Rikers Was Planned as NYC’s Kinder, Gentler Jail. What Happened?

When confronted with public uproar over New York City’s teeming, deteriorating, and violence-breeding island jails, local government vowed to do better. They promised a new penal institution: This time, however it would be cleaner and safer, an atonement for the sins of the city’s dark carceral past.

Instead, they created the Rikers Island jails.

Since it opened in 1932, Rikers has become notorious for dysfunction and violence, the complaints a near-duplicate of those about its predecessor, a network of detention facilities on Roosevelt Island. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has made a similar proposal as his 20th century forebears, vowing to close the Rikers facilities: Jails on the island will be torn down, and new, more humane jails will rise in their place.

Last week the City Planning Commission approved the project, kick-starting the public land-use review process. The plan will next have to pass a committee vote and a full council vote by the New York City Council.

De Blasio praised the Planning Commission approval as, “a big step forward in the process of closing Rikers Island and creating a modern community-based jail system that is smaller, safer and fairer.”

The new plan seems unassailable at first glance: Supplant Rikers with modern detention facilities, one in each of New York’s five boroughs except Staten Island. Rehabilitation and contemporary social science practices will be at the forefront of the design, says the de Blasio administration, which will create what penal architects call a “normative environment” by increasing natural light and reducing noise.

The proposal also calls for opening the ground floor to a community use, like an art gallery or a health clinic, in an attempt to integrate the jails into the neighborhood. If that doesn’t seem radical enough, a 2017 report by the Van Alen Institute and the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform calls one model of these prospective buildings “Justice Hubs” rather than “jails.”

Despite the seeming purity of its goals, the plan has met controversy, opposition, and logistical hurdles.

Implementing it would take 10 years and require driving down the city’s inmate population to at most 5,000—in recent years, this figure has approached 10,000. The cost? Nearly $9 billion. Every borough’s community board has rejected the plan, as have Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz.

And then there is the collective of prison abolitionists that rallied to advocate for the shutdown of Rikers as an end goal; they want to do away with all prisons and jails. And while eliminating jails altogether seems a radical step, the abolitionists might point out that the de Blasio administration’s plan is treading an analogous path to the one that led to Rikers.

“De Blasio’s plan is almost verbatim to the same argument that’s been used to build awful jails in the city going back to the 18th century,” said Jarrod Shanahan, who co-authored the forthcoming book Rikers: A Social History of New York City’s Island of the Poor with Jayne Mooney. “Basically every jail reform in the city’s history, going back to at least 1797 has had the same: ‘Oh, we have a great idea, the academics have solved the problem, we have this new social science and we’re going to do it right this time.’ And every time it’s a disaster.”

An 1853 engraving by William Wade of the penitentiary at Blackwell’s Island.  (The New York Public Library Digital Collections)

In the 19th century, violence and filth festered at the detention facilities on what is now Roosevelt Island (known as Blackwell’s Island until 1921 and Welfare Island until 1971). Porous borders between facilities meant that those arrested for violent crimes often mingled with individuals arrested for petty violations. Although jails are intended to house people awaiting trial or serving short sentences, inmates often spent years on the island, if not the rest of their lives (as has also been the case for those on Rikers). After years of scandals, public outcry against the facilities grew so clamorous that in the late 1800s, New York politicians were forced to act.

The city chose the 90-acre sliver of land on the East River, wedged between the Bronx and Queens. New York purchased Rikers Island from the descendants of a Dutch settler in 1884, and in 1886, The New York Times wrote that Rikers would be the site of “an enormous model penitentiary, ample in size to serve for many years to come and which in all its plans and parts should be the most perfect prison in the world.” The commissioners in charge of the project, the article said, “entered into an energetic effort to obtain the best attainable knowledge concerning modern improvements in such institutions.”

But much had to be done to prepare Rikers Island for the penitentiary. “It was literally a wasteland,” Shanahan said.

Rats ran rampant. Fires spontaneously sparked. Nearby neighborhoods complained of the stench. Prisoners labored under gunpoint on the newly purchased island, unloading barges of the city’s garbage and picking through rotting material for dry rubbish or ash, which was used to expand the island’s shoreline and make space for the new prison (Rikers Island is now approximately 400 acres). The New York Times supported the use of prison labor, writing: “Not only will they have all that labor free, but they are even paid board by the State.”

Photo by Percy Loomis Sperr of the refuse heaps on Rikers Island that were cleared by prison labor, c. 1925, 1937. (The New York Public Library Digital Collections)

At that time, the Auburn model, a penal methodology based on New York’s Auburn Prison, was gaining traction. Under this model, prisoners labored by day and endured complete isolation by night. Proponents argued not only for the rehabilitative and disciplinary nature of forced labor, but also its economic benefits.

“The selling of the items that were made essentially at no-cost could make the prison very inexpensive to run,” said Richard Wener, a professor of environmental psychology at New York University and author of The Environmental Psychology of Prisons and Jails: Creating Humane Spaces in Secure Settings.

The city intended for Rikers to follow such a system. But rather than becoming a model for a humane and efficiently run penal institution, for much of its existence Rikers has been synonymous with abuse and hopelessness—an example of failed prison reform. (This followed the pattern set by the Blackwell jails, which were intended to improve on the penitentiary at Bellevue, which in turn replaced the city’s original 18th century jail at what is presently known as the Tweed Courthouse.)

A proposed design for penal facilities to replace Rikers. (Justice in Design)

The new jails the de Blasio administration has proposed are designed under a penal methodology called direct supervision. First developed in the 1970s, this design and security model places a correctional officer in a central day room, with cells wrapping around that core residential space. Doing so, the thinking goes, will improve lines of sight for the officer, who is then able to directly see and therefore de-escalate tensions between inmates before fights break out. Both the independent commission and the Van Alen Institute recommend the direct supervision model for the borough-based jails.

“’Direct’ in this case means not between bars and between windows, but actually being in the space with the inmates,” said Wener. “They’re making sure there’s nobody in a hidden corner hurting themselves or hurting somebody else.”

Other than direct supervision, the Van Alen Institute’s report also recommends other design aspects that can challenge the typically harsh conditions of incarceration. Architects should keep the management of “sensory stimulation” in mind, for example, by increasing access to sunlight and the outdoors, reducing noise levels, maintaining consistent temperatures and providing a steady circulation of air.

“The more the facility is similar to normal ways of living in normal places of living, the less someone is going to feel cut off from the real world,” Wener said, “and the more likely they are to have a better time reintegrating once they get out.”

Still, the main adversaries of de Blasio’s jail plan argue that direct supervision and the other suggested improvements are merely cosmetic changes to an unjust system whose cruelest components have remained largely untouched for centuries.

As Wener says, “As much as I’m interested as an environmental psychologist in architecture and how it affects behavior, the thing that you always have to keep in mind is that you have to look at the whole context of how somebody’s there and why they’re there and how they’re being treated,” he said. “The architecture is one piece of that.”

