In ‘Alice Street,’ Oakland Artist-Activists Build Power By Bridging Communities

By Sam Lefebvre
KQED

Throughout last year, the steel and concrete frame of a new building in downtown Oakland grew to obscure a sprawling mural. Protesters with picket signs disappeared from view, along with dancers, drummers and martial arts practitioners, leaving the faces of centerpieces Malonga Casquelourd and Ruth Beckford, pillars of the city’s black performing arts tradition. To passersby today the entire artwork is imperceptible behind an incoming housing development.

Alice Street, a forthcoming documentary by Spencer Wilkinson, shows how the Universal Language mural’s creation and erasure alike catalyzed a multiracial anti-gentrification coalition with significant, ongoing effects on real estate development and city planning in downtown Oakland. Set in just a few city blocks, it’s a story about intractable loss as well as collective refusal, depicting artists’ role in grassroots activism that builds power by bridging communities.

Wilkinson, 44, an Oakland filmmaker whose first feature, One Voice (2018), focused on the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, did not anticipate filming for five years when he started chronicling the mural’s design as part of a work-trade deal in 2014. Now he’s submitting the 70-minute Alice Street documentary to film festivals and arranging screenings in other cities grappling with gentrification. Wilkinson expects to announce more Bay Area screenings in the coming months.

Alice Street begins with Destiny Muhammad reciting a poem at the corner of 14th and Alice streets in downtown Oakland to subtle, vaguely religious music by Micah Berek. “An intersection of traditions, ancient rhythms, culture keepers and urban oracles,” she says. A montage shows the neighborhood’s cultural diversity and changing built environment. The credits roll, framed by cranes. Imposed on aerial footage of the low-slung flatlands are sharply rising housing costs.

The film shortly settles on aerosol artist Desi Mundo and studio painter Pancho Pescador of the Community Rejuvenation Project embarking on their largest mural yet: Four walls around a parking lot at Alice and 14th streets. For inspiration, they look directly across the street to the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, a historic city-owned hub of Afro-diasporic drumming and dance, and also to the Chinatown senior apartments and community center Hotel Oakland.

The story has no single conflict or antagonist. The challenge at first appears to be the muralists’ desire to represent two communities to which they’re admitted outsiders, and the project’s most outspoken opponent is an elderly white woman who objects to its exclusion of white people. As soon as the mural is designed and painted to the satisfaction of most neighborhood stakeholders, though, a housing development proposal threatens to render it totally invisible.

“People in the Bay Area are starting to see the benefits of Oakland,” says Maria Poncel of Bay Development, explaining to Mundo and Pescador that the mural will continue to exist behind the planned 16-story tower. “We’re going through sort of a second renaissance.” It’s one of several awkward remarks from developers, property owners and elected officials (has Mayor Libby Schaaf retired “secret sauce”?) that Wilkinson seems to highlight for their evident shallowness.

Halfway through the documentary, then, the mural intended to celebrate cultures at risk of displacement itself confronts disappearance, multiplying its symbolic potency. And the Malonga-Hotel Oakland bloc strengthened through the mural’s development acquires political power that Wilkinson—using interviews and historical flashbacks about racist city planning practices and housing discrimination in Oakland—casts in a longer lineage of racial solidarity.

The goal of the new coalition isn’t immediately evident in the documentary. Theo Williams, leader of Malonga tenant SambaFunk, says at a meeting that he doesn’t necessarily oppose the development, yet no one in the film persuasively argues on its behalf. Complicating the narrative are new problems: Noise complaints resurface concerns about intolerant new neighbors to the Malonga, and the activists crash a city planning process, demanding meaningful representation.

Unsurprisingly for grassroots activism, it’s a dizzying cycle of setback and success. A subplot about Jerry Brown’s early 2000s attempt as Oakland mayor to shutter what was then the Alice Arts Center is a welcome rejoinder to recent hagiography, but it creates some narrative whiplash. Still, the story regains focus when the coalition formally appeals the building’s planning commission approval in order to negotiate a community benefits agreement with the developer.

The coalition secured funds for the Malonga and for a replacement mural (now being designed for the wall of the Greenlining Institute nearby). It also modeled a strategy since used by the coalition to extract concessions from developers worth an estimated $20 million, organizer Eric Arnold says in the film—including 90 affordable homes. With this tactic the same activists recently won a raft of benefits for arts groups in the Kaiser Convention Center redevelopment.

“Resilience” is too often a buzzword that serves to normalize communities’ capacity to withstand abuse, especially from the mouths of powerful people in media and politics. It’s also too flat for the dynamic artist-activists shown in Alice Street, who dance in the streets and navigate city bureaucracy with equal verve. “And then we marched over to the planning office,” recalls Arnold of one decisive action. “It was probably the first time they’ve heard music inside of that office.”

Inevitably some of the story lines in Alice Street go unresolved. The cultural stabilization strategies in the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan published last year derive partly from activism shown in the film, but supporters are disappointed with what little officials have done to enact them. Likewise, tenants of the city-owned Malonga continue to feel chronically neglected, with Williams of SambaFunk recently telling KQED its problems haven’t changed since 1998.

Still, the documentary also captures a heartening generational shift. Standout interviewees Beckford and Michael Lange, the actor and director, died before the film’s completion, but Alice Street shows their commitment to Oakland’s cultural life enduring in Lailan Sandra Huen, Anyka Barber, Casquelourd’s son Kiazi Malonga and others. Wilkinson, meanwhile, is developing educational curriculum to promote the community benefits agreement model beyond Oakland.

