What Happens When the Eviction Bans End?

Last week, a crowd of about 30 people lined up in a single-file, socially distanced line outside the district court in Petersburg, Virginia. Among them was a 31-year-old woman who moved to Petersburg last summer with her 9-year-old son. The woman, who asked to be identified only by her last name, Edwards, was among the very first residents of Virginia to face eviction hearings since that state issued a moratorium on removing renters who’d fallen behind on their rent because of coronavirus-related job loss.

She’d been fleeing danger, Edwards says: An abusive partner forced her and her son to leave her home in North Carolina with almost nothing but what she could carry. But in the year since, she’d found a place to rent in Petersburg near her father and a job with an airline at Richmond International Airport. Then the coronavirus pandemic arrived, and her life turned upside down again. The airline let her go in March; the work she does part-time as a nail stylist also dried up due to the shutdown. She filed for unemployment insurance, but her benefits didn’t arrive until May. And she got behind in her rent.

“I finally got myself situated,” Edwards tells CityLab. “Then this pandemic happens. Now I’m risking being homeless again — not due to the situation I’m in, but because the whole world is in this situation, and the courts are not doing anything to help.”

She says she agreed to pay what she could for the April rent, but she and her landlord argued over the actual payment. Police served her with a notice of eviction on April 21, her birthday. At the time, civil rights advocates were pressing the governor, the courts, and the legislature to extend the eviction moratorium that Virginia, like many other states, passed in the early days of the coronavirus crisis.

Courts in Virginia resumed hearing these cases on May 18. Other courts in Georgia, Ohio, Texas, and 13 other states (including Virginia) have also resumed hearing eviction cases, prompting fears among housing advocates and civil rights attorneys that the worst-case scenario is at hand — a flood of mass evictions during a plague.

As of May 22, 13 courts across Virginia were open and hearing cases. Those courts alone (out of 120 total circuit courts) scheduled nearly 800 eviction cases to be heard between last week and this week, according to Christie Marra, director of housing advocacy for the Virginia Policy Law Center. As more courts open, their dockets are expected to explode. “You can only imagine how many cases will be coming in June and July and August,” Marra says.

When the Petersburg tenant received her eviction notice, she sought help. Kateland Woodcock, an attorney at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, lined up with her outside the court in Petersburg. Woodcock was able to argue for a 60-day continuance of her case, a right to any Virginia tenant who can demonstrate a coronavirus-related income burden under a law passed by the General Assembly in April. The attorney had the paperwork ready. But other tenants in the nearly 100 cases heard in Petersburg on May 20 didn’t have legal representation — or didn’t appear at all, resulting in default judgments.

“I would have probably not even had a place to stay, if I didn’t have a lawyer,” the Petersburg tenant says.

The end of state eviction moratoriums has exposed the limits of the protections for tenants at the local, state and federal level. Under the CARES Act passed by Congress, for example, tenants who live in a property with a federally backed mortgage can’t be evicted. This protection supersedes any expiring state-level eviction moratorium — but only if the tenant knows that the CARES Act applies to their circumstances.

“Those tenants can’t be evicted — they can’t even get a notice of eviction until the end of July,” Marra says. “But there’s nothing put into place in many of these courts to enable a judge to routinely make sure that a landlord is testifying or swearing under oath that his property isn’t covered.”

Most of the eviction cases going forward now predate the coronavirus pandemic, a reflection of the severity of the eviction crisis in what we now call normal times. Harris County, Texas, saw more than 5,500 evictions filed in February alone, a figure that dropped to 845 in March. Many of those tenants have since lost their jobs; probably some have suffered infection or lost family members to Covid-19. Or they live in properties covered by the CARES Act — but those protections don’t apply retroactively.

“We’ve been telling people: You need to pay the rent when you can,” says Mark Grandich, litigation director at Lone Star Legal Aid. “There’s going to be a day of reckoning.”

The looming deluge of evictions involves complicated interactions with the justice system. For example, in Texas, landlords filed some 1,400 cases over the months during which the moratorium was in effect (many of which should not have been filed at all, under the CARES Act). During the interim, Texas only allowed evictions to proceed that involved illegal conduct — a valid concern for landlords, but also a concession to law enforcement, since jails were releasing prisoners and police were reluctant to make arrests.

While landlords whose tenants were accused of violating the law were allowed to proceed with evictions, such circumstances were rare: According to Dana Karni, another attorney at Lone Star Legal Aid, only one landlord across Texas accused a tenant of criminal conduct, and the judge refused to hear the case. On the other hand, the number of landlords processing evictions illegally — by harassing tenants or locking them out — continues apace.

