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How and when we will completely emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic is still a question mark — but that uncertainty won’t stop Next City from looking around the corner for the next solution to amplify. Community organizers, policy experts and advocates for a more equitable world continue to address pressing challenges and find ways to improve our cities. Here are six ideas we’ll keep reporting on in the coming year.
“If we want to liberate ourselves from car-dependency, save the planet, and right the wrongs of the past, the bus should be free,” Wyatt Gordon and Faith Walker wrote in a Richmond Racial Equity Essays series piece that Next City shared on September 29, 2021.
Amid the shift to remote work for some during the pandemic, ridership on public transit plummeted across the country. But essential workers — those in healthcare, food, manufacturing and the service sector — kept commuting daily on city buses and subways. Due to unpredictable schedules and the low pay for many service workers, these regular riders are vulnerable to unreliable systems and likely to pay a disproportionate share of their wages for travel to and from work. As transit agencies think about how to boost ridership to pre-pandemic levels, along with their role in an equitable economy, some are rethinking the fare box.
Urging the city of Richmond, Virginia, to explore eliminating bus fare, Gordon and Walker pointed out that such a move would cost the city around $5 million. “Politicians can always find funding to address the needs of the wealthy and well-connected,” they noted. “Issues important to those who take transit are often just as ignored as those who tend to ride the bus most: the working poor, the disabled, the elderly, teenagers, and people of color.”
They cited one estimate that 100 cities around the world offer free public transit (many in Europe), and that Kansas City, Missouri, and Olympia, Washing- ton, have also given free fare a try.
In August, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) launched a three-month free fare pilot on Boston’s busiest bus route. In September, the board of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority approved a free transit pilot program for students. Both may eventually offer models of implementing this public transportation overhaul.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In the 2019 Solutions of the Year, we included a story about the “Right to Repair” movement, which has worked through legislative channels to reverse the expansion of our throwaway culture. The idea: Companies build products — appliances, tech gadgets and beyond — so your neighborhood fix-it expert can address a breakdown. In March, the European Union started mandating that some manufacturers make spare parts and repair documentation available to third-party repairers. In October, Grist reported that Microsoft agreed to “study how increasing access to the parts and information needed for repair can reduce its contributions to climate change and electronic waste.”
In the modern age of technology, manufacturers have profited off of making consumers dependent on their repair services for years. Offering limited access to the tools and information necessary to fix their products, companies have made it easier in most cases to toss the old tech and buy new, making small repair shops obsolete at the same time.
Spearheaded by the Repair Association, activists in the Right to Repair movement are fighting against anti-competitive practices that stop consumers from fixing their devices at mom-and-pop repair shops in their community.
As of 2021, Bloomberg reported that 32 states have considered Right to Repair bills. Massachusetts first passed a related law in 2013 that allowed small repair shops access to vehicle’s information so that it could diagnose problems. It expanded on this regulation in 2020, granting auto shops access to telematics data, which measures a car’s movements, status and battery voltage among others.
This year, President Joe Biden issued an anti-monopoly executive order that includes a clause that advances Right to Repair. It directed the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to establish “rules on when consumers can bypass manufactur- ers to seek repairs on products they own,” Politico reported.
Manufacturers have argued that doing so would infringe on their privacy rights and lead customers to obtain substandard repairs. However, the FTC has found their claims to be unfounded. — Solcyre Burga
This is an excerpt from a Next City article published as “Whatever Happened to … Right to Repair?” on July 15, 2021.
More than 80 cities and communities have joined the Built for Zero campaign with an aim to end homelessness “measurably” for certain populations (for example, veterans or the chronically homeless). The participants choose their focus and set a goal of “functional zero.” According to the nonprofit behind the effort, Community Solutions, 14 have reached that standard. They include Bakersfield, California, Rockford, Illinois, and Abilene, Texas.
“Cities are said to reach ‘functional zero’ for veterans when the number of homeless veterans in the community is less than three, or less than the number of veterans that can be routinely housed every month, according to the campaign,” reported Jared Brey in Next City’s “What Does It Mean to End Homelessness?” on June 15, 2021. “For chronically homeless people, functional zero means less than three or less than 0.1% of the overall homeless population at the annual point-in-time count.”
In “How Bakersfield, California Ended Chronic Homelessness” (published May 11, 2021), Brey wrote that the “cornerstone of the Built for Zero approach is a by-name list of every person experiencing homelessness in different categories — chronically homeless, veterans, youth, families, and so on. The Bakersfield Kern Regional Homeless Collaborative worked to find housing for every person on the list through case conferencing, regularly meeting to discuss individual cases and figure out what it would take to get that person into an apartment.”
