Author Archive: Johnny Magdaleno

Mexican-American Preservationists Are Saving San Antonio’s Urban Fabric

On a recent Wednesday, more than a dozen members of the Westside Preservation Alliance, a San Antonio-based community group, sat around a long wooden table in the main hall of the Casa de Cuentos, a one-story Folk Victorian house on the eastern rim of the city’s Westside. They were historians, activists, recent college graduates and neighbors. They talked about growing up on the Westside, their memories crafted decades ago amid the crumbling casitas and abandoned taco shops that populate this neighborhood.

They also talked strategy. At issue: a push by the San Antonio Housing Authority to demolish part of the Alazan-Apache Courts, which is one of the city’s first public housing developments and opened in 1941 as segregation-era housing for Mexican-Americans. Home to 1,055 low-income families, the chronically underserviced landmark is in line for a federal grant that would transform it into a mixed-income community, but not necessarily preserve its historic architecture.

A decade ago, the local landmark would have faced little chance of survival. But after years of grassroots activism led by the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and the preservationists who went on to form the WPA in 2009, the city is starting to use historic preservation as a tool to help revitalize neighborhoods. The community-led WPA has worked with San Antonio’s Office of Historic Preservation in recent years to designate more than 60 buildings on the Westside as historic properties.

“At issue is the notion that redevelopment is good for the community and it’s a notion of progress,” says historian Antonia Castañeda, a retired professor who led the WPA meeting. “But the idea in San Antonio has been you get rid of old, dilapidated structures that ‘blight’ the community, rather than repurpose or actually redevelop them for reuse.”

San Antonio’s inner Westside has the highest poverty rate not only in the city proper but also of all 78 ZIP codes that make up Bexar County, Texas. Drug use is rampant, needles hide in untended patches of grass, and old pharmacies and tiendas once owned by Mexican-American families in the 1950s sit boarded up along the sidewalk-less streets, their faces caved in by time. Yet it’s also an enclave of unfussy charm, enriched with shotgun houses built by Westside residents in the ’40s, more than 50 colorful murals, herbolarías, panaderías and national Hispanic icons like the Guadalupe Theater.

Cultural geographer Daniel Arreola calls San Antonio the “Mexican-American Cultural Capital” of the United States. But the Westside alone, where 95 percent of the population is Hispanic, stands as a rare condensate of history, unseen elsewhere in the city or in other Chicano epicenters like Los Angeles or east Austin.

Motorcyclists speed past La Popular bakery on the Westside.

The past few decades have seen much of that history erased. A building assessment submitted by a nonprofit to the city in 1986 highlighted 71 buildings around the Villa Guadalupe neighborhood, a row of residential blocks on the Westside that predates the U.S. Constitution, as historic icons. Today, only 20 of those are still standing. Another nearby Westside district, home to 143 buildings in 1952, now hosts only 12 of the original structures.

Historic designations are intended to shield centuries of character built into these barrios just a bridge away from downtown, at a time when the city is redeveloping faster than it has in decades. Part of that growth is driven by a recent UNESCO World Heritage designation of another local Hispanic landmark, the San Antonio Missions.

San Antonio was already among the nation’s fastest-growing cities when the 2015 UNESCO designation raised the city’s international profile, putting it on the map for tourists and the developers that cater to them. As investors began snapping up properties in the working-class, Mexican Southside neighborhoods adjacent to the Missions, local officials started to recognize that to truly maintain the city’s historic flavor, preservation had to go beyond buildings. They began to listen to local groups like Esperanza and the WPA.

“Part of the value of the UNESCO World Heritage designation includes the ‘intangible heritage’ of people. It’s not the restaurant, it’s the chef,” says William Dupont, director of the Center for Cultural Sustainability at University of Texas at San Antonio. “So as the city is looking at that, they’re concurrently taking a look at all of their policies citywide, [recognizing] displacement of the people can now cause loss of economic potential.”

Preserving Culture and Buildings

San Antonio isn’t the only U.S. city weighing how to preserve its Hispanic, immigrant-built culture in the face of new economic pressures. Confronting development threats brought on by millions of annual tourists, Miami’s Little Havana was named one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the U.S. in 2015 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. There too, local officials are working with community advocates to protect cultural landmarks and the residents who have long maintained them.

This week, preservation experts will gather in San Antonio to take on some of these questions during a three-day Living Heritage Symposium hosted by the city’s Office of Historic Preservation as part of the 2017 San Antonio World Heritage Festival. Cultural and preservation officers from cities like San Francisco and Istanbul will share best practices on how to maintain the cultural heritage that makes San Antonio historic in ways far beyond the legacy of the Alamo.

“We’ve figured out how to deal with structures that are architecturally significant,” says Claudia Guerra, a San Antonio resident whose family hails from the Westside. In 2014, she was hired by the Office of Historic Preservation as a cultural historian. She solicits community feedback to mold the city’s definition of “historic” into one that’s specific to San Antonio. “But it’s more difficult when you have a place whose significance comes not from the architecture but the people or the culture that’s associated with it.”

Esperanza Peace and Justice Center renovated Casa de Cuentos into a cultural center with Community Development Block Grant funds. Today, the Esperanza-owned building stands as a testament to the neighborhood revitalization benefits of preservation, says Executive Director Graciela Sánchez, a founding member of the WPA.

WPA members in front of Casa de Cuentos hold “This Place Matters” signs, connected to a National Trust for Historic Preservation campaign. (Photo by Rachel Delgado/WPA)

“It’s not just buildings — it’s a way of life,” she says. “It’s how [Mexican-Americans] interact with each other, how we talk with each other, and that’s because of the way these buildings were built.”

Beyond architecture, cultural heritage provides an economic pull for the neighborhood’s entrepreneurs. A mariachi emporium housed in a historically designated Classical Revival residence sells ballet folklorico dresses and mariachi gear to customers across the U.S. A bright yellow single-story house on El Paso Street was recently home to the MujerArtes collective, which provides stipends for low-income women, predominantly Latinas, to practice and sell pottery wares for upward of $300 apiece. They’ve hosted international buyers from Europe and Africa, and recently moved into a new adobe structure owned by Esperanza.

Public art is another draw. Across the Westside, large black-and-white “fotohistorias” of the neighborhood span fences and the pastel exteriors of single-family homes. This districtwide public art show, led by Esperanza, is the result of a yearslong process of gathering testimony and photos from Westside residents whose families trace their lineages back hundreds of years in the 72807 ZIP code. Esperanza’s daylong annual neighborhood festival, Paseo por el Westside, spotlit the exhibit this year and drew its largest crowd ever: 400 visitors.

“If the people get displaced then the heritage goes with them, and people who visit won’t have that same connection to the city,” says Dupont. “You can’t stop an economy, but perhaps you can engineer it a little bit so the local population can ride the tide, and have access to good jobs and the potential to open small businesses.”

By all indicators, that tide could be a big one. The city is anticipating an economic crescendo that would place it among the six fastest-growing U.S. metropolitan regions between now and 2040. This May, San Antonio approved its largest bond package in history, offering up $20 million for restoration and neighborhood improvement projects throughout the city. On the Eastside, an incoming $150 million modern office and mixed-use project will align with the neighborhood’s designation as a national Promise Zone, which gives the city access to federal support as it ushers in new development.

