The Power of Giving the Homeless a Place to Belong

Twenty years ago, Jim lived under a highway bridge in New Haven, Connecticut. He was in his 50s and had once been in the Army.

After an honorable discharge, he bounced from one job to another, drank too much, became estranged from his family, and finally ended up homeless. A New Haven mental health outreach team found him one morning sleeping under the bridge. His neon yellow sneakers stuck out from underneath his blankets.

The team tried for months to get Jim to accept psychiatric services. Finally, one day, he relented. The outreach workers quickly helped him get disability benefits, connected him to a psychiatrist and got him a decent apartment.

But two weeks later, safe in the apartment, Jim said he wanted to go live under the bridge again. He was more comfortable there, where he knew people and felt like he belonged, he said. In his apartment he was cut off from everything.

As researchers in mental health and criminal justice at Wesleyan and Yale universities, we have been studying homeless populations in New Haven for the past 20 years. In that moment, when Jim said he wanted to leave what we considered the safety of an apartment, the outreach team, which co-author Michael Rowe ran, realized that, while we were capable of physically ending a person’s homelessness, assisting that person in finding a true home was a more complicated challenge.

Helping the most marginalized people in society feel comfortable in a new and alien environment, where they were isolated from their peers, required a different approach that went beyond finding them a place to live.

The people we worked with needed to see themselves—and be seen as—full members of their neighborhoods and communities. They needed, in other words, to be citizens.

Record number of homeless deaths

Fueled by the opioid crisis, high housing costs, and extreme weather, homelessness and its fatal costs are on the rise.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates an increase in the homeless population in 2017 for the first time in seven years, with more than half a million Americans lacking permanent shelter.

In addition, in cities across the country, there has been a surge in deaths of homeless individuals. Last year, New Orleans saw a record 60 homeless deaths, a 25 percent rise over two years. Denver saw an estimated increase of 35 percent over 2016, while Rapid City, South Dakota, with a population of only 75,000, saw five deaths of homeless individuals just since December.

Complicating matters, about 25 percent of the homeless population is severely mentally ill. Many are deeply distrustful of shelters and the service system, sometimes refusing to engage in services even when their lives are at stake.

We believe our research might provide a hopeful answer for the increasing number of homeless Americans whose lives are in jeopardy on the streets of our cities.

From outcasts to insiders

Jim’s story, and other similar ones, led us on a 20-year quest to create a formal mechanism to enhance a sense of belonging and citizenship among society’s outsiders.

Aristotle said that to be a citizen is to participate in the political life of a city. Much later, Alexis de Tocqueville linked citizenship to civic participation.

We defined citizenship as the strength of a person’s connection to the “Five Rs”—the rights, responsibilities, roles, and resources that society confers on people through its institutions, as well as one’s relationships to and with friends, neighbors and social networks.

Fifteen years ago, we got a small grant and created the Citizens Project in New Haven for people with mental illness and criminal histories, including major felonies. Often, they had histories of homelessness. The six-month program meets twice a week at a soup kitchen.

Two graduates of the Citizens Project, second and third from right, in a performance with the Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven in 2017. (Mara Lavitt)

There are four months of classes on the Five Rs of citizenship, covering pragmatic topics such as the capacity to effectively advocate for oneself, public speaking and conflict resolution. A community advocate and peer mentors—people with mental illnesses who are now doing well—teach, support, and counsel participants, or “students,” as well as provide them with living, breathing proof that people can indeed change.

Then students undertake a meaningful project in the community, such as training police cadets how to approach people living on the streets in a nonthreatening manner. Graduations are held at City Hall, with family, friends and public officials cheering on.

The results?

There were statistically significant reductions—55 percent—in alcohol and drug use among citizenship program participants (as compared to 20 percent reduction in the control group). Additionally, participants’ self-reported indicators of quality of life—such as satisfaction with daily activities and with their employment for those who secured jobs—were significantly higher in the citizenship group than the control groups. We have published the results in peer-reviewed articles and a book, Citizenship and Mental Health.

Criminal charges decreased, as they did in the control group, which received “usual” mental health care. Perhaps most important, each class of students became a supportive community in itself. Participants have taken seriously their new role as students, one that many had not embraced before.

Over the period in which we have conducted the citizenship project, homelessness overall in New Haven has decreased, likely through many factors, including perhaps our own work.

Spreading the citizenship approach

Interestingly, however, anxiety and depression increased at various points among our participants. Perhaps the challenge of the intervention had an impact on students. Perhaps also the courage to change brought with it a vulnerability to difficult thoughts and feelings: grief over lost opportunities, lost friends, or lost dreams, even while their quality of life increased.

The project has run for years now, graduating hundreds. We’ve received funding from federal and state government. A state-wide social service agency is making their primary focus the enhanced citizenship of its 6,000 clients. Citizenship projects, based on our our model, have been launched at a state forensic hospital in Connecticut and internationally in mental health programs in Quebec, Scotland, and soon, Spain and New Zealand.

