Three Strategies to Overcome Housing Needs of Vulnerable Populations

18 hours 59 minutes ago

(Photo by Province of British Columbia / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Sponsored content from Region Nine Housing Corporation. Sponsored content policy

Access to safe and well-maintained affordable housing can be transformative for low-to-moderate-income seniors, persons with disabilities and families. Region Nine Housing Corporation was established in 1970 to meet these needs. Core values of the nonprofit developer and property manager include ending homelessness, increasing affordable homes and aging in place. Residents interviewed here are among many whose lives improved significantly with access to quality affordable housing.

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Combat Homelessness
Marietta Andrews, Plaza Apartments

The issue of homelessness and the need for affordable housing are closely linked, and these circumstances are often compounded for those living with disabilities. This was the case for Marietta Andrews, current resident of Region Nine’s Plaza Apartments in Jersey City. After having major surgery several years ago, Marietta, who worked as a nurse’s aide for 26 years, faced housing insecurity and had a difficult time adjusting to the demands of living with a disability. Within a year, she found herself homeless and without a net.

“I had really fallen behind,” explains Marietta, “and at this age — to go through what I went through — it was just overwhelming.”

While staying at a shelter in downtown Jersey City, Marietta applied for affordable housing assistance. Since Region Nine implements HUD’s Homeless Preference — which permits homeless individuals to accelerate to the top of their waiting lists — Marietta was able to move to Plaza Apartments in February 2019. “This is a new beginning for me,” she says.

(Region Nine)


Expand Housing Affordability
Jack Holmes Goodman, Edward and Lois Gray Apartments

In 2018, nearly 11 million households spent more than 50% of their income on rent. According to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, “high housing costs force millions of low-income older adults to sacrifice spending on other necessities including food, undermining their health and well-being.” Jack Holmes Goodman, 69, was one of them. For Jack, Region Nine’s commitment to expanding affordable housing has changed his quality of life. “In comparison to where I was living before,” Jack explains, “I can save some money now … do a couple extra things for myself,” he said. “In my old place, I couldn’t even afford to put my van on the road, so I didn’t really have transportation.”

As an avid pool shark, Jack now spends a lot of time in his building’s community room, showing off his skills and teaching other residents to play. “We’re a big community here,” he says of the Edward and Lois Gray Apartments in Irvington, New Jersey. “We all look out for each other.”

(Region Nine)


Promote Aging in Place
Jimmy Williams, Edward and Lois Gray Apartments

For seniors, the ability to age in place is paramount. Along with housing security, successful aging in place requires maintaining social connections and the ability to participate and thrive in one’s community. Jimmy Williams had been living in a nearby nursing home for three years before moving into Region Nine’s Edward and Lois Gray Apartments. As a senior with special mobility needs — it was critical that his new residence was wheelchair accessible, and that the property was ADA compliant.

Region Nine promotes independent living and the connection to high-quality, community-based services that reflect the unique needs and preferences of each resident. For Jimmy, this means attending a weekly resident-led prayer group with his neighbors and being able to cook his favorite meals in his kitchen. Jimmy does all the cooking and cleaning in his apartment, and he “plans to do it for a long time,” he says. “I’m not going anywhere. This is home.”

As a nonprofit developer and property manager, Region Nine’s portfolio consists of 10 communities with 1,171 affordable housing units throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Please contact Region Nine if you know of properties where affordable communities with amenities can be developed.

Annah Mackenzie

Is Tenants’ Right to Counsel On Its Way to Becoming Standard Practice?

23 hours 5 minutes ago

(Photo by Linh Do / CC BY 2.0)

Two years after New York became the first city in the United States to guarantee legal representation for every tenant facing eviction, four more cities have followed suit, and a bill has been introduced to Congress that would help provide lawyers in even more cities.

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This fall, lawmakers in Cleveland and then Philadelphia passed their own versions of a “right to counsel” law for tenants. Previously, voters in San Francisco had approved a right to counsel law via ballot referendum in 2018, and Newark’s City Council approved legislation late last year as well. The laws are meant to correct a common in balance in landlord-tenant courts, where the vast majority of landlords benefit from legal representation while tenants are often left on their own to figure out what rights they have in trying to avoid being evicted. Research has shown that tenants usually lose their cases when they are unrepresented, but stand better chances when they have lawyers on their side. Research has also shown that eviction is a deeply disruptive and destructive event in a tenant’s life that, in the words of the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, “is not just a condition of poverty, it is a cause of it.”

“The problems are the same everywhere,” says John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel and a staff attorney with the Public Justice Center. “The eviction mill problem, the unfairness of the results, and most importantly the dire circumstances people face … You can lose virtually everything if you lose your house: Your kids, your job, you could wind up in jail. It just keeps going.”

The National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel advocates for free legal representation, like the kind federally guaranteed to defendants in criminal cases, in a range of civil cases — not just housing. But lately, as research has clarified the breadth of the eviction crisis in American cities and the depth of harm to tenants who experience it, the movement for a right to counsel for tenants has picked up momentum, Pollock says.

“Five cities in three years is nothing short of miraculous, when you consider there wasn’t a single one before New York,” Pollock says. “What we’re talking about now is not just isolated incidents — this is a movement.”

In December, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced a bill called the Eviction Prevention Act, which would authorize $125 million in grants to cities and states to pay for eviction-court representation for tenants who earn under 125 percent of the federal poverty line. Under the legislation, which was introduced with six co-sponsors from around the country, jurisdictions that have approved a right to counsel would have priority for funding.

“As rents skyrocket and incomes flatline, the affordable housing crisis has become an eviction crisis,” DeLauro said in a press release. “Working people and their families deserve a safety net that can help keep them in their home, and that is exactly what the Eviction Prevention Act aims to do.”

Each city has adopted a somewhat different version of the law. And the process of moving from the advocacy stage to establishing a legal right has varied as well. In Philadelphia, two city council members held a hearing on the eviction crisis in March of 2017 and, helped secure $500,000 in the city budget to pay for legal representation for some tenants. The Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project gave tenants some legal self-help services and helped build the case for expanding free legal representation. Last year, the Philadelphia Bar Association sponsored a study which suggested that guaranteeing a right to counsel for all tenants would cost $3.5 million a year, but save the city $45.2 million in related spending on homelessness, education, and courts, as Next City reported. Eventually the city council passed a bill that covers legal representation for any tenant facing eviction who earns less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Almost a quarter of Philadelphia’s residents live below the poverty line. In 2016, landlords filed to evict tenants more than 22,000 times, according to a city task force on eviction.

“Evictions cause an unending economic cycle that only worsens over time,” said Barrett Marshall, an attorney at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia and director of the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project, in a statement after the bill was passed. “We are confident that a right to counsel can address many of the systemic harms caused by eviction and truly set the City on a path toward greater equity for low-income people and equal courts access for all Philadelphians.”

In Cleveland, the Sisters of Charity Foundation launched a program a few years ago called The Innovation Mission, sponsoring a series of fellowships for people who had “big ideas” for fighting poverty. One of those fellows was Hazel Remesch, a supervising attorney in the housing practice group at The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, who spent time on her fellowship researching providing legal aid to tenants facing eviction.

“In the legal aid community, we have always seen the value of having representation when your basic human needs are at risk,” Remesch says.

Around the time that Remesch began the fellowship, the Cleveland Tenants Organization ran out of money and disbanded. So one of the things Remesch worked on was convening an advisory group to help shape and advocate for a right to counsel for tenants. The city council president, who eventually introduced the legislation to create a right to counsel, was a key ally, Remesch says. And so were other institutions.

The United Way of Greater Cleveland was selected by the city to administer the program. The group is currently in the early stages of bringing stakeholders — landlords, tenants, philanthropies, public officials — together to “collaboratively design a process with everybody’s voice at the table,” says Andrew Katusin, director of basic needs for the United Way. The United Way’s role as “Lead Partner Organization” in Cleveland means it is responsible not only for seeing that the law benefits tenants who need legal representation, but also for showing that the program has a “return on investment” for the city in the form of lower spending on social services, Katusin says. The group also hopes to be able to help provide other support services to low-income tenants who get lawyers under the new law, because, as Katusin says, “eviction is the manifestation [of poverty], but it isn’t the only thing on the client’s to-do list.” United Way leaders in three other cities have also reached out to Cleveland to learn about advocating for and coordinating a right to counsel law in their own cities, though Katusin wouldn’t say which.

Coalitions of local advocates and stakeholders are key to getting the laws approved, says John Pollock. The San Francisco chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America were instrumental in getting a right-to-counsel law approved on the ballot there, Pollock says, and the DSA in Boulder, Colorado, is gearing up for a similar effort, he says. The Massachusetts legislature is considering a bill to establish right to counsel statewide, and efforts to establish the law are underway in Los Angeles, among others.

“There’s no question, too, that each city benefits from the momentum we built in other cities,” Pollock says. “They are able to leverage what other cities have done and say, ‘Why can’t we?’”

“I’m seeing nothing but forward momentum right now,” he says.

Jared Brey

Why Employee Ownership Wasn’t Good Enough for This Organic Food Company

23 hours 5 minutes ago

More than 2,000 people were invited to the first stakeholder meeting of Organically Grown, where they helped to develop metrics for which the trust protector committee would hold the company accountable. (Photo courtesy Organically Grown)

Not long ago, Natalie Reitman-White was at a national conference on employee ownership, listening to two of her idols on stage — Full Sail Brewery’s Irene Firmat, and New Belgium Brewery’s Kim Jordan.

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“I thought how amazing is this, two female CEO co-founders running beer companies, totally committed to employee-ownership culture and sustainability,” Reitman-White says.

But both of those companies are no longer employee-owned. A private equity firm acquired Full Sail in 2015, and New Belgium just recently announced it accepted an offer to be acquired by a multinational craft brewing company.

The reason isn’t unmitigated greed on the part of the co-founders or employees who benefit financially from the acquisitions — New Belgium disclosed that as a result of the acquisition and buyout of the company’s employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), more than 300 employees are each receiving over $100,000 of retirement money, with some receiving significantly greater amounts. That’s good news for workers.

The problem is structural. ESOPs are highly regulated by the Internal Revenue Service under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). Those regulations make it nearly impossible for companies to reject lucrative offers from outsiders when the company is majority-owned through an ESOP. Those same regulations also make it challenging to manage cash flow as older employees reach retirement and need to cash out — meaning the company has to buy back their stock.

As vice president for organizational vitality at Organically Grown Company, which was owned by a combination of the farmers in its supply chain and an ESOP, Reitman-White saw the writing on the wall in 2014.

But Organically Grown found a different path, joining a nascent but suddenly growing movement of companies that are transitioning into forms of “steward-ownership.” There’s more than one specific legal form it can take, but steward ownership is analogous to putting land into a community land trust, taking the essential asset (in this case a business) off the market for speculative investors and dedicating it to some higher purpose (in this case the transformation of the food system). Now 100 percent steward-owned, Organically Grown held its first annual stakeholder meeting last month — replacing what had been its annual shareholder meeting.

“I can’t speak for New Belgium, but it’s interesting because for years we were on a parallel journey,” Reitman-White says. “But they chose a different path in terms of their ownership structure and we decided to do this trust structure instead.”

Founded in 1978, Oregon-based Organically Grown Company is the second largest distributor of organic fruits and vegetables in the country, moving a hundred million pounds of organic fruits and vegetables a year. In the fast-growing organic foods market, Organically Grown was ripe for acquisition by a conventional food company — or someone like Amazon. The reason is because of how ESOPs are regulated.

“We’ve set up a system where it’s cool to the employee ownership movement to say, ‘hey, rather than the capitalist owning the stock, let’s get the employees to own the stock,’” Reitman-White says. “I think that’s great, but the logic underneath the system is still the same, which is about maximizing share value.”

While there are sometimes democratic ownership principles and structures built into a company owned by its employees through an ESOP, at its core an ESOP is a retirement plan for employees. They accrue shares based on some set rate as part of their compensation, and then they cash in those shares when they retire — or earlier if they leave the company and choose to transition their retirement earnings into another retirement account.

Being that an ESOP is a retirement program, it falls under the ERISA rules regulated by the IRS. Under those rules, each ESOP has a trustee — an appointed person or committee, who is bound by “fiduciary duty” to maximize the financial value of the ESOP’s shares. That means if the trustee fails to live up to that duty, they can be removed from that position and even sued for damages by employee shareholders.

In the early days of an ESOP, as employees just begin to acquire a stake in the company, it doesn’t have control of the company. But over time those shares add up, and the ESOP eventually may gain a majority stake. It may even be the intent of the company to turn itself over completely to the ESOP over time. New Belgium became 100 percent employee-owned through its ESOP in 2013. In situations where an ESOP owns at least 51 percent of the company, when a private equity firm or larger company comes along and offers to acquire the ESOP-controlled company for a price that’s above the fair market value of the company, that’s an offer the ESOP trustee literally can’t refuse.

Organically Grown Company initiated its ESOP in 2008, and by 2014, as workers continued earning shares, it was approaching 51 percent ownership of the company.

“We were concerned that an acquirer might come to our ESOP trustees and say, ‘I’ll pay you a bunch of money for Organically Grown Company,’ and our ESOP trustees might actually go for the offer because they’re fiduciary-bound to maximize the share value,” Reitman-White says.

What’s more, even if Organically Grown Company could miraculously fend off any acquisition offers, over time the standard ESOP system of the company buying back ownership shares from retiring employees and re-allocating them to current employees could bleed the company dry. That’s because, once again based on ESOP regulations, the company buys back stock from employees based on a price set in part on the company’s financial condition and in part on deals to acquire its competitors in the marketplace.

“The conventional food world is not growing, and the consumer trend is toward organic and natural, so conventional companies are buying organic companies for multiples of their [market value] which are insane,” Reitman-White says. “Some of them are selling for 20 times their earnings — very speculative and strategic buyouts. What it can do is it can really drive your valuation in a speculative way.”

So because of market speculation in the broader organic food industry, every time a retiring employee wanted to cash out their shares, Organically Grown needed to buy back those shares at higher and higher prices. That’s good news for the retiring employee, but it was cash that Organically Grown might otherwise use to invest in things like more sustainable technology or raises for current truck drivers, packers, warehousers and other workers. Reitman didn’t feel good about the cash flow projections looking ahead a few years as the company would need to repurchase more and more ESOP shares from retiring workers. So she sounded the alarm to the board of directors.

