In Baltimore, Protesters Demand Redress for Police Killings of Local Men

Originally published in The American Prospect on December 5, 2014.
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Protesters took the streets of Baltimore on Thursday night, following the announcement that Daniel Pantaleo, the white New York City police officer who used a chokehold to kill Eric Garner, a black man, would not be indicted. Garner’s death at Pantaleo’s hands was captured on video shot by a bystander, who recorded Garner gasping for air, saying “I can’t breathe.” The protests, which succeeded in shutting down the city’s annual holiday lighting event early, came three days after Baltimore’s mayor vetoed a bill that would have required police officers to start wearing body cameras.

Baltimore protesters marched not only for Eric Garner of New York, Michael Brown of Ferguson and Tamir Rice of Cleveland—but also for Tyrone West and Anthony Anderson, two unarmed Baltimore black men who died at the hands of the police in 2013. As in the cases of Garner, Brown and Rice, cops faced no charges following the deaths of West and Anderson.

Every Wednesday since July 2013, community members have gathered outside of Baltimore City Hall, calling for the police to be charged with the homicide of Tyrone West. While an independent review issued this past August concluded that the officers did not use excessive force, several witnesses insist they saw cops kick West in the head, spray him with mace, hit him with batons and pull him by his dreadlocks.

Tawanda Jones, Tyrone West’s sister, traveled to New York City earlier this year to meet with Eric Garner’s parents. When news broke on Wednesday that the officer who killed Garner would not be indicted, the weekly City Hall were protesters further riled.

“They had eyewitnesses in my brother’s case and they did nothing,” Jones told Baltimore’s local ABC affiliate on Wednesday night. “But I thought, O.K., [the Garners] have this video that went viral, that everybody saw all over the world, that something at least was going to get done.”

“One of our major demands is to indict killer police,” an organizer said to a crowd gathered by the Washington Monument on Thursday night. “It’s not enough just to put cameras on them. They have to be indicted.”

When the Maryland legislative session opens next month, Baltimore residents plan to head to Annapolis, the state capital, to pressure the state legislature to repeal key components of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights—a statute which many argue impedes meaningful civilian review of police and prevents the disciplining and firing of bad cops. On November 22, the city held a public hearing on law enforcement reform where community leaders, activists, citizens and cops spoke out for nearly three hours.As The Afro, a newspaper that serves the black community, reports, Diane Butler, the aunt that raised Tyrone West, spoke at the hearing and challenged the Baltimore police present in the room on their brutal behavior.

“When was the beating supposed to stop?” she asked. “My son was on the ground screaming for the beating to stop. Was the beating supposed to continue until he was no longer breathing? No longer moving? My son was dead, and your police officer still was kicking him in the back of his head, and he was cuffed.”

A recent Baltimore Sun investigation found that the city paid $5.7 million in judgments and settlements alleging police brutality and civil rights violations since 2011.

The two groups organizing Thursday night’s protests—the Baltimore chapter of Fight Imperialism Stand Together (FIST) and the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly—stressed repeatedly to the crowd that this was “a movement not a moment” and that police brutality will not be solved without fighting for a more equitable economic society. Earlier in the day, activists in more than 150 cities across the country engaged in one-day strikes and rallies as part of the Fight for 15 campaign.

Although Baltimore activists are still pushing for police to wear body cameras, a failure to indict despite the clear video evidence highlights the need to secure additional reforms.

The next Baltimore protest is scheduled for December 13th, followed by an organized “strike against racism” on January 15th—the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther, Jr.

Learning at a School With a Student Turnover Rate of 179 Percent

Originally published in Next City on November 17, 2014.

The Hilltop neighborhood in Tacoma, Washington is one of the poorest in the state — with many families living in poverty and struggling to maintain housing. Such instability inevitably impacts the public schools’ capacity to function; in 2006, Hilltop’s McCarver Elementary School witnessed a student turnover rate of 179 percent. This, as researchers at the Urban Institute have pointed out, is nothing unique to McCarver. Low-income students frequently move around, and family homelessness is a growing problem. A new report from the National Center on Family Homelessness reveals that one in 30 children experienced homelessness in 2013.

What is new is the policy solution being tested out by the Tacoma Housing Authority and Tacoma Public Schools — largely backed by the Gates Foundation — to see if traditional Section 8 housing vouchers can be leveraged to provide affordable housing and boost local school performance.

The Gates Foundation is investing in a host of suchexperimental partnerships to research the link between housing instability and educational achievement. With the potential to improve school performance, boost employment levels and reduce dependency on housing vouchers, these programs have decided political appeal. Yet while the Tacoma experiment offers a good model of cooperation among agencies, there’s little evidence that the approach can reduce poverty, as policymakers hope it will.

The McCarver Special Housing Program stipulates that in order to remain eligible for a housing voucher, parents must keep their kids enrolled in McCarver Elementary School throughout the five-year study, regularly demonstrate active involvement in their children’s education and attend a host of job training programs. With the help of local caseworkers, they must also achieve “economic self-sufficiency” (earning enough to afford a two-bedroom apartment, which is about $771 per month in rent) by the end of the fifth year.

For the first year, rent is massively subsidized — just $25 per month — and in each year thereafter it increases by 20 percent. The hope is that if housing can be a stabilizing force, especially in the first year, then parents can focus on their economic future and their children’s schooling.

So far, the McCarver program has yielded some interesting results. Across all participating households, average monthly income rose from $436 in 2011 to $836 in 2013. Student turnover within the experimental cohort is also significantly less compared to the rest of the school.

The program began with 49 families in 2011, joined by seven more in 2012. Of those 58 families, 39 are still participating.

Some departed for positive reasons, like finding a new job in a different part of town — but others for less encouraging reasons. “Some families really struggled and couldn’t complete the requirements, so the families were essentially dropped from the program,” says Justin Milner, an Urban Institute researcher who studied the McCarver project. (The McCarver program doesn’t count the 19 families that dropped out when calculating the cohort’s average monthly income increases.)

Although Tacoma is a relatively poor city, and even in wealthier areas, many highly educated people cannot find stable work, the McCarver program frames the economic issue as one where parents lack the skills and training necessary to obtain employment — not that there aren’t solid jobs to get. When I asked Greg Claycamp, an official with the Tacoma Housing Authority, what would happen if families were unable to pay full rent at the end of the five years because there are no decent employment prospects available, he could not confirm that families would continue to receive housing assistance. “I think we want to be very careful about not penalizing a household that turns out to have really complex challenges,” Claycamp says. “But for now no final decision has been made.”

Researchers Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, in their book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much explain how many social policy designers “assume the problem is a lack of understanding or of motivation. So they follow up with attempts to educate or to sharpen incentives.” Mullainathan and Shafir have found that such carrot-and-stick approaches might actually lead to greater harm.

This highlights a central tension with these new partnerships. Exploring the relationship between education and housing is a smart thing to do — giving kids and parents the opportunity to learn in safe, caring and even rigorous environments is something that all democratic societies should be promoting. Leveraging these relationships as a means to reduce poverty and reliance on welfare, however, is quite another objective.

In mid-October, Claycamp joined housing authority officials from around the country in Washington D.C. to attend a conference at the National Council of Large Public Housing Authorities (NCLPHA) where this question of cross-collaboration between school districts and housing authorities was a major theme. Another NCLPHA conference devoted specifically to this question will be taking place in D.C. in February.

“Our focus on this started a couple of years ago, given the difficult environment in Washington and budget constraints,” says Sunia Zaterman, executive director of NCLPHA. “We’re serving at best a quarter of the households that are in need, so we want to reduce inter-generational poverty to free up resources for the next ones on the waiting list.” Gates-funded experiments are cropping up all over, from the Pacific Northwest to Akron, Ohio to New Haven, Connecticut. Not all follow the Tacoma model — some are focused on implementing early childhood learning initiatives and some are geared toward mentorship and tutoring. Right now, Zaterman says, housing authorities are just interested in expanding research studies to learn more about what these diverse partnerships are capable of doing, although she stressed no one-size-fits-all approach would be feasible or wise.

