Posts by Author: Zoe Sullivan

The Life and Death of a Dangerous Woman

On March 14, 2018, Rio de Janeiro​ city council member Marielle Franco was assassinated after she left a meeting of black women discussing how to create systemic change in an oppressive political environment. Police reported that two men in a car fired multiple shots into the vehicle in which Marielle was riding, killing both her and her driver, Anderson Gomes. She was 38 years old.

Franco was black, bisexual, and a single mother. She herself was a product of Rio’s informal communities, known as favelas, home to roughly a quarter of Rio´s population. Her background and subsequent activism helped give her a deep socio-economic understanding of policing and criminal justice issues in Rio. She was using her mandate as member of the Rio City Council to propose policies that would shift the landscape for black, low-income communities and especially for women. Transforming an oppressive system was what Marielle lived for.

Marielle’s story fits into a bigger picture, one embedded in the legacy of slavery. In 1888, Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery. It imported some five million slaves, roughly ten times the number brought to the US. Yet after the end of slavery, the basic social structure of an elite group of wealthy landowners and working-class masses remained intact, along with the country’s unequal land distribution. This led to the development of Informal communities on the edges of urban areas, known as favelas, primarily occupied by low-income, working-class people of color.

Marielle’s positions and her identity as a black woman from a favela made her a symbol of hope and resistance for the communities she defended. She won election to her first term in 2016 with the fifth-highest vote count in the city. “All of her projects were developed starting from the grassroots, with the people who would be affected by these policies.” Luciana Boiteux told Next City. “She had an intersectional perspective in which gender, race and class are connected and can’t be disentangled.” Boiteux, a professor of criminal law and criminology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, is, like Marielle, a member of the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), a left-wing party born in 2003 when members of President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva’s (Lula) Workers’ Party (PT) were expelled for refusing to vote for changes to Brazil’s pension system. Marielle helped organize PSOL’s first assembly in Rio’s Maré favela, her home, in 2007.

Marielle’s political positions, however, also made her enemies. A few days before her assassination, Franco was selected as one of the leaders of a council committee monitoring the federal government’s intervention in Rio. In this intervention, the military are acting as a police force and have requested that soldiers not be subject to civil law but rather to a military tribunal. Progressives fear troops will be permitted to act with impunity, returning to the practices of a not-so-distant dictatorship. Data from Rio’s Institute of Public Security reports that 100 people were killed in the month of February “as a result of opposition to police intervention.” This figure doesn’t disaggregate the federal intervention from local police interventions.

Marielle spoke out strongly against these deaths, calling the intervention and cuts to social services a threat to democracy. “The police state is aimed at the repression and control of the poor,” she wrote, later tweeting, “How many more need to die for this war to end?”

Birth of an Activist

Marielle grew up in Maré, a favela on the northern side of Rio near the international airport. She began working at age 11 to pay for her education. At age 19, Marielle gave birth to her daughter, Luyara, and also began studying in her community for university entrance exams. It was the death of a girlfriend in a shootout between police and drug traffickers that pushed Marielle into activism.

In 2008, Marielle worked closely on an investigation into local militias with Marcelo Freixo, PSOL´s state assembly member. Rio´s militias often include former police officers, firefighters, civil police, and members of the armed forces. The Intercept Brasil has reported that militias now control the city, with 65% of the calls reporting possible drug trafficking, extortion, or other crimes involving militias. The current Mayor has denied he has ties to militia groups.

A child flies a kite in the Rio de Janeiro's Maré favela, one of the many densely populated informal settlements that ring the outskirts of the city. Marielle Franco grew up in Maré, and her experience there shaped her commitment to transform an oppressive system. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo) 

Alberto Aleixo is one of the founders of Redes da Maré, a nonprofit that aims to improve the quality of life and ensure the rights of Maré’s residents. “In reality [the militias] are a criminal group in the same way traffickers are,” Aleixo says. “They oppress the community. They charge fees to carry out so-called ‘security’.”