This year, San Antonio voters elected Mayor Ron Nirenberg on a platform that emphasized a fair approach to growth. His 2018 budget foregoes property tax increases and sends more city money to districts with greater economic needs in what he calls the city’s first “equity budget.” To residents like Sánchez, the mayor’s election signaled that many residents don’t want San Antonio neighborhoods like the Westside to end up like east Austin, where skyrocketing property taxes and new development are displacing historic black and Hispanic communities.

When asked about the WPA and Esperanza, Nirenberg has only positive things to say. “They do amazing work,” he told me in an interview. Days after we spoke, Nirenberg announced a new task force for affordable housing that will “directly address gentrification and displacement as a priority.” I asked him if Esperanza’s work, and the UNESCO-inspired momentum behind preservation as a cultural incubator, influenced his stance on the issue. “As the city government we can help facilitate their work, but should also be taking some cues from it,” he said.

Maintaining a Thriving Tejano Culture

Esperanza Peace and Justice Center’s move into preservation work began with a campaign to save La Gloria, a 1920s dance hall and gas station on the Westside in 2002. The owner ultimately demolished the neighborhood landmark after the city failed to advocate for its preservation. It was replaced by a diesel station run by Valero Energy. “Nothing that improved the neighborhood at all,” says Sánchez.

Since then, Esperanza and the WPA have helped embed preservation into the city’s public conscience. To do that, they’ve spent countless hours organizing neighborhood rallies, working with national groups like the National Trust and keeping residents abreast of City Council issues. After years of fighting to save Lerma’s Nite Club, one of the oldest conjunto music halls in the country, from callous redevelopment, the community-based group won a $500,000 contract from the city in 2016 to begin renovating the property for reuse.

Lerma’s was celebrated as a success amid a history peppered with losses. In 2013, after the city allowed developers to demolish the United States’ first Spanish-speaking television station against the recommendations of the WPA and allies at the Trust, WPA members critiqued local government as having a “long way to go to fully appreciate, protect, and preserve the history, culture, and structures of Mexican-American communities.”

But the city’s Office of Historic Preservation, the WPA, and City Council members like Shirley Gonzalez and Roberto Treviño, whose districts merge on the Westside, are starting to overlap in their interest to maintain the region’s identity while also keeping property taxes affordable for working-class homeowners. Just a year after demolishing the Spanish TV station, nine out of 10 City Council members backed a rezoning resolution that opened up 25 properties in the Westside to historic designation.

“With a city that has a population of 55 percent Latino, preservation is almost inevitable,” says Richard Martinez, a retired public housing officer who was once COO of the San Antonio Housing Authority. “Fifty-five percent of the population isn’t going to let their history and culture die.”

“The key is, do you have the elected officials and the appointed officials who are willing to support the effort to preserve that cultural identity and that cultural heritage? In San Antonio, I think we’re there,” he adds.

City Council’s Treviño is seen by some local activists as a partner in preservation; he fought to change the city’s definition of “dangerous building” because the original criteria endangered decades-old properties suffering from disinvestment.

“The most affordable housing is the one people are in now, and we want to protect that,” says Treviño. “A lot of folks feel these areas are becoming more and more desirable for people to come and live in, so there’s pressure from developers to demolish homes so they can rebuild something in their places. The minute those houses get passed down to their children, it becomes almost an immediate burden because valuation is now at a full taxation rate, so people are then forced to move out of the area.” To start combatting this, he’s working on a council resolution that could sanction land trusts in the Westside to prevent property taxes from rising on plots of land.

The San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation wants to increase the number of “historic districts” on the Westside. Director Shanon Shea Miller says that, with property tax policies led by the city, these designations could help sustain character while also creating economic opportunity.

According to her office’s research, neighborhoods with high numbers of historic designations are characterized by ethnic and economic diversity that closely parallel the city’s total demographic. Sixty-three percent of San Antonio residents, and 60 percent of the population living in historic districts, are Hispanic. Whereas 6.9 percent of San Antonio identifies as black, 6.8 percent of the city’s population living in historic districts are black.

When you compare the income distribution of historic neighborhoods with the income distribution throughout San Antonio, the trends align. Part of that is because in San Antonio, houses that receive historic designation have their pre-designation property tax rates frozen for the following 10 years if homeowners invest in rehabilitating the structure — a medium-term approach to slowing tax hikes if nearby real estate markets turn hot.

“What we hope is that historic preservation and heritage can be a tool to deal with issues of displacement and gentrification, and not a cause,” says Miller. “The reality is our older historic districts are diverse, and dynamic, and they provide the things that make for a neighborhood people can live their whole lives in.”

Earlier this month, Castañeda and Sánchez, along with representatives of other Westside groups, were invited to a meeting about the area’s rezoning helmed by the San Antonio Department of City & Regional Planning. Chris Ryerson, a planning administrator overseeing the Westside, worked with the two Westside preservationists beforehand to make sure district maps were accurate. With concerns about cultural heritage and displacement thick in the air, the city has made the rezoning of the neighborhood a priority.

It’s the type of city coordination that Sánchez says was never there before. “I’m here because I never get invited to these things,” she joked, when asked to introduce herself in front of her peers.

Ryerson and his colleagues told the group, which included more than 20 Westside residents, that the zoning changes being ushered in will “not concentrate on growth, but rather focus on culture and community.”

The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and its mural are Westside landmarks.

“We’ve heard about gentrification concerns from the beginning of our outreach over the past four months,” he says. “We’re not going to be able to stop the market, but we’ll be finding ways the community as a whole can help educate residents, business owners, property owners, about the value of their property, how to leverage its value, and how to use that to be able to stay in place and support different generations of their family.”

A visit to the two-room house of Janie Delgado, 102 years old, typifies how that transition could occur. We sat at the table in her 70-year-old building drinking cans of orange Fanta, moments before a half dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren came in her front door with takeaway bags of tacos purchased nearby.

The house, which received historic designation by the OHP, was built in the 1940s by her now-deceased husband. Delgado says she’ll be passing it on to one of her daughters, both of whom are interested in living there after she passes away. “We chose this spot because of the school, the tiendas, everything was close,” she says in Spanish. “Everything was really special.”

A Right to History and to Housing

Castañeda, who moved to San Antonio 20 years ago, says part of the WPA’s mission is to shift the old guard of thought surrounding historic preservation in the United States. When WPA members walk the streets searching for unrecognized historic gems, the Westside residents they interview hear “preservation” and think of presidential homes or national monuments. They’re not thinking of the house on the corner where someone’s tia used to cook up tortillas for the neighbor kids.

Progress has been incremental. Buildings are being saved on the Westside and resident support is adding to that momentum. East of the neighborhood, the city is working to redevelop the plaza that surrounds the Alamo, and build in more of the Mexican-American perspective.

“We are rethinking the contested histories. The history of people of color has not been a priority for the preservation movement. We need to change that,” she says.

For their campaign to designate the Alazan-Apache Courts, the WPA plans to use photos and oral testimonies to relay the story of the public housing project, which was a Mexican-only community until segregation ended in the 1960s.

A father plays with his son on the Alazan-Apache Courts playground.

