Empty Stores Are Killing New York City. Is This the Fix?

The story of New York City in 2018 is a story of empty storefronts: Nearly every week, another longtime shop or eatery announces that they are closing, after years—if not decades—in business. (Latest addition: The much-loved 35-year-old Tex-Mex joint Tortilla Flats, in the West Village.) In my neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, it’s Steinway Street, a retail strip that’s now undergoing pedestrian-focused improvements to lure back visitors, because there are too many vacancies. And when new tenants do move in, their name is often Starbucks. Or Wells Fargo.

The booming Big Apple has become a “capitalist paradox,”as The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson recently wrote—a “rich ghost town.” As its unique mix of retailers and eateries metamorphose into a monotony of nail salons, chain outlets, and bank branches, the city is becoming “a high-density simulacrum of the American suburb.” Several studies indicate that 20 percent of Manhattan’s storefronts lie vacant—concentrated in the borough’s most trafficked areas, where commercial rents have soared. The worrisome trend—which exists outside of Manhattan, too—suggests a question: What happens when a city becomes too costly to offer the very ingredients that people look for in a city?

This is hardly a new question for New York City. The wave rolled in over many years, as crime dissipated, affluent newcomers arrived, real estate speculation heated up, and gentrification reshaped neighborhoods. And for decades, local lawmakers have offered the same answer: the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA), which would force landlords to negotiate rent increases. Essentially, critics of the bill argue, it’s a form of rent control for businesses.

Now the legislation, which has floated around City Hall since Mayor Ed Koch’s administration, is up for debate again. The bill’s fate is being closely watched in other cities that are experiencing their own variations on this retail vacancy problem as brick-and-mortar stores reel under the rise of Amazon and e-commerce.

First introduced in 1986, the SBJSA is designed to discourage landlords from doubling or quadrupling rents, shuttering mom-and-pop tenants that are unable pony up. (Case in point: McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore in SoHo, will relocate because its landlord just asked for $500,000 more in rent this year.) The SBJSA would regulate rent negotiations between small businesses and landlords when leases are up for renewal. The controversial bill has received a total of 12 hearings in the City Council in its long lifetime, the most recent one this past Monday. This was its first hearing since 2009; then, the bill had enough votes, but wasn’t allowed to the floor due to legal concerns.

When I first wrote about SBJSA in 2015, the bill’s supporters were invigorated by the election of Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose campaign had emphasized containing income inequality and who had supported the bill when he served in the Council. The bill had 19 co-sponsors then, but it was missing the support of a key player: City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. She ultimately tabled the bill, torpedoing its shots of success during her tenure.

Fast forward to 2018. The bill’s co-sponsor count has now risen to 30, and the new Council Speaker, Corey Johnson, was responsible for convening Monday’s hearing on the bill. “This has to be one of our top priorities if we want to maintain the city as we know it,” Johnson said at the start. “If it isn’t a priority, we will lose the vibrancy of our neighborhoods, and New York begins to look more like any other city. Humdrum. Cookie cutter. Boring.”

Outside, two parties of rival supporters had gathered on the steps of City Hall. A knot of people in suits wore bright blue hats that read “Vote NO Commercial Rent Control,” facing off against a crowd of SBJSA advocates holding signs like “Save small businesses, and the soul of NYC.” While the blue hats looked on, speeches were delivered by a litany of advocates and small business owners, led by Columbia University historian David Eisenbach, who leads the advocacy group Friends of the SBJSA. “It isn’t about the taxes; it isn’t about Amazon,” said Eisenbach. “It’s about the rent.”

Foes of commercial rent control turned out at New York’s City Hall to protest.  (John Surico/CityLab)

Since the bill was conceived, it has been opposed by the Real Estate Board of New York, the most powerful association of real estate interests and developers in New York. That hasn’t changed. “This bill will kill jobs, kill ingenuity, and ensure the homogenization of retail in NYC,” testified John Banks, REBNY president, on Monday. “It was deeply flawed 30 years ago, and it is deeply flawed today. The only survival the bill ensures is of continued vacancies.”

The key argument against the SBJSA is that commercial rent control would disincentivize landlords from investing in properties and finding suitable tenants. But a lot of this falls upon interpretation of what the bill actually does, which includes allowing tenants a 10-year renewal when their lease is up, and the option of arbitration should the two parties fail to see eye-to-eye on a rent increase. Supporters say the bill merely sets boundaries as to what landlords can—and cannot—do.

“This is not about rent control,” said Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez of Upper Manhattan, the sponsor of the bill. “This is about being able to establish a fair process, so local small businesses and property owners are able to survive.”

Rodriguez rolled out some statistics: Out of the 220,000 small businesses in New York City, 89 percent of them create less than 20 jobs, which, currently, are driving the city’s job growth. (The Small Business Congress, who authored the bill, says that New York now loses 1,200 small businesses a month.)

