Posts by Author: Rachel Dovey

Providence Drivers Push Back on Speed Enforcement Cameras

(AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Speed-enforcement cameras have played a prominent role in the Vision Zero efforts of both New York and Washington, D.C., — and they’ve changed driver behavior in critical areas, like school zones, and helped officials pioneer better intersection designs.

But, as Next City has covered, they’re not exactly universally beloved. And a new program in Providence, Road Island, is off to a particularly rocky start in the court of public opinion.

“It’s political terrorism,” Paul Terzian, a 50-year-old Providence resident, recently told the Boston Globe. He was referring to 15 traffic cameras set up by the city in January that, in a matter of weeks, resulted in a whopping 12,000 speeding tickets. That’s a lot of tickets, especially in a city of roughly 180,000 people. “These are what they call — what do you call them, from Vietnam — ambush mines,” he added.

Monday was the first day residents could challenge the tickets in court, and challenge them they did, according to the Globe. That evening, the city’s Public Safety Complex was “jam-packed,” the paper reports, with a line of people spilling onto the sidewalk outside. As the night dragged on, they stuck around and “picked at their fingernails or scrolled through their phones, pulled hoods over their heads [or] drifted off in uncomfortable seats.”

The cameras are meant primarily to protect school children, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and the city’s Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré claim.

“Ultimately this is about keeping families safe, especially in areas with many children around,” the mayor said in a statement. “Tragedies can be prevented with innovative solutions and that’s exactly what these cameras do.”

But, as is often the case with speed-enforcement cameras, they’ve also brought the city a cash infusion — $436,000 since their January installation, according to the Journal (they run at $95 each). That’s led some, like Rep. Anthony Giarusso, (R-East Greenwich) to dismiss them as “nothing more than a government cash grab.”

As Next City reported in 2016, New York also collected a hefty amount in fines from speed enforcement cameras mounted near schools during its 2015 fiscal year. But that program can’t be simply written off as a mere funds-generator. In the first year cameras were installed, speeding decreased by 60 percent in those zones.


New York May Have a Plan to Fix Up Public Housing Fast

Construction fences and sheltering at Ocean Bay (Bayside) during renovations and upgrades under the Rental Assistance Demonstration program (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday that he will declare a state of emergency for New York City Housing Authority, meaning that the state could hire a private contractor to fast-track repairs.

“The answer can’t be to NYCHA residents, it’s going to take us three years to turn on the heat,” Cuomo recently said in an NY1 interview. “The answer can’t be, well we don’t really know if your child is in an apartment with lead poisoning. I understand why the residents are outraged and we have to do something. We have to do something quickly.”

Four City Council members formally requested a state declaration last month, New York Post reports. Tenants’ organizations and nonprofits have also pushed for drastic action, citing issues with lead paint, mold and lapses in access to heat and hot water.

The governor has not actually issued the declaration yet, the Post points out, nor has he detailed exactly what it will entail. The Citywide Council of Presidents (CCOP) (the governing body for NYCHA tenants) and At-Risk Community Services Inc., a nonprofit advocating for public housing tenants, have requested that it trigger the State Legislature to authorize an expedited design-build-procurement process and hire a private company, according to a release from the legal representative of the two groups. Cuomo referenced that legislation in his NY1 interview.

The maintenance and repair backlog on New York’s stock of public housing is long-standing.

“Public housing developments are essentially designed to operate at a loss,” Oscar Perry Abello wrote for Next City last year. “Tenants typically pay 30 percent of their monthly income on rent to the local housing authority, no matter what the operating cost of a unit might be. The federal government was supposed to be the main source of funding to fill in the gaps, but it chronically falls short of doing so.”

The HUD Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, created in 2011 under the Obama administration’s purview, does allow public housing authorities to tap private investment to address those repairs. New York City began its first project under RAD last year.

In his NY1 interview, however, Cuomo expressed trepidation at the thought of the current federal administration taking a greater interest in the city’s public housing woes.

“Once the federal government acts, you just turn the housing authority to Trump, the Trump administration, which would be a real blow not only to the housing authority, but to our governance here in the state of New York,” he said.


