What Redlining Had to Do With the 2008 Financial Crisis

At a Georgetown University forum in September 2008, then-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg was asked about the major economic story of the day: the roots of the exploding global financial crisis. This was the month that Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy and the federal government had placed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into conservatorship. What was behind the bust?

Bloomberg’s answer: The implosion of the nation’s housing market was the result of the prohibition of redlining, the discriminatory practice by which lenders denied African-American homebuyers access to loans in the same neighborhoods where white homeowners lived. “It all started back when there was a lot of pressure on banks to make loans to everyone,” Bloomberg said. “And once you started pushing in that direction, banks started making more and more loans where the credit of the person buying the house wasn’t as good as you would like.”

Bloomberg is now a Democratic candidate for president, and his campaign is working to reframe the former mayor’s comments, which the Associated Press resurfaced on February 12. The story arrived as Bloomberg tried to contain fallout from the revelation of a speech he made in 2015 defending the New York Police Department’s racist stop-and-frisk policy; he released a new statement apologizing for the policy on February 11. Campaign spokesperson Stu Loeser told the AP that, as mayor, Bloomberg fought predatory lending, and that as a candidate he has a plan to expand homeownership opportunities for African American buyers. CityLab reached out to the Bloomberg campaign and will update this story with any new comments.

But fair housing experts are pointing out that Bloomberg’s past understanding of the roots of the financial crisis matters a great deal now, since the next person to occupy the White House may be responsible for rewriting fair lending rules. And his comments point to enduring myths about race and responsibility—assumptions that both predate the financial crisis and persist today.

(Disclosure: CityLab was recently acquired by Bloomberg LP. Michael Bloomberg is the company’s founder and majority owner.)

“I think that Bloomberg’s comments are a kind of cynical way of shifting blame back onto communities that were most victimized by the unchecked practices within the banking and real estate industries in the late 1990s and through the early aughts until the crisis exploded,” says Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, professor at Princeton University and author of Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, in an email.

Bloomberg was hardly alone in his conviction that unqualified minority homebuyers triggered the financial crisis by being so susceptible to predatory lenders: That idea took root on Wall Street even as the meltdown was in process, according to historians.

The facts of the financial crisis, however, don’t fit an account that puts the blame on minority buyers or fair-lending reforms. More than half of the subprime mortgages originated between 1998 and 2006 were loans for refinancing, according to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a grassroots organization working to end discrimination in lending. Fewer than 10 percent of subprime loan originations went to first-time homebuyers.

“When people were looking for answers for why mortgages seemed to be falling into default at the rate they were, there were corners of the financial community that had a ready narrative about creditworthiness,” says Nathan Connolly, director of the Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship Program at Johns Hopkins University.

The foreclosure crisis dealt tremendous damage to black and Latino neighborhoods. But white investors were disproportionately responsible for foreclosures in minority neighborhoods, according to a 20112 paper from John Gilderbloom at the University of Louisville and Gregory Squires at George Washington University. Their research shows that, in Louisville, there were approximately 2,000 foreclosure sales each year in 2007 and 2008. This figure breaks down to roughly 39 foreclosures in black communities (measured as census tracts) compared to about 20 foreclosures in white communities. Yet on average, 15 of the foreclosures in black communities happened on properties owned by non-occupant white investors, while white communities saw on average just two foreclosures on investor properties.

The bipartisan U.S. Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission also concluded that fair-lending regulations were not to blame for the financial crisis (with one dissenting conservative saying otherwise). Bank of America’s then-chief executive Brian Moynihan defended fair lending law.

Still, commentators at Fox News and The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page often insisted that lax standards that encouraged uncreditworthy minority borrowers were to blame. Former presidential candidate Steve Forbes and former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey propped up an astroturfed site, AngryRenters.com, that claimed to represent the voice of renters infuriated with mortgage bailout efforts. Fox Business’s Neil Cavuto said that “loaning to minorities and risky borrowers is a disaster.”

“It was a myth that tore around the country like wildfire,” says National Community Reinvestment Coalition CEO Jesse Van Tol. “It was a myth heavily promoted by a group of fringe conservatives who wanted to promote a narrative that something other than market forces caused the financial crisis.”

The Community Reinvestment Act, the 1977 banking reform law that ended redlining, remains a target of ire among conservatives and big lending institutions. The Trump administration has proposed changes to the rule that would streamline and vastly simplify what banks are required to do in order to meet fair lending standards. Civil rights advocates warn that Treasury is designing reforms that would water down the law.

Discriminatory lending practices did not end after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, a cornerstone of civil rights law passed after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Lenders in California in the late 1970s would write “COLORED” backward on mortgage applications—“DEROLOC”—in order to flag them for denials, Connolly says. Even today, more than 40 years after the passage of the Community Reinvestment Act, black homeownership rates are dismal. African Americans have rarely had the combination of living wages and non-predatory mortgages to support homeownership.

Another related myth informs Bloomberg’s worldview, or at least as he expressed it during the financial crisis, Connolly says—that credit scores convey an objective truth about renters or owners. Here Bloomberg has an opportunity, even in light of his gaffe, to embrace policies that will undo the “mythology of credit,” he adds. (In January, Bloomberg outlined his plan to boost black homeownership in part by pushing lenders to change their credit-score models.)

In the decades that followed the end of redlining, Taylor notes, lawmakers weakened the regulations meant to protect black communities from speculation and predatory practices. That made historically marginalized communities more vulnerable to predatory practices that emerged specifically to target these renters and owners.

“All of these factors would contribute to the notion that these were places that could be considered ‘risky’ and with risk came the supposed colorblind pretext that Black buyers should be treated differently: higher interest rates, more expensive loan products and all of the other tools of what I refer to as ‘predatory inclusion’ into the conventional real estate market,” Taylor says by email.

More than a decade out from the financial crisis, myths about its cause still endure. As do myths about work, welfare, safe neighborhoods, and credit risks. Wall Street is still susceptible to many of these myths. “The notion of the undeserving poor,” says Connolly, “migrated directly into the notion of the undeserving buyer.”

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How Racism Became a Public Health Crisis in Pittsburgh

A week after Pittsburgh’s city council signed an ordinance declaring racism a public health crisis in late December, a fog began to develop over the city. Or at least, people on Twitter and Instagram thought it was a fog and began posting photos of the ethereal mist blanketing the city over the Christmas holidays. It was actually soot—particulate matter (PM) 2.5, the kind of lung-prickling pollution that used to coat the sky regularly in Pittsburgh’s steel-making heyday. Pittsburgh has been trying to scrub that reputation for decades, but here the stuff was hanging in the air again, the result of temperature inversions on an unusually warm winter week, trapping air pollutants close to the ground across the region. It lingered in the air all the way into the new year, forcing the Allegheny County Health Department to explain its presence:

We know from research that inversions are expected to get worse with climate change. … While we will continue to advocate for residents to do what they can to reduce emissions, we must also explore new regulations that would impose corrective action requirements on industry during short-term pollution events. These extended exceedances and higher pollution levels are a clear threat to the health of the county’s residents, but ACHD’s current regulations do not provide options to address this issue.