The Gates Foundation operates with the stated belief that quality education is “the best way to break the cycle of poverty.” Yet despite their strong embrace of metrics and data, this does not appear to be an evidence-supported claim. Tax and transfer programs, like that of Social Security, which reduced elderly poverty from 47 percent in 1967 to 15 percent today, have proven to be far and away the most effective poverty reduction policy.

Robust educational support and greater mentorship opportunities are good things, andhave been shown to lead to better educational outcomes. So exploring how to improve a child’s education by leveraging school and housing strategies is promising, and warrants further investigation. “Even in our days of doom and gloom, this has been very uplifting,” Zaterman notes.

But as more organizations, think tanks and working groups devote their energy to researching joint housing and education programs, it’s important to pursue these programs for the right reasons. Improving educational achievement is an important aim in and of itself. Democratic nations depend upon the presence of an active and educated citizenry. But in the absence of a strong economy and without an ample cash-transfer system that can assist the poor who lack wealth and savings, families are unlikely to break the cycle of poverty. There are great possibilities, and also practical limitations, to these new initiatives.

Minimum Wage Measures Pass Easily in Four Red States

Originally published in The American Prospect on November 5, 2014.
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A
s devastating as Tuesday night’s election was for Democrats—Republicans took control of the Senate and won a number of key governor racesit was actually an encouraging night for the progressive economic agenda. In four red states—Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota—minimum wage ballot initiatives all passed easily. In San Francisco, voters overwhelmingly passed a $15 minimum wage—with notably little opposition from the business community. And in Illinois, voters sent a clear message through a non-binding advisory initiative that they want lawmakers to raise the minimum wage, and fast.

Increasing the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 has been a major economic priority for President Barack Obama, part of his effort to curb the nation’s rising levels of inequality. (Under Obama’s plan, year-round, full-time minimum-wage workers would go from making $15,080 per year to $21,008.) Yet ever since April, when congressional Republicans mobilized to block wage-hike legislation, progress on the federal level has gone nowhere.

In light of this, it’s interesting to see a state like South Dakota—a state that hasn’t supported a Democrat for president in decades—vote to raise the wage by a 53 percent margin. The initiative will result in 62,000 South Dakotans taking home higher paychecks. In an email to The American Prospect, Zach Crago, executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party, said, “It’s about rewarding hard work with an honest wage. That message resonates with South Dakotans. Republican candidates oppose it at their own peril.”

Minimum wage initiatives were so popular among voters leading up to the election that even Republican candidates like Alaska gubernatorial candidate Dan Sullivan had to say they’d vote for a minimum wage increase. Sullivan did just that, despite his having opposed it before the primary. Alaska’s minimum wage initiative passed with nearly 69 percent of the vote. Ed Flanagan, a leader of the Alaskans for a Fair Minimum Wage campaign, told The American Prospect that while the campaign faced no real organized opposition, the conservative state legislature could still try and repeal the law in two years—a move they pulled on Alaskan voters back in 2002. But given the high percentage of Alaskans who voted to raise the wage, Flanagan hopes state lawmakers “will think twice about messing with the will of the people.”

In Arkansas, Republican U.S. Representative Tom Cotton, during his campaign for U.S. Senate, stayed mum for months on a potential minimum wage increase until it became so popular with Arkansas voters that he finally felt compelled to come out in September to back it. Cotton won his Senate race last night, but so did the minimum wage—with 65% of Arkansas voters supporting the ballot initiative.

Exit polls for states where minimum wage initiatives weren’t on the ballot also showed high levels of support for future increases. In Wisconsin, although Scott Walker was re-elected, and has consistently opposed increasing the minimum wage, a solid majority of Wisconsin voters said they’d like to see it raised higher than $7.25.

Undoubtedly, it was a damning night for the Democratic Party, but the picture isn’t entirely bleak for progressives. Exit polls reveal that 63 percent of voters believe the U.S. economic system favors the rich; this highlights a much larger national frustration for politicians to organize around. Arun Ivatury, a senior strategist with the National Employment Law Project Action Fund, told The American Prospect that, going forward, politicians who embrace economic populism “will run away from the pack in 2016, when the electorate looks much more like America. Those who don’t will be bypassed. It’s our job to make sure people know who is who.”

Jimmy John’s workers fight for a union

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on October 28, 2014.
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On Sunday, Oct. 19, as Ravens fans meandered around the chilly Inner Harbor in advance of the game set to begin later that afternoon, about two dozen workers and community supporters formed a picket line outside the Jimmy John’s sandwich shop on Pratt Street to demand the right to form a union. “Ravens have a union!” the protesters chanted. “Why can’t we?” The Jimmy John’s employees claim that ever since their efforts to publicly unionize kicked off in early August, management has responded with clear efforts to intimidate them, including the firing of their co-worker James Hegler. Workers have responded by filing seven counts of illegal retaliation complaints with the National Labor Relations Board.

On Aug. 9, with support from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical union founded in 1905 that gained a reputation for organizing across class, race, gender, and occupational lines, Baltimore Jimmy John’s workers presented their list of demands to management, which included one paid sick day per month, a transparent disciplinary system for both workers and managers, and wage parity with their landlord, the Hilton, that has unionized employees making between $10.75-$13 per hour. Wages at Jimmy John’s hover around $7.25.

The Baltimore fight comes at an interesting time as Jimmy John’s workers across the country have gained national attention for launching a class action lawsuit over the non-compete agreements all Jimmy John’s employees are forced to sign in order to work there. These contractual clauses require employees to promise not to work in any nearby sandwich shop for at least two years after they leave, so as not to give away “trade secrets.” In response, over 35 House Democrats recently signed a letter requesting the Department of Labor and the Federal Trade Commission to launch an investigation into this suspect labor practice. Though the Baltimore Jimmy John’s workers say they stand in solidarity with the class-action suit, they themselves are not presently involved.

The fight for a union also stands out as thousands of fast-food employees across the country have gotten involved with the Fight for 15 campaign, an effort to demand fast-food chains provide a $15 minimum wage and the right to form a union. Founded in Chicago in 2012, and largely backed by the Service Employees International Union, Fight for 15 includes employees at McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, and Wendy’s who have taken to high-profile one-day strikes in order to send a message to their employers that they deserve better conditions in the workplace. Even President Obama has publicly cheered on the fast-food strikers’ organizing.

But despite the fast-food industry’s substantial presence in the Baltimore labor market, the Fight for 15 campaign just has not taken off here like it has in other cities. Some activists involved in the Baltimore and Maryland Workers Assembly marched in a “Walk 4 Justice” downtown in May and September, to support strikers in other cities, but by and large the local fast-food organizing efforts have been minimal.

“We’re the only union organizing fast-food workers in the city,” said Brennan Lester, a Jimmy John’s worker and IWW organizer. “But this is an idea whose time has come. We’re long overdue for unions. We’re precariously employed with no rights and no protections and we’re one of the only growth industries. It’s not just for kids anymore.”

Colleen Davidson, an activist with the Baltimore chapter of Fight Imperialism Stand Together (FIST), who came out to the Jimmy John’s demonstration, said organizing can be particularly difficult in Baltimore because “so many people are just in survival mode, juggling two to three jobs, raising kids, and grappling with gentrification and homelessness.”

Yet back in the early ’90s, there was a time when Baltimore was the national leader for low-wage organizing efforts—proudly standing as the first city to launch a “living wage” campaign, and ultimately being the first city to pass a “living wage” law. Activists called for a minimum wage of $7.70 per hour, a significant spike from the federal minimum wage of $4.25. Led by the church-based civic group Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) in conjunction with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), residents began organizing for higher wage standards after it became clear that even full-time workers couldn’t pay their bills. Activists campaigned with the theory that public subsidies and city contracts should not support private firms that paid poverty wages.

Going forward, Jimmy John’s workers have pledged to continue launching “a series of escalating direct actions” in order to pressure the company to recognize their union. Toward the end of the Oct. 19 protest, picketers marched inside the store, holding up signs, and calling for management to reinstate Hegler. “What do we want? Rehire James! When do we want it? Now!” In the end, four Baltimore City police came to break up the event.

