Posts by Author: Jared Brey

Portland, Maine, Debates and Rejects Rent Control

(Photo by Jeffrey B. Ferland)

Voters in Portland, Maine, rejected a ballot measure last week that would have established a rent stabilization program in the small coastal city, capping off months of debate over how to address rising housing costs.

The seeds of the effort were planted in 2014, after several years of steady rent increases, when a small group of renters formed a tenants union to advocate for greater tenant protections. But the rent-control initiative kicked off in earnest this past summer, when the group Fair Rent Portland registered as a political action committee. In August, the group announced that it had more than enough signatures to put an ordinance on the November ballot. In the ensuing months, Fair Rent Portland was out-fundraised by an opposing coalition of developers and landlords called Say No to Rent Control. On Election Day, the measure was soundly defeated.

If it had been approved, the referendum would have enacted a 16-page ordinance drafted by members of the Fair Rent Portland coalition. The law would have capped year-over-year rent increases, implemented a version of “just cause” eviction rules that are increasingly popular among tenant advocates, and established a seven-member Rent Board to review applications from landlords for rent increases, mediate in landlord-tenant disputes, and impose fines for violations of the ordinance.

Fair Rent Portland formed amid a sharp increase in housing demand in the city accompanied by a steady rise of rental costs. In 2015, a report from real estate website Zillow found that rents in the city had risen by more than 17 percent in one year. Rents have stabilized since 2015, according to an analysis by the Portland Press Herald (which has had exemplary coverage of housing issues in the city.) But reports of mass evictions convinced Jack O’Brien, a co-founder of Fair Rent Portland and a professor of statistics at Bowdoin College, that the city was facing a housing crisis.

In O’Brien’s view, the work of a housing committee established to deal with the crisis by City Council was unsatisfying, and leaned too heavily on the approval of landlords and developers. So he decided an independent effort was necessary. Maine’s referendum process allows citizens to create their own laws, bypassing the legislative process altogether. Fair Rent Portland convened a nine-member steering committee to write the ordinance, with assistance from a local law firm that specializes in land use. For inspiration, O’Brien studied rent control laws in West Hollywood, California, and Takoma Park, Maryland. The group decided early on to make the measure temporary, with a sunset clause kicking in after seven years, O’Brien says — something to slow the pace of cost hikes while the city figured out how to address the issue more holistically. He felt that the ordinance itself was “fairly moderate.”

But, he says, “The landlords didn’t see it that way.”

Brit Vitalius, a real estate agent, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association and spokesman for the Say No to Rent Control group, says the opposition mobilized in response to the rent control portion of the ordinance. But the other aspects of the policy were even more concerning, especially knowing that it couldn’t be overturned or even amended legislatively under Maine law. Under the terms of the proposal, the rental rates wouldn’t reset when a tenant left, meaning rent control would apply to the unit itself; that could prevent owners from making renovations to units that needed them the most, Vitalius says. The opposition worried about the prospects of a civilian board setting fines in landlord-tenant disputes. And they argued that the ordinance could actually make the affordable housing crunch worse: Thinking they would have a hard time getting rid of “problem tenants,” landlords would simply avoid leasing apartments to people with low incomes or bad credit in the first place.

“Rent control seems to protect the people who have rent today, which by definition means they can afford rent today,” Vitalius says. “The supporters were — and I’ll get a little pejorative here —were kind of the young hipsters who came to Portland, and now Portland is a cool city, and they want to live in the cool parts of the city, and those parts are getting expensive.”

Vitalius says that, while it wasn’t a key plank in Say No to Rent Control’s public arguments, it’s a fact that not everyone is going to be able to live in a city like Portland, which has limited land area and is increasingly attractive to people with more money to spend. Portland is about as small as a lot of larger cities’ neighborhoods. Concerns about affordable housing should be addressed on a more regional scale, Vitalius believes, with upzoning in nearby suburbs and investments in transportation infrastructure.

O’Brien acknowledges that the city is gentrifying, but says that Fair Rent Portland’s proposal was meant to make the city’s rising housing costs easier to handle for residents.

“Rent stabilization doesn’t prevent gentrification in the long run,” O’Brien says. “It just slows the rate at which it occurs so that it’s happening on the tenant’s time scale rather than on the landlord’s time scale.”

If they were starting over, O’Brien says, Fair Rent Portland might think about separating out the various aspects of the policy so they could be debated separately. And he wishes there had been more time for the campaign, to bring in people from other cities and talk through all the possibilities.

“We were a small volunteer organization,” O’Brien says. “And we should have thought much more carefully about how entrenched and well-funded the opposition was.”

 

Philly’s Sidewalks to Get Public WiFi (and Digital Ads)

(Credit: Intersection)

The sidewalks of Philadelphia will soon be studded with tall, slender digital kiosks, emitting public WiFi signals, inviting passersby to make free phone calls and blanketing the streetscape in ever more digital advertising.

On Nov. 1, the city’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems (OTIS) announced that the Philadelphia Art Commission, the city’s design review board, had voted to approve the LinkPHL program, which will bring 100 kiosks to streets in Center City and University City. The program — pronounced, improbably, “Link Philly” — is the third of its kind from tech company Intersection, a firm that runs similar programs in London and New York. In addition to WiFi and phone calls, the kiosks provide device charging, wayfinding information, access to emergency services and “contextual advertising,” according to an Intersection press release.

Depending on your perspective, LinkPHL and its sister programs represent either an innovative way to address issues of unequal access to digital tools, or a sophisticated new front in the battle to bring commercial advertising into the public realm. Probably it’s a bit of both.

“LinkPHL will be an investment in Philadelphia’s future, creating 21st-century infrastructure in the heart of the city,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a press release. “But more importantly, the kiosks will provide the sorts of modern services that our residents and visitors need as they work and play in the city — at no cost to taxpayers.”

It’s true that the kiosks will be free to taxpayers, and in fact the city stands to reap a revenue benefit from them as well. Under the agreement with Intersection, the city will get half of the ad revenue generated by the kiosks, after the company recoups installation costs, with a minimum yearly payment of $450,000.

