Making Local Progress Toward Equity

Making Local Progress Toward Equity

I’m in Los Angeles this week, attending the conferences of Local Progress (our national network of progressive local elected officials) and the PolicyLink#Equity2015 Summit. I’m looking forward to joining over 100 local elected officials at Local Progress, and then 3,000 people from around the country at PolicyLink, committed to advancing issues of racial & economic equity, sustainability, and vibrant democracy in our cities and communities.

The first PolicyLink “equity summit” was in 2002, when I was executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee. That first summit helped launch our campaign for mandatory inclusionary zoning for affordable housing in NYC — which we are finally going to win (almost 15 years later)! Since then, I’ve attended the summits in Philadelphia, Detroit, and New Orleans, and found each one a source of inspiration, ideas, and new connections in the fight for equitable cities.

And when we started organizing Local Progress back in 2011, we had no idea it would grow into a thriving national network. Last year’s Local Progress national convening (covered in The Nation) was in NYC, at City Hall (with Mayor de Blasio & Speaker Mark-Viverito) and SEIU 32B, as we set course for the work we are hoping to do this term.

So it’s a good time to reflect on the “just city,” and the work we must do to get there. Here are a few questions I’ll be asking this week:

How can we promote inclusive growth in an unequal economy?

The challenge of income inequality has gained national attention. Cities have long been the places where economic growth has concentrated both wealth and poverty — and also the center of organizing for equality and opportunity. That’s been true for millennia. But today’s knowledge/service economy has levels of inequality staggering even by historic standards.

Luckily, we’ve got some good organizing to match.

The Fight for $15 (which began in Brooklyn, building on the crazy-at-the-time idea of our friend Jon Kest z’’l, the smart organizing of ACORN & SEIU organizers, and the courage of fast-food workers) is sweeping across the country, giving low-wage workers a chance to support their families.

Cities and states are adopting paid sick days. San Francisco passed a retail workers bill-of-rights to give workers a fair work week, with advance notice of their schedules. NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has persuaded a growing list of national retailers to ban “on-call” scheduling.

Cities are removing barriers to employment that disproportionately impact low-income people and people of color — like the Fair Chance Act (sponsored by my friend Jumaane Williams) to give people with criminal records a fair shot. And the law I helped pass in April (with a tremendous coalition of financial justice advocates) to prohibit employment credit checks, so people’s credit histories don’t become modern-day debtors’ prisons.

Still, our cities keep growing more and more unequal. Technology and innovation are driving economic growth and creating tremendous opportunities in our cities — but the benefits are shared very poorly.

So I’m hoping to learn from colleagues and organizers, and pick up some new approaches. How can we protect workers in the on-demand economy? Which cities are making sure STEM education and tech opportunities are shared more equally? What new models for business and job creation genuinely create shared opportunity?

Do black lives matter in shaping our cities?

Over the past year, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about racial injustice in our cities. For obvious and important reasons, that conversation has focused on policing and the criminal justice system. From the most tragic incidents (the killing of unarmed people of color) to the most mundane (this week, theNew York Times reports on the profound inequities in traffic stops in North Carolina), policing is the place where — as Ta-Nehisi Coates teaches us — racial inequity is expressed directly through state action on bodies of color.

Earlier this year, the Center for Popular Democracy, PolicyLink, and Local Progress teamed up to publish “Building Momentum from the Ground Up: A Toolkit for Promoting Justice in Policing.” I’m hoping to hear how people are using the toolkit to push for change across the country — connecting powerful activism with concrete policies for change.

As Coates and many others have taught us, the racial inequities in our cities are built into their very fabric. Racial covenants, redlining, urban renewal, segregation in public housing, segregation in education, block-busting — and the list goes on. Urban planning has far too often been a tool of segregation and inequality.

This afternoon at Local Progress, we’ll learn about the Government Alliance on Racial & Equity, which builds on the strong work of the Seattle Race & Social Justice Initiative and other efforts around the country to make sure our policy work heads in the other direction.

I’ve written about some of our work to confront segregation in NYC, and we’ve taken some good steps forward. We’ve revitalized our NYC Commission on Human Rights with proactive investigations to fight discrimination in housing and employment. Council Member Ritchie Torres & I helped passed the “School Diversity Accountability Act,” to confront the stubborn segregation of our schools. We’re using zoning and tax policy to preserve and encourage mixed-income neighborhoods.

If we believe black lives matter, we’ll keep working to end discriminatory policing and mass incarceration. And we’ll also need more and stronger tools to combat the continuing impacts or racism in the policies that shape our cities.

Any good ideas for preventing displacement?