Stephen Thompson, a 28-year-old adjunct math professor at UMBC, showed up to picket alongside the Jimmy John’s workers. “Compared with other labor-related protests I’ve been to in Baltimore, this one had a different feel. That’s what I really liked about it,” said Thompson, who noted that the IWW people are a “young ragtag kind of group” in contrast to the more professional organizers of other unions. In Baltimore, the IWW is also affiliated with the unions at Red Emma’s and Baltimore Bicycle Works. “They are very passionate,” Thompson added. “It made the picket more fun and exciting.”

We know College Feminists Care About Sexual Assault. What About Abortion?

Originally published in The American Prospect on October 24, 2014.
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In the past three years, more abortion restrictions have been enacted in the United States than in the entire previous decade. At the same time,85 colleges and universities are now under federal investigation for their handling of sexual violence. While these two issues are not divergent, campus feminists have devoted much of their energy to challenging their universities’ failure to adequately handle sexual assault cases—often at the expense of abortion rights advocacy.

But the growing threats to reproductive justice—like the Texas law that could shut down most of the state’s abortion clinics, and looming ballot measures in Colorado, Tennessee, and North Dakota that could result in women losing their legal right to terminate a pregnancy—have catalyzed the ongoing efforts of national pro-choice organizations to invest in student leaders. Campus activist priorities and national women’s rights goals might finally be aligning—sort of.

For many students attending schools in East and West Coast states, the legislative efforts to restrict abortion access commonly found in red states can seem quite distant from their own daily gender struggles. Changing local culture around rape and sexual assault, on the other hand, seems far more urgent.

“Campus activism tends to be reactionary, and women are generally kept on the defense,” says Sarah Beth Alcabes, a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s hard to organize for coherent proactive action beyond the immediate threats we face. Maybe if campuses were safe for women, there would be energy for them to focus on places not in their immediate vicinity. But that’s not the case.”

At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, students have filed an anoymous Title IX complaint alleging that the school failed its responsibility to ensure the safety of students when it allowed a fraternity to continue throwing parties even after police began an investigation into an alleged gang rape that took place at the frat house. One of the complainants says that the focus of leaders on her campus has been the enforcement of federal sexual assault laws for a simple reason: “There’s no equivalent to those sorts of laws for abortion,” she explains, “so the pro-choice movement doesn’t occupy the same place as gender-based violence on the college campus.”

But geographic distance from the most pressing abortion battles and political momentum around sexual assault prevention are only part of the story. Even in those states where access is regularly threatened, many college feminists have avoided tackling the issue of abortion directly—in part because the abortion debate is so polarizing, and in part because many campuses are unwilling to institutionally support such activism.

At Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Sophia Dominguez, the president of the Texas Tech Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance (FMLA), says she believes that reproductive rights are an important feminist issue, but her group must “recognize the political culture of Texas and adapt [its] advocacy accordingly.” She says her peers feel “repressed in the ways in which to openly discuss and address reproductive freedom.” As such, Tech FMLA has been fighting Texas Tech’s rape culture, which students believe is a more immediate problem to tackle, even in light of the Texas legislature’s anti-abortion efforts.

Kierra Johnson, executive director of URGE, a national campus organization committed to reproductive and gender equity, says that the leaders of many URGE chapters tend to focus on sexual assault because there is less official support for abortion work, even when a group is affiliated with a campus women’s center. “We might be able to push for more access to contraception,” Johnson says. “But the more the conversation centers around abortion, the more uncomfortable the administration is with getting behind it. Regardless of how people feel about abortion, when you talk about it, it charges an environment, and that’s the last thing campus administrators want.”

Several national organizations—the Feminist Majority Foundation, Planned Parenthood for America, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and URGE—are trying to change these campus dynamics by building networks of college students who will advocate for reproductive justice and gender equality. While coordinated inter-campus solidarity is currently pretty minimal, efforts to build a larger college pro-choice infrastructure are growing.

But even with support from outside organizations, building a student pro-choice movement is tough. Molly Waters, a senior at Webster University in Webster Groves, Missouri, works as one of NARAL’s campus representatives for the Choice Out Loud campaign, an effort to help millennials engage in conversations about reproductive rights.

“I don’t think abortion is the first thing feminist students would organize around, just because it’s so polarizing and has such a stigma,” Waters says. “I understand it. I myself am a Christian. I think a lot of people are more tempted to discuss birth control or general reproductive rights and not so much abortion rights.”

NARAL donates supplies to campus chapters, organizes conference calls between campus representatives in different states, and facilitates national communication through Facebook groups. Yet Waters observes that many students just seem to have a general lack of interest in political activity. “One thing that can be really frustrating is just how many people don’t want to protest or be active as much,” Waters says. “And that’s understandable; we’re in college, we have a lot on our plates. But there does seem to be a lack of energy for action.”

Kaori Sueyoshi, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, feels more optimistic. “The student movement here in North Carolina has been growing quickly with the Republican takeover of our state,” she explains.

In 2010, Republicans won the majority in the state legislature, and won the governor’s mansion in 2012. Since then, North Carolina has enacted a controversial set of abortion restrictions, as well as a stringent voter ID law. In turn, over the past two years, college students across North Carolina have gathered together to network, strategize, and advocate for reproductive rights in their communities. Sueyoshi has been involved with Planned Parenthood’s network of campus activists, known as Generation Action, and attended the Youth Organizing & Policy Institute, a national student conference that Planned Parenthood hosts in Washington, D.C. “I think the national college advocacy movement is growing much stronger,” she says.

She may be right. At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, Marlies Biesinger, co-president of the Vanderbilt Feminists, says that advocacy around abortion politics has never been a real priority for them. But for the first time, in light of the political buzz around Tennessee’s Amendment 1—which could give the state legislature, not the state Supreme Court, full authority to decide the legality of abortion—the Vanderbilt Feminists have started to hold educational events to raise awareness about the ballot measure’s implications and push students to vote this November. And at Rice University in Houston, Rice for Reproductive Justice formed just last year to campaign for gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis and organize around a broad set of issues that inhibit reproductive freedom.

If threats to safe and legal abortion access continue to drive both college advocacy and the formation of relationships between student leaders, the questions then become: What can these activists actually do together? How, when anti-choice measures are primarily passed through state legislatures, can national advocacy play an effective role?

“The movement has shifted,” Johnson says, because anti-choice activity has moved from the federal to the state level. “For a long time there were lots of opportunities to engage on a national level. But we’re not going to mobilize people in Alabama to work on Texas. No matter how much noise you make, at the end of the day the elected officials only care how people are voting in their state and districts.” While broad-based online petitions exist, like those organized by Change.Org and Moveon.org, right now there just are not a lot of opportunities for pro-choice activists, in or out of college, to campaign on the federal level.

Despite the relatively limited array of federal policy opportunities, the need to mobilize and educate students about reproductive rights remains pressing. The All* Above All campaign, which is focused on lifting health insurance bans on abortions, is one possible avenue for students to pursue. “There’s just a real lack of awareness about what these abortion restrictions are, so we need to educate constituents and our elected officials,” Johnson says.

For Waters, the more progressive culture of her Missouri liberal arts college feels worlds away from the conservative southern Illinois town she grew up in, where mentioning abortion rights would “automatically make you a Satanist.” Coming to college and finding a new environment to educate herself, and later educate and agitate others, has been transformative. “You know, it’s taken a while for me to get there,” Waters says. “It takes a lot of education that many people just don’t usually have.”

Recalled But Not Repaired: Why we have millions of cars with unfixed safety recalls — and Germany has none.

Originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of The American Prospect.
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On May 30, Angela Davidson, her husband Clarence, and their twelve-year-old daughter Kira drove a 2010 Dodge Ram down Highway 15 in California, when they heard a loud knock, followed by a popping sound. Seconds later, their truck came to a screeching halt. After seeing smoke rolling into the truck, Angela opened the door to jump out, though one of her legs was quickly burned. Clarence barely had time to get Kira out before the entire truck became engulfed in flames. The truck kept rolling backwards, causing a brush fire that burned more than three acres before the firefighters could put it out. Highway 15 was closed for almost four hours.

Eleven days earlier, the Davidsons had purchased the Dodge Ram from a CarMax dealer in Irvine; CarMax is the nation’s largest retailer of used cars and trucks. Angela says her family went to CarMax specifically because they advertise that all their vehicles are thoroughly examined, with expert technicians stamping a “Certified Quality Inspection” on each one.

