When the Poor Move, Do They Move Up?

Originally published in The American Prospect on April 6, 2016.
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When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April of 1968, the bill that would become the federal Fair Housing Act was at risk of stalling in Congress. King’s assassination, and the nationwide civil disturbances that ensued, helped the Act sail through the legislative process. Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law just two weeks later; today, in recognition of these transformative events, April has been designated National Fair Housing Month.

But the battle over the underlying aims of fair housing remains unfinished. Walter Mondale, one the Fair Housing Act’s primary sponsors, declared its objective to be the creation of “truly integrated and balanced living patterns,” and federal courts have interpreted that phrase to indicate that the elimination of racial segregation is a key aim of the 1968 law. Yet, 48 years later, the federal government still does very little to incentivize racially and economically integrated neighborhoods—chiefly because of the political peril involved, but also because scholars and housing experts have failed to resolve whether promoting integrated neighborhoods would even be desirable or beneficial. A wave of new research, however, is helping to settle the experts’ debate, and may pave the way to fulfilling the Fair Housing Act’s original promise.

Eric Chyn, an economist at the University of Michigan, recently published a housing mobility study that takes a long-term look at children who were forced out of Chicago’s public housing projects in the 1990s. Three years after their homes were demolished, the displaced families lived in neighborhoods with 25 percent lower poverty and 23 percent less violent crime than those who stayed put. Chyn finds that children who were forced to move were 9 percent more likely to be employed as adults than those who remained in public housing, and had 16 percent higher annual earnings. He suggests this could be partly due to the fact that displaced children had fewer criminal arrests in the long run and were exposed to less violence growing up than their non-displaced peers.

His study provides stronger evidence for the idea that moving to higher-opportunity neighborhoods is beneficial for the poor. In particular, Chyn’s study addresses an issue that housing policy researchers have been grappling with since the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) initiative—a large-scale experiment that involved moving randomly assigned families out of high poverty neighborhoods into census-tracts with less than 10 percent poverty. The experiment, which ran from 1994-1998, was devised to see if moving families improved their life outcomes. While relocation substantially lowered parents’ rates of depression and stress levels, MTO did not significantly improve their financial situation. However, researchers found that children who moved under the age of 13 were more likely to attend college and earned significantly more than similar adults who never moved.

Social scientists were left to question why the positive effects of relocation only seemed to appear for younger children. They also wondered whether the families that moved through MTO—all of whom voluntarily applied for vouchers in a lottery—shared characteristics that families who never applied lacked. Just a quarter of all families eligible to move through MTO applied for vouchers, and perhaps the experiment had some selection bias, effectively skewing the results.

By looking at Chicago’s public housing demolitions, Chyn was able to study the impact of moving on all families forced to relocate, not just those who volunteered to do so. Within this less select grouping, he finds that all children, including those who moved past the age of 13, experienced labor market gains as adults. This finding helps to reconcile some tensions in the neighborhood effects literature and suggests that MTO’s findings may be less reliable than previously understood.

Chyn concludes that his paper “demonstrates that relocation of low-income families from distressed public housing has substantial benefits for both children (of any age) and government expenditures.” Based on his results, Chyn suggests that moving a child out of public housing by using a standard housing voucher would increase the lifetime earnings of that child by about $45,000. He also argues that this policy would “yield a net gain for government budgets” since housing vouchers and moving costs are similar to project-based housing assistance.

But Chyn’s study—which focuses on Chicago’s projects in the 1990s—does not tell the whole story. In particular, it tells us little about what would happen if we involuntarily moved families out of public housing to racially segregated, slightly less impoverished neighborhoods today.

A series of economic trends and public policies significantly aided the poor during the 1990s—trends and policies that are nowhere in evidence today. As Paul Jargowsky, the director of the Center for Urban Research and Urban Education at Rutgers, has shown, in the ‘90s, the Earned Income Tax Credit was just being implemented, the minimum wage was increased, and unemployment dropped to 4 percent for a sustained number of years, which lead to real wage increases. The number of people living in high poverty neighborhoods between 1990 and 2000 dropped by 25 percent—from 9.6 million to 7.2 million.

“This [Chyn article] is a nicely designed study, but if you want to understand it, you have to understand everything else that was going on during that time period,” says Patrick Sharkey, an NYU sociologist who studies neighborhoods and mobility. Sharkey buys the finding that in this particular context, a forcible move may have actually helped kids growing up in Chicago in the 1990s, but he says to extrapolate those findings even to the current situation in Chicago, let alone other cities, would be a mistake. Chicago’s public housing during that period was widely recognized as the most violent, and troubled, in the entire country.

In an interview, Chyn says he agrees that Chicago “has some particular features that may limit how we can generalize” his findings, and acknowledges that the city’s public housing in the 1990s “was a particularly disadvantaged system.” He says that his results would best inform policy in other cities that have “high-rise, very dense, particularly disadvantaged public housing.”

Whatever its limitations, Chyn’s study adds to a substantial body of research on the effects that neighborhoods have on the children who grow up in them and their families. Given that most families with vouchers moved to neighborhoods that were only slightly less poor and segregated than the ones they’d left, there is reason to suspect that the labor market gains observed in both Chyn’s study and MTO represent just the lower bound of potential mobility benefits.

For example, 56 percent of displaced families in Chyn’s study still wound up in neighborhoods with extreme poverty, meaning census tracts with poverty levels that exceed 40 percent. The rest, nearly 44 percent of those displaced, moved to neighborhoods that were, on average, 28 percent impoverished—a poverty rate lower than the others, but still roughly twice the national average.

The fact that those who moved did better is not grounds to conclude that they are doing well. The average adult-age annual earnings for Chyn’s sample of displaced children was only about $4,315, compared to $3,713 for non-displaced children. (These numbers factor in the incomes of those who are unemployed.) Displaced children with at least some labor income as adults earned $9,437 on average, compared to $8,850 for non-displaced children.

In other words, while the labor prospects and earnings have improved for those who moved as children, they still remain quite poor.

Writing in The New York Times, Justin Wolfers, an economist, and one of Chyn’s thesis advisers, said these findings“could fundamentally reshape housing policy.” At minimum, they reinforce the growing body of evidence that suggests people who move into lower-poverty, racially integrated neighborhoods do better on a variety of social indicators than those who live in high-poverty, racially segregated ones. If our housing policy moves in a more integrative direction, that would be a fundamental shift.

Both Chyn and Raj Chetty, the lead researcher on long-term labor outcomes for children in MTO, have touted the cost-savings potential of moving families with standard housing vouchers. More important than these savings, though, is the question of whether these findings could spur a new commitment to integrative housing.

We know, based on research from sociologists like Sharkey, Stefanie DeLuca, and others, that poor, minority families are unlikely to relocate to whiter, more affluent neighborhoods without serious housing counseling and support. This kind of mobility assistance requires time and money—which the federal government currently does little to promote.

Over the past decade and a half, there has been a steep increase in the number of high-poverty neighborhoods—whose populations nearly doubled from 7.2 million in 2000 to 13.8 million by 2015. As Jargowsky has shown, this increase began well before the start of the Great Recession, and the fastest growth in the black concentration of poverty has been in metropolitan areas with 500,000 to 1 million people, not in the country’s largest cities.

Researchers are still exploring if it’s possible to improve the life outcomes of families that live in racially segregated, high-poverty neighborhoods through investments in those neighborhoods. For now, the evidence suggests that such investments are much less effective than mobility and integration (though, as DeLuca has noted, many such experiments have been underfunded or poorly designed). Chyn’s auspicious findings, released just in time for National Fair Housing Month, bolster the idea that moving families to neighborhoods with greater opportunity could significantly help the poor.

 

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School Choice and the Chaotic State of Racial Desegregation

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 15th, 2015.
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In 2013, a group of white parents in northeast Arkansas tried to transfer their children out of the predominately black Blytheville School District. Like many low-income, majority-black districts, Blytheville’s schools are struggling: state officials recently labeled two of its schools as “academically distressed.”

That same year, the Arkansas state legislature passed a law allowing students to transfer between school districts, unless their local district still had a federal order to desegregate. Blytheville said it was indeed still under federal mandate, and thus the white parents could not transfer their children out. The parents sued, arguing that Blytheville’s desegregation order had ended decades ago, and that they had a constitutional right to switch districts. In 2014, a district court dismissed the case,and on August 31st, the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision, ruling that the Constitution doesn’t guarantee public school choice. On September 11th, the plaintiffs filed a petition for rehearing.

Whether or not the parents prevail, the Blytheville legal battle reveals a lot about the confused state of school desegregation six decades after Brown v. Board. While the appellate judges focused on whether the plaintiffs’ claims were matters of constitutional import, they sidestepped on whether Blytheville is, or isn’t, still under federal desegregation. That question will surely be litigated in the future, but as it turns out, it’s a surprisingly difficult one to answer, and not just for Blytheville.

In hundreds of cities nationwide, parents, school officials, and even legal experts have struggled to figure out exactly where districts once under federal desegregation now stand. Decades of bad record keeping and lax federal oversight have significantly undercut the power of court-ordered desegregation, and a growing movement around school choice has made the policy discussions around structural racism even that much more complex.

IN 1989, ARKANSAS passed a school choice law that permitted students to transfer to neighboring districts, depending on their race. “No student may transfer to a nonresident district where the percentage of enrollment for the student’s race exceeds the percentage in the student’s resident district,” the law stated. It was an attempt to both promote school choice while also prevent the resegregation of Arkansas public schools. But in 2012, a federal court ruled the statute unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Public School Choice Act of 2013, passed to replace the 1989 law, allowed students to transfer between districts regardless of race, but placed several new restrictions on transfers. Legislators said that transfers could not result in a net enrollment change of more than 3 percent for each district, and that districts still under federal desegregation can be exempted from the law.

