Posts by Author: Rachel Dovey

City and State Officials Scramble in the Wake of Florence

Cars try to navigate a flooded road leading to Interstate 40 in Castle Hayne, N.C., after damage from Hurricane Florence cut off access to Wilmington, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Flooding from Hurricane Florence severed land route access to the port city of Wilmington, North Carolina, Sunday and shrinking fuel supplies threatened the region’s water plant. State officials were working on reaching the city via ocean routes and in high-water vehicles, North Carolina Health News reports — and their efforts were echoed up and down the southeastern coast as cities braced for surges and flash floods from the so-called “storm of a lifetime.”

Wilmington city leaders also coordinated an airlifted delivery of food and water Sunday, although existing distribution centers needed to be relocated, because severe rainstorms had rendered them inaccessible, CBS News reports.

Although Woody White, chairman of the board of commissioners of New Hanover County, initially declared on Sunday, “There is no [land] access to Wilmington,” by late Monday James Trogdon, the state’s Department of Transportation Secretary, said one major access route has reopened to the city. It was closed to all but emergency crews.

In New Bern, North Carolina, meanwhile, city officials coordinated the rescue of 200 people trapped in their homes, according to CNN.

“WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU,” the city tweeted. “You may need to move up to the second story, or to your attic, but WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU.”

Officials later sent out thanks to the many organizations that made the rescue efforts possible.

The storm has dumped up to 30 inches of rain in some places and left 523,000 homes and businesses without power. At least 23 fatalities have been reported.

The mayor of Fayetteville, North Carolina, issued a dire warning this weekend urging residents to leave.

“If you are refusing to leave during this mandatory evacuation, you need to do things like notify your legal next of kin because the loss of life is very, very possible,” Mayor Mitch Colvin said Saturday, according to the Asheville Citizen Times.

But certain people in mandatory evacuation zones have not been able to leave, the State reports.

Despite being located in a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood zone, the occupants of the Al Cannon Detention Center in Charleston County, South Carolina will not be allowed to evacuate. The jail houses many inmates who have not been convicted — only charged — and are awaiting bond hearings, according to the State. In 2016, that detention center made headlines for housing a large number of undocumented immigrants as part of a partnership with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

North Carolina’s Attorney General has been investigating price gouging complaints as residents evacuate and shelter in place. On Sunday, the lawmaker told CBS News that his office had received about 500 complaints alleging excessive prices for hotels, gas and water.

Regulators were also attempting to monitor hog farms and coal ash dumps, which could contaminate stormwater flowing to nearby cities, the Associated Press reports. Around Wilmington, however, environmental inspections have been compromised due to flooded roads. The coal ash dumps pose a particular concern because they contain heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury.

 

Brooklyn Prosecutor Could Erase ‘Tens of Thousands’ of Low-Level Pot Convictions

(AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, file)

Following officials in San Francisco and Seattle, Brooklyn’s top prosecutor has announced a plan that could erase tens of thousands of low-level marijuana convictions, the Associated Press reports.

District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said last week that he will invite people to ask the courts to dismiss pot possession misdemeanors or violations. He expects prosecutors to assent in the “great majority of a potential 20,000 cases just since 1990,” according to the AP.

Gonzalez’ office has stopped prosecuting most cases that involve procession of a small amount of pot, according to another AP story.

”It’s a little unfair to say we’re no longer prosecuting these cases, but to have these folks carry these convictions for the rest of their lives,” he told the news source.

In May, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio said he would tell the NYPD to stop arresting people for smoking marijuana in public, Next City reported. His announcement came on the heels of a New York Times investigation that found that black and Hispanic people were arrested on marijuana charges in New York at much higher rates than white people, but marijuana use was consistent across races.

Gonzalez appears to be looking toward San Francisco, where District Attorney George Gascón said in February that his office would review and wipe out marijuana convictions dating back to 1975 en masse. And the City of Seattle in April filed a motion with the Seattle Municipal court that could remove marijuana convictions handed down between 1997 and 2010.

Both cities had a Colorado legal precedent to thank. In 2014, a Colorado appeals court ruled that certain pot-related criminal convictions could be overturned, and while the decision was limited but it helped pave the way for how states review past drug convictions, as Next City covered earlier this year.

Unlike Seattle, San Francisco or the state of Colorado, recreational marijuana isn’t legal in New York. But according to the AP, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has appointed a panel to draft legislation that could legalize it.

 

Wisconsinites Want Good Schools More than Lower Taxes

(AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Even in the state’s more conservative counties, Wisconsin residents want good schools more than they want tax cuts, Urban Milwaukee reports.