It seems our citizenship program born 20 years ago is now coming of age. The intervention is inexpensive and follows a straightforward manual. The costs of doing nothing are certainly higher.

And Jim? He did pretty well for a while, then one day ranted enough about a public official that it had to be reported as a threat. Though completely exonerated, he fired his treatment team and refused all help once again. The Citizens Project had apparently arrived too late to help him.

The stakes of full membership in society are indeed high as we undertake this work for people on the margins. But our graduates—as they are recognized at City Hall by the mayor, as they train the police, as they serve on boards of homeless shelters where they once lived—say that seeing themselves as citizens helps.

And when we see the smiles on our graduates’ faces, or when they talk about their new employment, or when they talk about their joy in getting away from drugs and alcohol, we know that their new-found citizenship helps others, too.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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You Can’t Fix Mass Transit By Destroying It

In conversations about transit, does the word inefficiency sound boring to you? If so, whenever you hear it, just replace it with inequality or exclusion. With one exception, noted below, that’s what inefficiency is.

For example, consider this shocking piece by Peter Wayner in The Atlantic. In it, the author proposes destroying the New York City subway system: “Instead of fixing the old trains,” he writes, “let’s rip out the tracks and fill the tunnels with fleets of autonomous vehicles running on pavement.” People who understand transit are reacting with horror to this idea, which contradicts the basic math of how transit succeeds.

Because cars take a lot more space per passenger than trains do, no matter how automated they are, this is a proposal to reduce how many people the subway can serve. How will we apportion access to these tunnels? Wayner is explicit: “People would pay to reserve a slice of the pavement at a particular time; and the tunnels would be maintained by these fees. The prices would move up and down, adapting to demand.” As always, cutting capacity means increasing the fare, which means poor people will have to walk (or more likely, will lose their jobs for lack of transportation).

Elon Musk’s Boring Company raises a similar issue. They propose to build subways cheaper by making them smaller, so that (compared to real transit subways) very few people can use them. They, too, began with the idea of private cars rushing through this subway, an even more inefficient solution than narrow subways in general.

There is no way around this math: When transit plans reduce the number of people that transit can serve, they are planning for more people to be excluded from transit.

Transit agencies always have a fixed budget, so efficiency describes our ability to serve lots of people for that budget. To serve many people, and thus be available to everyone who wants it, transit must serve people at a low cost per rider.

We can also talk about energy efficiency—but energy is cheap compared to space in a big city. There’s also labor efficiency, but automation of high-capacity transit is always possible if we decide we care about that.

In cities, the only truly finite resource is space. The whole point of public transit in dense cities is to liberate many people to have rich and prosperous lives while taking no more than their fair share of the limited space.

Today, certain sectors of the tech industry are spending vast sums promoting the idea that transit should take more space to serve fewer people. Perhaps you have also heard tech pitches implying that what’s wrong with transit is that you have to walk to it, and that the future is “service to your door.” A vehicle that comes to your door will carry fewer people per driver hour than a fixed route that people walk to, because it will spend more time each hour meandering to get to individual people’s doors. (More on this here. And on the version of this notion that’s branded as microtransit, see here.)

These visions imply that transit should carry fewer people than it otherwise could, so that those people will have a nicer experience, all at the taxpayer’s expense. The people with the nicer experience are usually more fortunate people, especially if the low efficiency translates into a higher fare, as the free market would dictate.

You can demand that these cool new things be distributed in ways that include poor neighborhoods, and call that equality, but a low-capacity service will have room for fewer people, and when it runs out of capacity, those who can’t afford it will be left behind. (Or, when this happens, more low-capacity service will be added, which means less high-capacity service will be affordable, further reducing total ridership.)

These ideas, which are nearly universal in the world of tech “disruptors” of transportation, imply the upward redistribution of the benefits of public subsidy.

To be clear, in my work as a transit planning consultant, I won’t tell you not to do this. Communities get to decide their own values through their own political process. Some business leaders, for example, demand that transit subsidies focus on the needs of people they see as customers or senior employees, even when this implies less attention to other people’s needs. If the goal is indeed a transit system focused on the relatively fortunate—in the full knowledge that this means serving fewer people at a higher cost—leaders are free to make that decision.

But if you claim that specializing service around the tastes of the more fortunate will attract more riders, that’s a basic fallacy called elite projection. Very fortunate people are a minority, and you don’t attract lots of riders by appealing to any one minority’s tastes.

There is one exception to the claim that inefficiency is the opposite of equality: Sometimes, inefficiency compensates for some existing inequality. Transit agencies do tolerate low ridership in order to meet the needs of some disadvantaged populations for this reason. One example is paratransit for disabled persons: It costs vastly more per rider to operate than fixed routes, but in the U.S. it is justified as a civil right. A similar “leave nobody behind” principle helps justify low-ridership coverage service, where availability rather than ridership is the goal. If you define equality as equality of subjective experience (everyone gets some service) rather equality than investment (the taxpayer spends the same amount on everyone’s service), then that idea of equality is consistent with low-capacity, low-ridership service.

