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What We’re Following
From drab to prefab: With a complex web of architects, contractors, and subcontractors, the construction industry is difficult to streamline and resistant to gains in productivity. So, naturally, a Silicon Valley startup sees an opportunity to do what Silicon Valley startups do best: disrupt.
Katerra, a modular construction company, wants to take over the building process from start to finish, aiming to churn out apartments the way Starbucks pushes lattes. It’s not the first to chase the dream of prefabricated construction, and its investments in good architects and mass timber could give it a decisive edge—or prove to be a costly gamble. CityLab’s Amanda Kolson Hurley reports on Why Silicon Valley Wants to Conquer Construction
Just in: The Supreme Court rules that Texas lawmakers weren’t intentionally discriminatory in 10 out of 11 congressional and state legislative districts redrawn in 2010. The decision reverses a lower court decision that found racial gerrymandering undercut the voting power of black and Hispanic voters. (Texas Tribune)
Amazon Flex pays drivers to deliver packages from their own vehicles. But is it a good deal for workers?
The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia packs 64 games into just four weeks. With as many as three games a day, workers all over the world are being pulled away from their desks, bending the productivity curve like… sigh, Beckham. This chart from Statista, shared by the World Economic Forum, shows where game times and work hours overlap in some major cities. Rio and New York have at least 60 hours of possible game-watching time during work. London, Los Angeles, Paris, and Berlin have over 30 hours. And if you really want to get technical, Tableau has a map exploring how the World Cup could affect the GDP of the 32 countries in the tournament—calculating both the potential upsides and downsides of wins and losses of their team.
Time is a precious and nonrenewable resource. Lose it or save it, and you can’t trade it in for something else. But time can be traded off, depending on how you value it. And when it comes to the time we spend traveling, that value is in flux.
For example, it seems that more transit riders in major U.S. cities are making a clear choice with their time and money, as mounting evidence indicates that Uber, Lyft, and other transportation network companies (TNCs) are drawing them off buses and trains and into their backseats. Riders are choosing to shell out more for a speedier TNC journey where they can enjoy not having to drive.
But Uber isn’t always the faster choice, as anyone ever caught in a thicket of traffic after a rush-hour ride-hail knows. Sometimes other trade-offs are more important. A recent study by Joseph Schwieterman and Mallory Livingston, the director ofthe Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University and a DePaul graduate researcher respectively, examines when and why consumers choose an on-demand ride—or indeed a carpooled on-demand ride—over public transit in one major American city.
Between November 2017 and March 2018, Schwieterman, Livingston, and a group of researchers gathered data on 610 different journeys around Chicago. For each possible origin and destination, they compared the cost, duration, and convenience factors between five options: Lyft, Lyft Line, Uber, UberPool, or Chicago Transit Authority. That added up to a sample of 3,075 trips, collected by searching the apps and the fastest transit travel estimate on Google Maps. To keep as many variables constant as possible, most of the trips either started or ended on the city’s north and northwest sides, and about 60 percent passed through downtown. All the trips were between 4 to 11 miles, the range within which Uber and Lyft compete most for transit riders.
Depending on the geography of the trip requests and the time they made them, the performance of the options varied dramatically. Here’s what the researchers found.
The dollar value
Unsurprisingly, in sheer dollar terms, it was essentially never more cost-effective to ditch transit. The average CTA fare is $2.69, while Lyft and UberX rides averaged $18.13 and $17.90 respectively. Notably, riders who chose a carpool option for an on-demand ride spent a lot less when they rode UberPool than Lyft Line—those trips cost an average $9.33 and $14.04, respectively.
The time savings
Outside of crowded downtown Chicago, TNC options were almost universally faster than transit trips. Compared to riding trains and buses, more than 90 percent of trips were faster on TNCs, with the exception of UberPool, where just 66 percent of trips were faster. The skimpier time savings on UberPool rides can be attributed to the same reason that it was cheaper than Lyft Line: Uber usually draws more people piling into the same vehicle.
For trips that passed through the downtown zone, TNCs were still faster, but the gap narrowed substantially: 60 percent of Lyft Line trips and 41 percent of UberPool trips were quicker than public transit. Compared to its performance in outer-urban areas, transit was a more competitive option there—faster than TNCs about half the time.
When is it worth it?
Did you know that the U.S. DOT has an official metric for what it considers valuable time-savings for commuters? In 2018 dollars, an hour of time savings is worth $14.95, by federal standards. That number is used by transportation planners to assess whether transportation improvements such as road widenings and service extensions are micro-economically worthwhile.
In those terms, although Lyft and UberX trips tend to save travelers considerable time over transit, only a small share of them met that cash value standard. For example, Schwieterman and Livingston write, an UberX trip that saves about 15 minutes of travel but costs $17 more than a CTA trips works out to spending about $68 per hour, or about $1.13 per minute, of travel time saved. That means the rider is paying more than four times the cash value of that hour, at least according to the DOT. Across trip geographies, less than 1 percent of Lyft Line rides, 4.9 percent of UberPool trips, and 0.2 percent of the private-ride TNC options met the $14.95 savings standard.
Virtually none of the downtown trips were worthy by this metric, either. The cost-effectiveness of TNCs was considerably better for traveling between neighborhoods, especially on Lyft. But, for riders who value their time at roughly the rate of the federal government, transit was essentially always the winner.
So if they’re bleeding cash to ride, why are so many consumers jumping ship (and bus) for Uber?
Clearly, time isn’t the only factor under consideration when choosing a travel mode. Maybe it’s raining, or late, or your shoes hurt and you don’t feel like walking. Passengers might overvalue the convenience and perceived safety of one mode or another. Then there’s the cost of uncertainty: Transit trips can be unpredictable, and there are wait times and transfers to consider.
