Bank Regulator’s Battle With Anti-Redlining Law Comes to an End

By Emily Flitter and 

Joseph Otting came into his job overseeing the nation’s biggest banks in late 2017 determined to rewrite the rules governing how financial institutions invest in poor communities.

A former banker appointed by President Trump, Mr. Otting had long chafed at the rules. So as Comptroller of the Currency, he wasted little time seeking the support of banks, which stood to benefit from the revision, as well as the industry’s two other primary regulators, the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and community groups. Everyone agreed that an overhaul was needed.

But last week, when Mr. Otting introduced a revised rule — his signature accomplishment as comptroller — he cut a lonely figure. Banking trade groups said it had been put together hastily without enough testing. The Fed and F.D.I.C. refused to sign on. And community groups fear that the revision would ultimately hurt the poor.

Mr. Otting, who is stepping down on Friday, is leaving behind a fractured landscape around a vital piece of banking legislation: the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, which requires banks to invest in poor communities and lend to low-income individuals in the areas where they do business.

Critics say that the revised rules have the potential to defang the C.R.A. by making it easier for banks to meet their obligations — for example, by letting them get credit for financing a few big projects in low-income neighborhoods that they would have done anyway, rather than offering banking services, which can be less lucrative but more important to the broader community.

It will also cause regulatory disarray, perhaps for years. Banks with different overseers must figure out if the new rules apply to them and spend millions of dollars to comply. Even then, the rules could change again if a Democrat is elected president in November.

“I told him: This is a legacy opportunity. If you do this right, no one will touch it for 15 or 20 years,” said David Dworkin, the chief executive of the National Housing Conference, who worked as a senior policy adviser at the Treasury Department from 2012 until 2018. “There are many people who believe that he wanted to gut C.R.A.,” Mr. Dworkin said. “I can’t make that judgment, but I can say that what he has done will gut it.”

Mr. Otting does not see it that way. “I believe the rule finalized by the O.C.C. will make a positive difference for all low- and moderate-income communities across the nation — many of which were ignored under the previous rule,” he said in a statement to The Times last week. “I fully support a stronger C.R.A..”

A spokesman for Mr. Otting’s office said that even though the other regulators did not sign on, the banks that conduct 70 percent of the activities that are assessed under the reinvestment act are subject to the new rules. (Banks with assets below $2.5 billion can choose not to submit to the regulations.)

The reinvestment act was established to prevent redlining — a practice in which banks refused to lend in certain neighborhoods based on race, ethnicity or income — and ensure that less affluent communities had fair access to financial services.

Compliance is crucial for banks: Mergers and other regulatory approvals are contingent on it. Currently, banks are required to carry out a certain amount of economic activity — either lending, philanthropy, or other banking business — in low-income areas that usually align with their physical locations. But the law has become somewhat outdated in the era of online banking, because banks can attract customers and do business in areas far afield of their branch networks.

Years before he was comptroller, Mr. Otting collided with the C.R.A. as chief executive of a California bank called OneWest — then owned by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. In 2014, OneWest and another bank, CIT, agreed to a $3.4 billion merger. Community groups nearly scuttled the deal by arguing that both banks had dismal records of complying with the reinvestment act.

One such group, the Greenlining Institute, alleged that Mr. Otting had created the illusion of grass-roots support for the merger using a form email that could be personalized and sent in with a few clicks. According to the Fed, 2,093 of the 2,177 comments ultimately submitted in favor of the merger were identical form letters.

Regulators approved the merger after both banks pledged to increase their activity in poor communities, but Mr. Otting has said the experience left him with a sour taste.

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“I went through a very difficult period with some community groups that didn’t support our community, who came in at the bottom of the ninth inning, that tried to change the direction of our merger,” he said at a banking conference in April 2018, The Wall Street Journal reported. “And so I have very strong viewpoints.”

Even before Mr. Otting arrived in Washington in November 2017, Treasury officials were working on a plan to update the rules. A group of policymakers held more than 90 meetings with banks, community groups and trade organizations to determine the best way to reshape the requirements. They created a blueprint and presented it to Mr. Mnuchin, who signed off and sent it to the White House, and then to regulators.

Mr. Otting decided to do his own research. Last year, he toured multiple cities to talk about the law and listen to community feedback. He wanted to redo the rules based on his experience as a banker, he said, making them clearer and easier to follow. In December, he proposed a sweeping rewrite, and initially secured support from the F.D.I.C.

His plan specified which products, services and projects banks could undertake to fulfill their duties and boiled down the evaluation of their work in poor communities to a single metric. But it took away the most important tool that regulators and community groups had to hold banks to account — the discretion to argue that even if banks’ activities looked good on paper, they weren’t significant enough to help communities.

Officials at the Fed felt that Mr. Otting’s proposal was poorly designed and began working on an alternative. When the central bank asked to include its own proposal for comment from stakeholders, Mr. Otting shot the idea down, according to two people familiar with the process. The Fed, led by Chair Jerome H. Powell, decided to let the O.C.C. go its own way.

“We worked to try to get fully aligned with the proposal — we weren’t able to get there,” Mr. Powell later told lawmakers. “They weren’t able to get to our proposal either.”

Negative reaction to the proposal was swift. Representative Maxine Waters, chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, called it “misguided” and said any changes to the law must not be rushed through.

Community groups also attacked the plan, saying it could deprive poor and minority communities of access to credit. Banks, despite wanting a C.R.A. revamp, were also unhappy with Mr. Otting’s rewrite.

The American Bankers Association, the largest of the bank trade groups, warned against finalizing the rule without extensive improvements, followed by testing of its measurement methods and a pilot program.

Much of the concern stemmed from the short time-frame that Mr. Otting envisioned for getting the new rule vetted. Banks and community groups had just 90 days to comment before his office would finalize it.

