In a Win for Independent Businesses, U.S. Supreme Court Rules for Sales Tax Fairness

On Thursday morning, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door for states to require out-of-state and online retailers to collect state sales taxes. It’s an important day for independent businesses: After years of being forced to compete at a significant price disadvantage, locally owned businesses finally have a shot at a more level playing field when it comes to sales tax.… Read More

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Make Way for Little Vehicles

The public reaction to the arrival of dockless bikes and electric scooters in U.S. cities can be tracked in stages. The first stage, for many, was annoyance. Who were these grown men and women on candy-colored bikes and teeny kick-scooters speeding down the streets and sidewalks, menacing walkers and leaving their rented toys all over the place? Especially in San Francisco, where this whimsical new mobility mode has taken off, scooters have come to represent yet another example of tech industry entitlement, another way for a startup to move fast and break stuff.

In response, many a Twitter urbanist has used this backlash to point out the relative danger and disruption of larger dockless vehicles:

The second stage is epiphany, when the reluctant first-time user—out of curiosity or journalistic responsibility—actually tries a dockless bike or e-scooter and realizes that they are not only a visual counterpoint to the bulk and terror of cars, but a delightful and crazily practical alternative to them.

That leads to stage three, if it comes: mass adoption.

Call them Little Vehicles—not just bikes and scooters, but e-bikes, velomobiles, motorized skateboards, unicycles, “hoverboards,” and other small, battery-powered low-speed not-a-cars. Nearly all of them look silly, but if cities take them seriously, they could be a really, really big deal. Little Vehicles could significantly erode private car and ride-hail use, and play a key role in helping cities achieve their as of now unattainable environmental and road safety goals.

Getting to mass adoption will require Little Vehicles for all seasons, for all sorts of trips, and for all types of people. Solutions to these obstacles exist, and many more will surely be dreamed up. The bigger challenge will be de-conditioning ourselves out of the belief that cars—whether privately owned or for hire—are the default mode of transportation in dense cities.

This, of course, has been the urbanist’s dream since the days of Jane Jacobs and the post-war car boom. What’s changed is the technology (improved battery life has made today’s crop of tiny e-boosted contraptions far more usable), the economics, and, perhaps, the political will for human-centered infrastructure. Often cheaper, faster, and more fun than a car, Little Vehicles could provide the critical mass that finally drives the automobile to its knees in America’s big cities.

Like a car, but littler

Regular old bicycles, not just the colorful shared kind, are the OG LV, and to them all subsequent Little Vehicles should pay tribute. But the two elements that could make Little Vehicles a more viable mode for the masses—electrification and heterogeneity of vehicle designs—represent evolutionary changes to the long-static bike concept. Electric motors, recumbent or stand-up postures, and protective shells could eventually give just about everyone, not just the fit and fearless, the opportunity to discover the freedom, fun, and affordability that the urban cyclist sweats and swerves for.

“The electric scooters and electric bikes are going to get people to try these things, but then… they’re going to start finding these alternatives,” said Terenig Topjian founder of Have a Go, which aspires to be the Consumer Reports of LVs. The site divides these vehicles, all of which boast electric power, into three categories based on size, ranging from unicycles and motorized skateboards, to folding bikes and scooters, to enclosed velomobiles and featherweight cars.

An URB-E in action. (URB-E)

These products are definitely not toys. Most cost at least $1,000, and many rival the price of an older used car. But for some urban motorists, once parking, gas, tolls, insurance, and maintenance get tossed in, they can be a money-saver compared to car ownership (or frequent Ubering). “If you have that one- to two-mile last mile problem, and it becomes your primary mode, it just makes sense to buy one,” Topjian said.

One of the vehicles Have a Go recommends is URB-E, which makes an e-scooter that’s more practical for daily use than the shared scooters currently on city streets. The 30-pound vehicle is ridden from a seated posture, and can fold up to be carried or pushed like a wheelie backpack. All models are compatible with a metal basket accessory that can be used as a cart at the grocery store. They’re particularly handy for train and subway commuters: A third of owners report taking their URB-E on mass transit with them, said Evan Saunders, the company’s head of sales and marketing.

Rather than feeling threatened by the venture capital and hype raining down on the dockless sector, URB-E and other for-sale Little Vehicle companies seem confident in their respective niches, and are poised to capitalize on the growing acceptance of this transportation mode. “The fact that this is all occurring in the scooter space is a strong message that transportation in the urban environment is rapidly changing, and that the public is readily adapting to a variety of systems,” said Rob Cotter, founder and CEO of Organic Transit.

Cotter is the inventor of the ELF, which stands for electric, light, and fun. It’s a velomobile—a recumbent, electrically boosted tricycle-car that’s covered in a protective plastic shell. Legally, it can traverse roadways or bike lanes. Lights, turn signals, and (optional) doors make night and poor-weather travel more car-like and comfy, while a solar panel on the roof can keep the battery topped up while parked. It also has a somewhat car-like list price: Around $9,000.

The Easter-egg-like ELF might be the most adorable Little Vehicle on the market. But it also addresses a number of safety and practicality issues that have kept people roped into car payments. The ELF 2FR can carry 500 pounds of cargo and can seat two adults, or one adult and two children. In the millions of miles ridden since its 900 units sold, no one has been seriously hurt, Cotter said.

Cotter dreamed up the ELF while working as a consultant for New York City’s CitiBike bikeshare system. “It dawned on me that if New York City is putting in 300 miles of bike trails then there’s a market for a different kind of bike,” he said. “One that keeps you out of the rain, provides greater safety, allows you to carry passengers and cargo, gets you up the hill without sweating.” Another way he described his vision: “How close can we come to getting what we needed from a car, without being a car?”

According to the Federal Highway Administration’s National Household Travel Survey, nearly half (45.6 percent) of all . The company wisely pivoted to cheaper consumer offerings—Segway now manufactures a range of mobility gizmos, from the kick-scooters used by a number of the most popular dockless companies to the truly ludicrous One S1, an electric unicycle. The company’s iconic “personal transporters” are still a part of the expanded Little Vehicle universe, but they typically find more niche, commercial uses, as steeds for tourists, mall cops, and parking officers: We never did see fleets of commuters aboard the things in American cities.

