Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Tax Reform Law: What Is In Store For 2018: Updated; December 5, 2017

Hello Everyone:

#BloggerCandidateForum may be on vacation until after the New Year but he (it has to be a he) made sure we had plenty to talk about and do we ever have something to talk about.  Onward and upward.

If Mr. Donald Trump can claim any sort of legislative accomplishment, it is the much reviled Tax Reform Bill, which was passed and signed into law last week.  The new law is the first major overhaul of the U.S. tax code since the President Ronald Reagan's administration.  When the U.S. Tax Code was last overhauled in 1986, the legislative process took six months ( Dec. 2, 2017; date accessed Dec. 27, 2017) and involved over a dozen public hearings. Not so with this Bill.  No Congressional hearings, last-minute changes scribbled in the margins in the middle of the night, a "late in the midnight hour" vote.  More surprising (not really), few of those who voted in favor of it completely read it through.  Party politics won the day.

Now that that #TaxScam is law Laura Bliss, Alastair Boone, Sarah Holder, Teresa Mathew, and Benjamin Schneider parse out what it all means in their CityLab article "What the Republican Tax Bill Means for Commuters, Renters, and Retirees."  We know who the winners are: corporations and the top one-percent would reap the majority of the benefits.  Who are the losers?  The rest of 99 percent.  The co-authors write, "Most American earning less than $75,000 a year would be worse off by 2027 than they are now,  mainly due to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate" (; Dec 4, 2017; date accessed Dec. 27, 2017).  The national deficit would increase by over $1 trillion, "triggering automatic cuts to many federal agencies and programs [; Nov. 28, 2017; date accessed Dec. 27, 2017] including Medicare, and setting the stage for future showdowns over social safety net programs such as Medicaid and Social Securty."

Aside from the very wealthy Americans, urban dwellers will feel the greatest impact from this newly passed bill.  Some of the most densely populated and wealthiest states like California and New York (no coincidence Blue States), are in line for a bigger increase than before, essential subsidizing cuts to less expensive states like Texas and Florida (; Nov. 29, 2017; date accessed Dec. 27, 2017).  Renters could pay a wee less, but the poorest renters could wind up homeless.  For all income bracket, commutes are likely to get worse.  Little wonder why the public reject these proposals by a 2-to-1 margin (; Nov. 25, 2017; date accessed Dec. 27, 2017).

Now that it is law the co-authors examine what could be in store in the coming year.

"For commuters: bumpier (and bumpier) roads ahead"

Laura Bliss leads off with a look at how the Tax Reform will impact commuters.  The law's most consequential affect will be felt on urban transportation systems and will play out over the long term.  Ms. Bliss writes, "Both the House and Senate proposals cap property tax deductions at $10,000, and completely eliminate deductions for state and local income and sales taxes."  The result would be a reduction in state funding to urban areas, shrink local budgets set aside for road maintenance, bus drivers' salaries, lay new train tracks, and otherwise support Americans' daily commutes.  Streets, freeways, airports, and mass transportation systems are already in bad shape now (; Feb. 12, 2015; date accessed Dec. 27, 2017).  So much for paying for that sparkling new transportation infrastructure that Mr. Trump promised on the campaign trail.  In fact, this could make things worse,  "Unless leaders raised local taxes, which would make cities even more expensive places to live, and put the heaviest burden on low-income taxpayers" [Ibid; Jan. 20, 2015; date accessed Dec. 27, 2017].

The Senate version of Tax Reform would have, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, increased the federal deficit approximately $1.5 trillion over a ten year period (; Nov. 13, 2017; date accessed Dec. 27, 2017).  This would generate cuts to a myriad of federal agencies, including the Department of Transportation, implying less money for highways, airports, and local transit intiatives.  Scott Goldstein, the policy director of Transportation for American, told CityLab,

It's more than just a to bill,...It will have repercussions on programs we rely on to make reinvestment so in American.

With that much debt, it is unimaginable where Congress could find the resources for fabled $1 trillion infrastructure the president bragged about (; June 9, 2017; date accessed Dec. 27, 2017).

The news is more grim for infrastructure dreams: "The House...version of the tax bill would eliminate private activity bonds, which allow developers and investors to borrow money at low interest rates for public works projects."  This would make re-paying the loans to build that new rail line or that new airport terminal more expensive and drawn-out.  "Even in cities like Los Angeles and and Seattle, where citizens have already overwhelmingly voted for multi-billion dollar sales tax measures" (Ibid; Nov. 9, 2016;  date accessed Dec. 27, 2017).  Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program told CityLab, 

...promises made to taxpayers won't be kept, certainly in terms of timing.

At recent news conference (; Nov. 27, 2017; date accessed Dec. 27, 2017), Los Angeles Mayor Eric J. Garcetti (Ibid) offered a more blunt assessment,

This will mean more traffic.

There are parts of the bill that refer directly to transportation, which could have more mixed short-term results.  Tax benefits for buying an electric car would disappear (; Nov. 21, 2017; date accessed Dec. 27, 2017), slowing down EV adoption.  Commuter tax benefits were also in danger: the House version of the bil, companies that provide subsidized or free parking or transit passes would no longer be eligible for $255 per-worker tax breaks.  More commuters would have to pay for it themselves.  In an aside Ms. Bliss writes, "For the urbanist crowd a tax policy that eliminates parking subsidies could be considered a tiny win."  The Senate version kept the parking and transit benefit "but a $20 per-month tax available for the tiny-but-growing number who consistently bike to work would disappear."

Why pick on cyclists?  Spite, perhaps (; Nov. 25, 2017; date accessed Dec. 27, 2017)

"For homebuyers and owners: cheaper houses, but higher property taxes"

Sarah Holder looks at how the new Tax Reform Law will affect homeowners and buyers.  Both the House and Senate versions put a limit on mortgage interest and property tax deductions, decreasing home values-"as much as 10 percent nation-wide," according to the National Association of Realtors (; Dec. 2, 2017; date accessed Dec. 27, 2017).  It might help prospective buyers, but current homeowners would lose major equity.  Some buyer, upper middle-class in particular, might find buying that new or first home less appealing.

Be that as it may, not every deduction has been completely slashed.  The Senate version kept the $1 million cap for mortgage interest deductions on home loans, but the House version cut it in half.  Ms. Holder writes, "But these changes coincide with the doubling of the standard deduction, [; Nov. 30, 2017; date accessed Dec. 27, 2017], which essentially cancels out the benefit of any mortgage interest deduction."  The MID has long been detested for preserving saving for the wealthiest Americans, thus reducing it to $500,000 might be little progressive.  However, rather than using the MID savings to pay for new affordable housing, as advocates hope, these saving would gravitate upward (; Dec. 4, 2017; date accessed Dec. 27, 2017).

By re-configuring the mix of deductions available homeowners, the new tax law could upend where and when they choose to move.  Both the House and Senate and House versions capped state and local tax deductions, which could drive people away from the coastal states.  "We could see 'tax refugees' [; Nov. 27, 2017; date accessed Dec. 27, 2017] streaming out of states with high state and local tax states like California and New York."  Further, other changes in the capital gains tax deductions could remove incentives to people from buying or selling.  Lawrence Yun, the chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, told CityLab,

Better jobs, a call to duty by the military-now we are preventing people from taking on these better opportunities.

"For renters: lower housing costs for some; no housing for others"

Benjamin Schneider points out, "How these proposals would affect the 43 million American households that rent their home is not clear."  There is a bit of a Catch-22 to how the new Tax Reform Law will affect housing: "Home values, will almost certainly decrease.  But that doesn't mean necessarily mean rents will start to fall."

The Tax Reform Law does away with home mortgage and property tax deduction-which would explain why property owners in Los Angeles lined up to pre-pay their taxes-thus, more Americans would have littl, if any incentive to buy a home and opt to rent, particularly in expensive cities.  This would more pressure on already tight rental markets, like in Los Angeles, which are experiencing historic levels of demand (; June 24, 2015; date access Jan. 2, 2018).  However, the lower home might induce some renters to become buyers.  Hard to say whether or not the drop in prices will out weight the greater tax burden of home ownership.

The big winners are rental property owners.  Mr. Schneider writes, "Under both House and Senate bill, Jim Seida, a professor at Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business said,

...the owner of a rental property can still deduct the financing costs of purchasing that property, and can still deduct the property taxes without limit-unlike a homeowner"

Additional investment is likely to be funneled toward rental property, possibly leading to lower prices for renters by fueling competition among the builders and property owners.

