Join us tomorrow for a lively conversation with Martin Luther King III, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Dr. Delores Jones Brown, Professor and Director of John Jay College Center on Race, Crime and Justice and former NYPD officer and John Jay Lecturer Eugene O’Donnell.
It’s fairly obvious that the city of Detroit has a whole host of pressing problems to solve. The Governor, Mayor, and City Council just entered into a consent agreement to help keep the city afloat financially, and are now sorting out core governance issues. Despite a small drop last month, Detroit’s unemployment rate is 17.8% in comparison to the national 8.2% rate. Indeed, Detroit has a bad reputation that carries throughout the country.
Though Detroit residents are working hard to improve the city while highlighting the city’s positive features and redeeming qualities, we still need to have an honest conversation about which problems to address, in what order, and to what degree. To start, I think Detroit needs to tackle food insecurity and vacant land issues; the growing urban agriculture movement can mitigate these problems and help empower communities throughout the city.
Food Insecurity: The US Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as households that lack consistent access to adequate food for active, healthy lives. In 2010, the Detroit Food Policy Council estimated that Detroit’s food insecurity rate was at least 30%, compared to the11% national average. The problem isn’t just that people in Detroit don’t have enough food to eat. The Fair Food Network published a case study on access to food in Detroit, which identified several additional problems: lack of healthy and affordable food and retailers, neighborhood safety, and environmental contamination. Some interviewees also mentioned racial tensions, as some “African American residents say that food quality, service, and condition of their neighborhood stores are unacceptable, and feel disrespected by the store owners, who are often from different racial and ethnic backgrounds and live outside their neighborhoods.”
Vacant Land: At its core, Detroit is too big for its population, and the city needs to adapt in order to survive. Detroit officials and other stakeholders have been talking about “right-sizing” the city over the past few years, and the Detroit Works Project is a city initiative that is trying to figure out just what to do with this space. While these conversations will likely remain controversial, prompt and thoughtful action is necessary, and in this case proof is in the statistics. By area, Detroit is about 138 square miles. From 2000 to 2010, Detroit’s population declined by 25% and is now about 713,000. According to the Detroit Residential Parcel Survey data, about 581 of the city’s 3116 miles of highways and streets front vacant lots. And, 10,683 of the city’s 32,913 blocks are made up of at least 25% vacant lots. The costs of maintaining this lack of land use are too high for the city to bear.
Last month, the University of Michigan Food Stamp Advocacy Project organized a panel that asked whether urban agriculture/urban farming can help put vacant land to good use and promote food security. First, Professor Alicia Alvarez, director of the Community & Economic Development Clinic (CEDC), which provides legal support to community-based nonprofit organizations in Detroit, discussed how her work supporting community-based organizations engaged in urban agriculture has made her believe that urban agriculture can positively impact the city.
The next speaker, Professor John Mogk of Wayne State University Law School argued that urban agriculture is a great opportunity to productively use otherwise vacant land to help support communities through providing access to healthy foods, fostering community development through improving neighborhoods, and reducing crime.
Finally, Executive Director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network Malik Yakini emphasized the importance of undoing racism in the Detroit food system by “rejecting the missionary attitude of whites who come into our communities, via grant funded nonprofits, to lead us to the urban agricultural promised land.” He also pointed out that urban agriculture can be used to connect more Detroiters to affordable, healthy, and delicious food. Mr. Yakini’s group advances urban agriculture by running the D-Town farm, supporting food justice activism, and engaging in policy advocacy projects.
The panelists both contend that city officials need to work with community groups and other stakeholders to address the operational, legislative, and regulatory challenges currently facing urban agriculture in Detroit. This point left me with a host of critical questions about what city and community collaboration would look like and achieve. For example, if the city is “right-sizing” and is going to end up rezoning several different neighborhoods, what does that mean for up and coming farms? Also, how much urban agriculture does the city want within city limits? How will Detroit deal with the Michigan Right to Farm Act, which in many respects leaves Detroit powerless to regulate commercial farming.
While there need to be more discussions about the mechanics and vision(s) for urban agriculture in the city, the punch line was that if city officials and communities work together, urban agriculture can be an opportunity to reduce food insecurity, empower communities, and put otherwise vacant land to productive use. I agree entirely.