Militias are also emerging as an important line of investigation into Marielle’s assassination. The bullets used in her ambush came from the same lot of Federal Police bullets purchased in 2006 and traced to a series of shootings in São Paulo in 2015 that sent two police officers and a municipal guard to prison. The bloodshed continues. On April 8, 2018, Carlos Alexandre Pereira Maria, an assistant to sitting Rio City Council member Marcello Siciliano, was murdered. The Intercept Brasil reports that Pereira’s fingerprints and those of a military police officer, Anderson Claudio da Silva, are being compared with the partial fingerprints found on bullets at the scene of Marielle’s murder. Da Silva himself was killed a day later, on April 9. In the days before these murders, The Intercept Brasil reported that police had identified the cellphone number of the driver of the assassin’s car and were investigating whether any contact was made with members of the Rio City Council on the day of Marielle’s murder.

In addition, The Intercept Brasil has reported that a former City Council and militia member, Cristiano Girão Matias, was in the Rio City Council building days before Marielle was killed. Girão was one of 226 people investigated during the inquiries into militias that Marielle worked on with Marcelo Freixo in 2008. Girão’s mandate was terminated in 2010, The Intercept reports, for missing too many days of the legislative session. At the time, he had spent nearly a year in jail accused of running a local militia. After this, according to the Intercept, “there is no more news of him appearing in the Rio legislature.”

A Paradigm Shift

The context in which Marielle fought was not just for better services and opportunities for marginalized communities, but for a paradigm shift. Marielle questioned the economic framework for policy decisions as well as the symbolic violence done to low-income communities of color.

Hours before she was assassinated, Marielle sent an article to the Jornal do Brasil outlining her position on the military’s presence in Rio. She described how a series of measures undermining workers’ rights, the public health and education systems and the public pension system “aligned with interests that serve international capital and [certain] business sectors and fling a contingent of citizens into a spiral of poverty.” Some speculate that deploying the military was simply a way for the president to distract from his failure to gut the country’s pension system.

Whatever was behind it, Marielle pointed out that since the start of the intervention black women have been disproportionately represented among those victims killed. “The deaths have a color, social class, and territory,” she wrote in the Jornal do Brasil op-ed. “This frightening statistic demonstrates that even on the eve of marking a month since the beginning of the intervention, the oft-spoken-of sensation of security doesn’t happen through political-media discourse. Certainly, public safety isn’t made with arms, but with public policies in every area. In health, education, culture, and the creation of jobs and income.”

Police Pacification As Gateway to Gentrification

In the years leading up to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics, roughly 77,000 people were evicted from their homes in Rio, according to the Popular Committee on the World Cup and Olympics Dossier. Marielle described the ways that the police pacification program, launched as part of the preparation for these big events, dismantled economic security for many in the favelas while benefiting real estate speculators in her 2014 master’s thesis: “UPP: The Reduction of the Favela to Three Letters—An Analysis of Rio de Janeiro State’s Public Safety Policy.” It mentions, for example, a 400% increase in real estate values in areas surrounding favelas with pacification units (UPPs). The public safety policy “unfolds by economically removing the population with less purchasing power, gradually removing it from the city,” she wrote. Some small businesses, for example, which had been the lifeblood of the community, closed because they couldn’t afford the taxes that came with entering the formal economy. Yet critics point to the regressive structure of Brazil´s tax system as disproportionately burdening low-income people.

Marielle brought this analysis to bear on the reality surrounding her, combining a vision for producing positive change with an incisive economic critique. With city neighborhoods seen as commodities, “pacification” enabled the implementation of land-titling and urbanization projects, she wrote, bringing with them “the virtual transformation of favelas through gentrification processes, especially those in the wealthier parts of the city.”

These issues are not unique to Brazil. Residents of Brooklyn displaced for the Atlantic Yards and Barclay’s Center project may recognize similarities. As would residents of New Orleans’ public housing projects that were torn down after Hurricane Katrina to enable the construction of and profit from new housing.

