Where Inmates Are Getting Bailed Out in the Coronavirus Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is Vienna Really All That Livable? Depends on Where You Look.

Last year, Vienna took first place in The Economist’s Global Liveability Index. This was familiar turf for the Austrian capital, which has been trading first and second place on the annual ranking with Melbourne, Australia, since 2015.

But according to a report from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), Vienna’s dominant position on the index may be flawed, because the metrics used by the Economist Intelligence Unit to rank urban livability fail to sufficiently account for many environmental factors. It’s not that Vienna’s conditions are poor by international standards. What the report suggests is that city rankings in general might be falling short because they take a too-narrow view of what “livability” means.

“We already knew that the index didn’t really take environmental factors into account, such as air pollution, noise levels, green spaces.” ISGlobal report co-author Sasha Khomenko told CityLab by telephone. “We wanted to do a comparison and see if there was a mismatch between livability and environmental health.”

The tendency of rankings to provide incomplete accounts of a city’s livability is a theme that CityLab has previously explored: When rankings focus closely on the needs of a rarified group as representing those of the whole, they can neglect the experience of other social segments, which might produce starkly different results. In Vienna’s case, the ISGlobal researchers found that even this famously salubrious city harbors a “mortality burden that is quite considerable when you consider that Vienna is ranked as the most livable city.”

The EIU’s rankings don’t ignore the environment entirely. The Global Livability Index does, for example, look at humidity and temperatures and how uncomfortable the climate is to travelers, along with the availability of housing, healthcare, public transit and sporting amenities. But other important factors are left out, the report points out. The index doesn’t measure the urban heat island effect, for example, which can vary dramatically within a city (and tends to disproportionately affect lower-income residents). Similarly, the ranking doesn’t measure access to green space, noise pollution, and how physically active its residents are — all of which are strongly influenced by planning decisions. Furthermore, creating a single city-wide ranking suggests there’s an overall harmony across the entire municipality, masking differences between richer and poorer areas, or the city core and its suburbs.

To rectify this, the ISGlobal report looked at the extent to which Vienna deviated from international recommendations on physical activity, pollution, noise, green space and heat. It found that failure to meet these recommendations was responsible for 8% of premature deaths in the city, shortening adult Vienna residents’ life expectancy by an average of 199 days. Meanwhile, residents of the city center lived under far more polluted conditions than most on the periphery.

By international standards, these figures are hardly disastrous: In Barcelona, for example, ISGlobal’s report notes that the same cluster of factors shortens life expectancy by an average of 300 days. (By comparison, the failure to meet WHO guidelines on air pollution alone shortens life expectancy in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh by a whopping 8.6 years.) They do nonetheless serve as a corrective to an overly rosy picture.

The impression gained from the report’s new metrics isn’t entirely negative, however. In mapping pollution across the city, researchers found that wealthier citizens tended to enjoy healthier environmental conditions overall — but this link was not automatic. As the map below details, Vienna’s greatest concentration of environmental burdens is in the city core, an area in which, in keeping with broader European urban patterns, both richer and poorer residents live close to each other under similar environmental conditions (at least outside their homes). Meanwhile, some outlying areas house residents with low socioeconomic status but have good environmental standards — suggesting that in Vienna, wealth does not automatically determine how healthy the environment you live in is.

Pollution burdens in Vienna are concentrated near the city’s center. (ISGlobal)

Including factors like access to green space and pollution might be enough to dethrone Vienna from its perch atop global rankings, since Scandinavian cities such as Oslo can boast cleaner air and more evenly distributed parks. But there’s something broader amiss than a mere blip in the league table, suggest the report’s authors.

“The main issue with the Global Livability Index is that it’s not developed for the citizens of the city,” Khomenko said. “It’s mainly built for ex-pats who are moving to cities on the index, so they can be given more wages if they go to worse places to live.”

This opinion isn’t entirely disputed by the Economist Intelligence Unit. “There is some truth in the idea that the Global Livability Index was set up mainly with the idea of companies and individuals looking to relocate in mind,” says EIU analyst Nicholas Fitzroy. “But since then, interest in it has greatly expanded, and it gets a lot of broader international attention. It’s something people genuinely care about. And I’d say that information provided for people who are relocating still has a lot of relevance for people who have been living in a city long term. There isn’t a huge difference there.” Adding more metrics for local environmental factors isn’t in the immediate future, but “it’s something we are always looking at at,” he said.