Is this cool? It sure feels cool. (Arturo Rodriguez/AP)

Today’s trendiest Little Vehicles, the shared e-scooters, have solved the cost problem, but they could still be taken down by the nerd factor and the fact that they’re not really at home on either the streets or the sidewalks. But these services also have a huge advantage, in that they can follow in the wake of America’s remarkably successful docked bikeshare systems, and in Ofo and Mobike, the Chinese dockless bikeshare pioneers.

Despite those viral photos of Chinese bike graveyards, these two companies, both of which claim to be the world’s biggest bikeshare provider, have seen phenomenal “adoption curves.” Ofo alone went from providing an average of 300,000 rides per day in the first quarter of 2017, to an average of around 30 million rides per day in recent months on its bike and scooter networks in 300 cities worldwide, according to Chris Taylor, its head of North American operations. For context, the average weekday ridership of all U.S. public transit systems combined is about 34 million.

Of course, the U.S. is hardly the republic of bicycles, and probably never will be. A flurry of headlines recently questioned the viability of dockless bikeshare in the U.S., homing in on data from NACTO that found only four percent of the 35 million bikeshare rides taken in 2017 were on dockless bikes, and that dockless systems average .3 rides per day per bike, compared to 1.7 for docked systems. A major caveat of these findings was that dockless bikeshare only arrived in most cities in the second half of 2017, and many of the systems did not make their data available to NACTO.

More recent numbers paint a very different picture. Ofo’s U.S. network, which as of now consists only of human-powered bikes, did one million rides in the first quarter of 2018 and another million in the first two months of the second quarter, Taylor said. Lime’s mix of bikes, e-bikes, and e-scooters recently hit 4 million total rides on its network, after hitting the 2.5 million mark in February. In less than half a year, those two companies alone accounted for more than 3.5 million rides, or 10 percent of the total U.S. bikeshare ridership in 2017.

Lime is finding that battery-boosted bikes and scooters are able to attract more riders per day than traditional bikes, but they also found that when scooters are introduced to a market, bike usage also increases. Additionally, a recent survey found that 75 percent of dockless bikeshare riders in Seattle used the service to access transit. Each Lime scooter generates an average of 9.3 rides per day, bringing in $27.70 in revenue, and $14.30 in costs, according to Axios. And according to data from the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Association, JUMP’s pilot of 250 bikes accounted for an average of 1,230 trips per day in May, or about six trips per bike (a couple dozen bikes are typically not in operation on a given day for maintenance).

The major players in this burgeoning transportation sector tend to view themselves as micromobility providers rather than evangelists of a particular vehicle type. Uber and Lyft may be associated with cars, but they’re expanding into both bikes and scooters. Motivate, the docked bikeshare company, has recently diversified into e-bikes and dockless technology. Ofo is expecting to add scooters and e-bikes to its North American fleet this year. And Lime, which currently offers scooters, bikes, and e-bikes, is developing a “transit pod,” which will be something like an enclosed electric scooter.

Meanwhile, Organic Transit, maker of the ELF, is working on a new model that will not require pedaling, and is participating in an autonomous vehicle experiment with the University of Washington. There are already shared networks of ELFs at universities, resorts, and among private employers, and the company is looking at more shared options for the general public, according to company CEO Cotter, which could speed adoption among potential ELF pilots who can’t afford to purchase one outright.

“Ultimately to fuel people’s needs in the urban environment we’re going to need a variety of vehicle applications for different purposes and personal needs,” said Cotter. “And all of them are pretty much wonderful for specific uses—really, except for the automobile.”  

Mobilizing a Little Vehicle voting bloc

Transportation recently became the single biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.; in cities, it tends to represent an even larger share. Meanwhile, 246 American cities signed on to the Paris Climate Agreement, which represents a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and even more by 2025. Some cities have gone further: Los Angeles recently pledged to produce zero net carbon emissions by 2050. Washington, D.C. has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation by 60 percent by 2032.

In addition, 34 American cities have signed on to Vision Zero, a commitment to eliminate all traffic fatalities and major injuries that, so far, has been stymied by Americans’ increasingly lethal penchant for distracted driving. Vision Zero cities San Francisco and New York saw decreases in pedestrian and cyclist deaths in 2017, but other signatory cities, like Chicago and Los Angeles, saw increases—not just year over year, but above five year averages—tracking with a nationwide increase in traffic fatalities in recent years.

Riders in Los Angeles take to the streets en masse at CicLAvia 2011. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

How to reach these ambitious climate and safety goals? Well, electrifying the urban vehicle fleet is a modest start, and there are a host of road-design tweaks that can make streets safer for motorists and pedestrians alike. But there’s a more straightforward fix: fewer cars.

Indeed, that’s the direction that the most progressive cities in the U.S. are heading. “I think that the broad direction of our policy in San Francisco is toward more choices and fewer cars, especially in our most congested areas,” said Tom Maguire, director of sustainable streets for San Francisco’s metropolitan transit authority. The city has a goal of 80 percent of trips in the city being on “sustainable modes” by 2035, up from just over 50 percent today. D.C. wants to reduce auto mode share for commuters from 39 percent to 25 percent by 2032.

The problem is, the political will to curtail car usage can be elusive, as anyone who’s ever sat through a community meeting on adding bike lanes can attest. As their usage expands, however, Little Vehicle riders could provide the voting bloc to accelerate that process.

“We have an opportunity to build a grassroots constituency for the first time for that major infrastructure change,” said Emily Warren, Lime’s senior director of policy and public affairs. Adding protected bike lanes and designated Little Vehicle parking areas can be accomplished quickly and relatively cheaply, as infrastructure investment goes—if voters and city leaders are all on the same page.

