Crisis funding for public parks

I spoke last week to Adrian Benepe, former commissioner for the NYC Parks Department and currently the Senior Vice President and Director of National Programs at The Trust for Public Land.

We discussed a lot of things – the increased use of parks in the era of COVID-19, the role parks have historically played – and currently play – in citizens’ first amendment right to free speech and protests, access & equity for underserved communities, the coming budget shortfalls and how they might play out in park systems.

I wanted to pull out the discussion we had about funding for parks and share Adrian’s thoughts with all of you, as I think it will be most timely and valuable as we move forward with new budgets and new realities.

Powered by WPeMatico

How to Head Off a Coronavirus Housing Crisis

Debates about the U.S. housing crisis feel like they happened years ago; the housing plans of the Democratic presidential candidates are now artifacts from another era. The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically upended the status of millions of Americans, who may not have a plan for paying the rent in April or going forward. But those campaign schemes, full of what were once thought experiments about boosting aid for struggling households, could be roadmaps that help current leaders find the way out of this new catastrophe.

Some of those campaign ideas came from Julián Castro, whose safety net–focused presidential bid ended in January. Castro, the ex-secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama and former mayor of San Antonio, proposed a number of ideas to improve the security for America’s most vulnerable households. Most notably, he suggested expanding the Housing Choice Voucher program, which provides rental aid to low-income households, as a fully funded federal entitlement for every eligible adult in America.

The vouchers program (better known as Section 8) is now under tremendous strain, even as the pandemic compounds the housing crunch for low-income renters. HUD and other federal agencies are taking steps to provide relief to renters and homeowners, but other tools at the federal government’s disposal, including the Disaster Housing Assistance Program, are still pending a major disaster declaration from the White House and coordination with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

CityLab spoke with Castro about what to do to make sure that the most vulnerable families are able to keep their homes as the U.S. tries to weather the pandemic by sheltering in place.

As you’ve seen in Texas and around the country, the pandemic has had an incredible, devastating impact on the service industry and other sectors. This is making people very fearful about how they’re going to survive, and how they’re going to pay the rent. How do you see this pandemic response shaping a housing dynamic that was already an affordability crisis?

What’s been revealed here in a very poignant and powerful way are the gaps that exist for so many Americans out there. How close so many people are to falling into poverty, and for those who are in poverty, how vulnerable they are to a shift in their circumstances like this. One of the things we proposed was to make the Housing Choice Voucher program an entitlement program. We also called for, and I know [New Jersey Senator Cory Booker] and [California Senator Kamala Harris] called for, a refundable renters’ tax credit as well. That could be distributed on a monthly basis for renters, so that it could help them as the rents go up in communities across the country — or in situations like this, where you have unforeseen circumstances that are stressful for the tenant and the landlord.

I was pleased to see what HUD did the other day in terms of its announcement on evictions and so forth, but they’re going to end up having to go further than that. In the long term, we’re going to need to invest in a Housing Choice Voucher system that is much more robust. We need to invest in more public housing. We scaled back our commitment from public housing many years ago. I thought before this, and I said this when I was HUD secretary, that we need to be moving in the opposite direction. Having a strong, widespread supply of well-placed public housing not only allows for more stability every day in American communities, but also better response in moments like this.

What are some of the ways HUD could go further to meet this crisis?

It’s going to need to go further in terms of the timeline. It’s clear that the time horizon we’re looking at will be longer than [through the end of April]. Schools are looking at being closed longer than that. We’re seeing unemployment claims skyrocket. I don’t think this challenge is going to be done by the end of April. I also think they need to do everything they can to provide more direct relief to renters. And also to landlords participating in the Housing Choice Voucher program.

Frankly, there are advantages, but there are weaknesses to relying on the private sector to provide what is essentially subsidized housing. You’re going to get a lot of these landlords who, when that tenant may not be able to produce the other part of the rent, they’re going to look at evicting them. Now, when HUD comes down on them, you can’t evict them, you’re going to see a lot of people saying, “Well then, you know what, I’m out of the program.” That’s a weakness of the program. They’re going to need to figure out a way both to support those renters and also keep the number of landlords participating in the program as high as they possibly can. There’s going to be stress on both parts.

I also believe that HUD needs to work to make sure that residents, particularly in Section 202 and Section 811 housing, are as safe as possible. [Section 202 provides supportive low-income housing for the elderly; Section 811 serves people with disabilities.] You have a tremendous number of vulnerable communities out there — residents who are older, residents who are disabled — in public housing complexes. I haven’t seen a comprehensive plan on how they’re dealing with that. We have something like 3,300 housing authorities across the United States. I don’t believe that we can leave it up to 3,300 housing authorities to make sure these residents are as safe as possible. We need a strong federal government response directing that.

Could you briefly describe the dynamic with Housing Choice Vouchers? What happens to voucher holders when their income falls?

The Housing Choice Voucher program includes a requirement that the voucher holder pay a certain amount of their income in rent. They’re a participant in paying the rent. The question is, what will happen when they don’t have that income to pay along with their voucher? [HUD] can restrict evictions, whether in public housing or in Housing Choice Voucher housing, but you’re going to get a lot of landlords eventually resisting that and seeking to evict tenants who don’t have the full amount of rent. That’s a problem.

So what the federal government is going to need to do is robustly address and help everyday Americans who are tenants — but also find a way to buck up the landlords, so they don’t flee the program, either immediately or on June 1 or on July 15. Let’s say that we get past this crisis. What you may have are a lot of landlords who say, “You know what, I’m not going to go through that again. I’m out of the program.” There’s a danger there, not only during this crisis, but over the next year or so, of landlords leaving the program.

