With New Protections Tied Up in the Courts, Home Health Care Workers Aren’t Waiting Around

Originally published in The American Prospect on April 3rd, 2015.
______

Almost two years after the Obama administration extended historic labor protections to the nation’s 1.79 million home healthcare workers, those new rights remain in limbo. In September 2013, the Department of Labor (DOL) announced plans to amend a longstanding regulation that has excluded them from earning the federal minimum wage, overtime pay, and compensation for travel on the job. For home healthcare workers in the United States—a group that is nearly 90 percent female—this move marked a significant step towards setting a floor of decent labor standards.

But the rule-change, which was set to go into effect on January 1st, now faces a challenge in federal court, and critics say state legislators are using the ongoing litigation as an excuse to avoid implementing the new protections. At the same time, given that most home healthcare workers are paid through Medicaid and Medicare—two underfunded public programs—many also worry that states will respond to the rule-change by curtailing consumers’ access to quality care. Activists across the country are working to pressure their lawmakers to reckon with these new standards and avoid potential calamity.

Four decades ago, Congress decided that home healthcare workers should be classified more like babysitters who provide “companionship,” rather than as workers entitled to basic protections. Nursing home employees, by contrast, are fully covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), despite performing many of the same tasks. As home healthcare has ballooned in recent years, these occupational distinctions have become harder to justify.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. will need one million new home healthcare workers by 2022. But the work is draining, the pay is paltry, and turnover is high. When adjusted for inflation, home healthcare workers’ average hourly wages have declined by nearly 6 percent since 2004. In 2013, the average earnings of home healthcare workers totaled just $18,598. 2013 was also the year that the Obama administration decided it was well past time to update FLSA’s policy. Because the DOL has the authority to amend federal regulations, it was able to enact this change without seeking Congress’s approval.

Though the new DOL rule-change would most directly benefit home healthcare workers, it carries implications for all domestic workers, including nannies and housekeepers. “By improving the conditions and protections in one area, you’re broadly boosting the sense that this is dignified work,” says Elly Kugler, an attorney with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, (NDWA) a group representing domestic workers in the United States.

Whether that change will actually be implemented is another question. Last year three industry groups filed a lawsuit against the DOL rule-change, insisting that it would have a “destabilizing impact” on home healthcare and hurt millions of elderly individuals. On December 22, 2014, a D.C. district judge vacated the rule for third-party employers, arguing that the executive branch cannot make such a regulatory change. A few weeks later, the same judge also vacated FLSA’s revised definition of “companionship services.” The DOL filed a challenge in appeals court, and arguments will be heard later this spring. Some suspect this may ultimately make its way to the Supreme Court.

Then, on March 20th, Labor Secretary Tom Perez sent a letter out to all 50 governors, urging them to focus on budgeting the minimum wage and overtime protections now, “to ensure that [they] will prepared if the Department prevails” in appeals court. Across the country, activists are also pressuring their representatives to focus on these issues. Yet many lawmakers are using the litigation as an excuse to avoid reckoning with the thorny budgetary questions. This means workers may not see minimum wage, overtime, and travel pay increases anytime soon.

“In Georgia, we’re seeing that our lawmakers are not talking about these issues,” says Tamieka Atkins, who leads Atlanta’s chapter of NDWA. “They have the attitude that we’re not going to move on this until the lawsuit comes down.” In response, Atkins’ group launched a campaign to lobby lawmakers and health agency commissioners in advance of their next legislative session. They also started a petition—“Governor Deal: All Eyes Are On Georgia”—asking for gubernatorial support towards minimum wage and overtime.

Activists in Texas are also applying pressure to their leaders. In January, domestic workers launched a home healthcare campaign, bringing together consumer groups, disability rights organizations, and labor unions. The following month—for the first time ever—domestic workers traveled to Austin to share their personal stories and lobby state legislators. “It was a really great opportunity because we agitated on different levels,” says Mitzi Ordonez, a domestic worker organizer at the Fe Y Justicia Worker Center in Houston.What we found is that many of the lawmakers just didn’t know about these [DOL] changes.”

Compared to Texas and Georgia, some states have made greater progress towards implementing the new labor protections. California, which already pays its home healthcare workers minimum wage, allocated new funds for overtime pay in its 2014-2015 budget, and was prepared to pay workers more at the start of 2015. But after learning about the federal lawsuit, California Governor Jerry Brown decided to postpone the overtime pay, even though there is nothing legally obligating him to do so. Frustrated activists have launched a campaign in protest; they organized meetings with state legislators, held rallies and candle light vigils, and even set up a“Justice for Homecare Tribunal”—a mock trial against the state. “The best thing for us to do is to not rest on our laurels,” says Doug Moore, the executive director of the United Domestic Workers of America. “The governor wants this to go through the courts, but we will use pressure to change his position.” Moore says that if the DOL rule-change is upheld in appeals court, they will then move to demand retroactive overtime pay back to January 1st.

Yet for some states that have reckoned with the rule-change, the results haven’t always been encouraging. “What we have been seeing, unfortunately, is that you can equally comply with FLSA by paying overtime and travel time, or by setting caps on the number of working hours,” says Alison Barkoff, the Director of Advocacy at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. This scenario is playing out in states like Arkansas, which is looking to cap homecare workers to just 40 hours per week, and to limit each worker to just one customer per day. In effect, this would enable states to avoid paying workers overtime and travel costs. But such measures will hurt employees who make their living by piecing together multiple part-time jobs. It may also impact consumers who need more than 40 hours of care, or who may have a harder time finding someone willing to work for just a few hours per day.

Some hope that the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Olmstead v. L.C. Supreme Court case, both of which protect disabled individuals from discrimination and unjustified segregation, will help consumers fight back against cuts to healthcare services. “The ADA and Olmstead provide important protections to consumers, but they won’t completely prevent a state from implementing restrictive policies,” Barkoff explains. “The laws do not prohibit a state from capping worker hours, so long as the state has a process for exempting individual consumers who will be seriously harmed. Most consumers will have to shift the way their care is provided.”

Meanwhile, labor activists maintain that their interests are not at odds with those of healthcare consumers, because quality care depends on creating sustainable working conditions. Many in the disability community have also signed amicus briefs in support of extending minimum wage, travel time, and overtime protections to home healthcare workers. “I think it’s important to know that there isn’t just one disability rights community,” says Sarah Leberstein, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project. “Many groups are very supportive, but they’re also really concerned about states taking it seriously and implementing the rules in a thoughtful way that doesn’t result in cuts to services.”

Even if upheld, the DOL rule-change may be hard to enforce. In New York City—a place that has instituted a progressive domestic workers’ bill of rights and a paid sick leave policy—activists have learned first-hand how enforcing these types of laws can be quite challenging.

