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Check enclosed: Last year, Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris each floated legislation to provide tax relief to American households struggling to pay for housing. With the Democratic lawmakers running in a crowded 2020 presidential race, they’re planning to revive that push. This time around, it could also include something bigger, a potential sea change for housing assistance and tax policy: Aides tell CityLab’s Kriston Capps that the new proposals may offer rent-burdened households monthly help from the IRS.
The bills are still in progress, but the idea is to establish a tax credit, paid each month, that could cover some portion of rent that goes beyond 30 percent of a household’s earnings. While it looks like Harris and Booker will try different ways to do that, their dueling bills “reflect the idea that the American housing crisis will be a 2020 election issue,” Kriston writes. Read his story today on CityLab: Cory Booker and Kamala Harris Want a Monthly IRS Tax Credit for Rent
A roundup of reads for fans of Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, and other big names of the Bauhaus art and design movement.
Mark Byrnes and Amanda Kolson Hurley
Batteries power so much of our daily lives, from the laptops in our backpacks to the electric scooters on the street. But batteries—big ones—have increasingly shown up in homes and offices, and they could help replace expensive, dirty power plants with renewable energy like solar and wind. In the not-so-distant future, could these energy storage packs be a key to building sustainable cities?
In the fourth episode of CityLab’s Technopolis podcast, hosts Molly Turner and Jim Kapsis consider how energy storage could change everything about how we turn on the lights and get around town. Check out the latest episode, Is Our Green Future Battery-Powered Cities?
Two 2020 presidential hopefuls plan to introduce bills that may incorporate a novel feature to address the lack of affordable housing: a tax refund that would be paid out monthly instead of annually.
Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris both wrote legislation last year to help out rent-burdened households, and the Democratic lawmakers are buffing new versions of those bills for another push this session. According to aides, the new proposals could boast an unprecedented form of help for housing—a monthly rent check from the IRS. Either bill would represent a sea change for housing assistance and tax policy, especially if they reshape how credits and refunds work.
Currently, there’s nothing like a monthly tax credit in the tax code. The IRS doesn’t issue any payment to taxpayers on a monthly basis, according to Elaine Maag, principal research associate at the Urban Institute and Tax Policy Center. Providing housing aid through a tax credit offers attractive advantages, but also defining drawbacks. The success of this particular approach, if it ever makes it into law, will depend on the scope of the program—the bigger, the better.
“Would it be easy? No,” Maag says. “Would [the IRS] have to change and modernize? Yes.”
Details of Harris and Booker’s bills are bound to change as they’re revised for re-release, especially if the senators decide to shake up how the rental tax credits work, as both are considering, according to aides. But here’s how they currently would work:
Harris’s Rent Relief Act of 2018 floated a tax credit to make housing more affordable for both low- and middle-income households. Her bill establishes a sliding scale for the percentage of excess rent that a taxpayer could claim. A rent-burdened household making $25,000 per year, for example, would be eligible to claim 100 percent of the excess rent (the share higher than 30 percent) as a credit. Rent relief isn’t limited to low-income families: In many areas, households making up to $100,000 would be eligible for some credit.
Consider how a family in Baltimore might fare under Harris’s plan. The fair market rent set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for this metro area for 2019 works out to be $1,342 for a two-bedroom unit. A household earning about $53,680 after taxes and paying this rent would be right at the 30 percent rent-burden margin. For a household making the median income for Baltimore County ($46,641), the fair market rent would represent 34 percent of their pay. Under Harris’s plan, this household would get 75 percent of the excess rent in a credit—meaning about $155 per month.
Booker’s Housing, Opportunity, Mobility, and Equity Act of 2018, on the other hand, would enable any household paying more than 30 percent of its income on the rent to claim the excess paid through the tax credit. The bill sets a cap on the maximum rent allowable, using HUD’s fair market rents—so renters living large in luxury units are mostly out of luck. (So does Harris’s bill, although hers sets the cap at 150 percent of the fair market rent.)
Among other things, Booker’s HOME Act takes a stab at shifting tax policy. The bill includes a proposal for a “refund to rainy day savings” program that would allow taxpayers to defer 20 percent of their refund payments for a later date. Letting taxpayers squirrel away part of their refund in the ultimate untouchable account (the Treasury’s vaults) is a first step toward a monthly tax credit payment, which Booker’s aides described as more aspirational.
Should the Senate implement a monthly tax credit payment, these laws could help households to “smooth” their consumption over the year. Research from the Federal Reserve and the Tax Policy Center shows that families who receive the Earned Income Tax Credit are among the first to file, and they tend to use their refunds to make up for expensive holidays by paying either overdue heating bills or restocking their pantries. An excess-rent tax credit that arrived with returns would mean another springtime bump for taxpayers, while a monthly payment would help them to smooth their spending around the calendar year.
But a monthly tax credit is not an easy proposition. “Today’s IRS faces extreme budget constraints. Congress doesn’t seem to be interested in allocating a substantial amount of money for them to modernize and update their systems,” Maag says. “Asking them to do any additional task could be quite daunting.”