Somebody might argue that for landlords, it actually is better because the federal government right now, in what could become a shaky housing market, is actually the most reliable renter, so to speak. Part of that is true. But that’s not the entire story.

So in order to just maintain the status quo for current voucher holders, to say nothing of the millions of people who are eligible for vouchers but don’t receive them, the federal government is going to have to boost the value of vouchers?

They’re going to have to ensure that renters are taken care of in terms of being able to fully pay the rent. Of course that voucher amount that is already paid to landlords is an important component of that. The ability of those renters to pay their portion is also an important part. You could control that with a rule on no evictions, for a while. But what happens when a landlord says, “Well, then I don’t want to participate in the program?” What HUD needs to do is address the short-term and the long-term consequences of this tremendous uncertainty.

In order to make landlords whole, to make renters able to pay their rent — what’s the best way for the federal government to do this? Is it sending checks? Could the vouchers themselves be expanded to help struggling renters?

They have it within their power [at HUD] to address these issues. What it takes is the resources and a strong coordinated administrative effort. In some ways, the Housing Choice Voucher program is a very easy program to address this kind of emergency situation. You already have the administrative relationship with those landlords. You already have the administrative relationship with those tenants. What the system is going to require is more investment during this crisis, and then also a management of those relationships between landlords and tenants after the crisis, so you don’t have a bunch of landlords exiting the program. I absolutely believe that, in terms of managing the status quo, it’s utilizing the existing administrative relationships and putting more resources into them.

And then, for the future, as soon as the federal government can, they should do something like an entitlement program based off the Housing Choice Voucher program as well as use our tax code for a refundable renters’ tax credit. That would help people who are not in the system, everyday renters, who have a hard time as rents skyrocket across the country.

Do you think those approaches — expanding housing vouchers and launching a monthly renters tax credit — could be easier or more effective than introducing a basic income? The proposal for direct cash payments might miss households who are extremely low income and don’t file federal income taxes, for example.

It’s going to take a combination of those things. They’re not mutually exclusive. This is absolutely unprecedented in America’s history. We’ve certainly had times of crisis. And sacrifice. World War II comes to mind. We’ve had natural disasters and other types of emergencies. But I don’t believe we’ve seen something this widespread that’s going to have potentially the health impact and certainly the economic impact that coronavirus is going to have. It requires creativity. It requires going beyond the bounds of what we normally do.

This idea goes beyond the bounds of what we normally do: A lot of people ask, why can’t we just suspend rent? And suspend mortgage payments, too? A rent jubilee or holiday, when those payments aren’t due — is that a good idea?

Of course it may become necessary during an absolute crisis as this thing develops. We’re in uncharted waters right now. Would I keep that on the table? Yeah. We have to address that just as we make sure that everyone has a safe decent place to live. The government has to step in and make sure that’s possible. Is it possible to halt all mortgages, all evictions? I believe that’s possible, but it would require a tremendous amount of backing and investment by the federal government, too.

What concerns me is that for the last 40 years, more or less, this notion that smaller government is better has progressed in our society. We’re seeing some real concrete downsides of that during this crisis.

What next steps do you hope to see from government at the local, state, and federal level?

Locally, it’s about making sure that the basic needs of people are being met. For instance, for public utilities, putting a moratorium on disconnections. Making sure the housing authority at the local level is doing its part to stop eviction. It’s all about the basic needs. They are the frontline providers for so many basic needs. I told the mayor in San Antonio the other day, I think you should get together the public utilities and have a press conference and address what each is doing to take care of people at this time.

As you go up to the state level, then you get to a more global response. I think a lot of things they’re doing in California will work for other states. States have a greater role on issues like affordable housing, paid sick leave, and small business grants.

On the federal level, I completely disagree with Trump and this statement he made, that the federal government is “not a shipping clerk.” The federal government has the greatest resources and the ability to marshal expertise from around the world and deploy those ideas to generate economic stimulus and deliver health resources. We need a sober and methodical approach that’s lacking.

Powered by WPeMatico

How to Head Off a Coronavirus Housing Crisis

Debates about the U.S. housing crisis feel like they happened years ago; the housing plans of the Democratic presidential candidates are now artifacts from another era. The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically upended the status of millions of Americans, who may not have a plan for paying the rent in April or going forward. But those campaign schemes, full of what were once thought experiments about boosting aid for struggling households, could be roadmaps that help current leaders find the way out of this new catastrophe.

Some of those campaign ideas came from Julián Castro, whose safety net–focused presidential bid ended in January. Castro, the ex-secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama and former mayor of San Antonio, proposed a number of ideas to improve the security for America’s most vulnerable households. Most notably, he suggested expanding the Housing Choice Voucher program, which provides rental aid to low-income households, as a fully funded federal entitlement for every eligible adult in America.

The vouchers program (better known as Section 8) is now under tremendous strain, even as the pandemic compounds the housing crunch for low-income renters. HUD and other federal agencies are taking steps to provide relief to renters and homeowners, but other tools at the federal government’s disposal, including the Disaster Housing Assistance Program, are still pending a major disaster declaration from the White House and coordination with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

CityLab spoke with Castro about what to do to make sure that the most vulnerable families are able to keep their homes as the U.S. tries to weather the pandemic by sheltering in place.

