DALLAS — When software engineer Bejoy Narayana was developing Bob.ai, an application to help automate Dallas-Fort Worth’s Section 8 voucher program, he stopped and asked himself, ‘‘Could this system be used to help some people more than others?”
Bob.ai uses artificial intelligence, known as AI, and automation to help voucher holders find rental units, property owners complete contracting and housing authorities conduct inspections. The software and mobile app were released in 2018 in partnership with the Dallas Housing Authority, which gave Narayana access to data from some 16,000 Section 8 voucher holders.
Artificial intelligence is used in a host of algorithms in medicine, banking and other major industries. But as it has proliferated, studies have shown that AI can be biased against people of color. In housing, AI has helped perpetuate segregation, redlining and other forms of racial discrimination against Black families, who disproportionately rely on vouchers.
Narayana worried that Bob.ai would do the same, so he tweaked his app so that tenants could search for apartments using their voucher number alone, without providing any other identifying information.
As an Indian immigrant overseeing a team largely made up of people of color, Narayana was especially sensitive to the threat of racial bias. But lawmakers in a growing number of states don’t want to rely on the goodwill of AI developers. Instead, as AI is adopted by more industries and government agencies, they want to strengthen and update laws to guard against racially discriminatory algorithms—especially in the absence of federal rules.
Since 2019, more than 100 bills related to artificial intelligence and automated decision systems have been introduced in nearly two dozen states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. This year, lawmakers in at least 16 states proposed creating panels to review AI’s impact, promote public and private investment in AI, or address transparency and fairness in AI development.
A bill in California would be the first to require developers to evaluate the privacy and security risks of their software, as well as assess their products’ potential to generate inaccurate, unfair, biased or discriminatory decisions. Under the proposed law, the California Department of Technology would have to approve software before it could be used in the public sector.
The bill, introduced by Assembly Member Ed Chau, a Democrat and chair of the Committee on Privacy and Consumer Protection, passed the California State Assembly earlier this month and was pending in the state Senate at publication time.
Chau said the bill would set up a clear system of accountability and offer transparency on AI design systems to minimize discriminatory effects on California residents, a critical goal as the state works on its pandemic recovery. Writing a new policy “is especially important as our government agencies seek to utilize algorithm-driven [AI] systems to improve our quality of life,” he wrote in an emailed statement.
Vinhcent Le, a lawyer at the Greenlining Institute, an advocacy group focused on racial economic justice, helped write the California legislation. Le described algorithms such as Bob.ai as gatekeepers to opportunity that can either perpetuate segregation and redlining or help to end them.
“It’s great that the developers of Bob.ai decided to omit a person’s name, but we can’t rely on small groups of people making decisions that can essentially affect thousands,” Le said. “We need an agreed way to audit these systems to ensure they are integrating equity metrics in ways that don’t unfairly disadvantage people.”
In 2019, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, introduced a bill like the one under consideration in California, but it died in committee and has not been reintroduced.
“Fifty years ago, my parents encountered a practice called ‘real estate steering’ where black couples were steered away from certain neighborhoods in New Jersey. With the help of local advocates and the backing of federal legislation, they prevailed,” Booker said in a news release introducing the bill.
“However, the discrimination that my family faced in 1969 can be significantly harder to detect in 2019: houses that you never know are for sale, job opportunities that never present themselves, and financing that you never become aware of—all due to biased algorithms.”
Several states have struggled in recent years with problematic software.
Facebook overhauled its ad-targeting system to prevent discrimination in housing, credit and job ads in 2019 as part of a settlement to resolve legal challenges filed by the National Fair Housing Alliance, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Communications Workers of America and other advocacy groups.
In Michigan, an AI system that cost the state $47 million to build in 2013 falsely accused as many as 40,000 people of unemployment insurance fraud, forcing some people into bankruptcy, according to the Detroit Free Press.
In Pennsylvania, a child abuse prediction model unfairly targets low-income families because it relies on data that is collected only on families using public resources, according to Virginia Eubanks’ 2018 book “Automating Inequality.”
“Automated decision-making shatters the social safety net, criminalizes the poor, intensifies discrimination, and compromises our deepest national values,” Eubanks wrote. “And while the most sweeping digital decision-making tools are tested in what could be called ‘low rights environments’ where there are few expectations of political accountability and transparency, systems first designed for the poor will eventually be used on everyone.”
The Sacramento Housing Redevelopment Agency began using Bob.ai in March. Laila Darby, assistant director of the housing voucher program, said the agency vetted Bob.ai before using it to make sure it didn’t raise privacy and discrimination concerns.
Narayana said he’s sure Bob.ai would pass any state-mandated test for algorithmic discrimination.
“We’re a company that is fighting discrimination and doing everything possible to expand housing for voucher holders,” Narayana said. “Vetting these systems is beneficial because discrimination and inequality is something everyone should be concerned about.”
Narayana worked as an engineer at IBM until he decided to start his own company with the mission of rethinking government functions. He founded BoodsKapper in 2016 and began developing Bob.ai out of a co-working space near the Dallas-Fort Worth airport.
Narayana’s creation has been a huge success—in Dallas and beyond. The Dallas Housing Authority has used Bob.ai to cut the average wait time for an apartment inspection from 15 days to one. Since the launch of Bob.ai, Dallas and more than a dozen other housing agencies have added some 20,000 Section 8 units from landlords who were not participating in the program because of the long inspection wait times.
“We partnered with [Narayana] to come up with some technology advancements to our workflows and automation so that we could more timely respond to our business partners so that they didn’t see this as a lost lead in terms of working with the voucher program,” said Troy Broussard, Dallas Housing Authority CEO.
Marian Russo, executive director of the Village of Patchogue Community Development Agency on Long Island, New York, said she hopes Bob.ai can help the agency reverse the area’s long history of redlining. The authority plans to begin using Bob.ai to manage its 173 housing vouchers later this year.
“We’re one of the most segregated parts of the country,” Russo said of Long Island. “We have 25 housing authorities, so if we could just have a central place with all the landlords who are renting through the program and all the individuals who are looking for housing in one place, that could be a part of equalizing the housing issues on Long Island.”
U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, an Illinois Democrat, has similar hopes for AI. In a May 7 hearing, members of the Task Force on Artificial Intelligence of the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services discussed how AI could expand lending, housing and other opportunities. But they also warned that historical data inputted into AI can create models that are racist or sexist. Foster’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“The real promise of AI in this space is that it may eventually produce greater fairness and equity in ways that we may not have contemplated ourselves,” said Foster, chair of the task force, in the hearing. “So, we want to make sure that the biases of the analog world are not repeated in the AI and machine-learning world.”
SANTA CLARA, Calif. and BOSTON – May 20, 2021 – SVB Financial Group (“SVB”) (NASDAQ: SIVB), the parent of Silicon Valley Bank, the bank of the world’s most innovative companies and their investors, today announced a proposed five-year, $11.2 billion community benefits plan that builds on its long-standing commitment toward helping small businesses, financing affordable housing, reinvesting in low- and moderate-income (“LMI”) communities and supporting the greater good through philanthropy and volunteering. The plan was developed in collaboration with the California Reinvestment Coalition (“CRC”), The Greenlining Institute, Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance (“MAHA”) and Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations (“MACDC”), based on anticipated growth resulting from and subject to the completion of SVB’s pending acquisition of Boston Private Financial Holdings, Inc. (“Boston Private”) (NASDAQ: BPFH), the parent of Boston Private Bank & Trust Company. The acquisition was announced in January 2021 and is expected to close in mid-2021, subject to the satisfaction of customary closing conditions and applicable regulatory approvals.
Over a five-year period from January 2022 through December 2026, SVB’s $11.2 billion commitment will focus on providing financial support to LMI communities in California and Massachusetts:
$5.0 billion in small business loans of $1 million or less;
$4.8 billion in Community Reinvestment Act (“CRA”) community development (“CD”) loans and investments;
$1.3 billion in residential mortgages to LMI borrowers and in LMI census tracts; and
$75 million in charitable contributions.
As part of its residential mortgage lending commitment, SVB will expand its participation in the Massachusetts Housing Partnership’s ONE Mortgage and the City of Boston’s ONE+Boston first-time homebuyer mortgage programs. SVB will also commit to the Massachusetts Housing Partnership Fund.
