A Government Agency that Actually Listens

The San Diego Voice and Viewpoint
by Sasha Werblin and Jane Duong

It’s an old joke, made famous by President Ronald Reagan: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” But today one federal agency  proves Reagan wrong every day, one that not only really does help people but actually listens to them – and it’s under attack for that very reason.

The agency we are talking about is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created five years ago by the Dodd-Frank financial reform law to be a “cop on the beat” to protect consumers in their dealings with banks, credit card companies and other financial firms. In late May, we were part of a group of community advocates who met with CFPB Director Richard Cordray and top members of his staff to outline our continuing priorities and hear how CFPB is addressing the concerns of communities of color. To put it simply, we were impressed.

Understanding that the impact on consumers is felt most strongly outside of the beltway, Cordray and his colleagues came to California to meet with us, at the office of the Mission Economic Development Agency in San Francisco – a location fraught with symbolism. MEDA’s office is in the heart of what has long been a low-income neighborhood (92 percent of MEDA’s clients are low- or moderate-income) that’s now in the throes of heated battles over gentrification. In a city fast losing its black and Latino population, this is a neighborhood where you can see check cashing stores and payday lenders almost literally within shouting distance of high-end restaurants.

As a coalition of advocates for African American, Latino and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, we laid out a series of concerns. Diversity – in both the financial industry and in the government agencies that regulate it – stood near the top of our agenda. Dodd-Frank created a mechanism to address diversity, the Offices of Minority and Women Inclusion (OMWIs), but the OMWIs’ proposed diversity standards arrived very weak and very late.  We think federal regulators can do much more to promote diversity in the banking world and to encourage financial businesses to increase their contracting with businesses owned by people of color.

We also talked a great deal about small businesses. According to the Small Business Administration, people of color own 4.1 million firms that generate $694 billion in revenues each year, employing 4.8 million people. These businesses are a major source of employment in communities of color across America. We want the federal government to adopt a model similar to California, where the Public Utilities Commission’s supplier diversity program has generated billions of dollars in business each year for minority business enterprises simply through public reporting and transparency.

Sometimes ethnic small businesses have had trouble accessing the capital they need to grow their operations. Unfortunately, no one has ever collected the data we need to know what stands in between these businesses and the loans they need. Another section in Dodd-Frank is designed to help address that, and we urged the CFPB to work with the Small Business Administration on guidelines that will give community advocates and ordinary citizens a clear picture of small business lending, with information on race/ethnicity, gender and many other factors.

Language access also topped the agenda for many of us. Given that nearly one in five residents of California identifies as being limited English proficient, we must protect consumers for whom English is not a first language. We discussed with CFPB several strategies for encouraging financial institutions to better serve the needs of these diverse communities.

Under the ground rules, I’m not able to write about everything that CFPB officials said in response to our concerns. What I can say is that they clearly listened and have considered our recommendations. They were active, engaged, and asked lots of questions. The mood was light-hearted but serious, cordial and energetic. This was not the behavior of bureaucrats just going through the motions or checking off a box on a form.

No government agency is perfect, but the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau clearly takes its job seriously. Some members of Congress who take their marching orders from Wall Street have been trying to weaken CFPB ever since it was created, but happily they haven’t succeeded. To learn more about the bureau, visit http://www.consumerfinance.gov/.

Sasha Werblin is Economic Equity director at The Greenlining Institute, greenlining.org, Jane Duong is director of programs and advocacy for the National Coalition For Asian Pacific American Community Development,www.nationalcapacd.org.

A Just Food System for All Californians

Al Jazeera America
by Justin Rausa

I live in Oakland, California, around the corner from a trendy bar that touts more than a dozen local beers on tap and even more craft brews by the bottle. Down the street from me is a homeless encampment under a freeway overpass, where people look for empathy, money and food. These contradictions — options galore juxtaposed with blatant, unmet need — follow me from my bike ride to my office, where I work on California food policy and daily encounter a harsh truth: In the country’s most productive agricultural state, food equity for its citizens has a long way to go. And unless the state does a better job enacting food and farming policies that benefit all Californians, especially low-income people, its ranking as the state with the highest poverty rate could become its dominant tag line.