“It’s really hard to be reliant on a complaint-driven process where workers have to come forth, but still fear retaliation,” says Irene Jor, a New York organizer with NDWA. Many domestic workers are also isolated in private homes, without much regular interaction with other workers who might provide them with moral support to raise grievances. Even once complaints are filed, not all are likely to be dealt with. “The Department of Labor, both on the federal and state level, is incredibly underfunded and does not have enough investigators,” says Leberstein. “So often they can’t simply respond quick enough, and they can’t do targeted enforcement.”

Nevertheless, if the DOL rule-change were upheld, it would be an important achievement. Some businesses would certainly have to adjust their operations to accommodate the new labor protections, but supporters of the rule-change insist that the industry’s opposition is overblown. According to national surveys, less than 10 percent of home healthcare workers even report working more than 40 hours a week. “We’ve also got many examples of big home care agencies that have figured out ways to pay workers properly, and still provide good care,” says Leberstein, who points out that many organizations already operate in states that require minimum wage and overtime protections. “So they’ve either figured out a way to do it and still earn profits, or they’re admitting to violating the laws in their state.”

Asking the public to pick between providing quality care and treating workers fairly is ultimately a false choice wrought through a political culture of austerity. States could avoid this by increasing funds towards Medicare and Medicaid, which would help ensure that the disabled and elderly can access the high-quality and flexible care without compromising national labor standards and worker dignity.

Though the future of the law is still unknown, one thing is clear. This is an issue that cannot be put on hold—thousands of health homecare workers live in poverty and 10,000 more baby boomers turn 65 every single day.

Reckoning with the New Auto Recall Bill

Originally published in The American Prospect on March 19th, 2015.
—————–

Some 46 million vehicles nationwide—nearly one in five on the road today—have a recalled, but unrepaired, safety issue. That’s because drivers, along with auto dealers and rental companies, have no legal obligation to fix safety recalls—a gaping regulatory loophole that puts millions at risk. For years lawmakers have more or less ignored the issue, until earlier this month, when Democratic Senators Richard Blumenthal and Edward Markey introduced the Repairing Every Car to Avoid Lost Lives (RECALL) Act. The bill would require car owners to comply with all pending safety recalls in order to reregister their vehicles with the DMV, a commonsense approach that would make roads safer. Yet while the new bill represents a critical step forward towards addressing our recall problem, it also raises troubling questions about how recalls are conducted and what the responsibility of manufacturers is to repair safety defects.

Undoubtedly the bill comes at a critical time. More vehicles were recalled in 2014 than ever before, 63.95 million in total. This more than doubled the previous record of 30.8 million vehicles, thanks to General Motors’ faulty ignition switches and Honda’s defective Takata airbags. Under current law, most of these cars are unlikely to be fixed; in 2011, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found the annual recall compliance rate in the United States averages 65 percent.

In the Fall 2014 issue of The American Prospect, my article “Road Hazard: Recalled but Not Repaired” explored the politics behind this growing public health issue, and I suggested that policymakers consider making registration renewals contingent on repairing outstanding safety recalls. This is how it’s handled in Germany, and as a result their recall compliance rate stands at 100 percent. At the time of publication, no legislator indicated interest in tying auto recall repairs to annual vehicle registration. The vast majority of political energy was spent on trying to increase manufacturer penalties and improve consumer notification systems.

Six months later, two senators introduced a bill that would do just what I had suggested. Honda even came out in support, saying that this “initiative will help us all achieve the critical goal of completing 100 percent of every automotive recall campaign in America.”

Keith Crain, the editor-in-chief of Automotive News, wrote an editorial in support of the bill, praising it for its simplicity. “It should be enacted by Congress and implemented by all 50 states as quickly as possible,” Crain said. “It just makes good sense.”

However, upon a closer inspection, it’s clear that there are several issues with the RECALL Act, perhaps precisely because of its simplicity. It’s encouraging that legislators are starting to see consumer responsibility as part of the solution to our recall crisis, yet as it’s currently written, the proposed bill may lead to a whole new set of problems.

If this bill were enacted millions of people would have to get their cars repaired, or else they would be put in the position of driving their cars illegally. It’s the right idea in principle, but we’d need to ensure that people actually have the supports necessary to meet these new standards. As of now, the bill’s three listed exceptions to getting your car repaired are too vague. You may be exempt if you weren’t notified of the recall when the registration renewal came out, if the manufacturer lacks the parts or labor to complete the recall, or if you’ve demonstrated that you had no reasonable opportunity to fulfill the recall. If you fall under one of these categories, the DMV could grant you a temporary registration of up to 60 days.

But these conditions raise more questions than answers. How could you prove that the parts were not available? How often do you have to call the dealer to check in? Every day? Do you need to check in with every dealer in your state? Within a certain radius? What constitutes a “reasonable opportunity”? Will manufacturers provide consumers with loaner vehicles? What if you need longer than 60 days? Given that there were many reports of consumers waiting for months for new GM ignition switches to arrive at their local dealerships, these details matter—especially when the consequence would mean losing the ability to drive your car lawfully.

Questions about how manufacturers may use this bill to shirk legal liability in the event of auto accidents should certainly be reckoned with sooner rather than later.

Moreover, the bill also raises troubling legal questions. An auto safety advocate, whom I spoke with on background, laughed when I asked them for their thoughts on the bill. “Of course Honda supports it! It totally shifts liability away from the manufacturer and onto the consumer,” they said. Questions about how manufacturers may use this bill to shirk legal liability in the event of auto accidents should certainly be reckoned with sooner rather than later.

Newer cars are more likely than older cars to have safety recalls repaired. One of the primary reasons for this is that the car manufacturers lack the ability to mail notices to anyone who purchases their car on the used car market. (There are approximately 30 million consumers who purchase used cars each year.) Under the Driver Privacy Protection Act, auto manufacturers are barred from learning the personal information of secondary owners, so therefore when recall notices go out, most people with older cars do not hear about it. Consequently, the only real way to notify used car owners by mail would be for the state to step up and take on this responsibility. In that respect, the Blumenthal-Markey bill represents a very good step towards fixing our recall notification problem, and experts think it could substantially reduce the number of unrepaired vehicles on the road.

But while the bill would require significant changes to the DMV registration process, it comes with no additional state funding to implement them. In effect, it’s an unfunded mandate. Many state DMVs rely on outdated computer systems, and building the capacity to process millions of auto recalls alongside their registration process—though it’s a smart and feasible idea in theory—requires resources. The bill also threatens to reduce states’ federal highway funding by 5 percent if they do not comply. If we’re going to ask the states to take this on, then we need to ensure they have the capacity to do so.