The cash-strapped agency does have some limited experience with monthly payouts, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, which mandates monthly premium tax credits to insurance providers. The IRS, which administers the premium tax credit with the Department of Health and Human Services, has so far proven it can handle the load. The agency is good at delivering payments directly when the necessary administrative data are robust and reliable.
“Every time a new program gets enacted in the tax system, we say, ‘The IRS could never do this.’ And lo and behold, they do.”
Paradoxically, perhaps, the IRS would have an easier time implementing a monthly tax credit that applied to a broad tax base, even without more resources. When the agency has to go searching to find the target households eligible for the credit, it is more liable to make mistakes, which could put the entire program at risk.
“The more universal the program is, the more the IRS can rely on information they already have,” Maag says.
The advantages to asking the IRS to help with the rent (as opposed to, say, HUD) are many. For better or worse, it’s easier to implement changes in policy through the tax code today than to authorize new or increased spending. Social safety net spending has plunged over the last 40 years, falling to shocking new lows as a result of the sequester in 2011. The White House wants to pare spending on aid for housing, food, and healthcare to the bone.
Another boon: Almost everyone who is eligible for a broad tax credit gets one. That’s hardly the case for spending programs. Only 25 percent of households eligible for rental assistance receive aid. On the other hand, spending programs usually implement an asset test to make sure that households who shouldn’t be receiving aid don’t qualify. Empty-nesters who own a house but also rent a pied-à-terre in a high-cost city aren’t the ideal recipients for a tax-credit subsidy, but TurboTax may have trouble weeding them out.
There are other hurdles to a renter tax credit: It’s not entirely clear where the IRS would get the data it needs to find out who’s rent burdened. Extremely low-income households—including many seniors and disabled individuals who face the steepest rent burden of all but who don’t file tax returns—would be invisible to the program. There could be distortionary effects, too. In certain circumstances, rent hikes could actually benefit renters and landlords alike—although it’s only the excess over 30 percent that renters can claim (not the whole rent). And at least in Harris’s bill, nothing at all for higher-earning households.
The goal of a monthly rent burden tax credit would be to ease the pressure that high housing costs put on Americans. Low-income families especially defer payments on medicine, food, and utilities in order to meet the rent. (As the Federal Reserve’s research shows, when these families get their Earned Income Tax Credit-fueled tax refunds, those are the things they spend it on.)
The best argument for expanding rental assistance through a tax credit, instead of new spending programs, may be that it’s feasible. In today’s political climate, that’s a big plus.
“Congress is very constrained in what they can do,” Maag says. “Spending programs are extremely difficult to expand or pass right now. Tax programs are an easier lift. In that sense, it might be the only thing they can reasonably expect to try.”
Batteries power many aspects of our daily lives, from the the laptops in our backpacks to the electric scooters rolling some urban-dwellers to work. But batteries—big ones—are also increasingly showing up in our homes and offices, powering buildings, and even replacing expensive power plants on the grid. In the not-so-distant future, could those energy storage packs be a key to climate sustainability and change the way we consume energy, too?
We game it all out on the fourth episode of Technopolis, the new podcast from CityLab about how technology is remaking, disrupting, and sometimes overrunning our cities.
Batteries can store power from renewables like solar and wind so they keep our buildings running even when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. So it’s no surprise that utilities in sun-soaked places like Arizona, Hawaii, California, and Puerto Rico have all announced major increases in battery deployments for the next several years. And as extreme weather events intensify, coastal cities like Houston, New Orleans, and San Juan, might come to rely on big batteries to keep the lights on in homes, hospitals, schools, and fire stations.
A future of battery-powered cities is not guaranteed. Most of the world’s utilities still rely heavily on polluting energy technologies and legacy centralized grids. Their monopoly status can make them slow to change without the right regulatory incentives in place. Lithium ion, which is the dominant battery technology, is also burdened by some serious geopolitical and human rights concerns. And lithium has real technological limitations, too. Ever hear of “range anxiety” in the context of battery-powered electric vehicles? That anxiety comes from the fact that batteries are still limited in how long they can store energy.
But Bill Gates and many other prominent investors are pouring billions of dollars into new battery technologies that may eventually replace lithium ion with cheaper, longer-lasting, and less geopolitically fraught alternatives.
So what might our battery-powered cities look and feel like?
On episode 4 of Technopolis, we talk with John Zahurancik, the COO of Fluence Energy, who deployed some of the world’s first utility-scale batteries; and Rushad Nanavatty of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit working with cities and countries globally to help them to transition to a clean-energy future. And we hear a revealing anecdote from Dan Neil, auto columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a battery believer with carbon remorse.
Will batteries power our cities toward their climate goals or, like so many other green technologies before them, will their hype run out of juice?
America has grown increasingly unequal, with deepening fissures across and within cities by income, education, and race. And those divides are reflected in our access to parks and green space.
That’s the big takeaway of a study conducted by a team of researchers at the University of British Columbia and published earlier this year in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning. The study takes a deep dive into how access to parks and green space varies by class, education, race, and other key variables.
The researchers examine 10 U.S. metro areas: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Seattle, Phoenix, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Portland, and St. Louis. (These 10 metros were chosen to reflect a range of sizes, densities, types of green space and vegetation, and region of the country.) And they zero in on three major types of green space: green areas (or mixed vegetation), trees (or woody vegetation), and parks.
