Buses Take on New Importance in a Subway City

10 hours 13 minutes ago

(Photo by nybuspics / CC BY 2.0)

Welcome to “The Mobile City,” our weekly roundup of noteworthy developments in urban transportation.

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In most of the country, even in cities with rail transit systems, buses are the workhorses of public transportation, carrying more people in total than the rails do. The one exception to this rule is New York, where subway ridership has long outpaced bus ridership for reasons any visitor should understand by just looking at the traffic on city streets. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has flipped this script. For the first time since the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) began keeping track, bus ridership now exceeds subway ridership. Yet city plans to speed up bus service by adding more bus-only lanes are meeting pushback from some local businesses.

Because subways can carry far more people than buses can, and do so more efficiently, an energy researcher who has studied the issue gives five reasons why cities with subways should make them fare-free.

That might be easier to pull off in cities where toll road revenues help fill transit agency coffers. But there’s a problem: the sharp drop in driving has also caused toll road revenues to plunge, putting both transit and free road projects and operations in jeopardy from another direction.

Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, transit system employees in the city where our current concern for racial equity got kickstarted say the Twin Cities’ transit system can and should be run with more concern for the needs and interests of nonwhite communities.

A Historic Ridership Reversal in New York City

As anyone who has attempted to drive on its traffic-clogged streets can attest, the quickest way to get around New York is to avoid them altogether. That means taking the subway. And for decades, more New Yorkers have used the city’s subways than its buses.

According to a New York Times news report, that’s no longer the case: For the first time since the MTA began keeping track of ridership more than 50 years ago, bus ridership now exceeds subway ridership. Average daily ridership in April and May was 505,000 on buses and 444,000 on the subways. And as the city reopened in June, the gap grew even wider: While an average of 752,000 New Yorkers rode the subways each day that month, 830,000 rode the buses.

The article lists several factors contributing to this reversal. One is the sharp drop in car traffic on city streets, which has enabled bus speeds to rise after falling to near walking speed. Another is the overnight shutdown of the subways, which leaves buses as the only 24-hour transit option for those who need to travel late at night. A third stems from where the subways operate: Riders who worry about the risk of COVID-19 coronavirus exposure underground feel less anxious riding buses, which operate in the open air. Besides, riders can see if a bus is crowded as it arrives and wait for the next one or get off a bus they’re on if it becomes crowded. Buses also serve many parts of the city subways don’t reach, making them essential for many lower-income riders who have long relied on them.

The City of New York is taking steps to make the improvements in bus service that the crisis has brought about permanent. Chief among them: adding five new busways that would get cars off city thoroughfares, like the one on 14th Street in Manhattan that caused bus patronage on that street to soar. The targeted streets include Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and Main Street in Flushing, Queens.

But, the article notes, business owners on some of these streets object to the plan. The head of the Flushing Business Improvement District, Dian Song, told the Times that removing car traffic from Queens’ busiest business district would harm small shops still struggling to survive in the wake of the pandemic.

Even with the pushback, however, city and transit officials in New York say that the buses will get the attention they deserve.

Researcher Makes Case for Bringing Subway Riders Back by Making Rides Free

Even as buses get newfound respect, subways remain the most efficient — and most energy-efficient — people-movers around. Their environmental and energy benefits have led at least one researcher to call for making them free.

Lucas Davis, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, posted “Five Arguments for Making the Subways Free” on the Energy Institute at Haas’s blog last week.

Davis’ interest in the subject of free subways was stimulated by a “fare holiday” in Monterrey, Mexico, that produced a spike in subway ridership there. His working paper goes examines the effect of price changes on ridership in Mexico’s three largest cities, including the fare holiday. From it, he comes up with five reasons to consider making subways free all the time.

One: Low marginal costs of carrying additional passengers. Subways may be expensive to build, but once built, the physical cost is taken care of and doesn’t go up with additional riders. Meanwhile, the additional cost of carrying one more rider on a subway is negligible.

Two: Low externalities. Electric-powered subways already produce less pollution than other modes of transport, and they’re getting cleaner as more electricity is generated by carbon-free methods. Thus each additional rider will actually make the air cleaner by getting rid of a rider on the bus or a car driver; both of these methods, at least for the foreseeable future, will continue to add pollution and carbon to the atmosphere with each additional user.

Three: Operating efficiencies. “I love the idea that you’d never again need to wait in line to buy a ticket,” he writes. “No annoying turnstiles. No enforcement. It would be particularly nice for visiting other cities. No need to figure out the pricing system, or buy a new card. Just walk in and get on a train.” And, he continues, eliminating the hardware and personnel needed to collect and enforce fares would produce additional savings in operating costs.

Four: Doing so will put money in the pockets of those who need it most. In many cities, he writes, the bulk of subway riders are lower-income, younger, and more vulnerable than the population at large. Especially now, he says, free fares would not only ease their burdens but stimulate the rest of the economy.

Five: It would increase overall transit system efficiency and utility. More people riding means more trains running, which means shorter waiting times, which in turn attract more riders in a virtuous circle of improvement. While making subways free might cause problems with crowding at peak hours, a major concern in the time of COVID-19, Davis still argues that free subways would help return urban transportation to a better equilibrium.

Toll-Shunning Drivers Mean Less Money for Transit

Davis’s argument is intriguing, but we would still need to pay the cost of running and maintaining the subways in some fashion. In a number of U.S. cities, some of that revenue comes from tolls paid by drivers who use bridges, toll roads and HOV express lanes.

The Washington Post reports, however, that the agencies operating those toll facilities are also seeing their revenues sink. The toll road industry estimates its losses could top $9 billion nationwide as a result of the pandemic. Even as traffic returns to the highways as cities reopen, the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) estimates that toll-facility traffic remains 40 percent below pre-pandemic levels as motorists who can do so avoid toll roads.

Thus the three public agencies and one private company that operate toll roads in the Greater Washington region all report significant fall-offs in revenue. They also project continued fall-offs for years to come. State toll road authorities elsewhere report similar losses.

This, in turn, means less money to build, operate and maintain not only the toll roads but also free highways and mass transit facilities. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission skipped a mandated payment to the state Department of Transportation; the payment funds highway maintenance and mass transit operations statewide. The result of the reduced payments: deferred or delayed maintenance and improvement projects on both roads and transit systems.

Twin Cities Transit Employees Say Black Riders Matter

Add to the voices calling for transit that better serves Black and low-income communities some 200 current and past employees of the Twin Cities’ mass transit provider.

The present and past workers for the Metropolitan Council, which operates Metro Transit in Minneapolis and St. Paul, signed a letter they presented to their bosses June 26 saying the agency needs to pay better attention to the needs and interests of its nonwhite patrons and employees.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s report on the letter says it questions the way decisions are made at the regional planning agency, especially those affecting people of color, and calls for changes in the way public transportation is policed. It also notes that as one-quarter of Metro Transit riders and half its employees are Black, Metro Transit riders and operators “are disproportionately impacted by the trauma of George Floyd’s death.” Black people account for just under eight percent of all metropolitan Twin Cities residents.

One of the chief changes they seek: Replacement of police officers by unarmed safety ambassadors, who can enforce fare collection without the use of force. The letter also calls for part of the Metro Transit olice budget to be diverted to community-based programs that provide emergency medical and social work services to transit passengers experiencing homelessness or mental health crises.

Other changes called for in the letter: An end to the use of Metro Transit vehicles to transport arrested protesters, law enforcement officers or military personnel and greater transparency in Metro Transit police operations. “Our riders are leading the uprising and demand change,” the letter states.

Met Council officials declined to comment on the letter publicly, saying they preferred to confer with the employees first: “This was a very thoughtful letter that raises important issues and questions, it deserves an equally thoughtful response,” Met Council spokesperson John Schadi told the Star Tribune in an email.

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

Sandy Smith

Coronavirus Concerns Revive Labor Organizing

11 hours 11 minutes ago

 (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

On a crisp May morning in Washington’s Yakima Valley, Blanca Olivares took her break from sorting apples at the Allan Brothers packing facility a little early. Soon, five other workers joined her in the outdoor patio area. Together they waited, disappointment creeping in when more didn’t follow. Little by little, however, employees trickled out. Within the hour, 40 to 50 people had congregated, and the first in a string of labor strikes that would include hundreds of workers at seven fruit packing facilities in the valley had begun. “I didn’t know anything about strikes,” Olivares said, through a translator. “I just knew that if we all put our voices out there, then maybe they would listen to us.”

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The labor actions — catalyzed by frustration over inadequate protections and compensation during the COVID-19 pandemic — swiftly grew into a protest against industry working conditions in general, according to Rodrigo Rentería Valencia, an anthropology professor at Central Washington University and member of the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs, who chronicled the strikes and interviewed dozens of workers. The strikers held out for weeks, their fight demonstrating the nascent power of the region’s agricultural workers and the challenges they face in having their concerns heard.

Yakima’s first case of COVID-19 was reported on March 8. Rumors swirled, but little solid information emerged about the spread of the virus within workplaces. Employees at fruit-packing plants, who are predominantly Latino, feared the virus could spread rapidly in the close quarters of sorting and stamping lines. Their concerns were justified: According to the Yakima County public health department, as of early June, more than 800 agricultural industry workers had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, accounting for nearly one-fifth of the more than 4,000 cases in the county. Twenty-nine of them worked at Allan Bros.

Latinos and people of color are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 because they disproportionately work in jobs deemed essential, and they are more likely to develop complications from the disease due to lack of access to healthy food and reliable health care. Latinos, who make up just 13% of Washington’s residents, accounted for 43% of the state’s confirmed COVID-19 cases. On May 30, David Cruz, a longtime worker at the Allan Bros. plant, died after being hospitalized with the virus.

Olivares, whose daughter is a nurse, was well aware of the seriousness of COVID-19 and the heightened risk in her work environment. She likened her job to being the joker in a card deck — able to fill whatever role is needed. As she moved between different areas of the facility, workers expressed their unease about the sickness and their working conditions.

Olivares emailed management and requested a meeting to address the problems. But rather than engage her directly, the manager and human resources staff bypassed Olivares and went to others on the line first, gauging the mood before addressing the squeaky wheel. Workers grew frustrated as their chosen representative was left out of the process.

Poor lines of communication and hard-to-break hierarchies are common in agricultural work. “Perhaps most upsetting for workers is the industry doesn’t allow workers a voice within the pyramidal structure,” said Rentería Valencia, who biked a couple miles to the Allan Bros. strike when it first started. Instead of taking their grievances directly to the owners, workers must communicate through managers, who can abuse their power to silence them, he said. At the same time, the workers felt that state-level authorities were deaf to their concerns about COVID-19.

Olivares began reaching out to employees with whom she rarely interacts, including night-shift workers and those in separate areas of the facility. They soon realized that each cohort shared similar frustrations, Olivares said. Momentum for collective action grew.

Despite the lack of a union or experience with organized labor, the ad hoc coalition was tapping into a long history of farmworker solidarity in the Yakima Valley. In the 1960s and 1970s, agricultural industry organizers east of the Cascades found common cause with the emerging national “Movimiento,” which included the likes of César Chávez and Reies Tijerina, and began forming unions and community support groups among local Hispanic agricultural workers. Organized labor in the area has since dwindled. But vestiges of the early farmworker movements remain, including Radio KDNA, a public Spanish language news station — one of the few places local workers could get basic information on COVID-19.

After leading the initial walkout on May 7, Olivares stepped back to let other voices take over. “The hardest part was to dare to do it,” said Olivares, who credits her mother with teaching her the importance of speaking out and God for making her a courageous woman. “But once you dare to jump, you have others there to support you.”

One of those voices belonged to Agustín Lopez, who joined the strikes at Allan Bros. Knowing a bit more about how strikes worked, Lopez made sure that the workers stood together on their walkout until the final decision was made to declare a strike and form a picket line. “I’m not the guy that started the walkout,” Lopez said. “It was my job to support my co-workers.”

Once the workers at Allan Bros. took the leap, others across the valley felt empowered to follow. Eventually, workers from six other packing facilities in the Yakima Valley went on strike. Rosa León, a worker at Matson Fruit Company, said that the lack of social distancing within the facility, and management’s practice of selling — rather than giving — masks to workers, motivated her to join the strike. “COVID-19 gave us the power to speak up,” León said. “I’ve been there four years, and never before have workers organized.”

As the movement gathered momentum, community members, union representatives and non-profit legal centers joined the cause. Familias Unidas por La Justicia (Families United for Justice), an independent farmworker union from the Skagit Valley in western Washington, advised striking workers. Columbia Legal Services helped workers file an unfair labor charge with the National Labor Relations Board against Allan Bros. Fruit Company. Allan Bros. CEO Miles Kohl contested the charge in interviews with local news organizations. Neither Allan Bros. nor Matson Fruit Company responded to requests for comment from High Country News.

Eilish Villa Malone, an attorney for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project who works primarily with immigrant agricultural workers, also took part, rising at 4 a.m. to organize delivery of meals, coffee and supplies to strikers before and during her normal workday. “At first, I was just out with my friends in solidarity, then all of a sudden I was completely engrossed,” said Villa Malone. As she traveled between strike sites, she also educated workers — particularly the undocumented ones — about immigration rights.

After 22 days, striking packers at Allan Bros. started to return to work, with negotiations underway between a newly formed workers’ committee and ownership.

Just as she was the first to walk off, Olivares also wanted to be the first to return to work. She was welcomed back respectfully, and the strike officially ended the next day.

Back on the job, Olivares was given gloves and a face shield. Line speeds on the conveyor belt had been slowed down to ease the work and allow more distance between the workers. Olivares appreciated the changes, but worried that the shield she was given could get caught in the machinery and injure her. She brought her concerns to a manager with whom she’d been at odds in the past, who came back 30 minutes later with a different option. The quick response felt like a major improvement and a sign that workers were more likely to be heard in the future.

Workers at all seven packing plants have now returned to work after gaining concessions on better pay, safety and the formation of worker committees to advocate on behalf of their peers. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, D, also released new workplace safety standards for agricultural workers after protests at the Capitol in Olympia and a lawsuit against the state Department of Health and the Department of Labor and Industries.

“Everybody needed a little push — owners, management, peers, even those that didn’t join the strike,” Olivares said. “We pushed ourselves to change; now everyone is better for this push.”

This story was originally published by High Country News; you can find the original story here. This story is part of the SoJo Exchange of COVID-19 stories from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

Carl Segerstrom

It Shouldn’t Take This Long to Vote

1 day 10 hours ago

(Photo by Ryan Greenberg / CC BY-NC 2.0)

No citizen should have to wait more than 30 minutes to vote,” declared a 2014 federal report on how to conduct elections. That report was responding to the long lines in the 2012 presidential election, when more than 5 million Americans were forced to wait longer than an hour to cast their ballots.

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The 2016 election seemed better: The average wait to vote nationwide was 19 minutes. That average, however, hid wide variations between states – Vermont had the shortest waits, Florida the longest – and, more importantly, race. Voters in all-Black neighborhoods had longer waits than those in all-white neighborhoods and were 74% more likely to wait more than half an hour.

In 2018, turnout increased 39% compared with 2014, marking the first time since 1914 that half of eligible voters had participated in a nonpresidential election. That in itself led to some delays, as polling places dealt with more people than they had expected. Regardless of reasons, twice as many voters – 6% – reported waiting more than 30 minutes in 2018 than in 2014.

However, no federal law governs wait times. Nearly two-thirds of voters in 2012 and three-quarters in 2018 waited less than 10 minutes. But long wait times are a chronic problem primarily for Latino and Black voters in “precincts with high minority populations, high population, and low incomes.”

Racism at the polls

Delays at polling places are just the latest barrier to Black Americans’ ability to vote because, like other Americans, they cannot wait possibly hours to vote while jobs or children at home demand their presence. The country’s long, troubled history of racist voting practices include poll taxes, literacy tests and, more recently, photo-identification requirements and voter-list purges, all of which hurt poorer, less educated people more than they do wealthier and better educated people.

In 1965, Congress tried to fix those problems by passing the Voting Rights Act, which required states with histories of voter discrimination to get federal approval before changing their voting rules. The goal was to ensure the new rules wouldn’t be discriminatory. But in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the criteria used to determine that preapproval – so states can make any changes they want to their voting laws, with no federal standards or oversight.

By 2018, those 15 states had closed 1,688 polling places since 2012. Racism was again at play: Of the 750 sites closed in my state, Texas, 542 were in the 50 counties that had seen the largest increases during those years of Black and Latino populations.

In 2018, Black and Latino voters waited 11 minutes and white voters 9 minutes, on average. But as the percentage of nonwhite voters in a precinct increased, so did wait times – from 5 minutes in districts that were 90% white or more, to 32 minutes in districts that were 90% nonwhite or more.

A way to smoother voting

Long wait times discourage people from voting – reducing voting by an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 out of 123 million votes in 2012 – and disproportionately affect poorer people with less flexibility at work. That’s a big number, but it is far fewer than the roughly 90 million Americans who don’t vote at all.

So far in 2020, voters have seen major delays, especially in majority Black neighborhoods: The March primary in Texas saw long lines at polling places, with waits up to six hours, forcing officials to extend voting hours to accommodate the crowds. In April, Wisconsin voters had long waits, too. On June 9, many Georgia voters waited between four and eight hours.

Kentucky’s primary on June 23 went better than many had feared – thanks to bipartisan agreement to allow everyone to vote by mail if they wanted, and expanded opportunities to vote in person before Election Day. But still, the one polling place open for 600,000 Louisville residents, including many of the state’s Black voters, needed a court order to remain open after the official closing time to accommodate people still waiting in line.

The coronavirus pandemic has played a role in these delays: The main reason state officials gave for keeping only one polling place open in each county was to limit the number of election workers needed and to discourage in-person voting, in favor of voting by mail.

But the effects of all these changes fall more heavily on Black voters’ shoulders because of the inefficient use of inadequate resources, so race is still a factor in how easy it is for people to vote.

Shortening the lines in November

As the American public pays more attention to racism, the Black Lives Matter movement and similar organizations, including Black Voters Matter, are calling attention to the importance of voting safely in November – such as voting by mail and expanding early voting.

There are other ways to reduce delays, too, including training staff better and making sure equipment works properly – as well as finding ways to have a steady stream of voters throughout the day, rather than huge surges in early and late hours. One way to encourage people to vote during the work day could be for employers to give workers paid time off to go to the polls.

There are ways to shorten wait times at the polls – so that someday no voter will have to wait more than 30 minutes to have their voice heard.

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

Jonathan Coopersmith | Op-ed

Congress May Offer More Housing Relief. Will It Be Enough to Avert Disaster for Cities?