While there may be an appetite for urban rankings that are primarily tools for multinational companies or city-shopping nomads, the ISGlobal report makes a case for a more citizen-focused livability index, one that doesn’t end up masking the gulf between the conditions experienced by various classes in different parts of the same city. Following the model currently being adopted by Paris, it could also factor in proximity to amenities like schools, medical offices, and food stores. Tweaking the way livability is measured wouldn’t necessarily knock prosperous cities with good infrastructure like Vienna from the upper reaches of city rankings — but it might prove a more accurate register of what living there is really like.

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Where Did ‘The Gates’ Lead?

When the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude arrived in New York City from Paris in 1964, the view of Lower Manhattan from their place aboard the transatlantic liner S.S. France stuck with them. Soon after, the married couple, who dreamed of making installations on an urban scale, decided they wanted to do something for their adopted hometown. Christo sketched out an idea, a drawing over a photograph snapped by Jeanne-Claude. His drawing showed two towers, 2 Broadway and 20 Exchange Place, wrapped in fabric and tied up in rope — skyscrapers packaged like gifts to the city.

The answer from the owners of the buildings: Thanks, but no thanks. Nobody was interested in this oddball idea. The artists also couldn’t find a taker for their proposal to wrap One Times Square, the site of the world-famous New Year’s Eve ball drop. The Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art likewise demurred.

Undeterred, the artists dreamed bigger. In 1979, with a few successful projects elsewhere under their belts, Christo and Jeanne-Claude once again pitched New York, this time approaching the city directly with a scheme for a different kind of project. With The Gates, the artists imagined saffron-colored flags waving from thousands of gates erected along miles of walkways through Central Park.

Under no circumstances, replied the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation: The Gates was (1978) that tracked the artists as they trudged through local bureaucracy. For that piece, Running Fence, Christo and Jeanne-Claude designed a 24.5-mile fence that zig-zagged across northern California like a fabric Great Wall. Ranchers who owned the land in Marin and Sonoma Counties — ranchers with whom the artists cultivated a relationship — largely supported Running Fence. The artists’ works often struck a note of solidarity, uniting workers against cold apparatchiks or wealthy gentry. The documentary follows the artists’ meetings with ranchers as well as with state regulators, who were dead set against it.

Artworks such as Running Fence or The Gates leveraged a moment of absurdity against the structures and systems that we accept as rational and given. In order to get to “yes” for Over the River — an unrealized proposal to suspend a fabric drape over nearly six miles of the Arkansas River in southern Colorado — the U.S. Bureau of Land Management required the artists to produce an environmental impact statement. The resulting 1,686-page artifact is a testament to the artists’ dedication to their gentle, poetic visions, outlasting countless NIMBY assemblies and entire government regimes.

Generating that document was the end of Over the River. The BLM approved the project in 2011, but it will never be realized. Christo, who arrived to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant, canceled Over the River in 2017 in protest of the Trump administration’s policies. It’s hard to imagine even the tenacious Jeanne-Claude getting a project like The Gates done today in New York City, where public opposition to badly needed development has led to a crushing affordable housing crisis.

After two weeks passed and the ephemeral project was concluded, the acidity of The Gates debate looked silly in retrospect. The craziest thing about the project was the idea that anyone would ever resist it. That might be the lasting value of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s artwork: The artists exposed the folly of hysterical NIMBYism. Today, with the veto power of neighbors at its zenith, their work is more necessary than ever.

The journalist John Tierney called it, kicking the tires on The Gates for a Times essay in 1996, the year after the celebrated Reichstag wrapping but still a decade out from the piece going up in Central Park.

“Here was an acclaimed artist offering to donate a work that would delight throngs of strollers, offer spectacular views, create jobs and provide cash to the city,” Tierney wrote. “How dare he!”

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Where Light Pollution Is Seeping Into the Rural Night Sky

The rule of thumb is that if you want to see the Milky Way, you have to venture out to the countryside. That’s where the illumination from streetlights and brightly lit offices that floods cities hasn’t obscured the night sky. But a recent map tracking the artificial lighting seen at night through satellite imagery paints a very different picture. In the map of the United States by Tim Wallace, a cartographer at Descartes Labs, metropolitan areas like New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago are dark, while rural areas in the Dakotas and sparsely populated towns right outside major urban centers stand out as bright spots.

It’s not that cities have dramatically reduced light pollution (they haven’t). Most of the light is coming from places where there are lots of people,” Wallace says of traditional nighttime maps, which look almost identical to population density maps. Instead, Wallace’s map is the result of taking 2015 nighttime data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and (roughly) normalizing it for population so that it shows the amount of light emitted per person in an area.