Many groups like the Center for Auto Safety and the National Salvage Vehicle Reporting Program are working closely with the federal government to figure out how we can improve this recall process and thereby make the roads safer. Despite the great political pressure facing legislators to take bold action quickly, it would be much better to proceed judiciously, hash out the details, and avoid chaos later.

At UN Conference, Domestic Workers Push for International Labor Standards

Originally published in In These Times on March 19th, 2015.
__________
Between March 9 and March 20, member states and global NGOs gathered at the United Nations (UN) Headquarters in New York City to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action, the key international policy document aiming to achieve gender equality. Coinciding with the conference, the Clinton and Gates Foundations released No Ceilings: The Full Participation Report, which traces women’s demonstrable progress in global health and education since 1995, as well as their insufficient gains in economic participation, leadership and security. Dignitaries, celebrities, and philanthropists gave speeches calling for “50-50 by 2030”—meaning full gender equality in the next in 15 years.

Mobilized at the conference was a group whose organized presence was simply non-existent two decades ago. Representatives from the fast-growing global domestic workers movement came to New York to pressure the international community for the ratification and implementation of labor standards that would impact more than 52 million domestic workers all over the world, 83% of whom are women.

Domestic Workers’ Momentum

The domestic workers movement is relatively young; their first international gathering took place not even a decade ago, convening in 2006 for a conference hosted by the largest trade union in the Netherlands. Three years later, at the International Labour Conference in Geneva, they formed the International Domestic Workers Network (IDWN), tasked with organizing for an ILO Convention that would protect domestic workers’ rights. Two years later, in June 2011, ILO Convention C189 was adopted—marking a watershed moment for the movement.

ILO C189 outlines clear domestic labor standards, calling for, among other things, a guaranteed minimum wage, freedom of association, the right to collectively bargain, abolition of child labor, protection from abuse and harassment, at least one day per week of rest, formal employment contracts, social security and maternity leave. The convention was adopted with 396 votes in favor, 16 votes against, and 63 abstentions; the convention went into effect beginning in 2013, and today 17 countries have ratified it.

“After 2011, we finally had a rallying point for which we could gather internationally and push this issue,” says Daniel Naujoks, a political scientist at Columbia University who attended the recent UN conference. “C189 made it non-refutable, not just a pipe dream. Now you had this strong international backing and normative framing.”

After the adoption of C189, the IDWN decided to evolve from a loose international network into a formal federation, organizing its membership base and drafting a constitution. By October 2013, the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) officially launched.

“Once things start to get really concrete, like with the passage of conventions, there becomes incentives for networks to form associations,” says Naujoks. “It is a legal entity that actually represents [domestic workers], whereas a network doesn’t really have representative functions.”

One of the IDWF’s central goals for this UN conference was to ensure that the implementation of C189 remained high on leaders’ agenda for the next 20 years. “We are talking about at least 52 million very poor working women without rights,” says Elizabeth Tang, the IDWF’s General Secretary who flew from Hong Kong to attend the conference. “If the government can at least implement this convention, that will be a very concrete achievement for gender equality.” Though there has been real progress made since C189’s passage in 2011, Tang says it is too slow, and too many governments still do not understand why they should take heed.

“We want things to look very different when we convene again in 2030,” says Barbara Young, a national organizer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a group that represents domestic workers in the United States.

International Gains and an International Problem

Activists can point to some notable achievements since the passage of C189. For example, in 2013, Brazil adopted a constitutional amendment granting 6.5 million domestic workers overtime pay, unemployment insurance, pensions, and a maximum 8-hour work day. In Africa over the past few years, NamibiaZambia, Kenya and Tanzania all passed minimum wage laws for domestic workers. In 2012, Thailand passed a new regulation entitling domestic workers to at least one day off per week, in addition to public holidays, paid sick leave and paid overtime for work on holidays. The first Pakistani Domestic Workers Trade Union formed this past December.

“In Hong Kong, all domestic workers, including migrant workers, are covered by the same labor law as other local workers,” says Tang. “We are now trying to show other governments that it is possible to protect domestic workers like other workers, because in some places it is already happening.”

Though there is a country-by-country approach, given the global ramifications wrought through the employment of migrant labor, domestic workers’ rights are an international issue. The UN conference discussed the problem of “global care chains”—where people feel compelled to move from one (typically poor) country to another (typically richer) country to care for someone else’s children and aging parents—often leaving their own children and parents behind.

Sexual abuse regularly occurs during the migration process, and with the threat of being fired or deported, women are strongly discouraged from reporting abuse or seeking medical attention.

“We must end visa dependency on employers and husbands that undermine women’s safety and rights,” said Young in a speech at the UN. “We must advocate for clear and accessible pathways to citizenship that will allow all migrant women workers to come out of the shadows.”

The organizers hope to raise domestic labor standards and formalize interactions—ideally through written employment contracts. Currently there are few remedies, practically speaking, for domestic workers with grievances.

“Once [domestic work] is recognized as a ‘real job,’ then it will count as job experience,” says Naujoks. “And by formalizing it, it gives people a greater opportunity to opt out if they want to go somewhere else later. As long as it’s seen as informal work, it becomes very difficult to break into the traditional labor market.”

The tide may be turning for domestic workers, but serious challenges remain. Some are practical; there are questions about how to best implement and enforce the laws and conventions in a feasible way. However, with centuries of racial and gender discrimination, most challenges facing domestic workers are ideological.

“Domestic workers are mostly women, and people in general look down on what women do,” says Tang. “The other problem is race and ethnicity, because a lot of domestic workers are from indigenous and marginalized groups, so they are discriminated against.”

Moreover, there exists a widespread perception that many domestic workers are living in countries illegally and thus are seen as a less important political constituency to help. And the longstanding cultural opposition to seeing care work as formal labor remains.

“Some people always say, ‘Oh well this is a private affair,’” says Naujoks.

Progress in the United States

Barbara Young, who migrated from Barbados, worked as a domestic worker in New York City for 17 years. She began organizing for better labor conditions in 2001, while she was still a full-time domestic worker. Young joined with others to push for the nation’s first domestic workers bill of rights, which passed in New York in 2010. The historic law grants domestic workers—including undocumented domestic workers—time off, overtime pay, protection from discrimination and inclusion in local labor laws. Since 2010, three more states have passed similar bills, and Connecticut’s version will soon be headed to a Senate vote.

At the UN conference, Young pointed out that only 27% of U.S. employment visas are issued to women, and the majority who migrate through legal channels are legally dependent on their employers and husbands. This can, and does often, entrap them in abusive and exploitative situations with little or no legal recourse. Young called for the UN to help grant women “the right to report abuses and violations and for violators to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Unlike the majority of domestic workers around the world who are can form trade unions, most U.S. domestic workers are legally barred from joining unions. This is due to a clause in the National Labor Relations Act passed in 1935, designed by Southern legislators to prevent African-American domestic and agricultural workers from organizing. Young tells me she believes removing this clause is their biggest organizing challenge.

