Lessons Learned from Age-Friendly Columbus and Franklin County

In Columbus, Ohio, we dedicated ourselves to planning with, not for, our older adults. For us, that meant committees made up of content experts (professionals working in transit, housing, development, aging, and elected officials) and experience experts (older adults and individuals with disabilities) totaling over 125 volunteers that lead our work. Our initiative started at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, outside of the typical “aging world” in order to challenge cross-sector leaders to work with an “age-in-everything lens.” In 2016, we completed our assessment through a city-wide random sample survey, focus groups held in six languages, and tabling at various events. In total, we heard from nearly 1,200 older adults over the course of six months.

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How & Why to Create a Culture of Innovation in Transportation Agencies

Though there are many critical factors in creating and sustaining a culture of innovation, leadership has emerged as perhaps the most critical. A change of administration or staff turnover is one of the most common reasons for why these initiatives end. Therefore, it is important to take the politics out of innovation by ensuring that champions are not all political appointees or nearing retirement.

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Without Amazon HQ2, What Happens to Housing in Queens?

After Amazon named Queens one of the winners of its reality-television-style competition to build a second headquarters, real estate in Long Island City flipped upside down. Overnight, a sluggish buyer’s market became a seller’s paradise. Real estate firms reported sales of many times their usual volume. Stories of brokers selling units sight unseen via text tickled developers, even if other New Yorkers greeted the news with terror.

Now that Amazon is breaking off its engagement with the Big Apple, the passion that stoked the HQ2 buying frenzy has evaporated. So what happens next for Long Island City and neighborhoods nearby? Some residents think that Queens dodged a bullet: Jeff Bezos’s prosperity bomb would have terraformed the neighborhood, they say, driving out longtime residents in favor of soul-cycling engineers. Instead, Queens faces a different problem: the status quo, which might be more daunting than the worst-case scenario under Amazon.

Not everyone believes that Amazon’s non-arrival will mark a huge change in course for Queens. Long Island City “is not a neighborhood based on Amazon,” says Brendan Aguayo, a senior managing director at Halstead Property Development Marking, which sold two units in a Long Island City condo building to Amazon employees within a week of the first HQ2 announcement. “For all the reasons they decided on [Long Island City] to begin with, we are confident the neighborhood will thrive well beyond when this fades into the background.”

Neither he nor Lauren Bennett, a Corcoran broker who sold five units in Long Island City after the news of Amazon’s arrival, would say whether their HQ2-connected clients had expressed any buyer’s remorse. One unit in Bennett’s portfolio—a three-bedroom condo on 51st Avenue that had languished on the market for eight months without an offer—became the object of a bidding war after the mere rumor of Amazon’s move to Queens. The New York Post reported that the winning bid was $300,000 over the initial offer and above the $1.49 million asking price. (Bennett declined to answer questions about the status of this sale or others.)

But plenty of brokers feel far less optimistic than Aguayo. One told Bloomberg that Long Island City, which anticipated a transformation into a tech hub, was fated to remain a bedroom community for Manhattan commuters. Nancy Wu, an analyst for StreetEasy, said in an email that the turnabout highlights the risk involved with speculative investment in New York. “Now that the company has decided against setting up their new headquarters in Queens, we expect asking prices and buyer interest to fairly quickly revert back to their pre-announcement levels,” she said.

Before Amazon announced its plans to move into Queens and kicked off a gold rush, local sales were stagnant. Sellers were slashing prices. Inventory was overbuilt: up 62 percent in October 2018 over the same month the year prior. Before the rumor of HQ2, it looked like it would take years for this housing market to return to a point of equilibrium.

Brokers who stood to make a mint in a buoyant market are frustrated by Amazon’s reversal, of course. But so are some of New York’s most vulnerable residents. Presidents of the tenant associations for four New York City Housing Authority public housing developments in Queens issued a statement condemning the leaders who they believe drove Amazon away from the bargaining table.

“New York has now lost 25,000 good-paying jobs,” reads the statement from the presidents of the Astoria, Queensbridge, Ravenswood, and Woodside Houses tenants associations. “The City and State will now lose tens of billions of dollars in revenue that could have been invested in NYCHA, and the tenants we fight for every day.”