During the 2013-2014 school year, 23 districts, among them Blytheville, claimed exemption from the new Public School Choice Act, out of a total of 232. To claim exemption, districts just had to notify the Arkansas Department of Education that it planned to do so. “There appears to be no process in place for validation of these exemptions, theoretically allowing any district, regardless of history of desegregation, to claim an exemption,” University of Arkansas researchers wrote in a 2013 report. They found that six of the 23 exempted districts did not even cite a specific court case when they notified the state Department of Education. And some cases that districts did cite raised questions of legitimacy or relevancy. Attorneys representing the Blytheville parents, for example, argue that the school district inappropriately cites Brown v. Board of Education, a local desegregation order that was dismissed in 1978, and a voting rights case from 1996.

“State officials, reluctant to tread on the ground of federal litigation, refuse to challenge these claims,” wrote the attorneys in their petition for rehearing filed last week. “Thus, using old federal cases, districts falsely claim unfinished desegregation obligations to nullify state education policy and rights. Citizens cannot intervene in those closed cases to stop this farce.”

I was surprised to hear that Arkansas state officials could not validate districts’ requests for exemption by referring to a comprehensive list of schools still under federal desegregation. Surely this all must be tracked somewhere? But upon further investigation, I learned that determining which districts are still under federal order turns out to be a far messier and legally murky process than I initially understood.

A report published in 2007 by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission found that as of May 2007, the United States remained party to 266 lawsuits with active court-ordered desegregation mandates. “There are, of course, many more such cases to which the United States is not a party, but no comprehensive list of these cases currently exists,” the authors wrote. “Moreover, many cases were initiated in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the original players have either moved on or in some cases passed away. In such instances, not even the school districts understand the scope of the court orders that bind them and little reliable information exists that can provide a complete picture as to the nature of ongoing court-ordered desegregation.”

I reached out to Sean Reardon, a Stanford sociologist who has been tracking the impacts of school districts released from court-ordered desegregation, to learn more about why people can’t seem to agree on whether districts are still under federal mandate.

He said that when researching whether districts were still, or had ever been, under federal desegregation, he and his colleagues learned it was a harder question to answer than they had originally expected. “We’d call up people at school districts and sometimes we’d talk to them, and we’d talk to the lawyer, or the central office administrator, or the secretary, whoever would answer questions, and sometimes even the legal office didn’t seem to really know the answer,” he said. Nikole Hannah-Jones, a journalist, cited similar issues in a 2014 ProPublica investigation, finding that, “officials in scores of school districts do not know the status of their desegregation orders, have never read them, or erroneously believe that orders have been ended.”

With the passage of time, poor record keeping, and a lack of consistent court oversight, many districts had nobody left who really remembered, or cared, what their legal obligations were. “Districts seemed unable to tell us if they were under a court order more often than you would think, or different people would say different things,” Reardon said.

Poor record keeping helps explain some confusion, perhaps even for many of the 23 Arkansas districts that claimed exemption, but it didn’t quite clarify what’s going on with Blytheville—where attorneys do point to a specific case, Franklin v. Board of Directors of Blytheville School Dist. No. 5, as evidence that the district is no longer under federal desegregation. A district judge dismissed Blytheville’s court order in 1978, without appeal. So what exactly is there to debate here?

“There’s also a fuzziness about what it means to be ‘released’,” said Reardon, largely thanks to judicial developments in the early ‘90s. In its Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell decision, reached in 1991, the Supreme Court created the concept of “unitary status”—a designation that could be applied to districts found to have complied with desegregation orders “in good faith.” Unitary status meant districts could be released once and for all from court oversight, even if resegregation was likely. And one year later, the justices ruled in Freeman v. Pittsthat districts could be released from desegregation in phases, rather than all at once.

“I’ve never gotten a clear understanding of what it means to be ‘unitary.’ I think it’s a slippery concept, it’s harder to nail down,” said Reardon. “I can imagine, based on the people I’ve talked to in different districts that there could be cases where people think they’d been released and some people think they weren’t because they were relying on different criteria and different definitions.”

Blytheville was released from desegregation before the concept of unitary status came about, and this seems to be at the crux of the contemporary legal dispute. In December 2014, U.S. District Judge Kristine G. Baker found Blytheville to still be under desegregation and wrote, “The Court acknowledges plaintiffs’ argument that, for many years after 1978, the BSD did not operate as if it were under a desegregation order or agency mandate. The Court views this as irrelevant to the issue of whether the district court declared, explicitly or implicitly, that the BSD achieved unitary status, and the Court views the district court’s lack of a finding of unitary status as controlling.” In other words, the judge said that without a unitary status designation, Blytheville can’t consider itself released from its desegregation mandate.

BLYTHEVILLE-SPECIFIC QUESTIONS aside, Arkansas legislators are still left trying to craft fair and equitable school choice policies. The 2013 law was updated this year, and the new version requires school districts that seek exemptions to “submit proof from a federal court” that they are entitled to one.

But issues still remain. “Districts must show documentation in the new law, but it’s not actually that effective because no one sorted out what it means to have documentation,” said Gary Ritter, a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas. “People are still citing Brown v. Board.”

Open-enrollment advocates argue that school choice increases healthy competition between districts, and creates more equitable opportunities for disadvantaged students. They also believe that school choice allows more families to access schools that fit their particular needs.

Critics worry that school choice policies will disproportionately hurt low-income students and racial minorities, since the more advantaged students with the means and ability to leave struggling districts are more likely to do so. Social science researchers have found that segregation and school choice policies are often closely linked. When Minnesota instituted an open-enrollment program in 1988, researchers found that it led to increased segregation, as more white students left racially diverse districts to attend predominately white ones

So far, this has not been a major issue in Arkansas. A University of Arkansas policy brief published in February found there to be “very little change in the percent white enrollment due to school choice” since the 2013 law was enacted.

Open-enrollment advocates also note that however well-intentioned, the current law effectively denies choice to students who attend some of the lowest-performing schools in the state—those who might benefit the most from leaving. Exempted districts have a higher proportion of ethnic and racial minorities, have more students eligible for free or reduced lunch, and have lower student achievement and graduation rates, on average, than non-exempt districts.

However, Arkansas does not guarantee free transportation for all students traveling between districts, which suggests that even if no districts were exempt, low-income students whose parents could not afford to transport them to and from school each day would still be less likely to benefit from interdistrict school choice.

Ritter thinks that the state will have to ultimately be clearer about what qualifies as a meaningful reason for exemption. “We have lawyers at the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE). I get that there is some gray area about what exactly constitutes desegregation, but in my view, the ADE should come up with a set of rules, apply those set of rules, and generate a list. And maybe it needs to go to a court and the judges need to figure out if that’s a reasonable set of rules, but I imagine that would be better than go through all this ambiguity.”

The political and legal questions that Arkansas is wrestling with mirror the broad tensions that school districts throughout the country face: how to promote school choice without fostering racial segregation—admirable, but often incongruous goals.

Welcome to the Courtroom That Is Every Renter’s Nightmare

Originally published in Next City (with illustrations by Sky Kalfus!) on September 14th, 2015.
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Deborah Jennings lives in a house in East Baltimore with her daughter and granddaughter. When she first moved in nearly five years ago, she was working as a nursing support technician, helping to draw blood. Hours were long, but she was able to pay her bills. That changed two years ago, when she became disabled and had to stop working. Without a steady paycheck, 57-year-old Jennings has struggled to pay her rent, and each month, that means a trip to rent court.

Each courtroom visit, the same complaints are made, the same issues described, and the same ultimatum given: Jennings must pay her rent or risk eviction. Although the conditions of her house are poor — the basement sink had water running for two months straight, paint hangs from her roof and water has settled in the ceilings — Jennings is in no position to negotiate. “You can start talking, but then the judges say, ‘I understand, but we’re here in reference to this rent, do you owe this rent?’ They don’t want to hear whether or not you have any issues,” Jennings says. “They don’t want none of that.”

“I’m not expecting to live here free,” she adds. “I said bear with me, you’re going to get your rent.”

Each year, Baltimore landlords file roughly 150,000 cases in rent court, which is housed in the District Court of Maryland. The city has 125,000 occupied rental units. Many tenants, like Jennings, are taken multiple times per year.

Despite its undeniable public impact, rent court remains one of city’s least transparent institutions. Any public records are hard to come by and in an era of metrics and open data, analysis of courtroom verdicts appears to be nonexistent.

“People know about it, but there’s no interest to understand why this keeps happening year after year,” says Zafar Shah, an attorney with the Baltimore-based Public Justice Center. “The whole system just does not function as it should.”

In the neighborhood of Oliver, where Jennings lives, nearly a third of families live below the poverty line, many of them on blighted blocks checkered with vacancy. Yet Oliver, along with other sections of Baltimore, is slowly beginning to see population trends reverse and new investment trickle in. With new residents and development come higher rents and more pressure for tenants like Jennings to pay up or get out.

“There is a lot of development in Oliver, a lot of new homeowners, but there are still a lot of people without a lot of money here,” says Darryl Dunaway, office manager and community organizer with the Oliver Community Association. “We hear about rent court all day. From 9 a.m. to 12, I am sending people down to 501 East Fayette Street for eviction prevention. I sent someone there this morning.”

Dunaway says that the community association and others like it around the city help as many people as they can each month, but there is only so much that can be done. “If you can’t pay one month, there is help. You come back next month and you are on your own,” he says.

Originally created to provide a nationwide model of justice for landlords and tenants, Baltimore’s housing court today serves as little more than a state-run rent collection agency, financed by taxpayers and the beleaguered renters themselves who pay court fees for each judgment ruled against them.