1 day 15 hours ago

(Mural artist unknown; photo by Dave R / CC BY-NC 2.0)

Before the pandemic, Lowell Hickman was working as an officer manager for a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C., and when the shutdowns came, like so many others, he lost his job. His last day of work was March 30.

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Three months have passed since then, but he still hasn’t been able to collect unemployment. Meanwhile, Hickman, also an organizer with the DC Tenants Union, has been paying his rent directly to a court, because he’s suing his landlord over mold, leaks, and a range of other issues at his apartment building in Northeast D.C. With no income, though, he can’t afford to keep paying.

The tenants union has been trying to push the D.C. Council to cancel rent payments and fees for tenants who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. But like the #CancelRent movement in so many other cities, it hasn’t gotten much traction with local leaders. At this point, Hickman says, he’s crossing his fingers that Congress will pass a law that was recently sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, which would extend the federal moratorium on evictions until March 27, 2021, and expand it to cover most renters.

“At this point, the federal government is the best hope,” Hickman says. “The D.C. Council is not seemingly trying to pass anything that’s giving tenants a reprieve.”

Warren’s bill, called the Protecting Renters from Evictions and Fees Act, is just one aspect of a larger series of relief measures that Congressional Democrats are hoping to adopt as part of the next economic stimulus package. Already, the House of Representatives has passed the HEROES Act, which incorporates a range of housing-relief measures on housing advocates’ priority list, including $100 billion for emergency rental assistance. Last week, the House also spun out the housing components of that bill and approved them separately, in an attempt to ramp up pressure on the Republican-controlled Senate to act. Warren’s bill is meant to put pressure on the Senate leadership as well. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been delaying negotiations on further stimulus, but has recently begun to indicate that Congress would take the matter up after its July 4 recess.

As of last week, says Diane Yentel, the president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, 27 states have allowed their eviction moratoria to expire. The expected onslaught of evictions has been compared to everything from a flood to a tsunami to an avalanche, and Yentel says Congress is “running out of time” to do something to minimize the damage. The House initially passed the HEROES Act in mid-May, and Yentel says that McConnell is delaying talks over the next stimulus package as long as possible in order to increase Republicans’ leverage in determining what makes it into the law. The House’s votes now may not create new laws, but they help set the table for negotiations.

“Now we know that Nancy Pelosi and the House recognize the urgency of action, and so they’ve passed essential protections to keep people housed during and after the pandemic not once but twice,” Yentel says. “And I think the second vote was an effort to underscore the urgency and increase the pressure on the Senate to act.”

Without more federal relief, in the form of unemployment insurance as well as rental assistance, tenants like Hickman, and cities like Washington, D.C., will be in deep trouble. Cities have used some CARES Act funding to create small rental assistance programs, but they have mostly been overrun by tenant applicants immediately. In Philadelphia, 13,000 families applied for rental assistance during a brief window in June, but the program maxed out at 4,000 applicants. The city is now running a second round of local rental assistance, hoping to help some 6,300 additional tenants. Pennsylvania is also launching its own $150 million rental assistance program, as the Inquirer reported, but advocates say evictions may begin before the money can be distributed. And longer-term, states and cities may have a much harder time running safety-net programs given the budget shortfalls they’re currently facing.

The CARES Act stimulus was important because it pumped about a trillion dollars into an economy that had otherwise almost completely shut down, says Mike Konczal, the director of progressive thought at the left-leaning Roosevelt Institute. If the federal government pulls back on unemployment insurance and other economic stimulus at the same time as eviction moratoria are expiring, the effects could be catastrophic, Konczal says.

“Many people are suffering and it is quite bad out there for many people in our society,” Konczal says. “But the trillion-dollar stimulus has helped put a floor on how bad it has gotten.”

Helping people avoid eviction and homelessness is an important basic social goal, Konczal says, and it’s also a critical aspect of protecting the economy. And unlike the Great Recession that began in 2008, the issues in this case aren’t complicated by things like credit default swaps and mortgage-backed securities, Konczal says.

“This is pretty straightforward and simple: People don’t have money because the economy has stopped,” Konczal says. “The moment you slam the brakes on [an economic stimulus], it has huge cascading problems.”

Housing advocates are trying to keep pressure on Republicans in the Senate to address housing issues in the next stimulus. Some Senate Republicans are privately acknowledging the need for rental assistance and eviction-prevention measures, even if they’re not talking about it publicly, says Diane Yentel. The National Low Income Housing Coalition has identified four priorities for the next relief package: $11.5 billion in Emergency Services grants to help manage coronavirus outbreaks among homeless communities, a one-year eviction moratorium like the one that Senator Warren has sponsored, $100 billion for emergency rental assistance, and $13 billion to help public housing authorities manage properties safely and expand access to Housing Choice Vouchers. Yentel says she believes Congress will pass another relief package, but doesn’t know whether it will be enough.

“There are big consequential deadlines coming in the next three weeks, and then Congress is out on recess for a month, and then we are in the thick of reelection season when it’s very difficult to get anything done,” Yentel says. “The clock is ticking and the window is closing to get anything done on housing.”

Jared Brey

The Fed Makes Groundbreaking Purchase of Municipal Bonds, But Is it Enough?

1 day 15 hours ago

(Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

In March, as part of its response to COVID-19, the Federal Reserve announced it would for the first time in its history enter the municipal bond market — a $4 trillion market financing everything from transportation infrastructure to affordable housing to schools to economic development. As of June 15, just one state had sold any bonds to the Fed.

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That state was Illinois, which sold a $1.2 billion “tax-anticipation note” to the Municipal Lending Facility, managed by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The state owes 3.82 percent in interest to the facility, or about $45.8 million, with principal and interest due for repayment in one year.

Some economists have been saying the Federal Reserve should be making many more municipal bond market purchases as part of its normal functioning, not just as part of a crisis response. In addition to helping the Fed perform its mandated function of stabilizing the financial system, they say it would have huge benefits for cities, among other things making it easier to finance public transit, public housing, climate resilience projects and invest in historically disinvested communities.

For now, in response to the pandemic, the Fed’s Municipal Lending Facility is offering to buy up to $500 billion in municipal bonds issued by states, eligible cities, or other public entities like housing or transportation authorities that typically issue municipal bonds.

As groundbreaking as it is for the Fed to step into the $4 trillion municipal bond market, it’s still not going nearly far enough to make a meaningful difference in response to this pandemic, according to Amanda Kass, associate director of the Government Finance Research Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“I think [the Municipal Lending Facility] strikes me as a drop in the bucket in terms of what state and local governments are facing in terms of shortfalls,” says Kass.

Kass anticipates the hurt from combined state and local government budget cuts, with or without help from the Fed, will fall hardest on Black, Hispanic and other communities of color, because the most likely first budget cuts are funding streams that disproportionately benefit those communities, in her analysis.

“In this moment where people are demanding accountability for issues of racial equity, it’s important to think about,” says Kass.

Many city and most state fiscal years just ended, with budgets just passed at the end of June. Nearly all cities and states are bound by balanced budget requirements in city charters and state constitutions. They go to the municipal bond market in order to finance big-ticket capital expenses like transportation, housing, school construction, or utilities. They also frequently go to the municipal bond market to finance expenses during the periods between quarterly- or bi-annual property tax or other tax payments. Selling bonds to the Fed would fall under this type of financing, in anticipation of a recovery period when taxes and other revenues return to normal. It’s still anyone’s guess as to when that will be.

The Fed’s Municipal Lending Facility limits what each unit of government can borrow, which units of government are eligible, and what borrowers may do with the proceeds.

Each issuing entity may only borrow an amount up to 20 percent of their 2017 revenue, and only on terms up to three years. Although all 50 states plus the District of Columbia are eligible, only around 250 cities and counties across the country are eligible because the Fed requires cities to have at least 250,000 residents, and counties at least 500,000.

Initially those thresholds were much higher, leaving only ten cities and 15 counties across the country eligible by population at all. The Fed’s idea was to buy only from cities and counties with the highest probability of paying back the bonds and not make too much of an incursion into the private market.

But analysts at the Brookings Institution pointed out that under those original constraints, none of the 35 cities with the highest proportion of Black people were eligible to sell bonds to the Fed. After hearing feedback from the public and from members of Congress, the Fed lowered the eligible city and county thresholds at the end of April. St. Louis, Detroit and Atlanta were among the newly eligible cities.

A state or regional entity can also use the proceeds to help cover eligible expenses for smaller units of government within their jurisdictions. If states used their borrowing capacity to do that, it could help local governments cover existing debt payments that can’t be cut in a crisis, or to ramp up local pandemic response efforts while local economies remain shut down for social distancing purposes. The states would be able to grant those dollars to local governments while repaying the Fed out of state revenue sources.

“Places that might have the greatest need for important services might not have the economic base right now to support the taxes that might be needed to fund those services,” says Kass.

States already do provide a lot of budget aid to local governments. But in a budget crisis, those funding streams are often the first to get cut. Bond rating agencies, whose ratings determine how much interest bond issuers have to pay investors to successfully sell their bonds, actually view it as a positive for states that they can easily reduce costs in a budget pinch by reducing aid to local governments.

Kass has been analyzing what happened to state aid for local governments during the Great Recession. “It’s just anecdotal so far, but what we’re seeing is one way states mitigated their own budget gaps was making cuts to state aid for local governments,” she says.

She gives the example of Wisconsin. Wisconsin gave $731 million to local governments and utilities in 2009, but that was cut to $665 million in 2012, and since 2015 the amount has been steady at $668 million. “It’s a clear case of there was a cut right around the recession and then the dollar amount has been the same, so it’s declining in real dollars,” says Kass.

“Cities, towns that may be the least equipped to absorb a budget shortfall due to COVID-19 are places that are likely majority Black and brown,” says Kass.

The smaller the city, the more severe the potential impact of combined state and local budget shortfalls. Before the pandemic, state aid was just 4 percent of Chicago’s budget, compared to 35 percent of East St. Louis’ budget, according to Kass’ analysis.

Illinois has not yet released disclosure documents for how it plans to use the proceeds of the $1.2 billion tax anticipation note it sold to the Fed. In its disclosure for $800 million in bonds sold to the municipal bond market in May, Illinois says it is using the proceeds of that issuance to make state pension fund payments and fund construction projects under its existing capital plan — most of which consists of transportation infrastructure projects.

Despite the disruption from the pandemic and expected budget shortfalls, the municipal bond market doesn’t seem yet to be slowing down. After a downturn in March, municipal bond market activity is back up to typical levels, according to data from the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, which regulates the municipal bond market.

So far, despite anticipated budget shortfalls, a few factors weigh on state and local governments’ decisions about doing so. State governments are coming into this recession with record high rainy-day reserves. Many states may not yet see a need to borrow more money. There’s the general uncertainty of how long the pandemic will last and whether re-openings will go as planned, with some states already sliding backwards.

At Standard & Poors, the world’s largest investment rating agency, Geoffrey Buswick leads a team that monitors ratings for all 50 states plus Guam. In addition to all the above, Buswick points to uncertainty about what states can do with federal aid from the CARES Act.

Federal grant dollars are always preferable to borrowing, but when it’s not clear what federal grants will cover, it’s not clear what states need to plan to borrow to cover. The Fed’s Municipal Lending Facility can also cover one thing that Buswick notes no federal COVID-19 aid is currently able to cover — revenue replacement.

“What we’re expecting to see over the next month is in D.C. a continued discussion on can existing CARES Act money be loosened, is there an infrastructure bill that also includes housing, and can there be revenue replacement,” Buswick says.

Interest rates also factor in, and rating agencies have a lot to do with that. Right now, according to Fitch, another ratings agency, the Fed’s Municipal Lending Facility is charging higher interest rates than most cities and states can get from the market. But cities and states with lower ratings are finding the Fed’s terms more attractive. Illinois, which chronically has the worst credit rating of any state, is paying nearly 6 percent on the $800 million in bonds it sold to investors in May, compared to the 3.82 percent it’s paying to the Fed.

And that’s just the short-term uncertainty. Fundamental changes in work life could mean huge swings in where spending happens and therefore what revenues look like in the long-term.

“If a large segment of the population is suddenly now working from home permanently, what does that mean for public transportation, for restaurants,” says Kass. “Think about downtown Chicago, lots of lunch places in the Loop, if people aren’t working as much there anymore does that translate into permanent decline in revenue collection” — meaning a drop in sales and property taxes paid by downtown businesses.

Despite obvious long-term concerns, the immediate pandemic hasn’t offered much time for consideration. “I don’t know how many places are thinking about what permanent societal changes are occurring and what would it mean for revenue collection,” says Kass.

The true turmoil may be yet to come. Marian Zucker leads a team at S&P that monitors ratings for around 750 state and local housing agencies and public housing authorities across the country. In the near term, Zucker notes that housing agencies are entering this recession with bigger cash cushions than they did entering the Great Recession. “I think generally housing agencies are comfortable and confident that they can make it through this recession without a severe collapse in their ability to function,” Zucker says.

But the longer the pandemic shut down lasts, the more those cash cushions erode. “From my perspective, I’m very curious to see what happens after July once the enhanced unemployment benefits expires,” Zucker says.

Extensions of existing federal aid like direct stimulus payments — so that homeowners can keep paying their mortgages or affordable housing tenants can keep paying their rents — would be much more desirable than housing agencies having to sell bonds to the Fed or market investors to cover their costs, including payments to existing housing agency bond buyers. But there’s no guarantee even that will still be an option when the time comes. For now, the Fed’s Municipal Lending Facility is only set up for the very near-term. It’s scheduled to end at the end of this year.

Oscar Perry Abello

Is Unschooling the Way to Decolonize Education?

2 days 15 hours ago

We are midway through 2020, and struggling through a pandemic-fueled economic crash exacerbated by the federal government’s inadequate “stimulus” efforts. At the same time, U.S. society heaves with a sense of racial awareness and civic responsibility sparked by continual police killings of Americans. Against this traumatic backdrop, this spring’s pivot to online, at-home learning for more than 55 million K-12 students in the U.S. might seem like a benign scheduling challenge, especially for middle- and upper-class households — a “new normal” to navigate in the ongoing COVID-19 world.

​But the seemingly benign has brought bigger problems to light. Outrageously underfunded public school districts have struggled to provide basic online lessons, and some families went months waiting for guidance on remote schooling. The digital divide was laid bare, as some districts scrambled to distribute laptops, tablets and wifi hotspots for unconnected families, while others simply recommended that teachers and students alike park near hotspots so they could teach or attend online school in their cars.

Beyond the inequities of digital access, the U.S. public education system has been failing children for decades. Systemic racism and colonialism is baked into the standard curriculum, and the biases of majority white-administered schools are on display, whether those biases are unconscious, supported by district-approved textbooks or enshrined in law.

“Being schooled in a school rooted in white supremacy affects every single thing we do,” says Mojisola Yaï, a parent and deep thinker on education. “We have to become more mindful about how that schooling has affected us.”

That mindfulness began long before the COVID-19 crisis took hold, and today it powers a quiet revolution playing out in the backyards and front stoops of American life during this time of civil transformation. As more and more people across the nation call for an end to institutionalized racism, the realization is that for equity to take root, every level of our society needs to change. Institutions that perpetuate white supremacy, including schools, will need to change or be abolished in their current form.

And although the idea of abolishing schools in their current form might inspire some “What about the children?” pearl-clutching, Yaï and other parents in this country and around the world have already embraced a potential solution: self-directed education (SDE). SDE is an umbrella term for different types of education — often determined by the self-chosen activities and interests of the young person. Unschooling is one type, as are democratic schools such as Sudbury schools and Agile Learning Centers (ALCs) (many have sliding scales for tuition), and the intentional learning community. Within unschooling, there are home-based methods as well as travel-based — learning through cultures and language. Some people join homeschooling collectives to unschool. Some SDE parents point to robust library systems, such as Dayton Public Library, as excellent, community-based places to bring children to learn.

For parents who have embraced this approach, the challenge is to change not just how we educate and learn, but to transform the interior and exterior landscapes of our lives. Many start by “de-schooling” themselves. As the relationship with themselves, and with their children, grows, it becomes apparent our cities must transform too, to create space for children of all classes and backgrounds to learn and grow, in safe and healthy ways.

Free Your Mind, and the Rest Will Follow

The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education. — Albert Einstein

COVID-19 related school closures in the United States have affected more than 124,000 public and private schools. This spring, parents and caregivers scrambled to find last-minute childcare and switch to schooling their kids at home. Suddenly, people everywhere were “homeschooling,” and despite the immediate stress of the life-altering change, and harsh words of caution from a Harvard Law professor that unregulated homeschooling is dangerous, 40% of parents now say they are more likely to homeschool when the COVID-19 crisis is over.

Look closely at the state of public education, and it’s not hard to see why. Gross inequities saturate the public school system. Public schools often resemble prisons — and in fact are often designed by the same groups of architects. The school-to-prison pipeline has been a fact of life in the United States for decades. And new evidence shows that police murders are doing harm within schools, often by labeling the young, traumatized neighbors of the victim with the debilitating stigma of “emotional disturbance.

(Above: A BIPOC Homeschoolers and Unschoolers meetup in Inglewood, California.)

No Child Left Behind, the Bush-era landmark legislation that was supposed to lift every child in America up, has enabled more and more children to fall into the ever-widening chasm between the children in communities with resources, and those without, notes Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College. “A lot of what are called reforms are justified primarily by trying to reduce that gap, in test scores, finishing a high school degree. What’s interesting is everything that has been done within public education [to achieve that] has been unsuccessful.”

Maleka Diggs, founder of Eclectic Learning Network, based in Philadelphia, says the pandemic has forced a reset in our lives. “People are frustrated. Angry. Tired… It’s political, racism, and education. I realized it’s not the school — it’s the system. I realized it’s not the principal, it’s the principles [the system] was upholding. Yes our learning institutions are ridiculously overcrowded and test-driven. [But] even if those numbers are evened out, the curriculum is still in place.”

“For so many in Black culture, the way that we identify success and validation is through how much we produce or perform, and that goes back to enslavement, [when] our safety relied on how much we produced,” says Akilah Richards, the co-founder of Raising Free People and board member of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education. “There is a genetic and social imprint,” of that. To look at children solely as their capacity to produce and perform in school perpetuates that imprint, she explains. What if we don’t focus on classroom performance, or on obtaining degrees, but on what each person’s brilliance is?

“I see that as a form of collective liberation,” Richards says. “Because you are free to be who you are — not who you need to be to fit into the system.”

“Inequity is not only tied to money, it’s tied to the side effects of not feeling seen or heard,” Richards continues. It’s “what you’re willing to accept because you feel fearful or limited.”