And it’s also true that internet access hasn’t been extended to all Philadelphians equally. Twenty-seven percent of low-income residents had no broadband access in their homes, according to a 2013 analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Each Link sends a WiFi signal that reaches a radius of 150 to 300 feet, according to an Intersection spokeswoman.

Hannah Sassaman, policy director for the Media Mobilizing Project, which fought for greater public benefits when the Philadelphia-headquartered internet service provider Comcast was renegotiating its franchise in the city, says the kiosks will be useful to tourists but also to people struggling with homelessness. But they won’t resolve the most important issues of the digital divide, which is access to high-speed internet at home.

“It is important for us to fight the digital divide with a variety of tactics in our streets and in our common spaces, but also in our homes and our communities, and we have to remember that access to the internet every day becomes more and more of a human right,” Sassaman says. “We have to ensure that we focus on the corporate infrastructure that divides us from that right, that puts the profit of themselves and their shareholders above our human right to communicate, and that we do not settle for second-, third-, or fourth-class internet based solely on our ability to pay or access to political influence or power.”

But at least at first, the LinkPHL kiosks will be placed mostly downtown, and not in the neighborhoods where the majority of low-income residents live.

Chris Puchalsky, director of policy and strategic planning at OTIS, acknowledges that the Links are meant primarily to serve tourists, and to give local nonprofit arts organizations discounted advertising space. LinkPHL is taking a lesson from the early stumbles of LinkNYC, when residents complained about users setting up shop at the Links for hours at a time, and sometimes using the web browsers to watch pornography. The Philly kiosks will have no web browsers and no flat surfaces to rest items on, according to Puchalsky.

The LinkNYC program is now widespread, with around 1,200 active kiosks around the city. Around 2.8 million people have registered for the public WiFi through the Links, according to Stephanie Raphael, of NYC’s Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications. Every week, 75,000 phone calls are made through the kiosks, she says, and around 1,500 emergency calls. The kiosk program seems poised to spread to other cities.

In Philadelphia, one group that has been fighting the proliferation of billboards in the city for decades tried to argue a case against the kiosks before the Art Commission and in a letter-writing campaign to the mayor. The opposition, organized by Scenic Philadelphia, argued that the kiosks amount to visual pollution of the sidewalks and a potentially dangerous distraction to drivers. In an emailed response, Mayor Kenney said that there have been no complaints about safety with other Link programs, and that the city is committed to decluttering sidewalks in other ways.

The point-by-point argument went back and forth, but eventually the Art Commission voted to approve the proposal 7-1. At any rate, anti-billboard advocates are used to losing, even when they’re right.

“No matter what public benefits this proposal is touting,” the advocates for public space at Scenic Philadelphia wrote in a letter it asked its supporters to send to the mayor, “the bottom line is that this is an attempt by a private company to profit from access to Philadelphia’s public spaces.”

The mayor’s response didn’t address that point.

 

These Cleveland Stories Will Change How You Think About the Rust Belt

Two rowers on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

As a postindustrial city in a politically important swing state, Cleveland is used to the “Rust Belt” question: Is the city “coming back,” or continuing on a slow decline?

When the Republican National Convention descended on the city last summer, a writer for Columbia Journalism Review noted that some locals feared that political violence would play into a simplistic narrative of decline, but instead, “the protests outside of the convention have been remarkably quiet. And national media’s laser-like focus on political pageantry has instead fit into the city’s simplistic narrative of renewal.”

As residents of struggling cities across the U.S. know, and as Cleveland State University history professor J. Mark Souther argues in his new book, “Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in ‘The Best Location in the Nation,’” revitalization and decay are two sides of a coin, especially when seen from the wide angle of a metropolitan area. In the middle of the 20th century, inner cities began to suffer as suburbs flourished; in the last decade, downtowns have bloomed while many urban neighborhoods have continued to languish. “Believing in Cleveland” is aimed at “undoing the notion of decline and comeback as a sequential, unidirectional phenomenon,” Souther writes in the introduction.

That notion has been punctuated by various urban successes and failures. And it’s been fed by city boosters who were, in some cases, “too quick to declare victory,” Souther says. In other cases, business and civic leaders expressed private doubts about the gung-ho proclamations they made in public. Concerned about real problems facing the city — a loss of industrial jobs, the dimming of downtown commerce, racial tensions and riots — leaders in Cleveland gradually became more preoccupied by the city’s image locally and in the wider world. Those concerns grew to the point that the image of the city “took on a life of its own,” Souther says. Managing the city’s image eventually became its own exercise, connected to but distinct from more concrete measures of urban vitality.

The narrative of mid- to late-20th-century Cleveland, in Souther’s re-examination, was studded with a few key events that have, for better or worse, come to be seen as turning points in the city’s story.

Subway Defeated Twice
In the mid-1950s, efforts to build a subway system serving downtown Cleveland had public traction. In 1953, 65 percent of voters approved a $35 million bond issue to fund the project. But the project was defeated by a 2-1 vote by the County Commission in 1957, and again after a last-ditch attempt to revive it in 1959.

In the interim, the narrative had changed. In the early going, the subway system was pitched as a way of relieving automobile congestion in a growing downtown. By 1959, Clevelanders had begun to believe that the downtown was declining, and subway advocates pitched the project as a way of reversing that trend. Neither pitch was successful, but the differing rationales illuminated the city’s changing image.

“[Clevelanders] start to lament that downtown is losing its hold on suburbanites,” Souther says. “Suddenly the subway converts from being a tool for keeping downtown strong to reversing what people are starting to talk about as a decline. And that happens pretty sharply.”

The Glenville Shootout
In 1968, Cleveland’s Carl Stokes became the first elected black mayor of a major U.S. city. His election was a “beacon of hope” in the city and the country, Souther says, and civic leaders expected him to somehow bring an end to riots that had ravaged the neighborhood of Hough in the summer of 1966.