To account for some of the most significant non-monetary expenses of travel, Schwieterman and Livingston estimated the total “generalized cost” of each mode. They did this by assigning a dollar value to every minute spent walking, transferring, and waiting for rides, as well as in-vehicle travel time, for the trips in their sample set. They also compared these costs to different levels of service quality on transit, which are rated on the graph below on an A-F scale. (This methodology was adopted from earlier research by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.)
The gist: the more comfortable, quiet, and predictable a bus or train journey is (i.e., the closer to transit quality levels A-C), the more cost-effective taking transit would be compared to a TNC. But as transit service degrades—if, say, the weather is terrible, if crowding is bad, or the rider perceives the route to be unsafe in some way—the more cost-effective taking a TNC becomes, especially UberPool. In other words, the worse the bus ride gets, the “cheaper” the on-demand car ride becomes.
Still, in many instances in the Chicago sample, riders were essentially spending more than $50 per hour saved by riding Uber or Lyft. The average commuter probably wouldn’t be able to justify that expense, at least not solely on the fact that it’s a few minutes faster. UberPool is a little easier to justify, cost-wise. But for many riders who don’t have endless money to burn, TNCs are probably out of reach a lot of the time. Public leaders and tech enthusiasts shouldn’t jump too quickly to the conclusion that these companies are putting transit out of business overnight.
This model makes a number of assumptions—namely, that everyone values their time at equal rates, which they don’t. To that end, the analysis could be adjusted to reflect batches of riders who value their time more highly than the federal baseline. It could also take into account fare increases on CTA, or higher opportunity costs for people who really hate to walk.
But the analysis is mostly meant to demonstrate, in numbers, the range of factors and inflection points where riders are drawn off buses and into Ubers, something intuitive yet difficult to pinpoint. As private mobility services dump more cars on the road and likely add to congestion, the question of how and whether to regulate them continues to torment city governments. Today in London, Uber is in court appealing the city’s decision to revoke its operating license, while in New York City, TNC drivers are furiously protesting regulators’ attempts to establish vehicle licensing fees.
It’s no comprehensive solution, but at least this study offers hints about how cities could work with private transportation providers while still suppressing adverse effects on traffic, Schwieterman and Livingston write. For example, agencies like CTA could subsidize TNC rides in outer-urban neighborhoods at times when bus service has sharply dropped, similar to what Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority in South Florida and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority have done.
A precious resource
In well-off cities, transportation options seem to be expanding every month. Uber and Lyft are older news; dockless bikes and scooters are here; aerial taxis and autonomous shuttles are edging onto the horizon. What ride-hailing services are already doing to cities may be a worst-case harbinger of what driverless vehicles will bring: less support for public transportation, more congestion, and indeed more travel overall, as the disappearing need to physically operate vehicles removes a major inconveniencing factor. That also means how we value the time we spend traveling will change, as Patricia L. Mokhtarian, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has observed in extensive research. Already, there is evidence that Millennial travelers value the travel time saved by riding one mode over another less than older generations, chiefly because they’re so accustomed to using laptops in the backseat.
For decades, around the world, people have tended to spend 60 to 90 minutes per day on moving from place to place—the heftiest time allocation to any activity after work and sleep. But as work, travel, leisure, and rest become untethered from the discrete locations where they once took place, it is becoming harder to say how our time is apportioned, and therefore how we should value it. And Schwieterman and Livingston’s study suggests that as more travel options become available to riders, the experience of travel may prove to be more important than how long the trip takes.
That might be food for thought for transit agencies losing riders to service cuts and TNCs. No, maybe it’s not their job to serve every business-class traveler who demands a USB plug and WiFi connection. Plenty of transit riders, if not most, don’t “need” these kinds of amenities—they’d like more frequent, more reliable service. But travel time also isn’t just for travel anymore. It’s time that is and could be used, not merely spent.
New York City’s Public Design Commission (PDC) reviews the design of “anything that is visible,” explained Justin Moore, the commission’s executive director. “Sewers, we don’t look at.”
On top of the city’s parks and public buildings, the commission is finally taking on public housing. In May, the PDC released Designing New York: Quality Affordable Housing, a guide for developers, designers, and community members that lays out the commission’s ideas. There are eight design categories, ranging from site considerations to material selection, and seven examples of projects that the PDC considers well-designed and within budget. To create the guide, the PDC worked directly with architecture and design firms, builders, and affordable housing groups.
Public housing used to be out of the PDC’s jurisdiction, as land for such projects that wasn’t developed by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) was typically sold to developers. Once it passed out of city hands, the PDC no longer had design review. And the PDC has no jurisdiction over state and federal authorities like NYCHA.
But under the de Blasio administration, the city is holding onto its own land when building housing projects, and so the PDC finally has a say. The aesthetic dimension of the PDC’s purview goes into broader notions of design: site planning, the project’s durability, how well the building relates to the broader context of the surrounding neighborhood.
The guide suggests selecting materials that complement surrounding structures; considering how the placement of windows and doors can foster engagement with the neighborhood outside; designing both active recreation spaces for children and more passive spaces for seniors. At Arbor House in the Bronx, one of the featured projects, there is a large fitness center with no fee for residents, and a rooftop greenhouse. In a forthcoming Prospect Gardens project, glass-enclosed staircases provide light and a visual connection with the neighborhood.
According to Rebecca Macklis, the Design & Special Projects Manager at the PDC, the guide was a way of saying “Look what’s out there—affordable housing is not just Pruitt-Igoe.”
“When people walking through New York think of affordable housing, they think of high-rise brick buildings with a lawn and fence you can’t pass through,” Macklis said. “New York City hadn’t been looking at housing as infrastructure, and because of that it hadn’t been holistically tackled.”