Voters are concerned that recent cuts have harmed public education according to a poll from Marquette University Law School.

From Urban Milwaukie:

When presented with a direct trade-off between increasing resource for schools and cutting taxes, a significant majority of Wisconsin voters said they favor spending more money on schools (61%) than reducing property taxes (32%).

Many Wisconsin voters said that schools were in worse shape now than they were a few years ago. Nearly half (47%) said that schools were in worse shape now than in recent years, and only 15% said that schools are in better shape now.

Those findings could have big policy implications for state lawmakers, according to the site — although those officials may or may not choose to listen. Prior to 2011, the state devoted $3.81 of every $10 in tax revenue to public schools. Starting in January of that year, however, lawmakers began to chip, then chop, away at that revenue. The combined cost of tax cuts since 2011 has “climbed each year, starting from a low of $57 million in 2012, and reaching $2.0 billion in 2019 in inflation-adjustment dollars,” according to the Wisconsin Budget Project. The combined total cost of the tax cuts adds up to $8.7 billion over the eight-year stretch.

As Next City has covered, Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is at a record low, and state lawmakers are worried that working-age population growth is only projected to be 0.2 percent — while the projected job growth rate is six percent. Officials want to import talent from nearby Chicago, but funding public schools could also go a long way toward closing the workforce gap in the future. (The Madison-based Terrace Town project is one innovative program preparing Wisconsin students for the state’s regional needs). A focus on equity — and decent public transportation — could also go a long way, since the unemployment rate is higher among communities of color in the state’s cities.

One thing is certain, lawmakers have no problem continuing to offer corporate tax breaks. Last year, Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn announced plans to build a $10 billion plant in Wisconsin, with $3 billion in incentives slated to come from the state.

 

Sacramento Homeless Deaths Up Dramatically in 2017

(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

In Sacramento, as in California, more homeless people are dying according to the California Health Report.

A total of 127 homeless people died in 2017, up from 71 in 2016, the paper reports, citing research from the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. That’s a 75 percent increase, and is about “three times the average number of deaths of homeless people in the county between 2002 and 2013,” according to the paper.

There are several trends behind those figures — mainly that homelessness itself is up in recent years.

Between 2015 and 2017, the number of people experiencing homelessness at a single point in time increased by upwards of 1,000, Janna Haynes, communications officer for Sacramento County’s homeless initiatives told the paper.

“Incrementally, we’re probably looking at about the same percentage of homeless deaths,” she said. “But obviously it’s unacceptable and we’re very saddened by it.”

From the California Health Report:

Homeless people in Sacramento County are now five times more likely to die than people in the general population, the report stated. They’re also 23 times more likely to be murdered, and 17 times more likely to commit suicide, figures showed.

More than half of the homeless deaths in 2017 were the results of an accident, a third could be traced to drug or alcohol abuse, and more than 1 in 10 deaths occurred from either homicide or suicide. Violent deaths included shootings, blunt force injuries, stabbings and drownings.

Those numbers are especially alarming considering the city’s response to figures from the previous year. After witnessing a dramatic increase in deaths in 2016, city leaders vowed to increase access to warming stations and housing for the chronically homeless, as Next City reported at the time.

But housing takes time, and Sacramento’s swell in homelessness mimics a similar swell statewide.

The “most recent homeless count report in 2017 found California led the nation in both the percentage of people who are homeless, and the increase in homeless people over 2016, a rise of almost 14 percent,” according to the Health Report. And while not all counties — and neither federal, nor state agencies — track data on homeless deaths, the rise in numbers statewide does appear to be increasing the death rate as well.

A lack of affordable housing is a main contributor to the problem, as Next City has also covered.

“I think a lot of people find themselves unable to pay their rent or pay their mortgage,” Haynes told the paper. “I think that it’s a problem people are seeing everywhere as the housing market gets better.”

 

The Uber Rich Are Stashing Cash in Boston Luxury Real Estate, Report Says

(Photo by Nelson48)

A large percentage of Boston’s luxury condos are going to LLCs and trusts rather than owner-occupants according to a new study, which claims that the city’s high-end building boom isn’t doing much to address the local housing shortage.

Researchers from the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) examined property records for roughly 1,800 condos in 12 newer luxury buildings throughout the city, the Boston Globe reports. The condos generally sell for over $3 million apiece.

They found that over 35 percent of the units were owned by LLCs or trusts that obscured the real owners and beneficiaries. What’s more, 64 percent of the owners didn’t claim the residential exemption offered by the city, which may indicate that Boston isn’t their primary residence.