Then, the pandemic struck. Lawmakers and bank lobbyists asked Mr. Otting to put the rewrite effort on hold. In a March 30 letter to federal regulators, the Independent Community Bankers of America, another trade group, asked for a 180-day pause on the effort. Earlier this month, Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, asked Mr. Otting to ease up on the process during a Senate Banking Committee hearing. Mr. Otting declined.

Last week, the O.C.C. released a final rule that softened some of the most extreme conditions singled out for criticism in Mr. Otting’s proposal, including the use of a single metric to evaluate bank compliance. The Fed and the F.D.I.C. sat it out. “While the FDIC strongly supports the efforts to make the CRA rules clearer, more transparent, and less subjective, the agency is not prepared to finalize the CRA proposal at this time,” F.D.I.C. Chairwoman Jelena McWilliams said in a statement.

It is not clear what Mr. Otting, 62, intends to do next. For now, he is headed home to Las Vegas, where he co-owns a golf course.

THIS THURSDAY: Virtual Summit Tackles Racial Equity in the Age of COVID-19

Online Summit Features Ibram X. Kendi, Lateefah Simon, Rob Bonta, john a. powell, Chesa Boudin, Rhiana Gunn Wright, Isha Clarke and More

Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director,  415-846-7758 (cell)

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – As it becomes steadily more apparent that the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately impacting Americans of color, The Greenlining Institute’s annual Economic Summit – retooled as an online event available nationwide – brings together an extraordinary list of speakers to examine both the huge challenges posed by the pandemic as well as paths toward a fairer, more inclusive future. The day’s program of speakers, fireside chats and panels will include leading thinkers like How to Be an Antiracist author Ibram X. Kendi,  Black Futures Lab founder Alicia Garza and author and professor john. a. powell.

The multifaceted program also includes Oakland high school student and climate activist Isha Clarke in a panel on youth activism in a time of crisis. Other speakers include nonprofit leaders and elected officials leading the fight for equity, such as Obama Foundation Chief Engagement Officer Michael Strautmanis, AAPI Civic Engagement Fund Director EunSook Lee, Latino Community Foundation CEO Jacqueline Martinez Garcel, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin,  considered one of the nation’s leading criminal justice reformers, California Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) and Lateefah Simon, president of the Akonadi Foundation and member of the Bay Area Rapid Transit Board of Directors.

The Summit theme, We the Future, expresses the drive for a nation where all communities can participate in the creation of healthy, thriving, resilient lives. Speakers and discussions will look at a variety of angles, including:

  • Organizing and power-building in the face of increasing racism and threats to the undocumented, incarcerated people and others;
  • Youth activism in a time of upheaval;
  • The impact of government COVID-19 recovery programs on communities of color; the intersection of health and racial equity in the age of COVID-19;
  • How to build an antiracist society; and
  • The intersection of health, the climate crisis and the pandemic as we work to build a more resilient and inclusive nation.

WHAT: Greenlining’s 27th Annual Economic Summit: We the Future, a Virtual Summit on Racial Equity.

WHO: Speakers include:

Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist and founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University
Alicia Garza, Founder, Black Futures Lab
Michael Strautmanis, Chief Engagement Officer, The Obama Foundation
Chesa Boudin, District Attorney, San Francisco
EunSook Lee, Director, AAPI Civic Engagement Fund
john a. powell, Director, Othering and Belonging Institute, University of California, Berkeley
Jacqueline Martinez Garcel, CEO, Latino Community Foundation
Rhiana Gunn Wright, Director of Climate Policy, The Roosevelt Institute
Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), California State Assembly
Isha Clarke, youth climate activist with Youth v. Apocalypse

WHEN: Thursday, May 21, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.

HOW TO ATTEND: Purchase tickets online and get all the details via our Economic Summit web page.

For News Media: Media are invited to attend without charge. For a complimentary pass, email brucem@greenlining.org

To learn more about The Greenlining Institute, visit www.greenlining.org.

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THE GREENLINING INSTITUTE
A Multi-Ethnic Public Policy, Research and Advocacy Institute
www.greenlining.org
@Greenlining

California Budget Must Protect Underserved Communities, Greenlining Institute Says

Newsom’s May Revise Puts Important Programs at Risk

Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 415-846-7758 (cell)

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – With California’s communities of color and low- and moderate-income communities facing unprecedented health and economic threats from COVID-19, The Greenlining Institute responded to the governor’s May budget revise with a call to protect these under-resourced communities.

The governor’s proposal, which represents the starting point for negotiations and could change drastically depending on whether Congress approves aid to states, endangers several programs that could help underserved communities weather the current crisis.

“As they work to finalize a tough budget, legislators and the governor must remember that communities of color and essential workers are being hit hardest by COVID-19,” said Greenlining Institute President and CEO Debra Gore-Mann. “Programs that protect health, build community resilience and help spur a just recovery will get the most from every dollar while providing relief to those with the greatest needs.”

Examples of programs that can bring such multiple benefits but which may now be in danger include climate change efforts like low-income weatherization, urban forestry, urban greening and Transformative Climate Communities – which integrates multiple projects in community-led efforts to fight climate change and strengthen the economies of underserved communities. These programs have shown that they combine environmental, health and economic benefits for communities most in need, Greenlining’s policy staff noted, and the May revise leaves their status unclear.

Also uncertain is the proposed climate resilience bond measure. Greenlining still hopes to see such a bond measure, designed to meet a “triple bottom line” of creating genuine economic stimulus, meeting community climate resilience needs and centering equity to support the communities hit hardest by COVID-19 and climate change .

Greenlining is disappointed that the governor proposed to eliminate his earlier proposal to expand Medi-Cal to undocumented seniors. Although this creates a short-term cost saving, the pandemic has demonstrated the urgent need to expand access to health care to all. The May revise also cuts the proposal to create the California Office of Health Care Quality and Affordability, which could play a critical role in improving community health and strengthening equity and cost containment as California copes with COVID-19.

Newsom’s revised budget does offer some important relief for small businesses in communities of color, which have been particularly hard hit. As Greenlining had urged, it increases the California Small Business Loan Guarantee Program to $100 million. It also waives LLC formation fees, another crucial need for diverse small businesses. Greenlining will continue to urge that small business programs be adequately marketed and implemented in communities of color.