Yaï is an unschooling parent from Benin whose American education experience began when she came to this country at age 8 and ultimately brought her to unschooling. Her reason for unschooling is rooted in decolonization. “The whole society is based on, rooted in, oppressive culture — oppressing the person smaller or different and we do it over and over again without realizing it,” she says.

In Africa, she says, schools are an obvious extension of the colonizer’s agenda. She points to how colonizers forced Indigenous people into religious schools, forced them to learn their language, forced them to adopt Christian names. All of these things happened to her father in French-occupied Benin. Yet, she just as likely could be speaking of Indigenous peoples and immigrants in the U.S. During the 19th and well into the 20th century, official U.S. policy was to force young Native Americans into residential schools, and to force them to take Christian names and speak English. Students were violently punished for speaking their Native languages. “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” was the mantra of this type of education for decades. And the policy wasn’t limited to Natives. Mexican-Americans were also forced to assimilate throughout the 20th century.

Even today, in the 21st Century, students will face trouble at school when they speak any language other than English — from public schools to elite universities.

That punishment — and perspective — extends especially to students of color, inside and outside of the classroom. “What happens [in schools] is there are assumptions that are made that if you are Black you’re not going to perform as well, and [that can become] a self-fulfilling prophecy,” notes Gray. “African-American children are punished more severely than white children within school just as they are outside of school.”

“We’re food for a system of oppression,” says Richards. “We end up embodying aspects of the system and spreading it through schoolishness. It’s not just the classroom and the building. It’s the philosophies that school indoctrinates in us. The traits are [forced upon us in] school, but we deal with them everywhere.”

Is it any wonder that parents seek other ways to educate their children?

A Brief History of the Origins of School

Pat Farenga, President of Holt Growing Without Schooling (GWS), and co-author of the John Holt Book of Homeschooling 2003, notes that attending school is a modern idea that separates children from adults.

The original impetus for public education, notes Farenga, was to teach the King James Bible. (Have you ever noticed how a classroom’s desks line up like pews, with the teacher at the front lecturing the way a preacher would?) From there, widespread education became a tool for assimilating immigrants. “The idea was that all these Irish Catholics and the Chinese working on the railroads needed to be Americanized, and taught a curriculum to make them American.”

Over time, mass public education became a tool of capitalism, a pipeline that prepared people for factory work. The ringing of the bell to switch classes echoed the ringing of the bell on the factory line. A “factory of learning” was meant to create obedient workers. Schools, Farenga says, became “places of control, where you learn to be controlled.”

School as a place where young people gain access to education sounds lovely, says Diggs. But the reality is that persistent racism and gender discrimination characterizes a system that was not created for everyone. That the only way for Black folks to “make it” is to acquiesce to a highly colonized system, she explains, causes Black Americans to be, for generations, “tethered to the point where we lose our culture, we lose our identity.” The system, she says, has been “pedestalized.”

“No matter how I feel about institutionalized education, being forced into something you didn’t ask for is gut wrenching,” says Diggs. “In no way would I want to push [unschooling] on any one. But if you have deep questions and you are already unsure, the pandemic is the catalyst for change.”

Crisis schooling, Unschooling, Deschooling, Homeschooling

“Everyone is saying ‘now we are forced to homeschool,’” says Richards. “It’s important to recognize what’s happening now isn’t homeschooling. It’s crisis schooling.”

Homeschooling, Richards says, is a deliberate decision, and often starts by bringing the classwork into the home. Tiffany Sandoval, co-president of the Homeschool Association of California, says she is hearing from more and more parents ready to make the change to homeschooling for the 2020-2021 academic year. In the past, she’s seen parents turn to homeschooling for religious reasons, for example when California decided to reform its teachings in public schools on sex education. Other parents turned to homeschooling when the state passed a new vaccination law. And some parents have turned to homeschooling when they realized other children in their child’s class were heavily medicated. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 388,000 children ages 2-5 have been diagnosed with ADHD, and 7 million carry the diagnosis between ages 6-17. Seventy-five percent of these children are medicated, often for other ailments as well, such as anxiety.) Often, says Sandoval, the turn to homeschooling is preceded by a tour through other options: public schools, charter schools, Montessori, Waldorf. Sandoval herself went through that with her daughter, noting, “I knew the light in her eye was going out, but I didn’t know what it was.”

Parents often start by following a traditional homeschool curriculum. That can range from a highly regulated (and highly colonized) course of study to programs with a strong religious orientation (heavy on creationism) to customized programs with a hefty price tag that give parents the illusion of action. This generally continues for about two years, as parents realize that the school work too often manifests as busywork. As the relationship with the child grows, the parent notices the child’s interests, and often starts finding ways to feed them. Education then becomes a conversation between parent and child. Sandoval says rarely is the move to unschooling a straight line from school. It’s usually a progression.

(Above: Maleka Diggs, founder of Eclectic Learning Network, leads a discussion around community building at the 2019 Decolonise Unconference in Soweto, South Africa.)

Almost every expert interviewed for this article points out that the child needs time to get out of “schooled” mode. The first year becomes a “deschooling” process — estimate for every year the child has been in school, they need a month to decompress, to trust their house isn’t going to turn into a school. For some young people, it can take longer to recover from the oppression, the bullying, and the trauma they encountered at school.

While homeschooling presupposes learning requirements, unschooling is void of a predetermined curricula: Learning is natural. Schooling is a choice. Learning is always happening; it’s schoolish adults who believe that learning looks like identifiable, data-driven metrics, or sitting quietly in a classroom as one would at church.

Sandoval thinks of it as having options. For her youngest, who is self-motivated and driven, self-directed learning is great. But both Sandoval and her middle child, a teenage son, have realized the same rules do not apply to him that would apply to the children of her white friends. Those white children, she says, might not need a degree — but for her son and other young people of color, the degree can be the key to a door that is too often closed to communities of color.

Unschooling, says Diggs, goes beyond a method to follow and rather is a lifestyle to live, making room for a child to know they are responsible for their learning, and that they have partners who will support them. It is never pre-determined and is inclusive of the learner’s consent and interest.

“For me it’s very important kids know [school] is a choice,” stresses Yaï. “That’s part of unschooling. It’s a choice. Not a must.”

A Solution That Speaks to Equity and Equality

Sandoval works closely with the immigrant community, and notes that immigrants often carry both an entrepreneurial spirit and a huge responsibility to elevate the family with education. “Self-directed education and unschooling can work to prevent the programming that happens in school: that [the student] can’t question, that they need permission,” she notes. But being outside of the school system runs the risk of denying the young person the same opportunities as students within the system. While self-directed education is “meant to help, not harm,” Sandoval notes that telling that to a community that is already harmed might be preemptively dismissive.

School, then, can be a useful tool depending on the child. “If you are coming from an economically and educationally deprived home, you won’t have the same opportunity as you would in other elements of social class,” says Gray. “Are there books in the home? Are [family members] involved in the community in positive ways? [Unschooling] works well when it’s a family well-connected with culture at large, and parents feel confident they are able to help their child learn. If your parents aren’t in that, then you have less opportunity to be exposed to kinds of experiences [you need] to rise out of poverty.”

Sandoval points out that many homeless and undocumented immigrant families have been unschooling out of necessity for years: Already excluded from the system, or even in hiding, children in these families are still learning and figuring out the world, often with the support of extended family or community, and without the laptops, tablets, and broadband internet of their more resourced peers. They are still able to flourish. Indeed, homeless families are often known at public libraries.

Forty-nine percent of low-income households have no access to the internet at home, and the US continues to struggle with the digital divide. For example, seventy percent of children in Detroit have no access to the internet at home. Libraries and learning centers can help young people get the skills they need to navigate the digital realm.

Gray suggests other solutions can be found in centers rooted in self-directed education, such as the Agile Learning Centers or Sudbury schools, where kids aren’t segregated by age, and where the learning resources range from books to games to computers to a woodworking shop, gardens and a kitchen. Field trips are encouraged, and fees are accessible and based on ability to pay. They provide a wide range of options for self-directed learning, and provide students with a pressure-free space to discover what they want to learn — and how they learn best.

“In theory, this kind of education is even more valuable for those coming from underprivileged backgrounds,” notes Gray. “We don’t have enough experience to test statistically, but enough anecdotally to say it works well.”

Sandoval notes that some perspectives are often missing from SDE conversations — the voices of Indigenous, immigrant, LGBTQ and single-parent families, as well as families of kids with special needs (such as those who are deaf). In each of those communities, SDE will likely look different than it will in other communities, and what works for one might not work for the others. For example, young people in an Indigenous community might learn their own language, culture, and traditions, such as agriculture, and are likely expected to follow their elders’ guidance and direction. Yet in white SDE communities, the child’s interests often come first. “When you’re unschooling from a white perspective, you have to find the ‘yes’ — but there have to be hard ‘no’s,’” says Sandoval.

These differences also surface in community: White parents may be at a loss as to how to both work from home and facilitate learning with their children, while some families will turn to their families and communities instinctually for collaboration and support.

Richards notes the pandemic and nationwide rebellions have presented the opportunity to get back to our communities. “There are communal ways of being together that we forget about,” says Richards — ways we can turn to now, both to unschool and to restore relationships as young people continue to learn.

What Does SDE Look Like?

Farenga suggests letting your child’s opinion count—what do they want to read? To learn? To do? Then providing children with access to materials, and providing them with people who can answer their questions when they are asked. Who in your family or community has hobbies, skills or a profession that lends itself to teaching the young people something they want to learn? He gives an example of the Anatomy Coloring Book, which he used with his own kids and their fellow SDE students. They wanted to learn more, so one of the other parents asked a chiropractor they knew to teach them. It turned into six weeks of learning with the chiropractor. Farenga says it might require thinking outside the box, but why can’t a chiropractor teach your child anatomy? Or an accountant teach them math? If you don’t know anyone, expand your social network, or turn to groups like Diggs’, which can help coordinate programs and learning opportunities for your children. Finding the support for your child might actually support you more, too.

Mojisola Yaï and her daughter, Sena. Unschooling, Yaï says, “removes you from the system. You can start building relationships, rather than fitting them into the slots society has given to you.” (Photo courtesy Mojisola Yaï)

SDE, then, creates an opportunity to get off the conveyor belt of education and reconnect with family and community, and creates an opportunity for identifying who can help your child learn. It gets back to a way of learning that has served humanity until very recently.

Another option is to identify local learning centers, which may even teach them more about democracy than kids learn in public schools. “You can’t overcome a hierarchical authoritarian mentality if you are growing up in a school system that embraces it,” notes Gray. At both ALCs and Sudbury schools, rules are determined democratically, so every student, regardless of age, has one vote, notes Gray. This way, the student has experience with democracy, not top-down control. Giving students a voice in making the rules empowers them.

“I see it as healing work,” says Richards. “What it means to be together and own ourselves. It’s recognizing how we oppress others. It is communal and non-hierarchical. It’s about ancient collaborative ways of being, that have nothing to do with being rich and white.”

For Richards, this is a prime opportunity to exercise the skills inherent in unschooling, such as intergenerational relationship building. School teaches segregation by age, and this in turn plays out well into the workplace later in life — one needs to only look at the gap of understanding and lack of relationships among generations of workers to see how learned ageism is passed down and used as a tool of bullying into adulthood and later in life.

The deschooling journey is lifelong, with young people in your life growing and maturing just as you are. The idea is to come to those relationships with respect. Otherwise, “we reduce education to a transactional thing about employment,” notes Farenga.

Yet education is not the solution to racism, notes scholar Ibram X Kendi. “If the fundamental problem is ignorance and hate, then your solutions are going to be focused on education, and love and persuasion,” he says. “The actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest, particularly economic and political and cultural [self-interest].”

“A lot of people agree that the education system in the U.S. is not a good one and that it is one rooted in white supremacy,” says Yaï. Unschooling, she says, lets you observe how it shows up in your life and in relationships.

What we call self-directed education is, in fact, how children learned for thousands of years, outside of the Eurocentric notion of what it means to be ‘learned.’ The idea that the COVID-19 crisis has created “a lost generation of knowledge,” notes Farenga, is “such bullshit.”

Advocates point out that while society values the degree, one can obtain a degree and still not know how to read. In fact, 19% of high school graduates are illiterate.

If self-directed education still inspires discomfort, it might be helpful to remember that Henry Ford only occasionally attended class when he wasn’t working on his family’s farm; Amelia Earhart was homeschooled; and Louis Armstrong stopped attending school in the 5th grade.

What Do Kids Think?

Yaï’s daughter Sena, 10-and-a-half, liked her time at U.S. school — except, she tells Next City, for the “small” stuff, “like people getting in trouble, or getting suspended.” For her, going to school in Benin was also challenging, because classes were conducted in French — not her first language. Yet Sena speaks fluent English, Yoruba, a bit of Japanese and Fon, in addition to some French.

“I like how I am learning now,” she says of her self-directed education. “Mostly I learn stuff by asking questions, watching stuff, seeing stuff. And books. I like to read. And sometimes games.”

Sena says she wants to be a digital artist or a scientist, and is currently interested in learning more about the brain and anatomy.

When Yaï sent Sena to school in Africa, she wanted her to see the difference between Africa and the U.S. In Africa, it’s more strict. Still, “teachers have all the power in both places. Teachers are allowed to hit the kids,” Yaï notes. In the U.S., corporal punishment is legal in the public schools of 19 states.

When Yaï realized that both systems were deeply rooted in colonialism and oppression, she decided to unschool in both places.

“Equity isn’t the goal,” Yaï stresses. “With unschooling you can be as oppressive as you want to be.” The key, for her, is to think critically about why you would choose to unschool.

“The unschooling that I think we all need to do, that would provide equity, has to do more with relationships than with learning,” says Yaï. “For me, it’s seeing my relationship with my daughter, and how I use my power over her. I am bigger than her. I birthed her. She looks up to me. She is more likely to do what I say. And so being careful about how I use that power, and being observant about how she responds to that power dynamic, translates how I navigate power dynamics between myself and others.”

When you focus on those power dynamics, explains Yaï, and not on micromanaging the household and controlling the people and kids around you, you also notice how people do that to you. You notice how you do that to others outside the household. Then you see it at work in society writ large. Unschooling, Yaï says, “removes you from the system. You can start building relationships, rather than fitting them into the slots society has given to you.”

A child’s “socialization” is often used as an argument against unschooling and in favor of a classroom environment. Yet self-directed education highlights social issues that extend beyond white supremacy: Many people who came through “official” educational channels do not have knowledge of self, do not practice self-care, and do not have leadership skills. Most do not ask questions, lack their own time management skills, and many don’t even know what they are genuinely interested in. Schooling is structured in a way that does not cultivate these skills in most people.

The primary thing kids miss about school, says Gray, is seeing friends. According to his research, that’s the main reason kids want to go back to school now. Parents, then, need to find ways to bring their children’s friends together, online at least, so kids can play and learn how to solve their own problems — which is what children have been deprived of for decades: The opportunity to self-govern.

The City As Open-Air Classroom

One of Gray’s projects, Let Grow, works with cities to help them become welcoming of children in public spaces. “Children learn to be adults by solving their own problems,” says Gray. “For thousands of years, this has been what children do. [Being] outdoors, playing and exploring with other children. It’s where they learn the most important things, working with others, [when] you’re confident in doing things yourself.”

Let Grow promotes a culture where kids can navigate their community safely and independently — a place where they can walk to the library alone, play in the park, walk on sidewalks. This is something cities should address actively to overcome the culture of fear, he says.

“Over my lifetime … there’s been a continuous decline in children’s freedom to be in public spaces, and I think that’s had a debilitating impact,” notes Gray. “That’s why we’re seeing record levels of depression and anxiety; we’ve deprived them of being children.”.

Gray doesn’t completely discount the dangers of what has come to be known as “free-range parenting” in cities. In most neighborhoods, he says, the biggest problem is traffic. “There’s always been traffic in cities. But kids were [still] out playing in the park. Teach them to be careful about traffic. If it keeps being a problem, then something needs to be done about traffic.”

For parents worried about the bogeymen they imagine lurking in the shadows, from pedophiles to drug dealers, Gray points out that statistically, overall crime has decreased significantly from where it was in the early 1990s. At a time when the culture of fear has ratcheted up, many places are safer today than in years past. Incidents of strangers grabbing kids off the street are rarer than TV crime dramas would have you believe: According to RAINN, 93% of children know their abuser; and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children states that non-family abductions are very rare, comprising only 1% of all missing children cases reported each year. If there are concerns — about crime, about drug dealers — some places have addressed these issues successfully with interventions that do not involve police, including the legalization and regulation of drugs and creating a more equitable economic environment.

As Gray works with cities to become more child-friendly, parents, students and people nationwide look for new ways to decolonize our society — to eliminate white supremacy and to change how we conceive and practice everything from policing to education to work and communication. And while there is no easy cure-all to the problems we face, acknowledging those problems and supporting others in trying to change them is something we can all do in our daily lives. Accepting that communities of color, Indigenous, and immigrant communities might need more resources or might need to approach unschooling from different perspectives is also important.

Sandoval says there is no perfect way to undertake self-directed education or unschooling. The important part, she says, is “being 100% into whatever you’re doing.”

Self-directed education can be about “unlearning and building new systems and collaborating. Live and let live, and learn from different things and make space for other people,” says Yaï. “That’s how it will change the world.”

And as these powerful shifts take place, there is a question Richards regularly asks herself that may be wise for all of us to ask, in all our relationships: “How am I in the way of someone else’s right to be free?”

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

Valerie Vande Panne

For US Cities Looking to Take Police out of Schools, Toronto May Be a Model

6 days 9 hours ago

(AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)

As some big school districts across the U.S. weigh cutting ties with local police, they have little precedent to draw on in a country where all 25 of the largest districts put sworn police officers in at least some schools.

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But if they look to Canada’s largest school district, they can see one example. Toronto’s English-language public school system ended its school police program less than three years ago amid concerns about anti-Black racism.

Officials with the Toronto district, which serves nearly 250,000 students, made their decision after an unusually detailed process of asking students about their experiences with police and whether they wanted the program to continue.

And while the school district doesn’t have good data to indicate whether the decision made students feel safer at school or led to fewer arrests of students, the removal hasn’t upended the jobs of teachers or local police.

Meanwhile, community activists who favored ending the program continue to support the decision, saying it removed the stigma associated with having an officer stationed in certain schools, though some are still concerned about the role police play in schools.

It’s a process, and a result, that could offer lessons to U.S. school districts considering a similar move.

