Posts by Author: Rachel Dovey

Memphis Wants to Know Landlords’ Names

(Photo by Trevor Birchett)

A group of Memphis officials wants to hold bad landlords accountable.

Public Works Director Robert Knecht and the city’s Blight Elimination Steering Committee are crafting a rental property registry model to present to City Council, WREG Memphis reports.

Problematically, many landlords don’t supply their actual names on land or tax records — instead, they put down company names or LLCs. Researcher Matthew Desmond documented this standard business practice in his landmark book, “Evicted.” It means tenants can register complaints with the city, but then officials can’t find the landlord to cite them.

“We couldn’t give the proper notification to get them in court, we couldn’t get the proper notification to correct conditions and that was causing a major problem,” Environmental Court Judge Patrick Dandridge, who previously oversaw code enforcement for the city’s public works department, told the station.

Landlords would need to go through an application process. They’d provide a contact person or address, and the city would assess their history — whether they had a record of prior complaints. If they did, requirements would be stricter. The landlord would need to go through a series of pre-inspections to make sure the property was up to code. They’d also be legally required to notify tenants of their rights.

The group is looking at a similar program in Nashville, according to the station. Under that program, landlords pay a $10 annual fee and list their properties and contact information. However, owners of multifamily units and apartment complexes are exempt.

“Because we have direct contact information, these owners are more apt to take action,” Bill Penn, Assistant Director of Nashville’s Department of Codes and Building Safety, recently told WREG.

A landlord registry was part of Cleveland’s ambitious blight-fighting overhaul, announced last year. City officials planned to begin inspections of their rental stock in 2017, with inspections running for an estimated five years to cover the roughly 84,000 units.

“If an ethical or moral standard were applied to inspecting Cleveland’s low-income rental homes for safety, about three-quarters of it would be closed up,” Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said at the time.

 

Small Michigan Utility Sets 100 Percent Renewable Standard Ahead of the Cities It Serves

Traverse City Skyline. (Credit: Phoenix-Five)

It’s not unusual anymore for U.S. cities to make aspirational commitments to 100 percent clean energy — even if the technology for such a shift (say, zero-emission equipment for ports) isn’t widely available yet. Increasingly, city leaders are willing to bet that renewables will scale rapidly enough to keep up with their stronger regulations. They’re also willing to pool their buying power to help those technologies along.

Utilities, being in the actual business of keeping residents’ lights on, tend to be more cautious. They also tend to be monopolies — many of them with vested interests in fighting distributed power sources like rooftop solar.

That’s why a small midwestern utility’s board meeting last week was so newsworthy.

Traverse City Light & Power serves a number of small communities in Michigan. Last Wednesday, its board voted to set a 100 percent renewable standard for 2040, the Record Eagle reports.

Those numbers don’t sound so impressive on their own — Minneapolis and Denver have committed to being complete renewable power by 2030.

But as the Architect’s Newspaper explains: “What distinguishes this step is that the utility company is exceeding goals set by the city it serves.”

From the news site:

When municipalities set green energy goals, that leaves utility companies scrambling to find providers who can fulfill the demand. In the Traverse City case, however, the utility company is deciding to ditch polluting sources before its customers have.

The impact may not be enormous — TCL&P serves a region with a population less than 20,000 — but it is an example of how utilities could evolve in other areas, and what customers could reasonably demand from their utility companies. As older fossil fuel power plants age out of use, utilities are sometimes confronted with a choice over whether to replace the loss from a similar source or to go after newer, sustainable solutions.

The utility’s contract with existing coal power plants keeps it from meeting the goal sooner, according to the Record Eagle. But one board member pointed out last week that those plants are expected to be offline by 2030, if not sooner

Since that board meeting, however, Donald Trump’s EPA has put forth a proposal to allow states to set their own emissions standards for coal-fueled power plants. The move could continue the administration’s roll-back of the Clean Power Plan, depending on legal challenges. But it’s unlikely, even if the administration’s roll-back prevails, that it will bring about the second coming of coal that Trump has promised. To date, 270 coal-fired power plants have either closed or have announced they will retire, as Forbes recently reported, and Moody’s Investor Service has said that the price of wind power is so low that it could soon replace coal-fired power plants in the Midwest.