In addition, SVB plans to adopt and implement a corporate supplier diversity program with a goal, by 2026, of contracting at least eight percent of its corporate supplier spending annually to locally-based businesses owned or led by members of historically underserved communities, such as people of color and women. SVB will also continue its commitment to increase management diversity within the organization and has signed on to Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s 25×25 program.
“As a leader in the innovation economy, we strive to use our voice and influence to help shape a better future and contribute to progress in our communities,” said Greg Becker, President and CEO of SVB Financial Group. “This proposed community benefits plan aligns with our long-held commitment to significantly contribute to our communities’ well-being. The growth of our business gives us the ability to step up more aggressively. We are intent on making a lasting impact and welcome the support of our community partners in developing this plan.”
SVB’s business model serving small and growing businesses, and its key community development initiative, Access to Innovation, are aimed at giving entrepreneurs and innovative startups opportunities to build their businesses, create jobs and give back to their communities.
As part of the proposed community benefits plan, SVB will also create a community advisory council and will meet with representatives from the CRC, The Greenlining Institute, MAHA and MACDC to review and discuss progress toward the plan’s goals.
Silicon Valley Bank operates under a Strategic Plan to comply with the Community Reinvestment Act. Upon completion of the pending acquisition of Boston Private, Silicon Valley Bank plans to amend its CRA Strategic Plan to include updated goals in California and new assessment areas for the greater Boston and Los Angeles regions. To receive a copy of SVB’s CRA Strategic Plan, please contact SVBintheCommunity@svb.com.
“This plan is a culmination of joint efforts by the Greenlining Institute and CRC, and grows SVB’s commitment to meeting the needs of low- and moderate-income communities and communities of color in an especially critical time, as many Californian families are either struggling to find housing or remain housed, and as small businesses weather the devastating financial impacts brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a win for both SVB and our communities,” said Kevin Stein, CRC Deputy Director.
“For 25 years, Boston Private Bank & Trust has been a Community Reinvestment Act leader here in Massachusetts,” said Symone Crawford, MAHA’s Director of Homeownership Education. “We applaud SVB for making this commitment to low-to moderate-income communities and households in greater Boston and bringing new resources to assist first-time homebuyers, small businesses and nonprofits. If we are to narrow the racial homeownership gap, we need financial institutions to do more in programs like ONE Mortgage and ONE+Boston and SVB is committing to do just that.”
About SVB Financial Group For nearly 40 years, SVB Financial Group (NASDAQ: SIVB) and its subsidiaries have helped innovative companies and their investors move bold ideas forward, fast. SVB Financial Group’s businesses, including Silicon Valley Bank, offer commercial, investment and private banking, asset management, private wealth management, brokerage and investment services and funds management services to companies in the technology, life science and healthcare, private equity and venture capital, and premium wine industries. Headquartered in Santa Clara, California, SVB Financial Group operates in centers of innovation around the world. Learn more at svb.com.
When she was in grad school to become a therapist, Merika Reagan sketched out her future with a friend. They would each start their own practice, buy homes and raise their families in Oakland.
Her classmate, who could count on her family’s financial support, achieved the dream.
But Reagan struggled to find a job that checked her school’s internship requirements and still paid the rent. Her parents, who stayed in senior housing and later passed away, left no savings. She never finished her degree, bought a home or started a family — and she has a clear explanation for why their paths diverged.
“The difference is, she is white and I am Black,” said Reagan, now 46. “That did not happen for me because of generational poverty. Because of being Black, because of being a descendant of slavery, because of stolen wealth.”
California is in a deep housing crisis that has made it nearly impossible for many to afford rent, let alone buy a house. That crisis is, in part, the result of a decade of housing supply not keeping up with demand. But for communities of color, and especially Black people, housing is less an emergency than a chronic illness compounded by centuries of discriminatory, if not outright racist, policies.
“A housing crisis implies it hasn’t been happening this whole time,” said Roderick Hall, a project manager at Pacific Urbanism and a steering committee member of Our Future Los Angeles, both housing groups.
And housing inequality worsened during most of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Blacks and Hispanics more likely than whites to be at risk of eviction and foreclosure, according to a study by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank. While inequality has lessened from its peak, that’s because more whites are facing housing instability, the study says.
“People have always had issues with housing, but now it’s hit the white middle class,” Hall said. “And now that it’s not working for them, it’s becoming an issue.”
Following the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement and a growing recognition of America’s racist past, “equity” has become one of the hottest buzzwords at the state Capitol. But equity is a loaded term, and it means different things to different people.
By law, the state can’t favor any one racial group over another. So racial equity often gets addressed through measures that aim to level the economic playing field.
Housing groups and lawmakers all say they want to narrow the racial wealth and homeownership gap, but not everyone agrees on how. And as with many issues, the people who are most affected are least likely to have a seat at the table.
Black wealth and homeownership gaps
Homeownership has long been the primary way that families build wealth in the United States. That’s especially true in California, where home prices have skyrocketed. And over the years, many Black families have been deliberately excluded.
Redlining systematically denied loans on homes in predominantly Black neighborhoods. New highways bulldozed through thriving Black communities, while urban renewal destroyed struggling areas. Changes in zoning from multifamily to single family homes allowed white neighborhoods to exclude Black residents from moving in. During the 2008 housing crisis, lenders pushed risky subprime loans more aggressively to Black people, who lost their homes in hundreds of thousands of foreclosures, according to a recent report by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley.
In California today, about 63% of non-Hispanic white families own their homes. Only around 36% of Black households can say the same, a gap that has actually widened since housing discrimination was officially outlawed with the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Even when Black families own their homes, they are typically worth less. A recent study by Brookings found that on average, owner-occupied homes in Black neighborhoods are undervalued by $48,000, adding up to $156 billion in cumulative losses.
One significant way to narrow this gap, many California lawmakers agree, is by making it easier for people to buy a home. The challenge: Research by the California Association of Realtors shows that less than a fifth of Black Californians could afford to buy a median-priced home last year, compared with about two-fifths of white households.
A recent study by California Forward, a nonprofit advocacy group, found a gap totaling $61.8 billion between the home prices that low- to moderate income California households can afford and the typical home prices where they live. Latino, Black and Native American Californians were disproportionately represented in that gap.
A few programs boost homeownership through help with down payments — one of the biggest barriers to buying a home for people who don’t have savings or wealthy parents. The largest state program is through the California Housing Finance Agency, which provides as much as $11,000 of down payment assistance to qualifying first-time homebuyers.
The program served more than 9,000 families last year using $165 million from state appropriations, interest and loan repayments. But due to California’s exorbitant home prices, the assistance doesn’t go too far in places like the Bay Area, said Ashley Garner, the agency’s community outreach coordinator. About half of last year’s aid went to buying homes in San Bernardino, Riverside, Sacramento, Kern and Los Angeles counties.
While this program is designed to help low- and middle-income Californians of all races, Hispanic and Black borrowers are overrepresented. About 8% of last year’s borrowers who took advantage of this state aid were Black, which is more than the 5.5% Black share of the state population. More than half of borrowers identified as Hispanic, compared with their 39% share of the state population.
If California hopes to close the racial homeownership gap, however, those numbers need to be far higher.
“If it wasn’t so important, why did they lock you out of it? I need the Black community to understand,” Garner said. “It’s a better lifestyle for our children. It’s employment opportunities. Owning a home is more than just building wealth.”
Still, she said the program’s biggest obstacle has been getting the word out and securing trust. She recalled sitting at an informational booth in a predominantly Black community. A long line formed to speak with Garner, a Black woman, while her white colleague sat idle.
“How can you solve an issue in a community you never set foot in?” she asked. “For us to get somewhere in housing you have to bring these voices to the table.”
Aside from the need for down payment assistance, Black people disproportionately suffer from poor debt-to-credit ratios, which make it difficult to buy a house through any program. That’s because people of color have long been flooded with predatory loans and excluded from the lending system, said Maeve Elise Brown, executive director of Housing and Economic Rights Advocates in Oakland.
“There are scored differentials based on race in our country, which are inextricably tied to a historic lack of access to credit or being force-fed onerous credit,” she said. “This is the lingering aftermath of that damage. Those are lost years.”
Several banks have acknowledged the role of past structural racism in the financial system. But there’s little consensus on how to move forward. Shareholders recently urged the nation’s biggest banks to take a closer look at how their practices affect communities of color. The banks largely responded that it was unnecessary because of internal initiatives and investments in the issue. JP Morgan, for example, committed $30 billion over the next five years toward Black and Latino homeownership and affordable rental financing programs.