“Currently, we see the inclusion of favela communities in the consumer market. So, this pacification process brings opportunities for companies in these communities,” says Boiteux. “What we criticize, and what Marielle was keenly aware of, is that little has been done in terms of social policies to actually reduce inequality. It’s a state that maximizes militarization but minimizes services, social policies.”

Marielle connected the dots between these economic interests and the public safety policies that support them. In her master’s thesis, she describes the UPPs as a “public policy aimed at ensuring public safety—not for favela residents. Instead [the UPPs are] primarily an instrument that creates a feeling of safety for future mega-events and big investments.”

The Price of Community Policing

Not everyone in Marielle’s community of Maré shared this view when the police pacification program began. “In the beginning we understood that the occupation, the state taking back the sovereignty over these areas dominated by trafficking rings, was a positive in this policy,” says Alberto Aleixo. “What the state and the governor at the time, Sergio Cabral, offered was that this would be a process of closing the gap between the police and the community. So, for us, this was a big plus: leaving behind this situation where the community is attacked by police operations for a perspective where we would have policing in the same way as other parts of the city where there are police officers who can guarantee your safety.”

This is not what happened. Research produced by Redes da Maré reports that the community experienced 41 police operations in 2017. That is one approximately every nine days. During 35 of these operations, 5,000 children were unable to attend school. That accounts for 17% of the academic year. Forty-two people were killed during armed conflicts, and 57 were injured. Shootouts also closed down the community’s health clinics for 45 days over the course of the year.

Complicating matters further, research by the Center for Studies on Security and Citizenship (CESEC) found that a large number of officers were unhappy working in the UPPs. In 2014, less than half (41%) of the officers surveyed had a positive opinion of the UPPs. Nearly two-thirds believed that residents had negative feelings about the UPP police officers.

In the time since the World Cup and the Olympics ended, the security situation has spiraled downwards. The year 2016 was the deadliest in Brazil´s history, according to the Brazilian Annual Report on Public Safety. More than 61,000 people died violent deaths. In 2017, 6,731 people died violent deaths in Rio de Janeiro state alone. Meanwhile, these deaths disproportionately affect certain communities. The Atlas of Violence reported that 71% of Brazil’s 2017 homicide victims were black men while the homicide rate among black women grew 22% between 2005 and 2015.

Criminalizing the Poor

The favelas’ population, says Aleixo, is seen as the enemy of the armed forces. The Redes report argues that because favelas are stigmatized as violent communities, “public policies [are developed] based on a stereotyped and discriminatory view of these areas, which legitimizes extremely violent actions justified by controlling illegal drug sales.”

Here again, comparisons to U.S. criminal justice policies abound, whether through stop and frisk policies, mandatory minimum sentences and mass incarceration, or the use of flashbang grenades.

Making matters worse, Aleixo says, is that police operations in Maré never seem to target the militias operating in the area, only the drug trafficking networks. “Even when there are these federal troop operations that are called GLO, Guarantee Law of Order, there’s almost no intervention in these spaces,” he says. “I see that as the state essentially conniving with this kind of crime. The militias are seen as the lesser evil.”

“For me, the militias are worse than the traffickers’ domination because the militias include agents of the state,” Aleixo says. “This makes it even more serious because it mixes crime with people who should be fighting crime. They’re public employees who should be ensuring people’s safety and they’re working against that.”

Yet Marielle wasn’t about being against the police, Aleixo says. “On the contrary. She was really close to the families of police officers who were victims of this terrible violence as well,” he says. “She had the perspective of dialoguing [with police], of approaching security discussions to preserve life.”

Robson Rodrigues da Silva, a former colonel in Rio de Janeiro’s military police who also helped design the rollout of the UPPs across the city, also acknowledges Marielle’s analysis. “The same critiques that she had—that were very well founded—those [critiques] are justified by something much larger that is happening around the world in poorer communities.” This, he says, is the result of neo-liberal policies that criminalize the poor.