It seems unlikely that the de Blasio plan will not pass the City Council review, as the council members representing the neighborhoods where the new jails will be located have cautiously expressed their support. Meanwhile, the Department of Design and Construction is searching for local construction input on the borough-based jail’s design-build program. In June, the department awarded a $107 million contract to a joint venture of AECOM and Hill International to manage the jails’ construction. Yet the fight is unlikely to be over.

Shanahan, who said he was jailed for a month at Rikers’ Eric M. Taylor Center in 2016, isn’t optimistic. “There’s an astounding literature around, ‘Oh, what color to paint the walls so there are fewer gang fights?’ and, ‘Oh, how much sunlight is the right amount of sunlight?,’ and it’s just completely detached from reality. It ignores the social function of the jail and the role that the jail plays in structurally racist class domination. Unfortunately, the history of incarceration is in very many ways the history of progressive penology.”

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Why Americans Stopped Volunteering

In the years following September 11, 2001, Americans made efforts to redefine the date of the nation’s most deadly terror attack as a day of national service and charitable giving. In 2009, the federal government officially designated 9/11 as the National Day of Service and Remembrance, encouraging the public to honor the victims by doing good in their communities. A decade later, a coalition of national service organizations led by MyGoodDeed, the nonprofit that advocated for the federal recognition, claims that more than 30 million Americans participate in some way each year, making the holiday the biggest event on America’s charitable calendar.

This annual spike in do-gooding was mirrored by a broader surge of post-9/11 civic service. The country’s overall volunteer rate reached 28.8 percent in 2003, according to a 2018 analysis of Census Bureau data by the Do Good Institute at University of Maryland. That was the highest rate the researchers recorded in the last two decades, and it remained at that level for three straight years.

But today, fewer Americans are volunteering their time and money on a regular basis, according to the report. The national volunteer rate has not surpassed 28.8 percent since 2005, and in 2015, it dipped to its lowest, at 24.9 percent.

National volunteering rates peaked between 2003 and 2005, but has been declining ever since. (University of Maryland)

“The decline is pervasive,” says Robert Grimm, director of the Do Good Institute and the lead author of the report. “Thirty-one states have experienced a decline in volunteering over the last decade; not one state saw an increase.”

While it’s easy to blame time and apathy, Grimm’s research has largely focused on the socioeconomic factors that might be driving down the ability or willingness of Americans to donate their time and money. He and his colleagues looked at the data for 215 metro areas and found that most experienced stagnant volunteering rates. Some metros saw a significant decrease, including Augusta, Georgia, and Provo, Utah, plus a quartet of of Michigan cities: Lansing, Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor, and Saginaw. Only 11 metros saw a significant increase in service-mindedness. Savannah, Georgia, for example, jumped from 20 percent to a 45 percent volunteerism rate; Ogden, Utah, went from 40 percent to a soaring 50 percent.

The federal government’s Corporation for National and Community Service has its own ranking of the nation’s most volunteer-minded major cities: That list has Minneapolis on top this year, followed by Rochester, New York, and Salt Lake City.

While volunteer rates in rural areas and suburbs remain higher than in urban areas, according to Grimm’s research, the former two saw the steepest declines, narrowing the gaps among the three environments. Rural volunteering fell from 30.9 percent in 2003 to just 25.3 percent by 2015. In the suburbs, the rate over that same period fell from 30.1 percent to 25.3 percent.

Grimm says that was surprising given that, historically, rural areas rank higher on the social capital index—which measures how connected a community is based on 14 indicators, including how often residents volunteer in a given year, the number of civic and social organizations per 1,000 people, and how much members trust one another.

Researchers are still studying the reasoning and the behavioral changes behind that decline, but Grimm says one reason could be that certain opportunities for civic engagement in rural areas are disappearing. “If you think about it, the two main ways people volunteer are through churches and schools,” he tells CityLab. “And in rural areas, there have been consolidations of both, which could result in fewer opportunities and fewer civic organizations in those communities.”

Among the metro areas that saw a decline in volunteer rates, lower homeownership rates and higher levels of economic distress were a common theme. “You can imagine that if you buy a home in a community, you tend to be more anchored to it, and be in it long-term,” he says. “Historically, those kinds of behaviors have led people to be more engaged.”

Commuting time is also connected to how people give: The longer it takes people to get to work, the less time they spend on their community and civic obligations.

Only 11 out of the 215 metropolitan area researchers studied saw a significant increase in volunteer rates over the last decade. (University of Maryland)

But American attitudes toward volunteering (both formally and informally, like helping a neighbor out) are complicated, and Grimm’s team will continue to study other factors. Upcoming research will look at, for example, the impact of when young adults obtain typical “life markers,” such as starting a family, and buying a home.

As I recently wrote, Millennials are delaying marriage and childbirth, and they face greater home-buying challenges than earlier generations did. That in turn could be curbing their community spirit. A 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Labor concluded that married individuals volunteer at a higher rate than single people—29.9 percent compared to 19.9 percent. That report also found that volunteerism typically tends to peak in middle age—between 35 and 54.

Grimm is also interested in how trends like the rise of the gig economy and the decline of organized religion may be reflected in volunteerism and charitable giving stats. A survey earlier this year found that 23.1 percent of Americans claimed no religious affiliation, surpassing Catholics and evangelical Christians for the first time, according to CNN. “Religious nones,” as researchers call them, have grown 266 percent since 1991.

What Grimm is certain of is that declining volunteer rates mean communities are losing out. “There’s a phrase that goes, ‘Volunteering is the glue that keeps community working,” says Grimm. “When fewer people engage with each other, that’s where you’re going to have greater level of social isolation and lower levels of trust in each other.” Past research has also shown that there are mental and physical health benefits to volunteering.

The positive spin to the volunteerism slump is that those who do give are giving more: The nation collectively donated record amounts of hours and money in recent years, with total volunteer hours peaking at 8.7 billion in 2014, and charitable dollars at over $410 billion in 2017. That figure might not be surprising, given the economic boom that has made a small number of Americans enormously wealthy since the end of the Great Recession. But Grimm wonders how sustainable it is. “How long can this decline continue and not have a significant negative effect on the overall giving of dollars and time in the U.S.?” he says.

Alice Fothergill, on the other hand, is more optimistic about the state of America’s spirit of generosity: She doesn’t think philanthropic dollars or hours alone capture what’s going on—especially following major tragedies. A sociologist at the University of Vermont, Fothergill has studied “spontaneous” volunteer behavior in the aftermath of man-made disasters and natural disasters like hurricanes and floods. In 2009, she and her colleague Seana Steffen surveyed a handful of 9/11 volunteers about the long-term effects of their involvement.

“There is strong evidence that being involved in spontaneous volunteer activity after disaster does stay with them for a long time, and it has a huge impact on the community,” Fothergill says.

One nurse told the researchers that instead of working at a general hospital, she decided to work at a clinic for underserved communities after her 9/11 experience. Another participant, a massage therapist, opted to do therapy specifically for children near Ground Zero.

