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What did the weekend of terrifying civil unrest that has seized America’s cities look like from City Hall? For the mayors of major U.S. cities, what began as protests over police violence triggered by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25 has intensified into something else — a national uprising that’s also a complex, fast-changing threat to public safety, driven by forces and actors not yet fully understood and threaded with the unseen menace of a still-active pandemic.
One week after Floyd’s death, this convergence of urban crises is shaping up to be an unprecedented test of municipal governance, one that’s putting city leaders in a global spotlight. Here’s a sample of what they have been saying in recent days as events unfolded.
At about 1:30 a.m on May 29, an exhausted-looking Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis held a news conference to explain why police had abandoned the city’s Third Precinct building as crowds of protesters gathered around the facility throughout the evening.
It became clear that there were imminent threats to both officers and public. And the danger became necessary. And I made the decision to evacuate the Third Precinct. The symbolism of a building cannot outweigh the importance of life, of our officers, or the public. We could not risk serious injury to anyone, and we will continue to patrol the Third Precinct, entirely. We will continue to do our jobs in that area. Brick and mortar is not as important as life.
The decision that I made was for the safety of our officers, and the safety of the public. It’s a decision that I did not take lightly. I understand the importance of a precinct, but we are able to regroup and continue providing the same service to the Third Precinct, as a geography. … The resources that we offer to the people of the Third Precinct will continue, period. The building is just bricks and mortar.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms spoke at a press conference at City Hall on the evening of May 29. A day of largely peaceful demonstrations had turned destructive after sunset; the city’s CNN Center became a focus of vandalism, and several police vehicles were set ablaze. Bottoms appeared with two other speakers, the Atlanta hip-hop stars T.I. and Killer Mike, to appeal for calm.
Above everything else, I am a mother. I am a mother to four black children in America, one of whom is 18 years old. And when I saw the murder of George Floyd, I hurt like a mother would hurt. And yesterday, when I heard there were rumors about violent protests in Atlanta, I did what a mother would do. I called my son and I said, “Where are you?” I said, “I cannot protect you, and black boys shouldn’t be out today.”
So you’re not going to out-concern me and out-care me about where we are in America. I wear this each and every day, and I pray over my children each and every day. What I see happening on the streets of Atlanta is not Atlanta. This is not a protest. This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is chaos. A protest has purpose. When Dr. King was assassinated, we didn’t do this to our city. So if you love this city — this city that has had a legacy of black mayors and black police chiefs and people who care about this city, where more than 50 percent of the business owners in metro Atlanta are minority business owners — if you care about this city, then go home.
On Saturday, May 30, Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser responded to tweets from President Donald Trump alleging, falsely, that she wouldn’t let D.C.’s police get involved in Friday night’s protests.
People are tired, sad, angry, and desperate for change. And we need leaders who recognize this pain and in times of great turmoil and despair, can provide us a sense of calm and a sense of hope.
Instead what we’ve got in the last two days from the White House is the glorification of violence against American citizens.What used to be heard in dog whistles, we now hear from a bullhorn.
So to everyone hurting and doing our part to move this country forward, we will look to ourselves and our own communities for this leadership and this hope. Our power, we know, is in peace, in our voices, and ultimately at the ballot box.
Wearing a yellow Steelers cap. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto spoke to reporters after a day of peaceful marches against police violence turned violent when at least one police car was destroyed and dozens of businesses were attacked.
It’s been an interesting day for Pittsburgh. It started out as a peaceful demonstration, a march for justice organized by young leaders through Pittsburgh’s African-American community, that had a mission — to be able to have a voice heard, in order to call for changes necessary throughout our country. We mourn together the tragedy that occurred in Minneapolis, and today we came together as Pittsburghers and supported a First Amendment right to gather and say more must be done.
What began as a peaceful protest was “hijacked by a group of individuals who put their own self interests above the interests of the movement, who took away from organizers & those who wanted to have a voice about #SocialJustice,” endangered lives pic.twitter.com/1X35mTnUtf
— Natasha Lindstrom (@NewsNatasha) May 31, 2020
And then it was hijacked. It was hijacked by a group that put its own self interests above the interests of the movement, who took away from those organizers and those who wanted to have a voice about social justice and the demands that are needed in order to see real change happen. It not only jeopardized that movement and that mission, but at the same time put the lives of the individuals in jeopardy. The individuals who they marched with two hours before hand and said they were a part of being able to see something better occur.