“Any place in the world, whether it’s here, in the U.S., in Asia, if it’s part of a democratic system, [the police] need legitimacy and trust,” Rodrigues explained. “In this situation of political slash-and-burn that’s going on, you tend towards the opposite, towards intolerance, the ever-increasing criminalization of poverty, a lack of patience to look at the complexity of the problem. And these problems can’t be reduced simply to a question of policing. The police are a symptom. It’s a much broader, much more general problem.”

Rodrigues also acknowledged Marielle’s take that the goal of the pacification process was to “have public safety under control so that investments could come.” But, he says, some of those business interests were criminal.

“I’m not talking about small-time crime, of selling drugs in the favela. I’m talking about much more sophisticated crimes that [are coming to light] now with the Car Wash operation.”

“I Am Because We Are”

Marielle embodied the identities of the communities she represented. She brought a laser-like focus of the relationship between criminal justice policy and the marginalization of low-income communities of color to her role as City Council member when she won her seat in 2016. “I Am Because We Are” was her slogan.

“Marielle’s campaign was lovely because she brought and represented women’s politics, especially in the state of Rio de Janeiro,” says Boiteux. “These movements have always had difficulty in moving their issues forward because women are underrepresented in politics here in Brazil.”

As the President of the Council’s Women’s Defense Commission, Marielle proposed a number of bills that demonstrated her commitment to women’s issues and childcare. The common-sense vision behind one such bill, known as the “Owl Space/Nighttime Childcare Space,” acknowledges the fact that many low-income women work or study in the evening, when they don’t have someone they can leave their children with or can’t afford childcare. The proposal calls for existing daycare and educational facilities to be opened between 5 and 11pm. Caregivers would be fully trained and licensed professionals who have taken civil service exams but not yet been called upon to fill a position.

In the wake of Franco's murder, thousands protested the federal government's intervention in Rio de Janeiro, in which the military act as a police force, with heavy presence in the favelas. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Boiteux also underlined the struggle that Marielle and other women in the PSOL party have undertaken to decriminalize abortion in Brazil. The 2016 Brazilian National Abortion Survey reports that 1 in 5 Brazilian women has had at least one abortion by the age of 40 and that women of all races, classes and educational levels abort. As it stands today, abortion in Brazil is only legal in cases of rape, anencephaly, and risk to the mother´s life. Last year, members of Brazil´s Congress introduced legislation that, by defining life as beginning at conception, would prohibit abortion under any circumstances.

Marielle’s first bill, introduced shortly after being sworn in, was the law of legal abortion. “In Brazil, abortion isn’t just criminalized,” says Boiteux. “Even for abortions that are allowed, such as in the case of rape, women aren’t able to get abortion services in public clinics. It’s a taboo.”

As Marielle pointed out on her web page, 94% of the women seeking legal abortions do so as a result of a rape, and clandestine abortions are the fifth most common reason for maternal mortality in Brazil. Many women don’t know that they have the right to request an abortion. And, even when they do, many health professionals refuse to provide the services. Further, when abortion services are provided, there are often reports of abuse and obstetric violence. Marielle’s legislation aims to humanize the care women receive when making this decision.

Another of Marielle’s proposals tied to maternal health was approved by the council in 2017. The Birth Center bill recognizes the issue of obstetric violence, which involves demeaning treatment of women and the stripping of their bodily autonomy during pregnancy and labor. Examples include pushing C-sections or other unwanted interventions. The legislation increases the number of birth centers where women with low-risk pregnancies can give birth. Doulas will be available to assist with natural births, Boiteux says, although they’re considered taboo in other parts of the health system. A Huffington Post article published after the bill’s approval said the birth centers “would provide holistic healthcare” that would include nursing support and other health and educational activities to support new mothers and their children.

Marielle also proposed legislation addressing violence against women and sexual harassment — for example, by collecting data about violence against women in the city of Rio and penalizing sexual harassment on public transportation.