“The court system is not for the tenant,” says Jennings wearily. “It just becomes a money thing. It’s no longer about human beings.”

A Court Designed for Tenants

In 1936, the Baltimore Sun published a series of articles that illustrated some of the horrific conditions of Baltimore slums — where 40 percent of the city then lived. With the highest proportion of substandard housing among America’s big cities, local Baltimore officials moved to take action. But by 1941, unsatisfied with the city’s slow progress, some individuals formed the Citizens Planning and Housing Association to apply more pressure. What emerged in Baltimore — a campaign for new building and sanitation codes, and stronger mechanisms for enforcement — would eventually influence the wave of urban renewal across the country, as well as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Federal Housing Act of 1954.

The Baltimore Plan, as it came to be known, was based on a model of setting — and vigorously enforcing — minimum housing standards. The hope was to one day clean up all of Baltimore’s slums; if some delinquent properties had to be removed, so be it. Besides beefing up the number of housing inspections, reformers also wanted to create a special housing court designed to enforce the new standards. Even in the 1950s, regular courts were fairly overwhelmed, and disputes like rental issues were simply low-priority cases. The idea was to create a new space where both landlords and tenants could come in and expect a fair and thorough hearing. The courts would hold landlords accountable to health and sanitation standards, while landlords could expect the backing of the court if tenants were damaging their property or failing to pay rent. Baltimore’s rental housing court would become the first of its kind in the country. Today, most cities have similar systems in place.

“It was supposed to be about fundamentally changing the way property relations work,” says Daniel Pasciuti, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University who studies Baltimore’s rent court.

By the late 1960s and ’70s, widespread tenants’ rights changes were taking place all over the United States. In 1968, the Fair Housing Act became law, barring housing discrimination. Six years later, the federal government launched the Section 8 program, offering rental vouchers so eligible low-income tenants could live in private buildings, and in turn, requiring landlords to afford federally subsidized tenants a new set of rights. Perhaps the most notable reform, however, came from a federal ruling in 1970, Javins v. First National Realty Corp., where the D.C. Circuit ruled that if a living situation is deemed uninhabitable, the tenant is freed from his obligation to pay rent. This establishment of “the implied warrant of habitability” was widely seen as a revolution in landlord-tenant relations; it set the precedent for treating leases as contracts between landlords and tenants, a change considered to be more modern and fair. Tenants would now have the right to introduce evidence of housing code violations if they were sued for late rent, and if the living situation were found unacceptable, the tenant would not have to pay.

But in recent years, housing courts look less like the guardian against slum conditions imagined by New Deal-era advocates and far more like other municipal courts that target low-level offenders and focus disproportionately on the poor.

After visiting rent court in the 1990s, University of Maryland law professor Barbara Bezdek concluded that, beneath “the veneer of due process,” litigants “who are members of socially subordinated groups” are systematically excluded. Though rent court was originally meant to be an accessible space where tenants and landlords could speak directly to a judge without a lawyer, the reality is that the arrangement favors the landlords. Bezdek found that differences in speech, the effects of poverty and the unduly high hurdles tenants were asked to overcome to even raise a defense prevented them from being truly heard. All in all, Bezdek described the legal dynamics as “a charade.” In the two decades since, not much has changed.

A Judicial “Charade”

On a typical day in rent court, the average number of scheduled cases ranges from 800 to 1,000. Shah says the court’s “dirty little secret” is that it depends on the overwhelming majority of summoned tenants to not show up — meaning default wins for the landlord — because there’s no way judges could ever hear as many cases as they schedule. Mark Scurti, associate judge at Baltimore City’s District Court, agrees they would not be able to handle as many cases as they schedule if all tenants were to appear. “It would put a tremendous strain on our current staffing and judges,” he says.

For tenants who do show up to court, it’s not much better. “The court really operates like a giant black box. I have a friggin’ Ph.D. and I’m sitting there like, if this were me and I was actually there [for a case], I would have no idea what’s going on,” says Pasciuti. “There’s no direction, there’s nobody there to explain anything to you.” While some legal aid groups try to offer assistance, their availability is minimal, and most tenants go in without professional help. On days with full dockets, a case can easily receive less than 30 seconds of judicial review.

Rent court is one of the few courts in Maryland’s judiciary system for which no digitized records are available. Whereas all other court cases are filed online, no similar computer system has ever existed for these housing disputes; everything must be manually processed and gets filed away into a vault. Relatedly, no court records are available to determine things like the number of judgments ruled in the landlords’ favor, or how many times an individual tenant is brought to court annually. “I think those are critical numbers to know, and I’m all about watching statistics and watching trends,” says Scurti, who hopes the court will be included in a statewide electronic court filing initiative that is being rolled out over the next couple years. “Why we’ve never been electronic before, I don’t know,” he says. “I suspect it has to do with funding.”

Obtaining data on the number of evictions is similarly difficult. While the sheriff’s office tallies monthly eviction stats for rent court stakeholders to review, it does not make the data easily accessible to the public. It took several weeks for the city to agree to share with me that they had a total of 6,309 evictions in 2014. Housing advocates say the number has hovered around 7,000 evictions annually for the last 10 years. An Abell Foundation report published in 2003 found that the chances of eviction are greater if one rents in Baltimore than in comparable cities like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Cleveland.

Rent court is easily one of the state’s speediest judicial proceedings. Landlords can file for trial a mere one day after rent is late, no matter what the reason. In other states, like New York, landlords must serve tenants with a “rent demand” that gives them three or five days to pay overdue rent before an eviction case is started. New York tenants who do not receive these notices can raise that as a defense in court, says Jenny Laurie, executive director of Housing Court Answers. There is no similar pre-filing period required in Baltimore, leading to, what Shah describes as, “an enormous amount of unnecessary litigation.”

Such a rapid system also gives tenants little time to prepare their defenses, but from the landlord’s perspective, the process has to be quick. “On a large commercial scale [court speed] is not such an importance because they have an ability to withstand not getting rent, but when you’re not a commercial landlord and you have maybe just three, four units, or just one unit, plus a mortgage on the property, [not getting] your rent is a big deal,” says Dennis Hodge, a lawyer who has been representing landlords in the Baltimore area since the mid 1980s. “Most landlords do not want to do evictions, they prefer just to get their money,” he adds.

But when tenants are unable or unwilling to pass over that money, the courtroom’s speed comes into play again. With hundreds of cases to hear in a day, the judges have little time to hear the details of a tenant’s situation. And without professional legal assistance, tenants are generally unable to defend themselves against common chicanery like landlords tacking on additional charges veiled as rent.

Judges often ask tenants why they don’t just move if a rental is uninhabitable or too expensive. “People can’t afford to just pick up and move!” exclaims Detrese Dowridge, a 30-year-old single mother who has gone to rent court three time since May 2013. Dowridge’s Northwest Baltimore home had cracked walls and windows, scurrying mice and roaches, and a leaky ceiling. “And even if they can move,” she says, “then the person who comes in after them will still be stuck with the [same] landlord getting away with whatever.”

“There’s a lot of blaming and shaming the poor in the courtroom,” explains Shah. “I think the spirit with which the court operates is that you have to deserve your housing.”

Reforming Rent Court

Without a jury or many headline-making cases, civil courtroom proceedings have typically flown under the public’s radar. That is beginning to change. A Department of Justice report issued in the wake of police officer Darren Wilson’s deadly shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson singled out the Missouri municipal court for “constitutionally deficient” procedures that “undermine the court’s role as a fair and impartial judicial body.”

Now attorneys at the Public Justice Center have teamed up with the Right to Housing Alliance (RTHA), a Baltimore-based human rights organization, and Jews United for Justice (JUFJ), a local activist group, to try and change the frustrating realities of rent court. With $280,000 in grant funding from the Abell Foundation, they hope to lead a court reform initiative and promote greater awareness about housing evictions around the city.

“The bare minimum allowable for any human dignity in the rental housing system is for this court to be fixed,” says Jessica Lewis, an organizer with RTHA.

“Our members that go through rent court are just defeated,” she adds. “They feel there is no dignity. It’s just really, really dehumanizing for them.”

Pasciuti, with a team of Johns Hopkins students, has been helping the three organizations conduct surveys and analyze their quantitative data. The goal is to collect meaningful information about what actually happens in rent court. “Our theory is if the public narrative about low-income renters was articulated, presented with numbers, substantiated in a really sound way, and we got it out to the right people, then we can get to a point where there is the political will, and even maybe the business interest to fix this system,” says Shah. The groups hope to go public with a completed dataset of over 300 tenant surveys, augmented by information from the court proceedings and regulatory agencies, later this fall.

In addition to bringing tenant voices into the public discussion, the Public Justice Center also aims to launch a legal strategy, in order to get sufficient clarity about what “rent” means in a residential lease context. Shah says they are considering either a class-action lawsuit or litigating through the appeals process to investigate tricky lease clauses that landlords often use to get more money or to evict tenants.

The activists’ timing might be just right. Scurti, the Baltimore judge frustrated by the lack of good data collection in his court, says he also wants to move toward a formal evaluation of docket patterns to see how the court can operate better. “I want to understand the process and to reevaluate it,” he says. He is particularly interested in figuring out how technology might help the court function more smoothly.

Ultimately, all sides agree that the court today is a flawed and inefficient operation. “You’re not going to encounter a judge, or a landlord, or an advocate for tenants who will tell you things are going well,” says Shah. The problem, however, is that improvement means different things for everyone involved. Despite the relative speed at which these cases move, Baltimore landlords, for instance, still feel the whole legal process should be adjudicated much more quickly and with less bureaucracy. Tenant advocates, on the other hand, want increased procedural accessibility and due process.

