At the very end of “Debt: The First 5,000 Years,” author David Graeber writes, “all these things are human arrangements and that if democracy is to mean anything, it is the ability to all agree to arrange things in a different way.”
Looking back at 2021, arranging things differently turned out to be the theme of the year for our economics coverage at Next City. At every level of the economy, from the very bottom all the way up to the Federal Reserve, doing things differently has been on full display.
Getting Real About Commercial Real Estate
This year we reported a lot on communities finding ways to do commercial real estate without relying on the conventional model of developers taking ownership of land and stacking capital to generate the highest possible financial returns.
We covered Seattle’s new Cultural Space Agency, a city-sponsored entity similar to a housing authority but instead dedicated to developing properties on behalf of arts and culture organizations from Seattle’s Black communities, indigenous communities and other communities of color. Rather than a conventional setup where the mayor picks who runs the agency, the communities it serves pick who runs it.
In New Orleans, we covered the Crescent City Community Land Trust helping a third-generation 100 year-old Black-owned business finally break ground on revitalizing its home, nearly destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. Community land trusts have mostly popped up over the past few decades as an ownership model to decommodify housing — taking it off the market permanently so that it can remain permanently affordable and accountable for meeting community needs. Crescent City is one of several community land trusts across the country that are taking the model back to its roots in protecting the ability of Black people to have some measure of economic self-determination, in addition to a stable, affordable place to live.
This year we also saw the Commongrounds Cooperative breaking ground in Traverse City, Michigan. The owners of this newfangled real-estate co-op are a combination of the businesses who will soon be moving into the space as well as their customers, workers and other supporters. Even the eventual residents of the new apartments going in above the commercial and community spaces can choose to buy-in and become part-owners of the building.
The Evolution of Worker Power
Worker-owned cooperatives are not new to our economics coverage at Next City. This year we caught up with a few we’ve covered in previous years, including ChiFresh Kitchen, CERO, and the growing network of food industry worker co-ops in Baltimore. In addition to organizing against corporate behemoths like Amazon and Starbucks, workers across the country are continuing to build on this different model for business ownership as a way to take back power over the means of production.
But worker-owned cooperatives continue to face a distinct disadvantage in terms of access to capital for startup and growth. During the pandemic, thousands of cooperatively-owned businesses got access to something they never had access to before: loans backed by a guarantee from the Small Business Administration. Congress could make co-op access to SBA loan guarantees permanent beyond the pandemic, but legislation remains in limbo. In the meantime, this year we reported on the progress of a national network of worker co-op lenders created by and for worker co-ops.
The worker co-op model also ventured into one of the most competitive markets in cities today — the ride-hailing app market, where Uber and Lyft have been duking it out and trampling over the taxicab industry in the process. Early this year we covered the launch of The Drivers Cooperative, the first ride-hailing app company created by and owned by drivers. Its app, “Co-Op Ride,” opened to the public on May 30, and we even caught up with the co-op later in the year for an episode of the Next City Podcast.
No businesses have seen more turmoil during the pandemic than restaurants, bars and coffee shops. Some food industry workers, as in Baltimore, turned to the co-op model years ago as an alternative that can restore dignity and humanity to their workplace. This year we covered the first acquisition by the first-ever worker-owned cooperative restaurant group. It’s an attempt to take a page out of the private equity playbook — buying up a whole portfolio of distressed businesses — but flipping the model on its head so that workers are the biggest beneficiaries.
Lifting the Green Curtain
Last year at this time, we called 2020 the “year of demystifying money for cities.” This year we kept picking up on that thread with some of the more deeply-reported stories of the year.
In keeping with Graeber’s idea of what democracy means, these stories focused on how democracy has re-shaped or could re-shape how money moves — lifting the green curtain to understand where money comes from, how it gets to wherever it goes, and what it might take to get more of it to go where it hasn’t been in too long.
After years of pilot programs in limited locations, guaranteed income programs have been taking off across the country over this past year — and we’ve been mapping them out as we’ve heard about them. This year we visited the longest-running guaranteed income pilot program to date, in Jackson, Mississippi, to learn about the dynamics of race and gender in the design and the politics of no-strings cash assistance programs.
Not to mention the dramatic changes to the federal child tax credit program, which effectively turned it into a nationwide guaranteed income scheme. But those changes are currently set to expire at the end of this year, even though all the evidence so far has show it’s working and fewer children are living in poverty today even with all the pandemic-related turmoil in the economy. Politics and racist stereotypes about the poor remain a major obstacle.
This year we also dove deeper into the Federal Reserve, one of the most powerful yet least understood economic institutions in the world. During the pandemic, its flotilla of emergency lending programs helped make it more visible than it has been in many decades. Some have called for the Fed to do more for actual people and less for corporations. A year-long bout with high inflation has also brightened the spotlight on the central banking system.
Policy choices made by elected officials have shaped all of the Fed’s emergency programs and the entire Fed itself. For as much power as it seems like the Fed and its top officials have, it is power delegated by Congress, and it comes with certain obligations as directed by Congress. For many decades, racial justice advocates have argued the Fed has fallen short of its Congressionally-mandated obligation to promote full employment — for example, by allowing Black unemployment to consistently linger at twice that of white unemployment.
But, as we covered this year, the Fed is now doing things differently. It wasn’t a response to the pandemic, since the changes had been in the works for years inside the Fed before COVID hit, but the change was timely. The Fed now pays attention to things like racial disparities in unemployment or wage growth as part of determining whether it needs to continue pushing the economy to grow or to slow things down. Some racial justice advocates are ramping up demands for the Fed to change even more.
It should not seem so surprising that democracy — messy, problematic and often frustrating as it is — can and has shaped things as powerful as the Fed. If it seems so surprising, maybe it’s because of who benefits the most from keeping most of us out of the room when the time comes to make decisions about the way the economy works. Wall Street certainly wouldn’t mind if it was the only voice in conversations about the Fed or anything having to do with financial sector regulations and policies.
With another election year ahead of us, there will be plenty of opportunity to ask anyone running for office what their thoughts are on doing things differently when it comes to commercial real estate, worker ownership, or the Fed. If they seem like they need some more thoughts on that, I hope you might refer them to anything we wrote about it last year or over the course of next year.
This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter. The Bottom Line is made possible with support from Citi.
Oscar is Next City's senior economic justice correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha and Fast Company.