertaken by organizations across the city to showcase the diversity of Philadelphia’s Latinx communities, as well as the many different Asian American populations that call Philadelphia home.

Atkinson says the city is also increasing its efforts to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act and to combat discrimination against individuals with disabilities. The office is expected to issue a report in 2020 highlighting the citywide disparities in providing ADA accommodations, including a plan for the city to address disparities that have been identified.

Similarly, Philadelphia’s efforts to embrace the LGBTQ+ community have garnered national recognition. Atkinson says Kenney is directing the city to expand LGBTQ+ outreach, and to ensure that ally ship is embraced among all public and private sector institutions. In November, the national LGBTQ+ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign named Philadelphia an “all-star city” for its inclusiveness towards LGBTQ+ community members. Philadelphia earned a perfect score of 100 on the HRC’s Municipal Equality Index.

He added that at a time of hardship for many immigrant communities, Philadelphia is opening its doors to new arrivals. “That’s how you grow a city,” Atkinson says.

According to Pew, the foreign-born population of Philadelphia grew nearly 70 percent between 2000-2016, making up about 15 percent of the city’s overall population. The Pew report notes that immigrants are “largely responsible for the city’s growth in residents and workers, and they have boosted the number of children and entrepreneurs.”

Philadelphia’s efforts reflect a wider recognition among cities that attracting — and keeping — residents and employers is linked with outreach to diverse stakeholders.

Atkinson will share some of the city’s best practices at the upcoming Philadelphia Diversity & Inclusion Conference, March 30-31. The conference is a preeminent gathering for thought leaders and influencers, executives, activists and academics to share best practices and redefine what it means to be diverse, equitable, and inclusive in the 21st Century. Keynote speakers will include Kenney, Temple University President Richard Englert and global philanthropist and entrepreneur Nina Vaca, as well as rising national and local voices with fresh insights on how to make diversity and inclusion an integral part of any sector and institution.

For more information, visit

Murali Balaji

‘People Not Property’ Aims to Create Statewide Database of Slave Deeds in North Carolina

5 days 22 hours ago

Deeds like this one, recording the sale of 98 human beings in 1819, are rarely digitized, but a project based out of Greensboro, North Carolina, is aiming to change that. (Image courtesy People Not Property)

Editor’s note: Next City is covering solutions and challenges in Greensboro ahead of hosting our 2020 Vanguard Conference in the city. Applications are now open.

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When Deshawn Elam started college at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University , an Historically Black College (HBCU) in Greensboro, N.C., he thought he would become a history teacher.

But life changed his plans.

One of his first classes introduced Elam to digital archiving.

“I’ve always been someone who’s interested in seeing actual history, like having it in my hands,” Elam says. “So, I was always fascinated with trying to preserve that history and trying to hold it physically.”

Digitizing historic documents enables Elam to do that. And, through his work with the People Not Property project at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro (UNCG), Elam is helping bring to light the human impact of U.S. slavery.

“Slave deeds,” documents testifying to the sale of enslaved people, were stored in county Register of Deeds offices. One of the first people who began digitizing these records and making them public was Drew Reisinger, the Register of Deeds for Buncombe County, North Carolina. The Buncombe County’s registry office has documents dating to the 1700s, and it has approximately 300 slave deeds.

Now, Elam, 20 and still an undergraduate, is working with archivists at UNCG to digitize slave deeds from 26 North Carolina counties so they can be included in the Digital Library on American Slavery. That library was created in the mid-aughts beginning with the personal archives of a retired professor.

One of the stories that Elam has unearthed with his research is that of Ann Booth Pollock, who sold all 98 of the enslaved people she owned on the Roquist and Balgra plantations for $40,600 to William M. Clark and David S. Clark on April 20, 1819. A later deed shows that the Clarks subsequently divided the enslaved people between them.

The work on the People Not Property project is a source of pride for his family, Elam says. He grew up with two older siblings outside of Charlotte, NC and is the first person in his family to attend college. After growing up as an African-American in a predominantly white community, Elam says studying at an HBCU takes on greater significance. “There’s so much, like, history here, as far as civil rights and like black history,” Elam says of NCAT and Greensboro. “It helps me stay focused … on trying to get these stories out and trying to study history,” he says.

While Elam has deep motivation for the digitizing work, findings like the Pollock deed can lead to historical trauma, says Claire Heckel, who coordinates the People Not Property project. Historical trauma is the cumulative impact on a person or group of people of an experience or event. Dr. Joy DeGruy described Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome in her 2005 book. She argued that the dehumanization of slavery was the initial trauma, while a racial hierarchy has continued to affect the prospects of dark-skinned people.

Elam acknowledges that he sometimes struggles with what he finds in these documents. “It’s really tough. It’s really hard to see. They’re literally equating black lives to property. And you still see that in society nowadays. It makes me feel hurt.”

Funds to support the project have come from the National Historic Public Records Commission, which provided roughly $300,000 over a period of three years, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which is supporting the creation of digital maps. The People Not Property project also takes advantage of the North Carolina Humanities Corridor, which supports inter-institutional collaborations, such as bringing students from UNCAT, UNCG and North Carolina Central to work on the archive.

UNCG librarian Richard Cox has been at the forefront of the project to digitize slave deeds. “We’ve been able to pull things like skill sets people may have had,” says Cox. He says that the digitizing and transcription process has enabled researchers to see more of “who these people were as people with rounded lives.”

Heckel says this specificity has important consequences. “A big part of what made the mentality of slavery possible was dehumanizing African-Americans. A lot of the discussions around slavery that students get in high school especially, are very vague and generalized. We kind of have nameless slave people and nameless slaveholders. So, this step towards restoring individuality and humanity is a very important process.”

The number of deeds in each county varies dramatically. One participating county in the western part of the state, Cox notes, only had one deed. David Gwynn, an associate professor at UNCG, says there were thousands of deeds in counties on the eastern end of the state.

“There was a bigger concentration of slaveholding in the eastern, coastal counties, which is where all the large-scale plantations were located,” Gwynn says. Additionally, the port was located there, and enslaved people arrived there from Africa.

While Elam is gaining skills as a digital archivist, the project will also develop classroom materials for teachers. The project aims to create maps and lesson plans similar to those available through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database at Emory University. Additionally, the plan includes mobile exhibits tailored to the communities served by the local libraries and Register of Deeds offices where the exhibit will be set up. Those exhibits will show families with different relationships to slavery: slaveholders, enslaved people, abolitionists, and families with mixed status. This, Cox says, allows modern people to put their families into an historical context while also looking more closely at enslaved people themselves.

