Mayors Are Demanding a Better Infrastructure Deal

It’s no secret that America’s crumbling roads and bridges and chronically struggling transit systems need help: The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates it would take $2 trillion to bring the nation’s infrastructure into an “adequate” state of repair. That dire situation has been a recurring theme of President Donald Trump’s never-ending infrastructure week.

But the proposal the White House finally released last month to address the problem has drawn criticism from city leaders for shifting the funding burden onto the backs of state and local governments. At the National League of Cities’ annual conference this week, mayors and city council members declared rebuilding infrastructure as their number-one priority in the year to come. And they’re determined to negotiate better terms on Trump’s infrastructure deal.

“A good plan is not a good plan unless there’s money connected with it,” said NLC executive director Clarence Anthony at a press conference Monday morning. While the White House proposal, “Rebuilding Infrastructure in America,” is often billed as a “$1.5 Trillion Infrastructure Plan,” many critics have noted that this figure is misleading at best. Instead of direct federal funding, Trump’s proposal requires cities to prove they can shoulder up to 80 percent of the bills for federally funded infrastructure projects themselves. That sum would then be matched by a federally sourced 20 percent. In all, only about $200 billion of that $1.5 trillion would come from the feds.

City leaders are now in D.C. to lobby lawmakers for a better deal. “We are asking our partners—because we do recognize you as partners—in the federal government to rebuild with us as we rebuild our cities,” said NLC vice-president Karen Freeman-Walker, mayor of Gary, Indiana.

On Monday, delegates met with DJ Gribbin, the special assistant to the president for infrastructure policy; on Wednesday, they’ll talk with House and Senate leaders, particularly key members of the infrastructure committees. And on Thursday, they’ll go straight to the White House to make their case. “At minimum, we’re asking for an equal partnership of 50 percent funding from the federal level to local governments,” said Anthony.

“The 80-20 split is off the table,” added Los Angeles city council member Joe Buscaino. “An equal partner is an equal partner.”

Mark Stodola, mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas, and the president of the NLC, outlined four critical infrastructure areas: water, transportation, broadband internet, and workforce development. “We’ve got to make sure we provide a sustainable investment,” said Stodola. “We’ve got to address not only the existing infrastructure backlog, but also long-term funding streams that are necessary to maintain this infrastructure.”

The statistics are daunting: More than 6,000 bridges are structurally deficient, and 41 percent are over 40 years old; access to broadband internet, meanwhile, is lacking for 78 million people, due to connectivity issues or prohibitive cost. Cleveland city council member Matt Zone also emphasized the importance of climate resiliency in rebuilding: 2017 was already the most expensive year for natural disasters in history, due to extreme events like hurricanes Maria and Harvey, costing $306 billion in damages. “We’ve got to invest in durable infrastructure, not just infrastructure—infrastructure that doesn’t need to be continuously rebuilt when every storm happens,” Zone said.

Instead, the White House is going in the opposite direction, proposing $275 billion in cuts to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a key player in post-storm emergency response, and $30 billion from HUD’s Community Development Block Grant Program, which funds affordable housing and allows cities to use discretionary funds for infrastructure resilience projects.

And it’s not just that local budgets don’t feel like inflating their infrastructure contributions. A lot of them can’t: In 47 states, preemption measures curb cities’ ability to raise their own revenue to meet infrastructure needs; in 22 states, cities can’t use sales tax hikes to fund infrastructure.

The NLC presser also touted some of the creative funding fixes cities have employed recently, such as L.A.’s Measure M, which raises transit funding via a sales tax increase (and which was recently cited approvingly by an unnamed Trump staffer). Other cities have turned to public-private partnerships: Virginia’s high occupancy toll lanes on the Beltway got a funding boost from a private firm; and New York and New Jersey are reconstructing the Goethals Bridge with the help of an Australian bank.

Smaller communities—the ones that need a federal assist the most—have also raised cash by selling off public utilities like water systems, but studies show that residents often end up getting charged more for the same product. “Our ability to pay doesn’t change the need for that infrastructure,” said Gary’s Freeman-Wilson, “but it certainly determines our ability as local elected officials to deliver.”

Bipartisan aspirations on immigration and health care reform have been dashed before, and leveling funding to 50/50 is an ambitious target. But at Monday’s press conference, Stodola expressed confidence that the NLC’s negotiations in the coming days will bring results.

“It seems like Congress has got their feet in concrete, and they need to take them out,” said Little Rock Mayor Stodola. “So we’re going to break that rock. We’re going to knock them out of that concrete, and by golly we’re going to take it to them on the Hill.”

An Artistic Twist on London’s Pseudo-Georgian Architecture

On first glance, the plates in Pablo Bronstein’s new book look like a set of yellowed reproductions of 18th-century architectural prints. The Anglo-Argentinian artist’s drawings of elegant, apparently Georgian buildings lie framed with lavish curlicues of scallop shells, serpents, and swags of heavy fabric. Look closer, however, and incongruous details start to emerge—a contemporary drugstore sign on one page, or the thicker modern window frames currently spreading across London on another. On closer inspection, some of the old buildings don’t look all that old.

That’s because they aren’t.

Bronstein’s book, Pseudo-Georgian London, looks not at London’s 18th and early 19th century architectural heritage, but at the buildings constructed in recent decades that seek to imitate it. If you haven’t visited Britain recently, it might be hard to imagine just how numerous such buildings are. Nearly every city, town, and village in Britain now has buildings less than 30 years old that are nonetheless adorned with cornices, stone cornering, sash windows, brick lintels, and neoclassical porches. The antique effect is brought together with a facing of yellow brick veneer.

