Charters and Resegregation

Colorlines reports on a new study by The Hechinger Report, The Investigative Fund, and NBC News, which finds that a significant number of charter schools serve student populations that are significantly whiter than their districts. The full report, authored by Emmanuel Felton, looks at the particularly egregious example of Lake Oconee Academy, a k-12 charter school built explicitly to promote a retiree-oriented community to affluent families with young children, giving priority in enrollment to students of that area, and exacerbating racial segregation and educational inequality in a Georgia school district.

Read the whole report. I’ll just note that Lake Oconee Academy enrolls about a thousand students and has a student-piano ratio of about 40:1.

Historically, it is well worth noting, as Nancy MacLean does in her acclaimed (and controversial) book Democracy in Chains, that calls for school privatization and “choice” plans decoupling public school funding from publicly operated schools originated in the state of Virginia’s response to Brown v. Board of Education. Inspired by libertarian political economist James Buchanan, Virginia closed its public schools and offered vouchers so that the state and its subsidiary school districts would not technically be guilty of operating segregated schools.

This option proved politically impossible to maintain, as historian Matthew Lassiter argued, because affluent white suburbanites in Atlanta and other parts of the urbanizing south of the early 1960s felt entitled to quality schools and expected state officials to take action to reopen schools. Of course, they also expected that action in compliance with desegregation orders would be minimal, and advocated for “neighborhood schools” doctrines that ensured that affluent communities would be shielded from meaningful integration by the high price of homes (political theorist Clarissa Rile Hayward aptly describes this as “tuition”).

The case of Lake Oconee Academy suggests this dynamic will continue to play out in obvious and subtle ways. The homes in the school’s preferred attendance area are significantly more expensive than in the rest of the county, and likely to command an even higher premium based on the presumption that buying in the gated subdivision entitles the buyer to better schools. The Academy also requires Lands End uniforms, does not offer bus transportation, and gives priority in admission to the children of teachers and board members and the siblings of current students.

These policies are instrumental in maintaining a disproportionately white student population, and it’s not as though this was ever a mystery, as Felton writes of the school’s founding:

In December of 2006, the school board called a special meeting. The sole item on the agenda was the charter school, and the board voted four to one to approve it. Roi Johnson, longtime pastor of New Springfield Baptist Church in the small town of Siloam, says he stood up and declared, “What you’re doing is resegregating the schools intentionally.”


Subways are the Life of Big Cities

Jonathan Mahler’s article in the New York Times Magazine is a great read, and speaks beyond New York to the problems facing virtually all metropolitan transit systems in the United States. Simply put, political leaders at the state, local and federal levels in this country do not conceive of mass transit as an essential component of economic and social life:

Most countries treat subway systems as national assets. They understand that their cities are their great wealth creators and equality enablers and that cities don’t work without subways.

Yet, the subway in New York is plagued by archaic machinery, understaffing, and political maneuvering that prevents addressing its problems, abetted by a political culture that hypes ride sharing and other private (and inadequate) substitutes for the mobility needs of millions of New Yorkers.

Even if you don’t have time to read the whole thing, you should scroll through to look at the photos of actual in-use controls for the nation’s largest subway system. They barely qualify as Steampunk.

It’s possible to disagree with some of Mahler’s prescriptive conclusions. In particular, he suggests that the solution to MTA’s funding problems is for the agency to aggressively leverage its expansion plans to entice developers in currently underserved areas to share the profits of speculative investment; if subway expansion can make outlying landowners rich by enabling more profitable development on their land, they can return the favor to MTA. Historically, of course, this has been the model of transit-enabled graft and profiteering and, in the case of 1920s Los Angeles, wholly inadequate to secure the long-term viability of transit systems.

Indeed, New York’s problem is certainly not that the city lacks a pool of wealth sufficient to operate a world class subway system. The problem is that the owners of that wealth refuse to accept an obligation to contribute sufficiently to a public good without being rewarded.