Though the U.S. voted in favor of C189 in 2011, it has not ratified the international convention. Ideally, Young says, all sectors of the labor movement would unite together to push for U.S. ratification, but she notes the labor movement’s declining strength. The Department of Labor did announce in 2013 that it would begin to extend overtime and minimum wage protections to the majority of domestic workers; this is expected to go into effect later this year.

“Overall, we are on a forward trajectory, and the momentum is growing,” says Young. “Real recognition is there that we didn’t have 15-20 years ago.”

On International Women’s Day: Baltimore Marches

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on March 9th, 2015.
———

1

Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen | March 8, 2015

4

Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen | March 8, 2015

When global corporations such as BP and Accenture become vaunted sponsors of International Women’s Day, it’s easy to worry that the holiday—first organized by early 20th-century socialists—has lost its radical roots. But for the 50 Baltimore citizens who convened on Sunday to celebrate, commemorate, and mobilize fellow women activists, the revolutionary spirit was alive and well.

The Baltimore People’s Power Assembly and the Baltimore chapter of Fight Imperialism, Stand Together (FIST) organized the three-hour event, which included a march that began at the corner of Hillen and Fallsway and ended with a rally outside of the Baltimore City Detention Center. Gathering at 3 p.m. on an unusually warm and sunny afternoon, the organizers were clear about their objectives for the day.

“We have to remain vigilant about reclaiming and remembering the black female victims of police brutality because black women and girls’ lives matter too,” said Lynae Pindell, a 23-year-old activist with the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly. “We have only framed [police violence] as a black male problem.” Pindell spoke of the need to “move beyond that sexist lens” which renders invisible the racial profiling, sexual harassment, strip searches, rape, and other acts of gender-based violence that women and girls are regularly subjected to. Reading off a list of black women and girls who have died at the hands of police—including Yvette Smith, Shereese Francis, and Aiyana Jones—Pindell pointed out that all of these women received far less media attention than Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown.

Colleen Davidson, an activist with FIST, reminded the crowd that their International Women’s Day march was coinciding with the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”—the famous civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. The fight against racism, she stressed, is deeply intertwined with their battle against patriarchy, neoliberalism, capitalism, and police brutality. “More communities are mobilizing, and the struggle is growing,” Davidson said enthusiastically.

Before the march began, the crowd was encouraged to shout out names of women who are important to them. “Ella Baker! Mother Jones! Nina Simone! Coretta Scott King! Harriet Tubman! Leslie Feinberg! Billie Holiday! Sojourner Truth! Audre Lorde!”

When the diverse crowd finally began to march—with women leading in the front, and men instructed to hang in the back—activists lifted banners and bright green picket signs, chanting, “Free our sisters! Free ourselves!”

Jessye Grieve-Carlson, a sophomore at Goucher College, was there with fellow members of the Goucher Feminist Collective. She said she was looking to do more off-campus activism and engage with local organizers. Another marcher, Ellen Barfield, said she dreams of a time when there will be an International Men’s Day because that will mean that women will have gained power. Barfield, an army veteran and longtime peace activist, co-founded the Baltimore chapter of Veterans for Peace, but notes that the group is largely male. “Even though they’re well-meaning for the most part,” she says, “they’re still pretty blinded by the patriarchy.”

When the group arrived outside of the Baltimore City Detention Center, standing beneath the tall barbed-wired fence, activists took turns making speeches, reading poems, and singing songs. Central to the speeches were calls for economic justice—specifically for better jobs with living wages, increased access to affordable housing, and an end to mass incarceration.

According to the Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative, “Maryland taxpayers spend nearly $300 million each year to incarcerate people from Baltimore City.”

“We are not just out here marching for Planned Parenthood and abortion rights,” said Sharon Black, a 65-year-old activist with the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly. “We are here for our real liberation.” Pointing her finger at the bleak-looking detention center, Black urged, “People don’t need to be locked behind bars and treated like animals. Our sisters deserve better.”

After the rally concluded, the activists left East Baltimore and relocated to the church hall of the First Unitarian Church in Mount Vernon, marching along with chants like, “No justice! No peace! No sexist police!”

Waiting for them in the church was a big buffet of chili, macaroni and cheese, salad, sandwiches, desserts, and other snacks prepared by the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly and IWW union members. Local activists, like Tawanda Jones—the sister of Tyrone West and a leader in Baltimore’s fight against police brutality—were recognized by the organizers and given awards. Other honorees included Palestinian activist Laila El-Haddad, Black Lives Matter protest organizer Sara Benjamin, and Tiffany Beroid, a leader pushing for Wal-Mart to grant pregnant workers their rights.

So what’s next for these women and men?

“We’re not looking to form a new organization, because a lot of us are already involved in so many groups,” Black told me. “But we want to help unite everyone, so that next year we’ll be more poised to take collective action.”

Black reiterated this sentiment when she addressed the crowd, suggesting that maybe everyone would consider reconvening quarterly, to strategize for more sophisticated city and statewide efforts. She also made a plug for the Fight for 15 movement’s next national day of action, which is scheduled for April 15. Though the Fight for 15 movement has not been as strong in Baltimore as it has been elsewhere, the organizers hope to at least plan a march in solidarity with the fast food strikers in other cities.

Tawanda Jones also encouraged everyone to come to Annapolis March 12, where the Maryland legislature will be considering several bills that address police accountability reform. “We can’t bring Tyrone back but we can stop another family from feeling the same,” said Jones. “That’s why we do what we do—justice for all victims of police brutality.”

How to Sabotage Iran Negotiations in the Name of Avoiding War

Originally published in The American Prospect on March 4th, 2015.
——————

As multilateral talks over Iran’s nuclear program continue with the U.S. leading the negotiations, Congress seems to be doing its best to complicate things. And both Israel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) are doing their part to help.

Earlier this week, as 16,000 people convened in Washington, D.C., to attend AIPAC’s annual conference, the powerful pro-Israel lobby made it clear that the organization would push not only for increased sanctions on Iran—through the passage of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act—but also for the ability to make it more difficult to lift sanctions later, via a new bill, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.

This latest bill, introduced on Friday by Republican Senator Bob Corker and Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, would give Congress a 60-day period to review any negotiated nuclear deal, and if Congress were to reject the deal, then the president would be barred from lifting sanctions.

Josh Rogin reported in Bloomberg View that top members of the Obama administration, including Secretary of State John Kerry, pressured Democrats to oppose the Corker-Menendez bill, lest it complicate the already fragile negotiations with Iran. Nevertheless, some Senate Democrats signed on, because there is, as Rogin puts it, “broad Congressional desire not to be totally shut out of the [negotiating] process.”