The vanishingly small number of eviction filings associated with criminal behavior suggests that the vast majority of evictions in Texas — and likely elsewhere — are related to nonpayment. This finding weakens a popular argument with landlords that evictions are critical tools for protecting properties or even tenants. Most evictions aren’t emergency evictions, either during the pandemic or before. And most every eviction moratorium provides for some kind of exemption for criminal activity anyway. The CARES Act and various state and local eviction moratoriums were designed to safeguard the millions of renters who have lost their livelihoods to the pandemic. Without enforcement, many tenants are already surrendering to default judgments or vacating properties where they have a right to live.

Eviction protections are proving hard to enforce in court, for a simple reason: Landlords have attorneys; tenants don’t.

“The eviction moratoriums are expiring before federal interventions have arrived,” says Emily Benfer, a professor at Columbia Law School. “Without immediate action, I think we will be facing a housing crisis of unparalleled magnitude.”

Courts are complicating the issue with a patchwork of standards and procedures. Many courts are still deciding how to reopen safely, with some experimenting with teleconferencing or video solutions. Trial-by-Zoom presents a slew of due-process concerns for households that do not have internet access. Tenants and landlords who stand before a video court would be appearing in their own homes, which could invite bias over disparities in living situations. In most states, it’s up to courts to determine how to proceed with hearing civil cases. For now, the best protection available to struggling tenants may be those in Maine, where courts aren’t reopening until August at the earliest.

By June 1, seven more states may begin hearing housing cases: Colorado, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, Tennessee and Rhode Island. That will bring the number of states with expiring eviction moratoriums to nearly half. Some of those states have a number of standing laws that can help keep tenants in their homes during the crisis — but they only work if those tenants are aware of those rights and are prepared to show up in court to pursue them.

Before the pandemic struck, several cities, including Baltimore and New York, passed laws guaranteeing tenants a right to legal counsel in housing court. In December, a bipartisan pair of U.S. senators introduced the Eviction Crisis Act, with the hopes of guaranteeing a lawyer to any renter in dire straits. That would shift the burden of proof, which now falls disproportionately on renters. Cities that have cemented this right guarantee that tenants can actually exercise the special rights afforded to them during the pandemic.

That’s not most places, though. Nationwide, the coronavirus housing catastrophe is just beginning to pick up momentum. The true eviction cliff could come in August, after the federal $600-per-week boost to unemployment benefits ends. Those benefits are helping tens of millions of households keep up with the rent. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already pledged not to renew these benefits.

For Edwards, the continuance for her eviction hearing will only provide a brief reprieve until July 22, when she’s due back in court. She’s receiving unemployment benefits now, which means she can make good on the overdue May rent. But she says that she will have little left to afford the security deposit and first month’s rent for a new apartment. Her lease expires in July, so even if she isn’t evicted, she feels sure that her landlord won’t let her renew for August.

For now, Edwards is scanning the scant listings for rental properties in Petersburg, worried about how the unlawful detainer filed against her will affect her prospects. After everything she’s endured, she worries that she and her son could wind up homeless.

“My days, really, are horrible,” Edwards says. “I’m worried about the fact that I know I have to move out of this house now, and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get another place. My days are full of stress.”

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What Happens to Democracy When Schools Close

In 2013, Chicago and Philadelphia together closed a record number of public schools, displacing more than 20,000 students, 90% of whom were low-income African-American and Latino. Their parents aggressively fought these school closures, saying they crumbled neighborhood anchor institutions while leaving their children feeling undervalued. But districts were undeterred, citing financial strains, low enrollment, and poor achievement.  

What happens to families in the aftermath of these closings? For her forthcoming book, “Closed for Democracy,” Northwestern University urban politics professor Sally Afia Nuamah found that school closures tend to imbibe mostly black and Latino families with a sense of “mobilization fatigue”: They expend considerable political energy fighting to keep their schools open only to watch their elected officials cater to families who actually support closing schools.

While school closures have historically affected a limited segment of cities and neighborhoods, today school closures are a potentially permanent fixture across a much larger swath of communities. There are currently 43 states that have closed schools for the rest of the 2019-20 school year, along with Washington, D.C., with the potential for that number to grow at any moment. There’s no guarantee that any of these school districts will be ready to open in time for the upcoming academic year, or how parents will respond when they do. And for some, Nuamah worries there’s a chance they may not ever reopen.  