But in July 1968, a four-hour shootout in the Glenville neighborhood between police and a black militant group resulted in the deaths of seven people, including three police officers and three suspects. The shootout was followed by incidents of arson and property damage. Stokes had wrapped his early mayoral efforts under the heading of “Cleveland: Now!,” an initiative to raise funds for community development projects. But it soon came to light that some of those funds had been granted to a member of the group involved in the shootout.

“There was already this sense that, ‘Well, Stokes hasn’t done what we thought he could do,’” Souther says. “‘He hasn’t stopped another outbreak of racial violence. And then when it became known a little later that the Cleveland Now! funds had been misused in this way, that was just further support to this idea that we need to move in another direction.”

Cuyahoga River Fire
Perhaps no single event tarnished Cleveland’s image as much as a fire that broke out on the polluted Cuyahoga River in 1969. But while the event served as an easy symbol of urban crisis, it also became a rallying point for the environmental movement, culminating in landmark environmental legislation in the early 1970s.

The symbolic significance of the 1969 fire distorts the reality too: The river had ignited many times before that event. Time magazine ran a picture from a different fire on the river in the 1950s, because it couldn’t find any dramatic photography of the event in question. On the day of the event, Souther says, “Most Clevelanders weren’t even aware there was a fire.”

“If you look back at the 2016 Republican National Convention, if you read anything about Cleveland, they used that familiar refrain about the burning river and how Cleveland had bounced back since that time,” Souther says. “And they really reduced the city’s narrative to one of growth and then decline, down to the point of 1969, and then this impressive comeback.”

In fact, Cleveland’s struggles deepened throughout the 1970s — they continue into the present — but the Cuyahoga River fire serves as a symbolic lowpoint in a linear narrative of decline and revitalization.

Throughout the 20th century, Cleveland’s “growth coalition” — a loose affiliation of civic and business leaders — adopted a variety of slogans to brand the city’s image. An early slogan, which provides the subtitle for Souther’s book, was “Best Location in the Nation,” an invitation to industry to make headquarters in the city. Later the city adopted a different slogan, “The Best Things in Life Are Here,” emphasizing an emerging consumer society. But the superlatives began to seem like a joke, countered by unofficial monikers for the city like “Mistake on the Lake.”

“By the late 1970s,” Souther writes, “any Cleveland image campaign that promised the best of anything was untenable, so boosters began to craft the image of a ‘New Generation’ of public-private cooperation to propel the city forward.”

By 2015, the Downtown Cleveland Alliance was promoting a more prosaic slogan: “You Are Here.” What Souther’s book argues is that Cleveland’s considerable attempts to promote and manage its image are as much a reaction to fears of decline as they are efforts to define the city.

“In a place where people are perceiving decline, they’re always looking for the turning point,” Souther says. “Where’s the pivot? Where’s the fulcrum? You’ve got to find the fulcrum, and that tends to lead to these constructions of narratives that obscure as much as they reveal.”

 

These Cleveland Stories Will Change How You Think About the Rust Belt

Two rowers on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

As a postindustrial city in a politically important swing state, Cleveland is used to the “Rust Belt” question: Is the city “coming back,” or continuing on a slow decline?

When the Republican National Convention descended on the city last summer, a writer for Columbia Journalism Review noted that some locals feared that political violence would play into a simplistic narrative of decline, but instead, “the protests outside of the convention have been remarkably quiet. And national media’s laser-like focus on political pageantry has instead fit into the city’s simplistic narrative of renewal.”

As residents of struggling cities across the U.S. know, and as Cleveland State University history professor J. Mark Souther argues in his new book, “Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in ‘The Best Location in the Nation,’” revitalization and decay are two sides of a coin, especially when seen from the wide angle of a metropolitan area. In the middle of the 20th century, inner cities began to suffer as suburbs flourished; in the last decade, downtowns have bloomed while many urban neighborhoods have continued to languish. “Believing in Cleveland” is aimed at “undoing the notion of decline and comeback as a sequential, unidirectional phenomenon,” Souther writes in the introduction.

That notion has been punctuated by various urban successes and failures. And it’s been fed by city boosters who were, in some cases, “too quick to declare victory,” Souther says. In other cases, business and civic leaders expressed private doubts about the gung-ho proclamations they made in public. Concerned about real problems facing the city — a loss of industrial jobs, the dimming of downtown commerce, racial tensions and riots — leaders in Cleveland gradually became more preoccupied by the city’s image locally and in the wider world. Those concerns grew to the point that the image of the city “took on a life of its own,” Souther says. Managing the city’s image eventually became its own exercise, connected to but distinct from more concrete measures of urban vitality.

The narrative of mid- to late-20th-century Cleveland, in Souther’s re-examination, was studded with a few key events that have, for better or worse, come to be seen as turning points in the city’s story.

Subway Defeated Twice
In the mid-1950s, efforts to build a subway system serving downtown Cleveland had public traction. In 1953, 65 percent of voters approved a $35 million bond issue to fund the project. But the project was defeated by a 2-1 vote by the County Commission in 1957, and again after a last-ditch attempt to revive it in 1959.

In the interim, the narrative had changed. In the early going, the subway system was pitched as a way of relieving automobile congestion in a growing downtown. By 1959, Clevelanders had begun to believe that the downtown was declining, and subway advocates pitched the project as a way of reversing that trend. Neither pitch was successful, but the differing rationales illuminated the city’s changing image.

“[Clevelanders] start to lament that downtown is losing its hold on suburbanites,” Souther says. “Suddenly the subway converts from being a tool for keeping downtown strong to reversing what people are starting to talk about as a decline. And that happens pretty sharply.”

The Glenville Shootout
In 1968, Cleveland’s Carl Stokes became the first elected black mayor of a major U.S. city. His election was a “beacon of hope” in the city and the country, Souther says, and civic leaders expected him to somehow bring an end to riots that had ravaged the neighborhood of Hough in the summer of 1966.