“I wouldn’t even call these buildings a housing market,” study author Chuck Collins recently told the Globe. “It’s just another asset class for a segment of investors looking for an alternative to the stock market. It’s not a home. It’s a wealth-storage unit.”

And some of the city’s new luxury buildings stand out as textbook examples of the problem, according to IPS. The 51 units above the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, for example, sold for an average of $6.5 million each. Nearly 60 percent are owned by trusts, LLCs, and shell corporations, and fewer than 18 percent of those “owners” claim a residential exemption.

Thousands more seven-figure condos are under construction, but the average Boston resident earns $59,000 a year, according to the report. The luxury units, therefore, function as a potent symbol of the inequalities plaguing the city.

From the report:

Boston’s luxury boom figures to accelerate Boston’s already troubling disparities of income, wealth and opportunity.

Suffolk County, the jurisdiction where Boston resides, rates as the most unequal county in Massachusetts, our nation’s sixth most unequal state in terms of the gap between the wealthiest 1 percent and everyone else. And Boston’s racial wealth divide will only worsen if current trends continue. One marker of those trends: In 2015, not one single home mortgage loan was issued for African-American and Latino families in the Seaport District and the Fenway, two Boston neighborhoods with thousands of new luxury housing units.

According to the Globe, luxury developers and managers contested a number of the report’s findings. Many high-end developers throughout the city cap investor sales at 20 or 25 percent of a building, Sue Hawkes, managing director of Collaborative Cos. (which markets luxury properties) told the paper. And there are other reasons that buyers “might use shell companies to make their purchases: privacy, for one, or to hold the property in trust for tax or liability reasons,” the Globe reports.

“You don’t want a building with a bunch of dark windows,” Hawkes told the paper. “That doesn’t benefit anybody.”

Still, the specter of those dark buildings is pushing officials to craft policy incentivizing owner-occupants from London to Vancouver, as Next City has covered. London mayor Sadiq Khan has been working on hiking up taxes on high-end homes that are left unoccupied most of the time. In Portland and Los Angeles officials are crafting legislation that ties luxury development with funds for subsidized housing. And in Vancouver, a new tax on thousands of so-called “empty homes” has raised around $30 million for affordable housing programs, according to the Globe.

“We have these glaring wealth gaps in our city, and we’re adding thousands of units for uber-rich people,” Collins told the paper. “The question becomes, who is Boston for?”

 

Can Parks Make Kids Better at Math?

Central Park in New York City. (Credit: Library of Congress)

Kids need parks — from obesity and asthma rates to psychological indicators, research repeatedly shows that green space has a tremendous impact on children’s health.

But could trees, swings and bike paths also make kids good at math?

A study published this month in the British Journal of Educational Psychology suggests they could (although the paper’s authors probably wouldn’t phrase their findings like that).

The study focuses on 4,758 11-year-olds living in urban areas in England (the children are all part of the ongoing Millennium Cohort Study). Using an established set of cognitive research tests, the paper’s authors measured children for spatial working memory — a component of working memory that allows people to retain and process visuospatial information, and is strongly inter‐related with attentional control.

Even after controlling for confounders like poverty, parental education and sports participation, they found that less neighborhood green space correlated with poorer spatial working memory.

“Our findings suggest a positive role of green space in cognitive functioning,” corresponding author Dr. Eirini Flouri, of University College London, said according to a recent release. “Spatial working memory is an important cognitive ability that is strongly related with academic achievement in children, particularly mathematics performance. If the association we established between neighborhood green space and children’s spatial working memory is causal, then our findings can be used to inform decisions about both education and urban planning.”

The findings, as Flouri points out, have not been established as causal, which is one of the study’s weaknesses. Access to green space tends to follow other socio-economic factors like median income, race and education (although, again, researchers controlled for a number of those potentially mitigating factors). Still, the research is intriguing, if only in that it highlights the need for more research.

From the paper:

Future studies should … use geographical information systems to capture proximity to green space, which may be particularly important for access, especially in children. They should also capture the quality and function of green space and include information about its use. With these changes, future research will be able to determine with greater precision what cognitive benefits immersion in, access to, and use of area green space may confer on children.

As Next City has covered, there tends to be a consensus among urban planners that parks make cities, and their residents, healthier and more resilient. They also help urban areas mitigate and adapt to climate change. But the humble tree (or playground, or bike path) is often left out of large-scale budget discussions, even as cities incentivize the creation of pseudo-private open spaces in their stead. Linking the benefits of open space to education, as well as health, could continue to help urban planners make a case for the creation and maintenance of places for play.