On Nov. 4, Californians will have an opportunity at the ballot box to help rectify that imbalance. Voters in San Francisco and Berkeley will decide on soda tax proposals designed to decrease the consumption of sugary beverages. Big Soda has poured more than $10 million to label the propositions as job killers and attacks on personal choice, especially for the poor, but advocacy groups are putting up a strong fight. Statewide, there is Proposition 2, a seemingly bland policy that would require the state to prioritize debt reduction over the next 15 years and save more money each year for the next time its economy swings toward crisis. Prop 2 could improve food security — in which all people have access at all times to nutritious food — by forcing the state to maintain public program funding that supports lower-income people when the economy tanks. For example, during the Great Recession, funding for public schools fell by more than $7 billion over two years. In response, some school districts lowballed (and still do) the number of enrolled low-income students, an accounting technique that trims free and reduced-price school lunch offerings. It’s a self-defeating move for a state that should prioritize the health of its future workforce.

Prop 2 and the soda tax proposals, should they pass, are both smart moves for a state whose less-than-holistic food system policy decisions are too often removed from low-income communities.

A food policy for all

California is an alarming example of how agriculturally productive states can still have a long way to go on worker rights, food access, sustainable agricultural practices and a more diverse, less industrial food economy. In short, we need more food equity. According to the Census Bureau (PDF), from 2011 to 2013, nearly a quarter of Californians lived in poverty, struggling to feed themselves and their families. That’s almost 9 million people. My work has taken me multiple times to California’s Central Valley, where farm workers have told me that they can’t afford the fresh fruits and vegetables they pick or that they are out of range from a store where such fresh produce is sold. One woman told me that on a good day, she serves her family rice, beans and soda. Fresh fruits and vegetables are not within reach for this worker and many others like her who, just hours before, spent a long day in a lettuce field, picking produce while battling searing heat and dust.

What these workers need is increased food equity. That means affordable food that is also fresh and healthy, farming and ranching practices that protect the land and the people who work on it and a living wage for food-chain workers.

Why, in such an enlightened food age, are low-income people’s voices so chronically underrepresented? The numbers are revealing: Only 25.2 percent of registered voters voted in California’s June primary this year, an all-time low, even for a midterm election year. Meanwhile, entrenched food and farming interests in California are too often trumping the common sense and evidence-based arguments for more equity in the food system. Earlier this year, for instance, the beverage industry and the California Chamber of Commerce pulled out all the stops to kill legislation that would have added health warning labels on most sugary drinks.

Research from PolicyLink and the Greenlining Institute confirm that equity is a necessary criterion for allocating resources in the 21st century. October poll results (PDF) from the Public Policy Institute of California, unfortunately, show that only 49 percent of likely voters support Proposition 2. But the local soda tax ballot measures in San Francisco and Berkeley offer some voters an opportunity to acknowledge the health cost of artificially cheap drinks — a significant driver for disproportionately higher rates of obesity and diabetes among the poor. It’s one of many steps that must take place to help ensure food equity for California’s working poor, but it could have an outsize impact in the message it sends to Big Soda.

What California gets right

That doesn’t mean that California hasn’t recently made some good decisions that have improved food access for low-income communities. Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 2413 two months ago, establishing the Office of Farm to Fork within the California Department of Food and Agriculture to improve communities’ access to healthy food. Moves such as this will help increase food security.

The Office of Farm to Fork will focus on securing funding and streamlining the state government’s ability to make healthier food more accessible to low-income communities in urban and rural areas, and it is a good first step. It is an encouraging sign that the state’s agriculture regulator understands that the success of small and midsize farms depends on meeting the needs of low-income workers. A financially secure and well-fed workforce is more productive, will generate more economic activity for the state and will save the state significant money as fewer people are forced to rely on its tattered social safety net.

But Assembly Bill 2413 was signed into law without designated funding, so the success of the office depends on Brown’s state budget proposal in January. To bring this election season argument full circle, the passage of Prop 2 on Nov. 4 would give the Office of Farm to Fork and its food security programs some economic stability during future recessions. The downside of Prop 2 is that less money would be available each year to expand or create public programs, making state budget negotiations — such as those that will take place in January — ever more important, especially for low-income people whose voices are least represented in Sacramento.