As you’ve seen in Texas and around the country, the pandemic has had an incredible, devastating impact on the service industry and other sectors. This is making people very fearful about how they’re going to survive, and how they’re going to pay the rent. How do you see this pandemic response shaping a housing dynamic that was already an affordability crisis?

What’s been revealed here in a very poignant and powerful way are the gaps that exist for so many Americans out there. How close so many people are to falling into poverty, and for those who are in poverty, how vulnerable they are to a shift in their circumstances like this. One of the things we proposed was to make the Housing Choice Voucher program an entitlement program. We also called for, and I know [New Jersey Senator Cory Booker] and [California Senator Kamala Harris] called for, a refundable renters’ tax credit as well. That could be distributed on a monthly basis for renters, so that it could help them as the rents go up in communities across the country — or in situations like this, where you have unforeseen circumstances that are stressful for the tenant and the landlord.

I was pleased to see what HUD did the other day in terms of its announcement on evictions and so forth, but they’re going to end up having to go further than that. In the long term, we’re going to need to invest in a Housing Choice Voucher system that is much more robust. We need to invest in more public housing. We scaled back our commitment from public housing many years ago. I thought before this, and I said this when I was HUD secretary, that we need to be moving in the opposite direction. Having a strong, widespread supply of well-placed public housing not only allows for more stability every day in American communities, but also better response in moments like this.

What are some of the ways HUD could go further to meet this crisis?

It’s going to need to go further in terms of the timeline. It’s clear that the time horizon we’re looking at will be longer than [through the end of April]. Schools are looking at being closed longer than that. We’re seeing unemployment claims skyrocket. I don’t think this challenge is going to be done by the end of April. I also think they need to do everything they can to provide more direct relief to renters. And also to landlords participating in the Housing Choice Voucher program.

Frankly, there are advantages, but there are weaknesses to relying on the private sector to provide what is essentially subsidized housing. You’re going to get a lot of these landlords who, when that tenant may not be able to produce the other part of the rent, they’re going to look at evicting them. Now, when HUD comes down on them, you can’t evict them, you’re going to see a lot of people saying, “Well then, you know what, I’m out of the program.” That’s a weakness of the program. They’re going to need to figure out a way both to support those renters and also keep the number of landlords participating in the program as high as they possibly can. There’s going to be stress on both parts.

I also believe that HUD needs to work to make sure that residents, particularly in Section 202 and Section 811 housing, are as safe as possible. [Section 202 provides supportive low-income housing for the elderly; Section 811 serves people with disabilities.] You have a tremendous number of vulnerable communities out there — residents who are older, residents who are disabled — in public housing complexes. I haven’t seen a comprehensive plan on how they’re dealing with that. We have something like 3,300 housing authorities across the United States. I don’t believe that we can leave it up to 3,300 housing authorities to make sure these residents are as safe as possible. We need a strong federal government response directing that.

Could you briefly describe the dynamic with Housing Choice Vouchers? What happens to voucher holders when their income falls?

The Housing Choice Voucher program includes a requirement that the voucher holder pay a certain amount of their income in rent. They’re a participant in paying the rent. The question is, what will happen when they don’t have that income to pay along with their voucher? [HUD] can restrict evictions, whether in public housing or in Housing Choice Voucher housing, but you’re going to get a lot of landlords eventually resisting that and seeking to evict tenants who don’t have the full amount of rent. That’s a problem.

So what the federal government is going to need to do is robustly address and help everyday Americans who are tenants — but also find a way to buck up the landlords, so they don’t flee the program, either immediately or on June 1 or on July 15. Let’s say that we get past this crisis. What you may have are a lot of landlords who say, “You know what, I’m not going to go through that again. I’m out of the program.” There’s a danger there, not only during this crisis, but over the next year or so, of landlords leaving the program.

Somebody might argue that for landlords, it actually is better because the federal government right now, in what could become a shaky housing market, is actually the most reliable renter, so to speak. Part of that is true. But that’s not the entire story.

So in order to just maintain the status quo for current voucher holders, to say nothing of the millions of people who are eligible for vouchers but don’t receive them, the federal government is going to have to boost the value of vouchers?

They’re going to have to ensure that renters are taken care of in terms of being able to fully pay the rent. Of course that voucher amount that is already paid to landlords is an important component of that. The ability of those renters to pay their portion is also an important part. You could control that with a rule on no evictions, for a while. But what happens when a landlord says, “Well, then I don’t want to participate in the program?” What HUD needs to do is address the short-term and the long-term consequences of this tremendous uncertainty.

In order to make landlords whole, to make renters able to pay their rent — what’s the best way for the federal government to do this? Is it sending checks? Could the vouchers themselves be expanded to help struggling renters?

They have it within their power [at HUD] to address these issues. What it takes is the resources and a strong coordinated administrative effort. In some ways, the Housing Choice Voucher program is a very easy program to address this kind of emergency situation. You already have the administrative relationship with those landlords. You already have the administrative relationship with those tenants. What the system is going to require is more investment during this crisis, and then also a management of those relationships between landlords and tenants after the crisis, so you don’t have a bunch of landlords exiting the program. I absolutely believe that, in terms of managing the status quo, it’s utilizing the existing administrative relationships and putting more resources into them.

And then, for the future, as soon as the federal government can, they should do something like an entitlement program based off the Housing Choice Voucher program as well as use our tax code for a refundable renters’ tax credit. That would help people who are not in the system, everyday renters, who have a hard time as rents skyrocket across the country.