Seattle Judge: A Vehicle Can Count as a Home

A woman stands next to the car where she sleeps in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

A 2000 GMC pickup parked on a Seattle side-street is the legal home of Seattle resident Steven Long, a King County Superior Court judge ruled last week. Her decision could affect the roughly 2,300 residents living in their vehicles on Seattle streets, and ripple out to other Washington cities with large homeless populations.

The ruling is based on a 123-year law called the Homestead Act, which bars governments from forcing a person to sell their home to satisfy debts, KIRO 7 reports. The station claims this is first time (in Seattle at least), that anyone has successfully argued that a vehicle can be their home.

Long has lived in his truck since 2014, but last year, after being parked in the same spot for five months, the city impounded it, according to KIRO 7. He now owes roughly $900 in impound fees, according to the city — but his legal team argued that because the vehicle was his home, the city couldn’t hold on to it until he pays those fees, or sell it to cover them. The city attorney said in a statement that the city disagrees with the ruling and is “evaluating its options.”

Unlike many other cities, Seattle doesn’t have an outright ban on sleeping in cars (legislation that, in 2014, Next City labeled the “the trendiest law in America”). In 2016, the city created several several safe “zones” with minimal services, as well as one safe “lot” with cooking facilities, on-site staff and case management.

And last August, Councilmember Mike O’Brien introduced draft legislation to create a “vehicular residences program” for people living in their cars or RVs, Crosscut reported at the time.

“If those residents agreed to a set of rules — not dumping trash, for example — and agreed to work towards permanent housing, they would be allowed greater leeway when it comes to ticketing or towing for many parking violations,” according to the news site. “These may include parking for longer than 72 hours on public streets, parking with expired tabs, being labeled as a ‘junk motor vehicle,’ or being labeled a ‘scofflaw’ or frequently cited vehicle.”

The city’s laws regarding both vehicle-dwelling and tent cities are often criticized as a Band-Aid approach to the homelessness crisis, which stems, in part, from the local housing crisis. Still, some advocates see them as a necessity as homelessness continues to grow — and business-as-usual laws in many cities state that it’s illegal to beg, sleep in vehicles or even lie down in public. (And of course, even if the laws aren’t that explicit, the street furniture is.) With such national prohibitions in mind, LoGerfo recently told NPR that she hopes other cities are watching the Seattle ruling.

“We’re hoping the city and other cities across the state will look at this and rethink how they’re treating people who have no other choice but to live in a vehicle,” she said.


Cleaning Up Oslo’s Port, One Trash-Finding Drone at a Time

The Oslo Opera House sits at the head of Oslo Fjord. (Photo by Jorge Láscar)

From old cars to rusty bicycles to — perhaps — lost Viking treasure, the Oslo Fjord is full of much more than halibut and cod.

“Not many years ago, a mayor said if you want to get rid of a car, put it on the ice,” Solve Stubberud, a general secretary of the Norwegian Divers Federation, recently told the New York Times.

In January, a photo of a dead dolphin wrapped in plastic made headlines in Norway and spread rapidly on social media. And last week, board members of Oslo’s Port Authority approved a high-tech trash-removal plan: drones. The Times reports that the drones will drive into the Oslo Fjord to locate underwater “islands of trash.” An electric-powered ship with a crane will then gather the trash.

The port may be the first in the world to try the method of trash pickup, and with the announcement will most likely come a “drone bidding war.” China is the epicenter of non-military drone technology. There, as Craig Guillot wrote for Next City in 2014, drones “fly over traffic-choked city streets to deliver birthday cake and hover over notoriously polluted cities like Beijing, Shanxi and Hebei, detecting chemicals in the smoggy air.” At the time, drones that responded to smog by spraying air-cleaning chemicals as they flew were in testing as well, and cities from Toronto to Beijing were using similar technology to inspect power lines and buildings.

Despite the city Port Authority’s decision, Norway’s national government continues to contribute to the problem of toxic waste in the fjords. It’s one of the few governments that still allows off-shore dumping of mining waste, and has refused to sign an International Union for Conservation of Nature making the practice illegal.


How Hong Kong Landlords Keep the Public Out of Their Pseudo-Public Spaces

The public space at Metro Harbour View (pictured) is only accessible via a poorly-marked staircase, according to advocates. (Credit: WiNG)

Both London and New York have a privately-owned public space (POPS) problem, as dual investigations have recently revealed. In a report published last week, a group called the Hong Kong Public Space Initiative contended that their city makes three.