The Courts merit the same recognition as Greenwich Village in New York, or writer John Steinbeck’s house in Salinas, California, they argue. To achieve that end, they’re working to get city support, and may request a landmark designation by the National Register of Historic Places, something the San Antonio Housing Authority says it is open to considering. Unknown is what that could look like if the city decides to go forward with its own plans to apply for federal dollars to tear down 501 aging units and transform the complex into a new mixed-income neighborhood.

Alazan-Apache Courts was San Antonio’s first public housing community, built in 1939 as a Segregation-era development for Mexican-American families.

The Authority says all 501 units will be replaced, and current tenants are guaranteed the option of return once the project is done. But some residents fear that the exile could kick-start an outflow of the low-income families, predominantly Mexican-American, who call this community home.

“If it wasn’t for this place I’d probably be in a shelter,” says Desiree Alaniz, as she watches her 5-year-old son play with toys across the community hall. “The city could always change their minds about the residents here, and that’s what really scares me.”

Two years ago, another Hispanic region south of the city center was the epicenter of controversy when the city let a developer demolish a severely underserviced trailer park. The move displaced 300 low-income residents to make way for 600 apartment units, whose rents will start at $1,000 a month when finished in 2018.

A recent investigation by local nonprofit Vecinos de Mission Trails claims residents, despite having received payouts of $2,500 or more, are still suffering from the trauma of losing their community. Payout or not, the WPA and its allies think renovating the Alazan-Apache Courts would spur a major disruption of residents, some of whom have lived in the Courts for decades. The intangible culture would be broken.

“The Courts are still in high use, and there’s a wait to get in,” says Castañeda. “That’s why we’re fighting to preserve it.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

Long Beach Wants Fewer Commuters, More Entrepreneurs

Long Beach, California, plans to increase the number of local small businesses along corridors like Atlantic Avenue, above. (Credit: Uptown Business District)

Tasha Hunter was driving across North Long Beach a few months ago when she came across a new flower store in a retail space that had been empty for most of 2017. She went inside and congratulated the small family running the operation. She also asked if they had a business permit.

The answer was no. Their friends owned the spot, and decided to lend it to the ad hoc flower company in the run up to Mother’s Day.

Hunter, of Long Beach’s Uptown Business District, didn’t call the city to report the illegal operation. She had something else in mind. “I don’t need any more empty storefronts out here,” she says. “Instead, I told them, ‘You know what? I want to help you.’”

Fast-forward to today and that business now has a city permit; a once provisional enterprise is a neighborhood fixture. “We helped them get an actual sign, and helped them get a $2,000 startup grant,” says Hunter. “Now they’re a viable business that’s doing well.”

The Uptown Business District is Long Beach’s newest business improvement district, and leaders like Hunter are driving a citywide plan to build up local entrepreneurship across the next decade. Grants and a new online resource for aspiring entrepreneurs called BizPortal are intended to help increase economic activity in Uptown and 10 other neighborhoods.

Along with more affordable housing and a new emphasis on street density that will cater to cyclists and pedestrians, this is how city officials hope they’ll thin Long Beach’s massive commuting population.

More than 75 percent of Long Beach residents drive out of the city for work. John Keisler, director of economic and property development for the city, says encouraging local pockets of innovation will slow the stream of talent heading into nearby Los Angeles every day.

“Really what happened is that our economic development philosophy has shifted from focusing on land and business attraction to focusing on people,” says Keisler. In post-recession Long Beach, he says city leaders are “really excited” about building an economy that’s partly founded in locally grown employers.

In North Long Beach, a working-class neighborhood where 86 percent of the population are ethnic minorities, business corridors like Atlantic Avenue and Artesia Boulevard host an array of small businesses, mixed with blighted properties and untended storefronts. Strip malls and chain stores dominate local commerce. Afternoons, the sidewalks are sparsely populated and streets see constant traffic.

The city plans to have “business navigators” act as local guides for district residents looking for an honest assessment of their business idea. There are two business navigators in training right now, and the United Cambodian Community is getting its own business navigator. (The city has the largest Khmer population in the United States.)

“There may be a creative that wants to open a design firm, or a chef that wants to open a restaurant,” says Keisler. “They may have a unique gift and a tremendous skill, but they don’t have any of the business, finance or navigational awareness on how to get a business license.”

The draft of the city’s Blueprint for Economic Development (which Keisler’s department provided) shows the fine print matches his message. The plan, which is still being finalized, claims Long Beach is on a path to become a “city of opportunity for workers, investors and entrepreneurs” by 2027. The plan’s second pillar is “economic inclusion,” backed by objectives like increasing minority-owned businesses in the city, increasing non-traditional capital and city spending on minority-owned businesses, and increasing investment in low-income corridors.

City departments are still meeting to figure out specific goals — number of new minority entrepreneurs, local business receipt totals and more. But the city has made good on its promise to start creating business districts in low-income areas. The Uptown Business District was the most recent in a series of advancements.

Tasha Hunter, business district manager of the Uptown Business District

Hunter, who isn’t on the city’s payroll, says she has faith in Keisler’s excitement. “They’ve been very intentional with creating density on the streets here, creating places to go and be,” she says.

Last year the city sold 30 parcels of land in Uptown Long Beach between 56th and 60th streets on Atlantic Avenue to LAB Holding, a progressive developer whose work in Southern California, like the LAB Anti-Mall, prioritizes local businesses over box chains. The city claims a new district there, called the North Village, will provide space for artisan vendors and “revitalize and reconnect vacant properties.”

It remains to be seen, however, if all this growth will include the very untapped entrepreneurs Long Beach wants to bring to scale.

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia is aggressively courting new private housing developments. During a presentation to city officials and community groups this past June he highlighted 59 new projects in the city, the majority of which were getting ready to break ground. That total included 3,328 new housing units and 808 new affordable housing units — a ratio that pairs with Long Beach’s current poverty rate of one out of every five residents. Affordable units only represent 8.9 percent of the city’s housing stock. Nearly 30 percent of Long Beach residents are “severely burdened” in their housing costs.

“When there’s a mixed socioeconomic background in business areas, these areas can thrive,” says Hunter. “What are we doing so different income levels can live here as well?”

She says her business improvement district’s board of trustees includes two or three large developers but also community organizations and residents. That balance is intentional; they want the mom-and-pop, but they also want the artisan coffee shops so often described as the culprits of gentrification.

With her and the city’s help, residents from lower-income neighborhoods in the north could be the ones roasting and brewing, thanks to new grants and the incoming team of business navigators. “The prices of these storefronts are a lot more reasonable than other parts of town,” says Hunter. “But I just want to make sure the neighbors remain here to enjoy the fruits of what they’ve been asking for.”

Amid Black Unemployment Crisis, S.F. Neighborhood Looks to Green Jobs

Bayview-Hunters Point in San Francisco (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Charleshon Goodman was born and raised in a housing project out in Hunters Point, the historically African-American enclave along San Francisco’s southeastern edge. The neighborhood is well known for its legacy of heavy industrial pollution, but Goodman’s one of a new generation of local youth who’s getting green education and a paycheck from environmental jobs.

The 21-year-old went through a training program called Roots of Success, offered by Hunters Point Family, a community organization, when he was 16. The program includes 10 weeks of learning about wind farming, solar farming, sustainable agriculture and other green practices, and promotes more than 125 different green careers in the process. At the end, students get a certificate honored by employers throughout the Bay Area. They’re also paid to attend.