The deeds could also enable people to identify family members and so are an important tool for genealogical research, often a challenge for African-Americans. October Kamara, 20, is a senior at UNCG and says this project can help provide some missing links. “If you know you have family in New York or family in Georgia, it’s really hard to access that, and going across [the] country to track down your family isn’t something that everyone can do,” Kamara says.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally misspelled Buncombe County. The error has been corrected.

Zoe Sullivan

A Freeze on Public-Housing Evictions in Richmond, Virginia

1 week ago

(Photo by Bill Dickinson / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Last July, a group of legal-aid lawyers in the area around Richmond, Virginia, who had joined forces under a grant from Equal Justice Works to form the Virginia Housing Justice Program, held a meeting with the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which manages the city’s 4,000 public housing units, on the subject of evictions.

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It was a citywide problem. The previous year, data released by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University showed that Richmond had the second-highest rate of eviction in the United States. And the housing authority was doing its share of the evicting, the lawyers noted. Many of the evictions seemed preventable, says Daryl F. Hayott, a housing attorney with Virginia Poverty Law Center. Either the judgments were very small — less than $100 in some cases — or they resulted from the housing authority not properly notifying tenants of their options, or misapplying payments to fees or utility bills instead of to rent first.

“We gave them some comments and suggestions,” Hayott says. “And from that point, we were noticing that the evictions seemed to kind of go up.”

One day in October, Hayott notes, the authority sought to evict 52 tenants from a single housing project called Creighton Court, which caught the attention of local reporters.

“We started looking at how much these people owed, and there would be $25 or $50 there — these really small payments,” Hayott says. “And so we were noticing that trend and that was really alarming to us, and [we thought] with the winter coming up, we can’t have all these people evicted.”

Amid an outcry from housing advocates, community organizers and attorneys, in early November, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority decided to suspend evictions for the remainder of the year, intending to “undertake an agency-wide evaluation of our public housing families’ rental accounts and give tenants that are in arrears the opportunity to come current,” according to a press release. The authority also said it was going to review its policies and try to develop the “most equitable approach to future lease enforcement.” Authority officials later extended the freeze through the end of January. Advocates and lawyers with the Virginia Housing Justice Program have been meeting with the authority during the interim, and are hoping that the pause will fix some of the technical issues with the housing authority’s evictions, and give tenants a better sense of what their rights are.

“We hope there will be better policies that will result in fewer eviction filings and judgments, and ultimately fewer replacements,” says Martin Wegbreit, the director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society. “The eviction rates in the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority [and the rest of the city] are so high that there’s only one way to go, really, and that’s down.”

State officials have tried to address the high rates of eviction in Virginia cities in the last few years with new laws and funding proposals, as Next City reported recently. In Richmond, the city council has funded a small eviction diversion program which helps tenants pay overdue rents, and Mayor Levar Stoney appointed a task force to study solutions to reducing the number of evictions in November. Wegbreit, who is a member of the task force, says that “there are so many different factors that are driving up the rate of eviction and really no factors that drive down the rate of eviction” in Richmond. The main factors — what Wegbreit calls “the big twelve” — range from a high rate of poverty and lack of affordable housing to laws that favor landlords over tenants, a low minimum wage, gentrification, delayed expansion of Medicaid, a history of segregation, and a low fee for filing an eviction.

“It’s so cheap, quick and easy to file an eviction lawsuit in Virginia that landlords file it as a first resort rather rather than as a last resort,” Wegbreit says.

Some issues are specific to the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, like a failure to offer tenants payment plans for overdue rent or notify them that they could ask for a hardship exemption, as Wegbreit wrote in an op-ed in November.

In a press release announcing the extension of the eviction freeze, Damon Duncan, the authority’s CEO, said it was “a win-win for all involved.” Duncan only joined the authority last year, and Angela Fountain, the authority’s communications and PR director, says that Duncan has been trying to get “the whole story” about how the authority has been issuing bills and utility charges to tenants. Part of what the authority is doing during the freeze, in addition to meeting with legal-aid lawyers to review its policies, is training all of its employees in how to manage tenants’ bills to make sure they’re not filing evictions unduly, Fountain says.

“We want to give those that may have gotten behind an opportunity to catch up, and then we want to make sure that we are administering our bills and things equitably and the way that we’re supposed to,” Fountain says.

The RRHA did not supply numbers on how many families had been able to avoid eviction because of the freeze. But Fountain said that around $54,000 had been released to families through the city’s eviction diversion program since it began in the fall.

Advocates have also raised concerns that the authority’s evictions are a prelude to emptying out some of the housing complexes altogether, and redeveloping them with fewer units for tenants. Omari Al-Qadaffi, a housing organizer with the Legal Aid Justice Center, says that growing vacancies are a concern for the future of public housing in the city. Vacancy and disrepair have preceded demolition in other notable public-housing cases, he says. Fountain notes that redevelopment is part of the authority’s mission, and at some point, it wants to rebuild all of its housing projects. Maintaining old buildings sometimes makes less sense that building them new, she claims. But she says the authority is not trying to reduce its number of tenants.

“As we move to improve housing, [tenants] will be provided new or rehabilitated homes, period,” Fountain says. “Our mission is not to displace anyone. Our mission is to make their current living situation better.”

Jared Brey

Who Has the Right to Build Wealth in a Gentrifying Neighborhood?

1 week ago

The 62 new condos at 18th & Mission will be the first affordable homes that Mission Economic Development Agency will sell to residents. (Since this rendering was developed, the project has added four stories to the portrayed nine.) (Rendering courtesy MEDA)

Karoleen Feng is going to build and sell 62 condos in San Francisco’s red-hot Mission District. But these aren’t just any condos.

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They’ll be right at 18th & Mission, along the neighborhood’s historic Mission Street commercial corridor. According to the city’s most recent study of the corridor, the stretch of Mission Street from 16th to 20th Streets accounted for $64 million in retail sales in 2016, and grew 56 percent from 2007 to 2016.

As brand new condos in a planned 13-story building along a strong commercial corridor in one of the hottest neighborhoods in one of the hottest real estate markets in the country, these are opportunities to generate wealth out of thin air. But the question becomes, to whom does that wealth belong?

Certainly some of it would belong to the families who qualify to purchase those condos. But what about the rest of the community whose art and culture and food made the neighborhood the attractive corridor that it is? What about the rest of the city and the state and even the whole rest of the country? All their tax dollars helped finance the construction of San Francisco’s BART mass transit system, with stops at 16th & Mission and 24th & Mission — further contributing to the neighborhood’s status and monetary value.