To learn more about The Greenlining Institute, visit www.greenlining.org.

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THE GREENLINING INSTITUTE
A Multi-Ethnic Public Policy, Research and Advocacy Institute
www.greenlining.org
@Greenlining

Community Rejuvenation Project and The Greenlining Institute Announce Final Design for Collaborative Mural Project in Downtown Oakland

Work to Begin May 18

Contact:
Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 415-846-7758 (cell)
Desi Mundo, Community Rejuvenation Project, (510) 269-7840, CRPBayArea@gmail.com

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – Public art and advocacy organization Community Rejuvenation Project (CRP) today announced it has completed the final design for a large-scale mural on the exterior wall of The Greenlining Institute’s 360 14th St. headquarters. ural

Mural to be painted on Greenlining Institute headquarters in downtown OaklandThe final design was arrived at by a thorough and detailed process which included multiple community input and design review sessions. In addition to downtown Oakland residents, participants included three key stakeholder groups: the artists and residents of the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, the Chinese-American community in Oakland Chinatown, and Greenlining staff.

“This is the most complex and intricate project CRP has ever done,” said CRP founder and Executive Director Desi Mundo, who will serve as lead artist for the project. “I’m very happy with the final design and extremely thankful for all the community input and feedback we received to get to the point where we are ready to begin painting soon,” he added.

“The Greenlining Institute supports this important community mural representing an inspirational project that brings art into the public space. We hope that our community mural will create a tangible sense of place and destination while adding color, vibrancy and character to our Oakland neighborhood,” said Greenlining President Debra Gore-Mann. “We look forward to seeing this mural create dialogue around the rich and diverse community that is Oakland while instilling art as a form of translation across space and time.”

The eight-story wall, shaped like a reverse “L,” presented some logistical challenges in design due to its physical geography, necessitating a completely revamped approach to the work from CRP’s prior large-scale mural, “The Universal Language.”  Many themes of that mural were carried over into the new design; additional themes and imagery were incorporated from community input. “‘The Universal Language’ celebrated the cultural resiliency of the Afro-Diasporic and Pan-Asian communities in Oakland,” Mundo said. “For this project, it was necessary to include Greenlining’s history and its organizational values, as well as address the activism which led directly to this project, and make historical and cultural connections between the diverse array of people and images that will be featured on the wall.”

The design centers around the theme of transformative equity. Train tracks and an actual redlining map of Oakland represent the inequitable practices and policies of the past. The red lines change to green lines, symbolizing the concept of Greenlining — equitable investment in diverse communities. Greenlining’s early leaders — Bob Gnaizda, George Dean, Ortensia Lopez, and John Gamboa — are all represented, along with San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim (a Greenlining Leadership Academy alumni), Chinese American activist Lailan Huen, members of the Black Panther Party, Filipino-American organizer Terry Bautista and Native American leaders Richard Oakes and Morning Star Gali.

Another unifying theme is the connection between culture and activism in communities of color which is essential to achieving equity. Such Oakland notables as dancers Ruth Beckford, Theo Williams, Latanya Tigner, Carla Service, Halifu Osumare, and Zak and Naomi Diouf are featured, along with Casquelourd and his son Kiazi Malonga, jazz educator Kahlil Shaheed, members of the AXIS Dance Company,  and Chinese ribbon dancers.

The design also connects the spiritual practices of communities of color, from Ohlone rituals to Buddhist elements to Mayan sacred symbols to African and Afro-Cuban drumming and dancing to traditional Azteca copal smoke. It also includes a personal tribute from Mundo to his late wife, Jennifer Ana Finefeuiaki, representing Tongan Americans and Polynesian culture.

The mural will not only commemorate the efforts of local culture-keepers and activists for posterity, but serve as a visual reminder of the multicultural diversity which is at the heart of Oakland culture.  Production will begin on May 18, is expected to last about eight weeks, and will follow strict safety protocols during this time of elevated health concerns. Regular updates on its progress will be posted on www.crpbayarea.org.

At a time when the COVID-19 crisis is adding new strains to populations already under threat from gentrification and displacement, CRP and Greenlining hope the mural will serve as a symbol of hope in the present moment, and for decades to come.

This project is supported by the California Arts Council and Creative Work Fund.

To view a mock-up and detailed description of the mural images, click here.

To learn more about The Greenlining Institute, visit www.greenlining.org.

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THE GREENLINING INSTITUTE
A Multi-Ethnic Public Policy, Research and Advocacy Institute
www.greenlining.org
@Greenlining

CPUC Moves to Help Close Digital Divide for Students

Greenlining Institute Pushed for Funds to Help Students Get Online During Pandemic

Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 415-846-7758 (cell)

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – Today the California Public Utilities Commission largely adopted suggestions put forward by The Greenlining Institute to use $5 million from the California Advanced Services Fund to bolster Department of Education efforts to close the digital divide for California students. The funding, estimated by Greenlining to be enough to fund about 16,000 laptops or internet hotspots, comes as the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the gap in online access into an emergency.

“California’s lowest income households are 45 percent less likely to have home internet than the wealthiest, with Latino and African American students at a particular disadvantage,” said Greenlining Institute Technology Equity Legal Counsel Vinhcent Le. “Simply put, this money means thousands of students will be able to continue their education.”

In March, with both K-12 and higher education moving online as a result of the pandemic, the commission asked for input as to how to use the CASF, originally created in 2007 to help bridge the digital divide, to help mitigate the crisis. Greenlining and others urged that the most effective and efficient approach would be to use the money to expand existing efforts to provide laptops or hotspots rather than to create a new program.

The full text of the resolution can be found on the CPUC’S website.

Aside from the COVID-19 crisis, lack of home internet access continues to be a serious handicap for California communities of color and low-income residents. A Greenlining report to be released later this month will look in detail at the experiences of Californians with no or limited home internet access.