Now, Goodman helps Hunters Point Family run a community garden in his neighborhood. He says the work is changing lives.

“It’s definitely helping the youth open up and make those day-to-day changes,” he says, citing healthier eating habits and an awareness of how they can reduce pollution. “Working with them you get to understand some of the challenges they face in their housing, and how the outside environment can extend into the home.”

Hunters Point is home to one of California’s Superfund sites, an Environmental Protection Agency designation that flags “the nation’s most contaminated land.” The local U.S. Navy port pumped tons of contaminated water into the San Francisco Bay and onto port grounds, tainting water and soil with discarded “paints, solvents, fuels, acids, bases, metals, PCBs, and asbestos,” according to the EPA.

When the port first opened up in the 1930s, African-American workers from throughout the U.S. moved in to construct ships. Its closure in the 1970s pulled the rug out from beneath the neighborhood’s economy, which the city is now trying to remedy with private development and workforce training. Fears of displacement, however, are on the rise.

Christina Vargas, a 25-year-old who first moved to the area at the end of her high school career, says those issues are the only ones you’ll think about if you read the news. “People that don’t spend time there don’t realize there’s so much culture, so much soul and so much family,” she says.

She started working with local advocacy group Literacy for Environmental Justice when she was 18 years old, joining park cleanup efforts and helping out in a local garden right across the street from public housing in Hunters Point.

“They provided jobs for the youth in the community, but also provided little spaces for the community to come in and plant their vegetables,” remembers Vargas, who has since worked for the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department. “It’s awesome that they got that opportunity and it was so close to their home.”

The neighborhood has around 36,000 people, the majority of which are African-American. About 83 percent of the entire population identifies as belonging to a minority group.

But even though San Francisco is riding a job boom, with unemployment rates dropping to 2.7 percent in July 2017, nearly one-fifth of Hunters Point residents are struggling to find work. Throughout the city, black unemployment rates are critically high, ranking between 17 and 64 percent even though black communities only make up 4 percent of the population citywide.

“It’s unacceptable,” said Board of Supervisors President London Breed, during a hearing on San Francisco’s workforce programs in March. Eighty-nine percent of the San Francisco Office of Economic Development’s workforce training support ends up going to workers of color from areas like Hunters Point. A recent report from the Brookings Institution, however, showcased that San Francisco has the greatest employment gap between black and white communities in the country outside Detroit.

“We flaunt this economic prosperity, its booming healthcare sector, technology, hospitality, construction — all of this incredible prosperity in San Francisco [yet] clearly what we’re doing is not working” for African-Americans, Breed said.

Meanwhile, the city’s high cost of living is pushing inner residents out to cheaper real estate markets like Hunters Point, where a private construction company is building 12,000 new homes, and restaurant sales tax in the region spiked 135 percent between 2015 and 2016. The white population percentage jumped from 10 percent to 17 percent in the neighborhood between 2000 and 2015; African-American populations dwindled from nearly half to one-third in the same time period.

But programs like Greenagers, Friends of the Urban Forest, the YMCA’s Environmental Advocates Program, and others have found a niche by giving Hunters Point youth job experience that battles local environmental and health ills. High school locals are signing up for summer opportunities that start out at $13 an hour, the city’s minimum wage, and pair them with leaders and peers from their slice of San Francisco.

“Kids are really, really interested in working in the garden, but it’s that economic incentive that comes with it,” says Kenneth Hill, a program director for Hunters Point Family. “They’re getting the experience, but they’re also getting paid.”

Hill started with the organization after working with programs like the Southeast Food Access Working Group Food Guardians, which promotes nutritious food choices to Bayview-Hunters Point residents. He’d host stands at local grocery stores in the neighborhood, demonstrating to customers the types of recipes you’d find at a Whole Foods. Recently he ran into an old neighbor who told him she still makes the black bean mango salsa he mixed up one afternoon.

The next step, he says, is to get neighbors like her to use the produce his kids are cultivating. Hill says they’ve brought in 60 kids, ranging from ages 9 to 19, to work their local gardens this year. In them, Charleshon Goodman sees the seedlings of a new Hunters Point generation.

“They’re all relatable,” he says. “I see a little bit of myself in each and every one of them.”

San Diego Hopes Two New Tools Will Curb Homelessness Crisis

Some homeless people live in tents and makeshift housing in San Diego. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

On Monday, San Diego’s City Council dealt a blow to Mayor Kevin Faulconer after voting 5-4 against bringing a higher hotel tax to a public vote. The move, supported by Faulconer, would have brought in an additional $10 million annually toward reducing the city’s deepening homelessness crisis. The defeat hasn’t shaken all advocates, amid reports that Faulconer’s office didn’t have a concrete spending plan for that total.

Instead, people working on homelessness in the city are betting high on two new developments: a little help from a national private firm, and new rules for accessing grant money that the city hopes will — finally — unify its many but fragmented homelessness champions.

That private firm, Focus Strategies, has worked with governments in 45 communities across the United States, including San Francisco, Seattle and cities in Silicon Valley, to tackle homelessness. In San Diego, a city that ranked fourth among U.S. metro areas with the highest homeless populations in 2015, the firm will interview nonprofit reps and city leaders across the region to build out a major plan set for debut in 2018.

It won’t be San Diego’s first framework — in 1997 the county offered up just over three pages of a homelessness policy — but it’ll be bigger than any previous pursuit. And following stark numbers from a federally mandated homelessness count at the start of 2017, city officials and nonprofits alike are recognizing that they can’t keep doing what they’ve always done before.

This year San Diego County cited a 68 percent increase in the number of people living on the street since 2007, amounting to a total of 5,621. Unsheltered chronically homeless individuals, or those living outdoors for more than a year who also have mental or physical disabilities, numbered 1,750 — a 148 percent spike from a decade ago.

At the city level, Downtown San Diego alone saw a homeless population jump of 27 percent just between 2016 and 2017. The entire city saw a spike of 10 percent from 2016, although the current number of people living on the streets was 2 percent less than what it was in 2012. Seventy-seven percent of those interviewed in 2017 became homeless while living in San Diego.

Christopher Ward, a city council member who’s part of the Regional Task Force on Homelessness and a city-funded homelessness committee created last month, says one recent success has been a 9 percent drop in the number of homeless veterans since 2016, and a 29 percent total drop in that population since 2012. That’s largely because of efforts like the Housing Our Heroes Initiative, which put $12.5 million in city, federal and San Diego Housing Commission funds toward getting landlords to offer city center apartments to veterans at below-market rates.

But getting all the organizations on the same page to address the other facets of homelessness hasn’t been as easy. “It’s like trying to turn an aircraft carrier,” says Ward. He estimates there are upward of 80 local nonprofits working on the issue throughout the region.

“Twelve months ago we had no political leadership or concerted effort to really take the reins of this or start calling the shots,” he says. Now — and for the first time ever — San Diego is seeing “an unprecedented coordination between all government, regional and nonprofit organizations.”