They use state-of-the-art spatial analytic techniques to carefully isolate key variables while controlling for various factors. The study analyzes green space at the census block and census tract levels, using images of urban vegetation cover available from the satellite images of the U.S. National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP), and of parks using GIS information from Esri’s USA Parks map. It compares the distribution of green space to characteristics such as income, education, race, age, and density, based on data from the Census’s American Community Survey.
What it finds is that access to green space reflects broader class and racial divides. The biggest lines of cleavage are income and higher education (which the study measures as the share of college graduates), both of which are positively and significantly associated with access to green space.
Conversely, the share of adults who did not graduate from high school is negatively associated with access to green space. This class divide is more salient for access to trees and green space (wooded and mixed vegetation) that it is for parks. This is likely because more affluent people can purchase access to lots on, or adjacent to, such green space. That said, education and income also play a role in access to parks, albeit less so than for trees and green space.
Race is a factor, too, though not quite as significant as income and education. Shares of Latino and African-American residents are negatively associated with access to green space, with the correlations being stronger for Latinos. Meanwhile, the share of white residents is positively associated with access to green space.
Density plays a curious role. It is positively associated with parks, and negatively associated with both trees and green space (wooded and mixed vegetation). This may simply be because parks tend to be built in denser areas with less private green space, while wooded and mixed vegetation is much more common and accessible in outlying suburban areas.
Interestingly, two metros—Jacksonville and St. Louis—are outliers on some of these trends. In both cities, less educated and Latino residents had better access to trees or green areas.
The study authors also find that the underlying geography of green space varies widely across metros. The spread of green space or mixed vegetation is “particularly wide” in New York, and “particularly narrow” in Los Angeles and Phoenix. Similarly, the spread of tree canopy is especially wide in New York and Chicago, and especially narrow in Los Angeles, Jacksonville, and Phoenix. For park areas, the spread is wide in Chicago and Seattle, and narrow in Houston and Jacksonville. The spread of parks is the most uneven of all forms of green space, with relatively few residents across all the metros in the study having high levels of park access.
Ultimately, access to green space hews closely to America’s long-standing cleavages of class and education. In the words of the paper, “residents with higher levels of education and higher incomes were more likely to have more access to both mixed and woody urban vegetation, and racialized residents were less likely to have access to mixed and woody vegetation in large, dense urban areas.”
This is deeply disturbing, because parks and green space are not just nice to look at: They influence health and well-being. A large body of research shows that green space tempers climate extremes and mitigates the urban heat-island effect, and access to it improves physical and mental health by providing more spaces to walk, relax, and play. It’s important for everyone in a city to have access to those benefits, not just the affluent and highly educated.
CityLab editorial fellow Nicole Javorsky contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.
And now, as Messam continues the battle for more local control over gun regulations, he’s joining a growing group of Democratic mayors and former mayors who are runningfor the highest office in the country: POTUS. Messam launched an exploratory committee last week, after telling Buzzfeed, “If a mayor from South Bend can do it, then why not a mayor from Miramar?”
That South Bend, Indiana-mayor is Pete Buttigieg, who’s risen to prominence fast—scoring a CNN town hall at SXSW; a Guardian book review calling his autobiography Shortest Way Home the best since Obama’s; and a spot on the Democratic presidential debate stage.Messam hasn’t published his autobiography yet, but he laughs when people tell him he’s a long shot. A local constructionbusiness owner whose immigrant father was a sugarcane cutter in Jamaica, he already overcame the odds when he beat a 16-year incumbent to become Miramar’s first African-American mayor in 2015. In the four days after announcing his intent to run, he’s received donations from people in 17 states, with the average donation under $50, a spokesperson for his campaign said.
CityLab caught up with Messam to talk gun control, the “Operation Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal, and what city politics can teach a leader about running a country.
Citylab: What got you into politics at the city level in the first place?
Wayne Messam: Ever since a young age, I’ve always been in a leadership position. I was my senior class president [in high school]. When I played football as a starting wide receiver at Florida State University my senior year, I was student government vice president for 40,000 students. So I’ve always been, not necessarily politically engaged, but I’ve always been a leader amongst my peers.
When I started my business [Messam Construction] here in south Florida, in wanting to learn more about our local government, one step led to another. In 2011, I decided to run for city commissioner. I jumped in the race right before qualifying ended, and was a long shot to win. Still, I actually won the election by 30-plus votes. I got right to work as the city commissioner, and then decided to run for mayor in 2015, becoming the first African-American mayor of our very diverse city.
I’ve always just wanted to be connected to people. I see myself as a problem solver, and I think my business background helps me be able to process challenges, to meet demands, and to make things better.
I think what prepares mayors uniquely for leadership nationally is that people see that Washington is broken. It’s not working for them. Mayors are closest to the people and, in all candor, mayors end up cleaning up a lot of Washington’s mess. You talk about the challenges that we have to deal with when serving our constituents? Local government can’t shut down. We have to make sure that our infrastructure is intact. We have to make sure our water is clean, and to make sure our garbage is collected, and, more importantly, to make sure our streets are safe.