AIPAC and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have set a considerably higher bar for what a “good deal” with Iran would look like.

After AIPAC’s annual conference, it is evident that the pro-Israel lobby plans to capitalize on this congressional “desire” and to escalate its fight with the White House. While the Obama administration and AIPAC both declare that a nuclear-armed Iran is not an option, AIPAC and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have set a considerably higher bar for what a “good deal” with Iran would look like.

For AIPAC and Netanyahu, a “good deal” would mean allowing for zero enrichment of uranium for any purposes—a non-starter for the Iranians. They also seek a “permanent” deal that locks Iran under restrictions indefinitely. But as Lara Friedman, from the pro-Israel policy organization Americans for Peace Now, has explained:

Iran is in trouble right now because it has repeatedly violated the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), resulting in sanctions. Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are grounded in the understanding that by demonstrating compliance with all of its NPT obligations, Iran will no longer be in violation of the NPT and Iran’s tenure in the international doghouse—at least with respect to its nuclear program—can come to a close (at least so long as Iran remains in compliance). An Iran nuclear agreement—whether its provisions are in place for 10 years, or 15 years, or however many years are agreed on—would dramatically mitigate the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

Just like the “zero enrichment” idea, Iran would never be able to sell a “permanent” deal to its people. The six world powers leading the diplomatic efforts with Iran (Russia, China, France, Great Britain, Germany, and the U.S.) understand this and are working to come up with a reasonable compromise that still ensures Iran cannot develop a nuclear weapon. If AIPAC and Netanyahu are serious about pursuing a diplomatic resolution to this conflict—and avoiding war—then their adamant opposition to both of these ideas raises serious questions.

At the AIPAC conference, speakers spelled out how they could use Congress to thwart the president from passing a deal they deem “bad.” On the gigantic screens in the convention center’s large plenary hall, AIPAC instructed attendees to “insist on a congressional role” when they lobby on Capitol Hill, because “on such a critical issue to U.S. national security, Congress must assert its historic role in foreign policy and review any agreement.”

Passing the Corker-Menendez bill might be an easier sell in Congress than imposing additional sanctions, because it is easier to argue that Congress should have “a voice” in the negotiating process. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Tuesday night that he wants to fast-track the bill, which might complicate its ability to garner enough Democratic support in time. Menendez has threatened to vote against his own bill, “outraged” at McConnell’s political move.

Edward Levine, an advisory board member for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to international peace and security, argues that the bill is more harmful than helpful:

Do [Senators] really want to send a message to Tehran that the President may be unable to fulfill his commitments? Do they really want to move the goalposts by adding support for terrorism to the list of reasons for reinstating sanctions? The Corker bill will endanger both the negotiations and the sanctions regime; it does not merit support.

AIPAC is also trying to bolster Congress’s role in the negotiations by minimizing the fact that there has always been significant presidential authority built into U.S. sanctions legislation. The authority comes through various mechanisms, such as “waivers,” special rules, and legislative exemptions, which allow a president to decide, often unilaterally, whether and to what degree to lift or implement sanctions. He can make these choices if he believes doing so is in the national security interest of the United States.

On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, AIPAC’s legions of supporters pressured Congress to impose more sanctions and to reduce the executive branch’s power to lift sanctions. Let’s just hope that the Iranians do not take this as a signal that the negotiators’ commitment to ease sanctions in exchange for good behavior is feeble. Because if the negotiations fail, the war that everyone is trying to avoid is that much more likely.

CPAC Labor Panel Does GOP No Favors in Outreach to Latinos, Women

Originally published in The American Prospect on March 2nd, 2015.

CPAC Labor Panel

Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen, CPAC Conference 2015

On February 26, day one of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, a panel convened on the state of the labor movement. To describe the tone of presenters as triumphant would be an understatement. At the Thursday afternoon breakout session titled “There’s No ‘I’ in Teamsters: Obama’s Bow to Big Labor Bosses,” panelists discussed a long list of topics, ranging from the salaries of top union leadership to “pernicious” attacks on franchisers of fast-food restaurants, whose workers have taken to the streets to demand predictable schedules and livable wages.

Indeed the anti-labor forces represented here found much to be happy about, and the speakers could hardly contain their glee.

“Labor policy is one area where our side is actually winning,” boasted Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Committee.

To a large extent, their confidence is certainly justified. Mix was speaking less than 24 hours after the Wisconsin Senate passed a so-called right-to-work bill—legislation that would make it illegal to require that employees pay fees to unions, effectively hurting unions’ ability to bargain and organize. If, as he is expected to do, Governor Scott Walker signs the bill, Wisconsin will become the 25th U.S. state to enact such a law.

But when it comes to the labor rights of domestic workers, the right’s self-assuredness at CPAC was overstated. If nothing else, its leaders’ intransigence against the rights of the largely female and non-white workforce in this sector is bound to hurt the image of the Republican Party, with which the anti-labor forces are allied.

Tammy McCutchen, a CPAC panelist who formerly worked in the Department of Labor (DOL), accused the Obama administration of trying to “devastate the home care industry”—referring to the administration’s attempt to ensure that the nation’s more than two million domestic workers receive guaranteed overtime pay. Through an old provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) known as the “Companionship Services” exemption, domestic workers have been left out of the minimum wage and overtime pay protections that most other workers are entitled to. In 2013, the DOL announced that it would begin to extend FLSA protections to the majority of domestic workers. Though the start date was pushed back, the expanded protections are still expected to go into effect later this year.

The median wage for domestic workers (also commonly referred to as home health and personal care aides) is $9.70 per hour. With an expected job growth of 70 percent between 2010 and 2020 as the baby-boom generation enters its golden years, domestic care is easily one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation. Low wages and minimal labor protections are an economic non-sequitur in a sector where demand is positioned to quickly outpace supply.

In 2012, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) published the first national survey of domestic workers in the U.S. It found that although domestic workers play an increasingly important role in the U.S. economy, their work is unregulated and highly prone to exploitation. Nearly a quarter of all workers were paid less than the state minimum wage, and 60 percent of workers reported spending over half their income on rent or mortgage payments. NDWA’s labor organizing has been gaining prominent recognition. In 2012, NDWA Director Ai-Jen Poo was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, and in 2014 she was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow to continue her work organizing domestic workers.

But at CPAC, McCutchen didn’t mention any of this. She didn’t mention that the vast majority of the home care workers are women of color. She didn’t mention the historic Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights that passed in New York, Hawaii and California. Instead, McCutchen pretended as though all the momentum in domestic labor organizing has come through the overreach of faceless bureaucrats in government agencies and from a power-hungry president. And she insisted that the regulations would greatly hurt the industry, leaving our aging parents to suffer.