The book offers a photogenic, somewhat tongue-in-cheek look at the trend. It’s also a re-appraisal of—or at least a rare invitation to truly look at—a critically reviled architectural style that is both one of the most ubiquitous and least commented on of recent decades.

British Pseudo-Georgian has some distinct aesthetic and social differences from historically-informed styles in North America. It sits within an urban setting where it is often cheek by jowl with the originals it superficially imitates. And it caters to a public who, within just a few generations, lived in the historic housing it’s modeled upon, particularly in London, where pre-Victorian neighborhoods are relatively common. And while such neighborhoods are now astronomically expensive, they were nonetheless places that many poorer residents were desperate to leave not so long ago.

“In the 1920s and ‘30s you had many working class families living in Georgian housing that had essentially become slums,” Bronstein told CityLab during an interview in London. “In the postwar period, these families moved into Modernist, sometimes Brutalist public housing, and were delighted—they got proper kitchens, bathrooms, plumbing.” That delight was nonetheless somewhat short-lived. “Just a single generation later, these people’s kids start already moving into housing that simulates the Georgian architecture their grandparents left,” Bronstein added.

Pseudo-Georgian homes thus partly reflect one of the most significant forces in the reshaping of contemporary London—the selling off of public housing units at reduced rates to their tenants. Started in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher, tenants-turned-owners sell the units they bought at a profit. Those that stayed in the city often moved into Pseudo-Georgian homes, returning to buildings that strove to resemble the rundown housing from which their grandparents had escaped. These new buildings seemed to pride themselves on their clearly visible difference from the modernist public housing that often surrounded them.

This housing may have suggested to its new tenants a tradition of family domesticity, but the reality of life in Georgian housing had actually been rather different.

Earl’s Terrace, West London. While this particular row of 18th century houses has always had wealthy tenants, more modest streets constructed on similar lines elsewhere in London were home to far poorer residents well into the late 20th century. Kieran Doherty/Reuters

Bronstein points out that 18th and early 19th century townhouses were typically shared by several families and were “a very hierarchized form of building, with large grand rooms on the ground and first floor, but tiny rooms with low ceilings on the top floors or in the basement.” Designed to emphasize the different social ranks of their tenants, the interiors of these original Georgians bore little resemblance to Pseudo-Georgian’s more equally-sized rooms with a nondescript aesthetic of plasterboard and fiberglass cornicing.

Does this clothing of contemporary housing in the lightest, filmiest of 18th century dress-up mean such buildings are inherently meretricious? Not necessarily. Placed next to brand new developments in the currently popular brick modernist style—invariably touted as “limited edition,” “unique,” or “exclusive,” by its developers—there is at least a studied restraint to the Pseudo-Georgian.

“While the real estate market at the moment is all about difference and exceptionalness,” says Bronstein, “[the Pseudo-Georgian] was always sold for its elegance. It doesn’t aim for high luxury. It’s not exceptional, but its non-exceptionalness is part of its interchangeability as goods.” There’s even a degree of wit that creeps in here and there, like the Pseudo-Georgian building using the gel joint between its two sheets of brick veneer to suggest a non-existent division between what appears externally to be two houses.

Bar a few developments known for their size or royal connections, Pseudo-Georgian architecture of this type is unlikely to end up heavily featured in any histories of this era’s architecture. This serviceable vernacular is an interesting marker of London’s recent transformations, even as its popularity as an agreed marker of middle-of-the-road good taste wanes.

Pseudo-Georgian London, published by Koenig Books, is available to buy here.

Rising Sea Levels and Sinking Ground Pose a Double Threat to the Bay Area

This story was originally published by Wired and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

If you move to the San Francisco Bay Area, prepare to pay some of the most exorbitant home prices on the planet. Also, prepare for the fact that someday, your new home could be underwater—and not just financially.

Sea-level rise threatens to wipe out swaths of the Bay’s densely populated coastlines, and a new study in Science Advances paints an even more dire scenario: The coastal land is also sinking, making a rising sea that much more precarious. Considering sea-level rise alone, models show that, on the low end, 20 square miles could be inundated by 2100. But factor in subsiding land and that estimate jumps to almost 50 square miles. The high end? 165 square miles lost.

The problem is a geological phenomenon called subsidence. Different kinds of land sink at different rates. Take, for instance, Treasure Island, which resides between San Francisco and Oakland. It’s an artificial island made of landfill, and it’s sinking fast, at a rate of a third of an inch a year. San Francisco Airport is also sinking fast and could see half its runways and taxiways underwater by 2100, according to the new analysis.

Now, subsidence is nothing new to climate scientists. “People have been aware that this is an issue,” says the University of California, Berkeley’s Roland Burgmann, co-author of the paper. “What was missing was really data that has high enough resolution and accuracy to fully integrate” subsidence in the Bay Area.

To get that data, the researchers took precise measurements of the landscape from lidar-equipped aircraft. They combined this with data from satellites, which fire radar signals at the ground and analyze the return signals to estimate how fast land is moving either toward the spacecraft or away from them.

By comparing data from 2007 to 2011, the team showed that most of the Bay’s coastline is subsiding at a rate of less than 2 millimeters a year. Which may not seem like much, but those millimeters add up, especially considering a study that came out last month suggested sea-level rise is accelerating.

“You talk to someone about, Oh the land is going down a millimeter a year, and that can be kind of unimpressive,” says the University of Nevada, Reno’s William Hammond, who studies subsidence but was not involved in the study. “But we know as scientists that these motions, especially if they come from plate tectonics, that they are relentless and they will never stop, at least as long as we’re alive on this planet.”