Where’s the money going?
Flush with a historic budget windfall of more than $100 billion, state lawmakers have a chance to put their money where their mouths are on housing. Assembly and Senate budget leaders alike have identified homeownership as key, but must still agree on the details.
The Assembly has made it a priority to increase investment in the finance agency’s down payment assistance program. By how much, or the source for that funding, is yet to be hammered out.
In his revised budget that he submitted to the Legislature on Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed a $100 million state and federal investment in the same program. Newsom also proposed $100 million to finance “granny flats” and other accessory dwelling units for low- and middle-income families.
Senate Democrats have a more radical idea. Under their pandemic recovery budget blueprint released last month, the state would partner with first-time homebuyers to buy through what they’re dubbing “California Dream for All.” The state would pay, and own, up to 45% of the home, cutting the purchase price for people by nearly half. For example, a family could buy a $400,000 home for $220,000 under the program.
The money would come from a yet-unspecified revolving fund set up by the state, with shares sold to investors. As home values increase, so would the value of the shares.
The Democrats have proposed commissioning the state treasurer to hash out the program in greater detail and present it back to the Legislature for approval in 2022.
The expansion in homeowner aid would disproportionately favor low-income communities of color who most need the help, allowing the state to “circle around” the constitutional provisions that bar the state from considering race in programs, said Muhammad Alameldin, economic equity fellow at the Greenlining Institute in Oakland.
Are legislators ready to tackle equity?
When it comes to policy bills, however, advocates say the Legislature has repeatedly failed to tackle racial equity head-on.
“We say things like ‘Black lives matter,’ we say we care about homelesseness, but until we confront the systemic inequalities that create these things, we’re never going to solve these issues,” said Assemblymember Alex Lee, a 25-year-old Democratic Socialist from San Jose.
Lee introduced a number of bills to redistribute wealth and protect tenants, but most did not make it out of the housing or revenue and tax committees.
A prime example: Assembly Bill 946, which Alameldin helped craft. That bill, too, would have dramatically increased funding to the finance agency’s homebuyer program — but by ending a mortgage interest deduction on second homes.
“Democrats are choosing to go through the budget process because the policy committees have not taken the housing crisis seriously,” Alameldin said.
Lee also re-introduced a bill that would have sharply curtailed displacement under the Ellis Act, which gives landlords a path to evict tenants when leaving the rental business.Tenants rights advocates have long argued that speculators use that law to flip the state’s waning supply of affordable rental units. He said the bill would have been a boon to people of color, who are vastly overrepresented in homelessness. About a third of people who accessed homeless services last year were Black — five-fold their share of California’s population.
But opposition from Realtors doomed the bill, said Sarah Abdeshahian, campaign manager at Tenderloin Housing Clinic in San Francisco, which co-sponsored the legislation.
“Even legislators who are also people of color, we tell them, we are seeing people left with no choice but to be homeless because there’s no way for them to find another rent-controlled unit within San Francisco,” she said. “They’ll understand, but they refuse to take the bold step of supporting us because it would mean losing the money from Realtors.”
Sanjay Wagle, senior vice president of governmental affairs at the California Association of Realtors, countered that advocacy groups such as the AIDS Healthcare Foundation have poured millions into supporting tenant protections.
“From our perspective, we see these housing committees and think, ‘Oh boy, look how pro-tenant they are,” Wagle said.
The burden of low-income tenants shouldn’t fall on real estate interests, Wagle argues. “If it’s a social good, then shouldn’t society be helping through a more aggressive voucher system?” he asked. “It’s a social cost. That cost should be spread.”
Abdeshahian also blamed the composition of housing committees for inaction on bills. A CalMatters analysis last year found that at least 30 legislators are landlords, themselves, a big majority are homeowners and only one who was a tenant — who has since bought a condo.
“There is a class divide here that we don’t talk about enough,” Abdeshahian added.
Until those power imbalances are addressed within the Legislature, equity will remain but a buzzword outside the Capitol, too, said Lee.
“Who traditionally has more say and more influence? The people with a lot of money and a lot of power,” he said. “It’s not going to be those people in rent control units. That’s the unfortunate dilemma.”
Which are the best solutions?
Many of this session’s big Democratic housing bills target restrictive zoning — a tool experts say has been used to keep Black, brown and low-income people out of mostly white neighborhoods.
Senate Bill 9, by Senate leader Toni Atkins of San Diego, would allow homeowners to put a duplex on single-family lots or split the lots;
SB 10, by Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, would allow cities to rezone transit centers and job hubs to allow as many as 10 units per parcel;
And SB 478, also by Wiener, would close loopholes that limit multi-family units in places already zoned for it.
These measures could improve equity by adding more units to the housing stock. In their Roadmap Home 2030 plan, Housing California, the California Housing Partnership and a broad coalition of partners across the state identified the need for 1.2 million affordable homes.
“You can’t get anywhere close to a solution without addressing the supply,” said Matthew Lewis, director of communications for California YIMBY, a housing advocacy group. “You need years of building. The starting point is you have to make it legal.”
“The fact is the housing crisis has extremely racialized effects,” added Darrell Owens, policy and data analyst at California YIMBY. “Anything that expands the availability of housing is an equity bill. Anything that curtails that, I would consider to be not rooted in housing equity.”
The YIMBY movement believes in increasing that market-rate supply along with subsidized affordable housing. But other advocates don’t believe growing the real estate market is the answer.
“No matter how much you up-zone, housing is not going to be affordable,” said Isaiah Madison, a board member of Livable California, a local control group that supports single-family neighborhoods, and a neighborhood council member in South Los Angeles. “I just don’t think real estate development is an equity tool.”
Oakland, for instance, has seen a recent glut in housing production. But it’s concentrated on the higher end of the market, creating few units for low-income families and in fact, pushing many out, said Brown, from Housing and Economic Rights Advocates.
The market, Madison argued, will never make room for people suffering from intergenerational poverty without government intervention. Plus, he said, “A lot of the people using equity as a talking point come from white communities … and to me seem more upset about the racial segregation that exists today than I do or people that I organize do.”
The idea behind allowing more dense housing in historically white communities is partly to expand access to their resources: better-funded schools, better infrastructure, healthier water and air — in short, opportunity.
But some advocates wonder why Black and brown people have to uproot to access the same opportunities. “As people of color, we’re not chess pieces,” said Hall, from Our Future Los Angeles. “You can’t just move us around your board and tell us to go live here and there.”
These advocates say housing alone can’t fix California’s massive inequality. It’s going to take investment in every part of neglected communities of color to even the playing field.
Madison says another measure, also introduced by Wiener, would help. It would repeal Article 34 in the state’s constitution, which has made it nearly impossible to build public housing by requiring voter approval of every project. The attempt to repeal the law has failed repeatedly.
The ballot initiative has support from the California Association of Realtors, which helped cement Article 34 into law. The main opponent: NIMBYs who want a say in what gets built.
But there’s also opposition to the singular focus on building affordable rental housing from some equity-focused groups. Sylvia Aguilar, from the Berkeley-based nonprofit California Community Builders, says the state has not invested enough in affordable homes for sale. Her organization proposes building more “missing middle” income housing, such as condos and “granny flats” on single-family lots.
“We see a gap between this idea of keeping people housed and in rentals off the street, but not really creating opportunities to build wealth,” Aguilar said. “Homeownership was the key to creating the great middle class in the mid-twentieth century, and it can happen again. If the equity talk is real, this is one path to achieving that.”
‘Let’s put our thumb on the scale’
Mary M. Lee, former deputy director for the equity-focused research and advocacy group PolicyLink, says the solution lies in ending the commodification of housing.
“The system isn’t broken, it’s designed to work this way,” said the longtime fair housing advocate in Los Angeles. “Let’s put our thumb on the scale to help low-income people —not just have a roof over their head, but also to build wealth.”
One way to do that, Lee said, is by letting those disadvantaged communities decide for themselves what housing they need. “That’s one of the problems we have with housing,” she said. “We’re trying to let people make mass solutions for problems that aren’t all the same.”
Steve King, executive director of the Oakland Community Land Trust, is working on one such creative public-private hybrid. His nonprofit owns the land a home sits on and leases that land to the homeowner — decreasing the price significantly and protecting the home’s value from market volatility.
“Whenever there’s a disturbance in the market, those are inflection points that without a doubt have caused harm in Oakland’s communities of color,” King said. “We remove land from that equation.”