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Where America’s Climate Migrants Will Go As Sea Level Rises

When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita swept through Louisiana in 2005, cities like Houston, Dallas, and Baton Rouge took in hundreds of thousands of displaced residents—many of whom eventually stayed in those cities a year later. Where evacuees have moved since hasn’t been closely tracked, but data from those initial relocations are helping researchers predict how sea level rise might drive migration patterns in the future.

Climate experts expect some 13 million coastal residents in the U.S. to be displaced by the end of this century. A new PLOS One study gives some indication of where climate migrants might go.

“A lot of cities not at risk of sea of level rise will experience the effect of it,” says Bistra Dilkina, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California, who led the study. “This will require an adjustment in terms of the [increased] demand on the cities’ infrastructure.”

Dilkina and her team used migration data from the Internal Revenue Service to analyze how people moved across the U.S. between 2004 and 2014. Movement from seven Katrina and Rita-affected counties to unaffected counties between 2005 and 2006 was categorized as climate-driven migration. Researchers then combined that analysis with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) projections on the effects of sea level rise on coastal counties, and trained a machine-learning model to predict where coastal populations will move when forced to leave their homes—and how that, in turn, affects the migration of non-coastal residents.

Blue indicates counties where flooding will displace residents if sea levels rise by six feet by 2100. Counties in shades of pink and red will see higher-than-average migration, with the darker shades representing larger population increases. (PLOS One)

In the worst-case scenario, in which sea levels rise by six feet by 2100, the resulting map shows portions of almost all counties on the East and West Coasts, and along the Gulf of Mexico, under water. It also shows that cities closest to the flood-prone areas, and that aren’t typically attractive destinations for newcomers, could see a higher-than-average influx of migrants. In Florida, for example, that means people may increasingly move to the shrinking core of the peninsula as the coastlines disappear into the ocean. Demographer Mathew Hauer, whose climate migration research was a building block for Dikina’s, explained in Audubon Magazine that people tend to move to familiar places nearby, where they might already have friends, family, or some other support network. People may also flock to major urban centers like Dallas and Houston, which the model predicts will absorb the most migrants, and drive up the pace of urbanization.

In the short to medium term, cities on the receiving end will likely face a housing crunch, according to Jesse Keenan, a climate adaptation expert at Harvard University who was not involved in the study. He points to the 2018 wildfire that displaced some 50,000 residents in and around the city of Paradise, California. “It’s increased the property values of neighboring towns,” he says. One such town is Chico, which became the top refuge destination and turned into a boomtown almost overnight. By the end of that year, home sales doubled and housing prices jumped 21 percent, compared to December 2017.

In the long term, “that’s going to lead to displacement, housing pressure, and probably even to homelessness among people who are being indirectly forced out by the people moving in,” Keenan says—a phenomenon he calls “climate gentrification.”

Those with the means to move will likely relocate to another big city away from the coast, in search of comparable or better economic opportunities, according to the latest study. Many may end up moving to the suburbs in the Midwest, where the model shows a larger-than-average influx of migrants compared to historic trends.

Dilkina is careful to describe the study as only an “approximation” of how sea level change might drive migration patterns, not a precise picture of where people will actually move. “There’s still a lot of need for understanding different drivers and externalities,” she says, adding that her team will be presenting their results at various meetings and conferences with other academics who may want to collaborate. “We are setting up a model to be improved as we go.”

For one thing, sea level rise is just one effect of climate change. Heat waves will drive people north—and could make make cities like Duluth and Buffalo “climate havens.” Urban flooding will reshuffle populations within a city. And extreme storms will move people in yet other ways. Meanwhile, as in Paradise, “forest fires are going to have dramatic effects on the West Coast, including the Pacific Northwest,” says Keenan. “All of those things are changing land economics, housing economics, and public finance.”

Whether researchers can paint a precise picture of future migration patterns will require better—and more explicit—metrics for measuring how and why people move, and a better understanding of social behavior overall, says Keenan. Currently, migration data is both delayed and indirectly collected via proxies like Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) assistance applications and address changes submitted to the IRS and the post office.

Precision aside, though, Keenan thinks the value of this kind of study lies in the messaging. The map presents a “minimal threshold of the amount of people that would potentially be on the move,” he says. Socioeconomic factors—where companies create employment opportunities, who has the means to move, and how racial discrimination keeps people out, for example—will also play a role in dictating how many people move, and to where.