When the PDC started developing the guide, they looked at projects across the country and around the world. The most important thing, Moore said, was figuring out how “to achieve great quality while keeping cost low—because, frankly, that’s how we get affordable housing built.”
“Our guidelines are all taking from that [idea],” said Macklis. “Putting in wainscoting inspired from an artist collaboration maybe [requires] more time and thought, but not more money.”
One of the projects not included in the guide that has gone forward under the new PDC initiative is The Peninsula, an affordable housing project in the South Bronx’s Hunts Point neighborhood. When Claire Weisz, Studio Principal at WXY and Victor Body-Lawson, principal at Body Lawson Associates, began to design The Peninsula, they wanted to create a public space that seemed permeable: Spaces that the community could be a part of but that were also secure. “We planned the buildings around a plaza with windows that look into [it],” Lawson said, “so that parents could look at the children as they were playing and feel like the community was a village.”
“What’s critical is making new spaces in cities—especially if they’re public land—part of the pattern of living and working and using and enjoying the city,” said Weisz. “If you make a perfectly wonderful area for residents only, you aren’t connecting them to the community. A community more connected is more resilient.”
It was also important to the designers to integrate industrial space with affordable housing. “Generally,” said Weisz, “people look at it as you have to choose one or the other. But without giving entrepreneurial opportunities close to where people live it’s very challenging, particularly for women and families, to create more opportunities for themselves if those opportunities are at the end of a very long commute. An urban design that brings in child care, health, light industrial, education, a bank, a grocery store, is the way of the future.” As a result, Hunts Point is set to create 300 permanent jobs and 15,000 square feet of retail and commercial space.
Moore said the PDC’s guide is intended for all parties involved in the housing design process: showing developers, community groups, and community boards the scope of what is possible. Should a developer claim that a proposed project is of lower quality because it’s funded by a lower income tax and has a high cost of construction, he said, a community group could point to a specific example in the guide with the same parameters and a more desirable outcome.
Macklis emphasized that the guidelines are neither rules nor regulations. “It’s not ‘1+2 must be done to get 3’ and get approval,” she said. “We really wrote these as considerations to really expose people—the communities who are going to have this and the developers and architects—to the breadth of things out there that have been successful.”
Most people, Moore said, think of housing, “as where you live, your apartment. But housing, for most cities, [is] the dominant built fabric of a city. It’s the foundation of these communities.” As a result, he said, “the building of a site connects to the public realm—the shared experience of being in a neighborhood or city.”
From the end of the Second World War until a few years ago, when it cooled off, productivity surged across the U.S. economy, giving rise to what’s often called the “productivity miracle.” From manufacturing to agriculture to retail, industry after industry became cheaper, faster, more mechanized, and more efficient.
The way that most large buildings get built hasn’t changed much from 50 years ago. It goes by a deceptively straightforward name, “design-bid-build.” First, a developer or owner hires an architect, who comes up with a rough design. To flesh this out, the architect brings in consultants such as engineers and landscape architects, and sometimes niche consultants like food-service specialists.
When the design is finished, the owner puts it out for bids from general contractors, and hires one of them—often the lowest bidder—to supervise construction. The GC issues its own bids, and farms out the pieces of the project (for example, the HVAC system and the concrete work) to subcontractors. It’s not uncommon for the subcontractors to bid out work, as well, hiring sub-subcontractors. Then, when construction begins, the architect runs interference between the owner and the GC, trying to ensure that every detail is built correctly without blowing the owner’s budget. (Much of the time, the budget gets blown anyway.)
Not surprisingly, having so many cooks in the kitchen leads to misunderstandings and finger-pointing. Add volatile material prices and a skilled labor shortage, and you have, in the now-familiar parlance of Silicon Valley, an industry waiting to be disrupted.
Silicon Valley has noticed. On May 30, a Menlo Park company called Katerra announced that it had acquired Michael Green Architecture, a 25-person architecture firm in Vancouver, British Columbia. On June 12, the company revealed that it had bought another, larger architecture firm, Atlanta-based Lord Aeck Sargent. This comes five months after Katerra raised $865 million in venture capital from funders led by SoftBank’s Vision Fund, which has also invested heavily in the co-working startup WeWork.
“The construction industry is ripe for digital disruption,” said co-founder and chairman Michael Marks in a press release. (Marks is the former CEO of electronics manufacturer Flextronics, now Flex.) “This new round of funding will enable us to further invest in R&D and continue to scale the business.”
Katerra is not unique in its quest to streamline an unwieldy and frustrating process. The design-build model, an alternative to design-bid-build, has been catching on in the U.S. But Katerra stands out for two reasons.
One, its goal is radically ambitious: complete vertical integration of design and construction, extending from an architect’s concept sketches of a building down to the screws and bolts that hold it together. The company sources supplies directly from China and has a factory in Phoenix that makes roof trusses, cabinets, wall panels, and other elements. Last September, it announced plans to open a new factory that will make panels of cross-laminated timber, a kind of high-tech structural wood. It intends to open several more plants—plus warehouses for supplies—around the U.S.
Katerra was founded in 2015. Initially, the buildings it built were designed by outside architects. In 2016, the company hired an architect, Craig Curtis, to head up a design division. With Curtis’ team and the two architecture firms it just gobbled up, it now has enough manpower to design buildings itself.
This is what’s known as “backward integration,” when a company at the end of the supply chain seeks to shape its products “upstream.” (Compare Netflix, which first rented and streamed TV shows, then started making them.) With both design teams and factories under its umbrella, Katerra hopes to consolidate a messy system into an efficient one-stop shop. It wants to become the Starbucks or Zara of construction, churning out apartments like so many lattes or jumpsuits. (Starbucks and Zara are both known for practicing a high degree of vertical integration; Starbucks buys and roasts all its coffee and owns its stores, while Zara manufactures many of the garments it sells.)