In an audit of 11 POPS throughout the city, the nonprofit found that many of the sites were either hidden or discouraged the public from entering in some way, the Hong Kong Free Press reports. One, nestled into a private housing estate, was only accessible through an obscure stairwell. Another was deceptively labeled as private space.

“All of these privately owned public spaces actually make up a big area when put together, but they have low usage and a lot of precious spaces that belong to Hongkongers are put to waste,” the group said in its report, according to the Free Press.

One baseline problem, as the paper wrote last year, is the city’s “long-standing policy of asking developers to be providers of open space, whilst counting these wholly private areas towards the overall open space enjoyed by Hongkongers.” New York has long employed a similar policy, as Next City has covered, allowing developers to build bigger buildings in exchange for creating “public space.”

NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer last April released an audit alleging that the city isn’t monitoring them well. But in Hong Kong, concerned citizens don’t have a public space watchdog within the government, and while the Hong Kong Development Bureau released a set of guidelines for POPs in 2011, those guidelines aren’t mandatory.

And developers don’t want to pay for the maintenance costs associated with allowing the public into their public spaces, Canon Wong of the Public Space Initiative told the Free Press.

“If you open it up to the public, you need security as well as maintenance and checks to ensure there are no regulation violations,” Wong said. “The developer will actively try to avoid these costs — by reducing the chances of the public using it.”


D.C. Hires First Housing Preservation Officer

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

In 2016, Washington D.C.’s Housing Preservation Strike Force — which sounds like a superhero ensemble, but is actually an 18-person team made up of various affordable housing stakeholders — recommended that the city establish a Preservation Unit within city government. This week, that recommendation came one step closer to being realized when Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office announced the hiring of Ana Lopez Van Balen as the District’s first Affordable Housing Preservation Officer.

“When I established the Strike Force in 2015, its mandate was clear — develop an action plan that ensures the District does not lose any of its already existing affordable housing,” Bowser said in a statement. “Ana has a strong background in economic, housing, and community development, strategic planning, and engagement, and we know she will serve the residents of DC well.”

Lopez Van Balen will oversee a new unit which will have two main goals, Washington City Paper reports. The first, Gwen Cofield of the Department of Housing and Community Development told the paper, is “to identify opportunities to preserve affordable housing units.” That includes units that are already subsidized by the government and units that are naturally affordable.

The second is to set up a database that will help Lopez Van Balen work in cooperation with both the public and private sectors, allowing the city to “look at the landscape of affordable housing to see what’s vulnerable and see what stakeholders can do to make sure we preserve it,” Cofield told the paper.

The Strike Force was developed at a time when D.C.’s lower-cost units were dropping “precipitously,” Jen Kinney wrote for Next City in 2016.

“According to the D.C. Office of Planning, between 2009 and 2014, almost 9,500 rental units became unaffordable to households earning 60 percent or less of area median income,” she wrote. “During that same period, the overall number of rental units in the district increased by 30,000. That means even as housing production boomed, affordable units decreased by 11 percent.”

Last March, D.C.’s largest public funder of affordable housing was called out for poor management and uncollected loan repayments — but auditors said the issues were long-standing and declined to place the blame on Bowser.

“While there is more work to do, residents should be clear that under this administration, the fund continues to make great progress in creating more affordable housing options across all eight wards,” Kevin Harris, a spokesperson for the audit, said at the time.


Here’s How Much Most Uber and Lyft Drivers Actually Make

(Photo by Alexander Torrenegra)

Being a contract worker for a ride-sharing company is no piece of cake. Now, a new paper suggests that the hourly profit for that position will at least buy you a piece of cake — but that’s about it.

Not only are the vast majority of Uber and Lyft drivers earning less than their state’s minimum wage — about a third of them are losing money by driving, researchers from the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy claim. To arrive at their troubling results — that the median profit from driving is about $3.37 per hour before taxes — Stephen M. Zoepf, Stella Chen, Paa Adu and Gonzalo Pozo paired results from a survey of over 1,100 drivers with detailed vehicle cost information gathered from Edmunds, Kelley Blue Book and the Environmental Protection Agency, according to NPR.

Drivers typically earn $0.59 per mile driven, according to the paper, but expenses shave off about $0.30 per mile, meaning a driver makes a median profit of $0.29.