Working with a subcommittee of Organically Grown Company’s board, Reitman-White started looking into different ownership structures.

The company had already been through several ownership structures — it started out a nonprofit in 1978, with a mission to promote organic growing practices and educate farmers about them. But it became apparent relatively quickly that the best way to promote those practices would be to give farmers a way to make a living by selling organically grown goods, so it became a farmer-owned agricultural marketing co-op in 1981, similar to the producer co-ops that sell milk, beef, or California raisins. Later, employees also gained the ability to buy into owning the co-op. When Organically Grown shifted to become a year-round distributor, it became necessary to convert into a corporation, still owned by farmers and workers. Then the ESOP came in 2008.

(Photo courtesy Organically Grown)

Going back to any of those previous structures didn’t make sense. Working with lawyers with deep experience in trusts and in the co-op industry, they came up with an idea to create a multi-stakeholder trust. Organically Grown Company’s farmers, employees, investors, its customers and the community would each be given the opportunity to elect a single representative to a “trust protector” committee, which would appoint the company’s board of directors and hold them accountable for delivering on collectively defined goals, including social and environmental goals as well as financial goals.

“We still have to run a good company, so we still have a regular management team and board that’s responsible for creating a good, sound annual operating plan and a budget, keeping the trucks moving,” Reitman-White says. “But instead of having shareholders who control us, we have all of our stakeholders, and they elect our trust protector committee and the trust protector committee is the stand-in for an owner, which is a purpose, not a person. They don’t run the company day-to-day, but they look at the results that the company’s achieving. They’re the ones who the board reports to just like the board would report to shareholders.”

The trust is a separately-incorporated entity, with its governance structure spelled out in its bylaws and a legally binding trust agreement spelling out its relationship with the company.

But figuring all that out was really just the first of many steps. After incorporating the trust, in early 2018 Reitman-White had to lead an effort to convince the existing farmer shareholders and employees to sell all of their shares to the new trust entity. It wasn’t always an easy conversation. People had expectations that they would be able to cash-out someday. They had a lot of pride in the fact they owned the company.

“We had to convince all of our farmers and existing employees who held all these stock certificates saying they owned the company and we’re actually going to buy back the company from you,” Reitman-White says.

In the end, everyone did come around, and more quickly than Reitman-White was expecting. In the original plan, the trust would acquire a majority but not full ownership of the company, and then it would buy back the remainder of voting shares over a number of years. But by this year, the trust was able to achieve 100 percent ownership of the company’s voting shares of stock. That may have had something to do with the fact that, in parallel with creating the trust, Organically Grown also created a non-voting preferred stock program.

It was necessary to create the preferred stock program, modeled off worker-owned cooperatives like Equal Exchange and Namaste Solar, in order to finance the trust’s buyout of existing owners. Outside investors like the Purpose Evergreen Fund, Candide Group, individual private investors and several foundations in Oregon with an interest in sustainable food all invested through Organically Grown’s preferred stock program to help finance the conversion to steward ownership. (The company also got a loan from RSF Social Finance to complete the conversion.)

But Reitman-White also says the preferred stock program gave many farmers and employees the opportunity to effectively convert their ESOP shares into preferred stock, speeding up the conversion process.

The Purpose Evergreen Fund was created by Purpose Economy, a nonprofit created in 2016 to support conversions to steward ownership in Europe and the U.S. It’s helped 50 companies make the conversion so far, including five in the U.S. Purpose served as the co-lead outside investor, helping to structure the deal and bring the others on board. The nonprofit also helped design the profit-sharing arrangement that gives each of the five stakeholders a slice of the pie.

Organically Grown Company was Purpose Economy’s largest U.S. conversion yet. The nonprofit now has another 15 U.S. companies in its conversion pipeline — some of them as well as others not yet in the pipeline have been reaching out to Purpose Economy because they, too, are seeing the ESOP writing on the wall.

Organically Grown Company has helped establish some best practices with its multi-stakeholder governance structure.

“A lot of the companies we’re working with now, most of them have some kind of multi-stakeholder element,” says Camile Canon, a partner at Purpose Economy. One of Purpose Economy’s clients is a publishing company that wants to include authors in its multi-stakeholder governance structure. Another client is a totally new entity — Philadelphia’s Kensington Corridor Trust.

Multi-stakeholder governance might seem farfetched, and in some ways it is. But in many ways, Canon says, their work is really to codify and formalize the informal ways that often closely-held, mission-oriented companies are already operating and making decisions. But the examples of New Belgium and Full Sail, as well as others like Ben & Jerry’s and Etsy have shown even if a company starts out with a mission, even if they are a Certified B Corporation or an employee-owned company, they’re still vulnerable to being sucked back into conventional, “extractive” profit-maximization models. Steward-ownership is a way to prevent that from happening.

“In all of the cases we work with, the governance structures they land on are ultimately a reflection of the culture and how they were governing before,” Canon says. “But now these companies are no longer for sale, profits can no longer be extracted for private wealth, and as a result they can serve as long-term institutions in their community.”

More than 2,000 people, including 250 employees, as well as farmers, retailers, investors and community allies like organic trade association groups and local university agriculture extension program staff were invited to the first stakeholder meeting in Portland last month, where they elected the first trust protector committee and talked through the company’s new governance and profit sharing structures.

“We had a really balanced group, and we purposely did it where we mixed the tables, so all the farmers wouldn’t sit together because they all know each other,” Reitman-White says. “People would have to sit at a table with others representing other stakeholder groups. We’re saying essentially the value of the company is held in the commons for this purpose, and if you participate in the purpose, we invite you to share in the governance and make sure we stay on track to the purpose, and you can also share in a portion of the economic return after we invest back in the purpose.”

Oscar Perry Abello

Changing the Climate from the Streets of Oakland

1 day 23 hours ago

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from “Climate Change from the Streets: How Conflict and Collaboration Strengthen the Environmental Justice Movement,” by Michael Méndez, to be published in January 2020 by Yale University Press. In it, the author explores the perspectives and direct action that low-income people of color have brought to the pursuit of environmental justice, making the direct connection between environmental protection and improved public health outcomes. In this section, he chronicles the coalition-building and community engagement efforts in Oakland that resulted in the city council adopting some of the most climate-change legislation in California.

With a population of more than 400,000, of whom almost two-thirds are people of color, Oakland has a long and rich history of civil rights and environmental activism. As the birthplace of the Black Panther Party, Oakland has benefited from a culture of self-determination and resistance developed through local experiments to improve the living standards of communities of color. Notable among these are the Free Breakfast for Children Program (which would go on to serve as a national model for public schools) and community health clinics to address issues such as food insecurity and limited access to healthcare. Oakland’s culture of capacity-building and experimentation has led its activists to participate in national efforts to disrupt governance practices, deviate from existing rules and contest sources of authority.

The sophisticated culture of activism in Oakland, like that of Richmond, is also derived from a legacy of inequitable development practices. Toxic facility sitings, low socioeconomic status, proximity to one of the nation’s busiest container ports and lack of a fair distribution of environmental goods continue to degrade the built environment in many Oakland neighborhoods. In those neighborhoods, residents face increased exposure to pollution-related public health risks, such as asthma, heart disease, cancer, premature death and neonatal problems. According to CalEnviroScreen, the environmental health screening tool developed by the California Environmental Protection Agency, more than 50,000 Oakland residents live in neighborhoods listed in the top 20 percent of California census tracts for cumulative environmental impact across the state. These communities sit next to a busy shipping container port, airport, railyards or freeways. Residents there are exposed daily to far greater levels of multiple forms of pollution from vehicle exhaust and commercial operations than people living in other census tracts. These pollution sources also often contribute to the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change. In pinpointing such hot spots, CalEnviroScreen highlighted Oakland’s role in global-local environmental health degradation.

Motivated by these disproportionate environmental burdens, the city of Oakland and local environmental justice groups sought ways to link urban planning, public health and climate change. They developed an approach that displaced the expert-driven processes that often characterize climate action plans nationwide. Previous research has shown that, similar to the state of California, local governments develop standards and climate policy through the establishment of task forces populated by scientists, university experts and technical organizations that rarely address public health and equity issues. Bucking these expert-driven norms, Oakland in December 2012 adopted one of California’s highest city-scale greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, following a three-year collaboration with the coalition. In the process, environmental justice groups defined a holistic concept of the environment that identified geographically and socially uneven risks and impacts of climate change and opportunities to promote community-based solutions.

Building the Coalition

The coalition’s strength and success were due to the diversity of its members, who were recruited throughout Oakland’s diverse neighborhoods. Together, they were a powerful force that provided multisector expertise on a host of issues, including transportation, affordable housing, energy, urban agriculture, adaptation planning and community engagement. According to Emily Kirsch, founding coalition coordinator and green jobs organizer for the Ella Baker Center, “Having a diverse coalition with strong expertise is important in these types of policy initiatives…. When you talk about climate change, it’s food, water, transportation, housing, energy, health equity and everything you possibly can think of. So we went around to our friends and allies to find out what sort of climate-related projects they were working on and the type of expertise they could bring to the coalition. Then we strategized how we could get these projects included in the climate action plan and on the books as part of the city’s plans.”

Working with Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, the coalition also built an intersectional campaign around the links between women’s reproductive justice and climate change. They held organizing and educational events questioning how the presence of toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases harm reproductive health and also contribute to climate change. The coalition specifically focused on a holistic life-cycle analysis of chemicals and how pollution exposure in nail salons and electronics factories is impacting the natural environment and women’s bodies.

The coalition’s broad range of expertise and priorities, moreover, enabled it to work with the city to move the climate action plan beyond just technical metrics to a community-based plan. In developing the framework for the plan, Oakland officials had initially followed conventional methods. Officials identified greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, environmental priority areas and strategies to address targets by consulting with experts at nongovernmental organizations such as ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, and the private consulting firm Circlepoint, Inc. The city also adopted standard approaches to public participation that environmental justice groups saw as too “top-down.”

Putting the Community Front and Center

The initial city workshops (attended by around 200 people representing the coalition, government agencies, utilities, interest groups, businesses and individual residents) focused on informing the community about the methods that city staff had selected to develop the plan. Early in the process, however, the coalition approached the city and requested more direct involvement. The coalition asked the city not to establish a formal expert task force and to instead allow a community-based approach. The coalition included long-established community members; due in part to their political influence, the city council ultimately allowed the coalition to facilitate and fund a parallel community advisory process. The city’s comparatively small scale (as opposed to the state) made this strategic opportunity possible, through personal connections and closer interaction between influential community members and policymakers. As one coalition member recalled, “The city did host their own workshops, but they are pretty boring and held at 2 p.m…. We attended and gave our input. That is because we get paid to attend. But we wanted to hold workshops that were more accessible to the public and were fun and engaging…. So we hosted a series of workshops in the flatlands of East and West Oakland, knowing that communities most impacted by climate change are often least represented in terms of decision-making.”

Through this collaboration with the coalition, Oakland adopted one of California’s highest municipal greenhouse gas reduction targets: a 36 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2020 and an 85 percent reduction by 2050. Although other California cities have also set such goals, Oakland’s target levels are some of the first to comply with the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Oakland’s targets also surpass California’s statewide requirement to reduce carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and are more than double the state’s recommendation that local governments reduce emissions 15 percent by 2020.

Prioritizing Equity

The coalition strategically pushed for higher reduction targets as leverage for additional measures to address their equity concerns. One coalition member recalled, “We knew if we pushed for a high greenhouse gas target, the more comprehensive the plan had to be. And it could include measures that were community-based, in addition to the standard greenhouse gas mitigation solutions.” As a result, Oakland is also one of the first cities to explicitly link evaluative criteria with benefits for disadvantaged communities when weighing climate policy choices. In this process, the plan’s authors considered whether its benefits outweighed the burdens on disadvantaged communities. For example, they worked to preserve affordable housing in transit-oriented development projects, in a bid to ensure that this greenhouse gas emissions reduction measure would not displace low-income residents.

The coalition argued that transit-oriented development projects (that is, housing, retail and office uses located next to public transit) in existing high-density neighborhoods could be an effective greenhouse gas mitigation measure, but resulting displacement of low-income people, senior citizens and renters could undercut mitigation goals. Lower-income residents might be forced out to cheaper suburbs with fewer transit options if their neighborhood’s older housing stock was replaced with new market-rate units. Many individuals might have to buy a car to commute to work and access community services, thereby increasing the region’s vehicle miles traveled and its greenhouse gas emissions. Oakland was the nation’s first city to link climate change policy with affordable housing in this manner. The coalition also fought to include neighborhood scale adaptation planning in the climate action plan to address the most harmful near-term effects of climate change on socially vulnerable communities. In contrast, conventional adaptation studies at the time often focused only on protecting hard assets, such as vital city infrastructure or ecological systems.

In addition to its role in promoting community-based policies, the coalition was key in the overall framing of the climate action plan. Garrett Fitzgerald, Oakland’s city sustainability coordinator, praised its efforts: “The [coalition] made my job a lot easier by providing smart, specific recommendations for the plan and doing a lot of work to bring more of Oakland’s voices into the process. It’s rare to find community partners as dedicated and willing to collaborate with city staff as the [coalition].” Even before city staff released their first draft of the climate action plan, the coalition had already developed and presented its own comprehensive plan to city officials, based on the community workshops they had hosted. According to a member of the coalition’s steering committee, “What drew these unlikely partners together is the goal of a just and equitable energy and climate plan for the city. Whether they were a green enterprise looking to grow their business in a green and sustainable way or a labor union looking to ensure jobs in a new economy for their members or an environmental group that has done the research to know the catastrophic effects of global warming — they all had a stake in making sure that the plan was done right for the city of Oakland.”

Through this parallel policy development process, the coalition produced 50 of the 150 greenhouse gas reduction measures and goals in the final version of the climate action plan that the city council adopted. The coalition’s policy committees used research and embodied knowledge to build justifications for specific greenhouse gas reduction measures and public health targets. These committees addressed areas such as transportation, affordable housing and land use; building and energy use; consumption and solid waste; food, water and urban agriculture/forestry; and adaptation, resilience and community engagement. The committees convened several times a month and were led by two cochairs — one from a policy-based organization and the other from a grassroots group — to balance expertise in policy development with on-the-ground experience in their recommendations.