Curtis, Katerra’s head of architecture, told CityLab that the company’s model changes the way its architects work. “We can curate the interior of our buildings in a way that architects are not used to,” he said. Before joining Katerra, Curtis was a partner at the Miller Hull Partnership, a well-regarded Seattle architecture firm.
“The typical process is [that] a lot of decisions are made during the submittal and shop-drawing phase,” Curtis said. (Shop drawings are normally prepared by subcontractors during construction and submitted to the architect for approval.) “There’s always fighting over design quality at the end of the project. We’re moving all of that up. … What that allows us to do is guarantee a price early. We’re guaranteeing a price up front, and that’s really unusual and and really attractive to our customers.”
The other reason to watch Katerra is because Michael Green is the world’s best-known proselytizer and designer of tall wood buildings. Green works almost exclusively with “mass timber,” a new genre of super-strong and fire-resistant wood products (including cross-laminated timber, or CLT). His website features designs for a 35-story wooden skyscraper in Paris and even an “Empire State of Wood.” Those grand schemes remain unbuilt, but Green has realized more modest timber high-rises: a 96-foot-tall building in British Columbia, and a seven-story office building in Minneapolis, completed in 2016. (Most building codes in the United States don’t allow tall timber structures without a waiver, although that is about to change.)
With Green on board and a CLT factory in progress, Katerra hopes to corner the emerging market in mass timber. “We’re making a big investment as a company into mass timber,” Curtis said. “We’re trying to get ahead of this tidal wave of projects that are coming to North America that will be built with this technology.”
There’s a match on a deeper, philosophical level, too. Both Katerra and Green see themselves as designing not just buildings per se, but a whole new construction process. For Green and other timber enthusiasts, it’s a virtuous circle that starts with sustainably harvesting trees; progresses to a factory where the timber is turned into finely calibrated pieces, like so many Legos; and results in a building assembled cleanly and quickly, and that keeps harmful carbon locked in its bones. The building can even be recycled once it’s reached the end of its useful life.
If all this sounds too good to be true, well, we’ve been here before. Once upon a time, prefabrication was going to free us from the chains of conventional building. Walter Gropius and Buckminster Fuller extolled the benefits of prefab in the early 20th century, and in the postwar years, companies such as Lustron and the National Homes Corporation factory-built prefabricated homes by the thousands.
But prefab never took off in the U.S. like it did in Europe. As journalist (and onetime prefab entrepreneur) Lloyd Alter has noted, labor is more expensive in Europe, environmental regulations are more stringent, and more people live in rented multifamily housing, which is not as sensitive to swings in the economy as American single-family real estate. Prefab ventures in the U.S. flame out, Alter wrote, because“they have serious overhead and cannot compete with a guy in a pickup truck with a magnetic sign and a nail gun and a bunch of subcontractors getting paid by the square foot.”
Will Katerra fare any better? By controlling every step of the process, it assumes all the risk, whereas in the rest of the industry, risk gets passed around like a hot potato. But Curtis said the company’s co-founder Fritz Wolff, a developer of multifamily housing, has helped it ramp up quickly to avoid being crushed by overhead. “[Wolff] gave us a pipeline of work that was enough to launch our factory. Other people who have tried prefab, if you don’t have scale—the pipeline to keep your factory running—you’re not able to produce the product economically.”
It’s also true that Walter Gropius and Buckminster Fuller didn’t have today’s technology. Katerra touts its use of SAP HANA (a real-time data processing application) and the Internet of Things to achieve “deep integration and newfound efficiencies.” It designs buildings in Revit, a 3D modeling software, and then converts the files to a different format for the machines in the factory, but Curtis hopes to get everyone working on the same platform before long.
“The digital tools are getting sophisticated enough that as designers, we can start looking at problems in a more integrated, cross-functional way,” said Phil Bernstein, an architect who teaches at the Yale School of Architecture and who has written extensively on technology and labor issues in architecture. “The tools are not causing this [shift to vertical integration], but they’re enabling it.” (Bernstein noted that he used to work with Michael Green and they remain on friendly terms.)
The real indication of success, said Bernstein, will be whether Katerra’s methodology works for many types of buildings. “If you hitch your wagon to a building type—multifamily housing, or middle schools, or outpatient clinics—those markets rise and fall. You can’t be dependent on a single one,” he said. So far, following Wolff’s lead, Katerra has focused on multifamily housing and its cousins, senior and student housing. Curtis said the company will branch out. The other design firm it acquired, Lord Aeck Sargent, has experience with several building types.
Historically, the Achilles heel of progress in construction has been low investment in R&D, Bernstein said. “Margins are razor-thin, and competition is heavily predicated on price. Nobody has enough money to do capital-intensive [R&D].” On this measure, Katerra, with SoftBank’s huge infusion of cash, “is off to a pretty damn good start.”
It will have competition. Other builders and developers are plunging into modular construction—making fully-fitted apartment units in a factory, then trucking them to a site and stacking them like boxes. A 32-story tower at Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn was built this way, and the company Factory OS recently completed a modular apartment building in the Bay Area. But progress has been rocky. After the Atlantic Yards developer claimed to have “cracked the code” of the modular high-rise, the project became mired in delays and recriminations, and a different developer ended up completing it. Factory OS has run into opposition from trade unions, which are organized along the splintered, hyper-specialized lines that these startups are so eager to integrate.
The really big question is how much design and construction can be optimized, even under ideal conditions. The fact is that a building is not a latte or a jumpsuit—or, for that matter, an iPhone. Building materials are bulkier and more expensive to ship than coffee beans or electronic parts. More importantly, every site is unique. Climate zones vary dramatically. Functional requirements differ. Owners and developers make idiosyncratic requests.