But in July 1968, a four-hour shootout in the Glenville neighborhood between police and a black militant group resulted in the deaths of seven people, including three police officers and three suspects. The shootout was followed by incidents of arson and property damage. Stokes had wrapped his early mayoral efforts under the heading of “Cleveland: Now!,” an initiative to raise funds for community development projects. But it soon came to light that some of those funds had been granted to a member of the group involved in the shootout.

“There was already this sense that, ‘Well, Stokes hasn’t done what we thought he could do,’” Souther says. “‘He hasn’t stopped another outbreak of racial violence. And then when it became known a little later that the Cleveland Now! funds had been misused in this way, that was just further support to this idea that we need to move in another direction.”

Cuyahoga River Fire
Perhaps no single event tarnished Cleveland’s image as much as a fire that broke out on the polluted Cuyahoga River in 1969. But while the event served as an easy symbol of urban crisis, it also became a rallying point for the environmental movement, culminating in landmark environmental legislation in the early 1970s.

The symbolic significance of the 1969 fire distorts the reality too: The river had ignited many times before that event. Time magazine ran a picture from a different fire on the river in the 1950s, because it couldn’t find any dramatic photography of the event in question. On the day of the event, Souther says, “Most Clevelanders weren’t even aware there was a fire.”

“If you look back at the 2016 Republican National Convention, if you read anything about Cleveland, they used that familiar refrain about the burning river and how Cleveland had bounced back since that time,” Souther says. “And they really reduced the city’s narrative to one of growth and then decline, down to the point of 1969, and then this impressive comeback.”

In fact, Cleveland’s struggles deepened throughout the 1970s — they continue into the present — but the Cuyahoga River fire serves as a symbolic lowpoint in a linear narrative of decline and revitalization.

Throughout the 20th century, Cleveland’s “growth coalition” — a loose affiliation of civic and business leaders — adopted a variety of slogans to brand the city’s image. An early slogan, which provides the subtitle for Souther’s book, was “Best Location in the Nation,” an invitation to industry to make headquarters in the city. Later the city adopted a different slogan, “The Best Things in Life Are Here,” emphasizing an emerging consumer society. But the superlatives began to seem like a joke, countered by unofficial monikers for the city like “Mistake on the Lake.”

“By the late 1970s,” Souther writes, “any Cleveland image campaign that promised the best of anything was untenable, so boosters began to craft the image of a ‘New Generation’ of public-private cooperation to propel the city forward.”

By 2015, the Downtown Cleveland Alliance was promoting a more prosaic slogan: “You Are Here.” What Souther’s book argues is that Cleveland’s considerable attempts to promote and manage its image are as much a reaction to fears of decline as they are efforts to define the city.

“In a place where people are perceiving decline, they’re always looking for the turning point,” Souther says. “Where’s the pivot? Where’s the fulcrum? You’ve got to find the fulcrum, and that tends to lead to these constructions of narratives that obscure as much as they reveal.”

 

New Online Service Guest-Rm Aims to Offer Cheap Alternative to Airbnb

Imagine you’ve got an out-of-town friend you haven’t seen in a while. You’d love to invite her to visit, but the hotels in your city are just a little too expensive, and so are the Airbnbs. Your own apartment is too small to host everybody comfortably. You know your neighbor is traveling on some upcoming weekend, and that he probably wouldn’t mind letting your friend crash in his apartment. But you probably wouldn’t feel comfortable making that request, right?

This month, Philadelphia-based Josh Angotti is launching an online service that he hopes will make that a normal transaction: Guest-Rm. Users can tap into a network of friends, family and neighbors to plan trips around lodging that should be far less expensive than either hotel bookings or short-term rental sites like Airbnb. In lieu of a nightly fee paid to the host, the service encourages users to leave a thank-you gift, like a gift card to the wine store. Eventually, Guest-Rm will be set up so hosts can charge a cleaning fee as well. Angotti hopes Guest-Rm will provide travelers with a legitimately affordable alternative to traditional lodging options.

“What got me started — it was a little bit out of frustration,” Angotti says.

Every year Angotti tries to have a reunion with his cousins, he says. Recently they were talking about hosting the get-together in Philly, but his apartment is only 450 square feet. But he’s also noticed that the city, to a sometimes eerie degree, empties out around holidays like Memorial Day and Labor Day, when many locals go to the Jersey Shore. Wouldn’t it make sense to bring guests to town then, and have them stay in apartments nearby?

“There’s not really [a precedent], at least in our culture, to make that request,” Angotti says.

In an online post about Guest-Rm — the site isn’t live yet, but the founders are hosting a launch party next week — Angotti explained that he hopes the site will “leverage excess capacity” for lodging in cities. The social network aspect of the service is meant to put both hosts and travelers at ease in the knowledge that they’re interacting with a friend or a friend of a friend.

It’s distinct from a service like Couchsurfing, Angotti maintains, because it’s not targeted at itinerant travelers hoping to meet new people. And it’s distinct from Airbnb and VRBO because, while the site will charge a reservation fee, it’s meant to be genuinely cheap, encouraging people who might otherwise be turned off by the rising costs of urban lodging.

And because the site doesn’t offer any real revenue or profit motive to hosts, the founders say, it’s not likely to contribute to issues of gentrification or housing affordability. There’s a growing body of research around the housing impacts of short-term rental services like Airbnb and VRBO. One forthcoming study of 100 U.S. cities finds that an increase in Airbnb listings in certain neighborhoods had a small but significant impact on increased housing prices, according to the Wall Street Journal. Property owners who find that they can make money on an apartment unit without leasing it out to a long-term tenant find they have an incentive to keep the unit off the market.

Angotti says his primary inspiration to create the service was wishing there was a truly affordable way to host friends and family in his city. But he can also see the service helping affordability, if it ever grows big enough to have impact.

“I don’t believe Guest-Rm will have direct impact on the supply side of home-sharing sites like Airbnb or VRBO. However, it could impact demand, which may lead to an indirect impact on supply,” Angotti says. “For example, if enough Guest-Rm users in a community share homes via their Guest-Rm connections, it may become a less profitable place for developers to hold large numbers of vacation rental properties.”