Fulton County Sues Opioid Manufacturers

Charging that the distribution of opioid painkillers is delivering profits to the pharmaceutical industry and public health and criminal justice costs to local governments, Fulton County (GA) recently announced that it is suing a group of companies in the industry.

As federal aid to local governments has declined, and states have become stingier allocating limited block grant funds for social services, someone has to pay for the costs of overdose deaths, treatment, and jail. Under the principles established by the state settlements with tobacco companies, it should be those who profit. This is a fine example of the way that localities can use their power to push for equity (until, of course, state legislatures pass preemption laws to make such suits illegal).

Archives, Knowledge, and Information

Two things from my social feeds this week:

First, James Somers’ “Keepers of the Secrets” in the Village Voice reflects provocatively on the value of archival materials that fall between the cracks of digital search algorithms, accessible only by physical presence. NYPL archivist Thomas Lannon serves as the story’s central figure, displaying both a vast knowledge of the contents of box after box of documents, but also an equanimity about the significance of any one in particular:

That is the paradox of being an archivist. The reason an archivist should know something, Lannon said, is to help others to know it. But it’s not really the archivist’s place to impose his knowledge on anyone else. Indeed, if the field could be said to have a creed, it’s that archivists aren’t there to tell you what’s important. Historically momentous documents are to be left in folders next to the trivial and the mundane — because who’s to say what’s actually mundane or not?

That humility reflects that research in the archives is ideally a symbiosis of archivist and historian. One makes materials accessible, and the other brings contextual knowledge to find meaning in them, relating them to other documents, other narratives, other questions:

Diving into this well is one of the positive side effects of a less-than-detailed finding aid. “The best the finding aids give you is ‘Letters, 1921–1937’,” Syme said. “‘I guess I have to look at every single letter?’ Yeah, you do.” The need to pore through boxes forces you to connect with them. Syme described this as one of the few kinds of formal research left. You can’t google — you have to think about what you want. You have to talk to an archivist, and find the right box, and go through that box.

What I liked best about Somers’s article was the way that, without having to state it directly, he showed the poverty of our present conception of knowledge as mere information. What can be Googled isn’t all that matters.

The information age, unfortunately, has not left archival practices alone. While the volume of paper finding its way to archives after its bureaucratic utility is exhausted has grown, the development of archival best practices for rendering that paper accessible to researchers has purged most qualitative or critical analysis from the work:

A 2005 paper titled “More Progress, Less Process” was a wake-up call to the field. “Truly, much of what passes for arrangement in processing work is really just overzealous housekeeping, writ large…. Pointing out that as much as 80 percent of the archivists’ time was spent “refoldering,” the paper offered shortcuts that, it claimed, would make more collections available without sacrificing much in the way of intellectual accessibility.

“MPLP,” as the paper’s doctrine became known, went on to be the rallying cry of the field, even as it seemed to transform the archivist from an assiduous historian into a corner-cutting technocrat, rushing to get linear feet of record out the door (“linear feet” is an obsession in the world of archives; one standard box of folders is just over one linear foot). Indeed, most archivists got their start because they liked poring over archives. The ethos of MPLP was to read as little of a collection as you possibly could, while still ensuring that you made it usable for research.

As a former practicing historian, I recall a great frustration when my research “productivity” was evaluated by quantitative social scientists whose working assumption was that “data” is standardized and available, awaiting analysis. Maybe not everybody gets this work.

Of course, researchers can do great things make the knowledge in archives accessible in the digital stream of information. My second read to pass along is a great example, the project by Jeremy Lechtzin and Brandon Liu (described here) to digitize and geocode photos, taken for tax assessment purposes, of virtually every building on every block in New York City in the 1980s. It’s easy to say that the city’s changed since the 1980s; this kind of work, by starting with archives to make information, helps you to see it too.

Municipal Identity as Property?

I wrote a relatively long piece last week about the effort to carve out a new, majority-white Gardendale school district out of the Jefferson County district in metropolitan Birmingham, Alabama. There’s been a great deal of attention to this issue lately, which is welcome as it touches on what many people would consider a major concern–the re-segregation of American schools–as well as an issue that is frequently less visible–the influence of local boundaries on access to resources and perceptions of community in America.

