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For generations of veterans, getting help achieving the American dream of homeownership was a built-in benefit of military service. After World War II, GI Bills began providing educational and housing subsidies to veterans and their families; and government-backed Veterans’ Assistance loans (mostly to white vets) helped them easily secure mortgages. As a result, today, even as a housing crisis wracks the country—and as an estimated 40,000 homeless veterans go unsheltered each night—veterans are more likely to own their home than civilians.
But zoom in, and you’ll find that the advantage breaks down by war. According to a new report from Apartment List, veterans who served post-9/11 are actually more likely to struggle to afford housing—far more than any group of veterans before them, and even a little more than the average non-vet American citizen. Nearly 35 percent of them are cost-burdened (meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing) and fewer than half of them own their own homes.
“When you look at the landscape in the way we support our veterans in the housing market, most of it happens on the margins of homelessness, or on the margin of homeownership,” Igor Popov, the author of the report, told CityLab. What this report reveals, he says, is that especially for post-9/11 veterans, focusing on those margins has left out an increasingly unstable middle.
Part of the variance in housing outlook could be explained away by changing demographics, Popov says: Veterans today are younger, and younger people are renting more than they’re buying. They’re also the most diverse cohort in history, meaning they’re more likely to be shut out of the housing market and saddled with intergenerational poverty.
“Underrepresented minorities have unique challenges they face in the housing market,” Popov said. “Whether through implicit discrimination or other things, like the long-lasting effects on neighborhoods of residential segregation.” These are issues that veterans’ assistance policies weren’t initially designed to address—and in some cases, issues that they exacerbated. Today, though African-American and Hispanic veterans only account for around 15 percent of the total U.S. veteran population, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, they account for 45 percent of all homeless ones.
These younger and more diverse demographics do likely account for the homeownership gap, Popov says, but not all of the variance in cost burden. When comparing veterans’ ability to afford housing compared to a civilian cohort of exactly the same age, race, and gender, post-9/11 veterans’ handicap is staggering: While Vietnam veterans are 10 percent more likely to afford their housing costs than their civilian peers, and Gulf War veterans are a full 25 percent more likely, post-9/11 vets are actually 5 percent less likely to be able to afford their housing costs.
“The veterans returning from war today are part of the first generation to not enjoy a housing affordability advantage,” Popov writes.
So what happened? It’s not that post-9/11 vets earn less than other civilians, even as they have to beat them out for the same housing supply, as Popov initially thought. On average, households with post-9/11 veterans actually earn 9 percent more than non-veteran households. It’s not that veterans are supporting larger households: Family sizes are around the same from generation-to-generation. And it’s not just that post-9/11 veterans are trying to live in pricier cities. Wherever they live, veterans are struggling more.
Part of the problem stems from the housing crash of 2008—around the time that many post-9/11 veterans were returning from or deploying to war. Veterans Assistance loans gave veterans favorable credit terms, but in that era’s environment of super-cheap credit, they had less of a premium. “It wasn’t as big of a relative benefit,” said Popov, especially when “everyone was competing for the same housing stock.” In the years after, veterans, especially ones with PTSD, have been disproportionately affected by the opioid epidemic, which can put them down the path towards homelessness and housing instability. For-profit colleges targeted them, leaving thousands saddled with loan debt. All that is compounded by the fact that nationwide, there’s an extreme lack of affordable housing in every metropolitan area. “Getting employment that is at a livable wage when housing costs are so high makes everything harder,” says Randy Brown, a spokesperson for the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
But it could also be that, while the GI Bill and related benefits worked well for some (for a while), veterans of the post-9/11 era aren’t getting the right targeted assistance. “VA home loans are great if you have the money to pay for a mortgage,” says Brown. HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) assistance is great for homeless veterans struggling with mental health issues or disabilities. For veterans at risk of eviction or of falling into homelessness, the biggest benefit is the Supportive Services for Veterans program, which provides temporary financial assistance to those in financial emergencies. “But in between those extremes,” Brown says, “it’s a tough market for affordable housing.”
Even recent proposed updates have backfired. Last year, Donald Trump signed a new Forever GI Bill, which expanded benefits for veterans and their families. But the Department of Veteran Affairs’ IT system wasn’t updated to calculate the new stipends, NBC news reported last month, resulting in missed, incorrect, or late payments to veterans who depend on those stipends for a roof over their heads. This week, NBC found that as of November 8, the glitches had left “more than 82,000 [veterans] … still waiting for their housing payments,” and that hundreds of thousands total were affected.
“A lot of the ways in which we support our veterans date back to policies that were implemented decades ago,” Popov said. “Clearly, the 20th century tactics being enacted are no longer viable when for solving the problems of 21st century veterans.”
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For Carlos Colón and his family, rehabilitating a former Art Deco theater building in downtown Ponce, Puerto Rico, has been the very definition of a labor of love. Committed to revitalizing their hometown by restoring its beautiful historic buildings, the Colóns spent four years and $400,000 of their own money transforming the vacant building into an airy community bakery that pays homage to its past.
Since the building’s genesis in 1940 as El Teatro Argel, it had been used as a movie theater, a disco, a storage space, and a church. The artful structure was the work of Pedro Mendez Mercado, a native of Ponce who received his B.A. in architecture from Syracuse University in 1926 and went on to design many of the Art Deco-style theaters around Ponce, in addition to his most famous work, the Miami Building in Condado. However, in 1990, a powerful fire melted some of the iron beams that held up the ceiling, leaving the grand theater vacant for two decades until Ponce businessman Carlos Colón moved in across the street.
In 2008, Colón started La Nueva Victoria bakery on the street that was once the main avenue for business in the city. Another project quickly caught his eye: The empty shell of a 1940 movie theater that sat vacant across the street. “Every day when we opened the doors to our bakery at 5 a.m., as we saw the old theater in front of us,” Colón’s daughter Tatiana explained, “[My father] could feel that the building was screaming to be saved. That it deserved a new life.”
Colón asked the building’s owner about purchasing the historic property, but was repeatedly turned down until finally reaching an agreement a few years later. In February 2013, the Colón family started work on the place. A mere four walls and a ceiling damaged beyond repair, the place needed a fresh reimagining—and a lot of time and money—before it could get back on track. For a year, all the profits from the bakery went to rehabbing the theater. “We decided that everything we made on the bakery was going to the other building,” Tatiana commented. “It was an investment that [is paying] off now. It was a difficult year, but my father had this idea in his mind, and he was going to make it happen no matter what.”