Do you think those approaches — expanding housing vouchers and launching a monthly renters tax credit — could be easier or more effective than introducing a basic income? The proposal for direct cash payments might miss households who are extremely low income and don’t file federal income taxes, for example.

It’s going to take a combination of those things. They’re not mutually exclusive. This is absolutely unprecedented in America’s history. We’ve certainly had times of crisis. And sacrifice. World War II comes to mind. We’ve had natural disasters and other types of emergencies. But I don’t believe we’ve seen something this widespread that’s going to have potentially the health impact and certainly the economic impact that coronavirus is going to have. It requires creativity. It requires going beyond the bounds of what we normally do.

This idea goes beyond the bounds of what we normally do: A lot of people ask, why can’t we just suspend rent? And suspend mortgage payments, too? A rent jubilee or holiday, when those payments aren’t due — is that a good idea?

Of course it may become necessary during an absolute crisis as this thing develops. We’re in uncharted waters right now. Would I keep that on the table? Yeah. We have to address that just as we make sure that everyone has a safe decent place to live. The government has to step in and make sure that’s possible. Is it possible to halt all mortgages, all evictions? I believe that’s possible, but it would require a tremendous amount of backing and investment by the federal government, too.

What concerns me is that for the last 40 years, more or less, this notion that smaller government is better has progressed in our society. We’re seeing some real concrete downsides of that during this crisis.

What next steps do you hope to see from government at the local, state, and federal level?

Locally, it’s about making sure that the basic needs of people are being met. For instance, for public utilities, putting a moratorium on disconnections. Making sure the housing authority at the local level is doing its part to stop eviction. It’s all about the basic needs. They are the frontline providers for so many basic needs. I told the mayor in San Antonio the other day, I think you should get together the public utilities and have a press conference and address what each is doing to take care of people at this time.

As you go up to the state level, then you get to a more global response. I think a lot of things they’re doing in California will work for other states. States have a greater role on issues like affordable housing, paid sick leave, and small business grants.

On the federal level, I completely disagree with Trump and this statement he made, that the federal government is “not a shipping clerk.” The federal government has the greatest resources and the ability to marshal expertise from around the world and deploy those ideas to generate economic stimulus and deliver health resources. We need a sober and methodical approach that’s lacking.

Powered by WPeMatico

The NIMBYs of the Coronavirus Crisis

Last week, residents in Darien, Connecticut, a tony exurb of New York City, successfully lobbied to shut down plans for a coronavirus testing site, despite surging demand. The reason? Complaints from neighbors. As it turns out, the “Not In My Backyard” impulse to block new development — which has been implicated in the severe affordability crisis affecting cities from coast to coast — translates far too neatly into blocking certain measures needed to stop the spread of the virus.

In a similar case in Ewing, New Jersey, a local landlord issued a cease-and-desist letter to the operator of a coronavirus testing center amid complaints about congestion in the parking lot. As The Trentonian reported, one resident who wanted to be tested in order to protect his three-year-old child wasn’t subtle about how he felt about the decision: “It blows my f**king mind.”

Community resistance from neighbors of testing sites is a rerun of the fierce NIMBY reaction to potential coronavirus quarantine sites. Back in February, California began looking for a place to shelter Americans returning from abroad with the virus and settled on an isolated medical campus in Costa Mesa. But after local residents complained, city officials sought and received a court injunction to stop the project.

As the need for quarantine sites expanded, so did the NIMBY backlash. Finding sites that won’t suffer the same fate has proven to be a major hurdle as the federal government attempts to manage the crisis. Back when the focus was still on returning cruise ship passengers, officials in Alabama went to the mat to keep passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship out of a local FEMA facility, eventually forcing the federal government to scrap the plan altogether. Similar fights have played out from Seattle to San Antonio, potentially undercutting the response to the coronavirus at key early stages. As a result, the federal government largely shifted quarantining efforts to military bases, where complaining neighbors hold less sway.

Some NIMBYs have even seized on Covid-19 as a new rationale for blocking needed housing. Despite the substantial health risks of a large homeless population amid the pandemic, Queens, N.Y. council member Robert Holden renewed his push to shut down a local homeless shelter, this time citing coronavirus fears.

This peculiar alliance between the coronavirus and NIMBYism rekindles questions about who should have a say in policymaking. The people who show up to speak at public meetings are older, whiter, and more likely to own a home than the community population as a whole, as a recent study by Boston University political science professors Katherine Einstein, Maxwell Palmer and David Glick showed. This influential minority are also far more likely than most to oppose whatever is being proposed. That’s presented a major problem for building new housing, especially lower-priced rental units. But as the current crisis reveals, a system that empowers NIMBYs might also imperil our ability to respond to emergencies in a timely manner.

At first glance, it might seem like efforts to block potentially life-saving public health screenings and complaints about community character have little in common. But in both cases, the formula is the same: Whether out of an understandable fear of the unknown or a selfish desire to shift the burden elsewhere, local impulses are given veto power over broader social needs. Under normal conditions, the inability to constructively manage this means higher rents. In a public health emergency, it could be lethal.

Not every city is sitting on its hands. In February, Raleigh, North Carolina, scrapped its neighborhood councils, which had become a hotbed for housing NIMBYism, in favor of a more systematic approach to public outreach. And in Seattle, policymakers are working to transform similar local councils from angry choke points into productive forums. More cities should consider this approach, specifically as they respond to the outbreak.