This has been the principal concern of my academic research, so I’m intrigued when i see an article like Alvin Chang’s “explainer” of evolving school segregation in Vox. All in all, it’s an effective and brief explanation of how boundaries work to structure access to a resource like education, and why, following a history of white flight spurred by school integration, and subsequent differentiation among wealthy and poorer suburbs, residents of affluent communities are less likely to seek “flight” than to build boundaries around their neighborhoods. Chang also explains briefly how legal deference to this kind of localism makes it appear normal and natural, rather than as political.

If you’ve read Chang’s explainer, follow up by reading Christopher Tyson’s law review article “Municipal Identity as Property,” which Chang linked in the piece. Tyson’s central argument is that, while municipal boundaries are political creations, residents of particular municipalities think of them as a form of property right:

The extent to which residing in a particular municipality is understood as highly consequential for wealth building, quality of life, family security, and status is a key feature of the contemporary suburban identity and experience. Battles over municipal boundaries reveal the ways in which suburban residents express what amounts to a deeply felt entitlement to separate government.

Based on my research on the secession movement in north Fulton County suburbs, where suburban activists worked to incorporate cities as a precursor to a hoped-for separation from the larger county, I find this description apt. The concept of “municipal identity as property” is a neat summation of a set of linked ideas. First of all, incorporation–creating cities out of broader jurisdictions–creates governments that can act to address local concerns. Second, they frequently do this in ways that are negative and exclusionary–keeping bad stuff out is easier for many municipal governments, particularly small ones, than developing good stuff. Third, the work of keeping out bad stuff has historically been aimed, if not always overtly, at people. Fourth, the public perception of protection by exclusionary power is akin to a property relation to local government, enfolding both material and emotional investment.

Going back to key works like George Lipsitz’s The Possessive Investment in Whiteness (with its provocative and apt subtitle “How White People Profit From Identity Politics“) and Cheryl Harris’s seminal 1993 critical legal studies analysis of “Whiteness as Property,” we can see that having public authorities recognize this property right, by upholding one form of dividing metropolitan space and rejecting another, is a real and significant form of white privilege.

Consider the controversial reasoning of Judge Madeline Haikala in the ruling allowing the establishment of the Gardendale district. Despite acknowledging that forming the new district would adversely impact educational opportunities available to black students who had been users of Gardendale schools, and despite acknowledging that white animus toward racial outsiders was a motivating factor, the judge ruled that those white Gardendale families who hadn’t been caught publicly expressing racist sentiments had a material interest in local control of their schools and school district boundaries that would exclude some non-local children who had previously been entitled to use them. Essentially, the right to property in a bounded local area–first in the sense of defining a spatially exclusionary right of access to a public school, and second in the legal recognition of the idea of community that the boundaries of town and school district mirror as something entitled to protection.

Clarissa Rile Hayward in How Americans Make Race aptly describes the process of boundary work supporting exclusion as a stealthy form of privatization, wherein public schools effectively require “tuition” paid in the form of home prices. Hayward also describes how community boundaries, which are, after all, set through nakedly political processes, become part of “institutionalized identity stories” wherein the work done through boundaries to exclude help to establish the legitimacy and normalcy of that exclusion as an expression of community will. An example of this process in action are Facebook posts in support of forming the Gardendale school district, which were exposed, as Nicole Hannah-Jones explained, by the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund as evidence of racial exclusionary intent:

The Legal Defense Fund also argued that it was racism, not the desire for local control, that was behind the secession effort. They pointed to a Facebook page that Focus activists had created. The very first post stated that forming their own school system would give Gardendale “better control over the geographic composition of the student body.” In another post, an organizer noted that the Jefferson County school district was busing children into “our schools … from as far away as Center Point” and that “a look around at our community sporting events, our churches are great snapshots of our community. A look into our schools, and you’ll see something totally different.”