 

What Cities Can Learn from 4,000 Housing Voucher Tests

The cover of the Urban Institute's "A Pilot Study of Landlord Acceptance of Housing Choice Vouchers." (Credit: Urban Institute)

Housing vouchers were designed to help low-income families navigate the private market and move out of high-poverty neighborhoods. But as Next City has covered, landlord discrimination often limits holders’ selection.

A new study has begun to quantify that discrimination — and the numbers aren’t pretty.

“How difficult is it to find voucher-affordable units?” The authors of the Urban Institute paper ask in an executive summary. “During 16 months, we screened more than 341,000 online advertisements across … five study sites to find 8,735 advertisements for rental housing that appeared to be voucher-eligible based on information in the ad. On average, we screened 39 advertisements to identify one potentially eligible unit.”

So far only the executive summary has been published; the full paper will be available in September. The five sites include Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Newark, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Nearly 4,000 tests were conducted over 16 months. During each one, a female tester who would be perceived as white called landlords advertising rental units to ask whether they accepted vouchers.

If a landlord accepted vouchers, the test moved on to the second and third stages. In the second stage, pairs of white, black and Hispanic female testers conducted telephone tests to see if they were able to secure appointments to view units. If both testers were able to secure appointments, they conducted in-person tests to see whether they were actually able to meet with the landlord.

The study had intended to look at denial rates across racial and ethnic markers. But the denial rates overall were so high that researchers didn’t have a large enough sample size to examine racial discrimination.

From the paper:

Denial rates were highest in Fort Worth (78 percent) and Los Angeles (76 percent) and only somewhat lower in Philadelphia (67 percent). Rates were substantially lower in Newark (31 percent) and Washington, D.C. (15 percent). Moreover, across the five sites, between 9 and 25 percent of landlords said vouchers were accepted only under certain conditions or they were unsure of the voucher acceptance policy. Landlords were more likely to deny voucher holders in low-poverty areas compared with high-poverty areas, particularly in the sites with the highest voucher denial rates.

(Courtesy of the Urban Institute) 

Not surprisingly, researchers found lower denial rates in sites that had legal protections against voucher discrimination. In Newark and Washington D.C., voucher holders are a protected class under local source-of-income antidiscrimination laws, according to the paper. Philadelphia also has a source-of-income antidiscrimination law but there’s nothing comparable at either the state or city level in Fort Worth or Los Angeles.

The Urban Institute makes several policy recommendations based on its initial findings. Mainly, it suggests that municipalities and states adopt legal protections for voucher-holders. Beyond that, it advises HUD and other public housing agencies to recruit landlords from lower-poverty neighborhoods.

As Next City has covered, some ground is being won in that latter fight. Starting this year, local public housing authorities have been allowed to offer higher Section 8 rental assistance voucher payments to landlords in more affluent neighborhoods. Trump Administration HUD Secretary Ben Carson originally suspended the rule allowing that shift, but a successful lawsuit allowed it to continue.

The full executive summary is available here.

 

What Cities Can Learn from 4,000 Housing Voucher Tests

The cover of the Urban Institute's "A Pilot Study of Landlord Acceptance of Housing Choice Vouchers." (Credit: Urban Institute)

Housing vouchers were designed to help low-income families navigate the private market and move out of high-poverty neighborhoods. But as Next City has covered, landlord discrimination often limits holders’ selection.

A new study has begun to quantify that discrimination — and the numbers aren’t pretty.

“How difficult is it to find voucher-affordable units?” The authors of the Urban Institute paper ask in an executive summary. “During 16 months, we screened more than 341,000 online advertisements across … five study sites to find 8,735 advertisements for rental housing that appeared to be voucher-eligible based on information in the ad. On average, we screened 39 advertisements to identify one potentially eligible unit.”