But the de Blasio administration doesn’t seem convinced. At the hearing, Gregg Bishop, the city’s commissioner of small business services, voiced the administration’s concerns with the bill. The keyword of his criticism, and others, is “unintended consequences.” There are fears that a well-intentioned law could end up harming small businesses in the end.

Take, for example, arbitration, Bishop said. “In arbitration, both parties would need to provide data and documents to determine fair lease terms,” he testified. “However, arbitration often favors the party who is able to provide more resources and information into the arbitration process. Therefore, larger and more well-resourced parties, such as landlords and multinational corporations, will likely have the upper hand through this mechanism, and it may not bring the desired benefits to small commercial tenants.”

Additionally, Bishop said, the bill won’t protect small businesses that pay month-to-month and in cash, largely immigrant-owned shops like neighborhood bodegas, or smaller independent eateries. “This legislation may make it harder”—italics provided in testimony—”for those businesses to secure leases because landlords may be less inclined to execute leases to avoid the potential cost of arbitration,” Bishop added.

When pressed repeatedly by committee members as to what the city was doing to stave off the sprawl of vacancies, Bishop pointed to initiatives like Chamber On-the-Go, where canvassers present services to business owners, and the newly launched Commercial Lease Assistance Program, which provides pro bono legal representation for small businesses facing lease issues. He argued that going forward, the administration would be open to a storefront registry to collect data on vacancies, and a vacancy tax. (The administration has weighed a similar measure for abandoned lots in the past.)

Bishop was hardly alone in his concerns wth the SBJSA. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who enacted a more micro-scale version of the bill in her district on the Upper West Side when she was in the Council, testified that the current legislation’s definition of a “small business” would also apply to big-box stores. Left-leaning housing and legal rights organizations such as the Urban Justice Center and Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development also oppose the bill, echoing the administration’s concerns about arbitration.

Johnson, the council speaker, was worried about the blurry definition of small businesses, too. “I don’t think this bill should treat a WeWork in the same way it treats a bodega. And that is what this bill currently does,” he said. “I am not here today to help Goldman Sachs.”

As it stands, said Johnson, the SBJSA must be amended before it can be put to a full Council vote. And that’s currently where the bill lies: in a legal gray area, as the Council sorts out the legal and logistical specifics. Next, a Council committee will review the bill, make changes, and then, should the Speaker approve, put the SBJSA to a full vote. If it passes, all eyes would be on the mayor—whose concerns were echoed by Bishop—to either veto or sign it.

Should the latter come to pass, that would stand as a significant milestone in the role of cities combating affordability and the dearth of retail in the Age of Amazon. As CityLab has reported, while other municipalities have enacted a host of measures boost small businesses, the SBJSA is the only bill in America that directly targets skyrocketing rent rates.

As I left the chamber, I ran into one of the many foes of the bill wearing the blue hats. I asked him where he got it from. “A man with a briefcase was handing them out,” he told me.

He was a landlord, he told me, with a number of properties in New York. (He refused to give his name.) While he was here to demonstrate his opposition to the bill, he also noted that it could create a beneficial loophole for him, by forcing “bad” tenants who do not have a lease into signing one.

I asked him what he made of the argument that the loss of small businesses was killing the soul of New York City, and the chain pharmacies and expensive salad stores just needed to be stopped. He balked. “Listen… if landlord wants a tenant who will pay them more,” he said, “then why shouldn’t they be allowed to make some money?”

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Looking for Affordable Housing? Try Near a Cemetery

It might sound like a morbid joke, but you will likely pay less for your home if the next-door neighbors are lifeless. Homes within a quarter mile of cemeteries, funeral homes, and mortuaries tend to be more affordable in most U.S. metro areas, according to a new Trulia report.

Alexandra Lee, Trulia Data Analyst, arrived at this conclusion by evaluating September 2018 home prices, GeoNames location data on cemeteries, and Yelp business data on funeral homes and mortuaries in 96 of the top 100 U.S. metros by population.

Before you get goosebumps, the concept of demand elasticity helps explain why this ghostly effect on home prices is especially pronounced in some areas like Allentown, Pennsylvania, rather than others. When consumers have more substitutes, their demand is more elastic. It seems that if homebuyers have options for homes farther away from corpses, they would rather not live near the deceased. That is: Live near a cemetery? Over my dead body!

With demand elasticity in mind, it makes more sense that metros that are already more affordable are where ghosts will likelier scare away the dollar signs. The top five metros for increased affordability near cemeteries, funeral homes, and mortuaries are Allentown, Pennsylvania; Columbia, South Carolina; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Albany, New York; and Rochester, New York.


“Allentown is a Rust Belt city, in an area that was hit hard by the recession. Homes right now are still among the most affordable in the country,” Lee explained. “When faced with more choices, it seems like consumers are shying away from cemeteries. We’re saying that if all these homes are affordable and we just don’t want to live near a cemetery, they’re willing to pay just a little bit more to be farther away.”