And as a mayor you can’t hide among 400 other members or 99 other members in your body around issues that you aren’t successful with—in terms of bills that did not pass or didn’t even make committee. Mayors have a unique perspective of solving big challenges and big ideas, and we have to bring those things to life.
In Miramar, we’re tackling the issue of gun violence to keep our city safe. We’re fighting with our state so that we can do so. As mayor, I faced a hurricane, and had to clean up our city after a natural disaster. I couldn’t wait for Washington and FEMA to come in. We have to be ready: Preparing for the storm when it comes, enduring the impact when it hits, and restoring the community when it leaves.
Right now, the city of Miramar is fighting a company that owns land right outside of our city, that’s trying to drill oil right on our boundary. It’s threatening the Everglades, and impacting the integrity and quality of our drinking water.
These are real life issues that we are facing. This nation is built up of communities all across this country. It would help if Washington could help municipalities more, but the sad truth is they’re not doing all that they can do. We’re still waiting on an infrastructure package. But you know what? I have to make sure that the bridges that go across our canals are safe. I have to make sure that we have the appropriate infrastructure so that we can remain a corporate leader.
There’s been a lot of discussion about debt-free college from many people. I think before we can solve that issue, we have to address the $1.5 trillion in student loan debtthat is plaguing Americans right now. And it’s really a moral issue, in my opinion. In this nation, you should not have to mortgage your entire professional life paying off your education. We will be rolling out more specific details in a couple of weeks, but we know that every person deserves the right to get higher education without the penalty of crippling debt once they’ve received their degree so that they can live the American dream.
What are your thoughts on the college admissions cheating scandal that broke last week? It seems like it confirms some of the worst perceptions about who really gets the chance to go to college in the U.S.
It really just speaks to the fact that the system is broken, and in this specific case not only is it broken, but the American Dream is basically up for the highest bidder. The fact of the matter is that you have individuals—rich individuals—who are using their wealth on behalf of their children to skip over and jump over deserving students who have qualified for those specific slots to be accepted into these universities.
When I look at this more personally, I played football at Florida State University on scholarship there. When I heard that one of the examples in that scandal was where a rich parent pressured an athletic department and coaches to give their child an athletic scholarship—we spent four-to-six hours in our day training, practicing, and preparing for our sport on top of the rigors of academic coursework. We put in blood, sweat, and tears to earn our scholarships—not only to earn it, but to maintain it. And to know that these people just bought their way into these colleges? If we look at the sacrifices that I made—the hard work, and time commitment that my fellow student athletes made—it’s angering. It is very upsetting.
What we have to do is make sure that we restore the integrity of the academic system. We need a leader who can recognize this and who can speak to the fact that the urgency of change can’t wait. Change can’t wait. We have to fix this broken system.
Other Democratic candidates have put the dignity of work and income inequality at the forefront of their campaigns. I’m wondering where you stand on things like universal basic income; federal minimum wage; and reparations. Are there any specific policy proposals that jump out at you as being more viable than others?
What I can do is talk about my own experience. I’m a business owner. I create jobs. But I’m also a mayor of a major city in Florida that passed a living wage. I recognize that if you work for the city of Miramar, you shouldn’t have to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet. And these are things that can be translated nationwide.
Couple that with the fact that we’re going to really make a push for this student loan debt forgiveness. Because when you have the crippling effect of high student loan debt over your head, it’s harder to find housing and healthcare coverage. And, if you have a family, you’re also responsible for taking care of your children, and preparing for their college process—so it’s not only the debt that you have for your own education.Now you have to prepare for the debt that your children are going to have when they enter into college.
Even after shootings like Parkland, federal action on gun control has been slow. But there’s been recent activity: The House just passed a bill mandating universal background checks, and it’s headed to the Senate. I’m wondering what federal policy do you advocate for when it comes to gun control?
I support any legislation that makes sure—while keeping the integrity of the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms—that if you have a gun, you are a person who should have a gun.
I would support those types of policies that check the backgrounds of individuals, and makes sure that they should have a gun. Think about the issues that take place in our cities: 50 minutes up the road from Miramar is Parkland. In that mass shooting, the type of gun that was used was a military-style rifle that is designed to just create the complete annihilation of life.
Those type of guns should not be acceptable. I would support legislation that will keep those types of guns out of the hands of people, and especially the ones that should not have them. So it’s really about having common sense legislation that is in place that does not allow the NRA to have free reign on our legislative process so that these weapons can continue to pour into our streets, into the hands of individuals that are shooting up schools, and that are plaguing our neighborhood streets. Those acts of violence are not covered every day in the news like a Parkland; like a Columbine; like an Aurora. But every day in the streets of America these guns and these individuals who should not have these guns are wreaking havoc on American society. And it has to stop.
Zooming out to a more global issue, something that you’ve also been focused on in Miramar and now in your exploratory campaign is climate change. What do you think of the federal action so far on climate change—the Green New Deal, specifically—and what would you prioritize?
Climate change is a big issue. In fact, when you cite the [U.N.] Climate Change report that basically states that if we don’t act in 10 years there will be irreversible damage to the air that we breathe and the water that we drink, that is an alarming statistic.