Sometimes, Fothergill says, people who do work that helps their neighbors and fellow citizens don’t count what they’re doing as volunteer work. That may not get counted in quantitive surveys.

“We found a broader shift [that] wouldn’t necessarily show up in volunteer numbers,” she says. “But it still might have a big impact on the community.”

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Oakland’s Clean Energy Economy Strategy

American cities face a variety of challenges, with broad social needs like affordable housing, urban blight, structural budget deficits, and crumbling infrastructure dominating the political conversation. While climate change tends to arise in governance circles, it typically does so as a stand-alone topic. Rarely are climate solutions raised or seriously considered as the basis for strategies to address broad social issues. This is perhaps the most important indicator of how governments have failed to realize the potential of climate solutions to impact social priorities. And the inverse of that statement is the frame through which cities across the United States and beyond can begin to rethink their approach to managing and preserving infrastructure and services.

In my city of Oakland, California, climate change policies and programs are a core approach to creating jobs, raising wages, addressing historical inequities for women and minorities, improving the health of residents, and improving the quality of life for all. In the battle for the soul of a nation, cities like Oakland are showing that the clean energy economy is America’s best strategy for creating a prosperous and better tomorrow.

Restoring prosperity under such conditions will be a generational challenge, but offers enormous potential. The best place to start is the clean energy economy. Multiple federal, state, non-profit, and research organizations have documented the impact that the transition to low carbon energy has had on jobs creation, health, and lowering costs of energy. At the local level, states and cities are passing regulations, creating partnerships, and advancing new ideas that are bringing this vision closer to reality. One example is the longstanding dependence of cities on natural gas. The popular opinion of natural gas remains consistent with how it was marketed in the 1990s – a cheap, clean, reliable “bridge” away from coal-based electricity. This antiquated notion bears little resemblance to modern science and data.

Greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas exceed those of coal in the U.S., and have since 2015. Natural gas is not only a dirtier fuel than electricity in many parts of the country, it also creates fire risk in homes, can create massive community safety and health risks from its transmission and storage, and often requires fracking and other dangerous and polluting practices to extract. Perhaps its most troublesome aspect is its impact on the health of people who use it. Studies by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the National Institutes of Health, California Energy Commission, and Johns Hopkins University have documented unhealthy levels of nitrous oxides (NOx) in homes with gas cooktops, particularly noting the disproportionately negative impact on inner city African American children. In short, natural gas systems are responsible for driving up GHG emissions, increasing fire risk for buildings, creating community hazards, and sickening residents, particularly children.  Yet cities continue to allow, or in many cases require, natural gas infrastructure to be constructed in homes and businesses.

Oakland and other cities in California are working to end this dependence on natural gas in new construction. Cities, product manufacturers, regulators, and utilities in California have been working together under the Building Decarbonization Coalition to end the use of natural gas in buildings. This coalition and its members have demonstrated the availability of electric technologies to replace gas systems in all building types, shown that all-electric new construction is cheaper to build and operate than buildings with gas, and helped educate builders and contractors to show how modern electric systems like heat pumps and induction cooking deliver better cooking and heating for homes and businesses than their gas-based alternatives. None of those statements would have been true even five years ago, but the rapid change in technologies have fundamentally changed the way cities can think about their buildings. More than 50 cities in California are expected to bring forth limitations or complete elimination of natural gas systems in newly constructed buildings by early 2020.

By taking this action, Oakland and others are priming the market for clean electric technologies that will further lower costs and spur market investment. Newly constructed buildings will be cleaner, safer, easier to maintain over time, and more resilient to a changing climate, all while reducing GHG emissions. The reduction in costs for technologies, along with the training of contractors and builders, will allow cities to better and more effectively focus on retrofitting the existing building stock in the years to come. This approach will likely take 20-30 years to fully reach all buildings, but will result in lower utility bills, reduced fire risk, improved indoor air quality, and more comfortable buildings. By focusing on climate ready solutions, Oakland and its fellow cities will positively impact broad strategies on affordable housing development, reducing liability for gas infrastructure, adapting to climate change, and building local jobs in the clean energy economy.

Beyond natural gas, opportunities are rapidly being created in clean transportation, the circular economy, carbon sequestration, and the digital revolution. In 2018, Oakland became the first City in North America to fully model the costs and impacts of these potential actions at the City scale, creating a landmark report that demonstrates the City can reach hugely ambitious climate goals in ways that build the local economy, reduce long-term costs and liabilities, improve equitable outcomes, and help tackle broad social needs. Oakland is tackling these challenges on multiple fronts, and working with its partners in government, industry, and the community to lead the transition to a cleaner, greener, and healthier future. Among the additional strategies underway include:

  • A Capital Improvements Program that scores infrastructure investments on sustainability and equity as well as pavement condition and replacement cost.
  • Establishment of a community choice energy program that now delivers 85% carbon free electricity to all customers, at a lower cost than the previous investor owned utility.
  • Electric vehicle infrastructure requirements for all new multifamily and commercial developments
  • Use of a community-based Equity Facilitator to direct public engagement and outreach activities for the creation of a 2030 Equitable Climate Action Plan

The time is here for cities to begin truly realizing the potential of climate solutions to change the urban fabric in ways that benefit all people in our communities, particularly those that have been disadvantaged by the ways in which our cities were originally developed. In this way, we can demonstrate a style of leadership that advances our policy and social needs to achieve the equitable low carbon cities our world truly needs.

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From the Archive: South Miami, a Bright Spot for Solar in the Sunshine State – Episode 85 of Local Energy Rules Podcast

In Southern Florida, utilities relax after escaping the brunt of Hurricane Dorian’s destruction. Other areas, like Abaco and Grand Bahama Islands, were not so lucky. The growing threat of large storms poses a question for coastal communities: what kind of energy system will be most resilient? Although it wasn’t tested by this most recent storm, our podcast guest has been pushing for distributed energy systems to build resiliency for his Florida community.

For this episode of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, we reach into the archive to a conversation between host John Farrell and South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard. In the episode, published April of 2018, the two discuss combatting monopoly utility power through local efforts to implement solar in South Miami. Since the episode, many of Mayor Stoddard’s endeavors have produced results. In March, Stoddard showed that energy independence was possible by taking his home off the grid and running on his own solar and battery storage for seven days. Then, in May, the City Commission made a commitment to 100% renewable energy by 2040. … Read More

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MapLab: Trump’s ‘Mutilated’ Storm Map

Welcome to the latest edition of MapLab. Sign up to receive this newsletter in your inbox here.

Mark Monmonier has devoted his career to dissecting the ways that maps are less than truthful. The author of How to Lie With Maps and a distinguished professor of geography at Syracuse University, Monmonier has written about countless examples of manipulative cartography.

But the doctored chart of Hurricane Dorian’s path that President Trump displayed at a press conference last week stands out as the most flagrant example of deceptive cartography that Monmonier can think of.