But that’s the only exception. If you reduce the capacity or quantity of transit, you are making it a nicer experience for fewer people. If these fewer people are not disadvantaged in some way, then you are deepening inequality. That’s what the math says. Know the consequences when you decide.

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Are Americans Fleeing Cities for Suburbs? Not So Fast.

Every year, in the late spring, the Census Bureau releases its latest population estimates for the nation’s municipalities. That produces a raft of quick knock-on statistical analyses that flag which places are gaining and losing population. Inevitably, these estimates get aggregated to the national level, and pronouncements are made as to whether “cities” or “suburbs” are winning the race for more population.

The Brookings Institution’s Bill Frey published his nearly annual take on the Census Bureau population numbers late last month. His call on the city vs. suburb horserace: “The trend seems to be shifting toward a renewed suburban advantage.” That claim is likely to fuel arguments that America’s love affair with cities is over, that Americans (and especially Millennials) really want to live in the suburbs, and general harrumphing that urbanism is somehow past its peak.

As always, Frey’s math is impeccable. But we have to take issue with the analysis and the conclusions that people are likely to draw from the raw numbers. It’s too early, and this data is too ambiguous and incomplete to make any strong statements about the American desire for urban living. It turns out that municipal boundaries are problematic for making comparisons across space and over time; that when we take a longer-term perspective, the uptick in city population is still quite noticeable (despite the data flaws), and finally, we ought to be paying much more attention to relative prices than relative growth rates, if we want to understand the value Americans place on urban living.

The limits of city limits

City boundaries are lousy for making these cross-metro comparisons. Municipal boundaries aren’t standardized or consistent in any way. Some cities have copious amounts of low density sprawl inside their city limits (Jacksonville, San Antonio), while others are just a fraction of the urban core).

If we want to know the demand for urbanity and dense, walkable, transit-served city neighborhoods, you can’t just rely on aggregating census data for an entire city. What we and others have done to understand the varying spatial character of growth is to use much finer and more consistent measures, such as the 3-mile radius around the central business district. These data show a consistently strong performance for city centers in population and job growth.

This kind of aggregation also hides urban growth booms within cities. Chicago’s downtown and near North and South neighborhoods are booming, even as the city’s total population decreases (mostly due to declines in the lowest density parts of the city). In addition, population growth is down sharply in the region’s outlying suburbs.

What’s the baseline?

Whether cities are performing well or poorly relative to suburbs also depends on the time period one evaluates. Just looking at one or two year’s data isn’t necessarily very illuminating of long-term trends. So it’s important to be explicit about the baseline for comparison. As I’ve pointed out before, while growth has slowed in the densest counties, it remains above its long-term trends there, and while growth has rebounded in less dense counties, growth remains below longer-term trends.

Let’s take a closer look at what the census data show, and how that’s changed over time. Frey (and others) make a lot of the fact that over the past year or two, suburbs are growing faster than central cities. Here’s Bill Frey:

Now suburban growth again exceeds city growth, though at more modest levels than in the early 2000s, and, for many areas, due more to a city growth slowdown than a suburban growth pickup. It is still the case that city growth exceeds suburban growth in 17 of these 53 metropolitan areas, including Boston, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Seattle, though no longer New York (download table 2 here). Yet between 2010 and 2011, this was the case for 25 of these metros, and the trend seems to be shifting toward a renewed suburban advantage.

So the bad news is that only 17 central cities are outperforming their suburbs, down from 25 earlier this decade.

But consider where we were in the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s. Helpfully, Bill Frey has been tracking this carefully in his Brookings Institution reports, so we went back to his 2012 retrospective on city growth trends to look at these two decades.

In the 1990s, only seven central cities (in 53 top metros) grew faster than their suburbs: Charlotte, New York, Oklahoma City, Portland, Providence, San Antonio, and San Jose.

From 2000 to 2010, only 8 central cities grew faster than their suburbs: Boston, Charlotte, Miami, Oklahoma City, Providence, Raleigh, Sacramento, and San Jose.

So the way to look at it is this:  How many cities outperformed their suburbs?

  • 1990s: 7 cities
  • 2000s: 8 cities
  • 2010-11: 25 cities
  • 2016-17: 17 cities

So recent performance is a huge improvement over the previous two full decades, even if it’s not quite at the breakneck level of 2010-11. (And again, keep in mind that these municipal population figures are a weak and uneven proxy for whether urban living is becoming more or less popular). Also: This list has some “false positives” where the central city’s growth is really due to the fact that the main city encompasses a lot of low-density sprawl (e.g. Charlotte, Oklahoma City, San Antonio), or which grew by annexation (e.g. Portland in the 1990s).

What does this say about the demand for city living?

The deeper question is whether city growth is slowing relative to suburbs because Americans don’t want to live in cities. There’s been a surge of suburban triumphalism, based on a quick reading of the city population data.