Empower Women, Occupy Everything

In the wake of her assassination, Marielle’s master´s thesis advisor, Joana D´Arc Fernandes Ferraz, continues to speak of her in the present tense. Marielle isn’t a martyr, Ferraz says, she’s a fighter.

“She shouldn’t be thought of as a martyr in this fight. It would be the last thing she would want,” says Ferraz. “She had a cabinet made up of social movements, of collectives. She also didn’t use her power the way power would want her to—speaking for people.” The implication is that Marielle used her voice as an equal, a peer, not as a leader. “She [was] there, participating in activities; going everywhere; defending really important causes here in Brazil.”

The night she died, Marielle participated in a group discussion on black women running for office and challenging an oppressive system. For Boiteux, a PSOL colleague, Marielle’s legacy of encouraging other women, black women, to enter politics is essential to dealing with her loss.

“She had a campaign, women in politics. Because she knew that she alone [had limited power],” says Boiteaux. “She knew the importance of women, black women occupying political spaces.” No surprise, then, that Marielle closed out that last meeting by saying: “Let’s go out and occupy everything.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.


Making Ferguson Commission Recommendations Come Alive in St. Louis

A map of community needs identified during the Gravois-Jefferson Historic Neighborhoods planning process. (Credit: Gravois-Jefferson Historic Neighborhoods Plan)

In the aftermath of the uprising resulting from the police killing of Michael Brown, a young, African-American man in Ferguson, Mo., the Ferguson Commission came up with nearly 200 recommendations that could help improve the state of race relations in the St. Louis metro area. Grassroots organizations are beginning to make those recommendations come alive in neighborhoods across the region.

One of those grassroots organizations is the Dutchtown South Community Corporation, which has been around since the 1970s. Under the oversight of a 14-member plan steering committee consisting of neighborhood residents, the organization has been leading community engagement on the Gravois-Jefferson Historic Neighborhoods Plan.

The Dutchtown community is diverse. Although nearly two-thirds of the residents are black and less than a third are white, it is also nearly 10 percent Latino, a rapidly growing constituency in the neighborhood according to Amanda Colón-Smith, the organization’s executive director. As part of the planning process, Dutchtown South Community Corporation worked with Forward Through Ferguson, a racial-equity-focused organization that came out of the Ferguson Commission’s work.

“I was really excited about working with Forward Through Ferguson,” Colón-Smith says. “They would do an alignment analysis to see if a final product met with the criteria from the [Ferguson Commission] report … we have been working with them throughout, so this [racial equity lens] was applied to the process and not just to the product.”

The Gravois-Jefferson Historic Neighborhoods Plan was recently named one of the first to receive funding from Invest STL, a new regional community development collaborative formed by long-established community development corporations, regional and local banks, and the St. Louis Community Foundation.

“We wanted organizations that had a clear understanding as to the needs of the community they serve,” says Bob Herleth, Invest STL’s Director.

Rise Community Development also served as part of the Gravois-Jefferson Historic Neighborhoods planning team.

“One of the things that [Forward Through Ferguson] really encouraged us to do was to be intentional about who were doing outreach with,” says Carrick Reddin, a project manager with Rise Community Development. “So we began tracking demographic information, race, ethnicity, age, economic status, renter vs. homeowner … That way, we could see when we disaggregate that kind of input, if white folks really want to see a café and black folks really want a library. That was really important.”

Colón-Smith explains that planning processes can be biased for a variety of reasons, including that not everyone can make it to meetings. One group Reddin says didn’t initially have much representation in the planning process was young people, who make up 40 percent of the community’s population. To reach this constituency, Reddin says, one strategy was sending surveyors to the local high school lunchroom.

Another strategy: “One of the rec centers has an annual pool party and tons of people come out,” Colón-Smith says. “So, we did tabling at those events and really made sure that we went out to talk to people instead of expecting them to come to us.”

The planning team even brought paper surveys to black-owned businesses and offered gift cards to people who agreed to complete the survey. Steps like this helped to fill-in gaps in the public data sets the group had, Colón-Smith says.