There will undoubtedly be many lessons to learn from America’s botched response to the coronavirus. From the politicization of public health to the way we regulate testing kits, there will be no shortage of debate over how policy must change. But if we are going to put our cities on a firmer footing for this and the next crisis, we can’t let NIMBYs — and the institutions that empower them — off the hook.

Powered by WPeMatico

Ideas and Resources for How Cities Can Attack the COVID-19 Crisis

In Kansas City, MO: “People are coming into our office to start businesses because they don’t believe the companies they work for will make it through the COVID-19 shut down. People are preparing to have something to fall back on or are getting serious about starting their new business venture full-time due to shut downs and layoffs, or not being compensated during their quarantine.”

Meanwhile in Saint Paul, MN, staff helped to ensure that people were able to line up six feet apart when visiting the Safety and Inspections office.

As a major purchaser of goods and services, the city of Philadelphia’s procurement team is working to make sure the city contracts and purchasing needs continue in a timely manner, relaxing restrictions where necessary to respond to time-sensitive purchases.

As policy makers, service providers and employers, city governments are working around the clock to develop executive orders that provide relief and support to their residents. These efforts include convening partners to coordinate local responses and mobilizing resources for community-based organizations to mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, cities are undertaking an overwhelming effort to prevent the small businesses (businesses with fewer than 500 employees) from closing down to prevent loss of income and jobs to the 59 million Americans they employ.

While the U.S. Government’s Small Business Administration is taking measures to work directly with governors to provide targeted, low-interest disaster recovery loans to small businesses that have been severely impacted, Living Cities’ staff has been impressed with municipal efforts from around the country to support their local small businesses. From relief funds and executive orders, here is a growing list that we will update regularly and that we invite you to contribute to.

The types of support to local businesses include:

  • $500-10k grants
  • 0% interest loans
  • Commercial eviction moratorium and rent freezes
  • Waivers of late payment penalties for small businesses resulting from failure to file taxes
  • Waivers on permits and licensing fees
  • Financial support for employees
  • Deferred utility payment plans

Much more is needed. In fact, much more was always needed for businesses owned by people of color. That is why many of these relief and emergency efforts to deal with COVID-19 were already pilots implemented to support businesses owned by people of color, and in turn their employees. For example, last year in our City Accelerator, the City of Atlanta began helping business owners with downpayment assistance to manage the rising commercial real estate costs. And in New Orleans, we invested in a mobilization fund to help contractors meet payroll while waiting for payments to come in.

The impact of COVID-19 shutdowns and closures cuts deep for all, but similar to seniors and those with pre-existing conditions, for small businesses owned by people of color, COVID-19 can be fatal. And the impact on their communities can be devastating. Businesses owned by people of color, sometimes referred to as MBE (minority business enterprises) or DBEs (Disadvantaged Business Enterprises), generally tend to have smaller reserves and lines of credit. MBEs are often some of the only employers and service providers in their communities and are an important element of the value chain for larger companies. As such, they tend to be hit harder after disasters hit. FEMA estimates that nationwide, 40% of small businesses never reopen after a major disaster. Those numbers are undoubtedly much higher for businesses owned by people of color. That is why strategies need to be conscious of racial disparities that existed before the pandemic.

There are lots of terrific recommendations on how we can mitigate the expected record levels of unemployment, abandoned commercial properties, and reduced availability of products and services. And most of them are race neutral. But what if local governments:

  • Contracted with local firms owned by people of color that provide direct services in support of emergency relief efforts?

  • Provided technical assistance to help businesses make quick pivots on the line of products and services they develop or sell? For example, a rum distillery in Puerto Rico has shifted its production to making rubbing alcohol and a Long Beach distillery is making hand sanitizers.

  • Maintained commercial leases through payment freezes for up to 18 months for businesses without capital reserves or strong personal/business credit?

  • In addition to commercial and residential rent freezes, partnered with banks to provide mortgage relief for business owners who use their homes as equity?

  • Provided free childcare to health care workers, essential City employees, grocery store and restaurant workers similar to Sacramento’s efforts for first responders and essential workers?

The following measures are devoted to restaurants, as they are owned by, managed by or employ a significant number of people of color and are amongst the hardest hit industries due to social distancing enforcement:

  • Free or relaxed on-street parking rules and regulations to help food establishments accommodate curbside pick-up like in Memphis.

  • Delayed or cancelled monthly meal taxes that restaurants owe to state and local governments, such as Massachusetts has.

  • Waived zoning or permit restrictions to allow restaurants to temporarily offer an alternative to overcrowded supermarkets.

Many city governments had begun to step up to shore up enterprises owned by people of color through increased procurement, investment and policy-making before the pandemic. This crisis is an opportunity for local leaders and public servants to disrupt inequities by intentionally reducing the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color. See the NAACP’s Policy Recommendations to temper the impact of the pandemic on communities of color and their Action Tool Kit.

I have been repeating these words of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks a lot these past few weeks, “we are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” While local governments are appropriately focused on implementing emergency measures, Living Cities remains a partner by serving as a national resource and connector to local governments, as we lay the foundation for the Closing the Gaps Network to welcome cities committed to addressing the racial income and wealth gaps exacerbated by the pandemic.

Rod Miller contributed to this piece. He is author of an upcoming guide for public sector practitioners based on what we learned by working with five cities in our City Accelerator on Local Business and Job Growth. It contains tactical approaches, tools, tips and metrics and lessons learned for city governments seeking solutions to support local, diverse businesses.