When the Davidsons signed a contract on May 19 and drove their truck off the lot, they believed they had just purchased a safe vehicle for their family. A few days later, they contacted Dodge customer service with a question, and the representative informed them that, oh, by the way, there appears to be a July 2013 safety recall issued for the pinion in your truck’s rear axle, and it’s very important to get it fixed right away.

“When I found out it was under recall I was furious,” said Angela. “I just felt like, this is so wrong, why would you guys sell us a car with an open recall like that? I thought of course CarMax would apologize and take the truck back.”

But CarMax—both the Irvine dealer and corporate headquarters—refused to take responsibility and told the Davidsons that it was up to them to repair their truck. Although the Davidsons then took the car to a local Dodge dealer, which may hold some responsibility for the ultimate explosion, CarMax apparently sold the Davidsons an unsafe vehicle. “How did they know that we wouldn’t be killed the same day we bought it?” Angela wrote in a draft testimony of the experience. “The answer is, they didn’t know. They just left it up to chance that we would even find out about the safety recall.”

Stories about vehicles like the Davidsons’ take on added significance in light of this year’s General Motors scandal, in which the automaker finally recalled nearly 2.6 million cars for an ignition switch defect known to company officials for more than a decade and linked to at least 54 crashes and 13 deaths. But six months after the recall, Automotive News reported that roughly 1 million car owners had yet to contact a dealership to fix their flawed ignition switches, and GM was struggling to track down contact information for many of those people.

In the United States, about one in every six cars on the road, or 37 million vehicles, has an unfixed safety recall. These are not minor problems; in safety recalls, the manufacturer or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has determined that a car or piece of motor vehicle equipment poses an unreasonable risk to safety or fails to meet minimum safety standards. When a recall is in effect, manufacturers are legally obligated to do the repairs for free. Consumers, however, are not required to fix their car, regardless of the defect’s severity. In 2011, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found the annual recall compliance rate in the United States averages 65 percent.

The latest GM episode is not the first major auto recall crisis to prompt public concern about unrepaired safety hazards. In August 2000, Ford Motor Company and Bridgestone/Firestone jointly announced a recall of 6.5 million tires after they linked them to more than 200 deaths and at least 700 injuries. Six years after the recall announcement, however, experts estimated that more than 200,000 faulty tires had yet to be replaced. An investigative reporter in Georgia even found some of the recalled tires still for sale in 2013.

In direct response to the tire recall, Congress passed the Transportation Recall Enhancement Accountability and Documentation Act (TREAD). TREAD established a new early warning reporting system, which requires manufacturers and their suppliers to regularly submit information about possible safety issues to NHTSA. “The TREAD Act represents an important first step towards strengthening our nation’s motor vehicle laws,” President Bill Clinton declared when he signed the bill in 2000. “And its vigorous and quick implementation will help save lives and prevent injuries.”

But recalls haven’t fallen. In fact, the number hit a new record this past July, with the most vehicles—39.85 million—ever recalled in a single year. “The problem is only growing,” said Chris Basso, a spokesman for Carfax, a web-based service that tracks the history of every vehicle based on its Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). “We have a recall [compliance] rate that leaves 35 percent of cars unrepaired and that number is likely to go up.”

“I want every vehicle fixed, and I’ve been clear about that all along,” GM chief executive Mary Barra said on CNBC, adding, however, that “ultimately it’s the consumer who makes that choice.”

But why are the repairs on safety recalls optional? The risk, after all, is not just to the car owners but also to those who ride with them and others on the road. In light of the public safety hazard, some countries have decided that it makes little sense for consumers to choose whether or not to repair defects on recalled cars. Germany, for example, makes those repairs mandatory. The German Federal Motor Transport Authority enforces that rule by refusing to renew the vehicle registrations of owners who fail to fix their cars. In 2010, Germany revoked owners’ registration due to outstanding safety recalls more than one thousand times. Consequently, the German annual recall compliance rate is 100 percent. Moreover, although German manufacturers aren’t legally required to bear the cost of the repair as they are in the United States, they do so nearly 100 percent of the time.

This combination of full compliance by the customer and full cost paid by the manufacturer creates an economic incentive for German car companies to build better cars the first time around. “There is a popular saying in Germany: Quality is if the customer comes back—not the product,” said Stephan Immen, a spokesman for the German agency. “The one responsible for the product knows what it means and acts corresponding to that.”

The United States could follow Germany’s example and make car registration renewal contingent on auto recall completion. Such a policy would be easy to carry out because DMVs can check each car’s VIN at the time of registration. Some states are already doing this successfully for energy emission standards. In California, if a vehicle owner fails to respond to an energy emission recall notice or the car fails to meet the state standard, the owner’s registration renewal will be denied until the repair is complete. Organizations like the Center for Auto Safety favor applying this same concept to auto safety recalls.

While taking time out of one’s busy life to get a car repaired isn’t something people are excited to do, states typically give owners 30 to 60 days to get it done, and in these cases, the owners have to pay for the cost of the emissions repair themselves. In contrast, if a similar system were applied to auto safety recalls, the repairs would be done at the manufacturer’s expense. Of course, giving up one’s car, even for just a few hours, may cause frustration and anxiety—often to the point where not fixing the car feels like the more sensible option. But manufacturers already sometimes provide free rental or loaner vehicles to individuals while their car is being repaired. GM recently offered this option to consumers who need to fix their car’s defective ignition switch.

Some auto safety reformers hope that small policy changes—like using particularly urgent language in the mailed notice letters—will motivate more owners to fix their cars. “Some manufacturers send pablum [recall notices], so people don’t really think they’re that important,” said Joan Claybrook, a veteran auto safety advocate who headed NHTSA from 1977 to 1981. “NHTSA has the authority to review those letters before they go and make sure they say ‘Alert! Alert!’”

Others have tried to raise the recall compliance rate by hiking penalties for irresponsible manufacturers. One bill introduced in Congress would require key management officials to disclose serious dangers with their products or face a fine and up to five years in prison. Another would require manufacturers to submit accident reports to federal regulators, who would need to make those documents immediately available to the public. And a third would eliminate the cap on civil fines—now $35 million—that the Department of Transportation can levy on automakers for failing to report known defects.

The sponsors of these measures hope that a combination of harsher manufacturer penalties and heightened efforts to disseminate information to the public will lead, eventually, to safer roads. But they have shied away from the most direct approach: making registration renewal dependent on getting the safety defects repaired. The battle over two more limited measures—requiring recall repairs in used cars and rental cars—suggests where the political problems lie.

Rental cars present what might seem to be an easy case for auto recall reform. After all, the rental car companies should be concerned about protecting their reputation for quality and the value of their fleets. But until recently, rental car companies could and would lease cars that were subject to safety recalls. In 2004, sisters Raechel and Jacqueline Houck, 24 and 20 respectively, rented a Chrysler PT Cruiser from an Enterprise Rent-A-Car dealer. This model had been recalled a month earlier after experts realized that the steering hose could leak and cause a fire. But the women were unaware because rental companies aren’t legally required to disclose safety recall information to customers. Driving down Highway 101 in northern California, the Houck sisters’ rental car caught fire and hit an oncoming semi-tractor trailer; they died instantly. After the accident, Enterprise tried to settle the scandal quietly, with a $3 million offer in exchange for the family’s confidentiality. The Houcks rejected the proposal and have been leading consumer safety efforts since.

Rental companies at first adamantly opposed changing their lenient recall policies, but activists and legislators continued to apply pressure. As a result, the four largest companies—accounting for 93 percent of the rental car market—now pledge not to rent vehicles that are subject to a safety recall.

But consumer groups insist that without a law requiring recall repairs, individuals are forced to just trust rental companies to abide by their public commitments. Thus reformers are fighting for the passage of a Senate bill, the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act, which would bar rental car companies from renting recalled vehicles to consumers. Even the American Car Rental Association, the policy voice representing the rental car industry, now supports the legislation.

But some powerful groups have worked hard to prevent the bill from becoming law. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the auto industry’s trade association, has refused to support the bill on the grounds that “it would give rise to a myriad of anti–consumer impacts” like increased rental costs for consumers. The real reason, though, is a concern that such a law would expose them to lawsuits.