It’s unsurprising that labor-minded conservatives would be so proud of themselves at CPAC, what with union membership declining, and the recent spate of anti-union victories at the state level. But the right’s refusal to reckon with the growing domestic workers movement could come at a cost. As the Republican Party tries to improve its image among women and minorities—the very people who fill most low-wage jobs—doubling down on anti-worker policies will only dampen its appeal.

Christie Blusters His Way Through CPAC Appearance

Originally published in The American Prospect on February 27, 2015.
__________
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie wasn’t going to let something like record-low approval ratings get him down as he took the stage Thursday afternoon at CPAC’s annual gathering in National Harbor, Maryland. Exuding that Sopranos-style confidence that’s earned him notoriety, Christie, sitting on the CPAC stage for an interview with conservative radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham,  dismissed the idea that, compared to other potential presidential candidates in the crowded Republican field, he’s not well-positioned to run for president. (A January survey conducted by Bloomberg Politics and the Des Moines Register showed Christie was the first choice candidate among just 4 percent of Iowa Republican caucus-goers.)

Asked by Ingraham if such numbers disturb him, Christie retorted, “Uh, is the election next week?”

He continued: “I’m not worried about what polls say 21 months before [the election],” going on to point out that he won gubernatorial races twice in a blue state when everyone thought it was initially impossible.

All right—it’s evident that Christie can hold his own through tough on-the-spot interviews questions, perhaps better than some of his competition—(think Scott Walker’s recent ‘gotcha’ gaffe). Perhaps that’s why he declined to make a speech to the CPAC crowd, preferring to do only the on-stage interview. (Other dignitaries and potential candidates delivered brief remarks, followed by an on-stage interview.) But it’s still not clear what distinguishes Christie from other more moderate Republicans like Jeb Bush.

“[I]f the elites in Washington, who make backroom deals” pick the Republican presidential nominee, then Jeb Bush “is definitely the front-runner,” Christie said. By contrast, if “the people of the United States,” looking for someone who they can actually connect with, pick the candidate, the governor said, then he will do just fine.

Meh. Though Christie likes to come off as your everyday dude, his anti-elitism shtick just doesn’t hold when one actually looks at his receipt stubs. For an ostensibly ordinary guy, the governor has a big habit of traveling lavishly, drinking fancy Champagne, and quietly dumping the expensive bills on the taxpayer. (In 2013, New Jersey residents paid over $10,000 for Christie to travel with his wife and aides to the New Orleans Super Bowl.)

It was the New York Times that first reported the story about Christie’s spending habits, and Christie made several digs,saying that he “doesn’t care at all” what the paper’s reporters have to say about him. “I’m still standing,” he boasted. He even joked that he gave up the New York Times for Lent.

In an attempt to please a crowd that wasn’t necessarily disposed to see him as a true conservative, Christie noted that he had vetoed funding “five times” for Planned Parenthood, and that among the people he thought should “sit down and shut up” were those in the White House.

Christie’s bluster has some appeal, but there’s only so long that he can use it to avoid owning up to some of his massive leadership failures. His state finances are out of control. New Jersey’s credit rating has been downgraded eight times on his watch. The state’s pension fund has lost billions of dollars. Just 37 percent of New Jersey voters have a favorable opinion of him. And, as I wrote in the winter issue of The American Prospect, he cancelled one of the most important and desperately needed infrastructure projects in the nation—a decision that threatens the safety of hundreds of thousands of New Jersey commuters.

It’s a tough record to run on.

The Wrong Way to Revitalize A City

Originally published in the February 2015 print issue of In These Times Magazine.
_______________________

cohen_8674935607_9c7e86ed52_oweb_850_592

Baltimore workers rally for fair urban development near the Horseshoe Casino construction site on April 20, 2013.

The pro-corporate American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has come up with yet another strategy to bolster the power of big business. Republican lawmakers in Michigan plan to introduce an ALEC-backed bill that would ban “community benefits agreements” (CBAs), one of the few options local activists have to fight for equitable development. A CBA is a contract between community groups and developers of publicly subsidized projects. In exchange for community support, a developer might agree to offer quality jobs, living wages, affordable housing or environmental protections. ALEC’s CBA ban, which specifically prohibits a local minimum wage, would be unprecedented.

The contrasting stories of Baltimore and Buffalo, New York, two economically depressed cities that launched ambitious development plans, show what happens to workers and the poor when safeguards like CBAs are–and aren’t–in place.

The Inner Harbor myth

Baltimore was one of the first U.S. cities to rebrand itself as a tourist and entertainment hotspot in response to the painful post-war impact of deindustrialization and white flight. Beginning in the 1950s, Baltimore poured millions of dollars, through tax breaks and subsidies, into building up its Inner Harbor entertainment district and other attractions. By the early 1980s, these projects were bringing more than 18 million visitors to the city annually, leading many politicians and pundits to proclaim that Baltimore was in the midst of a terrific revival.

But it was never an equitable one. Between 1959 and 1995, Baltimore lost 75 percent of its industrial jobs, and by 2008, the city had lost a third of its population. Despite the tall, shiny buildings and bustling shopping centers downtown, blight and abandonment plague many corners of Charm City. As anthropology professor David Harvey wrote in 1992, “If people could live on images alone, Baltimore’s populace would have been rich indeed.” Instead, in 2012, more than 25 percent of the city lived in poverty, including 37 percent of the city’s children.

Meanwhile, the Inner Harbor is still drawing 14 million visitors a year and remains a point of pride for local leaders. In 2013, the city released plans to build up the Harbor even more over the next few decades. “Anything that’s great for tourists is great for locals,” Tom Noonan, CEO of Visit Baltimore, told the Baltimore Business Journal.

The approximately 1,500 restaurant and retail workers at the Inner Harbor might disagree. In 2011, United Workers–a human-rights organization led by low-wage workers–and the nonprofit National Economic & Social Rights Initiative co-published a report on Inner Harbor’s labor conditions that documented abuses such as chronic wage theft. The report profiled many workers, including Nadja Martens, a server at Hard Rock Café, and Jason Bandy, a server at Capitol City Brewing Company. Both saw big paycheck decreases during the winter months, when tourism was slow and tips were scarce. “During … November, December, January, February, 100 percent of the time I was not paid minimum wage,” said Bandy.

This report was the first investigation of its kind. “The formal measure of success for these public investments [in the Inner Harbor] has been a superficial assessment of whether a rundown area has been ‘cleaned up,’ whether customers are happy, whether businesses and investors are making money,” the report stated. “Job creation has been addressed as a simple matter of quantity–how many jobs are created–not of quality.”

Todd Cherkis, a Baltimore organizer with United Workers, puts it this way: “There’s the myth about the Inner Harbor, and then there’s the reality.”