Many municipalities acknowledge that public participation should play a role in formulating climate change risks and strategies. However, officials frequently claim they cannot garner significant public interest because the science is complex and climate change is a long-term and uncertain process. As a result, many cities opt to establish an expert task force and hire environmental consultants instead. Compared to most municipal climate policy planning, Oakland represents an innovative case in six key ways:

  1. It included local, embodied knowledge in the development of climate policy.
  2. Public participation was embedded in the regulatory science and policy processes.
  3. Its understanding of climate risks and impacts focused on the human scale.
  4. Measures were chosen for their potential health benefits.
  5. Adaptation plans focused on socially vulnerable communities.
  6. The climate action plan included explicit references to equity and environmental justice.

The coalition’s climate policy development process disrupted conventional climate planning by reducing the primacy of scientific advisors and validating embodied knowledge held by communities. Oakland’s climate action plan is an innovative case, moreover, because the coalition is officially listed as a major contributor to the plan’s development. This is a rare occurrence. As a long-serving member of the Oakland City Council noted, city collaboration with the coalition produced a plan that stands in sharp contrast to previous environmental documents produced by the city: “I’ve been a Council member for 16 years and I’ve seen a lot of environmental plans. Oakland’s Energy and Climate Action Plan is unique because it lifts the voices of low-income communities and communities of color.”

The work of the coalition to develop, pass and implement the city’s climate action plan makes Oakland a model for what communities across the country can do to shape their climate change policy to local needs. Its direct engagement represents an experiment in how local climate governance can be established and defined. First, the plan focused on socially vulnerable communities with the most to lose from the impacts of climate change and suggested neighborhood adaptation plans, not only mitigation measures. Second, the coalition helped create a climate policy model based not just on greenhouse gas reductions but also on ensuring multiple community benefits in the form of green jobs, affordable housing and health co-benefits. Finally, it brought together a diverse community and created a transformative space to challenge the power relations around climate change policy at the local level.

What Does Community Engagement for Climate Change Look Like?

The coalition influenced climate knowledge, thus transforming a global phenomenon into a local one with practical applications. It did so through community engagement, political mobilization, education and an experimental approach. Taken together, these exceeded the formalities of neocommunitarianism (as in the case of the state’s AB 32 implementation) to involve members of the public in identifying local problems associated with climate change and in finding equitable solutions. The coalition’s work with residents — in particular, low-income families and communities of color — was highly popular and inclusive. This was a key factor in the adoption of the coalition’s recommendations in the final plan.

To transform how climate change was perceived in Oakland, the coalition convened and funded 14 workshops. These workshops, along with convenings and rallies, engaged more than 1,500 residents to develop local solutions to climate change, compared to the 200 individuals who attended the city-sponsored events. Several workshops were conducted in multiple languages — for example, the nonprofits Movement Generation and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (which has offices in Richmond and Oakland) facilitated Spanish- and Chinese-language workshops for immigrant residents. The inclusive process produced widespread support for and engagement with the plan by Oakland residents most impacted by pollution and poverty.

The coalition used youth engagement programs to further localize climate knowledge. For example, the coalition hosted a solar-powered concert, featuring legendary hip-hop artists Pete Rock and C. L. Smooth, to promote a Climate Adaptation Work Day at Laney Community College. More than 350 Oakland residents, many of them youth, helped install a garden and rainwater catchment system at the college. Coalition member organization Forward Together organized 80 East Oakland high school students in role-playing activities designed to envision what climate solutions in their homes, schools and neighborhoods could look like. A Community Convergence for Climate Action was also held to showcase a theatrical performance by high school girls on climate change, live hip-hop concerts and a report- back session from residents who had attended the coalition’s climate workshops. The Community Convergence event demonstrated the high level of interest from local residents in developing the climate action plan and created a space for them to articulate climate solutions that would make a real difference in their own lives.

The coalition also facilitated workshops on disaster preparedness for low-income communities that focused on the risks and impacts of climate change through interactive games and learning initiatives. These included the “Are You a Climate Change Survivor?” activity workbook; board games such as Climate Justice Human Bingo and Community Resilience Lifeboat and fact sheets with activities designed to raise awareness about climate change impacts. Through such collaborative projects, Oakland set the trend for a holistic approach to climate action planning. These activities aimed to help diverse people and organizations imagine and implement solutions to protect residents from the localized threats of climate change: heatwaves, floods, wildfires, poor air quality and rising utility costs. Brian Beveridge, co-executive director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project and coalition member, noted, “We started by bringing people together and talking about assets and vulnerability — talking about things they want to protect. It starts as a mapping exercise; we look at all the places we are strong before we look at our vulnerabilities…. At the community level, it is not technocratic. You can’t just say there is some technological fix for people, because we are really not protecting hard assets; we are talking about people surviving as a community during a disaster.”

Adapted from “Climate Change from the Streets: How Conflict and Collaboration Strengthen the Environmental Justice Movement,” by Michael Méndez. Copyright © 2020 Michael Méndez. Reproduced by permission of Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.

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

Michael Méndez

Economics in Brief: Trump Cuts Food Stamps for Hundreds of Thousands

4 days 18 hours ago

President Donald Trump, accompanied by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, left, speaks during a meeting to support America's farmers and ranchers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Thursday, May 23, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Trump Rule Cuts Food Stamps for Hundreds of Thousands

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The Trump administration has finalized a rule that will make it harder for Americans to access the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, a move that is projected to kick 700,000 people off the rolls, Reuters reports.

Already federal rules require that adults 18-49 without dependents or a disability can only receive food stamps for three months in a 36-month period, unless they are working at least 20 hours a week or enrolled in work training. States apply for waivers for the time limit if economic conditions make it harder for people to find jobs.

The changes tighten the guidelines for when states can request such waivers, Reuters reports. “States are seeking waivers for wide swaths of their population, and millions of people who could work are continuing to receive SNAP benefits,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told reporters.

The rule requires that states ask for waivers for only “small labor market areas,” usually one or two counties grouped together, whereas previously states could use their judgment whether a low-unemployment county next to a high-unemployment county could also qualify for a waiver. The rule also requires that for an area to qualify for a waiver, it must have an average unemployment rate over a 24-month-period of at least 6 percent and 20 percent higher than the national average. That means, according to CityLab, that people living through a sharp economic downturn might not become eligible for SNAP until months after the fact.

And if a nationwide recession hits, writes Robert Greenstein, president for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Far fewer areas will qualify for waivers … A state with spiking unemployment reaching levels as high as 9 percent would not qualify for a waiver if national unemployment were also high, such as at 8 percent. This will limit a core strength of SNAP—its responsiveness to changes in economic conditions so that individuals who lose their source of income can quickly qualify for temporary food assistance.”

Duolingo Is the First Pittsburgh-Based Tech Startup Valued At $1B+

Duolingo has raised $30 million in a Series F funding round from Google’s parent company Alphabet and become the first Pittsburgh-based tech startup valued at more than $1 billion by venture capital investors, CNBC reports.

The language-learning app is now valued at $1.5 billion, the site reported.

The Bay Area accounts for about half of all venture capital investment, according to 2017 data, with New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C., taking another third. In terms of individual cities with a large share of VC funding, Pittsburgh doesn’t crack the top ten. For a Pittsburgh-based firm to become a “unicorn” speaks to the city’s growing startup scene. Indeed, the most recent data from Pitchbook-NVCA Venture Monitor shows that cities outside of the top ten metros were responsible for about 35 percent of venture capital deals in 2019 so far, a slight increase over the past few years. Bay Area companies accounted for slightly fewer deals than usual. (The data reflected the number of deals overall and did not examine whether certain metro areas were receiving, on average, larger investments than others.)

Duolingo is not the only highly valued Pittsburgh startup. The self-driving technology company Argo is valued at $7.25 billion but got its funding through direct investments from Ford and Volkswagen rather than through venture capital firms.

LA-Based Social Impact Fund Sees Opportunity in Opportunity Zones

Opportunity Zones have been criticized for their lack of guardrails around projects that have the potential to displace residents who live within their boundaries. But at least one social impact investor sees the promise in Opportunity Zones nonetheless.

Martin Muoto, founder and managing partner of SoLA Impact, is planning to raise $50 to $75 million for an Opportunity Zone project in Los Angeles called the Beehive, the nation’s first business campus for opportunity zone companies, reports Black Enterprise. The Beehive will be a four-acre campus with office space for minority and women-owned businesses inside an Opportunity Zone.

“Our primary focus has always been ensuring that the community shares in the wealth created by the OZ legislation, and the Beehive is just one — but an important part — of that,” Muoto told Black Enterprise. “In order to create wealth, you have to catalyze economic development, entrepreneurship, innovation, and job creation. We believe the Beehive will create hundreds of quality jobs by attracting companies that want to invest in South LA.”

Muoto adds: “The Opportunity Zone legislation is a once-in-a-generation opportunity that can potentially create real wealth for black entrepreneurs and the black community. We — as minority entrepreneurs — need to be leading and setting the agenda in our communities for what types of businesses, what types of business models, and what products and services can be provided.”

Next City

Housing in Brief: Philly May Reduce Tax Break for Residential Construction

4 days 19 hours ago

(Photo by Simon / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Philly May Reduce Tax Break for Residential Construction

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The Philadelphia City Council voted to advance a bill to reduce the tax break that exempts owners of newly built residential properties from taxes on the value of the construction for a full decade, the Inquirer reports. The current form of the bill, which the council voted to pass unanimously, would step down the tax break by 10 percent every year until the exemption disappeared entirely.

The incentive was adopted 20 years ago to spur growth in the city. Now, residents say that too much development is driving up prices in their neighborhoods.

Jim Maransky, president of the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia, said after the hearing that eliminating the tax credit “could have a major effect on the market and spin real estate into a recession.”

Mayor Jim Kenney has threatened to veto the reform bill if the start date isn’t pushed back to the end of 2020.

Nashville Has Cut Half of its Annual Affordable Housing Money

Nashville will only contribute $5 million in grants to its Barnes Fund for Affordable Housing, half of its budgeted amount, as it faces an estimated budget shortfall of $41.5 million, the Tennesean reports.

State law requires the city to balance its budget by the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2020. The shortfall stems from two deals that are not expected to go through: a widely criticized deal to privatize the city’s parking meters was paused by previous mayor David Briley; and a sale of the city’s downtown energy system is also unlikely to go through.

As Next City reported earlier this year, Nashville had planned to increase its annual contribution to the Barnes Fund to $15 million annually for the next ten years.

San Francisco Proposes Eviction Protection

San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney has proposed expanding newly passed state controls on evictions, the Examiner reports.

California passed statewide rent protections this year — the third state to do so. But the statewide ordinance requiring landlords to show just cause when evicting a tenant only applies to buildings constructed before 1979. San Francisco’s ordinance would expand those protections to all buildings, which would bring an additional 35,000 units under protection, the Examiner said.

“We need a clear, uniform standard,” Supervisor Matt Haney wrote on Twitter, according to the Examiner. “No one should live in fear of arbitrary evictions.” Haney introduced the legislation alongside supervisors Sandra Fewer and Hillary Ronen.

The bill is certain to pass the board’s Rules Committee, Curbed SF reports, and will be taken up by the full Board of Supervisors later this month.

Next City

What Americans Don’t Understand About Donating Their Used Clothes

4 days 21 hours ago

In this photo taken Monday, Oct. 24, 2016, Dame Sall, sorts and folds secondhand jeans imported from Italy at the the Invotex warehouse in Dakar, Senegal. Secondhand T-shirts, jeans and dresses are piled high for blocks along the busy streets in Dakar's Colobane neighborhood, where people buy donated European and American fashions at a fraction of their original price. (AP Photo/Jane Hahn)

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is excerpted from “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale,” by Adam Minter, published by Bloomsbury. In this excerpt, Minter explores what happens to secondhand clothes. You may already know that much of what is donated to a thrift store in the U.S. is not sold in the U.S. But where does it go after that? Much of it is exported to other countries. After that, what happens might surprise you.

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Wide avenues cross Cotonou, capital of the small West African nation of Benin. Single-story storefronts are obscured by tire tubes, automobile exhaust manifolds, mufflers, automotive wax, and other car accessories devoted to servicing the city’s thriving used-car trade. Bars with outdoor seating serve Pils, a beer made in neighboring Togo, and skewers of meat. And here and there, handfuls of stores sell new home goods like bedsheets and curtains.

Turn off one of the boulevards and the smooth, paved road usually gives way to a dry dirt one and shops and stalls selling or sorting recently imported secondhand goods. The secondhand-clothing businesses grow particularly dense in a section of town known as Missebo, on the west side of the Cotonou Canal, which cuts the city in half. Shirts, dresses, and other garments hang from fences erected around stalls or on storefronts; shoes hang loose, like fish from hooks. All around, bicycles with trailers, trucks with trailers, and men with strong backs carry fifty-five-kilogram bales of clothes down the street.

I am here with Michael Ogbonna, a fortyish Nigerian who makes his living in Cotonou’s enormous used-car markets on the east side of town. Today, however, Michael is working with me as a paid translator and fixer; two weeks earlier, Nigeria imposed new restrictions on the movement of used cars, all but halting business at the Cotonou car markets (it would pick up again a few months later).

Michael is a tall man with a round, bald head and eyes that squint as if he’s always scrutinizing a deal. … As we walk, he pulls at his shirt. “This is secondhand.” He tugs at his pants. “These are secondhand.” He takes out a Samsung phone from Verizon. “Secondhand,” he huffs. “Americans are trained. They’re trained. Something new, they get rid of the old one. Put it out for recycling, don’t even care. Give it away. Maybe a charity makes a little money for the office.” I glance down at his feet. He’s wearing a pair of new brown suede shoes. Yesterday, he was wearing a pair of old Nike running shoes. In between, I paid him.

“Why do Nigerians want secondhand?” he asks rhetorically. “Because it’s durable. The Chinese things we import? They break, wear out!”

* * *

“Hey! Hey!”