Speaking of being alive on this planet: Humans have induced subsidence at an astonishing scale by rapidly depleting aquifers. Take the South Bay, for instance. “Parts of San Jose have been lowered up to 12 feet due to groundwater extraction,” says USGS coastal geologist Patrick Barnard. Fortunately, the extraction policies that led to those losses are kaput. But the same can’t be said for the rest of the planet, in particular for communities that are suffering drought exacerbated by climate change.

“It’s not a major concern for the Bay anymore,” Barnard adds, “but it is for, in general, aquifers worldwide, especially in developing countries where a lot of groundwater is extracted from these large river deltas where millions of people live. They’re already extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise.”

The developing world is nowhere near ready to deal with subsidence and rising seas, but neither is the developed world. This is a problem that defies human ingenuity. It’s not like the San Francisco Bay Area can build one giant sea wall to insulate itself. And it’s not like low-lying Florida can hike itself up, or New York City can move itself inland a few hundred miles.

“There is no permanent solution to this problem,” says Arizona State University geophysicist Manoochehr Shirzaei, lead author of the paper. “This will impact us one way or another. The forces are immense, it’s a very powerful process, the cost of really dealing with it is huge, and it requires long-term planning. I’m not so sure there’s a good way to avoid it.”

Save for keeping seas from rising in the first place. That, of course, would require a tremendous global effort to cut back emissions. But even conservative projections suggest future sea-level rise could be dramatic. Which means we as a species have to seriously reconsider the idea of a coastal town, or in case of the Bay Area, a sprawling coastal metropolis. Because the sea is coming to swallow us, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.

Berlin Contends With Street Names of a Brutal, Overlooked Past

Take a stroll through Berlin’s Afrikanisches Viertel neighborhood and you’d quickly recognize it for what it is—an unremarkable, pleasantly humdrum working-class area like you could find anywhere in the city. Solid gray interwar tenements flank tree-lined streets. Away from the main drags, there’s little to see but parked cars and the occasional bodega. This workaday place has nonetheless sparked one of the city’s most intense recent debates about German history and memory—in a city where intense debates of this kind are common.

That’s because the neighborhood’s name—Afrikanisches Viertel, or “African quarter”—refers not to its sizable population with African heritage, but to its street names, all of which in some way reflect on Germany’s little-discussed but especially brutal colonial involvement in Africa during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For years, activists have been trying to get these names changed. And following a town hall meeting earlier this month, it seems they’re finally on their way to getting what they want.

The Afrikanisches Viertel’s connections with German colonialism date back to its first development. Prior to the First World War, the area abutted the site of a zoo planned by animal importer Carl Hagenbeck, who traded animals to P. T. Barnum’s circus and planned to set up the zoo as a showcase for animals from Germany’s African possessions. Following the template of Hagenbeck’s existing park in Hamburg, the site would likely have also featured a human zoo in which non-European peoples were exhibited as if they were a form of wildlife. That zoo never opened, but its planing was reflected in the names of nearby streets. Still today, you can find yourself walking down Togostrasse, crossing Kamerunerstrasse (Cameroon Street) and hitting the little park on Kongostrasse.

Many of these names refer to former German colonies in Africa, but they aren’t the ones at the center of the present debate. Instead, activists—and the majority of Berlin’s political party representatives—are focusing their efforts on streets dedicated to historical figures involved in colonialism. When you delve even casually into the history these people took part in, it’s not hard to see why.

Germany’s grim colonial record was characterized by incredible levels of cruelty, exploitation, and violence. Under German rule in what is now Namibia, for example, the country’s forces pursued a campaign of wholesale land grabs, enslavement, forced labor, and rape. Facing organized resistance from indigenous people, the Germans quashed opposition by pursuing genocide against the region’s Herero and Namaqua people. Between 1904 and 1907, the Germans intentionally confined their opponents within a waterless desert, launching attacks on them during which, according to official orders, women and children were not spared.

Many thousands more died of disease, starvation, and violence in concentration camps, where mortality rates reached as high as 74 percent. This created an overall death toll of between 34,000 and 110,000 deaths, and a system of murder that—with its concentration camps and medical experiments on prisoners—clearly foreshadowed the Holocaust.

Three people involved in this process are still commemorated in Berlin’s African Quarter. Adolf Lüderitz and Gustav Nachtigal, who first acquired the land for Germany’s southwest African colony on a fraudulent contract, still have a street and a square apiece. Around the corner is an avenue commemorating Carl Peters, a notoriously brutal colonist in East Africa who committed psychopathic acts of violence and was known by locals as “Mkono Wa Damu”—bloody hands.

The laborious fight to change these names has been going on for years. As early as 1986, the local borough announced that the street still called Petersallee would no longer commemorate Carl Peters, but Hans Peters, a Luftwaffe pilot involved in covert resistance connected to the plot to assassinate Hitler. Since then, that action (deemed a cop-out by many) action has stalled. Part of the problem was that an initial proposal for an alternative name chosen by a jury—Queen Ana Nzinga, a ruler in what is now Angola—was rejected because she had dealt in slaves, requiring the process to restart.

Finally, after years of wrangling, a short list of possible alternatives was presented at the local town hall Thursday, to be decided by a jury chosen from the local area, universities, and from experts in Germany’s former African possessions. The candidates put forward are Rudolf Manga Bell, a Cameroonian king and resistance leader against German occupation; Cornelius Frederiks, who led a guerrilla war against the Germans in what is now Namibia; and Maji-Maji, the name of a protracted war against German rule that took place in the 1900s in present-day Tanzania. Other possibilities include South African singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba; Namibian anti-colonial leader Jacob Morenga; Anna Mungunda, a Namibian independence campaigner shot by South African forces during a protest; and American writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde.