Even so, as capital makes its way into the traditional rental markets, the affordable rental market will probably take a hard hit.  The big drop in the corporate tax rate "will significantly reduce investor interest in the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit [; Dec. 4, 2017; date accessed Jan 2, 2017]."  The accounting and consulting firm Novogradac and Company (; Nov. 3, 2017; date accessed Jan 2, 2017) conducted an analysis of the tax reform law, concluding that it would eliminate nearly 1 million affordable rental units.  They found,"...the bills' proposes 20 percent corporate tax rate would make the LIHTC 15 percent less valuable, which would result in $1.2 billion less in investment in affordable housing over the next decade."

The House's bill provision to end private-activity bonds could land an even mightier punch to the affordable rental housing market.  Private-activity bonds are "tax-free municipal bonds" which are primary tool for developers of affordable housing to access the LITHC tax credits and accounts for more than 60 percent (; Nov. 6, 2017; date accessed Jan. 2, 2017) of the construction and and rehabilitation of affordable housing units.  Without this instrument, as many as "880,000 rental units" could not be built or preserved over the next ten years.

Mr. Schneider surmises, "For urbanist, a federal policy pivot toward renters might be seen as a small victory amidst all of the bad news.  But for renters who were already in the most precarious economic position, things are likely to get more difficulty."

"For retirees: rising healthcare costs, Medicare cuts, and shrinking nest eggs"

Teresa Mathew looks at how the Tax Reform Law will impact the elderly.  She begins, "Currently, Americans who spend more than 10 percent of their income on medical expenses can deduct a number of additional expenses-like healthcare premiums and medical transportation costs-from their out-of-pocket health spending."  This deduction made medical care more affordable, considering that long-tern services and support are not usually covered by Medicare and private insurance.  The House version of the tax reform law cut these deduction, but the Senate version saved them.  The American Association of Retired Persons and other advocacy groups releases a joint statement (; Nov. 30, 2017; date accessed Jan 2, 2017) expressing serious concern about the cut.

Further, the Senate's version of the law eliminates the mandate requiring all Americans to buy health insurance, premiums healthier younger people would longer subsidize the cost those who require more and more expensive healthcare.  Ms. Mathew reports, "The CBO states that, as a result, average overall premiums for health insurance would rise [; Nov. 15, 2017; date accessed Jan 2, 2018] by about 10 percent over the next decade.  A study conducted by AARP's Public Policy Institute found that "there could Abe an average premium increase of up to $1,5000 for people ages 50 to 64 by 2019 (; Jan. 2 2018).

Another major concern: the "$1.5 surge to the federal deficit that the CBO anticipates would force automatic cuts to Medicare-up to $25 billion in 2018, and more beyond [Ibid; Nov. 28, 2017]."  Both Medicare and Social Security may be exempt from the mandatory cuts thanks to the 2010 pay-as-you-go law, however as the deficit balloons, many can expect these programs-which prevent millions from falling into poverty- be ripe targets for privatization (; Dec. 3, 2017).

For elderly homeowners who are dependent upon their home equity to supplement their retirement income, the pending drop in home values caused by the tax changes would be a hard blow to their long-term economic security.

Workers trying to set aside money for their retirement could also suffer as proposes deductions for pass-through income (; Nov. 3, 2017; date accessed Jan 2, 2018) might discourage small businesses from offering retirement plans or other related benefits to their employees.  Ms. Mathew writes, "Currently, non-discrimination laws state that if owners are going to have retirement savings plans, they need to create similar ones for their employees."  If a business owner has no incentive to establish one for themselves, they may be less willing to do so for others, and more likely to to set aside money for their own retirements.  This is not good news for workers: "According to a survey from the AARP, 55 million Americans don't have a way to save for retirement out of their paycheck [; Oct. 2014]."

Brian Graff, president and CEO of AARP told CityLab,

The data is very clear: People who make between $30,000 to $50,000 are 15 times more likely to save [for retirement] because of the convenience of payroll deduction, the fact there's a match and the culture of savings in the workplace,...If you're left on your own, you don't have those things.

"For students: higher costs for higer ed (especially grad school)"

Alastair Boone returns to take a look at what the new Tax Reform Law means for students considering university, graduate, or professional schools.  The news is not good. Both versions threatened to make higher education less accessible in a number of ways.  The House of Representatives' version had the biggest bite, "with about $65 billion worth of cuts to provisions that help students and families finance undergraduate and graduate programs."  The most eye-popping of these cuts was the tuition waiver for grad students working as teaching or research assistants while earning their doctorates, especially in the STEM subjects.

The tuition waivers differ from stipends-the taxable money provided by the universities to cover living expenses-the waivers are not funds that grad students actually spend.  Thus they are not currently taxable.  However, the House version treated the waivers like taxable income.  During an interview with Inside Higher Ed, University of Illinois Ph.D candidate Mary Grace Hebert compared taxing the waivers to taxing a coupon.  Graduate students would see their tax burden go through the roof, and advanced degrees would out of reach to all but the wealthiest.

There are more tax cuts slated for students.  Ms. Boone writes, "Today, under employer-provided educational assistance, an employer can pay working students up to $5,250, tax free."  The House version of the bill would have eliminated the exempt status for this reimbursements.  Further, the House version offered to repeal student loan interest deduction, "which currently allow those paying off loans to cut their annual tax burden by as much as $2,500 (; Dec.2, 2017; date accessed Jan. 2, 2018).  This would further deepened the already growing student debt crisis.

Steven Bloom, the director of government relations at the American Council on Education, told CityLab, 

If you wanted to design policies that undermine eduction for undergraduates, part-time students, folks needing re-training, and graduate would do what the House did,...

The Senate version was more preferable, both versions of the tax reform law eliminate state and local incom and property tax deductions, which translates to fewer funds to pass along to public school districts. Further, fewer funds to public school districts could result in fewer students going to university in the first place (; Aug. 25, 2016; date accessed Jan. 2, 2018) 

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Save #NetNeutrality; December 15, 2017

Hello Everyone:

It seems that our slippery friend #BloggerCandidateForum managed to escape on Wednesday for a holiday break.  Probably a good idea since the coming year will bring an extremely important mid-term election and the Forum wants to be rested and ready to go.  However, before the little devil ducked out, he did manage to leave us with a few things to talk about this week and next.  First on the blog, #NetNeutrality.

The Federal Communications Commissions voted on December 14, 2017 to repeal #NetNeutrality regulations enacted during President Barack Obama's tenure.  If that was not bad enough, the FCC, led by Chairman Ajit Pai, went one step further: banning local and state governments from taking action on their own to preserve #NetNeutrality within their own borders.

Adam Sneed writes in his CityLab article "What Can Cities and States Do About Net Neutrality?," It's a preemption effort that isn't sitting well with local leaders across the country."  A week prior to the 3-2 vote in favor of the repeal, sixty-eight mayors and county official wrote Chairman Pai to say that they were,

...deeply disturbed by the Commission's efforts to preempt our ability to protect consumers and businesses in our communities... (; Dec. 7, 2017; date accessed Dec. 26, 2017)

However, Republican FCC Commissioners Michael O'Rielly, who voted with Chairman Pai and another commissioner in favor of the repeal, told CityLab that he favored even stronger preemption measures.

Commissioner O'Rielly said,

Broadband services is not confined to state boundaries and should not be constrained by a patchwork of state and local governments...A hodgepodge of state rules could severely curtail not only the next generation of wireless systems that we have been working so hard to promote, but also the technologies that may rely on these networks in the future...I would actually go even further on preemption, but I could only carry the debate so far today.

Thus far, the much detested vote is not preventing some state and civic officials-most of who are Democrats-from announcing that "they'll attempt to create their own version of net neutrality."  Mr. Sneed writes, "Broadly speaking, they opposite the FCC's move to allow broadband providers to serve some websites faster or slower than others, or block some altogether."  This is where we tread into censorship territory.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced on December 13, his state will enforce its own version of #NetNeutrality (; Dec. 13, 2017; date accessed Dec. 26, 2017) by sanctioning those broadband providers that hold user content hostage, by either blocking it or extorting additional fees for apps and services.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also tweeted a defiant message, saying,

Today's ruling by the FCC is dangerous.  The Internet must remain free and open to all

New York will take all necessary steps to protect #NetNeutrality (10:32 AM; Dec. 14, 2017;; date accessed Dec. 26, 2017)

In California, the home of Silicon Valley, state Senator Scott Wiener announced his intention to introduce legislation requiring #NetNeutrality in California (; Dec. 14, 2017; date accessed Dec. 26, 2017)

Before the ink was even dry on the vote, state and local governments declared their intentions to sue the FCC (; Dec. 14, 2017; date accessed Dec. 26, 2017).  Mr. Sneed reports, "This includes attorney generals from New York, Washington, Massachusetts [; Dec. 14, 2017; date accessed Dec. 26, 2017], and Iowa [; Dec. 14, 2017; date accessed Dec. 26, 2017], and officials from Santa Clara County,..."  The FCC does have the authority to regulate interstate communication law, and the majority Republican commission did cites the Constitutions's Commerce Clause to bolster their case.  Preempting laws in favor of cities is something the commission has done before.