My collaboration with PolicyLink began around the gentrification of Lower Park Slope. In the late-1990s, we established a “Displacement Free Zone” to prevent the eviction of long-time low-income tenants.

We started working for mandatory inclusionary zoning in NYC, with this report that I co-authored with PolicyLink staff in 2004, and an aggressive campaign with ACORN, ANHD, and Habitat for Humanity. We won a voluntary policy from the Bloomberg Administration (with mixed results). And here we are a decade later, finally on the brink of winning a mandatory IZ policy.

And we’ve organized year-after-year to save NYC’s rent regulation laws, under constant attack. We’ve managed to keep the rent laws from being further eroded, and this year even won the first “rent freeze” in NYC’s recent history.

But the market has moved faster than our regulatory framework, so we’ve lost well over 100,000 rent stabilized units, and tenants — especially in gentrifying neighborhoods — feel under enormous displacement pressures.

Even as the de Blasio Administration, in partnership with the City Council, is embarking on an large expansion of legal services to help tenants facing eviction, we know it won’t be enough by itself. We need to strengthen our rent laws, to prevent the many loopholes (vacancy decontrol, individual apartment increases, preferential rents) from letting hundreds of thousands more units leak out of affordability.

If we want to protect tenants from unjust eviction, and to maintain diverse neighborhoods amidst skyrocketing property values, we’ll need some new tools. So its exciting to see 21st century forms of rent regulation and tenant protection start to pick up steam in other cities: from Richmond CA to Berlin, Germany.

What kind of growth? What kinds of neighborhoods?

PolicyLink teaches us that “equity is the superior growth strategy.” But these days — at least in NYC, and I suspect far beyond — there’s great ambivalence about any growth at all.

As I was getting ready to leave on Friday, I received an e-mail from a new coalition, New Yorkers for a Human Scale City calling “for an end to the violence that real estate developers have inflicted on our skyline, parks, public areas, and cityscape with the proliferation of dramatically over-scaled buildings that ignore the historic context of our city.”

I understand the cause for alarm. Left unchecked, the real-estate development marketplace is not a friend of affordability, or sustainability, or livable neighborhoods.

But the debate — which I’ve come to think of as “REBNY (the Real Estate Board of New York) vs. NIMBY” — plays out in ways that don’t help us. We want growing cities. They are better places for sustainable growth, for inclusion, for opportunity, for breaking down barriers. But we’ve got to find better ways to include people in planning for our cities, and making growth work to create neighborhoods that nurture and sustain us.

I’ve written about changes I’d like to see in NYC planning policy. And I’m working my way through a great new collection of essays on “the just city,” that emphasize more inclusive planning. Out here in LA, I’m hoping to hear stories of how people have made planning and growth work — to make communities that offer opportunity more equally, and that are great places for human beings to live.

Who is renewing democracy?

Finally, but perhaps most important: right now, our democracy simply isn’t strong enough to help us meet the collective challenges we face.

We know corporate contributions corrupt government. And we know that public campaign finance systems like the one we have in NYC go a long way to solve the problem. But we can’t get them adopted.

We know climate change threatens to wreak utter havoc on the world we hand to our kids and grandkids … that they are likely to face genuinely catastrophic events if we can’t change our ways. But our collective capacity to regulate energy and waste is simply too weak.

So one thing we’ll need to do is renew and strengthen our democracy. And I’m convinced that happens best at the local level.

I’ve seen some magic moments of democratic practice (of what Billy Bragg has taught me to call “organized compassion”). In the extraordinary communities of recovery after Hurricane Sandy. In the “revolutionary civics in action” of participatory budgeting, now in 27 of NYC’s 51 City Council districts. In our schools, parks, plazas, and libraries when neighborhood residents become stewards of their shared public places. The night after we passed the Car Wash Accountability Act, and several hundred car-washeros learned that — through a campaign of labor and community organizing — government could genuinely be a vehicle for their empowerment.

This week, learning from some of the 3,000 activists at the PolicyLink Equity Summit and 100 local elected officials at Local Progress, I’m eager to learn about other grassroots democratic movements — community groups, unions, coalitions, and elected officials — that have been able to translate “organized compassion” into powerful policy. And then, through leadership development, one-on-one conversations, direct actions, political education, and electoral action, into a virtuous circle that achieves concrete wins … and builds our capacity for deeper change.

OK, I know, that’s too many questions. And very high expectations for a week of plenary panels, workshops, break-out groups, and (probably best) one-on-one conversations with old and new friends.

But we’ve come a long way since the first PolicyLink summit in 2002, the founding of the NYC Progressive Caucus in 2010, or Local Progress in 2011. So I’m betting on our ability to keep making local progress toward equity — and the just, sustainable, vibrant cities we dream of living in.

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