Sure enough, the changes have their opponents. The extreme right AfD party is against any change. More surprisingly, representatives of the center-right Christian Democrats are, too—although neither party has enough representatives in office in the area to overturn any decision.

Are the dissenters right? A common argument for keeping names and monuments like these is that changing them masks the complexities of a history that shouldn’t be forgotten. Retaining them, meanwhile, doesn’t necessarily mean celebrating the deeds of the individuals.

This debate is familiar to cities and countries everywhere, with the result being called in both directions. In the U.S., it’s about monuments and street names associated with the Confederacy. In the U.K., a campaign to remove an Oxford statue of African colonist and diamond trader Cecil Rhodes sparked a similar debate two winters ago, with the statue nonetheless remaining in place. On the European mainland, Poland’s removal of communist-associated place names continued into this decade, while Spain’s attempts to remove names associated with Francisco Franco are ongoing—and by no means unanimously accepted.

In Berlin, recent history makes it difficult to sustain the argument that such names can remain to reflect history, rather than endorse it. The city has already changed so many names associated with Nazis and Soviets (albeit retaining names associated with Marxism). To draw the line at colonialism, whose effects were similarly catastrophic for its victims, would suggest a double standard that would be hard to justify, and harder to stomach. While the replacement names have not yet been confirmed, Berliners living in the area could soon find themselves waking up on Rudolf-Manga-Bell-Strasse or Maji-Maji-platz very soon.

CityLab Daily: A Tale of New Cities

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

A tale of new cities: For over a decade, the Atlanta region has been carved into new cities, predominantly in white neighborhoods. But when residents in the majority-black community of South DeKalb wanted to form a new city of Greenhaven, the state legislature couldn’t even put it on the ballot this year.

With the wealthiest and whitest neighborhoods already decamped, South DeKalb’s disinvestment has paradoxically become the argument for and against Greenhaven as a city project, creating an economic quagmire that has the challenges of racial segregation at its roots. In a follow-up to an earlier article, CityLab’s Brentin Mock digs into the question of whether cityhood is the remedy that unincorporated and financially disadvantaged communities have been searching for.

Put it in neutral: A coalition of 12 cities is pledging to protect net neutrality—and shame the companies who won’t. Speaking to a panel at South by Southwest (SXSW) moderated by CityLab, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that cities are committing to only do business with internet service providers that honor net neutrality principles, as part of an “open internet pledge.”

Today at the SXSW Cities Summit:

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

Portland’s ‘Granny Flats’ Get an Affordable Boost

A new startup pays the upfront cost of a backyard dwelling in exchange for some of the rent it generates.

Laura Bliss

‘Stop Killing Kids,’ Traffic Safety Advocates Protest

A march in New York City on Monday draws inspiration from the 1970s social movement that changed Dutch street design for good.

Laura Bliss

The Gateway Arch, a Global Icon, Reconnects to St. Louis

St. Louis’ Gateway Arch once stood in splendid isolation. A new $380-million renovation of its grounds brings it closer to downtown.

Zach Mortice

Building Better Bus Stops Can Be a Snap

Hold the concrete. These prefab plastic platforms are helping cities experiment with bus infrastructure, without spending so much time and money.

Linda Poon

Who’s in Charge of the Augmented City?

So far, major forays into our augmented world have been pretty harmless. But with technological advancements and unchecked intrusions by private companies, the future could be terrifying.

Jason Sayer


The Urban Lens

Instagram user @ethan.k56 sends this view an urban canyon of buildings that perfectly framed San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. He writes “You gotta wonder if they lined it up like this on purpose.” Check out this CityLab archive photo essay with some more incredible views of the Bay Bridge’s reconstruction, which took more than a decade.

Spotting some urban sights up high or down low? Tag us with #citylabontheground and we might share it here or on our Instagram page.


What We’re Reading

A decaying bridge lays bare how a struggling city treats its poorer residents (New York Times)

The plague inspired Da Vinci to design a city. We should steal his ideas. (Fast Company)

The Los Angeles Times’s architecture critic is taking a job in city hall. Here’s why. (Los Angeles Times)

The case for fare-capping (Streetsblog)

Paul Ryan says an infrastructure plan might have better luck if it’s passed in pieces (Bloomberg)

The future of Silicon Valley (San Francisco Chronicle)


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.

L.A. Taps the Brakes on Freeway Expansion

A controversial project to widen a heavily trafficked freeway in Los Angeles County sputtered to a surprising halt earlier this month. Transportation officials had been expected to choose between two expansion plans for the 710 freeway in southeast L.A. County. Instead, the board of Metro, the county’s transit agency, voted to move ahead with some improvements while tabling the controversial $6 billion scheme to add an additional lane in each direction  from Long Beach to East L.A.

In an (in)famously sprawling metropolis where the freeway network doubles as civic iconography, the 710 expansion had been framed as a referendum of sorts on Southern California’s mobility priorities. The original midcentury creation of L.A.’s freeway system left a bitter legacy of displacement, and the very same (largely minority) communities that were sliced and diced for that construction have been battered by the adverse environmental effects of freeway proximity. The 710 freeway corridor—dubbed the “diesel death zone” for its traffic-related health impacts—stands as Exhibit A for that phenomenon, and community groups had vocally opposed and organized against the expansion plans for many years.