The preemption clause is destined to play a prominent role in the legal.  The final language is still ambiguous and the repeal will not be made public until it is published in the Federal Register, which could take weeks.  Be that as it may, the latest available draft (; date accessed Dec. 26, 2017) contains broad language that prevents states and cites from continuing to enforce the rules that the FCC repealed or decided not to impose.  Adam Sneed observes, "That's vague enough that it could be interpreted to challenge any attempted legislation that affects broadband providers."  Also, cities would not be able to enact, more stringent requirements for any aspect of broadband service that we address in this order...(Ibid).  Specifically, states cannot force broadband providers to disclose anymore information than required by the Federal Communications Commission and, in all likelihood, cannot impose further consumer privacy protections.

Angelina Panettieri, principal associate at the National League of Cities, told CityLab,

This order is another nibble away at local authority,...That's in keeping with what this FCC has been doing all year in terms of preempting cities, and in terms of painting states and cities as the enemy of broadband deployment.

Therefore, the issues of consumer protection looms large for civic leaders.  The FCC also decided, at the time of the vote, that it would no longer be the chief regulator of broadband providers.  Instead, it will divided the duties with the Federal Trade Commission, in a similar manner when the #NetNeutrality order took effect in 2015.  This is a move intended to "weaken the regulatory structure around broadband providers.  By broadly preempting states and cities, there's concern that government agencies at all levels will have too high a barrier to taking action."

Ms. Panettieri continued,

There's some very broad language in the order that could be used as a weapon against cities by [the telecom] industry in the future,...The preemption ensures that there's no federal watchdog and there isn't allowed to be a state or local watchdog.

"Net neutrality, city by city'

The obvious legal challenges aside, there are a few strategies available to states and cities in order preserves elements of #NetNeutrality rules but it will require some infrastructure investment.  Adam Sneed cities the example of the more than 500 communities that have ready built their own Internet infrastructure (; date accessed Dec. 26, 2017), like Chattanooga, Tennessee's much lauded municipal fiber network.  Mr. Sneed writes, "These networks are often competitors to corporate providers, expanding broadband service to homes and communities that aren't served by private operators."  They can force private companies to offer more competitive pricing and service in an area. They also allow government providers to establish their own rules regarding equal access.

Since building its own high-speed network, a sort-of tech scene as materialized in Chattanooga.  Mayor Andy Berke told CityLab, "that he worried that the economy could suffer if larger tech competitors pay to get into broadband 'fast lanes' that local startups can't afford."  He said,

We need to make sure people understands what's at stake,...If you're in a place where you have a growing tech ecosystems, you want net neutrality to remain. ...Much of our high growth comes from the higher wages of the tech world.

However, building a high-speed network, like Chattanooga's, is not a simple thing to do for a number of reasons.  Among the reasons are "19 states have laws that prohibit or severely limit a cities' ability to do that."  In an aside, Mr. Sneed notes, "Chattanooga's network was the subject of its own preemption battle at the FCC in 2015: the agency voted to block state laws that banned the city's network from expanding.  The state sued the FCC and ultimately won [; Aug. 29, 2017], leaving the state preemption law intact."

According to Christopher Mitchell, the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, there alternate, more simple methods for achieving the same results.  "If cities are preempted from passing laws or regulations around net neutrality, they can still enter into contractual agreements with providers-but the city has be able to provide something for the companies to make that happen."  One example is Lincoln, Nebraska which built a conduit for telecommunications companies to house their cables if they committed to connecting everyone in the city.  Broadband cooperatives are popular in rural communities not served by the telecom companies and provider another type of protection "by allowing residents to decide how their own network will be run."

This may sound promising but it will not completely save #NetNeutrality because a local network can still pick and choose which content to block or prioritize content, "but the cast majority of sites and services consumers use are on other networks with other providers."

Building a local network or a quid-pro-quo agreement is a costly enterprise.  Mr. Mitchell suggests, "the best option is for cities to get started now, so they don't get too far behind."  He continues,

We've been saying for years that cities can't rely on the FCC to protect them,...Cities need to recognize that they need to have more a say in the future of essential infrastructure [and] need to start making investments.  They earlier they start with modest investments, the better.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Reports Of The Death Of Retail Are Greatly Exaggerated; December 19, 2017

Hello Everyone:

The holiday shopping season is at its peak.  Frenzied shoppers are frantically searching online and roaming the malls in search of that perfect gift.  Yours Truly is also roaming the malls, the dead and dying malls, in search of "retailpocalypse."  Yesterday, we finished up a very long discussion on how Sears plants in Atlanta and Memphis are being repurposed as mixed-use retail/residential/commercial space in an effort to redevelop the host community.  Today we turn to the subject of mall retrofits.  By now, it is not news that brick and mortar stores and malls are in trouble, going the way of the dinosaur thanks to online retailers like Amazon.  Both The Limited (home to Victoria's Secret) and Toys "R" Us filed for bankruptcy.  The financial woes of these long-established retailers are considered omens of "retail apocalypse."  What does this all mean?  For us, what do you do with empty buildings?

Chain retailers, in distressed suburbs, are not the only ones in financial distress, the luxury retailers are falling on hard times.  Luxury retailers in America's biggest cities: New York's Madison Avenue, Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, and Chicago's Miracle Mile are hermorraghing business.  Richard Florida reports in his CityLab article "The Great Retail Retrofit," "All told, roughly 100,000 retail jobs [; April 18, 2017; date accessed Dec. 19, 2017] were lost between October 2016 and April 2017."  The future for the retail industry looks bleak, "In the next five years, one out of every four malls is project to closes, according to an analysis by Credit Suisse [; May 31, 2017; date accessed Dec. 19, 2017]."  To give you some idea of how much square footage is lost when a mall closes, Mr. Florida estimated that the total area of dead malls is greater than the city of Boston.

As gloomy as this news may be, there is a real silver lining for cities and suburbs.

First of all, let Your Truly set things straight: Brick and mortar stores are not headed for the dustbin of retail history.  Although the retail industry is shedding workers, "the sector is still growing at a rate of 3 percent per year."  This is what the industry research and advisory services firm the IHL Group estimates.  Their report, Debunking The Retail Apocalpyse (; Aug. 29, 2017; date accessed Dec. 19, 2017), estimates that "retail sales are up by more than  $100 billion this year, and 4,000 more chain stores will have opened than closed in the U.S."

Much of what is happening is actually a long-overdue correction.  The U.S. dedicates (; date accessed Dec. 19, 2017) "fours times more real estate square footage to retail, than Japan and France; six times more than England; nine times more than Italy; and 11 times more than Germany."

Stating the obvious, the way we shop has undergone a fundamental change.  An increasing number of people are shopping online, the stores that are still drawing in customers, are the ones that emphasize experiences.  Customers want to hold a cast-iron skillet and feel it's weight; they want to give the latest device.

This concept of "seamless integration" is what late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs envisioned for his stores. The idea of fluidity between e-commerce and the physical store-no distinction between the two. Richard Florida writes, "The most successful virtual stores are currently increasing their physical presence."  E-commerce Titan Amazon is opening up bookstores and its aquisition of grocery chain Whole Foods established a beach head in affluent cities and suburbs. Apple's brand was on the vanguard of seamless integration between e-commerce and the physical store.  The Apple Stores "showcase cutting-edge designs, provide service and advice, build community, are a big part of what differentiates Apple from its competition."

So, you ask, what does all of this have to do with finding a silver lining in dead and dying malls?  Before we can find the silver lining, we need to have some idea of why reports of demise brick and mortar stores maybe premature.  

As the talent labor pool and high-paying jobs make their way back to the cities, there is demand on additional office space.  Companies like Google and Amazon can afford to build new facilities.  However, smaller companies and gig-economy workers need more flexible workspaces that companies likes WeWork can provide, and they need an affordable place to live.  Both of these needs can be met through adaptive re-use of empty former retail spaces. For example, "In downtown Providence, Rhode Island,...,the Greek Revival Westminster Arcade, built in 1828 as the nation's first indoor shopping mall, has been re-developed to include dozens of micro-apartments."