“We did it at a time when we thought that it was the right thing to do, based on the feedback from community,” said Jim Spyropoulos, who oversees human rights and Indigenous education for the Toronto district. “We were well-positioned, and we’ve experienced success, because we didn’t wake up one day and snap our fingers. We had built a long ramp to getting to where we did.”

Toronto started putting armed, uniformed police officers in the city’s public schools in 2008, a year after a Black high school freshman was shot and killed at school. The district called them school resource officers, or SROs, as many U.S. school districts do.

Activists and community organizers lobbied against the program from the start, saying it would lead to the criminalization of students, especially of Black students. Its supporters championed it as a way for the police to build relationships with young people.

The conflict came to a head nearly a decade later in 2017, as Toronto’s Black Lives Matter chapter and other community groups ramped up the pressure to remove police from schools.

Forty-five public high schools had police in them at least part-time. That represented less than half of the district’s high schools, but critics say that police were stationed primarily in high schools located in communities of color with higher poverty rates.

Initially, school officials said, the decision to put an officer in a school was made by its principal, along with a district administrator, a parent representative from a local school council, and the elected school trustee — the name for a school board member in Canada. But students were never consulted.

What happened next would go on to shape each aspect of the district’s response.

Toronto school trustees put the school policing program on hold while the school district conducted a review, reasoning that students wouldn’t be able to speak freely about the program while police were still stationed in their schools.

District officials then surveyed the more than 15,000 students in the high schools with police, as well as nearly 500 parents and more than 1,000 staff members, asking how police in schools made them feel and how officers behaved.

The surveys showed more than half of the students felt safer having an officer at school, while a third were unsure and 10% disagreed than an officer made them safer. Some 2,200 students said having an officer at school made them feel like they were being watched or targeted, and around 880 said they felt uncomfortable interacting with the officer at school.

In addition, the school district tapped outside community leaders to conduct smaller focus groups with students and former students who’d had interactions with police at school. Advocates said they specifically sought out students who’d been handcuffed at school or who’d been involved in the juvenile justice system.

“To have that very traumatic and very challenging conversation, and for them to tell stories of some of the most horrendous experiences they’ve ever had in their own personal lives, you would need someone to facilitate it … who has relationships with those young people,” said Tesfai Mengesha, who directs Success Beyond Limits, a community group that provides after-school programming to middle and high school students and which facilitated some of the conversations.

District officials also agreed they would put greater stock in what students who’d been most affected by the program had to say, even if that was a minority of students.

“The use of an equity lens is extremely important,” said Andrea Vásquez Jiménez, who advocated for removing police from schools and co-chairs Toronto’s Latinx, Afro-Latin-America, Abya Yala Education Network.

District officials faced some backlash for giving more weight to those students, especially from police, who said the overall data supported keeping officers in schools.

But in November 2017, school trustees voted to end the program.

“Over recent months, we have listened to marginalized voices that have not always been heard,” the school trustees chair said in a statement at the time. “We have heard loud and clear that the SRO program is not welcome by a significant number of our students.”

Since the removal of school police, the district has continued to rely on unarmed school safety monitors to help with student behavior, as they did while police were stationed in schools. Teachers and community activists are generally supportive of that arrangement, and principals still have the option to call for police assistance — though data show police are now involved in a smaller number of suspensions and expulsions.

Every high school has at least one safety monitor regularly assigned to the building, who walks the hallways and school grounds, watches for intruders, and resolves conflicts between students. Some are coaches or people who grew up in the community.

Principals can now request an additional monitor on a temporary basis if they see a need — a change district officials made to address the concerns of some principals after the police program ended.

“It could be that a school principal, a school community, is sensing an uptick in some issues,” said Ted Libera, a Toronto school administrator who helps principals with school climate and safety. “Just to help calm the waters and have another body in the school… we’ll provide that.”

Leslie Wolfe, who heads a union bargaining unit that represents Toronto high school teachers, said while her members broadly supported the removal of police from schools, some had worried the change would lead to an uptick in negative behavior. But “that just hasn’t been our experience,” she said.

“After the decision was taken, that was basically the last time I heard about it,” Wolfe said. “I’ve got between 5,000 and 6,000 teachers in schools … and they’re not shy.” If the teachers were “perceiving that their own safety and that of other students” was at risk, she said, she would know.

And activists like Butterfly GoPaul, who lives in the Jane and Finch neighborhood, say removing school police has helped shift the perception of certain schools, but there are still deep-seated issues of student trauma and poverty to address.

“It was like night and day to have police cruisers all the time not parked right in front of the school,” said GoPaul, who is also the parent of two Black children who’ve attended Toronto public schools. “Where dollars should be going, they haven’t been going. Teachers, support staff, guidance counselors, social workers — we need these things in schools. The reality is, the tensions that exist in our schools are still there.”

The school district didn’t pay for the school policing program — that came out of the police department’s budget — so canceling the contract didn’t result in extra money that could be redirected toward other staff positions, such as school social workers or counselors.

The removal of police also coincided with a broader push inside the Toronto district to reform school discipline and take a less punitive approach. Suspensions and expulsions have dropped in recent years, including for Black students, though they are still much more likely to face this kind of discipline than their peers.

The district doesn’t have student arrest data, but it does track how often police are involved in suspensions and expulsions across all schools. During the 2016-17 school year, the last full year that police were stationed in some schools, police were involved in around 1,525 suspensions and expulsions. The number was lower in each of the next two years by a few hundred incidents. (Though district officials caution this data doesn’t account for all police involvement in schools.)

It’s worth noting the school district still has a working relationship with the Toronto police department and a school principal can still call police for help. There’s a protocol that spells out when schools must notify police of an incident, and when it’s at the school’s discretion, though it’s currently under review.

The local police department runs “school engagement teams” made up of officers who are assigned to multiple schools with many similar responsibilities as the former school-based officers.

“They build relationships, try and get intelligence [about] what’s going on at school, prevent crime,” said Brian Callanan, the vice president of Toronto’s police union. “But obviously the big difference is they’re not embedded.”

A police department spokesperson did not respond to questions for this story. But in Callanan’s view, this set-up means officers have fewer opportunities to build relationships with students and are less familiar with them — though advocates for the removal of police from schools would say that was the intent.

Some, like Mengesha of Success Beyond Limits, say the school district should place stricter limits on when police can be in schools and interact with students because “there are many, many times that police officers are still in school.”

It’s hard to judge if the removal of police changed student perceptions about school safety. Toronto school officials collect, but have yet to release, new data that could shine a light on this. But district officials say they’ve worked hard to provide in-depth training to administrators and principals to help them improve school culture, including on human rights and anti-Black racism.

That’s noteworthy, says 18-year-old Amin Ali, who is Black, and as a student trustee saw school district officials follow up on their decision to remove police from schools with other equity-related work, including trying to address an issue he feels strongly about: getting more Black students on a pathway to college.

“It’s not just simply removing police from the schools,” said Ali, who is now a student at the University of Toronto, “but also getting at the root conditions that allowed for the violence and the conflict and the strife before.”

This story was originally published in Chalkbeat. It is part of the SoJo Exchange of COVID-19 stories from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

Kalyn Belsha | ChalkBeat

Texas’s High School Voter Registration Law Fails to Live Up to Ideals

6 days 12 hours ago

(Illustration by Eleanor Barba)

A 1983 Texas law requiring high school principals to register eligible voters is still unequally enforced nearly four decades later.

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The law by the late State Rep. Paul Ragsdale, a Dallas Democrat who died in 2011, requires high school principals to serve as voter registrars and register eligible students twice a year.

According to the law, the Secretary of State, which assists county election officials with elections, is required to provide principals with instructions for requesting voter registration cards. But the office cannot enforce the law and is not even required to track requests for ballots.

The level of school engagement is ultimately left to individual secretaries of state.

At the beginning of each semester, the office emails high school principals with instructions on requesting ballots, registering students and returning ballots.

That’s not enough for Pearland Independent School District Trustee Mike Floyd.

“Their office doesn’t work with us. They send an email at the beginning of the year to principals, but it’s just another email for them to read when they are already overwhelmed. Their job is to enforce the election code,” he says.

Floyd was elected to his at-large position in 2017, beating a two-term incumbent who was criticized for inflammatory Facebook posts about Muslims and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Floyd was also 18 years old, then a senior at Dawson High School. His strategy prioritized youth engagement, including aggressively promoting voter registration.

“If we got students engaged, then they would tell their parents about me, the parents would usually be surprised their teenager knew about a local election, and I’d get two more votes,” he says.

Pearland’s election that year saw increased turnout from an average of 2,000 to 10,000 voters. “By Texas’s municipal election standards, that’s an impressive amount,” he says.

Studies show multiple benefits to engaging young voters.

According to Penn State research, voting is a habit, so young people who get into the habit early are more likely to become lifelong voters.

And, as Floyd discovered, when young people living with their parents talk about voting, it may influence their parents to become voters too.

Charlie Bonner is the communications director for the MOVE Texas Civic Fund & MOVE Texas Action Fund, a nonpartisan nonprofit promoting civic engagement among young people.

“The Texas High School Voter Registration Law was a surprisingly progressive attempt by the legislature to get young people registered and ready to vote. That said, far too many high schools have failed to participate in the program and empower their students,” he says.

And in recent years, new laws meant to weed out voter fraud have also made voting harder.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, says Bonner, “Texas was a difficult state to register to vote in on a good day.”

That’s because Texas lawmakers, who meet every other year, have spent the past decade chipping away at ballot access. Since 2013, casting a vote in Texas required presenting one of seven forms of photo identification. Student IDs were not among them.

To Republicans, the laws requiring photo identifications and imposing criminal penalties are meant to root out fraud. (A report from the conservative Heritage Foundation found almost 90 cases of voter fraud since 2008 in the state, out of tens of millions of votes cast.) To Democrats, the laws unfairly target people of color, the poor, elderly and young people who are less likely to have photo identification.

(Illustration by Eleanor Barba)

A 2019 report released by the Texas Civil Rights Project, an advocacy organization, compiled by a Freedom of Information Act request, found 38 percent of public high schools in Texas with 20 or more seniors either requested registration forms from the Secretary of State or conducted a voter registration drive.

The good news: that is a four percent point increase from 2018 and a 24 percent increase from the compliance rate since 2017.

The bad news: that’s still low. And grassroots civic engagement nonprofits, such as the Own Our Vote coalition (a coalition including the Texas Civil Rights Project), were largely responsible for the uptick. Eleven percent of schools were in compliance with the law because of a “partner group initiated” voter registration drive.

Requests from individual schools remained flat at 27 percent. The percentage of schools that received forms from their school districts crashed from six percent to nearly zero.

Those low numbers do not mean schools are purposefully defying the law, says Stephanie Gómez, TCRP’s high school voter campaign coordinator. There’s a lack of awareness on school administrators’ parts, and even when teachers or principals do manage to request voter registration forms, schools “are just are not hearing back” from the secretary of state’s office, she says.

The report puts the blame on the secretary of state’s office, though doesn’t flatly say the office is intentionally hindering voter access. Indeed, some secretaries have been more active than others. Former Secretary Rolando Pablos, who served from 2017 to 2019, asked superintendents to pledge that high schools in their districts would have a 100 percent registration rate. Some complied: Pablos lauded former Houston Independent School District Superintendent Richard Carranza, who now serves as Chancellor of New York City’s public school system, for his full participation.

But Pablos’ successors have not been as enthusiastic. Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, appointed ally David Whitley to the role, though Whitley was forced to resign last May after a botched voter roll purge. His successor, Ruth Ruggero Hughes, who was appointed in August 2019, has traveled the state promoting voter engagement, including visiting high schools. But the office’s elections division has recently been occupied with promoting voter engagement during COVID-19. The office has been promoting best practices for safely voting in the July runoff.

They’ve also been mired in more lawsuits, this time about voting by mail. Among Abbott’s emergency declarations was moving a May runoff, which includes a Democratic nomination for the US Senate, to July.

Since the coronavirus epidemic posed a public health threat, Democrats sued to expand the option to vote by mail to anyone concerned that voting poses a threat to their health. Currently, Texans must be 65 years or older, disabled, out of their home county on election day, or confined to jail but eligible to vote to qualify. The state Democratic party argued the threat of coronavirus, especially to those with underlying health conditions, should count as a disability. Under that interpretation, then, voters could request a ballot by mail. The state Supreme Court sided with the state, agreeing that voting by mail should be expanded because of fear of contracting the coronavirus.

High school students still need to be registered to vote before they can request a mail-in ballot, of course.

(Illustration by Eleanor Barba)

Floyd, who is not running for a second term, says the legislature must amend the law making the Secretary of State enforce it. And principals need to get creative, he says. He suggests that when a student turns 18, the principal celebrate the birthday and register the student to vote at the same time.

As a librarian in the Fort Worth Independent School District and active voter, Rachel Pilcher feels obligated to register students to vote. Her experience getting ballots has been easy. But, she says, district and school administrators support voter registration, but may not understand the details of the process. Pilcher notes, for instance, students cannot be compelled to register to vote, or may not qualify.

“I have to constantly explain that just because [students] are age eligible it doesn’t mean they meet all the other eligibility requirements or that they want to register. We can’t force students to register and I really don’t feel comfortable asking them why they aren’t registered,” she says. “It felt really weird when I had to explain why we couldn’t bring students in individually to register, then make a spreadsheet as to why they won’t. I guess as a librarian, I am a bit more aware of keeping track of some personal information and why we don’t want to do it.”

Students may also have been registered by teachers.

Among those teachers are Allan Saxe, a teacher at the private Northstar School in Arlington. “I have always urged students to register and vote and please be an INFORMED and educated voter,” he told Next City by email.

Getting ballots directly to students was complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, which forced school districts to move operations online. But teaching virtually didn’t stop Jessica Lugo and her team from getting creative.

Lugo, a social studies teacher at Trinity High School in Euless, a city north of Fort Worth, integrated the importance of voting into their lesson plans.

Her colleagues made a video for Earth Day, for instance, “encouraging participants to share (in a non-partisan way) how their vote makes a difference for the environment. Then we’ll share that video widely, especially with student groups and their social media accounts,” she says.

Bonner’s organization has increased their use of digital tools and other options not available to teachers, such as texting students. “We’ve also invested in relational organizing tools so that more folks that are stuck at home can reach out to their friends and neighbors about the upcoming runoff election,” he says. Bonner also hosts MOVE University: Social Justice for Social Distancing, which brings in policy experts for live conversations. “We’re hoping to use this time at home to equip people with the tools they need to be better advocates in their community,” he says.

This story was produced with support from the Solutions Journalism Network’s Renewing Democracy program.

James Russell

Why Puerto Ricans Fear Opportunity Zones

6 days 13 hours ago

The capital city of San Juan, Puerto Rico is littered with blighted buildings, often owned by speculators who keep the properties in a state of ruin until incentives or investment opportunities arise. (Photo courtesy Luis Gallardo)

On June 10, 2020, President Trump held a roundtable in the White House where he remarked that Opportunity Zones are a “bold idea” that have “worked much better than at our wildest dreams.” This optimism about Opportunity Zones is shared by many conservatives, like Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, who has said that Opportunity Zones “have the potential to transform some of the most economically underdeveloped parts of the country and lift millions of Americans out of poverty.”

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Nevertheless, when talking about the challenges faced by Black communities to reap the benefits of these incentives, even conservative radio host Sonnie Johnson acknowledged how Opportunity Zones cause the gentrification of Black communities, though she attributed that effect to Democrats manipulating Opportunity Zones at the state level. Of course, the effects of segregation and displacement by the implementation of Opportunity Zones in low-income communities has been recognized on various fronts, including by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) who is pushing legislation to repeal the tax break entirely.

For us in Puerto Rico, where a whopping 98 percent of the territory has been declared an Opportunity Zone, we see investors are lining up with high hopes of reaping these benefits, while low-income communities are afraid of being completely displaced by the new economic development.

All but two percent (in yellow) of the territory of Puerto Rico has been designated an Opportunity Zone. (Map via PolicyMap.com)

Both the federal Law and Puerto Rico Opportunity Zone regulations prescribe to the zero-sum assumption that all investment — regardless of its nature or intention — is an absolute gain for the community. This approach is fundamentally flawed and misleading. Without the proper checks and balances, many projects, though profitable for their investors, will be detrimental to host communities, will not provide good job opportunities for their residents, and may even cause them to lose their land and homes.

The high rise Ciudadela development, which towers over Santurce, San Juan, has been cited as a prime example of what is possible with Opportunity Zones. What those who celebrate that project fail to mention is that it was a financial failure that bankrupted developers, sparked corruption scandals, and resulted in the brutal displacement of a once-vibrant working-class community. The project delivered a fraction of the investments and housing units promised. Ciudadela was an example of the government’s embrace of big private developments without considering the externalities they may have on a community. Twenty years later, the Santurce story still leaves a bitter taste in locals’ mouths.

This no-holds-barred, quasi-religious surrender to private investment is only further enabled by Puerto Rico’s military occupation-era eminent domain law. Government entities become owners of a property upon the mere presentation of an eminent domain declaration, even before a hearing and discussion of whether the fair compensation was met or not. Worst of all, cases such as Ciudadela’s are common, with private developers utilizing the government to snatch up property when homeowners and local businesses refuse to sell. In fact, the former mayor of Barceloneta today sits in prison for taking bribes from developers in exchange for access to condemned land.

In this same note of surrender, unchecked Opportunity Zones will only incentivize public disinvestment, price out families from their communities, further concentrate poverty, and position investors to pressure the government to take away peoples’ homes and businesses for their own mega-projects. Without a doubt, low-income neighborhoods throughout Puerto Rico need good-paying jobs, new places to work and play, and resilient, quality housing. Yet, the Opportunity Zone framework at a federal and local level fails to establish things like preferences for fair market or affordable housing, hiring for local residents, protections for communities at-risk of displacement, or citizen participation.

At the end of the day, leaving Opportunity Zones unchecked will perpetuate a colonial economic relationship where big-buck investors from the mainland United States freely grab up Puerto Rico’s offerings. Protections for citizens, community participation and prioritizing affordable housing and other community wants must be incorporated into the Opportunity Zone regulations so that they may better address — instead of exploiting — the needs of Puerto Rico’s lowest-income communities.

Luis Gallardo | Op-ed

How to Be an Anti-Racist Bank

6 days 15 hours ago

Keith Williams and Michael Howard of MMK Trucking, Greenville, Miss., are customers of and received a Paycheck Protection Program through Southern Bancorp. (Photo courtesy Southern Bancorp)

Darrin Williams was already out sick for a few days — not Coronavirus-related — when Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd.