The unanimous vote by Metro’s board of directors doesn’t definitively rule out a future expansion of the 710 freeway; it just punts the decision for what could be years to come. But even that represents a shift in the status quo for a city that has promised to invest more heavily in non-automotive mobility (see the passage in 2016 of Measure M, which will fund some $120 billion in transit projects over the next 40 years). It also speaks to the increasing—and long overdue—volume of environmental justice concerns in policy discussions, and a dawning understanding that adding lanes is rarely a cure-all for a clogged highway. Most foes of highway expansion are now very familiar with the principle of “induced demand,“ which has shown that increasing roadway capacity merely invites more drivers to show up.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who serves as Metro’s board chair, made his take on the issue clear at the meeting: “Widening freeways, we should be past that time unless we are putting vehicles that don’t emit into those lanes. Period.”

Similar freeway struggles are being fought in cities around the country, even in places whose reputation for sprawl and reliance on single-occupancy vehicles rivals that of Los Angeles. In 2016, then-newly elected Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner made headlines when he called for a “paradigm shift” away from highway widening. As proof, he cited the city’s mammoth Katy Freeway, a 26-lane monument to induced demand: Rush-hour travel times actually increased a few years after a multi-billion dollar expansion project. The Katy, Turner said, “clearly demonstrated that the traditional strategy of adding capacity… exacerbates urban congestion problems. These types of projects are not creating the kind of vibrant, economically strong cities that we all desire.”

A few years prior, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne wrote that “Southern California’s great era of highway-building has been over for some time.” The commentary came in a column questioning the necessity of L.A.’s last big freeway widening project, an expansion of the 405 that cost more than a billion dollars and has had little tangible effect on congestion since its completion.

So why pour billions into expanding the 710 now? In a word, modernization. The 710 was designed and built in the 1950s and ‘60s, and it is ill-equipped to handle current usage—let alone the traffic of decades future. The freeway spans a mere 23 miles of Los Angeles County; the 19-mile stretch in question travels north-south from Long Beach to the 60 freeway in East Los Angeles, running roughly parallel to the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River. The 710 carries commuters, but it’s also a vital transportation artery for freight movement, connecting trucks from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to the rest of the country. This makes the question of the 710 expansion slightly more complicated than the average freeway-widening equation, with the volume of freight movement creating concerns that extend beyond just moving cars full of people from point A to B.

You might not associate Los Angeles with cargo, but the two San Pedro Bay ports are the busiest in the nation: Together, they handle a staggering 40 percent of all goods entering the U.S. by sea. The 710 freeway links the ports to the commercial railroad freight yards in Vernon and Commerce, just southeast of downtown Los Angeles, making it possible for the rest of America to get everything from flat-screen TVs to automobile parts delivered from across the globe. According to Metro’s estimates, daily truck trips through the corridor are expected to increase to approximately 55,000 by 2035, more than a 50 percent increase from the current average of 36,000 trips a day. The 710’s facelift is aimed at both adding capacity and improving traffic safety and other operational issues; more than half of the interchange ramps in the corridor, for example, have higher-than-average accident rates.

But so far, the communities who live in the freeway’s shadow haven’t had much of say in the project, says Laura Cortez, a community organizer with a group called East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. A string of small cities along the corridor—Compton, Lynwood, Bell Gardens, Downey—have borne the brunt of the freeway’s emissions. In 2011, Scientific American characterized the pollution levels along the 710 “severe,” writing that “[h]ot spots for cancer-causing traffic pollutants have been found throughout the harbor area, particularly along Interstate 710.”

“The folks who live next to the 710 are people of color,” Cortez told CityLab. She’s a lifelong resident of Bell Gardens, a predominantly Latino city sandwiched between Downey and Commerce that hugs the eastern side of the 710. “We are folks who are low-income, working class, people of color. And we’re the folks who are not getting notified about the project.”

Like most projects in Los Angeles, the 710 expansion involves a patchwork of agencies. Metro has spent years developing the plan with Caltrans, the state transportation agency, and Caltrans still needs to certify final plans. The widening option was considered alongside a second (and far more expensive) proposal, known as Alternative 7, which would create a futuristic-looking, elevated four-lane route for low- or no-emission trucks above the existing freeway, at a cost of $10 billion.

At $6 billion, the scheme to expand the 710’s footprint isn’t that much cheaper, and only about a billion of it is currently funded. That plan was met with widespread dismay when it was proposed, particularly from residents and environmental and community groups. “More lanes,” said StreetsblogLA, “means more traffic, more congestion, more pollution, more asthma, more cancer, more death.” The Los Angeles Times editorial board declared that simply widening the freeway would be “a missed opportunity and a waste of taxpayer money,” calling it a “a solution straight of the 1950s.” The widening would have also displaced hundreds of homes and businesses alongside the freeway. A Caltrans environmental evaluation estimated that more than a hundred homes and 158 businesses would be displaced. KCET reported that any undocumented immigrant residents affected by displacement wouldn’t be eligible for the compensation that is standard practice in these cases.

Although Metro has at least temporarily backed off the widening project, the activist groups who have long organized around environmental justice issues in the southeast L.A. County communities along the freeway are not ready to declare last week’s vote a victory. “Instead of coming up with a cohesive and thoughtful plan… the board is asking communities to take a leap of faith and just blindly trust that the agency will somehow transform this project at some point in the future,” Earthjustice attorney Adrian Martinez said after the vote, according to Curbed LA.

“We are definitely still concerned,” said Cortez, whose group is part of the 710 corridor-focused Coalition for Environmental Health and Justice. “Whether [widening does happen] this year or in 20 years, there will still be displacement in the midst of a housing crisis.”