It’s only natural that the residents of Gardendale would embrace this sort of “institutionalized identity story,” but it’s somewhat discouraging that a federal judge would, even recognizing the exclusionary nature of the story, still find it compelling. To have the legislatures and courts of the nation validate your group’s demand to arrange school district boundaries in the particular way you favor, disregarding harm to others and the possible illegality of the boundaries, is an exemplar of privilege.

Of course, it’s also quite likely that Judge Haikala, like most affluent whites, severely misjudges the extent of economic inequality along racial lines in the United States, which could diminish a sense of urgency for protecting desegregation.


Housing Crisis in New York

Michael Greenberg in NYRB identifies the lack of affordable housing as a humanitarian crisis.

The cause of the crisis is the removal of rent stabilized apartments,

among the city’s most precious resources, as critical to its well-being, I would argue, as its transit system and public parks. In view of this extraordinary level of regulation, it may seem surprising that New York faces a crisis in affordable housing. But rent-stabilized apartments are disappearing at an alarming rate: since 2007, at least 172,000 apartments have been deregulated. To give an example of how quickly affordable housing can vanish, between 2007 and 2014, 25 percent of the rent-stabilized apartments on the Upper West Side of Manhattan were deregulated.

Although rent caps are eliminated when the rent of an apartment exceeds $2,700 monthly, owners purchasing buildings at boom prices increasingly prefer to push out a building’s tenants in order to raise rents to cover astronomical financial costs to ownership. Indeed, sellers of buildings expect this to happen:

The clearing out of rent-stabilized tenants has become such a common real estate practice that it is added to a building’s value even before the fact. Landlords have found enough loopholes in tenant protection laws to make widespread displacement a viable financial strategy. A building in Crown Heights with one hundred stabilized units and a rent roll of $1.2 million might now fetch $40 million or more—and every tenant must be forced out for the investment to be recouped.

Perhaps not surprisingly the players in this game, with access to sufficient cash and credit to buy whole New York buildings, and to pay lawyers and court costs to see evictions through, are private equity investment firms, which makes Greenberg seem almost longing for the days of the “individual slumlord” of the outer boroughs.

Landlord-tenant relations are totally out of whack. One of the most perverse mechanisms Greenberg identifies is “preferential rent.” When landlords opt not to increase rents on stabilized apartments up to the full limit of the law, they effectively accrue the potential to ask for sudden, large increases of the sort that can induce tenants to move. After that, vacancy and capital improvements are often sufficient to raise rents above the $2,700 ceiling for rent controls. There are about a quarter million rent-stabilized apartments in New York where the tenants are paying preferential rent, and Greenberg makes clear that the residents of all of them are at risk.

These rent machinations throw the housing stock of affordable outer borough neighborhoods into the maw of the political-economic-cultural storm of gentrification, as apartment finding services create new frontiers for young, educated, and often white tenants. The cultural cachet of hipness, however, is less attractive to longtime tenants who perceive it, correctly, as a harbinger of pressure to move. Greenberg helps us to understand clearly that gentrification of this sort is not simply a “market” process. Financially interested actors intervene daily in the lives of tenants (not just when a building sells or a vacant apartment is leased) in ways that are often explicitly oriented toward pushing them out. Landlords harass tenants:

Some landlords bring tenants to court for putting up bookshelves (which may violate the letter of a lease that prohibits renters from drilling into walls) or for having a roommate or, in one case I know of, a pet canary. “Most people here don’t believe in the courts because they’re used to it working against them,” said Nefertiti. “That’s what landlords count on.” Many renters are unaware of the laws protecting them and have little knowledge of how New York’s intricate housing bureaucracy works, so they are easily intimidated by determined owners. A court date is also a missed day at work. Landlords don’t expect to win all of these skirmishes, but the barrage of lawsuits helps set the stage for a buyout: financially and emotionally ground down, the tenant agrees to relinquish his rights and depart.