An Uber spokesperson was deeply critical of the study in a recent statement to the Guardian.

“While the paper is certainly attention grabbing, its methodology and findings are deeply flawed,” the spokesperson said. “We’ve reached out to the paper’s authors to share our concerns and suggest ways we might work together to refine their approach.”

And as the study points out, it’s possible that billions of dollars in driver profits are simply untaxed because some drivers are able to write off some of the costs of using their care for business.

Perhaps, as another study from 2015 claimed, drivers actually earn considerably more than minimum wage (that research was co-authored by Jonathan Hall, now Uber’s chief economist). According to Reuters, the MIT team has agreed to re-run its analysis since being challenged by Hall.

But along with vehicle-related expenses, drivers also face challenges related to being classified as independent contractors, rather than employees. An EU court last year ruled that Uber drivers are, in fact, eligible for benefits and holiday pay, but no U.S. court has made such a statement. Drivers who have opted out of arbitration are mounting a legal challenge to the company, however, as well as unionizing around issues like workers’ comp.


Mapping All of the NYC Lots Sold for a Dollar

(Credit: 596 Acres)

What does the Bea Arthur Residence, which provides transitionary supportive housing to homeless LGBT youth, have in common with Jonathan Rose Companies, a for-profit developer? Both, it turns out, have purchased land from the city of New York for a mere $1.

The details of those transactions, as well as many like them, are the subject of a new map from 596 Acres, a group that advocates for public access to public spaces (which Next City has previously covered here).

“Since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office on Jan. 1st, 2014, the City of New York has sold 202 city-owned lots of land to housing developers for $1.00 each,” the One Dollar Lots website states. “Some of this land has gone to organizations doing valuable and necessary work for the city — developing permanent homes for the extremely-low income, establishing shelters for LGBT youth. Some of this land has also gone to for-profit housing developers building market-rate apartments or ‘affordable’ units too expensive for locals to live in.”

Jonathan Rose Companies, the developer linked in group’s reference to for-profit developers, announced that the building in question would include a total of 123 units — 73 would rent at market rate, 25 would be reserved for residents earning no more than 60 percent of the area median income, and 24 would be available to tenants earning up to 130 percent of area median income, New York Daily News reported in 2015.

Regardless, the map showcases a wide variety of buyers taking advantage of the city’s $1 properties thanks to data from the City Records database and New York City Economic Development Corporation board meeting minutes, among others. Properties are color-coded according to whether they’ve gone to a for-profit developer, nonprofit developer or for- or nonprofit group. Click on one of the colored dots, and you can see information like housing restrictions (and restriction period), and obtain links to City Record notice and deed. In at least 40 cases, final sale is still pending.

Selling properties for $1 is a long-standing tradition for New York, as Untapped Cities wrote in 2016. The deals occur at a number of levels — between federal and cities, states or and private citizens; and between city and private developers or nonprofit organizations. New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development alone sold 700 buildings for the token amount between 2002 and 2006, but the pace of such deals has reportedly decreased over the decade following.

For 596 Acres, which helps residents fight blight by turning vacant, public land into community gathering spaces and gardens, the land being sold off for such low prices is actually a “priceless resource.”

“These vacant city-owned lots that have been sold for $1 are vacant due to decades of institutionally racist land use policies including settler colonialism, redlining, and Urban Renewal Area clearance,” the map’s website states. “Many of these lots languish in the middle of active blocks primarily in low-income neighborhoods of color, and they exist for years fenced off by the government but otherwise not maintained. Fast forward to 2014, and the city is selling them without input from the people who have long dealt with the real life impact of abandoned land in their lives. This squanders potential opportunities for transforming historical violence and for creating lasting, adaptive public benefit.”

Check out the map here.


Los Angeles Releases Resilience Strategy

The 1994 Northridge Earthquake killed 60 people and damaged more than 40,000 buildings in Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange and San Bernardino Counties. (Credit: U.S. Geological Survey)

L.A. Mayor Eric Garretti last week called on the city to consider mandatory retrofits of steel-framed buildings — the first time he’s raised the possibility of such a project. Experts believe a number of Los Angeles’ steel-framed buildings erected before the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which killed 60 people and damaged upwards of 40,000 buildings, could collapse when the Big One hits, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“There are buildings in Los Angeles that have slipped through the cracks. But we can’t let people in an earthquake be killed by those cracks,” Garcetti told the paper. “Sometimes it takes political courage, but we have to make sure we don’t look back after an earthquake and have lives that were lost and say, ‘Well, we did as much as we could.’ ”

The steel-framed building retrofit is one of several proposals outlined in the new “Resilient Los Angeles” report. The document, like similar ones released in Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Boston, was crafted in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities.