The well-capitalized Little Vehicle industry can also help pay for these changes, as evidenced by Bird’s Save Our Sidewalks pledge, which suggests that these companies pay cities $1 per vehicle per day for infrastructure improvements. Future city permits could offer expanded fleet sizes in exchange for infrastructure contributions.

In addition to street design improvements, the biggest thing cities can do to make Little Vehicles a safe, reliable, and popular transportation mode is implementing congestion charges for cars, said Susan Shaheen, a professor of transportation engineering at UC Berkeley. Indeed, congestion pricing and increased LV usage would be two sides of the same coin. “Getting to a point where one could forego a car or reduce the number of cars in a household means that there needs to be a more vibrant mobility ecosystem people feel like they can rely on,” she said. There’s “a lot of room in this continuum between the private car and mass transit.”

Making the big city littler

But as those who have ridden an electric bike, scooter, skateboard, or velomobile well know, there’s something more to their appeal than their sheer utility. Not only is it thrilling to zoom past cars with the aid of a vehicle that feels a lot like a toy you used to play with as a little kid, it’s also strangely intimate. On a Little Vehicle, you get up close and personal with the city and those who inhabit it—making eye contact with others much more often than you would from a car, and perhaps even exchanging pleasantries with pedestrians or fellow riders at a red light. These are pleasures well known to the urban cyclist—but now more and more people are able to experience them.

“When I ride these different options I feel in many ways more connected to the environment around me than I do when I’m inside a car,” Lime’s Warren said.

In a recent article on the rise of “dumb phones,” John Hermann of the New York Times drew a connection between the car and the smartphone—two essentials of modern life that are often infuriating, even harmful. Just as de-contented “dumb phones” strip away that technology’s nonessential features for a more relaxed, fulfilling experience, so can Little Vehicles offer a purer, simpler alternative to the automobile. They do one thing—provide mobility. In fact, Little Vehicles could help with our dangerous twin addictions to driving and playing with smartphones. Even if you need to use a mobile device to unlock your ride, once you’re on, your attention is on the city, not your screen—the opposite of a typical Uber ride.

And the city that you look upon, that you feel closer to, can be an antidote to the atomizing, isolating effects produced by both phones and cars. By design, cities produce moments of human togetherness—public spaces in which you must look your interlocutor in the eye. And they are, increasingly, focused on collective, unmediated fun, especially in those spaces reclaimed from cars. Events like Los Angeles’ CicLAvia, or San Francisco’s Sunday Streets demonstrate just how much space our cities have for recreation and community gatherings when streets are designated for people.

These dopey new Little Vehicles seem like the most appropriate way to move about this city of play. And if we embrace them, they could change a lot more than just how urbanites get from place to place. Freed from the car, the city could become “more of a playground,” Cotter said. “It’s a desirable place to be in. And the vehicles that you use to get around when it’s not convenient or possible to be walking also add value to your life.”

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How HUD Could Reverse Course on Racial Discrimination

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development signaled on Wednesday that it may reverse an Obama-era rule that bans more subtle forms of discrimination in housing.

At a time when the department is already locked in a court battle over fair housing law and proposing to raise rents on low-income families, the move indicates Secretary Ben Carson’s efforts to rethink the department’s fundamental obligation to protect vulnerable residents against discrimination.

The department issued a notice that it plans to revisit its rule regarding “disparate impact,” a legal doctrine that prohibits discrimination that happens as an effect of a policy whose language is otherwise neutral. Under this standard, lenders and landlords may not enact any practice that disproportionately negatively affects minorities, even if the practice itself is not explicitly discriminatory.

HUD adopted a final rule on the disparate impact provision in 2013, formally recognizing a ban on any “facially neutral practice that has a discriminatory effect.” The rule confirmed the department’s long-held reading of the Fair Housing Act, making its use consistent across jurisdictions. The U.S. Supreme Court further weighed in on disparate impact in 2015, affirming in a 5-4 decision that civil rights law indeed prohibits policies that indirectly affect minorities adversely. Eleven earlier federal appellate courts all confirmed the doctrine.

While the disparate impact doctrine has guided employment law for decades, its application in housing was settled more recently by the courts. By reopening the issue, critics say that Carson may be trying to weaken the rule in favor of industry—and in conflict with established jurisprudence.

“This new advance notice of proposed rulemaking appears to ask the kinds of questions that you might ask if you were trying to water down a rule,” says Jesse Van Tol, CEO of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a nonprofit that promotes fair practices in lending and housing. “Are there loopholes that should be provided? Is the rule burdensome?”

HUD published its notice in the Federal Register, a first step in the rulemaking process required by law. The notice says that the department is reviewing the rule to see what, if any, changes are necessary in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project—the 2015 decision that affirmed the disparate impact reading of fair housing law. HUD did not respond to a request for comment.

“As HUD conducts its review, it is soliciting public comment on the disparate impact standard set forth in the final rule and supplement, the burden-shifting approach, the relevant definitions, the causation standard, and whether changes to these or other provisions of the rule would be appropriate,” the notice reads.

The settled discriminatory-effect rule established a three-part “burden-shifting test” to determine whether a practice violates the Fair Housing Act. First, a plaintiff, typically a fair housing group, has to prove a prima facie case that a policy discriminates on the basis of race, gender, or another protected class. Then, the defendant, often a bank or mortgage lender, must show that the policy serves a business interest—that it reduces risk, for example. That shifts the burden back to the plaintiff, who must then show that there’s a way to accomplish the same goal without discriminating.

The Trump administration has already moved to walk back another fair housing rule, a decision that has drawn sharp criticism from civil rights advocates. Under the Fair Housing Act, the government is required to actively work to achieve desegregation; during the Obama administration, HUD finally implemented an Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule. Early this year, however, Carson postponed implementing the rule.

Housing advocates sued the Trump administration last month to try to push the department to enforce this fair housing rule. At the same time, HUD scrapped the tool that was key to facilitating the AFFH rule at the community level. The same housing organizations sued Carson and HUD over that decision, too. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state attorney general moved to join that lawsuit earlier this month.