It’s time for California, where craft beer and homeless encampments stand side by side, to put politics to bed and take action to lift a quarter of its people out of poverty. Voters can help amplify the voices of low-income Californians by showing up at the polls in support of policies — even boring-seeming ones — that help bring healthy food to every table.

A New ‘Too Big to Fail’ Bank for the 1 Percent

The Huffington Post
by Preeti Vissa

Remember back in 2008, when collapsing banks nearly tanked our whole economy and people had the quaint notion that maybe we shouldn’t let banks become “too big to fail”? Would you be shocked to learn that regulators may well approve creation of a new “too big to fail” bank from the ashes of one of the very institutions that crashed our economy?

Meet OneWest Bank, which is seeking to merge with CIT Group, a deal that would meet federal criteria for what’s politely termed a “systemically important financial institution” — one whose failure could imperil the financial system. OneWest is the successor to IndyMac Bank, one of the first and biggest to collapse as the financial crisis was hitting high gear in the summer of 2008.

IndyMac was a textbook case of reckless, exploitive lending often aimed at communities of color. A report from the Treasury Department’s inspector general found that IndyMac offered an “extensive array of risky option-adjustable-rate-mortgages (option ARMs), subprime loans, 80/20 loans, and other nontraditional products.”

IndyMac’s collapse cost the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation $10.7 billion. OneWest was born from the ruins when a group of wealthy investors bought the remnants of IndyMac from the FDIC.

Not only will the OneWest/CIT merger create another bank that’s worryingly large, that bank will be run by people who seem to have learned nothing from IndyMac’s collapse.

Advocates, including my colleagues on The Greenlining Institute’s Economic Equity team, have tried to open a dialogue with OneWest officials. We hoped that the new institution would chart a different course, working to benefit communities instead of ignoring or exploiting them. You’d think a bank growing from the ashes of one of the institutions that sparked the foreclosure crisis that ruined millions of families would make some effort to at least look like it’s moving in a new direction.

Nope.

For example, we asked OneWest to make meaningful commitments under the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which encourages banks to invest in underserved communities. The bank revealed a so-called CRA plan in September at a meeting in Los Angeles. The plan, concocted with no community input, commits the new bank to precisely zero additional lending. OneWest CEO Joseph Otting made clear that he has no intention of negotiating a better agreement with the advocates who were leading the effort to hold his bank accountable.

Otting also make clear that nonprofits opposing the merger could forget any chance of receiving philanthropic donations from OneWest. Subtle, huh?

OneWest’s marketing and products have been geared to the wealthiest customers in its market area (primarily southern California), with only 15 percent of its branches in low and moderate income communities and no plans to build new branches in low-income areas. In addition, OneWest Bank makes only three percent of its purchases from vendors and suppliers that are minority owned — despite being based in a southern California market with over 70 percent people of color. There’s no indication that this will change. Unless federal regulators call a halt, we are literally witnessing the creation new too-big-to-fail bank for the one percent.

The Federal Reserve should reject the CIT/OneWest merger application. At the very least, regulators should stop the clock, hold public hearings and get some real community input before allowing this dangerous deal to proceed.

A Welcome Focus on Racial Justice

Lancaster Online
By Orson Aguilar

The 2016 presidential campaign is proving historic in many ways both good and bad. Among the good: the amount of attention being paid to the issue of racial justice.

This didn’t occur spontaneously, of course. Constant pressure from Black Lives Matter, immigration activists and others played a big role. But the degree to which some top candidates have paid attention to racial justice and adopted platforms related to the issue exceeds anything in recent memory.

On the Democratic side, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have extensive sections on their campaign websites dedicated to racial justice. Both include detailed proposals and state explicitly what many minorities know to be true: that the American playing field is not level and works to the disadvantage of communities of color.

Clinton, for example, pledges to “end the school-to-prison pipeline” by providing funds to help school districts move away from punitive policies like suspensions, expulsions and on-campus police presences that disproportionately hurt students of color. She also takes note of pollution-related asthma rates, lead exposure and other environmental issues that disproportionately harm communities of color.

Sanders, on his website, focuses on “the five central types of violence waged against black, brown and indigenous Americans: physical, political, legal, economic and environmental.” His platform goes in-depth on improving relations between police and communities of color, promoting greater diversity, training and civilian oversight in cases of misconduct. Like Clinton, he condemns racially disproportionate rates of school suspensions and expulsions and speaks out against environmental racism.