Their letter highlights a central tension to the Amazon drama. Tenants of low-income housing broadly supported the move, in the hopes that it would bring higher-paying jobs and spillover effects to the neighborhood. More affluent residents, meanwhile, mounted a NIMBY campaign over the prospect of rising rents. Tyquana Rivers, a Democratic political consultant, told The New York Times that the gentrifiers’ complaints about Amazon mirrored the fight to keep Ikea out of Queens. Indeed, residents in Jackson Heights are going to court to stop a Target from opening.

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Flipping the Script: A Moral and Economic Case for Narrative Change

Where do our values and beliefs come from? Answering this question is important for people committed to social change, because these values and beliefs drive our work.

Over time, the millions of messages we consume from media, our families, communities, schools, and more shape our perception of the world as it is and define what is possible. Narratives result when powerful personal stories and the language we use to describe our experiences roll up into a common frame or story. Narratives help people connect personal stories and local context with their system of values. They are powerful because they help us make sense and meaning of a complex and sometimes unpredictable world.

Problems arise, however, when narratives widely held by Americans perpetuate harmful beliefs about why inequities exist, and what we can or should do about them. Harmful narratives are important to tackle now more than ever, in part, due to their negative impact on our economy and business practices. Leaders working to fight inequity must be cognizant of these narratives and the ways in which they undermine the missions we are working toward.

Rugged individualism– the idea that anyone in America can climb the ranks and succeed through sheer will and determination– is one such narrative. This idea is an essential part of the mythology of the American Dream. Wealth and income gaps are upheld and widened by narratives like rugged individualism, because they shift our focus to individual actions, and away from the pervasive, systemic inequities that remain unsolved.

Some organizations report that they are committed to diversity, but that there are not enough “qualified” people of color available for hire. This harmful narrative perpetuates falsehoods about people of color, hinders their economic outcomes, and allows for the wealth gap to persist. Another narrative is the idea that “rocking the boat” by changing organizational culture to promote equitable practices is risky, especially for organizations accountable to board members and shareholders.

Narratives like these allow people to justify the status quo. Racist hiring practices, marketing campaigns, and other contributors to structural racism go unchecked.

These well-known narratives persist despite their negative impact on business outcomes and the economy. Humans have a well-established bias toward accepting or rejecting data–and interpreting it–based on how well that data fits within an accepted narrative. Narratives are durable; we’re more likely to reject data that challenges an existing narrative than re-evaluate the narrative itself. These dominant, destructive narratives conceal the economic benefits of advancing equity, inclusion and diversity. Multiple reports, cited below, have highlighted the benefits of racial equity and diversity in the business world, and this research can be a foundation for new narratives that are aligned with reality.

Diverse teams are more successful.
In 2015, McKinsey and Company reported that companies with more diverse leadership performed better financially. Companies were significantly more likely to have financial returns above their national industry median when they had leadership in the top quartile of racial and ethnic diversity. A factor contributing to the success of diverse teams is their ability to use lived-experience as a means to interrogate business alternatives and solutions.

Equity in the workplace supports employee satisfaction.
Happier employees are more productive employees. Higher employee engagement aligned with profitability and lower turnover rates. The report also found that the best way to increase employee engagement was to demonstrate a strong commitment to diversity. By committing to diversity, companies can grow their profit, sustain talent and create a workplace environment where employees are satisfied in their work.

Purchasing power of people of color is on the rise.
In 2018, Kellogg released the Business Case for Racial Equity: A Strategy for Growth. The report shared that if the wage gap between white people and people of color was closed by 2050, there would be an additional $2.6 trillion in spending. People of color will soon become the demographic majority in the United States, and creating an equitable work environment will increase capital that is reinvested into the economy.

Additionally, PolicyLink and FSG released the Competitive Advantage of Racial Equity, which highlights how racial equity can support business growth. For example, ShopRite created business value by serving low-income people of color. By placing stores in Philadelphia food deserts, places with little access to groceries, ShopRite generates $250 million in revenue and serves 250,000 people. Committing to racial equity as a core business strategy is crucial to harnessing the purchasing power of people of color.

We know narratives have a powerful influence on our culture and decision-making. Unfortunately, narratives don’t always align with the facts. New narratives need to be constructed and perpetuated to encourage a culture that uplifts racial equity. Leaders in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, such as those in the chart below, are modeling this work by telling stories that highlight truths rooted in data and personal experience.