“If Avis or Hertz has to take a car out of service for a week to get it fixed, particularly if it’s subject to a recall and the repair is not available, the rental companies may be looking at a car being out of service for three months,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. “The auto companies are fearful that if this bill goes through they will be sued by the rental companies for the loss of use.”

The powerful National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), representing sixteen thousand new car and truck dealerships with about thirty-two thousand domestic and international franchises, also opposes requiring rental companies to get defective cars fixed, arguing that the bill fails to differentiate one recall from another. (NHTSA does not distinguish recalls.) NADA says rental companies should only agree not to lease or sell defective vehicles if manufacturers issue “Do Not Drive” letters for recalls they deem to be the most serious. Rosemary Shahan, executive director of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS), says this is a cheap rhetorical trick because it is “extremely rare” for a manufacturer to voluntarily issue “Do Not Drive” letters—getting a company to issue a recall notice is hard enough as it is.

NADA’s political power also helps explain why Congress hasn’t passed a used car safety bill—a version of the Safe Rental Car Act, but for used cars. In California, a bill—S.B. 686—was introduced in 2013 that would have prohibited auto dealers from selling recalled used vehicles to consumers. Statewide polling revealed that 88 percent of Californians backed this policy. Angela Davidson testified about her CarMax experience at an S.B. 686 hearing in June. But the California New Car Dealers Association, CarMax, and others managed to kill the bill. Activists are now considering a 2016 California ballot initiative, but gathering enough signatures to qualify could cost nearly $1.5 million.

NADA insists publicly that increasing financial penalties for manufacturers who delay recall notices, rather than barring dealers from selling unsafe vehicles, would “better result in consumer safety.” But dealers, like manufacturers, are no doubt worried that new legislation would hurt their ability to sell cars, and consequently cut into their profit margin.

The recall problem is compounded by the growing shortage of qualified mechanics and technicians able to diagnose issues and make the necessary repairs. According to the Auto Care Association, demand for auto technicians has outstripped supply since 2010, and the nation is short about ninety thousand mechanics given what is needed. One of the reasons Germany has done so well in retaining its manufacturing base is its investment in vocational educational programs. Germany’s ability to produce high-quality cars—and to fix them when problems arise—is undoubtedly linked to its strong commitment to train people to build, maintain, and repair them.

Withholding car registrations makes the most sense as a way to raise compliance with safety recalls, but other alternatives have also surfaced to fix the unfixed-vehicle problem.

Shahan says, “First, we’ve got to focus on things that don’t penalize the consumer who didn’t make the defective product.” CARS supports legislation requiring DMVs to issue recall warnings when vehicle registration notices get sent in the mail. Car insurance companies could also help by sending reminder notices to customers when they see evidence of an outstanding safety recall. “What we’ve found is that the reason a lot of the unfinished recalls are not done is because the consumer doesn’t know about it,” said Ditlow. Research shows that newer cars are repaired in higher numbers than older cars, so the sooner a recall is announced and the sooner the owner learns about it, the greater chance there is that it will actually be repaired.

This past February, NHTSA announced that it would institute a new mandatory label to help owners clearly identify recall mailings. But relying on the mail is proving increasingly difficult, as owners change addresses or hand off their cars, and the DMV often lacks reliable, updated records.

In light of these challenges, NHTSA and manufacturers are exploring new ways to reach vehicle owners through such means as text messaging, mobile apps, and emails. But some auto safety advocates worry about the growing digital divide. “Not everyone has access [to the Internet],” said Shahan, who also says that government agencies need to do more to reach people who speak languages other than English.

Despite the political hurdles, momentum is building for more substantial auto recall reform. In April, the Obama administration recommended that Congress ban the sale and rental of unfixed recalled vehicles. Then this summer, New York City became the first city to prohibit the sale of recalled used cars. Jay Rockefeller, the outgoing chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, also recently introduced legislation that would give NHTSA new authority to order unsafe vehicles off the road, rather than merely suggesting they get repaired. His bill, the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2014, would also bar the sale of unrepaired used cars.

In the public policy world, there are a lot of intractable problems for legislators, activists, and reformers to tackle. Unfixed auto safety recalls are not one of them. This is a problem we can solve. It is not a fantasy to imagine a decent system that helps vehicle owners expediently take care of their safety problem with as little inconvenience as possible, so millions of unsafe cars are no longer on the road. It may take several steps; perhaps dealing with rental cars first, then used cars, and then all cars. But eventually, we could see an improvement in public safety and perhaps even higher-quality automotive manufacturing.

Auto safety reform has produced some of the most important public health advances in the last half-century; the advent of seatbelts, airbags, and drunk-driving legislation has saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Each time the government took steps to tighten safety regulation, the auto industry argued that the proposed changes were too costly, unfair, or futile. But the changes have been accepted, and hardly anyone wants to go back. The poll showing 88 percent of Californians favoring the Safe Rental Car Act ought to encourage politicians to tap into the public support for reform. As Shahan says, “These days, there isn’t much that polls at 88 percent.”

City Coffers, Not Police Budgets, Hit Hard By the High Cost of Brutality

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 26, 2014.
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A
s the national conversation around racism and police brutality quickly fades—ramped up briefly in the wake of Michael Brown’s death—U.S. taxpayers remain stuck footing the bills for their local law enforcement’s aggressive behavior. This week alone, Baltimore agreed to pay $49,000 to man who sued over a violent arrest in 2010, Philadelphia agreed to pay $490,000 to a man who was abused and broke his neck while riding in a police van in 2011, and St. Paul agreed to pay $95,000 to a man who suffered a skull injury, a fractured eye socket, and a broken nose in 2012.

In 2013, Chicago paid out a stunning $84.6 million in police misconduct settlements, judgments, and legal fees. Bridgeport, Connecticut, paid a man $198,000 this past spring after video footage captured police shooting him twice with a stun gun, then stomping all over him as he lay on the ground. And in California, Oakland recently agreed to pay $4.5 million to settle a lawsuit a man filed after being shot in the head, leaving him with permanent brain damage. You get the picture.

The thing is, these steep payments rarely come from the police department budgets—instead they’re financed through the city’s general coffers or the city’s insurance plan. It’s the taxpayer, not the law enforcement agency, who pays the price.

“That’s why these enormous financial penalties do not seem to actually impact what police do,” said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in criminal justice issues. “Conceivably, if cities didn’t want this to happen, they could say this will come out of your [police] budget.”

Other scholars have proposed this, too. Between 2006 and 2011, the total number of claims filed for offenses like false arrest and police brutality in New York City increased by 43 percent. So Joanna Schwartz, a law professor at UCLA, suggested the city could take money from its police budget to pay the associated legal costs. “Perhaps if the department held its own purse strings, it would find more to learn from litigation,” Schwartz wrote in the New York Times. This past June, Schwartz published a study that concluded individual cops almost never pay for their misconduct—rather, “governments paid approximately 99.98 percent of the dollars that plaintiffs recovered in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by law enforcement.”

But the politics of pushing police departments to change or make concessions can be difficult. A recent Gallup poll found that across the country, 56 percent of adults hold “a great deal or quite a lot of confidence” in the police as an institution. If a majority of Americans feel positively about law enforcement, gathering the political will needed to compel change becomes tough.

“Most political leaders don’t have the guts for it, or the stomach for it, so we go around and around and cities pay out buckets of money from their own funds or they buy insurance,” said Harris. “As a result, the settlement costs do not act as a deterrence.”

Video footage might help to change this: The vast proliferation of video recording devices—ranging from individual cell phones to police surveillance cameras—have forced many citizens to watch incidents they might have otherwise tried to deny ever happened. Law enforcement and city officials, too, can’t as easily obfuscate brutal incidents from the record.

It’s possible that the combination of accessible video footage and increasingly expensive lawsuits might at last force cities to re-evaluate the cost of police brutality. This month, a disturbing video surfaced of a Baltimore police officer repeatedly punching a man in June; a $5 million lawsuit was then filed against the cop and the footage will be used as evidence. After seeing the video, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake criticized the police department and directed the commissioner to develop a “comprehensive” plan to address his agency’s systemic brutality.

The following week, two city council members proposed legislation that would require every Baltimore police officer to wear a body camera, in order to reduce instances of improper behavior.