So far only the executive summary has been published; the full paper will be available in September. The five sites include Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Newark, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Nearly 4,000 tests were conducted over 16 months. During each one, a female tester who would be perceived as white called landlords advertising rental units to ask whether they accepted vouchers.

If a landlord accepted vouchers, the test moved on to the second and third stages. In the second stage, pairs of white, black and Hispanic female testers conducted telephone tests to see if they were able to secure appointments to view units. If both testers were able to secure appointments, they conducted in-person tests to see whether they were actually able to meet with the landlord.

The study had intended to look at denial rates across racial and ethnic markers. But the denial rates overall were so high that researchers didn’t have a large enough sample size to examine racial discrimination.

From the paper:

Denial rates were highest in Fort Worth (78 percent) and Los Angeles (76 percent) and only somewhat lower in Philadelphia (67 percent). Rates were substantially lower in Newark (31 percent) and Washington, D.C. (15 percent). Moreover, across the five sites, between 9 and 25 percent of landlords said vouchers were accepted only under certain conditions or they were unsure of the voucher acceptance policy. Landlords were more likely to deny voucher holders in low-poverty areas compared with high-poverty areas, particularly in the sites with the highest voucher denial rates.

(Courtesy of the Urban Institute) 

Not surprisingly, researchers found lower denial rates in sites that had legal protections against voucher discrimination. In Newark and Washington D.C., voucher holders are a protected class under local source-of-income antidiscrimination laws, according to the paper. Philadelphia also has a source-of-income antidiscrimination law but there’s nothing comparable at either the state or city level in Fort Worth or Los Angeles.

The Urban Institute makes several policy recommendations based on its initial findings. Mainly, it suggests that municipalities and states adopt legal protections for voucher-holders. Beyond that, it advises HUD and other public housing agencies to recruit landlords from lower-poverty neighborhoods.

As Next City has covered, some ground is being won in that latter fight. Starting this year, local public housing authorities have been allowed to offer higher Section 8 rental assistance voucher payments to landlords in more affluent neighborhoods. Trump Administration HUD Secretary Ben Carson originally suspended the rule allowing that shift, but a successful lawsuit allowed it to continue.

The full executive summary is available here.

 

Report Finds Industrial Pollution, Racist Zoning Created Birmingham Air-Quality Crisis

Birmingham, Alabama (Photo by Andre Natta)

Alabama’s Jefferson County is home to a perfect storm of industrial air pollution, racist zoning laws and white flight, a new Birmingham Watch analysis finds.

The vast majority — 71 percent — of the county’s 31 major sources of pollution are clustered in low-income areas, according to the paper’s analysis. It defines “major sources of pollution” as those emitting enough to require a permit under Title V of the Clean Air Act. Residents of those areas are largely African-American.

Inhabitants of the affected areas historically worked in the region’s mines, mills and factories and ended up living near their employers. But the county’s environmental racism isn’t just circumstantial. Redlining boxed black residents into those industrial communities. Then white flight expanded the suburbs and led to more air pollution from more vehicles commuting greater distances.

The paper reports:

Tie the dirty waste of industry to the emissions from motor vehicles. Layer this onto the natural topography of Jones Valley, where the county’s industry and employment are concentrated, and you can come up with what the Jefferson County Health Department calls “the perfect storm” to degrade the quality of the area’s air.

Many of those interlocking factors were on display in the recent Oliver Robinson bribery trial. Guilty verdicts were issued last year for officials of Drummond Coal Co. and its law firm.

With that in mind, Birmingham officials are increasingly wary of new industrial facilities. Citing the need to correct patterns of disenfranchisement in the city’s black neighborhoods, officials voted to deny a scrap metal processors license to a company hoping to settle in the Acipco-Finey neighborhood in March, as Next City covered at the time.