Feng is no typical developer. She’s the director of community real estate at the Mission Economic Development Agency, founded in 1973 to support the neighborhood’s predominantly Latino and Latina working-class population. Since she came into her position in 2013, the organization went from zero to 1,212 units of affordable housing produced or preserved so far, with another 439 under construction.

Up until now, that’s all been rental units. The 62 new condos at 18th & Mission will be the first affordable homes that Mission Economic Development Agency will sell to residents. And they’re planning to use a shared-equity model, selling the homes at prices that are affordable not only to the initial homebuyers but to every homebuyer thereafter, as long as the building exists. There’s a lot still that needs figuring out, but the idea is for some of the wealth generated to accrue to the homeowners, while leaving the rest behind with the community for the next generation of homeowners. And if it works once, Feng hopes the organization will get to do it again and again throughout the neighborhood.

“If we can figure out this one,” Feng says, “other ones will make more sense.”

To help figure out how to make it work, Mission Economic Development Agency just joined the Community Land Trust (CLT) Accelerator Fund, a program of Grounded Solutions, a national network that supports models of inclusive housing across the country. Funding for the CLT Accelerator Fund came from Citi Community Development (which also provides funding for Next City).

Grounded Solutions has had two application rounds for its CLT Accelerator Fund so far, receiving 33 applications, four of which have been accepted into the program. Mission Economic Development Agency’s project stood out for being mixed-use, with residential above two community services spaces on the ground floor.

“So in addition to housing folks, it’s also providing some community-serving early childhood education services and a performing arts and education space,” says Tony Pickett, CEO of Grounded Solutions.

According to Emily Thaden, director of policy at Grounded Solutions, there are approximately 250,000 units of shared-equity housing across the United States, including housing in shared-equity cooperatives as well as housing on community land trusts. Around 100,000 of those are in New York City, in the form of city-subsidized limited-equity cooperatives.

Meanwhile, there are an estimated 225 CLTs across the country, representing an estimated 20,000 rental units and 15,000 homeownership units. Communities typically turn to CLTs as a mechanism for permanently preserving affordable housing. Under a typical CLT, the entity acquires the deeds for each property, then leases or sells the buildings on those properties to developers or residents, with strict lease requirements to keep rents affordable or a mandatory resale formula that ensures each unit is affordable to the next homeowner. Each CLT is typically governed by a combination of CLT residents, other members of the surrounding community and at least one or two professionals in real estate or finance.

Mission Economic Development Agency isn’t currently planning to use a full-on CLT model, but some kind of shared-equity condominium model with deed-restricted resale formulas that protect affordability for families who come through the organization’s long-established first-time homebuyer counseling programs.

There are five or six basic models for resale formulas, Grounded Solutions’ Pickett says. A simple appraisal-based formula looks at the value of the home at purchase compared to the current market value.he family would have the right to sell at a price that includes only a certain percentage of the increase in value. Other formulas use area median income as a basis — looking at how much area median income has increased in the surrounding neighborhood, the homeowner gets back their original purchase price plus some percentage of the increase.

Which formula to use, and what percentages to use as part of those formulas, can depend on a great number of variables, Pickett says, including overall market conditions as well as the primary goal of the organization or affordable housing program.

“If [the goal is] wealth building for the family, you might choose one particular type of resale formula that accrues more to the family’s benefit,” Pickett says. “If it’s maintaining affordability over time as prices increase, that would likely be a different kind of resale formula that might not be as beneficial for the family.”

In a working paper published last year by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, researchers examined wealth accumulation for homeowners on shared-equity properties. Using data from a shared-equity database maintained by Grounded Solutions, the researchers looked at 58 shared-equity programs totaling 4,108 properties — not a representative sample but the largest sample to date in evaluating shared-equity homeownership. In that sample, the researchers found the median household owning a shared-equity property accumulates approximately $14,000 in wealth.

Nearly all of that wealth was accruing to families at the lower end of the economic ladder, and a growing share of it is accruing to families of color. Ninety-five percent of homes studied in the working paper were priced affordably for families earning 80 percent or less of area median income. The majority of purchasers were first time homebuyers, low-income (51–80 percent area median income), in a female-headed household, in their late 30s, and employed in office, retail or service industries. The share of households of color purchasing shared-equity housing steadily increased from 13 percent pre-2001 to 43 percent from 2013-2018.

All that said, building wealth is not necessarily a primary driver for those who purchase a CLT home. A PhD candidate in environmental psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City, Claire Cahen was one of the working paper co-authors. On another multi-year project, funded by the National Science Foundation, Cahen has been working under the leadership of her dissertation advisor Susan Saegert on the first multi-city, multi-site academic study comparing the lives of CLT residents to the lives of demographically similar residents who live in conventional housing.

Cahen says becoming wealthy through property ownership was not a major priority for the CLT homeowners she’s helped survey in that study.

“Among CLT homeowners, [building wealth] was barely mentioned,” Cahen says. “People talked about building their lives, people talked about going back to school. People didn’t write so much about their next home or wealth building as comparing themselves to their friends who were tenants who had to move every year because landlords were selling their homes to whatever private market developer.”

Cahen says CLT homeowners saw the neighborhood as an asset, and one that should be accessible to everyone regardless of their income or net worth.

“[Living on a CLT] translated into people being able to reorient their lives into the things that make life meaningful,” Cahen says. “Spending time with family and friends. Having a garden. Having a job they enjoy, starting a business, or getting to travel a little bit, participating in their communities, feeling like their child was in a school that they were going to stay in for the rest of their education rather than moving every year.”

The CLT homeowners told the research team that if or when they leave those homes, it’s important for them that the home will be affordable for the next generation, and that they believe their neighborhood is not going to be torn to shreds by rapid development.

“A lot of the people grounded themselves explicitly in the idea that they were paying it forward,” Cahen says.

Feng is also planning for Mission Economic Development Agency to sell the ground-floor spaces to the early childhood education center and the dance and performing arts groups who are planning to occupy those spaces. Those will also be shared-equity arrangements, so that the organizations can accrue some equity in case they ever need to expand or borrow against the value, but won’t be tempted to sell their spaces to a corporate fitness center chain or high-end restaurant.

“There are a number of our member organizations who are looking at commercial applications of the CLT model,” Pickett says. But aside from some CLTs including primarily commercial properties along with residential properties in their portfolios, Pickett hasn’t seen examples of “high-density” mixed-use projects with residential units above community-serving owner-occupants on the ground floor.

Just across the Bay, Oakland Community Land Trust only recently started acquiring mixed-use properties in partnership with commercial owner-occupants — the worker-owned Hasta Muerte Coffeeshop in one case and an assortment of community-serving commercial owner-occupants in the other.