A compact, wiry man is waving to us from his perch on a red plastic chair beside three bales of clothes. Behind him is an open warehouse door revealing dozens more bales. … He is Mr. A (he asks that I not use his name, for fear of trouble with the tax authorities), a secondhand importer, grader, and wholesaler. He assumes I’m a Western exporter of secondhand clothes and speaks to me in English.

As we settle into plastic chairs, Mr. A offers me a bottle of cold water. “I’ve been in this shop five years,” he says by way of introduction. I glance into the warehouse, where two women are carefully examining two bales of clothes amid an inventory of at least two hundred additional bales. Mr. A tells me that he purchases five shipping containers of clothing per week—when the Nigerian currency is strong. “But now less, due to the economy.”

“What kinds of clothes?”

“We are interested in importing durable clothes, not cheap ones. If someone in the West has worn something and it comes here, it’s probably durable.”

“Even if it’s made in China.”

“Not everything from China is bad. Just what the Chinese send to Africa is bad. They save the good things for rich countries.”

It’s a common sentiment among secondhand-goods traders in Africa, and there’s some truth to it. China’s manufacturers long ago mastered techniques for manufacturing similar goods to sell at a profit at different price points. A fashionable shirt, one made to the quality standards expected in the United States and sold for $29.99 there, can be made for much lower quality standards (lower thread counts, for example) and can sell — profitably — for $2.99 in Cotonou. The quality of the fabric and the stitching won’t be nearly as good. But it will be new and fashionable, and for many consumers that matters more than durability.

“What about used Chinese clothes?”

“So much inferior. I don’t import it.”

Mr. A tells me that his biggest challenge is sorting the containers of clothes that he imports. The graders in North America and Europe do a good job, but he needs to do his own sort for his Nigerian customers. “A full container, I can sort it in a day and a half or two days.”

At that, he leads us to a two-story warehouse with five truck-sized doors. Inside, it’s dark and stifling. The only light comes from windows high above us, its beams falling through clothing fibers onto five-hundred-kilogram bales of used clothes imported from around the world. There are perhaps fifty men here; most are shirtless, and their faces are obscured by pantyhose wrapped around their noses to filter out the textile fibers thick in the air. They are muscular men glistening with sweat, their shoulders and arms toned from the exhausting act of digging through the weight of giant bales of clothes. As my eyes adjust, the room appears mostly black and blue, thanks to the volume of denim.

One thing is immediately obvious to me: this warehouse in Missebo is in the same business as in Goodwill’s back-of-the-store sorting areas in the U.S. Working conditions are far worse, of course. But the knowledge necessary to work here is much greater. There are no signs on the walls telling people what brands are worth sorting into which pile. Instead, the Nigerian men who toil here must have a combination of instinct and base knowledge for what makes a marketable garment in the cities, towns, and villages of West Africa.

“We are picky in Africa,” Mr. A says. “We don’t want garbage. We want fashion. We want quality. Not your garbage.”

“Do people send garbage?”

His mouth stretches into a mean, toothy smile. “Not if they want to be paid. They learn what we will take. We are not a dump.”

That’s an opinion at odds with fashionable Western perceptions and critiques of the secondhand-clothing trade. Instead of viewing it as an exchange of goods driven by African demand, Western critics tend to view it as an exchange between the savvy and the ignorant. Take, for example, Whitney Mallett, a documentary filmmaker who wrote about the secondhand-clothing trade for the New Republic in 2015. She describes visiting a New Jersey grading plant with Michael Zweig, the plant’s manager:

By far, the most common labels here that I see are Forever 21 and H&M, fated for the cheap pile. “Nobody is stupid enough to buy Forever 21 second-hand,” notes Zweig. No one in the developed world, anyway.

Mallett’s “no one in the developed world” isn’t just bigoted. It’s blind to how much value is created when less affluent people are given the opportunity to parse the goods of the wasteful affluent. The grading warehouses of Cotonou exist because sorters and graders in the U.S. don’t know enough about Nigeria and the tastes of its consumers to sort clothes for them. That doesn’t make New Jersey’s clothing graders stupid. It just means they’re under-informed compared with their developing-world counterparts. In Cotonou, a clothing buyer doesn’t need to see a Forever 21 tag to know it’s cheap; a simple pinch of the fabric will send it to the heavily discounted pile. Somebody might, in fact, buy it; but nobody will overpay.

Adam Minter

Artists Give Future Twin Cities Transit Corridor an Identity

5 days 21 hours ago

Participants at "Robot Dance Party," an event created by artist Nick Knutson as part of Cultivate Bottineau. (Photo by Peter Jamus, courtesy Springboard for the Arts)

Five years ago St. Paul-based Springboard for The Arts, a community development organization anchored in the arts, used the installation of the city’s new Green Line light-rail line to bring beauty, fun and community engagement to the construction corridor. Dubbed the “Irrigate” project, artists were given grants to execute everything from murals to performances along the future Green Line.

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As the Twin Cities gear up for a possible future extensions of the Blue Line through five northern Minneapolis suburbs, Springboard carried out a similar project, called Cultivate Bottineau and named after the light rail transit line of the same name, that started last year and ran through this fall. In partnership with Minneapolis’ Hennepin County and the McKnight Foundation, Springboard’s artists’ community planned and executed community-focused art projects along the future Bottineau transit route during the planning and pre-development phases of the light rail extension.

Ultimately, Cultivate Bottineau gave community development training to just under 100 artists from across the five suburbs of Crystal, Golden Valley, North Minneapolis, Robbinsdale and Brooklyn Park. Thirty-five of those artists proposed 26 projects, all of which were accepted. While each artist was awarded $1,000 to carry out their work, several decided to team up and pool their grants to pull off more costly projects.

Artists painted murals, built a bike trailer that folds out to become a pop-up print shop, and even created a trailer-turned-mobile-theater-stage (the artist hitched it to his car and used it to host pop-up theater performances along the route.)

In several instances, the works led to increased recognition for the artists and even additional commissions from the cities themselves.

“It’s not purely decorative and beautification, but really about the relationships. What we’ve seen time after time is that it changes communities and how they understand one another and all the sudden you have 10 to 15 artists from a place who feel like they have a voice,” says Jun-Li Wang, a community development director at Springboard. “They know who works at city halls and it changes people’s relationships with power structures… It was like, how do we take advantage of this chaotic time where there’s a dearth of programming and how do we get artists into the mix?”

Originally slated to occur during the construction as Irrigate did, when the Blue Line extension stalled, the project soldiered on, building on the success of the Irrigate project and tweaking it to make improvements this time around.

“With the Irrigate model we used at the beginning, the idea was that it’s super open and accessible for artists, especially first-time artists who haven’t done things like this before,” says Sam Buffington, a community organizer at Springboard. Because of that fluidity, though, it was hard to give residents and cities notice about when events, installations, and performances would be happening since the artists were able to carry out their work fairly spontaneously. This time around, Springboard asked artists to plan events and activations coinciding with community events.

In addition to planning events at least a few months ahead of time, Springboard also had to alter its approach to the project, which was originally designed to coincide with construction. “When the [light-rail] project got pushed back, first one year, then two years, we wanted to focus [Cultivate’s work] on building relationships between artists and people in those cities and counties so that they can figure out how to work together in the future,” Buffington says. Chiefly, the Cultivate projects serve to highlight local artists in their own communities, putting them on the radar for future engagements and commissions from the cities they live in rather than outsourcing creative talent from the Twin Cities or beyond.

With both Wang and Buffington noting that carrying out the projects in the absence of the actual construction of the Blue Line was a challenge and led to something of a disconnect between the work and the construction, overall they see the connections that the artists made with their cities as a success.

“It gives people this idea that next time you have a community event that you can contact these artists,” Buffington says. “If you’re looking to do a mural in Brooklyn Park, you don’t have to bring someone in from Minneapolis or California.” As Cultivate Bottineau showed, there are artists in everyone’s backyard — sometimes literally.

This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.

Cinnamon Janzer

Ilhan Omar’s Trillion-Dollar Housing Plan Is Another Notch in Housing Organizers’ Belts

5 days 23 hours ago

(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

In a season full of ambitious plans to tackle the housing crisis, Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has introduced what may be the most ambitious plan yet.

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In November, Omar, a member of the so-called “Squad” — a group of four newly elected progressive Congresswomen of color that also includes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley — introduced the The Homes for All Act. The bill calls for spending $1 trillion to build 12 million new homes over ten years. Of those, 9.5 million would be publicly owned, built to “the highest possible environmental standard,” and kept in good shape permanently through mandatory yearly maintenance spending by Congress. Another 2.5 million more would be privately owned, permanently affordable homes funded through a $200 billion investment in the federal Housing Trust Fund. Like the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act introduced the week before by Ocasio-Cortez, the Homes for All Act calls for the repeal of the Faircloth Amendment, a rule that prevents public housing authorities from increasing their overall housing supply. And it creates a $200 billion “Community Control and Anti-Displacement Fund” that would make grants to cities for programs that would “help re-house displaced people, regulate exploitative developers or provide communities with the resources necessary to make a tenants’ right of first refusal [to purchase their apartment] an affordable and realistic option,” according to a summary of the legislation.

“The private market alone will never be able to provide enough adequate housing for every American,” Omar’s office wrote in the summary. “Fulfilling Americans’ basic right to housing will only happen with a guaranteed public option and a massive investment in new public, affordable housing construction.”

The legislation sticks out as a sweeping reimagination of the federal government’s role in housing people. But it has a lineage. Earlier this fall, as Next City reported, a campaign for a “Homes Guarantee” led by the Chicago-based group People’s Action released a policy platform calling for federal investment in housing. Among its demands were the construction of 12 million new “social housing” units — enough to house every extremely low-income renter household in America, plus the more than 500,000 people who were homeless during the point-in-time survey in 2018. The policy platform also called for a $200 billion “Community Control and Anti-Displacement Fund.” Both demands are included in Omar’s bill.

The housing plans endorsed by progressive members of Congress increasingly respond to national campaigns for affordable housing and tenants’ rights. And the presence of new progressive Congress members seems to be encouraging more collaboration among those campaigns as well. Tara Raghuveer, an organizer with People’s Action, says the Homes Guarantee group worked directly with Omar staffers on the Homes for All Act. But so did advocates with the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), another national progressive coalition that earlier this fall brought its own set of demands for rent control and tenant protections to Congress, as Next City reported. CPD also worked with Ocasio-Cortez on some of her “Just Society” legislation.

Dianne Enriquez, director of campaigns for community dignity at the Center for Popular Democracy, says that Omar’s office actually started with a vision for new government-funded housing that was developed at the Center for American Progress — a liberal think tank with Democratic Party ties — and approached CPD for more ideas.

“Omar’s staff integrated a bunch of our language and integrated a bunch of the ideas, and took a bill that was much more moderate and [made it] what it looks like now,” Enriquez says.

People’s Action and CPD are both now working with other members of the Squad on more housing-related legislation, which they expect to be introduced early next year, according to both Enriquez and Raghuveer.

“The increased collaboration of our member groups on the ground plants the seed of collaboration between our national groups, and ultimately, I think we’re going to need all that power and more to win this stuff,” Raghuveer says.

The elevation of housing concerns to something approaching a national priority was hard to foresee just a few years ago, Raghuveer says. But progressive groups’ commitment to the issue is getting stronger and, similar to the way Medicare for All has gone from being a far-left wish to a core issue in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, the groups’ influence is filtering up, Raghuveer says. Demands for a Green New Deal for public housing and 12 million new government-funded homes may seem wildly ambitious now, but progressive organizers feel like they have a chance to set a housing agenda at the federal level for the first time in memory.

“We’re trying to create a line where anything less than what we’re putting out is not good enough,” Enriquez says.

And while agenda-setting is a worthy goal on its own, organizers say, it’s not too far fetched to think that some parts of the agenda could be enacted in the relatively near term. Having legislators “who come out of movements like this and who see themselves as accountable to movements” creates opportunities for a “united front” among movements that have sometimes worked on separate campaigns, says Peter Gowan, a senior policy associate at the Democracy Collaborative. So a real caucus of progressive legislators supporting a cohesive housing vision could enact some changes, Gowan says.

“Say we have a Democratic administration and possibly a Democratic Congress coming around in 2021,” says Peter Gowan. “Maybe we don’t get everything, but a lot of this stuff could be done in a federal budget or an appropriations bill.”

In the spring of 2018, Gowan co-authored a paper for the People’s Policy Project called “Social Housing in the United States,” arguing for an investment in publicly owned housing for people at a range of income levels. Gowan says he’s happy with the Homes for All Act and other pieces of progressive legislation, and with “how the movement in general has reintroduced the idea that the public sector can play a role in expanding housing to working-class people on a non-discriminatory basis.” At the time he was writing the social housing paper, it wasn’t obvious that the ideas would get much traction.

“I certainly hoped that we would get somewhere like this, but this was at the edge of my hope for what we could achieve over such a short period of time,” Gowan says.

Jared Brey

Is the Starter Home Dead in Queens? Time Is Running Out

5 days 23 hours ago

Neighborhoods that were once considered the starting point for many immigrants' American Dream are seeing home prices driven up. (Photo by Paul Sableman / CC BY 2.0)

My grandmother named me after my grandfather. He died in a house fire in the Philippines when my father, their eldest of four, was seventeen. With four growing mouths to feed, my grandmother felt her only viable choices were to remarry or move to the United States to find work — born under colonial rule, she already had dual citizenship even though her Filipino-born children didn’t.

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In 1973, my grandmother and her four kids arrived in New York City, where they took up residence in her brother’s basement on 45th Drive in the Bayside section of Queens. They worked out a rough plan — my grandmother would get a job, and my father would work until the next sibling finished high school and could get a job, then he would go back to school to get a degree, and so on until everyone had the education my grandmother wanted them to have.

Everything didn’t go exactly according to plan, but my grandmother and her kids eventually moved into their own apartment in Queens, and my father did eventually get a bachelor’s degree from Queensborough College. My grandmother has never remarried.

In certain neighborhoods of Queens, every home on every block seems to have their own version of that story. But now, local community advocates are sounding the alarm that investor dollars are setting off market speculation that threaten to price out the first-time homebuyers, many of them immigrants, that made those neighborhoods such reliable places to sprout roots.