 

Detailed Maps Trace the Heat in Chicago Neighborhoods

An urban heat island — a metro center that is significantly hotter than the surrounding region — is actually less island and more archipelago, a new study points out. A neighborhood with particularly dense housing or sparse vegetation is going to be hotter than a neighborhood made up of single-family homes, established trees and lawns. Thus the built environment creates “hot spots” throughout cities, and they often follow patterns of income and racial disparity.

Like painted streets, green roofs can help cool those hot spots — and for a paper published in Environmental Research Letters, researchers have crafted a framework to identify which neighborhoods need them most.

The paper focuses on Chicago, but there’s insight for leaders in other cities.

“We wanted to look at the potential of these types of mitigation strategies through the eyes of the mayor, city manager or city planner,” said Ashish Sharma, a research assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame who led the study, in a media release.

The researchers examined temperatures, electricity consumption and socioeconomic vulnerability of census tracts to identify hot spots in Chicago. The team simulated temperature data and used publicly available electricity consumption numbers and figures from the Centers for Disease Control and the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Layering those different data sets was important because alone, certain figures, like air-conditioning use, don’t capture the whole story.

From the Notre Dame release:

Looking only at electrical consumption, those areas where air conditioning is used most, for example, may not account for affluence. In certain neighborhoods, residents can afford the cost, which ultimately makes them less vulnerable. In lower-income neighborhoods, some residents can’t afford to turn their air conditioning on, or don’t have access to air conditioning at all.

The lack of air-conditioning use in those neighborhoods could lead policymakers to believe residents weren’t as impacted by heat — when, in fact, they simply didn’t have access to or could not afford AC.

(Credit: "Role of green roofs in reducing heat stress in vulnerable urban communities—a multidisciplinary approach," Environmental Research Letters)

As Next City has covered, features like green roofs and urban tree cover can save cities a lot of money in electricity and health-related costs over the long term. Other researchers have tried to quantify those factors in cities like Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Los Angeles, meanwhile, has looked lower and darker than green roofs, as Next City covered last year. In 2017, the city started painting some streets light gray, making reflective “cool pavement” to lower temperatures.

The full University of Notre Dame report on Chicago is available here.

 

Mayors: Proposed Energy Fees Would Hurt Sustainability Goals

A man installs solar panels. (Photo by Jon Callas)

California may very well be on the path to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045, but its cities likely won’t need that long. San Francisco plans to rid its energy mix of fossil fuels by 2030; San Jose aims to do the same by 2022.

One of the ways California municipalities are accomplishing this accelerated switchover is by forming Community Choice Aggregation systems (CCAs). The model (also referred to as Community Choice Energy) allows cities to buy power in bulk while using the state utility’s infrastructure. Laws in Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey and New York, among other states, allow similar setups.

Not too surprisingly, state utilities aren’t always keen on CCAs, since they diminish their customer base. Several years ago, California’s established players fought to tweak laws that automatically enrolled city residents into their regional CCAs, as Next City covered at the time. Now, residents joining their city’s utility may be hit with steeper “exit” fees.

The fees are “added to energy customers’ bills every month in perpetuity” when they join city-run power programs, the San Francisco Chronicle reports, but a proposal introduced by California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) Commissioner Carla Peterman would up them by as much as 25 percent.

The mayors of San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland have “substantial concerns” about this move, according to the paper. They wrote a letter to the CPUC urging commissioners to reject the proposal, claiming it would “reduce our investments in long-term renewable resources … and hinder our efforts in local development and customer programs.”

“This proposal would raise energy prices for all Oaklanders, but it would cost our most vulnerable customers the most,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said in a statement. “Delivering clean energy at a low cost to all Oakland residents and businesses is an equity issue. I urge all Commissioners to make the right choice for fair and equitable energy regulations, and to allow us to meet our city’s ambitious climate goals while keeping our customers rooted in Oakland.”

In that same statement, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo called out the established monopolies:

This utility-backed proposal threatens to deprive cities like San Jose of their most impactful tool for dramatically reducing GHG emissions: Community Choice Energy programs. This manipulation of the PUC rule-making process by PG&E and other utilities will handcuff our residents from making sustainable choices, undermine local control of green energy production, and harm our planet.

For their part, the established utilities claim that as CCAs draw rate-payers away en masse, they cause prices to go up for everyone else. The “big three” (PG&E and its two Southern California counterparts) “helped make the state a clean-energy leader by striking some of the first big deals to buy wind and solar power,” Chris Martin reported earlier this year for Bloomberg. “Problem is, those early contracts came with higher prices that were typically locked in for decades … .”