Powered by WPeMatico

Where Inmates Are Getting Bailed Out in the Coronavirus Crisis

In normal times, jails and prisons are uniquely well-suited for spreading communicable diseases. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, dozens of cities and counties have worked to reduce the number of inmates cycling in and out. Many plan to release inmates and suspend prosecution for mostly nonviolent crimes.

And yet, in places including New Orleans, one of the most heavily incarcerated cities in the world, local prosecutors have refused calls to take the steps that could avert a catastrophe outbreak. The New Orleans district attorney, backed by the city’s mayor and police superintendent, is opposing any blanket policy that would release inmates — even if it would mean mitigating a coronavirus outbreak — arguing in court filings that such a measure could spread the disease to the general public.

That view is not shared across many other major cities. In Baltimore, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has halted prosecutions for all drug, prostitution, and even public urination offenses.

“Now is not the time for a piecemeal approach where we go into court and argue one by one for the release of at-risk individuals,” wrote Mosby to her staff, The Baltimore Sun reported.

Mosby also joined 30 other state’s attorneys, district attorneys, and attorneys general from jurisdictions across every U.S. region, including Hawaii, in calling for prosecutors to cease indictments and release inmates deemed nonthreatening to society. These include people charged with low-level crimes such as drug offenses, shoplifting, and driving without a license; and many who haven’t yet been convicted of anything.

The law enforcement officials signed on to a joint statement laying out rights and responsibilities for people who are in custody. The statement asks that jails stop admitting and detaining people, including immigrants and those who are undocumented, if they don’t pose a “serious risk to the physical safety” of communities. They also are asking that each inmate has access to quality health care and free phone calls to family and counsel, especially for sick and solitary confined.   

This is an agenda that most prosecutors can’t adopt on their own. “Every jurisdiction is different in terms of what the prosecutor controls or what the sheriffs or judges control,” said Miriam Krinsky, executive director of the organization Fair and Just Prosecution, which organized the statement. But, Krinsky says, “they are all working with their police chiefs, other criminal justice and public health leaders to navigate through the various categories of crimes and penalties to implement the recommendations that the joint statement raised.”

The coalition warns that the chronic overcrowding that regularly takes place in jails, state prisons, and ICE detention centers could lead to a coronavirus outbreak that “would potentially be catastrophic,” given many of these custodial facilities have already failed to contain the spread of less fatal disease outbreaks.

If these facilities become breeding grounds for the coronavirus, it will not only impact those incarcerated, but our entire community. Jails and prisons cycle large numbers of people in and out of close, unsanitary quarters on a daily basis. … People leave immigration detention and return to communities in the US or to vulnerable refugee shelters and encampments along the border. All of these facilities rely on services and support from vendors and medical professionals, employ staff who come and go, and appropriately provide access for legal counsel and family members to visit.  

Medical experts have been raising flags about the potential for a prison-based coronavirus catastrophe since the outbreak started.

“The way jails and prisons are designed and administered promotes the spread of communicable disease,” former NYC Correctional Health Services chief medical officer Dr. Homer Venters told the Brennan Center for Justice. “Generally speaking, these are unsanitary settings, and there is not ample access to handwashing. Most of the terms that we have learned in the last few days, like social distancing and self-quarantine, are completely not applicable in these settings.”

Among the signers of the letter are San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot, Durham County (North Carolina) District Attorney Satana Deberry, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. These are mostly prosecutors who’ve made names for themselves by pushing for policies that would reduce arrests and incarceration.

However, they don’t represent the only cities adopting decarceration and prosecution-suspending practices. In Brooklyn, District Attorney Eric Gonzalez announced that his office will stop prosecuting low-level offenses. Seattle District Attorney Dan Satterberg said on Twitter that he’ll file “only priority in-custody violent crimes” for the next two weeks, after which he would file motions to continue arraignment for other felonies for 30 days.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle announced this week that she would begin “to develop a process to release misdemeanor & nonviolent felons,” but only after her primary rival and a slew of criminal justice reform activists pushed her to do so. In Pittsburgh, District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. is acquiescing to demands from the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration and the Abolition Law Center to release certain inmates from the county jail.

Meanwhile, local jails in Chicago, Louisville, Austin, Virginia Beach, and Omaha have all begun releasing nonviolent offenders and pre-trial detainees. An even longer list of local and federal court systems have postponed pending trials until further notice.

One place that’s not seeing a ton of action is in Mississippi, the site of several uprisings and deaths in recent months for reasons associated with the deplorable conditions of the state’s prison. On March 16, advocates from the Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition, the ACLU of Mississippi, and the Mississippi Center for Justice sent a letter to Governor Reeves imploring him to scale back incarceration and detention activities.

“If you have not already, we ask that you immediately reach out to the Mississippi State Department of Health (“MSDH”) to develop plans to address the virus in all Mississippi facilities that house prisoners or detainees, including Mississippi Department of Corrections facilities, county jails, and juvenile detention centers,” reads the letter. “This is an urgent matter. Having an appropriate, evidence-based plan in place can help prevent an outbreak and minimize its impact if one does occur. Not having one may cost lives.”

In New Orleans, some inmates have been released on a piecemeal basis, thanks to a campaign led in part by New Orleans’ public defenders. They have been raising money to bail out as many people as possible from jail, which is as much about reducing risks of spreading coronavirus as it is about implementing reforms that they have been working towards for years. They have also been arguing on a case-by-case basis in court that particular defendants should be released due to the coronavirus. But none of these efforts have been sufficient to release as many people as could be released by adopting policy changes like the ones called for in the joint statement — a step Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizaro has been unwilling to take.