Jeffrey Goodman, an urban planner who studies short-term rental regulation, is skeptical of the ability of a service like Guest-Rm to scale up. The reason sites like Airbnb have gotten so big is that they’re based on people renting their homes to strangers — not to people they already know, Goodman says. Goodman also sees a fair number of obstacles in Guest-Rm’s future: Does the “thank you” gift count as compensation to the host? What legal category will these units fall into? How tenuous can the social connections be for someone to book a room, and will the definition get looser as Guest-Rm is pressured to grow?

And, says Goodman, “What do you do with the terrible cousin problem? How do you get people off it who have violated your trust?”

Still, Angotti is hopeful that people will respond to a service that sharply reduces the cost of lodging in another city. He acknowledges that the site would be most attractive to people whose friends and family are spread out in big cities around the U.S. But he expects it to grow most quickly in the Northeast initially, where a lot of social and familial circles overlap.

“The value increases as the circles grow, for sure,” Angotti says. “But I think there’s a certain amount of value as soon as you have a few friends that sign up.”

 

Amid Mass Eviction, Philadelphia Considers Stronger Renter Protections

Philadelphia’s City Hall (Photo by Max Binder)

Philadelphia is taking steps to protect renters from unfair evictions amid what Mayor Jim Kenney has described as a “housing crisis due to a shortage of safe and affordable housing.”

Earlier this month, City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. introduced a bill that would require landlords to provide a “good cause” when seeking to evict tenants after a lease ends. It would also dictate that a landlord who wants to raise rent must first give an existing tenant the chance to accept the new rate. And it would give tenants the right to appeal a landlord’s “good cause” finding to the Fair Housing Commission. The proposal is modeled after other cities, like Seattle and Oakland, that have “just cause” eviction provisions on the books.

Jones says he began thinking about the proposal this year when a 239-unit apartment building in his council district changed hands, and the company that took it over notified the tenants that it would not be renewing their leases. Some of the tenants of the Penn Wynn Manor were on fixed incomes and didn’t have the time or the ability to collect enough money to pay the first and last months’ rent and a security deposit at another residence, he says. Rising rents in stable neighborhoods like the one in question made moving more challenging too.

“Some of these individuals had lived there 10, 20, 30 years and had been, in my opinion, model tenants,” Jones says.

But the tenants’ records didn’t matter; in January, everybody was told to leave. In June, occupants of the building staged a protest of the mass eviction plan in cooperation with the Philadelphia Tenants Union, which was formed by a local socialist group. The Tenants Union had already been pushing for the city to add a “just cause” provision to its books for some time before the protest was organized. They began working with Jones after the eviction case came to light.

Klyde Breitton, president of the Tenants Union, says that the bill Jones introduced fits the broad outline of what they were hoping to create. But Breitton says it would be better if it included more specific provisions, like enumerating what, specifically, constitutes a good cause for eviction. Laws in some other places do include more detail.

An ordinance in Oakland, approved by voters in a 2002 ballot measure, includes 11 specific scenarios that would qualify as just cause for eviction, including a tenant’s failure to pay rent, violation of the terms of the lease, or causing excess damage to the property, or a landlord’s wish to occupy the unit as his own primary residence or remove it from the rental market. Seattle’s ordinance includes 18 approved reasons. Seventeen are enumerated in a rule that applies across New Jersey. Los Angeles has considered expanding its just cause rule to apply beyond rent-controlled units. Some cities in California have been working to reform these exemptions to give tenants even greater protections.

There have been reports in some cities of landlords evicting tenants on the grounds that they want to move into the units themselves, but then re-listing them at higher rates. Jones’ legislation so far doesn’t contain any specific enforcement measures. (His office didn’t immediately respond to a question about whether enforcement would be considered in later drafts of the bill.)

Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project in San Francisco, says that cities around the U.S. are paying more attention to rental practices as a whole, and that his group has been fielding more inquiries from cities considering just cause provisions. Many places that have the rule also have some form of rent control, Roller says. And while just cause provisions are beneficial in providing some basic protections against frivolous evictions, they don’t prevent landlords from pushing tenants out by raising rents to “ridiculous levels,” Roller says. Beyond that, according to Roller, the best “just cause” laws are the ones that are most specific.

Philly’s proposal has yet to be subject to a committee hearing, where it could evolve. The proposal comes as Philadelphia is taking a wide look at rental practices and housing problems in the city. Over the summer, at the urging of City Council, the city earmarked $500,000 in additional funds to help tenants facing evictions get legal counsel. In September, Mayor Jim Kenney signed an executive order establishing an Eviction Task Force, noting that one in 14 of the city’s renters had faced an eviction filing between 2010 and 2015. The task force is charged with determining best practices in cities, helping to create a comprehensive plan for the issue, and identifying funding streams to support it. Its final recommendations are due to the mayor next June.

Jones, who represents neighborhoods in West and Northwest Philadelphia, relatively far away from Center City, says he didn’t always think of gentrification being a major problem in his district. The Penn Wynn case got him thinking about the vulnerability of some of his constituents — whether they rent or own their homes. He says he was recently walking around the district with a developer, and he asked how investors know which homeowners are likeliest to sell at low prices. The developer looked up and said that air-conditioning units in the second-floor windows signal that a home is not modernized, and the owner may be willing to sell for less than the house is worth.

“You have a right to be a capitalist,” Jones says. “But when you wholesale exploit people’s ignorance and poverty, then it is government’s responsibility to step up to the plate and provide protections, and that’s what I intend to do.”

 

Philly Takes Safer Streets Plan Beyond the Usual Urbanists

(Photo by Gwen Weustink on Unsplash)

It would be hard to find a big U.S. city today without a small clique of hyperengaged urbanists and transit advocates who dominate local policy discussions, both in online forums and in-person meetups.

They’re either a blessing or a curse, depending on where you sit. On one hand, these networks form the backbone of a lot of advocacy efforts that end up leading to real, positive changes in the cityscape. On the other, they’re unintentionally good at annoying the piss out of a lot of layfolk, who find it easier to disengage completely than go head to head with the “know-it-alls” — which ends up strengthening the clique’s own grip on the debate of the day.