Part of that has to do with the growth of a major tool called the Homelessness Management Information System, and a new requirement that essentially makes its use mandatory for organizations in San Diego. When homeless individuals walk through the door at a housing facility or service provider, managers can now access their history in the county to see what services they’ve taken advantage of in the past, or who their case worker is. (As of last year, the San Diego Police Department was also given access to this database.)

The system’s been in development in San Diego over the past decade, but going forward, service providers will be required to communicate and coordinate through the it if they want to qualify for grants or funding. “For those that don’t, or kind of want to do their own model — they’re going to become more and more the minority, and realize they’re going to have to change their model,” says Ward.

Michael McConnell, a homelessness advocate in the city, is optimistic about the new changes. He says what grabs most of the attention are the tarps and camping tents that line sidewalks in areas like the East Village, where a portion of the 5,621 unsheltered individuals registered throughout the county live.

Yet their homelessness management system is tracking over 17,000 people.

“They’re not all substance abusers or people with mental health issues,” says McConnell. “They’re living in their cars, or really just in need of a job or affordable housing to get out of homelessness.”

Focus Strategies will also be fundraising to help the city embrace more permanent housing solutions over short-term stays. According to Voice of San Diego, the city has a greater quantity of transitional housing units than the 20 most populated metro areas in the U.S., even as that model continues to fall out of favor with homelessness experts, and cities that embrace permanent housing as the first step to escape homelessness, like Washington, D.C., and Salt Lake City, are seeing results.

San Diego’s initial embrace of this model, called Housing First, was a three-year campaign that ran between 2014 and 2017. It put $30 million in front of the nonprofits responsible for housing successes in the veteran community, and led to the creation of 407 permanent supportive housing units throughout the county.

But McConnell and other San Diego residents want cash injections like that to be more impactful; those 407 units would help just over 7 percent of the region’s current homeless. They’re hoping outside help and a new approach to the homelessness management system can bring on a plan that assists everyone.

“It does seem like [Focus Strategies] is trying a more holistic approach,” he says. “But as anyone knows, it’s implementation. Anyone can write a plan, but that plan isn’t worth anything unless it implements a change.”

What Autonomous Cars Mean to People Who Drive for a Living

(AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

Tech giants Google, Apple and Intel are in a race with automakers like BMW and Tesla to perfect an autonomous driver system that’s reliable and replicable within the next few years. Yet as the world watches on with visions of a Jetsons-like future and city policymakers consider regulations, people who drive for a living in U.S. cities are trying to figure out what it all means for them.

Technical advances have always come with negative impacts like job losses for some, but driving careers in particular are worth watching because they’re economic multipliers at the city level. Ninety-three percent of the 4.1 million employed drivers in the U.S. don’t have bachelor’s degrees, yet drivers on the whole average a poverty rate that’s lower than workers who aren’t in the driving field, at 7.32 percent compared to 8.08 percent. And while nearly two-thirds of drivers identify as white, D.C.-based think tank Center for Global Policy Solutions reports that minorities in driving careers have a “premium” in this field, meaning they’re getting paid better than what they’d likely get paid in other non-driving careers without a college degree, according to U.S. Census data.

That’s something that Jose Garcia, a construction waste driver in New York City, can attest to. In 2016 he made $90,000 working 10 months out of the year. The 32-year-old dropped out of high school and picked up a career in driving because it was something he grew up around. His oldest cousin, driving now for nearly two decades, delivers heating oil to houses. His grandfather used to deliver boilers to sites throughout New York.

He says he’s not too concerned about autonomous vehicles disrupting his paycheck anytime soon because his job requires a lot of on-the-ball thinking. He recently had to operate a crane to unload a construction dumpster off the back of his truck and settle it between two parked cars.

“The city changes by the second. The construction sites can change within a minute,” he says. In New York, there are “too many cars, too many people — it’s a different world. It’s not like where they’re trying [autonomous cars] out.”

Ryan Janota, a 32-year-old freight driver in Aurora, Illinois, isn’t as confident. He works for XPO Logistics. That company’s CEO, Bradley Jacobs, told a trucking publication in February of this year that he was ready to embrace the autonomous future, adding that “computers don’t drive while drunk” and “they don’t suffer from sleep apnea and fall asleep at the wheel.”

“We deliver everything to everyone,” says Janota. “From the tables at home to the clothes they wear on their backs, it all comes from a semi. If one company’s going to [go driverless], then it progresses and every company’s going to do it.”

“That’s a lot of jobs,” he adds. A McKinsey report from 2013 says long-haul trucking companies stand to save $100 billion to $500 billion by the year 2025 simply by cutting out truck driver wages. Janota makes about $60,000 a year, without a college degree, and spends a couple grand each month to pay for rent and support his wife and 3-year-old son.

In the Center for Global Policy Solutions report, called “Stick Shift: Autonomous Vehicles, Driving Jobs, and the Future of Work,” researchers were able to identify which states will probably face the greatest economic impact thanks to driverless vehicles in the short term, based on the number of people employed in driving careers as a fraction of total employment. Those include Mississippi, Wyoming, West Virginia, Idaho and North Dakota. (In another take on U.S. Census data, NPR found that in 2014 there were 29 states where “truck driver” was the state’s most common job.)

Maya Rockeymoore, a lead researcher on the report and director of the Center for Global Policy Solutions, says she’s also worried about what a sudden influx of unemployed drivers would do at the municipal level.

“What this could mean for those areas where there’s disproportionate impact, is that we see more unemployment, and people scrambling to get jobs but when they do get jobs they’re earning less,” she says. “That means human need will increase, and the burden will fall on public programs in cities to meet that need.”

It’s worth remembering that autonomous vehicle technology is gaining momentum in the first place because it’s predicted to provide a better, more cost-efficient form of road transportation. The National League of Cities estimates that, when they hit the consumer market, AVs will save us anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 a year, thanks to smarter safety measures and less time wasted at the wheel.

But cities that find themselves caught off guard by the speed of the technology may lose some consumer power from drivers like Garcia before they start seeing economic gains.

“If I didn’t have this, I don’t know what I’d be able to do,” he says. “I have no education. The only thing I got is my [commercial driver’s license], and my family depends on it.”

Chicago Programs Aim to Lead Minority Youth to City Planning

Millennium Park in Chicago (Photo by J. Crocker)

Growing up, Cosette Hampton experienced two different Chicagos. Until sixth grade, she lived in the Roseland neighborhood, but when her dad got a new job, the family moved to the wealthier Evergreen Park. They stayed until Hampton’s sophomore year of high school — when foreclosure on their home prompted the family to return to Roseland.

She’s now 22, and pursuing a degree in public policy and urban research at the University of Chicago. When she looks back at the two neighborhoods she called home, Hampton says it’s unlikely she’d be studying what she is now if she hadn’t done the 5-mile move away from Roseland.

In Evergreen Park, a predominantly white neighborhood, where the average household income is a little above $64,000 a year, Hampton joined a volunteer corps that ran community projects. She enrolled in a program led by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Future Leaders in Planning, which teaches high school students how to see Chicago’s neighborhood development issues from an urban planning perspective. Roseland’s average household income is $40,100, and most of its population identifies as a racial minority.

“You can’t be interested in what you don’t know about,” Hampton says.