Liz Lamoste is a second-year student at the University of Michigan Law School, a native of Suburban Detroit, and a 2009 DMI Scholar. She is a board member of the Michigan Universal Health Care Access Network (MichUHCAN) and an outgoing co-chair of the Food Stamp Advocacy Project (FSAP). You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on twitter @LizLamoste.
Three years into the Obama administration and no comprehensive immigration reform in sight, immigration enforcement policy seems to be going two directions, characterized by smart policymaking at the city level and ill-advised restrictive policies in the states.
This month, legislators in New York and Washington D.C. made it clear that cities don’t have to get in the business of federal immigration enforcement. Yesterday, New York City Mayor Bloomberg signed an important measure limiting the city’s role in federal immigration enforcement. The new law keeps the Department of Corrections from turning over immigrants with no criminal convictions to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) upon their release from local jail, but makes key exceptions for known gang members or those on the terror watch list. Under this legislation, the first of its kind signed into law, local officials will no longer place immigration holds on New Yorkers without criminal histories.
In Washington, all thirteen members of the D.C. Council co-sponsored a bill which prevents the Department of Corrections from detaining suspected undocumented immigrants without current or previous convictions for violent crimes. The measure further stipulates that local jails will release immigrants after 24 hours if ICE officials fail to pick them up—typically, ICE has 48 hours to retrieve immigrants from local custody. Immigrant communities in Washington and New York should feel safer knowing that local law enforcement officers will no longer be doing double duty as ICE agents; so too, should non-immigrants—fewer resources spent on non-criminals necessarily means more resources allocated toward catching criminals and identifying threats to public safety.
Cities shouldn’t participate in enforcing our outdated civil immigration laws, which are enacted and funded at the federal level. Local governments are tasked with upholding public safety and ensuring communities’ trust in city police—there is evidence that civil immigration enforcement undermines both goals. Further, there is little connection between public safety and deporting undocumented immigrants without criminal pasts. And by narrowing the population eligible for jail time, New York and Washington will save millions in jailing and other correctional costs each year.
Across the country, other localities have been taking steps to restrain costly immigration enforcement programs. In Chicago, Illinois, Arlington, Virginia and elsewhere, elected officials have passed resolutions or laws attempting to opt-out of ICE’s controversial Secure Communities program. The fingerprint sharing “partnership” engages local resources in enforcing immigration laws, so that individuals booked for local crimes have their prints automatically forwarded to federal immigration authorities. In practice, this has resulted in thousands of immigrants deported for civil immigration violations, even though they were originally charged with or convicted of for minor crimes like traffic offenses. In addition, a groundbreaking study found that the program sweeps up Latinos in disproportionate numbers, and negatively affects due process for all immigrants apprehended. Despite these concerns, the Obama administration has essentially forbidden localities from exiting the program, and plans to expand Secure Communities nationwide by 2013.
While many cities are crafting smarter policies to mitigate the impact of immigration enforcement, some states are going the other direction, cooking up costly and expansive policies. In 2011, states including South Carolina, Indiana and Alabama have attempted to tighten the screws on immigrants, passing increasingly restrictive and potentially unconstitutional omnibus laws designed to identify, deport and simply drive out undocumented families.
Alabama’s law is the most radical, broadly requiring individuals to show “proof of immigration status for ‘any transaction between a person and the state or a political subdivision of the state.’” The implications of this provision are staggering—citizens could be required to produce papers when signing up for electricity service or garbage pick-up. It also includes language requiring public schools to determine student’s immigration status and barring landlords from knowingly renting to undocumented immigrants. According to Birmingham Mayor William Bell, the new measure “is virtually impossible to enforce.” Indeed, the law goes further than other states’ measures, even Arizona’s infamous SB1070. Beyond the obvious injustice of attempting to drive workers and consumers without papers out of the state, Alabama’s law fails as a sound piece of public policy thanks to its far-reaching unintended consequences.
The legislation allows residents to show driver’s licenses as proof of immigration status; but those with out-of-state licenses or military IDs could be forced to produce other documents when picking up car tags or signing up for membership at the local pool. It’s well known that certain populations, including African-Americans and the elderly, are less likely than the general population to have citizenship documents. Further, in the aftermath of the law, there were reports that immigrant families fled the state. The Center for American Progress found that the resulting labor shortages led to serious negative economic consequences: one farmer lost an estimated $300,000. These and other reported impacts are reportedly forcing Alabama lawmakers to consider “tweaking” the law.