This is all mildly encouraging, but as long as the cost of the jury verdicts, settlements and legal fees fall outside of the police budgets, the economic incentives for departmental reform will stay low. It’s also important to note that filing a civil rights lawsuit is not easy; the overwhelming majority of claims do not result in huge payouts nor is it easy to secure legal representation—even if the plaintiff was clearly wronged, notwithstanding all the new technological means to collect evidence. The cases take a long time and the pay can be precarious. David Packman, a private researcher who established The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project says that both the lack of financial penalties “sufficient to outrage taxpayers” and the fact that “fewer and fewer lawyers take on police misconduct cases” helps explain why localities don’t feel much pressure to introduce meaningful systemic reforms.

Unfortunately, as long as these trends persist, the taxpayer bill is likely to grow.

The Politics of Pre-K in the Pennsylvania Governor Race

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 22, 2014.
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In Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race, education has emerged as one of the most heated issues. A Quinnipiac University poll released this month found education ranked as the most important issue for voters, after jobs and the economy. Despite contentious politics surrounding reform of public education from kindergarten through twelfth grade, Republican incumbent Tom Corbett and Democratic challenger Tom Wolf have discovered that plugging expansion of pre-kindergarten programs wins them political points without treading into treacherous waters. That is, as long as they don’t mention the mothers who will inevitably benefit, too.

The governor’s record is haunted by his 2011 budget, from which he cut nearly $900 million in public education funds—a decrease of more than 10 percent. The severe cuts have garnered national attention, particularly for Philadelphia—the state’s largest school district—which wrestled with a $304 million cut this past school year. Last year, a GOP research firm conducted a secret poll and found 69 percent of Pennsylvanians felt the state’s public education system is on the “wrong track;” 64 percent blamed Corbett.

Corbett, in turn, is trying to blame his predecessor, Democrat Ed Rendell, who infused temporary economic stimulus money into the education budget. But many voters don’t have patience for these defenses: They understand that class sizes have increased, that art, music and advanced placement offerings have been reduced, and that thousands of teachers—not to mention many counselors, nurses, librarians, and administrative staffers—have lost their jobs on Corbett’s watch.

Given education’s importance to Pennsylvania voters, the Corbett campaign has released ads lauding the governor for having “increased spending in the education department by $1.5 billion.” But this increase really came about because Pennsylvania is now paying more toward employee retirement plans, an obligationset by the state legislature.

While education debates typically center on polarizing issues such as charter schools, standardized tests and teacher unions, both candidates have found modest political respite by promoting a seemingly innocuous preschool agenda. Each campaign has created TV ads and sent direct mailings to voters about its candidate’s commitment to early-childhood education. Wolf’s platform includes the creation of a universal program, and Corbett has advertised the $10 million budget increase he oversaw to expand pre-K access.

None of this would have been possible without the launch of the Pre-K for PA campaign, a well-organized nonpartisan effort designed to educate the Pennsylvania public, policymakers, and those running for public office about the benefits of early-childhood education. According to Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, none of the candidates running in the gubernatorial primaries were taking up this issue at all until the Pre-K for PA campaign started to organize at campaign stops and hold their own public events in areas of high voter concentration.

“By the time we reached the Democratic primaries, [the candidates] all started falling all over each other in support of pre-K,” said Cooper. “And then Corbett did it, too, because it was seen as a safe issue.”

Although President Barack Obama has called for the creation of a universal pre-K program, the influx of business groups that support early childhood education on the grounds of workforce preparation has turned it into a relatively bipartisan aim. Some of the most highly regarded models of quality preschool in the nation, in fact, are in two red states: Oklahoma and Alabama. In April, the president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama came to Philadelphia to discuss the ways in which Alabama’s business community worked to develop his state’s pre-K system.

Although President Barack Obama has called for the creation of a universal pre-K program, the influx of business groups that support early childhood education on the grounds of workforce preparation has turned it into a relatively bipartisan aim. Some of the most highly regarded models of quality preschool in the nation, in fact, are in two red states: Oklahoma and Alabama. In April, the president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama came to Philadelphia to discuss the ways in which Alabama’s business community worked to develop his state’s pre-K system.

Pre-K for PA has also employed economic rhetoric. In an open letter sent to both candidates in May, the campaign stressed:

Pre-K for PA has the support of many business leaders throughout the commonwealth. Among those leaders we are proud that [Comcast Executive Vice President] David L. Cohen penned an op-ed published last month in The Philadelphia Inquirer that stated: “Early-childhood education is not just a ‘nice to have’—it is an educational, moral and societal imperative essential to building the workforce of the future.”

But advocates know that early childhood education would impact far more than just our future labor market. While studies have documented the role pre-K can play in aiding the intellectual development of children, research has also shown how a pre-K expansion would significantly benefit low-income families, particularly poor women.

Mothers who have regular childcare are far more likely to stay employed. Moreover, a continuous work history correlates with better pay and benefits, but women often have to interrupt their careers because of a lack of steady childcare. An expansion of high quality pre-K would mean women would not only be more likely to keep their jobs, but also advance their careers.

Yet the candidates generally avoid these talking points. Even Wolf, with a 24-point lead, is quick to tell audiences that pre-K is “not just about social welfare.” In policy papers, leaders of the Pre-K for PA campaign have acknowledged that early childhood education is a boon to needier families, but they, too, seek to frame their public messaging to encompass all families, not just those that are low-income or headed by single parents.

“We don’t want to create a class conflict around this,” said Cooper, who points out that it’s a “broad coalition” that goes to the polls. Citing the pre-K model of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, which aimed to make pre-K available to everyone, Cooper said that universal pre-K “makes every family a stakeholder.”

No doubt, given the Keystone State’s education budget crisis, enacting a major pre-K plan would be politically challenging. One could reasonably argue that ignoring mothers on the campaign trail, in a state with a large conservative contingent, is perhaps the only way to build critical support for early childhood education.

But this shouldn’t be taken at face value; the terms in which pre-K is framed, and the justifications provided for it, will inevitably affect the substance of the policy. Early childhood education has garnered tremendous political momentum, but it may have come at a price.

“I wish candidates would make that connection between women’s need to work and families’ need to have access to quality early childhood education, because it’s critical,” said Tam St. Claire, the president of the Bucks County Women’s Advocacy Coalition, a Pennsylvania coalition of non-profits and individuals that serve women and girls. “If we are expecting women to be economically self-sufficient, then we have to have systems and institutions that support the demands women have on themselves now.”

Debasri Ghosh, the director of education and communications at Women’s Way, a Philadelphia-based women’s and girls’ advocacy organization, points out that not only is pre-K important for children but “it’s also an incredibly stabilizing force for women and their families.” And a lack of accessible and affordable childcare, Ghosh explains, “can perpetuate the existing wage gap between men and women.”

Looking beyond Corbett and Wolf, the Pre-K for PA campaign is working to move big political donors, as well as candidates for the Senate and House of Representatives in Pennsylvania and nearby states. And a new survey reveals that 64 percent of voters support increased funding for pre-K programs in Pennsylvania. The stakes are high: In a state where only 18 percent of three- and four-year-olds currently have access to high quality early-childhood education—and where 13.6 percent of single mothers with minor children are unemployed—the campaign’s outcome could dramatically impact not only those in Pennsylvania, but children, families and women across the country.

Market Value

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on August 29th, 2014.
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Walk into Reading Terminal Market, an enclosed public market in downtown Philadelphia, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by an assortment of rich smells and bright colors. You’ll see fresh produce and sushi, specialty cheeses, artisanal scarves, and natural oils. On occasion, you’ll even spot someone playing classical music on an electric keyboard. The central dining area is lined with flat-screen TVs.

Founded in 1893 but redeveloped in the 1990s, Reading Terminal has rebranded itself as a bustling hub of healthy food, community events, and tourist attractions. It has that liberal, “multicultural” feel to it—offering a wide variety of ethnic foods, incorporating patchworks of Pennsylvanian history, and acting as a significant food stamp redeemer for the city. There are customers spanning the socio-economic spectrum, but the average patron earns an annual income in the $35-60,000 range. Come around noon and you’ll catch a cluster of men dressed in black fancy suits standing by the famous Dutch Eating Place, awaiting Amish specialties like hamloaf and corn mashed potatoes.