The bigger issue is we’re bumping up against the limits of city growth imposed by zoning. While cities could add population quickly for a few years by reducing vacancy rates, as housing fills up, you can only expand population by building more housing. That takes time, and is extremely expensive in some cities (I’m looking at you, San Francisco). A couple of articles make this point indirectly, arguing that Americans are moving to places where housing is cheaper.

The premium that American’s are willing to pay for central locations has been steadily increasing. This constitutes what we’ve called the Dow of Cities. What really shows the value Americans attach to cities is the price they pay for close-in urban housing, which is steadily rising relative to suburbs, virtually everywhere.

If city population growth isn’t keeping pace with suburbs, its not because Americans are desirous of suburban living, but rather because we have a shortage of cities.

This story originally appeared on CityObservatory.

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Should Opting Out of Union Fees Be a Right?

As the Supreme Court’s 2017-18 term comes to an end this June, they’ve saved what may be one of their most contentious decisions for last: Whether Mark Janus, a child support specialist from Illinois, must pay fees to the local labor union that covers him under its collective bargaining agreement. If the conservative-majority court serves an affirmative decision in the case, called Janus vs. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, as it is expected to, labor organizers fear unions—and the workers they represent—will be crippled.

“What’s at stake with Janus is state and government workers’ ability to effectively collectively bargain,” said Celine McNicholas, the director of labor law and policy at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). As the law stands now in 22 states, state and local government employees who aren’t dues-paying members of a union are compelled to pay “fair-share” or “agency” fees for the union benefits they receive. (The other 28 states have “right-to-work” laws, which allow workers to decide whether or not to buy into unions.)

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Janus, any “fair share” fees will evaporate. Unions will continue to represent those workers, provide the same support through grievance procedures, and offer the same collective bargaining benefits. They’ll just have fewer resources with which to do it.

Janus says he’s not anti-union: He opposes the fees on First Amendment grounds, as do the conservative groups that agree with him. Being a part of a union, because of its implications for state budgets and taxation, is a political act; paying fees, therefore, an act of speech. “I really didn’t see that I was getting any benefit [from union membership],” Janus told the Washington Free Beacon in October. “I just don’t think I should be forced to pay a group for an association I don’t agree with.”

According to an analysis by EPI, the decision will have a broad impact on workers nationwide. Of all the public sector workers represented by a union, state and local government workers have the greatest proportional number: Over a third of them, or 6.8 million, are covered by union contracts. For those employed by the federal government, the percentage is only 26.6. That’s compared to 6.5 percent of private-sector workers—though, since their ranks are larger, they still make up the majority of unionized workers overall.

And while the percentages vary widely by state—73.1 in New York, compared to 10.1 percent in North Carolina—the proportion of state and local government workers represented by a union is larger than private sector employees in every state.

(The states with more union representation correspond closely with the 22 states that Janus would impact: The states whose workers are subject to what right-to-work advocates call “forced unionization.”)

Of the millions of state and local workers represented by a union nationwide, almost half of them are teachers and education workers. And this year, they’ve been a particularly active sector. Teachers and public education employees in West Virginia, Oklahoma Arizona, and Kentucky organized to advocate for fair pay, increased education spending, and broader health care coverage. Though much of the groundswell came from the grassroots, union leadership provided strategic support and lobbying might.

“Given everything in the news right now, it will be interesting to see how teachers will be affected,” said Julia Wolfe, a research assistant at EPI and one of the authors of the report. “And how reducing their ability to collectively bargain might lead to future labor unrest.”

Partly because the teachers’ union is made up disproportionately of women, the share of state and local union workers is also women-dominated:

And the share of workers of color in the state and local government union workforce is steadily growing. In 1989, 22 percent were non-white; now, 30.9 percent are, mostly due to an increase in Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander workers in unions.

Union power is already waning in America, and McNicholas notes that it’s not hard to imagine the extra strain this decision could put on institutions that are legally bound to do the same work with less money coming in.

Still, union leaders have been preparing for this potential decision for months. “Unions have been proactively looking at ways to communicate with their membership,” said McNicholas. “There are certainly reasons why workers would elect to remain in a bargaining unit even in a situation where they’re no longer compelled to.

Or, notes Dave Jamieson in the Huffington Post, this ruling could push unions into much-needed adaptations. “If workers can stop paying fair-share fees, unions will have no choice but to prove their value to those workers,” he wrote. “Inattentive and undemocratic unions could no longer afford to coast.”

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CityLab Daily: Can Cities Make Big Business Pay?

Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter here.


What We’re Following

Head hunters: Last month, Seattle passed a controversial tax to tackle its housing crisis. The bill became known as the “Amazon tax” after the company threatened to halt construction if the measure was approved, but other companies also said it would stifle business development in the city. The “head tax,” based on the number of workers hired by businesses, isn’t unprecedented, but Seattle became a prominent example that others are watching closely.