Besides the commercial owner-occupants at 18th & Mission, another relatively new dimension for shared equity in that project is its capital stack. Feng is planning for Mission Economic Development Agency to use New Markets Tax Credits to finance the $60 million-plus total development costs.

Others have used New Markets Tax Credits to finance for-sale housing before, but Pickett is not aware of any shared-equity projects using the program.

“But I would say the cost of feasibility analysis and closing a New Markets deal is substantially more than just using some other more traditional subsidy resources,” Pickett says. “So you probably want to do that only with a larger project that justifies that cost.”

The 18th & Mission project’s capital stack has another relatively novel layer for shared-equity properties. To finance the acquisition and some of the predevelopment costs for the project, Mission Economic Development Agency combined a loan from the Low-Income Investment Fund with a small slice of capital raised from private investors in their community and broader network of supporters. They’ve gone to that network a few times over the past few years, and plan to formalize the structure this year and keep tapping that network as needed for future projects, including shared-equity properties.

“We know that this is something we want to do beyond this one building, and we want to get it right the first time as a model,” Feng says.

Oscar Perry Abello

Minneapolis Org Looks to Communities of Faith to Tackle Homelessness

1 week 3 days ago

(John Swee, Dodge Creative Photography)

Tiny homes in church parking lots — that’s how Settled, a Minneapolis organization, is planning to address homelessness. Instead of looking for residential space to house the unhomed, Settled’s co-founders, Gabrielle Clowdus and Ann Franz, are looking to partner with faith communities to park tiny homes on wheels on the property of faith communities across the Twin Cities considering that helping the homeless is a natural fit with the mission of most faith-based organizations.

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Settled, founded in 2018, originally stemmed from a healthcare project focused on emergency room visits as part of Clowdus’s Ph.D. work at the University of Minnesota. The Hennepin County Medical Center, now Hennepin Health, was looking to the University of Minnesota’s Design Center to craft a creative solution to the cost that the healthcare provider was incurring for patients with nowhere else to go coming into the ER for a bed and a meal. Clowdus saw it this way: “Housing is not an entitlement in our society. We can say it’s a human right, but we haven’t ratified human rights. We know housing is a social determinant of health,” she says, “but so many people are unhoused or unstably housed.”

“Our national model is housing first,” Clowdus continued. “But there’s a gap in the literature on the housing first models [when it comes to] community integration and increased social belonging. People with chronic homelessness are the most outcast from society, despised and unloved. Often times there are stereotypes and judgements that they’re lazy or drug addicts or sex offenders.”

For Clowdus, it became clear that what was missing was a sense of community, looking to the Austin-based Mobile Loaves and FishesCommunity First! Village for inspiration for what could be done in the Twin Cities to begin to help the roughly 10,000 Minnesotans who were homeless in 2018. The Mobile Loaves and Fishes team “started sleeping on the streets alongside the homeless and what they learned is that almost every one of their stories were stories of extreme neglect and abuse and violence from childhood, realizing that housing alone isn’t going to solve homelessness,” Clowdus explained. “People need family. That’s what they’ve lost.”

At its core, it’s a community to replace the support that the Twin Cities’ homeless have lost that Settled hopes to create. So far they have built a $20,000 tiny home — a 100-square-foot house on a trailer outfitted with an extra-long twin bed, hot plate, refrigerator, heater, sink and toilet — at roughly one twelfth of the cost of typical low-income buildings. It’s by partnering with faith communities that Settled says it can keep the costs of housing down.

While it’s currently illegal to live in recreational vehicles and other temporary housing permanently in Minnesota, Settled is lobbying the Minnesota state legislature to change that.

In addition, typical building codes require “minimum square footages and require sewer and water and the fees that come along with them,” Clowdus says,” which really adds to development costs.”

Parking the tiny home on religious property, however, may get around many of those barriers.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a law designed to shield religious groups form neighborhood oppression, is part of Settled’s plan.

Settled is banking on RLUIPA and the five pro-bono land use lawyers that are helping them out alongside an amended statute to protect their dwellings from interference. “[Our lawyers] have reviewed our proposal as it relates to RLUIPA and believe we have a strong legal case,” Clowdus says.

In other cities, this interpretation of RLUIPA has run into snags.

In Nashville, a tiny home village housed on church land came under scrutiny in 2017. A city leader challenged a judge’s ruling allowing the village to remain by calling into question whether it was truly a church project or that of their partner, Open Table Nashville. Last year, the Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld the judge’s decision, allowing the village to proceed — for now.

Also in 2017, a St. Cloud, Minnesota, church ran into issues when it tried to house a homeless person in a tiny home on wheels on its property. The issue was eventually settled when the church swapped the 168-foot tiny home for a 364-foot house with a foundation and connection to the church’s water and sewer lines to meet city and state zoning codes and ordinances.

While skipping typical infrastructure might be a way to increase access to housing, Brooke Spellman, a principal associate in the Social & Economic Policy Division of Abt Associates, highlights the importance of gauging interest from the homeless population.

“We usually guide our strategies based on a set of principles that are an overarching baseline that we would want all housing interventions to include. I’d would test [approaches like Settled’s] against those principles,” Spellman says. “I think one thing we don’t do enough is ask the people who are going to be served with that approach if that’s something they’re interested in and if it meets their needs. Maybe that’s a co-design opportunity in terms of the actual structure and where it’s located. It might be a good regulatory solution, but is that where they want to live?”

Spellman also draws attention to another important variable. “Almost everyone experiencing homelessness is facing challenges with income and poverty, but some also have additional challenges that they’re experiencing like mental illness. [There are issues] related to equity and racial discirmination and there may be additional issues related to sexual or gender identities,” she says. “There are so many factors that present challenges for [those looking to address] homnelessness to come up with a range of solutions that will allow [solutions] to have individualized responses.”

In order to create a communal sense of extended family, Settled is aiming for an average of 12 tiny homes per lot. Franz is in conversation now with a Minneapolis-based church to hopefully turn Settled’s plan into reality, something she hopes can spread across the country to places with megachurches that are capable of housing many more people.

Beyond just housing, the project wants to avoid concentrating poverty by having resourced tenants live alongside the previously homeless, “paying the same amount of rent and getting groceries from the same gardens they’re all tending,” Clowdus says. She expects rent to clock in at around $200-$300 a month to supplement ongoing donations.

In the meantime, the project is being funded through private donations. Clowdus says Settled doesn’t want to pursue government funding “so we’re not competing for scarce resources,” she says. Settled has so far received grant funding from the Dayton and Pohlad Family foundations, but the vision is that a household, Bible study group or the like could sponsor individual units.