Throughout Chicago, a city known as much for its diversity as its segregation, there are a growing number of programs aimed at bringing more youth from poverty or minority backgrounds into the civic mindset that Hampton, who is African-American, encountered by the fate of her move. Educators and organizers behind the efforts are betting on the fact that if more minority youth in the region get involved in city planning or architecture — fields that are dominated throughout the U.S. by white men — they can start reversing the dramatic lack of racial equity.

A March 2017 report by the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Urban Institute, “The Cost of Segregation,” highlights the damage done. Researchers set out to verify what decades of government policy pushing racial communities to live separately from each other has done to Chicago’s quality of living. They found that black residents could earn $2,982 more a year, the region’s murder rate could be cut by 30 percent, and 83,000 more citizens would have bachelor’s degrees — if the city “reduced the level of segregation between African-Americans and whites to the national median.”

Meanwhile, 2016 marked the second year of Chicago’s population drain, which is being driven by African-Americans leaving the urban area for warmer climates, safer neighborhoods and better job opportunities.

But it’s also the year that a Chicago arts and educators collective started working with the Chicago Architecture Foundation on a graphic novel called “No Small Plans” that lays out the city’s planning past, present and future for local students. The book will start showing up in schools like the Chicago High School for the Arts and colleges like Columbia College Chicago this fall.

Then there’s MapsCorps, a community data-collecting program that teaches high school and college-age youth how to perform their own census in the areas they call home. Since starting in Chicago’s South Side in 2009 it’s helped more than 500 high school youth gain technology and job experience, with an emphasis on youth of color.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation’s teen fellowship program is another contender. Along with a youth summer program that the foundation claims brought building design into the lives of 35,000 Chicago public school students in 2016.

Yet even with these programs, Michael Harris, one of the founders of the Society of Black Urban Planners, a student group at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says Hampton’s story sounded familiar. “That [story] has happened so many times,” he says. He wants SBUP to bring more mentors into the communities where careers like “urban planner” may not sound familiar.

“You can’t effect change if things are always happening on campus,” he says. “I think it’s more about individuals — and professionals especially — taking ownership of the communities either where they reside or where they don’t reside.” His conversations with Chicago youth have led to a few unsolicited emails in his inbox, penned by those same kids he spoke with, asking where they can learn more about getting involved in their neighborhood.

Isobel Araujo’s in Washington, D.C., now, but the 21-year-old American University student first got turned on to the idea of focusing on city development issues as she watched Logan Square, her Chicago neighborhood, start to change. “It was a heavily gentrifying area,” she remembers. “As a child I didn’t really notice it, but it’s one thing I’ve noticed going back home over the summers, and [it sparked] my interest in urban issues.”

Like Hampton, Araujo, who identifies as biracial and Latina, was able to find the resources to turn that interest into a chosen career track. They both participated in the Future Leaders in Planning program, which was started in 2008 as a means to collect opinions from high-schoolers as CMAP put together its GO TO 2040 regional development plan. Now it runs once every summer. Last year, FLIP students were tasked with coming up with alternative developments for a 62-acre lot in the South Loop, and creating an affordable housing plan for areas in the Chicago region.

FLIP has involved about 300 Chicago youth, and according to leaders, many of them have gone on to pursue degrees in urban and public issues. They’re now reaching out to kids in elementary school, and asking them their opinion on what’s going on in their neighborhood, and what changes they’re noticing or anticipating in the future.

Hampton enjoyed the program, but the one critique she had of FLIP was that she wanted it to bring students to a greater diversity of neighborhoods. Her cohort worked predominantly in the Park Forest neighborhood, even though she says none of the FLIP participants were originally from that part of town.

“What I personally think, to get more people involved, is [show them] how innovation and urban planning and architecture can have an impact in their own communities, by letting them create in their own communities,” says Hampton, referring to minority youth.

It’s a critique that can be spread across the board, for public schools or nonprofit programs reaching for ways to reverse the bleak assessment laid out by that Metropolitan Planning Council report. She follows it up with what sounds like a slight reference to her own experience, recognizing what she may have missed out on if she never left Roseland. “If [FLIP] went to a neighborhood that’s predominantly black or brown or low income, then folks can see, ‘Wow, I can actually be part of this program in my own neighborhood.’”

For high school students in the Chicago area, applications for FLIP’s summer 2017 program are due Friday, June 9.

How 3 Cities Are Using an App Designed to Help Them Collaborate

An Anchorage, Alaska, official identified Portland, Maine, as a “peer city.” (Photo by Didier Moïse)

The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago released an innovative app in February that does some heavy data lifting for city officials across the U.S. The Peer Cities Identification Tool lets users group cities side by side to find out which urban areas share similar struggles in affordable housing and economic growth.

The goal is to get cities talking to each other to share best practices — helping that city in the Midwest with an unemployment dilemma find a demographic West Coast twin that’s starting to spur job growth, for example. Researchers chose 300 cities that had populations of 50,000 in 1960, and compiled census data according to four metrics: equity, resilience, outlook and housing.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago had success with an earlier platform, the Industrial Cities Initiative, which looked at similar issues but only across 10 Midwest cities. Praise for that and hundreds of interviews with city officials inspired the PCIT.

Susan Longworth, a senior economist at the reserve bank’s Community Development and Policy Studies division, says they’ve been getting a mix of love and suggestions from city leaders since this new tool’s debut. “This is version 1.0, and we’re already thinking about what 2.0 looks like,” she says. “We’ve had a fair amount of people interested in data for even smaller cities, so we’re looking into smaller data points.”

Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago researchers have also connected with three cities — one of which wasn’t included in PCIT — to get more feedback about the tool. I followed up with those cities to hear what they’ve learned, and ask whether they think it’s something they’d consider incorporating into any future plans of attack for economic growth.

Rockford, Illinois
Rockford is about 70 miles outside of Chicago, and has a population of 150,000. In 2013 the unemployment rate was over 10 percent. That year, the city formed a coalition of business, community and government organizations called Transform Rockford to build out a road map for a more prosperous, equitable city by 2025.

They’re working with about 300 volunteers to put together and continually update that 2025 strategy. Jake Wilson, Transform Rockford’s program manager, says they’ll be working with PCIT data as they undergo revisions this year. “We’re super excited to start to work with them to start to parse the data,” he says, referring to Rockford’s peer cities. One of those is Kenosha, Wisconsin, a match in the “outlook” section of the survey that looks at demographic growth.

The process taught Wilson and his colleagues to search for examples beyond the familiar. “Just because they’re in the upper Midwest doesn’t mean they’re a peer city,” he says. “There may be some community in Georgia that we never think about. Or maybe some in California.”

“For a community our size, having access to the data the Chicago Fed has — there would have been no way we could have done that by ourselves,” he adds.

Dallas, Texas
Dallas is brandishing some impressive job rates right now, with its total household employment count running higher than any year in the previous decade. But among major U.S. cities Dallas has the highest population percentage of people living 185 percent below the federal poverty line, and the median income of $46,902 is distinctly lower than the eight peer cities that show up alongside it in PCIT’s “resilience” category, which looks at the local economy and the strength of its workforce.

Despite its challenges, the Dallas Office of Economic Development isn’t entirely sure it’ll be adopting this new tool from the Chicago fed.