President Donald Trump shows off an altered map of Hurricane Dorian’s anticipated track on September 4. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed the storm’s predicted path into Florida and up the southeastern seaboard. Notably, the official chart didn’t include any part of Alabama—at that point, no storm forecasts showed that the state was in danger. But an extra appendage drawn in thick black ink suggested otherwise, a cartographic mutilation that kicked off an ongoing administrative/media drama now known as #SharpieGate.

For CityLab, I spoke to Monmonier to hear how this incident fits in to the broader history of manipulative mapping, and why he believes maps are such unusually potent sources of misinformation.

“Usually, attempts to falsify tend to happen before maps are published, and don’t try to contradict established scientific facts,” he told me. “It’s probably indicative of the special respect for maps, that [Trump] thought that his alteration of this map would take precedence over the facts that were already printed on it.”

Read the full interview here.


Can you think of any historic examples of a politician changing a map after it’s been published? Or want to share your thoughts on #SharpieGate? Write me.

For more, read Charles M. Blow’s related op-ed for the New York Times: “Maps Don’t Lie.

Where there were dragons, he saw his childhood

The latest installment of CityLab’s Maps That Make Us series tells a powerful tale of how a well-known Renaissance map gave a young boy sanctuary amid the violence and turmoil of 1980s Northern Ireland.

The Carta Marina in all its otherworldly majesty. (Word Digital Library)

Darran Anderson, a longtime contributor to CityLab on all things maps and cities, describes how the clash of fantasy and reality in the 16th-century Carta Marina changed the way he saw his childhood neighborhood in Derry:

I began to draw my own maps. I focused on charting my neighborhood: a run-down working-class Catholic and Irish Republican area, made up of terraced houses that had once housed Victorian shipbuilders. I drew wind-roses, compass points, cherubs blowing winds. I recorded the hiding places only my fellow street urchins and I knew of, beyond the sight of adults. I mapped places where suspected treasure lay, like a small orchard in an alleyway, and places where perils beckoned, like a Brutalist block of flats, the glass-strewn alleyways, and the British Army watchtower that loomed over us in Rosemount. I even created “Here be dragons”-esque creatures in the forbidden Glen, a wild wasteland area that we were continually warned away from and thus seemed to us to be full of adventures. Everywhere peripheral is a center for someone.

Read the full essay here.

Readers helped us curate an official soundtrack for the Maps That Make Us. Listen here.

Finally, we’re still open to essay pitches, as well as readers’ personal tales about the maps that shaped their public and private lives. You can submit those stories here. The deadline for submissions is Monday, September 16.  

Mappy links

Searching for abortion clinics in Dallas yields a mix of results, including pro-life organizations such as “Birth Choice” and “White Rose Women’s Center.” (Vice/Google Maps)

Painting with your feet creates unique “toe maps” in your brain. (New York Times) ♦ Lawmakers are drawing new voting maps in North Carolina—and it’s being live-streamed. (Charlotte Observer) ♦ Why the mapmaking company TomTom is betting on an autonomous future. (Detroit News) ♦ Google Maps is still sending women seeking abortions to anti-abortion clinics. (Vice)

Thanks for reading MapLab—and if you aren’t subscribed already, you can always sign up here.

Happy end of summer,

Laura Bliss

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Must Fancy City Parks Displace Their Neighbors?

The Los Angeles River only intermittently resembles an actual river, even though that’s what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers entombed in concrete in the 1930s. Since then, its 51-mile course has been a trickling flood channel, the scene of countless movie car chases, and a punchline about how artificial L.A. can seem.

Now the river is coming back to life. A massive restoration scheme will peel away its hard gray sheath to create a living riverbank along an 11-mile stretch, flanked by walking and biking trails, cafes and river-centric activities, and lots of green space. L.A. is very much on course to build its answer to New York City’s High Line.

But that is a loaded comparison in urban redevelopment. The transformation of a disused elevated-rail segment into one of Manhattan’s most magnetic tourist destinations—and the blueprint for “adaptive reuse” infrastructure projects around the globe—has become a lofty symbol of the ills of gentrification. Although the once-industrial neighborhood of Chelsea was already shifting to higher rents and upscale amenities when the High Line first opened, the elegant “linear park” supercharged those changes, with new upscale developments generating $1 billion in tax revenue in the area, and alienating residents of nearby public housing.

Sure enough, cities that have followed the High Line’s example are grappling with the effects of gentrification. In Los Angeles, the promise of a revitalized river has put neighborhoods such as Elysian Valley—a diverse, historically working-class community—in the real estate spotlight. The median price of a house there jumped by more than 17 percent between 2017 and 2018, more than twice the countywide rate. In Chicago, property values in the relatively affordable, Latino neighborhoods traversed by a rail-to-trail project known as “the 606” nearly doubled in three years after its groundbreaking in 2013. In Atlanta, the Belt Line has been beset by criticisms that project leaders haven’t paid adequate attention to skyrocketing property values along the 22-mile rail corridor-turned-walking loop.

All cities hunger for new property-tax revenue. But all of these park projects at some point aspired to provide green space in neighborhoods that historically had little access to it. This pattern of new parks creating housing pressure might lead observers to wonder whether such investments are a good idea, if they threaten to displace the very people they were intended to serve. That tension is again captured in shade-starved L.A., where activists who tried for years to get the city to invest in the river as a public space now fear that the current revitalization effort is a “Trojan horse for gentrification,” as one writer recently put it.

The question for park-makers, and the city leaders who champion them, is whether communities can have their grass-covered cake and eat it too. A new joint report by researchers at UCLA and the University of Utah examines this question, surveying “parks-related anti-displacement strategies” (or PRADS) undertaken by 19 U.S. cities where 27 major park developments are underway, including those in the “High Line Network,” a coalition of projects trying to learn from the namesake example.

The results are a mixed bag. “The good news is that stakeholders in about half of the projects we surveyed, including many park advocates and local community organizations, are proposing and actually implementing PRADS,” write Alessandro Rigolon, a professor of city planning at the University of Utah, and Jon Christensen, a professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “The bad news is that the other half of the projects have not taken concrete actions yet.”

Based on the report’s findings, “greening without gentrification” calls for actions that are common in broader efforts to stabilize changing neighborhoods. For example, since renters tend to be most vulnerable to the effects of rising property values, citywide rent control and anti-eviction measures like those in New York City can be helpful when a big new neighborhood amenity is coming their way, the researchers observed. For current and would-be area homeowners of modest means, foreclosure assistance, homebuyer loans, and even property-tax freezes can be a boon. And citywide ordinances allowing for accessory dwelling units, like those seen in Portland, Los Angeles, and Seattle, can ease housing pressure, as can inclusionary zoning and developer density incentives.

Other anti-gentrification efforts were more targeted toward the parks themselves, based on the report’s survey—for example, the India Basin Shoreline Park project in San Francisco requires that construction and operations jobs for the park be performed by longtime, low-income residents of color. And some cities and nonprofits are establishing community land trusts or dedicating funds to build permanent affordable housing in the vicinities around new parks.