After spending the last year building their tiny home prototype and lobbying the state to recognize tiny homes as permanent dwellings rather than RVs, Clowdus and Franz hope to soon reveal the site they’re exploring and, within the next 12 to 16 months, “build our first sacred settlement,” Franz says.

Cinnamon Janzer

Economics in Brief:  Could Raising the Minimum Wage Help Prevent Suicides?

1 week 3 days ago

(Photo by Nathaniel_U / CC BY 2.0)

Could Raising the Minimum Wage Help Prevent Suicides?

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An increase of $1 in the minimum wage could have saved 27,000 lives from 1990 to 2015, according to a new study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Emory University researchers studied suicide rates across all 50 states, focusing on working-age adults with a high school education or less. The researchers found that, when controlling for changes in a state’s economy and its welfare policies, on average, a $1 increase in the minimum wage correlated with a 3.5 percent decrease in the suicide rate. The New York Times adds that the effect was strongest during high-unemployment periods.

Aparna Mathur, an economic policy scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute told the Times the study couldn’t say what drove the drops in the suicide rate. Columbia University professor Mark Olfson added that he did not find the results persuasive; that the margin of error was too small to draw conclusions.

However, the new study by Emory researchers is not the first to draw a link between a higher minimum wage and lower suicide rates. A study from last year found a similar connection, although the effect was smaller.

World’s Largest Investment Firm Pivots From Coal

In a move that has been widely praised and criticized, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink said this week that his firm will divest from thermal coal and “screen” companies that produce fossil fuels.

Fink told NPR that the move was purely financial and not due to environmental activism or a desire to stop climate change: “We are doing this on behalf of clients,” he said. “More and more people are worried about their portfolios and how their portfolio is going to be performing over a 10-year horizon…Would you adequately issue a 30-year mortgage if you can’t get proper private flood or fire insurance? And so this is how we believe we’re seeing capital changing,” he said.

While many activists praised the move (Bill McKibben tweeted that it was “a huge—if by no means final—win for activists”), others pointed out that BlackRock’s actions were, in some ways, minimal. BlackRock isn’t divesting fully from coal, only from companies that make more than 25 percent of their sales from coal. That leaves Blackrock with some of the world’s biggest coal producers still in their portfolio. And Majority Action’s Eli Kasargod-Staub pointed out to The Guardian that BlackRock isn’t requiring companies it invests in to “commit to the science-based targets of the Paris climate agreement,” only “enhance their disclosures around climate risks.”

Others pointed out that BlackRock’s move is hardly unexpected, considering how the economy has grown in the past decade — the energy sector has underperformed compared to the S&P 500 overall, which almost tripled over the past ten years. If BlackRock had divested from energy a decade ago its clients would have earned more, CNBC noted.

Internal Treasury Watchdog Investigating Opportunity Zones Program

The Treasury Department has opened an inquiry into the Opportunity Zones program, NBC reports. It comes after reporting from multiple journalistic outlets in 2018 found that Trump associates, including Jared Kushner, could benefit from projects inside Opportunity Zones.

In late October, Cory Booker (D-NJ), Ron Kind (D-WI), and Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) sent a letter to the Treasury’s Office of Inspector General asking how the zones had been chosen.

“It was not the intent of Congress for this tax incentive to be used to enrich political supporters or personal friends of senior administration officials, as recent reports indicate,” the letter said.

It’s not only Trump associates who are benefiting from early Opportunity Zone investments. Media outlets have noted that many wealthy investors and developers have the potential to see returns as some high-income areas have been designated as targets for investment, including a yacht marina, property owned by billionare Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert and Port Covington, a development largely controlled by one of Maryland’s richest men as well as Goldman Sachs.

The Treasury’s OIG told NBC it expects to be done with the investigation by early spring.

Next City

Homelessness Up Nationwide After Spikes in California and Elsewhere

1 week 3 days ago

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti meets with Angelenos experiencing homelessness and outreach workers in this October 30, 2017 file photo. (Photo by Eric Garcetti / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Homelessness Up Nationwide

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The rate of homelessness increased by 3 percent nationwide from 2018 to 2019, according to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report released last week by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Large increases in California, which counted 21,000 more people experiencing homelessness on one night in January than the previous year, offset smaller declines in homelessness in more than half of states in the U.S., according to the report. California also had the highest rate of unsheltered homeless people, at more than 71 percent. Florida had the largest single decrease in people experiencing homelessness both year over year (2,702 fewer individuals than 2018) and since the report was first released — a drop of 19,741 individuals experiencing homelessness since 2007.

“What the report did not say: homelessness is solvable,” wrote Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in a statement following the report. “… We must invest in expanded federal solutions such as rental assistance, construction of apartments affordable to the lowest income renters, cash assistance to avoid evictions and robust renter protections. We have the data, the solutions, the public support, and the financial means to make sure everyone in our nation has a place to live, and to end homelessness.”

Denver Resumes Enforcing Homeless Camping Ban

The Denver Post reports that police plan to resume enforcement of a temporarily suspended ban on urban camping that primarily affects homeless people. The police stopped enforcing the ban for two weeks, after a judge ruled that the ban was unconstitutional, and constituted “cruel and unusual punishment,” the paper reported. The Denver City Attorney told the paper she expected additional legal challenges to the ban, but that the police would continue enforcing it while it was in the courts.

Denver’s camping ban has been in place since 2012. Colorado saw one of the largest decreases in statewide homelessness from 2018 to 2019, but the trend in Denver was the opposite, with an 8.2 percent increase in homelessness in the city, according to reports. According to the Post, Denver’s City Council drafted its camping ban to avoid the legal complications that some other cities have faced, particularly in the case of Martin v. Boise, which has affected a number of western cities, as Next City reported last year.

Moms 4 Housing Members Arrested in Oakland

A group of housing activists who had occupied a vacant home in Oakland to call attention to homelessness and property speculation in the city were evicted by police after a two-month standoff, The Mercury News reports. The group Moms 4 Housing, which was formed with the goal of “uniting mothers, neighbors and friends to reclaim housing for the Oakland community from the big banks and real estate speculators,” had attracted support from a broad range of Oaklanders, including some city council members, the Mercury News reported previously. The real estate investment company that owns the home pursued an eviction, and the Oakland Sheriff’s Office removed two women who had been living in the house and two supporters just after 5 a.m. on Tuesday, according to the report. A GoFundMe account to raise bail for the jailed activists quickly reached its goal earlier this week. They were released Tuesday afternoon, according to the paper.