“It is disheartening that the Orleans Public Defenders would seek to exploit this public health emergency by asking our police and courts to turn a blind eye toward criminal conduct,” New Orleans district attorney spokesman Ken Daley told Nola.com. “We review bond-reduction motions on a case-by-case basis, and oppose them when appropriate in the interest of public safety. This is hardly a time to encourage lawlessness.”

Cannizaro’s office has argued in court filings that coronavirus is a reason not to release inmates, because it could perpetuate the disease’s spread to the general public, according to The Lens NOLA.

As is the case with all local jails, many of the people sitting in the Orleans Parish Prison haven’t been convicted for any crimes; they are only awaiting a hearing or arraignment. During Hurricane Katrina, inmates were also held in the jail too long, as the disaster worsened, which led to preventable deaths — or rather, mysteriously disappeared prisoners.

Speaking with inmates who were trapped there during the floods, the ACLU wrote in a report on the aftermath: “The picture that emerged from all of these accounts was one of widespread chaos, caused in large part by inadequate emergency planning and training by local officials, and of racially motivated hostility on the part of prison officials and blatant disregard for the individuals trapped in the jail.”  

The criminal justice systems in New Orleans and Mississippi now have an opportunity to not repeat the mistakes made during Hurricane Katrina. And, they now have political cover from a wider prosecutor community to change their jailing policies.

Powered by WPeMatico

How to Make a Housing Crisis

For most of American history, cities grew along a familiar pattern. Once a suburban community grew large enough, the neighboring big city would loosen its borders and swallow it up through annexation. Then in the 1950s, the developers of Lakewood, California—sometimes described as the “Levittown of the West Coast”—invented a new “municipal technology” to avoid this fate.

By contracting out vital municipal services like police, fire and sanitation to the county or private entities, the 17,500-home subdivision just outside of Long Beach was able to incorporate as a city at a significantly lower population than it otherwise would have needed. Copycat contract cities became hugely popular in the ensuing decades, forming concentric circles around old urban centers and providing suburban homeowners with the solace that, safely within their incorporated entities, they would be protected from what might euphemistically be called big-city ills.

Contract cities aren’t the first thing that come to mind for most people when they think of the affordable housing crisis that many American cities now face—these suburban communities tend not to have many homeless people or renters at risk of eviction. But in desirable regions like coastal California, contract cities have played a huge role in exacerbating housing problems outside their borders. For over half a century, they’ve been all too successful at implementing their founding mandates: preserving their physical and demographic character, and delivering consistently rising home values to homeowners.

“One of the main reasons it worked was that these cities effectively opted out of paying for expensive social services by zoning out poorer people,” New York Times economics reporter Conor Dougherty writes in Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America.

Dougherty’s new book provides a comprehensive account of the origins of California’s housing crisis, illuminating the many places where it hides in plain sight—in contract cities, in tax law, in shifting cultural trends, in structural economic transformations, as well as in the annals of policy and planning. Dougherty applies a similarly wide lens to the diverse activists who have emerged to challenge the housing status quo, leaving readers hopeful for the future of a broader housing movement—if perhaps also a bit overwhelmed by it. “There’s a lot layered on to this that has nothing to do with housing, but it’s manifesting in housing fights because of the seriousness of this issue,” he tells CityLab in a phone interview.

Golden Gates is at its best as a history, whose breadth demonstrates the impossibility of silver-bullet housing solutions. One of many counterintuitive origin points for California’s current crisis was San Francisco’s freeway revolts that began in the 1950s, when grassroots neighborhood activists successfully prevented highways from being constructed throughout most (but not all) of the city. The revolts marked the beginning of the state’s anti-growth movement, which challenged California’s longstanding growth-for-growth’s sake philosophy. That doctrine had brought “urban renewal” projects that transformed minority neighborhoods into bombed-out shells of their former selves and inspired proposals to fill in nearly the entire San Francisco Bay.

Anti-growth activism began as a close cousin of the state’s environmentalism, but as time went on, “the good intention of stopping sprawl soon became cover for stopping everything,” Dougherty writes. The broad language of the California Environmental Quality Act enabled this conceptual fudging, granting ordinary citizens the power to halt coastal subdivisions and green urban infill projects alike. As land use and planning power devolved to neighborhood groups, city governments followed their lead by “downzoning” large swaths of their land to preserve the existing urban landscape, as if it were a pristine old-growth forest.

The infamous Proposition 13, a 1978 ballot initiative that capped property taxes, meant that new housing could cost cities more in services than it would bring in through taxes. In response, cities privileged much more lucrative commercial development—setting the stage for the state’s severe jobs/housing imbalance—and tacked hefty fees on new housing construction. Combine that with flatlining productivity in the construction industry and a persistent labor shortage following the Great Recession and you get construction costs that ensure new housing is by definition luxury housing.

Meanwhile, in the depths of the 2008 foreclosure crisis, giant private equity firms snapped up tens of thousands of homes, creating a new category of renter households living month-to-month at the whim of Wall Street bottom lines. By that point, California’s once-robust tenant movement was already hobbled by laws from the 1980s and ’90s that severely limited rent control and expanded landlords’ power to evict tenants.  

These historical factors, and many more, bore down on the Bay Area right as it became the “burning-hot nucleus of some of the most epochal forces in human history” during the recent tech boom. San Francisco has gone from having a housing crisis to being a housing-crisis meme: the supercommuters, the homeless teachers, the poop on the sidewalk, not to mention the proxy housing battles over shadows, office construction, and gentrifier watering holes.