“Buildings are site-specific, program-specific, and highly bespoke,” Bernstein said. “It’s not the stuff that’s in the building that’s bespoke; it’s the configuration.”
Katerra promises that it can“strike the perfect balance between standardization and configuration.” Scooping up good architects and investing in mass timber could give it a decisive edge—or prove to be a costly wrong bet.
If Katerra or another startup did manage to crack the code, major changes would follow. Many architecture firms would likely close down or become studios within construction companies. (Architects are trying to stay ahead of the curve, however; the international firm Cannon Design has struck out into making modular exam rooms and other “pods” for healthcare buildings, and last year acquired a design-build firm, Gkkworks, in a form of forward integration.) Trade unions would probably give way to all-purpose building unions, like the one that represents Factory OS workers.
Urban buildings would go up faster, meaning less disruption for people living and working near them and less waste produced on construction sites. Despite different cladding on the outside, many would have very similar DNA, thanks to widely used semi-standardized designs. And the building components themselves, whether made out of wood or another material, would be ruthlessly tweaked (to fit more on a truck, for example).
But the prefab dream has died many times before: A boatload of venture capital is no guarantee that it won’t again.
The land straddling Texas and Mexico makes up almost two-thirds of the 1,933 mile U.S.-Mexico border. On one end lies El Paso and the Rio Grande River; on the other is the Gulf of Mexico and border towns like Brownsville, the site of the former Walmart where nearly 1,500 migrant children are being detained, far from their parents. But behind closed doors in thousands of homes peppering those miles, are domestic workers doing the invisible labor of the region—most of them immigrant women.
A new report based on interviews with 516 housecleaners, nannies, and care workers on the border, reveals high incidences of wage theft, abuse, and exploitation among these already vulnerable laborers. Their stories were collected in 2016 by volunteers from three community-based organizations—Adult and Youth United Development Association Inc (AYUDA) in San Elizario; Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center in Alamo; and Comité de Justicia Laboral in El Paso—many of whom are former or current domestic workers themselves.
Over a third of domestic workers reported going hungry at least once that year, and more than half couldn’t pay for medical care when someone in their family needed it, they found. Live-in workers were exposed to some of the worst conditions: Almost a third had been pushed or physically hurt by an employer, and 45 percent had been injured on the job.
These workplace nightmares also come with a lack of legal protection—67 percent of those surveyed worked without contracts, and benefits like overtime pay, paid sick leave, and paid vacation days were almost non-existent (2-3 percent). Sixty percent of live-in workers were pressured to work longer than initially scheduled; most worked six or seven days a week. And a quarter of all domestic workers were paid less than agreed upon, or not at all.
It’s harder to protect workers from exploitative conditions in private homes, even if they don’t live there full-time, because regulations are lax and rarely enforced. “There is no human resources department to complain to, few workers have contracts, and where informal work arrangements prevail, employers’ expectations and demands can shift without warning,” the report notes.
This lack of outside regulation is only compounded by immigrant workers’ hesitance to speak out for fear of deportation or retaliation. Only 43 percent of domestic workers surveyed had U.S. citizenship, and more than 80 percent of housecleaners were not authorized to work in the country. Citizenship status corresponded to treatment: 15 percent of workers with citizenship were subject to wage theft, compared to 35 percent of unauthorized workers. A quarter of unauthorized workers were threatened by employers who capitalized on their already tenuous status, compared to only 10 percent of documented workers.
The data was collected before Trump took office,after runningand winning on a platform of toughening immigration laws and increasing enforcement of existing ones. But even before he became president, immigration policing on the Texas-Mexico border was aggressive, and labor protections in the right-to-work state were weak. The state is home to the lowest-paid workers in the country, with more paid at or below minimum wage than anywhere else. In May 2017, Texas also implemented SB4, encouraging local officials to turn over undocumented immigrants to federal immigration services.
“For decades, domestic workers have been working in the shadows of our economy with limited rights and protections,” said Linda Burnham, Senior Advisor at National Domestic Workers Alliance, in a press release. “[This report] should serve as a warning of the human cost when the rights of immigrants and workers are completely eroded.”
Olivia Figueroa, the executive director of AYUDA, used to be one of these women. She crossed the border from Mexico in 1986, looking for “a better life, or what they call the American Dream,” and headed west to meet a cousin in Los Angeles, who got her a job as a housekeeper for a local family. At first, Figueroa expected to work her shifts each day and go home each night. But the family encouraged her to live with them. They gave her food and shelter rent-free, but it came at a hidden price: Since she was always there, she was always expected to work. And since she was undocumented, she wasn’t expected to speak up. “She would mention things to them—that she wanted to find a better job, get better pay—and they said they would call immigration and she could get deported,” her daughter, Natalie Figueroa, said. Finally, at the urging of a stranger she met at a local bus stop, Olivia Figueroa fled.
It’s been more than three decades since Figueroa came to the United States, and she’s long been liberated from that job. But conditions for women at the border are eerily similar today: There’s Irma, who immigrated from Veracruz, Mexico, to become a live-in nanny and housekeeper without a written contract, and “hardly ever saw the sun”; and Maria, a housecleaner who suffered from abuse but felt powerless to report the violence after her abuser told her “no one would believe me because I didn’t have papers.”
These women shared their stories with volunteers, but many others are still afraid to speak, for fear of getting reported or deported. Figueroa needed that woman at the bus stop to tell her better, fairer wages were out there, and that seeking them out didn’t always mean persecution. Now she does the same for the growing body of immigrant women working domestic jobs in the outskirts of El Paso with AYUDA. “Once they hear they’re not alone they get motivated and they’re willing to find a better job rather than stay there,” said the elder Figueroa, through a translation by Natalie. “Now the ladies are more open to learning about their rights and they’re willing to make a change—come together and make a change.”