Now, after the tax’s approval, Amazon, Starbucks, and others have quietly poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a campaign to revoke the tax by a citywide vote this November. If the ballot initiative collects enough signatures this month, the referendum is sure to reignite the fight between housing and labor activists who advocated for the bill and the companies that want to stop it. CityLab’s Sarah Holder reports: The Battle Over Seattle’s ‘Amazon Tax’ Isn’t Actually Over

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

New York City Will Cut Transit Fares for Low-Income Riders

It’s financial redistribution in a capital of income inequality.

Laura Bliss

There’s One Thing Uber Hasn’t Disrupted: Work.

Despite the gig-economy hype, the share of independent workers in the U.S. has dropped over the last decade. And Uber itself has a smaller role as an employer

Sarah Holder

One Nation, United Yet Different: Valuing Localism

The United States is an amalgam of places and people. As long as essential values are preserved we should appreciate the ability of local government to respond to unique communities.

Stephen Goldsmith

The Indigenous Voice of Mexico City

Slowly, native culture seems to be emerging from the shadows.

Feike de Jong and Gustavo Graf

The Case for ‘Sanctuary Cities’ for Endangered Species

Non-native animals and plants often arrive in cities by happenstance and carve out ecological niches for themselves. But if cities were more deliberate about biodiversity, they’d take in well-suited species that are struggling elsewhere.

Ursula K. Heise

Stop Signs

A map of street and traffic stops by Chicago police between 2014 and 2016. (Lucy Parsons Lab)

In 2014, Chicago had a four-month stretch when its residents were stopped-and-frisked at four times the rate of New Yorkers in 2011, when the city’s practice was at its peak. After the ACLU of Illinois released a report drawing out that shocking contrast, the city agreed to keep better records of the stops and searches. Now the Lucy Parsons Lab, a non-profit technology collective focused on police accountability, is visualizing the information made available to see where people are being stopped in Chicago.

The map above compares street and traffic stops overall by Chicago police between 2014 and 2016, but the project drills down to a neighborhood level to determine how these interactions between police and residents breakdown by race. Read Tanvi Misra’s analysis on CityLab: Where Chicagoans Are Being Stopped and Frisked

What We’re Reading

ICE came for a Tennessee town’s immigrants. The town fought back. (New York Times)

Ford buys a train station in Detroit (Detroit News)

Why Anthony Bourdain meant so much to marginalized communities (Slate)

How racial segregation influenced California’s upzoning bill failure (Next City)

Stuffed crust infrastructure: Domino’s Pizza is paving potholes? (Yahoo)

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

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Living Paycheck to Paycheck, and Hour to Hour

When Lexii Evans, a retail worker in Hartford, Connecticut, was faced with the choice between finishing community college or working, she reluctantly chose the latter—and delayed graduation. The decision wasn’t an easy one, but it was getting harder to juggle work and school. Some days, she’d get asked to take an unexpected shift, missing classes or keeping her from finishing homework. It wasn’t that her hours were long—it’s that they were never consistent.

Evans’ story is unique, but she is one of thousands of retail and food service workers in Connecticut and across the country who are subject to “on-call scheduling”—their shifts can vary wildly by length each week, or be changed at the last minute. It’s an employment situation that can play hell with workers’ home lives and career aspirations: To accommodate the unpredictable whims of their employers, they might avoid signing up for college classes, or other job shifts; parents must scramble to hire babysitters or rely on family and friends to fill childcare gaps that suddenly crop up.

“It shouldn’t take me three years to graduate from a two-year college,” Evans said. “I want to be great, but I can’t be great and work part-time and be on call.”

It’s an increasingly common fact of life for low-wage service workers. National labor statistics data published in support of as-of-yet unsuccessful federal Fair Scheduling legislation indicates that “66 percent of food service workers, 52 percent of retail workers, and 40 percent of janitors and housekeepers know their schedules only a week or less in advance.” Each month, the variation in hours swings wildly: for food service workers, by 70 percent; for retail workers, 50 percent; and for janitors and housekeepers, 40 percent. Together, those groups make up 18 percent of the economy.

With unemployment rates at a 17-year low, service industry workers can indeed secure a job in this economy, but many must work multiple positions to earn a living wage. And with on-call scheduling, instability—surrounding paychecks, time, and quality of life—persists even once jobs are secured.

In a research brief published in March, UC Berkeley sociologist Daniel Schneider and UC San Francisco sociologist Kristen Harknett surveyed 438 of Connecticut’s 250,000 service sector workers and found that 25 percent of workers reported having on-call hours. But almost 66 percent overall describe their work schedules as “irregular” or “variable,” and many others reported “rotating” or “split” shifts, or regularly irregular nighttime hours—schedules that don’t fit the strict definition of “on-call,” but that result in similar instabilities. Another 66 percent said they keep their schedules “open and available” to fill a shift at a moment’s notice. Perhaps unsurprisingly, almost three quarters of all workers craved more stability and predictability in their work schedules.