Out of 314 recommendations, the steering committee asked what could be actively done to mitigate and address disparities. The committee came up with a list of 60 criteria to prioritize the projects. They prioritized three: equitability, sustainability, and feasibility.

“We heard that the needs of the community are not just about the size of the street and what the buildings look like,” says Reddin. “But it’s about health and well-being and access to jobs and opportunities for the people who live there who are under 21. It transcends parks. It’s a much more comprehensive plan than what’s often seen in this field.”

Priority recommendations include engaging and empowering the community to make the area safe and welcoming to everyone; limiting pay-day lending operations and improving access to reputable financial services; fostering access to homeownership as well as helping vulnerable residents ensure their homes are in good repair; providing year-round educational opportunities for youth; and improving access to quality healthcare.

“There isn’t a great track record of applying equity to the future of neighborhood development,” Colón-Smith says. “This is a really great model that you don’t really see: work with a steering committee to plan for prioritizing those actions afterwards,” she says

“Having organizations doing this planning work who can also serve as implementers can make sure that they can help bring the plan to life,” Reddin adds. “Some firms just do the plan and they leave. Rise isn’t going anywhere. Dutchtown South isn’t going anywhere.”

The Gravois-Jefferson Historic Neighborhoods Plan is scheduled to be considered for adoption by the City of St. Louis Planning Commission in May.


Confronting Austin’s History of Racial Segregation

Austin, Texas (Photo by Stuart Seeger, Flickr) 

Every day, as executive director of Six Square, Austin´s black cultural district, Nefertitti Jackmon confronts a racial history going back to at least the city’s 1928 segregation plan. The plan, Jackmon explains, pushed the city´s black population into the eastern part of the city, denying services such as paved roads and garbage collection to those who chose not to move.

Those who did move, made the best of it. “All the black schools and businesses, churches, etc. were [in east Austin]. So, there grew a strong, thriving, African-American community,” says Jackmon.

In the same week that Austin recognized the 90th anniversary of that segregation plan, the city announced a new effort to confront the latest chapter of the plan’s history: the displacement of black households from some of the very same neighborhoods where racist policies and lending practices once forced them to live. The city was announced as one of ten participating in the newly announced All-In Cities Anti-Displacement Policy Network.

As part of the new network’s activities, Jackmon is serving a member of the Austin Anti-Displacement Task Force, which is charged with developing a set of recommendations to present to the city council by October.

“Many people thought that gentrification was a natural effect of market forces,” Jackmon says. “But even if it is market forces, at what point does the government intervene to maintain the quality of life for the community? The government needs to intervene when there’s something that’s off-balance.”

The other cities in the anti-displacement network: Boston; Buffalo, N.Y.; Denver; Nashville, Tenn.; Philadelphia; Portland, Ore.; San José, Calif.; Santa Fe, N.M.; and the Twin Cities.

“Austin remains one of the most economically and physically segregated cities in the nation, and [it has] a rapidly declining African-American population. The urban core is only about eight percent [Black],” Jackmon says.

Chris Schildt is a senior associate at PolicyLink, the equity-focused research and advocacy organization that created the anti-displacement network. With a background in equitable housing and economic development policy, Schildt says that while the country has seen an “urban resurgence,” not everyone is benefitting.

“We see that [displacement] is very much a racial-equity challenge in terms of who is able to stay and benefit and who is being stuck in poverty through unsustainable housing policies right now,” he says.

Rising rents are largely to blame. The majority of residents of the United States´ 100 largest cities rent. More than half, 51 percent, are rent burdened, meaning that tenants pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Zooming in on women of color, nearly two thirds of black women face burdensome rents. The percentage of Latina women facing rent burdens is only slightly lower. When something goes wrong, such as an illness or an unexpected repair, people struggling with burdensome rents can easily find themselves evicted and, ultimately, completely displaced from their communities.

In trendy cities like Austin, rents continue rising even as new housing construction has been on an upward trend since 2010, reaching pre-recession levels.