So far, the land trust covers about 50 properties and 150 residents.
One of them is Merika Reagan, who had never stayed in the same house for more than a couple years growing up around San Francisco as her parents staved off eviction.
Reagan’s two-bedroom house in East Oakland changed ownership three times since she moved there in 2016. Only 30% of the homes in her majority Black and Latino neighborhood were occupied by their owners last year. And each year, she faced rent hikes she feared would make her homeless.
“I was having panic attacks, chest pains. I couldn’t sleep well, but I was still showing up for my clients,” Reagan recalled, when her rent rose by $350 in 2019. That’s when she became involved with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, a tenant organization that helped her negotiate the rent increase down to $100. When the pandemic hit, and her corporate landlord tried to up the rent again, the group connected her with the land trust, which purchased Reagan’s home.
Her newfound stability has changed her life. When burglars tried to break into her house, her neighbors called the police, providing a sense of community she had never experienced before. When her girlfriend — now fiancee — moved in, she introduced her to the neighbors. Now that the trust owns the land, they can finally grow vegetables in their garden. Reagan is gearing up to take homeownership classes, so that she can eventually buy her house.
“Before this, I never thought ownership was in my horizon at all,” Reagan said. “I thought, ‘I’m going to be a renter until the day I die.’”
For the record: This story has been changed to clarify the description of Livable California, a local control group that supports single-family neighborhoods.
Transformative Climate Communities, Seen as National Model, Gets $420 million Over 3 Years
Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Associate Director for Media Relations, 415-846-7758 (cell)
SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA – In his May budget revision, California Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed a game-changing increase in and stabilization of funding for one of California’s most creative and effective climate programs, Transformative Climate Communities.
Based on legislation passed in 2016, authored by Assemblymember Autumn Burke and sponsored by The Greenlining Institute and the California Environmental Justice Alliance, Transformative Climate Communities offers a model for fighting climate change, building economic prosperity and redressing historic injustices by funding community-developed climate projects in the state’s most under-resourced communities.
“Transformative Climate Communities is unique in two ways,” said Greenlining Institute Vice President of Policy Alvaro Sanchez. “First, it places communities first, requiring that plans and projects be developed with community leadership, based on what residents need and want. Second, unlike most government programs, it puts the pieces together, linking things like clean energy, transportation, affordable housing near transit and more in ways that both cut carbon emissions and create healthier, more liveable, more prosperous neighborhoods.”
“TCC should be a national model for how to do climate policy right, putting communities first and connecting the dots between energy, transportation, housing and jobs,” Sanchez continued. “We applaud the governor for proposing a level of funding in California that can truly tap into this program’s potential, with stable funding of $140 million a year for the next three years. We hope legislators will go even farther and raise it to the $500 million level that environmental justice advocates have proposed. Congress and the administration should use this as a model as they look at proposals like the Green New Deal for Cities Act.”
TCC elevates community ownership by requiring that all projects develop a collaborative governance structure between stakeholders such as local government, community-based organizations and residents. This ensures that projects are derived from resident-identified needs, assets and visions, and gives community members who know best more ownership over the changes taking place in their own neighborhoods. It also requires applicants to develop plans for community engagement, workforce development, displacement avoidance and climate resilience.
Although hampered by inadequate funding since its inception, TCC has still produced some remarkable results. In Stockton, for example, a $10.8 million TCC grant is funding streetscape improvements, solar installations on over 100 single-family homes and several multi-family housing complexes, energy and water efficiency upgrades for more than 500 households, the planting of over 1,500 trees plus weekly healthy produce boxes for 50 families – simultaneously fighting climate change while providing a better quality of life for residents and promoting jobs and economic opportunities. The Greenlining Institute is presently analyzing TCC’s implementation thus far and will be releasing its findings later this year.
THE GREENLINING INSTITUTE works toward a future when communities of color can build wealth, live in healthy places filled with economic opportunity, and are ready to meet the challenges posed by climate change. www.greenlining.org @Greenlining
Greenlining Institute Urges Legislators to Emphasize Racial, Economic Equity
Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Associate Director for Media Relations, 415-846-7758 (cell)
The revised “California Comeback” budget released by Gov. Gavin Newsom today can pave the way for California’s efforts to build a just recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and a just economy that works for all, and legislators must build on what the governor has proposed, The Greenlining Institute said today.
“We’re heartened by much of what Gov. Newsom has proposed,” said Greenlining Institute President and CEO Debra Gore-Mann. “Now it’s up to the legislature to build on this foundation, using both the budget and pending legislation to build a truly just economy in California. The budget affects all of us, so we urge everyone to contact their legislators and push them to seize this opportunity to pass a just, equitable budget”
Highlights of the governor’s revised budget include:
Utility Debt Relief. Greenlining strongly applauds Gov. Newsom’s plan to provide $2 billion in assistance for past-due water and utility bills. This can prevent hundreds of thousands of California households from losing these vital services in publicly owned and investor owned utilities’ territories. More relief will be needed as the state recovers, but this an essential first step.
Transformative Climate Communities. The governor’s proposed allocation of $420 million over three years for TCC, an innovative program that funds community-led climate projects that integrate clean energy, transportation, affordable housing and more, represents a huge step in the right direction. We urge the legislature to fully fund TCC at the $500 million level urged by advocates. A companion statement amplifies our thoughts on this ground-breaking program.
Housing and Rent Relief. Housing unaffordability is an existential crisis facing California’s communities of color. The governor’s proposed $7 billion allocation for Project Homekey — a program administered by the California Department of Housing and Community Development that funds cities, counties, and housing authorities to purchase and rehabilitate 46,000 units of housing, including hotels, motels, vacant apartment buildings and other buildings and convert them into interim or permanent, long-term housing — is an excellent step in the right direction. We also applaud his commitment of $7.2 billion to help low-income tenants financially affected by the COVID-19 pandemic cover all of their outstanding rent and utility payments.
Stimulus Payments. In the governor’s newly proposed $100 billion California Comeback Plan, nearly $12 billion will be set aside for stimulus checks — $600 payments for qualifying taxpayers. This is an essential step in ensuring that families still struggling due to COVID-related economic impacts do not fall farther behind. We applaud the governor’s plan and look forward to additional innovative thinking to address other areas of racial and social inequality.
Broadband. The Greenlining Institute strongly supports the governor’s broadband budget and commitment to closing the digital divide. The proposed budget balances short and long term needs by providing $7 billion in funding towards open-access middle-mile broadband networks, municipal broadband and last mile infrastructure that will provide Californians with long-term benefits, while ensuring families can afford the internet while these new networks are built. Municipal broadband and open-access infrastructure investments will create jobs, provide faster internet connections to Californians and enable internet service providers to more easily enter the broadband market and compete with incumbents that charge high prices and are slow to upgrade their networks. The governor’s broadband budget creates a sustainable path for closing the digital divide for families that need internet access for jobs, education, health and economic opportunity.
Clean Transportation. Electric vehicle equity programs have proven health and economic benefits for families and communities. The governor’s proposal of $3.2 billion altogether over three years for clean transportation, including $1.4 billion for clean trucks and buses, represents a historic step forward. Because pollution from diesel medium- and heavy-duty vehicles is toxic and disproportionately harms communities of color, this funding will make a huge difference in our communities’ health. The May revision also proposes $650 million over three years for Clean Cars 4 All/Equity Programs and the Clean Vehicle Rebate Program. We are pleased to see equity programs receive $250 million, programs with proven health and economic benefits for families and communities. The revised budget also allocates $400 million over three years for the Clean Vehicle Rebate Program, which has been demonstrated to mainly benefit higher-income households. While Greenlining believes that transforming the car market to electric vehicles is important, it is time for the decade-long investment in CVRP to start ramping down. For now, the governor’s investment in CVRP must be targeted to low-income and middle-income Californians.
Urban and Community Forestry. California’s urban forests sequester carbon and are critical to helping the most vulnerable populations adapt to climate change, create community resilience and preserve their mental and physical health. Greenlining supported $200 million for this program but the governor has proposed $23 million.
Low-Income Weatherization Program. This critical program helps low-income households cut their utility bills and improve health and safety while saving energy, creating jobs and preserving affordable housing. The governor’s proposed $50 million allocation is seriously inadequate. Legislators should increase it to $375 million.
Urban Greening. Vulnerable populations too often lack access to parks and green spaces within walking distance of their homes. The Urban Greening Program helps to mitigate these inequalities and Gov. Newsom’s proposed $200 million over two years represents a solid beginning.