A promising place to look may be Massachusetts, which has one of the best housing court models in the country. First established in the 1970s, housing court officials in Massachusetts have prioritized creating a system that is accessible to both landlords and tenants.

In addition to a robust legal services community, Massachusetts employs court staff to serve as mediators between landlords and tenants and help them solve disputes without going directly before a judge. According to Paul J. Burke, deputy court administrator, the majority of rental disputes are settled this way. The typical length of a mediation session is around 30 minutes, which can provide a greater sense of dignity than Baltimore’s hasty proceedings. In some cases, mediations can even last for several hours.

Ultimately it comes down to fairness. “From day one back in the early ’70s, it was anticipated that many people would be self-represented, would perhaps be lower-income, and perhaps not have the highest level of educational training,” says Burke. “The policies, the processes and the forms in our courts have always been set up with that in mind.”

Oprah Is Not Your Friend: A Q&A With Nicole Aschoff

Originally published in Dissent on August 18, 2015.
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Nicole Aschoff, the Managing Editor at Jacobin magazine, is author of The New Prophets of Capital, a book that examines the modern mythmaking central to twenty-first century capitalism. It’s a short and agitating book that aims to critically examine some of the rhetoric espoused by “new prophets” like Oprah Winfrey, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey.

Rachel Cohen: Your book makes the point that capitalism has always needed, and will always need stories for people to grasp on to, to “get us out of bed in the morning and remind us where we are going.” Why is this? Does socialism have its own prophets?

Nicole Aschoff: Stories, as a vehicle for norms, ideas, and morals, are important to all societies, and capitalist societies are no exception. In capitalist societies there is a disjuncture between the things we value highly—family, community, fulfillment, education, culture—and the architecture of our economy, which prioritizes profit. Stories about “creative capitalism” and positive thinking told by people like Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey matter because they smooth over this disjuncture. They help to convince people that capitalism is the best, or only possible, way to organize society.

Just as there have always been people whose stories bolster capitalism—from Ben Franklin to John Mackey—there have also always been voices that challenge capitalism and the existing hierarchy of power. In the United States we can think about the stories told by people like Eugene V. Debs, Emma Goldman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ella Baker, and Rachel Carson, to name a few. However, if we look at the history of the labor, civil rights, feminist, and environmental movements, the importance of collective actions and voices, rather than a few powerful prophets or hierarchical leadership structures, is striking. Successful social movements are made up of empowered, critical, ordinary people, and I think this is something to strive for.

Cohen: You explore the popularity of Whole Foods and discuss the rise of “lifestyle politics” whereby people conflate consumer choices with politics and citizenship. You acknowledge that for so many individuals, given that social change often feels incredibly elusive, there’s an aspect of empowerment that comes with modifying one’s consumer choices—like buying organic produce or going vegan. What, in your view, is wrong with this idea and what might be a better way to think about consumer action and social change?

Aschoff: It depends on what you want to get out of lifestyle politics. If your goal is to eat healthier, or simplify your life by reducing your possessions, then buying better things—if you have the money—can be quite empowering. But if your goal is to impact bigger processes, like environmental degradation or global poverty, lifestyle politics is not the answer. Companies that produce nice things like organic food or sustainable furniture are like all other companies, and must constantly expand and produce more to generate profits.

This does not mean that making better choices is useless or that we shouldn’t challenge the way things are being produced. It is simply a call for different kinds of projects. The environmental crisis is ultimately a social and political crisis that can only be solved by collective action.

Cohen: One chapter looks at the rise of “philanthrocapitalists” like the Gateses, Waltons, Broads, and Buffetts. In an era of scarce resources and shrinking government budgets, why should we be concerned about the growing influence of philanthropists?

Aschoff: Periods of increasing activity by philanthropic foundations, or these days “philanthrocapitalists,” are historically a symptom of social crisis associated with rising inequality. On the surface this might seem positive. But we can’t expect big foundations to solve inequality, or poverty, or any number of other social ills.

Foundations distract from how wealth creation works, by making it appear that philanthropists are doing people a favor out of the goodness of their hearts. This hides the fact that the wealth they have amassed was not simply the result of their own cunning or ability—it was made possible by all the people who worked for them, not to mention the public infrastructure made possible by taxpayers. By presenting themselves as do-gooders or charitable institutions, foundations erase the last four decades of aggressive lobbying for financial deregulation and tax-cuts and the concerted attacks on working people and unions by businesses and elites.

Unlike taxes, when foundations make philanthropic donations, they are choosing which projects they want to fund. These projects often have some progressive effects—poor children get vaccines when they wouldn’t otherwise. But they also often contain conservative goals—for example, the Gateses favor commoditizing health care rather than supporting universal health care, and many foundations support privatizing public education and reducing the voice of parents and teachers in how schools are run.

Whether we like foundation projects or not makes little difference because people like Bill and Melinda Gates are incredibly powerful and essentially unaccountable. We have no say over how foundation money is used, even when it impacts people’s lives profoundly.

Cohen: You note that challenging these stories about capitalism “require a fundamental rethinking of our current way of life, a prospect that evokes fears of violence and disorder, and a deeper apprehension that in the process of transforming our society, we might lose ourselves and the essence of who we are.” How do we overcome these fears?

Aschoff: Capitalism is a stressful system. People use up most of their energy just keeping their head above water, so telling them to imagine a different kind of society might seem silly or off-putting. But when we look back at U.S. history—at slavery, child labor, the oppression of women, Jim Crow, homophobia—these things didn’t get better by themselves. People fought and died to make them better, and they continue that struggle today. Capitalism is a historical development; there is nothing “natural” or inevitable about it. As renowned author Ursula Le Guin said recently: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings.” Reminding ourselves how change has happened in the past is important if we want to think seriously about creating a different kind of society.

Cohen: One chapter of your book explores Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s particular brand of feminism. Your argument, which I’ve also seen made by writers like Sarah JaffeElizabeth Stoker Bruenig, Sarah Leonard, and Tressie McMillan Cottom, suggests that Sandberg’s approach of encouraging women to “lean in” may help a small slice of elite women access power, but ultimately won’t help women at the bottom of the economic ladder. Why does it have to be an either/or discussion?

Aschoff: Nearly everyone is dependent upon wages to pay for all the things they need to survive, but those wages come directly out of the profits of the businesses they work for. The job of a head of a company—whether male or female—is to maximize profits, and one way they can do this is by paying as little as possible in wages and taxes. This means the goals of women leaders are often at odds with the needs of working-class women. Having women at the top may help in the fight against sexism and smooth the way for other women to step into leadership positions, but the idea that women leaders will implement better conditions for women more broadly has little historical precedent.

Sandberg’s manifesto aligns perfectly with the needs of capital by encouraging women to map their dreams onto the growth trajectories of corporate America. Sure, seeing women in leadership positions can be aspirational, but turning this into the mechanism for achieving feminism hides the structural barriers preventing most women from achieving security and success, while simultaneously burnishing the meritocratic façade of big business. Real feminism—the idea that everyone, regardless of gender, should get decent pay and a voice in their workplace, dignity, respect, quality healthcare and childcare, the right to higher education and housing, and a robust support network for old age, illness, or disability—is incompatible with scaling the corporate jungle gym.

Cohen: When we hear about an anti-union company announcing they will raise their minimum wage, or give more flexible commuting options, or expand their paid maternity leave, how should we be thinking about these employers and business models? In an era where everything can seem bad and getting worse, how should we be thinking about these bouts of “conscious capitalism” in the marketplace?

Aschoff: Capitalism’s overwhelming power often inspires a feeling of helplessness or despair, so it is understandable to feel hopeful when businesses make small decisions that improve people’s lives, like raising wages or improving working conditions. At the end of the day, the goal of any political movement should always be about making people’s lives better. But there is a difference between gains granted by “conscious” companies and gains that are won through struggle.

Take for example the Fight for 15. Winning $15 an hour won’t change the fact these companies exist to make a profit—they can absorb higher wage costs and continue going about their business essentially unchanged—but that certainly doesn’t mean that $15 isn’t worth fighting for. It would represent a huge change for people living in poverty. Victories like the recent one in NY are exciting, and show that not only can workers win when they fight together, but also the potential of their struggles to build solidarity and confidence that can be channeled into a much broader, democratic movement for change.

Sorry, Walmart: Charter Schools Won’t Fix Poverty

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 30th, 2015.
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Last week, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and In the Public Interest released a highly critical report on the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 education philanthropy, which ended with a call for increased transparency and accountability in the charter sector. The gist of the report is that the Walton Family Foundation—which has kick-started about one in four charters around the country—“relentlessly presses for rapid growth of privatized education options” and has opposed serious efforts to regulate and monitor fraud and abuse. While the foundation supports rapidly scaling up charter networks that have produced promising results, the AFT and In the Public Interest cite a 2013 Moody’s Investment Services report which found that dramatically expanding charter schools in poor urban areas weakens the ability of traditional schools to serve their students, forcing them to lay off teachers, increase class sizes, and cut programs to make ends meet.

A month earlier, Philamplify, an initiative of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), published its own report on the Walton Family Foundation’s impact, and found that although they have achieved meaningful results through their environmental philanthropy, “an overreliance on specific market-based vehicles” hinders their ability to create “sustainable and equitable” improvements in education. Philamplify also criticized the Walton Family Foundation for “insulating itself among like-minded peers rather than connecting with the broader field.”

While the Walton Family Foundation did not return my request for comment, Education Week reported that their spokesperson, Daphne Moore, defended their commitment to high-quality schools. Education Week also cites Greg Richmond, the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA)—an organization that receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation—who argued that the foundation has long demonstrated a commitment to accountability and transparency.