A different approach

In 1994, in response to the bleak conditions, Baltimore citizens mobilized the nation’s first grassroots living wage campaign, fighting to establish higher wage standards for businesses that receive government subsidies. The campaign was historic, but activists won a watered-down victory: The new requirements applied only to city contractors, not all publicly subsidized developers.

Since 1994, more than 120 other municipalities have seen their own living wage campaigns, inspired by the original Baltimore activists. One was Los Angeles, which enacted a living wage ordinance in 1997. A year later, LA residents pushed for what would become the nation’s first CBA–a labor agreement tied to an incoming Hollywood shopping mall and entertainment complex. Dozens of cities have since negotiated their own CBAs; 28 were in effect nationwide as of 2012.

The story of the waterfront development in Buffalo, New York, provides a strong contrast to Baltimore’s. In 2004, the state-run Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC) embarked on a plan to transform Buffalo’s waterways into a Great Lakes version of the Inner Harbor. Using a $350 million grant from the New York Power Authority, the ECDHC planned to give approximately $40 million in public subsidies to outdoor-sporting goods store Bass Pro, to be the anchor tenant, and Benderson Development, to build the retail store.

“When we found out about all this, we were really concerned about the size of public subsidies for private businesses, particularly for Bass Pro, a low-wage employer,” says Andy Reynolds, a communications organizer with the Buffalo-based non-profit Coalition for Economic Justice (CEJ). “We began to learn about community benefits agreements as a best practice, so we started a coalition to launch one of our own.” The result was the Canal Side Community Alliance, a coalition of more than 60 community organizations launched in 2009 to put public pressure on both developers and local political leaders. By 2013, the Canal Side Community Alliance was able to get the state to agree to a CBA. The project is still underway, but with less emphasis on retail and a greater commitment to local needs like good jobs, Buffalo’s Inner Harbor–in theory–will look quite different from Baltimore’s.

To be sure, CBAs are no panacea. If developers do not hold up their end of a CBA agreement, the community coalition must hold them accountable, which in many cases means going to court. Such sustained oversight is challenging and sometimes unsuccessful. And, as Peter Marcuse, professor emeritus of urban planning at Columbia University, writes, “CBAs … often provide only a limited reach for alternative means of making the planning process truly democratic.”

Still, CBAs are far better than nothing, and the fact that they are in ALEC’s crosshairs is a testament to their efficacy. As Matthew Raffol writes in Advocates’ Forum, “By organizing residents of low-income communities and granting them access to development planning processes, CBA coalitions transform these residents from objects of urban development policy to subjects who actively shape development decisions [and] exact a price on private capital that it would not otherwise incur.” In other words, when faith, labor and community groups come together to make demands on municipal projects, they shift the dynamics of urban power and set the stage for further demands.

Hope yet for Baltimore

In April 2013, hundreds of Baltimoreans rallied at the site of the new Horseshoe casino to celebrate a deal that local unions, with the help of Maryland state officials, had brokered with Caesars Entertainment Corp. The 1,200 permanent casino staff would be allowed to organize without management opposition, using a simple-majority “card check” process.

That victory is being used to fuel a push for fair development throughout the city. In October 2014, a new group called One Baltimore United–comprised of labor, faith and community organizations–rallied outside City Hall for higher-wage jobs, improved schools and better public services. “Our goal is to show that the Inner Harbor model is outdated,” says United Workers’ Cherkis. The coalition is keeping a close watch on future development projects and sees CBAs as one tool in its arsenal.

Cherkis expresses cautious optimism: “The landscape to address these issues is definitely changing.”

 

Will Handing Public Housing Projects to Private Developers Hurt the Poor?

Originally published in Pacific Standard on February 6th 2015.
———–
On a Wednesday night in early January, 21-year-old Ronald Hunter Jr.—a homeless and mentally ill man living in Buffalo, New York—froze to death. The overnight temperature hit two degrees, but with the fierce wind that night, it felt more like 20 below zero. The medical examiner’s autopsy confirmed that hypothermia killed Hunter. His story is not atypical; homeless people from across the country died last winter from freezing temperatures.

Tragedies like these, especially in the dead of winter, bring the lack of decent and affordable housing into sharp relief. Walk through the streets of any major city (and, increasingly, many suburbs) and you’ll likely see clusters of homeless people huddled under blankets, under folded cardboard boxes, sleeping on sidewalks, on top of park benches. A report released this past fall by the National Center on Family Homelessness estimated that one in 30 American children are now homeless—a record phenomenon attributed to the rising number of families living in poverty, a dearth of affordable housing, and the consequences of widespread domestic violence.

But beyond homelessness, there are other serious, less visible, and less well-understood housing problems with which millions of Americans regularly struggle. The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard found that, in 2012, more than four-fifths of those earning $15,000 annually—roughly how much a full-time worker makes at the federal minimum wage—spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing; two-thirds paid more than 50 percent. With stagnant wages, the financial burden weighs heavily on the middle class too, and is trending upwards.

The housing policy world has a term it uses to refer to the millions of people living in precarious, overcrowded, and unsafe conditions: “housing insecure.” It’s an apt, yet nebulous way to characterize all those who worry about their long-term access to safe shelter. These people aren’t homeless, but they’re vulnerable—often one emergency or missed paycheck away from eviction. Their day-to-day plight, however, is less apparent to the public.

Most people do not get the help they need. Due to high demand, federal housing assistance serves just a quarter of all eligible households. With few vouchers and interminably long waiting lists, more than 2.2 million people rely on public housing to help them get by. But despite the growing need, the federal government has been moving further away from the idea of a state-run public housing system.

Through a new program known as Rental Assistance Demonstration, existing public housing units are slated to be “converted” into something that looks more like the Section 8 voucher program, under which tenants live in privately owned or managed units that are publicly subsidized. Congressional funding for public housing has declined over the years, as support for the program fell and the deteriorating units became more difficult to properly maintain. Consequently, more than 260,000 affordable units have been demolished or removed from the public housing program since the mid-1990s and 10,000 additional units are lost each year because they fail to meet acceptable health and safety standards. Many of these people are forced to double up with family or take to shelters and the streets.

Now with the potential to bring in copious amounts of new funding from private companies, Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro has dubbed RAD “the answer” to housing issues in many struggling communities.

                                                               

But the long-term consequences of RAD are not yet known. When Congress authorized the demonstration program in 2012, 60,000 public housing units were approved for transfer to private developers—just five percent of the nation’s public housing stock. These developers are incentivized to rehab and manage the units in exchange for tax credits and subsidies, codified within contracts that last for 15-20 years. Yet since its original passage, HUD and a coalition of public housing authorities, developers, and other stakeholders have been lobbying the government to lift the demonstration cap beyond the 60,000 units so that any and all public housing authorities can access these new private funding streams.