Community Resilience Centers. The governor proposed a one-time investment of $150 million to support the development and enhancement of community resilience centers split between local fairgrounds and other community facilities. We are excited about the opportunity to develop a new program for community resilience centers that focuses on placing facilities closest to vulnerable communities that address the growing needs of working class communities of color in the face of the converging climate, economic, public health crises. We believe this important program should be funded at $500 million.
Regional Climate Collaboratives. Implementation of SB 1072 (Leyva, 2018) to create the Regional Climate Collaboratives program will build the capacity of local communities to make the transition to a climate resilient future, building community-driven leadership, knowledge, and skills. The governor’s proposed $20 million represents a solid start but should be increased to $35 million.
Vulnerable Communities Platform. Although there is mounting evidence of the unequal effects of climate change, California has no existing tool that holistically and comprehensively displays the data needed to identify the most vulnerable communities. Greenlining commends the governor for including this priority in the proposed $5 million under community resilience. We strongly recommend that the state use some of this money to resource a community advisory committee to center the vision and expertise of communities disproportionately impacted by climate change in the development and implementation of the mapping platform.
“We urge the legislature to move swiftly to approve a budget that meets the real needs of California’s diverse communities, but legislators can’t stop there,” Gore-Mann said. “We also urge swift passage of SB 17, to create an Office of Racial Equity, and HR 39, which will commit the Assembly to analyzing the racial equity implications of new legislation. Problems based in racism and discrimination need race-conscious solutions if we are build a truly just economy in our state.”
THE GREENLINING INSTITUTE works toward a future when communities of color can build wealth, live in healthy places filled with economic opportunity, and are ready to meet the challenges posed by climate change. www.greenlining.org @Greenlining
In 2019, the California Legislature put a stop to the police use of facial recognition. Although law enforcement agencies view the ability to unmask people as a valuable investigative tool, the technology is imperfect. Research suggests that the algorithms are good at identifying White people but less effective when it comes to people of color. Indeed, there’ve been plenty of stories showing how Black men were falsely identified and accused of crimes.
But because the state’s ban was temporary — it began in 2020 and lasts three years — you’re likely to hear a lot more about biometric surveillance in the Capitol going forward. The debate over its usefulness and potential harms will only intensify because it draws on two competing values: privacy and public safety.
Earlier this year, the Greenlining Institute, a progressive advocacy group, released a report about how algorithms were replacing decision-making at all levels of society, not just policing but health care, housing, finance, education and more. The purpose of the report was to provide policymakers with a baseline understanding of how bias infiltrates even the most well-intentioned, seemingly neutral tools.
Part of the issue is the quasi-religious faith that officials place in the digital authority of computer programming to see the things that we, as mere mortals, can’t see. In 2018, the Little Hoover Commission warned that California, though home to Silicon Valley, was falling to prepare for a future dominated by artificial intelligence, one that might, say, predict where a wildfire will occur.
Transparency in this space is increasingly important. The interest in facial recognition extends well beyond California and hits close to home.
As I reported earlier this week, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Reform once reached out to San Diego with a request for documentation about the city’s use of facial recognition, but the picture it got was less than complete. The response was missing a number of key documents expressing internal concern over some of the same issues I described above, as early as 2011.
Unpaid Utility Bills Threatened Hundreds of Thousands with Shut-Offs
Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Associate Director for Media Relations, 415-846-7758 (cell)
Hodan Hassan, Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy Communication Specialist, 206-676-2010 (cell)
OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – With utility shut-offs looming for hundreds of thousands of California families struggling with COVID-19-related economic hardships, The Greenlining Institute praised Governor Gavin Newsom’s announcement today. The California Comeback plan outlines the Administration’s commitment to relieving families burdened by mounting water and energy bills.
“With millions of Californians either unemployed or with greatly reduced incomes due to the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of households face having their electricity, gas or water shut off June 30 without bold state action,” said Carmelita Miller, Greenlining’s Senior Director of Climate Equity. “This proposal, along with vitally needed help for renters, will help keep struggling families afloat as our economy revives. We’re glad the governor listened to LAANE, Greenlining and other advocates who pushed for this help, and it’s critical that the legislature move quickly to adopt these proposals in its final budget.”
The RePower LA Coalition, anchored by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and SCOPE, has been working with leaders on the ground in Los Angeles on issues of energy justice. Utility debt has long been a concern for low-income ratepayers, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing disparities. As of November 2020, residential customers of LADWP had over $469 million in arrearages for water, power, and sewage bills. This is impacting over 500,000 customers in Los Angeles, the majority of them being low income ratepayers. Similar scenarios have been playing out up and down California with more than 800,000 thousand households at risk of service disconnection statewide.
“LAANE and our coalition partners have been uplifting the issue of utility debt since the beginning of the pandemic. Low-income communities and communities of color are most impacted by utility debt,” said Agustin Cabrera, the Director of RePower LA, “We heard from our partners on the ground that utility debt was a growing concern for many low-income Angelenos, and that’s why we started our campaign. We realize that there are limitations on publicly-owned utilities, like LADWP; additional resources are especially important. We are eager to work with the State Legislature and the governor to move this proposal quickly.”
THE GREENLINING INSTITUTE works toward a future when communities of color can build wealth, live in healthy places filled with economic opportunity, and are ready to meet the challenges posed by climate change.
Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy LAANE is an advocacy organization committed to economic, environmental, and racial justice. We bridge community and labor power to win policies that improve the lives of working families in Los Angeles and in Long Beach.
About twice a week, the $9.99 per month internet connection falters. It’s often as Mario Ramírez finally wrangles his kids into their seats — the fourth-grader studies in the bedroom he shares with his 12 year-old sister, who studies in her parents’ bedroom — in time for virtual class. The screens freeze — sometimes during online tests. At times the little one bursts into frustrated tears as they wait for their connection to resume, precious class time slipping away.
Though he hides it from his kids, Ramírez’ frustration spikes too, along with fear: What if this is the year that his kids lose interest in their education? In Ramírez’ view, it’s their ticket to a life unburdened by the monthly rent panic that Ramírez has often faced since immigrating from Mexico nearly 30 years ago.
“Sometimes I wonder, ‘Will my kids be unable to get ahead?’” Ramirez said in Spanish.
Depending on a student’s access to reliable internet, the last year of virtual school has ranged from enriching to impossibly discouraging.
Which kids have access follows a stark pattern: Across urban and rural areas alike, public schools with more students in poverty were far more likely to serve households that lacked a basic broadband connection at home in the months before school went online, according to an unprecedented CalMatters analysis. For the vast majority, the barrier to access was not a lack of internet infrastructure — indicating that the more common obstacle was affordability. But for the state’s small population of rural students, those two obstacles unite, leaving three in ten households without a reliable connection.
Though schools have scrambled to deliver laptops, tablets and hotspots to students, and promoted low-income internet plans offered by telecom companies like AT&T and Comcast, one in five California households with K–12 students told the Census Bureau in late March they don’t always have the internet access needed for virtual school. Interviews with over 30 students, teachers, researchers, advocates and education leaders revealed that hotspots and discount broadband are often unreliable, leading to a year of education disrupted by screen freezes, distorted audio, and getting booted out of Zoom classes.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought California’s digital divide out of the shadows and to the forefront of public policy. Families sued school systems and the state for failing to provide poor, Black and Latino students equal access to high quality education online. Education leaders argued that logging on at home will be part of a 21st century K-12 education. Lawmakers are now calling internet access a basic civil right.
“We need to envision being able to provide affordable, reliable internet for all like we provide water and electricity,” said Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, a Democrat from Torrance, during a recent webinar about closing the broadband divide.
The Ramírez family had neither broadband nor computers until schools shut down last spring. Their charter school loaned them two laptops, but they never received a hotspot, so Ramírez signed up for their current $9.99 Internet Essentials plan with Comcast for low-income households.
“If we had to pay the regular price, we wouldn’t get it because it’s too expensive,” said Ramírez, who receives Social Security because of a kidney illness for which he must do dialysis five times a week. His wife cleans houses, though fewer clients call since the pandemic.
But the $9.99 plan still cuts out too frequently, Ramírez said. The kids’ grades are slipping, especially his son, also named Mario. Before the pandemic, little Mario was a buoyant kid whose afternoons and weekends brimmed with soccer, swimming, karate, and track and field. Now Ramírez struggles to unglue his son from video games or his cell phone, sometimes baiting him with ice cream just to get him out of the house. Ramírez’ son has put on weight, which his mom attributes to anxiety.