In Philadelphia, the officials who were charged with taking the city’s nascent Vision Zero plan to the public tried to thread the needle. They wanted input from the most passionate, plugged-in constituents, but they knew they wouldn’t have to try too hard to get it. So rather than convene a series of single-issue Vision Zero meetings, which might attract a self-selected group of advocates and not many others, they opened online comments to everyone and brought the discussion to community meetings, festivals, police district meetings and other events that were already in the works around the city.

“We wanted to go to places where people are naturally congregating … to get voices we wouldn’t normally hear from,” says Kelley Yemen, director of complete streets in the city’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems (OTIS).

Vision Zero is the name for a loosely affiliated set of policies and plans aimed at treating traffic deaths as preventable rather than inevitable, with the ultimate goal of eliminating them completely. Vision Zero strategies have been adopted in U.S. cities from Seattle and Fort Lauderdale to Boston and San Diego. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney issued an executive order creating a Vision Zero Task Force in November 2016. A draft action plan was released in March, and the final plan was issued last week.

Between March and July, city officials visited 44 community meetings and collected more than 23,000 responses on an online safety map, where residents could report dangerous behaviors they observed in the streets. In all, 85 percent of respondents said they don’t believe Philadelphia is a safe place for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists to share the roads, according to the task force. And the data suggest Philadelphians know what they’re talking about: 100 Philadelphians die in traffic incidents each year, 250 more are injured, and the rate of traffic deaths is 6 per 100,000, among the highest in the nation, according to the task force. Moreover, while pedestrians only account for 18 percent of the individuals involved in traffic incidents, they make up 41 percent of the deaths.

The task force’s engagement efforts were meant to solicit input from community members on how the city should approach safety improvements. But they were also designed to show people that Vision Zero is a mayoral priority, and to start drawing a sharper focus on the seriousness of street safety.

“People really see the importance of this when you frame it as saving human life or preserving human life,” says Charlotte Castle, Vision Zero and neighborhood programs coordinator for OTIS.

The city has tried to bake community outreach into the Vision Zero effort from the get-go, enlisting neighborhood groups like the People’s Emergency Center in West Philadelphia and the North Philadelphia-based Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM) to serve on the task force. Throughout the summer, the task force found that many residents related to street safety issues on a personal level: Seventy-two percent of safety map respondents said they knew someone whose life was impacted by a traffic collision, and 53 percent said they felt it was unsafe for children to walk to schools or parks in their neighborhoods.

Bridget Palombo, the director of community and economic development at APM, says the city’s Vision Zero outreach dovetailed with some efforts the nonprofit already had in place related to improving walkability and other quality-of-life measures. Residents seemed particularly affected by information the task force presented about higher auto speeds increasing the risk of fatal injury, Palombo says. They talked about slowing down traffic, improving street lighting, and enforcing traffic rules for bikers and pedestrians as well as motorists.

“It was kind of enlightening to see that people are not just thinking for themselves,” Palombo says. “People are starting to think more holistically about, how can we hit this at all the different angles so that we as a city are being safer on the streets?”

Residents — and politicians — tended to warm up to Vision Zero strategies when they learned that the initiative isn’t simply about letting bicyclists take over the streets, Yemen says. People have an easier time getting on board with safety improvements when they’re presented as improving safety for everyone rather than just one mode.

In Philly, “bikelash” has been fairly pitched, and led, at times, by people in powerful positions. A council member recently questioned the permanence of a new buffered bike lane that the city said was indeed permanent. In another instance, a council member rejected a pilot bike lane in Center City under pressure from some residents. Sarah Clark Stuart, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, says that she thinks the level of outreach the city did behind Vision Zero is evidence that it’s serious about the effort, and that the only way the streets will become safer is to have a big, open debate about how they’re designed.

“I think what also is really important is that engaging in this level of community outreach demonstrates to council members that an authentic effort was put in, but it also puts the council members on notice that their communities have been consulted, and their offices themselves have been reached out to,” Clark Stuart says. “In that sense there’s no hiding.”

In any case, the hard work is ahead. Philly’s Vision Zero calls for zero traffic deaths by 2030, and so far it has developed an action plan for incremental improvements over the next three years. Those improvements are going to require buy-in from all the various agencies that regulate transportation and streets, and they’re also going to require support from residents in every neighborhood. The action plan includes forward-looking engagement efforts like public awareness campaigns about crash data, creating a Vision Zero elective in the city-supported Citizens Planning Institute, and enlisting owners of major fleets in safety efforts.

OTIS’ Yemen says that it’s always easier to build consensus at the abstract level, but concrete changes will require engaged support at the neighborhood level.

“We’re going to try to lead with as much data as possible,” Yemen says. “I think we view it as an ongoing conversation about what’s working and what’s not working and how we tweak things and make things better.”

 

The Best Conversation About Public Monuments Is Happening in Philly

Philadelphia's statue of Octavius Catto, outside City Hall (Photos by Jared Brey)

“We sit on an old mat weaving a new one,” said Alyn Waller, the senior pastor at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, moments before the unveiling of a monument to 19th-century civil rights activist Octavius V. Catto in Philadelphia on Tuesday morning.

People crowded around the south side of City Hall. The gospel choir of the African Episcopal Church of Saint Thomas sang. Members of the Octavius V. Catto Lodge of the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World stood by in their fezes. Across the street, uniformed waiters leaned against the second-floor windows of the Ritz-Carlton hotel, looking on. It was an out-and-out urban pageant, and it couldn’t have been better timed.

In the last year, cities across the U.S. have debated public monuments and the political forces they represent. In May, after questions were raised about when and how public monuments to Confederate leaders were being removed, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave a rousing speech in defense of their removal, noting that many of the statues “celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy, ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement and the terror that it actually stood for.” A crowd in Durham, North Carolina, tore down a bronze Confederate statue a few days after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, ended in the death of a counter-protester. A few days after that, Baltimore City Council voted to remove Confederate monuments, and the city had them taken down immediately, overnight.