Having just wrapped her book, Nuamah is now considering what the political fallout might be if families were to face permanent school closures as the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to metastasize. While school closures and all the attendant mental toll, destabilization, and loss of academic momentum have mainly affected black and brown families, today families of all races are getting a feel for the burden of currently having no guaranteed school home for their children. Meanwhile, many black and Latina families are feeling the compounded burden of enduring multiple school closings in their lifetimes.

Citylab spoke with Nuamah about the relationship between Covid-19, school closures and political participation, especially for families who have not been prioritized by their elected officials in the past. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Chicago lost has lost its largest share of African-American residents in recent years and many suspect school closures are to blame. How much of that population loss actually can be attributed to school closures?

It’s not only in places like Chicago, but in large cities like New York as well. School closures do have something to do with that, but it’s a little bit challenging to measure. It’s a classic chicken-and-egg problem because preceding that there were public housing closings, and before that there were factory closings. I study schools and I care so much about them as political institutions because they are the last public institutions you have left for many of these communities.

So school closures are more so a manifestation of all the other closings that preceded them: public hospitals closing, factories closings, a weakening of the welfare system. Obviously you’re priced out when there’s no more affordable housing, and you have church closings. So the institutions that allowed you to thrive, and that connected you, help you feel a sense of belonging are being undermined, so it becomes difficult for you to stay. That all impacts the enrollment of the schools.

I’m from Chicago and the North area, right around where Cabrini Green housing projects were. At its height, these developments had 50,000 people and now Cabrini Green is closed, and those families are displaced. Some will hold onto that neighborhood and still attend its institutions, but many won’t be able to because they’ve been spread out all across the city, and then schools become subjected to closings. That feeds into further displacement because those institutions are no longer available. So it’s cyclical.

That happens disproportionally in black and brown and underprivileged communities, because they often aren’t in a position where their protests of school closure policies are listened to. I think school closures explain the displacement. They’re just one piece — a very significant piece. They’re the last piece. And I think that’s why many of us are trying to hold on.  

So how do you see the Covid-19 pandemic impacting school affairs moving forward?

I think we already see it: Budgets are going to be affected by the pandemic. Undoubtedly, permanent school closure will be on the table as public schools face budget crises post-pandemic. So, because we’re thinking about equity: Those who have the least — who need more support because during the pandemic they weren’t getting the level of support they were getting from these schools when they were physically open — are now going to have even less available support because of the post-pandemic budget crises.

Schools haven’t been a part of the dialogue when we talk about stimulus budgets because I don’t think the public actually sees them as the social safety nets that they are. Schools provide so much more beyond teaching instruction and learning. They fill a lot of the gaps in our social safety net, from administering flu shots to free meals. And when schools are closed they have trouble providing that same level of service, especially when trying to limit contact for the sake of social distancing. On top of that, you have the situation where this affects the budgets. So when schools reopen it’s hard to actually make up for those inequities. So we would then expect that unless there’s some huge intervention that accounts for the fact that schools do all this extra work outside of learning — we don’t just need Chromebooks; we also need physical and mental health support and financing to do that work — then we would expect basically for these inequities to be exacerbated.

Explain the “mobilization fatigue” theory that your book examines.

I’m interested in how school closures are a microcosm for thinking about power and racism, and the ways in which policies can further disadvantage low-income African-American communities. It’s well known in the literature that school closures disproportionately impact low-income African-American communities. And we know this is not just an urban phenomenon or just a Chicago or Philadelphia phenomenon.

But for Chicago, New York City, and Philadelphia, I look at how those school closures shaped the ways in which citizens who are subjected to these policies think about government, democracy and their place in it — how they see themselves as citizens. And also citizens who aren’t subjected to school closure policies, and how that might have consequences for how they decide to engage with the government. African Americans and Latinx citizens are vehemently opposed to these closures across the board, while whites are actually pretty supportive of them, even though they’re the ones that aren’t actually affected by them.

I’ve found that in these cities, when school closures are proposed, African Americans have mobilized against these policies — they not only protest at the highest rates compared to any other racial group, but they also vote at higher rates and attend community meetings at the highest rate. They basically become model citizens. And so long-term, what I find is that because African Americans are most impacted by these policies, but don’t necessarily experience that democratic responsiveness they would expect, they end up becoming pretty disillusioned by the democratic process.

If you think about the impending election in 2020, while there was so much mobilization around closures [in Chicago, for example] and trying to get [the city’s then-mayor] Rahm Emanuel out of office, it’s a little unclear if you would expect a similar level of engagement around, for example, getting Trump out of office, because of a lot of the blowback that people experienced while trying to mobilize against school closures.