Atlanta is one example, with the city and nonprofit developers working to set aside funding for about 10,000 affordable housing units near the Belt Line (although critics say that’s not nearly enough). And even before it has broken ground, the 11th Street Bridge Park project in the Anacostia area of Washington, D.C., is  considered a standout model of how to develop a park while paying attention to housing, with a land trust, affordable housing investments, small business aid, and other gentrification-fighting features built in from the ground up.

As with Washington, D.C.’s still-unbuilt undertaking, it’s still too early to say whether most of these park projects are effective in helping lower-income residents stay in place. And many of the projects that the researchers surveyed—for example, Miami’s Underline and Austin’s Waller Creek—did not include any anti-displacement features at all.

But one thing that became clear in the survey is that there has been a big shift in understanding how green space relates to housing development. Historically, there’s been a sense that the two were separate, said Christensen, much like the age-old urban/nature dichotomy. Park developers had little training in matters of housing stability, and early academic literature that noted rising property values around parks tended to treated that phenomenon as one of many advantages of new green space. Now that’s changing. “We’re seeing the other side of that,” Christensen said. “This can be a threat to the very thing that we’re trying to achieve, which is to ensure equitable access for those kinds of benefits.”

The good news is, park developers are beginning to realize the need to evaluate all of these side-effects before they break ground. And many are taking action to help neighborhoods stay intact as they bring green space and its many attendant health benefits to them. “Parks are not just about planting trees and keeping them alive,” Rigolon said. “They become deep conversations about equity, justice, and the legacies of racist housing policy.”

With the L.A. River, it’s been more than a century since it met Angelenos’ needs for fresh water. But depending on how city leaders approach its revitalization, it could be a watershed for L.A.’s housing future.

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CityLab Daily: What’s Behind Trump’s Skid Row Crackdown?

What We’re Following

On the skids: President Donald Trump plans to wade into the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles, according to a report in the Washington Post. As officials from the White House, HUD, and other agencies visit their counterparts in Los Angeles, they are weighing several possible steps, including moving unhoused people into facilities administered by the federal government and razing encampments like downtown L.A.’s Skid Row area.

The prospect of a federal intervention is raising red flags among city leaders and advocates for the homeless, who say clearing camps would be disruptive and expensive. It’s also not clear that the president has the power to order such a sweep. “The federal government doesn’t have a legal authority to make people who are homeless go anywhere they don’t want to go,” one advocate says. While there are lots of ways the feds could help address California’s crisis of homelessness—starting with funding affordable housing programs and other services designed to keep low-income residents sheltered—experts and city leaders tell CityLab’s Sarah Holder and Kriston Capps that the administration’s approach could make things worse by using Skid Row as a stage for political theater. Read their story: The White House Is Planning a Federal Intervention on California Homelessness

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

California Just Upended Gig Work. Other Cities and States Could Follow

Legislators approved a bill that would reclassify Uber and Lyft drivers as employees, but the debate over gig worker rights is only beginning.

Sarah Holder

What Makes Silicon Valley Different?

Historian Margaret O’Mara talks about her book The Code and how Silicon Valley has maintained its competitive edge in high tech.

Richard Florida

Yes, Maps Can Lie. But Not Like This.

Mark Monmonier, the author of How to Lie With Maps, has seen a lot of misleading and deceptive maps. But Trump’s doctored Dorian forecast is a new one.

Laura Bliss

Dutch Cities Try a ‘Weed Test’ to Fix a Quirk of Legal Cannabis

Criminal gangs have prospered from the Netherlands’ ban against growing marijuana. Can city-approved cannabis freeze them out of a legalized trade?

Feargus O’Sullivan

America’s Transportation History is Full of Mistakes. Let’s Not Make Another One.

Instead of battling it out, cities and private mobility companies have an opportunity to work together and lay the foundation for a multimodal future.

Tiffany Chu

Through the Lens

Camilo José Vergara, “Manhattan, Brooklyn Bridge, 1979.” (National Building Museum)

There was something magical about them… It was so odd! Two rectangles that grew so tall. You thought, well, they must have some religious meaning. They picked up the light. Sometimes they looked completely transparent.

From the CityLab archives: One Photographer’s View of New York, Before and After 9/11

What We’re Reading

Housing proposal backed by AOC and the Squad takes aim at the affordability crisis (Curbed)

Could Kamala Harris adapt the government’s airplane-safety model to stem police shootings? (The Marshall Project)

An activist who helped tear down Memphis’ Confederate monuments is running to be the city’s first female mayor (Huffington Post)

Census Bureau reports the poverty rate is down, but millions are still poor (NPR)

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

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California Just Upended Gig Work. Other Cities and States Could Follow.

Updated: 2019-09-11

A landmark bill that would make many gig workers full employees was approved by legislators late Tuesday night in California, after months of tension between labor groups, on-demand economy companies, and workers’ rights advocates. After endorsing the measure on Labor Day, Governor Gavin Newsom is expected to sign it into law after the legislative session ends on September 13. The measure would go into effect on January 1, 2020.

Under Assembly Bill 5, close to 1 million ride-hailing workers, on-demand delivery drivers, manicurists, and janitors in California will be eligible for the same benefits, minimum wage, and vacation days that full employees are.

Experts say AB5 has the potential to curb labor violations, increase employee bargaining power, and fundamentally change the nature of gig work. By driving up operating costs for Uber and Lyft, which lobbied hard to fight the bill, it may also have an effect on the streets of California’s cities—and inspire copycat legislation outside the state.

Long road to realization

The gig work bill’s passage was the culmination of a decade-long fight to reclassify independent contractors, sparked by a court case filed long before transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft began their disrupting.

In 2005, a former worker for the courier service Dynamex sued the company, arguing that he and his coworkers had been misclassified as contractors to save the company money. Last year, California’s Supreme Court ruled in the former employee’s favor, establishing an “ABC test” that the state must now use to determine whether workers are employees or true independent contractors: If they’re performing a task that’s central to the company’s functioning, and if their wages are set by the company, they’re more likely to be considered employees. It’s this Dynamex decision that AB5 codifies.

In the months since AB5 was introduced in December by Democratic Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, the bill has gone through several iterations. Its final form includes carve-outs for certain industries: Lawyers, architects, realtors, hairstylists, and fishermen aren’t subject to the ABC test, because their industries allow them to negotiate. Freelance writers and editors are also exempt.

Many industries that were eligible lobbied hard for exemptions. Among them was the California News Publishers Association, which wrote an opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle saying AB5 could gut the print news business by reclassifying newspaper carriers. In the version agreed upon this week, the group was exempted. The trucking industry also carved out a few amendments making sure “owner-operators” won’t be subject to the ruling, but the port trucking industry, which is infamous for wage violations, is fair game.

But the companies behind the app-based on-demand workforce—which in California is made up of about 400,000 people driving for Uber and Lyft, delivering food for Postmates or Instacart, or doing odd jobs for companies like Task Rabbit—have proved the most active opponents, saying AB5 poses an existential threat to their operations.