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“I overdosed on news around George Floyd,” says Williams. “That was not helping at all for me.”

Williams, who is Black, has a 21-year-old son and a 20-year-old daughter. “Every Black parent has to have that conversation about the police with their kids,” he says.

He is also the CEO of Southern Bancorp, a bank with $1.5 billion in assets, serving small cities and rural areas of Arkansas and the Mississippi Delta region.

“I knew we needed to make an internal statement to our team,” says Williams. “But with my roller coaster of emotions from fear, frustration, anger, even optimism because of the demonstrations, I could not draft an appropriate statement.”

Williams went through revision after revision. The statement he finally sent out to his team, on June 17, was version 13.

“The same pervasive systemic racism that has allowed many police departments and criminal justice systems across America to ignore the pleas of Black families who have long suffered from police brutality is also the root cause of many of the disparities we see among races in many facets of life, from education, to healthcare, to wages and wealth, and access to financial services,” the statement read.

Southern Bancorp is just a bank — or technically, a bank holding company, a bank, and an affiliated nonprofit. Banks didn’t create systemic racism by themselves, and they won’t solve it by themselves. But banks have played an important role in creating and sustaining systemic racism, and Williams still believes they can play a role in ending it.

“[The bank’s founders] specifically chose to work in the Arkansas Delta because of the large number of Black people there who had long suffered from the lingering effects of slavery,” Williams’ statement continued. “It is this same founding purpose that we must continue to embrace today to help our communities and this nation recognize the fact that it will take more than words for our country to live out its constitutional promise, that we are all created equal. It will take intentional action to destroy and dismantle systemic racism.”

Since its founding in 1986, Southern has sought to take actions intended to help undo systemic racism, starting with its original geographic scope of serving the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta.

The building has been remodeled and changed hands multiple times, but there has been a local bank branch at this location in Arkadelphia, Arkansas since 1884. (Photo courtesy Southern Bancorp)

Some actions are obvious, such as being intentional about diversity in the bank’s leadership. Of the bank’s 12-member board, half are Black, half are white, and three are women. Then there’s Williams, a lawyer and former state legislator whose career before coming to Southern involved filing class-action lawsuits against big banks for predatory practices, working with the law firm Carney Williams Bates Pulliam & Bowman from 2000–2013.

“In my role as CEO, I feel like I’m the chief protector of the culture so that we don’t lose sight of our margin and our mission,” says Williams. “The front wheel is our mission wheel and it directs us, keeps us on the path, and the back wheel is the margin wheel that keeps us moving on the path. Sometimes this organization isn’t always doing that, honestly, and it’s my job to make course corrections when necessary.”

Corporate culture matters a lot at a bank. Leaders at the top broadcast signals that others tend to follow, even without direct orders from the top. An internal review of Wells Fargo found that the bank’s internal “sales-oriented culture or a decentralized corporate structure” was at the heart of its fake accounts scandal that erupted in 2017, CNBC reported.

A lot of anti-racist actions Southern Bancorp has taken aren’t as obvious, like in 2017, when the bank changed its legal structure from a standard corporation into a benefit corporation. The legal structure, similar to an LLC or S-corporation, currently exists in 36 states. Benefit corporations are legally bound to report to investors on social and environmental goals as well as financial performance. Investors also have the right to file a lawsuit and have their investment returned if they feel a benefit corporation is not delivering as promised on social and environmental goals.

Changing the corporate charter was important for Williams as CEO. A big part of his job consists of going out to raise investor capital to grow the bank. Based on his previous legal experience, he knew that one way to stop profit-hungry investors from suing his bank for putting mission ahead of profits was giving other investors the power to sue his bank for putting profits ahead of mission.

“It was important for me as a former securities litigation attorney that we had this protection in place so our board wouldn’t be sued by some rogue investor because maybe we’re doing small loans and that means we’re not maximizing their profits,” says Williams.

Williams then has to go out and find investors who would be willing to hold the bank accountable for meeting its social goals. Community banks can usually go to other businesses in their community to raise any equity capital they need to grow. But when you are serving one of the most persistently poor regions of the country, that’s just not a very deep bench.

“In 16 markets we serve we’re one of two banks in town, in six markets we’re the only bank in town,” Williams says.

Williams has had to go beyond the Delta to find much of the bank’s equity investors. He just closed a campaign to raise $35 million in equity investments for Southern Bancorp, coming from two larger banks, a major national insurance company, and other investors including a group of overseas investors. Fortunately, Williams only needs so much — the way banks are structured and regulated, every dollar of equity investment into a bank enables up to $10 in new loans. So he can still afford to be selective about who he takes investment from.

“We’re very careful at our investor outreach and marketing and pitching to investors to be front and center of who we are and what we’re trying to do,” says Williams. “Investors are vetting us, but we’re vetting them, too. A few investors were interested in us but we said no. At the end of the day, some of these private equity funds might be well-intentioned but they weren’t a good fit for us.”

The bank’s legal structure and like-minded investors complement and protect a corporate culture that’s intentional about the bank’s end vision — contributing as a bank to undo the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, the Black Codes, redlining and other vestiges of history that characterize the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta region.

“Race is not well below the surface, it’s right on top of the markets we serve,” says Williams. “The economies of the Delta never got over the mechanization of the farm. At first you needed labor to get your crops in, but when the farms mechanized, some [people] left [and] ended up in Chicago and other places, but a lot stayed and never got retrained or given opportunities to do other things.”

Being a highly regulated bank, Southern Bancorp can’t serve only Black borrowers, but the effects of reinforcing a corporate culture devoted to undoing systemic racism show up in the numbers. Across Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee, Southern made 15 percent of its single-family home mortgages to Black borrowers, while lenders overall in those states made just nine percent of single-family home mortgages to Black borrowers.

Despite serving such a poor region and intentionally seeking out the most vulnerable in that region to serve, the bank doesn’t see an unusual number of borrowers defaulting.

“We’ve found in these markets we serve one thing that makes a part of our secret sauce is that our loan officers grew up in these communities, they know who will pay them back, and in small-town America not paying a loan back isn’t just a knock on you, it’s a knock on your family,” says Williams.

It also helps to have a nonprofit affiliate as part of the bank’s structure. Known as Southern Bancorp Community Partners, it can fundraise from public and private sources to help with down payment assistance and homebuyer counseling for prospective borrowers. As an internal rule, Southern Bancorp pays out one million dollars a year directly to the nonprofit, which also owns a five percent share in the bank — meaning the nonprofit gets an additional contribution whenever the bank pays out dividends to its shareholders.

The nonprofit also advocates for policies to complement the bank’s work — like the campaign to end payday lending in Arkansas, which resulted in the last payday lending storefront in Arkansas closing in 2009.

There’s no one way to run an anti-racist financial institution. Hope Credit Union, which also serves the Mississippi Delta region, has its own way of tackling the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and redlining. There are also still Black-owned banks around the country, though their numbers continue to dwindle — and as others have pointed out, Black-owned banks are subject to many of the same systemic racial barriers as their clients.

Southern Bancorp represents a broader collective effort aimed at undoing the legacy of systemic racism. Its founders were a group of philanthropists and public officials, including then-Governor Bill Clinton, who were inspired by the work of another anti-racist bank, Chicago’s South Shore Bank, established in direct response to redlining on the South Side of Chicago.

The actions that are available to anti-racist institutions also evolve over time — Southern Bancorp was founded in 1986, but Arkansas didn’t have an option to incorporate as a benefit corporation until the state passed legislation for it in 2014. Investors today are also becoming more intentional about their decisions, giving the bank more options to raise capital to fuel its growth.

The choices to make aren’t always so crystal clear. Southern Bancorp works with developers from many communities where few if any other lenders care to finance economic development, but some of the commercial spaces those developers have built are currently leased to dollar stores — seen as a scourge in an increasing number of cities. But, says Williams, those dollar stores are some of the only businesses still paying rent and paying employees during this unprecedented pandemic.

Being an anti-racist instutition isn’t about one choice or any particular set of choices. It’s an ongoing mindset that has to factor-in for every choice the bank makes, from the borrowers it serves to its legal structure to its hiring and leadership. Williams takes the recent unrest as a reminder of how much work is left to dismantle systemic racism and that the bank exists to help bring that about.

“The events surrounding George Floyd have given us the opportunity to remind folks why we exist, why we were founded,” says Williams.

Oscar Perry Abello

New SoCal Rail Transit Line Puts Its Stations on a Parking Diet

1 week ago

Parking garages near transit are a common sight.

(Photo by Paul Sableman / CC BY 2.0)

Welcome to “The Mobile City,” our weekly roundup of newsworthy urban transportation developments.

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If there’s any one thing that distinguishes the raft of heavy- and light-rail transit systems that have popped up in scores of American cities since 1971 from their pre-World War II predecessors, it’s this: They were designed as hybrids for a car-dependent society. All of them, even the Washington Metro, have as a major function “remote vehicle storage” — that is, allowing car-owning suburbanites to drive to a facility where they can leave their cars in a garage and take a train to their jobs in the cities.

Now, almost 50 years after the first of this new wave of rail transit systems opened, the thinking about what function they should perform has shifted: Many urban planners, developers and city officials see them as tools to reshape the suburban landscape in a more walkable, multimodal fashion. Building large parking garages around stations cuts off that possibility, and that has led the agency building a Los Angeles-area light rail extension to propose eliminating the garages it was going to build around its stations.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has made many of those car-bound commuters fearful of taking transit lest they get added to the rising count of the infected. Studies showing that transit riders are no more likely to catch the coronavirus than others are have so far failed to reassure them, and the cars that they are now driving into the city instead are slowing things down for the buses still rolling down their streets. This has led one city, San Francisco, to take a page from New York’s playbook and at least temporarily turn some of its street space over to buses (and taxis and bikes) exclusively.

Something else the COVID coronavirus has done is upend the way Americans vote. Social distancing requirements and the rise of voting by mail have led many jurisdictions to dramatically shrink the number of polling stations they will operate on Election Day. But this in turn will make it harder for the many voters who will cast votes in person to do so. One of those jurisdictions, however, is fortunate to have a suitably large facility right next to a rapid transit station, and the agency that runs the rapid transit has just finished cleaning the station and will reopen it in time for coming elections.

Foothill Light Metro Extension To Cut Station Parking by Eliminating Garages

The Foothill extension of the LA Metro’s L Line, originally known as the Gold Line, will bring the Greater Los Angeles rail transit system to San Bernardino County’s doorstep once an extension now in the planning phase is completed sometime around 2025. The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin reports that the plans for the line have changed significantly, however.

The Foothill Gold Line Construction Authority announced June 24 that it now plans to eliminate parking garages in favor of surface lots at four of the line’s five stations in Los Angeles County: Glendora, San Dimas, La Verne and Pomona. At the fifth and last of the stations, Claremont, the agency has not yet decided whether it will still build a garage or provide parking via a combination of a surface lot and leased parking spaces nearby.

The move will cut the total number of parking spaces at the stations nearly in half, from 3,570 to 1,959.

Gold Line Construction Authority chief communications officer Lisa Levy Buch told the Daily Bulletin that the agency dropped the garages from its plan because the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro), which will operate the line, told the authority that it was “building too much parking” at its stations. LA Metro, she said, would like to have the land available for housing construction down the road.

The changes are consistent with a parking program LA Metro adopted last year. That program seeks to both cut long-term maintenance costs and preserve land-use flexibility.

The proposal is not yet final, however. Buch said that the authority is collecting feedback both from the cities along the line and the general public, which has until July 8 to comment on the change.The proposal will also have to undergo environmental review.

If the additional funding to complete the project is obtained, the L Line extension will run from the current terminus in Asuza to Montclair in San Bernardino County by 2025. Right now, funding is in place to get the line to Pomona; the current budget of $2.1 billion is one-third higher than the original $1.4 billion budgeted for the entire extension. Another $450 million will need to be found by 2021 in order to complete the extension as planned.

SFMTA Sets Up Temporary Bus Lanes on San Francisco Streets

The San Francisco Examiner reports that the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) will create temporary bus-only lanes on several city streets in order to keep buses moving as car traffic rises but ridership fails to keep pace as COVID-19 travel restrictions are eased.

The lanes will be set up on streets used by four Muni bus routes that serve heavily transit-dependent populations in neighborhoods on the east and south sides of the city. The neighborhoods in question, which include the Mission District, Mission Bay, Dogpatch, Forest Hills, Balboa Park and Portola, are vulnerable to increased street congestion caused by a rise in car commuting into the city.

The goal is to maintain the current speed of bus service and allow the additional buses that will be needed to maintain socially distant travel as ridership recovers to move freely as well. The bus lanes will also be open to taxis and emergency vehicles, and some of them will be bike accessible.

Most of the 30 people who commented on the proposal during its public comment period supported it and applauded its emphasis on equity for essential workers, many of whom are lower-paid and rely on mass transit to get around the city.

The lanes will cost $250,000 to implement; the funds will come from a fund for projects meant to improve transit reliability. The city intends to apply for COVID relief money to reimburse the fund. Implementation begins in August, and all the lanes should be fully operational by six to eight weeks later. The city’s traffic director will be able to authorize additional temporary lanes if conditions warrant them. The lanes will go out of service 120 days after emergency orders are lifted unless the SFMTA Board of Directors votes to make some or all of them permanent.

Atlanta Voters Will Be Able to Ride MARTA to a Huge Polling Place This Summer and Fall

The coronavirus has also disrupted the way Americans are voting in this year’s elections. Many more states and cities are allowing voting by mail, and the need to find in-person polling stations that can support social distancing combined with a reduction in the number of people available to staff the polls has led several large cities to consolidate multiple polling stations into a handful of large consolidated locations, or in some cases just one.

One of those cities is Atlanta, where the Atlanta Hawks basketball team and Fulton County have partnered to turn the Hawks’ State Farm Arena into Georgia’s largest-ever voting precinct for this year’s primary and general elections. The county and the team will have the facility ready for early voting in Georgia’s Aug. 11 primary runoff election when that begins on July 20.

And when that happens, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) will be ready to carry voters to the polls.

An agency news release states that MARTA will have its MBS / State Farm Arena / Georgia World Congress Center / CNN Center rapid transit station open and ready to serve riders in time for the July 20 start of early voting.

Both the arena and the station closed in early March when concerts and other events at the arena were canceled because of COVID-19 restrictions. MARTA used the closure to make needed repairs, install upgrades to station equipment and deep-clean the entire station.

MARTA joined the Hawks and Fulton County in announcing the creation of the super-precinct at a June 29 news conference. The facility will allow in-person voting to proceed in a manner that complies with CDC social-distancing guidelines.

“MARTA is proud to support the right to vote and in fact, exists because of that right,” MARTA General Manager and CEO Jeffrey Parker said in the release. “Voters in Fulton and DeKalb Counties and the city of Atlanta decided in 1971 they wanted public transit, and Clayton County followed in 2014. As more jurisdictions consider joining MARTA, the right to vote and direct access to voting is paramount. With the unprecedented challenges we’ve all faced this year, we don’t want voter access to be one of them.”

The Hawks will also allow voters to park for free at the arena parking lots during the voting period. (Now if MARTA would offer free fares to voters….) The facility will also be in place for the November general election.

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

Sandy Smith

Trenton’s Urban Gardens Foster Food Sovereignty and Civic Engagement

1 week ago

Community gardeners pick up plants, seeds, fertilizer, and books at Isles garden distributions. (Photo courtesy Isles)

Fifty pounds of lettuce, greens and radishes — that’s the donation that Trenton-based Isles, Inc. made to a local food bank in early June. Like other nonprofits around the country, Isles is helping fill a crucial gap for families who can’t afford groceries during the coronavirus-induced economic crisis.

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But Isles’ team members didn’t just donate that food. They grew the produce themselves, in one of the organization’s two urban gardens. The donation is Isles’ first of the 2020 growing season, but not the last.

And to supplement the food it’s giving away, Isles is working harder than ever to train Trenton residents to grow food themselves — a skill that some say is crucial both to surviving the pandemic and fighting for social justice.

Founded in 1981, Isles works to foster community resilience and sustainability through job training, family support services, financial advising and a host of environmental programming.

According to Jim Simon, deputy director of community planning and development at Isles, urban agriculture is one of the nonprofit’s most effective tools for promoting healthy living and civic engagement among the residents it serves.

“If you can get people on a block to get along and reach for common goals through growing food or making your block look more beautiful, they can translate those skills to, ‘Alright, I want to show up at a city council meeting and talk about crime on my block or lack of streetlights or other infrastructure issues,’” Simon says.

Food security has long been an urgent problem in Trenton, even before the pandemic. Though over 85,000 people live in the city, there are few full-service grocery stores with a variety of healthy food, according to Simon. And since more than 27 percent of Trenton’s residents live in poverty, many people struggle to afford fresh, nutritious produce.

“You’ve probably heard the term ‘food desert,’” Simon says. “We use the term ‘food swamp.’ You can get healthy food, but it takes some work to find it and get to it.”

As part of its Isles Garden Support Network, Isles provides plants, seeds and technical support to over 70 community gardens throughout Trenton. Twenty of those gardens belong to schools.

Isles also conducts regular food-asset mapping, to track corner stores, farmers markets and more throughout the city; runs a training garden to teach new growers the basics of at-home gardening; and hosts a free three-week summer camp, called Camp Carrot, to foster a love for agriculture and nature in the city’s youth.

But the pandemic has only worsened food access issues in Trenton. As of May 30, approximately 1.1 million New Jersey residents have filed for unemployment as a result of the coronavirus crisis. To help out-of-work neighbors put food on the table, Simon says Isles is ramping up and rapidly modifying its urban agriculture programming.

“If families can save money on their household budget by being able to grow at least a little bit of the food themselves, that makes a big, big difference,” Simon says. “Especially if you’re trying to make a car payment or pay rent or pay for childcare.”

Donating fresh produce is just the start. Since the onset of the pandemic, Isles has distributed over 100 pounds of seeds, 1,000 pounds of fertilizer and thousands of seedlings to its garden network members. In particular, Isles is working to support its school gardens, since Trenton’s out-of-session public schools are serving as hubs for food distribution and other community resources throughout the pandemic.

“We identified the largest school gardens that we support and gained access to those through connections to plant those out,” Simon says. “So even if kids couldn’t come back to school, we could use those as gleaning gardens for families who are coming to pick up food, to incorporate fresh food into the distribution.”

To help amateur gardeners learn to grow food in their own backyards, Isles has shifted its workshops, usually offered out of its training garden, to gardening webinars. Isles staff is also coordinating Google groups to connect passionate home gardeners, allowing them to share resources and tips, and working with local teachers to incorporate gardening lessons in their online curriculum.