Philadelphia was never part of the Confederacy, but racism and bigotry are woven into its history. Recently, City Councilwoman Helen Gym took the lead in an effort to remove a statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo that stands on the steps of the Municipal Services Building just north of City Hall. As a police officer and then commissioner in the 1950s and ’60s, Rizzo earned a reputation as a tough-guy supercop with raids on gay clubs and a violent crackdown on students demonstrating for black history to be incorporated into the public school curriculum.

The city is asking residents to weigh in on what should be done with the Rizzo statue, and Mayor Jim Kenney has said the Art Commission will decide on its future.

Hank Willis Thomas' “All Power to All People"

A current public art project called Monument Lab is organized around the question, “What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?” The project involves the temporary placement of monuments by 20 artists at various public locations across the city. One of the first, unveiled two weeks ago by New York-based artist Hank Willis Thomas, depicts a Black Power fist rising from the handle of an Afro pick. Placed just a few feet away from the controversial statue of Rizzo — whose police force notoriously strip-searched a group of Black Panthers in front of newspaper cameras in 1970 — the sculpture, called “All Power to All People,” quickly grabbed attention. In the courtyard of City Hall, an installment called “Two Me” invites passersby to climb onto one of two fully accessible pedestals labeled “Me.” In North Philly’s Malcolm X Park, DJ King Britt and artist Joshua Mays will create a performance based on archives and sound samples gathered over the summer in cooperation with Mural Arts Philadelphia.

“We are clearly at a moment of reckoning when it comes to our monuments,” Monument Lab curator Paul Farber told the website Hidden City Philadelphia earlier this month. “This open and critical conversation is built on decades of groundwork by artists, activists, scholars and students who have questioned the status quo of public memory.”

While the Octavius V. Catto memorial was not created as part of Monument Lab, it makes a substantial contribution to the conversation. Philadelphia has more public art than any other city in the U.S., and yet until Tuesday, there was no public statue of a sole black person on any piece of public land in the city. Catto was a civil rights activist who helped to desegregate trolley cars, a baseball player, and the 1858 class valedictorian at the Institute for Colored Youth, which later became Cheyney University. He was shot to death at age 32 on Election Day in 1871, one year after the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which gave black men the legal right to vote. His killer was a white Irish Catholic.

Kenney first proposed the creation of a Catto memorial when he was a city councilman, in 2003. The mayor is Irish Catholic and has said that his involvement in the effort to elevate Catto’s story is an attempt to address the injustice of his murder.

“Octavius Catto was a true American hero,” Kenney said at the unveiling ceremony on Tuesday. “Like many other unknown and nameless black American heroes, he should be revered, honored and recognized. Their lives and accomplishments should be part of the daily curriculum in our schools, not just during the shortest month of the year. … My hope is that someday every child in Philadelphia and every child in America will know as much about Octavius Catto as they do about George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

The statue of Catto was created by sculptor Branly Cadet. A series of pillars behind it represent an upturned trolley car. In front there’s a ballot box. Catto himself is depicted midstride, his chest thrust forward, confident and vulnerable.

After the discussion of Confederate statue removal reached a fever pitch this summer, some writers worried that a reconsideration of our public statuary would leave us with no public monuments, considering most of the founding fathers owned slaves or nursed racist beliefs. President Donald Trump himself wanted to know, “Where does it stop?” What history shows is that it never stops anywhere, and Philadelphians are now grappling with a much better question: Where does it go?

 

New Atlanta Planning Book Takes Cue From Martin Luther King Jr.

Atlanta is projecting astronomical growth over the next 20 years, and the city has a new book intended to guide population growth by considering everything from affordable housing to traffic congestion.

Atlanta City Design, unveiled earlier this month, is meant to inform and shape all of Atlanta’s various plans, codes and ordinances. The document is not a plan itself, but “a strategic realignment of existing plans” that seeks to lock some core city-building principles into everything Atlanta does.

“The growth that’s projected here in the urban core of the region is staggering, and not changing is not really an option, as we say in the book,” says Ryan Gravel, who worked on the guide and is well-known for conceiving the Atlanta BeltLine, a 22-mile trail connecting remote neighborhoods in the path of a decommissioned railway line. “The idea is to design the change so that it happens in our best interest.”

Atlanta City Design assumes that the metro area will grow from a population of around 5.5 million to 8 million in the next two decades, and that the city itself will more than double in size to around 1.2 million. The document embraces that growth, foregrounding design as the tool to make sure the influx of people to the city is more beneficial than destructive. Equity is the overriding goal, and the guide is built around the idea of the “Beloved Community,” discussed by Martin Luther King Jr. in a 1957 sermon called the Birth of a New Nation.

“The civil rights movement is the thing that set Atlanta apart from other cities in the South, that made it open and palatable to international and national investment, changed its trajectory and made it what it is,” Gravel says. “All the prosperity we enjoy today is built on the back of that movement and so we have an obligation to live up to its promise.”

The five values highlighted in the book — nature, access, ambition, progress and equity — reflect many of the efforts that cities across the world are struggling with today. How do we embrace and protect the natural aspects of the urban environment? How do people move around a landscape marked by gridlocked highways? How does a city welcome newcomers while looking out for the interests of marginalized communities? How do we fight poverty and build racial equity?

To address these issues, the book points to specific policy solutions, like rezoning and adjusting prices to discourage parking congestion, inviting extra-dense development near transit nodes, experimenting with housing design for affordability, protecting some established neighborhoods, building new parks, “re-wilding” parts of the Chattahoochee River waterfront, and investing in bus rapid transit.

The book also contains a section on designing for “legibility.” Early development patterns in Atlanta actually do follow a hub-and-spoke design and the natural contours of the landscape, Gravel says, but more recent developments have made the environment harder to read.

“Most people here orient themselves, where they are in the city, relative to the highways,” Gravel says. “What it means is that you don’t understand how the city is built. The physical form doesn’t make any sense. When you take away the highways you start to see why the city exists.”