To learn more about The Greenlining Institute, visit www.greenlining.org.

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THE GREENLINING INSTITUTE
A Multi-Ethnic Public Policy, Research and Advocacy Institute
www.greenlining.org
@Greenlining

Virtual Summit Tackles Racial Equity in the Age of COVID-19 May 21

Online Summit Features Ibram X. Kendi, Alicia Garza, john a. powell, Chesa Boudin, Rhiana Gunn Wright, Manuel Pastor and More

Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director,  415-846-7758 (cell)

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – As it becomes steadily more apparent that the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately impacting Americans of color, The Greenlining Institute’s annual Economic Summit – retooled as an online event available nationwide – brings together an extraordinary list of speakers to examine both the huge challenges posed by the pandemic as well as paths toward a fairer, more inclusive future. The day’s program of speakers, fireside chats and panels will include leading thinkers like How to Be an Antiracist author Ibram X. Kendi, Black Futures Lab founder Alicia Garza and author and professor john. a. powell, as well as elected officials leading the fight for equity, including San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, considered one of the nation’s leading criminal justice reformers, and California Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Oakland).

Discounted tickets as low as $5 are available through May 7, when special Early Bird pricing concludes.

The Summit theme, We the Future, expresses the drive for a nation where all communities can participate in the creation of healthy, thriving, resilient lives. Speakers and discussions will look at a variety of angles, including:

  • Organizing and power-building in the face of increasing racism and threats to the undocumented, incarcerated people and other vulnerable communities;
  • What history can teach us about times of crisis;
  • The impact of government COVID-19 recovery programs on communities of color;
  • The intersection of health and racial equity in the age of COVID-19;
  • The intersection of health, the climate crisis and the pandemic as we work to build a more resilient and inclusive nation; and
  • How to build an antiracist society;

WHAT: Greenlining’s 27th Annual Economic Summit: We the Future, a Virtual Summit on Racial Equity.

WHO: Speakers include:
Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist and founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University
Alicia Garza, Founder, Black Futures Lab
Chesa Boudin, District Attorney, San Francisco
john a. powell, Director, Othering and Belonging Institute, University of California, Berkeley
Rhiana Gunn Wright, Director of Climate Policy, The Roosevelt Institute
Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), California State Assembly
Manuel Pastor, Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity, University of Southern California

WHEN: Thursday, May 21, 9:15 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.

HOW TO ATTEND: Purchase tickets online and get all the details via our Economic Summit web page.

For News Media: Media are invited to attend without charge. For a complimentary pass, email brucem@greenlining.org

To learn more about The Greenlining Institute, visit www.greenlining.org.

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THE GREENLINING INSTITUTE
A Multi-Ethnic Public Policy, Research and Advocacy Institute
www.greenlining.org
@Greenlining

‘Race & Coronavirus: A Bay Area Conversation’ virtual town hall

ABC 7 News

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) — During a White House task force briefing in early April, Dr. Anthony Fauci said black Americans are dying of coronavirus at much higher rates compared to other Americans in some major cities. Dr. Fauci said this is due in part to existing health disparities.

In an effort to provide those with the information they need, ABC7 presents, “Race and Coronavirus: A Bay Area Conversation,” a virtual and interactive town hall on the impact of COVID-19 on the African American community.

The panelists included:

New COVID-19 Relief Bill Has Major Gaps, Greenlining Institute Says

More Attention to Hard-Hit Communities of Color Still Needed

Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director 415-846-7758 (cell)

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – With Congress apparently ready to pass a fourth COVID-19 relief bill, The Greenlining Institute said that while the measure reportedly contains needed additional funding for small businesses and hospitals, it still leaves critical priorities unaddressed.

“New data clearly show that Black Americans are dying from COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates, and Latino death rates appear elevated, too,” said Greenlining Institute Health Equity Program Manager Kelsey Lyles. “As the coronavirus shines a light on America’s pandemic of inequality, we must make sure that help reaches the communities in the most urgent need.”

Greenlining Economic Equity Director Adam Briones noted, “It is good news that small businesses will likely get an additional $350 billion, but we expect that this new money won’t last appreciably longer than the first round did. We still need to do more, and future legislation must specifically address the needs of small businesses in communities of color.”

This or future legislation must:

  • Prioritize Funding for Clinics and Community Health Centers: Clinics and community health centers that serve low-income neighborhoods desperately need funding to stay in business and provide critical services. Many clinics have had to consolidate services and postpone routine care to prioritize emergency response, hindering their ability to be reimbursed by Medicare and operate at full capacity. In addition to funding hospitals, Congress must prioritize relief to community health centers to help them remain a lifeline for low income communities of color.
  • Make COVID-19 Testing Free and Easily Accessible for Low-Income Communities: New data show Blacks and Latinos dying from COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates. Funding for testing should provide free testing in low-income neighborhoods of color to enable residents to seek care and stop the spread of the virus.
  • Address the Needs of Small Businesses in Communities of Color: An informal Greenlining survey of California ethnic chambers of commerce found fewer than 10 businesses confirmed to have received      federal relief money, and less than 20 have received approval and await funding. Targeting underbanked businesses in the current bill represents a good start, but an explicit focus on businesses of color will be needed in order to effectively reach businesses that need help the most.
  • Collect Better Data and Target Immigrant-Owned Businesses. The government must collect data on the race and ethnicity of businesses operators who eventually receive Federal funds in order to ensure that non-White entrepreneurs are not unfairly excluded. In addition, Congress should require that all documents for these programs be produced in the five most common languages in each state to ensure that immigrant entrepreneurs have fair access to the funds their tax dollars help subsidize.

“Beyond improving the specific elements of this current bill, we still see a variety of unmet needs that future legislation must consider,” Briones said. “Families still need cash assistance, student debt must be wiped clean, and community nonprofits desperately need help. Instead of Band-Aids, we need to think big and reimagine everything in order to build an economy that works for all.”

To learn more about The Greenlining Institute, visit www.greenlining.org.