The return to the city movement is powered by the preferences of the young talented workforce for urban amenities, such as: small family-owned businesses and small hardware stores that are being threatened by soaring rents that only the big retail chains and luxury brands can afford to pay.  However, as these enterprises have had to scale back their activities, real estate developers have a golden opportunity to replace the chain stores and luxury brand storefronts with independent, artisanal, and local boutiques.  While property owners will lose out on commercial rents, "the overall value and desirability of their buildings will likely rise."

There is more to this story than just retail blight.  Mr. Florida reports, "The problems confronting distressed suburbs and rural communities run much deeper than the retail blight that stands as a physical symbol of the economic crisis they face."  A noticeable number of these communities are developing innovative approaches to convert empty malls and big box stores, the acres of empty parking lots, into more productive assets for the future.

Ellen Dunham-Jones of Georgia Tech, one of the world's experts on the redevelopment of aging suburban malls  is the co-author, with June Williamson of City University of New York, of the landmark book Retrofitting Suburbia (; date accessed Dec. 19, 2017) and a recent article on re-purposed malls, Loose-Fit Architecture: Designing Buildings for Change (; date accessed Dec. 19, 2017).  Ms. Dunham-Jones and Ms. Williamson assembled a database of over 1,500 retrofits or redevelopments of dead malls, strip centers, big box stores, and similar developments across the United States.  These antique retail begin their second life, a few specific use case studies have emerged, high Ms. Dunham-Jones and Mr. Florida described over the weekend in the Wall Street Journal article "A Retrofit for America's Dying Malls" (; Dec. 15, 2017; date accessed Dec. 19, 2017)

Educational and healthcare facilities, a logical fit for these large hulking spaces, are two of the common land use types emerging out of shrunken retail spaces.  One example is the former Hickory Hollow Mall in Antioch, Tennessee.  The former mall was resurrected as a satellite campus of Nashville State Community College and a practice rink for the professional hockey team the Nashville Predators.  Mr. Florida writes, "The campus also includes a downsized mall centered around a food market featuring immigrant businesses, highlighting the trend of malls better reflecting local demographics."

We also have the example of the former Highland Mall in East Austin, Texas, now home to Austin Community College which installed a high-tech math lab on the second floor of a late-J.C. Penney store, and is putting up student housing in the parking lots.  The new light-rail station is transforming the area into a hub for local employers.

Mall retrofits are also good for the environment: they can help with resilience and sustainability iniatives.  "Dunham-Jones and Williamson estimate that 10 such projects have been transformed into green infrastructure or parks."  Case in point, the sixties-era mall in Meridian, Connecticut, which paved over a creek and exacerbated perennial flooding, was razed and transformed into a park that also operated as a catchment basin for storm water runoff.  Another example is the Northgate Mall outside of Seattle which restored a salmon stream and built subsidized housing for the elderly.

The more ambitious mall redevelopment projects are morphing into mixed-use neighborhood's.  Case in point, the Villa Italia Mall in Lakewood, Colorado, near Denver.  The former mall was nearly leveled to make way for a new street grid (; July 25, 2017; date accessed Dec. 19, 2017) bordered by offices, art facilities, parks and residences, as well as new boutiques.  Richard Florida reports, "In the Denver metro, eight of 13 malls are currently in some stage of rehabilitation to more productive uses."

These case studies are the only the tip of iceberg.  Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson estimate that there about 650 mall retrofits in one phase of development or another across the country.  Abandoned malls, empty chain stores, and big box store buildings are finding new life as mega-churches, indoor paintball venues, in short dead malls and empty stores are being converted into spaces that better mirror the way we live.  Instead of mourning the exaggerated demise of retail, we should support efforts to transform abandoned malls and chains stores into more productive and valuable community assets.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Civic Power In Age Of New Localism; November 15, 2017

Hello Everyone:

Welcome to another addition of Blogger Candidate Forum.  Let us start with the big news:  way to go Doug Jones.  Or should Blogger call him Senator-elector Jones?  It was a nail biter of a finish but the newly elected Gentleman from Alabama became the first Democrat in a quarter of a century to be elected from the state.  Naturally his Republican opponent, Republican Roy Moore, refused to concede the raise; claiming that G-d was in control of the results.  Religion is the refuge of scoundrels.  Yours Truly thinks that the Man in White is pretty happy that hateful Paedophile will not be taking a seat in the United State Senate chamber.  Of course, Mr. Donald Trump had his say.  First tweeting (what else?) his congratulations to the Senator-elect.  Then he tweeted that he knew Mr. Moore would not win and the system was rigged in favor of Senator-elect Jones.  The lion's share of gratitude goes to African-American Alabamans, especially the women.  Ninety-seven percent of African-American women in the state voted in favor of Doug Jones.  Democratic National Committee Chairperson Tom Perez, Blogger hopes that you and the party leadership were paying very close attention.  These magnificent ladies can make or break you.  Commit your time and resources to them, all the time, not when you need their votes.  Senator-elect Jones' victory comes not long after Democratic victories in New Jersey and Virginia.  No doubt Republican National Committee Chairperson Ronna Romney McDaniel has to be terribly worried about next year's midterm elections.  Word has it that the president is already casting blaming on his "wingman" Stephen Bannon.  For now, let us savor the moment and the possibility of a "blue wave" washing over the halls of Congress come next November.  The real work starts now.  Our real work starts now with a discussion on mayors.

Over the past month, residents of over 30 American cities cast their votes for their mayor.  Whether it is veteran mayors like Cleveland's Frank Jackson or first-time Mayor of Helena, Montana Wilmot Collins, American mayors now stand on the front lines of major global and social changes.  Bruce Katz and Alaina Harkness write in their CityLab article "Mayoral Powers in the Age of New Localism," "The world's challenges are on their doorsteps-refugee integration, climate change adaptation, economic transition-yet the federal government has withdrawn and many state governments are actively opposing cities' agendas."  The question the co-authors ask, "What do these new leaders need to do succeed in a climate that is at worst hostile and at best indifferent to pressing urban priorities?"

First of all, mayors must acknowledge that we are experiencing a new paradigm in urban governance and problem solving that is closing in on the real hard facts on the grounds: "Cities are networks of public, private, and civic institutions that power the economy and shape critical aspects of urban life."  The co-authors illuminate this paradigm shift in their forthcoming book The New Localism: How Citites Can Thrive in the Age of Populism  (; date accessed Dec. 13, 2017), available in January of next year.  "New localism" is defined as "pragmatic and solutions-oriented, and by design includes exemplary leadership across sectors and segments of society."  However mayors, as their city's chief executive officer, have a particular responsibility to relate a vision and activate their networks to create, pay for, and implement everything from essential services to grand infrastructure projects.

The co-authors note, "For such an important office, we know frustratingly little about the specific mechanics that make mayors effective."  Fortunately there is a new Brookings Institute report, Leading Beyond Limits: Mayoral Powers in the Age of New Localism (Ibid; Oct. 24, 2017) that takes a look at the sources and uses of mayoral powers and what they need to lead and govern.  If you asked the average person what kind of power what his or her city's mayor has, you are likely to get a blank stare.  Truth is that being a mayor in the Age of Populism is quite fraught with challenges.  The co-authors write, "Though cities and governance contexts very tremendously around the world, there are plenty of common challenges-fragmented governance environment, the need for increasingly technical skill sets to address complex problems-and some broader recommendations that could strengthen mayoral leadership in cities everywhere."

First, the obvious, mayors have to exercise the formal powers they are invested with: plan, tax, and zone to the maximum extent.  The co-authors use the example of New York City's High Line which would not have been possible without Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration creative maneuver to  rezone the area, assigning air rights to current property owners and establishing a new investment market that placed a preminium on density and development.  Bringing this opportunity to fruition depended on the mayor's highly sophisticated staff and their willingness to take a chance on high-risk, high-reward intiative.

Second, "mayors have to demonstrate extraordinary network leadership to expand their reach and impact beyond the limits of their formal power."  The social media can be a useful tool for communicating policy intiatives with a city's residents but a real demonstration of power comes from face-to-face contact.  This means clearly articulating a vision and recruiting a variety of public and private sector partners, in person, in order to make this vision a reality.  One example is Louisville, Kentucky Mayor Greg Fischer.  Mayor Fischer has been advocating seamless education and training pathways for his citizens.  Although he did not have direct control over the actor's in the region's education and workforce development sectors, he was still able to draw up a wide array of supporters for his goal.  The result was the Cradle to Career intiative (; date accessed Dec. 13, 2017), "a well-documented model of the coordinated approach to city problem-solving that is a hallmark for the new localism."  Bruce Katz and Alaina Harkness point out, "Though each of the four strategies-kindergarten readiness, elementary and secondary education, college completion, and workforce-oriented skills training-is run by a different organization, Fischer and his team play a key role convening, coordinating, and holding the partners collectively accountable for the results."