But all that just scratches the surface. Both Democrats delve into racial injustices with far more detail than any presidential candidate I can remember, including Barack Obama in 2008. While candidates have always taken positions on issues that have racial implications, like immigration, what we’re seeing this year is unique and encouraging.

A search of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s website turns up nothing regarding racial justice. The closest he gets is his get-tough stands on illegal immigration, including a border wall and ending birthright citizenship for children born in the U.S. The story is much the same for the last two GOP alternatives to drop out of the race, Ted Cruz and John Kasich.

That’s sad.

The Republican Party, after all, played a crucial role in ending slavery and putting civil rights protections into the Constitution. A century later, Republicans provided the votes needed to pass the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. The party has a long and honorable history it should not abandon. There is no reason Democrats should own the racial justice agenda.

Still, racial justice has entered the presidential campaign in a far more detailed and nuanced way than we’ve ever seen, even during the civil rights battles of the 1960s. That’s progress, and it should be just the start.

Affordable Housing: A Tool to Fight Smog, Traffic

Capitol Weekly
By Ryan Wiggins and Alvaro Sanchez

We generally think it a big success when public policy successfully fixes a serious problem. Right now, smart California policies are effectively tackling three major issues at once: housing, traffic, and climate change.

Anyone not living under a rock knows that California faces an unprecedented crisis in housing affordability. Skyrocketing rents force working families to choose between spending more than half their income on housing, squeezing into inadequate or unsafe homes, or moving away from their communities. Similarly, we all see traffic get worse each year. Amazingly, our efforts to fight climate change are bringing real progress on both these issues.

Over 30 affordable housing projects have already been funded from carbon auction proceeds – from Stockton and Richmond to San Diego and Riverside.

West Sacramento resident Esther Roberts and her four children know all about housing struggles. Without access to the affordable housing development where she lives, she says, “I would probably be living with all of us in a studio apartment in some place I don’t want to be, just because that’s the only place I could afford to keep something over my head.”
But what many don’t know is that affordable homes can also make a big dent in smog, climate pollution, and traffic – if we put those homes near public transportation and include other amenities that encourage walking and biking.

Lower-income households living near transit drive less than half as many miles as wealthier households. Creating 15,000 new affordable homes near good public transportation would keep over 1.58 million metric tons of greenhouse gases (and lots of plain old smog) out of our air.

That’s why money from California’s climate program is helping build more affordable homes near public transportation in communities statewide. Under laws called AB 32 and SB 535, fees paid by polluters who put carbon into the air go into a variety of projects to help clean the air and save energy, including transit-oriented affordable homes for low- and moderate-income Californians.

One such project, West Gateway Place, now underway not far from Esther’s West Sacramento home, will provide 77 affordable homes for more families like hers. Over 30 such projects have already been funded from carbon auction proceeds – from Stockton and Richmond to San Diego and Riverside – with many more coming in future years.

And that’s just one of many ways climate funds are enhancing communities throughout the state. Sometimes we hear from people who say they don’t see these investments at work in their communities, but the truth is that over 400 projects have been awarded more than a billion dollars to strengthen public transportation, reduce energy costs through home weatherization, create urban green spaces, and more. Some projects may take a little while to build, but they’re coming – and more are on the way.

California’s climate program is making a real, positive impact on people’s lives, particularly in communities hit first and worst by pollution and economic difficulties. California’s climate investments help families find safe, affordable homes, cut traffic, reduce smog, shrink families’ energy bills, and much more – all while combating the climate crisis that threatens us all.

We’re frustrated many don’t know about these benefits, even as big oil continues to spend millions trying to weaken or kill California’s climate program. To level the playing field a bit, we’ve created several tools to help Californians understand how these policies work and how they’re uplifting our neighborhoods.

To learn more about Esther, affordable housing and climate, you can watch a short, informative video at climatebenefitsca.org/stories. You can read about Esther and other Californians already reaping the benefits of California climate policies at UpLiftCA.org. Finally, search for climate investments throughout California and see the benefits for yourself using TransForm’s searchable online map at ClimateBenefitsCA.org.