It probably doesn’t feel like a silver lining to the muralists, but the four walls of Universal Language haven’t been buffed or repainted. The artwork remains. Recently on Broadway, demolition exposed some mid-20th century advertisements on the side of a building, relics of a barely-recognizable city. It suggests the possibility that Universal Language could daylight again in the lifetime of Oakland’s current residents. The question is who among us will be here to see.

For People of Color, Gentrification is More a Curse than a Blessing

By Stacy M. Brown
BlackPressUSA

From a dowdy provincial city in the 1980s, Philadelphia has become a world-class urban center through gentrification – primarily through landmark architecture that now sets the city center and University City, apart.

“Over 50, and retirees, are moving back from the suburbs where they raised their children into Center City and the Italian Market where I have lived since 1980,” stated Dr. Margaret J. King, the director of The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis in Philadelphia.

“Of course, gentrification brings money into the city, while it also drives up home prices – some houses have multiplied their asking prices 15 times over 40 years,” King noted.

“Housing is being restored and renovated, making more of the city habitable and in fact desirable. Now the suburbs have flipped into a working-class magnet as well as a market for Millennials who can’t afford center-city prices yet,” King stated.

Gentrification isn’t just an issue in Philadelphia – not by a long shot.

According to a March 2019 study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC), more than 135,000 Black and Hispanics around the nation were displaced between 2000 and 2012.

Gentrification and displacement of long-time residents were most intense from 2000 to 2013 in the nation’s biggest cities, and rare in most other places, according to the study.

During those years, gentrification was concentrated in larger cities with vibrant economies but also appeared in smaller cities where it often impacted areas with the most amenities near central business districts.

In Washington, D.C., 20,000 Black residents were displaced, and in Portland, Oregon, 13 percent of the Black community was displaced over the more than decade period that was studied.

Seven cities accounted for nearly half of the gentrification nationally: New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Diego, and Chicago.

Washington, D.C., was the most gentrified city by percentage of eligible neighborhoods that experienced gentrification; New York City was the most gentrified by sheer volume, study authors noted.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, gentrification is defined as the process of repairing and rebuilding homes and businesses in a deteriorating area, such as an urban neighborhood, accompanied by an influx of middle-class or affluent people and that often results in the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents.

“Gentrification is rich people deciding they want a specific neighborhood as their own, and they get municipal backing, pay some money, and get all of the poor people out of there,” stated Mark Love, a New York realtor.

Neighborhoods were considered to be eligible to gentrify if, in 2000, they were in the lower 40 percent of home values and family incomes in that metropolitan area.

During the study, researchers found that most low- to moderate-income neighborhoods did not gentrify or revitalize.

Instead, they remained impoverished, untouched by investments and building booms that occurred in major cities, and vulnerable to future gentrification and displacement.

“When a neighborhood gentrifies, the cost of living increases, and it’s harder for low-income families to find housing, and that’s one of the biggest downsides,” stated Melanie Musson, a writer for ExpertInsuranceReviews.com.

“In a city like Philadelphia, neighborhoods are part of your identity. If you grow up in a neighborhood, you often want to remain living there your whole life because it’s who you are,” Musson stated.

“Unfortunately, sometimes, after several generations living in the same zip code, the newest generation has to find housing elsewhere because it’s too expensive to live where their home has always been,” she said.

Bruce Mirken, the media relations director for the nonprofit public, policy, and advocacy organization, The Greenlining Institute, said he lives in San Francisco and works in Oakland – two cities that are ground zero for the gentrification crisis in California.

“We see the most obvious results among the very low-income, who increasingly cannot keep a roof over their heads, leading to a growing homeless population,” Mirken stated.

“And homelessness in California has a distinct racial dynamic, tracing back through a long history of redlining and discrimination: Black Californians represent about six and a half percent of our state’s population, but about 40 percent of its homeless,” he noted.

In New York, where many residents are still growing accustomed to the decades-long gentrification of Harlem, the Bronx has forever been known as the city’s most urban borough. That’s quickly changing due to gentrification.

In November 2019, officials announced a $950 million, 4.3 acre, multi-tower, and mixed-use development along the Mott Haven waterfront. More than 1,300 high-end apartments are among the upgrades that are certain to price many long-time residents out of the area.

Mychal Johnson, a co-founding member of South Bronx Unite, told The Bronx Times that gentrification isn’t good for economically oppressed communities of color.

“It seems like the community board, and Borough president isn’t looking out for the community,” Johnson stated.

For the NCRC study, Shekinah Mitchell, the Neighborhood Partnerships Manager for the Virginia Local Initiatives Support Corporation, noted that, as the former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond’s history is steeped in racial oppression, inequality, and injustice.

Mitchell noted that, in 2016, Richmond had similar numbers of Black and White residents. From 2000 to 2016, the Black population decreased by seven percent, while the White population increased by 35 percent.

In 2000, Blacks were 57 percent of the population, and whites were 38 percent. In 2016, Blacks represented 47 percent and Whites were 46 percent of the population.

“This shift has come to the East End like a racialized wave crashing onto the shores of the neighborhood in currents of physical, cultural, and economic displacement. The Black community is drowning as we watch our land and culture swallowed up, block by block with no reprieve in sight,” Mitchell wrote in the report.

“Gentrification in the East End of Richmond is manifesting as a process of re-segregation,” she stated. “In Richmond, gentrification is colonization.”