Colón, an experienced contractor, oversaw the renovation and did much of the work himself—and with such a damaged space, there was no shortage of work to do. The roof had to be replaced and the interior reconstructed.
Colón did research on how to give the building a historic feel, and every significant change made to the space had to be approved by the city’s historical commission, who also helped pick the bold teal color that now graces the building’s exterior.
While many of the building’s original interior details were lost over the years through renovation or by fire, Colón sought to preserve what details were there. One exciting find was the theater’s original 1941 projector, which was found on the second floor. Colón moved the projector to the front entrance, where it now sits behind the large glass windows that look into the newly refinished bakery space.
Another discovery was the original flooring that had been in the building’s open entrance foyer. The floor had been covered with other tiling at some point, saving the 1940 tiles, which Colón restored and then replicated throughout the rest of the building with similar materials. In the process, Colón decided to add a little history of his own: In the entrance area, he integrated tiling with the letters T, A, E, and L—the first letters of his four daughters’ names. Colón calls the women his legacy, and they help out with running the bakery in addition to their own jobs. “There’s no doubt that those letters will become a part of history since they’re now a part of the building,” said Tatiana Colón. “It’s a beautiful story to tell generation after generation.”
While Colón headed up the project, many hands pitched in to help bring the building’s rebirth into fruition. Architects and decorators lent their advice for free and a student from a local university painted the signature Art Deco bas relief panels on the exterior. The project took four years to complete, with work wrapping up in the summer of 2017. The Colóns got to work ordering tables, chairs, espresso machines, and the works for the newly finished space—until Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September.
The family postponed opening the new bakery space and put all hands on deck to using their old building to help out the hurting community. No serious damage had been done to the newly renovated Teatro Argel, however. After the family and a team of helpers moved the entire bakery from one building to another in one night, La Nueva Victoria Panadería y Repostera opened in its new home on December 16.
Jaime Yordon-Frau, a friend of Colón’s who has started his own nonprofit organization, El Nodo, which also hopes to rehabilitate old buildings in Ponce, praised Colón’s forward thinking: “This is, against all odds, a single individual charging forward, respecting and looking after, restoring and reusing places that mean a lot [to] the city.”
The Colóns hope this isn’t the end of the road for their passion for preservation; the family now has their sights set on a historic police station. They hope their rehab of Teatro Argel will inspire more people to save the historic buildings of their city and, in turn, revitalize the community. “It was very important for us to start with this building,” Tatiana Colón said of the project. “Hopefully more [buildings] will come our way because we are very, very proud of where we come from, and it’s been really sad to see how these beautiful Art Deco and Spanish-style buildings have been abandoned over time because of economies, fires, and natural disasters.”
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What We’re Following
Tiny in Texas: You’ve likely heard of the “housing first” approach to addressing homelessness, which focuses on getting people into permanent, safe housing before dealing with other issues like unemployment or addiction. In Austin, Texas, one nonprofit is taking that idea a step further, by putting community first. The Community First! Village is a planned development of tiny homes and RVs that’s optimized for socialization, with front porches, grouped facilities and amenities, and outdoor kitchens intended to gather residents, all of whom are men and women who have struggled with chronic homelessness.
Founder Alan Graham, who started out by feeding people out of a pickup truck with church friends, was inspired by seeing how RV parks and campgrounds could instill a sense of neighborliness among short-term residents. “There was this inherent sense of community,” he says. “I think now it’s because of the small spaces.” Now he’s building what’s set to be the biggest tiny-home community for the homeless in the United States. The 27-acre village just broke ground on an expansion that will nearly double its size and bring its total population to 480 people. That’s roughly 40 percent of the estimated 1,200 chronically homeless people living in Austin. Today on CityLab: In a Texas Town of Tiny Homes, the Chronically Homeless Find Community
More on CityLab
Bloomberg has an eye-opening story about ICE raids on 7-Eleven stores and how those raids might be used to take back convenience stores from its independent franchise operators. That’s the fear that hung over Gurtar Sandhu when he heard one of his Los Angeles stores had been raided by four plainclothes immigration officers on January 10. Sandhu is one of four franchisees that Bloomberg finds has been raided by ICE who has had legal disputes with the giant retailer over its employment practices. Here’s an excerpt from Bloomberg; read the full story here:
In August, sitting in the office of the store that was raided surrounded by boxes of Slurpee syrup, he said he didn’t know if or when he’d hear from immigration again. He appeared still to be baffled by his first experience with ICE. “I totally understand if you are doing something illegal,” he said, “I mean, if they know that I am doing something wrong. But why not just send me the subpoena and say we need to give them the information? Why all the drama? Why all the show?”
The show wasn’t just for Sandhu. The day he was raided, immigration officers fanned out across America, serving inspection notices and arresting suspected undocumented workers at 98 7-Eleven stores in 17 states and Washington, D.C. Since then agents have raided several more, and Bloomberg has learned that ICE and federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, N.Y., are engaged in criminal investigations of multiple franchises. 7-Eleven, an American icon and the world’s largest convenience store chain, has become the highest-profile target of a sweeping corporate immigration crackdown by President Trump.
CityLab context: The real message ICE sends with their 7-Eleven raids
What We’re Reading
The pink transit tax: Women spend more than men to get around New York City (Wired)
Next chairman of House transportation committee talks infrastructure (Washington Post)
Amazon’s new neighbor: the nation’s largest housing project (New York Times)
One overlooked midterm takeaway? The green wave in cities. (Fast Company)
Why Jeff Sessions’s final act on police departments could have more impact than expected (ProPublica)
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There are a lot of things that Richard Devore likes about the 250-square-foot tiny home he’s lived since early last year. He loves the wood cabinets in his house, the sprawling oak trees providing shade outside, the goats roaming in the pasture nearby. But most of all, he loves “the fact that I’m supposed to be here,” says Devore, who was homeless for the 13 years before he moved in. “I can relax and belong here.”