“It’s been tough because normally we do the workshops in-person, and they’re real hands-on and experiential,” Simon says. “But we’re looking at this as an opportunity to make these resources available to everyone.”

According to Simon, it’s crucial that Trenton residents learn to grow food themselves. That way, people won’t need to rely on outside resources for food access, which are scarce to begin with and are only becoming less dependable as supply chains fracture and demand and prices skyrocket.

“There’s the big focus on emergency food, which is critical,” Simon says. “But it’s important to look beyond that and really promote food resiliency. We want to get people caring about it and give them the tools to grow food, bring people together and make communities beautiful.”

Recent protests over police brutality and racial injustice — which took place in Trenton in early June — can also be seen as an opportunity for food sovereignty. Black communities suffer more from food insecurity than white communities. And Trenton, with a population that’s 48.6 percent Black, is no exception.

Gardening is seen by some as a means of returning power to disenfranchised communities, by making people less dependent on food systems that fail to meet their needs. And as activists call for local governments to direct funding from police departments to social programming, they often cite urban gardens as one of those programs that will strengthen communities.

Yolanda Wimbley, 50, lives in West Trenton and in her free time, grows produce in a community garden on a once-vacant lot on Bellevue Avenue. She got involved with Isles last year, when she decided to attend the nonprofit’s gardening workshops. After Wimbley completed her training, Isles suggested she join a garden in the Isles Garden Support Network in order to apply what she learned and connect with her neighbors.

“A guy in the garden taught me the other day that when I planted my zucchini and squash, I should have planted them closer together. It would’ve worked better,” Wimbley says. “That’s what you learn at a community garden. Other people teach you things, and then maybe someone will come along who you can teach something to.”

Wimbley says her favorite part of gardening is the satisfaction of watching her plants grow. Showing off the finished products to her friends, neighbors and seven-year-old son makes her feel proud, and brings her a sense of joy that is much needed during the stress of the pandemic.

According to Simon, older adults are some of Isles’s most active gardeners. But the nonprofit is hoping to reach more young people with its urban agriculture programming, to provide that generation — which is leading social movements like Black Lives Matter — with the tools they need to be effective agents of change.

“The opportunity to work with young adults in their 20s or 30s and to help them really be advocates for healthy food and helping instill that sense of stewardship, that’s a huge opportunity,” Simon says. “It’s a way to show people that they can build a garden or plant some flowers or transform a vacant lot, with little more than sweat equity. It gives them a sense of control and accomplishment.”

This story was produced in collaboration with CivicStory and the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting project.

Brianna Baker

Why Advocates Say Food Stamps Should Work on Cooked Food

1 week ago

(Photo by jennifer yin / CC BY-NC 2.0)

Years ago, Esperanza Fonseca was experiencing homelessness in Ventura County, California. “I went to the food counter at Ralph’s and tried to order a somewhat healthy meal with my [food stamps], but the lady at the counter told me that I could buy raw fish but I couldn’t buy cooked fish because it’s against the law,” she says. “If people can buy raw food, why not cooked food, especially if they’re homeless because of the same economic circumstances that caused them to not have enough food?”

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For those experiencing food instability, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the nation’s far reaching anti-hunger program commonly known as food stamps, can be a lifesaver. In 2019 alone, 38 million people — 12 percent of the U.S. population — participated in SNAP. The program gives recipients a monthly stipend to subsidize the cost of food at qualifying grocery stores (and some stores’ websites), farmers markets, and the like. However, there’s one major problem: it can only be used on uncooked food.

Fonseca is now focused on labor organizing, but for a time she became an advocate for getting California to participate in the Restaurant Meals Program. Also a USDA program, the Restaurant Meals Program allows the 43 percent of SNAP households that include elderly or disabled members as well as those experiencing homelessness to use their benefits at participating restaurants. Advocates say the program is a no-brainer because it allows those without a place to cook to get the food that SNAP entitles them to, restaurants have access to an expended customer base (especially now in the wake of COVID-19 closures), and it’s simply the ethical thing to do. “It’s simply about dignity,” Fonseca says. “We should understand that, when someone is at the lowest point in their lives, living on the street with nowhere to cook food, allowing them to use the money in their pocket to buy a hot meal affirms the dignity of their life. When you can’t even buy a hot meal, it really tears down your self-worth and dignity.”

While the restaurant provision has been part of SNAP since the ‘70s, it has been deeply underused until recently. “States don’t have to request a waiver or anything like that to get the program,” says Jessica Bartholow, now a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, of the low federal barriers to implementation. On why more states haven’t started a Restaurant Meals Program, Fonseca says that “it’s based on this paternalistic attitude that poor people don’t know how to make decisions for themselves.” It’s ignorance around both the program’s existence as well as biased, stigma-laced attitudes towards welfare recipients that’s slowed uptake of the program to a near halt over much of its existence.

California’s participation began in the early 2000s when Bartholow and others began advocating for the program in their state. She was working with seniors in need in a West Oakland food desert at the time, most of whom had no place to eat except soup kitchens. “I kept asking them about the food stamp program. I’ll never forget this one senior,” she says. “He just sat in his car deciding between selling his food stamp benefits to get money to use at a restaurant or going hungry,” she recalls. He went hungry and Bartholow became a restaurant meals program advocate. In 2003, the Restaurant Meals Program began in California when San Francisco piloted the program in 2003.

But prior to a bill passing late last year to expand the restaurant meals program to all of California, just 10 counties in the Golden State participated. For years Arizona was the only other state running a state-wide program, with Rhode Island and Florida running pilot programs to test the idea in their states. Illinois recently passed a bill to join the program this year, as has Maryland, which hopes to have the program up and running this summer.

“For Maryland to implement the Restaurant Meals Program, there are some backend things to do to identify applicants who are allowed to purchase a meal. You have to be a senior, disabled, or homeless, and that has to be coded into people’s EBT cards,” explains Michael Wilson, the director of Maryland Hunger Solutions,. While recipients can use their benefits to purchase whatever they’d like at a participating restaurant, restaurants do have to sign up and offer low-cost options for SNAP recipients in order to participate.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has inspired a renewed interest in the program. “SNAP enrollment has gone up more than 400 percent between March and April” in Maryland, Wilson says. “I think what we’ll find is, because of the pandemic, there are a lot of restaurants that are scraping for business and they’re going to say maybe we can participate.”

The fact that restaurants have to sign up to participate in the program seems like a potential drawback to some, whether that idea is anchored in the notion that restaurants won’t want to participate, or that only unhealthy chains will participate. However, those closest to the program disagree.

“Would restaurants rather have someone outside panhandling or inside having a meal?” Bartholow asks. “Homeless people deserve to have a meal and be treated like everyone else and be out of the sun and the rain and restaurants are raising their hands [to participate in the restaurant meals program],” she says. Thinking back to the campaign to bring the program to California, she says: . “At a time in our country when so many restaurants and retail establishments were telling people they weren’t welcome, we had partners saying, ‘No, we welcome you. Let’s make sure the resources you have can be spent here.’”

Wilson has seen much of the same in Baltimore. The Land of Kush, a group of local vegan soul food restaurants, has already told Maryland Hunger Solutions that they’d love to participate. “They’re the example we want to use. They’re hyper-local, not a chain, and they clearly have healthy options for people and want to be connected to people,” he says.

While there are still variables to be solved, such as what does and doesn’t strictly qualify as a restaurant — can someone buy a rotisserie chicken at a grocery store, for example? — much of that is for the USDA, who vets restaurants, to decide. As far as Wilson is concerned, his job is to ensure that there are as many options as possible for SNAP recipients.

“From our perspective, more options are better. If you can expand how someone can use their benefits, they can make their own choices,” he says. “Why should a suburban mom who doesn’t have time to cook be able to buy a rotisserie chicken when a mom on SNAP benefits who has the same stresses in terms of childcare and work and home not have those same options?”

Cinnamon Janzer

Five Ways Local Governments Can Spur Development of Affordable Housing

1 week 1 day ago

(Photo by F. Muhammad / Pixabay)

As the economic consequences of the COVID-19 crisis play out in cities across the country, finding affordable housing is becoming even more exacerbated.

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A recent study by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) found that nearly 20.8 million renter households in the U.S. — or 47.5 percent of renters — are “cost-burdened,” meaning that they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that the United States has a shortage of about 7 million rental homes for people earning extremely low incomes. Another JCHS report discusses the tight supply of single-family homes for purchase, especially low-cost homes.

Real estate development, however, can be a complex process that takes time — sometimes too much time. “Many of our housing stakeholders don’t appreciate that in the real estate world, it can take a while to break ground and eventually bring units online,” said Frederick White, a former FUSE executive fellow who now serves as lead housing finance advisor for the city of Los Angeles. Most real estate projects take a minimum of two years to complete, and for multiple reasons affordable housing often takes longer.

Several FUSE fellows have taken on the task of helping cities find creative ways to finance affordable housing. They aim not only to boost the number of units available, but also to make the housing development process more efficient. Here are their five recommendations for creative ways to finance affordable housing.

1. Establish a housing finance agency

A housing finance agency (HFA) is a government entity designed to promote affordable housing by issuing tax-exempt bonds and using the proceeds from the sales to offer low-cost mortgages to affordable housing developers and single-family homeowners. Forty-nine states have state-level HFAs, and many communities, ranging in size from New York City to individual parishes in Louisiana, have established their own local housing finance agencies, said David Spirakis, a FUSE executive fellow who specializes in municipal finance. Spirakis is currently exploring the process of establishing a local HFA in Los Angeles.

“The interesting thing about housing finance agencies is that unlike most government enterprises they ultimately become self-sustaining,” said Spirakis. An HFA in L.A., for example, would require a one-time injection of startup capital from the city, but going forward it would earn fees from the mortgages it generates. “Over time, as it generates more mortgages, it earns more fees, just like a regular mortgage business does. It covers its own expenses and starts to actually make a profit, which is channeled back into housing subsidies within the community it serves,” he said.

As an alternative to a local HFA, Spirakis said, a housing finance agency can be formed as a joint powers authority (JPA), in which two or more government entities join forces to issue tax-exempt debt for mortgage originations. This format can be helpful to a small community that needs affordable housing but doesn’t have enough projects to sustain an HFA on its own. “A JPA is a way for smaller government entities to come together to try to increase the amount of affordable housing development within their respective communities through a single financing entity with potentially multiple local beneficiaries,” Spirakis said.

HFAs are especially useful because they can tailor funds to a community’s needs and overarching policy objectives. “The municipality is able to drive its own agenda,” he said. “If done right, it’s ultimately a profit-making enterprise, and all of that money stays within that locality, where it can be applied to future affordable housing projects, rather than being disseminated throughout the state or beyond state borders. The fees and taxes generated by additional construction activity also benefit the community where it occurs.”

2. Look for city funding

Affordable housing developers typically use federal and state financing tools, such as low-income housing tax credits (LIHTC) and bonds, as a means to fund projects. But this type of financing often comes with a lot of rules and regulations that can slow down the progress of projects, said White, who as a FUSE fellow explored innovative financing options for affordable housing in L.A. “Costs and the timing become an issue,” White said.

As a FUSE fellow, White held a series of innovation labs that brought together housing experts from various city departments to brainstorm affordable housing solutions, particularly for moderate-income residents in Los Angeles. One recommendation was to consider the use of funds from the city council adopted Linkage Fee to develop affordable housing for moderate-income households. The Linkage Fee is a locally generated funding source for housing, so the city can establish its own rules and regulations for the funding source. In his current job, White is working for L.A. and is responsible for the implementation of a $120 million housing challenge, the funding for which came from another local source, $1.2 billion General Obligation Bond issuance supported by L.A. voters in 2016 to tackle issues around housing and homelessness.

3. Seek public-private partnerships

Increasingly, companies are interested in socially responsible investment opportunities, said White. In particular, several tech giants have announced initiatives to promote affordable housing, especially in California and Washington, partially in response to criticism that well-paid tech industry employees have driven up housing costs in these markets. Apple, for example, has pledged $2.5 billion to help address the housing crisis in California, and Google has pledged to invest $1 billion to help with housing challenges in the Bay Area. The tech giants are still determining the details of how they intend to distribute those dollars, White noted, but some are creating below-market-rate loan programs for developers, and others are creating lines of credit available through the state.

White sees public-private partnerships as a good solution to support moderate-income workers, such as teachers, police officers, and nurses, who are struggling to afford homes in high-cost markets. He also has additional ideas for ways that cities such as L.A. could use private funding. “We have thousands of units that are going to lose their affordability designation,” White said. Most LIHTC deals come with covenants that require the property to retain its affordable status for 15 and 30 years. When the affordable housing designation expires, properties can be snapped up by buyers looking to push the project to much higher market rental rates. White would like cities to work with real estate private equity fund operators, employers, and other institutional investors who have access to billions in capital to purchase these vulnerable projects and maintain their affordability.

“Cities should continue to target the private sector, because the private sector actually wants to help,” White said. “There’s still plenty of capital out there, and that capital is looking for socially responsible investment opportunities.”

4. Start an accelerator fund focused on affordable housing

Developers who want to build affordable housing in high-cost cities often need external financing to cover the costs of acquisition and construction, usually through low-income housing tax credits, housing bonds, or direct subsidies. But mission-driven developers must complete a lengthy engagement process to secure these funds, according to Rebecca Foster, a former FUSE executive fellow who worked with San Francisco to help address the affordable housing crisis. The process of creating affordable housing, from acquiring a site for construction to handing keys to owners, can take up to seven years, Foster said. A housing accelerator can speed up this process.

The San Francisco Housing Accelerator Fund (SFHAF), a public-private partnership first incubated in the Mayor’s Office, became an independent nonprofit in 2017 thanks to a $10 million loan from the city, and Foster was named executive director. SFHAF is the bridge lender that helps affordable housing developers close more quickly so they can compete against other buyers. Once the developer purchases the property and completes preliminary construction, the city takes over the long-term financing and pays back SFHAF, which uses the funds for its next project. Since it was established, SFHAF has committed more than $130 million in capital for affordable housing projects in the city.

5. Use tech for easier information-sharing

In many cities, affordable housing projects span numerous departments and agencies, which often operate in silos. As a result, it can be difficult for cities to make quick, informed decisions about affordable housing and for developers to access up-to-date information on their projects, resulting in significant delays in moving a housing project through the development pipeline.

Former FUSE executive fellow Sean Doss worked with the Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department (HCID), which serves in part as a lending arm of the city, offering funding opportunities for affordable housing developers. Tasked with uncovering potential ways to streamline operations, he recommends that cities implement an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, which would allow the city to manage information about the stock of existing affordable housing units and each phase of new projects. For example, such software could create “deal teams” made up of people inside and outside the city, including loan officers, underwriters, asset managers, attorneys, and more, all engaged in a given affordable housing project. Members of the team would have specific tasks and deadlines that could be easily tracked, and the entire team would receive an automatic email each time a project moved forward. The software could streamline a range of decisions, including which types of new buildings are needed most, Doss added.

“There’s a lot of funding resources, and a lot of great policy ideas out there,” Doss said. “Streamlining operations will allow cities to catch up with all those innovative ideas.”

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

Erin O’Donnell

‘The Voucher Promise’ in Baltimore

1 week 1 day ago

Census tracts in Baltimore, colored by the number of households receiving Housing Choice Vouchers in 2018; the darker the purple, the more families are using vouchers. Park Heights, the neighborhood Rosen writes about in her book, is in the upper left of the image. (Map via Policymap.com)

The Housing Choice Voucher Program, formerly known as Section 8, is a program that allows low-income renters to receive vouchers from their local housing authorities that they can use to rent apartments on the private market. It typically pays the difference between what the tenant can afford — 30 percent of their monthly income — and what the landlord charges for the apartment. Aside from public housing, the program is the most important housing assistance that the federal government provides. But it’s not big enough for the demand. Advocates estimate that there are only enough vouchers for a quarter of the people who qualify for them, and voucher waiting lists in most big cities are many thousands of applicants long. Additionally, some voucher holders have trouble finding landlords who will accept them, or apartments that cost close enough to area median rents to qualify for the program.

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In 2011, Eva Rosen, now an assistant professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, moved to the neighborhood of Park Heights, in Baltimore, to research uses of the Housing Choice Voucher Program. The neighborhood is 95 percent African-American, with a lot of low-cost rental housing and a solid base of older homeowners who moved in on the heels of blockbusting and white flight in the 1960s and 1970s, Rosen says. Lately, Park Heights has also become home to many voucher holders — low-income residents who use vouchers from the local housing authority to pay for apartments on the private market. In her new book, The Voucher Promise: “Section 8” and the Fate of an American Neighborhood, Rosen demonstrates that the program provides important material benefits for tenants who receive vouchers, but that it is also constrained by existing inequalities in the housing market and “manipulated by landlords” to secure steady profits on apartments in high-poverty neighborhoods. Rosen describes her book as an “ethnography of a policy.”

Here, Rosen speaks with Next City about her research, the successes and shortcomings of the Housing Choice Voucher Program, and what can be done to improve it. The conversation has been edited.

You write that Section 8 or the Housing Choice Voucher program was created with the dual goal of helping low-income tenants find housing but also giving them mobility and choice about where to live. How successful has it been at those two goals and what obstacles still exist for choice and mobility?

Eva Rosen (Photo by Dustin Andres)

Officially, the goal of the voucher program is really the first thing, to provide people homes who can’t otherwise afford them. When we look at the research on that, it’s doing that really well. It’s helping people stay housed and stay off the street. It’s alleviating overcrowding. It also helps with really basic things, like when you can better afford your home, you spend more money on healthy food for your kids. The second goal is a little bit more of an informal goal, and I think we can think of it more as a hope that policymakers had come to hold. As we think about what vouchers can do that public housing can’t, vouchers offer people a choice about where to live, quite simply. That’s something that public housing never did. If you have a public-housing subsidy, you go where they put you. Public housing tended to be built in neighborhoods that were already pretty disadvantaged and pretty segregated and really didn’t have a lot of jobs and resources.

So vouchers have a couple of theoretical advantages. They allow people to choose where to live. They allow the government to rely on an existing private housing stock that they themselves don’t have to maintain. And they offer tremendous flexibility, and this is flexibility that middle class families take for granted — the idea that if you wanted to move your kid to a different school you could get up and move. If you were having a problem with your landlord you could get out of that lease and move somewhere else. But there’s a number of reasons why it just doesn’t quite happen like this on the ground.