“The path was difficult, but there was a path,” says Annetta Seecharran, executive director at Chhaya Community Development Corporation. “That’s the story of immigrants, that’s the story of New York. But the New York we’re seeing today is not the New York of the past. Now it feels like the path is disappearing.”

In a report from earlier this year, Chhaya analyzed home mortgage data from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and private databases, and found that mortgages for non-owner-occupied homes in Queens is now roughly triple what it was before the housing market crash of 2008. In three key neighborhoods that Chhaya has long considered a safe bet for first-time immigrant homebuyers, non-owner-occupied home mortgages accounted for 20-30 percent of home purchases in 2017.

It’s not 100 percent clear that the heightened activity of non-owner occupied mortgages represents larger investors buying up homes, but community advocates working in the homeownership space are saying their clients are no longer able to buy homes in these neighborhoods, and brokers are also saying first-time homebuyers in these neighborhoods are increasingly unable to buy.

Investors buying and flipping homes goes back before 2008, but the data point to the new, larger-scale investor presence in certain markets that once offered reliably affordable homeownership opportunities for recent immigrants and others. The 2008 housing crash itself had a lot to do with sparking large-scale investor interest in such markets.

A decade ago, in the aftermath of the subprime mortgage implosion, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) faced a massive dilemma: The largest mortgage insurer in the world, it had insured thousands upon thousands of mortgages that had fallen into distress. In a foreclosure of an FHA-insured mortgage, the FHA makes a payout to protect lenders against any losses. But the volume of distressed mortgages after the subprime crisis was such that if lenders foreclosed, the FHA would owe more in payouts than the cash it had available to pay out.

So instead of having lenders foreclose on thousands upon thousands of mortgages, the FHA offered to serve as a kind of middle-man, arranging massive auctions where investors would bid on distressed mortgages, acquiring them en masse and taking them off the books of the lenders that had originally made those speculative loans. It eventually came to be known as the “Distressed Asset Stabilization Program,” or DASP. From 2010-2016, the FHA sold 116,660 mortgages through DASP auctions, nearly all of them to private equity firms that went on to foreclose on about half of them — turning those single-family homes into market-rate rentals.

And it wasn’t just the FHA. Fannie Mae, the nation’s largest mortgage financier, started conducting its own auctions of “non-performing loans.” It just sold another 20,800 mortgages to investors last month.

Those sales whetted large investor taste for single-family rentals. By 2014, the private equity firm Blackstone was already the nation’s largest single-family residential landlord. By 2017 Blackstone’s single-family residential subsidiary had spun off into its own company, Invitation Homes, which started merging with other private equity-backed single-family residential rental companies.

Ironically, much of the money private equity firms have been raising to acquire these homes comes from overseas or from public pensions, meaning those dollars are winning out against potential homebuyers who are immigrants, or those who are civil servants who are otherwise beneficiaries of public pension funds.

While it’s true that the majority of housing in New York City is in buildings of five or more units, large parts of Queens — the city’s second most populous borough after Brooklyn — are an exception to that rule. Eastern Queens especially — neighborhoods like Bayside or Jamaica — is dominated by the single-family housing that immigrant families who work with groups like Chhaya still prefer to buy.

The impact of large investors in the single-family residential market goes beyond higher prices — many transactions are now conducted entirely in cash, no mortgage needed (and no mortgage recording fee). Sellers are coming to expect all-cash transactions, further marginalizing first-time homebuyers who may need to seek down payment assistance and a second mortgage just to compete at the prices large investors are willing to pay. Most just can’t compete.

As program director for housing justice at Chhaya, Will Spisak conducted Chhaya’s research into home mortgage data in Queens. He also oversees the nonprofit’s first-time homebuyer counseling team.

“The idea [to do the research] came from doing check-ins with our counselors and this persistent problem popping up in my notes from the check-ins,” Spisak says. “Clients were ready for homeownership but prices are too high. I just started asking who’s buying these homes, if not our clients.”

The growth in investor buyers comes at a time when Chhaya’s first-time homebuyer education and assistance programs have never been more popular. Five or six years ago, the nonprofit’s annual first-time homebuyer fair attracted 100 people, tops, but this past year Seecharran says it attracted more than 800 participants. The nonprofit offers one-on-one homebuyer counseling in Hindi, Nepali, Tibetan, Bangla, Punjabi, and Spanish as well as English.

Not everyone who comes to Chhaya’s homebuyer fair or the occasional first-time homebuyer workshop eventually comes in for one-on-one homebuyer counseling, and not everyone who makes it to counseling makes it to closing on a home. But Spisak says starting from initial contact at the fair or a workshop, about eight percent of those clients over the past few years have made it all the way to closing.

“Some clients we work with for years before we get them to the point of closing, but it’s certainly at a lower point today than it has been in the past,” Spisak says.

Investor appetite for single-family housing has continued to grow. In almost any city, but especially in predominantly black or brown neighborhoods, it can be seen in the little nondescript placards stapled to telephone poles with nothing but a phone number and “WE BUY HOUSES, CASH.”

Rafael Jose has worked for 15 years as a real estate broker in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island. He started out working in neighborhoods closer to Manhattan, but has found himself working further and further east because the working class, first-time homebuyers he wanted to work with just couldn’t compete in those neighborhoods anymore.

“But then that whole thing that was happening out west started affecting here,” Jose says. “People started flooding this area in the past three or four years and making homeownership unaffordable for the people who are living here. I remember in 2017 there were some houses where people put in 30 or 40 offers.”

Jose says he’s seen smaller investors jumping into the fray. “Regional and local investors, accumulating 10, 15 homes, some 40 or 50, it could be just three or four,” he says. “But if it’s single-family homes and they buy to hold, they’ll rent out every room separately and take up all the parking on the block. A lot of people are complaining about it.”

Chhaya’s report warns that the investor speculation is are starting to recreate the conditions that led up to the 2008 housing market crash. The Jamaica section of Queens, where Jose spends much of his working hours these days, was the center of the subprime foreclosure crisis in New York City.

The Chhaya report’s top recommendation is furthering the use of community land trusts as a tool to discourage house flipping and speculation, preserving land trust homes as affordable rentals or homeownership opportunities. Community land trusts are nonprofit entities that take ownership of land, leasing or selling buildings on that land for social purposes like affordable housing. They’re typically governed by a mix of residents, other community members, and outside experts in real estate management and finance.

The first citywide land trust in NYC, Interboro Community Land Trust, will have a focus on single-family homes, but it is still in its early stages and has yet to acquire any properties. Other community land trusts in NYC, focusing on multi-family housing, have struggled to take off. Cooper Square CLT remains the only community land trust in NYC that has acquired and leased up a portfolio of properties, and it took almost 40 years to get to that point.

Financing acquisitions has been a key obstacle for community land trusts. On the west coast, community organizers have found early success using private offerings and state-specific securities exemptions to finance community acquisition and rehab of property. So far in New York, community organizers are still relying on public channels to acquire properties, such as tax foreclosure sales or other public land.

“We would love to see a real commitment on the level we’ve seen in other cities like Boston where the municipality is willing to take public land and ensure it becomes part of a community land trust,” Spisak says. “The city has for decades given land away to developers for a dollar. They could start to prioritize communities in the same way.”

Jose doesn’t think his first-time homebuyer clients have time to wait for policymakers to come around. Working with an urban planner and a pair of securities lawyers, he’s now seeking out socially-minded investors for a new venture that would acquire single-family properties in all-cash transactions with first-time homebuyers already lined up to repurchase them, prequalified for down payment assistance and other subsidized loan products.

Jose says his venture probably wouldn’t work in neighborhoods where speculative investors have already driven up prices beyond what first-time homebuyers can afford. But he still sees plenty of opportunity in Jamaica or western Long Island where first-time homebuyers can still qualify for assistance and large enough loans to re-purchase properties from the new venture in exchange for a modest return to investors.

“At that point the seller can have a good story, because they’re not selling to a creepy investor, but a first-time homebuyer,” Jose says. “There are some homeowners who do still care about the story, they care about who they’re selling to. But in most instances now they have no choice.”

Oscar Perry Abello

Moscow Ramps Up Spending on Metro Expansion

6 days 19 hours ago

A station in the Moscow Metro (Photo by Rictor Norton & David Allen / CC BY 2.0)

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

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Moscow Accelerates Metro Expansion Program

Over the nine-year period that began in 2011 and ends Dec. 31, Moscow has spent a total of 1.031 trillion rubles (US$16.12 billion) adding new lines and extensions to its famed metro system. Now Metro Report International reports that the Russian capital plans to spend 70 percent of that amount on projects to be finished in the coming three years.

Moscow city officials have announced that the city will spend about 700 billion rubles (US$10.95 billion) on metro projects between 2020 and 2022, with the bulk of the amount going towards system expansion.

The biggest of the expansion projects will be completion of a new outer ring route, Line 11. Currently the line runs 3.3 km (2.05 miles) between Kashirskaya and Kakhovskaya. Construction of the entire 69-km (42.9-mile) line has passed the halfway point, and the remainder of the line is slated to be finished in this investment cycle. This figure also includes a branch from Khoroshyovskaya to Delovoy Tsentr that will ultimately become part of Line 15 when that line opens in 2025.

The other extensions to be funded in this cycle include a 3.7-km (2.3-mile) tunnel between Delovoy Tsentr and Tretyakovskaya that will turn current lines 8 and 8a into a single continuous route, a southward extension of Line 1 to Novomoskovskaya and a northward one of Line 10 to Fiztekh. Also planned for the longer term: an extension of Line 8 to Vnukovo Airport.

The projects slated for completion by 2023 will add 40 new stations to the system, with an additional 18 planned for the longer term. As of now, the Moscow Metro system has 397.3 km (246.9 miles) of routes and 232 stations, making it the fifth-most-extensive metro system in the world. A monorail and a separate elevated ring line integrated with the metro add 58.7 km (36.5 miles) of route and 37 stations to the network.

Oklahoma Cityans to Vote on Another Round of Transit Improvements

Ever since Oklahoma City officials were surprised in the late 1980s when an airline decided not to build a maintenance base there because its employees didn’t want to live in the city, Oklahoma’s capital and largest city has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a slew of projects known by the acronym MAPS (originally “Metropolitan Area Projects”) designed to improve the quality of life and the physical and transportation infrastructure of the city.

A good chunk of that money has gone to giving the city a transit system — branded EMBARK in 2014 — that now operates in the evening and on weekends. Some of it went towards the construction of the city’s modern streetcar routes. All of these improvements have been paid for by temporary one-cent sales taxes that expire after a period of years. To date, when one tax expires, the city has sent another list of projects to voters for funding by that one-cent tax.

Currently, the tax pays for street improvements and bike infrastructure as part of an initiative called “Better Streets, Safer City.” It’s set to expire at the end of March 2020.

Which means that it’s time for another round of projects.

According to a report in The Oklahoman, the MAPS 4 projects voters will be asked to fund Dec. 10 include further improvements to Oklahoma City’s transit service. About $87 million of the estimated $978 million the one-cent sales tax extension will raise over the next eight years will go toward transit projects.

The largest of the projects will add two more bus rapid transit routes to the one that has already been funded and is under design. The two new routes would serve the northwestern and southern parts of the city with raised-platform boarding similar to the streetcar stations, signal priority and dedicated lanes in some areas. Total price tag: $60 million.

The other $27 million will go towards additional buses for the EMBARK transit system, signal priority for buses at about half of the 490 signalized intersections along EMBARK routes, 500 new accessible transit shelters with security lighting, and security lighting for the bus stops without shelters. With the addition of the 500 new shelters, about half the system’s 1,400 bus stops would have shelters if voters approve the sales tax extension.

So far, voters have approved every extension of this tax.

New Peripheral Light Rail Line Opens in Lyon

The International Railway Journal reports that Lyon’s newest light rail line, line T6, opened for service Nov. 22.

The 6.7-km (4.2-mile), 14-station line connects with the existing line T1 at Debourg and runs eastward from there to Est-Pinel Hospital. It serves the southern and eastern parts of Lyon, bypassing the city center.

The line also connects with lines T2, T4 and T5, metro lines B and D, and 14 city bus routes.

About 70 percent of the route operates in a grass median, providing additional greenery in parts of the city.

This past May, officials of Sytral, Lyon’s transit authority, held a series of public consultations on a proposal to extend this line northwest to La Doua and the University of Lyon 1 campus. The extension would turn the line into a belt route around the city to the south and east.

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

Sandy Smith

Cycling Without Age Gives Seniors Access to Biking in Cities Around the Globe

6 days 21 hours ago

A volunteer and two senior citizens on a Cycling Without Age ride. (Photo by Cycling Without Age / CC BY-ND 2.0)

When Ole Kassow was three, his father was diagnosed with MS. “We couldn’t do the same things that other fathers and sons, we couldn’t fish or play soccer,” Kassow recalls. “But he was really good at putting a positive spin on many things. We invented imaginary superhero glasses — we’d just turn our thumbs and fingers into little glasses and we’d go around and I’d pull him in his wheelchair with my bike.” In many ways, that’s where the seed for Cycling Without Age, a non-profit that uses tri-shaw bikes to take seniors living in care facilities out for rides in cities across the world, was first planted.

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What started with Kassow in Copenhagen in August of 2012 has since blossomed into a global network of more than 1,643 Cycling Without Age chapters in 42 countries, including over 300 chapters and counting in the U.S. “With my dad, I saw what it does to a person when you lose mobility,” Kassow says, noting that many people lose friends when they’re no longer able to engage in the activities they once loved.

After seeing an elderly man sitting on a bench one August day, Kassow got to thinking how much mobility and access to community he could provide to seniors through something as simple as a bike ride. “I was dedicated to seeing this man back on a bike. I hired this old tri-shaw and showed up at a care home and began taking elders out for rides,” Kassow says. It wasn’t exactly cycling: The seniors don’t pedal or steer, as those tasks are left up to a volunteer. But the riders get all of the adventure, freedom, and wind in their hair that a traditional bike ride provides.