In Portland, Oregon, an essay that accompanied the NCRC study noted that city as the “Whitest city of its size in the United States.”

The city’s White population currently stands at 77.4 percent while Blacks make up just 5.7 percent.

“Take a group of people who have been systematically denied wealth-building opportunities for generations, add low, stagnating incomes, throw in a subprime mortgage disaster, spiraling housing costs and wholesale community displacement, and you have a recipe for a severe economic backslide,” Cheryl Chandler-Roberts, executive director of Portland’s African American Alliance for Homeownership, said in the report.

“There is no African American community in Portland at this point,” Chandler-Roberts stated.

“It’s a scattered community.”

Banking is Changing. Its Lack of Diversity Must Change, Too, and Congress Can Help

By Rawan Elhalaby
CommonDreams

In Nicetown, a North Philadelphia neighborhood that was redlined in the 1930s, banks and mortgage brokers largely stay away. Lenders have been particularly stingy when it comes to home improvement loans. CREDIT: SARAH BLESENER FOR REVEAL NEWS

The financial industry is evolving quickly, but unfortunately it has remained static in one major way: Its leadership looks nothing like America.

That’s bad for communities of color, who will be the American majority in roughly 20 years, but it’s also bad for our whole economy.

At The Greenlining Institute, we regularly look at board and workforce diversity in agencies and private institutions across multiple sectors of the economy, including banks. In 2019, we studied the boards of directors of the ten largest banks operating in California, where we are based, and found that on average, people of color made up 30 percent of bank board composition, despite making up over 67 percent of California’s population.

Gender diversity was equally lacking, with women making up only 29 percent of bank board members. None of the 10 huge banks that we studied had more than 36 percent women board members.

These executive boards are the top decision-makers in financial institutions and drive the policies that ultimately impact our communities. Boards are accountable for the actions and behaviors of their institutions. They set the direction those institutions will go.

And those institutions often still don’t go in directions that help communities of color. My organization’s name, The Greenlining Institute, came from our founding purpose as the answer to redlining, the longstanding practice of denying loans and investment to communities of color. While long illegal, recent investigations by the investigative news organization Reveal found that redlining has not gone away; it persists in more subtle but still destructive forms.

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On an annual basis, we request data from national institutions that operate in California. We track and rank banks on indicators that impact communities of color.

We consider transparency to be critical because data gives the public a full picture of the diversity and inclusion — or lack of it — within financial institutions, helping to keep them accountable to communities of color and inform data-driven policymaking.

Unfortunately, we regularly experience difficulty in obtaining such data, making it much harder to produce fair and thorough research and hold banks accountable. We believe that such data should be disclosed voluntarily by financial institutions, but Congress has a role to play as well.

We’re concerned about regulatory barriers that prevent banks from effectively serving low and moderate-income communities and communities of color by preventing banks from collecting and disclosing race data to the public. We urge lawmakers to look to existing regulations that require government agencies and private institutions to disclose data on diversity and inclusion practices.

Section 342 of the Dodd Frank Act created Offices of Minority and Women Inclusion in eight agencies. These OMWIs have worked to build up a robust infrastructure that includes internal assessments, crafting strategic plans, and increase diversity in their large agencies. This represents a good beginning, but we need more transparency from the banking industry itself. And we definitely need to look at the largely unregulated Fintech industry, which appears to be even less representative of our country’s diversity than conventional banking.

Ultimately, America’s economy cannot prosper if communities of color don’t prosper. A more diverse financial sector can help make that happen.

Our work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License. Feel free to republish and share widely.

Bloomberg once blamed end of ‘redlining’ for 2008 collapse

By BRIAN SLODYSKO
The Associated Press

 

WASHINGTON (AP) — At the height of the 2008 economic collapse, then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the elimination of a discriminatory housing practice known as “redlining” was responsible for instigating the meltdown.

“It all started back when there was a lot of pressure on banks to make loans to everyone,” Bloomberg, now a Democratic presidential candidate, said at a forum that was hosted by Georgetown University in September 2008. “Redlining, if you remember, was the term where banks took whole neighborhoods and said, ‘People in these neighborhoods are poor, they’re not going to be able to pay off their mortgages, tell your salesmen don’t go into those areas.’”

He continued: “And then Congress got involved — local elected officials, as well — and said, ‘Oh that’s not fair, these people should be able to get credit.’ And once you started pushing in that direction, banks started making more and more loans where the credit of the person buying the house wasn’t as good as you would like.”

Bloomberg, a billionaire who built a media and financial services empire before turning to electoral politics, was correct that the financial crisis was triggered in part by banks extending loans to borrowers who were ill-suited to repay them. But by attributing the meltdown to the elimination of redlining, a practice used by banks to discriminate against minority borrowers, Bloomberg appears to be blaming policies intended to bring equality to the housing market.

The term redlining comes from the “red lines” those in the financial industry would draw on a map to denote areas deemed ineligible for credit, frequently based on race.

“It’s been well documented that the 2008 crash was caused by unethical, predatory lending that deliberately targeted communities of color,” said Debra Gore-Mann, president and CEO of the Greenlining Institute, a nonprofit that works for racial and economic justice. “People of color were sold trick loans with exploding interest rates designed to push them into foreclosure. Our communities of color and low income communities were the victims of the crash, not the cause.”

Campaign spokesman Stu Loeser said that Bloomberg “attacked predatory lending” as mayor and, if elected president, has a plan to “help a million more Black families buy a house, and counteract the effects of redlining and the subprime mortgage crisis.”