“As former HUD Secretary, it is appalling to me that the agency would abdicate its responsibility to fight housing segregation and discrimination and allow this deplorable practice to continue,” Governor Cuomo said in a statement.

With its Inclusive Communities decision, the Supreme Court argued that Texas discriminated against minorities by concentrating federal tax credits for affordable housing in mostly poor, mostly minority neighborhoods around Dallas. That strategy, while not on its surface discriminatory, had the effect of keeping low-income residents away from high-opportunity, mostly white neighborhoods—a disparate impact that violated the Fair Housing Act.

Van Tol says that it’s hardly the case that courts decide most fair housing cases in favor of plaintiffs. If that were so, it might be reasonable to conclude that HUD’s disparate impact rule proved burdensome for the industry. Courts throw out fair housing cases frequently, he says.

“Historically, discrimination in housing has taken two forms, implicit and explicit,” Van Tol says. “What we’ve successfully managed to drive out of the mortgage industry in particular is intentional and explicit discrimination. But implicit discrimination still exists.”

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CityLab Daily: Mayors Visit the Border

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***

What We’re Following

Family matters: City leaders are still wrapping their heads around the crisis created by separating migrant children from their parents in detention centers across the country. On Wednesday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio visited a center in Harlem where the federal government had quietly housed 239 unaccompanied children away from the border (New York Times). In Portland, Oregon, protests against the “zero-tolerance” policy shut down an ICE office (CNN). And in Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced an executive order prohibiting the city’s jails from accepting new ICE detainees (Governing).

Back in Texas, there were about 4,000 children spread across 32 shelters in the state by mid-May, according to the Texas Tribune, which has mapped the detention facilities along with the number of children and health/safety violations at each center. We’re watching as U.S. mayors visit the port of entry in Tornillo, Texas, today to call for action on family reunification. Stay tuned.

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

Learning From LeBron

More people should think about where they want to live and work as seriously as LeBron James does.

Richard Florida

When a Suburb Tries to Densify, Forget ‘Minnesota Nice’

Outside the Twin Cities, housing advocates are fighting with local governments, reluctant neighbors—and, occasionally, each other.

Rachel M. Cohen

The Tax on Black and Brown Customers When Dealing With Community Banks

According to a new study from New America, African Americans and Latinx incur more bank account costs and fees than whites even when dealing with small financial institutions.

Brentin Mock and David Montgomery

How the Plastic Straw Came to Life in American Cities

It started with a “Yankee mania for sanitation” and took off alongside soda fountains and McDonald’s. Local governments can try to ban the plastic straw now, but they can’t do a thing about the vast system that’s attached to it.

Alexis C. Madrigal

In Mumbai, a Push to Recognize the Successes of ‘Informal’ Development

An area made famous by Slumdog Millionaire might look crammed and chaotic to outsiders, but a local urbanist group shows the intricate, valuable complexity that exists there. Can that save the neighborhood from demolition?

Feargus O’Sullivan


Trailers, Mapped

(Apartment List)

About 5.6 percent of all U.S. households (6.6 million households, or 17.7 million people) live in manufactured housing, commonly referred to as “mobile homes” or “trailers,” according to a new report from Apartment List. With one in 18 Americans living in a mobile home or trailer, the low-cost housing option is at its lowest share of total housing since the 1980s, after taking off as the Reagan administration slashed federal funding for affordable housing. The map above shows how common mobile homes are in metro areas around the country (larger circles mean more people, redder circles mean larger share of housing stock).

The top four states with the highest concentration of mobile homes are New Mexico (16.6 percent), South Carolina (15.7 percent), West Virginia (14.4 percent) and Mississippi (14.1 percent).

CityLab context: When it comes to affordable housing, mobile homes matter


What We’re Reading

Could architects help solve New York’s big, stinky trash crisis? (Fast Company)

When grudges build up, you get spite buildings (The Guardian)

Autonomous vehicles might drive cities to financial ruin (Wired)

20 ways cities can boost quality of life (Curbed)

Michael Bloomberg will spend $80 million on the mid-terms. His goal: flip the House. (New York Times)


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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When a Suburb Tries to Densify, Forget ‘Minnesota Nice’

In late April, some residents of Normandale Lake Estates, an apartment complex in Bloomington, Minnesota, just outside of Minneapolis, received a letter informing them that their leases were being terminated and they’d have to move out by June 1. New owners had recently bought the building and planned to upgrade the units. Existing tenants were told they could prequalify to return, but many suspect the new rents will be higher than they can afford. In the meantime, they’re scrambling to find new places to live.

For some of the displaced Bloomington renters, this isn’t the first time they’ve been forced out of their homes. A little over two years ago, in the nearby suburb of Richfield, new owners purchased an apartment complex called Crossroads at Penn. They renamed it Concierge, renovated the units, and priced out hundreds of families. Some of those Crossroads tenants, like Lisa Jones, who relies on a federal housing voucher for herself and her two grandchildren, and Linda Soderstrom, also on federal housing subsidy, moved from Richfield to the Normandale Lake Estates. Now they’ve been pushed out once more.

“The lack of humanity is deep,” Soderstrom told The Star-Tribune. “It’s really deep.”

After the Crossroads takeover in late 2015, housing activists and community groups across the metropolitan region began meeting regularly to strategize how they could confront the challenges of rising rents and displacement. Soon the Suburban Hennepin Housing Coalition was born—comprised of nearly two dozen community and faith-based groups. Their mission centered on the “the three P’s”—preservation of affordable housing, production of affordable housing, and protection of tenants.

Much of the attention around affordable housing in the U.S. has tended to focus on cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle—densely built urban areas where land for new housing is in short supply. But most Americans live in suburbs, many of which are seeing rapidly increasing poverty and racial diversity. Here, the need for affordable housing can be just as acute, but the dynamics of the issue are distinct from the urban version—and, often, more complex.

On the outskirts of the Twin Cities, the housing crisis includes some familiar ingredients—anxieties about race and poverty, debates about density and “neighborhood character.” But here there are also deep divisions between various pro-housing advocacy organizations, as well as big differences between suburbs, depending on their relative affluence.  