Community groups like AYUDA support local workers and help them organize around labor rights. But finding a new job is more complicated than just knowing there’s a better one out there: Border towns are teeming with police cars, and domestic workers who fear deportation often feel it’s safer to live where they work rather than risk exiting each day. (The report suggests increasing access to public transportation and affordable housing to offer easier channels in and out.) “This was a region that was already militarized before, but now there are more agents patrolling the region and limiting the free transit in public spaces,” said Rosa Sanluis, a community organizer with Fuerza del Valle. And when policies like SB4—and the Department of Justice’s “zero tolerance” policy—mean a call for help could turn into a reason for deportation, domestic workers might continue to choose silence.
“The fear is historic in this region and the policies of hate in this administration have reached new levels,” said Sanluis. “The wall of fear is bigger than the wall we have already.”
Denmark’s reputation as one of the most proactive countries in the world in the fight against climate change took a heavy knock this week. Despite its reputation as a green energy pioneer, a Danish government memorandum obtained by newspaper Politiken suggests that the country’s carbon emissions are due to rise sharply, by as much as 10 percent between now and 2030. The potential culprits: Apple, Facebook, and Google, among others.
That’s because these tech companies are all either planning or building major data centers in the country. It’s estimated (if not confirmed) that Denmark will host six new data centers within 12 years, and the three companies mentioned above are all either in the process of constructing or scouting sites for major facilities. According to analysis by the Danish Energy Authority, just one data center could push up the country’s electricity consumption by 4 percent—that’s more than is used in an entire year in Denmark’s third city, Odense.
Those presumptions are indeed broadly born out by figures from elsewhere in the world. In the U.S. alone, data centers consume 90 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year—enough to meet 40 percent of the United Kingdom’s annual energy needs. This consumption isn’t declining any time soon, either. By 2025, the communications industry could consume one-fifth of all the world’s electricity. The increasing use of the cloud for video streaming is a major factor driving the need for ever more capacious data centers, as is the rise of bitcoin mining.
The growth in use is large and alarming, and provides its own explanation as to why Denmark has been chosen as a site for the expansion of such facilities. Communications companies are well aware of their heavy carbon footprint and are seeking out places with large renewable energy sectors. The same impulse drove Google this year to buy up all the energy from the Netherlands’ largest solar park, while it has set up data centers in Sweden and (along with Microsoft) in Finland.
Certainly, Denmark can supply more green energy than most. In 2017, the country generated 43 percent of its power from wind turbines, a level it hopes to increase to 50 percent by 2030. Green energy is not its sole selling point, either. Add to that an existing role as a global data-cable hub, a stable, corruption-free government, and a location where disruptive major natural disasters are extremely rare, and you have an ideal-looking place for communications companies looking to expand.
The problem is that Denmark’s green energy has its limits. There is no way that existing renewables facilities could hope to meet the prospective demand from data centers. That means the country will have to generate power using more conventional, polluting sources, including coal. Although it aims to phase them out by 2030, Denmark in fact retains three coal-fired power stations, which growing energy demand will make it harder to dispense with. Just as the country has succeeded in reducing its emissions, it now looks set to push them up again.
So what can be done? There are some ways to offset and mitigate data centers’ energy consumption. One could be to channel the heat they produce into district heating systems, a process already in place in Sweden that could at least reduce the need to generate electricity for nearby towns and cities. A new design proposal called The Spark from a Norwegian real-estate developer and the architecture firm Snøhetta takes this idea to its logical conclusion, depicting a city whose very core is built around data centers, using their excess heat to warm the city and pumping the city’s cool air back into the centers to create a virtuous circle. (This makes sense as a model, even if suitable real-life settings might be hard to come by.)
Another long-discussed option is locating data centers underwater on the seabed, where water can provide natural cooling for the heat-generating computer servers that removes the need for electric-powered air conditioning—although its still unclear what negative effect heating nearby waters might have.
Microsoft has in fact just submerged one of these not all that far from Denmark, sinking a 40-foot-long container filled with data drives off the coast of Scotland’s Orkney Islands. Solutions like this could help drive down data centers’ energy consumption—but Denmark is going to need something altogether more comprehensive if its long-standing emissions push isn’t to come to nought.
For the rest of the world, however, Denmark still doesn’t represent the worst situation. Data centers located in a country with a cool climate and high renewable energy capacity are less environmentally damaging that their counterparts in hotter regions where coal is still widely used for power generation—such as much of China or the Southern United States. All the same, the fact that Denmark’s green reputation is now attracting industries that may increase the country’s carbon emissions substantially seems like something of an own goal.
As the federal narrative around Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy rapidly shifts, and Congress struggles to draft legislation to ensure humane treatment of children and their families at the border, the nation’s mayors and governors are scrambling to take what local action they can.
On Thursday morning, 19 mayors of large U.S. cities gathered in Tornillo, Texas, hoping to get a glimpse of the 1,500 children being held in a detention facility there, only to be denied access by the Department of Homeland Security.
Mayors from New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Austin and more were denied entry to the Tornillo, Texas detention facility where immigrant children are living in a “tent city.” pic.twitter.com/i0zK1B8Oum
At a press conference later that day, the bipartisan coalition of city leaders who makes up the U.S. Conference of Mayors called on Congress to pass legislation reuniting families as soon as possible, following an internal resolution passed last week condemning the family separation policy. Several mayors, including Los Angeles’ Eric Garcetti, characterized Trump’s executive order stopping the separation of children and parents as a small step that brought up more questions than answers.
“We will continue to push for access to facilities … We want to be able to lay eyes on these children,” said Columbia, South Carolina, Mayor Steve Benjamin, the President of the Conference of Mayors. But, he acknowledged, “That is a piece of the puzzle.”