I think right now there’s a lot of talk about climate change obviously with [the Green New Deal] that was sent down in Washington. I support the urgency, and the end goal of that proposal. There’s no question that we must take immediate action when it comes to climate change.
Many of the issues you’vebrought up as important to you—for example climate change, gun control, and infrastructure—are things that can be addressed incrementally at the local level, but that are also perhaps harder to implement there, especially when the state gets involved. Do you feel like state preemption issues, like the one that you faced around gun control, has led you to seek a higher office? To push through some of the challenges that you might have by trying to enact big legislature at a local level?
Of course we have challenges with the state government and federal government. But what we’re seeing is that the answers aren’t coming from Washington.
In the city of Miramar, we banned the box: We believe that if you’ve made a mistake in the past, it should not be a death sentence and shouldn’t prohibit you from having initial screenings in the city of Miramar.
In terms of illegal immigration enforcement, Miramar facilities—our parks and recreation centers—will not be places where there can be unwarranted immigration enforcement. We believe that individuals should feel safe when they come to our city functions and events without thinking it’s going to be some sting operation when they have not ever committed a crime.
And we’re adopting a minority women in business enterprise program. We are trying to ensure that young entrepreneurs who may have barriers in doing business with government have those barriers removed, and to increase their participation in government purchasing.
These issues need fresh eyes. They need someone who is closest to the American people on a daily basis. And being the mayor, we’re closest to the people.
As economic inequality becomes an increasingly prominent global issue and political talking point, it is local communities that bear the burden of its impact, and that are piloting some of the most interesting new models for economic inclusivity. Follow along with CityLab’s event in Washington, D.C. as we confront some key questions about our economic futures. All times are in eastern time.
8:30am – Welcome Remarks
Nicole Flatow, Editor, CityLab
Brandee McHale, President, Citi Foundation
8:40am – Economic Development in the Age of Amazon: The New York City Story
Brad Lander, City Councilman for New York City
Nicole Flatow, Editor, CityLab
9:15am – Suburban Poverty and Services* produced by our underwriter, Citi Foundation
Marla Bilonick, Executive Director, Latino Economic Development Center
Maria Gomez, President and CEO, Mary’s Center
Moderator: Brandee McHale, President, Citi Foundation
9:30am – Reform in the New Suburbia
Ah, suburbia: white-picket-fenced realm of white-bread people and cookie-cutter housing. That’s the stereotype that persists in how many of us think about the places surrounding cities. But it’s very far from the diverse, dynamic suburbia of today. The conversation about poverty, race, and class is no longer just about urban areas. As issues like affordable housing, transit access, and educational equity have moved to the suburbs, so, too, has momentum to address them. How are suburban communities leading the way? And in the wake of a midterm election in which the suburbs were the new swing states, how will the suburbs assert their interests on the national stage?
Luiz Aragon, Development Commissioner for New Rochelle, NY
Natali Fani-González, Montgomery County (MD) Planning Board Commissioner
Ed McMahon, Senior Resident Fellow, Urban Land Institute
Moderator: Amanda Kolson Hurley, CityLab Senior Editor; author of the forthcoming book Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City
10:25am – Future of Work* produced by our underwriter, Citi Foundation
Elizabeth Lindsey, Executive Director, Byte Back
Ashley Johnson, Co-Founder and Co-CEO, The Literacy Lab
Emcee: Brandee McHale, President, Citi Foundation
10:40am – Protecting the Vulnerable Workers of the Future
From a changing retail landscape, to the rise of the app-based gig economy, prospects for the United States’ most vulnerable workers are shifting, and cities are at the forefront of instituting reforms. We’ll look at first-of-their-kind laws that could serve as national models, from a minimum wage law for ride-hailing, to new protections for freelance and domestic workers. And we’ll ask the question: What do low-wage workers of the future really need? And how can the cities of the future support them?
Irene Jor, New York Director with the National Domestic Workers Alliance
Brad Lander, City Councilman for New York City
Julia Ticona, Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication; author of a forthcoming book on digital technologies and the labor market
Moderator: Sarah Holder, CityLab Staff Writer
11:35am – Closing remarks
Nicole Flatow, Editor, CityLab
11:40am – Networking Reception
*This session is produced by our underwriter, Citi Foundation, and not by CityLab’s editorial Staff
There’s a running joke in Washington, D.C., that you can literally outrun the city’s streetcar.
The 2.2-mile H St./Benning line, running along a busy commercial corridor in the city’s northeast quadrant, has evoked mixed reactions from locals since it opened in 2016. Between stories of streetcars getting stuck in traffic and behind improperly parked cars (and at one point rear-ending a Metrobus), some Washingtonians have been skeptical about the reliability and usefulness of the $200 million project.
And in a city that ranks 10th for having the most runners in the U.S., according to Strava, it only made sense that assumptions about the streetcar’s speed were put to the test with an actual race. So on a chilly Sunday afternoon in February, I joined a group of some 30 people for the third annual “Running of the Streetcar” race, organized by the local H Street Runners club.