This kind of environmental distress places that “it is precisely [Towne’s] ability to pack up, write this article, and move on to the next Google-sponsored town that is the problem. Because it’s not people like Dennis who are in danger; it is the people that he steps on as he makes his exit stage right.”

Melanie Meade, a black woman who lives near one of the U.S. Steel coke plants wrote in a recent op-ed for Public Source: “While I feel like I’m fighting for our basic rights to clean air, I’m living in a city that doesn’t seem to make a big deal over the pollution and its adverse effects on children and the community, especially people of color.”

There is little language on pollution and environmental justice in the public health crisis legislation. Instead, the ordinance refers to policy agendas that emphasize economic inequities, such as enhancing home ownership and entrepreneurship-employment among Pittsburgh’s black residents. As the ordinances were debated at hearings, town halls, and city council meetings through the winter, Jamil Bey, a local black activist who is helping steer one of those foundational policy agendas, Policylink’s All-In Cities strategy, began to wonder what was going on with the “public health” part of the equation.

After all, Pittsburgh is coming off a year where the air was deemed unsafe to breathe for three months, according to a report from the Penn Environment Research and Policy Center. It’s also the year the city’s air quality was graded an “F” by the American Lung Association. Meanwhile, black babies die in the region at four times the rate of white babies, and it’s disputable whether owning more houses and businesses will change that. Allegheny County Health Department maternal and child health program manager Dannai Wilson has said that “chronic exposure to structural and institutional racism, regardless of a mother’s socioeconomic status or educational attainment” is the primary culprit for high infant mortality rates among black women.  

“On the one hand you rightly identify that this is a public health crisis, but then you mostly propose economic solutions,” said Bey, the president of the local environmental justice-focused Urbankind Institute, which is one of the partnering organizations in Policylink’s All-In Cities Pittsburgh collaborative. “If we are going to attach it to the All-In effort, a better strategy would have been to include public health officials, scholars, and advocates in the process to think about the content of the legislation before it was drafted. Nothing that you propose addresses public health.”

Even the mayor’s grip isn’t exactly the tightest on the environmental-health justice issues. Just months after voicing opposition to petrochemicals, Peduto tweeted opposition to Green New Deal legislation, saying that it doesn’t “put people first.” The Green New Deal is rare among climate-change minded proposals in its focus on prioritizing workers left behind by new economies.

Burgess, the city council member, told CityLab that while air quality and pollution are important, “public health” is defined in these ordinances according to what’s called the social determinants of health—a somewhat amorphous term that carries varying definitions depending on the source. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines them as economic stability, education, social or community context, healthcare, and neighborhood or built environment. But economic stability, says Burgess, is most critical.   

Pittsburgh has some of the lowest rates of black women participation in the labor force and black men have some of the lowest average incomes of most cities in the U.S., according to Pittsburgh’s race and gender disparity study. The Cleveland Federal Reserve reported last year that Pittsburgh experienced one the largest gaps in earnings between white and non-white workers of any major metro between 2007 and 2017. Minority earnings dropped 4 percent in that time period while earnings for white workers increased by 13 percent.

“So it’s not a policy. It’s lots of policies and lots of resources,” said Burgess of plans to address the city’s constellation of race problems.

The ordinance doesn’t yet have any funding attached. But the hope is that funding will come from nonprofits—specifically large institutions such as the University of Pittsburgh’s medical system—and private corporations. Burgess said they would also reach out to “wealthy African Americans who live in and outside of the city” to contribute.

“We didn’t get here overnight. It took hundreds of years of systemic disinvestment and redlining,” Burgess added. “Now it’s going to take us multiple years—maybe 50 to 100 years—to undo this.”

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Fix California’s Housing Crisis, Activists Say. But Which One?

The week before Thanksgiving, housing Twitter exploded. The focus of the debate: the significance of vacancy rates.

In a tweet promoting the March for Housing Now rally in Oakland, comedian Kamau Bell wrote, “We’ve been led to believe that there’s a housing crisis in Oakland. But there are 4 VACANT units for every homeless person. This isn’t a housing crisis. It’s a crisis of greed.” One of the organizations hosting that rally, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), also contributed to a report released that week called “Who’s Buying Los Angeles?” The report highlighted extremely high vacancy rates in newly constructed luxury apartments in Los Angeles.

In reponse, California’s YIMBY cohort—that’s “Yes, In My Backyard,” or housing activists focused on easing regulations on housing construction—shot back that vacancy rates are actually quite low in Oakland and across California, and that the key problem facing the state is a shortage of homes. They also highlighted methodological issues with the Los Angeles report, causing its authors to remove it from the internet pending new data.

Such spats are a semi-regular occurrence on Twitter when the topic of housing-hungry California cities comes up. Of course, off social media, the “sides” of an issue as large and complex as housing are much more amorphous, requiring a great deal of teasing out. But the fact that this particular debate erupted from the promotion of a real-life event offered a unique opportunity for at least one camp to make their case in more than 240 characters, in the actual places that are so often being argued over online.

“There’s been a lot of pushback that we’ve received about saying there’s not a housing crisis, there’s a greed crisis,” Caroll Fife, Oakland director of ACCE, told the crowd in her opening speech at the March For Housing Now on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. “We’re going to explain that a little more today.”

And explain it they did, albeit not in a way that would satisfy all of their critics. The debate about vacancy is really a debate about what kind of new housing cities are building, and what neighborhoods those homes are getting built in. It’s a dispute that illuminates the rifts in the broader housing movement in places like Oakland and Los Angeles, where an extreme affordability crisis has also spawned a complex ecosystem of activism.

The differences in perspective are not only between tenant activists, who fight to keep existing residents stably housed, and YIMBYs, who demand more housing of all kinds. It’s also between those focused on the local and the regional, the short and the long term. It’s the difference between low-income residents who’ve never been adequately served by the housing market and the young professionals who have only recently become frustrated by their inability to find homes they can afford. The movement’s success could depend on its ability to transcend these divides and build a broader coalition.

“We’ve got to break down the silos so that when we organize we can strike with one blow,” Fife said. “YIMBYs, they’re a part of our family, too, because this is a big umbrella.”