In addition to balking at the increased operating costs associated with paying workers more, they—and several drivers—have argued that AB5 will undermine the flexibility that’s been the core promise of the gig economy. Unlike other on-call jobs that make up the majority of hourly work, in which scheduling can be as unpredictable as it is restrictive, Uber and Lyft drivers can set their own hours, and sign in and out of the app at will.

But drivers, organizing groups, and labor experts argue that in practice, drivers already have less control than they may appear to: They must drive at high-demand times to maximize returns, and can be deactivated—effectively, fired—without warning.

“[W]ith low, nonlinear pricing (which forces them to work long hours) and incentive-based pay (which forces them to work strategically, during high demand), the work lives of gig workers remain highly structured,” wrote Sanjukta Paul, an assistant professor of law at Wayne State University and an antitrust and labor expert; and Veena Dubal, an associate professor of law at the University of California, Hastings, in a paper for On Labor. “Without basic protections and collective bargaining rights, workers in California have no means (short of a full-fledged strike) to change this.”

Still, a measure like AB5 could push Uber and Lyft to give preference to the workers who can and do work full-time hours in California, says Robert Maxim, a research associate for the Brookings Institute’s Metropolitan Policy Program. Already, Uber has said that it would have to institute more strict scheduling if the bill was passed.

“This could theoretically limit drivers’ abilities to drive when they want, the shifts they want, and of potentially driving for both Uber and Lyft,” Maxim said. “The potential impetus for asserting more control over drivers’ schedules comes from the fact that it shifts risk from the drivers themselves onto the companies.”

How existential is it?

Because it would bring drivers’ paychecks up to local minimum wage ($15 in San Francisco), and tack benefits on top of it, the bill could add as much as 30 percent to Uber and Lyft’s labor costs, according to the L.A. Times. Barclays estimates that all told, Uber’s annual operating costs in California will grow by more than $500 million, and Lyft’s will grow by $290 million.

The beneficiaries of these funds will be drivers, some of whom report sleeping in their cars and scraping by at less than $4 an hour; and California itself, whose Department of Industrial Relations estimates that the state loses about $7 billion a year in payroll taxes due to company misclassification.

Uber and Lyft, both of which have been bleeding money at a rapid clip and watching their stock valuations tumble, will likely pass on some of those new costs to riders. Morgan Stanley analysts cited by Alison Griswold in Quartz predict that, when AB5 takes its full effect, statewide fares will increase by about 25 percent.

“The pincers are closing in on the TNCs. You’ve got AB5, you’ve got investors who are getting increasingly restive about wanting to see a path to profitability, you’ve got the share prices going down,” said Bruce Schaller, a transportation consultant and the former Deputy Commissioner of Traffic and Planning at the New York City Department of Transportation. (Schaller is also an occasional CityLab contributor.) Though he says that it’s anyone’s guess how the companies will actually adjust to such a reality, “if they feel they need to get closer to at least break even financially, it has to involve, to some degree, increasing fares.”

That, in turn, might cut down on demand. Morgan Stanley analysts estimate that “if similar legislation were adopted nationally,” higher fares “could cause global ride-hail bookings to fall by 1 percent to 2 percent, and 5 percent to 9 percent,” according to Griswold.

For transportation planners, this might not be a wholly unwelcome outcome: Research shows that Uber and Lyft contribute to congestion and eat into public transit usage in some cities.

In a report on the connection between ride-hailing and congestion by Fehr & Peers commissioned by Uber and Lyft this summer, researchers found that previous estimates of Uber and Lyft’s effect on traffic had been conservative. In San Francisco County, “Uber and Lyft make up as much as 13.4 percent of all vehicle-miles,” my CityLab colleague Laura Bliss reported on the findings. In Los Angeles, the only other California city the report looked at, TNCs made up as much as 2.7 percent of all vehicle miles.

But the other takeaway from the report, Bliss wrote, was that drivers in personal vehicles contribute to congestion a lot more than TNCs. Reduced Uber and Lyft usage could just as easily push more people into their cars as push them onto buses, says Arielle Fleisher, SPUR’s Transportation Policy Director in San Francisco.

“There is some sort of opportunity here,” she said, to divert those who may otherwise take Ubers onto transit. But “fundamentally, if the goal is to increase public transit use, … people will use public transportation when it works for them: when it’s frequent, reliable, accessible, and legible.”

After New York City established a minimum wage for drivers last year, prices rose, and the ride-hail companies limited the number of new drivers they’d accept onto the platform. But it’s hard to isolate the effect of those wage raises, says Brookings’ Maxim, because the city has also instituted congestion pricing since then. (If California’s legislation leads the companies to limit the size of their fleet, existing drivers may actually benefit, he says: “By limiting the supply of drivers, there’s in theory at least more money to go around for each individual driver.”)

Paul, the antitrust expert, suspects that the greatest threat AB5 poses to Uber and Lyft comes with the collective bargaining rights drivers will be granted. “The possibility of having to deal with an organized voice for workers, in what the hell happens in their company, [is scariest],” she said. “It’s that perceived loss of control, and any level of transparency that would bring.”

Driver-organizers agree. “AB5 is only the beginning,” Edan Alva, a driver and member of the advocacy group Gig Workers Rising, said in a statement to TechCrunch. “I talk daily to other drivers who want a change but they are scared. They don’t want to lose their only source of income. But just because someone really needs to work does not mean that their rights as a worker should be stepped all over. That is why a union is critical. It simply won’t work without it.”

There’s also a potent symbolic weight to AB5’s passage, says Schaller: that the days of Uber and Lyft lobbying their way past government regulations are over.

“They rolled through legislatures—starting with California—from 2014 to 2017, and now they’re getting all of the pushback from legislative frameworks that were completely skewed towards their interests as they construed them,” he said. “Bullies always get their comeuppance, sooner or later.”

A thwarted counter-campaign that’s not over yet

To sway legislators into voting down the measure, Uber and Lyft ran coordinated email campaigns to encourage drivers to rally against the legislation in Sacramento last month, and gave bonuses to those who showed up. All the while, they’ve been pushing a compromise deal, that would get drivers portable benefits, guaranteed wage raises, and a sectoral bargaining unit, without reclassifying them entirely.

As AB5 kept accruing “yes” votes in California’s legislature, however, the two companies—along with on-demand delivery giant Doordash—each contributed $30 million to support a counter-measure, which they hope to place on California’s 2020 ballot. “We are working on a solution that provides drivers with strong protections that include an earnings guarantee, a system of worker-directed portable benefits and first-of-its kind industrywide sectoral bargaining, without jeopardizing the flexibility drivers tell us they value so much,” Adrian Durbin, a Lyft spokesman, told the New York Times.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported Monday that behind the scenes, Uber has also been working on drafting a bill that would create a new category of driver that’s neither employee nor contractor, guarantee them some benefits and a weekly pay of “1.27 times minimum wage in the city where the ride or delivery started,” and reimburse them for some operating costs of the vehicles. (Critics noted that these fees only account for time spent driving, not the idling time many drivers say makes up a large part of their days.) It calls for a Driver Advocate Program, too, which would represent drivers but not afford them negotiating rights.