Fortunately, the federal government successfully filed a complaint to halt elements of Alabama’s immigration law, and ultimately the state’s district court prevented key provisions from going into effect. But the fight is far from over: court challenges were filed this year in Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina to turn back similarly restrictive measures.
Politicians will continue to adopt immigration hawk stances and propose backward-thinking laws against the interests of the general populace, while smart policymakers know that it’s best to leave immigration enforcement to the feds. “Cracking down” on immigration won’t decrease unemployment, improve public schools or create safer neighborhoods; it’s time elected officials put aside silver-bullet immigration laws promising otherwise.
Smaller local governments across the country are taking drastic measures to deal with budget crises, with some turning to nearby cities and counties.
Clayton County, a county in the Atlanta metro area, has closed the county police academy, outsourced its planning services, and instituted a three-month hiring freeze. Clayton, which is home to most of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, already lost its mass transit system, C-TRAN, earlier this year because of operating budget shortfalls making transportation within Clayton to the jobs at airport even more reliant on cars. And unfortunately, despite federal funding already in place for commuter rail in the county, the Georgia Assembly has failed to move forward on the rail plans.
Across the country, two cities in California have disbanded their police departments. San Carlos, a city halfway between San Francisco and San Jose will outsource police services to San Mateo County; and Maywood, a mere eight miles from the center of Los Angeles, will outsource its law enforcement to Los Angeles County and its other municipal operations to neighboring town Bell.
Maywood Mayor Ana Rosa Rizo says cities are following the city’s actions closely:
In light of decreased municipal money from the state and federal government, small and large cities across the country are looking for innovative and cost effective strategies.
With localities relying more and more on their central cities plans like LA’s 30/10 transit plan and the commuter rail plans in Georgia make more and more sense. And the federal government stepping up with a loan—or the Georgia Assembly getting its act together—makes more sense.
Take Maywood. It takes 30 minutes sitting in traffic or an hour on the bus for Maywood residents to get the eight miles to the city center. More efficient transit would make it lot easier.
The New York Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that the state could seize private property in the interests of Columbia University, which plans to build a satellite campus in Harlem. Agreeing with the Empire State Development Corporation’s findings that the area’s condemnation both served a public purpose and that the area in question was “blighted,” the court has now allowed the state to utilize its power of eminent domain.
Citing deference to the state’s determination, and following the precedent created in the Atlantic Yards case of last year, yesterday’s decision overturned an appellate court ruling from 2009 that found that the designation of “blight” was “mere sophistry,” and that the use of eminent domain would merely benefit a private entity. This decision points to a number of troubling trends that have emerged in eminent domain law.
Case after case, courts have simply deferred to the judgments of government agencies, granting the ESDC free rein to determine what is blighted, and then acquiescing to those determinations. As the appellate court pointed out in 2009, both the ESDC and Columbia University used the same contractor to conduct the study of the area that led to its blighted designation, a designation that Justice James Catterson threw out the window. Furthermore, the courts have steadily expanded the definition of “public use,” allowing private developers to simply argue that their project has a purportedly superior utility than its current use. In questioning, even the ESDC’s own attorneyadmitted that Columbia’s justification for the use of eminent domain could also be applied in the future to the expansion of such elite entities as private schools.
In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling in Kelo v. City of New London (2005), a ruling that pronounced that states could seize private property and transfer it to a different private owner in the name of economic development, forty-three states modified their eminent domain laws. New York, however, was not one of them. Yesterday’s decision shows, yet again, that it is about time that New York followed suit.
The WSJ’s Conor Dougherty reports on an analysis of new Census numbers by Brookings’s William Frey showing slowing population growth in many suburban areas: suburbs in 27 of the 52 biggest metros grew more slowly between 2008 and 2009 than the previous year. In fact, in 13 metros the core city grew faster than the suburbs.
But Dougherty cautions that:
Of course, none of this means that cities are poised to gain on the suburbs long-term. Most of America lives and works in the suburbs (Chicago’s suburbs are home to 6.4 million people, twice as many as the core city) so once the job market and home prices stabilize, suburban growth is likely to follow.