Finally, mayors need to concentrate the maximum force of their formal powers and network in the direction of identifying and enhancing the value of public assets.  Realistically, it is impossible to address the needs of residents today or plan for the future without a significant increase in local resources.  American mayors may have to look beyond their borders to find ideal examples of institutional innovation, while they develop their own models.  Take the example of Copenhagen, Denmark which created a "new publicly owned, privately managed corporation to capture and distribute the value of land from the redevelopment of its port and harbor."  This mechanism helped shield the process from politics and allowed Copenhagen to pay for a major investment in public transport infrastructure with the proceeds.  The co-authors write, "The Swedish finance experts Dag Detter and Stefan Folster argue [; July 18, 2017 date accessed Dec. 13, 2017] that the use of similar models, combined with a key move to develop city balance sheets that closely track the value of public assets, could yield billions of dollars to fund infrastructure, education, and other critical needs."

There is a lot we still need to learning and much more to do if we are to give our civic leaders the proper tools to meet today's challenges. Mayors need assistance in building the capacities and links to supporting institutions that can increase their ability to be successful network leaders.  Civic leaders need help identifying the financial tools and organizational mechanisms-i.e. publicly owned, privately managed corporations- that will help pay for urban initiatives when state and federal resources cannot be counted up.  In general, we all need a better understanding of mayoral and city powers and the way they are changing, including national databases that follow local government changes in real time and gauge the quality and efficacy of city governance.

Today's mayors-veteran or novice-need to the capacity to lead beyond the boundaries of their formal power, "even as they organize themselves to advocate for powers matched to the scale of the challenges they face and the outsize contribution they make to state, national, and global economies." In this period of big shifts in governance, American and global cities need to quickly learn from examples of institutional adaptation and accordingly change.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Up From The Ruins Updated; November 16, 2017

Hello Everyone:

Welcome to a Tuesday, a very important Tuesday for fans in Alabama.  As of writing, the voting continues.  Alabamans have a simple choice: decide who will take over (for now) Attorney General Jeff Sessions; Democrat G. Douglas Jones or Republican Roy Moore.  Blogger will do her best to let you know of any developments.  Tuesday also means fresh outrage.

By now, the entire known Galaxy read and commented upon the salacious tweet from Mr. Donald Trump.  The tweet, posted this morning, was directed at New York Senator Kristin Gillibrand (D), who is leading the charge for a Congressional committee to investigate accusations of sexual harassment and assault leveled at Mr. Trump.  The tweet, suggested that Senator Gillibrand came to his office, begging for and do anything for campaign contributions.  The heinous tweet went as far as to imply that she would compromise her marriage and was used by Senate Minority leader and fellow New York Senator Charles "Chuck" Schumer.  White Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders lamely tried to dismiss it as not sexist, stating that only someone with their mind in the gutter would interpret it that way.  Senator Gillibrand responded with a tweet saying that she and the millions of women who are marching in protest will not sit down and be quiet.  How do you dismiss this as non-sexist?  How else does Ms. Sanders interpret her boss' tweet?   If this is not sexual harassment in 280 characters, then what would call it?  "Boy talk?"  This is not just conduct, unbecoming the President of The United States, this unacceptable by anyone's standards.  This latest tweet is obscene.  It is unacceptable for anyone.  What the president says, posts, tweets, and does matters.  When the head of a government tweets some gutter level statement, it speaks volume for the person he or she is.  A sad comment on the current state of the American presidency.  That said, let us move on to today's subject: up from the ruins.

The holiday shopping season is upon us.  If the retail doomsayers are to be believed, brick and mortar stores are going the way of the dinosaur, replaced by websites.  The "retail apocalypse" has laid to waste once mighty stores across the United States.  The retail apocalypse has put the once venerable Sears (; Sept. 25, 2017; date accessed Dec. 12, 2017) on its deathbed (Ibid; Oct. 4, 2017).  Benjamin Schneider writes in his CityLab article "From the Ruins of a Retail Meltdown, Post-Industrial Playgrounds Emerge," "But while the ghosts of the chain's big-box stores haunt suburban and exurban strip malls, a few relics the company's past are actually thriving for the first time in decades."

In the twenties, Sears constructed several "plants" around the nation.  The plants were these unimaginably large warehouses and distribution centers with ground-level stores, put up during a time when Sears was primarily a mail-order business.  By the mid-twentieth century, urban areas were being depopulated, abandoning these hulking buildings.  Fortunately, today six out of the seven remaining plants remain and are experiencing a second life "in the image of the contemporary."  Mr. Schneider reports, "The first wave of rehabilitation a came in the late 1990s, when Boston's plant was converted to the Landmark shopping center and offices, and Dallas' plant became loft-style apartments.  Seattle's plant,...., became the global headquarters for Starbucks."  Naturally.

Adaptive re-use projects were quite progressive thinking in their day, the current spat of plant rehabilitations put a greater emphasis on mixed-use development approaches that integrate them into their host neighborhoods.  For example, the Midtown Exchange building in Minneapolis and Ponce City Market in Atlanta have become the defining buildings in their cities, "representing the benefits of post-industrial urban revival and the persistent challenges of gentrification."

This dynamic will only become more apparent when the rehabilitation of the last standing plant in Boyle Heights, set to begin construction next year, will be completed.  When finished, "the Mail Order District will obtain an almost cliche  collection of new economy uses, including 'creative offices,' live/work spaces lofts, a food hall, and an exhibition space, all encased in a shell that dates back to 1927."  This is the logical conclusion of the contemporary history of the Sears' plants, are emblematic of their period of significance.  Over the course of their lifetimes, these building have followed a similar urban trajectory: "...contouring to the largest forces in American urbanism over the past century."  The four current projects make particularly clear trope of post-industrial gentrification has become formulaic.

The plants' assets-size, location, and proximity to rail lines-became liabilities during the sixties, amid the urban crisis.  Street-level retail operations became difficult to maintain in increasingly impoverished communities, while business boomed at suburban shopping malls.  Multi-level urban warehouses were no longer financially viable for the company as rail transportation gave way to trucking, thus Sears decommissioned the plants.  The warehouses and stores were shuttered during the eighties and nineties long before Sears' current financial woes.  These forces combined to spell doom for plants in Chicago (; date accessed Dec. 12, 2017), Philadelphia (; Aug. 7, 2017; date accessed Dec. 12, 2017), and Kansas City, all demolished during this era.

The Minneapolis complex was closed in 1994 (; date accessed Dec. 12, 2017), following a long slow decline.  Benjamin Schneider writes, "The crack epidemic had hit the plant's Midtown neighborhood particularly hard."  Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak (2002-14) told CityLab,

At one point The New York Times did an article calling the neighborhood  'Muderappolis' [; June 30, 1996 date accessed Dec. 12, 2017], so it was going down fast...When Sears pulled out, there was this massive hole in the second largest building in the state,-Mall of America being the largest building in the state, where Sears just opened an anchor store two years earlier.

During his tenure as mayor, Mr. Rybak and community organizations were committed to saving the building and improving the quality of life for the residents.  Mr. Rybak continues,

We thought, 'We want to get someone to attract jobs, and to create equity.

When the Midtown Exchange opened in 2006, the building remained true to this concept by partnering with healthcare provider Alina, and including 178 affordable housing units.  

Election update: With 59 percent of the votes counted, Roy Moore leads Doug Jones 52.3% to 46.3%. 

However, the building's main attraction, which blossomed into a major tourist destination in Minneapolis, is the Midtown Global Market.  "This food and crafts hall includes 45 vendors from 22 different cultures" (midtownglobalmarket; date access Dec. 12, 2017), according to Mr. Rybak.

Next to the Midtown Exchange is the Midtown Greenway, "a rails-to-rails project that runs alongside the plant, has helped ensure the success of the Midtown Exchange building, providing a steady flow of hungry promenades, and a commuting alternative for the people who live and work there."  Amazingly, both Atlanta's Ponce City Market (completed in 2014) and Memphis's Crosstown Concourse (; date accessed Dec, 12, 2017), opened this past summer, also conveniently located next to rails-to-rails projects.