A spokesperson for the office noted that the “outlook” metric says it highlights demographics and economic potential, yet that theme relies primarily on population data. Longworth notes that, when the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago started interviewing city leaders about the future of their cities, demographics like birth rate and residential length consistently came up. “The outlook theme is not – nor are any of the themes – intended to be predictions or projections,” she says. “It is simply a combination of variables that we know to be relevant to a city’s future.”

Although Dallas didn’t express an interest in incorporating the tool into planning, the city rep did offer some praise, saying it’s “a good attempt of using some type of reasoning in defining what a peer city is.”

Anchorage, Alaska
Anchorage was one city that didn’t meet the Chicago Fed’s guidelines for inclusion in PCIT. But when Christopher Schutte, the city’s director of economic and community development, first heard about it, he picked up the phone.

“As per usual, Alaska was left off the map,” he says, with a quick laugh. But the researchers in Chicago were receptive to his feedback. They agreed to compile a bespoke peer cities report for Anchorage as if it were included in the first place.

“We’re so isolated up there that we are, for all intents and purposes, a standalone community,” he says. He identified Portland, Maine, as a peer city, after attending a HUD conference on the East Coast where a city rep from Portland spoke about affordable housing issues that sounded strikingly similar to the ones Anchorage is navigating in its own locale.

But that’s just one potential match, and one he came across by fate. If the reserve bank expands its data set in any forthcoming version, Anchorage would be an eager participant, especially as Alaska as a whole battles a recession that’s largely isolated from the rest of the country and will likely bring Anchorage’s economic development issues into sharp relief.

“It’s tough to find comparatives to [our] situation, but this is a really intriguing tool, which was using a new set of metrics,” he notes.

Until PCIT 2.0, Longworth and her staff will be keeping an eye out for more feedback. “It seems to be meeting a need of some kind, which is really fantastic to see,” she says. “But if we’re missing the mark in some way, we want to hear about it.”

“Made in Baltimore” Label Designed to Boost Local Economy

Made in Baltimore pop-up shop

Rasheed Aziz doesn’t see young drug dealers navigating the streets of Baltimore as people who are inherently lawless. In fact, he says they’re usually some of the top performers when he’s able to get them involved in his CityWide Youth Entrepreneurship Program.

“They were already involving themselves in entrepreneurship,” he says. “It just was entrepreneurship that wasn’t positive.”

This year he’ll have 35 young people between the ages of 16 and 24 learning how to design their own clothing brands with CityWide’s support. That program doesn’t pay, but he runs another program called Frozen Desert Sorbet that lets those students learn how to run their first business venture by selling snow cones in their neighborhood, pocketing the profit from each sale.

The budding clothing designers who make it through both programs will be just a few of the local talents qualifying for a new city-run program called Made in Baltimore. Taking a page from successful buy-local campaigns like SFMade in San Francisco, Andy Cook, the city staffer who founded the program, says it’s a marketing designation that can bring new types of opportunity to Baltimore’s economy.

“Seventy-five percent of the people in Baltimore don’t have a college degree, so there are a lot of issues and questions when we’re talking about ‘job creation’ here,” he says. “With entry-level ‘job creation’ what we’re often seeing is service sector employment, which is part time and doesn’t come with benefits.”

A 2014 study of more than 1,000 job seekers in Baltimore commissioned by the Opportunity Collaborative found that there are “practically no entry-level jobs” for those without a college degree that pay $22 an hour — enough to support a small family. It also noted that job seekers from low-income neighborhoods are kept out of traditional employment by the high dollar and time costs of traveling from said neighborhoods to booming job centers, and about a fifth of job seekers can’t qualify for traditional jobs because of criminal records.

Cook says giving small businesses the extra boost of being backed by a city-led marketing campaign can help them scale, and create jobs that are “good quality but also accessible to those without higher education.” They’ll be able to put the “Made in Baltimore” logo on their product label, or in their storefront window, but they’ll also benefit from technical support from the city on how to thrive as a business and how to recruit employees.

He started building the program after helping compile a piece of research for the city. Using census data collected between 2003 and 2012, he found that advanced manufacturing companies without employees grew in number by 57 — marking a nine-year increase of 257 percent. Other manufacturing establishments (again, without employees) rose by 67 percent in the same time period.

Alongside those jumps, employees in the manufacturing sector declined.

“We see big companies shedding jobs but see a lot of people starting up their own in light manufacturing,” he says. Manufacturing is traditionally thought of as big operations churning out thousands of high-tech items like cars or computers, but the mother of two making jams in her kitchen and selling them at local farmers markets falls within the industry too.

Made in Baltimore wants to help individuals like that jam producer turn her work into a full-time gig by giving entrepreneurs a network of other local producers through which they can lift each other up. Cook has coordinated four pop-up shops that highlight Baltimore businesses, with the most recent one last December featuring 45 makers. He says they’ve generated an average of $25,000 to $30,000 in sales per event.

“There’s lines out the door, a lot of press coverage,” he says. “It seems, anecdotally, that it’s something that people are craving.”

Keith Bradley, manager of the Made in Kansas City retail stores in Missouri’s largest city, says they work with about 120 local artists and makers who’ve seen similar success by associating their name with the brand.

“It’s exciting, because you watch these smaller companies go from doing something that’s their passion on the side to quitting their day jobs and getting to do that full time,” says Bradley.

Cook’s key influence, SFMade, is also reporting strong growth. It works with more than 640 local certified manufacturers with a payroll total of 5,000-plus employees. They’re getting ready to debut a 4-floor, 50,000-square-foot industrial workshop where small-scale producers can rent space starting in June 2018.

As small-scale manufacturers get pushed out of San Francisco’s pricier real estate and into poor neighborhoods like Bayview-Hunters Point, SFMade helps owners recruit local talent from the low-income communities. “A lot of the times, without SFMade, [manufacturers] just don’t know that the workforce resources are available in the area,” says Janet Lees, SFMade’s chief program officer. Transplanted manufacturers and workers from the traditionally black neighborhoods southeast of San Francisco are now working together to “access the very affluent consumer base that’s here,” she says.

Going forward, Made in Baltimore will work to paint a detailed picture of the local maker scene. They want to know just how many small-scale producers there are, crafting gems in their kitchens or backyards or garages that they then sell to neighbors. “We don’t think a lot of that is being captured by the broader economic studies going on in the city,” Cook says.

They’re also scanning for real estate in industrially zoned areas with the hope of creating a space similar to what SFMade is creating for rental spaces. Meanwhile, one of Baltimore’s newest makerspaces, Open Works, has offered to let Made in Baltimore run some of its workshops and presentations at their facility.

As for drivers of the local industry like Aziz, he says the new program will turn even more youth with great ideas off the street and into the local economy. “Maybe they haven’t scaled as of yet, but I’m out here. I see them,” he says. “They’re coming.”

Mass. Nonprofit Wants to Launch 1,000 Small Businesses in 30 Midsize Cities

Danaris Mazara is an entrepreneur in Lawrence, Massachusetts (Credit: Entrepreneurship for All)

Seeing opportunity for sustainable job creation, big cities from Boston to Los Angeles offer programs that support would-be small business owners with everything from accessing startup loans to navigating the legal maze that is launching a new company. They have uneven success, however, when it comes to making sure an entrepreneurial uptick improves economic opportunity for all, and many smaller cities struggle even more on that front due to fewer resources.