“When the club first relaunched a few years ago, it was before the streetcar was even up and running,” said Meryl Winslow, one of the club’s organizers. “We were like, ‘We could probably run faster than it; it’s always catching on fire’.” (During a test run in 2015, a “brief flash fire” indeed ignited atop one of the cars.)
Despite all the jokes, the performance of the D.C. streetcar has been improving of late, as CityLab reported last year: It carried more than 3,000 passengers per weekday in 2017, increasing ridership by 44 percent month over month from its first year of operation. By December 2018, just two months shy of its third anniversary, it clocked in 3 million riders. D.C. officials plan to expand the line two miles east across the Anacostia River, a plan that’s still in its design phase, according to the local news site Greater Greater Washington.
Maybe it’s not fair to pick on streetcars for being slow, since they aren’t meant to be rapid transit. Most modern-era streetcar systems in the U.S. run in mixed traffic, keeping their operating speeds low. In a 2013 report from the Institution for Transportation and Development Policy ranking speeds of a handful of streetcars, buses, and light rail systems (which, unlike most streetcars, have their own dedicated lanes and reach higher speeds), Portland and Seattle’s streetcars come in dead last.
A 2015 study from the Mineta Transportation Institute found that streetcar systems from several U.S. cities typically operated at about half the pace of city buses. D.C.’s system came in around the middle of the pack, at an average of 5.7 mph. You’d be hard-pressed to find a rushed D.C. commuter choosing the streetcar over the X2 bus, which runs along the same route and often at greater frequency. (The streetcar’s advantage, however, is that it’s free, compared to a standard $2 bus fare.)
So beating the D.C. streetcar on foot certainly seems achievable. According to Google Maps, it typically takes the tram between 17 and 20 minutes to travel from the intersection of Oklahoma Avenue and Benning Road NE down the main H Street corridor to Union Station. At 2.2 miles, that amounts to about 6 or 7 mph, or somewhere between a 8- to 9-minute mile—no sweat for a seasoned runner. I don’t claim to run very fast, but I’m a competent jogger, and a fellow participant assured me that last year, almost everyone successfully outpaced the streetcar.
The race, however, was held on a comparatively low-traffic Sunday afternoon, not a traffic-clogged weekday, so the streetcar should be able to beat its average pace. We were counting on ride-hailing calls from Sunday brunchers to buy us extra time. Runners, of course, had our own obstacles: narrow sidewalks, construction, stoplights, and other pedestrians. (Organizers specifically instructed us not to run over people. Fine.)
To get a feel for its speed, we rode the streetcar to the start line, at its first stop at the intersection of Oklahoma Avenue and Benning Road. We warmed up while waiting for that same car to turn around, and as soon as the streetcar lurched forward, the pack of runners took off.
Given the opportunity, a streetcar can fly: The model used by D.C. can hit 35 mph or more, if the driver puts the hammer down. And, indeed, our mechanical foe soon snuck up on us and eventually pulled ahead, quickly building a not-insignificant gap between us and the red rumbling behemoth. Organizer Winslow had already warned us this would happen, due to the lack of traffic on Benning Road. Don’t be discouraged, she insisted, because when we get to the main corridor about halfway through the race, “that’s where we thrive.”
As the race proceeded, a handful of the most fleet runners were managing to keep up with the streetcar. Things weren’t looking as good for the group I was running alongside. We seemed to be stuck chasing the streetcar. I’ve felt this sense of helplessness before as a commuter, when I’d run after the bus only to watch it pull further away. Still, with Winslow’s remark in mind, I kept my eyes locked on the beast; I huffed, I puffed, and pumped my legs as much as I could.
By the time I approached the beginning of H Street—the halfway mark—the streetcar had become a distant red dot. “Did anyone beat it?” I asked my friend in-between labored breaths when I finally reached the finish line. A small group did manage to claim victory, including Julianne Twomi, who leads the H Street Runners club and who beat the streetcar by about a block. She said she finished at a 7:20 pace.
Conditions on this Sunday favored the streetcar: Traffic was light, and it managed to hit mostly green lights, while our section of the group got snagged by at least two red ones. “It’s a gamble. If it hits all green lights, it’s a force to be reckoned with,” Winslow said, adding that this was probably the fastest the streetcar has ever gone in their races. Perhaps that a good sign for this much-maligned mode. “It’s nice to see that it is getting faster,” she said.
One thing that the race makes clear is that it’s not born of knee-jerk contempt for the streetcar: Winslow, Twomi, and the group’s co-organizer Nicole Podesta all live in the neighborhood and regularly ride it. “It’s a convenient way to get around the neighborhood, especially if it’s raining,” Twomi said. “People have skeptical thoughts about it, and they don’t know what to expect, but really its been a big asset to the neighborhood.”
In that sense, the streetcar’s victory was maybe also a win for the city, too—at least that’s what I’m telling myself. “Next year,” Winslow said, “I’ll park in its path so it has to stop for an extended period of time.”
When Healthcare.gov crashed within two hours of its much-anticipated launch in 2013, it highlighted just how embarrassingly slow the federal government was in bringing its technology up to date. If there was a silver lining, though, it was that the site’s initial failure led to the creation of 18F and the U.S. Digital Service, two tech-savvy agencies that have since helped the government catch up with the times.