The symbiotic nature of post-industrial infrastructure is particularly noticeable at Ponce City Market, whose food and market hall are to the BeltLine is analogous to what the Chelsea Market is to the High LIne in Manhattan.  Both buildings are owned by Jamestown developers, and have become magnets for tourists exploring the host cities' linear parks and quickly transforming the neighborhood they occupy. "From a financial perspective, both are runaway success."  Although Michael Phillips, of Jamestown, said declined to give any specific financial information, he did say that "Ponce city Market is the second most requested Uber destination in Atlanta, after the airport."

Like Chelsea Market, which house the East Coast offices of YouTube and Google, Ponce City is a mini-tech hub, hosting MailChimp's headquarters and a number of other startups.  The building's new rooftop amusement park (; date accessed Dec. 12, 2017) and eventual second phases holds the promise of additional office and residential space, as well as a hotel, all combined to make the complex even more attractive to startups.

Development has exploded around the Atlanta and Minneapolis plants, which also features a hotel next doo.  The Crosstown concourse was a 98 percent capacity (; Sept. 15, 2017; date accessed Dec. 12, 2017) a month after its debut.  Its host neighborhood was on a course for the same.

Story to be continued...

Election update: Do you believe in miracles?  Democrat G. Douglas Jones has defeated controversial Republican Roy Moore in the hotly contested Alabama Senate special election.  This narrows the Republican majority in the Senate to 51-49.  Blogger sees a blue wave in 2018.  

December 18, 2017

Hello Everyone:

Now that all the excitement of last Tuesday's Doug Jones/Roy Moore contest is finally over-sort of-it is time to get back to our chat about former Sears plants being re-adapted as mixed retail commericial space.  Let us proceed.

As we were saying, development around the former Sears plants in Atlanta, Georgia and Minneapolis, Mnnesota has boomed.  In Memphis, Tennessee, the Crosstown Concourse was at 98 percent capacity (; Sept. 15, 2017; date accessed Dec. 18, 2017) shortly after opening, the surrounding neighborhood is on course for the same.

Despite all this good news, there is downside to these development booms in low-income neighborhood.  One obvious downside is the spike in median home values.  For example, the median home value around the Midtown Exchange's Census tract increased 39 percent (; Feb 2015; date accessed Dec. 18, 2017) between 2000 and 2013, "and the proportion of the population with a bachelor's degrees or higher went from 15.8 percent to 24 percent" (Ibid).  Powderhorn, Midtown's host neighborhood, was the only Minneapolis neighborhood "whose white population increased between 2000 and 2013, a recent study found" (; date accessed Dec. 18, 2017).

This is an all too familiar experience for the residents of the Old Fourth Ward, home to the Ponce City Market and the childhood home of the Reverand Martin Luther King, Jr.  In 1990, the neighborhood was our percent Caucasian, that number dramatically increased to 55 percent (Ibid).  The real estate website Zillow reported that median home prices in the Old Fourth Ward have spiked 13 percent (; Oct. 31, 2017; date accessed Dec. 18, 2017).  A recent study on gentrification (; date accessed Dec. 18, 2017) of Atlanta's Belt Line-adjacent neighborhoods portrays the Old Fourth Ward as

...ground zero of the BeltLine Development's hot market...

The plant rehabilitation start are the solely responsible for changes in their host neighborhood's demographics, like the High Line in New York City, they are the mechanism that drives high-end development.

Mark Perdergrast, the author of the book City on the Verge (; May 30, 2017; date accessed Dec. 18, 2017) which chronicles urban development in Atlanta, told CityLab, 

The rents have gone through the roof...The entire point of the BeltLine was that it was supposed to s help bring back this derelict corridor,and help bring back neighborhoods, and it has done that.  But it has also driven people out who can't afford it.  It has driven out people it's supposed to be helping."

Benjamin Schneider observes, "To their cricket, the developers behind the Atlanta and Memphis plant rehabilitation have, like the coalition behind the Midtown Exchange building, tried to mitigate the impacts of their own popularity."  Case in point, twenty percent of Ponce City Market's residential units are below market rate, a rarity as Atlanta works hard to put the 5,600 units of the promisedBeltLine-adjacent affordable housing units (Ibid; Sept.1, 2017).  At the Crosstown Concourse in Minneapolis, an amazing 630,000 square feet has been set aside for healthcare, education, and arts venues.  

This brings us to Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, California.  The landmark Art Deco Sears Building in the epicenter of the Mail Order District is a wee outlier because it does not include any below-market-rate residential units.  Lead project architect Karin Liljegren told CityLab,via email, "...some of the units will be small so as to be affordable by design."  Ms. Liljegren also pointed out "that the project will not directly displace any residents, and will add much needed housing supply to an area in desperate need of it."  We shall see.

Naturally, some of the longtime residents in the infamously anti-gentrification Boyle Heights are not exactly thrilled about the plans (; Sept. 26, 2014; date accessed Dec. 18, 2017).  If precedent is any indication, the new development could in for the same conflicts (; March 1, 2017; date accessed Dec. 18, 2017) between the long time residents and the "creative" professionals who will be moving in.  Mr. Schneider writes, "The visual and demographic change coming to East L.A. will likely be jarring: The Mail Order District is just one in a slate of mega-projects [; Oct. 6, 2017; date accessed Dec. 18, 2017] that will abut he soon-to-be denuded L.A. River, [Ibid], a 'cement to trails' project that could blow the BeltLine out of the water."

In their day, the plants were specifically built in places that featured a perfect confluence of attributes, their reincarnations contain that DNA, making them valuable again.  Trail access has replaced rail access and industrial architecture has become an attractive brand for a neighborhood.  The wide open floor plans and high ceilings are ideal for contemporary use, everything from the nearly ubiquitous food, chic lofts, and startup offices.  "Inner city addresses, somewhere between downtown and sleepy residential neighborhood's, are once again in demand-not for heavy industry but for highly mobile residents and businesses in search of abstract traits like character and authenticity."  

This past weekend, Yours Truly read an interesting article in The Los Angeles Times ( about the city of Hawthorne California.  Hawthorne is a working-class city about half way to the city of Long Beach.  It is also home to Space X and the sixties pop music group the Beach Boys.  It is also attracting the attention of the very same demographic group thevery same highly mobile residents and businesses, looking for a place to touch down.

The future of now-shuttered suburban Sears stores looks pretty grim (; date accessed Dec. 18, 2017). These hulking concrete islands, lost amid oceans of asphalt, lack the stylish Art Deco elements, or linear park access, or closeness to bustling downtowns that the plants enjoyed. Newly anointed retail king Amazon's massive exurban warehouses may suffer the same bleak future it bestowed on Sears (; Oct. 4, 2017; date accessed Dec. 18, 2017).  However, , if the second life of the Sears plants offer any lesson, it is useful to look at how holdovers from previous economies can inform the next one.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Blogger Candidate Forum: The New Frontier; November 14, 2017

Hello Everyone:

Welcome to the weekly edition of Blogger Candidate Forum.  Before we talk about digital sanctuaries, a word to Alabama fans and followers.  Tuesday, December 12, 2017 there will be an extremely important special election to fill the seat vacated by (for now) Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  The contest is between former federal prosecutor G. Douglas Jones (D) and for Alabama State Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore (R).  This election has become of a question of party loyalty versus what is right.  Although Blogger is not in a position to tell Alabamans who to vote for, Yours Truly will say that voters must decide who is the best person to represent the state in The Senate.  Who is the best person to advocate and work for an Alabama that looks to the future.  Who you chose says something about the values you live by.  Thus it is essential to consider whether Mr. Jones or Mr. Moore genuinely share your values.  That said, shall we talk about digital sanctuaries?