“I feel more bored. I feel like there’s no world left and it’s only me and my sister because there’s no one here,” the fourth-grader said.
Little Mario’s teacher has suggested he may need to repeat fourth grade.
Meanwhile, in the attendance boundaries of schools with the most affluent students, 88% of households had a connection.
The 20% of schools with the greatest proportion of students getting free and reduced price lunches were compared to the 20% of schools with the least.
“This is just going to have a ripple effect for generations,” said Jamey Olney, a Modesto middle school teacher who teaches English to students who are mostly recent immigrants, live in deep poverty, and lacked a home internet connection before the pandemic.
Affordability is a main barrier to access, agreed Carolyn McIntyre, president of the California Cable & Telecommunications Association.
“I don’t think that the providers have received enough recognition for their voluntary efforts” to provide discounted programs, McIntyre said. But she added, “clearly, as long as we have unserved families that could be connected to the internet, more needs to be done.”
Representatives from Comcast Corp., one of the largest internet service providers in the state, contended that a lack of digital literacy, lack of interest, tech skills and devices, as well as language barriers, were more common obstacles than affordability.
Sena Fitzmaurice, a senior vice president at Comcast, said the Ramírez’ connectivity problems could be due to the devices they are using to connect, where their router is placed or problems like rusted wiring outside the home. She said the speed shouldn’t be a problem, citing a study by a research lab funded by the global cable industry as proof. The study said that at a speed of 50 Mbps download, 5 Mbps upload — the theoretical speed of the Internet Essentials plan the Ramírez family uses — 10 laptops should be able to do video conferencing simultaneously with no problem.
After being contacted by CalMatters, Comcast offered to reach out and send a repair person to the Ramírez family free of charge.
Affordability at root of divide
Barriers to home broadband access generally boil down to two main factors. Has an internet company connected the household to its complex above- and below-ground network of high-speed fiber, copper wires, cables, towers and antenna? If so, is the household able to afford the plan?
Efforts to solve California’s digital divide have often focused on the former: funding broadband infrastructure in remote parts of the state. If only we could get telecommunications companies to build out the last miles of high-speed fiber to California’s remote communities, we could close the gap, the thinking went.
“Before the pandemic… there’s been more attention to deployment issues,” said Hernan Galperin, a University of Southern California professor who researches internet policy and digital inequality. “But much less attention to the affordability gap.”
A 2021 survey by the California Emerging Technology Fund and Galperin confirmed the pattern: 68% of households that didn’t have an internet connection cited cost as a principal reason, while 34% said it wasn’t available where they lived. Language barriers and limited digital skills also contributed. Nearly a quarter of households that spoke Spanish at home lacked an internet connection.
The average monthly cost for a residential broadband connection plus router in Los Angeles is $59.83, according to research by the New America think tank. That’s not including the average one-time installation and activation fees of $104.75. Nor the fact that most plans offered for under $50 per month increase after the first year or two.
The researchers found that low-income plans, usually priced at $10 per month, tend to be so slow that they cost significantly more for each bit of data than do high-speed plans. Households without Wi-Fi usually don’t know about them. And many COVID-19 broadband promotions only lasted a few months or expire after the pandemic.
There’s no standard definition of what constitutes affordable broadband, unlike housing, which is considered affordable if it costs less than 30% of your income. A December report from the California Broadband Council, a 12 member committee formed in 2010 under then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to promote broadband deployment in underserved areas, cited research finding that low-income consumers tend to be able to afford $10 to $15 per month plans. New York state just capped the cost of broadband at $15 for low-income people.
There’s also no statewide program to help families pay for their internet, unlike electricity. That could change. Two California lawmakers have proposed a fund to help low-income families cover the cost of high-speed broadband. To pay for it, the state would charge internet service providers 23 cents per month per broadband connection.
In the same vein, the Federal Communications Commission will soon offer $50 per month vouchers to low-income families, including any with kids who qualify for subsidized lunch. But the program will end when it runs out of funds and depends on internet service providers to sign on.
Multiple advocates, though, said these subsidies reward telecom companies for their high rates.
“For the pandemic to just be a windfall for those that provide digital devices and internet connectivity — there’s something that feels very immoral about that,” said Angelica Jongco, an attorney with Public Advocates, a nonprofit civil rights law firm.
Telecommunications companies can charge unaffordable rates because they face little competition, said Galperin, who found that just over half of Californians had more than one high-speed Wi-fi option, in a January policy brief.
“The most urgent and widespread problem is lack of competition in the provision of high-speed broadband,” Galperin and coauthors wrote.
That’s especially true in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, according to a report from the progressive Greenlining Institute last summer. The study found that telecommunications companies compete to provide the fastest connections in high-income neighborhoods, while bypassing neighborhoods with a large percentage of poor and Black residents, which the researchers called “digital redlining.”
In response to the criticism that government subsidies reward companies for charging high prices resulting from little competition, McIntyre, representing the cable industry, contended that such programs don’t cause internet service providers to stop offering discount programs — and that the telecommunications market already is competitive.
An urban and a rural issue
The pandemic revealed that California’s K-12 digital divide is as much an urban issue as a rural issue.
“COVID really showed how wide the crack can be due to poverty,” said Tim Taylor, executive director of the Small School Districts Association of California. “It got the leaders together to say this is an issue that is not just rural, but it is about poverty and connectivity.”
CalMatters’ analysis backs that up. Most students who go to the schools with the lowest neighborhood broadband access live in urban and suburban areas, especially Los Angeles, where UC Los Angeles researchers estimated that 29% of Hispanic students and 27% of Black students didn’t always have internet last fall, compared to 20% for white students.
But rural school neighborhoods — especially where poverty and a lack of infrastructure layer on top of each other — have much lower broadband adoption rates overall.
CalMatters identified nearly 400 school attendance boundaries spread across California’s far North, Sierras, Central Valley, Inland Empire and borderlands in which at least half of households lacked a basic broadband plan. Of those households without, about one in three had no broadband options to choose from.
Take Evelyn Flores and Katya Velasco, two ambitious graduating high school seniors who faced similar challenges to connecting to their classes in very different places.
Flores attends Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez High School, nestled between the Los Angeles River and Highway 101. Here, just 59% of households have broadband.
Velasco attends Desert Mirage High, an aptly named school in the Coachella Valley, where broadband infrastructure is available to about 76% of households and just 32% had a home connection.
In one sense, Flores was one of the lucky ones. Her family already had a $14.99 per month home internet connection with Spectrum for low-income families. But it wasn’t fast enough for Flores and her three sisters to do virtual school and work at the same time — especially when Flores’ parents quarantined for three weeks in the family’s one bedroom after both contracted COVID-19.
Flores and two of her sisters slept, studied and worked in the living room, competing for connectivity. In virtual classes, classmates told her that her voice warped like a robot when she spoke. She got in the habit of turning her video off to free up bandwidth. Upgrading to a faster internet plan was out of the picture: Her dad lost his supermarket job after his bout with the virus.
Velasco’s family can’t afford a broadband plan, she said. So for the first month of virtual learning last spring, she relied on the overburdened internet connection of her neighbors. She used her phone hotspot to take her AP exams, hoping she wouldn’t run out of data during the hours-long tests.
Then both of the families received multiple Verizon hotspots from their school districts.
The hotspots from LAUSD worked intermittently and only during school hours. The batteries drained quickly. They also wouldn’t let Flores connect to certain sites, like some college application websites.
Velasco and her classmates noticed that, in some areas, the Coachella Valley Unified hotspots seemed to grab a weaker connection from nearby cell towers. Velasco’s neighborhood was one of them. Oppressive heat and wind often drive local power shutoffs, compounding her connection issues.
Both students described painful class periods trying to keep up with their subjects. On days when Velasco gets kicked out of class repeatedly, she texts her friends to keep her updated, but their summaries are never as good as listening to the teacher.
Despite the challenges, both girls kept their grades up, applied to colleges and got in. Flores is leaning towards CSU Los Angeles, so that she can live at home while saving up for her own place. Velasco will head to UC Irvine, where she wants to study computer science.
But many of Velasco’s peers couldn’t muster the drive to get through a year of fragmented education, she said. She watched some friends “just completely give up.”