Now, a bill proposed by Senator Kamala Harris aims to throw a similar lifeline to local governments, whose digital infrastructure often remains painfully inept. “We must do more to empower our state and local governments to tap into the power of technology to provide seamless, cost-effective services for the 21st century,” she said in a statement.
The Digital Service Act of 2019, introduced Thursday, would allocate $15 million per year in grants to help states, cities, and Indian tribes establish their own team of tech experts and designers that will “update and rebuild” their digital services and online tools. Officials can apply for two-year grants of between $200,000 and $2.5 million, half of which is required to go toward paying the salaries of that team. The total amount awarded will depend on the size of a jurisdiction’s population.
Overseeing the grant distribution will be the U.S. Digital Service, which provides consultation to federal agencies. The agency, according to the bill, would review each applicant’s eligibility based on its ongoing commitment to “modernizing government technology” as well as “a rigorous commitment to digital delivery of government services.” It will also consider whether the government agencies applying for funds have a designated point person, like a chief technology or innovation officer.
The state of government technology varies wildly among cities. The more advanced ones have forged ahead to secure the latest smart technology, while others struggle with the most basic services. In many cases, employees still file paper by hand, data remains siloed within various agencies, and programs run on outdated software from as far back as the ‘80s and ‘90s. For some cities, even developing a user-friendly website is a challenge.
“Because we haven’t developed as much of the internal capability in government to just do digital things, to use technology in ways that, frankly, the average person uses them—not even programmers—technology actually becomes a barrier,” says Jen Pahlka, the founder and executive director of Code for America, which addresses technology gaps between the public and private sector.
Lacking the funding and skilled employees, some cities rely, instead, on buying software and systems from private companies. The process is often long and arduous, not to mention costly, and the end product can be clunky and non-user friendly. In fact, the companies that win government contracts often are not the ones known for modern software development, as Hana Schank and Sara Hudson, two public interest technology fellows at the think tank New America, wrote in the Washington Post last year.
While some governments have looked toward working with startups, Jay Nath, CIO of the civic tech nonprofit City Innovate, previously told CityLab that the partnerships often lead to a mismatch between what’s offered and what the cities actually need.
That’s not to say public-private partnerships aren’t important. “But they only work if the capacity of the city employees to manage and understand those relationships are at a high enough level,” said Stephen Goldsmith, director of the Innovations in American Government Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center. “You want to be in control of your vendors.”
That’s why “at least 50 percent of the money has to go to people,” said Pahlka, who helped set up USDS back in 2014 and whose nonprofit lent support to Harris’s team. “It’s not about states and municipalities just buying more technology and not building the internal capacity.”
While the strength in the bill lies in its focus on building teams, it also needs to help local governments retain those technologists over the long run. Considering how many cities lack an employee dedicated to technology innovation—let alone an entire team—$15 million is a small sum to be shared among several grantees who will have to compete with the more lucrative private tech sector for top talent. “I don’t know how you do that in the long term with this amount of money,” Goldsmith said.
Then there’s the question of which applicants USDS should prioritize—those that struggle with basic services, for example, or those with innovative ideas to move local government forward? The way Pahlka sees it, the department should start with those that have clear leadership and vision. Goldsmith wonders if the money could be better spent as “venture funding”—that is, funding breakthroughs and open-source solutions that can be scaled rather than individual governments and their employees.
It remains to be seen if Harris can garner enough support for the legislation to pass, though as Wired points out, there has been bipartisan support for investing in better government technology. If nothing else, the introduction of the bill is a symbolic gesture that there’s interest in Congress—or at least on the 2020 campaign trail—in investing in government at the local level.
“Across the world, many governments are investing substantial amounts of money into digital platform and data analytics. The U.S., not so much,” Goldsmith said, “But there is a fair amount of platform, shared services, and standard work that such a bill could further, so it’s a good idea.”
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What We’re Following
Grand ole operations: Over the weekend, a $23 million incentives package for Amazon HQ2 cleared its final hurdle as the Arlington County Board in Virginia approved subsidies for the e-commerce giant (WaPo). Meanwhile, Nashville’s Metro Council plans to vote Tuesday on a similar incentive package for the company’s 1-million-square-foot “Operations Center of Excellence.” But Amazon’s plans are facing new scrutiny after the company filed salary data that casts doubt on whether its local hiring will match what it promised.
The promise was 5,000 full-time jobs paying an average wage of over $150,000 in Davidson County. A new breakdown of the company’s hiring commitments shows baseline salaries that fall far short of that, a fact that caught labor activists’ attention. “Let’s give Amazon all of the benefit of the doubt—let’s say they’ll pay all employees $50,000 over the median wage,” one activist tells CityLab’s Sarah Holder. “Literally, they’d have to almost triple these wages to reach the number they’ve been promising all along.” Read Sarah’s story: In Nashville, Will Amazon Overpromise and Under-Deliver?
As weekly protests continue in Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron is still trying to figure out what the “yellow vest” movement wants. It’s not an easy task.