***

The starting point of the March for Housing Now was strategically selected: Oakland’s Mosswood Park sits halfway between the two rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, Uptown and Temescal. An encampment of tents lines the east side of the park, serving as a reminder of the city’s 47 percent surge in homelessness since 2017.

The rally drew a mix of members of local labor, faith, environmental, and tenant organizations, all gathering to share stories from the front lines of the Bay Area’s housing and homelessness crisis, as well as their plans to fix it. Many had come to learn more about Moms For Housing, a group of homeless mothers who, the same week as all of the Twitter drama, began to occupy a vacant, speculator-owned house in West Oakland.

This remarkably literal, personal example of a vacant home finding a more beneficial use contrasts with the ways vacant housing is usually discussed, be it as a rhetorical cudgel wielded by activists or an abstract economic term cooly explained by policy wonks. What the policy types see is a problem that is marginal in the overall housing picture in expensive cities, albeit one that is difficult to measure. Vacancy rates are a snapshot in time, and can describe a number of very distinct phenomena: There’s a big difference between a tax-delinquent, long-abandoned home in Toledo and a downtown Austin apartment that’s briefly languishing between tenants. Generally speaking, expensive coastal cities have lower vacancy rates, and struggling Rust Belt ones have higher rates, since strong demand causes empty homes and apartments to quickly find new occupants.

In the 2019 national housing inventory report from real estate analytics company CoStar, the New York City metro topped the list with the lowest vacancy rate for market rate rental housing; Los Angeles ranked 7th, and Orange County, San Francisco (which includes Oakland), San Diego, and Sacramento all ranked in the top 20 out of 80 metros measured, with rates below 5 percent.

Luxury high-rise apartment buildings under construction in downtown Los Angeles in October. (Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images)

The contested report, “Who’s Buying Los Angeles?” identified apartment vacancies as a more urgent issue, finding an average vacancy rate of 70 percent in 10 new apartment buildings in downtown Los Angeles. The authors noted that, despite these high vacancy rates, the apartments are not lowering their prices: “This is what speculation looks like in practice: empty luxury towers while thousands live in desperate poverty on the streets below.”

What the report failed to account for was the dynamic nature of vacancy rates. The authors used CoStar data from spring 2019, a time when downtown L.A. vacancies were at the highest level the firm had ever recorded: 3,500 new units had opened in the neighborhood over the previous 6 to 9 months, according to CoStar analyst Stephen Basham. But these rates have quickly stabilized. CoStar’s most recent data shows these 10 buildings with an average vacancy rate of only 30 percent. (Terra Graziani of the Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action, a co-author of the report, said that it’s being updated with new data and analysis and will be re-released this month.)

“The larger picture,” Basham said, “is that for the most part this cycle, downtown L.A. has been one of the most heavily built parts of the country, and the demand has generally been there to keep up with that building.”

While there is little economic incentive to leave a rental apartment empty for long—since every month it sits vacant it loses money—there could be for condos and other for-sale properties. These units might be held as second homes, rented as Airbnbs, or retained as investment properties until the price is sufficiently high. But such properties likely represent a small proportion of a city’s total housing units. A 2014 report from the Bay Area think tank SPUR found that “non-primary residences” represented just 2.4 percent of San Francisco’s housing stock, and about one half a percent in Los Angeles and Oakland.

In a select few prime locations around the world, non-primary residences are more common: In Miami, 7.7 percent of homes fall into this category, and in Manhattan the rate is 4.4 percent (compared to 1.8 percent for New York City overall), according to the SPUR report. “Who’s Buying Los Angeles?” found an “effective vacancy rate” of 74 percent in 25 of L.A.’s most exclusive condo buildings, where the unit is not the primary residence of the owner. However, these statistics do not account for units sub-leased to occupants other than the primary owner.  

Cities have tools to discourage these kinds of uses, like the vacancy taxes recently implemented in Oakland and Vancouver, as well as “flipping” taxes and real estate transfer taxes. These policies tend to have broad support from housing advocates of all stripes, including Shane Philips, a housing researcher at UCLA’s Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, who was critical of “Who’s Buying Los Angeles?” on Twitter. “I just don’t want the conversation to be, ‘If we enact vacancy taxes, suddenly housing will be affordable,’” he said, pointing to Oakland as a case in point.

New apartment buildings in Oakland overlook protesters at the March for Housing Now rally. (Ben Schneider/CityLab)

When vacant homes were brought up at the march, it was clear they were emblematic of a larger critique. Vacant units are an affront, the most vivid symbol of a housing market that doesn’t work for most people. The fact that there are four vacant units for every homeless person in Oakland—a claim borne out by the latest American Community Survey and HUD point-in-time homeless count data—is indicative of a fundamentally skewed distribution of power and resources. One speaker, a representative from ACCE’s anti-displacement committee who gave his name only as Nick, decried new “housing meant for the rich, and to attract new wealthy residents, all while Oakland politicians tell the poor people, the working-class people, the people of color of Oakland to wait our turn, despite there being four vacant units for every houseless person in Oakland right now.”

Even if the new apartments in Oakland are not vacant—as in Los Angeles, there remains tremendous pent-up demand even for expensive apartments—they may as well be to the homeless and housing insecure people who live next door. In the urban core of Oakland and downtown Los Angeles, construction is rampant—Oakland has 9,300 homes under construction while downtown Los Angeles has seen 35,000 units built since 1999.

If you’re just looking at all those cranes, it hardly looks like there’s a housing shortage. And if no one you know can afford these apartments, then for all intents and purposes, there is an over-supply. Since newcomers will inevitably be richer—and probably whiter—than existing residents, the new housing being built in these neighborhoods can look like “a new phase of redlining” or “neocolonialism.”

These were some of the phrases overheard as marchers proceeded up MacArthur Boulevard, stopping in front of three gracious, graffiti-covered early 20th century houses pasted with bright yellow construction notices. The owner of the houses plans to “remove or relocate” these houses to make room for a 57-unit condo building, according to documents from the Oakland Planning Department. Cat Brooks, a local activist and former mayoral candidate, addressed the crowd. “That’s three houses being removed for an apartment complex that I bet none of us will be able to afford. Shame on Oakland.”

Brooks is right: Few current neighborhood residents will be able to afford these condos, which will likely cost more than half a million dollars each to build, let alone buy. But then, it’s not like they could afford one of the three existing houses, either. Not when a nearby 1,700-square-foot house is on sale for $775,000.

The housing crisis is so extreme in the Bay Area that brand-new glassy condos and dilapidated old houses both sell—or rent—for luxury prices. The same process that is physically transforming some Oakland neighborhoods is happening more invisibly in others. “I’m walking around my old neighborhood in Central Berkeley, Poet’s Corner, and it’s never not bizarre how despite all the houses looking the same as they did 40 years ago, the entire Black neighborhood is gone,” the housing activist Darrell Owens recently tweeted. Berkeley’s black population declined 30 percent between 2000 and 2018, while Oakland’s black population declined by 25 percent, or 33,000 residents, between 2000 and 2010, a period that saw virtually no new development in the city.  