Some advocates have expressed concern over using words like “ending” connected to homelessness. Skeptics have also noted that terms like “functional zero” can be confusing amid the need to raise public awareness about systemic problems that lead to people experiencing homelessness. After Bakersfield announced it had reached “functional zero” for chronic homelessness, the Bakersfield Californian published a letter to the editor from a resident who noted that homelessness was still clearly visible.
“The idea of the word ‘functional’ in front of ‘zero’ is a reaction to the misperception that ending homelessness means no one ever experiences homelessness again,” Aras Jizan, who works on data analytics for Built for Zero, told Brey.
Jake Maguire, co-director of the Built for Zero campaign, told Brey that they want to offer a “balance between celebrating milestones that suggest ending homelessness is possible, and being clear about how much work remains before that ultimate goal can be reached.”
Next City will continue to watch as more communities put Built for Zero’s approach to the test.
After police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, national attention was drawn to the unjust and racist practice of how local governments disproportionately levy criminal and traffic fines and fees on members of Black and Brown communities to generate revenue. Indeed, the subsequent Justice Department investigation and report found that the issues in Ferguson were systemic, and notes that “officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.” While advocacy organizations and policymakers across the country have since moved forward with fines and fee reform in recent years, we must tell the story like it is — community members were and continue to be ahead of the game. Back in 2009, the Youth Justice Coalition in Los Angeles County released a report on the pervasive impact of charging fees to the families of young people who were ordered to juvenile detention facilities. They rightly called for the only solution that would provide meaningful relief: the complete abolition of fees.
Abolishing criminal fees and writing off current debt is the only systemic, permanent solution to this form of racialized wealth extraction, and it is a solution our communities want and deserve. And it’s what we say is the solution, as Black and Brown people ourselves, and whose loved ones, continue to be subjected to targeted policing, hyper surveillance, disproportionate arrests and unjust punishment.
While that rationale alone should be sufficient, fee abolition is also by far the most fair and efficient process to address this issue. Instituting an ability to pay mechanism — a process by which a determination is made on whether a person can afford to pay a fee — may seem beneficial. But ability to pay is a less effective policy that places high bureaucratic burdens on individuals to “prove” their economic circumstance; it relies on the discretion of judges or other entities of power (almost never a good thing for BIPOC communities), and it does not address the racism and bias baked into the criminal legal system that inevitably will obstruct the process. As we see from the recent failure of the PPP program to reach Black and Latinx business owners, the last thing that will help Black and Brown communities is a complicated application and administrative process that’s required to access relief.
In 2020, through the work and advocacy of the Debt Free Justice California Coalition, California became the first state to abolish more than 20 different criminal fees through the Families Over Fees Act, providing an estimated $16 billion in relief. In September 2021, Governor Newsom signed AB177 into law, eliminating another 17 fees and expunging $534 million in debt. To date, the Debt Free Justice California Coalition has successfully passed legislation to eliminate over 40 fees and forgive over $16.5 billion in criminal legal debt.
This is a racial and economic justice issue that has been heightened by COVID, and these actions fall in line with the governor’s own priorities to curb child poverty in California and to commit to racial justice. California has always been a leader in progressive change. Now is not the time to back away from that history, but to lean into it so that other states can learn from us, and follow our lead on fines and fee reform within our legal system. — Jhumpa Bhattacharya, Stephanie Campos-Bui and Brandon Greene (all three authors sit on the steering committee of Debt Free Justice California)
This is an excerpt from a Next City op-ed published as “Hear Us: California Is Trail- blazing the Path to Debt-Free Justice. Other States Should Follow,” on July 29, 2021. The op-ed is part of a series featuring experts of color and their insights on issues related to the economy and racial justice. Next City has worked with the Economic Justice Advocates of Color Network on the columns.
Cooperatively owned businesses tout a number of benefits for members and their communities. Profits get distributed widely instead of being concentrated with a few privileged owners at the top. If the member-owners are local to a community, those profits circulate in that community instead of being siphoned off to investor pockets in gated communities hundreds or thousands of miles away. Workers have control over wages and other workplace policies and business decisions, giving them a sense of dignity that other employers can’t fake.
There could be more co-ops — if they weren’t essentially locked out of around $25 billion in federally guaranteed small business loans that private lenders make every year. In May, U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper of Colorado introduced a new bill to change that: the Capital for Cooperatives Act.