“It just bothers me that always these types of facilities come to black communities,” District 9 Councilor John Hilliard said then. “I’m for economic development, I believe in jobs and expansion, but not at the expense of my people.”

Birmingham’s new government is going after air pollution, according to Birmingham Watch. Mayor Randall Woodfin’s transition committee on environmental justice and sustainability have recommended working with the health department “to develop a comprehensive plan for dealing with emissions.” But while local advocacy groups have lobbied for stricter federal standards overseeing particulate matter, President Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to loosen them (it looks unlikely that he will honor that particular promise, however). Still, the current National Ambient Air Quality Standard of 70 parts per billion for ground-level ozone is questioned by some public health and environmental groups.

“We absolutely must work through the health department … to make an impact on communities that are more vulnerable simply because of where they are located,” UAB lung researcher and physician Veena Antony told the paper recently.

The full article and data visualization is available here.

 

San Antonio Joins Austin, Passes Paid Sick Leave

(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

Last week San Antonio became the second major Texas city to pass a mandatory paid sick-leave policy for workers. As with Austin, which passed a similar ordinance in February, the city will likely be challenged by the state.

City Council officials voted 9-2 in favor of allowing workers to accrue up to 64 paid sick leave hours each year, “sparking a wave of applause so loud the mayor had to quiet the room,” the Texas Tribune reports.

Despite that on-the-ground support, the measure will probably be preempted. State retribution came swift on the heels of Austin’s policy — mere hours after the council passed it, state Representative Paul Workman promised to file a bill overturning it “on the first day possible,” according to the Tribune. Lobbyists joined in the fight, as Next City covered at the time.

“Certainly here in Texas, we will be pursuing preemptive legislation,” Will Newton, Texas director for the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), a Koch Brothers-backed advocacy group, told the Texas Observer earlier this year. “It’ll be a priority.”

In April, the Texas Public Policy Foundation sued the city over the ordinance. Twenty-nine Republican lawmakers have since signed on to the lawsuit, which argues that city-mandated paid sick leave violates the Texas Minimum Wage Act. An Austin-based appeals court is still deciding whether to block the ordinance before it goes into effect.

But Austin officials at the time of their measure’s passage saw hope in numbers. Mayor Steve Adler called for cities and mayors around the state to join him, arguing that solidarity could be key to defending the new policy from the state. At least one Dallas council member expressed hope that the policy could soon catch on in that city. Now San Antonio has joined the ranks too.

But that doesn’t mean the state will let either policy stand. Texas is particularly fond of state preemption measures, and even officials who voted in favor of the San Antonio ordinance have said they don’t know if it will be allowed to stand.

“It’s my formal, professional opinion that this is preempted by state law… The [Texas] Supreme Court is going to invalidate a San Antonio municipal paid sick leave ordinance,” San Antonio City Councilman Manny Pelaez, who voted in favor of paid sick leave, said recently according to the Tribune.

Still, like most of the other councilmembers, he appeared to believe the policy was worth the challenge.

“Earned paid sick leave allows families to care for their health and make ends meet,” Councilwoman Ana Sandoval said, according to the paper.

 

Sydney-Area Mayors Cry Foul over State-Level Inclusionary Zoning Lag

A recently-built affordable housing development in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Ryan van den Nouwelant)

Last December, the Australian state government of New South Wales made an announcement that was supposed to be good news for affordable housing: It was going to expand the local inclusionary zoning program, known as SEPP 70, to five new Sydney-area municipalities.

Eight months later, however, several mayors say their plans to secure developer contributions have stalled since the state government made that announcement, Domain Media reports.

Simple bureaucracy could be to blame, although several officials see more sinister forces at play. City of Ryde mayor Jerome Laxale told Domain that the longer the government’s approval of inclusionary zoning rules stayed in application mode, “the more developers make money.”