Racial income and wealth gaps in U.S. cities exist, in part, due to the negative attitudes and beliefs that American people hold about poverty and Americans who live below the poverty line.

A change in narrative – and the resulting change in behaviors and decisions – would translate into greater equity in the world. There would be no racial disparities in hiring, promotion or compensation. We would be one step closer to closing income and wealth gaps in America.

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Subprime Auto Loans Are Turning Car Ownership Into a Trap

To live and work in much of the U.S., access to a car is virtually a requirement. Jobs, shops, doctors, and daycare are often unreachable by transit, and too far by foot or bike. Owning a car, the research shows, means your life is likely to be more stable and your bank account more flush.

Unless you’re among the growing number of Americans who own a car that they can’t afford, and who are now drowning in the debt.

A trio of new reports paint an increasingly troubling picture of the auto loan landscape. First up: According to new numbers from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, a record 7 million Americans are at least three months behind on their car loan payments. That’s about a million more than there were in 2009, the end of the last recession.

As a share of total auto loans, delinquencies aren’t quite as bad as the peak in 2010, when households were feeling the most acute effects of the tanking economy. Their growth is generally commensurate with the expansion of auto loan market in general: By summer 2018, Americans owed $1.26 trillion on their cars, an increase of 75 percent from the end of 2009. (To understand the geography of this issue, see CityLab’s story about mapping auto debt from 2018.)

But a growing number of borrowers defaulting on their car loans is a signal of serious financial duress for those households, experts say: Because cars are so essential, Americans traditionally prioritize paying off these loans ahead of others. Steve Eisman, the hedge fund manager made famous in the book and film The Big Short by cashing in on badly designed mortgages he spotted before the recession, told The Financial Times in 2017 that auto loans generally held up well better than mortgages in those years because consumers “tended to default on their house first, credit card second and car third.”

(New York Fed)

When more households fail to make payments on their vehicle, that implies that they’re not financially healthy enough to maintain a grip on even their most important asset. That, in turn, seems to point to an underlying persistent effect of economic inequality: Too few people are sharing the benefits of an ostensibly healthy economy in which unemployment is low and markets are strong. Wages are stagnant, living costs are rising, and many Americans are digging their way out of still other forms of debt, such as student loans.

Further complicating this scene, a host of new automotive financing options are fundamentally predatory, and many Americans who are now literally driving into debt are the least able to shoulder it. High-interest subprime loans aimed at purchasers with low income and poor credit scores made up as much as 26 percent of all auto loans issued in 2016, up from 14 percent in 2009.

Another new paper by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group explains the history of this familiar-sounding form of lending, which is structurally similar to the subprime home loans that crashed the economy in 2008:

Increasing investor demand for high-yield bonds was among the factors that led lenders to loosen lending standards for car loans. From 2011 through mid-2016, more banks loosened credit standards for auto loans than strengthened them, making it easier for borrowers to qualify for loans.

Some lenders have also engaged in questionable lending practices reminiscent of mortgage lending trends leading up to the 2008 housing market crash, including extending loans to consumers without full consideration of their ability to pay. To find more borrowers whose debt could be bundled into securities and sold on the stock market in high-risk, high-profit bundles, some lending institutions became lax.

Auto finance companies, such as Santander Consumer U.S.A. Holdings Inc., are issuing the bulk of delinquent loans, the Fed notes. Compared to banks and credit unions, they’re less likely to check to make sure a person is in good financial standing when underwriting car purchases. In 2017, Moody’s found that Santander verified the income of borrowers on only 8 percent of the auto loans it wrapped into $1 billion worth of bonds it sold to investors.

In some states, chip technology has streamlined the efficiency of a market that feeds on low-income borrowers: Cars can be equipped with GPS locators to ping repossessors when payments are past due. Meanwhile, it’s getting easier for auto lenders and dealers to shake down vulnerable borrowers. Last April, the Trump administration rolled back Obama-era auto consumer protections aimed at keeping minorities from being charged higher interest rates on loans.