Cooperatives are currently locked out because of a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan requirement known as a personal guarantee: If a business owner defaults, the lender can seize personal assets like a car or house. An “owner” must have at least a 20% stake in the business, but in many co-ops, there are far more than five owners so nobody has that percentage.
It’s common knowledge among food co-ops and worker-owned co-ops that they can’t access the main SBA loan guarantee programs, according to R.L. Condra, senior vice president for government relations at National Cooperative Bank.
“We’re looking at the worker co-op sector as one of the fastest growing sectors, especially for Black and Brown communities in the co-op world, and they can’t get access to these programs,” Condra says.
The new bill would direct SBA to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Interagency Working Group on Cooperative Development in order to come up with alternatives to using personal guarantees for cooperatives applying to SBA loan guarantee programs. The USDA has made or guaranteed loans to cooperatives in rural areas for decades, mostly agricultural producer co-ops or rural power cooperatives.
As the pandemic hit and Congress considered relief for businesses like Paycheck Protection Program loans, advocates at NCBA-CLUSA, the main trade association for cooperatively owned businesses across the country, saw an opportunity.
“We really hammered on this issue of the personal guarantee,” says Kate LaTour, director of advocacy for NCBA-CLUSA. “So as agencies were designing these programs, they finally made sure to leave out personal guarantee requirements or else they would effectively be banning businesses from emergency support just because they’re cooperatives.” Of the pending Senate bill, LaTour says, “We’re glad to see that after all of these years of efforts this finally culminated in this legislative proposal to push this across the finish line.” — Oscar Perry Abello
This is an excerpt from a Next City article published as “Congress Can Unlock Billions in Capital for Co-ops,” with support from Citi, on June 8, 2021.
“The schism between large and small businesses began long before COVID-19 and has only grown. The number of business owners across the country decreased by 22% during the first few months of the pandemic, with the hardest hits to Black- and Latinx-owned businesses, according to one labor study. Meanwhile, Fortune 500 companies earned $14.2 trillion in revenue in 2020, up from $13.7 trillion the year before and an all-time high,” reported Next City’s Roshan Abraham in March.
Reversing our ever-heightening inequality is a multigenerational challenge. But amid headlines about “taking stock of our priorities,” and “Build Back Better,” our Elements of an Equitable Recovery series, published through 2021 with the support of LISC, highlighted solutions designed specifically to help small businesses, especially those owned by women and people of color, to survive and thrive. Here’s a small window into some of that work.
Boost Small-Scale Manufacturing: In Newark, the city is building its first “Makerhood,” an affordable mixed-use development with light manufacturing space and apartments. The city and developer worked five years to craft the zoning, which includes a requirement that building tenants must also live there — a way to prioritize local manufacturers in Newark, many of whom are people of color. The developer also founded a nonprofit, Maker- hoods Inc., to support the city’s existing maker community and provide future support to those selected to live and work in the building. — Emily Nonko
Cut Red Tape: Los Angeles enacted the “Restaurant Beverage Program” to make liquor licenses cheaper for restaurants to obtain and easier to apply for. Licenses that previously cost about $13,000 were slated to drop to $4,000. The application process shortened from months to weeks. Prior to the change, the process for obtaining liquor licenses was so complicated that restaurants had to hire specialist lawyers, according to Eater. — Roshan Abraham
Create Public Banks: In the first few weeks of 2021, legislators in New York State, New Mexico, Oregon, Washing- ton State, Philadelphia and San Francisco all introduced bills to establish public banks. Progressive legislators are convinced that new public banks would make an economic recovery more equitable, and potentially reshape banking sectors to be more locally oriented and responsive to local credit needs. Some activists see public banks as an opportunity to divest from those big banks that maintain significant investments in fossil fuels and other sectors they view as working against the interests of the public. — Oscar Perry Abello
Digital Skills Training: The pandemic forced many more brick-and-mortar stores online. Digital Detroit, a public-private partnership between the city and a global design firm called Rebrand Cities, offered free digital skills training, including web design basics, to qualifying small businesses. “It transformed my business tremendously. It gave me more reach,” said Don Melson, who owns a graphic design and printing company that was in the first cohort to receive the training. — Roshan Abraham
These are excerpts from the following Next City articles: “How to Bring Manufacturing Back to Cities — and Bring People of Color Along Too” (March 24, 2021); “Some Cities Are Cutting Red Tape to Try to Save Their Small Businesses” (March 11, 2021); “The Pandemic Is Pushing Cities to Rethink How to Drive Capital to Small Business” (February 26, 2021); and “How Cities Can Help Small Businesses Hire and Train Locally” (March 2, 2021).