Devore lives at Community First! Village, a 27-acre master planned community just outside Austin, Texas, where more than 200 people who were once chronically homeless live in tiny homes and RVs. Everyone who lives at Community First! pays rent, ranging from $225 to $430 per month; many residents are employed on-site.
“Before I moved here, I honestly didn’t think my life would have anything other than being a homeless drug addict,” Devore says. He’d lived in an apartment for two brief stints during the years he was homeless and once held a steady job. But old habits were hard to break. “I hung out with the same people. I didn’t know any of my neighbors. I was living the same life, just with shelter,” he says. “Eventually I decided I wanted to get high more than I wanted to pay rent. If nothing changes in someone’s life, when the money runs out, they’re going right back to where they were.”
This is the idea that fuels Community First! Village. “They have a saying upstairs,” Devore says. “Housing will never cure homelessness, but community will.”
That’s a variation on the “housing first” model of addressing homelessness, which focuses on getting people into permanent, safe housing before dealing other issues like unemployment or addiction. “Community first” takes that idea a step further, with a singular focus on providing housing within community. While there are several tiny-home villages built for the formerly homeless across the United States, Austin’s Community First! Village is distinct in its communal focus.
It’s also the largest such community—and it’s about to double in size. In October, Community First! broke ground on a 24-acre expansion, which will add 110 RV sites and 200 micro-homes, alongside a permanent 20,000-square-foot health facility. That would bring the village’s total population to 480 people—roughly 40 percent of the estimated 1,200 chronically homeless people living in Austin, according to the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition—and make it considerably larger than any other tiny-home community for the homeless.
Community First! Village is the brainchild of founder Alan Graham, a real estate developer who started feeding people out of a pickup truck with four friends from Austin’s St. John Neumann Catholic Church two decades ago. They called it Mobile Loaves & Fishes and stocked the truck with fresh food and clean clothes. In 2003, Graham started spending nights out on the streets, deepening the relationships he’d formed through the food truck. “We started asking: What is it that you desire?” he says. “Community was what emerged.”
He looked at RV parks and campgrounds as inspiration for the kind of community he wanted to build, based on his experiences taking cross-country road trips with his wife and their five children. Often, they’d pull into RV parks and would inevitably end up grilling burgers with their new neighbors. “There was this inherent sense of community,” he says. “I think now it’s because of the small spaces.”
For seven years, Graham searched for a plot of land in Austin to build his vision of an RV park for the chronically homeless. Perhaps not surprisingly, that idea triggered fierce not-in-my-backyard opposition from neighborhood groups. In 2008, Austin’s City Council voted unanimously to grant Community First! a long-term ground lease on 17 acres of city-owned land. But neighborhood resistance was intense: After a community meeting “exploded into Armageddon,” Graham says, he gave up on building within the city, and, in 2014, purchased 27 acres just outside city limits in Travis County. One year later, he started moving people into RVs and tiny homes.
Located in a sparsely populated area about 10 miles northeast of downtown Austin, the village today bustles with activity. There’s an outdoor movie theater, donated by Alamo Drafthouse and the site of Friday evening screenings, free and open to the public. Beyond the 200 full-time residents, the little town hosts volunteers from church groups, visitors touring the development or attending art classes, and AirBnb guests staying in an assortment of stylishly designed tiny homes and an Airstream trailer that are all listed as vacation rentals—part of the village’s mission to bring more people into regular contact and conversation with the homeless.
Like any small town, there’s a lot to do here: You can get your hair cut at the hair salon, take your dog to the dog park, shop at the Community Market, help out at the garden, cook in one of the communal kitchens. The village’s design has been optimized for socialization: There are no backyards, only front porches, adorned with potted plants, patio furniture, and the occasional bike. Without plumbing or running water, the tiny homes are grouped around shared bathroom, shower, and laundry facilities. Residents regularly gather for neighborhood dinners in one of four outdoor kitchens, open 24/7.
While the village is operated by a faith-based nonprofit and has a distinctly Christian vibe—45 people live on-site as missionaries—residents of all faiths are welcome, including none. Narrow streets named Grace & Mercy and Goodness thread through colorful clusters of tiny homes, a dozen different designs made by local architects and funded by private donors. Maintenance of these shared spaces is one source of employment for residents, who can earn anywhere from $350 to $900 a month to clean the kitchens and bathrooms and contribute to general upkeep around the village. Some residents make jewelry or pottery in the art studio to sell in the Community Market; there’s also a woodworking studio and blacksmithing shop. Community First! Car Care employs half a dozen people who will change your oil or rotate your tires while you wait. Graham says that the community distributed nearly a million dollars of “dignified income” to residents in 2017 and 2018.
But many residents, Graham admits, aren’t capable of holding traditional nine-to-five jobs—“they’re going to have to be subsidized for life,” he says. “The question becomes where does that subsidy come from? Does it come from the federal government, or does that subsidy come from the community?” It’s a philosophical question as much as an economic one, but Graham believes that responsibility should fall to the community.
As such, there’s no particular aim to transition or “graduate” residents to traditional housing or employment. Tracy Krause moved to Community First! in 2017 after being homeless for 25 years. She sobered up, enrolled in Austin Community College, and got a job cleaning two dental clinics in Austin. “I’m doing well enough that I could move somewhere else,” she says. “But I will live here for the rest of my life. I want to never forget where I came from.”
The number-one rule is that you have to pay rent, which covers roughly 40 percent of the village’s $5 million operating budget. Miss a payment, and you will be asked to leave. Graham says that doesn’t happen much—the retention rate at Community First! is 86 percent. When it does happen, substance abuse is usually to blame. “You can’t make drugs and alcohol your preference,” Graham says. “This isn’t the right place for you to be.”
Which isn’t to say that everyone who lives at Community First! is sober—many residents are what Graham calls “functioning addicts.” The village offers varying levels of support for those who want to get clean. A free clinic staffed and operated by Austin Recovery, a nonprofit that specializes in addiction recovery and treatment, offers intensive outpatient programs for residents. There are regular Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings on-site, and every one of the community’s 50 full-time employees is trained in mental health first aid.