Have you observed how this “mobilization fatigue” might be already influencing the election?  

We found that there were racial differences in voter turnout in Chicago in March, and this was before the stay-at-home order, but [after] schools were already closed. We found that with white families in Chicago as well as in suburban Cook County, their voting patterns had either stayed the same or increased. For African Americans, it decreased. And for Latinx citizens, it actually decreased even more. We don’t actually know if there’s a direct connection, because we have to study it further. But it’s not that African Americans don’t think that this election is consequential. I think they know it is. But their ability to mobilize in a way where they can go vote safely, is I think perceived differently than it is for white people.

For example, we know that the decision was made to switch polling places from the typical [nursing homes] to public housing locations. That, of course, created another issue because we know that these communities are already vulnerable to dying of Covid-19 given their underlying health conditions and the history of inequities in Chicago. And so that also creates a context where low-income black people feel they are being unfairly targeted for this — why would I go to a space that can further impact my health in a way that could be deadly?

I suspect that, honestly, unless there’s a really significant shift in the pandemic before November, we should expect decreased voting among African Americans given what we already have seen, just in terms of the primary that overlapped with Covid-19.

For parents who’ve not been through a school closure, what kinds of questions or concerns should they have for their school if it’s currently closed due to the pandemic, based on your research?  

The first thing that comes to my mind is going to sound a little bit radical, but I think that schools really need to be questioning achievement. The way that we measure achievement, the way that we measure performance, the way that we think about determining if a school is a good school. That needs to be something that really is questioned.  

Parents need to understand that. For some kids, every day is like a micro-pandemic. It’s normally like this for certain communities all the time, and they need that same ongoing level of relief. Merit was never equitable. Achievement was never something that was fair. And that is something that I think needs to continue to be raised and questioned and challenged after the pandemic as well.

Do you think more white Americans staying home will make them more sympathetic to black parents fighting to keep schools open?

I think the charitable view is that hopefully that would be the case, especially in places that identify as more liberal-leaning, like Chicago, where you would not have expected those differences across race in the first place. So, charitably, people spending more time at home may make a difference.

I think that home-schooling has made Americans more generally aware of how important schools are to their lives and communities, but I think the more this pandemic becomes racialized — if we continue to see a perception that this is not affecting white, middle-class Americans as much — then I think at the end of all this, you might actually still see similar attitudes in terms of support for closure. Especially because a lot of the support for closure had to do with this perception that they were being pragmatic about the realities of low-performing or under-enrolled schools facing a budget crisis.  [People who support closures] don’t see themselves as having a negative attitude towards black people. They see themselves as knowing what’s right for them in the context of a constrained environment.  

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What Happens When a City Tries to End Traffic Deaths

In 2012, Chicago ventured where no other big U.S. city had. Under then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the city set a mission of eliminating traffic fatalities and injuries in 10 years. The city didn’t mention “Vision Zero” by name, but its ambitious goal took inspiration from that road safety policy platform enacted 15 years prior in Sweden, leading to one of the lowest national traffic mortality rates in the world.

The basic logic of Vision Zero is that any traffic collision that results in death or serious injury—whether for a pedestrian, cyclist, motorist, or any other road user—isn’t an unavoidable “accident,” but a tragedy that could be prevented through smarter engineering, education, and enforcement.

Seven years later, dozens of U.S. cities have hopped on the Vision Zero bandwagon, pledging to stop traffic fatalities in ambitious time frames. They’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the process, rebuilding streets to calm traffic and reduce driving, lobbying for speed limit reductions, launching public awareness campaigns, and retraining police departments.

Yet while some places have managed to bend their traffic fatality curves, others have earlier this year.

As in communities around the U.S., some of the factors behind L.A.’s bloody increase are beyond municipal control, including state speed limit laws, increases in driving overall, and declines in transit ridership. Some residents have also criticized L.A’s corridor-based approach to street safety improvements, where short segments of improved bike paths or sidewalks this year.

Among NYC’s policy changes: 82 new miles of protected bike lanes, thousands more pedestrian-friendly traffic signals, leveling up penalties for dangerous drivers, convincing state legislators to reduce speed limits, speed enforcement cameras in schools, and other street safety upgrades—many of them starting as can-of-paint pilot projects.