The most simple reason is a supply problem. It’s no accident where affordable housing is located in this country, and you can only use a voucher in a home that’s somewhere around or below the median rent in a particular area. Those homes tend not to be located in super-affluent white neighborhoods or a neighborhood with high-performing schools. We are a country that is incredibly segregated by race and class and so where you can find a rental home is not random. And on top of that, people may not even know where these neighborhoods are. These are not spaces that they may have friends or family in, and they may not even know that they’re safer. There’s an information gap here when people are searching for homes. All groups tend to search for homes in the places they’re familiar with and where they have social networks. So if you want people to break out of that you need to help them learn about places. Then you have problems like transportation. These neighborhoods tend to be located in the suburbs and if you’re a poor person with a job in the city, that’s going to be a big burden if you don’t have a car.

One of the striking aspects of the research to me was the way it shows how the Housing Choice Voucher program is a safety net for landlords as much as it is for low-income tenants. Can you talk about those incentives and how that works?

If a landlord has a property in a more affluent neighborhood, they’re not going to be super interested in a voucher holder, because they’ve got plenty of alternative renters who they perceive to be less risky. They’ve got plenty of demand for their property. In a poor neighborhood or in a more high-crime neighborhood, that landlord is going to have a harder time finding a renter who can reliably pay the rent. We’re talking about people who are poor or who may have very volatile incomes. On top of which, the product in that neighborhood is less nice, it’s probably less well-cared-for, and the neighborhood may have more kinds of problems.

In those neighborhoods, landlords actually have incentives to recruit voucher holders. Unlike a typical market renter who may not be able to pay their rent in any given month, the majority of the voucher holder’s rent is going to be paid by the housing authority. It’s going to be paid really reliably and really dependably, no matter what that landlord does. So it’s very advantageous for landlords in those neighborhoods. And on top of that they sometimes can actually get a premium rate above what we would think of as market rate for that neighborhood. They can actually end up getting more from a voucher holder than they would from a market tenant.

So they’re using voucher-holding tenants to get more out of the property than they otherwise would. And they might have an incentive to buy properties in neighborhoods where the market doesn’t provide a reasonable rate of return but the voucher program does.

Right. And then it provides this incentive for landlords to actually go out and recruit vouchers. So voucher holders become this coveted resource. You see landlords standing outside the voucher office, flagging down voucher holders, trying to get them to come up. So then you have this situation where it’s not really tenants going out and choosing the home they want to live in, which is of course what the whole program is based on. It’s landlords reversing the whole direction of this thing, sort of putting the program on its head, and saying, “I’m going to go and find my voucher tenant and figure out how to convince them to come to this property.”

And there are some vulnerabilities. Voucher holders, while they have this great subsidy, they often can’t come up with a security deposit. How would it be possible for them to come up with that $1,200 for a security deposit? The voucher program often doesn’t help with security deposits. So if a landlord offers to waive the security deposit or reduce it, that’s something that a voucher holder is going to maybe be receptive to, because they may not be able to come up with that security deposit otherwise. So this is where it can become a little bit more predatory, and you can see that it’s no coincidence that voucher holders are ending up in this neighborhood. The landlords are targeting them and recruiting them.

I read in your book that in Baltimore, 94 percent of voucher holders are Black, and you describe a couple different ways that the voucher program and the landlords that use it reinforce racial segregation patterns in the housing market. Can you talk about how both racist discrimination on the part of landlords and existing housing patterns create different outcomes for white and Black voucher holders?

It has a lot do with the geography of housing that predates the voucher program. We have long been a country that has been segregated by race, and that has to do with all the different policies that I mention in the introduction of the book — redlining and blockbusting and predatory lending and all of these things, racial covenants, both official laws and informal practices throughout the history of our country. And then you take the voucher program that is based on these free-market principles and says, Oh look, we have this housing market, let’s just use that and let people navigate with their free will and their choice and this voucher, and it’ll all work out. It’s sort of a naive assumption, because things are already so segregated. Why would we expect that a program that operates under exactly the same rules that we’ve already operated under to change that? Why would we expect people to exercise this choice that historically they’ve never been able to exercise? There are these bigger forces.

The way that I see it play out in Baltimore is you’ve got these two processes. You’ve got exclusion going on in the wealthier neighborhoods and you’ve got targeted recruitment going on in the poorer neighborhoods. The way it works in the wealthier neighborhoods, some of the landlords are very overtly racist in a way that they’ll fully admit to. But a lot of them will say, “I’m not racist, I’m fine with an African-American, but my other tenants on this block where I own three other properties, they wouldn’t stand for this. They would be really uncomfortable if they saw a voucher tenant moving in or even if they saw a Black tenant moving in.” So they’ll often sort of pawn it off on their tenants and that’s where you can see, this is how the market is discriminating. Because if other tenants in this neighborhood or other homeowners in this neighborhood, if they are racist, then the landlord is going to sort of channel that racism and say, “Oh, well, I can’t disrupt the natural order of things, that would be bad for business.” So you see people clinging to these old patterns for the sake of their business.

One of the progressive policies that’s been making the rounds in cities for the past few years is the ban of source-of-income discrimination, which prevents landlords from barring tenants who have vouchers. But in your book, discrimination by individual landlords against Section 8 tenants is hardly the biggest problem. How important are those anti-discrimination laws?

I do think those laws are very important, but they have limitations. The research looking at where source-of-income discrimination laws are put into place shows that they do help. It’s not, maybe, as big as we might have hoped, but they do make a significant difference. The problem is that, again, if you think about a much wealthier neighborhood like Roland Park, there’s not a lot of rental housing there. So even if you say to landlords, “You have to accept a voucher tenant who qualifies,” there may not be very many homes that are going to be below that price ceiling that will qualify. On top of that, there’s ways to manipulate this that aren’t even that hard. If a landlord gets a voucher tenant who comes to the door and says “I’d like to rent your property,” you still have a situation where the landlord can say “OK sure, let me do a credit check.” And then if the credit check isn’t up to the standard that they’ve set, they can still turn that tenant away and they can say it’s because of the credit even though it actually may be because of the voucher. It’s hard on the ground to enforce this kind of law. But I do think it’s an important step.

A lot of researchers and advocates have called for the housing voucher program to be expanded and made available to anyone who qualifies. You write that even though vouchers help low-income people, it’s still a system that allows private landowners to profit off of low-income tenants. So I wonder if you could just say whether you think the program should be expanded, replaced, or changed in certain ways to make it work better? What’s your vision of how this should work?

It’s a program that has flaws but it has a lot of potential. I do advocate for expanding it, with some important changes. I think we really can’t underestimate what it does really well, which is provide people with stable homes to keep them off the streets, even if they’re not living in the most resourced neighborhoods. I think it does a lot. Housing is such an essential thing for people who are trying to keep a job and keep their kids in school and all of that.

The people who had vouchers who I spoke to, they were so grateful for this subsidy and so grateful for the flexibility it offered them, and they really, interestingly enough, many of them felt they had a choice. Even if we can look at it from a bird’s-eye view and say, Oh, here’s all the ways in which your choices are constrained, they really felt that they had choices. And I think that that is a huge improvement over public housing in that way.

I think the number-one solution is actually to make it bigger to help everyone who needs that help. And I think that could also help with some of the stigma that is associated with the program. If more people had it and landlords were more familiar with it that actually might really help. We need to have a federal source-of-income protection law. Because it should not be legal to discriminate against voucher holders. It should be like race or gender or religious background. But if we’re going to do that we need to do something else, called small area fair market rent. The simplest way to describe it is just that if you set the rent ceiling at a more local level, like for example the zip code level or even lower, then what you do is you calibrate rent so that in a more wealthy neighborhood people have more money so that they can actually compete for market rents in that neighborhood, and in poorer neighborhoods you’re then not overpaying landlords for a product that is overpriced relative to that local market.

And then there’s other simple things like there should be more counseling and more information available to voucher holders when they’re going through the rental process. There should be security deposit assistance so that you’re not expecting a family that can’t pay $1,200 in rent to then come up with $1,200 in a security deposit. When you don’t provide that security-deposit assistance you make tenants more vulnerable to those machinations the landlord is going to use to recruit them to properties where it’s most advantageous to the landlord and not necessarily to the tenant.

And the flip side of that, that you mention toward the end, is the idea of investing in these neighborhoods where vouchers are clustered now, with housing and amenities and things like that.

We can’t expect vouchers to solve everything. And we should be critical of the idea that the solution to racial and class inequality and segregation is simply to move poor people out of poor neighborhoods, specifically poor people of color. Why should it be all on them to make these moves? And not only that, but then we’re leaving behind neighborhoods that presumably have some amount of people in them that need help. These are neighborhoods that are probably in most cases victims of a lot of predatory housing practices over the years. These are neighborhoods that we owe something to. Thinking about vouchers as a solution to segregation, they’re not enough. They are a tool in that fight, but they need to come with place-based investments as well. And we also need to recognize that the thing that vouchers do best is really simply to house people. So let’s use them for that, but let’s put in some measures so that we’re not just reproducing the same patterns we see in the housing market.

Jared Brey

Twin Cities Land Bank Using Its Balance Sheet to Protect Vulnerable Communities

1 week 1 day ago

 Indigenous Roots Co-Founders/Co-Directors Sergio and Mary Anne Quiroz. (Photo by Ryan Stopera; courtesy Indigenous Roots)

Mary Anne Quiroz needed half a million dollars, and fast, or the cultural arts center she and her husband had recently moved into its first permanent space might have been lost to a higher-paying tenant after their landlord put the building up for sale.

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“I went to different state and city officials,” says Quiroz. “A lot of folks didn’t know how or have the resources. I just kept telling our story.”

The Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood, on the east side of St. Paul, is a hub for immigrant and indigenous communities. So it was very intentional for Indigenous Roots, the nonprofit arts organization Quiroz co-founded and runs with her husband, Sergio Cenoch, to locate its cultural arts center there.

Under normal conditions, on any given night the Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center could be rented out for a Hmong ethnic dance class, a Taino Afro Boricua arts and philosophy class, a hip-hop dance class, or a performance by a group like Kalpulli Yaocenoxtli — a Mexica Nahua community dance group and drum circle that Cenoch founded. The cultural arts center opened in May 2017. It was less than a year later the landlord decided to sell the property, whose other tenants include a quinceañera store and a travel services provider.

As a grassroots arts organization, Indigenous Roots has never had deep pockets. The landlord put the building on the market for $500,000. A local property management and real estate investment group stopped by one day to inform Quiroz of their intentions to acquire the property in an all-cash deal along with several other properties in the neighborhood.

Somehow, word had gotten around to Land Bank Twin Cities. With its significantly larger balance sheet, the land bank obtained a conventional loan from a local bank and acquired the building at the landlord’s asking price — outbidding any all-cash offers. Simultaneously, the land bank entered into a purchase agreement with Indigenous Roots, giving the nonprofit up to three years to come up with $500,000 to acquire the building from the land bank.

Given current low interest rates, Quiroz is already preparing to complete the acquisition later this year, combining donations with retained earnings from renting the space and a smaller loan. And with a looming commercial real estate market crash, she hopes other community-based organizations will soon have a chance to follow in their footsteps.

“We would not have qualified for a traditional loan for half a million dollars to buy this building, so it was a really important step for us to trust the process,” says Quiroz. “This is much more than buying a building, this is anchoring ourselves in the community and if there are others who want to own their commercial property, basically we’re the guinea pig, we’re gaining the experience and are now able to share it.”

Between shutdowns, re-openings and re-shutting down shutdowns around coronavirus, coupled with the unrest surrounding the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others at hands of police officers, it remains unclear what the full extent of the damage will be for commercial real estate markets across the country.

According to data compiled by the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts, retail rents have been hit the hardest by far. Retail is second only to hotels in commercial real estate loan defaults forecasted, according to Trepp, a commercial real estate data monitoring service for investors. In Mid-May, ProPublica reported on a whistleblower who had come forth with evidence that the commercial mortgage-backed securities market had become plagued with inflated revenue claims, analogous to the inflated residential values that helped spark the last financial crisis and the Great Recession.

At least some investors are already lining up to pounce. The Real Deal reported that coronavirus distress is the “opportunity of the century” for real estate investors, with one data source showing private real estate funds standing by with $142 billion in cash ready to snap up distressed properties.

It’s happened before, and not that long ago. In the aftermath of the 2008-2009 financial crisis, many neighborhoods across the country suddenly had a glut of foreclosed homes that largely ended up vacant and distressed. Many landed in the hands of private equity funds, which acquired hundreds, even thousands of distressed single-family homes at a time and converted them into market-rate rentals, often pricing out the homes’ original owners in the process.

Land banks worked with federal programs and private partnerships like the National Community Stabilization Trust to acquire some of those vacant and distressed properties at a discount, making it easier to get them into the hands of first-time homeowners. Established in 2009, Land Bank Twin Cities was part of those efforts, and has moved more than a thousand vacant and distressed homes back into the hands of homeowners so far.

But the Twin Cities housing market recovered relatively quickly compared to other parts of the country, says Sandra Oakes, executive director of Land Bank Twin Cities. So early on in its life, the land bank needed to make a decision about whether its mission was achieved and it was time to fold or if there was more it could do as a land bank to continue strengthening communities that were still reeling from the broader effects of the Great Recession.

After some soul searching and strategic planning, Land Bank Twin Cities decided it was time to go bigger — to look at acquiring larger sites, or in some cases assembling adjacent sites, and partnering with friendly developers to build or preserve affordable housing and commercial commercial spaces.

“You could have a greater impact in terms of housing units,” Oakes says. “And as part of that planning we always thought commercial real estate would be an opportunity, but it’s harder to figure out financing for it.”

By no means is it easy to finance rental housing for low- and moderate-income households, but there are tools and subsidies available, and the land bank was designed in large part to make up for the specific shortcomings of those tools.

For example, Federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits are one of the most common layers in the affordable housing development capital stack, but they are usually only awarded once a year, administered at the state level. It’s typical for projects to apply two or three times before receiving any credits. The land bank can and frequently does acquire sites on behalf of a developer and hold them for up to three years while the developer is applying for tax credits and assembling other financing.

That’s essentially the same deal Land Bank Twin Cities uses for commercial properties, like the Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center. But there are fewer tools and funding to subsidize commercial properties compared with housing.

For residential properties, Land Bank Twin Cities uses a community bank line of credit to help fund acquisitions, and there are more state and local subsidies for acquisition and construction or rehab of housing. There’s also Section 8 and other federal rental subsidies for housing that have no equivalent on the commercial side for small businesses or community-based organizations.

For commercial properties, there are tools like Federal New Markets Tax Credits, but those can also be an arduous matchmaking game that can take time and cost a lot in consulting fees. Indigenous Roots didn’t have time or deep pockets to work through that.

“The commercial real estate landscape is really plagued by cash heavy land speculators and private equity, private developers, who have the ability and money to out-compete nonprofit developers,” says Eddie Langenberger, vice president at Land Bank Twin Cities, who is also a licensed real estate broker.

But, with a constant flow of deals in its pipeline, Land Bank Twin Cities has properties worth around $18 million in its portfolio. It’s all properties held for future sale, some of it already earmarked to specific affordable housing developers, some available for purchase. It’s not cash, but it is a balance sheet, and the land bank can take a balance sheet into a bank, like a conventional private developer, and use it to gain access to additional financing. That’s how the land bank got a $375,000 commercial real estate loan, which it combined with $125,000 in cash, to acquire the Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center’s building at the previous owner’s asking price.

As part of the purchase agreement, Indigenous Roots essentially acts as the property owner, collecting rent from the property’s other tenants and handling maintenance issues. Land Bank Twin Cities is there to provide templates for leasing and maintenance provider contracts and other advice as needed.

“It’s opened a lot of doors,” says Quiroz. “Historically power and wealth came in the form of land and property, historically that’s how it’s been here in America, and property was once in the form of human beings. Because we’re now property owners, get invited to discussions about city development and cultural corridors. ”

Land Bank Twin Cities says it has done $40 million in commercial real estate deals so far using its balance sheet to access conventional bank loans. Some of that $40 million includes deals to build or preserve apartment buildings as affordable housing, but it also includes deals to acquire properties for resale to community and cultural organizations who were previously renting their spaces. Langenberger estimates that community and cultural spaces are now about 20 percent of the land bank’s activity.

Oakes would like Land Bank Twin Cities to do more commercial real estate, especially now, knowing that profit-hungry investors are standing ready to take advantage of the chaos coming out of the pandemic and the uprisings. The next few months will be critical, as the recovery does or doesn’t take shape and as property insurance claims play out after the unrest.

But there’s still only so much in bank loans the land bank can take out, based on how big its balance sheet is at any given moment. Oakes says, “Historically, it hasn’t been easy to raise non-bank capital, but we are using a capacity campaign to raise capital from other sources, mostly foundations, to grow the pot of money the land bank can use to acquire commercial properties with or without additional debt.”

“I’d say a lot of funders like to fund the end product, they want to stand with the shovel at the end,” Oakes says. “I spend a lot of time working to convince funders that but for us, that land where there’s a new development you just funded would not exist, it would have been too expensive for the developer. If you can get in front of funders with a story, it helps, but sometimes it feels like I’m beating my head against the wall.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve updated this story both to clarify Land Bank Twin Cities’ line of credit for residential properties, and to clarify the land bank’s current capacity campaign.

Oscar Perry Abello

City Compost Programs Turn Garbage Into ‘Black Gold’ That Boosts Food Security and Social Justice

1 week 2 days ago

(Photo by Pfctdayelise/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Almost overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed many Americans’ relationships with food. To relieve some of the stress associated with shopping safely for groceries and ensure food security, many people are once again planting “victory gardens.” This tradition hearkens back to previous generations who cultivated home gardens during both World Wars.

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Interest was high even before the pandemic. In 2014 the National Gardening Association reported that 42 million U.S. households – about 1 out of every 3 – grew some kind of food, either at home or in community gardens.

But home gardening isn’t always easy. Poor soil quality will hamper vegetable growth and food production. And many gardeners, especially in lower-income communities, don’t have access to resources that can improve the soil.

We are scholars who have analyzed the power of microbes in settings that include forest soils and permafrost, the built environment, and digestive systems and agricultural soils. In our view, the time has come for major public investments in a well-known gardening resource: compost.

Microbes make compost by breaking down organic matter, such as food scraps. Compost improves soil health so dramatically it’s often called “black gold.” Large-scale municipal composting is a public resource that can reduce food waste, cut greenhouse gas emissions and promote better stewardship of our most valuable natural resource: soil.

How compost feeds soils

Healthy soils are living mixtures of minerals, microbes, organic matter, water and air. Unhealthy soils may contain fewer microbes or less organic material. This makes them less active and less helpful for plants. Poor soils have trouble holding water, and are unable to decompose organic material into usable building blocks for new growth.