As Next City has covered, inclusionary zoning regulations have been limited in Australia due to constraints in the country’s regional planning laws. Like inclusionary laws in the U.S. — which have been tied up in city council battles and preempted by state governments over the last few years — they’re generally regional or city-specific.

SEPP 70 is supposed to be one of the country’s more streamlined programs. But the mayors are experiencing a lag in enforcement. According to Domain, the five councils are still waiting for the state government to approve their separate inclusionary zoning proposals. The City of Ryde, for example, wants to have 750 new affordable units by 2031 through the program. Northern Beaches Council, meanwhile, has grown so frustrated with the delays that it’s begun negotiating with developers on an ad-hoc basis.

“They’re actually trying to get us to change our policy to [favor] developers more than the public,” Laxale told the paper. “They don’t like our percentages, they don’t like the inclusionary zoning, they don’t like that we want to capture affordable housing at the development application stage.”

New South Wales does have an incentive-based housing program for Sydney, as Next City has covered. Unlike the U.S., however, Australia’s national government doesn’t provide many subsidies (e.g. federal tax credits) to help developers. From the builders’ perspective, building below-market units is often seen as cost-prohibitive.

 

The History of Rosa Parks’ House is the History of Redlining

American artist Ryan Mendoza in front of the rebuilt house of Rosa Parks in Berlin. (Credit: AP Photo/Michael Sohn)


 

The small square house where Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks lived has traveled from Detroit to Berlin, and then back to the U.S. since it was purchased for $500 in 2014. Now, its future is unknown, ArtNet News reports.

Ryan Mendoza, a Berlin-based American artist who helped preserve the house, hopes that it will become a national monument in the U.S. Currently, though, negotiations are playing out between several Detroit businessmen, a university, and a foundation, according to the news site.

“Rosa Parks is having a teaching moment, once again, through this house,” he told ArtNet recently.

While Parks’ story — and the story of outright segregation — is well-known, the legacy of racism in the built environment is more insidious, and still permeates everything from public transportation to multifamily zoning restrictions. Parks’ house tells the story of those subtler (but no less powerful) kinds of racism.

From the news site:

The Rosa Parks House, which was owned by her brother, had been languishing in an abandoned state and was on the City of Detroit’s demolition list when Parks’s niece, Rhea McCauley, stepped in and bought her childhood home from the city for $500 in 2014 with the hope of restoring it. Located in Southwest Detroit, the house, which was built in 1936, would become an example of the kind of overcrowded living conditions many African Americans experienced at that time, especially when fleeing the South: Parks lived there with McCauley and 16 other family members in the late 1950s. After taking ownership of the home, Parks’s niece enlisted Mendoza’s help, who took it apart and resurrected it on his property in the German capital.…

“The unsung story behind the Rosa Parks House is one of redlining, housing inequality, and its persistent effects on millions of Americans today,” Mendoza says, referring to racial segregation of neighborhoods. “From Brooklyn to Oakland, with pen in hand, 80 years ago, city planners mapped out where Blacks would live.”

Eventually, the house went to auction at Guernsey’s, but failed to meet its $1 million reserve. This is reportedly the second time Parks’ belongings have failed to immediately sell.

Meanwhile, as Next City has covered, white nationalists fight to preserve confederate monuments. The City of New Orleans opted to take several monuments to the confederacy down in the middle of the night (on undisclosed dates) to forestall violence last year. Baltimore did the same. Still, they vastly outnumber monuments to civil rights leaders, according to Mendoza.

“There are 1,500 monuments to the Confederacy, which is absurd,” he told ArtNet News. “There are 76 monuments to the civil rights movement. Let this be the 77th.”

The full story of Parks’ house can be viewed in more depth here.

 

L.A. Metro Will Deploy Scanners to Detect Explosives, Assault Weapons

(Photo by HanSangYoon)

In a bid to tighten security on Los Angeles County’s rail system, transportation authority officials plan to set up a network of body scanners later this year. Unlike the walk-through scanners used by airports, these devices will scan passengers en masse from up to 30 feet away — raising questions about equity and consent.