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THE GREENLINING INSTITUTE
A Multi-Ethnic Public Policy, Research and Advocacy Institute
www.greenlining.org
@Greenlining

Coronavirus life not sweet, especially for minorities

By Otis R. Taylor Jr.
San Francisco Chronicle

David Benton opened a pastry shop in East Oakland’s Millsmont neighborhood a week before Thanksgiving.

He chose a storefront on MacArthur Boulevard to sell his cupcakes and cookies because he didn’t want to be another trendy spot near Lake Merritt or downtown.
“I wanted to do it over here, because I live over here,” said Benton, 46. “I really wanted to do that in this neighborhood.”

It took him two years to get Sugarsweet Cookie + Cake Studio up and running, but after less than five months in business, the coronavirus has burned a hole in his future.

As the pandemic sweeps across the country, it’s disproportionately impacting black people. Last week, the Associated Press reported that blacks made up about 42% of the country’s first coronavirus-related deaths where demographic data were available, but only 21% of the population.The coronavirus could also financially decimate black business owners like Benton.

When times get tough, black people can feel this country’s history of marginalization and oppression in our bones.

“I said it at our council meeting — that old trope, when America catches a cold, we catch pneumonia,” Oakland City Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney told me.

Take note, because the legacy of redlining, the systemic and discriminatory practice of refusing to issue loans or insurance to neighborhoods inhabited by black and brown people, is at play.

In lower-income areas, there’s always been less access to health care services, and residents are more likely to have underlying health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and cancer — conditions that make the coronavirus infections more deadly. Oakland’s leaders know that what’s happening in New York, New Orleans and Chicago could happen here.“What we’re seeing in the other cities in terms of the disproportionate impact should not be a surprise to anybody because of the health disparities that exist and have existed within the black community,” Oakland City Councilman Loren Taylor said.

The situation for black communities could get more grim. If the last recession this country endured is any indication, black people can expect to emerge poorer. And unhealthier.

Racism and discrimination are often factors in determining the health and economic outcomes of black people.

A 2014 report by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank that conducts public opinion polling, demographic research and content analysis, found that the median net worth of black households dropped 43% during the great recession that followed the 2008 financial crisis. More than a decade later, somehow, people of color are still paying the price for Wall Street’s collapse.In Oakland, where blacks are 28% of the city’s population, a 2017 study conducted by City University of New York’s Institute for State and Local Governance revealed that 1 in 4 blacks and more than 1 in 5 Latinos live at or below the federal poverty level. What’s more, 70% of Oakland’s 4,000 homeless people are black, according to a survey administered by Alameda County.That just doesn’t add up. The narrative of American exceptionalism and pulling yourself up by the bootstraps doesn’t neatly match the reality of segregation and disenfranchisement.

“If you’re poor and you’re not doing well, it’s because you’re lazy. You’re lacking,” said Debra Gore-Mann, president and CEO of the Greenlining Institute, a racial equity organization. “The implication is that the individual is failing and not the system.” The system is broken. It doesn’t need to be repaired or restarted. It needs to be reimagined.

“This whole push from this administration to hurry up and open the doors is because the longer that we sit in this malaise, the more we realize how broken it is,” Gore-Mann said.

Yes, we’re tired of working from home — if we’re fortunate to still have a job, unlike the 2 million Californians who have filed for unemployment in the past three weeks. Still, this is time well spent thinking about the kind of state and country we want to live in. There’s no rush to get back to normal.
“Normal was inadequate,” Gibson McElhaney said. “It made us vulnerable.”

To protect businesses in East Oakland, an area deeply impacted by racism and redlining, Taylor said his staff is making sure businesses know about grants and loans, even if it means helping business owners fill out applications. “How we respond and what we do now will help to determine how folks rebound and come out of the crisis,” he said.

During the great recession, Benton got laid off from his job as a librarian at an architectural firm. He said he was unemployed for two years, but that’s when he began selling baked goods online.
It led him to open Sugarsweet. The brown butter salted caramel cupcake and the salted chocolate chunk cookie remain popular among patrons ordering online, but Benton has already had to lay off two people because of the virus.

“We’re not doing nearly as good as we were before this whole thing started,” he said. “The neighborhood was getting to know us. I don’t know how this is all going to pan out, but so far we’re still alive.”Surviving the coronavirus would be sweet.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Otis R. Taylor Jr. appears Mondays and Thursdays. Email: otaylor@sfchronicle.com(opens in new tab) Twitter: @otisrtaylorjr

The Cameras in Your Car May Be Harvesting Data as You Drive

By Keith Barry
Consumer Reports

There’s a problem with a bike lane in Brooklyn, N.Y. City officials painted it along part of Manhattan Avenue, a major thoroughfare between the Greenpoint and Williamsburg neighborhoods. But the lane suddenly ends at a busy intersection. It picks up one block east, but that isn’t obvious to cyclists. Most of them continue down Manhattan Avenue, where their path is often blocked by traffic and double-parked cars.

A few miles away on the New Jersey Turnpike in East Rutherford, N.J., there’s another problem: Drivers heading to the Meadowlands are taking a sharply curved off-ramp so fast that they have to slam on the brakes.

These and plenty of other problems around the world (in Barcelona, Spain; Tel Aviv, Israel; and Tokyo, for example) are made clearly visible on digital maps put together by a company called Mobileye: Speeding cars turn roadways red, and groups of cyclists glow like flames along bike routes. It’s a top-down view of all the traffic problems that drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians encounter and complain about every day.

The maps aren’t being used by city planners—at least, not yet. Instead, they’re part of Mobileye’s unique pitch to investors, journalists, and potential customers. The company, a subsidiary of Intel, can compile those red lines and glowing bike lanes because it has access to a network of millions of sensors built into privately owned cars around the world that share data from commuters whether they realize it or not.