There is much that sets New York apart from other U.S. cities from a traffic safety perspective, starting with the fact that roughly 60 percent of trips are already made on another mode of transportation besides a car. A city where a majority of people rely on the sidewalks may have more of a built-in constituency for widespread pedestrian safety improvements and relatively modest speed limits. Projects like banning cars from a major downtown artery to make way for faster buses, or charging a fee to vehicles entering downtown to mitigate congestion and raise revenue for transit, may not be politically easy to accomplish, but they’ve become possible in the New York of 2019: Just look at the 14th Street Busway, and the passage of congestion pricing.

A map of injuries and fatalities in New York City shows persistent hotspots in predominantly African-American neighborhoods in southeast parts of Brooklyn, the city’s most populous borough. Zoom in and stop the animation to look at particular neighborhoods in particular years. Note: not every crash in New York City’s database has information about its location. The above map shows only those crashes with an identifiable ZIP code.

But other distinctions are less about the city’s traffic landscape than they are about its internal processes, said Liisa Ecola, a senior policy analyst and transportation planner at the RAND Corporation, who studied national Vision Zero efforts. Ecola praised the interdisciplinary task force the city created from the start to tackle engineering, enforcement, and policy changes: “They’ve really tried to bring together different city departments so that it’s not just about traffic engineers, city planners, or bike lane advocates making traffic safety decisions,” she said. “It’s also the police force, the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and the city’s commission on aging,” among other local and state agencies.

Still, some observers believe that New York City isn’t pressing ahead as urgently as it should. In 2018, the number of pedestrian deaths increased to 114 from 107 in 2017. So far, in 2019, the number of cyclists who’ve been killed in traffic is already up to 22—more than twice the total death toll from last year. Advocates complain that the the city isn’t doing enough to move more drivers out of cars, and that the pace of bike lane expansion is slowing. Earlier this summer, the activist group Transportation Alternatives called on the de Blasio administration to treat the increase as an emergency, and to step up its Vision Zero efforts from a piecemeal, street-by-street approach to sweeping infrastructure changes designed to reduce the most basic cause of traffic fatalities: too many people in cars.

“I think the mayor deserves credit for adopting Vision Zero as his platform and implementing it, which has helped New York buck the national trend,” said Marco Conner, the co-deputy director of Transportation Alternatives. “But he personally has not been willing to really draw a line in the sand and say that we are going to prioritize safety and saving lives over the preservation of parking space.”

A new five-year transportation master plan gets close, though: Introduced by city council speaker Corey Johnson and signed into law this fall, the plan directs the city’s department of transportation to introduce 250 miles of protected bike lanes, 150 miles of dedicated bus lanes, and add 1 million square feet of public space. But it will be several years before those changes take effect, said Conner: after de Blasio leaves office in 2021, and past the city’s original 2024 Vision Zero deadline.

A challenge to change—and to measure

Politics may be the major root of the problem in every city. In the U.S., even the cities making the greatest strides to reduce traffic violence aren’t likely to meet their ten-year targets. That is largely because eliminating those deaths and injuries will require massive infrastructure overhauls and policy changes that dramatically reduce driving speeds and driving, period, which will take years of culture-change and constituency-building to accomplish.

And measuring progress remains a challenge, for even gathering accurate data about traffic deaths is difficult, let alone reducing them. For one, walking and biking rates aren’t tracked very often in most cities, which can lead to misleading fatality statistics, Shahum pointed out. For example, if a city has more cyclists and a slight increase in injuries and deaths among that group, the rate of safety may still have increased relatively. Some groups are urging state and federal leaders to measure those modes more carefully.

Then there can be issues with the data that is gathered. All five cities in CityLab’s analysis have detailed public information sets about every crash that occurs within their boundaries, usually gathered by local police departments. But we found that this data is often riddled with inaccuracies or missing information. For example, someone who is seriously injured in a crash who later dies from their injuries might show up in the data as an injury, rather than a death. To counteract this, many of these cities have to laboriously clean and update data for periodic reports, whose totals can be quite different from what shows up in the raw data.

For example, raw crash data released by the California Highway Patrol and official data from San Francisco’s Vision Zero office show close or identical fatality figures for many years. But in other years they diverge sharply, such as 2015, where the Vision Zero data showed seven motorists dying in traffic crashes, versus just one from the highway patrol’s data.

According to an SFMTA spokesperson, among the possible reasons for the discrepancy include some methodological differences, such as crashes where a bicyclist dies but no motor vehicle is involved; San Francisco counts that as a “traffic fatality,” but the California Highway Patrol’s data doesn’t include it.

And as for data about injuries—whose elimination is part of the Vision Zero goal—the raw, uncleaned data is often the only data available. That became a barrier to performing certain types of analyses of injury trends for this story.