Such services are essential to the community’s success, says Dirk Early, a professor of economics at Southwestern University who studies homelessness. “In general, the people who are homeless for many, many years, if you really dig down to what’s going on in their world, there’s almost always some major mental health issues and/or addiction issues,” Early says. Others who are “transitionally homeless”—because they lost a job or became sick—“they need a step up for a bit until they get back on their feet, and then they’re off and running again,” he says. But for the chronically homeless, “the tricky part is: How do you stabilize their lives regardless of their housing situation?”
To Graham, that’s where the village’s focus on socialization and shared space comes in. “None of us can do anything around here without being caught,” he says. “There’s a level of human accountability to that.”
When Devore first arrived, he mostly kept to himself—like many new residents, years of living on the streets had made him mistrustful of others. Today, he manages the community greenhouse, works at the farmers’ market every other Saturday—produce from the garden and eggs from the chicken coops are free to residents—and serves on the eight-member community council, representing the 25 residents who live in his district. He goes door-to-door every couple of weeks to make sure he’s connecting with everyone in his neighborhood. “Between being on the council and doing the farmers’ market, I’m one of the people who interacts with the most number of people here,” he says. “I feel like that really helps me stay stable.”
Among the village’s newer full-time residents is founder Graham and his wife: Last year, they sold their home in West Austin and moved into a 399-square-foot RV in the village. “Our hope is that not only do people come to a different understanding of how we can mitigate homelessness,” he says, “but how do we change our own lives from being so isolated and disconnected from each other?”
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The wildfires that ravaged California over the weekend are showing no signs of stopping anytime soon. In Northern California, the Camp Fire leveled the city of Paradise late last week, engulfing and destroying the town in a matter of hours as desperate residents fled the wall of flames, some being overtaken in their cars.
“Ninety-five percent of the town is gone,” town council member Michael Zuccolillo . The 115,000-acre fire has also destroyed 6,400 homes and 300 other structures. It has matched the death toll for California’s deadliest wildfire, and it’s believed to be the most destructive in the state’s history, NBC News reports.
Still, it’s just 25 percent contained as firefighters from across the state and country—including prisoners making $1 per hour—battle the blaze.
Harrowing stories have emerged from survivors, like Greg Woodcox, who watched the Camp Fire overtake his neighbors’ cars before fleeing on foot and taking shelter in a 3-foot deep stream as the fire raged overhead.
Investigators have found multiple incidents of people killed in their cars as they attempted to flee.
Across the state, thick smoke from the fires has blocked out the sun and blanketed cities as residents struggle to breathe. Because of the air quality, schools across the Bay Area closed Friday, and residents were urged to stay inside as small but dedicated groups of advocates attempted to secure masks for the homeless.
Many residents fleeing Malibu—caught in traffic and trapped between the fast-moving flames and the ocean—took shelter at the beach, its deep blue ocean and picturesque sand transformed into an apocalyptic hellscape.
The growing strength and destruction of California’s incredible infernos can be attributed to a few things. For one, years of drought have left the state’s massive forests incredibly dry, like tinder boxes ready to explode.
In the South, the Santa Ana winds howl across the mountains, ready to carry even the smallest flames and sparks far and wide, and vast suburban sprawl has pushed people, and the electric wires that must follow them, further into what’s known as the Wildland Urban Interface, where population centers meet combustible forests.
You can chalk a lot of it up to climate change, too. It’s not just the drought, but record heats have helped to dry out California’s forests, creating conditions ripe for fast-moving, deadly wildfires.
— Robert Rohde (@RARohde) November 12, 2018
In their wake, the fires are leaving an increasingly familiar landscape: Residents returning to find their homes destroyed and their lives upended.
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Distracted by the ornate gable stones and characterful stores and cafes, most visitors to the Zeedijk, one of Amsterdam’s most popular streets, fail to notice the small metal plaques affixed to buildings. The red squiggle under the estate-agency name depicts the L-shaped contour of the street. This is the symbol of the real estate agency NV Zeedijk, a community scheme without which this cheerful high street might never have existed.
Draped like a protective arm around the northeastern shoulder of Amsterdam’s oldest settlement, the medieval Zeedijk (sea-dike) once held back the sea. As the city expanded and the wealthy merchants moved further out, the street took a different battering, lurching from sailors’ sex den in the 18th and 19th century to Amsterdam’s most notorious street in the 1970s and 80s, when drug dealers, thieves, and heroin addicts made it their territory.
“If I had somebody coming over to have dinner, I had to pick them up. I had to guide them through the area, otherwise it would have been too dangerous,” recalls Eddy Appels, an anthropologist and documentary-maker who moved to the Zeedijk in 1985. “It’s not nice to open your curtains and see junkies and dealers and people getting ripped off. There were needles everywhere … I’ve seen people stabbed, robbed at knife-point—it was really, really bad.”
Much of the heroin originated from the East, and the Zeedijk, the heart of Amsterdam’s Chinatown, was an obvious marketplace for it. Addicts, drug tourists, impoverished Dutch-Surinamese immigrants, and tormented artists such as Beat Generation poet Gregory Corso and jazz musician Chet Baker—who would die there—washed up on the Zeedijk, many in search of a fix.
The residents began to move out. Some buildings were occupied by squatters—victims of high unemployment and a housing shortage. “There were a lot of houses that were abandoned and really falling apart,” remembers Appels. “Nobody wanted to invest in the area.” The residents watched their district implode.
On May 19, 1983, they stormed the council chambers. Showering the room in icing sugar from small bags labelled “heroin,” they demanded that something be done to return the street to the people that lived there. The result was increased policing and a treatment-based approach to tackle heroin addiction. But it was the residents, led by Jack Cohen, chairman of a community security organization, who provided the biggest turning point by proposing that the municipality buy up the neglected houses and rehabilitate them.
Under considerable political pressure to act, the municipality joined with the city business association and the community center, to put up financial backing that was later supplemented by investment from banks and property firms that feared the decaying Zeedijk would devalue real estate in neighboring areas: Limited company NV Zeedijk was founded in 1985 under the directorship of Jack Cohen.
Bulldozing the dilapidated buildings and replacing them with modern structures might have been more cost-effective, but this public-private real estate agency, like the original sea wall, had a mission to preserve and protect.
It worked. “People started to move in again,” says Appels. “The residents felt that it was their area again.” The Zeedijk has since become a symbol of resilience. While neighboring streets have succumbed to a sea of tourist tat, today’s eclectic Zeedijk still has a butcher’s, a fishmonger and a newsagent, and a village atmosphere that is becoming scarce.