Demographic prediction is treacherous, of course. But Dougherty could be right. For all the Obama administration’s successes in nudging federal policy to support more sustainable transportation options and to waste less on useless tax breaks, Washington still subsidizes expensive suburban living while highlighting suburbs as paragons of laissez faire.
Will we really note the connection between the recent movement back to cities and the popping of the housing bubble but not ensure that the mechanisms that created the bubble are dismantled? Putting a price on carbon that in turn raised the price of gasoline - something that would decrease the supply of housing in far-out locations - is an increasingly unlikely prospect in a Congress seemingly paralyzed by the sheer number of policy items they could - and seem to know they should - tackle. But the Obama administration is not blameless: whatever its economic benefits, the tax credit for homebuyers whose success it touts is consistent with the old model of subsidizing non-urban areas.
Last month we highlighted Pittsburgh’s prevailing wage for economic development at our Marketplace of Ideas forum. But this month brings another law to benefit low- and moderate-income Pittsburgh residents:
Pittsburgh City Council on Tuesday enacted a bill designed to allocate more resources to the city’s most troubled neighborhoods.
Councilman Ricky Burgess sponsored the bill, which would change the way the city uses locally raised capital dollars in tandem with federal Community Development Block Grants.
The city’s annual Block Grant allocation is about $17 million.
As required by federal law, Mr. Burgess said, the city uses Block Grant funds on projects in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods. But he said the city takes away with the other hand — and introduced his bill to halt that practice, known as supplanting.
Mr. Burgess said Block Grant funds should be used to augment local funds. Instead, he said, the city has been using Block Grant money to provide basic services in poor neighborhoods and spending the local money in more affluent neighborhoods.
Mr. Burgess said Tuesday’s unanimous vote reversed a 30-year process of underfunding some neighborhoods and called it a move toward spending CDBG money the way the federal government intended.
“I think its impact is significant,” he said.
Who needs jobs and public services when you could be shuttering libraries and cutting pay at the Parks Department? That’s essentially the question the Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas asked in an absurd recent opinion piece in the New York Post. As the Senate finally moved to introduce its version of the Local Jobs for America Act, investing billions of dollars in local job creation, Gelinas insisted that New York and other cities would be better off without the support.
Her twisted logic? Stimulus legislation hurts American cities because it allows us to maintain public services we depend on but might someday need to raise taxes to continue.
All the “temporary” stimulus did was let the politicians off the hook: No need to make politically tough cuts to get the fisc under control; just keep increasing outlays as if financial bubbles would keep saving us forever.
Given that city budget crises across the country are a product of the nation’s deep recession, it would take a few years of strong economic growth – not “financial bubbles” – to set most municipal budgets right. But why help cities through the roughest economy in decades when you could be closing senior centers and health clinics? It’s as though these “tough cuts” were valuable in their own right, instead of devastating to communities.
As if keeping day care centers open weren’t enough, Gelinas argues that extending a lifeline to American cities has another “negative” effect. “Obama and Congress took away the leverage City Hall and Albany would have had over intractable labor unions.” In other words, suffering is good for our cities because it encourages us to squeeze the sanitation workers and destroy teacher pensions, another move that’s supposed to be intrinsically valuable. In fact, it may be intrinsically valuable, if your goal is to undermine government.
As I argued in an article in the July 5 issue of the Nation:
It’s a short step from lambasting public workers to rejecting the very idea of public goods and services—and of government itself. With the nation still reeling from the harm caused by underregulated markets, conservatives are using city and state budget crises to call for across-the-board privatization, entrusting unaccountable private companies with an ever greater share of the public good.
Paul Krugman has deftly debunked the arguments that budget deficits somehow prevent the federal government from supporting local communities and igniting the economic recovery we need. But critical steps to create jobs could be derailed by even less logical arguments that tap into myths of overpaid public workers as part of a right-wing anti-government campaign. This tortured logic needs to be exposed as well.
The minimum wage in Beijing is up 20 percent this year. In export giant Shenzhen the minimum just climbed 15.8 percent. And 18 other cities and provinces across China have hiked their base wage as well. To stave off strikes and a highly publicized spate of workplace suicides, foreign manufacturers have increased pay and improved working conditions. Rising wages represent long-overdue good news for the overworked and poorly paid employees who make the consumer products Americans use every day. But could it be positive for American workers – and the economies of our hometowns – as well?