 

If you drive a newer car, it’s likely to have at least one built-in camera or sensor that powers important safety systems such as automatic emergency braking (AEB) and blind spot warning (BSW), or that makes driving easier with assistance features such as adaptive cruise control and lane centering. Most of the software and algorithms that control those systems were developed by Mobileye.

But those same cameras and sensors might also be watching for potholes on the road and pedestrians on the sidewalk, then sending that information over a cellular connection you might not know your car had to a company you’ve probably never heard of so that it can create detailed data profiles of every roadway in the world.

Many Americans may be stuck at home right now due to the coronavirus pandemic, but when we all return to our normal driving lives, Mobileye’s technology will come with us. Every time you drive to work, take your kids to school, or go shopping, your car may be fitting another tile into the mosaic of a detailed composite map that can be sold in the growing market for car data.

“This type of data has enormous potential for public good, provided its collection is limited and handled in a way that protects drivers’ privacy,” says David Friedman, vice president of advocacy at Consumer Reports. “The problem is that currently there are no federal laws limiting the collection and use of that data, or even requiring clear disclosure of what is being shared, and with whom. It’s the Wild West out there.”

So far, Mobileye has mapped more than 180 million miles of roads worldwide—including the street in Brooklyn and the off-ramp on the New Jersey Turnpike—and it’s scaling up. As soon as this year, the company plans to use the sensors built into vehicles from BMW to collect data about their immediate surroundings—a process Mobileye calls “harvesting.” Similar sensors are built into vehicles from Ford, Nissan, and Volkswagen, and Mobileye says it will be harvesting data from them in the U.S. by 2021.

And Mobileye isn’t alone. A startup called Carmera that currently collects roadway data from commercial vehicles eventually plans to do the same with the sensors that are already built into production vehicles from Toyota. Tesla says it’s improving its partial autonomy software by using video data it collects from private vehicles, and other companies are close behind.

Sensors are also crucial to the development of the autonomous cars of the future, which will require highly detailed, up-to-the-minute maps to help them “see” the world around them. But these maps may also end up influencing city planning, development, and policing decisions where you live, work, and travel. How that data is used will depend on who gets their hands on it, and could lead to massive profits. Analysts say that data collected from cars could turn into a $750 billion industry over the next decade.

Carmera and Mobileye are targeting urban planners as potential users of these high-definition, or HD, maps. They say that cities will be able to use the data to discover where crashes take place and where drivers tend to speed, find out which buildings aren’t accessible to disabled people, identify roads where burned-out streetlights need to be replaced and potholes need to be fixed, and see where cyclists and pedestrians are concentrated so that infrastructure can be built to keep them safe.

But privacy and data collection experts tell CR that insurers could use data gleaned from HD maps to raise rates for drivers who travel on streets where other drivers tend to exceed the speed limit, landlords could choose to raise rents in neighborhoods with lots of luxury cars, credit reporting firms could make inferences about people who live on streets with less lighting or more potholes, and law enforcement agencies could target pedestrians, homeless encampments, or public gatherings.

Ben Green, author of “The Smart Enough City” (MIT Press, 2019) and a researcher at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., says the same data collected from cars to make cities “smarter” could have unintended consequences when used by other sectors, such as healthcare, human resources, and the media. “Maybe that data is then going to lead to profiles of you that then make an assessment when you apply for a job or apply for healthcare or any number of things,” Green says. “These systems can find ways, without breaking the law as it stands, of redlining people or excluding people.”

Raising a Car’s IQ

Today, most cars use cameras and radar sensors so that advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) such as AEB can prevent potential crashes before they happen. As these systems get more complex and take over more vehicle functions from the driver, they are starting to double check what their sensors “see” against HD road maps that are accurate to within a few centimeters.

“HD maps are crucial as you start to get into higher-level automation,” such as when cars are able to automatically steer within lane lines, says Sam Abuelsamid, a mobility analyst at Navigant, a consulting firm. “If there’s snow on the road and you can’t see the lane, GPS is neither precise enough or reliable enough for that kind of application.”

In order for HD maps to work, they must be updated constantly—so ADAS systems are trained to spot differences between existing HD maps and the real world their sensors are seeing. If there has been a change—say, if temporary lines get painted because of road construction—the sensors can send an update to the HD mapmaker.

Mobileye is creating HD maps in a project called Road Experience Management, or REM. The company says that as few as 10 cars passing down a newly modified road could send back enough data to build an updated map. Outside the U.S., Nissan and Volkswagen are already using REM data to improve their driver assistance programs. And a spokesperson for the map provider Here Technologies told CR it would debut HD maps in BMW and Mercedes-Benz vehicles next year.

Tal Babaioff, who heads up the REM program at Mobileye, told CR that the data collected from cars is not only anonymized but also extremely pared-down. “We’re not sending images,” he said. “We’re not sending license plates. We’re sending semantic information about the world.” Neither images nor the data derived from them are stored on the vehicle.

Even without HD maps, municipalities can access an unprecedented amount of information about where and when people are traveling. For example, 70 cities—including Los Angeles and Austin, Texas—collect data from micromobility services such as e-scooters and shared bikes. Boston and other cities have installed sensors on municipal fleet vehicles to measure things like air quality, tree canopy coverage, and street lighting. Law enforcement agencies already use surveillance cameras, license-plate readers, and facial recognition software. And a massive trove of data about pedestrian and vehicle movement has already been collected from smartphone apps that share a user’s location—not to mention information shared from video doorbells, smart speakers, insurance companies, and fitness trackers.

The advent of Mobileye’s REM project, however, marks the first time that this kind of data is being collected from private vehicles, says Navigant’s Abuelsamid—but he predicts it won’t be the last.

“There’s others out there that are doing similar things, but definitely Mobileye is the first one to do this at scale with consumer vehicles,” he told CR. The company is the world’s largest supplier of ADAS sensor software, and the massive number of vehicles containing Mobileye software is a huge advantage for data collection. “They’re going to have the sensors in the cars anyway to power their ADAS systems, and they need the maps,” Abuelsamid says. (Navigant does not disclose its clients but does work with companies that sell or provide access to data collected from vehicles.)