Why care? Well, this all matters because Reading Terminal stands as a prime model for the Lexington Market redevelopment plan. Baltimore’s historic public market, which was described as “where you want to be for heroin” on National Geographic TV’s recent report on Baltimore, seeks to change its customer base, its food selections, and its reputation as a notorious drug hub.

Though many are quick to insist no “cut-and-paste approach” will be used, Reading Terminal’s general manager Paul Steinke is working directly with Lexington Market and the Maine-based consulting firm, Market Ventures, to help Baltimore through these transitional times.

Reading Terminal is a fun place, but the idea of using it as a model for Lexington Market’s future raises questions about the city’s larger objectives. In contrast to Philly’s Reading Terminal, most of Lexington Market’s visitors are black and earn less than $25,000 per year. It’s no secret that part of the redevelopment plan is to help “expand its offerings” in order to attract wealthier customers.

The plans for the market are ambitious. Although the figure $25 million has been thrown around in press reports, Ted Spitzer, president of Market Ventures, tells City Paper he “has no idea” where that number came from, and that he would not be surprised if the cost substantially exceeds that amount.

“Construction is not cheap,” he says.

Officials are careful to say that throughout the redevelopment they want to preserve Lexington Market’s “historic character.”

But when pressed on what that means, specifically (there’s been a lot of history since 1782), vague answers abound. “It means different things for different people,” Spitzer says. “That’s one of the things we’re trying to discover, what are those [important, historical] elements?”

“There’s a plan that’s going to help us figure that out,” Lexington Market’s executive director, Robert Thomas, says. “We’re just beginning with the consultant now to answer those very questions.”

From preliminary conversations, reports, interviews, and surveys, one can reasonably guess that Lexington Market will get a new physical structure (maybe keeping its iconic entrance sign) and work to bring in businesses that cater to shoppers with greater disposable incomes. “We’re looking at local niche branding, niche talent, niche entrepreneurs,” Thomas says. Likely no chain stores. After more than 5,000 people filled out Market Venture’s online survey in March, and 600 more participated in in-person interviews, officials say customers want options like freshly baked bread, locally grown produce, finer cheese, and gourmet coffee. Some existing businesses will surely be kicked out along the way, though officials say they haven’t begun to figure out exactly which ones those will be.

One of the major goals of Lexington Market’s rebranding is figuring out how to make it feel “more inviting” to wealthier consumers, such as hospital workers, area students, and tourists visiting the Inner Harbor.

But Lexington Market already has a security budget of $900,000—for cops and surveillance—which is off the charts compared to markets around the country. And the city increased the number of police dispatched to the market back in 2012, resulting in more arrests. Spitzer told The Sun that drawing in more affluent customers is one way to get rid of the area’s “negative behavior.” In the same Sun report, Kirby Fowler, president of the nonprofit Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, said, “the environment that’s conducive to the sale of prescription drugs is not conducive to drawing tourists to the market on a daily basis.”

Ultimately, the plan is to make more arrests, “clean up the area,” and get that “seedy stuff” out of sight, out of mind. The plan, it seems, is not to eradicate poverty; it’s to mitigate the unseemly sight of it. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has said she envisions the future Lexington Market to be a “thriving mixed-use, mixed-income community.”

The city is investing a lot of money in Baltimore’s development. Local colleges are putting forth financial backing, too—UMBC is renovating a building on the southern edge of Lexington Market—but the city’s track record of reinvesting money derived from courting richer consumers back into the lives of the city’s poorest has been less than stellar.

On a recent Wednesday during the crowded midday hour, Lexington Market stalls sell snickerdoodles, vape pens, customized gym socks, grills, and endless lunch options, as workers mingle with or watch customers milling around the market. The hungry people of Baltimore chatter idly over Faidley’s famed crabcakes or a stall offering its “Super Breakfast”—two jumbo eggs, toast, potatoes, and bacon for a mere two dollars. Signs welcoming Independence Cards hang prominently at most stands. It smells awesome and greasy. But for many stall owners, some of whom will probably not make it into the new market, the future remains unclear.

“They don’t say nothing,” says Mike Houvardas, who has run the Bergers cookie stand, which serves the famous handmade cakes and cookies, for over 40 years. “We know nothing. Everybody says, the radio says, the television says, the newspaper says they’re gonna redo the market, but we know nothing.”

Elliot, a vendor at Mary Mervis Delicatessen who would not give his last name, is more optimistic about the changes. “It seems things are getting better already, I see a difference,” he says. “The walls, the floors, it’s cleaner. And we’re bringing in new people, bringing in new merchants. Come back in six months, it’ll be nothing like it is now.”

Additional reporting by Gianna DeCarlo.

The RAD-ical Shifts to Public Housing

 Originally published in The American Prospect on August 28th, 2014. 
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Traditional public housing is out of favor and substantially out of funds. It’s bureaucratic, concentrates the very poor, and is literally crumbling due to a huge backlog of deferred maintenance. Yet despite real catastrophes—such as Chicago’s bleak, crime-ridden Robert Taylor Homes, dynamited over a decade ago—public housing provides low-rent apartments to some 2.2 million people, and much of it is reasonably well run by local authorities.

For half a century, presidents, legislators and housing developers have sought alternatives, involving supposedly more efficient private market incentives. However, these alternatives, too, have been far from scandal-free. The Johnson-era Section 236 program (named for part of the housing code) gave private developers tax benefits and direct payments to build low-rent housing, underwritten by subsidized thirty-year mortgages. But then, as the mortgages started being paid off in the 1990s, many developers kicked out poor tenants and converted the buildings to middle-class and even luxury apartments—taking low-rent units that had been built and maintained with taxpayer money and removing them from the pool of affordable housing.

Attempts to de-concentrate big public housing projects, such as the Clinton-era “HOPE VI” program (Home Opportunities for People Everywhere), ended up evicting thousands. The Robert Taylor site, which at its peak housed 27,000 low-income Chicagoans, was replaced, using over $500 million in HOPE VI funds, with a low-rise mixed-income development of just 2,300 units.

Now comes the latest attempt to save public housing by injecting private capital. The idea is to bring in private developers—drawn by tax breaks and subsidies—and have them refurbish and manage the buildings. The end result is to be some kind of hybrid, where rents will stay low (at least for a time), tenants may have more mobility but fewer rights, and the total stock of affordable housing could shrink yet again. The approach is not cheap, and it may be more cost-effective to just appropriate more direct funds to the program and thereby keep it in the public sector—but Congress is not about to do so.

The new plan, promoted by HUD, developers and some city governments with few alternatives, is known as the Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD. It is set to transfer 60,000 public housing units across the country to the control of private developers. While billed as a limited test program, many participating cities are taking far-reaching gambles on their city’s affordable housing stock. In Baltimore, 43 percent of all public housing units will be converted through RAD, and in San Francisco, roughly 75 percent.

RAD is a second cousin to everything from privatized highways to the Affordable Care Act, which keeps the public provision and modest expansion of health insurance mostly private.

RAD is an emblematic case of this era’s intensified push to use privatization in the pursuit of social goals—not because that approach is necessarily better policy, but because it is politically possible. In that respect, RAD is a second cousin to everything from privatized highways to the Affordable Care Act, which keeps the public provision and modest expansion of health insurance mostly private.

Public housing—a program financed through direct government subsidies since its inception in the late 1930s—has been severely underfunded by Congress for decades. The dearth of funds has translated into a housing stock decline: Since the mid-1990s, more than 260,000 dilapidated units have been demolished or removed from the program. And despite long waiting lists around the country, agencies have only built new units to replace about one-sixth of those that were removed. HUD estimates that nearly $30 billion is needed to repair and restore the nation’s 1.2 million remaining public housing units.

“Primarily because of Congress’s failure to fund public housing, and so many long-term repairs and rehabilitation needs going unmet, RAD was an idea to get a new flow of capital and funds into the program,” says Megan Haberle, policy counsel at the Poverty Race and Research Action Council (PRRAC).

In effect, RAD turns public housing into something like the Section 8 program: low-rent housing that is privately managed or owned, and publicly subsidized.