In terms of societal-scale effects, the upswell in auto loans—prime, non-prime, and subprime—don’t worry analysts as much as, say, the badly designed mortgages that triggered the Great Recession. The market for car loans is just a fraction of the size of the one for houses. “This isn’t going to be the next 2008,” said R.J. Cross, a policy analyst at the Frontier Group, a research think tank that co-authored the U.S. PIRG report. But these trends still spell trouble for individuals and families, and point to an enlarged economy pumped full of bad loans.


By increasing access to cars, lax financing standards also appear to be contributing to a national rise in driving, and with it, declining public transit ridership. In the latest edition of its biennial survey of who’s riding buses and trains in U.S. cities, Transit Center, a public transportation research and advocacy group out of New York, notes that the share of households without vehicles fell 30 percent between 2000 and 2015, with foreign-born residents, who are more likely to earn lower incomes and ride transit, posting even sharper declines.

In the survey, respondents who reported decreasing their bus and train use overwhelmingly replaced transit with private cars. And almost half of respondents who said they’d purchased a car over the past two years received a loan to finance it. Of those, 56 percent said that getting a loan “was easier than they had expected.”

Of course, improved car access among lower-income groups might look to be a positive trend on its face, since a personal vehicle can equate opportunity. So strong is the historic link between car ownership and household income that a trio of transportation equity scholars recently called for subsidizing access to wheels for poor Americans. But fewer rides made by public transportation and more by private automobile is a trend with consequences that transcend the U.S. economy: It feeds the planet’s existential problem of rising carbon emissions, especially since SUV and truck sales have become particularly popular during this auto-loan boom. “The rise in auto debt is evidence that we’re dependent on cars in an unsustainable way,” said Cross.

The new high-water line of defaulted auto loans also suggests that personal vehicles aren’t always golden tickets. Instead, for Americans living paycheck to paycheck, they’re a catch-22: If you don’t have the money and can’t buy a car, you’ll struggle to make ends meet. And if you don’t have the money, but still buy a car, you’re liable to fall even further behind. Vehicles may be the table stakes for playing in the U.S. economy, but in so many ways, it’s getting harder to win.

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CityLab Daily: The Wall’s Eminent Domain Problem

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What We’re Following

Lay of the land: By declaring a national emergency to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, President Donald Trump is teeing up a slate of legal challenges, potentially including from homeowners along the border whose land has been in their families for generations. The administration may have to use eminent domain—the power of government to take ownership of private property for public use—though House Democrats are introducing a set of bills to protect homeowners who may be affected. Their efforts may even win over small-government Republicans, who have traditionally opposed the quick-and-dirty way the federal government acquires land.

“Our nation has a long and dark history of land seizures targeting poor and marginalized communities who lack the resources to fight for fair compensation under the law,” said Democratic Representative Val Demings, introducing a bill that would set up a legal fund for low-income landowners to fight land seizure. CityLab’s Tanvi Misra has the rundown on the new bills seeking to protect border residents from displacement.

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

Amazon’s HQ2 Fiasco Will Cost the Company More Than It Costs New York

The mega-company has bucked dealing reasonably with New York City, Seattle, and any community that asks them to pay for its freight.

Richard Florida

New York’s Ejection of Amazon Is the Start of a Movement

NYC lawmakers who led a resistance campaign against HQ2 are declaring victory. And already, they have plans to escalate their opposition to tax incentives.

Sarah Holder

Are Reparations Baltimore’s Fix for Redlining, Investment Deprivation?

The solutions to Baltimore’s inequitable financing problems must be as radical as the policies that segregated the city in the first place, says Lawrence Brown.

Brentin Mock

With Trains Like Schwebebahn, No Wonder Germans Love Public Transit

Infrastructure like this makes it clear why Germany continues to produce enthusiasm for public transit, generation after generation.

Benjamin Schneider

A Valentine’s Tradition, Born in the Heart of Boston

In the 1800s, candy helped make Boston an industrial powerhouse. Candy hearts have been a lasting legacy of that era, though their future is less certain.