For organizers like her, the days and years ahead will be focused on educating and involving the community on various aspects of the plan as they move forward. “Even when you’re in the Metro board room, these things aren’t easy to understand,” she said. “A lot folks are frustrated. This is a very emotional process for residents who live here, whose children are affected with health issues because they live next to the 710.”

Distressed NYC Homeowners Find Help—From City Hall

When Steven McDonald moved to the United States from Jamaica, he and his brother dreamed of owning a home. For two decades they saved and hoped until, in 2011, they were able to buy a two-family house in Springfield Gardens, Queens.

It was a perfect fit: walking distance from the LIRR and close to a park where McDonald’s son could play. “The minute we pulled up to check it out, we knew, yeah—if this is within our budget, this is it,” McDonald said.

But a few years later, after the mortgage became delinquent, the bank foreclosed on the property. McDonald had no idea what was going to happen next: He couldn’t sleep, afraid that he was going to lose the tangible dream he had hoped to pass on to his son. The bank had already denied McDonald a loan modification, and he felt thoroughly out of options.

What he did not anticipate was the knock on his door from MHANY Management, an affordable housing nonprofit, telling McDonald that they represented the investor who had purchased his mortgage note, and that they wanted to help him remain in his home. While McDonald was initially “skeptical and alert,” he said, he soon discovered that MHANY intended to follow through on that aim—and that the investor it represented was the City of New York.

MHANY’s counselors look at a family’s income and outstanding mortgage to determine how much money can be forgiven, and what new mortgage payments could feasibly look like. They also talk to homeowners about whether they have enough income to stay on as a rental tenant—in such a case, the owner could seek a deed in lieu of foreclosure, deeding the property to a group of nonprofits, which would then keep him or her on as a tenant. Should the homeowners decide that they do not want to continue owning or living in their house, they have the option of selling the home, which would then get renovated and put into an affordable housing program.

The counselors work with homeowners through the city’s Community Restoration Fund (CRF) program, the first of its kind, which allows New York City to acquire distressed mortgages in order to create affordable homeownership and rental opportunities for low-to-middle income families. Back in 2016, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) acquired 24 mortgages via the Federal Housing Administration—including McDonald’s. Last month, in another round of acquisitions, the HPD was able to buy 38 homes with distressed mortgages in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island.

The city acquired those 38 mortgages from Fannie Mae, through a program that creates smaller, geographically focused pools of loans and encourages participation from nonprofit organizations. It funded the $8.7 million purchase through private financing, settlement money from Morgan Stanley over its mortgage bond practices, and the city council’s discretionary fund.

How the CRF program works: Distressed mortgages are purchased on behalf of the city by a nonprofit called the Preserving City Neighborhoods Housing Fund Development Corporation, and then held by a trust that’s a consortium of nonprofits, including the Center for NYC Neighborhoods and Neighborhood Restore. Once the notes are purchased, the nonprofits take over and work with homeowners “to help get them where they need to be,” said HPD Associate Commissioner Kimberly Darga.

“First and foremost is working with homeowners to keep them in their homes, through a modification of their mortgage that is suitable for them,” Darga said. Should that be impossible, the nonprofits try to keep the homeowners on as renters, or help them find another home in the same neighborhood so that they have an opportunity to remain in the community. And if the homeowner no longer wants to live in or own the house, the nonprofits try to resell it at an affordable price through a housing program.

Normally, private investors and real-estate companies are the ones buying up distressed mortgages, which means “these homes would get flipped and sold for much more money and create neighborhood change,” said Cristian Salazar, the deputy director of communications for the Center for NYC Neighborhoods. In addition to displacing families, such moves can change the nature and the affordability of a community. “We’re showing we can stabilize these neighborhoods,” he said.

There are barriers to entry for local governments interested in programs of this nature. Often, when distressed mortgages are available to purchase, well-resourced private equity firms can bring assets to an auction or negotiation fairly quickly. As a result, it can be difficult for municipalities to compete. According to Darga, the FHA program is “structured in a way where they make it a little easier for local units of government and nonprofits to acquire notes.” Cities can request that notes be pulled out of a national pool and do a direct sale negotiation with FHA.

Fannie Mae’s program, while designed to allow nonprofits to acquire notes, doesn’t do direct sales, Darga said. As a result, one of the major challenges is coming up with the resources to participate in programs like the CRF against larger investors. “The biggest thing we didn’t quite anticipate was being able to compete at auction with the private equity funds,” she said.

“What we would like to see is more opportunities for nonprofits to have a level playing field to get these notes,” said Salazar, who wants institutions that have control over distressed mortgages to give more weight to organizations that are working toward neighborhood stabilization.

Without the CRF, said Cecilia Joza, the director of housing counseling at MHANY, “this pool would have been sold to the highest bidders and developers who will eventually flip the property. When these properties are sold for higher values, the tax assessment is higher for the community. Aside from displacing the current homeowners and disengaging the communities, properties may end up empty or locked up for a while,” a situation that can lead to vandalism and blight.

After the notes have been purchased, the next hurdle becomes working with homeowners to come up with a feasible solution for handling the property. Once a mortgage note is obtained, the consortium knows what the outstanding debt on the mortgage was, and what any penalties on the property were, but frequently has no information about who is currently occupying the house. This entails a lot of knocking on doors and trying to get in touch with homeowners who sometimes live out of state or are wary of yet another person talking to them about home financing.

If, after repeated efforts, homeowners don’t reply, then the foreclosure process begins. But for those who do agree to work with counselors, what follows is an ongoing conversation about documentation, income, and what homeowners want to do with their property.