This is where Dougherty’s history crashes into the lived realities of contemporary Californians, and their fight for a better housing future. Each character or group of characters Dougherty introduces represents a possible solution to the multifaceted crisis he has laid out. Among them is Stephanie Gutierrez, a 15-year-old from Redwood City who organizes her building against a 50% rent hike. The strikers win some significant concessions, but Gutierrez and her family are ultimately forced to leave anyway, leading her into a serious bout of depression. Multiply Gutierrez’s experience by a million and you have an entire generation of Californians whose childhoods have been shaped by housing insecurity.

If Gutierrez represents tenant power—and tenant despair—Sister Christina Heltsley, whose community land trust buys market-rate housing and keeps it permanently affordable, represents the movement to get housing off of the private market. Rick Holliday, a developer who hopes to make construction more affordable by building apartments in a factory and stacking them together on site, embodies yet another solution.  

And then there are the YIMBYs, the “Yes In My Backyard” activists fighting to lower zoning and regulatory barriers to all kinds of housing—“so long as it was built tall and fast and had people living in it.” This group emerged in San Francisco in 2014, when an economics Ph.D. dropout named Sonja Trauss formed the San Francisco Bay Area Renter’s Federation (SFBARF). Using a combination of performance art-style provocations and Twitter activism, she brought legions of young, nerdy, white-collar San Franciscans to testify in favor of new housing at bone-dry planning meetings. In just a few years, the YIMBYs grew to be a powerful political movement, led by San Francisco’s state senator, Scott Wiener, who has thrice tried (and failed) to pass comprehensive statewide zoning reform.

What’s unprecedented about the YIMBYs is not their ideology, but their political power. As early as the 1970s, MIT urban planning professor Bernard Frieden made the argument that California’s growth controls, applied to wildlands and existing neighborhoods alike, would only make housing progressively more expensive. In more recent years, economist Edward Glaeser, journalist Matthew Yglesias, and others took up these ideas in light of the 21st century “urban revival,” which saw big coastal cities boom without adding commensurate housing, thus locking people out of America’s greatest engines of opportunity.

“What was interesting to me was that they were trying to create some kind of constituency around this,” Dougherty says of the YIMBYs. They upended Frieden’s notion that, unlike tenants or homeowners, the people zoned out of the housing market were “unorganized and probably unorganizable.”

Close observers of the YIMBY movement will find plenty of gossipy tidbits in Golden Gates, like the fact that Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman reached out to then-journalist Kim-Mai Cutler about starting a pro-housing political organization after reading her legendary TechCrunch manifesto, “How Burrowing Owls Lead to Vomiting Anarchists.” Cutler refused, so Stoppelman ended up giving Trauss $10,000 to “keep doing what she was doing”—seeding the YIMBY movement with capital in much the same manner that he once received his first venture funding.

The YIMBY movement’s rapid rise an ability to gain lucrative institutional backing—especially from the tech industry—has turned out to be its biggest political liability. “Encoded in that ascent was an age-old American message, which was that problems are only problems when they affect white people,” Dougherty writes. This perception issue was on vivid display when the Moms for Housing activists, a group of African-American women who drew national media attention for their occupation of a vacant home in Oakland, showed up to protest the unveiling of the latest version of SB50, Wiener’s unsuccessful zoning reform bill.

A great deal of Golden Gates is spent parsing the divide between the YIMBYs and more traditional tenant activists. It’s a divide that plays out in dramatic fashion on Twitter, and, more substantively, helps illustrate the differing priorities of people in need of immediate relief from skyrocketing rents and those fighting to address California’s extreme housing shortage. Even for those versed in the minutia of housing Twitter, it can be difficult to follow the contours of this debate across the book’s many characters and scenes. And Golden Gates’s focus on YIMBY drama takes oxygen away from other types of housing activists, namely environmentalists and urban planners, who think about housing in the context of reducing carbon emissions and congestion, protecting open space from sprawl, and redressing historic inequities between neighborhoods.

But Dougherty sees the thrust and parry of the Bay Area housing debate as the best way to dramatize a problem that resists straightforward fixes. “I thought the YIMBY movement and all the problems they were encountering—that complexity is the issue, that’s the story,” he says. Dougherty also sees a broader housing movement coalescing out of this scrum, offering “mixed solutions” that take pieces from both sides.

“Building more housing does nothing for renters being evicted today. Rent control does,” Dougherty writes. “Capping rent prices does nothing to solve the underlying problem of a housing shortage that is the root cause of displacement. Building housing does.” Dougherty sees this logic reflected in the mixed housing solutions offered by nearly all the Democratic presidential candidates, as well as recent zoning reform victories in Oregon and Minneapolis, and new rent caps in California and New York.

Even as housing becomes a more prominent national issue, and more cities across the country start encountering California-style housing problems, the Golden State is sure to remain the epicenter of the housing movement. The next few years are likely to contain enough drama for Dougherty to write a sequel. Some of the activists he follows are beginning to chip away at Prop 13 and California’s longstanding rent control restrictions. And as for those contract cities and other exclusive suburbs, Scott Wiener and his army of YIMBY activists are gearing up for round four.

“This is ultimately a book about people who show up,” Dougherty said. “Apathy is a bigger problem than somebody trying to propose a solution, getting some blowback, and altering their platform. Maybe that’s the process working.”

Powered by WPeMatico