Sarah Holder

You’ve Got Mail

Millennials get blamed for killing just about everything, from homeownership to breakfast cereal, and the Census Bureau is making sure it’s not next. With an aversion to landlines and physical mail, young urban renters will be some of the more difficult residents to reach for the 2020 decennial count. The statistical agency has plans to use social media and other internet publicity to make sure an undercount, which could affect cities’ political power and federal funding, doesn’t happen. Stateline has the story, featuring quotes of Millennials saying the darnedest things:

“Mail? I feel like that’s a dead thing,” said Tim Slayton, 36, a Washington, D.C., resident for 18 years. “And I don’t have a lot of people randomly knocking at my front door, so I would be a little weirded out. ‘Census Bureau!’ It sounds like a joke. It sounds like you just want me to open my door. So I probably wouldn’t.”

CityLab context: Cities are bracing for 2020 Census chaos

What We’re Reading

The American infrastructure tragedy, explained (Vox)

When a suburb loses its headquarters (Chicago Magazine)

HUD acknowledges recent shutdown slowed pace of recovery aid to Puerto Rico (The Hill)

Why new apartments all look the same (Bloomberg)

Google’s Waymo risks repeating Xerox’s mistakes (Ars Technica)

Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to hello@citylab.com.

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The Town Where Retirees Can’t Retire

At 86, Bob Bastion would be forgiven for sleeping in on the recent subzero mornings in Alcona County, Michigan, a one-stoplight former timber community of around 10,000 in the northeast part of the state’s lower peninsula.

Instead, the retired dairy truck driver often wakes up at 3 a.m., climbs five feet into the seat of a six-wheel Champion road grader and drives the roads of Lost Lake Woods Club, the private gated community and resort where he lives with his wife, clearing snow so cars can get through. It often takes eight hours or more.

On his belt, Bastion wears a Motorola emergency pager, because, in addition to running the grader, he’s also a volunteer firefighter. He no longer suits up in 50 pounds of turnout gear to fight fires, but when the alarm is given, he often drives the 2,100-gallon tanker truck.

“I’m not here for the paychecks,” Bastion told me when I visited him in Alcona in 2016. This winter, I checked in with him and found him in good health and still on the job. He attributes his robust condition to hard work and good whiskey. “I do it because I like it,” he said. “It keeps me going. You can’t just sit in the chair watching TV. It’s not good for you.”

Like so many older Americans who find themselves

(U.S. Census Bureau)

John Cromartie, a demographer with the USDA Agriculture Economic Research Service who studies population trends in rural America, says communities like Alcona County offer a lesson for aging rural communities across the country that need to find a way to function with an aging population. “They are the canary in the coal mine,” Cromartie says.

The aging of rural America means essential physical work once performed by the young has fallen to folks like Bastion—residents long past traditional retirement age. He moved to Lost Lake Woods in 1998 from a town outside Flint, bringing with him his job experience fighting fires and operating heavy equipment. Once a club administrator learned Bastion knew how to run a road grader, retirement was over: He has been plowing the roads ever since.

At the Alcona Township Fire Department, where Bastion is a member, nearly a third of 15 volunteer firefighters are retired. An octogenarian serves on the county board of commissioners. An 86-year-old priest officiates four masses at four county churches every weekend. “We can’t function without the help of retired people,” said Ralph Klotz, 76, who has been Alcona Township’s fire chief since 1997. It’s hard to find young people to volunteer for the department, and hard to keep them when they do, he told me. “I’ve advertised for help, but nobody comes near.”

Alcona isn’t getting any younger: From 2010 to 2017, the township experienced more than 1,300 deaths, but fewer than 450 births, according to Cromartie’s estimates. Klotz wonders what will happen to the department when he needs to stop working. “Time might come when I have to retire, because of my age and all,” he said. “For now, I’m still kicking.”

At a Friday fish fry at Saint Anne Catholic Church, a postcard town with quaint shops that sits on Lake Huron, locals noted a lack of jobs for young people as one reason many of the diminishing number of children raised in the area flee soon after high school graduation.

“They used to go downstate to the auto industry, but now that is kind of dried-up, too,” said Alan Baldwin, a retired logger. Baldwin grew up on a farm and he traces his ancestors back at least four generations to the same patch of land. But his son lives in North Carolina, where he went for work. As a child, Baldwin says the crossroads town in Alcona County where he grew up had plenty of shops and restaurants. Now it’s now almost empty. “They moved the town a mile up the road and made it a BP station,” he said.

The migration of the young away from Alcona County is only part of the story.