Hope Melton, a retired urban planner, has lived in the wealthy suburb of Edina for nearly 40 years. Last fall, she invited some neighbors to meet in her living room, to kickstart a conversation about steep local housing prices. They’ve been meeting and growing their group ever since.

“Fifteen or twenty years ago, the affordable housing crisis was mainly hitting poor people,” Melton told CityLab. “Now it’s affecting a much wider swath of people. We’ve really been attracting a lot of seniors in Edina, the older generation is really stepping up.”

Although the Twin Cities have historically been one of the nation’s most affordable places to live, the region has a markedly low rental vacancy rate, meaning there’s high demand for new units and steady pressure on rents. Activists fear that “flipping” affordable units into luxury market-rate apartments will become increasingly common prospects for investors, especially those from out-of-state.

Anne Mavity, the executive director of the Minnesota Housing Partnership, says the region is not building new affordable units at the rate at which presently affordable units are disappearing. Market-rate units that were constructed 35 years ago are generally reasonably priced today simply because they’re and older and not fancy. The term-of-art for these types of units is “NOAH” or “naturally-occurring affordable housing.”

“We’re losing NOAH at a rapid pace,” Mavity said. “And every time a sale happens, the price of the unit is going to go up, the rents will go up. We are increasingly attractive to national investors, and that is not good for our residents.”

To combat some of these trends, the Suburban Hennepin Housing Coalition has been organizing around several key policy areas, namely to add new affordable housing stock, and help tenants fight displacement. In March, for example, the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park passed a first-of-its-kind ordinance requiring new property owners to give low-income tenants 90 days notice to find a new place to live if they’re being priced out, and to pay for tenants’ moving expenses. A similar rule was just introduced to the Bloomington City Council this month, according to the city’s program manager, Bryan Hartman.

Nelima Sitati-Munene, executive director of the African Career Education & Resource, Inc. (ACER), a group focused on organizing the African immigrant community in Minnesota and a member of the Suburban Hennepin Housing Coalition, says they’ve been pushing municipal leaders to no longer “view the landlord as the only stakeholder” in their cities. In her suburb of Brooklyn Park, activists recently succeeded in getting rental affordability requirements included in new multi-family housing developments.

Sitati-Munene says organizing around suburban governments has been both a challenge and opportunity. “The reality is this affordable housing crisis is a new phenomenon for a lot of people,” she said. “And a lot of suburban city councilmembers are part-time. A lot of leaders have been really surprised to learn what’s going on, to hear people’s personal stories.”

Still, the fundamental tensions associated with affordable housing debates in other parts of the country persist here: Many suburbanites are vehemently opposed to changes in local development patterns, especially when the word “density” comes up.

“That’s a very polarizing issue,” said Ricardo Perez, a community developer at the Community Action Partnership of Hennepin County, when I asked him about increasing housing density as a strategy to boost affordability. “I personally leave it to the policy experts to have those conversations amongst themselves. My main focus is on community and to serve those families who are being affected directly by these issues.”

Aaron Berc, a housing organizer with Jewish Community Action and another Suburban Hennepin Housing Coalition leader, was similarly noncommittal on the question of density. “We’re not going to support a project because it’s dense. We’ll support a dense project because it’s affordable,” he said. “Certainly we need more housing—our city needs to go grow. But I would say we need housing that is affordable for the community more than we need more housing.”

These questions around development and density are hardly theoretical abstractions. In March, the city of Minneapolis released a draft comprehensive plan which included a new proposal to upzone neighborhoods so that single-family-homes could be more easily converted into fourplexes, an idea with the strong backing of Minneapolis’s new mayor, Jacob Frey. “Affordable housing is a right,” he tweeted in March. “Addressing our supply—and shortage—is going to be a key part of realizing that right.”  

Some groups, like the Defend Glendale Public Housing Coalition, have already come out in strong opposition to the fourplex idea; they argue that relying on market-based solutions will inevitably make things worse for low-income people and increase displacement. The city is accepting public comment on the draft proposal through the end of July.

In Edina, efforts to add more housing have also met stiff resistance. The City Council recently rejected a proposal for a new seven-story building, which would have included 20 percent of its 135 units as affordable. In October the Edina City Council rejected another proposed high-rise condo building, this one of 173 new units, with twenty percent of them designated as affordable.

There’s no doubt that height and density are the two issues that have focused people’s minds as we address development, redevelopment and affordable housing,” says Melton. “How would I characterize the conversation? Chaotic, emotional, uninformed.”

The dynamics get more complicated, Melton says, as residents wrestle with complex issues of race and class through the politics of Midwestern cultural norms. “‘Minnesota Nice’ plays into this very much,” she said. “People don’t raise their voice, nobody wants to talk about race, nobody wants to talk about their responsibility historically for what’s happened to people that they don’t want to have in their community.”

Instead, Melton says, her neighbors will “say they don’t want ‘urban’ things, that they don’t want all the noise and diversity and crowding and traffic and all that,” she says. “Those things they regard as negative, and they moved to Edina to escape it.”

Bruce McCarthy, the president of the Lake Cornelia Neighborhood Association in Edina, has said he is “very pro-development” but that “we just want to see it a certain kind of way.” He’s urged his city council to focus on its new comprehensive plan before it approves any new project that requires amending building size requirements.

Yet even among housing activists who might otherwise be on the same side, the issue of racial integration and fair housing can be charged. In 2014, two of the Twin City’s most racially diverse suburbs, Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park, filed a federal fair housing complaint against the state, alleging that policymakers had illegally concentrated subsidized housing and poverty in their cities, in defiance of a state law that requires affluent communities to provide their “fair share” of affordable housing. The re-adoption of a “fair system” is a way of ensuring that more subsidized units end up in higher-income areas. The Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing (MICAH), a faith-based housing organization, partnered with the cities on the complaint.