More state-level reports are scheduled to appear out of Berkeley later this year, as part of Schneider and Harknett’s national Shift project, surveying the breadth and scope of the issue. (Spoiler alert, it’s wide and deep: Based on estimates drawn from thousands of interviews, Schneider says that the 25 percent of Connecticut workers who are on-call scales up to the entire country, with only small state-level variations.)

The researchers expedited the publication date on Connecticut’s report to bolster the case for a bill that would have limited on-call scheduling throughout the state. Proposed for the second time this year, SB 321, “An Act to Stabilize Working Families by Limiting On-Call Scheduling,” called on Connecticut businesses to give workers 24 hours notice before calling them into work, and to pay them for half of the lost hours if a shift is cancelled. It was voted down in March.

The fair scheduling fight is a relatively new front in the broader battle to beef up labor rights ignited by the “Fight for $15” movement over minimum wage, which has expanded to include organizing around paid sick time and paid parental leave policies. Though there has been a “Schedules at Work Act” floated at the federal level, it’s cities and states that have taken the lead on passing (or killing) regulation around employee scheduling. This constellation of local legislation is meant to “raise the floor” on low-wage jobs in a time of unprecedented inequality—and reduce the instability associated with living paycheck to paycheck, and hour to hour.

So far, the impact of these regulations have not yet been measured comprehensively. In Seattle, the city council unanimously adopted a Secure Scheduling ordinance in 2016, requiring that businesses with 500 or more employees release schedules 14 days in advance, and that if employees are sent home early from a scheduled shift, they’re paid for half of the hours not worked. In New York City, Fair Workweek Laws passed in 2017 include a ban on on-call shifts with less than 72 hours advance notice for retail workers and a requirement that fast food workers be given a “good-faith” schedule two weeks in advance. Oregon became the first state to require employers to give a full week’s advance scheduling notice last year.

Outside of state legislative efforts, some retailers are adopting on-call bans piecemeal. In 2016, under pressure from attorneys general from eight states and D.C., six major retailers (including Disney and Pacsun) stopped using on-call shifts for their 50,000-some workers. And after conducting a 2015 pilot at three San Francisco locations, all Gap stores eliminated on-call scheduling, too, and now give workers two weeks advance notice on schedules.

A state-level on-call scheduling ban would have made an especially large impact in Connecticut, a state of wide economic disparities: It’s got the richest residents per capita, and the largest gap between the top 1 percent and the bottom 99. After the Great Recession, corporations started leaving (and are leaving still). The finance and insurance industries swooped in to rebuild the state’s economy, and with them came a burgeoning service industry. “The state of Connecticut has actually driven its growth out of the recession through the efforts on the backs of people earning poverty wages,” said Carlos Moreno, the state director of Connecticut’s Working Family Party. “We have a low-wage economic boom happening here in Connecticut, and what it really amounts to is like modern-day slave wage labor.”

The bill was championed by State Senator Marilyn Moore, a Democrat who experienced first-hand the whiplash of irregular scheduling when she took a job at a Target in Trumbull, Connecticut, during the Senate’s off-season. “When you don’t have to walk that path you might think, people must be making this up or they’re exaggerating,” Moore told CityLab. “But you cancel the shift of a person who’s low income, who has children, it changes their whole budget, it changes what they can buy in a grocery store. It has greater impact than what [state senators] who have these incomes can even imagine.”

Stiff resistance to fair scheduling legislation has come from industry groups. “[On-call scheduling] is only used in circumstances in which employees agree to be available for extra shifts on an on-call basis,” Scott Fanning, president of the Connecticut Franchise Association, told the Connecticut Post. Also lining up against the proposed Connecticut bill was the Connecticut Conference for Municipalities; in a statement, the group argued, “These new mandates are impractical and would limit the flexibility needed by local officials to meet the constantly changing needs of municipalities.”

For many employers, on-call scheduling—often orchestrated via software that can predict staffing needs—is part of a broader strategy to manage labor costs as tightly as possible, says Schneider. “Rather than running the risk of having a few people working when demand isn’t exactly aligned with staffing, employers transfer that payroll risk to others.”

Opponents of limits to on-call scheduling also argue that such legislation would hinder opportunities for retail workers like college students trying to pick up occasional shifts to earn spending cash. The Berkeley report, however, found that one third of Connecticut retail workers in the sample surveyed were living with children, many of them single parents, which Moreno takes as evidence that the problem has a more substantial impact on older families. “The folks that rely on these jobs rely on that income to actually pay their bills—it’s not disposable income,” said Moreno. “These are folks that are trying to keep a roof over their heads.”

And for workers on this schedule, it’s impossible to know how incomes will fluctuate week over week. “It could be a hundred bucks, and then it could be $400 the next,” said Moreno. “And you really can’t plan accordingly for your bills, much less for your future, in terms of going to school or having a family.”