Towns get old in different ways. Some are gray be design—places like The Villages in Florida, long the nation’s fastest growing metro. These are retirement enclaves where the elderly arrive from elsewhere in search of lower taxes and lifestyle amenities. Economic distress hastens the aging process for other smaller towns and cities, especially in deindustrialized parts of the Rust Belt, where younger residents are encouraged to move to more urban communities in search of education and jobs.

Then there is a third type, where both happen at once.

That’s Alcona, where young people are fleeing even as new retirees are lured in, drawn by the low cost of living and plentiful hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities. In the 1990s, the number of people aged 60 to 64 in the county nearly doubled, and many came via migration, according to U.S. Census data analyzed by researchers at the University of Wisconsin.

When retirees move in, they bring their skills with them, says Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire who studies migration trends. He knows of a former Fortune 100 CFO working as a small-town treasurer and plenty of retired lawyers providing free legal work to town governments. In blue-collar retirement destinations like Alcona County, they’re also doing hands-on work. “This is important, because among the younger people who do stay, many are driving 40 or 50 minutes to jobs,” Johnson says. “That means they are gone most of the day, and there are limited people to do these jobs.”

Depending on retirees to shoulder the day-to-day responsibilities of road maintenance is no long-term solution, however: These towns will need to attract younger residents and lure back their best and brightest, who are often the first to leave.

Many younger Alcona County residents insist it’s a great place to live—if you can find work. Hallie Richter, 45, moved to Lost Lake Woods in 2015 from a town 40 miles north of Detroit, after her husband was tapped to open a store for the Midwestern grocery chain Meijer in nearby Alpena. A data analyst who works from home, Richter said they were excited for the change of pace.

There were drawbacks. Richter’s 18-year-old daughter is one of a handful of children who grew up in a subdivision at the club. Social events tend to be scheduled on retiree time—game night for women, for example, is on Tuesday afternoons. But she enjoys the tight community feel of small-town rural America. “This was our retirement plan for someday,” she said. “We are thrilled to get to come earlier.”

But Richter’s story is a rare one. And unless gray communities can attract more people like her, they’ll have to continue to lean on retirees like Bastion to function.

Years ago, Bastion’s coworkers joked that 90 is mandatory retirement age for road graders. Now, he’s creeping up against that number, and it doesn’t seem like such a joke. But not to worry: He has an eye on a replacement—a recent retiree.

“It’s time I should be letting the kids do it,” he said.

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Lawmakers Aim to Protect Private Landowners on U.S.-Mexico Border

On Friday, a day after Congress passed its spending package, the President declared a national emergency in order to obtain the funds from elsewhere to build the wall—funds that the spending legislation he agreed to sign did not provide.

This move is going to be challenged in Congress and in the courts, and may end up being temporarily blocked. But if the administration is able to forge ahead with a wall that spans the entire 2,000 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, many homeowners may find themselves in the way. To proceed, the administration will have to use eminent domain, an unpopular power of government that allows it to take ownership of private property for public use. (Donald Trump has expressed a strange affinity for this authority in the past and even taken advantage of in his own real estate dealings.)

To strengthen protections for border residents, Congress members from both parties have introduced a set of bills that address the quick and dirty way the federal government goes about acquiring land through this process.

“Both parties should agree that private property should not be taken until a court establishes, and the property owner receives, just compensation,” David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute who has argued against the eminent domain process, said via email. “The current eminent domain procedure is inadequate and thwarts the spirit of the Constitution.”

House Democrats released a package Thursday containing three bills, the first of which forbids the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from waiving environmental and historical preservation laws; the second directs the DHS to set up a $20 million legal fund for low-income landowners to fight for due process and fair compensation, and the third requires that all landowners be fully compensated before their land is seized.

“Our nation has a long and dark history of land seizures targeting poor and marginalized communities who lack the resources to fight for fair compensation under the law,” said Representative Val Demings, the Florida Democrat who introduced the second bill, in a statement. She added that her own parents had been “heartbroken” when they had their property seized after 40 years of ownership.

Eminent domain has traditionally been the bete noire of small-government Republicans, so it’s not just the Democrats who are pushing for such laws in anticipation of border wall construction. In January, Representative Justin Amash, a Republican from Michigan, also introduced a bill that would ensure that property values be fairly analyzed before the government takes procession of it: “It is unjust for the government to seize someone’s property with a lowball offer and then burden them to fight for what they’re owned,” he wrote on Twitter.