Kassow quickly saw a slew of unanticipated benefits as well. Seniors who were described as loners who had all but given up on talking suddenly became chatty with everyone from the staff member accompanying them to their bike driver once again as the world became exciting again from their three-wheeled perch. “I think what it does is that it allows people to get access to relationships again,” Kassow says, musing on the fact that “there isn’t anything in the [UN’s] human rights charter about relationships, even though I just read a book by Susan Pinker that talked about the important role social relationships play in longevity and happiness.”

Kassow has since come to see relationships as something of a human right that his organization works to restore through bike rides, an idea that the city of Copenhagen was eager to support. The city funded Kassow’s first five bikes, a boon because the tri-shaw bikes — essentially pedicabs where the seat is in front of the cyclist, rather than behind — the organization relies on can cost $7,000 – $10,000. In April of 2013, Kassow hosted a joint ride where everyone, regardless of age or mobility, was invited. “Over 100 people showed up. It was a cold, clear, frosty day and it was fantastic,” he recalls. “A lot of people who came said that they wanted to join as volunteers. From there it was a matter of experimenting to figure out how it was going to work.”

Largely through word of mouth, the program spread to different care homes across Copenhagen and eventually to different cities as well. Kassow eventually developed a “train the trainers” methodology so that each new chapter would be able to support the development of other chapters without requiring Kassow’s direct involvement.

In late 2014 Kassow was invited to give a TED Talk in Copenhagen. That’s when the Cycling Without Age really began to spread, leading to something like 10 new chapters popping up over the course of just a few months. This was also when Kassow left his consulting business to focus on Cycling Without Age full time.

Chapters, like Kalynn McLain’s in Meridian, Idaho, are still popping up today.

What started as an adventure in testing out electric bikes with her mother in law in October 2017 ended with the duo stumbling across a chapter kickoff in nearby Eagle, Idaho. The Eagle chapter didn’t take off, despite having already acquiring a tri-shaw. The woman eventually donated it to McLain. “It kind of fell into my lap. I hadn’t intended to start a chapter, but I couldn’t say no,” she says.

With the hardest part — acquiring the tri-shaw — behind her, McLain set out to establish her chapter by filing with the state and getting logistics like an insurance policy in order. In April of this year McLain began offering rides in partnership with a local assisted living facility.

“Once I started working with them, other facilities started asking about it. What I ended up doing was working through the parks and rec department to be able to ride in parks and on pathways around the city,” she says. McLain and her stable of volunteers now meet seniors shuttled from their facilities at parks where the rides take place. “They get outdoors and it gets them talking to people of different generations and telling their stories,” she says.

Currently it’s McLain’s handful of volunteers who give most of the rides while she hangs back.

Across the 109 rides that the Meridian chapter gave this season, McLain is most pleased by the seniors who come back time and time again, especially largely nonverbal residents from memory care facilities who have burst into words on their ride.

“I had one ride,” McLain says, “where the staff was asking the resident if she was enjoying the ride and she suddenly said, ‘Yes! I’m loving it!’ The staff member turned to me and was like, ‘Did you hear that?!’” It was the first time that resident had spoken in some time, all inspired by the ride Cycling Without Age was able to provide.

Cinnamon Janzer

How New Orleans Is Adding Art to Resilience Planning

6 days 21 hours ago

Students at The Net, an alternative high school, previously worked on projects like designing new bus shelters. Now, fourteen students will collaborate on arts projects that showcase resilience in the Gentilly neighborhood. (Photo courtesy The Net)

In 2015, grant writers in New Orleans decided that art should be part of resilience planning. They were working on a competitive Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) grant to support the planning and water-management infrastructure for the Gentilly Resilience District.

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Gentilly is a diverse neighborhood in New Orleans, and while some homes escaped Hurricane Katrina with no flooding, others were submerged by more than six and a half feet of water. In 2016, New Orleans was one of 13 communities to win a $141 million grant in the National Disaster Resilience Competition organized by HUD and the Rockefeller Foundation. The competition aimed to inspire and support cities working to make themselves more resilient to the impacts of climate change. Now, three years after the award was announced, the Arts Council of New Orleans is conducting trainings for artists who want to get involved in co-creating public art in the neighborhood.

The grant allocates roughly $200,000 to public art, says Heidi Schmalbach, executive director of the Arts Council. “The idea was to take a holistic approach to resilience,” Schmalbach says. “So, looking not only at infrastructure but people and awareness and culture and workforce development and just thinking how multiple sectors come together to create and demonstrate what a resilient community looks like.”

Colleen McHugh was part of the team that drafted the HUD proposal. At the time, she worked for the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority. “I think art can be a tool to help explain and engage people in the complexities of how infrastructure works and the history of New Orleans’ environment and how that relates to New Orleans’ social history,” McHugh says.

Along with recognizing art’s ability to break down history, McHugh sees public art as a visionary part of the infrastructure design process. For example, for decades a number of New Orleans canals have been covered by concrete. That constricts the flow of water and potentially makes them more dangerous if heavy rains produce flood-like conditions. It also deprives the community of the cooler air near an open body of water. Public art, McHugh says, enables residents “to engage with future visions that might not be totally possible now, but that might be possible down the line,” such as uncovering the city’s canals.

For Schmalbach, the idea is to have artists create installations that speak to the reality of living with water. To do this, however, those artists have to have at least a basic understanding of how water management infrastructure — like permeable pavement and rain gardens — actually work. To equip the artists with this knowledge, the Arts Council partnered with Prospect New Orleans, a triennial public art exhibit, to set up the Public Art school, two workshops that kicked off on November 19th.

The two workshops — Public Art 101 and Water and Community Resilience 101 – offer artists training in how to prepare a competitive proposal for a public art project as well as a basic education in New Orleans’ water management issues. The water workshop will be run by The Water Leaders Institute, a non-profit organization, which aims to expand the public’s understanding of the risks New Orleans faces from climate change while encouraging public participation in developing solutions.

Aron Chang is an urban design consultant and a co-founder of Water Leaders. He praised the Arts Council’s work for its comprehensive approach to urban planning. “It’ll go a long ways toward shaping the identity of the District as a whole and provide a diversity of entry points for people to engage,” Chang says. For example, he explained, someone who may not read a sign explaining how pervious paving works or what a rain garden is might connect with a piece of public art.

These engagement efforts aren’t limited to adults. Shortly after HUD announced the Resilience District award, the City of New Orleans approached the Arts Council to develop a plan for implementing the public art element. At the time, Schmalbach says, the Council was running a youth-development program called Youth Solutions that connected young people with artist mentors. The groups would design interventions, such as re-imagined bus stops, for their neighborhoods and schools. “[They] have the power to decide,” Schmalbach says of the program, “what kinds of creative, artistic interventions [they] want to see that further the [water management] objectives.”

The youth are students at The Net, an alternative high school with campuses in the Gentilly and Central City neighborhoods. Fourteen students will participate in the Gentilly-focused version of the youth-artist collaborations. The youth will receive stipends for their time, but Tim Spahn Sattler, the school’s internship coordinator, emphasizes that their intellectual and creative contributions will also be acknowledged.

This kind of experience, says Spahn Sattler, helps young people see that they can shape their educational path. Through the Arts Council program, The Net students have the opportunity to collaborate with artists and to learn skills like welding and mural painting. This, Spahn Sattler says, gives the youth “access and exposure to different career opportunities” while also equipping them with technical skills that can help them choose a post-graduation path.

Applications for the youth program close in early December with finalists being announced early next year.

“I think the role of artists, the role of art, is that of creating opportunities for citizens to engage and interpret these changes to their environment,” Chang says. Having beautiful objects in neighborhoods, he believes, means that people will feel a sense of ownership, which, he says, “is the starting point for thinking about stewardship and maintenance.”

This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.

Zoe Sullivan

Eliminating Food Deserts Won’t Help Poorer Americans Eat Healthier — Here’s What Will

1 week ago

(Photo by Artem Beliaikin / Public Domain)

In the US, rich people tend to eat a lot healthier than poor people.

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Because poor diets cause obesity, Type II diabetes and other diseases, this nutritional inequality contributes to unequal health outcomes. The richest Americans can expect to live 10-15 years longer than the poorest.

Many think that a key cause of nutritional inequality is food deserts — or neighborhoods without supermarkets, mostly in low-income areas. The narrative is that folks who live in food deserts are forced to shop at local convenience stores, where it’s hard to find healthy groceries. If we could just get a supermarket to open in those neighborhoods, the thinking goes, then people would be able to eat healthy.

The data tell a strikingly different story.

Negligible change

We recently studied the impact of opening supermarkets in food deserts in research conducted with fellow economists Rebecca Diamond, Jessie Handbury and Ilya Rahkovsky.

From 2004 to 2016, over 1,000 supermarkets opened in neighborhoods around the country. We analyzed the grocery purchases of a sample of 10,000 households living in those neighborhoods.

Did they start to buy healthier food after the supermarket opened nearby?

Although many people started shopping at the new local supermarket after it opened, they generally did not buy healthier food. We can statistically conclude that the effect on healthy eating from opening new supermarkets was negligible at best. We calculated that local access to supermarkets explains no more than about 1.5 percent of the difference in healthy eating between low- and high-income households.

How could this be?

Why food deserts are not the problem

The food desert narrative suggests the lack of supply of healthy foods is what causes reduced demand for them.

But in the modern economy, stores have become amazingly good at selling us exactly the kinds of things we want to buy. Our research suggests the opposite narrative: Lower demand for healthy food is what causes the lack of supply.

Furthermore, local neighborhood conditions don’t matter much, since we regularly venture out of our neighborhoods. We calculate that the average American travels 5.2 miles to shop. Low-income households are not that different: They travel 4.8 miles.

Given that we are willing to travel that far, we tend to shop in supermarkets even if there is not one down the street. We found that even people who live in ZIP codes without a supermarket buy 85 percent of their groceries from supermarkets.

Tax sugar, subsidize produce

In other words, people don’t suddenly go from shopping at an unhealthy convenience store to shopping at the new, healthy supermarket. In reality, people go from shopping at a faraway supermarket to shopping at a new supermarket that offers the same types of groceries.

To be clear, new grocery stores do provide many benefits. In many neighborhoods, new retail can bring jobs, a place to see neighbors and a sense of revitalization. People who live nearby get more options and do not have to travel as far to shop.

But the data show that healthier eating is not one of those benefits.

Instead, we would recommend tweaking prices as a better approach to encouraging healthier habits. Taxes on sugary drinks can discourage their consumption, while food-stamp programs could be modified to make fruits and vegetables cheaper.

And, given that we develop long-term eating habits as children, parents and schools can encourage kids to eat healthier.

Health inequality is one of our society’s most important problems. We hope that this research can direct efforts toward ideas that can materially improve health — and away from ideas that do not.

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

Hunt Allcott, Jean-Pierre Dubé and Molly Schnell | Op-Ed

Why These Hospitals Have Promised $700 Million for Affordable Housing and More

1 week ago

Philadelphia, PA, residents who reported being in "poor health" at least 7 of the last 30 days. (Map via PolicyMap.com)

As the links between physical health and community wealth and vitality become clearer all the time, fourteen regional and national health systems are coming together to commit at least $700 million to investments in affordable housing and economic development in the cities where they’re located.

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The commitment by the Healthcare Anchor Network, a project of the nonprofit research and advocacy organization Democracy Collaborative, will direct the wealth and resources of some of the largest employers in a number of U.S. states to local development projects. The investments will go toward affordable-housing projects, “equitable economic development,” and investments in minority- and women-owned businesses, the group announced. The goal of the effort is for health centers to invest in the health of their communities beyond the care they provide inside hospitals, says Dave Zuckerman, director of the Healthcare Anchor Network.

The health systems include large consortiums of insurance services, hospitals and doctors’ groups like Kaiser Permanente, Einstein Healthcare Network, and Trinity Health. The systems have hospitals and other facilities that are among the largest and wealthiest institutions in cities and towns around the country. The Healthcare Anchor Network launched in 2017 with 11 health systems, and now includes 46, Zuckerman says. Health systems can “leverage their everyday business practices like hiring and supply-chain and investments in a different way, to build more inclusive and sustainable communities,” Zuckerman says.

Research shows that health outcomes are “causally related” to income and race, Zuckerman says. As the Urban Institute wrote in one study, “The greater one’s income, the lower one’s likelihood of disease and premature death.” Racial wealth disparities, and racial disparities in healthcare, also contribute to racially unequal health outcomes, research suggests. As the Democracy Collaborative noted in a 2015 report, “Overwhelming evidence from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other sources suggests that social, economic, and environmental factors are more significant predictors of health than access to care.” With that in mind, Zuckerberg says, all large institutions should consider how their business practices and financial investments contribute to the health of their communities. For health systems, the link is especially obvious.

The systems are committing to investments that can take a variety of forms, Zuckerman says.

“We aren’t prescribing what the investments should look like, with the exception that they should be in the communities they serve, communities with high health disparities, and they should try to emphasize equity in communities of color, where possible,” Zuckerman says.

In many cases, participating health systems will be making investments through locally rooted Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) that help build affordable-housing and other community-based development projects. Health systems are uniquely positioned to invest in community development projects because improving community health is part of their mission, and because their size gives them access to a lot of resources, Zuckerman says. The investments they’re making are still designed to draw financial returns, but because of their own wealth, health systems can wait for longer-term returns, Zuckerman says.

“How can these systems address market failures and fill market gaps through this patient capital, and not supplant traditional finance but really step in to fill holes in the ecosystem?” he says.

Many health systems have already been making these types of investments, Zuckerman says, and the $700 million accounts for both new commitments and initiatives that some health systems already have in place. It’s always been a goal of the Healthcare Anchor Network and the Democracy Collaborative to push health systems and other institutions toward impact investing, Zuckerman says. It has taken some time to convince some leaders of these systems that investing in local development and housing isn’t an entirely new initiative, but rather tweaking an existing business practice.

“They have to make these investments in stocks and bonds,” Zuckerman says. “The education was to help show them how [the investments] can be leveraged differently.”

The announcement is significant, he says, because it’s the first time a group of large health systems are coming together and announcing publicly and collectively that this type of an investment “is an important thing to do,” Zuckerman says. It’s the type of public commitment that could convince other health systems and institutions to consider making similar investments, with the hope that impact investing becomes standard practice, he says.