In some places in the U.S. though, cemeteries do not spook homebuyers. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Silver Spring, Maryland; Richmond, Virginia; and New Orleans, Louisiana, homebuyers will pay steeper prices to live near the dead.


The likely reason for this isn’t so creepy: “Before the era of public parks, cemeteries served that function. So these earlier cemeteries that are well-kept and historic, the home values are higher near them,” Lee told CityLab.

“Looking at some of these places that have high premiums near cemeteries,” Lee continued, “we think it’s because these cemeteries are focal points in their neighborhoods. People want to be near them instead of shunning them away.”

The broader picture across the U.S. though, is one where we don’t want to live near tombstones. Unless you live in a historic neighborhood, you’ll likely pay more to avoid being reminded of death on your walk home. But we will all die eventually. Why not rest in peace knowing you saved extra bucks on your mortgage?

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The Tech Companies Spending to Oppose (and Support) San Francisco’s Homelessness Tax

As tensions build over a San Francisco ballot measure that would tax businesses to fund homelessness initiatives, the debate over how to support a population with little political power has escalated into a war between people with the most. Funding the opposition to Proposition C are some of the city’s most prominent tech titans, according to campaign filings released Thursday. But outspending them all is one man and his company that, together, have contributed more than $5 million, as part of a vocal campaign that businesses must help end the city’s homelessness crisis.

The man is Marc Benioff, and the company is Salesforce—the city’s largest private employer, the owner of the tallest building in the city, and the sponsor behind a new (now-crumbling) transit center. Benioff, Salesforce’s CEO, has emerged as Prop C’s most ardent supporter—pitting himself against Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter and Square, who opposes the measure along with Mayor London Breed. The tech leaders have sparred on Twitter for weeks now, arguing over the measure’s merits to an audience of millions.

But while their words might seem performative, they aren’t empty. According to records on campaign contributions made up to October 20, released by the San Francisco Ethics Commission Thursday, campaigns backing each camp have spent almost $7 million combined.

The “No on Prop C” campaign reported contributions of $1,363,921 from a host of donors, including:

  • $100,000 from Lyft,
  • $419,999 from Stripe,
  • $500,000 from Visa,
  • $30,000 from Macy’s/Bloomingdale’s,
  • $100,000 from venture capitalist Michael Moritz,
  • $150,000 from Paul Graham, a Y Combinator investor,
  • $25,000 from Square,
  • and $75,000 from Dorsey himself.

Despite the roster of prominent business leaders who have contributed to oppose the tax, the campaign in favor of Proposition C, “Our City, Our Home,” has raised far more: about $5.6 million, $5.25 million of it in the last month alone. Benioff has personally donated $1 million, and Salesforce’s contribution totals 4,153,393.01. Among the small-dollar donors were engineers for Stripe and Square, companies whose leadership contributed key sums to bankroll the opposition.

The proposed tax at issue would raise a total of about $300 million for homelessness initiatives each year, by increasing the gross receipts tax for San Francisco businesses earning more than $50 million a year by an average of 0.5 percent. Half of the fund would go toward building and subsidizing about 5,000 new affordable housing units over the next eight years, and 10 percent to installing 1,075 new shelter beds. In a city that spent $380 million on homelessness last year, “Our City Our Home” would almost double the budget.

“I want to help fix the homeless problem in SF and California,” wrote Dorsey on October 12, on the social media platform he runs. “I don’t believe this (Prop C) is the best way to do it.”

Dorsey wasn’t the first to sound an alarm. A “No on Prop C” campaign, backed by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, had been collecting testimonies ever since the measure qualified for the ballot this summer. By October, Mayor London Breed spoke out against it, too: “Proposition C lacks accountability” and “could make our homelessness problem worse,” she wrote in a statement.  Her post opened a floodgate of echoed dissent among San Francisco tech companies—the same ones she’s been criticized for being beholden to.

“I support Mayor London Breed and Scott Wiener’s commitment to address this the right way. Mayor Breed was elected to fix this. I trust her,” Dorsey wrote. “We support Mayor Breed, Senator [Scott] Wiener, and Assemblymember [David] Chiu in implementing approaches that most effectively address homelessness,” parroted Lyft in the San Francisco Examiner. (Uber told CityLab the company was “neutral.”)

Stripe, an online payment service backed by Elon Musk and Peter Thiel, piled on: In addition to being an “ill-conceived half-measure,” as Stripe’s General Counsel deemed it in September, Prop C “could easily push more people into homelessness or out of our city altogether,” wrote Patrick Collison, Stripe’s CEO & co-founder.  

Though Benioff is by far the largest donor to the measure, he’s joined in supporting Prop C by players like Chuck Robbins, the CEO of Cisco Systems; Nancy Pelosi, who represents California in Congress as the House Democratic Leader; as well as the coalition of local housing advocates that drafted it.

“This is a humanitarian emergency and it demands an emergency response,” Benioff wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times titled “The Social Responsibility of Business” on Wednesday. “San Francisco’s epidemic of homelessness is solvable, but only if we devote the resources that are necessary.”