RAD alters public housing’s funding and ownership structure to one that experts hope will be more politically sustainable over time. For example, a local housing authority could either sell or lease a public housing building to a private developer; the developer in turn would agree to make certain renovations, and to respect tenants’ rights. The traditional funding mechanism—direct subsidies to local housing authorities—would be replaced by tax credits and housing vouchers under the program known as Section 8. The total subsidy would be lucrative enough to entice the developer yet still maintain low rents for tenants. In effect, RAD turns public housing into something like the Section 8 program: low-rent housing that is privately managed or owned, and publicly subsidized.

Some cities, like Chicago, Philadelphia, Tampa and Charlotte, applied to convert thousands of their public housing units through RAD, but given the program’s demonstration cap, they’re stuck, for now, on a waitlist. (Chicago had the largest RAD application in the country, with nearly 11,000 units.) Other cities that were approved for conversion have taken a more cautious approach: Omaha will convert only 306 units, and Houston just eighty-nine.

Tenants and housing rights activists share deep concerns about RAD. These include the risk of increased rent costs, the fate of tenant legal rights, and the need to ensure affordable housing for generations to come. In addition, building trade unions see the potential for eliminating unionized middle-class jobs under these new private deals. Yet no formal national coalition has formed to address all these fears, in part because of the highly localized nature of the program. Since the RAD legislation was designed for regional flexibility, the risks and stakes for tenants and workers can vary considerably from city to city. The strength of local housing activist networks, civil rights lawyers and unions will ultimately shape RAD’s impact.

“Everyone is working on their own programs. Some of them are doing things this way or that way, some are a little bit more transparent, others are not,” says David Prater, an attorney at the Maryland Disability Law Center. Prater has been involved with the RAD program in Baltimore, fighting to ensure that protections for disabled tenants are preserved under the new regime.

 

RAD has garnered great controversy in Baltimore—the largest East Coast city to participate—due to its cagey rollout. While Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul T. Granziano has pitched RAD as the only feasible way to salvage the old units, advocates are left with many questions and few details. In mid-June, some sixty Baltimore tenants and union workers organized a protest against RAD outside the Housing Authority of Baltimore County (HABC). Demonstrators raised concerns of resident displacement, middle-class job cuts and public housing loss.

“We’ve been at a number of residential information meetings that [the Housing Authority] organized, and they’ve yelled at residents who have tried to ask questions about long-term affordability and said it was inappropriate for them to even ask those questions,” said Jessica Lewis, an organizer at the Right to Housing Alliance, an advocacy group led by low-income Baltimore residents. At another public meeting, residents invited Karen Wabeke, a lawyer working for the Homeless Persons Representation Project, to ask legal questions on their behalf, but the housing commissioner refused to even take her questions.

Cheron Porter, director of communications for HABC, says that they are proud of the efforts they have made to engage residents and housing advocates throughout the RAD process. Porter adds that Baltimore’s version of RAD “goes far beyond the requirements under the federal law and is much closer to public housing than programs in other parts of the country.”

In other cities such as San Francisco, RAD has met less opposition. The San Francisco Housing Authority, with a $270 million backlog in deferred maintenance costs, has been in a state of organizational tumult for years. Its last director was fired in 2013 after alleged involvement in a host of corruption and discrimination scandals. While some activists and union workers have raised questions, ultimately the Bay Area pushback has been mild in comparison to Baltimore. Many residents eagerly welcome the promise of improved physical conditions.

Deborah Thrope, a lawyer with the National Housing Law Project, a policy organization concerned with preserving affordable housing and tenant rights, says the response was tamer in part because everyone agreed the status quo was untenable. While Thrope hopes to safeguard tenant rights in San Francisco then disseminate those principles nationally, she acknowledges that San Francisco is different than the rest of the country because of its well-mobilized advocacy organizations that collaborate with the city in ways unique to the northern California progressive scene.

Despite significant concerns, many housing policy experts remain cautiously optimistic. One promising feature of the program is a “mobility” option not currently permitted for tenants in traditional public housing. For example, some families that want to move and switch school districts could do so using a voucher obtained through RAD. “We see [RAD] as an opportunity not only to inject capital,” says Phil Tegeler, executive director of PRRAC, “but as a break with that whole history of residential segregation and concentrated poverty.”

Given the funding crisis, the large public housing authorities are among RAD’s most enthusiastic boosters. “This was not something that was a brainchild of a developer,” stressed Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities (CLPHA). “This is very intentional in its approach as a preservation and reinvestment strategy.” 

Nonetheless, critics’ concerns about tenant displacement appear justified, given the government’s track record with privatizing public housing. HOPE VI projects deliberately decreased the number of public housing units. Many tenants lost their homes through rescreening and thousands were permanently displaced during the rehab process.

“The housing authorities just didn’t try hard enough to keep in touch with many residents during that year or two that units were getting fixed up, and people were just lost and never had an opportunity to return,” says Ed Gramlich of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

In an effort to avoid the pitfalls of Hope VI, policymakers have tried to design RAD in a way that would prevent some of the worst possible outcomes. For example, unlike in HOPE VI conversions, no tenant will have to be re-screened to establish eligibility to live in RAD properties.

And under RAD, an implicit commitment exists to have a “one-to-one replacement policy,” meaning that any demolished units must be replaced with the same number of units as was originally there. But advocates such as Gramlich worry that developers and local authorities could exploit loopholes in the statute. Exceptions to the one-to-one rule include allowing public housing authorities to reduce the number of assisted units by up to 5 percent without HUD approval, consolidate units (such as converting efficiencies to one-bedroom apartments), and remove units that have been vacant for at least twenty-four months. This last exception is particularly troubling, as housing authorities sometimes intentionally leave units empty in an effort to lessen their administrative fees or anticipate eventual demolition.

Erosion of tenant legal protections also worries advocates. For example, under current public housing law, if a landlord or housing authority mistreats a tenant, the tenant may pursue redress without resorting to expensive and lengthy lawsuits. But under RAD, the contracts will be between private developers and housing authorities, which could make it much more difficult for tenants to hold landlords accountable. Some, like David Prater of the Maryland Disability Law Center, want housing authorities to formally add tenants to the housing contracts as “third party beneficiaries.” This change would strengthen tenants’ ability to pursue grievances.

Prater sees potential for an unholy alliance between housing authorities that want to save money by limiting tenant appeals and private developers who seek to avoid liability. Cheron Porter, speaking for the Baltimore housing authority, says, “While we certainly understand the residents’ point of view,” giving tenants third party status “could potentially lead to unduly lengthened processes and less certainty among the parties’ roles.”

As long as these developers receive HUD subsidies, the units will be subjected to federal audits and monitoring. Still, the regulations leave room for legal sidestepping. “I think legal advocates rightly see that the RAD notice HUD drafted did not completely replicate the protections that people already have under the public housing regulations and handbooks,” says Gramlich.

A further concern is possible changes to RAD under future administrations. For now, the Obama administration has sought to balance developer incentives with tenant protections. But future administrations, facing different political considerations, might opt to shift this balance.

Although this housing experiment was to be tried first on only 5 percent of the nation’s public housing stock, HUD is now pushing to eliminate the program’s cap entirely. (In other words, gut the “demonstration” part of “Rental Assistance Demonstration.”) Zaterman of CLPHA argues that RAD’s long waitlist “demonstrates its demand and feasibility.” Other affordable housing advocates, however, urge for a more gradual approach in case there are unforeseen ruinous consequences.

With cash-strapped cities lacking the dollars needed to renovate, repair and maintain their public housing, many more are likely to apply for RAD conversions in the future.

If implemented carefully with robust federal oversight, RAD may actually advance the goal of more affordable housing. Decrepit and dangerous buildings could be upgraded and more families may have the opportunity to move into the areas they want. However, if the public looks away or if crafty private developers evade government supervision, the state of affordable housing could look even worse than it does today.

“All of these deals between housing authorities and developers are made behind closed doors,” says Gramlich. “That’s how deals are done in the private marketplace, and that runs against the whole notion of public assets. It’s hard to assess what might happen, and by the time the negotiations are settled, residents might be stuck with a done deal. And the done deal might be great, or it might not be. The people who have the biggest stake in it are left out.”