At the very least, it will alert policymakers to start analyzing current infrastructure investments and plan for the long term. “So if we’re going to build a road,” he says, “is this for today’s population of is this for tomorrow’s population?”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story overstated the assessment of blue regions on the climate migration map. They are counties where flooding is likely to displace residents if sea level rises by six feet by 2100.

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The Cities Americans Want to Flee, and Where They Want to Go

According to a growing pile of headlines, hordes of Californians are fed up with their expensive coastal dystopia-state and are fleeing for cheaper, less-flammable places like Idaho, driving up housing costs, ruining the local culture, and spurring a new building boom.

But U.S. Census Bureau data tells a more complex story: Though California outmigration leaped 38 percent in 2018, that was only 1.8 percent of the huge state’s population. The state still ranks in the bottom three for proportional departure rates. And Americans overall are moving at the slowest rate since 1947.

The factors limiting big moves are demographic (more older Americans are aging in place) and, more powerfully, economic (with unemployment low and remote work increasingly common, fewer people are finding jobs good enough to move for). Some worry that our reluctance to pull up stakes is deepening regional economic inequality.

But plenty of stuck Americans do wish they could move. And Apartment List, a rental property search engine, has opened a window into the nation’s mobility dreams, as people browse for new apartments in far-flung cities or neighboring towns. This week, the company released a new analysis of where it sees renters hoping to move, based on their search habits over the second half of 2019. Better (or comparable) jobs and more affordable living seemed to be prime motivators for making a switch.

While there’s no way to determine how many of these searchers actually followed through on the transitions they pursued through the platform, Chris Salviati, Apartment List’s housing economist and the author of the report, says that the site’s long registration process helps weed out those who aren’t as serious about finding a new apartment. Users’ origin city was pulled from their IP addresses; if they searched for properties multiple different areas, Salviati says he used the first place they started searching for. This is the second such report the company has released, and the first that takes two quarters into account—that could cut down on some of the seasonality reflected back in June.

Based on the results, California’s mass exodus appears to be overstated, says Salviati. While about 22 percent of Bay Area renters are peeking at Seattle, Denver, New York, and Austin, mostly, people based in San Francisco want to move somewhere nearby in California, like San Jose or Sacramento, which offer similar employment opportunities and lifestyles. (San Joseans want to move right back to San Francisco, for what it’s worth.)

Other Californians, too, feel Western ties. In Riverside, California, where 50 percent of outbound searches are for places out of the city, 40 percent of them are to nearby Los Angeles. Nearly 20 percent of Angeleno apartment hunters are interested in moving to Phoenix, Arizona; 12 percent are looking at Las Vegas, and another 12 percent are scoping out Riverside. “Phoenix is also a car-centric city, but lacks L.A.’s traffic issues,” the report notes. Nashville, Apartment List’s “most changed” metro of the decade, keeps 71.6 percent of its renters searching within the city, but of the remainder,  Los Angeles tops their wish list.

People in Boston seem to be similarly wedded to the New England area—two-thirds of Boston searches focus on the Boston; most of the remaining third are considering three slightly more affordable cities nearby; Providence, Rhode Island; Hartford, Connecticut; and Manchester, New Hampshire.

It’s a similar story in Washington, D.C.: Of the 38 percent of users who are interested in moving outside the increasingly unaffordable D.C. metro—where median incomes for families of four are $40,000 less than the salaries the Economic Policy Institute estimates will allow you to live comfortably—about 15 percent are hunting in nearby Baltimore, Maryland, which is in commuter range. Another 15 percent are looking at Philadelphia.

“What you’re seeing is really people who are moving from D.C. to find more affordable housing and probably, in the vast majority of those cases, maintaining their jobs in D.C.,” said Salviati.

There are a few cities that appear to be luring long-distance migrations. Among the top 25 largest cities, Denver, with its snowcapped mountains and tech jobs, tops the list of cities drawing far-flung inquiries: Almost half of the people looking at Denver apartments were from outside the metro area. (Between this report and the last, Denver overtook Tampa as number one.) D.C. people are the most interested in heading to Denver, a phenomenon for which techlash could be blamed, Salviati posited: “Over the past year or two, the tech industry has been subject to a lot more scrutiny generally. It might be the case that early-stage tech companies are trying to get a little bit of a jump on that by being more interested in hiring folks that have policy background.”