 

Cities Must Stop Criminalizing Homelessness, Court Rules

Surveyors speak to a homeless person in New York City during the city's winter count of homeless people in 2016. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

Cities must stop criminalizing conduct that is “an unavoidable consequence of being homeless,” a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday. The ruling concerns sitting, lying or sleeping in public streets when no homeless shelters are available and will apply to cities in nine western states.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco referenced the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” in conjunction with city ordinances like the one in Boise, Idaho, that made it a crime to use sidewalks as camping places, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

“Our hope, not just for Boise but for cities like San Francisco and cities across the country, is that it causes them to take a look at the laws they have on the books and have conversations about how to stop relying on those policies,” Eric Tars of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty said recently, according to the paper.

But while the 3-0 ruling said that cities couldn’t completely outlaw sleeping on the streets, San Francisco may be able to skirt it — because it enforces what’s known as a partial ban. In 2010, 54 percent of San Francisco voters made it a misdemeanor to “sit or lie down on a public sidewalk, or on a mattress or other object on a sidewalk, between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m.,” according to the Chronicle.

The ruling also states specifically that cities cannot prosecute homeless people when shelter space is available. But some shelters have a cap on the number of nights a person can stay — others require that they be part of rehabilitation programs or make certain religious commitments, as the Los Angeles Times points out. In San Francisco, the city bans keeping tents on the sidewalks 24 hours a day. But before enforcing that ban, officials have to offer the homeless person shelter or a bus ticket to another city where “a friend or relative could provide housing,” according to the Chronicle. So that practice will probably be allowed to stand under the new ruling.

Another way that cities discourage homelessness (which is much more insidious, and unlikely to be touched by the courts) is by designing people away. From benches that can’t be slept on to green spaces surrounded by jagged fences, the practice of so-called “hostile design” is increasingly being used by city planners — even while it’s publicly shamed on social media.

What cities really need, of course, is a dedicated revenue stream to provide housing for homeless individuals. One San Francisco measure that would tax businesses like Twitter could bring in up to $300 million for homelessness prevention and affordable housing programs, as Next City recently reported.

 

Ohio Housing Fund Aims for Neighborhood Integration

In this photo from January 2017, new housing construction in St. Louis that received federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Ohio’s three biggest cities — Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus — will soon be eligible for millions of dollars to finance affordable housing, City Beat reports. But the innovative new program offering those funds comes with a catch, and some Cincinnati leaders are worried it will advance some neighborhoods while leaving others behind.

The Ohio Housing Finance Agency (OHFA) administers federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) to cities in the state, usually handing out about $26.5 million a year. A new program called the FHAct50 Building Opportunity Fund will allow the state’s three biggest cities to pick developers who “receive extra credits above and beyond OHFA’s usual awards,” according to the paper.

The fund is made possible because of “legislative advancements that significantly strengthen the Housing Tax Credit system,” according to a document from OHFA. Those include an Income Averaging set-aside test and an increase in Ohio’s credit allocation authority.

The idea behind the fund appears to be neighborhood integration of low-income and market-rate units. As Next City has covered, the federal LIHTC program has had a particular problem nationwide with clustering low-income units in low-income neighborhoods (often communities of color), thus furthering segregation. The new fund, according to state documents, presents “a unique occasion for our community to showcase the power of affordable housing to stimulate neighborhood growth….”

So for every unit of affordable housing constructed with the special credits, the city must demonstrate that a unit of market-rate housing has been newly constructed in the same neighborhood, according to City Beat. In a departure from typical OHFA process, the cities will get “almost total say over which developers receive the credits” according to the paper.

Some city leaders worry that the new program will create a different kind of clustering, however, in “hot” neighborhoods where development is already underway.

From City Beat:

The neighborhoods the city doesn’t pick are likely those that aren’t seeing any market-rate development. Not only that, but developers looking to build in neighborhoods not selected by the city will have a harder time in OHFA’s regular competitive tax credit process without the city’s ability to give its approval in order to win extra points on the state’s scoring mechanism.

“I think this is an amazing opportunity,” Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard said. “But I can’t ignore that it’s a situation where privilege will beget privilege, because you’re going to pick communities where development is already happening.”

Regardless, a group of low-income housing advocates in Cincinnati supports the plan, according to the paper. The cities are supposed to file their applications this month.

The LIHTC program has seen its fair share of abuse and corruption. Beyond furthering segregation, the tax credits are a relatively expensive way of producing units and developers have been able to “skim immense wealth off the top of the program for their own benefit, at taxpayers’ expense,” Oscar Perry Abello wrote for Next City last year. Still, the program is one of the country’s main sources of financing for affordable housing, since the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development “has backed away from project-based housing in favor of subsidies paid to private landlords,” as City Beat points out.

 



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