Big Business

For companies such as Carmera and Mobileye, the depth of data collected by their sensors opens up numerous potential new revenue streams. That’s because HD maps aren’t just useful for improving automotive safety and self-driving systems. They can also be used to create inventories of electrical boxes and poles for utility companies, find potholes or faded lane markings, or alert cities to where new bike lanes or crosswalks should be built—what Carmera CEO Ro Gupta called a byproduct of HD map creation.

For example, the company uncovered an unexpected source of pedestrian data when it took the privacy-protecting step of blurring the faces of bystanders its cameras captured. “We realized, ‘Hey, we’re counting a person each time,’” Gupta says. “We could create this very granular block-level indexing score across the city of how dense any block in the city is on a given month, day of the week, or time of day.”

Gupta says that Carmera has abandoned its early plans to sell that data to focus instead on HD maps for automotive customers. Now, Carmera gives sensors to fleet operators so that they can monitor their drivers in real time in exchange for unlimited access to the data those sensors collect. It also shares some of that data with cities. (The company does not share which fleet operators it works with.)

Mobileye talks about utility companies, city planners, public transit agencies, and law enforcement as potential customers for its HD map data. “There’s absolutely a significant revenue source,” Abuelsamid says. “It’s definitely a new business for Mobileye. They see it as a new revenue stream.”

The company says its maps can cost a city or another third party a yearly fee in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on how detailed they are and how much distance they cover. Babaioff says that in addition to safety improvements, cities would no longer have to conduct manual traffic counts of cars, pedestrians, and cyclists, which could make REM more cost-effective than traditional methods of collecting similar data. The company has already made a deal with a major U.S. city that has yet to be named.

These types of business arrangements are a huge business opportunity for the companies that have access to vehicle data: A 2016 white paper from industry research and consulting firm McKinsey projects that by 2030, data collected from vehicles may represent a $450 billion to $750 billion industry.

Privacy Concerns

How much control drivers have over the information their cars share largely depends on the privacy policies of the companies collecting it and—for now—the technical limitations of the equipment involved, including cameras, processors, and cellular networks.

Babaioff says that REM-equipped cars are intentionally designed to protect a driver’s privacy. “No images leave the camera,” he told CR. Data points are stripped of any identifiable information, and REM collects only segments of individual drives. “We will throw away the start and end of the drive,” Babaioff says. “If you drove from home to work, I would actually get [multiple different] segments that aren’t close to your home and not close to your work. This gives us ability to collect the data without you sacrificing any of your privacy.”

According to Mobileye, each vehicle broadcasts only about 16 kilobytes of road data per mile—about as much data as the text of this story. Overall, every car that harvests for REM will send out around 200 megabytes of data per year. That limitation isn’t only due to privacy concerns. It’s also about minimizing the cost and effort of storing and analyzing data from tens of millions of vehicles, then sending it back as updated HD map data. “That would be too much data, going both ways—both transmitting to Mobileye and transmitting it back to the vehicle,” Abuelsamid says. Even with such a small amount of data being sent from each REM-equipped car, Mobileye is able to harvest over 1.2 million miles of road data every day.

Alejandro Vukotich, senior vice president of the BMW Group’s driver assistance and autonomous driving development, said that BMW would not want raw camera data from the sensors in privately owned vehicles. “We are not interested in that,” he said. “It makes no sense, and no one would pay for it.” For example, a full hour of high-quality video can require over a gigabyte of storage.

Carmera, however, does broadcast video clips from its small fleet of partner vehicles so that humans can verify that its object-identification algorithms are working properly. Gupta says it would eventually be possible to use data from cameras installed in privately owned Toyota vehicles, but because of privacy laws—which he says are “good things”—and technical hurdles, “it’s going to take a long time for that to be available en masse,” he told CR. (The Toyota Research Institute, which has partnered with Carmera, did not respond to CR’s inquiries about the project.)

Even Tesla—which isn’t planning to rely on HD maps and instead sends what it calls “short video clips” from built-in cameras in its vehicles back to the company to improve its Autopilot driver assistance software—can’t collect that much data, Abuelsamid says.

Although the company has publicly released data from an owner’s car after a crash, a Tesla vehicle doesn’t save or broadcast everything it sees. “It’s selectively picking small tidbits of data and saving that because there just isn’t enough storage space on the vehicle to store that data, and it would be prohibitively expensive to transmit it all back to Tesla.”

Drivers can opt out from harvesting REM data, though Mobileye says how they can do so depends on rules set by the car manufacturer. BMW says that drivers automatically opt in to REM when they activate the car’s connected services and that they may lose certain connectivity features if they opt out, such as warnings about slippery roads and traffic signs. (Nissan and Ford didn’t respond to CR’s questions about REM, Tesla didn’t respond to requests for comment, and a spokesman for Volkswagen told CR the company doesn’t “go into detail on specific technology suppliers and their specific hardware and software solutions.”)

But if how automakers currently communicate about privacy is any guide, drivers might not even realize they’ve opted in, says Johanna Zmud, a senior research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute in College Station who has studied automotive data privacy.

Plenty of carmakers already collect some data from private vehicles, Zmud says, usually with a privacy agreement that says they need the information “for diagnostic purposes.” In most cases, these policies may flash across the screen for a few seconds when a car is started, or it might be included in the stack of documents buyers have to sign at the dealership, buried between odometer disclosures and finance applications.

“I’ve seen some of the agreements that, for instance, automakers have for a purchaser and they’re very, very long,” Zmud told CR. “Most people just go to the last page and sign.”

Even drivers who say they don’t want their cars to share data may still allow their cars to do so, depending on how difficult it is to opt out, and whether opting out disables certain features. “There’s this concept called the privacy paradox,” Zmud says. “People say that they care about keeping their data private, but their actions belie that. They don’t act accordingly.”