Such a bill is highly unlikely to pass before the legislative session ends Friday, wrote Chronicle reporter Carolyn Said, but it provides a preview of what an eventual ballot measure might look like. Lyft said it supported the measure, but was not involved in drafting it.

On Wednesday, Uber’s Chief Legal Officer, Tony West, said the company would not comply with AB5, despite not being technically exempt from the ABC test. “[J]ust because the test is hard does not mean we will not be able to pass it,” he wrote. “Because we continue to believe drivers are properly classified as independent, and because we’ll continue to be responsive to what the vast majority of drivers tell us they want most—flexibility—drivers will not be automatically reclassified as employees, even after January of next year. We expect we will continue to respond to claims of misclassification in arbitration and in court as necessary, just as we do now.”

Who’s next?

California is the birthplace of Uber and Lyft, and their largest market. But it isn’t the only jurisdiction that’s been eyeing a reclassification fight.

Democrat-led Oregon and Washington, both leaders in the fight to give gig workers enhanced labor rights, have explored bills pushing independent contractors closer to employees, giving them base wages and workers’ boards. Though the bills failed to gain momentum, they may find it now. Massachusetts and New Jersey have ABC tests for independent contractors on the books that resemble the one established under the Dynamex decision, and could form the basis for similar legislation. After New York City established the country’s first ride-hail minimum wage—inspiring other ride-hail organizers to ask their cities to do the same—New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo indicated this week that the state may go further. Courts in the United Kingdom have already ruled the ride-hail drivers should be eligible for minimum wage and paid holidays; though Uber has appealed the ruling, labor activists there are busy bolstering their case.

“At least in the short run, we’re probably going to end up with an increasingly patchwork system [in the U.S.],” said Maxim. “With places like California treating drivers as employees, red states keeping status quo, and then some states or cities even creating this hybrid middle grounds, akin to what New York City currently has.”

AB5 could also open the door for lawmakers to hold Uber and Lyft accountable to addressing other public policy issues, like congestion. “It will be much easier for governments to take action,” Schaller said. “Because they’ve been through this, and they know they can win.”

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Dutch Cities Try a ‘Weed Test’ to Fix a Quirk of Legal Cannabis

The Netherlands’ permissive approach to cannabis may be well-known, but the country’s coffeeshops (as cannabis cafés are called) have long grappled with a head-scratching contradiction.

While the coffeshops’ trade is perfectly legal, that’s not the case for growing and producing the cannabis products they sell. Those actions can be punished with stiff fines, forcing the industry underground and making it difficult for authorities to monitor the quality of products sold to consumers. Perhaps more importantly, it means that the growers who supply the products often, perhaps inevitably, have links to organized crime.

This autumn, however, 10 Dutch cities are trying out a possible solution: municipally approved weed.

Called the “weed test” locally, the experiment will work as follows. Each city will only permit the sale of cannabis products that come from officially approved cannabis growers within the Netherlands. The participating cities’ coffeeshops will thus only be allowed to stock weed that has been monitored and tested by officially designated local laboratories, and sold with accurate labelling of its levels of THC.

The weed test doesn’t include Amsterdam: It’s restricted to medium-sized cities that are large enough to support coffeeshops, but small enough to make enforcement easy. The cities in the trial range from 38,000 residents to over 200,000, and include the cities of Groningen, Arnhem, and Breda. It will also take some time to get things going: The process of finding and approving growers means this official cannabis may not hit the market until 2021.

By finding a way to bring this trade fully above ground, the trial could still ultimately provide a template for other cities and states grappling with the quasi-legal status of cannabis. That, however, is only if the trial really works.

The Netherlands’ current laws might surprise people who see the country as an anything-goes, weed-smoker’s paradise. Cannabis can indeed be openly sold and consumed, and its easy availability seems to have done little to boost usage. (The Netherlands’ cannabis consumption has remained notably lower than the European average for some decades.) But the illegal status of the growing of plants for cannabis production is a notable departure from the other, more permissive laws concerning sale and use.

“It’s almost the same as being allowed to buy beer in a cafe, but not being allowed to brew one,” Paul Depla, the mayor of Breda, told the Dutch Broadcast Foundation. “[In that situation] an illegal brewery would be set up tomorrow.”

That illegality makes it hard to ensure that users get a clean product whose effects are largely known. Consumer protection, however, is not the most serious of the concerns that arise as a result. The Netherlands may in general be a pretty safe place to walk the streets, but its record for organized crime is poor. The country is a hub for Europe’s illicit drug trade, and police petitioning for more resources have warned that the country now “fulfills many characteristics of a narco-state,” where a parallel underground economy has emerged.

The cannabis trade helps fuel this. The province of Brabant, where several cities participating in the scheme are located, has sometimes been referred to as the “weed shed of Europe,” a place where organized gangs take the risks that small-time growers are unwilling to. While their product may not be more harmful than other fully legal drugs, this means that their profits are funneled into a network whose activities include trafficking harder drugs, and which not uncommonly uses teenagers as go-betweens. Wresting control of production from these gangs seems prudent, to say the least.

That’s not to say it’ll be easy. The Dutch plans are very similar to rules adopted by Canada last autumn, which legalized both production and supply. The early signs from the country suggest that criminality in cannabis production can prove singularly difficult to root out. A recent fact-finding mission to North America by Dutch police found that, despite Canada now possessing outlets for state-supervised, legally produced cannabis, the black market still undercuts these in price, creating a large clandestine market.

Indeed, the lines between legal and illegal production had blurred. Some legitimate producers may in fact be fronts from gangs, while much production from officially-approved growers could still be sold on the black market. Meanwhile the legal system was struggling to manage the situation and distinguish between legal and illegal production. These are not necessarily arguments against legalizing production, but they do show how entrenched criminal patterns can be after many decades of prohibition.

The Dutch experiment seems aware of these possible pitfalls—indeed, this is the reason the weed test is being couched as an experiment. While it will require THC levels to be stated on packaging, participating cities will not place limits on these, thus reducing the likelihood of users seeking stronger alternatives on the black market. The scheme will also stipulate that coffee shop customers get a reasonably broad choice of products, with each outlet offering 15 varieties of weed and 10 varieties of hash.

As the scheme starts (the first stage is finding suitable growers) there’s still some ambivalence among the public as to how it will function. Far more solid, however, is a sense that the status quo doesn’t work. As a local politician in the participating city of Zaanstad told newspaper Het Parool,“The current situation, where you can legally buy weed in a coffee shop but can’t supply it legally, is crooked. ”

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The White House Is Planning a Federal Intervention on California Homelessness

The White House is planning a crackdown on people experiencing homelessness in California—a federal intervention in Los Angeles and other cities that is raising red flags among advocates for the homeless and city leaders.

According to a report in the Washington Post, President Donald Trump has ordered White House officials to come up with a solution to the visible homelessness crisis in Los Angeles and possibly other California cities. Officials from the White House, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and other agencies—including some who are meeting this week with their counterparts in Los Angeles—are weighing several possible steps, including moving homeless people into facilities administered by the federal government and razing encampments.