The "not guilty" verdict in the Kate Steinle murder case put sanctuary cities back in the spotlight.  Interestingly, they were not even brought up during the trial.  A brief summary, on July 1, 2015, Kathryn Steinle, her father and a friend were walking along Pier 14 in The Embarcadero District in San Francisco when Ms. Steinle was shot and killed by Jose Inez Garcia Zarate.  Mr. Zarate was arrested and charged with possession of a deadly weapon and manslaughter.  He is also a homeless undocumented immigrant, who had been deported five previous times.  San Francisco is a sanctuary city, which means that it limits its cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

This case became a major point of contention during the 2016 Presidential Elections, with Mr. Donald Trump vowing to take action against sanctuary cities by withholding federal funds.  While cities such as San Francisco and Chicago-also a sanctuary city-do share police gang database information, one thing is becoming quickly apparent, the databases are inaccurate, often ensnaring residents like Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez, the undocumented immigrant father of United States citizen children, who was arrested by ICE for allegedly being a gang member.  Thus, what both cases highlight is the need for a more refined definition of what is a sanctuary city

Tanvi Misra writes in her CityLab article,"The New 'Digital Sanctuaries'" (; Nov.14, 2017; date accessed Dec. 6, 2017), "As the federal government increasingly relies on data from localities, some cities are developing protective policies that broaden the definition of 'sanctuary.'"  Historically, the word has meant "withholding some local cooperation for immigration enforcement," now it is reconfiguring to mean "withholding some other data too, to protect vulnerable communities-citizen and on-citizen-from the ever-growing surveillance dragnet."  We can infer from this definition that San Francisco's homeless population falls under the heading of vulnerable communities.  The goal of these policies is to establish what some pro-immigration advocates refer to as "digital sanctuaries."  They want to refined what data is collected, how it is collected, and how will it be used.

This is particularly important since the election of Donald Trump because discussions on how and what data is collected and shared is shifting.  Before, cities were trying to post as much of their data online and make it as accessible as possible.  Now, the cities are faced with a whole new set of questions.

Greta Byrum (; date accessed Dec. 6, 2017) , the director of the Resilient Communities program at New America, spoke to CityLab,

Now cities are going to have to ask: What should we close?  What should we segment?  What should we purge?  What should we put a time-limit on?...If their primary goal is to protect the rights of their residents, they may have to make different choices about what they do with their data."

"Surveillance tech: 'beta-tested' on the vulnerable"

Tanvi Misra reports, "With the rapid advancement of biometric technology and a shift in immigration politics over the last few decades, the type and extent of information required of people seeking entry to the U.S. has changed dramatically."

Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law, commented,

A fairly straightforward examination of a person has become something of a different nature...If you  are an immigrant seeking a visa to enter this country permenantly or on a temporary basis, you basically submit your body to be measured and tracked. (; date accessed Dec. 6, 2017)

What kind of examination can a newly arrived documented immigrant expect?  When a documented immigrant arrives in the U.S., his or her photographs are enrolled in the Department of Homeland Security database and their fingerprints are scanned against the Federal Bureau of Investigation database.  To follow their movements better, "the White House is now encouraging iris recognition pilot [; July 8, 2017 date accessed Dec. 6, 2017] at the border and planning to roll out facial recognition at U.S. airports [; April 18, 2017; date accessed Dec. 6, 2017]. Mr. Bedoya added,

This is not how things have been done historically...Previously, your body wasn't tracked unless you were arrested by the police.

The technology is not new; they were already being rolled out during the Obama administration.  However, under the Trump administration, privacy experts have observed an appreciable appetite for expanding biometric technologies and data-sharing strategies-in terms of scope and geography-utilizing them for immigration enforcement purposes (; June 21, 2017; date accessed Dec. 6, 2017) at the frontiers and interior of the nation.  Steven Renderos, organizing director at the Center for Media Justice, said

This administration has not been shy about ramping up the use of data to accomplish those things.

In that infamous January executive order (; Jan 25, 2017; date accessed Dec. 6, 2017), the president announced that "non-citizens would benefit from a federal law to prevent agencies from sharing information with one another."  Needless to say, pro-DACA advocates are concerned that information collected on eligible immigrants will be used to deport them (; Sept. 1, 2017; date accessed Dec. 6, 2017).  Further, the administration issued a new rule (; Sept. 25, 2017; date accessed Dec. 6, 2017) allowing the DHS to gather online information about immigrants, including their social media accounts, search results, handles, and connections.

ICE has already taken great measures (the; Oct. 4, 2017; date accessed Dec. 6, 2017) to ramp up their deportations, coming after anyone who shows up in their crosshairs (; April 16, 2017; date accessed Dec. 6, 2017), in ways that even longtime agents find disconcerting (; July 24, 2017; date accessed Dec. 6, 2017). Mr. Bedoya said,

You're seeing signs that the gloves have come off.

The data provided by cities is extremely important to this tracking process, and frequently, willingly shared.  The most common data-sharing arrangement is through formal agreements between some police departments, the FBI, and ICE, which deputized local police and sheriff deputies to handle the enforcement work.  Tanvi Misra writes, "But even the large number of cities who had blocked some of these arrangements by dubbing themselves so-called 'sanctuary cities' are funneling significant amounts of information to the federal government."

Typically, Immigration and Customs Enforcement can pull data from local law enforcement repositories (; May 12, 2017; date accessed Dec. 6, 2017), DMV and benefits records (; Jan 28, 2005; date accessed Dec. 6, 2017), license plate reader data (; March 19, 2015; date accessed Dec. 6, 2017), the FBI criminal databases, and student visa records.  ICE also has access to the National Security Entry-Exist Registration System (NSEER;; date accessed Dec. 6, 2017)-the controversial Bush-era "Muslim registry" (; Dec. 22, 2016; date accessed Dec. 6, 2017)-information was never purged.  Local law enforcement is increasingly making use of new technologies such as stingrays and social media technologies-usually is minority neighborhoods (; Oct. 18, 2014; date accessed Dec. 6, 2017) or against protestors (Ibid; Dec. 14, 2014). A  2016 Georgetown Law study (perpetual lineup; Oct. 18, 2016; date accessed Dec. 6, 2017) concluded that throughout the country, an increasing number of police and sheriff's departments are used biased (; April 7, 2016) facial recognition software, placing residents in even non-criminal databases in a "virtual line up."  Naturally, many law enforcement officials-including those in liberal cities-say "that expanding surveillance is crucial to preventing crime and terrorist activity."

Former New York City Police Department chief spokesperson Paul Browne told Reuters in 2013,

The technology, having been inspired and engineered with a sense of urgency after 9/11, has obvious applications to conventional crime fighting.  (; June 21, 2013; date accessed Dec. 6, 2017)

However, privacy advocates argue "that the rules surrounding these technologies are lax, and their impact on vulnerable populations, not very clear."  Further, the average taxpayer often has no idea what is being used and how.  "It's this secrecy that activists are trying to disrupt at the local level-not just for the benefit of the immigrants and other communities of color, but for every resident."

Christina Sinha, the head of the San Francisco-based civil rights organization National Security and Civil Rights Programs at Asian-Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, told CityLab,

What we've seen throughout history is that the U.S. government will basically do its beta testing, if you will, on these hyper vulnerable communities...It will roll out a massive invasion of civil right on a more vulnerable population and then extend it out further and and further as it becomes more normalized.

"Local 'digital sanctuary' Laws"

Cities cannot prevent the federal government from accomplishing its goals in a manner it sees fit.  However, cities are not entirely powerless in determining the scope of how its resources are co-opted for this purpose.  Ms. Misra points out, "That's the principle underlying the range of policies, loosely called 'sanctuary policies,' that seek to limit the involvement of their local police in immigration enforcement.  Attorney General (for now) Jeff Sessions has repeatedly tried to punish these cities, stating that these policies contribute to crime (; Aug 7, 2017).  So far, the cities are winning in court (; Sept. 15, 2017; date accessed Dec. 6, 2017).

Tanvi Misra reports, "New policies popping up in a few cities have started to create templates for digital sanctuaries."  University of Buffalo law Professor Rick Su (; date accessed Dec. 11, 2017) told CityLab, "Whether local governments can legally extend these protections to the digital realm is open question."  Although cities cannot prohibit an employee  from gathering and sharing data with federal agencies, in general, "they cannot be required to collect this information in the first place or to share it, either.  Prof. Su said,

In my opinion constitutional issue would also be raised if ICE specifically tried to compel cities to grant access to databases that they already maintained...Maybe cities cannot 'block' access, but they are under no affirmative obligation to grant access.

Therefore, now the question before us "how does a city become a digital sanctuary?"  If you go to (date accessed Dec.10, 2017), you can download a helpful guide, Protecting Data, Protecting Residents, outlining ten principles on responsibly handling municipal data in the Trump era. Essentially, this short guide asks cities to curtail the sensitive information they gather, protect the data they have in their possession, and make their collection practices more transparent.  The following are some of the local laws and intiatives built into these principles:

"Limiting cooperation on federal terror agreements"

In February of this year, the San Francisco Police Department placed on hold its Joint Terrorism Task Force agreement with the FBI (; Feb. 1, 2017 date accessed Dec. 11, 2017).  Civil liberties organizations, including Chirstina Sinha's group, have been advocating for this outcome, "based on concerns that the task force's wide berth of surveillance powers will be used to target Muslim communities."  They pointed out that the FBI and police officers assigned to work with them routinely collect information pertaining to legal status which can find its way to ICE.