Still, when we are able to track and chart this data, the gloomy patterns that emerge beg the question: Has Vision Zero been a failure? Or, is “eliminating traffic fatalities” the wrong framework, given how quixotic the quest currently seems to be?

Not for Shahum of the Vision Zero Network. “Vision Zero is not a slogan, tagline, or even a program,” she said. “It has to be a transformative shift in how you’re doing business on the issue of mobility.” To her, the first five years have been a starting point of a shift that will take years, which means that cities that were already further ahead on walking, transit, and biking will have more progress to show than cities with more driving DNA.

There is evidence that the shift is happening. Just ten years ago, projects like the Better Market Street in San Francisco or the 14th Street Busway in New York City would not have been politically feasible. The slow but growing momentum behind Vision Zero is also starting to align with the implications of climate change, pushing the notion of people-first streets into the political mainstream for those cities, said Shahum, and others are likely to follow.

“Even if a city isn’t trending perfectly to zero… was that ever going to be the case? No,” she said. “But at least we can track some of the work they’re putting into it and the changes they’re making. And those bigger changes are starting to happen.”

In the meantime, that big bold zero may help advocates keep pressing for more investments, better data, and bigger changes to their local streetscapes, and to keep holding leaders to account.

Get access to the data used in the story here.

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CityLab Daily: What Happens When Venice Floods

What We’re Following

High water mark: With the highest waters in Venice in more than 50 years, Mayor Luigi Brugnaro says a Wednesday flood will leave a “permanent mark” on his historic Italian city. The water peaked at six feet, flooding the landmark St. Mark’s Basilica for only the sixth time in its 1,200 year history. The flood has already resulted in two deaths.

Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro wades in St. Mark’s Square during exceptionally high water levels. (Manuel Silvestri/Reuters)

Issuing a state of emergency for the city, Brugnaro blamed the effects of climate change for exacerbating the lagoon city’s seasonal high waters. What makes this round of destruction especially frustrating is that Venice’s massive flood defense system, a string of raisable barriers to block tidal surges, is almost complete. CityLab’s Feargus O’Sullivan has the story: Venice Faces ‘Apocalyptic’ Flooding

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

The Paris Metro Is Full

The good news: Transit ridership is booming in the French capital. But severe crowding now has authorities searching for short-term solutions.

Feargus O’Sullivan

How Ronald Reagan Halted the Early Anti-Gentrification Movement

An excerpt from Newcomers, a new book by Matthew L. Schuerman, documents the early history of the anti-gentrification and back-to-the-city movements.

Matthew L. Schuerman

Can These Efforts Stem the Violence Against Trans Women of Color?

Black trans women suffer particularly high rates of murder. Some city-based efforts are giving money and free rides to trans women of color.

Ananya Garg

There’s No App for Getting People Out of Their Cars

“Mobility as a Service” boosters say that technology can nudge drivers to adopt transit and micromobility. But big mode shifts will take more than a cool app.  

David Zipper

What We’re Reading

Red and blue economies are heading in sharply different directions (New York Times)

Tech’s transportation companies keep bending the knee to Saudi Arabia (The Verge)

The suburbs issue (Curbed)

Picturing Manhattan’s shortest buildings: the anti-skyscrapers (Atlas Obscura)

A Philadelphia trauma center closure could mean more shooting deaths—and tough-on-crime talk (The Appeal)

Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to hello@citylab.com.

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Who Decides What Happens Next at D.C.’s RFK Stadium?

Back in June, international soccer star Wayne Rooney joined a ribbon-cutting opening for a suite of new multipurpose recreation fields in Washington, D.C. He was an awfully big get for the event, given that these fields won’t be used by D.C. United, his (soon-to-be-former) team, or any other professional sports outfit. The Fields at RFK Campus is a venue for locals and amateurs, available for league play and pickup games.

For more than 20 years, D.C. United played at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, but the soccer team moved across town, to Audi Field in southwest D.C., in 2018. The Washington Nationals also called RFK home for its first three seasons in D.C. after the franchise moved from Montreal in 2005. Those aren’t even the only professional baseball and soccer teams that have held the fort at RFK, which is best known anyway for its three decades of service as the rumbly home of D.C.’s pro football franchise, which played its last game there in 1996. The city’s NFL games are now played at a built-to-order stadium in suburban Maryland.

Now, for the first time in its long and checkered history, RFK Stadium sits vacant, a placeholder for intramural sports at the nearby fields. Officials have given notice: The nearly 60-year-old stadium will be demolished within the next two years. It’s just too expensive to keep the facility standing.