Consider the American jobs lost and U.S. wages suppressed by unfair trade with a country that – before what appears to be a recent policy shift – regularly used the power of the state to repress workers and keep wages down. In March, economist Robert Scott at the Economic Policy Institute issued a report concluding that 2.4 million jobs were lost or displaced as a result of U.S. trade with China between 2001 and 2008. (This is a net figure, representing the job lost even after accounting for the new jobs that were created as a result of China trade.) Cities like Los Angeles, Austin, and San Diego saw the most employment disappear, and job losses were also steep in the Chicago metro area (18,000-plus jobs lost) and the Denver and Portland regions. Most of the lost jobs were manufacturing positions, middle-class jobs with good benefits to support families.
What’s more, Scott argues:
“Competition with low-wage workers from less-developed countries has also driven down wages for other workers in manufacturing and reduced the wages and bargaining power of similar workers throughout the economy. The impact has affected essentially all production workers with less than a four-year college degree—roughly 70% of the private-sector workforce, or about 100 million workers. For a typical full-time median-wage earner in 2006, these indirect losses totaled approximately $1,400 per worker (Bivens 2008). China is the most important source of downward pressure from trade with less-developed countries, because it pays very low wages and because it was responsible for nearly 40% of U.S. non-oil imports from less-developed countries in 2008.”
Could an increase in Chinese wages begin to reverse the trend?
It’s important to note that Chinese wages remain very low – in Beijing, for example, the new minimum wage amounts to no more than $140 a month – so it’s not as if American labor is about to become competitive on the basis of cost alone anytime soon. Yet analysts are already speculatingthat rising wages in China could push up the price of Chinese imports to the United States. If that happens, Americans would find it relatively more affordable to buy to buy domestically produced goods and American exports might see a boost as well, all helping to bolster American manufacturing and create jobs. Ultimately, better-off Chinese consumers could even provide a market for American-made goods. While other low-wage countries are no doubt eager to grab their share of footloose factories, it’s unclear whether they have the infrastructure to quickly support a shift in manufacturing big enough to change this dynamic.
Today, the U.S. trade deficit with China is still growing and China has yet to revalue its artificially low currency, a step that would magnify the impact of rising wages on U.S.-China trade. It’s going to take more than a bump in China’s legendarily low pay to create a real boom in U.S. manufacturing that could bring good jobs back to American cities. But increasing wages in China represent a step toward more balanced world trade.
The White House Council of Economic Advisors estimates that as many as one out of every 15 teachers nationwide could be laid off this year. In an op-ed in Friday’s Washington Post, CEA Chair Cristina Roemer made the point that “Additional federal aid targeted at preventing these layoffs can play a critical role in combating the crisis.” And “such aid would be very cost-effective.” The Administration is calling for $23 billion to preserve education and save jobs. But so far, Congress isn’t listening. David Dayen at FireDogLake argues that the White House is doing a poor job of getting them to listen.
Whoever’s to blame, the results are clear: In New York City alone, 6,414 teachers and other school personnel stand to lose their jobs. Los Angeles plans to lay off 1,000 teachers, blessedly less than the cuts the city had been contemplating. Cleveland will lose 545 teachers and 100 principals. A thousand school workers in Atlanta will be laid off. In Milwaukee, the number is 850.
Few have argued against the idea that public education is the most powerful and effective investment we can make in the future of our country, from its informed citizenry to its economic competitiveness. Instead, fiscal conservatives in Congress simply insist that shoring up our children’s schools is unaffordable. In his column yesterday, Paul Krugman dissected the flawed fiscal logic behind the new push for austerity (which is also, disastrously, costing families their unemployment benefits.) Yet it’s the Institute for Policy Studies’ newsletter Too Much that gets at the bigger picture:
An old word is creeping back into our political discourse. Austerity. In troubled times, we’re lectured, government at all levels simply must learn how to make do with less. Much less. We must accept overcrowded classrooms and library shutdowns and endless waits between buses because we can no longer afford, as a society, anything better.
Nonsense. Our society is swimming in treasure, even amid these troubled times. But this treasure sits in precious few pockets.
We do, fortunately, have another old word that aptly describes this dangerous phenomenon. Plutocracy. But this particular old word has yet to creep onto our political center stage. That needs to change. The longer we go, as a society, without confronting plutocracy, the deeper our austerity will go.