This  move generated criticism from former FBI officials, who state "it's going to slacken anti-terrorism efforts."  James McJunkin, who headed the second-largest Joint Terrorism Task Force in D.C., told The Washington Post,

It's cutting off your left hand to spite your right hand...It makes no sense at all (; March 10, 2017; date accessed Dec.11, 2017) 

Nevertheless, before San Francisco suspended it JTTF agreement, advocates campaigned in favor of an ordinance (; May 1, 2012; date accessed Dec 11, 2017) that requested the SFPD to comply with three conditions if it planned to continue its JTTF contract: "One, the actions of the city's police officers needed to comply with local law."  Ms. Sinha told CityLab,

If you're wearing a San Francisco Police Department badge, you have to follow the same laws that everybody else wearing that badge has to follow...It doesn't matter that you're sitting in a different building."

Second, the SFPD was required to make public any new agreements with the FBI or any changes to current ones; and finally, they were asked to compile an annual report on proper public information infrorming the public about what officers assigned to work with the agency were doing. Ms. Sinha continue,

If we don't have even some sort of basic idea of what our officers are doing, then we're not empowered to make a rational choice as to whether or not we we are happy with how those resources are being used.

"Eliminating gang databases"

The gang databases have proven to be the more troublesome than good.  Even the declared sanctuary jurisdiction of Chicago and Los Angeles, for example, the police department's do share a wide array of data with ICE(; May 12, 2017; date accessed Dec. 11, 2017)-included the roundly criticized gang databases.  These databases are problematic because they have been considered broad, inaccurate, and racially biased (; Aug. 11, 2016; date accessed Dec. 11, 2017).  Case in point, Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez, currently awaiting deportation after his name came up on a gang database, other have complained (; Jan. 10, 2017; date accessed Dec. 11, 2017) that they were designated gang member based on their appearance or where they live-not because they were actually gang members.  An audit of California's database revealed that 42 entries were a year old at the the time of their inclusion (; Aug. 11, 2016).  An investigation by The Oregonian (; Nov. 4, 2016; date accessed Dec. 11, 2017) "revealed that over 80 percent of the gang list entries in Portland were minorities."

This year, the city of Portland announced it was eliminating these gang designations and planned to purge the data.  The police said, "The database had resulted in 'unintended consequences' [; Sept. 8, 2017 date accessed Dec.11, 2017]."

"Preemptively banning 'Muslim' and other registries"

Registries based on race, ethnicity, or religion in the 21st century?  Seriously? It seems like we have not learned our lessons from the heinous internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II.  This black period in American history was enabled by the Census Bureau block-level which drove their displacement and internment (; March 17, 2000; date accessed Dec. 11, 2017).  Tanvi Misra reports, "...following 9/11, then-President Bush created NSEER, the 'Muslim registry,' that President Trump has talked about reinstating" [; Dec. 20, 2016; date accessed Dec. 11, 2017].

To make sure that locally gathered data does not enhance federal intiatives, like a registry, San Francisco enacted an ordinance (; March. 22, 2017; date accessed Dec. 11, 2017) "prohibiting municipal resources or personnel from being used for any registry based on race, religion, or national origin in March 2017."  The ordinance also permits residents to sue if they believe the city has violated this policy.  Spokane, Washington (; Jan. 31, 2017; date accessed Dec. 11, 2017) and Chicago have enacted similar measures this year and the Colorado state legislature is considering its own iteration (; date accessed Dec. 11, 2017).

Ms. Misra observes, "These provisions partly serve a symbolic purpose, given that the Trump adminstration hasn't actually taken steps to put a registry in action.  They're moral proclamations.  But they also serve as preemptive defense-a way of opting out in case the federal government does go ahead with a registry and asks local government to help."

"Purging municpal ID data"

Many jurisdictions have implemented municpal ID laws (popular; date accessed Dec. 11, 2017) so that some populations-immigrants, homeless, and the elderly-without documents could have official identifications that gives them access to the library, open bank accounts, and ride public transport.

New York's program, IDNYC, came with the condition that permitted the data collected be purged after two years.  Brittany Mostofi, acting commissioner of the New York City Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, told CityLab,

In this case, we were mindful that were designing a program for individuals who do have a [particular privacy and security] policy and need.

Following Mr.Trump's inauguration, the city considered purging the data (; Nov. 15, 2016; date accessed Dec. 11, 2017). "In a preliminary ruling, a Staten Island judge ruled [; April 7, 2017; date accessed Dec. 11, 2017] that it had the right to do so."

San Francisco's municipal ID law is more forceful.  Only the names and birthdates of the applicants are retained.  The addresses is inscribed on a physical card, but kept out of public files.

"Public vetting of surveillance tools"

In 2013, Oakland residents learned of the city's surveillance project that gathered data from a variety of sources, including: license plates evaders and surveillance cameras.  The real point to this intiative, according to leaked emails (; Dec. 18, 2013; date accessed Dec. 11, 2017), was to keep track of protestors.

Needless to say it created a furor which led to the creation of a privacy commission (;  Jan, 6, 2017; date accessed Dec. 11, 2017) that drafted a surveillance ordinance (; date accessed Dec. 11, 2017), based on a guide published by the American Civil LIberities Union (; date accessed Dec. 11, 2017).  Ms. Misra writes, "The legislation requires public vetting of any new surveillance technology acquired by the city, including a public discussion, assessment of impact, and annual report."  This proposed legistlation has spread out to other Bay Area counties, with bipartisan appeal, according to Brian Hofer, the chairperson of the privacy commission.  He told CityLab,

It's just good governance.  These were decisions made by law enforcement-unilaterally-in the dark no oversight...Some of this equipment is garbage, it's just snake oil...a waste of taxpayer money.

"Regulating facial recognition"

Georgetown Law's 2016 report (; Oct. 18, 2016; date accessed Dec. 11, 2017) concluded that 117 million American adults are in facial recognition databases used by law enforcements throughout the United States.  Police departments are testing facial recognition technology on Department of Motor Vehicle photographs (this should be good) and on real time surveillance camera footage.  The authors, Clare Garvie, Alvaro Bedoya, and Jonathan Frankle, wrote,

Of the 52 agencies that we found to use (or have used) face recognition, we found only one, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, who's face recognition use policy expressly prohibits its officers from using face recognition to track individuals engaging in political, religious, or other protected free speech.

To fix this, Georgetown Law proposes a model state law (Ibid) and police department policy (Ibid) outlining the conditions under which this technology can be employed.  This includes obtaining consent and makes reasonable suspicion a condition for running the program.

"Internet privacy protection"

This year, Congress voted to eliminate Internet privacy regulations enacted during President Barack Obama's tenure (; March 29, 2017; date accessed Dec. 11, 2017), allowing ISPs like Spectrum or Time Warner to save your search history without your consent.  Tanvi Misra explains, "That means these private entities have extremely detailed portraits of its customers' lives-their health issues [; Feb. 16, 2012; date accessed Dec. 11, 2017], financial situations, and potentially immigration status."  Scary thought.  Greta Byrum from New America told CityLab,

It's as if your most private papers are now just out on the market for anybody to buy or sell.

Advocates say this move has exposed (; April 6, 2017; date accessed Dec. 11, 2017) immigrants and poor people of color to assorted negative outcomes-predatory advertising and political shenanigans, and even a visit from Immigratin Customs Enforcement agents.

Several states (; April 10, 2017; date accessed Dec. 11, 2017) introduced legislation dealing with these concerns.  Seattle and New York City are making an effort to educate its vulnerable communities about the risks and "by specifying privacy rules in case where they;re working with private internet service providers in the public realm [Ibid; May 4, 2017]   Steven Renderos of the the Center for Media Justice told CityLab,

The broader point here is that the Trump administration, when it come to immigration enforcement, had been relying upon private companies to build the tools that they need...We need to be careful about what private companies are allowed and not allowed to do.

Digital technology holds the promised of making cities and municipal governments smarter, better, more efficient.  With the advent of this technology comes a whole host of concerns about how information is collected and used. These concerns need to be addressed at the policy level to ensure that vulnerable communities are not disproportionately targeted-"but are instead protected and included in the digital urban realm."  Steve Renderos has the final word,

Technology is very much in the contex of solutions...introduced as this silver bullet,...But without civil rights protection, the bias and racism that exists within the world tend to be baked into the technology that we use."