***

MacArthur Commons, a 24-story behemoth looming over low-rise North Oakland, sits at the opposite end of this spectrum of noticeable neighborhood change. The partially completed development on a former BART parking lot, where studios rent for $2,535 dollars per month and two bedrooms rent for $4,425, marked the last stop of the march. Brooks emphasized that only 45 of its 402 units (or 11 percent) will be offered at below-market rates. And those affordable units could be out of reach for many, as applicants earning up to 80 percent of the area median income—about $90,000 for a family of four—are eligible. (The developers will also pay $1.3 million in upgrades for Mosswood Park.)

“They didn’t build these for you. They didn’t build these for us. They didn’t build these for Oaklanders,” Brooks said, as a handful of newly moved-in residents looked down from their balconies. Several speakers noted that MacArthur Commons is the opposite of a true commons—instead, it’s an example of public land being given away to private interests.

But to many others, MacArthur Commons represents something else: As high-density housing near high-frequency mass transit, the complex embodies “an approach that is long overdue,” San Francisco Chronicle urban design critic John King wrote. In its form, if not in its demographic makeup, such transit-oriented development points to the direction California and the rest of the country need to go to combat climate change and reduce reliance on cars—an irony that was difficult to overlook as speakers highlighted the intersectionality between the parking-lot-replacing development and the evils of big oil.

Skyline-shaping projects like MacArthur Commons are a major reason Oakland is slated to produce more homes than its larger, red-tape-covered neighbor across the Bay in 2020. A prominent Bay Area economist recently predicted that landlords of new apartments in Oakland might be forced to offer lower rents than they had planned, thanks to all of the new supply coming online. Last year, crane-filled downtown Los Angeles was the only L.A. submarket of the 36 tracked by CoStar to see a decrease in median rents, Basham said. Of course, the one percent markdown comes nowhere near the level the working poor, or even the middle class, could afford.

This is the crisis within the housing crisis. The new housing that Oakland and downtown L.A. are beneficently contributing to their regions is likely helping to stabilize rents and prevent the regional housing crunch from getting even worse. But in the immediate term, that new housing provides few tangible benefits to the longtime residents of these historically poor, marginalized neighborhoods; indeed, their glossy presence only seems to exacerbate the glaring divides between the haves and have-nots.

These underprivileged neighborhoods are essentially doing their hyper-privileged regions a really big favor: taking on the burden of building new housing while virtually every other neighborhood, especially the wealthy, suburban ones, remain totally free of construction. While MacArthur Commons serves as a symbol of this unfairness, the grossest injustice is out of sight, in places like Piedmont and Orinda—super-rich, conscientiously segregated towns bordering Oakland whose invisible gates have foisted change and disruption on the communities that, throughout American history, have always been forced to bear it.

And as they bear it, many Oaklanders have justifiably trained their focus inward, on their neighborhood, their home, their next month’s rent. In a crisis as deep as this one, the mood of the day is crisis management: finding shelter and dignity and stability by any means necessary. For someone in desperate need of housing, a single vacant home can make a world of difference.

“It doesn’t end with one house,” said Dominique Walker, one of the Moms For Housing, with her baby in her arms. “We want to take Oakland back from all speculators. We’re not going to stop organizing until we all have shelter.”

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The Changing Geography of the Opioid Crisis

America’s opioid crisis has reached epidemic proportions. Opioids have killed more than 350,000 people since 1999 and nearly 50,000 in 2017 alone.

In contrast to previous deadly drug epidemics like the heroin crisis of the 1970s, which was highly concentrated in cities and urban areas, opioids have affected rural areas the most: Over the past two decades, deaths from opioid overdoses have climbed by more than 700 percent in smaller rural areas, versus less than 400 percent in cities and metropolitan areas. But this geography appears to be reversing as deaths from synthetic opioids like fentanyl have climbed rapidly in cities and metros. Such deaths are expected to soon eclipse deaths from opioid overdose in rural, non-metro areas.

A recent study by a team of researchers at Syracuse University, the University of Iowa, and Iowa State University takes a deep dive into the changing geography of the opioid crisis. Published in the journal Rural Sociology, it tracks opioid deaths in the more than 3,000 counties that make up the 48 contiguous U.S. states. And, using data from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), it breaks out these deaths from distinct types of opioids: heroin and opium, prescription opioids like methadone, synthetic opioids or unknown narcotics, and so-called multiple-cause deaths from two or more opioids.

The study finds that the opioid crisis takes different forms in urban and rural America. While the urban opioid crisis is a crisis of heroin and illegal drugs, the rural opioid crisis of prescription drugs is largely a story of growing spatial inequality and of places left behind, most often occurring, as the authors note, in places that tend to have a declining industrial base.

The maps below chart the changing geography of the crisis, comparing the early 1991-2001 period to the more recent 2014-2016 period. You can see just how prevalent and serious the crisis has become, spreading across the east and west of the country. There are dark areas in New England, the lower Midwest—particularly parts of rural Appalachia and the Ohio River Valley—and in Oklahoma, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah. That said, 55 percent of U.S. counties (1,701 of 3,079) have relatively low rates of opioid deaths, 30 to 50 percent below the national average.

The early years of the opioid crisis largely involved prescription drugs. This was primarily a rural crisis: More than half (55 percent) of the 275 counties noted on the 1999-2001 map are rural and another 20 percent are micropolitan.

Opioid overdose mortality rates per 100,000 (age-adjusted) in 1999-2001 and 2014-2016

(David J. Peters, Shannon, M. Monnat, Andrew L. Hochstetler, Mark T. Berg)

The second wave involved heroin. This crisis is more urban, with metros having consistently higher death rates than rural or non-metropolitan areas.

The third wave of the opioid crisis is synthetic opioids. This, too, is more of an urban crisis, with death rates being highest in large metro areas and micropolitan areas, and lowest in rural areas.

There is a final and more troubling strand of the opioid epidemic: Places where opioid deaths come from a mixture of prescription opioids, heroin, and synthetic opioids—what the study refers to as a “syndemic” crisis. Four percent (129 of 3,079 counties) fall into this category. This syndemic opioid epidemic is concentrated in the eastern third of the nation: in Maryland, Massachusetts, rural Appalachia, stretching into Indiana, and in Michigan. A third cluster is located around Santa Fe, New Mexico. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent, or 82 counties) of syndemic counties are in metropolitan areas, with 36 percent (47 counties) in rural or non-metro areas.