Ed’s Note: Ryan Wiggins is Climate Policy Manager for TransForm, and Alvaro Sanchez is Environmental Equity Director for The Greenlining Institute.

Agencies' Diversity Efforts Have Come Far, But Not Far Enough

American Banker
by: Divya Sundar

The directors of the newly created Offices of Women and Minority Inclusion (OMWI) recently submitted their first reports to Congress. These reports show a good start, but also illustrate how much remains to be done.

In the wake of widespread reports of predatory lending in communities of color during the run-up to the financial crisis, Congress added language to the Dodd-Frank financial reform law creating OMWIs in 20 federal financial regulatory agencies. Their goal is to assure “the fair inclusion and utilization of minorities, women, and minority-owned and women-owned businesses in activities of their agency.” In so doing, Congress recognized that these communities are often the proverbial canaries in the coal mine when it comes to problems with our financial system.

Continue reading “Agencies' Diversity Efforts Have Come Far, But Not Far Enough”

Ajit Pai’s Dismantling of Net Neutrality Amounts to War on Consumers

The Hill
By Paul Goodman

Imagine that you picked up the phone to order a pizza and were told that the phone company would only connect your call to a pizza place owned by the brother of the phone company’s CEO. You’d be justifiably outraged. Thankfully, we have a host of consumer protections that ensure your right to call whomever you want, have whatever conversation you want, and even order pizza from wherever you want.

However, if you decide to order that pizza online, broadband providers argue that these rules shouldn’t apply. Shockingly, new Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has taken their side.

The protections I’m talking about mainly go by the unglamorous name of “net neutrality” — a wonky term that simply refers to your right to access the information you want via the internet, without your service provider playing favorites. Broadband companies, working with Congress and the FCC, are pushing to eliminate the net neutrality rules that protect our ability to access the Internet content of our choice.

And this is only one of many ways that the FCC under Pai threatens American consumers.

Advocates and consumer groups fought very hard to obtain net neutrality protections, and in 2015, got the FCC to implement strong, reasonable net neutrality rules.  These rules have broad bipartisan support from over 80 percent of Republicans and Democrats (in fact, Republican support for net neutrality runs slightly ahead of Democrats).

That hasn’t stopped the industry’s pets in Congress and the FCC from trying to gut net neutrality. But rather than doing so in an open manner, with hearings and public input, they’re trying to sneak changes by in the hope we won’t notice.

For example, Congress refused to vote on the renomination of Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel (a Democrat), forcing her to drop off the commission and giving the FCC a Republican majority. Meanwhile, FCC Chairman Pai is slowly undoing net neutrality rules by exempting some providers from abiding by them. It also appears likely that, rather than debating net neutrality rules in public, Pai may simply direct FCC staff to not enforce them.

That’s not all. Pai’s FCC is also moving to cripple efforts to make broadband available and affordable for low-income Americans.

That has huge economic and practical implications. More and more companies only advertise jobs and accept applications online, and college and trade school applications have moved online as well. All sorts of news and information — business or job opportunities,  information about essential government services, and even life-saving emergency alerts — often reaches us first via the internet. At least it does if you have access to a broadband connection that you can afford.

But about a third of Americans lack a home broadband connection, and those Americans are disproportionately poor, rural, African American or Latino.

In rural and low-income communities, broadband infrastructure simply doesn’t exist.  The federal government’s Connect America Fund—similar to programs that brought electricity and telephone service to rural America in decades past – has started to address this. But Pai has indicated that he wants to put impossible new conditions on this program, likely strangling its effectiveness.

Meanwhile, too many simply can’t afford a broadband connection, a problem the Obama administration had started to address. Last April, the FCC expanded the Lifeline program—which for decades has made telephone service affordable to low-income Americans—to include broadband access as well, opening the door to the internet for millions of low-income people. Late last year, the FCC gave the go-ahead to nine broadband providers to start participating.

And then, last month, in a stunningly mean-spirited move, Pai—who opposed the Lifeline expansion in the first place—reversed course and blocked those companies from participating.

The FCC under Pai has effectively declared war on American consumers, with low and moderate income people being hurt the most. The president must think that’s fine, since he just renominated Pai for another five-year term.