An artist I know in South Williamsburg took flight after her landlord paid a homeless man to sleep outside her door, defecate in the hallway, invite friends in for drug-fueled parties, and taunt her as she entered and left the building. In East New York a mother tells of a landlord who, after claiming to smell gas in the hallway, gained entry to her apartment and then locked her out. In January, a couple with a three-month-old baby in Bushwick complained to the city because they had no heat. In response, the landlord threatened to alert the Administration for Children’s Services that they were living with a baby in an unheated apartment. Fearful of losing their child, they left, leaving the owner with what he wanted: a vacant unit.

If any of that sounds farfetched, here’s one San Francisco building owner’s confession: He conspired to burn his own building down to renovate it without the burden of its tenants. Of course not all landlords are criminals, but the market in “hot” cities gives even honest property owners strong incentives to push their tenants out.

So what can be done? As Greenberg notes, the city currently does work to preserve affordable housing under certain provisions, and offers tax incentives to developers to include below-market apartments in new buildings. The problem with 421-a is that it contributes to the oversupply of high-end housing, which might, under ordinary conditions of glut, slow down. The program also is projected to deprive New York of more than $10 billion in property tax receipts by 2020. And, perhaps most troubling, developers in partnership with the city have secured an expansive definition of need for housing assistance, such that a grossly disproportionate share of 421-a apartments are priced to cost the requisite 30 percent of the income of a household taking in the low six figures. Once developers have skewed the median rent of a neighborhood to approach five figures, it’s reasonable to declare that the modestly well-off can’t afford market rate rents. But the approach does little to help the lowest income New Yorkers. Nearly 3 million New Yorkers filed applications for a lottery to rent 4,174 apartments in 2013-15. One in 700 were successful, overall, but the count disguises a much lower rate of success, owing to low supply, of placing low-income tenants:

In a rush to rack up “affordable” units and get to the 80,000 he promised, de Blasio appears to have stocked the program with housing for upper-middle-income tenants who don’t need it. It costs more to subsidize the poor because they can pay so little themselves; the logical fiscal alternative is to subsidize those who can pay more.

This approach accounts for the hostility Greenberg reports between residents of neighborhoods like East New York and East Harlem for rezoning plans that would allow high-rise apartment towers. Residents feel, with ample reason, that the net effect of the projects, even with subsidized apartments, will be to displace the poor, leaving the city’s public housing system, with a waiting list of more than 255,000 families for 176,000 apartments as the last, inadequate, refuge for poor New Yorkers.

The political economy of housing is profoundly shaped by a problem that is familiar to me: the conflict between urban constituencies and suburban- and rural-dominated state legislatures. In Albany, representatives of suburban districts are prime targets for developer lobbyists, as they can oppose tenant protections and rent controls that affect New York City without political risk. Perhaps New York City should secede from New York State.

Short of that solution, Greenberg suggests a simple, yet radical solution: a significant local-option sales tax for New York City dedicated to actually providing housing. The proposal would allow New York to generate fiscal resources to create and preserve low-income housing independent of Albany and Washington, and would also, hopefully, bind New Yorkers together around two core ideas: affordable housing is a problem at many income levels, and, since New Yorkers are all affected by public policies toward private developers, an aggressive public commitment to affordable housing is not a special interest but a public interest.

With a sales tax devoted to housing, affordable buildings needn’t be confined to land the city already owns; enough money would be available to purchase lots all over the five boroughs, not just in poorer districts. The buildings could be woven into the fabric of the city, rather than clumped together in self-enclosed enclaves that promote a kind of psychological as well as physical segregation. New affordable housing would no longer be contingent on giving tax exemptions to the builders of private, market-rate projects: luxury developers would be free to charge whatever the market will bear for all of their units, not just 70 or 80 percent of them, and the city, in turn, could collect from these developers the billions in property taxes that it now forfeits under 421-a. Housing built with money from a special tax fund would be 100 percent affordable. Over time homelessness would decrease—especially among low-wage working families—as would the amount (currently about $1.6 billion per year) that the city spends on homeless services.

This would be an overturning of three decades of urban housing policy, repudiating the shrinking of the public sector and the corresponding turn toward the market. It would overturn the Bloombergian political economy of the city. It would be extreme. It may be the only thing that can help another generation of working class New Yorkers afford to live decently in the city.