Overdose mortality by opioid type per 100,000 between 1999 and 2016

By modified core-based statistical areas (CBSAs) between 1999 and 2016; counties in the conterminous U.S. Synthetic opioids include unknown narcotics. Multiple opioids include two or more drugs or opioid-related behavioral deaths. (Source: David J. Peters, Shannon, M. Monnat, Andrew L. Hochstetler, Mark T. Berg)

The chart above shows the distinct geographies of the opioid crisis, tracking the deaths from different types of opioids across the rural-urban continuum.

The urban opioid crisis is mainly a crisis of illegal opioids, including heroin. It follows the pattern of previous urban illegal drug epidemics. Urban areas have higher death rates from synthetic opioids and from the recent syndemic crisis, which combines deaths from illegal, prescription, and synthetic opioids. Ten percent of large metros with more than 1 million people are experiencing a syndemic opioid crisis, according to the study. As the chart shows, the rural opioid crisis is largely a crisis of prescription opioids.

A common theory for the opioid crisis is that it developed from abuse and over-prescription of legal opioids. The study, however, finds this theory holds only in rural areas. It reads: “Rural industrial decline left a legacy of unemployed and underemployed people with some form of work disability,” and notes that “… a plausible treatment for work-related pain, likely involving opioids prescribed by a health provider, helped start the cycle of opioid addiction that would culminate in the current crisis.”

But another part of the explanation comes from the fact that many of these places have long histories of drug and alcohol abuse. As the study points out, “the current rural opioid crisis is part of a broader drug problem, taking root in smaller communities with an existing drug user population and/or socioeconomic conditions favorable to drug abuse.”

The researchers find only limited support for the “deaths of despair” theory, which contends that the spike in opioid deaths is a function of the deepening despair brought on by economic decline and the unraveling of the traditional support structures of family and community. This theory holds only for rural counties that were bound up in the early prescription opioid epidemic, and not in urban areas, which have been much more affected by heroin and illegal opioids.

Across the board, both rural and urban communities that are centers of the opioid crisis are declining industrial communities with older, whiter, and less educated populations. These are the places that have been hardest hit by globalization, deindustrialization, and the shift to a highly urbanized knowledge economy—places which, as the study puts it, “are remnants of the 20th century industrial economy that are becoming increasingly dissimilar from the rest of the nation demographically, economically, and culturally.”  

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Pete Buttigieg’s Climate Vision: Local Fixes for a Planet in Crisis

Over the span of 18 months, in August 2016 and February 2018, South Bend, Indiana, was struck by a pair of historic floods—the kind of low-probability catastrophes that have become terrifyingly common in a warming world. The small Midwestern city is still dealing with the consequences.

For its mayor, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, those floods serve as a tangible reminder of the environmental challenge the world faces, and the inspiration for the climate plan he released in September.

Buttigieg’s scheme isn’t the most ambitious: Compared to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ $16.3 trillion estimate, Buttigieg wants to spend closer to $2 trillion, and sets a longer timeline for pollution reduction. But the 37-year-old candidate’s approach to the crisis reflects both his creeping centrism and his youth: It’s a mix of the urgent and the politically practical. Emphasizing the rural and non-coastal interests that are often dismissed in issues of environmental adaptation, Buttigieg wants to set up and fund regional resilience hubs, push for greener agricultural methods, and retrain workers in fossil-fuel industries like coal mining.

Last month, CityLab sat down with Buttigieg on the banks of the St. Joseph River in South Bend—one of the sites of the recent flooding. Parts of our conversation will appear on the upcoming Climate Desk/Weather Channel special “2020: Race to Save the Planet” (airing November 7), in which nine presidential candidates discuss their plans for confronting the climate crisis. Our interview has been condensed and edited.

For a lot of people, climate change still can seem like an ideological or an abstract problem. I’m wondering if you could paint a picture—what does climate change look like currently, and what might it look like in 30 years, when you’re in your 60s?

When I think about climate change, I think about neighborhoods like the one we’re in right now. Too often, I think our imagination around climate change is confined to the North and the South Pole. But I see it happening right here in the middle of America, including in my own neighborhood.

Twice in the space of two years, we had extreme weather events—floods that are only supposed to come along every few hundred years. It’s a sign to me that the predictions and warnings that we’ve been seeing from the scientific community for years are coming true on an accelerated basis. What that means is that by 30 years from now, this could be the dominant fact of American life. It could be holding back opportunities for a new generation, transforming and destroying our economy.

Or we could get ahead of it. The way I would prefer to envision climate change is as a major national challenge that we rose to as a national project, and led the world in dealing with, and stood taller because we did it.

That’s why my vision on addressing climate change is not just about all of the technical changes we need to make, the investments we need to have, and the need to hold companies accountable for doing the right thing. It’s also about making sure we’ve invited everybody to be part of the solution: from volunteers in a national service program to the agricultural sector, which we should be funding and supporting in sustainable agriculture practices.

If we get this right, it doesn’t have to be partisan. This is too important, too serious, and too urgent an issue for us to allow it to continue to be viewed through a partisan lens. There’s no time to argue over whether climate change is real. We’ve got to get to work on making something happen.

How do you think cities should think about the often-emotional decision of whether to rebuild or to retreat? And how would you incentivize those retreats and fund those rebuilding?

A good example of this comes from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which experienced a very destructive flood. People have decided to move on, but it wasn’t forced. It was supported. The families were made whole. So how does our future planning accommodate the fact that a 100-year flood isn’t what it used to be? That means making sure that we have adequate resources from an insurance perspective and from a planning perspective to ensure that our future communities are more resilient and are built with these extreme weather events in mind.

Historic floods devastated Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 2008. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

Along with rejoining the Paris Climate Accords, you’ve pledged to convene a “Pittsburgh Climate Summit” in your first 100 days in office. I’m wondering what the significance of that global and local pairing is, and what you hope to accomplish at that summit.

The idea behind the Pittsburgh summit is that so many local governments, cities, mayors, counties, sometimes states are acting on their own because they got tired of waiting for Washington. Some of the best ideas on sustainability—from installing a local electric-vehicle charging system, to ensuring that community standards rise higher and meet the Paris Accords—are going on across this country and across the world in a network of cities that aren’t waiting for their national governments to catch up. I want the White House to be an ally for those kinds of communities. Convening them in Pittsburgh will be an opportunity to share the best of what’s going on in those cities and towns, and working on ways that the federal government could be supporting them.

Many cities and states are trying to push people into a less car-centric lifestyle. That’s a challenge for cities with inadequate public transportation systems, or whose built environments are very sprawling and car-centric. How would you encourage people to turn away from personal vehicles and to build more connected and more green cities?