Creating an appealing high street requires a long-term view, believes Bram Merkx, general manager and co-founder at the shop Mary Go Wild, (Zeedijk 44) dedicated to club culture and dance music. They were struggling to find affordable business premises until the team discovered NV Zeedijk in 2014. “They provided us with a good start-up plan,” he explains. “They gave us the chance to invest in creating a really nice shop.”
“We started on zero rent and we grew into regular rent in a year’s time,” he continues, about his store which sells an eclectic mix of items including books, clothing, and records. “If I want to open a place and earn enough money to pay my first bill within three weeks, then I’d better start selling ice cream or pancakes.” Supporting new entrepreneurs, he says, is key to combating homogenization.
Recognizing that Amsterdam is fast being bought up by property speculators and wealthy expats, NV Zeedijk, which is 75 percent funded by the municipality but independently run, hopes to buck the trend in its residential lettings, too.
The rent-controlled sector accounts for a hefty 50 percent of Amsterdam’s housing stock, and is managed mostly by housing corporations. Some, however, is in the hands of private owners, and if it’s in lucrative, high-demand areas such as the city center, risks being liberalized once a tenancy contract expires.
In accordance with city policy, NV Zeedijk has maintained existing rent-controlled housing contracts, which account for a third of their housing stock. But even with its mid-market and free-market properties, where the agency has freedom over the rate, they keep the rents as affordable as possible, while still generating sufficient income for reinvestment.
“We could make a higher revenue on our portfolio, but we choose to keep diversity,” said Thijs Reuten, project leader for NV Zeedijk, while sitting in the agency office (Zeedijk 47) surrounded by giant black and white photographs proudly documenting the street’s transformation.
While the stereotype of real estate agencies is that they are untrustworthy and greedy, NV Zeedijk’s objectives are social. “The money is reinvested in new properties and also more affordable housing in the area,” explains Reuten. “Unlike some landlords, where it is probably being invested in their holiday villa.”
Airbnb lettings are prohibited and prospective tenants must submit a letter of motivation outlining their enthusiasm for the area and how they intend to contribute to it. NV Zeedijk considers longer tenancies important in building a community and, recently, when a change in a tenant’s circumstances meant that he needed something cheaper, the agency helped him find an alternative property in their portfolio.
NV Zeedijk, explains Reuten, is “part of the neighborhood” and works closely with the residents. The agency supports the ‘I live here’ poster campaign, asking tourists to be considerate when visiting the area, and sponsors the annual Red Light Jazz festival. “That’s why we have our office here [on the high street] and not in some industrial park,” he says. “This office functions as a sort of point where people come with ideas. We have people who rent property with us that are also our main critics. We believe that only when you are open to criticism, can you really make your neighborhood better.”
One such critic is Yin Lau, an NV Zeedijk tenant who has been practicing Chinese acupuncture and herbal medicine on the Zeedijk since 1996. It costs her approximately $2,085 a month to rent the premises for her business Kang Ren (Zeedijk 65-A), and she is feeling the flip side of gentrification. “The Chinese community is getting smaller and smaller,” Lau says. “We can’t pay these rents anymore.” She’s seen several Chinese businesses move to Rotterdam and The Hague, where rents are lower and fewer tourists means fewer parking issues for customers.
“Tourism is the follow-up of gentrification,” says Eddy Appels with resignation—and, for him, it has made the Zeedijk uninhabitable again. Though he applauds the work done by NV Zeedijk, he is moving out at the end of the month, exhausted by an endless tide of thoughtless holiday-makers oblivious to the community that live there.
NV Zeedijk’s strategy is expanding across the red-light district and another real estate organization, 2012inc (founded 2016), is emulating its methods. Tackling tourism is high on the agenda in the Zeedijk. No one knows if the old sea wall and its unique approach can defend the city against this latest onslaught.
“Amsterdam looks better than it’s ever done,” concedes Appels, “…but it comes at a price.”
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From an energy type standpoint, a city’s electric utility can make a big difference regarding which actions cities should undertake. For instance, a city in the service territory of an electric utility with ambitious plans to decarbonize its generation mix may want to focus greater attention on future emissions scenarios versus current emissions when making decisions on priorities. This would mean focusing actions on transportation, space heating, and industrial processes, since those would likely be greater contributors to emissions (vs. electricity) in such a future scenario.
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As the sun peeked over the Washington Monument, the bodies on the roof of the Watergate building moved as one. A hundred-odd backs—many clad in nautical-themed workout attire, as the email inviting us all here had requested—arched in vinyasas, and 100-odd heads wearing glowing headphones dipped to the floor in downward dogs. “No one can hear you,” the yoga instructor told us, whispering directly into our ears through the headsets. “So breathe.” We all exhaled. It was loud, ugly, and unabashed. Everyone could hear everything.
We’d arrived in pre-dawn darkness to participate in a Daybreaker event, an early-morning substance-free “party” held about once a month in 25 cities across the United States. Most of them start with a yoga class, transition into a dance party, and end with an intention-setting ceremony and a performance by a local musician. Part work-out, part mixer, part meditation session, Daybreaker events are like the compression shorts of Millennial experiences: Sort of uncomfortable, but also uplifting.
We all wore headphones, silent-disco style, because D.C.’s sound regulations prohibited the planners from blasting music downtown. So I watched as an almost-silent saxophonist played to a sea of almost-silent people, who were jumping to a beat being pumped into their skulls. Behind them, bartenders in sailor hats handed out dried chickpeas and kombucha. Everyone beamed. One pony-tailed woman congratulated her first-timer friend: “Welcome to the Tribe.”
The events are the brainchildren of entrepreneur Radha Agrawal, who first rose to prominence for founding a company that sold period-absorbent Thinx panties (a brand that inspired some of the first Millennial-pink ads of the 20-teens). In Belong, a new book published this fall, Agrawal outlines her path from troubled, lonely college grad; to troubled, lonely underwear mogul; to fulfilled, supported social entrepreneur.
“In my 20s I was really sleepwalking,” she told me, from her hindsight as a now-39-year old. “I was still in the kind of fratty scene, wanting to be a version of myself that I thought was what the world wanted. It was emptying.” Screens alienated her; alcohol blurred her judgement. She woke up one day, and realized she, like nearly half of adults nationwide, was lonely.