“Honestly, it was so nerve-wracking and insane before [MHANY] came into the picture,” McDonald said, “because I don’t know how it works; I don’t know if at any moment someone’s going to show up at the house and say, ‘Okay, you have this amount of time to get out.’ I had no clue there are programs out there to actually assist in guiding you through the rules and regulations.”

Out of the 24 mortgage notes purchased in 2016, five homeowners have successfully converted to a mortgage modification plan, two have been approved for temporary loan modifications, and four are considering deed-in-lieu options. The others are in various stages of loss mitigation efforts. The process takes a long time, Joza said—MHANY Management counselors are in frequent touch with the homeowners, sometimes on a daily basis.

Foreclosures spiked in New York City in 2017: There were more than 3,000 homes scheduled for auction, a year-over-year increase of 58 percent. Most of these homes were in southeastern Queens, eastern Brooklyn, and parts of the Bronx. The CRF program is making a small but needed dent in a problem that did not fade away after the recession.

“Initially, I felt there was no hope—no real solution to what I was going through,” said McDonald, who was able to keep his home through a mortgage modification plan with the CRF. “I’m a testament to what they do.”

Cities Launch Plan to Protect Net Neutrality

More than a dozen cities have pledged to use their authority to protect net neutrality, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Sunday.

Speaking to a panel at South by Southwest (SXSW) moderated by CityLab, de Blasio said cities are committing not to contract with internet service providers that do not honor net neutrality principles, as part of an “open internet pledge.”

“We’re gonna use our economic power to force the hands of these companies,” de Blasio said. “We’re gonna build a movement among other cities.”

The announcement is the latest move to push back against the Federal Communications Commission’s decision late last year to get rid of net neutrality regulations. The ruling eliminates equal access requirements, opening the door for ISPs to block content, throttle speeds to some sites or services, or give preferential treatment to others.

“What we are talking about is controlling information, and controlling data,” said Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who is also signing the pledge.

In its ruling, the FCC explicitly banned states and cities from making their own laws on net neutrality, saying that regulating the internet is clearly a federal issue. But already, states have not been deterred.

Last week, Washington became the first state to pass its own net neutrality law, imposing a direct prohibition on broadband companies from blocking legal content and services, among other things. While that law may run afoul of the FCC’s order, other states have taken a different approach that they believe is still within their power: executive orders mandating that state government agencies will only do business with internet providers that abide by net neutrality principles.

De Blasio’s proposal mirrors the executive order issued by his state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo. De Blasio’s announcement means New York City agencies will not do business with noncompliant ISPs either. Because these orders are limited to government contracts, however, they don’t regulate how ISPs conduct private business, and they wouldn’t directly affect the internet access for most individuals and businesses.

De Blasio estimates that New York City will spend “half a billion dollars in the next few years” on ISP contracts, and he plans to use other mechanisms to pressure companies.

De Blasio’s announcement also included a commitment to “name and shame” ISP providers who do not comply with net neutrality principles.

“We need to help consumers know and citizens know that they don’t have to work with those companies. They don’t have to give those companies support either,” he said.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler, the third participant in the panel Sunday night, said the purpose of the project and other mayoral collaborations is as much to impose pressure for change as to impose new laws.

“We can talk about the powers that exist in relationship between cities and the federal government and the states,” Adler said, referencing the larger theme of the panel discussion on city power. “But one of the most significant powers that the mayors have is to be able to use the power of the bully pulpit.”

In addition to Wheeler and Adler, who announced the pledge with de Blasio on Sunday, signatories also include: Mark Farrell (San Francisco), Jacob Frey (Minneapolis), Sly James (Kansas City, Missouri), Sam Liccardo (San Jose), Ron Nirenberg (San Antonio), Catherine Pugh (Baltimore), Barney Seney (Putnam, Connecticut), Paul Soglin (Madison, Wisconsin) and Chair Zach Friend (Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors).

It is not unlikely that the FCC or internet providers would challenge local net neutrality laws, and the agency has preempted cities before when they attempted to expand their municipal broadband with mixed success. Meanwhile, a coalition of state attorneys general filed a lawsuit to stop the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality rules.

Asked whether he thought the cities would prompt additional lawsuits, de Blasio laughed at the volume of lawsuits against the federal government that his city is already entertaining. Wheeler, whose relatively smaller city does not have the resources of New York City, touted collaborations between mayors like this one as enabling cities to take risks that might lead to litigation.

The mayors urged individuals to go to a new website for Mayors for Net Neutrality and petition their city to join the Open Internet Pledge.

“You look at the internet and there is nothing that has contributed to global democratization more,” said Adler. “There is no compromise of that that should be allowed.”

Fixing the Plane in Midair: Three Keys to Energy Transformation

We are enduring an elevated threat to energy infrastructure. The non-standard application of sensors, communications, and automation in the distribution system is actually expanding potential access points for bad actors. However, while seemingly counterintuitive, increasing the total usage in the network from these access points will actually improve security and flexibility for utilities, city planners, developers and the like. A flexible, dynamic and interconnected set of microgrids can reduce the risk of black outs and energy shortages from physical and virtual attacks.

Portland’s ‘Granny Flats’ Get an Affordable Boost

PORTLAND, OREGON—A wind through the back alleys of the Alberta Arts District reveals an eye-catching assortment of little buildings behind homes: a low-slung converted garage, a wooden A-frame on a hitch, a “tiny house” with second-story sundeck.