Pittsburgh is not new to protests, far from it, and we’ve had protests over incidents that have occurred right here in our own backyard. And never in that time did Pittsburghers turn it into an opportunity for vandalism and violence. Pittsburghers have always stood up calling for social justice, calling for peace, and doing so in a way that brought us together, instead of ripped us apart.
New York City
On Sunday morning, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio held a press conference with NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea to discuss rioting in Brooklyn that they said was caused by a small group of outsiders.
The underlying issues are profound and meaningful, again expressed by those who are peacefully protesting and seeking change. The X-factor here [is] a small set of … people who came to do violence in a systematic, organized fashion. That is a different reality we need to grapple with. We did not see that in 2014 and 2015. We are seeing something new, and not just here in New York City but all over the country, and we have to recognize it and we have to address it.
I’m going to keep saying to anyone who is protesting for change, do not take your anger out at the individual officer in front of you, that man or woman who is simply trying to keep the peace. Work for change in our society, hold the elected officials accountable, vote — do all the things that can actually lead to change. But don’t take your frustration out on a working man or woman in front of you who did not make the policies that you disagree with.
After a Saturday night of widespread violence in the Twin Cities, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter was asked on CBS’s Face the Nation about the long history of complaints directed at fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
Right here, we’re totally understanding the anger and the rage that people have. Our call today and moving forward into the future is for peace, but not to be mistaken with patience. We cannot be patient. We cannot sit back and patiently wait while these things change on a slow and incremental basis. We have a lot more work to do on not just how we hire officers, but how we allow chiefs to fire officers. My father is a retired St. Paul police officer; I’ve heard all of my life how important it is to lift up that badge and to not tarnish its reputation. What we’ve seen when officers fall far below our expectations — it’s happened in St. Paul, it’s happened in Minneapolis, it’s happened across the country — police chiefs who tried to remove those officers end up being forced to pull them back on the force through arbitration.
Our request for our young folks is to take this energy which has consumed our nation this past week. It’s a fire that could destroy us, but could bring us together in a way that we’ve never been together. Use it not to destroy our neighborhoods, but to tear down those laws, to tear down those legal precedents, to tear down those police union contracts that make it so difficult to hold officers accountable for their actions.
An emotional Mayor Lori Lightfoot spoke on Sunday, hours before Chicago endured its second night of unrest, asking Chicagoans to observe a moment of silence at 5 p.m. As the weekend ended, police had made almost 700 arrests for looting.
The decisions that I have had to make in the last 24 hours are not decisions I wish on any leader. None of them were easy; they were all hard. And I know that these are decisions that mayors all across the country have been making, because I have been in contact with many of my peers for the last few days. I know many people are feeling scared and unsettled, but I make no apologies that I’m always going to make the tough by necessary choice if it means protecting the people.
Chicago is strong. This is our home. This is the city that we built with our blood, sweat and tears. This is the city that we must protect so it can provide for us. We know it’s not perfect. But if it gets destroyed ,we are all left to pick up the pieces. In this city we care for each other, we’ve seen that over and over again, this is a time for us to unite. we have to turn our pain into purpose in order to get through this moment together and do the work needed to unite our city and move us forward in a way that is more equitable, inclusive and just.
Mayor Jim Kenney issued a statement on Sunday afternoon following damage to Center City the night before.
I toured the damaged blocks of downtown this morning, and despite my deep sadness, what I saw gave me hope. Residents turned out — on their own — to help clean up. They devoted their time and energy on a Sunday morning to restoring their city.
But even when those blocks are cleaned up, when these businesses are restored, I understand that the larger issues that fueled yesterday’s events remain. What we saw both in yesterday’s peaceful protests and the more violent destruction — not just in Philadelphia but in many other cities — was born of decades of systemic racism and the resulting poverty. Poverty and racism: These are twin factors that work hand-in-hand to fuel anger and hopelessness and violence. And when sparked by the murders of unarmed black people, that anger and hopelessness spilled out into the streets of Philadelphia and in cities across the nation.
So remember that after the damage is cleaned up, we are left with solving the greatest challenge — building a truly just society. For every single person who lives in it.
Mayor London Breed addressed a crowd of protesters assembled in front of San Francisco’s City Hall for a peaceful “kneel-in” on Monday, June 1.