The next pieces are harder to place. Many local jurisdictions have for years been resisting Trump’s immigration policies through a range of “sanctuary” city policies that limit cooperation with federal authorities. This month, some localities are experimenting with new ways to exercise their powers to resist.
On Friday, days after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio visited a local ICE detention center in Harlem where 239 children (one as young as 9 months old) were being held, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an order for detailed information on detainees from all New York agencies that receive children from ICE, which it hopes to use to reunite children with their families.
In a letter from the New York State Office of Children and Family Services released by NBC/Telemundo, New York’s acting commissioner ordered each agency to immediately reveal the name and age of each immigrant child and their parents; the date and location of separation; the names and last known locations of immigrant children’s siblings; and their countries of origin and languages spoken. They’ll also be required to provide copies of all contracts, side letters, and agreements executed with the federal governments, as well as summaries of their verbal agreements.
The letters are to be considered as subpoenas for records, reads the letter, and “[f]ailure to respond timely to this request may result in the state’s suspension, revocation or limitation of your residential program’s operating certificate; the withdrawal of approval of your program’s authority to board out children; and/or the referral of the matter for criminal prosecution.” The information is due to the commissioner’s office by 10 a.m. Saturday morning.
Cities may not have the authority to deliver such sweeping subpoenas, but some have exercised the power to regulate who is held in local detention facilities. For years,Atlanta has maintained an agreement with the U.S. Marshal’s Office to house Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency detainees in the city’s local jails. On Thursday, Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced that the city would no longercontinue the practice. “As we work as a nation to end this despicable immigration policy, the City of Atlanta will not take the risk of being complicit in the separation of families at the border,” she said in a statement.
The U.S. Marshal’s Office (and the Department of Homeland Security) have contracts with most other U.S.counties, none of whichhave yet followed Atlanta’s lead. In some ways,Bottoms’ move may be amongst themore aggressive steps local jurisdictions have taken to protect immigrants, because even the many cities that call themselves “sanctuaries” and refuse to allow their police to cooperate with federal enforcement still hold immigrants in their local jails.
It’s not clear whether it will actually protect any migrant children, who, under a current court settlement now being contested by Trump, cannot be held in these local facilities. But what it does target is Trump’s broader “zero-tolerance” policy that is escalating the crackdown on border crossers. “This discussion actually began before I realized that the president was considering signing an executive order yesterday,” Bottoms said in a Thursday press conference. “We still have along way to go, we still have a lot of things that we must consider.”
Cities also have control over some licensing of local facilities, and therefore could have some power to stop or stallthem from being turned into detention facilities like the one in Tornillo. In a Wednesday press conference, Houston mayor Sylvester Turner said he was surprised to learn that a downtown facility he had intended to use to house the city’s homeless was set to be contracted as a detention center for migrant kids. Now, he says, he’ll do everything in his power to slow-walk the permitting process on the building, delaying fire inspections and approvals. “I do not want to be an enabler in this process. I do not want the city to participate in this process,” he said. “I don’t want our facilities and property owners to participate in this process.”
And even before news of the most severe repercussions of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy broke, Austin, Texas, had taken recent steps to expand the scope of its “sanctuary” status.
The city declared itself a “Freedom City” on June 15, after its council unanimously passed two immigrant-protection resolutions. Councilman Greg Casar told the Los Angeles Times that up to 1,000 low-level arrests could be prevented each year when the new laws take effect: Police will be discouraged from arresting for low-level offenses like marijuana possession, and required to inform detainees that they aren’t legally obligated to answer questions about their immigration status. In a state that began enforcing the harsh immigration enforcement policy SB-4 last May and has a contested “ban” on sanctuary cities, Austin’s added protections are particularly potent.
And then there are all the policies that already exist. As of May 2017, there were around 171 cities with officialsanctuary status, and their ranks are multiplying. California is home to populous ones like Oakland and San Francisco, and last April declared itself a “sanctuary state,” as did Connecticut. The definition of “sanctuary” is slippery. Local cooperation with ICE is hard to regulate, meaning even cities that are prohibited from sanctuary designation by their states, like those in Texas, can engage in immigrant-friendly policing.
Garcetti, who leads a “city of sanctuary” and is the grandchild of a once-undocumented immigrant himself, called for further action at Thursday’s press conference. He appealed to cities and counties who control their own welfare systems to treat the kids they receive with care; to get those that should be with their parents, unified; and those who need council, lawyers.
“The president retreated today and has not solved the problem,” he said. “Zero tolerance still exists, the families are not reunified. But the hope is that the people are demanding change and it cannot be ignored. And if it won’t happen in Washington, we will make it happen.”
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On Wednesday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that was billed as an attempt to end the practice of family separation. In reality, it didn’t do much to ensure that outcome. It did not take back the policy that triggered the crisis; it did not lay out a plan to reunite the families. Instead, its language signaled an intent for entire families to be detained together in the future, likely, for extended periods of time—setting the stage for significant logistical and legal challenges.
“We’re moving from a process by which families are separated to a process by which families are held in jails indefinitely,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice in a press call Wednesday. “That is hardly a humane alternative.”
So, what does that mean for the migrant children in question? And the ones who arrive in future waves? Where exactly are they likely to end up? The answers to those questions are complicated and incomplete. Nevertheless, there are a few things we know. While the crisis is currently concentrated near the southern U.S. border, in the coming weeks, kids and families are likely to end up at facilities spread around the country, unleashing potentially more opportunities for community impact and input. Below are some scenarios:
For children who have already been separated, there is no plan
Since the policy was announced in May, migrant parents had been facing criminal charges for “illegal entry”—even if they were claiming asylum. Meanwhile, their kids were taken from them and categorized as “unaccompanied.” As is required by law, they were then handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Some remain in facilities overseen by this agency before they are released to a vetted sponsor or relative, or placed in licensedfoster care. (It’s unclear how equipped these foster settings are in dealing with the needs of separated migrant children.)