Already, many residents along the border have received notices from the government asking for permission to enter the premises for inspection, which is known to be the first step in the eminent domain process. Efrén Olivares, of the Texas Civil Rights Project, who represents Rio Grande Valley residents in eminent domain lawsuits, estimates that approximately 100 people have been received such notices. Per his count, 12 have already been sued by the government for not consenting. (In 2018, McAllen, Texas, Mayor Jim Darling reported 167 notices in Hidalgo County itself, according to The Texas Tribune; that’s roughly half of the total residents he guessed would be potentially displaced by the wall.)

The current eminent domain process is, in fact, incredibly complex and tends to put residents—especially low-income ones in poor border-adjacent counties who may not have access to lawyers or speak English—at a huge disadvantage, Olivares said. “The government can take the land without paying a cent for it,” he said. “It can take physical possession, and the landowner won’t see a dime for a long time.”

This is not the first time border residents have dealt with this, either. A third of the U.S.-Mexico border already has fencing that was set up during the Bush administration because of the Secure Fence act of 2006. A 2017 ProPublica and Texas Tribune investigation found that the federal government had conducted the eminent domain acquisitions during that last wall-building effort in a hasty and haphazard way—circumventing laws that ensure fair and swift compensation for homeowners and in the process, shortchanging many of them. Residents fought court battles that took years to be resolved; many are still going on.

Federal and tribal land only make up a third of the Southern border—so constructing a barrier along the entire length, as the current administration intends, will put a lot more private property at risk. But border residents—some of whom have passed down their land for generations—are not willing to step aside without a fight. “I’m against the wall because I’m going to get evicted by it,” Nadya Alvarez, a 47-year-old high school teacher who owns an acre of land at the border in Rio Grande City, Texas, told The Washington Post. If some of these new protections pass in Congress, the process may become a lot fairer, Olivares said.

The research on whether walls effectively curb illegal migration is mixed—and in fact, some studies show that a border fence would disproportionately affect marginalized groups along the border. Christina Patiño Houle is a steering committee member of the Southern Border Committees Coalition, who works for the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network and organizes local border communities. Some of the areas in the way of the wall are incredibly poor, unincorporated colonias—lacking roads, light, drainage infrastructure, and services like garbage collection, Patiño Houle said. They are particularly vulnerable to flooding every time hurricane season comes around. She finds it unfortunate that instead of fixing those problems, the Trump administration is adamant about constructing a wall that may well exacerbate them. The wall, if it’s built, would be a physical symbol of the faulty assumptions the government and much of the media has imposed on the area.

“Not only is the narrative being taken over by people who don’t live here,” Patiño Houle said, “but the infrastructure is being taken over by people who don’t live here.”

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With Trains Like Schwebebahn, No Wonder Germans Love Public Transit

My first view of the Schwebebahn was from my living room as a 10-year-old watching the Travel Channel on TV. I remember being amazed by the dinky rail cars, precariously suspended above a river by wrought iron trusses. The centenarian transit system in Wuppertal, Germany, looked like a cross between Disneyland’s monorail and the Eiffel Tower.

Years later, the Schwebebahn segment still sticks with me. After all, a great transit system that endures for generations is not only an efficient means of moving about the city, it is also a portal to an imagined future—a past vision of a better, more modern city. While visiting Germany last November, I made a point to stop in Wuppertal, half an hour from Düsseldorf in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, to see how that vision was working out, nearly 120 years into its lifespan. There may be no better place to study not only the economic and political power of high-quality mass transit, but also its social and emotional power.

I caught my first unmediated glimpse of the Schwebebahn from a hill overlooking the Ohligsmühle station, near the center of this industrial city of about 350,000 residents, just days before the system was of Schwebebahn, and the city it united. By the late 19th century, the Wupper valley towns of Elberfeld and Barmen had become major manufacturing hubs, explains Elmar Thyen, head of Corporate Communications and Strategic Marketing for the Schwebebahn. Friedrich Bayer founded his namesake chemical company in Elberfeld in 1863, which began by providing dyes for the region’s textile mills, like the ones owned by Friedrich Engels’s father. The large and powerful capitalist class was eager to leave its mark on the city with civic projects like the Elberfeld Zoo, founded in 1879. The zoo quickly proved to be such a success that it caused major horsecar traffic jams on weekends, while the thriving manufacturing sector required ever more workers to travel longer distances to work.