Well, you know, design in cities, especially through the 20th century, really revolved around the car. I’m trying to make sure that design for the future revolves around the human being. Sometimes that means car transportation and sometimes that means walking, biking, or public transit.

We can’t expect people to move beyond personally owned vehicles if there’s not a good alternative. So we’ve got to make sure that between ride-sharing, public transportation, and just good old fashioned walking and biking, we’ve got an array of options right now. The United States subsidizes driving a tremendous amount. We’re more reluctant to support transit or things like trains. When I’m president, I envision making that a greater balance and supporting cities that are trying to do that, too, because if we get it right, it’s also more sustainable, more healthy, and more economically friendly.

For example, when we transformed the heart of [South Bend], including calming down our traffic instead of just getting cars through it as quickly as possible, it led to growth in small business, because we have a more vibrant core in our downtown. When we change our mentality, it’s amazing what possibilities can be unlocked.

Communities of color are being disproportionately impacted by climate change. But they’re also often left out of conversations in Washington, D.C. How would you help communities of color be more prioritized in the future?

One of the things we’ve seen is that neighborhoods and communities of color are always disproportionately harmed when we have these extreme weather events. It’s why, first of all, there needs to be more economic and political empowerment for people of color. That’s a focus in my Douglass Plan, an agenda to deal with the impacts of institutional racism in this country.

We also need to look at how our neighborhoods are set up. Many of them were segregated by design. I’m proposing a twist on the Homestead Act—a 21st-century version of that—that supports people living in historically redlined neighborhoods that are now beginning to get gentrified.

We also just need to make sure that we have a political system that is capable of hearing the voices of those who have been excluded. In many ways, local processes can lead the way toward what we need more of in our national government.

You differ from others in the presidential race, like Senator Sanders, in calling for a tax on carbon. We saw in the Yellow Vest protests in France how anger over fuel taxes helped trigger a populist revolt. How would you structure a carbon tax so that everyday Americans won’t feel the economic effects?

The key to making a carbon tax work for everyday Americans is to rebate out the value to the American people every year, and do it with a progressive formula so that most people are better off than before. The idea of a carbon tax is not to suck money out of the economy and bring it into the government—at least not for me. For me, the idea is to make sure that our prices more accurately reflect the true cost, including the cost to our own future, of things like fossil fuels. We can do that without making most Americans worse off economically if we have a rebate—a dividend, if you will—that goes out to every American based on what’s been collected.

In September, you visited Conway, South Carolina, to release a federal disaster relief plan. How will that plan account for some of the mistakes made in past administrations with regard to hurricane recovery?

One thing that we’ve learned from recent disasters, including the one where we’re sitting right now, is that there is a complex, overlapping bureaucracy when it comes to getting disaster relief. The last thing you want somebody to have to do when they’ve been put out of their home by a disaster is have to navigate all of these different agencies to figure out how to get help. I’m going to set up a disaster commission tasked with simplifying that process and making sure that we secure the funding sources for relief. Right now, all too often we see administrations dipping into [these funds] for other purposes.

You mentioned holding companies accountable for their role in climate change as well. At tech companies like Amazon, some workers are staging protests and walkouts to draw attention to their employers’ inaction. How would you as president think about galvanizing companies and the private industry?

Well, the beauty of the carbon tax and dividend is it does a lot of that work in terms of realigning the signals in our economy. We also have to make sure that there is a strong Environmental Protection Agency, run by somebody who actually believes in environmental protection and in climate change. This doesn’t have to be anti-business. What I want to do is recruit businesses to ensure they’re doing the right thing and to recognize how private-sector growth is a big part of how we reach the clean energy economy that we need. But that means making sure that we’re honest about the long-term costs of inaction when it comes to what carbon emissions are doing to our very ability to live in the communities that we have built over these last decades and centuries.

You’ve also talked about how rural voters could soon be the future of climate-change voters. I’m wondering how you mobilize that cohort?

I’m excited about the possibility of inviting agriculture to be a big part of the solution. Science tells us that with cover crops and soil management, we could be taking in as much carbon on farms around the world as the entire global transportation sector is putting out right now.

We have the science to tell us it can be done. We need to not only invest in research, but also support the farmers, so if the [costs] are not quite penciling out, we make them whole. If we’re willing to do that over a trade war, we should absolutely be willing to do that as a way to incentivize and reward farmers who are on the cutting edge of the quest for the zero-emissions farm. If we can do that here in America, that achievement will spread around the world and be a tremendous part of the solution.

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A Breakdown of San Francisco’s Affordable Housing Crisis

You’ve undoubtedly heard by now that there is a housing affordability crisis in many cities across the United States.

In high cost cities like San Francisco (and New York, and Los Angeles, and Boston) housing affordability challenges have left  low-income families  with minimal discretionary income after their rents are paid; pushed first responders out of the communities in which they serve; forced teachers to face hours-long commutes, or leave the profession entirely; and led to people experiencing homelessness camping in tents on the sidewalk. Long a simmering problem, the region’s housing costs have escalated so dramatically over the last decade that nearly half of Bay Area residents struggle to afford their housing.

If it’s no secret that the high cost of housing is our state’s most pressing challenge, and the crisis is so well documented, why haven’t we fixed the problem? I have yet to see a single silver bullet (and I’ve spent years looking for it), but as with most public policy issues, it helps to break the issue down into smaller bites. In the simplest terms (and recognizing that I’m focusing on one specific housing type: multifamily rental housing), to build affordable housing, you need three things:

  • Land: A piece of dirt on which to build new housing
  • Political Will: Approved and entitled architectural plans for the new homes
  • Funding: Money to fund land acquisition, construction, and maintenance and operation of the newly built housing

There is a tried-and-true roadmap to build affordable housing. It’s expensive; particularly in coastal California, but it’s not a secret: a developer secures financing to acquire and develop the land, an architect designs a project that the city approves and grants entitlements and permits, and tenants pay an affordable rent, which provides revenue to pay off the construction loan and keep the building in operation.

But what happens when land is hard to come by, or existing residents resist new housing construction, or when the cost to build exceeds what a development project can reasonably charge in rents? This is when developers, advocates, bureaucrats, and elected officials need to get creative to ensure that low-income families, people experiencing homelessness, teachers, nurses, and first responders have access to safe and decently affordable housing.

Housing for Whom?

Identifying and quantifying housing needs in the community is a key – and often difficult – step in laying out an affordable housing policy platform. With finite funding available to subsidize new affordable housing, it’s almost always the case that there are needs left un-met. In California, state law requires that every eight years, the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) determines the specific number of new housing units each city must plan for that are affordable to very low-, low-, moderate-, and above-moderate-income households.  The goals are ambitious, and rarely achieved.