The ability for a company to sell data collected from private vehicles may become more difficult in the future, according to Dorothy Glancy, a professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law in California who focuses on privacy and transportation. New laws in Europe and California that seek to better define control over personal data may threaten the revenue model that Mobileye and others rely on. “That issue will be very contentious over the next couple of decades,” she said.

Mobileye is aware of how this controversy may affect its REM project. In a 2016 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company listed future legal concerns about data privacy as a potential harm to its business. “It is possible that these laws may be interpreted and applied in a manner that may be inconsistent with our data practices,” the filing said.

Societal Impacts

Lorrie Cranor, director of the CyLab Security and Privacy Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, told CR that even if it seems like companies like Mobileye are handling the data they collect responsibly, that doesn’t answer the question of what other groups might do with it once it is shared or sold.

“If the data is going into algorithms to figure out where we need new traffic lights, and it’s never going to be released as a dataset, and deleted after a certain amount of time, it seems like it’s relatively low risk,” she says. That’s especially true when compared with more revealing datasets, such as information collected from mobile phone apps and traffic cameras.

But, Cranor says there’s no guarantee Mobileye or others in a similar business won’t sell data to third parties that may use it for purposes other than traffic planning.

Who gets to use large datasets largely determines how they get used, says Vinhcent Le, legal counsel at the Greenlining Institute, an advocacy group that aims to advance economic opportunities for people of color. Le said that he sees great benefits for cities to use data for good—but in his experience, data that’s sold usually ends up in the hands of those who have the most money or power.

“The potential is there for city planners, but in my head what happens more often than not is that private corporations, developers, people who are trying to sell you something are the ones who end up with that data, and they find ways to monetize it, and that ends up harming the same folks we’re supposed to be helping,” he told CR.

Consider Amazon’s rollout of same-day delivery in 2016. Although Amazon didn’t include race as a factor when choosing which neighborhoods to debut same-day delivery, an investigation by Bloomberg found that the service initially excluded predominantly black neighborhoods in several major cities. “What they ended up doing is denying people services on the basis of race even if they didn’t use race,” Le said.

Similarly, real estate developers or analysts could use the data to identify neighborhoods where luxury cars are parked, or how many grand opening signs are going up on a block—all ideas initially proposed by Carmera in 2017 that Gupta said the company has since abandoned. At the time, Carmera said this information could be used by real estate brokers, architects, insurers, zoning officials, and industry analysts.

It can be difficult to restrict how private companies use the data they collect, including HD maps. That’s due to an absence of regulation, says Justin Brookman, CR’s director of consumer privacy and technology policy.

“Real-time data collection can do a tremendous amount to promote safety and facilitate repairs, but people are right to worry about what their cars are sharing, and with whom,” he says. “The default is that companies can basically do whatever they want with data, absent some specific statute.”

Historically, Brookman says, companies have argued that privacy statutes violate their First Amendment rights, and courts have agreed. For example, in 2011 the Supreme Court struck down a Vermont law prohibiting pharmaceutical companies from accessing doctors’ prescribing records, saying that the law interfered with the companies’ ability to tailor their marketing messages.

And then there’s the question of law enforcement. While privacy advocates say that police investigations would be more likely to rely on cell-phone data, electronic tolls, traffic cameras, and a vehicle’s own event data recorders (which can capture how a car was being driven prior to a crash), police could still determine information about a driver’s daily patterns and “deanonymize” HD map data—especially if they already have access to those other databases.

They could also use HD mapping data to make decisions about how and where to police, which Le says may reinforce existing inequities. “We have all this mapping that shows you where people are jaywalking or where homeless people are,” he says. “That’s where you need to flip the script—that’s not where you need to send police, that’s where you need to send more services.”

Cities Get Smart

While it might be difficult to control what private companies do with data collected from vehicle sensors, there’s already precedent for controlling data usage at the municipal level. Cities such as San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., and Somerville and Brookline, Mass., have prohibited city agencies from using facial recognition data, and cities and counties across the country have banned automated license plate readers.

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation operates on a policy of what privacy experts call data minimization—collecting as little data as possible to minimize the chances it gets abused—when it monitors and manages micromobility services. “The system is built to process only the minimum amount of vehicle data needed to fulfill our responsibilities to the public,” said spokesman Colin Sweeney. In addition, the Los Angeles City Council formally adopted data protection principles developed by the LADOT.

Kris Carter, co-chair of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston, says the city has already had to make decisions about whether to use data that may not adequately respect the privacy of its residents.

“There’s datasets you can buy out there that are generated by mobile advertising apps that people have on their phones that show pedestrian movements at a very fine degree,” he says. “I think for cities, there’s a fairly good question about whether we want to own and participate in that data collection of residents or not. And that’s still an open question, I think.”

For Carter, who has already collected data from sensors on municipal vehicles and smartphone apps developed specifically for use by Boston residents, a city must be transparent in how it chooses to use data it collects on its residents. “We want to make sure that people are aware of how government is using those types of datasets.”

One way of doing that, Le says, is by directly involving residents when cities choose whether to use new datasets that are available to them. “The solution is really democratic participation,” he says. “The people who live in that city should have some say in the technologies that are going to be used in their cities.”

But even if large datasets are being used responsibly by public entities, it doesn’t control what happens in the private sector. The public must also understand that the dystopian idea of a surveillance state isn’t necessarily a product of government, says the Berkman Klein Center’s Ben Green.

“We have a government-centric notion of surveillance and privacy,” he told CR. “In terms of Big Brother, we don’t want the government knowing what we’re doing and police knocking down the door. But we also need to think about surveillance from private companies—how does that lend them incredible amounts of power, not just over us as individuals but also over the public sector?”

Brookman says that ultimately it’s up to lawmakers to develop provisions that protect people against the misuse of data collected by this new technology.

“We shouldn’t have to trust companies to do the right thing, since their first obligation is to their shareholders, not drivers,” he says. “Americans deserve some basic level of privacy law to ensure that data isn’t being collected and shared in ways that are contrary to our interests,” he adds. “Right now, all bets are off.”