Not fast enough
Tenth-grader Kiki Hall lives in a Southeast Fresno home where she often vies for bandwidth with as many as eight other people — four other K-12 students, her mom, her dad and two grandparents.
“Sometimes I just want to throw the computer across the room because it doesn’t work,” said Hall, who attends Roosevelt High School, which serves neighborhoods in which three in 10 households lacked broadband before the pandemic. Over 90% of students qualify for subsidized lunch.
The family’s $43 per month AT&T broadband connection frequently buckles, kicking everyone out of remote classes at the same time. Once, Hall was disconnected from English class 17 times in 80 minutes. By the time the connection stabilized, her teacher was saying goodbye.
Broadband internet, as defined by the FCC, constitutes any connection exceeding 25 megabits per second, or Mbps, to download content online, and 3 Mbps for uploading. California agencies generally use a threshold of 6 Mbps download speed and 1 Mbps upload speed — the standard used in CalMatters’ analysis.
“There is no one-size-fits all” speed for remote learning, said Greer Ahlquist, program director for EducationSuperHighway, a San Francisco-based nonprofit focused on bridging the K-12 digital divide. More people using a connection requires more bandwidth, as does streaming.
The California School Board Association has urged a new FCC fund for K-12 connectivity to adopt a standard of 25 Mbps for download and 12 Mbps for upload for each student .
For Hall’s family that would mean download speeds of at least 125 Mbps. Their current plan is 100. Hall’s mom, Samantha Phillips, said she’s thinking about switching to a faster $100 Xfinity plan when their AT&T contract ends in September. “We’re just going to have to eat the bill,” said Phillips who worked with disabled preschoolers before losing her job to the pandemic.
“If it’s a necessity, it shouldn’t be an unreasonable amount to afford internet so your child can attend school,” Phillips said.
Remote school exhausts Hall, who wants to become a professional cosmetologist after college. She seesaws between lacking motivation to log onto another day of remote school riddled with Wi-Fi challenges, and reminding herself it’s important to do her best. Sometimes she’ll stay up until 2 a.m. to finish an assignment, only to wake up bleary-eyed the next morning for a class that she can’t log into.
“It’s so frustrating because I’m trying so hard to keep up with my grades enough as it is and these Wi-Fi issues do not help one bit,” Hall said. Her grades in math, already her toughest subject, have dropped below C’s.
According to CalMatters’ analysis, those speeds are nearly universally available for households that attend suburban and urban schools, though they may not be able to afford it. But in rural school neighborhoods, just 68% have access to broadband with download speeds exceeding 100 Mbps.
Many students work with far less, whether through hotspots, discount plans or old technology.
Stan Santos, a splicing technician with AT&T and a representative for the Communications Workers of America union, has tested hotspots issued by school districts in multiple small farmworker communities in Fresno County. Most don’t get above download speeds of 5 Mbps.
Driving across the Central Valley’s vast expanses of farmland, sometimes he happens on a stand of trees and a cluster of concrete brick buildings and trailers that house the families who work in those fields. The concrete blocks cell signal so children will sit outside with hotspots to log onto classes.
Telecommunications companies often don’t build out to these areas, Santos said. When they do, they provide copper-based Digital Subscriber Line connections, an older, slower broadband technology. On one splicing assignment, he visited a man living in a trailer in Coalinga, whose discount $10 per month DSL connection wasn’t fast enough for both him and his son to go online at the same time, Santos said. So AT&T offered him a faster option, for $40 per month. Still DSL, it didn’t top 6 Mbps download speed.
“…I can do nothing to help them.”
Even before the pandemic, students without internet at home consistently scored lower in science, math and reading — something education leaders called the homework gap.
With the internet at their disposal, curious students are able to continue learning on their own, said Imperial County Superintendent of Schools Todd Finnell, while those without one “get behind in all areas of life.”
Even after the pandemic, students who can log on at home will have a big advantage. The pandemic has accelerated the integration of technology into K-12 education. In a recent national survey, 15% of school districts said they will continue virtual schooling after the pandemic. Another 10% planned to continue hybrid learning.
Remote learning may be especially important in disaster-prone California. Before the pandemic, fire and smoke often interrupted school days in San Mateo County, said County Superintendent of Schools Nancy Magee.
Having online options makes schools resilient to future COVID-19 flare-ups, natural disasters, or even the next pandemic, so “you’re not just sending kids home and canceling school for the day.”
It’s too early to quantify the ripple effects of distance learning on student learning, but early research shows alarming trends.
A January study of test scores in 18 California school districts found significant learning loss in both English and math, with low-income and English learner students falling behind faster than others.
Olney, the Modesto English teacher, says that for her middle schoolers, distance learning has included little learning.
She has students who never got a hotspot, or live in households with three families all sharing a single one. She teaches middle schoolers who live between multiple relative’s homes, often accessing classes from a cell phone in a car, and migrant students unable to log into classes from Mexico. She can only guess at what’s going on with the handful of students who log on for just 15 minutes each week with their cameras and mics turned off.
Sometimes she feels like a nurse trying to triage students in a warzone, she said. “They’re bleeding out, but I’m behind the fence and I can do nothing to help them,” Olney said.
One thing is clear: Having a quiet workplace and a stable internet connection makes a big difference. In December, a cohort of around a dozen of her highest-needs students began physically coming to the school to log onto Zoom classes in the morning and get one-on-one homework assistance in the afternoons.
Those who came to school improved their GPAs by at least 1.5 points within two months, on average. Among those who stayed home, most continued hovering around D’s and F’s.
But Olney warns that getting all kids internet access isn’t nearly enough. Not for her students who watch over five younger siblings and cousins also doing distance learning while their parents hold down multiple jobs, nor for the students who log in from unconditioned trailers in 110 degree heat — yet “they continue to show up,” Olney said.
“I think we have a lot to make up to these students.”
CalMatters data reporter Jeremia Kimelman contributed to this story.
PITTSBURGH, April 27, 2021 /PRNewswire/ — The PNC Financial Services Group, Inc. (NYSE: PNC) today announced a Community Benefits Plan to provide $88 billion in loans, investments, and other financial support to bolster economic opportunity for low- and moderate-income (LMI) individuals and communities, people and communities of color, and other underserved individuals and communities over a four-year period beginning Jan. 1, 2022.
The Plan – developed in connection with the anticipated regulatory approval and closing of PNC’s pending acquisition of BBVA USA Bancshares, Inc., including its U.S. banking subsidiary, BBVA USA – covers the geographies currently served by PNC and the new geographies PNC will expand into through the BBVA USA acquisition. The Plan incorporates, builds on and expands the pledges and plans previously announced by PNC and BBVA USA to help meet community needs, advance economic empowerment and address systemic racism.
Specifically, over the Plan period, PNC expects to:
Originate at least $47 billion in residential mortgage and home equity loans to LMI and minority borrowers and in LMI and majority-minority census tracts.
Originate at least $26.5 billion in loans to small businesses in LMI communities, majority-minority census tracts, businesses with less than $1 million in revenue and small farms.
Provide at least $14.5 billion in community development loans and investments across all markets, including at least $400 million for Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) that help meet the banking and financial service needs of traditionally underserved communities.
Increase to at least $500 million PNC’s charitable giving, including sponsorships and philanthropic grants. This includes the continuation of BBVA USA’s existing multi-year grant and charitable sponsorship commitments with nonprofit organizations, and a commitment to maintain or increase the current levels of philanthropic support provided to community groups in Birmingham in recognition of the history of the city as the headquarters city of BBVA USA and its predecessor bank.
“As a Main Street bank, we believe that our success will be proportional to the prosperity we help create for our stakeholders,” said PNC Chairman, President and CEO William S. Demchak. “This plan reflects that belief and builds on our longstanding commitment to provide economic opportunity for all individuals and communities we serve, as reflected in PNC Bank’s and BBVA USA’s overall ‘Outstanding’ Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) ratings in each of our organizations’ most recent evaluations.” PNC Bank has consistently earned an ‘Outstanding’ CRA rating in every performance evaluation issued since enactment of the CRA more than 40 years ago.
PNC’s Community Benefits Plan was developed by PNC, in consultation with BBVA USA, and was informed by numerous community listening sessions that PNC held with the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) that included representatives from more than 150 NCRC member organizations from across the combined PNC and BBVA USA footprint. PNC also held listening sessions with the National Diversity Coalition, the Greenlining Coalition, the California Reinvestment Coalition, Faith and Community Empowerment, and members of their respective organizations.