Sue Watlov Phillips, executive director of MICAH, says the Metropolitan Council, a regional government agency charged with enforcing the “fair share” law (among many other municipal duties) has been resistant to their complaint, though HUD is continuing to investigate their grievances.

“We’re not saying anyone needs to move or be forced to move, but we’re saying we want to make sure if you want to move out to another place, you should have affordable housing and opportunity in every community,” she said. “We went from being one of the most integrated metros in the country to one of the most segregated, and a lot of it was because we have designated our resources and policies so housing could only be developed in certain areas.”

But Sitati-Munene of Brooklyn Park’s ACER opposes the fair housing complaint: Her group insists that the working-class suburbs of Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center need much more subsidized housing construction, not less.

Despite disagreements over strategy, placement, and scale, the fact that groups in in the Twin Cities metro are even wrestling with these issues puts them ahead of the curve nationally when it comes to organizing the suburbs. And activists acknowledge that the housing issues they’re confronting are not unique to their region.

“After the foreclosure crisis people lost their homes and more people have started to rent,” says Sitati-Munene. “Rental markets are flooded, and prices are going up. If other suburbs aren’t dealing with affordable housing issues now, it’s coming.”

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The Tax on Black and Brown Customers When Dealing With Community Banks

On May 24, a multi-racial gaggle of Congress members wriggled for prime positioning around Donald Trump as he prepared to sign the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act into law. The bill considerably scales back the Dodd-Frank Act reforms passed in 2010 in response to the financial crash and was passed with the votes of 33 Democrats in the House and 17 in the Senate. It essentially frees small community banks and credit unions from many of the Dodd-Frank regulations, including reporting requirements that would help identify racially discriminatory banking practices.

“By liberating small banks from excessive bureaucracy,” said Trump at the signing, “we are unleashing the economic potential of our people.”

It also unleashes a greater potential for small banks to financially burden people of color and people with low incomes. Under Dodd-Frank, banks large and small were subjected to stricter regulatory monitoring, but the new law exempts small banks from much of that oversight. During the Occupy Wall Street protests, many activists pushed for people to close their accounts at large, corporate banks and to, instead, open accounts in smaller community banks and credit unions, under the premise that they are less prone to exploitative banking practices. That reputation is not well deserved, though, according to a study released today on the “Racialized Costs of Banking” by the D.C.-based think tank New America.

Analyzing data collected from surveys from over 1,300 financial institutions, the study finds that community banks—or “Main St. banks,” as they’re identified in the report—also discriminate against black and Latinx customers, particularly when it comes to the fees associated with opening, maintaining, and closing checking accounts. Not only that, but the relationship-based character that neighborhood banks often sell themselves on—where bank staff use discretionary power to assess or waive fees and penalties based on their relationship with the customer—has been a driving force for discrimination at the teller window.

For example, the study finds that overdraft fees are higher in banks located in predominantly black and Latinx neighborhoods when compared with the overdraft fees assessed in white communities. Not only that, but banks in black and Latinx neighborhoods are more likely to use credit-screening agencies for opening accounts than they are in white neighborhoods.

Other findings from the report:

  • Banks in predominantly African-American neighborhoods require higher opening deposit charges for starting a basic checking account.
  • The average minimum balance needed to maintain a checking account without incurring fees is $625.50 in majority-white neighborhoods. In Latinx neighborhoods, it’s $748.80. In black neighborhoods it’s $870.50. In some non-white neighborhoods it’s $957.10.
  • Because of racial wealth and income gaps in the U.S., people of color end up needing to deposit a higher percentage of their paychecks into their checking accounts to avoid fees or closure. African Americans and Latinx Americans usually have to deposit 6 percent of their take-home checks, on average. For whites banking, that amount is only 3 percent of their checks.

There is essentially a tax on being black and brown when banking in America no matter the size of the financial institution. Segregation only exacerbates that tax, according to the study. We know that in cities like Atlanta, segregation allows for shady payday loan and check-cashing counters to be concentrated in black neighborhoods. These maps created for a prior New America study on where financial institutions are located, show what that looks like in other cities.

The red dots in the first map are alternative services like check-cashing counters, the shading in the second two maps shows where minority and low-income residents are concentrated.

(New America)
(New America)

(New America)

According to the “Racialized Costs of Banking” study, segregation also ends up costing people of color when they use the traditional banks in their neighborhoods. For black people, that means paying, on average, $190 more in costs and fees for maintaining checking accounts than do whites. Latinx pay an average of $262 more in costs when banking.

These are not marginal expenses, especially for those on the lower ends of the payscale who have far less disposable income to work with. As the study’s authors write, “These practices powerfully illustrate how banks can engage in racially discriminatory practices that effectively siphon wealth out of communities of color through the very financial products and services that are considered to be tools for wealth and investment.”

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In Mumbai, a Push to Recognize the Successes of ‘Informal’ Development

To an outsider, the Dharavi neighborhood might not seem like much of a role model. A hyper-dense network of narrow lanes close to the heart of Mumbai, this area was made internationally famous as the setting of Slumdog Millionaire. It packs an incredible (estimated) 700,000 residents into just 0.8 square miles, with provisional-looking buildings threaded together and only rudimentary transit and sanitation infrastructure. The area is frequently damned in the Indian media as the country’s largest example of that terrifying but subjectively-defined urban nightmare: the slum.

But Dharavi’s days in its current form may be numbered. An ongoing, long-delayed plan to demolish the area and start afresh seems to be gathering momentum, with a Dubai-based firm currently bidding to overhaul it completely.

Similar redevelopment schemes in other Indian cities have often smashed the heart out of neighborhoods, destroying social and cultural support networks without meaningfully improving conditions for displaced residents or building something sustainable and vibrant. So is it really the best option for Dharavi? Urbz, an “experimental action and research collective” that’s been based in the neighborhood for 10 years, insists the bulldozer is not the answer.

What Dharavi exhibits isn’t chaos, but something altogether different, Urbz’s researchers say. It’s an intricate and valuable complexity. Through their work shadowing and working with the local community, Urbz has been trying to expose to Mumbai’s largely unresponsive officialdom how Dharavi is the creation of a highly engaged community, and could indeed stand as a bottom-up development model for elsewhere.