The issue of rent burden is personal for Jackmon, who moved to Austin about a year ago, from Houston.

“I’m paying double what I was paying in Houston. The rents actually caught me off-guard. And I live in a very small space,” she says.

The challenges ripple beyond housing. Jackmon points out that communities are eco-systems, and disrupting one element, for example through higher taxes or rents that push out people of lesser means, creates ripple effects.

“There was a piñata store that got shut down,” says Jackmon. “Many of their customers had gone and left the area. How do you support small businesses if the families that support those businesses are gone?”

Schildt says the All-in-Cities Anti-Displacement Network will work to help cities develop tailored responses to their unique displacement challenges.

In the state of Texas, cities like Austin face some key restrictions on the kinds of initiatives they can launch to combat displacement, according to Erika Leak, Associate Director of neighborhood housing and community development for Austin.

“In Texas, we can’t have rent restrictions. It’s really hard to do much in the way of tenant protections. There are just a lot of things that we can’t do,” Leak says. “We have to think about whether there are enough cities in Texas that would rally around important legislative changes to help with affordability, and one of those would be a property-tax exemption specifically for lower-income families, and right now that’s something we can’t do.”

Jackmon says the task force is looking to develop more “actionable items,” including items aimed at enabling homeowners with high tax burdens to stay in their homes, with or without legislative support at the state level.

“The City of Austin adopted a strategic housing blueprint in 2017, and one of the key values in the document was to reduce displacement,” Leak said. “One ongoing best practice that we have heard about is just making sure to have as much income-restricted affordable housing as possible so that it will stay affordable over the long term.”

One solution the Housing Authority of the City of Austin has tried in the past: working with a partner to acquire market rate-housing on the open market and convert all or part of the acquisition into affordable housing. One such transaction took place in 2015, when the authority partnered with Community Development Trust to acquire 600 units of market-rate housing on the open market, converting half into units reserved for households earning up to 80 percent of area median income (the authority arranged for a 100 percent property tax rebate to subsidize the affordable units). That’s 300 new units of affordable housing with the stroke of a pen.

Still, Jackmon acknowledges that many in Austin are frustrated since this is not the first time the city has studied its gentrification problem.

“No one has come up with a solution,” she said. “I think the government has to intervene at this time.”


Puerto Rico Credit Unions Want a Solar-Powered Recovery

(AP Photo/John Raoux)

More than six months since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, tens of thousands of people still have no electricity. Maria Garcia Carrión isn’t one of them. She can still run her washing machine, refrigerator, computer, and lights. It’s all thanks to the self-contained solar power kit installed on her home, which sits at the far edge of Caguas, the third largest city on the island.

“We don’t have many trees anymore, so we’re maximizing our energy production,” Garcia Carrión says, with a lemons-to-lemonade perspective.

Before installing the solar power kit, Garcia Carrión said that the twenty-three cents per kilowatt hour the local power company charged would add up to a big bill at the end of each month. Since the hurricane, she and her husband had been spending roughly $400/month to keep a gas-run generator operating for two hours in the morning and evening. The solar power kit has eliminated the need to run the generator.

The kit has even inspired discussions about how to completely change the way all of Puerto Rico generates its power.

“Where I’m living,” says Garcia Carrión, “People are talking about developing community solar networks so that people who leave near others can take advantage of a community network.”

The solar power kit costs roughly nine-thousand dollars — a substantial outlay, though in Garcia Carrión’s case it was purchased as a demonstration project through the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Center for Impact Finance. Other residents will need to finance their own, but the center has been working with Jesus Obrero Cooperativa de Ahorro y Crédito to finance the solar power kits for other families.

Jesus Obrero is part of Puerto Rico’s own network of credit unions, called the cooperativa system. The cooperativas are insured and regulated by the Puerto Rican government. The project illustrates the way community financial institutions are helping bring Puerto Rico fully back on line – and keep it there.