The RFK Stadium campus totals 190 acres right along the Anacostia River—an enormous tract of land for the geographically challenged District of Columbia. It isn’t destined to serve as flag-football grounds. Investors, leaders, and residents are lining up with ideas for what to do next with the plot. The current master plan offers three concepts. A new NFL stadium (possibly with a windsurf-able moat) would bring the city’s NFL franchise back inside the District border. Another plan could see the Capital One Arena, home to the Wizards and Capitals, move here from its current home downtown. A final possibility shows a vast reach of indeterminate sports fields and rec centers without any one anchor tenant.

Many neighbors and residents would like to see a fourth option: more housing. The moat might be more likely.

With a booming local economy and several recent championships to its name, the District has changed since football moved to the suburbs. A stadium that only hosts NFL games and hapless classic rock revivals no longer makes the same sense in an expensive and desirable city, where housing is rare and displacement is a worry. But D.C. is prevented from even considering using RFK’s expanse of empty parking lots to build housing, thanks to the nature of the city’s weird relationship to the federal government. And the only way that’s going to change is if the District’s local leaders unite on this issue, either for or against the urban stadium.

Nobody agrees about what to do next. That’s normal. What’s more unusual is the fact that no one knows exactly how to proceed with any development. It’s a peculiarity of D.C.’s unique city status: The land belongs to the federal government, and the District leases it from the feds, so to change the lease requires action from Congress. The current lease requires the campus to be used for sports and recreation, and it expires in 2038—too soon for the city to put into motion any long-term plans. To do anything with the site requires putting a plan in front of Congress, and that process has already opened a rift between the council and the mayor’s office.

“I certainly think that the District should be in control of the land and the site,” says Charles Allen, council member for Ward 6, where RFK Stadium is located. “I think that’s probably about the last place of agreement that we have with the mayor in terms of what should be done with it.”

In order to move forward, city leaders must sort out several thorny problems at once. They need to purchase or take ownership over a mile-long parcel of dozens of acres of land stretching along the Anacostia River. They need to strike an agreement that gives the city a greater hand over the development of the site. And they need to decide whether the idea of an urban stadium in this location still makes sense in the D.C. of 2019.

A rendering of the RFK campus that shows some of the short-term changes and amenities in the works. (OMA)

The city is already pursuing the land itself. D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton introduced a bill earlier this year that would authorize the National Park Service to sell the land to the District at fair market value. Gregory O’Dell, the president and CEO for Events DC, the city’s official sports authority and the agency with the lease, says that the sale could also take the form of a fee-simple transfer or a long extension. A 99-year lease for $1 would be a straightforward answer for the disposition of unused federal land that only the city can realistically occupy.

Yet powerful members of Congress won’t take the city up on its offer unless the city promises not to build another stadium for the Washington professional football team, which is exactly what some local leaders hope to do at RFK. Minnesota Representative Betty McCollum, who leads the House Appropriations subcommittee on the interior and co-chairs the Congressional Native American Caucus, has said she firmly opposes a new stadium and considers the team name to be a racial slur. New Mexico Senator Tom Udall, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee, shared similar objections after a failed effort by local and federal officials to slip a stadium provision into a GOP spending bill in 2018.

Distant lawmakers are happy to hold up the lease in order to thwart Washington football team owner Dan Snyder from building a new stadium for a team with a controversial name. So why not just change the name? That would certainly ease the path to building a stadium at RFK, but Snyder is firmly opposed to changing the name. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser isn’t forcing the issue, either. NFL team owners have leverage over these demands, since they can move the team elsewhere, and D.C.’s suburbs in Virginia and Maryland are even more accommodating.

“The mayor has signaled her desire to bring the team back to Washington, D.C.,” says John Falcicchio, interim deputy mayor for planning and economic development. “In terms of what that would look like, we don’t have anything further that we’ve mapped out, other than RFK would be the only site where it would be feasible.”

The return of Washington football is a divisive subject in the District. Some on the D.C. Council, including Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray, want to bring the NFL team back from suburban Maryland, where its lease for FedEx Field—a boring but serviceable stadium in a residential area—expires in 2027. More than half of D.C. respondents said they would like to see a new stadium for the team at RFK in a 2016 poll, although support fell when the question turned to public funding.

On this point, the District’s RFK dilemma resembles other stadium conflicts around the country. Team owners in the NFL have turned to localities for public funding for stadiums that now routinely cost $1 billion. Owners frequently threaten to withdraw their teams and move to a different market when cities raise objections to their stadium demands. And not just in the NFL: Cities are now chasing professional soccer franchises by promising them top-dollar, publicly funded arenas.  