Black Lives Matter is nobody’s joke. I’m tired of people treating it that way. I’m tired of people masking their racism in black lives matter. It is not a joke. It is born out of pain. It is born out of racism that we are going to fight against. It is born out of our struggle, our blood, sweat and tears, for all that we have struggled through in this country. Don’t get it twisted — it is not a joke.
My remarks at the kneel-in for George Floyd on the steps of City Hall. pic.twitter.com/ZcyRVMXZah
— London Breed (@LondonBreed) June 1, 2020
So for those of you who are genuine in this struggle, we thank you and we welcome you. But for those of you who are using this movement as a way to push violence to go after other black people, to tear us down, we will not tolerate that. Don’t get it twisted. I am the mayor but I’m a black woman first. I am angry. I am hurt. I am frustrated. I am sick and tired of being sick and tired. I don’t want to see one more black man die at the hands of law enforcement. That’s what this movement is about. Not one more. Not one more.
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On Thursday evening, U.S. President Donald Trump stepped away from feuding with Twitter to use the social media platform for an uncharacteristic purpose: announcing more than $760 million in federal funding for 10 public transit projects around the country.
“I’m excited to commit $100M to funding to @MiamiDadeCounty, FL in @USDOT funding to connect fast-growing communities through state-of-the-art transit service!” Trump wrote in one of a series of 10 tweets on May 28 that announced each area’s award separately. “Fast, safe, and beautiful infrastructure!”
The Miami award covers a bus rapid transit line in the South Dade area. Trump also committed to funding BRT segments in Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Albany, Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, and Ogden, Utah. Light rail links in Portland and Phoenix also got an award announcement via tweet, as did a commuter rail line between Chicago and South Bend, Indiana.
Leaders in several of these communities welcomed the announcements, which appeared to be a high-profile gesture of White House support for public transportation at a time when transit agencies have been hard hit by coronavirus-related ridership and revenue challenges. “It will bring much needed transit relief to communities ranging from Florida City to Kendall, & we hope to have it running in the next couple of years,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez wrote on Twitter on Thursday. In the Phoenix area, Valley Metro spokesperson Madeline Phipps said that “the federal government’s continued support of public transportation ensures that a multi-modal transportation network in Maricopa County is viable for future generations and can support the million more people expected in this region in the years to come.”
But the news did not exactly come as a surprise: All these transit projects were rated highly by the Federal Transit Administration on a list of capital investment grant projects, the funding for which is largely pre-approved by Congress. This would generally mean their funding was all but assured, said Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at Eno Center for Transportation. In other words, the tweets amount to an unusual announcement of a normal transaction by a functioning federal agency. Barring some unexpected problem, the cities and counties receiving these grants expected and have planned on receiving this federal support, after a multi-year process of competing for it.
“All that is happening is the administration is moving money that has already been appropriated for the CIG program from the ‘unallocated’ category to the ‘allocated’ category, which happens all the time, throughout the year,” said Davis.
Final steps, such as negotiating grant agreements and payment schedules, still await and may still take months. “Even with the announcement, the money is not technically in their accounts yet,” said Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Center.
A number of transportation policy experts said that they viewed the Trump tweets more as political theater than a sign of meaningful infrastructure progress: The announcements came on the same day that the president acknowledged a grim milestone in the coronavirus pandemic’s death toll, which recently crossed 100,000. “He’s just trying to look like he’s doing something,” said Kevin DeGood, the director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress.
The political demography of many of the states receiving funds also caught some attention, with a few Twitter users calling the announcements “swing state bribery” and “pork barrel spending.” But while many of the grantees may sit in Republican-leaning states, they will also serve solidly blue cities. The political constituency for public transit in general leans heavily Democratic, while many GOP-aligned groups are known for their aversion to the concept. For example, a failed attempt to halt Phoenix’s light rail expansion in 2019 was funded in part by the conservative Arizona Free Enterprise Club and a city councilmember who is a strong supporter of the president.
Trump’s announcement comes after another flurry of FTA awards in February. That represented a departure from years of unusual delays on FTA grants under the Trump administration. Other projects that are due funding are still waiting for it, according to the think tank Transportation For America.
Meanwhile, roads and highways have received a much larger share of annual transportation spending since President Barack Obama left office. And Trump has consistently tried to cut overall funding for the U.S. Department of Transportation since he entered office.