The campaign also pointed to efforts by Bloomberg’s private philanthropy to help other cities craft policies that will help reduce evictions. He promised in a January speech to do a version of the very thing he criticized in 2008: Ask lenders to update their credit-scoring models, “because millions of black households don’t have a credit score which is needed to get a mortgage.”

After this story was published, Loeser added: “He’s saying that something bad – the financial crisis – followed something good, which is the fight against redlining that he was part of as Mayor.”

Bloomberg’s 2008 remarks stand in contrast with the decades-long positions some of his rivals have held.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s work as a professor and attorney has been devoted to the study of bankruptcy and the disastrous impact it has on the financial well-being of families. As a young Delaware senator, Joe Biden held hearings on unfair lending practices and sponsored legislation to ban discrimination in lending and crack down on industry figures who did.

On Thursday, Warren criticized Bloomberg for suggesting the end of redlining caused the crash.

“Out-of-control greed by Wall Street and big banks, and the corruption that lets them control our government, caused the crash,” she tweeted.

“I’m surprised that someone running for the Democratic nomination thinks the economy would be better off if we just let banks be more overtly racist,” she said. “We need to confront the shameful legacy of discrimination, not lie about it like Mike Bloomberg.”

Bloomberg’s redlining remarks are the latest instance of his past comments by him that have resurfaced in recent days that make him appear racially insensitive.

On Tuesday, an audio recording ricocheted around social media of Bloomberg defending the police department’s use of the controversial “stop-and-frisk” tactic during a 2015 appearance at the Aspen Institute.

Full Coverage: Election 2020

Under the program, New York City police officers made it a routine practice to stop and search multitudes of mostly black and Hispanic men to see if they were carrying weapons.

Although he has since apologized for his support for the policy, in the recording Bloomberg said that “95%” of murders and murder victims are young male minorities and that “you can just take the description, Xerox it and pass it out to all the cops.” To combat crime, he said, “put a lot of cops where the crime is, which means in minority neighborhoods.”

Bloomberg’s resurfaced comments about redlining come as he’s in the midst of a two-day tour of the South that in part is focused on building relationships with black voters who are the backbone of the Democratic Party. On Thursday, he plans to launch “Mike for Black America”

Speaking to reporters in Tennessee on Wednesday, he refused to directly apologize for the 2015 comments. In response to repeated questions, he said, “I don’t think those words reflect how I led the most diverse city in the nation.”

“I apologized for the practice and the pain that it caused,” he said Wednesday. “It was five years ago. And, you know, it’s just not the way that I think, and it doesn’t reflect what I do every day.”

Introducing Bloomberg at an event in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Dr. Elenora Woods, president of the city’s NAACP chapter, said he would be a tireless fighter for economic justice for black Americans.

“Look, I know what racism looks like. I know what it looks like, and that’s not Mike Bloomberg,” she said.

House subcommittee scrutinizes diversity at biggest banks

By Meghan McCarty Carino
MarketPlace

Has Wall Street really become more diverse since the 2008 recession? Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The banking industry is coming under scrutiny on Capitol Hill Wednesday. A House Financial Services subcommittee is holding a hearing on diversity, or lack thereof, at the biggest banks in the country.

After the 2008 financial crisis and the reforms that followed with the Dodd-Frank Act, banks were supposed to become more accountable to the public, and part of that was by becoming more diverse.

“Because when people that are representative of our nation actually are in these positions, then communities of color get served better,” said Rawan Elhalaby, who was set to testify at the hearing on behalf of the Greenlining Institute, a nonprofit focused on economic justice.

She pointed to predatory lending that disproportionately hurt borrowers of color in the run-up to the Great Recession. Since then, she said, the industry has paid lip service to diversity and inclusion, “but we’re not seeing the data to really back that up.”

While Dodd-Frank reforms require monitoring of diversity at the biggest banks, it’s not clear how much has changed.

“Indeed, progress has been slow. It’s been glacial,” said Ronald Parker, president and CEO of the National Association of Securities Professionals, which advocates on behalf of women and minorities in the financial sector.

Parker points to a report by the House Diversity and Inclusion subcommittee last year that showed banks’ senior leadership and boards of directors are still mostly white and male, while not one of the biggest banks is led by a woman or person of color.

Greenlining Institute to Push for Bank Diversity at House Hearing Feb. 12

House Financial Services Subcommittee to Consider Diversity & Inclusion at Large Banks  

Contact:
Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 510-926-4022; 415-846-7758 (cell), brucem@greenlining.org
Rawan Elhalaby, Greenlining Institute Senior Economic Equity Program Manager, 619-339-7955 (cell), rawane@greenlining.org

WASHINGTON – At a rare congressional hearing on diversity and inclusion (or in, many cases, the lack thereof) at America’s largest banks, Rawan Elhalaby of The Greenlining Institute will present her recent research on bank boards of directors, call for greater transparency, and argue for more aggressive efforts to promote diversity in the financial sector.

“Banks and other financial institutions often claim to make diversity and inclusion a high priority, but when you look behind the buzzwords, you often find far too little real progress, “said Elhalaby, author of Greenlining’s October 2019 report, 2019 Bank Board Diversity.