Sometimes the city has no say. The Minnesota Vikings were able to land a new billion-dollar home in Minneapolis without local consent, despite a public referendum requirement. In D.C., Bowser arguably disregarded home rule by working with Snyder and Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration for a federal back-door solution to RFK last year.

Lisa Delpy Neirotti, professor of sport management at George Washington University, says she supports a new NFL stadium at RFK as a boon to the surrounding neighborhood and another source of revenue for the city. She recalls speaking at 11:30 at night before the D.C. Council to voice her support for public financing for Nationals Park, which won a vote for public funding by the very narrowest of margins. Growth in the Navy Yard neighborhood around the ballpark area is so explosive today that it makes up a significant and rising share of city revenues, and the city has gone on to approve public financing for a dedicated soccer arena.

“[The financing] wasn’t taking away from schools. It wasn’t taking away from libraries,” Neirotti says. “The money is being generated when the stadium is built.”

Tax-increment financing, the instrument used to finance Nationals Park, leaves the city on the hook if revenues can’t pay off the capital investment. Not a chance at Nationals Park: Navy Yard’s households have quadrupled, area median incomes have more than doubled, and residential and commercial real estate value has shot up from $1.15 billion to $2.65 billion over a decade, according to The Washington Post.

Bowser has taken to calling the city the “District of Champions,” a reference to recent titles bagged by the NHL’s Capitals, WNBA’s Mystics, and the MLB’s Nationals. The city may well be on a 3–0 winning streak in public investment in their respective arenas, too. But pro football will be different, Allen says, because a gridiron-only stadium sees so little use: only eight home games per season, plus a pair of preseason contests. He also argues that strong parks, infrastructure, a rising economy, and the waterfront all contribute to the explosion of growth at Navy Yard.

It’s a rare success story: Stadiums and arenas never deliver on their promises, on average, according to Dennis Coates at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He began tracking stadium growth in 1995, when the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore to become the Ravens, bringing pledges of jobs and growth. Looking at 35 cities that gained or lost sports stadiums and teams over 35 years, Coates found that job growth was minimal and income gains were negative.

Coates’s research contributes to a large body of academic research that shows that sports taxes aren’t worth it. But the near-consensus among academics has rarely mattered much when the local team’s owner shows up hat in hand. The arguments for stadiums have cycled over the years, Coates says, between claims of direct economic impact and support for a more intangible boost in a city’s image.

Yet the actual split in costs and revenue has tilted over time in favor of owners. Revenues for parking and concessions, which used to be governed mostly by the city, now tend to favor the owner. Publicly funded stadiums are more privatized than they used to be. That’s clear just from looking at RFK Stadium: A no-frills multipurpose facility built in 1961, its lack of luxury sky boxes and other premium amenities aimed at affluent fans make it look like a relic.

“Even on the cost side, in the past, it was unusual for the contract between the club and the city or the club and management group to not involve the club covering game-day costs,” Coates says. “A lot of those operating costs are now being picked up by the city.”

One possible future for RFK. (OMA)

McCollum, the Minnesota representative, has said that she supports statehood and home rule for the District, but that Congress has no business subsidizing a billionaire NFL team owner by giving him federal land for a stadium, even if that’s what the city wants to do. By that logic, a new basketball and hockey arena for billionaire Ted Leonsis might not be any easier to build. Under the current lease, the city can only use the land for sports and recreational uses—and in the current era, sports stadiums only get built with public subsidies. If members of Congress hold to a no-stadium-boondoggle rule, then that might totally rule out sports.

In regular quarterly community hearings on the subject, area residents have said that they want to see more parks and affordable housing. But many could sour on the idea if it were to become a reality: The city faces opposition to building housing almost everywhere else, and neighbors might find that they prefer the current low-impact blend of recreation fields and centers.

In the near term, Events DC will continue to pursue amenities at RFK, including pedestrian bridges to connect the recreation areas to communities east of the river, a food and beverage hall, and a suitable memorial to former U.S. attorney general and senator Robert F. Kennedy, who will be left without one when the stadium meets the wrecking ball.

Keeping the stadium isn’t an option: It costs millions just to keep the increasingly tattered structure standing empty. Digging up its many surface parking lots, which shuttle stormwater runoff into the river, is the best thing the city can do with the site. For now, a long-term plan is out of reach.

“With something of that magnitude, it would really have to be a citywide conversation, about the elements that folks wanted to see,” Falcicchio says.

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