Tonya Wells, the vice president of social impact investing and community development at Trinity Health, says that the $700 million announcement includes a $75 million investment that Trinity has already committed. Of that $75 million, the group has already made $36 million in loans and committed $10 million in loans to other projects. Around 43 percent of the loans that have already been made are dedicated to housing projects, either through CDFIs or as one part of a Low-Income Housing Tax Credit deal, Wells says. More than three quarters of the $10 million that Trinity has committed to other projects will be used for affordable housing, she says.

Each of Trinity’s hospital facilities performs a community health needs assessment every three years to determine the types of health challenges its neighborhoods are facing, Wells says. Wells works with Trinity officials locally to determine what kinds of investments to pursue, she says. The group works with more than 20 CDFIs across the country. Trinity was a founding member of the Healthcare Anchor Network.

“We were driven from a mission perspective, but I do believe there is a business model,” Wells says.

Investments can help provide safe, healthy homes for people who might otherwise go homeless or live in substandard conditions, both of which often lead to health problems. Over the long term, Wells says, health systems can expect to see cost savings related to improved health in their communities.

“I think hospitals and health systems are really well poised to engage in this way, of addressing infrastructure in our communities,” Wells says. “We know our patients. We know our communities. We’re credible, and in many cases have strong balance sheets. This is a really important part of how we’re going to address the root causes of poor health.”

The Healthcare Anchor Network will be monitoring the impact of the investments too, Zuckerman says. At first the group will be tracking the dollars dedicated to affordable-housing developments, but eventually, Zuckerman says, it will be able to monitor health outcomes related to the health systems’ investments.

“For now,” he says, “we’re working with the knowledge that we need to work at this intersection of race and wealth in order to be able to move the needle on health disparities.”

Jared Brey

A New Kind of Cooperative in Oakland Fights Against Speculative Development

1 week ago

Historical redlining in Oakland has led to disparities in the city that persist today. (Mapping Inequality)

As director of the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative (EB PREC), Noni Session is building a movement of co-op residents, black and indigenous businesses and cultural organizations, general contractors, accountants — and also some like-minded investors.

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“When I’m talking to people who may or may not invest in our work, our co-op’s highest interest is to build a supporter and a follower, not just someone who puts capital in our pot,” Session says.

Like most investor pitches, Session’s pitch begins with the big picture.

“We have a pretty hefty mission, which is to align the technical, the financial, the networks and the relationships necessary to support black and indigenous people of color and allied communities to collectively organize, acquire, finance, and asset manage land and housing in Oakland and the East Bay,” Session says.

Then she dives into how personal the work is for her. Session’s grandparents first arrived in Oakland in the early 1940s, as part of the Great Migration. Her parents were small business owners, and Session remembers a time in her early childhood when she was surrounded by a tight-knit black community that did its best to support each other under politically-created and privately-perpetuated segregation. Starting in the early 1980s, she remembers, deindustrialization, the invasion of drugs and then mass incarceration began taking their toll on her community.

“I watched this city fall apart,” Session says. “I watched it suffer from the neglect we see in urban centers nationwide.”

After returning home from doing doctoral work in anthropology, Session found her city in a development boom, but none of the development was benefiting the community that raised her — in fact it was continuing to dismantle them, forcing many to live on the streets. So now she’s seeking out investors who will join a movement, “not only to slow gentrification but also to re-assemble these communities who have been systematically dismantled by the very tools we’re using to do this work — the financial system and financial tools,” Session says.

So far, the investor response has been positive. EB PREC’s first investment campaign, completed last month, raised $200,000 from over 160 investors who invested a minimum of $1,000 each for a term of at least five years. EB PREC offered to pay investors an annual dividend of 1.5 percent, but nearly half of the investors so far have actually declined to take a dividend. The funds will go to rehabilitate the first property acquired by EB PREC — a four-unit housing co-op in West Oakland.

“It’s really very simple, it’s just that people’s imaginations are super-compressed when it comes to the folks they call poor people,” Session says. “We do the same thing everyone else in this market does — we buy property and we pay back investors on time. The marked difference is a slightly lower interest rate which is less extractive, and we support people in pulling together an affordable capital stack and teaching them how to do long-term asset management.”

It took years of complex legal and organizing work to get to that sense of simplicity.

EB PREC isn’t a nonprofit (though it does have a nonprofit arm). It’s a cooperative incorporated under California state laws, which permit cooperatives in the state to raise capital from members without having to jump through the legal hoops that conventional businesses have to go through to raise capital directly from investors — so long as those investors are residents of California. (Illinois recently created a similar pathway to raise capital under its cooperative law, modeled directly after California’s.)

EB PREC benefits from a change in California’s law, which took effect in 2016, that upped the maximum amount of investment a cooperative can raise from each member, from $300 to $1,000.

The initial idea came from the mind of securities attorney Janelle Orsi, co-founder of the Oakland-based Sustainable Economies Law Center, which helped push through the 2016 change to California’s cooperative law.

Orsi says California’s existing laws and regulations around condominiums, housing cooperatives, and nonprofit entities were raising challenges for the Law Center’s work in support of housing or other community development projects with some kind of shared-ownership dimension. It had become prohibitive for low- and moderate-income households to cobble together the financing for their own affordable condominium or cooperative housing in California. At the same time, Orsi says, nonprofit entities have challenges raising capital, particularly if some of the investors are also beneficiaries of the nonprofit.

So in January 2016, on a long ride to visit family in Los Angeles, Orsi sketched out the rough idea for a new kind of entity enabled by California’s cooperative law. The new entity would take property out of the speculative market and into shared ownership, combining resident owners and non-resident owners of multiple properties in one portfolio — an entity Orsi dubbed, “a permanent real estate cooperative.”

Then, in February 2016, a member of the People of Color Sustainable Housing Network walked into the Law Center’s “legal café” — basically open office hours that the Law Center hosts three times a month outside its offices. Starting out as a meetup group in 2015, the People of Color Sustainable Housing Network grew quickly to more than a thousand members. After the meeting, Orsi sent the group the rough sketch she had just wrote of a permanent real estate cooperative, and the light bulbs went off almost instantly. The Law Center started meeting regularly with the network to discuss initial details, and the two organizations incorporated EB PREC in 2017.

In some ways a permanent real estate cooperative is like a conventional real estate business. In other ways it’s radically different.

“It buys land, it develops it, renovating or building on it, or just buys the property,” Orsi says. “It has a staff that has honed its expertise in a lot of aspects of real estate development. It earns money in a sense by serving as a landlord. But what happens with that money and how that money is calculated is very different from a conventional real estate developer.”

Those key differences are spelled out in the organization’s bylaws, drafted over the course of more than a year of discussions between the Law Center and the core group from People of Color Sustainable Housing Network that eventually became EB PREC’s current staff. Those discussions intensified in the second half of 2018.

“It was the most participatory legal document I’ve ever created, as far as people giving meaningful input that actually shaped the document as we went,” Orsi says. “I have never had so much fun in meetings. Every other week we’d have these two-hour meetings and it was always like what are people going to suggest now? Because lawyers think they know everything, we think we know how to write legal documents but then you put five non-lawyers together to write the document, and the stuff they would come up with we were like, ‘wow.’”

The final document is accented with Orsi’s signature cartoons, which she’s known for using often in presentations as well as legal documents to make complicated legal and financial concepts more accessible.

“Janelle loves slides so we do a lot of our work in slides,” Session says. “We’d give feedback … Then she’d come away and polish those and then we’d come back and go to the next article. It was arduous, [but] the cross fertilization has been amazing.”

EB PREC’s bylaws recognize four classes of owners: resident owners, which include people who live in the cooperative’s portfolio properties as well as businesses who may be operating on those properties; investor owners; staff owners; and community owners — dues-paying members who volunteer their time in different ways to support the cooperative’s organizing efforts. The document also spells out the process for selecting the cooperative’s eight board members — five elected by members, three appointed by key outside allies, to “anchor EB PREC to its mission and to ensure representation of black, indigenous and people of color communities on the board.”

EB PREC’s bylaws also feature a number of provisions designed to ensure that the needs of investors never take precedence over the mission of the cooperative to provide permanently stable, affordable housing and space for commercial or cultural use. Investor shares are non-transferable, so they can’t be sold to another individual or institution. There’s the 1.5 percent annual dividend, which the cooperative can defer payment of in any given year. If an investor needs to leave the cooperative and cash out, the cooperative has up to five years to buy back their share and pay any dividends owed. If EB PREC fails and must sell off its assets, residents get right of first refusal to acquire the cooperative’s properties, and if someone else ends up acquiring those properties, residents get refunded any equity they’ve paid into the cooperative before investors get their share.

So far, the cooperative has found investors who are more than happy to invest on those terms. Some have already invested twice — after their initial $1,000 ownership share, a select few with the means to do so provided additional capital through a private offering, filling in the last $40,000 or so that EB PREC was looking to raise through its first campaign.

“Most of our investors come from activist communities,” Session says. “Some are white allies, many are [people of color] allies who have a constant awareness that nothing has been moving in the direction of community control. Then there’s this other body of folks working in the nonprofit field who are really fatigued with the way that the nonprofit field works.”

Some investors have come in on a pledged basis, paying off their $1,000 share over five years. “Those are the ones that are most impactful, folks who come in and say ‘I really have to look at my finances but I really believe in this, how can I invest,’” Session says.

For now, the Law Center and EB PREC staff continue to raise grant funding to support the cooperative’s staffing. Eventually, once the cooperative’s portfolio becomes large enough, it plans to pay for its own operations — and the bylaws spell out living wage requirements as well as salary maximums based on Oakland-area income levels. Each property in the portfolio is intended to be self-sustaining on its own, and the bylaws spell out how the surplus from any property contributes to EB PREC staff salaries, rent rebates for residents, and investor dividends.

In some ways EB PREC resembles the savings-and-loan associations of yesteryear, where neighbors invested into a communal pot of money that they took turns borrowing from in order to support each other’s acquisition of property. One big difference here is that this vehicle has room for investors who don’t live or work on the cooperative’s properties — though they may eventually shop at the businesses in those properties or support the cultural organizations working there. Prospective projects in EB PREC’s pipeline include healthy food and other retail as well as cultural spaces, in addition to housing.

EB PREC’s vision is also something much larger than homeownership for one family at a time, and larger than just one community or one city. The cooperative sees its work as an attempt to demystify the entire process of real estate — securing properties for acquisition, assembling capital stacks, and managing properties for the long-term — so that community organizers everywhere, of every marginalized group, can bring in communities to participate as an active player in their own development instead of just being passive recipients or victims of displacement.

“As we develop the strategies, techniques, the networks, the resources, the background knowledge that’s often withheld from folks, we’re going to put all that out there as open source material so it can scale not only in our city but it can scale to others,” Session says. “We have a political, philosophical take on what kind of shifts need to be made and those are the things that really fire up and empower people even when their social setting may be much different from ours.”

Oscar Perry Abello

Design Justice for an Unjust World

1 week 1 day ago

As an architect, I often find myself at odds with a profession that, on one hand, believes architecture’s role is too large to be concerned with the plight of communities most in need, and yet too small to address structural inequalities at the core of that need. It’s hard to reconcile our work without first acknowledging that for nearly every injustice in this world, an architecture is constructed to perpetuate that injustice. Our profession overwhelmingly serves those with means and ignores the consequences of our decisions for those without means, resulting in the collective disinheritance of historically marginalized communities.

Our work is primarily in service of disinherited neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are home to the predominantly black and brown people who are disproportionately affected by the systems that determine outcomes in the built environment. Interrogating that injustice has been a pursuit for much of my career, and is now the driving motivation of our practice, Colloqate Design. We serve communities subject to this systemic disinvestment, which is often evident in the crumbling schools, boarded-up properties and crooked sidewalks that mask as infrastructure. If you’ve spent any time in marginalized communities, it’s easy to recognize that disinvestment does not correlate to a community’s vibrancy or to a disregard for urban or rural space; instead, it represents a community forced to collectively prioritize survival over aesthetic.

Disinvestment, in combination with a general distrust for the influence of development measures, leads to a survival aesthetic that at times requires a patchwork of interventions. Such interventions directly reflect community needs, often without conforming to a particular set of design standards. This set of small-scale spatial interventions is a dialogue with the community to build trust — and it is what we do with that trust that either breaks the cycle or sustains it. Holding trust and building power through the built environment is the mission of public-interest design, social-impact and design-justice practice. Through our work at Colloqate Design, we seek to expand community access to design, to build trust, and to build power through the design of social, civic, and cultural spaces.

While design and architecture have mostly chosen to ignore the struggle for social and civil rights, Colloqate has framed our work to address this void. We recognize the role of histories of inequity in shaping our society and actively address the ongoing effects of those legacies. We also work to dismantle barriers to opportunity, access and inclusion. This critical equity work is centered on the core principles of Design Justice.

Colloqate ran Paper Monuments, a participatory way to "write and 'right'" history in New Orleans. (Photo by Gigsy)

Design Justice is a movement to challenge the privilege and power structures that use architecture and design as a means to perpetuate injustice throughout the built environment. It requires the profession to design for the disempowered, the oppressed and the disinherited. In practice, this means we organize and train communities as design advocates in the pursuit of just spaces. We design knowledge-building opportunities across the country to build collective capacity around issues of inequity in the built environment. We advocate for policies and procedures that benefit communities who have been historically disinherited at the city, state and federal levels. And we design spaces for racial, social and cultural equity.

This movement towards just spaces has seen a resurgence within the profession in the last 15 years, with a renewed commitment to address the root causes of some of the world’s most intransigent issues. At the root of climate change is a built environment that exhausts 39 percent of our carbon emissions and demands 40 percent of our energy production. At the root of housing, transportation, and economic injustice are the remnants of redlining and racial covenants that continue to extract wealth and codify structural or de facto segregation. At the root of unjust policing is a prison-industrial complex sustained by spaces that extract human dignity and economic potential from marginalized people in the name of profit. At the root of food and commercial insecurity is the idea that retail (structure) follows rooftops, meaning the viability of a neighborhood is measured by the acceleration of housing values and individual assets. The force of these issues is often invisible. But they are not insurmountable.