Jared Brey

Media’s Makeup May Explain How Protests Are Covered

1 week 4 days ago

(Photo by Victoria Pickering / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The new decade is just days old, but in one respect it is already shaping up like the last one: with mass protests around the world.

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Rallies for democracy overseas and anti-war demonstrations in the U.S. come on the back of a year that saw people take to the streets over issues including human rights abuse, corruption and climate change.

Yet, despite the popularity of movements like the global climate strike and the massive women’s marches around the globe, most people don’t actually attend these events. The general public’s opinions about protests and the social movements behind them are instead formed in large part by what they read or see in the media. That puts pressure on journalists to get things right.

But my research has found that some protest movements have more trouble than others in getting coverage that treats them and their issues seriously. In a recent study, my co-author Summer Harlow and I looked at local and metropolitan newspaper coverage of protests. We found that narratives about the women’s march and anti-Trump protests gave voice to protesters and significantly explored their grievances. On the other end of the spectrum, protests about anti-black racism and indigenous people’s rights received the least legitimizing coverage.

Forming the narrative

Decades ago, scholars James Hertog and Douglas McLeod identified how news coverage of protests contributes to the maintenance of the status quo, a phenomenon referred to as “the protest paradigm.” They held that media narratives tend to emphasize the drama, inconvenience and disruption of protests rather than the demands, grievances and agendas of protesters. These narratives trivialize protests and ultimately dent public support.

Here’s how this theoretically plays out today:

Journalists pay little attention to protests that aren’t dramatic or unconventional.

Knowing this, protesters find ways to capture media and public attention. They don pink “pussy” hats or kneel during the national anthem. They might even resort to violence and lawlessness. Now the protesters have the media’s attention, but what they cover is often superficial or delegitimizing, focusing on the tactics and disruption caused and excluding discussion on the substance of the social movement.

We wanted to explore if this classic theory fit coverage from 2017 – a year of large-scale protests accompanying the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency.

To do so, we analyzed the framing of protest reporting from newspapers in Texas. The state’s size and diversity made it a good proxy for comparison with the country at large.

In all, we identified 777 articles by searching for terms such as “protest,” “protester,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Women’s March.” This included reports written by journalists in 20 Texas newsrooms, such as the El Paso Times and the Houston Chronicle, as well as syndicated articles from sources like the Associated Press.

We looked at how articles framed the protests in the headline, opening sentence and story structure, and classified the reporting using four recognized frames of protest:

  • Riot: Emphasizing disruptive behavior and the use or threat of violence.

  • Confrontation: Describing protests as combative, focusing on arrests or “clashes” with police.

  • Spectacle: Focusing on the apparel, signs, or dramatic and emotional behavior of protesters.

  • Debate: Substantially mentioning protester’s demands, agendas, goals and grievances.

(Chart: The Conversation, CC-BY-ND  Source: Danielle K. Kilgo, Indiana University | Get the data)

We also kept an eye out for sourcing patterns to identify imbalances that often give more credence to authorities than protesters and advocates.

Overall, news coverage tended to trivialize protests by focusing most often on dramatic action. But some protests suffered more than others.

Reports focused on spectacle more often than substance. Much was made of the what protesters were wearing, crowd sizes – large and small, celebrity involvement and flaring tempers.

The substance of some marches got more play than others. Around half of the reports on anti-Trump protests, immigration rallies, women’s rights demonstrations and environmental actions included substantial information about protesters’ grievances and demands.

(Chart: The Conversation, CC-BY-ND  Source: Danielle K. Kilgo, Indiana University | Get the data)

In contrast, Dakota Pipeline and anti-black racism related protests got legitimizing coverage less than 25% of the time and were more likely to be described as disruptive and confrontational.

In coverage of a St. Louis protest over the acquittal of a police officer who killed a black man, violence, arrest, unrest and disruption were the leading descriptors, while concern about police brutality and racial injustice was reduced to just a few mentions. Buried more than 10 paragraphs down was the broader context: “The recent St. Louis protests follow a pattern seen since the August 2014 killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson: the majority of demonstrators, though angry, are law-abiding.”

As a consequence of variances in coverage, Texas newspaper readers may form the perception that some protests are more legitimate than others. This contributes to what we call a “hierarchy of social struggle,” in which the voices of some advocacy groups are lifted over others.

Lurking bias

Journalists contribute to this hierarchy by adhering to industry norms that work against less established protest movements. On tight deadlines, reporters may default to official sources for statements and data. This gives authorities more control of narrative framing. This practice especially becomes an issue for movements like Black Lives Matter that are countering the claims of police and other officials.

Implicit bias also lurks in such reporting. Lack of diversity has long plagued newsrooms.

In 2017, the proportion of white journalists at The Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle was more than double the proportion of white people in each city.

Protests identify legitimate grievances in society, and often tackle issues that affect people who lack the power to address them through other means. That’s why it is imperative that journalists do not resort to shallow framing narratives that deny significant and consistent space to air the afflicted’s concerns while also comforting the very comfortable status quo.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Danielle K. Kligo | Op-Ed

A Tale of Two Community Reinvestment Act Proposals

1 week 5 days ago

(Image by NikolayFrolochkin from Pixabay)

Even by banker standards, Martie North is a numbers person. She’s a senior vice president at Simmons Bank, where she keeps close tabs on the bank’s lending to low-income communities and community development projects across the bank’s 35 markets.

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As a regional bank based in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, with $17.8 billion in assets and around 200 branches across eight states, every market is a little bit different, and some markets are new to Simmons Bank — it’s acquired 11 other banks since 2013, quadrupling in size. It just acquired another bank last year, in St. Louis.

Each market has annual targets for loans to low-income communities and community development. North sets the targets, and the bank’s executive team and board approve them. She checks in with each market lead at least once a month.

“As you can imagine, the economic conditions, demographics, all types of factors are different for each market,” North says. “I can’t say we 100 percent hit the mark every time, that would not be honest. But [market leads] get performance benchmarks and they know where they’re supposed to fall. When they are underperforming, I try to assist them in finding [loan] products for their market, or it may be creating a new product, or connecting them to opportunities for them to address that underperformance.”

North’s job isn’t just for show. It’s about complying with the law, specifically the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). It applies to all 5,200 banks in the United States, requiring them to meet the credit needs of every community where they take deposits, including low-income communities. If a bank falls short of its obligations, regulators can deny applications to acquire or merge with another bank, or deny an application to open a new branch.

Not every bank where she’s worked operates its CRA department the same way, but North has held a CRA-related position in banking for nearly all of the past 20 years, with five banking institutions. And now the three federal agencies who are in charge of enforcing the CRA want to update how they enforce it, and they’ve unveiled a pair of competing proposals that are sharply at odds with each other. The end result could dramatically affect the flow of hundreds of billions of dollars in loans and investments a year.