Benioff, who’s been rumored to have mayoral aspirations, has turned the argument into something of a “woke-off,” as Maya Kosoff in Vanity Fair put it, railing Dorsey and other tech leaders for what he sees as rampant hypocrisy.

Both sides are playing ball—very publicly. Screenshots from earlier this month show Dorsey trying to call “Marc,” only to go to voicemail; then finally getting through to him. “We’re all talking now and aligned to fix this issue as fast as we can,” Dorsey wrote. “Will keep everyone updated.”

Few can dispute the fact that homelessness is a problem in San Francisco: An estimated 7,500 people experience homelessness in San Francisco each night, about one in 30 of whom are kids in public schools. The shelter system has a 1,000-person wait for its 2,500 beds. And the connection between the growing tech industry and shrinking affordability is hard to ignore: A recent story in the New York Times profiled one San Francisco block that acts as a bridge between the city’s downtown, teeming with tech elites, and its homeless population crowded in the Tenderloin District, where more than 100,000 heroin needles littered the pavement this year. “The Dirtiest Block in San Francisco,” the Times called it, for receiving “2,227 complaints about street and sidewalk cleanliness over the last decade.”

What leaders disagree about is how best to target aid.

Locally, the proposition is a referendum on how San Francisco should address its growing homelessness problem, and on how tech giants could help shrink it. But the posturing that has followed also illustrates Big Tech’s growing influence on local governments nationwide.

Other cities where housing rates are climbing have also considered business taxes to directly address affordability, and have faced similarly tense responses. In Seattle, a per-employee tax on the city’s largest businesses to fund affordable housing and homelessness initiatives was passed by the city council in May—only to be killed months later, after Amazon and other local companies contributed a total of $300,000 to its opposition fund. By September, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced he’d be starting his own fund to support existing homelessness non-profits. In doing so, he seemed to signal a preference for philanthropy over policy—or at least over taxation.

Cupertino, home to Apple’s headquarters, had been floating a head tax of its own before shelving it this year, fearing Apple’s outrage. Mountain View, home to Google’s headquarters, has moved forward with putting an increase of their business license tax on the November ballot.

While Seattle’s tax was quickly framed as a job-killer—and local businesses opposed it on those grounds—Prop C can’t be put in that box as easily. It’s not taxing businesses based on how many employees they have, for one; and it has the support of the city’s largest employer.

Instead, most of the critiques carefully highlights the “bad policy” argument: That companies would be happy to support homelessness initiatives, and happier still to pay their fair share of taxes. (See, Dorsey: “We’re happy to pay our taxes”; and Stripe: “We’re happy to pay higher taxes as part of [helping solve homelessness], a position we’ve made clear from the start.”) They just want that tax to have the support of the city’s mayor.

But as Benioff points out, the money they’re already spending—or not spending—tells another story. San Francisco’s Central Market Tax Exclusion (aka the “Twitter tax break”) was adopted in 2011 to attract tech companies to the Mid-Market district. In 2014, it reportedly got Twitter and other companies like Uber and Lyft off the hook for $34 million in city taxes. And in December, the Trump administration slashed the corporate tax rate nationally by more than 10 percent. That means the same businesses that are fighting Prop C’s half-a-percent tax hike have already enjoyed the benefits of federal and local tax cuts, advocates have noted.

“If you’re going to fight a relatively small tax, which is one half of one percent to help our number 1 issue, then you better [be] prepared to talk about what you are doing versus what you don’t want to do,” wrote Benioff on Twitternot directly replying to Dorsey this time, but implicating him and other billionaires in the Bay.

Mayor Breed warns that passing Prop C would lead the city to suffer economically, citing figures from a City Economist report showing that Prop C could mean a “$240 million loss from our city’s GDP every year for the next twenty years,” and warning that the businesses who’ve objected might up and move out of the region. But according to a recent study from the city’s Office of Economic Analysis, Prop C would cost the city from 725 to 875 jobs over two decades—a 0.1 percent change. “If the tax doesn’t increase, the job loss doesn’t compound,” the author of the report told the Chronicle. What’s more, he said, the tax would likely do its job: Reduce homelessness in the city.

Breed has also advocated for supporting other propositions on the California ballot that would target homelessness and housing affordability at the state level instead, including Prop 1, which would invest $4 billion in housing for veterans and working families, and Prop 2, which frees up $2 billion to house homeless Californians suffering from mental illness. “San Francisco cannot solve homelessness simply by writing ever-larger checks itself,” she wrote.

But the same groups funding the Prop C opposition aren’t putting money into advocating for those other state-wide solutions. According to filings with the California Secretary of State, more than $5 million has been donated to the “Yes on Props 1 & 2 Coalition,” led by housing advocacy and construction groups, as well as the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. Neither Dorsey, Twitter, Salesforce, nor Benioff have donated campaign funding to the coalition.