WHAT: House Committee on Financial Services, Subcommittee on Diversity and Inclusion Hearing, “A Review of Diversity and Inclusion at America’s Large Banks

WHO: Rawan Elhalaby, Senior Economic Equity Program Manager, The Greenlining Institute; Kenneth Bentsen, President and Chief Executive Officer, Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association Diversity and Inclusion Council; Dr. Naomi Mercer, Senior Vice President, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, American Bankers Association; Subha Barry, President, Working Mother Media; members of the committee

WHERE: 2128 Rayburn House Office Building

WHEN: Wednesday, February 12, 10 a.m.

Elhalaby will be available for media interviews after the hearing.

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

###

THE GREENLINING INSTITUTE
A Multi-Ethnic Public Policy, Research and Advocacy Institute

www.greenlining.org
@Greenlining

Greenlining Institute Disappointed at Judge’s OK of T-Mobile/Sprint Deal

Advocates Say Merger “Will Harm Communities of Color and Low-Income Communities Across California” 

Contact:
Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director 415-846-7758 (cell)
Paul Goodman, Greenlining Institute Technology Equity Director, 831-325-8600 (cell)

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – The Greenlining Institute today expressed profound disappointment at a New York judge’s ruling that the controversial merger of T-Mobile and Sprint can go ahead. Greenlining Institute Technology Equity Director Paul Goodman made the following statement:

“We are profoundly disappointed that the judge approved a merger that will harm communities of color and low-income communities across California. T-Mobile’s tepid promises to offer low-cost services were contradicted by T-Mobile’s own experts, and T-Mobile’s commitments are too vague and full of loopholes to ensure that the merger is in the public interest. The Greenlining Institute will continue to fight the merger at the California Public Utilities Commission to ensure that communities of color have access to affordable, high quality service.

“The fact that information regarding the judge’s ruling leaked before the judge issued his decision is highly unusual and raises serious questions about a merger review process that has already been tarred by T-Mobile’s backroom dealings at the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice. We are saddened that the judge decided to reward such behavior.”

The lawsuit was filed in June in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan by attorneys general from 13 states and the District of Columbia. They argued that the merger would harm low-income customers by reducing competition in the telecommunications industry, leading to higher cellphone bills.

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

###

THE GREENLINING INSTITUTE
A Multi-Ethnic Public Policy, Research and Advocacy Institute

www.greenlining.org
@Greenlining

‘This Merger Is a Monopolistic Disaster’: Consumer Groups Decry Approval of T-Mobile/Sprint Deal

By Jessica Corbett
CommonDreams

 

Consumer advocacy groups on Tuesday sharply condemned a federal judge’s decision to approve the planned merger of T-Mobile and Sprint, the nation’s third- and fourth-largest wireless carriers, warning that the $26.5 billion deal could lead to higher prices and worse service.

The group Public Citizen declared on Twitter that “this merger is a monopolistic disaster” and told consumers to “expect prices to rise and service to suffer.”

The ruling (pdf) Tuesday from Judge Victor Marrero of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan came in a lawsuit filed by the attorney generals of 13 states and the District of Columbia, which is the merger’s final hurdle. Critics have long denounced the deal as “blatantly anti-competitive,” but federal regulators signed off on it last year.

The U.S. Department of Justice approved the merger in July on the condition that Sprint sell off some parts to the satellite television provider Dish Network Corp. and Republicans on the Federal Communications Commission voted in favor of the deal in October—after Chairman Ajit Pai, an appointee of President Donald Trump, spent months advocating for it.

“From the start, this merger has been about massive corporate profits over all else, and despite the companies’ false claims, this deal will endanger wireless subscribers where it hurts most: their wallets.”
—New York Attorney General Letitia James

New York Attorney General Letitia James, who led the suit with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, said in a statement that the coalition challenging the merger is considering its next step, including a possible appeal. She also urged Americans to hold the wireless providers accountable and expressed concerns about severe consequences if the deal goes through.

“Today’s decision marks a loss for every American who relies on their cell phone for work, to care for a family member, and to communicate with friends,” said James. “From the start, this merger has been about massive corporate profits over all else, and despite the companies’ false claims, this deal will endanger wireless subscribers where it hurts most: their wallets.”

“There is no doubt that reducing the mobile market from four to three will be bad for consumers, bad for workers, and bad for innovation, which is why the states stepped up and led this lawsuit,” she added. “We disagree with this decision wholeheartedly, and will continue to fight the kind of consumer-harming megamergers our antitrust laws were designed to prevent.”

Becerra echoed James’ comments in a statement, vowing that “our coalition is prepared to fight as long as necessary to protect innovation and competitive costs.”

Consumer advocates thanked the attorneys general for, in the words of Free Press vice president of policy and general counsel Matt Wood, “working so hard to stave off this terrible result.” Since news of the judge’s decision leaked late Wednesday, Wood has responded with a pair of statements.

“People already pay way too much and have hardly any choices in a consolidated mobile and broadband marketplace,” he said. “It’s hard to believe a sitting federal judge could be so unaware of the realities of this industry and the track record of phone and cable companies, but here we are.”

Wood accused Marrero of “showing a stunning lack of awareness and attention to the facts when he credits the claims of T-Mobile executives that their company will compete just the same as ever, even after swallowing its biggest rival for lower-priced service.” However, “the judge was not alone in willfully ignoring or failing to grasp the harms caused by removing a competitor from this already highly concentrated market,” he added, calling out Trump’s DOJ and FCC.