So she sought what she figured would be the opposite of loneliness: belonging. To find it, she writes, she simply identified her values and interests, and then surrounded herself with the people that share them. She leaned on her “soul sisters.” She turned comparison into inspiration; perfectionism into gratitude; and judgement into curiosity. “The result was that I went from feeling alone, to being a part of a thriving community that … gave me the safety and the courage to create and pursue [my] dream,” she said.
And then she wanted to open a space so others could, too.
In terms of shared values, Daybreaker casts a pretty wide net: Agrawal describes the target cohort as “adventurous” people who “share the common interest of waking up at 6 a.m. to dance.” Most attendees are between 25 and 45 years old; a fact sheet provided by the Daybreaker team says the demographic breakdown is 68 percent women, 32 percent men, and “100 percent human.” Forty-seven percent are single.
Agrawal can vouch for the effectiveness of her system: she met her now-husband on a Daybreaker dance floor, a man 13 years her junior.
I expected Agrawal’s book, and her praxis, to be a little too kumbaya for my own community-building needs. But, on paper, I’m an extremely viable Daybreaker candidate. I’m more than a year out of college, starting my second year in a still-unfamiliar city. I’ve got a neat little circle of friends and roommates, and am happy with the general degree of belonging I’ve found. But I’d stopped the concerted effort I’d been putting into making new friends several months ago. Then, many of them moved—D.C. is a city of transients, people often to say. The House flips. Friends get new jobs. I get it! And here I am. Fine, though maybe somewhat less than “totally.”
But finding zen by paying to party with strangers on the roof of my office building (conveniently, I also work in the Watergate) seemed a little painful and inauthentic. Agrawal says she understands. “The word community has been kind of bastardized already,” she told me. “It’s just another word for ‘users’ by marketers.”
But with Daybreaker, she’s tried to cut through the bullshit. The “belonging” the brand creates isn’t a commodity, she says, nor is it a coincidence. Each event is carefully designed to give participants their daily D.O.S.E.—an acronym Agrawal coined to describe the “happy brain chemicals,” dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. They’re released by things like pleasure, touch, rest, and activity. But instead of, like, drinking a bottle of Pinot, she suggests you try “getting high on other people’s energy.” Instead of watching internet porn, try “hugging someone hello.” Instead of soliciting Instagram likes, try “feeling grateful.” They’re the same. Basically. “Imagine if we could go to a Mind Gym,” Agrawal writes. Go there.
I decided I would try.
The biggest hurdle for a skeptical Daybreaker to overcome may be the ungodly hour at which it’s held. But that’s also one of its major draws. Today’s fad Habit of Highly Successful People is “waking up extremely early.”
“Get snuggly by 9 p.m.,” the Daybreaker team had suggested via email the night before I arrived on the roof. “So when the alarm clock goes off, the snooze button is a thing of the past.”
According to a series of recent essays and pseudo-scientific surveys, the ideal alarm clock goes off between 4 and 6:30 a.m. The Cut’s “How I Get It Done” series features lady bosses rising with the literal crows, getting a deep tissue massage, writing in gratitude journals, and only then heading into the office. The New York Times’ Smarter Living columnist claims he interviewed 300 “high-achievers,” whose average wake-up time was 6:27. An HSBC executive featured in a much-discussed Business Insider post wakes up at 5:30 to meditate, Facetime internationally, and play tennis, only to end her day discussing “key wins” with her boyfriend. Mark Wahlberg’s demented workday begins at 2:30 a.m.
This is all a capitalist ploy, argues Rosie Spinks in Quartz—a product of our hyper-productive rat-race machine that values doing more work, more of the time. Daybreaker isn’t exactly about productivity in the typical sense of the word, but it is definitely about time maximization. When we rose, we wouldn’t try to get to inbox zero, or read the morning wires, or meal-prep zoodles. We’d work, but on making friends! Forging connections! Getting a head start on finding community—before our social rivals are even out of the house.
“We’re actually redefining a whole sliver of time,” Agrawal said. “You get a dopamine rush for waking up before everybody else does. You’re just like, oh shit, I got something done!”
Daybreaker does face competition for that 6 to 9 a.m. slot—from dozens of other branded workout classes that specialize in semi-social self-care. An estimated 50,000 people go to SoulCycle a week. Crossfit now boasts about 4 million users and 10,000 gyms. The “cult-like loyalty” some of these fitness regimes inspire has meant that “spaces traditionally meant for exercise have become the locations of shared, transformative experience,” say researchers from Harvard Divinity School who study community. As Millennials turn away from organized worship (a third of people under 30 reportedly belong to no religion, and only 10 percent are looking for one), workout classes have started creeping in to fill the spiritual gap.
At a Daybreaker event, you may burn fewer calories than at a spin class. But it, too, has a quasi-religious dimension. That’s intentional: “We’re building the 2.0 version of a gathering space that was once the fireplace, that was once a church,” Agrawal said. “We’re rebuilding the community center.”
Events recur monthly (bimonthly in New York City, based on high demand), so they feel ritualistic. They’re also themed, usually (the one I went to was called “Nautical Sunrise,” for its desired sailor aesthetic) so the group feels unified. Tickets range from $25 to $45, depending on the city and the package. (Disclosure: I got mine for free.)
Arriving only 15 minutes late, I dressed for the occasion in a borrowed white LuluLemon tank—my lazy sailor costume. Ascending the elevator with me was another, older truant. It was her third time Daybreaking, she said. “Everyone is always so happy!”
And they were. As we walked onto the roof, no one shamed us for being tardy, as many a yogi has in the past. A smiling bouncer simply passed over a pair of headphones and a towel, and let us take our places on mats. (Later, Agrawal told me we must have missed the “hugging committee.” Usually, participants get a squeeze from the greeter to release some oxytocin even before the event starts).
Despite some technical difficulties with the headphones, the yoga itself was pretty meditative. I locked eyes with my neighbor, a guy wearing anchor-print socks, a few times, and made a mental note to talk to him when the class ended. But as soon as we did our sun salutations, everyone seemed to cluster near the people they’d arrived with.