That’s the other problem with on-call scheduling: Workers are hungry for hours and often need to take the shifts they’re given, however inconvenient. According to Schneider and Harknett’s report, more than half of Connecticut workers reported wanting to fill more hours each week. Only 12 percent of Connecticut service sector workers have shifts scheduled for a full 40 hours a week; 17 percent work fewer than 20 hours per week, and 31 percent between 20 and 30. Though the labor market is tight, what the study reveals is that even for those deemed “employed,” full-time work is hard to achieve. And if more states follow Arkansas in rolling out Medicaid work requirements, the stakes of picking up hours get higher: If Medicaid recipients fail to report working 80 hours a month for more than three months, they’ll be removed from the program.

“What we have is a reserve of underemployed workers,” said Schneider. “And that gives these employers a lot of flexibility to call in workers when they need them—they need these hours.”

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The Battle over Seattle’s ‘Amazon Tax’ Isn’t Actually Over

Last month, Seattle passed a controversial new tax on businesses to fund affordable housing and homeless initiatives in the city. The bill became known as the “Amazon tax,” because of threats by Amazon to halt new construction if the tax passed, but many other companies, too, warned that it would stifle business development in the city.

By the time the City Council voted on it, the tax had shrunk to almost half the size of the original proposal. Still, with its passage, the city was guaranteed to net an extra $47 million a year; Amazon promised it would resume construction; and activists declared victory. But the story hasn’t ended there.

Days after the tax’s passage, Amazon and several other companies including Seattle-based Starbucks quietly poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a campaign to revoke the tax by a citywide vote, potentially drawing out the battle at least until November. If their ballot initiative is approved, the referendum will be a test of a city’s attempts to battle the unaffordability that followed mega-corporations like Amazon into Seattle. And ripple effects could also be felt farther, in cities that are considering new, more aggressive taxes on business of their own—like Mountain View, California; home to Google’s headquarters and 23,000 of its employees.

“It was a David versus Goliath fight that we were able to win that tax,” said Kshama Sawant, a Seattle city councilor and a member of the Socialist Alternative party. “But we weren’t powerful enough to win the whole thing.” Along with a broad coalition of housing, labor, and socialist activists, she’s fighting to make sure Goliath doesn’t come out on top in Round Two.

The tax in question is characterized as a “head tax” because it’s levied on each worker head—Seattle’s will charge the city’s largest three percent of companies $275 per employee, per year for the next five years. Based on Amazon’s employment record, the company will pay about a third of the city-wide fund, which will be used to build almost 900 units of affordable housing; and to provide wrap-around services for Seattle’s 12,000 unhoused residents, the third-largest homeless population in the country.

The new, corporation-backed non-profit advocating for a referendum of the tax calls itself No Tax on Jobs, and its focus is narrow: To get the referendum on the ballot, all the organization needs to do it is collect a little more than 17,000 signatures by June 14. Amazon, along with Starbucks, Vulcan, Kroger, and Albertsons have made $25,000 donations to the effort, as did Howard Wright, the owner of the Seattle Space Needle. The Washington Food Industry Association pledged $30,000. In all, as of last filing, businesses and individuals have pooled a collective $352,775. As No Tax on Jobs hawks its petition, activists try to convince citizens to withhold their signatures, or to withdraw them retroactively.

The outrage it’s inspiring today is particularly potent, but Seattle’s tax is not without precedent. The city levied a similar tax on businesses from 2006 to 2009, before repealing it to stimulate the economy during the Great Recession. Denver already has a head tax of sorts, hitting businesses whose employees earn more than $500 per month with a charge of $4 per employee per month. Chicago aldermen are considering reimposing a city-wide head tax, after mayor Rahm Emmanuel phased out the city’s original 1973 version in 2012.

And California cities—faced with the same coalescing forces of a growing tech industry and the corresponding strain on housing and traffic as Seattle—have begun to seriously consider charging the tech giants per employee, too. San Jose, Redwood City, and Sunnyvale already charge businesses per-employee taxes. Cupertino, home to Apple’s corporate campus, is polling public opinion on reopening a head tax proposal, after one was shut down by business interests in 2016; and on Tuesday night, Mountain View’s city council decided to move forward with polling residents and local business leaders around a per-employee tax of its own. On June 26, they will make a final decision on whether it will appear on the November ballot.

In Seattle, Sawant believes part of the reason businesses are fighting the tax is not only what they have to pay in Seattle, which she deems “pocket change.” It’s that the tax could set a precedent for many other cities to follow. “If we are able to successfully defend this tax this year, and if it begins to collect these revenues and build publicly owned, permanently affordable housing, then there is no doubt that it will set an inspiring example for working people in other cities, most of which are also facing a massive affordable housing crisis,” she said.

John Murray, a representative for No Tax on Jobs, said “everyone agrees” that the homelessness crisis in the city needs to be fixed. They just disagree on whose job it is to do it, and where the funds should come from. “The solution is not to give the city council more money to spend, but to ask them to spend it more responsibly and more efficiently,” he said. He also identifies the homelessness problem as regional, not city-specific, and therefore in need of a more regional solution.