“The judge is showing a stunning lack of awareness and attention to the facts when he credits the claims of T-Mobile executives that their company will compete just the same as ever, even after swallowing its biggest rival for lower-priced service.”
—Matt Wood, Free Press

Ultimately, Wood warned, “this deal will be most harmful to the two carriers’ poorer and more urban customer base, who will pay dearly for this combination after yet another failure by our nation’s antitrust enforcers.”

In a statement, Greenlining Institute technology equity director Paul Goodman also expressed disappointment “that the judge approved a merger that will harm communities of color and low-income communities.”

“The fact that information regarding the judge’s ruling leaked before the judge issued his decision,” Goodman added, “is highly unusual and raises serious questions about a merger review process that has already been tarred by T-Mobile’s backroom dealings” at the DOJ and FCC.

Former FCC Commissioner and current Common Cause special adviser Michael Copps highlighted that “all of the evidence in this proceeding shows that this merger is inherently illegal under antitrust law” and “even evidence presented at the trial revealed the companies’ executives acknowledged prices for wireless service would rise if the merger was approved.”

Copps reiterated concerns that “low-income and marginalized communities who rely on more affordable services from T-Mobile and Sprint may find themselves displaced from wireless access” and commended the coalition of attorneys general.

“Robust and affordable broadband and voice services are essential to a 21st century democracy. A marketplace where Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile are allowed to call of the shots will only serve to widen the digital divide,” he said. “Our antitrust laws were designed to block blatantly anti-competitive mergers like this one. If our laws are no longer sufficient, then Congress must step in to improve them. Otherwise, we can expect to see more industry consolidation where consumers will pay the price.”

Open Markets Institute legal director Sandeep Vaheesan warned that Marrero’s ruling has broader consequences because it “empowers all corporations seeking dominance through mergers and acquisitions.” The judge’s decision, he said, “underscores the need for bright-line rules that deter harmful consolidation and channel business strategy toward product improvement and investment in new capacity.”

Meanwhile, T-Mobile CEO John Legere celebrated Marrero’s ruling as “a huge victory for this merger” and repeated his company’s claim that “the New T-Mobile will be a supercharged Un-carrier that is great for consumers and great for competition.” Sprint executive chairman Marcelo Claure said that “Judge Marrero’s decision validates our view that this merger is in the best interests of the U.S. economy and American consumers.”

The Hill noted Tuesday that “one judge and a California panel still need to sign off on the merger, though it’s unlikely either of those will kill the deal.”

Why does the Sierra Club oppose affordable housing?

By Sasha Perigo
Curbed SF

The Loma Prieta chapter of the environmental organization says no to a Moss Beach development due to sustainability concerns.

AnAn affordable housing development on the Peninsula has an unlikely detractor: the local Sierra Club.

The development in question, a 100 percent affordable housing plan proposed by nonprofit developer MidPen Housing, is at Cypress Point in Moss Beach, a coastal community seven miles south of Pacifica.

The project would add 76 homes for individuals and families making between zero and 80 percent of the area median income, which comes in at $134,435.

The developer has held dozens of community meetings over four years about the project. But the debate raged on January 20 before the San Mateo Planning Commission. After hours of public comment, the planning commission decided—once again—to delay a decision on advancing the development of the critical homes.

Perhaps not at all surprising, the Loma Prieta chapter of the Sierra Club has opposed the Moss Beach project since its inception.

The Sierra Club’s views on housing development have been a thorny issues for years now.

The San Francisco chapter came under fire in 2015 for opposing three downtown developments, because they cast a shadow on nearby parks. Pro-density critics decried this move as blatant NIMBYism. Infill development has a positive environmental impact since it reduces the need for increased car use downtown.

Since this controversy, the California Sierra Club has gotten more vocal about supporting housing density; in 2018, the organization published a letter in support of affordable housing. But local chapters still remain autonomous over the projects under their jurisdiction.

Housing is one area of focus for the Sierra Club Loma Prieta chapter, which has a rubric that incorporates affordability, transit access, and energy efficiency, among other factors, to decide whether or not to support a project.

The Sierra Club has penned letters of support for housing developments in the past, but when it comes to the Moss Beach project, the environmental outfit continues to have concerns. For example, it says the site is too far from community services like supermarkets, schools, and medical offices.

Also of worry? The development would have poor access to public transit. While the SamTrans route 17 runs along the coastline, from Pacifica down to Half Moon Bay, it only runs once an hour.

The chapter also says the project’s proximity to Highway 1, which the groups says is a safety hazard, is yet another concern.

“In response to concerns from Club members who live in the area we have visited the site and our initial impression is that there could hardly be a much worse location for affordable housing in the urbanized Mid-Coast,” the Sierra Club chapter said in 2016, noting that the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) required by residents of the development “would be significant.”

Affordable housing advocate Jordan Grimes, from Peninsula for Everyone, offered another perspective, arguing that the project could actually reduce vehicle miles traveled.

Job growth has far outpaced housing construction on the Peninsula, and the coastal region is no exception. Though the nearby town of Pacifica added 5,000 jobs between 2010 and 2019, it only added 67 new homes, according to the California Employment Development Department and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Grimes points out these workers must all commute from somewhere.

“I really am surprised that the Sierra Club is against this,” he said. “The way we see it is the VMT created by people having to live in Tracy and Gilroy and having to commute to their job is worse … It’s not perfect, but it’s better than the status quo.”

Peninsula Regional lead at the Sierra Club Loma Prieta chapter Mike Ferreira told Curbed SF that Peninsula for Everyone misses the point.