This discussion is sure to continue over the coming months, but what was particularly striking was something in the Walton Family Foundation’s response to the Philamplify report—a statement that has been reiterated by the foundation many times over the past several years. Marc Sternberg, the foundation’s K-12 program director, said, “Education is the set of work we can support that will most directly end the cycle of poverty and change the trajectory of young people’s lives.”

The notion that education is needed to break the cycle of poverty is a popular mantra of the education reform movement. The problem is, it is simply not true at all. The most direct way to break the cycle of poverty is actually to give poor people more money, something that high-quality educations, even college degrees, do not in any way guarantee. So when it comes to the question of redistribution—an integral component to any comprehensive anti-poverty program—the political work of the Walton family deserves far greater scrutiny.

Waltons, Walmart, and Politics

The Walton family heirs own a majority of public shares in Walmart, the U.S.’s largest private employer, which easily makes them some of the richest people on earth. Today, the Walton family has more wealth than 49 million American families combined. The six Walton heirs together have a net worth of at least $148.8 billion.

The Walton family engages in quite a bit of political work outside of its environmental and education philanthropy—much of it to advance conservative legislative goals. In the 2014 electoral cycle, Walmart spent $2.4 million through its PAC and individual donations, and $12.5 million through lobbying. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Walmart was far and away the biggest big-box retail spender in the election cycle, and has been ranked among the top 100 political donors since 1989. Demos looked at the Walton family’s political contributions between 2000 and 2014 and found that their $7.3 million in campaign contributions heavily favored Republican candidates over Democrats.

Outside of political campaigns, Walmart employs an array of Washington, D.C., lobbyists to advocate on issues like labor, taxes, and trade. Up until May 2012, Walmart was a longtime member of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which works to promote an ideologically conservative agenda around the country. Moreover Walmart has given millions to the Republican State Leadership Committee, the Republican Governors Association, and other organizations that push right-wing policies.

Their animus towards union and labor is no secret, and Walmart has fought strengthening labor law in Washington, D.C., as well as supporting efforts to expand right-to-work laws in state legislatures. In addition, as veteran labor reporter Steven Greenhouse reported for The Atlantic this month, Walmart “maintains a steady drumbeat of anti-union information at its more than 4,000 U.S. stores”—much of which is patently false.

Beyond their efforts to elect conservative candidates and promote right-wing causes, the Waltons also fight against efforts to promote a greater redistribution of wealth through taxation. According to Treasury Department estimates, closing just two estate tax loopholes that the Waltons use would raise more than $2 billion annually over the next decade—but they have long lobbied against any effort to do so. Americans for Tax Fairness, a coalition of 400 national and state organizations that seeks to promote progressive tax reform, found that Walmart and the Walton family benefit from an estimated $7.8 billion in annual tax breaks, loopholes, and subsidies—much of which stems from the fact that so many of Walmart employees earn meager wages and are forced to rely on public assistance.

After years of worker organizing and public pressure, Walmart recently announced that it would raise its hourly wages to $9 an hour by April and $10 an hour by February 2016. While encouraging, such measures alone are unlikely to mitigate the economic hardship most Americans face—especially when, at this point, many cities are pushing for a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

Economic Inequality and Public Education

The evidence that shows impoverished kids are disadvantaged in school is well-documented—and yet many education reformers insist that despite this, we can still provide every child with a high-quality education so that everyone succeeds. We shouldn’t use poverty as “an excuse,” they say.

The idea that we can redesign education to be excellent and equitable without reducing poverty and economic inequality certainly sounds politically pleasant, but we know it’s just not true. That’s why the education agenda of the Walton Family Foundation has so many internal contradictions. The Waltons say they want to create more high-quality schools to help kids in poverty, but they back candidates who support eroding the already crumbling social safety net and fight against paying their fair share of taxes. And while the Waltons continue to advocate aggressively against unions, the Economic Policy Institute has found that the decline in unionization has mirrored the rise in inequality “to a remarkable extent.”

Not only does poverty hurt one’s chance for success in school, but growing levels of economic inequality also further exacerbate these issues—problems that the Walton heirs do not seem interested in addressing. Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon found that the rich-poor gap in test scores is about 40 percent larger now than it was 30 years ago—though the academic performance of poor students has not declined during this time. He also found that before 1980, affluent students had little advantage over middle-class students when it came to academic performance, but “the rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor.” In other words, growing economic inequality has contributed to disparities in academic achievement across the board, even for those not living in poverty. Other researchers have found that the rich now have much greater access to extracurricular opportunities than the poor. In districts across the country, enrichment programs like art, music, journalism, and athletics are being cut—creating even greater divides between the haves and the have-nots in education.

If we want to reduce poverty and economic inequality—things we know hurt student achievement and life outcomes—then we have to address how the education aims of the Walton Family Foundation are incongruous with their political agenda elsewhere. Closing the achievement gap, as Demos analyst Matt Bruenig points out, will not even reduce poverty; it would merely change the distribution of it. In the education-reform world, unfortunately, grantees are unlikely to criticize foundations because they fear they will be blacklisted or de-funded. This makes sense, as there are incredible power imbalances in the philanthropic sector and money is scarce.

The Walton Family Foundation talks a lot about creating high-quality schools. If Walmart, with its billions of dollars in profits, created high-quality jobs with living wages and benefits, children would be far less likely to grow up in poverty and would perform far better in school. Relatedly, if the Waltons backed candidates who supported a more equitable distribution of wealth and stronger social-welfare policies, then children would be far less likely to grow up in poverty, and perform far better in school. It’s certainly true that every child deserves a high-quality education. How to get there, however, is not rocket science.

What’s Behind the Recent Plague of Shootings in Baltimore?

Originally published in VICE on May 20th, 2015.
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While the national film crews have packed up and left Baltimore, losing interest in the place now that there are no more burning pharmacies and vandalized cop cars, Charm City residents are left to reckon with one of the most violent months they’ve seen in years. As the Baltimore Sun reports, homicides are up nearly 40 percent compared with this time last year, and nonfatal shootings are up 60 percent. From mid April to mid May, 31 people were killed, the Washington Post reports, with 39 more wounded by gunfire. The Sun adds that, as of late Tuesday, there had been 170 nonfatal shootings so far this year.

To put all this in perspective, the last time Baltimore saw 30 homicides in one month was in June 2007.

The spike in violence has received less attention outside of Baltimore than Freddie Gray’s death, but within the city, leaders, police, and community members are struggling to figure out what exactly is going on.

One theory floating around is that the weeks of unrest after Gray’s demise in police custody have daunted cops, leaving them unable or unwilling to control violent crime. The police union and some legal experts are upset at the criminal charges that the city’s top prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, has leveled at six members of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD)—among them murder and manslaughter. This, coupled with a formal Justice Department investigation launched in cooperation with local officials to examine police practices, has left the BPD in a state of agitation.

Lieutenant Kenneth Butler, a longtime BPD veteran and president of the Vanguard Justice Society, a group for black officers, told the Washington Post that rank-and-file cops feel alienated, vilified, and afraid to do their job. “In 29 years, I’ve gone through some bad times, but I’ve never seen it this bad,” Butler added in comments to the Baltimore Sun, referring, in part, to officers who feel as though Mosby “will hang them out to dry.”

While beat cop reticence could be a factor, Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, points out that homicides and shootings in West Baltimore were on the rise before the Freddie Gray unrest, though the pace has since accelerated. Webster thinks that among other things, the protests just strained the cops’ capacity.

“The police have been less active in proactive policing, less likely to engage individuals on the street,” Webster says, adding that resources were diverted to addressing the riots and in turn disrupted patrol and detective work. Leads from residents that detectives use to make arrests—though already quite difficult to come by—were further reduced during this time, he said, citing conversations with officers. Moreover, Operation Ceasefire, an anti-violence initiative begun by the city early last year, has been running without a program manager for the past several weeks. (The mayor’s office has indicated a new program manager will be hired soon.)

Webster believes another factor at play here may be that the Freddie Gray protests emboldened criminals. “We just had a huge display of lawlessness and disrespect for law and law enforcement,” he explains. “That mindset can spread easily and affect behavior.”

Dayvon Love, the co-founder of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS), a grassroots organization that advocates for the interests of black people in Baltimore, doesn’t buy the connection between the protests and violence—one he calls an “easy deflection” of systemic issues.

“This [surge in violent crime] is a natural outgrowth of the conditions in which shooting and violence occurs,” Love says. Scapegoating the protests and the Mosby charges, Dove thinks, is particularly convenient for those unenthused with critiques of law enforcement and institutional racism. And it’s true that high rates of poverty, unemployment, and drug addiction all consistently correlate with high homicide rates. Love also argued that Baltimore’s had all kinds of violence for a long time—including sexual abuse and discriminatory housing policies—though it’s only when guns are fired that leaders start to panic.

Perhaps a simpler explanation for the increase in shootings is just that it’s getting hotter outside. Baltimore Bloc, another local grassroots organization, say that they don’t think the protests had anything to do with the recent violence, and that in their experience, violence always surges in the city as summer approaches. Lester Spence, a Johns Hopkins political scientist, agrees that homicides usually rise and fall significantly with the seasons, with the fewest occurring during the winter. “It’s no coincidence that homicides are spiking right now when the weather is getting warmer,” Spence says.

The violence that occurs when competing gangs fight over turf to operate their drug operations also generally escalates in the warmer weather. “People are suggesting that the spike we’ve witnessed over the past few weeks represents something new, but summer is just starting,” Spence adds. “It might be a blip or it might continue. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Baltimore PD Spokeswoman Sarah Connolly told VICE in an email, “We are investigating each incident as a singular incident while examining any trends and patterns to ensure that we are deploying our officers and resources effectively while being proactive and engaging the community. While we have developed investigative leads in a number of cases, we continue to ask the community’s assistance in calling with any information they may have.”