“Watch what they do, not what they tweet,” said David Bragdon, the executive director of the think tank TransitCenter. “His regime has been relentlessly opposed to transit but Congress appropriates money for it over his objections.”
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We have heard for too long that there is no true solution to homelessness, with excuse after excuse on why we just can’t do it. Well, guess what? During this pandemic — in many places — homelessness reforms that were long deemed implausible are happening, if only temporarily.
Over the last two months, cities have been showing just what it takes to expand capacity and safely house the homeless.
Winter shelters have remained opened, public property has been converted to shelters, housing navigation teams have expanded, more public-private partnerships have been established, hygiene and sanitation services have increased, and eviction moratoriums have been put into place. It is fitting that such an all-hands-on-deck response would come during a global pandemic, especially as Covid-19 can spread rapidly when people live in close quarters in shelters or on the streets. But for so many people sleeping rough on the streets of America, they face a crisis every day.
We need to explore which of these actions have been effective so we can make progress on permanent solutions to homelessness. This crisis has exposed the inextricable relationship between housing and health, and that connection will remain important long after lockdowns lift.
First and foremost, racial equity can no longer be optional: It must be an imperative. Covid-19 shines an even brighter light on the disparities in health and medical care for African Americans. Prior to the pandemic, communities of color were disproportionately represented in the homeless population. African Americans are 13% of the population, but represent more than 40% of the homeless, and America’s Latinx population represents 22% of the homeless versus 18% of the country. None of this information is new, and neither is institutional and structural racism.
Historically, housing has been riddled with remnants of redlining, racialized covenants, displacements and predatory inclusion. For policymakers to equitably assist individuals and families experiencing homelessness, embedding racial equity into housing policy cannot be seen as optional.
At the onset of this crisis, Minneapolis’ city council passed a resolution to put a racial equity lens on the city’s response and mitigation efforts to Covid-19. Initiatives that have come out of this approach include an Emergency Mental Health Fund, which provides resources to communities affected by coronavirus trauma, and a program for residents to observe Ramadan while maintaining social distancing. Other cities have created special coronavirus task forces focused on equity and racial disparities, including New York City and Oakland, in conjunction with regional leaders.
Second, we must recognize the link between housing and health in our policymaking. Safe, affordable housing — and conditions in neighborhoods surrounding a house — influence the health of individuals and families. It is because of this inextricable connection that we have historically seen major housing policy reform grow out of health crises.
Over the last two months, cities that recognize this relationship have secured housing for the homeless by procuring shelters, hotels, trailers and college dormitories. Baltimore provided hotel and motel vouchers. Chicago and Detroit added shelter capacity by partnering with local community-based organizations. Sacramento received RV-style trailers from California. If space has not been available, cities have been deploying hygiene stations in encampments and continuing to grant access to public restrooms.
Cities have also stepped up with policies to prevent new homelessness. In April, San Antonio, Charlotte and Boston created rental relief programs. Dallas, San Jose and Los Angeles developed ordinances preventing evictions during the pandemic. San Diego has not only provided shelters, but it is providing incentives to landlords who rent their units to homeless individuals.
Regional approaches have also taken center stage, providing and stretching resources for cities to do their job. In Washington, Seattle and King County worked together to expand homelessness services, and in Oregon, Portland and Multnomah County are doing the same. These regional approaches have seen an increased share of shelters, beds, hygiene stations, and motel vouchers made available to individuals experiencing homelessness.
After the crisis, regionalism should continue to be a source of strength in homelessness policies. State and federal officials have also been critical allies during this time, and this must continue.
California has been a leader. In April, Governor Gavin Newsom launched Project Roomkey, an initiative to secure 15,000 hotel and motel rooms to house the homeless and protect them from Covid-19 spread. An unprecedented initiative funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Project Roomkey provides local governments with an up to 75% cost-share reimbursement for rooms, and this includes wraparound services such as health care. In Massachusetts, the state has established isolation and recovery sites, supported families in need of emergency assistance in domestic violence shelters, and provided additional funding to ensure individuals and families experiencing homelessness are protected and housed.
At the federal level, there is always more that can be done, but the CARES Act gave local and state governments $5 billion dollars in Community Development Block Grants and $4 billion in Homeless Assistance Grants. As a result, local governments — in the short term — have been able to increase support for individuals and families experiencing homelessness through emergency rent payments, rapid re-housing, homelessness prevention, and shelter operations.