Ringing in second for most out-of-metro interest is Baltimore, thanks to its D.C. neighbors; third is San Diego, thanks to Riverside, L.A., and San Francisco.

On the other end of the spectrum stands Detroit: Despite the Motor City comeback hype, the Michigan city ranks dead last for share of people looking to move there from outside the metro, and it has the third-highest share looking to leave. Tourism-heavy Orlando, Florida, ties Riverside for first in renters trying to escape. But they, too, aren’t looking to make major cross-country moves, instead drawn to other economies in the Southeast; meanwhile, they’re still drawing 34 percent of their search traffic from out of the city.

As CityLab’s Laura Bliss noted in her coverage of the previous Apartment List report, this portrait of American wanderlust doesn’t necessarily line up with actual urban growth patterns, and the data reflects only the users of a single apartment-hunting website—a group that’s younger, more affluent, and more female than the overall population. Still, the report seems to confirm one overarching narrative about the state of American mobility: Most of those who yearn to move are not looking to get very far.

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CityLab Daily: Where Cuts to Food Aid Will Hurt the Most

Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter here.

***

What We’re Following

Snap off: On Wednesday, the Trump administration took the first step in a series of three major changes that could see millions booted from food benefits. A new rule announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would revise work requirements for receiving SNAP benefits, kicking an estimated 688,000 people out of the program. The rule curbs the flexibility of states to provide extra assistance in areas with high unemployment, particularly in response to a recession or other changing economic conditions.

If the change had been in place last year, the total number of households participating in SNAP would have fallen 5 percent in nine states. CityLab’s Kriston Capps has the details on where this change would affect the most people: Thanks to New SNAP Rules, Millions May Lose Food Aid

Andrew Small


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Worlds Apart

Tehran on the left, Pittsburgh on the right. (The Other Apartment)

You’re not seeing double. Those are two different apartments in the photo above. Two artists have put the idea of visiting someone else’s home to a new test with an installation called The Other Apartment. Over four months this year, Sohrab Kashani and Jon Rubin recreated Kashani’s Tehran apartment more than 6,300 miles away inside Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory Art Museum.

Bridging the geographic, cultural, and political divides between Iran and the United States is tough enough, but Kashani and Rubin face another hurdle: collaborating across the Trump administration’s 2017 travel ban. They made the duplicate apartment by coordinating entirely through photos, sketches, spreadsheets, and video chats. On CityLab: In ‘The Other Apartment,’ One Home Spans a Deep Divide


What We’re Reading

Attorney General William Barr said “communities” that protest cops could lose “the police protection they need” (Washington Post)

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Kamala Harris’s criminal justice record killed her presidential run (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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CityLab Daily: Where Flooding Is Sinking Real Estate Values the Most

Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter

A house built to withstand a storm surge and hurricane-force winds. (Nexus Media)

Bay St. Louis comes out near the top of the list. But even there, not all properties are losing value equally. Ironically, properties right on the water seem to be in the highest demand. After a post-Hurricane Katrina building boom, some waterfront homes were built more than 20 feet in the air and fortified to withstand hurricane-force winds. One real estate agent says questions about climate change and sea level rise hardly come up with homebuyers in these flood-prone areas—but at least they come with a view of the water. Josh Landis of Nexus Media has the story on CityLab: Where Flooding Is Sinking Real Estate Values the Most

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What We’re Reading

What Amazon costs its warehouse communities (New York Times)

One city’s plan to combat climate change: Bulldoze homes and rebuild paradise (Washington Post)

Want to get people to fly less? Stop funding airport expansions (Curbed)

Is it time to take highways out of cities? (Forbes)

3 kids. 2 paychecks. No home. (California Sunday)


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Where Flooding Is Most Affecting Property Values

Ankle-deep in the overflow of the river that drew her here two decades ago, Calinda Crowe looked across her land, envisioning the future. She didn’t like what she saw.

“You wake up to this,” she said, gesturing toward the water submerging everything but the concrete foundation of her raised home. “It upsets you, you know, because it’s supposed to be ‘dream home’ type stuff. Not with this.” A turtle floated to the surface near the bulkhead dividing her yard from the bayou.

Crowe bought her home near Mississippi’s Pearl River 17 years ago because of its proximity to the wilderness and its stunning views. With no buildings bordering her to the north, the wetlands and the river feel like extensions of her property.