Meanwhile, some Baltimore community groups are taking the opportunity to organize anti-violence demonstrations. Coinciding with the 90th birthday of Malcolm X, the NAACP held a “Stop the Violence ‘By Any Means Necessary'” rally Tuesday night at their office in the Sandtown neighborhood. Another group committed to decreasing gun violence in Baltimore, the 300 Men March, is holding an “Occupy Our Corners” anti-violence rally on Thursday evening to honor the recent homicide victims.

“We the PEOPLE, are not blaming anyone but ourselves for failing to create a safe environment within our city,” their rally flyer reads. “Recognizing this, WE STAND, as a community of all people, regardless of RACE, RELIGION, SEX, CULTURE OR BACKGROUND.” According to the Sun, Munir Bahar, one of the group’s founders, is calling for 30 men in ten Baltimore neighborhoods to become block leaders in the fight against crime.

Love doesn’t expect the organizing work that LBS, Baltimore Bloc, and other grassroots groups are doing will change much in light of the increased violence. “Because doing that,” Love explains, “would take away from the larger objective, which is ultimately about systemic change.”

We Can’t Talk About Housing Policy Without Talking About Racism

Originally published in The American Prospect on May 20th, 2015.
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Over the past year, unrest in places like Baltimore and Ferguson has inspired a nationwide debate on how to best combat systemic inequality and injustice. In the wake of high-profile police violence cases in these cities and elsewhere, this conversation has contributed to a renewed understanding of how federal and local housing policies helped create the inequality and racial injustice urban America confronts today. Yet lost in this discussion has been the complicated record of more recent desegregation efforts and what they can teach us about undoing generations of systemic racism and persistent segregation.

A case-in-point is HUD’s Clinton-era Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program, the subject of a new study by Harvard economists Raj Chetty, Nathan Hendren, and Lawrence Katz. Focusing on MTO’s long-term economic impacts, the study sheds more positive light on a program long considered to be a failure.

Running from 1994-1998, MTO was a housing experiment that involved moving individuals out of high-poverty neighborhoods with vouchers and into census-tracts with less than 10 percent poverty to see if this would improve their life outcomes. The results were mixed. While critics of the program have dubbed it a failure for not significantly improving children’s school performance or the financial situation of their parents, there was a lot about it that proved successful. MTO yielded significant gains in mental health for adults, for instance, including decreased stress levels and lower rates of depression. It also greatly lowered obesity rates and improved the psychological well being of young girls.

The new Harvard study further bucks the notion that MTO failed. Instead of looking at MTO’s economic impact on parents, it looks at the adult earnings of their children. Such an analysis simply wasn’t possible to do a decade ago, given that the kids were still too young. Researchers now find that poor children who moved into better neighborhoods were more likely to attend college and earned significantly more in the workforce than similar adults who never moved. The researchers also ranked which cities were “the worst” in terms of facilitating upward mobility. Out of the nation’s 100 largest counties, the authors found, Baltimore came in dead last.

Many writers were quick to make the connection between Baltimore’s low chances for social mobility and the recent bouts of unrest surrounding the death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray. However, few seemed interested in connecting the new Harvard study with the politics of why we have segregated communities and concentrated poverty in the first place.

Emily Badger’s Washington Post write-up of the study framed the ills people face in Baltimore as a city failure, rather than a state or federal one. She discusses the “downward drag that Baltimore exerts on poor kids” and says that Baltimore “itself appears to be acting on poor children, constraining their opportunity, molding them over time into the kind of adults who will likely remain poor.” Badger acknowledges that maybe this has to do with struggling schools and less social capital. “Change where these children live, though,” she writes, “and you might well change their outcomes.”

In The Wall Street Journal, Holman W. Jenkins Jr. looks at the new Harvard study and concludes, “Neighborhoods themselves are clearly transmitters of poverty. The problem for residents isn’t racism: it’s where they live.”

Such narrow portrayals of Baltimore and its residents are only possible if we exclude decades of state and federal policy from our frame of analysis. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute wrote something I suggest reading in its entirety. But to quote:

In Baltimore and elsewhere, the distressed condition of African American working- and lower-middle-class families is almost entirely attributable to federal policy that prohibited black families from accumulating housing equity during the suburban boom that moved white families into single-family homes from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s—and thus from bequeathing that wealth to their children and grandchildren, as white suburbanites have done.

Slate’s Jamelle Bouie traces not only how efforts to segregate Baltimore succeeded, but also how there’s never been a sustained attempt to undo them.

The simple fact is that major progress in Baltimore—and other, similar cities—requires major investment and major reform from state and federal government. It requires patience, investment, and a national commitment to ending scourges of generational poverty—not just ameliorating them.

Expanding housing choice vouchers is a good thing. We should have subsidies available to ensure that everyone has similar opportunities for mobility. That said, moving millions of impoverished families out of high-poverty areas would be nothing short of a logistical nightmare. In effect, mass relocation efforts would require low-poverty communities to relinquish some of their gatekeeping discretion—no small political fight. MTO tracked 4,600 families in five U.S. cities. As Reihan Salam put it, “It’s not at all clear that an MTO-style approach would work if we scaled it up to, say, 40,000 families in one city.” Nothing is impossible, but we cannot have a serious discussion about housing mobility as a broad anti-poverty strategy without frankly discussing the politics of racism and segregation. 

Investing In Better Mobility Vouchers

So what does a more effective mobility strategy look like? A look to MTO’s own weaknesses may provide some clues. Indeed, for sociologists Stefanie DeLuca and Peter Rosenblatt, one problem with MTO was that it simply didn’t go far enough. Ina 2010 paper, they argue that while some students undoubtedly benefited from moving to wealthier communities, a lack of social capital, support, and resources, combined with housing vouchers that did not cover the cost of living in low-poverty communities, kept many students out of the highest-performing schools. At the same time, many families found that the obstacles created by poverty—like health problems and the chaotic nature of low-wage work—tended to follow them even as they left impoverished communities, and in turn contributed to poor student performance.

For DeLuca and Rosenblatt, there’s plenty that MTO did right but confronting endemic poverty and segregation requires a more systematic approach. That is, something perhaps more akin to the Baltimore Mobility Program (BMP), through which 2,400 Baltimore families have relocated since 2003. Whereas MTO offered housing search counseling to program participants, BMP provided that plus post-move counseling, second move counseling if necessary, and financial literacy and credit repair training. In another study released last year, DeLuca followed 110 BMP participants for nearly a decade, and found that over two-thirds of these families were still living in their integrated, low-poverty communities one to eight years after moving.

If MTO were to be a truly successful intervention, then expanding the program’s available services—including educational assistance, housing counseling, job support, and transportation help—would be important. We can’t know how the MTO participants would have fared if they had been given increased support, but we do know that additional services helped to make the transitions more surmountable and lasting for BMP families.

From “Finding Home: Voices of the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program,” a report by The Century Foundation.

This chart by The Century Foundation shows how the MTO and BMP compare with Section 8 vouchers and the Gautreaux Project, a desegregation experiment that ended in 1990 and helped inspire MTO.

Needless to say, high-quality BMP vouchers are more costly than MTO and traditional Section 8 vouchers. Excellent mobility programs will require a real financial investment. As it is, there are long Section 8 waiting lists around the country, and local housing authorities currently receive fixed amounts from HUD to support voucher participants. Unless we significantly scale up funding, moving more people to affluent neighborhoods would mean moving fewer people overall through vouchers.

The findings from the new Harvard study are useful. They allow us to ask new kinds of questions. But in terms of policy, we must be wary of those who now suggest that simply uprooting families and planting them into new communities is the responsible thing to do—especially if we’re not ready to provide the supports that research has shown makes these types of moves more successful.

For example, in The National Review Jonah Goldberg writes, “Consider Baltimore. If you’re poor, it is a very bad idea to raise your kids there if you can avoid it.” He implicitly suggests that if you’re a good parent, if you care about your kid’s future, then you will leave Baltimore, or Detroit, or Philadelphia if you can. Let us hope that this policy conversation does veer into an ugly, parent-blaming one. Housing mobility vouchers are good options, but our best anti-poverty interventions shouldn’t have to demand that people abandon their social networks, churches, and communities if they want to stay. We should make high-quality vouchers available, but we should vigorously invest in the communities where poor people already live.

As Daniel Kay Hertz, a senior fellow at City Observatory pointed out to me, the Harvard study provides some new ammunition against those who have long doubted the effectiveness of a housing policy that puts integration front and center. Now there is some pretty strong empirical evidence that shows that children’s life chances were significantly affected by growing up within integrated environments. Additionally, these findings come on the heels of Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids, which traces the growing opportunity gaps between wealthy and poor children around the country. In light of these new high-profile studies, perhaps policymakers will more readily accept the idea that your access to the American Dream has everything to do with your race, class, and geographic location.

At the end of the day, Baltimore ranks last in the Harvard mobility study not because poor, black people live there, but because leaders in power made choice after choice, year after year, to ensure that poor blacks’ opportunities would be overwhelmingly constricted. We can and must make new choices now.

Teaching Character: Grit, Privilege, and American Education’s Obsession with Novelty

Originally published in The American Prospect on April 17th, 2015.
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Twice a week for 30 minutes, fifth graders at KIPP Washington Heights, a charter school in New York City, attend “character class.” Each lesson is divided into three parts, according to Ian Willey, the assistant principal who teaches it. First, students find out what specific skill they’ll be focusing on that day. “This morning we’re going to learn how to set a long-term goal,” Willey might tell them. Next, students are asked to practice the skill. In this case, students may imagine they have a long-term project to complete, and then work to construct a timeline with incremental deadlines. In the final part of the lesson, students would take time to collectively reflect. “What was hard about this exercise?” Willey might ask. “What went well? Did anyone feel nervous? What did you do when you felt nervous?” And because part of KIPP’s mission is to help build character, the students would then classify their new skill as one or more of KIPP’s seven targeted character goals. In this example, the students were learning “grit.”