Los Angeles will be the first city in the U.S. to utilize the technology for its transit system, the Los Angeles Times reports. The devices resemble a “trunk on wheels” according to the paper, and cost about $100,000 each.

Along with metal detectors, scanners are rare on the nation’s rail systems because “the technology does not work fast enough to process a significant share of commuters at rush hour,” according to the Times. But these devices can process upwards of 2,000 people an hour, Metro spokesman Dave Sotero said.

“Most people won’t even know they’re being scanned, so there’s no risk of them missing their train service on a daily basis,” Sotero added, according to another article in the New York Times.

Metro security chief Alex Wiggins, however, told the Los Angeles Times that passengers will be made aware that they’re entering an area where they can be searched. Signs will be posted next to the scanners, and would-be riders can choose to opt-out. But “opting out” could mean being barred from the station that day.

As Next City has covered, adding extra layers of security to public transportation comes with a whole host of equity concerns. Cleveland’s “proof-of-payment” system, which allowed police officers to stop passengers and check whether they’ve paid their fares, was ruled unconstitutional by a municipal court judge last year. In her decision, Judge Emanuella Groves wrote that stops conducted by officers “decorated with the color of the law” violated the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Advocates in other cities celebrated her ruling — voicing concerns that allowing law enforcement to stop and search passengers would deter immigrants and people of color from using public transportation.

But cities from Paris to Florence to New Orleans are upping their security measures in response to terrorist attacks and mass shootings, whether by deploying soldiers or mounted cameras or even retooling public spaces to withstand vehicular rampages. In Los Angeles, officials say the scanners won’t violate passengers’ right to privacy.

“One thing we have to be sensitive to is the Fourth Amendment, unreasonable search and seizure,” Wiggins said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “We will make it very, very clear that individuals are entering an area where they’re subject to search.”

Time will tell if passengers agree.

 

Activists Release Suggestions for Reforming Chicago Police Department

(Photo by Daniel Schwen)

Chicago police officers may soon be encouraged to avoid arresting people over minor offenses. That and other reforms are part of a proposal compiled by activist groups involved in ongoing litigation with the city, the Chicago Tribune reports.

The groups include the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and Black Lives Matter Chicago, who are trying to influence a consent decree before it’s submitted to a federal judge. According to the Tribune, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan are currently wrestling over the details of a court order that could eventually serve as a judicially enforceable mandate.

As Next City has covered, the troubled Chicago Police Department’s excessive use of force and lack of accountability (especially toward communities of color) was spotlighted in a DOJ report from January of 2017. The federal department originally stepped in to investigate after the brutal shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald. In the ensuing document, the DOJ called for a judicially enforced agreement to hold the department to a number of reforms.

Emanuel originally agreed to let a judge enforce changes. But when the Trump Administration took over in late January, the mayor changed his mind and began calling for “monitors” to oversee local reforms, rather than a judge. After Madigan sued the city to force a consent decree last August, however, Emanuel agreed to negotiate and gave the activist groups a role in drafting and enforcing new policies.

Beyond avoiding arrests over minor offenses, the groups’ proposals encourage police to give warnings or divert offenders to “mediation or public health program(s),” rather than issuing citations or locking them up, according to the Tribune.

From the paper:

For a number of offenses, a supervisor would need to approve the arrest “unless not practicable under the circumstances.” Those crimes, described as “quality of life offenses” by the groups, range from gambling to prostitution to obstructing, resisting or assaulting a police officer.

The activist groups also want the department to be forced to enact a policy on foot pursuits, which have often led to shootings and other uses of force. The consent decree proposed by Emanuel and Madigan leaves room for the creation of a policy but does not mandate it.

The Chicago Fraternal Order of Police has said the consent decree is part of a “war on the police” and sought to intervene in the case, but its attempts haven’t yet been successful, according to the Tribune.

 



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