Eligibility for most federal, state, and local housing assistance programs is determined by how a household compares to the jurisdiction’s Area Median Income (AMI).  A city’s AMI is the household income for the median (middle) household in a defined area; that is, line up all the households in the city from lowest to highest income, and the median income is right at the center. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) calculates the AMI for each metropolitan area of the country each year, and jurisdictions may apply filters or screens to adjust that calculation in a way that takes into account local factors.

While no one needs to memorize the complex income chart for their jurisdiction, it’s critical to keep in mind who you are trying to house when you contemplate a new development. Is the goal to build housing for:

  • People experiencing homelessness?
  • Working families with young children?
  • Seniors on fixed incomes?
  • First responders?
  • Teachers and paraprofessionals?

Different local, state, and federal funding sources serve different points on the income spectrum.  Traditionally, publicly funded affordable housing programs have served households earning up to 60% of AMI, with the general assumption that people earning more than that could at least afford market rate rents, if not homeownership.

In San Francisco, in 2019, the median income for a family of four is $123,150. A low-income family of four earning 60% AMI earns $73,900 per year. With market rate rents averaging $3,700/month, that low-income family faces a monthly housing affordability gap of more than $1,800, and would need to earn at least $133,200 in order to afford the average market rate rent.

Solutions

There is a definitive need for affordable housing programs for low-income households. But there is also clearly a need for housing assistance for people earning up to and beyond the city’s median income. When available funds and programs don’t align well with defined needs – and there is simply not enough money to solve the problem, the housing affordability challenge can seem insurmountable.

If there is a silver lining to the current state of housing in the Bay Area, it’s that the affordability crisis has served as a much-needed call to action. Under a regional framework known as the 3Ps (production, preservation, and protections), new programs that seek to facilitate new housing construction, preserve existing affordable housing, and to enact tenant protections have been tried, tested, funded, and legislated at the local, regional, and state levels.  A few highlights include:

  • Land: at the State level, the Surplus Land Act clarifies that unused public land should be activated for affordable housing development. At the local level, San Francisco voters will consider a ballot measure in November 2019 that will allow affordable housing on most sites that are publicly owned. In order to better attract and retain teachers, San Francisco has funded the first educator housing development on school district property, and the San Francisco Unified School District has identified three additional parcels as future sites for employee housing.
  • Political Will: Senate Bill 35, authored by Senator Wiener, passed in late 2017 paved the way for by-right, streamlined project approvals and shaving years off of the entitlement timeline for new affordable housing developments. Efforts to upzone in order to encourage transit oriented development, increase density, and add affordable housing to the region have been hotly debated at the regional level and at the State legislature. While Senate Bill 50, also from Senator Wiener, stalled at the end of the last legislative session, it will be considered in the 2020 session.
  • Funding: In San Francisco, voters passed a $350 million housing bond in November 2015; on the upcoming November 2019 ballot San Franciscans will have an opportunity to pass another housing bond – this time in the amount of $600 million. Public-private partnerships such as the San Francisco Housing Accelerator Fund are focused on market-paced anti-displacement strategies and innovation in new housing production.

Regionally, private funders are coming together around housing in efforts such as the Partnership for the Bay’s Future and Kaiser Permanente’s initiative tackling housing insecurity in Oakland.  And at the State level, Governor Newsom signed a budget that includes $500 million in new low income housing tax credits, which are scheduled to be allocated in January of 2020 to spur new housing production.

Optimism matters, but pragmatism and focus are required, along with a commitment to focusing on the 3Ps for the long term. California has not kept pace with housing production needs for decades, and housing construction has been particularly slow in coastal communities, where jobs have been added at breakneck speed. It stands to reason that solving, or making a dent, in housing affordability challenges will also take decades. We can’t afford not to try.

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How Cities Address the Housing Crisis, and Why It’s Not Enough

It’s a simple idea: Everyone should have a place to live. But we are failing badly at this most basic of goals, in every part of the country.

In Brooklyn and Minneapolis, where we are city council members, skyrocketing prices push families out of the neighborhoods where they’ve lived for years. It’s impossible for young people to find a place to rent, much less own. Homelessness is at record levels, and in cities like Detroit, as many as one in five renters face eviction, part of a nationwide eviction epidemic.

As members of Local Progress, a national network of progressive elected officials from cities and other local governments across the country, on Thursday we began a three-day convening in Durham, North Carolina, to address these issues that are infiltrating more and more cities.  

Seventy years ago, the Housing Act of 1949 set the goal “of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American,” but it has been decades since Washington was of any real help on affordable housing.

In the gap created by federal inaction, local elected officials have been taking the lead. Fifty of us are gathering today to reflect on what’s working, why we’re still falling short, and what we need to meet a simple but elusive goal—that everyone has a safe, affordable place to live.

Rather than seeing the housing crisis only as an issue of lack of supply, or only as a consequence of gentrification, we recognize the complex reality and the need to address both. On the one hand, many of our cities lack housing supply: We simply do not have enough homes for the people who want to live in our communities.

Getting rid of exclusionary zoning (long deployed by white homeowners to hoard the benefits of high property values and segregated schools) and building more housing is necessary to address the imbalance of supply and demand, but will not solve for displacement and eviction.

On the other hand, renters in gentrifying communities are traumatized by displacement and rising rents and skeptical of governments that have walked away from low-income communities for decades. They want stronger tenant protections to keep people from being evicted as rents rise and won’t support growth without meaningful reform.

To keep up with population growth and address the scale of the need we already have, we need more housing. That’s why in Minneapolis, we recently voted to become the first city in the country to eliminate single-family zoning, and to increase density near transit; why Denver and Austin have been implementing new housing trust funds (paid for with local taxes) in the hundreds of millions of dollars; why Durham, where we are gathering this week, is pursuing plans to create an affordable housing loan fund and proposing an affordable housing bond on this November’s ballot to support the financing of affordable construction.

It is not the case that any development will do. Good policies insure that housing meets the needs of those who need it most, and that we confront racist zoning policies of the past that produced and furthered segregation. Good planning can help make sure we’ve got the infrastructure needed to sustain growth, that we genuinely engage community voices to shape places where families will thrive, and that new units are built with the climate crisis in mind—near transit and energy-efficient.

But growth will be required. We’ll need courage to push past the fear of change, of loss of the familiar, that so often tethers us too strongly to the status quo.      

At the same time, how can we ask people to support new development if they reasonably fear it will push them out of their own neighborhoods? That’s why it must come along with strong protections against rent hikes and unwarranted evictions so that tenants can stay in their homes.