For an event designed with building new communities in mind, it seemed like most people were sticking with their old ones. And the headphones made engagement tricky: Though we were all listening to the same music, we weren’t listening to it together, really. Concerts aren’t just about the contact high, they’re about the sound reverberating off bodies and into and out of ears. Here, we were hooked up by bluetooth, not by skin.
As the two-hour “dance” “party” continued, things warmed up a little. Ice-breaker style, we were asked to turn to our left and introduce ourselves. I met Austin, a bearded man clad in sailor-white who looked to be in his 30s, who had been to multiple Daybreaker events in multiple cities. “It’s a way to clear your mind, and be yourself,” he told me. His girlfriend sidled up to us, and together they wriggled away.
Haile Supreme, the MC-slash-singer whose Soundcloud page describes him as “a conduit of ancient vocal techniques,” rapped and crooned over an ambient beat, colorful coat swinging. People danced, awkwardly at first, then less self-consciously.
I thought about how much easier it is to meet people when you already know people. I thought about why these kinds of engineered-bonding events feel artificial. I thought about how community, to me, is speckled in difference, not nautical-themed. I thought about how I was overthinking things. Jumping together just felt good.
“If you have enough money in your pockets to pay your bills, get the fuck down!” Supreme riffed.
Most of us had paid close to $40 + a $3.20 processing fee to be here. We got the fuck down.
Kia and Maryanne clung to the rail for much of the party, chatting with their headphones hanging around their necks. Kia had been going to the events for awhile, and brought Maryanne along as an excuse for the pair to catch up.
“It’s a way to dance without going to the club at midnight,” said Kia. “My husband can put the kids on the bus,” Maryanne laughed. For them, Daybreaker events were fun, pure and simple. And they, like a surprising percentage of the crowd, were middle-aged: Kia was 42.
That’s significant, because, if loneliness is a nationwide epidemic, it’s particularly pronounced among older people, says Agrawal, based on observations she made on her book tour. Almost a third of Americans over 45 are socially isolated, according to AARP. “Many people in their 60s and 70s came to my book event to share their feeling of loneliness,” Agrawal said. “And how—to quote their words—invisible they feel.”
Loneliness is no less of a threat for the young, however: A recent Cigna study found that, of the almost 50 percent of American respondents who reported feeling lonely, Gen Zers led in numbers. Among youth, suicide is the third-leading cause of death.
What sets Daybreaker apart from other branded party circuits may be its potential for breaking age barriers. It’s super-sober, relatively affordable, and not overly rigorous (you can even save $10 and skip the yoga). And it doesn’t get in the way of work or an early bedtime.
The generational separation in America is artificial, and commercially driven, Agrawal says: “Millennials are so segregated because of marketing needs. Like, I’m going to market to Millennials and Gen Zs and Baby Boomers, and I have to specifically segment them, so I’m going to separate them and create more isolation.” Daybreaker’s branding may be Millennial-friendly—lots of hashtags—and, indeed, according to Daybreaker’s demographic data, only 3 percent of attendees are 51+ (and “babies”). But it’s not supposed to be Millennial-exclusive.
“When I’m 75 I don’t want to hang out with someone who’s just 75,” Agrawal said. “I want to hang out with 25-year-olds.” Jane Goodall, famed primate researcher, showed up unannounced to a party earlier this year, apparently. She turns 85 in April. “I think she was like, sort of studying a different set of apes, ” Agrawal said.
When I tried to describe the tension that I felt, even as a Millennial, at the party—how I felt alone, in a space where I was supposed to feel deeply at home—Agrawal told me that only active participation breeds community: “You can’t belong if you only take.” I was taking a lot (notes), and giving mostly judgement. The other key, she suggested, is to keep showing up—just like how you have to keep going back to church, or Crossfit class, to get the benefits.
That’s obviously convenient when, in order to buy in, you have to buy what she’s selling. But people are: Based on Daybreaker’s last data analysis, each event brings about 60 percent new community members, with 40 percent returning. (That’s a great mix, Agrawal says, so regulars “can really indoctrinate” and support the first timers.)
Supreme, the emcee, was a Daybreaker regular himself. He’d spent years doing the “rock star life,” he told me. “Most people in their offices drink coffee. My office substance is alcohol.” But at Daybreaker events he didn’t have to take a shot of liquid courage before getting onstage. Here, he said, “I can be a rock star without drinking.”
Kelsey, another woman I met, had been to seven or eight Daybreaker events in D.C. While she came with a friend this time, as she usually does, she’s starting to see the same people from the Daybreaker tribe month to month.
The reality is that, despite Agrawal’s best intentions, Kelsey—like me and her friend and 69 percent of her attendees—are between 18 and 35 years old, and they represent a certain income and education bracket: 60 percent of them make over $75,000 a year; 95 percent have a college degree. They crave iced matcha lattes. They own their own yoga mat. They live in the pricey winner-take-all metro areas where Daybreaker travels, like San Francisco, L.A., D.C., and New York. They listen as a local D.C. artist performs spoken word poetry about Failed Intimacy in the Internet Age, and really get it.
So I pressed. Doesn’t seeking sameness, I tried to suggest, just breed more of the same? Didn’t sorting ourselves into bubbles and silos have something to do with our current state of toxic political polarization, or something?
Sure, but everyone has to start somewhere, Agrawal said. “I think it’s when you just go, blanket statement, ‘Everybody throw spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks,’ that’s when we end up feeling disenfranchised and lonely and misunderstood.”
According to the Belong ethos, throw these alike people together, instead, and you get a community. Take a sliver of the morning to brush shoulders with other human beings—not to type or talk, just to sweat—and you will get a therapeutic ritual. It doesn’t matter if you don’t immediately connect, emotionally. Physically being together is supposed to be enough. It’s certainly better than the alternative. Maybe that’s depressing. But maybe that’s life.
“Netflix is fucking up my sex life,” the poet sang. “I look better online than in real life.” We—the Daybreaker Tribe—sat together, cross legged, meditating on the duplicitousness of our online and IRL existences, setting our intentions for the day, listening to our stomachs digest spa water. Afterwards, we stood and chanted a quote about the magic of dance.
I got up, stretched, and checked my phone. It was 9 a.m. Time for work.