“I don’t think that’s an easy task, but CRA desperately needs to be modernized. I’ve been saying that for the last 14 years,” North says. “But we have to make sure that it is appropriate and in a way that actually honors and respects the original intent and purpose.”

On one side are the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Bank watchdog groups believe the OCC/FDIC joint proposal will severely undermine enforcement of the CRA. The agencies are accepting public comments on their joint proposal until March. (See our previous coverage of community advocates’ responses to the joint proposal.)

North says she’s read through the 240-page OCC/FDIC joint proposal three times since it was released on December 12. She says it would dramatically change her job in a number of ways, some of which still aren’t fully clear to her.

“This document has given me heart palpitations,” North says. “It would radically add not only to our reporting, it would definitely be a much more expensive proposition. And it has a lot of systems implications that I’m not really sure they had thought through.”

North is feeling much better about the Federal Reserve’s proposal to update CRA enforcement rules, unveiled last week by Federal Reserve Board Governor Lael Brainard at the Urban Institute in Washington D.C. “I think that the Fed is starting from a position that builds off of what was working and trying to address the areas that need to be updated, while the other one feels like is an attempt to rewrite CRA,” North says.

As written in the original CRA legislation, Congress stipulated that banks are “required by law to demonstrate that their deposit facilities serve the convenience and needs of the communities in which they are chartered to do business,” and that those needs include access to credit, “consistent with the safe and sound operation” of banks.

Under the current system to enforce the CRA, each bank has a self-selected number of assessment areas — metropolitan areas, cities, counties or states where they have branches. Before looking at borrower demographics, regulators first check to see if a bank is primarily making loans inside its assessment areas. CRA bank officers like North call it the “in and out” ratio, and in her experience a bank should be doing at least 85 percent of its lending inside its assessment areas.

Under the OCC/FDIC joint proposal, banks could get a failing grade in up to 50 percent of their assessment areas and still pass their overall CRA exam. The joint proposal justifies the change as a response to the modern banking system being less dependent on physical presence of branches and more flexible geographically, with customers doing most of their banking digitally. Banks would instead receive credit for CRA-eligible activities outside of their assessment areas — such as financing projects subsidized under the new Opportunity Zones tax break, including sports stadiums that may have marginal, if any, benefits for low-income communities.

That doesn’t fly with local bank watchdog groups.

“The whole heart of the CRA came from the idea banks were taking deposits in places but not lending those areas, which meant that those areas were providing the capital for the development of other places,” says Glenn Burleigh, community engagement specialist at the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing & Opportunity Council (EHOC). “That is why the CRA exists, that is what it is supposed to mitigate. If we’re not doing that, we’re not doing the CRA.”

North would rather strengthen the existing “in and out” ratio enforcement. If a bank is making a ton of loans outside of its assessment area, that should be a flag to regulators that the bank warrants closer examination. Maybe the bank’s assessment areas need to be updated, or maybe the definition of assessment area could be expanded to include zip codes where the bank has a lot of depositors but few or no branches. Or maybe the bank is just violating the law.

“If they tweaked in and out ratio that could better address this desire of tying deposits to areas,” North says.

The OCC/FDIC joint proposal does introduce the concept of “deposit-based” assessment areas, as opposed to the existing branch-based assessment areas. The OCC/FDIC propose that if 50 percent of a bank’s deposits come from outside of its branch-based assessment areas — for example, if it’s an internet bank with only one branch in Delaware or Utah — then it would have to declare “deposit-based” assessment areas for metropolitan areas or states that account for at least 5 percent of its deposit base.

North still finds this part of the proposal to be deeply flawed, because of its focus on dollar amounts as opposed to the number of depositors in a given geography. Deposits are fluid, and can turnover on a seasonal basis in large volumes, she says. It could be a nightmare trying to keep track of whether any given area outside a bank’s branch-based assessment areas needs to be included as a deposit-based assessment area for the purposes of determining CRA obligations. North says software doesn’t currently exist to be able to do that on an ongoing monthly basis.

“The level of detailed tracking of deposits is something that has never happened under CRA before,” North says. “There’s a lot of things in [the OCC/FDIC proposal] that an infrastructure does not readily exist in the banking world to accommodate.”

The Federal Reserve proposal, which has not yet been fully fleshed out, doesn’t yet propose an answer to the question of evolving or expanding the definition of an assessment area beyond bank branch locations.

The OCC/FDIC also propose to create a new all-encompassing single metric capturing a dollar value for all of a bank’s activities that count for credit under the CRA and measuring that as a percentage of the bank’s total deposits. Banks would get one ratio for each of their assessment areas, and those would roll up into an overall ratio for each bank. Banks would get a presumed passing grade as long as their overall ratio — the percentage of CRA activity — is at least 6 percent of total deposits — including CRA-eligible activities outside their assessment areas. The stated goal of the one metric is to bring clarity to CRA performance evaluation.

North agrees that there’s not enough clarity around the existing measures, especially the thresholds for what barely passes versus what gets the highest grade — “outstanding,” as compared to just “satisfactory,” “needs to improve,” or “substantial non-compliance.” (The latter two are considered failing grades.)

“If you use our current framework, there’s a lot of vagueness, and vagueness is normally the problem that frustrates everybody,” North says. “But if we had more concrete benchmarks for each one of these areas, that would be in a chart or a table that goes with it, that would go so far.”

But bank watchdog groups, fair housing organizations and other community advocates have slammed the “one metric” idea, as they believe it will dramatically reduce incentives for banks to make more nuanced, often smaller investments that are more likely to be tailored to community needs and possibly have higher impact.

“The OCC/FDIC one ratio proposal is one of the most concerning things, especially for community groups, because it eludes a lot of the response to community needs,” says Elisabeth Risch, assistant director at EHOC and co-founder of the St. Louis Equal Housing and Community Reinvestment Alliance.

The OCC received around 1,500 comments on updating the CRA since unveiling the single metric idea in 2018. In the proposal released with FDIC, it acknowledges that (at least) a majority of commenters opposed the single metric idea, including banks as well as community groups.

“One thing everyone was consistent on was this dollar volume metric was a bad idea,” says Jesse Van Tol, CEO of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. “Nonetheless the OCC has pressed forward with something that adds some bells and whistles to the one metric, but ends up as still fundamentally the driving force behind the grading scheme.”

North doesn’t like the one metric idea, either. “I just don’t see the real benefit in the one ratio,” she says. “If a bank goes out and they invest more in tax credits or something like that and they accomplish the ratio, and now they back off of lending but that ratio works out. Has that really improved anything? If you’re wanting to get banks to invest more, I think keeping the metrics separate is the way to get there.”