The White House appears to be targeting people living in Los Angeles’s downtown Skid Row area, where much of the city’s soaring unhoused population is concentrated. The homelessness rate in the city of Los Angeles spiked 16 percent this year, according to the annual point-in-time count. Officials with the city could not comment on any particular plans or discussions underway.

“Our office learned very recently of the Administration’s plans to visit L.A., to learn more about our strategies for responding to the homelessness crisis,” Alex Comisar, deputy communications director for Mayor Garcetti, said in an email. “We welcome them and look forward to showing them our work to confront this humanitarian emergency.”

As housing costs have boomed in several California cities, the state has seen its homeless population rise substantially in recent years. A federal intervention of the type that the White House appears to be contemplating, including the possibility that sweeps would be paired with mass round-ups and institutionalizations of unhoused residents, would represent something unprecedented, and housing authorities and some city officials responded with wariness to the Post report.

In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed acknowledged the scope of the city’s homelessness problem and highlighted the city’s investments in navigation centers, affordable housing, and supportive housing. She also said she’d welcome more federal support on that front. “The decline in federal resources for affordable housing has been significant, and cities can’t do it alone,” she said in an emailed statement. “But simply cracking down on homelessness without providing the housing that people need is not a real solution and will likely only make the situation worse.” The mayor’s office said it had not been contacted by the Trump administration about a meeting at City Hall or a tour of encampments.

The White House’s focus on homelessness comes in the wake of a series of comments the president made to Fox News in July. In an interview, Trump told Tucker Carlson that homelessness was a phenomenon that “started two years ago,” and that he “may intercede and do something to get that whole thing cleaned up.” Both Garcetti and California Governor Gavin Newsom criticized the president after those comments.

Trump’s interest in homelessness could be interpreted in the context of his frequent disparaging comments about American urban areas—particularly majority-black cities such as Chicago and Baltimore, according to Karen Lincoln, an associate professor of social work at the University of Southern California. While only 9 percent of the population of Los Angeles is African American, about 40 percent of the city’s homeless population is black, she says. Latinos and Latinas make up a similar share. The demographics of homelessness—and the fact that Los Angeles and other California cities are led by liberal Democrats—may be the best frame for understanding the report. “It seems like the [Trump administration’s] approach is going to be more punitive just because of the way that African-American and poor people and Latinos have been constructed in the current rhetoric of this administration,” Lincoln says.

Still, the strategies that the White House appears to be contemplating are not wholly dissimilar from the efforts now being pursued by local and state authorities to address homelessness by removing unhoused people and criminalizing living on the streets, even as they pour funding into permanent supportive housing and the shelter system.

This month, for example, Los Angeles officials are considering a plan that would prohibit unhoused people from sleeping on the streets within 500 feet of schools, parks, and other public spaces, the L.A. Times reported. This could make nearly one-quarter of the city off-limits for the 15,000 unsheltered homeless residents who sleep on Los Angeles’s streets. This July, the city extended a ban on those living in vans, campers, and RVs in residential neighborhoods. About 16,500 residents of L.A. County sleep in their cars.

In San Francisco, the city’s Healthy Streets Operation Center has been expanded since Breed took office last year. The program takes in 311 complaints about visual signs of homelessness and deploys resources to clear unhoused people and their belongings. Last year, Breed credited the program with helping reduce the number of tents on the street by 34 percent in four months. In Oakland, a homeless encampment that has been deemed a fire hazard is expected to be cleared this week, after weeks of delays. Another Oakland encampment is slated for clearance soon; its 100 residents will be offered shelter and safe parking spots. (This summer, a real estate developer offered unhoused residents $1,000 each to move off the property, because he thought the city was being too permissive.)

Advocates for the homeless stress that, in addition to disrupting communities and destroying personal property, these sweeps are expensive: In 2015, the San Francisco Chronicle reported the city spent $3 million a year on evicting people from encampments, and Los Angeles is on track to spend $30 million on the practice this year, LAist reported, up from $13 million the year before.

It’s not clear what legal authority a president would have to clear homeless camps at the city level, as the Post notes. Those sleeping on the streets are not violating federal law and the government has no power to arrest unhoused people on federal charges, according to Steve Berg, the vice president for programs and policy with the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “The federal government doesn’t have a legal authority to make people who are homeless go anywhere they don’t want to go,” Berg says.

Criminalizing homelessness only exacerbates the problem, he adds, by burdening those living on the streets with criminal records that make it harder to find employment and permanent housing.

It could take a radical executive order or a declaration of a state of emergency to enable federal law enforcement to police the unhoused community in any state or city. But the federal government could bring significant resources to bear in other ways: Solutions to homelessness in California don’t lack for knowledge, Berg says, but for funding. “If the federal government could put some resources on the table, that would be incredibly helpful,” he says. “If they’re treating it as an emergency the same way they would treat a hurricane, there’s a great deal that can be done there.”

Despite the president’s insistence to the contrary, the modern homelessness crisis has roots that date back far longer than the current administration. “We didn’t really start seeing homelessness as a mass phenomenon and a long-term experience until the ‘80s, when Reagan divested from HUD,” says Olivia Glowacki, a project manager for San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness. “If [Trump] really wanted to end homelessness, he has the power to do so, at least in America.” Her most urgent need right now is funding. “As of yesterday, there were 1,500 people on the waitlist” for shelter spaces in San Francisco. “We just don’t have the capacity to care for our homeless folks right now.”

If the president was truly interested in ending homelessness in America, targeted investments in homelessness services and bolstering HUD’s affordable housing resources would be a good place to start, advocates say. The White House could also call on its own resident experts. For example, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the agency tasked with coordinating the federal response to this crisis, recently produced a round-up of “Housing First” solutions. These are evidence-based strategies for “removing as many obstacles and unnecessary requirements as possible in order to expedite people’s access to stable housing.” The council has not been reported to be involved with the L.A. talks. (CityLab has not received a response to a request for comment.)

But so far, the Trump administration’s policies stand to make the homelessness crisis worse, housing experts warn. A plan to restrict prorated housing aid for families with mixed immigration status could evict more than 55,000 children, according to HUD’s own analysis, even though as citizens these children are eligible for aid. Every budget proposed by this White House has included cuts that would slash billions in funds for housing aid.

In brokering talks with the Los Angeles mayor’s office, the Trump administration appears to be open to some level of collaboration. But other city leaders in California sense that the president intends to use Skid Row as a stage for political theater.

“Homelessness is not a partisan issue, and we shouldn’t make it one. Both Democrats and Republicans are dying on our streets,” said San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo in a statement. That city has also seen a sharp increase in the number of people living unsheltered. “I welcome any federal investment in solutions that work: first and foremost, more housing, along with mental health treatment, drug treatment, and job training. The federal government can and should partner in tackling this challenge, but it requires a serious effort—this isn’t a problem that the President can redirect with a Sharpie.”

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