As for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s endorsement, Lyft is listed as a member company, but the ride-hailing company did not respond to a request for comment. “We are member-driven. Our companies all have a voice in what we do moving forward,” said Nathan Ho, senior director of housing and community development for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. “They collectively came together as a group to endorse Prop 1 and Prop 2.” Twitter, Square, and Stripe are not in the group.

After Dorsey first spoke out against Proposition C, Benioff put the question to him directly:

“Hi Jack. Thanks for the feedback,” Benioff wrote. “Which homeless programs in our city are you supporting?”

“Marc: you’re distracting,” Dorsey replied.

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Uber and Lyft’s Link to Traffic Fatalities

Every convenience has its external costs, and economists love to count them.

With ride-hailing, the positive benefits to users, and society at large, are several. On-demand services like Uber and Lyft provide transportation in neighborhoods underserved by transit or taxis; safe rides home for late-night workers and partiers; and increased ease of access for people with disabilities, research has shown. There’s also some evidence that they reduce drunk driving. Besides providing a service to millions of riders, these companies are increasing access to safe mobility for groups that haven’t always had it.

But the growing demand for press-a-button transportation is coming from everybody, not just underserved riders. In cities, that is translating into more cars on the road. While the environmental and congestion impacts of this surge in vehicles have been much discussed, the potential uptick in traffic fatalities associated with Uber and Lyft usage has been one of ride-hailing’s lesser-studied negative externalities. In a new working paper, a team from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business is now attempting to pin this down. The authors estimate that 2 to 3 percent of the number of crashes in a given area can be attributed to the introduction of ride-hailing.

Here’s how they structured their research. Using the rollout date of Uber and Lyft’s various services in every city with a population of at least 10,000 in the U.S., they measured scale of adoption in those areas (based on Google search volumes for the companies’ names). They also took accident data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and looked at changes in the number of collisions around the advent of ride-hailing. They found that fatal traffic crashes sharply tick up around the time that app-based rides were introduced into a given area, consistent with declines in gas prices, more vehicle-miles traveled (VMT), and increased traffic delays.

Their results stayed strong when the researchers controlled for time and place; rural areas saw a scant Uber/Lyft effect on their traffic death tolls, while denser cities with higher app adoption rates felt it more.

To be clear, the paper is not suggesting that ride-hailing drivers are getting into fatal crashes more than any other people on the road. Although the authors briefly mull how the average app driver might compare to the general population in terms of safety (and at least one report has suggested ride-hailing drivers are actually less likely to speed, drive aggressively, or fumble with their phones than civilians), that’s not what this new study measures. The finding is more straightforward: To the extent that these apps are likely putting more cars on the road, they’re probably also implicated in the number of deaths by cars.

“The fact is that ride-sharing allows for more VMT, and excess fuel consumption,” said John Barrios, a finance professor at the Booth School and one of the lead authors. “The technology makes it easier to be in a car and use it more than you would have before. The key thing is that there are externalities to that.”

And those externalities are getting worse. U.S. road fatalities rose to 35,000 in 2015, a 7.2 percent increase over 2014, representing the largest jump in 50 years. In 2016, the death toll increased another 5.6 percent. Preliminary data suggests that number leveled out in 2017, but that’s still about as high as it’s been in a decade.

There is some debate over the biggest driver of these gruesome numbers, especially about the extent to which digital devices are pulling our eyes off the road. But the most obvious suspect is cheap gas, which is encouraging folks to do more driving, and in some places, to buy more cars where they might have used transit. Economic growth is also a recent contributor to the rise in VMT. In short, the more Americans drive, the more opportunities they have to kill someone. That trend is mostly about private vehicles; apps are a small part of it, the new paper is saying.

The study is not perfect. For example, Uber and Lyft are famously loathe to release ridership data, so the study’s measurements use Google searches as proxies for levels of app adoption across the country. That’s not ideal. Also, a more robust version of this paper could include a narrow look at whether ride-hailing is linked to more deaths at the times and places when the service is especially popular, including late at night and around airports, as City Observatory’s Joe Cortright points out.

Both companies dispute the findings. “Uber has contributed to safety in many ways and we take our responsibility to help keep people safe seriously,” an Uber spokesperson told Business Insider. On Streetsblog, a representative for Lyft called the study “deeply flawed,” and said that “numerous studies have shown that rideshare has reduced DUIs, provided safe transportation in areas underserved by other options, and dramatically improved mobility in cities.”

That may be, but those benefits are all linked to two simple facts: Ride-hailing is growing, and it happens in cars. No matter who’s driving them, until there are fewer vehicles on the road—thanks to market forces, or regulations like the new “Uber cap” in New York City—society probably can’t expect to stop losing lives. Now there are some cold economics.

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How Montreal’s Largest Park Tackled Its Raccoon Problem

Mount Royal Park can be seen from the air flying into Montreal, rising up on the west of the city. Laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted in the mid-1870s, it encompasses more than 500 acres of woods, paths, a lake, and a number of look-out points over Montreal.