This isn’t the first time that city planners have put a bunch of aspirational ideas in one place — time has proven them wrong before — but Atlanta City Design is remarkable for the confidence of its vision and its belief in the projected growth of the region. It’s confident in its characterization of Atlanta’s civic identity. And it’s confident in its faith that design can create a more just and accessible city.

Gravel, who quit the board of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership last year over concerns that it wasn’t taking equity seriously enough, is committed to the ideas in Atlanta City Design. Will city leaders take it seriously?

Atlanta is in the homestretch of an election for a new mayor and new city council members, and Darin Givens, a co-founder of the urbanist group ThreadATL, says that a handful of candidates seem to be embracing the ideas in the City Design book. For a long time Atlanta has been built around an “anti-planning ethos,” Givens says, but efforts like Atlanta City Design are slowly convincing people to embrace growth and the planning policies that can help shape it. Still, Givens sees a tough road ahead for some of the ideas in the book, like increasing the price of parking. And as far as equitable development is concerned, he says it’s past time to do something about it. Atlanta City Design includes suggestions like incentivizing and subsidizing more affordable housing and expanding a housing trust fund, along with encouraging the development of more low-cost designs.

“The BeltLine has been in development for many years now,” Givens says. “These measures would have been very, very helpful 10 years ago. There’s probably some displacement that’s already happened.”

Gravel says that rents and property taxes in Atlanta are still somewhat behind the national curve, which means there’s time to do something about equity before housing is out of reach for the poor. (In April, the city established an anti-displacement grant fund in partnership with a local nonprofit.) He acknowledges that protecting affordability will be among the most difficult parts of the vision, along with chipping away at Atlanta’s car culture. But without a unifying vision built on equity, he says, there’s little hope that the city can handle its growth responsibly.

“The role of design is really clear,” he says. “The lesson from the BeltLine in terms of what’s happening now is, you do have to follow through on all those policies.”

 

NJ Transit Votes to Spend on Land for Flood-Proof Train Storage

Workers labor on a sandbag wall to protect an NJ Transit electrical substation. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Nearly five years after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast of the United States and damaged more than 300 train cars owned by the New Jersey Transit Corporation, at an estimated cost of $100 million, the state agency is taking steps to protect its fleet from future floods. Last week, the NJ Transit board voted to buy 25 acres of land as a “safe haven” for storing trains, a place to keep them out of the low-lying Meadowlands Maintenance Complex near the Hackensack River where they were damaged during Sandy.

There’s a slate of efforts underway aimed at building a more resilient transit system in New Jersey, one better equipped to handle the increasing intensity of weather events. Other efforts include establishing a resilient energy grid to provide power during storms and filling in a canal that contributed to the flooding of train yards during Sandy.

I asked NJ Transit to make an official available for an interview about the agency’s resilience efforts, but they declined. When I asked whether the agency has a point person overseeing resilience, the public information officer replied: “NJ TRANSIT has a Project Management department comprised of talented professionals dedicated to these projects.”

Critics of NJ Transit’s vote to purchase the safe zone land are more than happy to talk. Last week, rail advocates told NJTV that the project was an unnecessary expense, considering that the agency already has enough room on high-ground tracks to store the trains in the event of more flooding. Capital investments would be better spent on an additional tunnel into New York City, they said.

“They’re wasting our money for a facility they do not need … ,” says David Peter Alan, chairman of the 40-year-old rail advocacy group The Lackawanna Coalition. “Their capital program is totally misplaced.”

Alan and other advocates say that NJ Transit doesn’t do enough to improve service, but spends great sums of money on capital projects that aren’t needed. While recognizing the need to make the transit system more resilient in the face of climate change, Alan considers the train storage project a waste. If NJ Transit would simply plan ahead, he says, it could keep the fleet safe with the space that it has. (And the agency seems increasingly unwilling to listen to input or talk openly about its plans, Alan says. “The climate between NJ Transit and everybody else has never been this adversarial in the 32 years I’ve been an advocate around here. It’s bad,” he says.)

Rob Freudenberg, vice president for energy and the environment at the Regional Plan Association, says that a lot of municipalities and agencies in the New York region are building their resilience plans around the federal funding that’s available, rather than the other way around. (RPA is a research and advocacy organization focused on the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region.)

“It’s one thing to have a facility where you can move a lot of stock,” Freudenberg says. “It’s another to consider how you use your existing entire line when it’s shut down. This comes down to a matter of prioritizing planning.”

NJ Transit has done a good job of analyzing the damage done during Hurricane Sandy and finding ways to address those issues, according to Freudenberg. But the agency should be looking ahead to potential new vulnerabilities related to climate change and sea level rise, not just using the last disaster as a predictor, he says.

“What we’re seeing happening at the agency level is that things are getting done where funding is available,” he says. “That’s not a comprehensive approach and it’s not always an effective approach.”

NJ Transit isn’t alone. Freudenberg says New York City, Hoboken, New Jersey, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, are doing a particularly good job with resilience efforts, while smaller cities with fewer resources are, understandably, somewhat behind. Freudenberg says that the New York region needs a harbor-wide comprehensive plan to address sea level rise. If resilience is left up to individual cities, they may end up doing things to protect themselves that have harmful impacts on their neighbors, he says.

“We’re in kind of a wild west of resilience right now,” Freudenberg says. “Everything is fairly new and everything is uncertain so every agency or every government is going to approach this in a little bit different way.”

The issue is only going to grow in importance. In Houston, setting aside the damage to land and housing, Hurricane Harvey has destroyed hundreds of thousands of cars, including at least 350 vehicles owned by the city. While Irma wasn’t as deadly as many feared, it once again illustrated the precarious position of Southern Florida with respect to climate change.

In an interview this week on KJZZ, the public radio station in Phoenix, Chuck Redman, the director of Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability, said the latest weather disasters are a reminder of the importance of resilience planning. At a basic level, Redman said, this kind of work just requires “thinking it through.”

“What could happen?” Redman said. “And if it did happen, what would I have to do?”