It’s time for Congress to stop this war on ordinary Americans. The Senate can start by rejecting another term for Chairman Pai.

Alan Greenspan Is Once Again Banging the Drum for Deregulation — Is He Just Crazy?

Alter Net
By Orson Aguilar and Preeti Vissa

The free-market fundamentalists who brought us economic collapse are now frantically rewriting history in an attempt to justify their mistakes and head off effective regulation.

Some people never learn, and it seems that Alan Greenspan is one of them. The former Fed chair, who ignored repeated warnings of trouble in the subprime mortgage and derivatives markets and whose inaction played a key role in the crash of ’08, is now claiming that the reason the economic recovery is so weak is too much government action.

Continue reading “Alan Greenspan Is Once Again Banging the Drum for Deregulation — Is He Just Crazy?”

Algorithmic racial and gender bias is real. The California State Legislature must act

By Gissela Moya
The Sacramento Bee

These days, algorithms — sets of rules or instructions used by computer systems to solve a problem or perform a task — decide many things, from what videos YouTube will show us to whether we get a loan or college offer. But the algorithms used by companies to make important decisions in our lives can have racial or gender bias built into them. Happily, a partial solution has just been introduced in the California State Legislature.

Algorithmic bias, which mirrors the conscious or unconscious biases of the humans who design the algorithms, has led to unfair outcomes for people of color, women and disabled individuals. Consumers may blindly trust that algorithms are fair, but bias can be hard to see.

Algorithms can be hugely beneficial. In response to COVID-19 case outbreaks, the health care sector turned to algorithms to manage and predict case outbreaks. A COVID-19 risk prediction algorithm designed by Cleveland Clinic researchers shows an individual’s likelihood of testing positive for COVID-19, which can help tailor patient treatment. In this way, algorithms can help ensure health care resources are used effectively, especially during a pandemic.

In other cases the outcomes are worse. A study recently published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that a diagnostic algorithm for estimating kidney function which adjusts for race assigns Black people healthier scores, thereby underestimating the severity of their kidney disease. If the algorithm were corrected, one third of the 2,225 Black patients studied would be classified as having more severe chronic kidney disease and 64 would qualify for a kidney transplant that the algorithm would have denied them.

Algorithmic bias remains prevalent for multiple reasons, from the algorithms’ creators embedding their own bias to the lack of diversity in the field. In addition, biased algorithmic outcomes can stem from the data that the designers use to train algorithms to perform their functions. Data that may seem neutral, like zip codes or income levels, can serve as proxies for race and reflect the consequences of redlining, discrimination and racist policies which are still felt today.

For example, evidence indicates that residents of Black and Brown neighborhoods are more likely to be stopped, searched and arrested than whites. If that data gets fed into a “predictive policing” algorithm, it could well decide that Black and Latino people are more likely to be criminals, when in fact they’re just overpoliced.

So while we acknowledge the benefits algorithms can bring, we still have to be cautious and ensure people understand, in plain language, how they work and what they predict. Biased algorithms in health care, education and employment can wrongfully exclude some groups from resources or opportunities, as we’ve seen in the past. That makes it hard to build an equitable future in California.

Assembly Bill 13, the Automated Decision Systems Accountability Act of 2021 by Assemblymember Ed Chau (D-Monterey Park), seeks to prevent algorithm-driven systems from resulting in discrimination.

The law would ensure that California businesses that use automated decision systems — the technical term for algorithms — proactively put processes in place to test for biases and also submit an impact assessment report to the Department of Financial Protection and Innovation. In addition, the DFPI would establish an Automated Decision Systems Advisory Task Force composed of individuals from the public and private sectors.

AB 13 will start to shed some light on a field that’s way too murky. We need smart laws to increase transparency, ensure companies build fair algorithms and build strong accountability systems for these automated decision-makers that affect us all.

Gissela Moya is the Manny Garcia technology equity fellow at The Greenlining Institute, www.greenlining.org.

Algorithmic Redlining Is Real. Why Not Algorithmic Greenlining?

By Vinhcent Le
Governing

Imagine you live in a neighborhood that has long been under-resourced — “redlined” back in the days when such overt discrimination was both legal and encouraged by the federal government, and which has never fully recovered. And suppose your local government provides funding to support neighborhoods with everything from transit upgrades to rehabilitating dilapidated homes. You might expect your troubled neighborhood to be first in line for funding.