The Belvedere Camilien-Houde abuts a road that winds through the park, and has a view over the city straight to the landmark Olympic Stadium.

When Victoria Desmarais explains why this point became ground zero to feed the park’s raccoons, she talks about the human visitors like an animal behaviorist.

“I think it comes with the high turnaround of the cars and people,” says the conservationist with Les Amis de la Montagne (Friends of the Mountain). “People come here to eat chicken and ice cream, which they wouldn’t bring along to other viewpoints that require a longer walk.”

(Emma Jacobs)

Tour buses pull up to the lookout point every couple of minutes, discharging their passengers to take selfies in front of the view. Raccoons appear from the other direction.

“A bag of crisps ruffling—pop—they come out of the forest,” explained Desmarais.

By 2010, when Les Amis de la Montagne was charged by the city with addressing the number of people feeding the raccoons of Mount Royal, the activity was listed on destination guides for visitors. Online itineraries recommended bringing handfuls of cat food and ice cream vendors on the terrace at one point sold cat food on site.  

“When tourists arrive with food that is often very high in calories and in fat,” said Jacques Dancosse, a veterinarian and researcher at the Biodôme of Montreal, “the food which is very sought after by these animals, they’re going to very quickly lose their fear of humans.”

In recent years, 40 or 50 raccoons at a time could appear on the terrace. Search on YouTube and you’ll see videos of raccoon swarms surrounding visitors, even yanking objects out of people’s hands.

(Emma Jacobs)

This raccoon buffet led to a ballooning of the population. In 2012, park staff estimated 200 raccoons were living in park, many times more than this area would normally support.

The number of raccoons was thinned out substantially by a distemper outbreak last year. The spread of the disease can be exacerbated by overpopulation, as well as an attraction like the look-out bringing normally territorial animals into closer proximity.

Raccoons can also suffer from the same diet and obesity-related health problems as humans, including diabetes and cavities.

(Emma Jacobs)

However, the work of Les Amis de la Montagne has also had a critical impact on reducing feeding of the park raccoons. They needed to reach an inherently transitory audience of tourists, constantly cycling through and with little investment in leaving the city in better shape than they found it.

Putting coyote urine and a coyote soundtrack around the lookout had minimal impact on keeping the animals away, so they focused on the human side of the equation.

Les Amis de la Montagne put a stop to the cat food sales at the lookout. Desmarais’ predecessor started contacting websites and tour companies to get feeding the Mount Royal raccoons removed from their lists of Montreal attractions. Signs went up in multiple languages warning people not to feed or touch the raccoons, warning of penalties by fines,. Most importantly, they had staff on site several days a week.

“We would run to a tour bus before the guide would come down and tell him, ‘Please tell your entire bus to keep their snacks inside,’” Desmarais said.

(Emma Jacobs)

Though, she added, the blame doesn’t lie entirely with tourists.

“It’s also a very ingrained Montreal activity,” she noted, particularly for parents to bring their young children. So, on the terrace, and on conservation patrols through the park, staff speak with all visitors.

The most effective way to talk with visitors, Desmarais has found, is to talk about the risks to the animals, not to themselves.

“If you just tell [them], ‘Oh, they can bite,’ well people will say ‘Oh, I’ll be careful.’ But if you tell them it creates an overpopulation, [that] we have a precarious population of salamander, [that] it’s a high-density spot where one can transmit their parasites, their diseases,” then, she said, people respond more positively.

“We explain the impact that it has on the raccoon that they love,” Desmarais said. “We give them a bit of science and a bit of emotion.”

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Will Paris’s Metro Adapt to Disabled Riders Before the 2024 Olympics?

Paris’s Metro is many things: Its Art Nouveau entrances are romantic, its platforms dirty, its never-ending corridors tiring, and its buskers diverting. But for all its charms and irritants, the French subway is almost wholly inaccessible to parts of the population. Out of 303 Metro stations, only nine (or 3 percent) are fully accessible for wheelchair users—with an elevator from the street to the exchange room, another elevator to the platforms, and platforms that align with trains. Six other stations are semi-accessible with staff assistance. As the French capital prepares to host the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the inaccessibility of the Metro has become a thorny issue.

Jean-Michel Secondy works for APF France Handicap, an association advocating for people with physical disabilities, and has been a mobility activist for 25 years. “First, we fought to make buses accessible, and now it’s the Metro,” he said. “Just look at how many stations are accessible for people in wheelchairs, and you’ll get what the problem is.”

A 2016 study commissioned by the greater Paris mobility department, Île-de-France Mobilités, found that about 9 percent of the area’s population has a motor disability, accounting for 72 percent of all people with disabilities there. However, roughly a third of the area population has mobility limitations due to age, pregnancy, use of a stroller, or a temporary health condition.

France adopted legislation in 2005 to improve accessibility in public places, but the Paris Metro was excluded. Many of its lines were built more than 100 years ago—it is one of the oldest subways in the world. The company that runs the system, RATP, has argued that making stations accessible would be extremely costly, a matter of €4 to 6 billion.