North very much favors the Federal Reserve’s approach, which instead proposes an array of clear benchmarks for each of the buckets of various CRA-eligible activities, and would tailor benchmarks to each assessment area. Performance thresholds would be based on a percentage of each bank’s deposits in that assessment area. So for example, given all the deposits a bank has in an assessment area, what do home mortgages to low and moderate income household borrowers represent as a percentage of those deposits. Each bank would get a dashboard to compare its performance on each CRA-eligible bucket to benchmarks for that assessment area.

While there are still more details still left open for discussion, that kind of framework fits in better with North’s existing workflow.

“I am a fan of metrics,” North says. “I utilize a lot of metrics in our CRA space internally here in the bank. It’s about developing the right metrics that are true to not only the original intent of CRA but also take in the changing financial landscape that we’re in, because my goodness has the landscape changed a lot since [the law was passed in] 1977.”

Oscar Perry Abello

What If Pay-to-Relocate Went National?

1 week 5 days ago

From 2012-2017 (the most recent years for which data is available), jobs increasingly clustered in a few cities, leaving swaths of the country with less. What if we paid people to move to where the jobs are? (Map via

Aaron Bolzle, the executive director of Tulsa Remote, a “pay to relocate” recruitment initiative of George Kaiser Family Foundation, grew up in Tulsa but didn’t expect to move back. He attended college in Boston, moved to New York City, secured his dream job in California, then traveled between San Francisco, where he lived, and Los Angeles, where he worked in consulting.

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“After about a year of that, I started wondering why I was living in one of the most expensive cities in the world when my job doesn’t require me to do so,” he says. “I wasn’t the first person in San Francisco to wonder why I was still living in San Francisco — the cost of living is getting to the point where it’s not sustainable.”

He ultimately settled back in his hometown and his experience informed Tulsa Remote. Offering a $10,000 grant to remote workers who move to and work from the city, it’s one of a few initiatives around the country attempting to lessen the risk of relocation. In Vermont, there’s the Remote Worker Grant Program to reimburse workers up to $10,000 for relocation expenses. In Topeka, Kansas, Choose Topeka offers matching incentives between employers and an economic development organization to bring workers to the city.

Such initiatives are cropping up as geographic mobility generally, and mobility for work in particular, has declined substantially over the last several decades. A recent report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) breaks down the uneven job distribution across the U.S., with large numbers of Americans in economically depressed communities with few opportunities as private-sector jobs increasingly concentrate in a few large cities.

Despite the economy recovering over the decade, low unemployment rates and employers reporting that they cannot find the workers they need — all factors historically associated with an increase in geographic mobility — mobility is stubbornly low. Do “pay to relocate” initiatives offer a meaningful solution or model that could be scaled to a national level? While programs like Tulsa Remote have found success, many U.S. workers will need even more help to take the risk out of relocation.

So why aren’t American workers moving? It’s complicated, according to Chandra Childers, one of the authors of the IWPR report. “There’s no one thing that affects everyone,” she says. The data points to a number of fundamental changes in the costs of and economic returns to moving, like the lack of family supports like childcare and high housing costs.

Relocation costs can be prohibitive, while returns for relocating have declined for many low-wage workers. “In the 50s or 60s, relocating from — for example — Alabama to California would increase your earnings even in the same job,” explains Childers. “The earnings made it worth it for me to relocate. That’s not the case anymore.”

The report proposes a number of policies that reduce barriers to mobility, including housing subsidies and raising the minimum wage. When it comes to the prohibitive cost of relocation, IWPR points to a different report, released in 2015, that studied a federal “labor market intervention” in Germany providing financial support to unemployed job seekers willing to move to a new region.

The majority of Germans who took advantage of the relocation program found higher earnings and more stable jobs, according to report author Steffen Künn. So doesn’t it make sense for governments to invest in relocation assistance? “Yes and no,” says Künn. “Yes, it’s working, everybody who moved into this program has better market outcomes and prospects than those who didn’t do it. No, at the same time, because we have some concerns.”

His first concern is the “deadweight effect”: meaning the program subsidizes workers who have the resources to move without any subsidy. “It’s something we should not underestimate,” Künn adds.

It’s also a valid concern for relocation programs in the U.S., which typically target remote workers seeking to leave high-priced big cities. There’s a higher chance these workers have more resources to relocate than an individual living in public housing, who’s making minimum wage but depends on their affordable housing. To truly attract a diverse workforce, Chiders points out, low-income workers need relocation support alongside guarantees in affordable housing, childcare and a higher minimum wage.

Luring remote workers from larger, more expensive cities was indeed the early goal of Tulsa Remote. Over 10,000 people applied from all 50 states, with 115 people relocating in 2019. This year, Bolzle says, the goal is to bring up to 400 new residents. “The $10,000 is meant to grab people’s attention,” he says, “But also to remove the risk of moving to a new city.”

Bolzle acknowledges the risk of relocation goes beyond moving costs. To that end, Tulsa Remote connects participants to housing resources, community programming and coworking office space. “A lot of programs that have launched have missed the mark by being very transactional,” he says. “We focus on community because that’s why people move.”

He hopes that bringing in newcomers will support low-income families who already live in Tulsa, by providing more diversity in the city’s economy. He also notes that Tulsa Remote is part of a larger initiative by the George Kaiser Family Foundation to address early childhood education, community health, social services and civic enhancement in the city.

The program is entering its second year; time will tell if it affects economic diversity and increased opportunities in the long run. Understanding the long term benefits of relocation subsidies is still to come — Künn notes there aren’t studies analyzing if relocation incentives pay off economically or if incentives mostly benefit people planning to relocate regardless. While Tulsa Remote is privately funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, other programs like Vermont’s are supported by public money. “If you’re spending public money, you have to see what really needs it,” Künn says.

Another concern in the U.S. is that while federal relocation programs aren’t unprecedented, one of the most ambitious isn’t considered successful. The Trade Adjustment Assistance Program was formed in 1974 to offer training, job search and relocation allowances to workers adversely affected by foreign trade. But evaluations find the program doesn’t work well, with several studies showing most trade-displaced workers end up relying on Social Security and disability benefits, rather than the resources provided by the program.

It all underscores the necessity of across-the-board supportive services for American workers, including investments that reduce the need for geographic mobility in the first place. But for those cities encouraging people to pick up and move there, “We need to know those communities also have resources,” Childers says. “Workers need to know that they will be able to find a job, affordable housing and the support they need.”

Emily Nonko
1 hour ago
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