Their efforts are succeeding. Included in the $1.1 trillion spending bill that Congress passed in December was a provision to raise the RAD cap from 60,000 units to 185,000 units, or essentially every project sitting on the waiting list.

Not everyone is thrilled about how fast things are moving. Many housing advocates and civil rights lawyers worry that the program will fail to ensure long-term affordability and safeguard tenant protections. Their concerns are warranted: In the past, when the government has relied on private capital to fund low-income housing, many affordable units were turned into market-rate rentals once the developers paid off their 30-year mortgages. And in earlier efforts to rehab buildings through public-private partnerships, thousands of public housing units were destroyed without ever being replaced.

California Democratic Representative Maxine Waters, the ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, sent a letter to President Obama asking him to reconsider RAD. She urged him to allocate more direct federal subsidies to public housing authorities, rather than relying on private developers to salvage the program. “Put simply,” she wrote, “if the price of accessing private capital is to put public ownership at risk, then that price is too high.”

James Hanlon, the director of the Institute for Urban Research at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and a longtime public housing researcher, has been poring through HUD data to try and figure out if there’s any pattern in the line-up of specific housing projects selected for conversion, or if there are any shared characteristics among the housing authorities that have opted to participate. Hanlon notes that although the private sector has been used to fund affordable housing since the 1970s, RAD is unique in its aim to actually preserve the original units. Previous experiments have promoted demolishing aging housing rather than repairing the old units.

Private financing strategies for public housing are also spreading to cities not formally associated with RAD. New York City’s public housing authority, which lacks billions of dollars in needed capital funds, recently finalized a deal to grant private developers a 50 percent stake in nearly 900 public housing apartments across the city. It also plans to create a non-profit to solicit hundreds of millions of dollars in tax-deductible donations from the private sector.

                                                                

While experts and activists have mixed feelings about RAD, the new federal spending bill also included a significant policy win that everyone who works on affordable housing seems to be excited about. The government finally voted to authorize dedicated funding for the National Housing Trust Fund—an entity established in 2008 to provide annual dollars for building and preserving affordable housing.

However, in its current form, this is unlikely to help revive the flailing public housing program; HUD’s working rule stipulates that Housing Trust Fund revenue can only be used to fund affordable housing that is not considered traditional public housing, unless it’s through the RAD program.

But for those who hope to see Congress allocate more funds to traditional public housing, the most likely way is through the passage of Representative Keith Ellison’s Common Sense Housing Investment Act. This bill would raise a lot of new money by reforming the mortgage interest deduction—a tax break that primarily benefits wealthy homeowners. By changing the deduction into a tax credit, more low- and middle-income homeowners would be eligible for tax relief, and high-income homeowners would pay more. The plan is estimated to raise about $200 billion over 10 years. Importantly, some of this new revenue would be directed into the public housing capital fund; the legislation would also revise HUD’s rule to make traditional public housing eligible to receive Housing Trust Fund dollars.

With Congressional deadlock however, this reality is a long way off. For now, one can expect developers and housing authorities to continue striking private-public deals, with variable levels of transparency and oversight.

It wouldn’t be the first time the government, in a rush to do something, expanded a housing program rather hastily. “Hope VI, a public housing redevelopment program in the 1990s and 2000s, began as a demonstration project that had terrible oversight, assessments, and evaluations early on,” Hanlon says. “I think that there needs to be much more judicious forward movement for RAD because many of its implications are not well understood and won’t be felt for a long time.”

Perhaps RAD will turn out to be the housing panacea millions of people have been waiting for. Or maybe it will lead, once again, to the loss of affordable housing units and tenant displacement.

In this moment of doubt, hope, and desperation, “housing insecurity” just about sums it up.

Did The Koch Brothers Just Doom America to a Future of Crumbling Roads and Tunnels?

Originally published in The American Prospect on February 4th, 2015.
———–

It was never going to be easy for the Republican-controlled Congress to pass an increase to the federal gas tax—a tax that finances the Highway Trust Fund and pays for roads and bridges around the country. Last raised in 1993 to 18.4 cents per gallon, the tax has since lost much of its value, especially with the rise of fuel-efficient cars. With the Highway Trust Fund running huge annual deficits, plans for many infrastructure projects and repairs have been left hanging out to dry.

There were signs that raising the federal gas tax was possible, as when Republican Senators John Thune of South Dakota and chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said in early January that a gas tax increase couldn’t be ruled out, and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, later agreed with him.

Well, forget it. Because last week more than 50 conservative groups, a number of them funded through the Koch brothers’ network, sent a letter to Congress expressing adamant opposition to raising the federal gas tax.

“Everyone knew it would be difficult, but you had a lot of senators and representatives saying privately that they would be open to raising the gas tax, so long as it could be framed in a certain way,” a high-ranking American Public Transportation Association official told me. “This letter just killed our momentum, I think permanently.”

While incredibly frustrating, this move is unsurprising given the rise of anti-tax groups committed to blocking serious public investment in national infrastructure. In addition to opposing the gas tax increase, the letter also calls for an end to all federal funding for biking, walking and public transit. Ever so disingenuously, the organizations claim they just want to look out for the needs of poor people.

As Angie Schmitt, a writer for Streetsblog USA, put it:

The billionaire-friendly coalition is trying to play the populist card. Raising the gas tax to pay for roads, they say, is “regressive” because poor people will pay more than rich people if the gas tax is increased. But eliminating all funding for transit, biking, and walking, which people who can’t afford a car rely on? Not a problem to these guys.

The first signature on the letter belongs to Brent Wm. Gardner, vice president of government affairs for Americans for Prosperity, the organization founded in 2005 by the billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch. In my feature in the current issue of The American Prospect magazineI look at Chris Christie’s cancellation of a new rail tunnel desperately needed in the Northeast, and the role that the national Republican Party and anti-tax groups played in the New Jersey governor and prospective presidential candidate’s decision to kill the project known as ARC (Access to the Region’s Core). Now, in the wake of damage from Superstorm Sandy, civil engineers are unsure that the tunnels currently in use by hundreds of thousands of commuters between New York and New Jersey will hold out for another 10 years.

Building a new tunnel would have required Christie to raise his state’s low gas tax, a move that the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity has been rallying against for years. From my article, “Blind to the Future”:

Mike Proto, the New Jersey communications director for Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-funded anti-tax group, says that Christie’s decision to kill the ARC project “was one of the best he’s made.”

It’s unclear what it will really take to get this country to invest in its future. We should pray it’s not a big, preventable disaster that kills thousands of people. Building new tunnels, fixing broken bridges, and making America just generally safe to live in should be an urgent bipartisan priority for everyone.

It should be, and it used to be.