Here too, cities and states are filling in the gaps. After New York became the first city to offer a “right to counsel” law, to make sure tenants are represented by a lawyer when facing an eviction proceeding, evictions dropped in just one year. Philadelphia, Newark, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Washington, D.C., are working on their own versions of the law.

Oregon, California, and New York recently passed sweeping “rent regulation” protections for tenants that limit the rent increases landlords can charge. Illinois and Colorado are considering similar legislation.

At first, these policies sound radical, in a country where private property is considered sacrosanct. But do we really believe that a landlord should be able to raise the rent on a family however high they want, usually benefitting far more from broader neighborhood trends than anything they did, even when the cost is eviction, trauma, and homelessness?

Finally, seeing the limits of what the private market can do to create housing that is affordable to all, for the long-term, cities are expanding alternative models for housing ownership. As in higher education and health care, public options can complement what the market provides. Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Seattle, New York City, and Jackson, Mississippi, are all experimenting with various forms of “social housing,” like limited-equity cooperatives and community land trusts.

These social-housing models limit speculation. Rather than as a commodity, they treat housing as a right, something everyone needs and deserves, and that we should provide together when the market is failing to do so. Social housing can also help us push past resistance to growth, the frustration that new development usually enriches a small handful of developers, and too rarely meets community needs.

Right now, these experiments are miniscule compared to the need. And that’s where the federal government must come in. More inclusive growth, stronger tenant protections, and investment in social housing are the right way forward, as our cities are showing. But to do it at the scale of the crisis we face, we’ll need resources at the scale that only the federal government can provide.

As the presidential candidates put forward plans to address the housing crisis, some more ambitious than others, hopefully they will hear us: More housing is needed. But it must come along with mechanisms to ensure that current tenants are not displaced, that enough new units are truly affordable to those who need them, and that they are more integrated and more sustainable than what we’ve built to date.

The fate of America’s cities, communities, and families hangs in the balance.

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CityLab Daily: California’s Housing Crisis, Explained

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***

What We’re Following

California, here we come: The Golden State is a smorgasbord of housing challenges. With record housing shortages and inflated costs, cities are grappling with how to absorb both an economic boom and growing homelessness.

Now, activists and civic leaders have begun to rethink the state’s housing policy in the birthplace of NIMBYism. But the new yes-in-my-backyard movement will have to bridge the gaps between the tech-savvy, supply-side thinking newcomers and long-established affordable housing advocates to keep the state’s proverbial golden gates open. CityLab’s Benjamin Schneider has the on the origins of California’s housing crisis, and the radical movement to address it that could be a model for other states.

More on the housing beat:

Andrew Small


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Pop-Up Stop

Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh. (Zicla)

Streetsblog USA highlights how cities can build bus bulbs without the wait—or the concrete—thanks to these more affordable snap-in-place platforms by the Spanish-company Zicla. As Angie Schmitt writes, New York, Pittsburgh, and Oakland have experimented with these ADA-compliant plastic bus islands that connect to the sidewalk. It’s a cheap fix to the “sorriest bus stop” problem that Streetsblog has highlighted before, and another tool in the toolkit for improving bus service. Maybe give it a shot if riders fall in love with your pop-up bus lane.


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How Trump’s Hudson Tunnel snit threatens the national economy (Bloomberg)

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The Educational Crisis Among the Children of Immigrants

At the Tolleson Elementary School District in Phoenix, Arizona, the school day begins with an expression of hope: After the pledge of allegiance, the kids recite the “

But maintaining that sense of optimism has been a challenge recently, says district superintendent Lupita Ley Hightower, because so many students are experiencing anxiety related to their immigration status. The student body in this district is 82 percent Latino. Administrators and teachers don’t ask about the legal situation of their parents or students, so they don’t know how many are undocumented. Attendance at activities like legal assistance forums for parents suggests that the numbers are significant. Some students have already had parents deported; others have seen friends and their families targeted with arrest and detainment. “When they feel this anxiety and stress about being deported, they feel hopeless and depressed,” Hightower says.

That anxiety is an ongoing reality in U.S. schools with a high immigrant population. It affects not only those who have undocumented parents, but their classmates. “They were their friends and now they’re gone, from one day to the next,” says Patricia Gándara, a UCLA researcher and co-director of the university’s Civil Rights Project. “And then the other students wonder if it can happen to them.”

Gándara co-authored a new report to study this problem and identify how the immigration policies of the Trump administration have affected students in the past year. Surveying 5,400 teachers and administrators in 730 schools across the United States, they found clear effects on students’ behavior and emotional well-being. Ninety percent of principals said they’d observed behavioral and emotional problems in their immigrant students; more than two-thirds also noted similar issues in students who are not directly targeted, like friends and colleagues. “It seems to affect everyone,” says Gándara.

This anxiety also manifested in students’ grades: 70 percent of respondents said that the academic results of immigrant students dropped this year, and 1 in 6 counselors said that this problem is extensive. Many respondents spoke of students who simply “gave up” on school after a parent was deported. Others were haunted by the prospect of losing one or both parents: A fourth-grade teacher in the Northeast described to researchers how one student “told me that her mom is teaching her how to make food and feed her baby sister, in case the mom is taken away.”

Absenteeism was another issue, noted by 68 percent of administrative staff in all regions. “I have heard students say that they do not want to come to school, in case their parents are deported,” said a teacher from Texas. Parent involvement suffered accordingly: Not only has the threat of deportation and raids kept parents from going to school events, they have also caused others to lose jobs, impacting the time they have to accompany their children.

For teachers, this made their jobs even more challenging; many of the most heavily impacted schools are located in low-income communities, and resources to deal with the crisis are scarce. “They tell us that they are very stressed,” says Gándara. “They know [their students] very well. When they have children so young crying, it affects them, too.” To address the problem, teachers are asking for more forums with the school community to better explain immigrant rights—and more legal counseling. “There is no school that wants to cooperate with ICE. They want to teach,” she says. “But many parents aren’t trusting.”

Some districts are making efforts to stress that message. In Oakland, California, for example, district superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell recently outlined protocols designed to protect students from immigration enforcement at school. “We want to remind everyone that Oakland Unified School District is a Sanctuary District inside a Sanctuary City located in California, a Sanctuary State,” she said in a message sent to students, family and staff. “That means your state, city and school district support you no matter where you came from or how you got here.”

Despite such supportive efforts, Gándara fears that the negative effects of the current crackdown on immigration status could linger for decades.

“Many first-generation immigrants are the best students. The teachers tell us that,” she says. “They’re the most devoted to their studies and most ambitious. We are going to suffer because of this, and in the long term it will affect us immensely.”

This story originally appeared in Spanish on our sister site, CityLab Latino.

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