“We had a situation with a very rich city, and very rich citizens who were eager to be socially active,” said Thyen. “They said, ‘Which space is publicly owned so we don’t have to go over private land?… It might make sense to have an elevated railway over the river.’”

In the 1820s, an Elberfeld steel mill played host to a test track for a horse-drawn suspended monorail, recently invented by the English engineer Henry Robinson Palmer. Decades later, city leaders felt that the electrified version of that old concept being developed by German inventor Karl Eugen Langen would fit their geographic constraints. The privately funded line connecting destinations in Elberfeld and Barmen began operation in 1901, following a ceremonial test run with Kaiser Wilhelm II the year prior. The Kaiser was both emperor of Germany and king of its most powerful state, Prussia, with a taste for neo-Baroque architecture and other outward projections of imperial power.

The privately funded line connecting destinations in Elberfeld and Barmen began operation in 1901, following a ceremonial test run with Kaiser Wilhelm II the year prior. (Schwebebahn)

“In the end, this is what the merchants wanted,” Thyen said. “They wanted the emperor to come and say, ‘This is cool, this is innovative: high tech, and still Prussian.’”

The line saw high ridership from the beginning, but the Schwebebahn was also something of a showpiece for the young German empire, says transportation historian and CityLab contributor Jonathan English.

The Ruhrgebiet—the mega-region encompassing the Wupper Valley and the nearby cities of Düsseldorf and Cologne—could be called “the Silicon Valley of its day,” English said. “So it’s not at all surprising that this unique, experimental technology was first tried out in a place like that.”

While there was backlash to the undulating new landmark—one turn-of-the-century cartoonist called it “the devil’s work,” according to Thyen—the Schwebebahn quickly became an essential part of life in the region. Local German-Jewish poet Else Lasker-Schuler dubbed it the “iron backbone of the city,” and that is literally what it became. Once Barmen and Elberfeld were linked by the Schwebebahn, it made increasingly little sense for the cities to go on as two distinct entities, so in 1929 they merged and became Wuppertal.

“It didn’t change the city, it created the city,” Thyen said. “Wuppertal without the Schwebebahn—you can’t imagine it. We would still be separated without the Schwebebahn. That thing gave us a backbone.”

After World War II, the city fell on hard times, as manufacturing began to flee the region. “It literally is Germany’s Rust Belt,” English said, noting that the city continues to have a working-class reputation.

But the Schwebebahn links the city to its glory days, and provides a great deal of emotional, as well as practical, value to city residents. “Unique transportation infrastructure often becomes this civic symbol, or a source of civic pride,” English said, also citing the Personal Rapid Transit System in Morgantown, West Virginia, and the extra-narrow subway cars of Glasgow’s original “Clockwork Orange” subway line. None of these systems proved to be significant harbingers of new transportation technologies. Still, the Schwebebahn, in particular, works for its hometown, linking this linear city and providing connections to local and regional transportation. “It shows that showpieces can work, even if the technology is theoretically a failure in terms of universal adoption,” said English.

And it is precisely this lack of mass adoption that makes the Schwebebahn interesting from a historical perspective. At the time of its planning and construction, there was little precedent for urban rail mass transit, no global handbook of best practices. The Schwebebahn is an urban Galapagos, a vision of a different evolutionary track that never quite spread beyond the Wupper Valley. It calls to mind the familiar yet fantastical depictions of European cities in Miyazaki films like Howl’s Moving Castle—but instead of transporting novice witches, this thing takes people to dentist appointments.

As dusk began to settle on the city beneath the rail, I saw a little girl with pigtails gazing out of the back window with even more intensity than I had been. Maybe she could see river sprites splashing in the currents below. Maybe she felt like she was flying with them. Of this I was certain: With infrastructure like the Schwebebahn, it’s no wonder Germany continues to produce generation after generation of transit supporters.

This story has been updated to note the Schwebebahn’s temporary closing until summer 2019.

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