Regulations for emergency evacuations have complicated things as well. The regulations state that any person must be able to find shelter during an emergency. So if an emergency arises while they are on the train and between stations, they would likely get off at the next station and shelter there. What that means, an Île-de-France Mobilités spokesperson told CityLab, is that having one accessible station makes little difference unless the rest of the line is also accessible.

Then there is the matter of sewage lines and the general lack of space in Paris. “As of today, norms are making it extremely complicated technically speaking and cost-wise, and almost impossible to [adapt the Paris Metro],” said the spokesperson.

Several groups have questioned these justifications, pointing out that older and equally complex subways have been adapted for greater access. In Barcelona, 143 out of 158 stations have been adapted. New York’s subway is 24-percent wheelchair-accessible. London’s mid-19th-century Underground is now 20 percent accessible. Most of the track in Paris lies only about 19 feet below ground, compared to a depth of 82 to 196 feet in London.

RATP has made the greater-Paris bus network 90-percent accessible, and has upgraded many suburban stations on the RER rail network. Newer transit options such as tramways are fully accessible. But the problem of the Metro remains.

Following three failed attempts since 1990, in 2017, Paris won the 2024 Summer Games after other cities withdrew their bids. The city’s bid stated that the Games would act as a catalyst to make France “an even more welcoming place for residents and visitors with an impairment, with accessible infrastructure and attitudes befitting the most visited country on Earth.” It reiterated the existence of accessible above-ground public transit in Paris.

The big transit project touted in the bid was the Grand Paris Express, a Metro expansion that is now under construction, with four additional lines, 124 miles of new tracks, and 68 new stations. It will be completed in phases by 2030 and will be accessible. “Politicians have been promising a lot with the 2024 Paris Games, saying it’s an amazing opportunity for accessibility and that they’ll make efforts, but associations on the ground say that they’re not being taken seriously and that there won’t be more [infrastructure investment] outside of the Grand Paris Express,” said Emmanuelle Dal’Secco, a journalist who has been covering disability issues for the past decade.

However, a law passed by the National Assembly in March spelled out the need to “simplify procedures for the accessibility of the historic Paris Metro for people with disabilities, including physical ones.” In June, the deputy minister in charge of disability issues, Sophie Cluzel, promised a “real plan,” and said an audit was being conducted. In July, Paris’s city council asked the president of the Greater Paris administration (which partly finances the Metro) to begin studies to make some stations accessible. The council cited the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics in London, when several older and central tube stations added elevators and ramps.

RATP told CityLab that previous studies, including one made for the Olympics bid, showed “great technical complexity and at times infeasibility and highly considerable costs,” and that the company has no current plan to adapt existing stations. “The objective is to take people in wheelchairs [from the outskirts] of Paris so that they can then transfer to other accessible transit options such as tramways and bus,” added the spokesperson.

Taking buses, trams, and suburban rail instead of the Metro can mean more transfers and longer journeys, and these systems are not glitch-free for disabled users, either. Secondy, the activist, said the elevators in the stations that have them are sometimes broken. When buses are full, as they often are, drivers may not let wheelchair users on. Or they don’t have the patience to unfold the ramp, and ask riders to wait for the next bus.

“Being in a wheelchair in Paris means managing your time every single day,” said Secondy.

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Where ICE Raids Are Happening

The largest immigration raid in U.S. history happened in Postville, Iowa. Over a couple of days in May 2008, teams of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents flooded the tiny meatpacking town, arresting over 389 people as helicopters swirled overhead. A decade later, memories of the incident remain fresh; some residents who were children during the raid are still in therapy, one local advocate told the Des Moines Register.

Community arrests like this, in which undocumented people are rounded up in workplaces and homes, can tear the fabric of an entire town: Homes are left empty, jobs undone, families uprooted, and neighbors divided. “Large-scale raids are experienced locally as disasters, even by those not directly affected,” Elizabeth Oglesby, a professor of Latin American Studies and Geography at the University of Arizona, wrote in June.

While both Democratic and Republican administrations have used ICE raids to enforce immigration laws, the current one has expressed a particular enthusiasm for this traumatizing technique: Community arrests have risen in the first two years of the Trump administration compared to the last years of the Obama administration. But while the news of raids may have a widespread chilling effect on immigrant communities, the majority of ICE’s arrests via this method are concentrated in a few places, according to a new report by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a data gathering and research organization at Syracuse University. Between October 2017 and May 2018, community arrests happened in a total of 574 of 3,200 counties. But just 10 saw around 28 percent of ICE community arrests. And half of all the raids were conducted in just 24 counties.

Below are the ten counties with the highest number of community arrests:

The report presents snapshot of where this one part of ICE’s enforcement strategy is being heavily deployed. It’s no surprise, because these are immigrant-rich counties with long-established communities of undocumented residents.