The National League of Cities campaign “Cities are Essential” is calling for $500 billion in direct support to cities of all sizes over these next two years to make sure we can support the people who live in our cities, including our homeless residents. City leaders are on the front lines of the response to this pandemic and there is an urgent need to provide necessary support to cities — currently facing an unprecedented fiscal cliff — and to the more than 200 million Americans, both housed and unhoused, who are our friends, family, and neighbors.
This crisis has made it mandatory for cities to find safe and quality housing for individuals experiencing homelessness. As cities begin to reopen, they will need a continued strong partnership with federal and state governments to create sustainable pathways for the homeless to become permanently housed. While the pandemic will recede, it has made clearer what has been true all along: We are all in this together, and we are all better off when people have a place to call home.
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Dennis Schvejda, a landlord who owns two apartment buildings with 16 units in Walton, New York, was worried going into May. His tenants are of modest means; rents at his units average about $550 a month. After expenses — which include maintenance and utilities as well as county, town and village taxes — his taxable apartment income is about $115 a week, he says. With the U.S. facing
Tenants and landlords alike worried about how they would survive over the last two months. After the pandemic brutalized the economy in March, the April rent loomed like a slow-rolling disaster, and indeed, at the end of the first week, nearly one-third of apartment renters had not paid the rent. By the end of the month, however, the situation had improved to almost normal conditions.
What will the next two months bring? Across the country, states are taking action to compel people to return to work or lose their unemployment benefits. Georgia’s order to return to work prompted Democratic state lawmakers to object to what they perceived as a scheme by the governor to shuttle workers off the state’s unemployment rolls. Ohio made this project unambiguous by setting up a web portal where employers can report employees who quit or refuse to work due to Covid-19 fears. Some people face the prospect of being forced to return to work before they even received any unemployment pay.
Adrien Love, a landlord who owns 13 single-family rental homes just outside of Orlando, Florida, worries that May will end up worse than April in part because the state has made it so difficult for people to claim assistance. Most of his tenants are gig workers, with jobs that depend on Disney World and other attractions being packed with happy tourists. Even as much of the state is reopening this weekend — but not Disney — some of his tenants have’t seen any state or federal relief whatsoever.
Love says he’s working with his tenants but that he’s worried about his maintenance costs. “It’s starting to get hot here. If an AC unit goes down in Florida, it’s not like in San Diego. You can’t just open the windows,” he says. “The economy can’t get better if the landlords don’t get paid. We’ll end up with a dilapidated housing market.”
Momentum is building around a bill that would authorize $100 billion for rental aid for low-income households who are most at risk of losing their homes. California Representative Maxine Waters, Washington Representative Denny Heck, and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown formally introduced the Emergency Rental Assistance and Rental Market Stabilization Act on Friday. So far, the bill has picked up 131 cosponsors in the House and 25 cosponsors in the Senate. Polling by left-leaning Data for Progress finds that 80% of voters would support a program that provides direct assistance to tenants for the duration of the emergency.
“Government officials at the federal, state, and local levels are engaged in action on a variety of fronts to address housing precarity. None are adequate,” writes Rachel D. Godsil, a professor at Rutgers Law School and director of research and co-founder for the Perception Institute, in an April paper. “Even plans with the best of intentions only defer the problem.”
The Trump administration, however, is pledging that no more federal pandemic assistance is coming any time soon. The $600-per-week federal boost to unemployment benefits expires in July, which means that in August many workers who are fortunate to receive unemployment will no longer be able to afford the rent. In addition, the federal ban on evictions for properties that are federally backed lifts in July. Cities and states that have passed their own eviction moratoriums may run longer — although protections in some states are already beginning to expire.
Over the past two months, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. ballooned from a few thousand to nearly 1.3 million. The damage that the economy has sustained as a result is only now coming into view, even as some parts of the country hasten to reopen. The U.S. might still be in the early stages of its Covid-19 housing crisis, with stimulus and unemployment measures, along with a host of other emergency tenant protections, working to keep most households from falling into financial disaster.
Luckily, those guardrails appear to be holding. But they may not be around much longer.
“I’m leery of how quickly we’re reopening,” Love says. “The tenants and us are in it together. I’ve had some tenants who are still waiting for something to happen. April’s gone, and they’re still waiting for unemployment.”
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