While the hurricane heightened the urgency of the program, Jesus Obrero has been providing loans for solar power kits for six years, says executive director, Aurelio Arroyo. The group serves roughly 10,000 people between the cities of San Juan, Guaynabo and Bayamon. Guaynabo and Bayamon have populations of roughly 240,000 and 100,000, respectively. There is still a lot of education and outreach needed, which is why the Carsey Center provided Garcia Carrión her solar power kit as well as support to Jesus Obrero for an engineer to do outreach and education work to other families.

“Guaynabo, which is part of the municipality of San Juan, still has some people without electricity,” Arroyo says.

In order to be able to offer financing to more people for solar power kits, Jesus Obrero is pursuing certification from the Department of the Treasury as a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI).

For certification, the department requires institutions to target at least 60 percent of their lending or overall business to low-income communities and populations that have traditionally been marginalized from mainstream financial institutions. CDFI certification means that credit unions, including cooperativas, can access low-interest financing from government and philanthropy to support community economic development and can act as conduits for larger banks to meet their obligations under the Community Reinvestment Act.

Arroyo and his organization aren’t alone in eyeing the support that CDFI certification can help tap in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions and the Carsey Center organized a January workshop on the island. The federation acts as an umbrella organization for credit unions serving low-income and other targeted communities across the United States. Some 60 local institutions attended the January workshop. The session described the process of obtaining CDFI certification, as well as outlining financing approaches for solar power kits.

The Federation is currently working with 30 cooperativas on the CDFI certification process. As of February 2018, there were no credit unions with CDFI certification in Puerto Rico, though there are 277 CDFI-certified credit unions nationwide.

Arroyo said that his organization has already submitted the paper work for CDFI certification and hopes to receive approval next year. Certification promises to position cooperativas and credit unions to access financing that can help jump start local businesses, such as those installing the solar power kits.

“Under other circumstances, it wouldn’t be possible to help low-income people get solar energy,” Arroyo says. “The banks are not financing these projects. We cooperatives are doing it, and we want a lot of families to have access to this.”

Currently, Puerto Rico has 11 federally-chartered credit unions regulated by the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) and 116 cooperativas. The island’s cooperativa system serves nearly one million members as well as an additional 300,000 non-member clients. Collectively, these entities hold nearly $1 billion in assets, according to the Association of Puerto Rican Cooperative Executives.

“One-third of the population is connected to a cooperativa,” says José Julian Ramírez Ruíz, who runs the association, which provides technical education to cooperativa leaders.

Ramírez Ruíz thinks the entire island should be considered a CDFI target area. “The vast majority of the population is Hispanic, and a large portion lives below the poverty line,” he says. “We’ve also just been through a financial crisis and a terrible natural disaster. I personally went 111 days without electricity, living in the center of San Juan.”

William Leucht, a spokesperson for the Treasury Department’s CDFI office, said that institutions that don’t have their certification can still apply for technical assistance grants. These funds can help cooperativas and credit unions meet the requirements for the certification, for example by supporting institutions as they develop adequate lending oversight systems.

Though, as Ramírez Ruíz explains, there are few native English speakers on the island who can help complete the necessary paperwork.

If cooperativas and credit unions can offer financing to members to install more solar power kits, the Carsey Center’s Eric Hangen argues that there will be a virtuous circle of local job creation.

“They have people who are out of work. So, this will create jobs for installers. We trained six electricians [from Puerto Rico] in how to do it, and we’re sending them back for more training in a few weeks,” Hangen says. “It’s the strength of locally-controlled financial institutions stimulating local jobs for local power. There’s nowhere near that multiplier effect with other projects.”

Although Garcia Carrión´s house is in a more remote area of Caguas, Hangen says that the self-contained, “distributed,” solar power kits could offer a solution for denser areas. The solar panel kits include a battery, so the building doesn’t need to be connected to a power grid.

Hurricane Maria has created interest in solar power and so an opportunity for change, according to Arroyo. “It’s complicated to break away from the electrical energy system we had for years,” he says. “But we are still in time to make a change and to elevate the entire [island’s] economy.”


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