But she says if she knew then what she knows now, she wouldn’t have bought it. She understood the risks of hurricanes and storm-driven flooding, but she didn’t anticipate the persistent inundation of water that even a stray breeze off the Gulf of Mexico can bring.

Unfortunately, her home has gotten harder to sell. Crowe lives in a region of southwestern Mississippi that includes Bay St. Louis, which has experienced one of the most dramatic losses of flood-impacted real estate value in the United States, according to an analysis by Nexus Media in collaboration with CityLab. The city, population 13,000, lost out on more than $122 million in real estate appreciation due to the impacts of flooding. While that’s a smaller total than coastal areas like Jacksonville, Florida; or Charleston, South Carolina; the losses in Bay St. Louis likely hurt more in relative financial terms, because the median home value in Bay St. Louis is just $136,700.

News coverage of coastal real estate damage has tended to focus on high-dollar losses, often near big cities. To explore the nuances of property values and coastal flooding, Nexus Media News created a tool that identifies where people have felt the effect of flooding most acutely based on research by First Street Foundation. The tool shows the ratio of flood-related losses to median home value in each of the areas studied. It describes that places have taken the biggest hit relative to the value of their homes.

Navigate home value losses by highlighting on a city on the left, or selecting a state on the right and hovering around on the map.

Some of the highest relative losses are in smaller communities with less-famous coastal zip codes. One reason for this dynamic is that areas with smaller housing inventories may find it harder to attract developers to invest in new construction when flooding effects make it hard to predict future values. Another reason is that flooding insurance costs for more modest homeowners represent a great share of their annual housing budget, which would make them more likely to buy homes outside the flood-prone areas.

In all, research by First Street Foundation found that between 2005 and 2017, flooding erased nearly $16 billion of real estate appreciation in coastal areas from Maine to Texas. Put another way, were it not for flooding, coastal properties would be worth $16 billion more. (Researchers did not calculate losses in Louisiana due to the complexity of the coastal plain and the high degree of coastal engineering in the state.)

But a closer investigation of Bay St. Louis shows that not all properties are losing value equally.

Ironically, in a place under constant threat from the water, it is the properties right on the water in that seem to be in the highest demand—obscuring the larger reality about struggling properties in the area.

Waterfront homes in Bay St. Louis. (Nexus Media)

Jason Chiniche, an engineer who helps homeowners navigate the complexities of building in an extreme flood zone, said he wouldn’t have predicted the demand, given the flood risks.

“You would think it would be a detraction, but this area is the fastest-growing area in Hancock County,” he said. “Probably along the whole Coast [of Mississippi].” He said new homes overlooking the water can go for $400,000 or more—several times the average in this area.

Amy Wood, a realtor who’s been selling homes in coastal Mississippi for decades, said she has been pleasantly surprised by the sustained demand. She said buyers are even plunking down deposits as hurricanes form in the Atlantic.

“Years ago, you would never sell a house during hurricane season, and now it seems like people don’t care,” she said.

It’s not that people don’t care, but rather they have enough confidence in the strict building codes and government-backed insurance policies that the risks posed by mother nature seem manageable. Buyers are willing to put up with persistent flooding if they can purchase a home with a view of the water.

When asked if climate change or sea level rise ever comes up in her conversations with homebuyers, Wood said, “No, not really. Not in my world. It hasn’t come up with any of my clients.” Climate change is making hurricanes more intense, increasing the odds of more high-velocity storms in years to come.

After Katrina laid waste to much of the Gulf Coast, Bay St. Louis’s future was at first uncertain. But then came an explosion of construction projects backed by taxpayer-supported insurance policies. The guarantee of insurance has given banks, mortgage companies, and homeowners reason to build in a region that is exquisitely vulnerable to flooding. The building boom has coincided with a revitalization of the downtown area of Bay St. Louis, which now bills itself as a more laid-back version of New Orleans. A line of lively bars and restaurants overlook a waterfront promenade built upon a massive, post-Katrina storm surge barrier. Each year the city hosts its own Mardi Gras parade and advertising campaigns feature music invoking the soundtrack of the Crescent City.

Strict building codes require many homes in southwest Mississippi to be built more than 20 feet in the air. (Nexus Media)

“I think now we’ve been long enough that people are now moving back closer to the water,” she said, adding that the mayor likes to say that water got the city into a mess during Hurricane Katrina, but that water will rescue the city now, as people are drawn to the beach.

This corner of Hancock County has been spared another major hurricane to date, but persistent flooding is still a problem. Janyne Crapeau, owner of the Turtle Landing Bar and Grill, said her property is frequently inundated. The constant flooding means lost revenue.