Making degraded soils healthier requires feeding the microbes. They need new organic matter – plant or animal tissues – that they can break down and recycle.

In healthy soil, some of that food comes from growing plants that fix carbon from sunlight and pump almost half of it, in the form of sugars, into the soil. In exchange, the microbes provide other nutrients that plants can’t acquire on their own.

Soil microbes also feed on old organic matter, like leaf litter and dead roots. And new biochemical analyses suggest that when these microbes die, they become part of soil organic matter themselves.

To make good compost, you mix green plant waste, like vegetable peels, garden leaf litter or straw, with brown organic matter like soil or manure. Then, over weeks to months, microbes turn the mix into compost, which looks just like soil.

This process produces heat as the microbes break chemical bonds in the plant matter, releasing energy. Compost piles can reach internal temperatures up to 170 degrees F. The heat kills potential microbial pathogens that can ride along with manure inputs.

When gardeners add compost to soils, the organic matter in the compost acts like a sponge for water. It also is a reservoir for nitrogen, phosphorus and other micronutrients that plants need to grow.

Access to compost is an equity issue

If compost is such a great resource, why don’t more people make their own? In many ways, healthy soil is a luxury. For starters, it takes time to set up a compost pile, followed by continued maintenance – adding browns and greens at the right intervals, watering the pile and turning it over weekly in summer or monthly in winter.

Composting also takes tools and construction materials that not all aspiring gardeners can afford. It requires access to space, and a friendly regulatory environment that allows residents to create compost piles, which can produce odors and attract pests if they are not managed properly.

Factors like these are increasing interest in municipal composting programs, in which a community collects and processes residents’ organic materials. These programs typically accept food and yard waste from restaurants, schools, businesses and local residents, and create a large-scale, professionally run composting facility.

Municipal composting saves money for communities by diverting food waste from landfills. It also promotes sustainability by reducing emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas produced in landfills when waste breaks down in the absence of oxygen. And combining lots of different waste sources improves the breakdown of organic materials and generates more nutritious compost.

Many municipal programs allot participants a certain volume of compost in return for the waste they provide. And some offer pickup and delivery.

How Tacoma, Washington’s municipal composting program works.

Growing compost programs

We encourage people with the necessary time and resources to try home composting. However, creating and supporting municipal composting is necessary to meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food waste and increase access to healthy soil.

Composting programs are sometimes available through local community gardens or farms. Many private companies operate local compost pickup services.

Among U.S. cities, leaders in promoting city-scale composting services include San Francisco, Seattle, and smaller cities like Burlington, Vermont. These programs rely on local ordinances that either offer incentives or require restaurants and other large food waste sources to compost food waste instead of sending it to landfills.

Municipal composting needs consumer support to attract and retain funding and other resources. Demands for land, especially in urban settings, can spur city governments to sell underfunded or underutilized community spaces for commercial use – especially if local neighborhoods lack social capital to advocate for themselves.

Promoting community-based food production and recycling waste via composting provides many benefits. It creates jobs, expands access to healthy fruits and vegetables, improves the local environment – especially the soil – and helps mitigate climate change. Best of all, investing in local agriculture helps boost the local economy, especially for those who need it most: people seeking better access to safe and nutritious food.

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

Kristen DeAngelis

The Effort to Move Every Homeless New Yorker Into a Hotel

1 week 5 days ago

Despite New York City's efforts to move people experiencing homelessness off the streets and into shelters or hotels, many are still choosing the street. The Homeless Can't Stay Home campaign says the city needs to do more. (Credit: Rainmaker Photos/MediaPunch /IPX) 

In March, as COVID-19 swept through NYC, advocates worried that people facing homelessness would be especially vulnerable. The city’s crowded congregate shelters were becoming even more crowded, creating a dangerous situation in the dorm-style housing where it’s impossible to remain 6 feet apart. Photos surfaced in May showing people sleeping on the floor a few feet apart at one of the city’s intake shelters for homeless adults.

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In response, advocates from seven different non-profits working on issues related to homelessness created a campaign called “Homeless Can’t Stay Home”. The campaign is advocating for a bill that would offer unhoused New Yorkers single hotel rooms for the remainder of the pandemic. Until that demand is met, they’re taking it upon themselves to provide those rooms by raising money through a GoFundMe. But they are running low on funds, the advocates say, and the bill to open up thousands of the city’s free hotel rooms to single adults experiencing homelessness has never received a vote. A vote scheduled for May was cancelled over concerns from the city’s homeless services agency and some shelter providers..

Funding for the rooms would be provided by FEMA, which sent a letter to NYC agencies in March — but only publicly reported in May — offering to pay 75 percent of the cost to house the homeless population during the pandemic.

The Department of Social Services, which handles the city’s homeless services, says 13,000 homeless single adults are currently in commercial hotels. However, that number includes 3,500 people who were already in commercial hotels repurposed as shelters prior to the pandemic.

Homeless people in hotels rented by the city are doubled up with strangers and can be subjected to stricter requirements, including curfews and having to pass through metal detectors, according to Hellen Strom of the Safety Net Project. Homeless Can’t Stay Home’s hotels, by contrast, are single rooms with no such restrictions.

About 19,000 single adults are in the city’s shelter system according to the Coalition For The Homeless. (Single adults are of most concern for coronavirus spread because families experiencing homelessness face less crowded shelters than single adults, as each family is allotted a separate room. Single adult shelters use dorm-style housing with 8-12 people per room where it can be impossible to socially distance.) A federally mandated annual survey by the city estimates at least an additional 3,500 people are living on the street, but advocates have long criticized this number as a likely undercount. The total homeless population across the city, which includes those on the street and staying with friends, is unknown, although the Department of Housing and Urban Development has estimated the number to be around 78,000 as of 2019.

88 people have died in NYC shelters from COVID-19 as of June 22, the Department of Social Services says. According to a report by the Coalition For The Homeless, the rate of deaths from the COVID in the city’s shelter system was 61 percent higher than in the city at large. There have been 1,200 positive COVID-19 cases in the city’s shelters over three months across 200 shelters, although the city says 90 percent of people have recovered.

The Homeless Can’t Stay Home campaign launched in March. While its founding organizations, including Human.NYC, VOCAL NY and the Safety Net Project, a division of the Urban Justice Center, push for the city to take on a coordinated effort to move unsheltered people into hotel rooms, the campaign has also raised $128,000 through a GoFundMe, which has allowed them to house about 28 people in hotel rooms.. The campaign says it costs about $500 a week per person to book the hotel rooms, and they will be out of funds by the first week of July.

The campaign initially planned to book the hotel rooms until the city passed legislation and took over the duty themselves. Because that hasn’t happened, they are shifting focus to finding permanent housing for the 28 people currently in hotels. They have launched a new GoFundMe toward this goal.

But without any certainty about this funding, some hotel guests are anticipating they will be on the street soon.

“I made up my mind to take all my stuff, throw it in the garbage and be prepared to get back on the streets,” said Marcus Moore, who is homeless and a member of Picture The Homeless, an advocacy organization. Moore is staying in one of the rooms provided by the Homeless Can’t Stay Home’s GoFundMe. He says he was offered a double room in Jamaica, Queens by the Department of Homeless Services but, not wanting to room with a stranger, turned it down. The Department of Homeless Services has maintained that keeping two people to a room is safe and would allow social distancing, which advocates contend.

Moore, who works making deliveries for DoorDash, says he was insulted by the offer from DHS, which would displace him far from his support network and pair him in a room with a stranger. He says the DHS treats homeless people as if they are looking for a hand-out.

“A lot of us are like any other New Yorkers. We work, but we just can not afford rent, there’s no low-income housing for us, so we stay in the streets and make do,” he says.

Celina Trowell, homelessness union organizer with the group VOCAL NY, said she was disappointed in the lack of engagement with the bill from elected officials. She points out that most of the people experiencing homelessness in NYC are Black and Latino — almost 90 percent, according to the Coalition For The Homeless.

“We’re out here in this current uprising fighting for our Black lives and we’re still being looked over,” Trowell says of the Council ignoring the legislation.

The bill to offer hotels to single adults who are homeless was introduced in New York’s City Council introduced on April 22 by city councilmember Stephen Levin, the result of advocacy from the Homeless Can’t Stay Home campaign. It is opposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, as well as by the city’s Department of Social Services, which runs the city’s Department of Homeless Services.

In an e-mail to Next City, Isaac Mcginn, a spokesperson for the Department of Social Services, emphasized that the city’s approach was safe. The city is moving anyone with COVID symptoms out of shelters and to isolation units, Mcginn says. DSS says it has been moving about 1000 people per week from crowded shelters to hotels.

“Rather than affecting a mass migration of all clients out of shelter, which could create public health concerns, and is not necessary for implementing social distancing guidelines, DSS’ tiered approach focuses on targeting need based on individual vulnerability/potential level as well as site configuration,” Mcginn said in a statement sent to Next City.

Mcginn also called the City Council bill “ham-fisted and reckless” in an e-mail to Gothamist. The department argues that additional nurses and clinical staff are needed for the rooms, estimating they would cost the city an additional $495 million over 6 months which FEMA would not cover.

Josh Dean, of the group Humans.NYC, says the Department of Social Services is overestimating the amount of homeless people who have substance abuse or mental illness.

“We’ve got a really independent group of people in the hotels,” Dean said of the 28 people who have been put up in hotels through the GoFundMe.

“They paint this broad picture of people who are street homeless as severely mentally ill, they’ve been out there for decades, they have substance use disorders,” Dean said. But many who are street homeless, he points out, are there simply because they could not afford rising rents and they wish to avoid a dangerous shelter system.

“I think they too often use that one population of people as an excuse not to serve the other population,” he said.
The bill also is meant to help people avoid interactions with the police, who clear street homeless out of public areas and have a presence in shelters, the Homeless Can’t Stay Home campaign says. Earlier this month, in response to police sweeps of the subway system that turned many unsheltered homeless people back out onto the street the campaign also released a report and series of demands to defund the police and remove police from homelessness enforcement. According to the campaign’s estimate, the NYPD spends $20 million a year for homeless “outreach,” with another $50 million for private security and NYPD in shelters. The group’s calculation does not take into account the estimated 1,000 officers that have been sent to clear out the homeless from the subway system each night since overnight service ended. Mayor de Blasio has said the approach is “compassionate and decent” and that it was “ending street homelessness.” However, the majority of those offered stays in city shelters during overnight subway sweeps have rejected the offer and many have ended up in the streets or on city buses. People who are street homeless or sleeping on subways are also not immediately eligible for the city’s commercial hotels, as the majority of rooms are reserved for people currently in shelters.

“There’s tons of people who would come off the street if there were single hotel rooms, but they don’t have hotels open,” says Helen Strom of Safety Net Project.

Advocates in the Homeless Can’t Stay Home campaign want the city not just to house people during the pandemic, but to transition them to permanent housing. They are frustrated that there is currently no plan to transition hotels into permanent housing.

“They have yet put in place a plan for how to transfer our brothers and sisters to permanent, supportive housing that’s needed,” Trowell says. “It’s frustrating, infuriating actually.”

Roshan Abraham

Economics in Brief: Federal Aid for Pandemic-Impacted Americans Is Working, But It’s About to Expire

1 week 5 days ago

(Photo by Terry Bain / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Federal Aid for Pandemic-Impacted Americans Is Working, But It’s About to Expire

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The economic relief in the CARES Act has prevented 12 million people from falling into poverty, a new study says.

Columbia University researchers forecast that poverty this year will rise to 12.7 percent, from 12.5 percent pre-coronavirus. Without the CARES Act funding — specifically the one-time stimulus checks to many Americans and the expansion of weekly unemployment benefits — the poverty rate would reach 16.3 percent.

“Right now, the safety net is doing what it’s supposed to do for most families — helping them secure a minimally decent life,” Zachary Parolin, one of the Columbia researchers, told the New York Times.

But there’s a major caveat. The official unemployment rate is 13.3 percent, the highest since the Great Depression, and that number isn’t likely to fall soon. Yet the expanded unemployment benefits, which both made gig workers and others previously ineligible for unemployment able to collect weekly benefits and tacked on an extra $600 per week to all unemployment benefits, are set to expire. The extra $600 payments will stop coming in the last check states issue before July 31 (July 25 or 26 in most states), and while there’s been some discussion about a second one-time stimulus, so far the $1200 payment sent to many Americans earlier this year is the only stimulus Americans can expect to receive. At the same time, many eviction moratoriums and other pandemic protections are set to expire: Virginia’s, for example, runs out Sunday.

The Government Sent $1.4 Billion in COVID-19 Stimulus Payments to Dead People

The Treasury and IRS have been trying to get COVID-19 stimulus payments sent out “as rapidly as possible” (even though some low-income households waited months to receive theirs). As part of that rapid rollout, the IRS sent relief payments to relatives of deceased people, waiting until May to tell families that they needed to return the payments.

CBS reports that the Government Accountability Office, in a report to Congress, found that the IRS sent more than one million payments, worth $1.4 billion, to deceased people.

Nebraskans to Vote on Statewide Payday Loan Ban This Fall

Nebraskan activists have turned in 120,000 signatures — far more than required — to place an initiative banning high-interest payday loans on the state ballot in November, the Omaha World-Herald reports.

Sixteen states plus D.C. have placed 36 percent interest caps on payday loans, effectively banning them, as in other states where payday loans are not regulated, lenders typically charge upwards of 400 percent annual interest.

Payday loan industry representatives say the caps would harm their business and that the industry is already regulated in the state: In Nebraska, the maximum payday loan a person can take out is capped at $500 and people can have only two loans at a time.

A nationwide rule that would have restricted payday loans was set to take effect in 2019, but was rolled back by the Trump administration. In May, the New York Times obtained a memo showing that Trump officials manipulated data to justify rolling back its rule.

Other Things We’re Watching

Rep. Maxine Waters introduces resolution to undo the recent changes to the Community Reinvestment Act … no date yet set for a vote.

A coalition led by the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts challenges the business community to spend $1 billion to reduce racial inequities over the next decade … no comment yet from the broader business community.

Next City

Housing in Brief: Eviction Lab Releases New Eviction Tracking System

1 week 5 days ago

The Eviction Lab's Eviction Tracker is tracking ten regions (including Austin, Texas, shown here). Zip codes in blue have seen fewer filings over the last four weeks then compared to the average, and zip codes in red have seen more filings compared to a normal year's average. (Eviction Lab)

Eviction Lab Releases New Eviction Tracking System

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Eviction moratoriums imposed by cities and states during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic are beginning to expire, and the expected wave of evictions of tenants who’ve fallen behind on rent in the last few months has been described as an “avalanche” in news outlets from the New York Times to CNN to the BBC. To help monitor the fallout in the rental housing market, the Eviction Lab at Princeton University has released a new “Eviction Tracking System,” which compiles data about eviction filings in cities across the U.S., updated weekly. As of this writing, the system includes data for 11 cities, including Boston, Houston, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh. The creators say they are looking for “partnerships with states and localities who wish to work with us in monitoring and responding to emerging eviction hotspots.”

“For many, a displacement and eviction crisis will follow the public health crisis,” the page says.
“There is currently no data infrastructure that allows policymakers, legal and advocacy organizations, journalists, academics, and community members to track displacement and evictions in real time. The Eviction Lab has built the Eviction Tracking System (ETS) to fill this critical gap and to help monitor and respond to eviction hotspots as they emerge.”

Currently, the system still shows evictions trending downward in 10 of the 11 cities, with a recent spike found only in Cleveland, Ohio. In June there have been 245 eviction filings in Cleveland, according to a detailed report on the tracking system; that’s up from virtually zero in April and May but still below the monthly average in previous years. The system also includes a map showing eviction filing rates by census tract.

Seniors Evicted from Nursing Homes

More than 51,000 residents and employees of nursing homes have died of COVID-19 in the United States, according to a new report in the New York Times — more than 40 percent of coronavirus-related deaths in the country. But nursing homes are also accepting coronavirus patients as new residents, sometimes at the expense of existing residents, and sometimes for financial reasons, according to the report.

“They are kicking out old and disabled residents — among the people most susceptible to the coronavirus — and shunting them into homeless shelters, rundown motels and other unsafe facilities, according to 22 watchdogs in 16 states, as well as dozens of elder-care lawyers, social workers and former nursing home executives,” the report says. “Many of the evictions, known as involuntary discharges, appear to violate federal rules that require nursing homes to place residents in safe locations and to provide them with at least 30 days’ notice before forcing them to leave.”

Many of the evictees are Medicaid patients, according to the report. Nursing homes can often make more money by accepting patients on Medicare or private insurance, an incentive that has led many to evict some vulnerable residents in favor of COVID-19 patients with a greater ability to pay, the report says. In other instances, nursing homes have chosen to accept more coronavirus patients to help ease the burden on hospitals, according to the report. One man living at a nursing home in Queens has been the subject of three eviction attempts by the facility, according to the report. The facility twice tried to discharge him to homeless shelters, but backed down when he appealed, the report says, before trying a third time.

“They just want to get rid of me,” the man told the Times.

Emergency Housing Protection Bills Pass in Philadelphia

The Philadelphia City Council approved five bills known as the “Emergency Housing Protection Act,” with new protections for tenants amid the pandemic and economic downturn, according to a report in WHYY. The package includes measures to extend the city’s eviction moratorium, allow repayment plans for renters, create an eviction diversion program, waive some rental late fees, and related measures, according to the report. An earlier effort to pass a law preventing landlords from raising the rent during the pandemic was unsuccessful, the report says. The package of bills was sponsored by council members Helen Gym, Kendra Brooks, and Jamie Gauthier.

“As someone who has faced housing insecurity firsthand, I know these protections will have enormous impact on Philadelphia families,” Brooks said, according to the report. “When families have homes to stay in, our whole city can be safer and healthier.”

Also according to WHYY, the city council and mayor agreed to a budget that restores some funding for housing programs that had been cut in an earlier budget proposed as the coronavirus pandemic was taking hold. The next year’s budget includes $20 million for the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, in line with a long-term plan to add $100 million to the fund over five years. In a press release, the advocacy group Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities praised the mayor and city council for restoring housing funds.

“By holding the city accountable to its pledge of $100 million over five years, City Council is helping 1,000 homeowners make crucial safety repairs to stay in their homes; assisting another 300 families in the transition to homeownership; and giving 150 people with disabilities the opportunity to move out of dangerous nursing homes into their own homes,” the group said.

Jared Brey
1 hour 36 minutes ago
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