After the Trump administration broadened the criteria for who can be deported, ICE agents have targeted “low-hanging fruit”—people without criminal records who are being arrested at routine immigration check-ins or after testifying against a crime in court. The TRAC report shows that ICE heavily relies on local police to do this. Of the 1,528 counties where ICE made arrests, only 38 percent were community arrests. The rest were made when local law enforcement transferred a suspected undocumented person to ICE’s custody. In other words, the most significant “deportation force” in the U.S. is local police. That’s why efforts by cities and counties to limit police involvement in immigration enforcement—loosely, and misleadingly, called “sanctuary” policies—have been so effective in reducing the impact of the crackdown.

Indeed, a recent analysis by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) found that “the engine that fueled ICE’s peak effectiveness—the intersection of federal immigration enforcement with state and local criminal justice systems—is being throttled by state and local policies that limit cooperation with ICE.”

Not all so-called sanctuary cities, of course, have completely severed ties with ICE. Many share data or tip the agency off about undocumented immigrants charged with crimes despite having such laws in place. Plus, community arrests by ICE continue to happen in places with protective policies—sometimes, as a direct reaction to new sanctuary laws. That could partly explain why New York County and Cook County are major sites for community arrests, per the TRAC report. In the New York City area, the aggressiveness of ICE’s enforcement strategy has been well-documented, with immigrants being arrested at their workplaces, in their homes, and at courthouses. On the other hand, in Maricopa County, Arizona, and DeKalb County, Georgia, community arrests may be occurring with the blessing and support of local governments.

The effect of these raids, experts say, is widespread fear and a withdrawal of entire immigrant communities from civic life. But the trauma they inflict can also mobilize faith leaders and advocates to speak out against anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. The grassroots immigrants’ rights organization Puente, for example, was born of the terror inflicted by former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio on the immigrant community in the area. Recently, the organization has also been organizing for progressive candidates at the local and state levels.  

“The raids can be galvanizing,” Oglesby writes, “as when humanitarian responses turn into new political alliances that reshape the meaning of community and create ways to stand up for immigrant rights.”

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Like Race and Class, Commute and Homeownership Divide Us

Race and class are seen as key fault lines in America’s deepening political divide. But a new analysis of congressional voting under Trump shows an additional fault line—a divide that falls across the way we live and get to work, between homeowners and drivers on the one hand, and renters and mass transit commuters on the other.

That is the big takeaway from an analysis of voting by congressional representatives during the Trump administration, conducted by my colleague Patrick Adler of the University of Toronto’s School of Cities.

Adler looked at correlations between the level of support members of the House of Representatives gave to Trump’s legislative agenda (using FiveThirtyEight’s measure) and some 1,300 separate demographic, social, and economic characteristics of their constituents. Many of these were overlapping variables, which he then clustered into a handful of major categories, like homeowner versus renter and car commuter versus transit user, as well as race, education, and family type (married versus single). As usual, I add that correlation is not causation and point only to associations between variables.

Adler’s analysis suggests that these two key dimensions of our daily life—the kind of housing we live in and the way we commute to work—play a powerful role in America’s political divisions, more so than education (measured as the population share of college graduates), about the same as race and marital status, and only slightly less so than family structure.

Representatives from congressional districts with higher levels of homeownership were more likely to support Trump’s legislative agenda, while representatives from districts with higher levels of renting were much more likely to oppose it, an important finding when affordable housing policies are hot topics this election season.

The way we commute to work is another key dimension of Trump support. Representatives from districts where a large share of commuters drive to work alone were more likely to support Trump’s agenda, whereas reps from districts with a greater percentage of mass transit commuters are more likely to be against it. As I have argued previously, the car is increasingly a factor in America’s political divide, especially between urban and rural communities.

Race, even more so than class, has been identified by many as the key factor in Trump’s rise. Though there is a correlation between Trump support and a larger share of white constituents, the correlation with a district that has a greater share of homeownership is just as strong.

Health insurance, or more specifically Obamacare, is another big wedge issue in American politics. Congresspeople representing districts with more uninsured people were more likely to vote against Trump’s legislative agenda, but the correlation was not as strong as that for support of Trump’s agenda and homeownership; it was about the same as commuting style.

The share of college graduates is seen by many as a key feature of America’s political divide. But the type of housing we live in and the way we commute to work, are even more strongly associated with support for Trump’s legislative agenda than the share of adults that are college graduates.

The only factor more related to America’s legislative divide is family structure—the share of people who are married or not. Representatives from districts with a larger share of married households are significantly more likely to support Trump’s legislative agenda, while those in districts with a large share of single or non-married households are not.

When it comes to Congress, Republicans are the party of homeowners and drivers; Democrats are the party of renters and transit users. Since city-dwellers are more likely to rent and to use mass transit, these findings reflect the powerful role of rural and urban density in shaping America’s congressional lines, especially this midterm election.

In America today, it’s not just class and race, but way we live in and the way we get to work that are key dimensions of our deepening political divide.

CityLab editorial fellow Claire Tran contributed editorial assistance to this article.

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