“A lot of times when the parking lot is [flooded] people that were planning on coming here just keep on going. We’re on a scenic highway. They don’t want to pull into a muddy parking lot,” she said.

A neighborhood in Bay St. Louis, immediately after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and in 2019. (Google Earth)

She has put the business up for sale. Crapeau says the bar has a loyal customer base that a new owner could inherit, but she warns potential buyers that frequent flooding comes with the territory. She doesn’t think she will be able to sell to someone in the area..

“A lot of people are just selling out and getting out,” she said. “They don’t want to have to put up with [the flooding] anymore.”

Tim Blackwell is among those who opted to leave. He said his former insurance company declined to pay for repairs needed after the last flood they endured. The company then discontinued their policy. That’s when Blackwell and his wife decided to move.

“I contacted a real estate agent, and he said, ‘Nobody’s going to buy this,’” Blackwell said. He said that since the tax bill for the year was more than the property was worth, he and his wife had little choice but to walk away.

A house built to withstand a storm surge and hurricane-force winds. (Nexus Media)

“Out of pocket, we probably lost half a million dollars, with what we paid for the house and the property and the improvements and all the things we did,” he said. “We got nothing.” He said the whole affair was heartbreaking.

“We really liked it. We were going to be here until we died,” he said. “I had plans to be buried nearby.”

Blackwell isn’t the only one feeling the pain. Jeremy Porter, a data consultant for First Street Foundation, said that while frequent flooding costs homeowners, they’re not the only ones who pay a price.

“Everybody experiences [flooding] one way or the other, whether it’s disrupted commutes, closed roads, closed schools, whatever it might be, it ends up impacting the entire community.”

Calinda Crowe said that, for now, she will live with regular flooding because, despite the nightmares, there are days when hers is still a dream home.

“I love it. Love it,” she said, looking at the receding waters. “Wish it was different. What do you do?”

This work is supported by a grant from the International Center for Journalists funded by Microsoft News.

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Where Tech Companies Spent Millions in Municipal Elections—and Lost

How much political power does $1.5 million buy?

That’s how much Amazon donated to a Seattle Political Action Committee that aims to swing the city council towards a more pro-business agenda. The company, which is headquartered downtown, has influenced the council successfully before, donating $25,000 to a campaign to kill a per-employee head tax that would have gone towards funding homelessness initiatives in the city.

This time, according to early voting results, Amazon didn’t win.

To be fair, it didn’t quite lose, either. Out of the seven city council candidates Amazon supported, four appear poised to win their elections. (One of the four, Jim Pugel, is only leading by a tiny margin.) That’s not quite enough to secure a majority on Seattle’s nine-member council, but enough to move the needle.

Another of the pro-business candidates, Egan Orion, struck a key blow, likely defeating Kshama Sawant, a pro-labor city council member in the Socialist Alternative Party who’s long been a thorn in the side of Amazon and other large corporations. She branded the head tax the “Amazon tax,” and called this week’s election a fight over the “soul of Seattle.” (Supporters note that Sawant came back from a more than seven-point deficit during her last election, and that her fate won’t be assured until all the votes are tallied at the end of this week.)

Framing the stakes of the election, Sawant told the New York Times recently: “The question is: Is Seattle going to become a playground for only the very wealthy, or is it going to be a city that serves the needs of ordinary people?”

Amazon wasn’t the only business that spent big on city campaigns. From San Francisco to Jersey City, tech companies poured money into nudging the outcome of ballot questions on whether to regulate, tax, or expand their power, in some cases contributing to new spending records at the city level. And despite million-dollar campaigns launched by companies like Juul and Airbnb, Amazon wasn’t the only one to see voters defy them.

In San Francisco, a measure that would have overturned the city’s e-cigarette sales ban lost by an overwhelming margin, meaning the moratorium will hold. Initially, venture-backed vape pen company Juul spent $11 million on a campaign to overturn the ban, but it pulled its support before the vote amid public health concerns.

In Jersey City, a bill to regulate the 3,000 Airbnb rentals that locals complain are flooding the city with unruly tourism passed, despite a $4.2 million campaign by the short-term rental platform to defeat it. Airbnb blamed the hotel lobby, which spent only $1 million.