Give Me a Brake
Bike-lane foes say the darnedest things. Advocates of enhanced bicycle infrastructure know this all too well. The latest short film by Streetsfilms’ Clarence Eckerson asks advocates at this year’s National Bike Summit outside Washington, D.C., to recount their most ridiculous tales of bike-lane opposition. Enjoy some of these head-scratchers—including the classic If you build a bike lane, the terrorists will win—here: Watch Bike Advocates Vent About the Silliest Anti-Bike Lane Arguments
What We’re Reading
ETA: Uber plans to kick off IPO in April (Reuters)
Climate change is hastening the decline of destinations, giving rise to “last-chance tourism” (Vox)
New York City says electric cars are now the cheapest option for its fleet (Quartz)
Why Lyft would prefer you take a scooter (Bloomberg)
Google Doodle pays tribute to the inventor of the “tenji block,” which helps people with visual impairments navigate cities (CNET)
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Conventional wisdom says that place matters more for people who live in distressed neighborhoods—places with low median incomes and not a lot of opportunity. That’s why policymakers have traditionally focused on one of two place-based solutions. Community development grants and tax breaks, for example, are aimed at improving conditions by luring investment into disadvantaged areas. Housing voucher programs, meanwhile, are supposed to help low-income families escape distressed neighborhoods and move to ones with higher median incomes and better educational outcomes.
But what if our approach to geographical inequality is lopsided? What if we’re overlooking the contribution of so-called advantaged neighborhoods in maintaining status quo?
In a new paper published in Sociological Quarterly, Junia Howell, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh, argues just that. “As important as investigations into disadvantaged neighborhoods are,” she writes, “the nearly exclusive analytical focus on them has the unintentional consequence of downplaying the role that advantaged neighborhoods play in stratifying educational outcomes.”
In this paper, Howell tested what types of neighborhoods had the most influence on their residents by analyzing a trove of data going back a half-century from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID). Administered since 1968 to a representative sample of 5,000 households across the U.S., this is the world’s longest-running longitudinal household survey, and it allowed her to track children in the survey throughout their childhood and into adulthood. She had information on what they did for a living, how much they made, and what block they lived on for each year of the survey. Connecting that with census data allowed her to paint a picture of the neighborhoods they lived in.
As researchers have done in the past, she gave these neighborhoods scores based on proportion of residents below poverty line, proportion of black residents, and proportion of female-headed single-family households. The higher these proportions, the more “disadvantaged” the neighborhood.
That definition is “in itself problematic,” Howell said, because the lack of opportunity in these places is a symptom of historical treatment and structural problems. But she wanted to use it to be consistent with previous research. (She also looked at other measures of neighborhood disadvantage, like median income and educational attainment, and found similar results.)
She then conducted a series of analyses to predict the effect disadvantaged and advantaged neighborhoods have on children’s educational attainment by the time they turned 26. She found that advantaged neighborhoods mattered much more for their residents—the boost they provided was much stronger than the negative effect distressed neighborhoods had on their residents.
Put another way, living in an advantaged neighborhood would make a substantial difference to educational attainment of a person, compared to another with comparable family and individual profile. But for people living in moderate or very disadvantaged neighborhoods, educational outcome is similar if everything else is similar. So parental education level and income may matter more.
Howell concludes in the paper:
Findings suggest neighborhood structural effects are asymmetrical. These results suggest that educational inequality is driven by the compounding privileges of the most advantaged residents.
That relationship between neighborhood advantage and its influence on educational attainment is visualized in the graph below. Note how steeply the line representing educational attainment rises on the left-hand-side of the graph, which shows the influence of the most advantaged neighborhoods. On the right side, it’s much flatter:
Another striking finding of the study is how these results differ by race: She finds that whites are concentrated in the most advantaged areas, and experience a strong positive effect of living in these areas that drives the overall strong influence of these neighborhoods.
Black residents are more widely distributed across wider variety of neighborhoods, although still overrepresented in disadvantaged ones. But educational attainment is not as affected by this geography. That means, even if African Americans live in advantaged neighborhoods, they may not experience benefits compared to what their white counterparts experience.
“This patterns speak to the fact that the mechanisms that are enabling advantaged residents in advantaged neighborhoods are ones that excludes black residents and enhancing white residents,” Howell said. “There are ways of drawing lines that are not just the neighborhoods… [the neighborhood effect] is not the only piece.”
Here’s what that looks like on a graph. Again, the predicted educational attainment line for whites is way steeper, whereas for blacks, it’s much more level.
The study doesn’t say anything about how exactly privilege compounds in advantaged areas, or why it manifests more for white residents than their black neighbors. But Howell has some theories: Generational advantages (legacy admissions, family wealth), social networks that give white kids preference in private school and college admissions, and institutional practices (like inequality in high school “tracking”) may all play a role.
That has implications not just for the way policy interventions tackling inequality are designed, but how cities themselves are planned, Howell said; it challenges a central assumption that poor areas, and the people who live in them, are the problems. To solve disparities, therefore, a single-minded focus on pouring resources into disadvantaged neighborhood may not just be ineffective, but also counterproductive. The core problems lie in places and in institutions outside those communities.
“We need to start by reframing, both on the public side and the policy side, how we think about and talk about these spaces,” Howell said.