“That’s specious,” said Ferriera. “Vehicle miles traveled are not only when you’re traveling to a job. It’s going to schools and libraries and doctors and boys and girls clubs.”

Grimes also mentioned that the affordable housing might appeal to an existing constituency in Moss Beach: homeless people living in recreational vehicles along the coast.

Sonja Trauss, a San Francisco-based housing advocate who attended meetings in support of the project, agrees with Grimes. When there’s job growth without home growth in a region, people end up doubled up in homes or living out of their cars.

“It’s already the case that there are more and more cars in each driveway,” said Trauss. “You guys are against density, but it’s happening anyway.”

The bulk of the homes at Cypress Point would be available to renters classified by HUD as extremely low or very low income. These renters make between zero and 50 percent of the Area Median Income, or up to $62,000 for a family of four.

“Those units are extremely hard to come by in San Mateo County,” said Grimes.

MidPen Housing corroborates numbers about local job growth. The developer notes there are 11,000 local jobs along the Peninsula coast. Forty-five percent of these workers commute 10 miles or more to work, and 68 percent make less than $40,000.

A majority of the homes in the project will be reserved for applicants with jobs in the area.

MidPen says it selected the Cypress Point site for affordable housing due to its proximity to low-wage jobs; hospitality, food service, construction, and manufacturing jobs are common on the coast. Plus, its options were limited when choosing a coastal site.

San Mateo County has only designated three regions along the coast as available for affordable housing development. MidPen reviewed the other two sites, but determined that they were not “viable for development.”

Not all environmental organizations take the same approach to evaluating housing development as the Sierra Club.

The Greenlining Institute, an Oakland-based nonprofit focused on racial justice, promotes sustainable and equitable housing development.

Greenlining’s environmental equity director, Alvaro Sanchez, said he takes a holistic view towards evaluating new development rather than taking a stance on individual developments.

“I see obviously merit on both sides,” he said. “From our perspective, there’s a severe housing shortage. I would encourage the Sierra Club to try to figure out a win-win situation in order to … build more housing and to reduce pollution.”

Developers can address sustainability concerns without abandoning a planned development.

In other areas where transit service is less than adequate, the Greenlining Institute has advocated for the inclusion of electric vehicle chargers in affordable housing developments.

While advocacy to increase bus service in the Moss Beach community has stalled in the past, an influx of new residents could reignite calls for more public transit. Increased ridership makes bus lines more economically feasible.

The next step in advancing the Cypress Point project is for the San Mateo County Planning Commission to update the county’s planning documents to allow for the construction of the project. This is the decision that they delayed last Wednesday.

This rezoning alone would not be approval of the project. The county would have to separately approve the project in a future planning meeting before construction could start on the project.

The Sierra Club is pressing on in its opposition to the project.

“There’s a lot of ego around this project,” said Ferreira, referring to MidPen leadership. “Someone needs to say that the emperor has no clothes.”

If the Sierra Club gets its way, MidPen would have to start the planning process from scratch at a new site—and residents in need of affordable housing would have to wait.

Delaying affordable housing construction could also have ramifications for the county. State law mandates that each community constructs a certain amount of affordable housing, as determined by the Bay Area’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation.

If a community that has failed to meet their target denies qualifying projects, they are subject to legal action.

The California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, led by Sonja Trauss at the time, sued the city of San Mateo for similar reasons in 2017. The lawsuit has put San Mateo County officials on high alert and could influence their decision on Cypress Point.

“It’s not at all surprising that it takes five years to build housing,” said Trauss. “It’s tragic.”

The problem with the Sierra Club’s opposition is not only that it delays construction, said Peninsula for Everyone’s Grimes, but that it bolsters NIMBY opposition.

A local group called Resist Density has joined the Sierra Club in opposition to the project, but unlike the Sierra Club, they are opposed to high-density development altogether. Other “projects of concern” on their website include the designation of two RV parks.

“The anti-density group is hammering hard on the Sierra Club’s opposition to this,” noted Grimes.

“It’s greenwashing,” added Trauss. “This is it.”

Still, Ferreira said at last Wednesday’s Planning Commission meeting that it’s “premature” to move forward with the project given outstanding concerns.

“We can’t fall into the trap of [building] anything anywhere,” Ferreira said. “Because you’ve got to live with it.”

 

Uber’s new policies could encourage discrimination, advocates fear

By Carolyn Said
San Francisco Chronicle

Advocates for minorities and low-income people fear that Uber’s recent overhaul of its ride processes could lead to discrimination against people traveling to neighborhoods some drivers perceive as less desirable.

Drivers can now decline to take passengers to San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point or East Oakland, for instance — areas already underserved by transportation.

Uber last week gave California drivers much more autonomy, including the ability to know every ride’s destination in advance and to reject ride requests without penalty. The changes are Uber’s attempt to shield itself from being forced to reclassify drivers as employees under the state’s new gig-work law, AB5, but some outside groups say the overhaul creates conditions for prejudicial treatment.

“We fear this new system could only exacerbate discrimination,” said Hana Creger, environmental equity program manager at Oakland’s Greenlining Institute, which promotes racial and economic justice. “Drivers could refuse to go to certain neighborhoods they deem as unsafe.”

Uber is aware of the increased potential for bias and said it will closely monitor trips for destination discrimination.

“Rejecting requests for discriminatory reasons, including rejecting trips solely to avoid particular neighborhoods, violates Uber’s Community Guidelines and California law,” it wrote in a blog post to drivers announcing the new ride processes.