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The city of Stockbridge, Georgia, came dangerously close to losing half of its municipality this week. It came down to a ballot vote on Election Day that would have allowed a country club-anchored enclave in unincorporated Henry County to snatch away large swaths of Stockbridge to create a new, wealthier city called Eagle’s Landing. The ballot failed—4,545 people voted against it, and 3,473 for—but questions abound concerning how it even came to this point. How could a place with no municipal standing simply redraw the boundaries of another place that’s been a city for nearly 100 years?
If nothing else, the drama around this ballot has exposed the fault lines of “cityhood,” the name for the movement happening around metro Atlanta that has unincorporated territories lobbying for official municipal status. Of the dozen new cities that have formed since 2005, none took residents or properties from other existing cities to do so, as the Eagle’s Landing group attempted to do with Stockbridge. But there were other problems with the manner in which Eagle’s Landing pursued cityhood. Looking at the events leading up to this vote, it probably should never have come up for a vote to begin with.
New cities can only be authorized via ballot initiatives in Georgia, and the sole power for determining whether a new city proposal will land on a ballot lies with the state general assembly. According to Stockbridge Mayor Anthony Ford, the principals responsible for the Eagle’s Landing city proposal never approached Stockbridge city officials to discuss what they wanted to do, let alone alert Stockbridge leaders to the fact that Eagle’s Landing wanted to take parts of their city away.
The Eagle’s Landing group didn’t need Stockbridge’s permission to do it—all they needed was the state’s blessing to get it on the ballot. There’s been much attention drawn to the fact that the Stockbridge residents who were left out of the Eagle’s Landing city plan weren’t allowed to vote on that ballot. But they didn’t have any say in whether it could go on the ballot either, thanks to Georgia’s lax cityhood standards.
Here are some of the essential requirements if you want to start a new city in Georgia:
- You need to form a 501(3)c organization.
- Your city plan must commit to providing three of 11 services, such as fire safety, road construction, and electric or gas utilities. (People who live in unincorporated areas have these services provided to them by whatever county they live in.)
- You need to secure a legislator who will introduce and carry through the general assembly a bill to have your city proposal placed on a ballot.
- You need to have a feasibility study conducted by one of the state-approved academic institutions in Georgia.
The people behind the Eagle’s Landing proposal formed a non-profit organization called the Eagle’s Landing Educational Research Committee, or ELERC, which was headed by Vikki Consiglio, who currently serves on the Henry County Zoning Advisory Board. The ELERC plan stated that it would take on code enforcement, planning and zoning, police, libraries, solid waste collection, and parks and recreation services, according to the feasibility study conducted by Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School Center for State & Local Finance (one of the state-approved institutions for cityhood studies). And finally, the Eagle’s Landing group was able to find several legislators to sponsor a bill to put their proposal on the November ballot.
That last part is where things get murky, though. The legislators carrying your cityhood bill are supposed to be from your local delegation, and that holds true for the six legislators who sponsored the Eagle’s Landing bill. However, local delegation is defined by county. Of those legislators, only one of them, state Representative Dale Rutledge, has a district that covers Stockbridge, and only a small part of it at that (he’s listed as representing another city, McDonough).
The actual legislator who represents Stockbridge, state Representative Demetrius Douglas, opposed the Eagle’s Landing proposal. The other sponsors of the Eagle’s Landing bill all represent other parts of Henry County that exist outside of Stockbridge. All six of the bill’s sponsors were white Republicans who were carrying a bill to carve up a majority-black, majority-Democrat city that its own representative in the state assembly was against. The bill eventually passed through the assembly, voted upon by 135 state representatives and senators who have nothing to do with the city of Stockbridge.
“The legislative process was not favorable to the city of Stockbridge, because those individuals who put up the bill did not represent us,” said Camilla Moore, the assistant city manager for Stockbridge. “They say whoever controls the rules controls the process—well, they manipulated the rules, in my opinion, and they manipulated this process that allowed them to push the bill through.”
Georgia Republicans have been more than eager to pass cityhood bills over the past 13 years, with one notable exception—the proposal to convert a huge swath of unincorporated land in DeKalb County, in Atlanta’s eastern suburbs, into a city called Greenhaven. Otherwise, as long as there’s a legislator from the “local delegation” supporting it, and the feasibility study says the new city can afford to provide municipal services, generally the state will put it on the ballot. But even the feasibility study done for Eagle’s Landing was questionable—in large part because the academic institutions that reviewed it had never studied proposals that included incorporating parts of another established city in the new one.
“When this one came to us, we looked at the map they sent us and we said, ‘Part of that is in Stockbridge; maybe you need a different map?’ But they said, ‘No, that’s the right map,’” said Laura Wheeler, a senior research associate at GSU’s Andrew Young School. “Something of this scale was not what anyone saw coming at all.”
The institutions in charge of these feasibility vettings have a very narrow charge from the state—they can only answer the question of whether a proposed city is economically viable, not whether it’s a good idea, or even if it’s lawful. The Andrew Young Center study did not include any debt that Eagle’s Landing might have to pay from when it was part of Stockbridge, and it was completed before a court ruling that said Eagle’s Landing would have to pay it. It wasn’t in the center’s realm of authority to question any of this, and the researchers purposely don’t stake any personal opinions in the feasibility studies to avoid politics surrounding the proposals.
“We were asked a very specific question—does the proposed area create a viable city—and based off that question and available data, we said yes,” said Wheeler. “But perhaps other questions should be asked: What happens to Stockbridge? Also, what happens to Henry County because of this? Those are reasonable questions to ask, but they do not have a place currently in the process, and that process is created by the state general assembly.”
There were many other reasons for people to oppose the Eagle’s Landing proposal. The timing and the optics were terrible: The group was making this Southern secession play right after Stockbridge elected its first black mayor and its first all-black city council. Global finance agencies such as Moody’s said the move could wreck the credit and bond ratings of every city in Georgia. Not to mention that the Eagle’s Landing group’s stated reasons for breaking-away-while-breaking-up Stockbridge rang shallow. They said they wanted more upscale eating establishments, like a Cheesecake Factory.
All of those reasons no doubt gave people plenty of ammunition for voting against it. But the fact that legislators who didn’t represent Stockbridge were the ones carrying a bill to carve it up strongly suggests that it should have never been on the ballot in the first place.
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