According to the Times, other key recommendations include:

  • Developing customized disaster readiness plans for each of Los Angeles’ neighborhood councils — Venice would likely focus on sea-level rise, while the Hollywood Hills would probably make mudslides the priority.
  • Creating disaster preparedness and response centers in the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods (with a deadline of 2028).
  • Launching projects to cool neighborhoods such as planting more trees and painting streets white to reflect, rather than absorb, heat. (Next City has covered both strategies, here and here.)
  • Developing and adopting stronger minimum earthquake building standards for new structures.
  • Expanding the mayor’s Office of Resilience and allowing city departments to pick their own resilience officers.

Like other efforts pioneered by 100 Resilient Cities, the report takes a broad look at the long-term effects of climate change and the many localized stressors — like income inequality and structural racism — that can turn disasters into events that disproportionately impact marginalized communities.

But, the report’s subject matter being L.A., it also focuses on the very concrete matter of seismic safety. The mayor’s so-called “Seismic Safety Task Force” will consider mandatory retrofits to some steel buildings. The report also calls on the city to develop a mandatory evaluation program prioritizing buildings with private schools (which, unlike public schools, are not regulated specifically for earthquake safety) and day care centers.

“When the big one occurs, with potentially hundreds of years of annualized loss at once, we will face a catastrophic depression of our regional economy,” the report states. “If infrastructure comes back into service without a long delay, the recovery will be quicker and the regional economy may return to its expected level within a few years. In major earthquakes, however, economic activity may not recover for several decades, resulting in economic catastrophe. Increasing seismic resilience will lessen detrimental impacts to health and safety and improve the chances that the regional economy will bounce back.”


Can Fighting Blight Prevent Gun Violence?

Blighted and abandoned row homes in Philadelphia (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Blight is demonstrably hard on city budgets — particularly the coffers of local police and fire departments, which have to deal with the increased levels of crime and arson around dilapidated properties. Not surprisingly, though, it’s also hard on people, even if its impact is harder to track in dollar signs.

A new study from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health tackles the more complicated (but no less important) social impacts of blight, with Philadelphia as its canvas. Its findings: Cleaning up distressed lots doesn’t just increase residents’ feelings of safety, it impacts their actual safety as well.

Plan Philly reports:

The 38-month analysis of 541 randomly selected vacant lots around the city found that crimes including gun assaults, robbery, burglary, and illegal drug trades decreased by at least nine percent in all neighborhoods that experienced a blight cleanup. Poor sections of Kensington/Allegheny, the Southwest, and North Philly experienced the most significant decrease in crime when the conditions of lots improved, said coauthor John MacDonald, a University of Pennsylvania professor of criminology and sociology. New data recently released by the city ranks these same areas as among the city’s most heavily littered with trash and debris.

The process was simple enough. Researchers either appointed lots to receive inexpensive tweaks like new lawn, trash removal and regrading to stay unchanged as control sites. Crime data was then gathered from police reports, as well as interviews from randomly-selected residents (Philly Mag has more details).

The findings could be significant nationally, and not just because they mention a decrease in gun assaults. As the study points out, about 15 percent of the land in US cities is deemed vacant or abandoned — “an area roughly the size of Switzerland.” And cities don’t have to undertake pricey restoration projects to remedy their blight, which come with the risk of gentrification.

“Many cities have focused on complicated and expensive responses to their vacant land problem as part of large urban transformation initiatives,” the report states. “While these strategies can change local economic conditions, they also can have the unintended consequence of displacing people who do not wish to move, create further entrenched neighborhood segregation and may not adequately address the widespread problem of vacant land that chiefly affects low-resource neighborhoods.”

Restoration of land with very simple tweaks, the researchers claim, “can be an effective and scalable infrastructure intervention for gun violence, crime and fear in urban neighborhoods.”

The report is available here.


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