Few ideas inspire more debate in education circles than grit, which means having dedication to and passion for long-term goals. Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, first popularized the concept in 2007; she believes that if we can teach children to be “grittier” in schools, we can help them achieve greater success. Paul Tough, a journalist who published a 2012 bestseller, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, also brought grit into the national spotlight. Many policymakers and school leaders have since jumped at the idea. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised Tough’s “fantastic book”—arguing that teaching skills like grit “can help children flourish and overcome significant challenges throughout their lifetimes.” Districts all over the country are exploring how they can incorporate grit into their curriculum. In 2013, Duckworth was awarded $625,000 by the MacArthur Foundation to continue researching ways to cultivate grit in schools.

Despite grit’s enthusiastic boosters, a growing movement has sprung up in opposition. Some psychologists and policy analysts question the methodology behind Duckworth’s research—which has chiefly relied on students answering questionnaires on how gritty they think they’ve been. (For example, a survey question might read: “New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones,” and students would report how much that statement resonates with them.) Some critics argue that grit places too much weight on individual student behavior, and as a result, crucial attention is directed away from the structural forces that inhibit academic success. Some researchers think that emphasizing grit can even produce negative outcomes, like killing creativity.

The excitement towards and resistance to this new field illuminates a great deal more about American education and its obsession with novelty than the grit research itself—which is still in its infancy.

The Background on Grit

Grit researchers begin with the conviction that grit is malleable: They believe that if we could design the right interventions, we could probably increase students’ grit levels, too. Duckworth admires the work of Carol Dweck, a psychologist whose research on “academic tenacity”—a mindset that helps students focus on and persevere towards long-term goals—suggests that cultivating grit may be possible. Grit research also builds on the work of Martin Seligman, who pioneered the field of positive psychology, focused on positive human flourishing. Duckworth is Seligman’s former student.

Schools, politicians, and news organizations have embraced grit, excited by its possible implications. The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story about grit’s potential. KIPP charter schools, like the one Ian Willey works for, have incorporated inculcating grit and other “character strengths” such as optimism, self-control and gratitude into their mission statement. In 2013, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), a global education organization, published a book entitled “Fostering Grit.”

Dan McGarry, an Assistant Superintendent for Upper Darby School District—located in a township adjacent to West Philadelphia—read about Duckworth’s work in 2011 and grew fascinated by character education. “I truly believe that this is going to change the world,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer. His district has since formally partnered with Duckworth’s lab, allowing Penn researchers to both provide professional development to their staff and conduct experiments on their students. McGarry hopes that teaching character will reduce discipline problems and raise student achievement.

Backlash

Advocates insist that the benefits of teaching grit are just as important for affluent kids growing up in hypercompetitive communities as they are for low-income students growing up in poverty. Yet as grit hype grows, critics have started speaking out against what they see as an attempt to gloss over the uniquely debilitating effects of poverty. Paul L. Thomas, an education professor at Furman University, argues that reformers have embraced grit precisely because it presents them an opportunity to ignore material solutions. Indeed, in How Children Succeed, Paul Tough wrote, “There is no antipoverty tool we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will be more valuable than the character strengths … [such as] conscientiousness, grit, resilience, perseverance and optimism.” 

David Meketon, a research liaison from the Duckworth Lab, acknowledges that social class impacts everyone throughout their lives. But “we think our work and understanding can help mitigate those possible preconditions,” he says.

Eldar Shafir, a professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton is skeptical that teaching grit can diminish the effects of poverty. He recently co-authored an influential book with Sendhil Mullainathan, a Harvard economist, on “scarcity”—which is the psychological effect of struggling to manage with less than you need. “I have no problem with the idea that whoever you are, having grit will be better than not having grit,” Shafir says. “But my intuition is that the kinds of problems that are so pressing that it’s very hard to put them out of your mind, like whether or not you will have food to eat, or whether your parent is going to prison or will lose their job, those stresses are much harder to ignore than the stresses facing the affluent, like which prestigious college will you go to.”

“To be perfectly honest, I’m very reluctant to ask the American poor to spend more time doing yoga,” Shafir answered.

I asked Dr. Shafir what he thought about teaching students yoga and mindfulness—popular ideas that the Duckworth Lab and other proponents of grit are exploring. “To be perfectly honest, I’m very reluctant to ask the American poor to spend more time doing yoga,” Shafir answered. “I think the impact of giving kids after school programs, transportation, and childcare for their parents would be much greater than trying to figure out how to include meditation in schools.” 

In late January, some progressive educators discussed the racial implications of grit at “EduCon 2.7,” a Philadelphia-based conference designed to explore digital learning. (The panel was called “Grit, Galton, Eugenics, Racism, Calvinism.”) “We keep [hearing] this narrative that the only way children in poverty are going to succeed is by working harder than their peers who are middle-class,” said Pamela Moran, a superintendent of a large public school district in Virginia. “We have to think about our own cultural biases, why grit appeals to us, and why we want to focus on it in our schools.”

Jeff Snyder, an education historian at Carleton College, thinks that while it’s “patently absurd” to argue—as some of his colleagues do—that teaching grit is inherently racist, there are some problems with how it is being applied in the real world. “[KIPP co-founder Dave] Levin, Duckworth, they all say that character education should be for everyone. But the way that it turns out is that KIPP-based character education is overwhelmingly for poor kids of color,” says Snyder. Referring to the “culture of poverty thesis”—the controversial idea that the urban poor are disadvantaged not due to racism and discrimination but because they harbor certain cultural pathologies—Snyder says it’s understandable that people would resist a new theory that seems to suggest academic failure is rooted in individual behavior. 

Perhaps the most outspoken critic of grit culture is Alfie Kohn, an education writer who published The Myth Of The Spoiled Child in 2014. “There is no pretense of objectivity in [Duckworth’s] work; [she] is selling grit rather than dispassionately investigating its effects,” Kohn writes. “Proponents of grit tend to focus narrowly on behavior, ignoring motive,” he adds. “Do kids love what they’re doing? Or are they driven by a desperate (and anxiety-provoking) need to prove their competence? As long as they’re pushing themselves, we’re encouraged to nod our approval.”

Ironically, Kohn and Duckworth both insist they are looking out for “the whole child”—the idea that schools should not just be for children’s academic development, but for their moral, social, and physical development as well. “If we’re interested in the whole child—if, for example, we’d like our students to be psychologically healthy—then it’s not at all clear that self-discipline should enjoy a privileged status compared to other attributes. In some contexts, it may not be desirable at all,” Kohn argues. In an interview with ASCD, Duckworth says, “standardized tests … are limited in their ability to pick up things like grit and self-control … gratitude, honesty, generosity, empathy for the suffering of others, social intelligence, tact, charisma. … We’re now seeing a pendulum swing away from the single-minded focus on standardized testing and toward a broader view of the whole child.”

Is Grit Science Reliable?

In 2012, the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago Schools Research published a comprehensive literature review detailing all the existing evidence on how these “non-cognitive factors” like grit, motivation, and perseverance shape school performance. They found that most of the existing research is correlational, not causal—making it unclear the extent to which these factors can be developed in classrooms, and raising questions about whether changing them would actually even improve school performance. They also found little evidence to suggest that improving students’ academic behavior would narrow racial and ethnic achievement gaps.

One criticism of grit research is that it has relied mostly on the students’ self-reported questionnaires and surveys. Two sets of problems accompany these measures—one is “social desirability bias” and the other is “reference bias.” The former is a well-documented phenomenon where people tend to inaccurately report their experiences or memories on surveys in order to present themselves in the best possible light. They seek to present themselves in a socially desirable way, thus skewing the results. “Reference bias” is a less obvious issue, but perhaps more detrimental. To answer a survey question that asks “Are you a hard worker?” you’d typically conjure up an image of what you envision hard workers look like, and then compare yourself to them. “Am I hard worker compared to the other kids in my class?” you might ask. In effect, the results of these surveys can tell us very little about how you’ll do compared to people outside of your own peer group.

Martin R. West, of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, has been researching the limitations of self-reported assessments, and finds evidence that the school climate in which a student answers these questions can significantly affect what answer they will give. “In a rush to embrace non-cognitive skills as the missing piece in American education, policymakers may overlook the limitations of extant measures,” West writes, urging researchers to develop alternatives that are valid across a broader range of settings. The Duckworth Lab’s Meketon says his team is now focusing on creating more activity-based tests, such as computer games, in the hope that this will ameliorate some of the concerns people have about the lab’s surveys and questionnaires.  

Avi Kaplan, a psychology professor at Temple University who studies student motivation and self-regulation, finds the public rhetoric around grit research to be extremely political. “Grit is a paradigm that gives people certainty, and that’s what people are looking for—absolute truth.” He argues that there have always been those in his field who aspire, mistakenly, to treat psychology like a natural science. “But human beings are all so different, and people develop and change at such different points in their lives.”

Education Policy’s Ebb and Flow

This is not the first time we’ve recognized that success is not exclusively about IQ or raw talent. In 1961, psychological theorist David McClelland published The Achieving Society, which argued that cultivating the need for achievement, often through early childhood experiences, plays an integral role in one’s chance for life success. In 1990, journalist Dan Goldman published Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ, which argued that self-awareness, altruism, personal motivation, empathy, and the ability to love and be loved are the greatest indicators of success.