With about 70 percent of its metro area zoned for single-family housing, and some of the fastest-rising rents in the country, Portland has a paralyzing shortage of affordable housing that officials believe more accessory dwelling units (ADUs) could help address. City homeowners are embracing the idea: ADUs are popping up faster here than anywhere else in the U.S., with the city issuing building permits for about one unit per day in 2016.

But financing a full-fledged secondary housing unit is out of reach for many homeowners. A custom-built ADU (which is also sometimes called a granny flat or in-law unit) can easily set a Portlander back $150,000.

“That’s just not attainable for most people,” said Patrick Quinton, peeling back a thorny vine in an overgrown alleyway.

Quinton is the former executive director of the Portland Development Commission and the founder of Dweller, a startup aimed at helping more homeowners ride the wave of ADUs affordably. Dweller fronts the cost of purchasing and installing one-size-fits-all prefabricated ADUs in backyards. Third-party property managers rent out the unit to long-term tenants, and Dweller splits the revenues 30-70 with the homeowner, almost as if the company is leasing the land.

Homeowners have the option to buy out Dweller at any time, or purchase a turnkey ADU by themselves from the start, at a cost of $118,000 per unit. The leasing model is similar to how Solar City, the Elon Musk-acquired solar-panel startup, works—except probably with better potential for returns. In Portland, an ADU on the lot of a single-family house generally rents for $1,200 to $1,500 per month.

“There’s a natural market in these neighborhoods,” Quinton said. As high-end duplexes and triplexes pop up in areas like the arts district, the economics of housing in Portland are driving people to think about how to use their space more efficiently. While developers are accustomed to maximizing their square footage in dense downtown sites, “people haven’t traditionally thought of single-family plots that way,” he said. “Now we are.”

Long-term, the idea is to help Portland keep ratcheting up its rental supply so that housing costs level out. As in many other cities, new housing development slowed to a halt during the recession, and a lot of what’s gotten built since has been on the luxurious end of the scale. As new residents keep flocking to Portland, rent prices have ticked up sharply—12.4 percent from 2014 to 2015, the highest increase in the country at that time.

The casualties of Portland’s affordable housing shortage are plain. Longtime lower-income residents, many of them people of color, face the threat of displacement in booming neighborhoods, especially as the city has failed to use basic tools to protect vulnerable residents and preserve affordability. Homeless encampments are now a common (and totally legal) sight on sidewalks and other public right-of-ways. I counted five on a seven-minute walk from the grocery store to my Airbnb—an ADU, as it happened—in the residential Lloyd District near the convention center. A housing state of emergency was declared in 2015 and has been repeatedly extended since.

But there is hope on the horizon. Builders have been aggressively adding apartments, with the city permitting between 3,000 and 4,000 new units in both 2015 and 2016. As more supply comes online to meet demand, “the balance of power in the rental marketplace will shift from sellers to buyers,” wrote the Portland-based urban economist and writer Joe Cortright for City Observatory in November.

The humble ADU could be part of that wave. While housing-crunched Seattle, Austin, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and L.A. have also recently liberalized their granny-flat policies, Portland has set about creating the most ADU-friendly policies in the country. In 2010, it waived impact fees for developers building ADUs, lowering an enormous financial barrier for homeowners. (It renewed the waiver in 2016.) The city has also relaxed enforcement of its ban on tiny-house and RV rentals on private property (these have been regulated a little differently than ADUs, since they’re technically mobile homes).

Right now, there are an estimated 2,000 ADUs completed in Portland, sitting on less than two percent of home lots, the most in the country. But as many as 116,644 properties—nearly half of taxable lots—could be “ADU friendly,” according to an analysis done by Portland State University. As companies like Dweller and others (including Cover in California and Blokable in Washington state) try to bring down upfront building costs through prefabrication, Quinton believes a total of 10,000 to 20,000 ADUs could be a good goal for the city. Five property owners have already placed orders for Dweller ADUs, he said, and the first is set to be installed next week. Three of these units will be owned and rented out by Dweller. Two will be owned by the homeowners from the start.

Dulcinea Myers-Newcomb, a real-estate broker and homeowner in the arts district, is working with Quinton to market Dweller’s services to other Portland property owners and renters. But she’s also an early adopter herself, clearing out cypress and bamboo trees in her backyard to make way for a 450-square-foot unit that she will own, complete with equipped kitchen, bathroom, and a bedroom. It’ll be craned in, the standard approach for Dweller.

“I’m so excited,” she said. “My dad is moving in.” The cost of building an ADU would have been prohibitive otherwise, she said.

With miles of single-family residential housing spreading east of downtown Portland, Quinton suspects the city’s building code will keep shifting further in favor of duplexes, triplexes, and ADUs, allowing homeowners to build more than one (for example) if they desire. As other cities follow Portland’s lead, his hope is to take Dweller’s model to homeowners up and down the West Coast, where upfront ADU construction costs can also be a barrier.

Not everyone will be able to afford sleek granny flats at going rents, even if increased supply helps ease housing costs. Portland still has a long way to go in picking up the slack on truly affordable housing at below-market rates. In 2016, Oregon finally overturned its ban on inclusionary zoning, and the city has made some investments in affordable developments, but there have been mixed results. Last year, Multnomah County launched a radical pilot: It built ADUs in four private backyards in Portland for homeless families to live in, rent-free, for five years. But it’s a very small step towards addressing a huge problem.

Then, of course, there are those Portlanders who protest ADUs out of concern for neighborhood character, increasing densities, and parking pressures. But with Portland’s tight urban growth boundary, there is perhaps a broader acceptance here than in other cities that infill is coming to the neighborhood. “People know we can’t grow out,” Quinton said. “And these houses have to go somewhere.”