Lyft has not matched Uber’s change, so Lyft drivers still cannot see their riders’ destinations.

Despite Uber’s assurances, advocates for minorities remain concerned.

“We have well-developed patterns of racial exclusion in the U.S., whether housing, land use policy or transportation,” said Bob Allen, director of the transportation justice program at Oakland’s Urban Habitat, a nonprofit advocating for historically disenfranchised communities. “Folks of color, particularly black folks, are not able to get a taxi pickup as often in their neighborhoods. I think it would also be an issue” under Uber’s new policies.

A related issue is that drivers might reject less-lucrative short-hop trips, something that seniors and others with mobility issues rely upon. However, that might be mitigated since Uber provides incentives for drivers to complete a certain number of trips within a certain time frame. Uber said it has not seen high rejection rates for short trips since the changes.

Clarrissa Cabansagan, new mobility policy director at TransForm, an Oakland nonprofit working on climate and mobility justice issues, said that independent analysis would be the best way to track destination discrimination.

San Francisco required applicants for its scooter and bike street-rental permits to explain how they’d serve communities of concern and provide ongoing data on that, she noted. (TransForm worked with bike-rental company Motivate, now owned by Lyft, on its inclusion plans and with Lyft on its unsuccessful scooter application.)

But while the city has the authority to regulate bikes and scooters on its streets, it lacks jurisdiction over Uber and Lyft. They are regulated at the state level by the California Public Utilities Commission. That agency requires the companies to provide annual reports on ZIP codes served, but spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said the data are not used to track changes in service by areas.

The agency “is always focused on ensuring nondiscriminatory practices by the entities it regulates and utilizes all of its tools and resources to meeting that end,” Prosper said.

Uber has started its own studies.

Because the changes were phased in starting in December, the company could compare drivers who knew destinations with those who didn’t. It said it looked at acceptance rates for trips going to Bay Area locations identified as communities of concern by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and did not find any differences in acceptance rates or arrival times.

“So far, we have seen no indication that drivers are accepting trips to disadvantaged areas any less frequently than other areas because of this change, but we are keeping a close eye as these changes roll out more fully across the state,” Uber said.

Passengers who want to complain about discrimination or other ride-hailing issues can contact the state agency at CIU_intake@cpuc.ca.gov or 800-894-9444. They should also contact Uber via the app so it can track their complaints with their accounts, Uber said. While passengers are aware when a driver cancels an accepted trip, they won’t know if a driver rejects their ride request because it will get passed on to other drivers until the company finds someone who accepts it. The rejections would manifest in longer wait times, which could best be tracked by Uber or outside observers monitoring control groups.

Cabansagan said the issues could be nuanced — drivers might reject ride requests because they’re tired and don’t want to drive too far, for instance.

“As a person of color who understands sensitivities about white folks feeling the hood is dangerous, you can’t just automatically assume that cancellations/rejections equal racism, but you can do digging,” she said.

Access to timely, affordable transportation is a lifeline for people who need to get to school, work, stores and doctors. In outlying neighborhoods with fewer public transit options, ride-hailing has improved residents’ mobility.

“We see a lot of our communities in disadvantaged neighborhoods use Uber and Lyft because transit is so infrequent,” Cabansagan said. “That benefits people who otherwise might spend more than a third of their income on a vehicle.”

Ride “redlining” by taxi drivers is already well documented nationwide.

Hansu Kim, owner of Flywheel Taxi, San Francisco’s second-largest fleet with 300 cabs, said that is no longer an issue.

“In the past, without a doubt, neighborhoods in lower-income areas were not served as well,” he said. “Today that’s nonexistent. The loss of rides for the taxi industry (due to Uber and Lyft) has been so extreme that any ride a taxi driver gets, they’re going to take. Even in the worst parts of the city where traditionally there was discrimination in the past, (passengers are) getting picked up very quickly.”

In contrast to taxis, Uber and Lyft have long promoted that ride-hailing reduces discrimination because drivers don’t know passengers’ names or destinations.

“New transportation options like Uber add a reliable and affordable option to the transportation ecosystem for low-income neighborhoods,” the company wrote in a 2015 blog post touting a study it financed that found that its rides in underserved areas cost less and arrived faster than taxis.

But some researchers have found that ride-hailing still suffers from racial profiling, even before Uber’s recent changes.

Passengers with names that sounded stereotypically African American were more likely to have rides canceled and to have longer waits for pickups than people with white-sounding names, according to a 2018 UCLA doctoral dissertation based on a three-year study in Los Angeles. (Drivers don’t see passenger names until after accepting trip requests.) Cancellation rates and wait times for black riders were even higher on taxi rides.

“I think there’s a very real chance of (Uber’s new policy) potentially increasing discrimination,” said thesis author Anne Brown, now an assistant professor of planning, public policy and management at the University of Oregon.

“The taxi industry is the best way to see consequences of a very similar policy: Taxis can see destinations of riders before accepting trips and we’ve seen that low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color are very poorly served by taxis,” she said. “In interviews, drivers say, ‘We don’t want to serve those neighborhoods, they’re dangerous, we won’t get a trip back.’”

She’s also concerned about a potential “snowball” effect — if drivers won’t accept trips going to neighborhoods of concern, then there will be a lower supply of drivers for outgoing trips from those areas.

Brown agrees that monitoring is one way to safeguard against bias.

“People change their behavior when they know someone is watching,” she said. “That element is important to retain.”