CityLab discussed this complexity in conversation with Urbz co-founders, urban planner Matias Echanove and anthropologist Rahul Srisvastava at the reSITE 2018 conference in Prague this month. While he’s not strictly advocating for architectural preservation, Srisvastava suggests that wholesale redevelopment that shatters Dharavi’s development model and community links would be shortsighted.

“The conventional approach to redeveloping Dharavi would be what most cities do—the global model of multi-rise structure in a mass-housing project. But Dharavi has grown through very special relationships between economic activity, family needs, community needs.”

One of Urbz’s own projects reveals some of these relationships geographically. The map below, created by Urbz for an exhibition staged in Mumbai last year, shows the sheer variety of links between the city and the rest of India. On the left is a map of the whole country, on the right one of Mumbai. Visitors were asked to pin a ribbon between their Mumbai neighborhood and their home village. The result is not a simple exodus to the city from the countryside, but an intricate network of two-way connections between the two.

An interactive map installation created for the Mumbai Return Exhibition. (Urbz)

Traffic along these lines does not flow in one direction. Many Dharavi-ites maintain bases in both city and country, using income earned in Mumbai to build homes back in villages, where they often keep second households throughout their lives. Within Dharavi, these home villages also have a presence in the city as a whole, sometimes collectively renting urban dormitories for new arrivals from the country to live and work in.

To outsiders, the buildings that house these circulatory migrants may look informally cobbled together, but they are in fact constructed by professional contractors. These contractors have clear ideas of what they can or should build based on local needs; according to long-established tradition, the buildings are divided into one-room tenements (referred to in India as chawls) that function as both living and working spaces.

The role of professionals in building what Urbz calls “home-grown” neighborhoods often remains masked, however, because most construction business is carried out orally, without written or drawn designs. Contractors discuss what to build with clients, and building begins straight away, meaning the entire architectural process is essentially invisible.

One Urbz project from 2016—called “Ideal Home, Dharavi Contractor”—sought to bring this architectural process more explicitly to light. Translating local contractors’ unwritten, undrawn designs into scale models, it tried to make visible the fact that Dharavi’s flexible, mixed-use spaces have come about not in the absence of proper design, but because they respond effectively to residents’ needs and means. What’s more, they could continue to do so in the future far better than a grand plan imposed from on high.

The Ideal Home, Dharavi Contractor project asked local builders to design their dream house, specifying a typically narrow 12-by-15-foot site. The builders described their designs to architectural drafts-people, who then drew and cross-checked the designs. Then local artisans built models of the designs in wood, steel, clay, plastic, and glass.

Finished models for the Ideal Home, Dharavi Contractor project. (Urbz)

The results are striking. The contractors designed slender tower houses stacked high with rooms following steep staircases, fronted on every level with balconies filled variously with goods, laundry, or houseplants. With each model comes a shop on the ground floor—an essential feature in a place where homes need to generate income.

It’s not the aesthetics that are significant here, more the unveiling of a design process and degree of thought in construction which powerful outside authorities and decision-makers might otherwise miss. Such was the value of the design process to the participants that Urbz has since started working with them as consultants in actual designs for new buildings, and is collaborating with contractors on two buildings currently going up in Dharavi.

A craftsman in Dharavi completing a model for the Ideal Home, Dharavi Contractor project. (Urbz)

Recognizing the vitality and variety of ways in which Dharavi-ites have created their own environment doesn’t mean sentimentalizing squalor. Indeed, the area could greatly benefit from infrastructure investment that could make it cleaner, more accessible, and altogether easier to live in.

It means acknowledging that informal neighborhoods could actually develop to function well without total re-planning, if they had their facilities upgraded. This upgrade is often withheld because the state views the area’s construction and character as inherently invalid and irremediable.

“In many parts of the world, including Tokyo after World War Two,” Srivastava says, “we have seen this kind of home-grown area was provided with infrastructure. Those areas grew into becoming totally fine, lovable neighborhoods. Yes, of course there are meandering streets, a mix of uses, and a slightly messy look, but actually they function very well. The footprint is respected, but the neighborhood keeps changing all the time.”

This push to recognize the positive aspects of informal development, Urbz acknowledges, is not new, but part of a growing global movement. Indeed, the organization itself has gone global and now has teams in Mumbai, Bogotá, São Paulo, Geneva, and Seoul. No city would necessarily want to emulate the areas where Dharavi fails—areas like sanitation and street repairs. The things the area does get right—its vitality and ability to respond to changes of use—could nonetheless provide both a rebuke and alternative to the grand scale, top-down planning that still dominates city revamps in the Global South.

As Matias Echanove puts it, with excessive central planning:

Cities start looking like excel spreadsheets—you fill up boxes, one box per person, and make your financial plan based on that, and everything is geared towards creating this kind of very audited, regulated space. It’s good for financial planning, but it creates really poor neighborhoods—because they’re mono-functional, they’re boring, because there’s no sense of agency anywhere.

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Learning From LeBron

Our decisions about where to live and work are some of the most important decisions we make. But too often, we don’t really stop to examine them. We stay where we grew up, or move to a nearby city or suburb. We stay where we went to college, or relocate for a job, or follow a partner or spouse. Basically, when it comes to decisions about where to live, we wing it.

Not so for LeBron James. He is the living symbol of taking location seriously. In the coming week or so, James will have to make a decision about whether to extend his current contract and stay in his hometown of Cleveland, or move to another city and franchise to embark on the next chapter in his career. It goes without saying that he will make this decision strategically. And not just with his own career in mind—factors like the opportunity to play with better players, increase his number of championships, and haul in more money. He’s on record as saying that this time, he will factor in his family’s wishes and consult with his kids.

James was widely criticized for the spectacle of “The Decision” when he announced on national TV in 2010 that he was leaving Cleveland to “take [his] talents to South Beach.” But as I wrote at the time, it was also an instance of James, as well as fellow superstars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, taking their careers into their own hands and creating a super-team, with world-class general manager Pat Riley, in a glamorous, multicultural city.