“The genesis of the No Tax on Jobs campaign was two-fold: One, a universal expectation that city council do its job,” he continued. “And two, a real palpable concern in the community that taxing jobs was going to send a message that companies and entrepreneurs and business activity in the city of Seattle was not welcome.”

Drew Herdener, Amazon’s vice president for global corporate and operations communications, echoed the sentiment, telling the Associated Press that the company was “apprehensive about the future created by the council’s hostile approach and rhetoric toward larger businesses, which forces us to question our growth here.”

Local workers, too, have reason to be anxious about those repercussions—that if employers have to pay more for each job, they’ll create fewer of them, or move to cheaper pastures. Already, Amazon could have easily delivered on its promise to withdraw 7,000 construction jobs from downtown site Block 18. (For now, Amazon has confirmed to CityLab that it will be continuing that construction project, but would not comment on the record about its plans for Ranier Square, an office space they had threatened to lease, not occupy, when the bill was still in its planning stages.) Still, Sawant believes the community shouldn’t be swayed by “corporate extortion,” as she calls it.

“Boeing got sweetheart deal after sweetheart deal in the name of, we’ll take jobs away if you don’t give it to us. Every time, [Seattle officials] capitulated to Boeing,” said Sawant. “And we lost jobs anyway! Boeing took them anyway.” That’s the logic of capitalism, she says. (“I know I’m a socialist, but I’m also an economist.”)

Companies believe that the tax punishes the city’s biggest employers, when the city should celebrate the economic stimulus they bring. But the money earned by the tax is meant to offset the negative externalities of that economic and employment stimulus on the city—namely, high housing costs driven up by high earners; congested roads; and widening inequality. If No Tax on Jobs’ hypothesis comes true, and businesses shrink away from Seattle, maybe that in itself will result in another balancing of forces.

A different dynamic in Mountain View?

Mountain View Mayor Leonard Siegel has been watching the fight over Seattle’s head tax closely. But he’s not convinced that the two taxes’ fates are linked: “I think our relationship with our business community is better,” he says. Siegel has been talking about implementing a head tax for the past three years, during which time he’s conducted outreach to field suggestions from local business leaders.

Members of the Chamber of Commerce have expressed “discomfort” but not outright disapproval, and big businesses in the area have begrudgingly requested a three-year phase-in instead of a sudden charge, if a tax has to be levied at all. Three business organizations opposed the business tax outright. But Google, which would incur more than half the city’s tax, has been notably silent, says Siegel. “Google can afford it,” he said. “Google donates a lot for city services anyhow, and they have an interest in seeing that other companies step up.” They’ve been collaborating on a plan to build 10,000 more housing units in the city, and Google has provided $14 million worth of grants to local non-profits. The company has not yet commented publicly on whether it would support or oppose such a tax, and declined to provide a statement to CityLab on the record. A public survey showed that two-thirds of voters would vote for a “general purpose employer tax,” but support was tepid: More people answered “probably yes” than “definitely.”

Tuesday night’s vote solidified unanimous support among the city council, at least, for moving forward on the bill and outlined tentative language, but the details are still subject to change. Unlike Seattle’s tax, for which only the biggest three percent of businesses are eligible, Mountain View’s would be tiered depending on employment size. Small business owners would be charged as little as $9 an employee or a flat rate fee. The biggest fish, Google, would pay $150 per employee per year, but only for employees beyond 5,000.

And while Seattle’s tax is meant to exclusively fund affordable housing and homelessness services, “the bulk of the [Mountain View] money would go to pay for transit projects,” Siegel said, like building an underpass at the railroad tracks and an elevated guideway connecting the downtown transit center with the area near Google’s campus, using autonomous buses. Another 10 or 20 percent would go to fund housing, because although Mountain View has made recent concerted investments in affordable housing, “most of the government programs (like the low-income tax credit) don’t allow us to spend money on the missing middle class,” made up of workers like teachers, he said.

The tax is projected to raise at least $5.9 million annually. While the shortage of housing, prevalence of traffic jams, and lack of transit access are the most urgent issues facing the city, says Siegel, they’re also the biggest threat to their ability to attract and keep businesses. Already, Facebook is expanding its Mountain View presence and the city is going to need money to support that business growth, Siegel says—the question is where that money will come from.

In the event that Seattle’s tax is approved for a referendum in November, the Socialist Alternative party has already planned an extensive door-knocking campaign to persuade voters that businesses should shoulder more of the burden to keep cities affordable.

“This isn’t just about Seattle,” said Sawant. “It’s really about a more fundamental question: Who has the right to live in our cities?”

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A Teaching Moment on ‘Pay As You Throw’ Recycling Policy in Connecticut

Neil Seldman ILSR’s co-founder and director of its Waste to Wealth Initiative, quoted in Falls River Herald News on unit pricing of solid waste and recycling: Stands corrected. Seldman stated that he was not aware of any community that ended its Pay As You Throw (PAYT) program when interviewed by Herald News reporter Jo C. Goode. After the interview he learned of one such community, East Lyme, Conn.… Read More

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