In more than two dozen U.S. cities, you could well be wrong. And it would be even more frustrating if you discovered that your neighborhood had been deprioritized not by a human official you could hold accountable but by an algorithm — an automated decision-making system that decided your community was a bad investment.

Yes, that has really happened.

Cities across the United States have begun using urban planning algorithms to classify neighborhoods by market strength and investment value, and then create tailored development plans for each — plans that determine which neighborhoods receive funding for services or infrastructure upgrades. But at least one widely used algorithm encourages users to prioritize investments and public subsidies in stronger, more prosperous markets before investing in weaker, distressed areas.

That is seen as a way to maximize return on investment for public dollars, but it can channel vitally needed funding away from the communities that need it most, typically those that had been subjected to both overt and covert discrimination. In Detroit, for example, city officials used a planning algorithm known as Market Value Analysis (MVA) to justify the reduction and disconnection of water and sewage utilities, plus withholding of federal, state and local redevelopment dollars, in the city’s “weak markets,” which happened to be its Blackest and poorest neighborhoods. In Indianapolis, MVA recommendations made small-business support, home repair and rehabilitation, homebuyer assistance, and foreclosure-prevention programs unavailable to the city’s most distressed neighborhoods.

This illustrates a fundamental pitfall of algorithms, as well as the risks that they can be misused or produce unintended consequences. While the MVA was created to help revitalize distressed neighborhoods, it uses variables like average home prices, vacancy rates, foreclosures and homeownership to determine neighborhood “value,” but those data points are neither ahistorical nor objective. Instead, they reflect a history of systemic bias. Redlining accounts for 30 percent of the gap in homeownership and 40 percent of the gap in home values for Black Americans between 1950 and 1980. Even today, maps of economically disadvantaged or under-resourced areas still bear a startling resemblance to the Federal Housing Administration’s redlining maps from the 1930s. Algorithms can perpetuate or amplify long-standing human biases.

One major source of algorithmic bias can be found in the “training data” used to teach such a system to recognize patterns in bits of information. For example, if a Black or Latino neighborhood is overpoliced, leading to skewed arrest rates, a predictive-policing algorithm could “learn” that Blacks and Latinos are more likely to be criminals, when in fact they’re just more likely to be arrested.

Often, the victims of algorithmic redlining don’t know what happened to them, because information on algorithms and their use is generally not publicly available. California’s Legislature is considering a step to begin to remedy this problem: If passed, AB 13 will bring transparency to the use of algorithms by state agencies and programs. For example, it would require a prospective contractor to submit an “automated decision system impact assessment” to evaluate the privacy and security risks to personal information as well as risks that could result in inaccurate, unfair, biased or discriminatory decisions impacting individuals.

That’s an essential start, but America can do better. We can go from algorithmic redlining to algorithmic greenlining — using the powerful tools of artificial intelligence to promote equity and help close the nation’s yawning racial wealth gap.

In the words of Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction, “Big Data processes codify the past. They do not invent the future. Doing that requires moral imagination, and that’s something only humans can provide. We have to explicitly embed better values into our algorithms, creating Big Data models that follow our ethical lead.”

California has modeled a first step with a tool known as CalEnviroScreen. A law that we at The Greenlining Institute helped pass, SB 535, prioritized funds from the state’s cap-and-trade program for communities with the greatest economic and environmental challenges, and directed the state to create a scientific tool to decide which communities to prioritize. CalEnviroScreen, developed with extensive community consultation, examines multiple indicators such as unemployment rates and exposure to pollution. Based on this data, the algorithm outputs a CalEnviroScreen score that quantifies the environmental and socioeconomic burdens within a community and determines its eligibility for targeted investments.

CalEnviroScreen is a simple example of what’s possible if we consciously put equity metrics into algorithms used to make complex decisions. Imagine how much further human creativity could take this idea if we try. Algorithmic greenlining can happen — if we have the will to do it.

Vinhcent Le is the technology equity legal counsel at the Greenlining Institute | vinhcentl@greenlining.org | @VinhcentLe


Governing‘s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing‘s editors or management.