At this point, the picture of how many remain in custody, how many have been placed with relatives, sponsors, or in foster care, and how many have been deported, is not comprehensive. And there a lot of ambiguity about where these children currently are and where they will be going next. In many cases, the parents are thousands of miles away, and say they have not been kept abreast of their children’s location.
It’s the immigration lawyers who are scrambling to do so—through a process that could take months, or even years, if it is successful at all. What’s more, the administration does not actually rule out splitting apart families in the future. There’s a clause in the executive order allowing that, should Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials find “a concern that detention of an alien child with the child’s alien parent would pose a risk to the child’s welfare,” then the child can be separated from their parent. Cases have come up where parents have been suspected to be traffickers, and separated from children on those grounds. Advocates worry that this will continue, funneling more and more kids to the ORR.
What’s particularly concerning is that these facilities, which are increasingly having to take in kids as young as one or two years old, don’t have the best track record for child care. A recent investigation by Reveal News found a history of abuse allegations: children being drugged without permission, sexually abused, and medically neglected. A new lawsuit has surfaced details about young teens held at an ORR-run juvenile facility in Virginia who have complained of being stripped naked, physically abused, and placed in solitary confinement.
For families who will be detained together, the future is murky
The executive order seeks to modify a key settlement reached in the 1999 Supreme Court case Flores v. Reno, which defined the standards for how migrant children are detained. After the Obama administration tried to detain Central American families seeking asylum, a court set a 20-day time limit for detention. In general, the Flores agreement favors the release of children from custody at the earliest opportunity, and if that is not possible, then they should be detained in the “least restrictive conditions.”
While this is resolved by the courts, children crossing the border with families can only be admitted into the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) family detention centers, where critics and observer have described conditions as “prison-like” and shameful. The family detention centers that haven’t shut down are at capacity.
“It’s hard to know where ICE could quickly find substantially more beds to house families,” writes César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, a legal scholar and immigration expert at the University of Denver in a blog post. “It is almost certain to seek help from private prison corporations like GEO Group and CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) that already run family immigration prisons in Texas, but even they can’t open a facility overnight.”
Children coming unaccompanied or who are separated from their parents in the future will continue to be handed over to the ORR, or be temporarily held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) juvenile detention facilities—which advocates argue tend to be far from family or legal representation. Below is a map of all facilities registered as family (in green) or juvenile (in orange) detention centers in ICE’s records as of November 2017—obtained by the National Immigration Justice Center (NIJC) via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
(Note: Not all of the below may be currently operational. For instance: Only three family detention centers—Berks County, Pennsylvania, Karnes Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas, and South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas—are open to house families. And NIJC notes that only nine juvenile centers are holding minors, in theory, for limited periods of time.)
ICE’s family detention centers and juvenile facilities:
If—and this is a very big if—the government succeeds in convincing a court to lift the child care licensing requirements currently in place under what is known as theFlores agreement, or lobbying Congress to rewrite federal law, it can theoretically alsouse other parts of ICE’s detention infrastructure to house children and their parents together.
The agency has contracts with more than 1,000 local governments to detain immigrants. These facilities are typically owned publicly but may be operated by local governments or by private entities. In the map below, the ones (in red) are dedicated for immigrant detainees but others may be county or city jails that rent out beds to DHS (in red) or the US Marshal Service (in green).
In her testimony to the Homeland Security Advisory Council, Margo Schlanger, now a law professor at the University of Michigan, noted that jails were “systematically, more chaotic, more dangerous, and more idle than [prison-like detention centers]. The rates of assault and suicide are higher in jails than in prisons, and the level of amenity is lower.”
This is also an area where local governments have recently pushed back. This week, Atlanta’s mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed an executive order blocking the city’s jail from accepting ICE detainees. She said she was reconsidering the federal contract which paid the city $78 per detainee it takes in, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Below is a map showingthese federal prisons (in teal), the private detention facilities that contract with DHS (orange) and the US Marshal Service (blue), and the federal facilities under the purview of the Bureau of Prisons:
Federal prisons and private detention facilities open to ICE:
It’s obvious that none of these are appropriate places to detain children for long periods of time. But critics argue that there’s actually no humane way to detain children, citing recent statements by the American Association of Pediatricians and the United Nations that family detention is inherently cruel and permanently damaging.
“You don’t need a law book or a legal degree to know that’s wrong,” said Karen Tumlin, of the National Immigration Law Center, in a press call. “Children, especially those fleeing persecution, need safety and environments where they can thrive and play and be safe. They don’t need jail.”
What critics fear is that the government’s end game is to keep detaining children—with or without families—no matter where the court comes down on the Flores case, and then put the blame elsewhere. If they are not able to override current standards, they may cite congressional failure of a biased court decision as the reason to keep separating children. If they do manage to change the standards, they can imprison children for longer, in more types of facilities. Reportedly, HHS is already looking looking to secure space in military bases for 20,000 children.
“If the administration decides to ignore Flores or to try to change it, I think we could see even far more inappropriate facilities, than we already have where their children would be detained,” said Katharina Obser, a senior policy advisor at the Women’s Refugee Commission,“whether it’s with their parents or without.”
*Facility addresses have been converted to latitude and longitude by Scale Campaign, and their positions on the map may not be precise representations of facility locations.
* These maps are based on ICE’s data as of November 2017. They do not include smaller staging and processing facilities run by DHS, and may contain some outdated information. Information about the ORR facilities included in that dataset was redacted.