This is not even the first time our country has tried to teach character or seen it as integral to education—far from it. Writing in The New Republic, Snyder of Carleton College traces the history:

From the inception of our public school system in the 1840s and 1850s, character education has revolved around religious and civic virtues. Steeped in Protestantism and republicanism, the key virtues taught during the nineteenth-century were piety, industry, kindness, honesty, thrift, and patriotism. During the Progressive era, character education concentrated on the twin ideas of citizenship and the “common good.” As an influential 1918 report on “moral values” put it, character education “makes for a better America by helping its pupils to make themselves better persons.” In the 1960s and 1970s, meanwhile, character education focused on justice and working through thorny moral dilemmas.

With this in mind, the discussion around grit actually fits quite snugly within a long tradition of American education. First comes an idea, and initial excitement. Then there is a backlash, followed by an uneasy period where ideas are implemented and critiqued. “And then ultimately there’s the sad truth with education research and millions of dollars that you will always end up with mixed results,” says Snyder. “You will never do an educational experiment with real live human beings that give you dramatic results.”

Duckworth’s Meketon thinks the grit backlash might be partly steeped in resentment towards the research’s popularity. “The cynical part of me says that if you find someone who is getting a lot of attention, you go against them and attack them,” he says. But Meketon acknowledges that perhaps a simpler explanation is that educators have short attention spans. “I was an educator for 40 years and I’ve watched the evolution of various ideas and best practices in education come and go.”

Snyder disagrees; he thinks it is administrators, policymakers, and philanthropists—like Bill Gates—who have short attention spans, not the educators themselves. “It’s the people who fund the type of research being done by Duckworth that tend to get bored more quickly, because they are excited by innovation in and of itself.” Snyder expects that in ten years we’ll see people excited about new ideas, or old ideas that are billed as new.

Ultimately, we just don’t know that much about grit yet. Even Angela Duckworth has admitted she doesn’t know if we can actually teach it in schools. Her lab is only just now beginning to develop tools that don’t rely predominately on self-reported assessments. Prior research suggests that we’re not all that good at teaching character in school. In 2010, the largest federal study on school-wide character education programs found that these programs largely fail to produce improvements in student behavior or academic performance.

This is not to say this is all pointless. The University of Chicago researchers did find plenty of evidence that supporting positive academic mindsets can help students develop better learning strategies, and in turn, improve their grades—learning strategies like breaking up long-term projects with incremental deadlines, which is what Willey tries to teach in his classroom.

Stefanie DeLuca, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, sees grit’s academic value, and defends teaching it in schools. (“Learning how to be persistent at an unpleasant task, it’s hard to argue that doesn’t matter,” she says.) But ultimately DeLuca worries about where the public conversation is going. “On the one hand, there’s a hopefulness that grit offers us. It’s an American narrative that’s really appealing, and it tells us that poor kids are not lost causes,” says DeLuca, who notes that too many policymakers just give up on kids in poverty. “But what happens with really popular ideas that have simple and compelling solutions is that you can run with them, and if things don’t change, then you start to think things can’t ever change.” By not confronting social structure directly within the grit narrative, we may be setting up these kids for failure. “At the end of the day,” says DeLuca, “poor kids—gritty or not—are still navigating within a profoundly unequal geography of opportunity.”

The Wrong Way to Revitalize A City

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

 

‘Housing First’ Policy for Addressing Homelessness Hamstrung By Funding Issues

Originally published in The American Prospect on January 27, 2015.
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In an era of shrinking financial resources, policymakers, providers, and activists who work on homelessness prevention and care in the United States have been forced to develop new strategies. There was a time when officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) saw it as their responsibility to provide both housing and supportive services for homeless individuals, but now HUD now is refocusing its budget predominately on rent and housing—with the hope that other local, state, and federal agencies will play a greater role in providing supportive care. However, whether other organizations will actually be able to pick up those costs and responsibilities remains unclear.

The first major federal legislative response to homelessness was the McKinney-Vento Act of 1987, which passed both the House and Senate with large bipartisan majorities. The McKinney Act—which Bill Clinton later renamed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act—provided funds not only for emergency shelter, transitional housing, and permanent housing, but also for job training, primary health care, mental health care, drug and alcohol treatment, education programs, and other supportive services. The consensus was that homelessness is a complex problem whose solution requires more than simply a roof and a bed.

The statutory goal of the McKinney Act was to gradually move homeless people toward stable housing and independence—a model that came to be known as “Housing Readiness.” Though this sprung from well-meaning intentions, it eventually became clear that this “gradual” approach frequently led to unwise and unfair ways of distributing welfare.

“We had this system that said homeless people essentially have to earn their way to permanent housing,” explained Ed Stellon, the senior director of the Midwest Harm Reduction Institute, and someone who has worked within the substance use and mental health treatment systems for more than 20 years. “Homeless people had to earn their way into transitional housing, make progress on certain goals, and finally when they were deemed well enough, they would earn their spot in permanent housing.”

A different model, known as “Housing First”, has been gaining steam over the past decade. What at first sounded revolutionary now feels fairly obvious: The Housing First approach posits that the only requirement for housing should be homelessness—that shelter is a right, not a privilege. “Plus, if you have conditions like out-of-control diabetes, congestive heart failure, or schizophrenia, housing is actually part of the solution,” adds Stellon. “It’s hard to make any meaningful progress on these chronic conditions without stable housing.”

Though exact estimates are hard to come by, HUD recently reported that as of January 2014, the chronically homeless numbered some 84,291, with 63 percent of those individuals living on the streets. HUD says this number has declined by 21 percent, or 22,937 persons, since 2010—in large part because of the embrace of Housing First. (Some, however, have accused the federal government of using data gimmicks to paint a more cheery picture of progress than has actually been made.)

Nevertheless, the reality is that at the same time policymakers are embracing the idea of Housing First, fewer affordable housing units exist than ever before. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, federal support for low-income housing has fallen 49 percent between 1980 and 2003, and the Joint Center for Housing Studies found about 200,000 rental units are destroyed annually. Research also suggests that a supply of 8.2 million more units would be needed to house extremely low-income households, up from a gap of 5.2 million a decade earlier. Though Congress recently authorized funding for the National Housing Trust Fund—an entity that was created in 2008 to fund affordable housing proects—its budget is nowhere near large enough to meet the demand.

“We’re not doing enough to expand housing availability, and HUD can’t expand its services unless Congress allocates it more funding,” says Barbara DiPietro, the director of policy for the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.

Given the fiscal climate, HUD is looking for new ways to spend its increasingly limited budget. Consequently, the agency is moving away from the supportive services that, through the McKinney-Vento Act, once accounted for most of its spending. In 1998, for instance, 55 percent of HUD’s budget was spent on supportive services, and 45 percent was awarded for housing. By 2013, just 26 percent of HUD’s competitive homeless assistance funds went to supportive services, and 66 percent was spent on housing. According to Ann Oliva, director of HUD’s Office of Special Needs Assistance Programs, the department’s goal now is to help local communities become more strategic with existing resources and available opportunities.

To do this, HUD has been working closely with other federal agencies, especially the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. In 2008, a joint program known as HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) launched, combining housing vouchers for homeless veterans provided by HUD, with case management and clinical services provided by the V.A. Experts agree that HUD-VASH has been quite successful in helping both vets and their families, and it’s typically held up as the poster child for future interagency collaborative efforts. However, the program came with additional appropriated dollars, and it is typically easier to convince Congress to fund programs for impoverished military veterans compared to other downtrodden groups.

One of the most significant recent changes to homelessness policy has come through the expansion of Medicaid—a key feature of the Affordable Care Act. Now that nearly all individuals with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for health insurance in states that opt for the expansion, agencies are scrambling to enroll thousands of homeless people so that they may benefit from new streams of mandatory government spending.

But Medicaid is, at its heart, a program controlled by the states. And with some states still vigorously opposed to expanding Medicaid—despite the ACA’s mandate for the federal government to pick up nearly all of the tab for the expansion—let alone some of the flexible legislative adaptations that HHS is encouraging, consistent and widespread changes to supportive services seem unlikely in the near future.

Though Medicaid expansion presents great opportunities for providing services to the homeless, some are concerned that the more flexible federal dollars currently set aside to work with homeless people will eventually just be funneled into the larger health insurance pool, with little, if any, allocated to doing what it takes to bring those with no homes into the government support system, which is needed in order to provide preventive care.

“Going out four or five times to visit with a woman living alone under a bridge, just trying to form a relationship and build trust with her so she will feel comfortable coming in to get more help—those types of health encounters are not typically billable through health insurance,” adds Stellon, who says outreach can be one of the hardest things for him to fund. “In our current system, it’s easier to pay for someone’s amputated fingers than to build a human relationship.”

Ultimately, there is only so much the government can do to advance the goal of Housing First with a depleting stock of housing units and a shrinking budget for supportive services.

“It’s a big mistake to come up with a good solution like Housing First and then to hamstring it because we don’t actually have the money for it,” says Todd Stull, the clinical director at a JOURNEYS | The Road Home, an organization that provides services and shelter to families and individuals in Illinois’s North and Northwest suburban Cook County. “One of the worst things you can do is get someone into housing for a short period of time and then they lose it. Then they lose trust in the providers.”

“We have not done well as a nation taking on poverty and implementing policies needed to address homelessness,” says Dr. Sam Tsemberis, the founder and CEO of Pathways to Housing, a national organization that first pioneered the Housing First model in 1992. “So we end up taking care of homelessness out of desperation, but we’ll be taking care of homelessness forever if we don’t take care of poverty.”

“We need more money,” adds DiPietro. “Until then, we’re just rearranging the priority list.”