If we validate our collective values through the spaces and places we build, than the best of who we are as designers should be to challenge the privilege and power structures that use architecture as a tool of oppression and actively forward the efforts of racial, social and cultural justice through the process and outcomes of design.

This fundamental notion that justice should be inextricably bound to all aspects of city-building is at the core of the Design Justice movement.

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

Bryan Lee, Jr. | OP-ED

Colorado Lawmakers Want Fewer People Awaiting Trial in Jail

1 week 6 days ago

(Photo by John Herrick, Colorado Independent)

Colorado lawmakers this legislative session will debate bail reforms to ensure fewer people accused of committing a crime don’t have to wait in jail before they get their day in court.

Pretrial incarceration is used when a judge determines a person charged with a crime is at risk of missing their court date or committing another crime. Other times, people can’t afford the cash bond necessary for their release.

Criminal justice reformers argue that the process for holding people in a cell until they can prove their innocence results in the disproportionate incarceration of low-income people and people of color.

This legislative session, which begins Jan. 8, lawmakers will build on past reforms, seeking to find more ways to keep people out of jail before their trials.

“It’s really about access to justice,” said Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat from Denver who serves as vice chair on the House Judiciary Committee. Herod said her goal is to “dismantle the racism and the classism” that exists within Colorado’s criminal justice system.

Last session, lawmakers banned cash bail for petty and municipal offenses, such as violating an open-container law, and set up new rules to require more timely bond hearings.

They want to take those reforms further. One idea would grant more leniency to people who fail to show up for their first court date, which can result in an arrest warrant and jail time. People would instead have three days after their initial court date to schedule a new hearing. Reformers say the harsh penalties for failure to appear disproportionately affect low-income people who rely on public transportation and those who don’t own a phone. They also affect people struggling with mental health issues of substance use disorder.

Another reform would require that a hearing be scheduled within 48 hours of a person’s arrests. Reformers say it’s common for people to wait in jail weeks before they have a chance to prove their innocence. Michael Bailey spent 52 days in jail before he first saw a judge, according to a lawsuit filed on his behalf by the ACLU against the Teller and Pueblo county sheriff’s offices. Bailey said he lost his house and job during the ordeal. The charges against him were dismissed when he appeared in court.

Tom Raynes, executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys Council, spoke in opposition to a bill last session that would have required a hearing within 48 hours. He said it was an issue specifically for rural district attorneys who were concerned about the need for additional “infrastructure, mechanisms, alternatives.”

Another reform would expand the use of so-called risk assessment tools and study them for bias and effectiveness at predicting crime. About a dozen of Colorado’s 64 counties use the algorithms to help judges determine whether someone who was arrested is at risk of committing another crime or failing to show up to their court date.

Supporters of the algorithms, including Colorado’s public defender’s office, say they generally usher people out of jail ahead of their court date and are a fairer alternative to cash bail, which favors those who have — or can get — the money to buy their freedom.

But civil rights advocates have concerns. They argue that questions used to screen defendants reinforce racial bias in the criminal justice system, and are more likely to keep people of color behind bars.

A common risk assessment tool, known as the Colorado Pretrial Assessment Tool, or CPAT, was created in 2013 by the Pretrial Justice Institute. The assessment asks defendants 12 questions. One question asks for the age at first arrest. Critics say this question affects people of color who grow up in heavily policed areas, and does not account for racially biased policing and profiling. This question also has the greatest weight in the overall score that determines if someone is kept in jail before their trial. Other questions asking about “past or current problems with alcohol” and “past or current mental health treatment” can disadvantage people with a substance use disorder or mental health issues, critics say.

In March, Jeffrey Clayton, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, sent a cease and desist letter to a Weld County attorney saying the county’s risk assessment tool may violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection and due process clauses under the 14th Amendment. Clayton wants to see these tools done away with. He said the state should instead invest in bond hearings.

“We need more due process. Not less,” Clayton said.

This article first appeared on The Colorado Independent and is republished here under a Creative Commons license. The Colorado Independent is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization.

John Herrick | Colorado Independent

Metro Projects to Start and Restart in Two Turkish Cities

1 week 6 days ago

The Bosphorus, Istanbul, Turkey (Photo by Svetlana Tikhonova / CC-0)

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

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Work to Resume on Istanbul Metro Extension After Two-Year Delay

A loan the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality received from Deutsche Bank will allow work to resume on a new metro line in the Anatolian (Asian) portion of the city, Duvar English reports.

The line, one of 14 new metro lines and extensions Istanbul plans to open by 2023, will operate as an extension of existing line M5. It will run from the current M5 terminus at Çekmeköy to Sultanbeyli via Sancaktepe, a distance of 10.9 km (6.8 miles). Work on the eight-station extension began two years ago but was halted almost immediately due to lack of funds.

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu officially marked the resumption of construction at a ceremony on Nov. 26. The Ray Haber transport news site has an article excerpting the remarks he made at the ceremony; in his speech, he called transport improvments just one of many issues Istanbul must deal with to advance its growth in the 21st century. İmamoğlu spent two days in London the week before meeting with global finance leaders with an eye on securing funding for more of the planned metro projects.

When it opens in 2022, the M5 extension is projected to carry 65,000 passengers per hour in each direction.

Construction to Begin on First Metro Line in Konya

Also in Turkey, Konya Mayor Ugor Ibrahim Altay announced Nov. 15 that he has given the go-ahead for construction of that city’s first metro line.

The International Railway Journal reports that the all-underground north-south route will run 21.1 km (13.1) miles from Necmettin Erbakan University to Meram Belediyesi, serving a new high-speed rail station, the existing mainline railroad station and Fatah Street along the way. The line will have 22 stations, and an end-to-end run should take 35 minutes with trains operating at headways from 2 minutes 43 seconds to 4 minutes.

A consortium of China National Machinery Company and the Turkish firm Taşyapı will build the line at a projected cost of €1.19 billion (US$1.31 billion). Plans call for a second east-west line that would bring the total length of the system to 45 km (28 miles).

Gold Line Opens in Doha

Metro Report International reports that the Doha Metro Gold Line opened for passenger service on Nov. 21, six months after service began on the Qatari capital’s first metro line, the Red Line.

The 14-km (8.7-mile) underground line runs from Ras Bu Abboud in the east to Aziziyah in the west, stopping at 11 stations along the way. Interchange with the Red Line is at Msheireb station, which will also be the transfer point for the third line of Doha Metro Phase 1, the Green Line. Qatar Rail operates the service, with trains running at five-minute headways from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. six days a week and 2 to 11 p.m. on Fridays.

NJ Transit Seeks to Use Its Land as a Funding Source

New Jersey Transit Corporation (NJT) needs more money in order to bring its statewide rail transit system back up to snuff. And instead of hitting its riders up for the money, the agency is turning to the land it owns as the source.

NJ Spotlight reports that the push to squeeze revenue out of land around NJT rail stations comes after an audit found that the agency raises more of its operating costs from riders than its peer agencies do. Gov. Phil Murphy has also signed legislation calling on the agency to establish a real estate development division.

An audit of the agency found that in 2016, riders covered 45 percent of NJT’s operating costs. By comparison, they covered 42 percent of costs at the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, 40 percent of the Chicago Transit Authority’s costs, and 37 percent at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.

In recent months, NJT has announced public-private partnerships to build revenue-producing projects around stations in Bayonne and Matawan, and it has issued a call for partners to develop properties around the 37-mile River Line light rail line connecting Trenton and Camden.

The push to develop or sell off parts of NJT’s extensive land holdings is just one of several measures being advanced to secure more funding for the agency, including a dedicated revenue stream. Once regarded as one of the best transit operators in the country, NJT — the nation’s third-largest mass transit agency — has come under increasing fire for increasing delays and deteriorating physical conditions on its statewide rail network.

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

Sandy Smith

National Park Service Aims to Engage Local Residents in Boston’s Charlestown Navy Yard Planning

1 week 6 days ago

(Charlestown Navy Yard Visitor Experience Plan, Sasaki Associates)

The National Park Service is prototyping a local community engagement effort in Boston, working to involve residents of the Charlestown neighborhood in planning and programming for the Charlestown Navy Yard, a former U.S. Navy shipbuilding center turned over to NPS in 1975.

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Launched last year with the help of a creative placemaking grant from the City Parks Alliance and the Trust for Public Land, the ParkXChange project aims to bridge gaps between the abutting neighborhood and the massive historic park, which holds the U.S.S. Constitution, the U.S. Navy’s oldest commissioned warship, and draws nearly 1 million visitors annually.

As NPS approached its 100th birthday in 2016, the agency was reckoning with the reality of an increasingly urbanized nation. Its Urban Agenda was launched with an intent to reach an untapped diverse population of city dwellers who may or may not vacation in the more well-known but remote national parklands, but who have NPS historic parks virtually in their backyards. Boston was one of 10 cities selected to be models for this new, more community-focused model.

“We have many urban national parks, but people don’t know about them. Our population is becoming diverse and urban-centered, so how do we make our parks more relevant to the communities in which they’re located?” says Christina Briggs, senior planner for the National Parks of Boston, which encompasses the city’s three NPS parks and a number of historic sites. Briggs is co-leading the ParkXChange project with a small team from NPS, including a visitor experience director and a landscape architect.

The Charlestown Navy Yard, which along with historical attractions holds working scientific research labs, offices and waterfront condominiums, is cut off physically and socioeconomically from its local neighborhood. The heavily-traveled Tobin Bridge overpass cuts between the Navy Yard and the neighborhood, and while the Navy Yard side holds luxury residences, the city’s largest public housing development is just a few blocks away on the other side.

It’s not surprising that many locals rarely cross the street to the Navy Yard. Even with its parks, piers, historical sites and eateries it may seem like a place not for them. Older residents may think of the area as off-limits to the public, as it was before became part of NPS in 1975.

What’s more, the sprawling site is murky when it comes to visitor orientation. At the park’s various entryways, there is little in the way of navigation help. Its visitor center, museum, ships and other attractions lie in separate areas.

Ginaya Greene-Murray, communications and events director at the nonprofit Charlestown Coalition, says a good number of teens in her organization’s health-focused youth programs live in the nearby public housing complex but have little familiarity with the Navy Yard, says. “They’ve spent most of their lives there, but many had never entered the Navy Yard,” she says. “That’s been due to feeling unwelcome, or not thinking there’s anything to do there.”

Conscious of this divide, when NPS, the USS Constitution Museum, and the Naval History & Heritage Command embarked on a years-long process to redesign the overall visitor experience, NPS seized the opportunity to prototype some real local community engagement. Around the time the new Visitor Experience Plan emerged in 2018, National Parks of Boston received the competitive ParkXChange grant. Over the past 16 months, the ParkXChange project’s series of workshops, focus groups and a design charrette has drawn together people from the public housing complex, schools and community-based nonprofits.

While the grand revamping of the visitor experience may largely serve tourists, the ParkXChange project has had a hyperlocal focus, aiming to connect and engage Charlestown residents, including youth, around planning for a community space and creative programming in the historic park area.

Greene-Murray of the Charlestown Coalition participated in ParkXChange workshops, where local community leaders were invited to voice ideas on types of programming or spaces that would benefit, attract and engage the people they serve.

“My main objective was to create that bridge for youth to feel welcome and to understand and explore the history,” she says. Her ideas included recreational space and space for youth-centered functions, as well as events like art nights or music nights with food.

Besides workshops, the ParkXChange effort has included a pilot arts program: An ensemble of student musicians from Charlestown High School began performing weekly at the Navy Yard over the summer and engaged visitors with mini-lessons on the ukulele.

Adam Calus, the school’s director of visual and performing arts, says the experience benefitted both students and visitors.

“There’s a divide between Navy Yard and the community. This [ParkXChange effort] is working to bring folks together through art,” he says. “People loved the performance. People stopped by and said, ‘This is great!’ and asked what high school we were from.”

Calus estimates about 20 percent of the people who got schooled in ukulele were local Bostonians and 80 percent visitors from other states and around the world. “It was really a unique opportunity for everyone,” he says, with the interactions serving to widen his students’ horizons while acquainting people with the local high school.

Much of the ParkXChange brainstorming and visioning has been around how to design and use a 5,000-square-foot community space to be built out within a historic brick-and-granite “ropewalk.” The quarter-mile long, 45-foot wide structure in which rope was manufactured for the U.S. Navy from the 1830s to 1955 is historically significant in that it is the only surviving intact such ropewalk building in the U.S. (At least one ropewalk is still operating in the U.K.).

The old ropewalk lies on NPS property near one of the Navy Yard’s entrances. It is currently being redeveloped into apartments, but the request for proposals stipulated that one segment of the building would be set aside as a community space that could help preserve and honor the ropewalk’s history.

NPS considered creating a museum in the space, Briggs says, but besides lacking the capacity to staff it, there was a growing realization that a museum wouldn’t further the mission of forging community connections.

“We had started a community-engaged process on ‘How can we use the Navy Yard and use culture and arts to connect people to place?’ We decided this would be a great place to start to prototype this,” Briggs says. “So we started to reimagine it. The idea was to have something that’s really a flexible space, a creative space that uses the history of the ropewalk to connect people to place. The space will help tell the story.”

A day-long design charrette in September brought in three Boston Society of Architects member firms to hear community-generated ideas. Recently, the firms presented their visions of how they might design the 5,000 square feet for multiple uses, from performances to after-school hangout activities to fee-based function rentals to help support other programming.

The year of ParkXChange workshop funding is technically over, but Briggs says the granting agencies are still involved and supportive as NPS prepares to build on and implement ideas that sprang from the workshops. Groundwork has been laid. A big part of the process has been relationship-building, including solidifying connections among local organizations.

One age-old lesson has hit home for NPS in the ParkXChange process: Placemaking takes time and sustained effort.

“Community engagement doesn’t come easy,” Briggs says. “It’s not just a one-off thing. More than anything, it’s just been hard work, reaching out and making initial connections, and then nurturing them. But there’s been a lot of consensus.”

Greene-Murray says the project has connected her with other community leaders and helped lend a voice to her organization and its young people.

“I was thrilled that someone was getting that conversation going and letting us know there was space in the Navy Yard. It made sense. I was grateful and honored that they invited us ⎯and that they were ready to listen to what we had to say.”

This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.

Sandra Larson
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