“We appreciate the leadership and commitment of PNC Bank to collaborate with us and our members to develop the largest-to-date community benefits plan,” said NCRC CEO Jesse Van Tol. “This plan is a significant commitment by one of the largest banks in the nation to increase investments, services and loans for low- and moderate-income communities and neighborhoods of color. It’s rewarding and makes me hopeful when institutions and communities can come together like this to make a meaningful commitment that’s intended to have a lasting impact on lives, families and neighborhoods.”
PNC’s Regional President and Community Development Banking teams will serve as key points of engagement in their local communities for identifying impactful local community development initiatives and acting as liaisons with local organizations. PNC will extend this model to the new markets it enters through its pending acquisition of BBVA USA.
“As we consulted with numerous groups across the country, we learned the concerns that are top of mind to our communities: focusing on home ownership as a foundation of wealth creation for current and future generations; finding solutions to help the unbanked and underbanked who have suffered disproportionately during this pandemic; and supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs by providing access to capital and credit on par with the access enjoyed by more affluent segments of our society,” said Richard Bynum, chief corporate responsibility officer for PNC. “We believe that our strategic focus on fostering economic empowerment, education and entrepreneurism in traditionally underserved populations and communities truly reflects the concerns of our communities and addresses each of these areas.”
“For over three decades, I have been fond of saying, ‘Banks are our neighborhoods’ best hope.’ The PNC plan directly responds to that hope,” said NCRC President and Founder John Taylor. “It will provide a much-needed influx of investment into critical programs that improve affordable housing, mortgage lending, small business development and economic development projects for low- and moderate-income people and neighborhoods coast-to-coast. This plan would have been impossible without the clear and unwavering commitment of PNC CEO Bill Demchak and other executive leadership at the bank, as well as the critical role our local community members played in our discussions with the bank.”
The Community Benefits Plan builds on PNC’s commitment to providing economic opportunity for all individuals and communities, including LMI and minority individuals and communities, as well as women, veterans and LGBTQ+ individuals and businesses. In addition, the Plan reflects PNC’s commitment to addressing systemic racism, promoting social justice and advancing diversity and inclusion, not just within PNC, but within the broader financial system and its communities.
In 2020 the PNC Board of Directors formed a Special Committee on Equity and Inclusion in order to provide oversight of these important issues. The Board’s Special Committee will also be responsible for oversight of PNC’s execution of the Plan.
PNC’s plan to better meet the needs of the unbanked and underbanked includes the addition of 20 new branches and 25 remote automated teller machines in LMI communities across PNC’s expanded footprint, and 10 mobile banking units primarily dedicated to servicing LMI communities. PNC also expects to increase its spending with diverse suppliers by at least 20% over the plan period.
PNC also plans to expand the reach of its innovative banking products and initiatives designed to meet the needs of LMI individuals, underserved communities and the elderly. This includes the company’s recent announcement of its groundbreaking Low Cash Mode℠ digital offering, which addresses the $17 billion that some studies estimate U.S. consumers pay each year in overdraft fees. Low Cash Mode℠ helps PNC’s Virtual Wallet® customers avoid overdraft fees and remain in the banking system through unprecedented account transparency and control to manage through low-cash moments or mis-timed payments. Low Cash Mode℠ launches nationwide in June and July. Pending regulatory approval and the anticipated close and conversion of BBVA USA customers to PNC’s systems later this year, it will be available to BBVA USA customers with Virtual Wallet accounts.
In addition, PNC will expand into its new BBVA USA geographies its SmartAccess and Foundation Checking accounts—two products that meet the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund’s Bank On national certification. Bank On’s 2021-2022 Standards require low cost, no overdraft, and full-functioning features. PNC is the only bank with two Bank On certified products.
“PNC is committed to continuing to reduce barriers to banking, increasing access to financial services and capital, and implementing financial solutions that position LMI and minority-owned businesses for effective growth, development, and sustainability,” Bynum said.
Under the Community Benefits Plan, PNC also will create a Community Advisory Council that will meet semi-annually to discuss the bank’s progress toward the goals and objectives of the plan, as well as emerging areas of community need. In addition, PNC will host an annual Community Leadership Symposium for members of the Council, key representatives of its member organizations and other invited guests to discuss broader developments affecting community development needs and how financial institutions, like PNC, can best help to meet those needs.
Finally, under the Plan, PNC will increase recruiting from historically Black colleges and universities while also exploring opportunities to increase its recruitment from higher education institutions primarily serving Latinx students.
PNC will use its best efforts to meet and, where possible, exceed the goals included in the Plan, assuming regulatory approval and consummation of the planned acquisition of BBVA USA.
In Nov. 2020, PNC and the Spanish financial group, Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria, S.A. (NYSE and MAD: BBVA) announced a definitive agreement for PNC to acquire BBVA USA Bancshares, Inc., including its U.S. banking subsidiary, BBVA USA, headquartered in Houston, Texas, that operates 637 branches in Texas, Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Colorado and New Mexico. When combined with PNC’s existing footprint, the company will have a coast-to-coast franchise with a presence in 29 of the 30 largest markets in the U.S.
The PNC Financial Services Group, Inc. is one of the largest diversified financial services institutions in the United States, organized around its customers and communities for strong relationships and local delivery of retail and business banking including a full range of lending products; specialized services for corporations and government entities, including corporate banking, real estate finance and asset-based lending; wealth management and asset management. For information about PNC, visit www.pnc.com.
Measure by Assemblymember Gipson Would Fill Gap in Analyzing Legislation
Brenda Contreras, Legislative/Press Aide for Assemblymember Mike A. Gipson, Brenda.Contreras@asm.ca.gov
Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Associate Director for Media Relations, 415-846-7758 (cell)
SACRAMENTO – Assemblymember Mike A. Gipson (D-Carson), joined by Assemblymembers Adrin Nazarian, Mark Stone, Luz Rivas and Cristina Garcia, has introduced HR 39, designed to address a major gap in the analysis of new legislation proposed in Sacramento. HR 39 would encourage the California Assembly to explore methods to integrate equity more formally into its daily activities, including the potential adoption of equity impact analysis into the existing committee and floor bill analysis processes.
“Communities of color and other marginalized populations have been disproportionately harmed by poor government decisions, even if unintentional,” said Assemblymember Mike A. Gipson (D-Carson).“ I can think of no better time to reflect and make sure we don’t repeat those mistakes and to guarantee that we bring a new level of transparency and analysis to the legislative process. We must ensure that all Californians have an equal opportunity to benefit from policies that profoundly impact them, such as education, housing, employment, health care, etc. Right now, each new bill gets an analysis examining things like related legislation and fiscal impact, but nothing about its impact on low-income Californians or historically marginalized communities. The equity impact assessment would update the existing government process and identify gaps in our policy-making decisions.”
All levels of government have begun to embrace the need for such analysis. President Biden recently issued an executive order requiring all federal departments and agencies to “recognize and work to redress inequities in their policies and programs that serve as barriers to equal opportunity.” Five states — Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Oregon, and New Jersey — have adopted and implemented policies requiring racial equity impact statements for certain types of proposals.
“As the Biden administration works to build a serious federal approach to racial equity, it’s already receiving hostile responses claiming that equity must mean racial quotas and is bad for America,” said Debra Gore-Mann, president and CEO of The Greenlining Institute, which sponsored the resolution. “California must not be intimidated, but instead must help lead the effort to commit to equity. We cannot capitulate to white grievance that is rooted in white privilege and a false sense of superiority. It is time to be bold, proactive and center racial equity to build an inclusive country, and HR 39 will help get us there.”
Sammy Nunez, executive director of Fathers & Families of San Joaquin said, “As the most diverse city in America, Stockton’s 2020 election served as a barometer to measure and forecast the socio-political realities of people of color across the United States. The political landscape is indicative of racial injustice, and the overt oppressive forces that have permeated every aspect of our country since its inception. However, this also presents an opportunity for investments that can transform our struggles into solutions to transcend and heal the racial divide that has kept us from meeting our full potential as a state and nation.”
The Greenlining Institute believes that applying racial and social equity analytics to understand the complexities and harsh realities imposed on people of color represents the minimum California must do to ensure a future devoid of neglect and abandonment and undo the social, political, and institutional traumas perpetuated by the state. This resolution would illuminate the benefits for all Californians of legislating through an equity-based lens that builds opportunities for all Californians.