Four years later, in 2014, James announced he would return to Cleveland in a Sports Illustrated essay titled “I’m Coming Home.” He described how he wanted to bring championships to the long-suffering Rust Belt town that gave him so much. With his second decision, he became a symbol of going home and giving back, re-burnishing his tarnished brand in the process.

This time he has a different, perhaps even tougher, choice to make, with many dimensions to consider. Most pundits, and the Vegas odds-makers—yes, they take odds on this sort of thing—seem to think he is headed to one of a small handful of places.

The Lakers lead in the betting odds and have some intangible qualities going for them. James will carefully weigh the pros and cons of joining that storied franchise in L.A., a true superstar city, the center of the entertainment universe, where he already has two homes and spends considerable time. The Lakers’ ownership group is led by Magic Johnson, an uber-successful former NBA star and business mogul. And the team has the money, or so-called  “cap space,” to add more stars. It’s rumored to be eyeing Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, which would create a new Big Three.

James will also take a close look at Philadelphia, a city that currently ranks in second place for landing him, according to the odds-makers. He will weigh the fact that Philly, America’s eighth-largest metro area with 6 million people, is located in the middle of the even larger New York–Boston–Washington corridor, home to 50 million-plus people and one of the largest economies in the world. He’ll gauge the possibilities of winning the East and competing for the NBA championship alongside the Sixers’ young stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.

A billboard near I-480 in the Cleveland area, hoping to entice James to come to Philadelphia (Tony Dejak/AP)

Another team James will likely consider is the Boston Celtics, probably the best team in the Eastern conference and located in the city that the oddsmakers rank fourth on their list. He will tally the pros and cons of joining what is arguably the NBA’s most legendary franchise, where he would be part of a strong organization led by Danny Ainge and reunite with his former Cleveland partner, Kyrie Irving, in that team’s strong nucleus. Boston, like Philadelphia, is on the Acela corridor.

Another leading contender is the Houston Rockets, ranked as the fifth most-likely franchise to attract James, largely due to salary cap issues. Houston is a big, thriving, fast-growing metro. The Rockets already have a fantastic core, led by James’ close friend Chris Paul and the scoring dynamo James Harden, who took the champion Golden State Warriors to seven games this past post-season. One thing James will have to factor in thinking about either Houston or L.A. is that he would move from the less competitive Eastern Conference, where he has always played and dominated, to the NBA’s far more competitive Western Conference, where he will have to get past the Warriors to get back to the finals.

Of course, James will also very seriously think about remaining in his hometown, Cleveland. The odds-makers place his likelihood of remaining there in third place, behind Los Angeles and Philadelphia. He will take a close look at Cleveland’s relatively weak roster and consider the fact that he has lost consecutive finals to the Warriors. He will evaluate whether Cleveland can successfully defend its Eastern Conference title against a more mature Philadelphia team and a loaded Boston squad at full strength. He will weigh the difficulties he has encountered with the team’s owner, Dan Gilbert, and its weak and some say dysfunctional management culture.

The grass sometimes looks greener—and studies say that when it comes to moving, it often does. But home offers James a number of distinct advantages. From a financial perspective, he will consider the fact that Cleveland can offer him the most money in the form of a max deal, and possibly even an ownership stake in the team. And from a personal perspective, it’s hard to understate the significance of remaining where he grew up and honed his basketball skills. His oldest son, LeBron Jr., is now at the high school that launched LeBron himself directly into the NBA, providing yet another reason to stay in place. (James has said he hopes to stay in the NBA long enough to play against his son).

As he weighs his options, he will recall that going back to Cleveland did much to change the narrative about his career and to bolster his brand, which took a hit when he relocated to Miami. Indeed, a detailed study of the career patterns of NBA superstars that I wrote about back in 2012 concluded that the optimizing strategy, on average, for these superstars is to stay with the team where they started out, and recruit more superstars to join them.

LeBron will consider what strategies he and the Cavaliers can undertake through trades and other means to entice other superstars to come to Cleveland, even though their cap space is tight. He will weigh the uncertainty and pressure of joining a new franchise, trying to meld and mesh once again with new players, new coaches, and a new system, following Shaquille O’Neal’s warning against chasing titles in newer and more exotic locales.

Many of us are handicapping LeBron’s decision, rooting for him to move on to a new city—where we live or whose team we root for—or to stay in Cleveland. Personally, I’m hoping he stays put. For one, having lived in Pittsburgh for nearly two decades, I’m always pulling for the revival of the Rust Belt. But I actually think it’s the best decision for him and his career.

While James’ situation is extraordinary, there’s a big lesson in it for all of us: to make our own location decisions as carefully and strategically as he is making his. For those of us fortunate enough to have the ability and means to choose where we can live, it is undoubtedly one of life’s biggest decisions, if not the biggest. The career opportunities that are available, who we decide to take as life partners, and the networks and communities we become part of are all inextricably connected to where we decide to live.

In addition to James being a transcendent basketball player, the decision he’s making encapsulates just how much place matters in the contemporary economy, and in each of our lives.

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How the Next Generation of Mobility will Affect Cities

Mobility is not about a car or a bus, it’s about accessing the resources we need in a timely manner or being in contact with people we want to interact with, for any number of reasons. We have already seen how technology can enable remote access to information and some basic medical care, how people can work remotely from an office base or enable a web of delivery services to avoid the need for individual transport to and from a location. New technologies, both those we label as mobility and those we call Internet based, will continue to evolve and further alter what we think of as mobility.

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TNCs Existential Threat to Public Transportation

It is more than ironic that well into the 21st Century, the one great disruptive change in personal mobility is built upon the increased use of the internal combustion engine. Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft have become major players in the provision of personal mobility, primarily in urban areas. The problem with TNCs – and I say “problem” because it relates to what I perceive as their most negative impacts – is the essential auto-centric nature of the industry.

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