And also in San Francisco, Uber and Lyft took a different strategy: They both supported a small tax of 3.25 percent on most Uber and Lyft rides, introduced as an alternative to a more punitive tax that could have been levied without voter approval. The ride-hailing companies contributed comparatively modest amounts—according to campaign finance records, Lyft donated $400,000 and Uber $300,000—and the initiative was leading slightly as of publication.

Tech-money-fueled campaigns aren’t new in San Francisco. Last year, a tax on businesses to support affordable housing and homelessness not unlike Seattle’s was on the ballot, inspiring entities like Lyft, Stripe, Square, and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey to donate hundreds of thousands each to the effort to defeat it. But in that case, Salesforce and its CEO Mark Benioff also dropped almost $5 billion to pass it. Though the measure was approved by voters, it won by less than a two-thirds margin, and is currently tied up in court.

Amazon’s spending in Seattle was part of a particularly notable phenomenon: The council race was the most expensive in the city’s history, even as it tested the strength of a new initiative intended to curb big money in politics.

Under a “democracy voucher” program that came into effect this year, all registered voters in the city were sent four $25 vouchers to spend on any candidates they wanted to support—but only those who agreed to spend less than $150,000 on their general election campaigns. When business interests in the city banded together with the Chamber of Commerce to start a PAC called Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), and the cash started pouring in, candidates who had initially opted into the program asked to opt out, worried they wouldn’t be able to compete without hustling for more money.

By Election Day, the New York Times reported that “11 of the 12 general election candidates who participated in the voucher program had been released from the limits.” CASE pulled in more than $4 million, with a quarter coming from Amazon, and the rest from other companies with Seattle-area offices, like Google, Expedia, Starbucks and Microsoft.

M. Lorena González, one of two council members who represents the entire city and wasn’t up for reelection this year, is sponsoring a bill that would tighten campaign finance restrictions even more, limiting the amount corporations can donate to PACs, and effectively abolishing super PACs like the Chamber of Commerce’s CASE.

“We operate in an environment where corporations like Amazon can make unlimited contributions, because there are no regulations,” she told CityLab. “As a result you saw them put a fistful of cash on the scales of democracy to tip the city council in their favor.”

Even presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren condemned Amazon’s spending. “In a city struggling with homelessness, Amazon is dropping an outrageous amount of money to defeat progressive candidates fighting for working people,” Sanders tweeted.

CASE argues that the candidates it endorsed will not only be good for business, but for the city: Its website says they all “demonstrate a strong commitment to improving the quality of life and economic opportunities for all Seattleites,” particularly when it comes to easing traffic congestion and improving transit, instituting systemic reforms around homelessness, and supporting local business growth. Polls conducted by the Chamber and local newspapers showed that residents were disappointed with the current council, and ready for change.

González noted that what aligns several of the CASE-endorsed candidates is also an emphasis on maintaining Seattle’s “regressive tax system,” “using punitive criminal justice system tools to address homelessness,” and “not tackling criminal justice reform as a whole.” (CASE didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

With Amazon achieving less than a majority hold on the council, the takeaway some Seattle progressives left with Wednesday was that it could have been worse. “Imagine the Chamber and Amazon honchos this morning looking at City Council strategy for next year,” Seattle’s former Democratic mayor, Mike McGinn, tweeted. “Those business honchos are not sitting there clapping each other on the back saying ‘We killed it last night!’ They’re saying ‘crap—how the hell do we get to five votes on anything—we have completely lost control of the council.’” He added that during his term as mayor from 2010 to 2013, the Chamber of Commerce held seven of the nine seats, giving it a stronger pro-business bent.

But Amazon’s intervention shows that its interest in—and impact on—politics is only growing in the wake of the struggle over the head tax. On city council candidates, Amazon only spent $130,000 in 2015, according to campaign finance records, meaning their spending increased by more than 650 percent this year. (According to WUSA9, Amazon also spent almost $300,000 on Republican and Democratic house and senate races in Virginia, the state where it’s planning another large campus.)

And its spending is not always in opposition to funding public initiatives. This year, the company contributed $400,000 at the state level to join progressives in opposing a cut to car registration fees that would slash transit funding precipitously (Microsoft spent $650,000). Despite their opposition, it looks like the measure is going to pass.

This spring, the power of big spending will likely be tested again. California’s bill reclassifying gig workers as employees—which could pose an existential threat to sharing-economy companies like Uber and Lyft—could be challenged in a ballot measure funded by the two ride-hailing companies and Postmates, a fooddelivery app. Together, they’ve already contributed $90 million to the effort. That’s 60 Seattle city councils worth.

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