But Danaris Mazara, who left the Dominican Republic for the U.S. in 2002 and now lives 30 miles outside of Boston in Lawrence, Massachusetts, found support for her business idea. Thanks to Entrepreneurship for All (EforAll), she was able to access mentors, get funding and learn the ropes of running a bakery as if she were tuned into the entrepreneurial network of a bigger U.S. city.

Shortly after her family lost their home during the U.S. housing crisis, Mazara’s mom gave her $35 to go to the store and fill her empty fridge. Instead of stocking up on groceries she recruited her niece to teach her how to make flan, a sweet and smooth cheese-based custard that’s common throughout parts of Latin America.

Her coworkers at Walmart quickly bought up the small batch she brought to work the following week. Then again, with the next batch. Then again with the next. “After a month I realized I was getting enough money to pay my gas, electricity in the house, pay for some groceries, and I thought, ‘This is kind of a good business,’” says Mazara.

She partnered with another local baker whose house was nearing foreclosure to form Sweet Grace Heavenly Cakes. The business was accepted into a 12-week startup accelerator program run by EforAll where a local restaurateur helped them draw up a business plan. At the end, they were awarded $3,500 — enough money to buy a brand-new mixer, and add to the savings they then used to buy the building space where they operate today.

EforAll, a nonprofit headquartered in Lowell, Massachusetts, opens its doors to ideas of entrepreneurs from every background, though they aim their programs at minorities and immigrants like Mazara. Since forming in 2014 the organization has claimed some impressive results. It has graduated 174 entrepreneurs, the total of which make up a payroll of $3.4 million, 271 jobs and $5.2 million in revenue. On top of that, 70 percent of the 1,500 entrepreneurs it’s assisted over the years are women, 41 percent are immigrants, 55 percent are minorities and 60 percent were previously unemployed.

David Parker, chief executive officer, says their big ambition right now is to launch 1,000 startups in 30 midsize U.S. cities by 2023.

Former Mass. Governor Deval Patrick tries a Sweet Grace Heavenly Cakes treat. (Credit: Entrepreneurship for All)

The “midsize” is key. Looking at Massachusetts, EforAll estimates that the cities it operates in — Lowell, New Bedford, Lawrence, Fall River and Lynn — average three times the poverty rate that the Boston-Cambridge area has. Boston-Cambridge has 48 programs in place to support entrepreneurs, while those smaller cities only average about six.

“We call our people ‘undernetworked,’” says Parker. He’s helped scale a number of successful internet-based businesses, and realized through that process that one of the main reasons he was successful was because he had like-minded peers to help him build his influence.

For someone with a great idea in a city like Lawrence, that type of network once didn’t exist. “They just don’t have a culture of entrepreneurship that they can sort of fall back on,” says Parker. “Whereas in Boston and Cambridge and New York and Silicon Valley, the culture is so imbued that you can’t help but get excited about entrepreneurship” in those cities.

EforAll’s bringing that spirit to Massachusetts gateway cities helped Miriam Morgenstern and Debra Fowler, who scaled up History UnErased, a company that creates lesson plans on LGBTQ issues throughout American history for K-12 schools and community colleges, after one of EforAll’s 12-week accelerator programs in Lowell.

Of the many benefits the two celebrate, the mere access to a co-working office space has been enough to give them a newfound confidence. “Just having a place to meet somebody that isn’t a coffee shop often gives you credibility,” says Morgenstern. She says they’ve sold curricula to educators in six states since graduating from EforAll’s accelerator program in early 2016.

Mazara’s bakery is climbing the ladder as well. Sweet Grace Heavenly Cakes has nine employees, and they’re already talking about expanding into the space adjacent to their Lawrence retail space. “We’re growing so fast,” she says.

Compared to where she was a decade ago, that’s exactly how she’d like it. “We’re still learning, [but] I want to keep moving,” she says.

Seattle Hip-Hop Artist Pushes for 100 New Black Entrepreneurs

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Draze is a fixture on the Seattle hip-hop scene, his songs a lyrical history of the gentrification that’s driven friends, favorite shops — even his family — from the Central District. He talks about how his mom fled the neighborhood, where many black-owned businesses once thrived, after property taxes started rising on their old house in “The Hood Ain’t the Same.” The song that was archived in Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry by Mayor Ed Murray in 2015.

But now he’s going beyond the recording studio with a new game plan to stop gentrification’s push. He wants to get 100 black-owned businesses up and running in Seattle before the end of the year, with help from the city’s Office of Economic Development, black entrepreneurs who’ve already done well in Seattle and even members of the Seattle Seahawks.

The first successful entrepreneur to step up? Draze himself.

He says he’s working on rolling out an online music and culture magazine, “The Void,” that’ll feature black-owned businesses and showcase arts and music events around the city.

“We don’t have any media in the Northwest,” he says, referring to the black community. “So we’re not able to tell our stories, we’re not able to market our product.”

The program is moments away from debuting; Draze calls a recently published piece in a local newspaper his “soft announcement” that it’s incoming. The centerpiece will be a summer summit that includes a Shark Tank-inspired competition among minority entrepreneurs, and a career preparedness course with local pastor and activist Harvey Drake.

“He’s in the process of working on kind of an entrepreneurial school, which would train people with the different skills they would need but also help to plug people in with capital in different ways,” says Draze.

Details on the summit coming soon!!! #BuildingBlackWealth

— Draze (@DrazeExperience) March 15, 2017

The average hourly wage for black workers in Seattle dropped from $21 an hour in 2000 to $18 an hour in 2012. In that same time period, almost everyone else saw an average hourly wage increase by $2 to $3. And even though the city is hailed as one of the new global frontiers for entrepreneurship, black entrepreneurs, along with Hispanic entrepreneurs, only make up 5 percent of the minority entrepreneurial landscape.

The city’s Office of Economic Development says it’s trying to do more to bring in entrepreneurs from its large African diaspora population, and others from immigrant enclaves like Rainier Valley and the Central District around 23rd Street. Their Mobile Consulting Services dispatches staff out to these areas to interview small businesses and identify their pressing problems.

Yonas Seifu, a staffer at the OED, says entrepreneurs from these neighborhoods continue to vocalize what his office calls the three M’s. “Money, management and marketing,” he says.

To tackle a few of those, this week they’re debuting a program called the Individual Development Account. Participating small business owners offer to put $500 in city-backed IDAs in order to qualify for the program. They then take 12 hours of workshops on financial management, and if they finish everything, the OED adds an additional $3,500 to their account.

The city’s widening its reach to immigrant communities like Draze’s Zimbabwean family. Hiring Seifu at OED — he immigrated to the U.S. from Ethiopia when he was 8 — is a step in that direction.

“There was previously zero representation within city government [from the East African community],” says Joe Mirabella, a spokesperson for the ODE. The department recognizes that diversifying the staff is “important [to reach] refugees that had a negative experience with government in their own country,” he says.

But what about Draze’s ambitious plan? Is creating 100 new black-owned businesses before 2018 a viable dream? Mirabella says absolutely.

Every year, about 9,000 businesses apply for permits in the Seattle area. “There’s no shortage of opportunity in this city right now. Most folks are making fairly decent wages and there’s money to spend,” he says, citing the city’s 3.4 percent unemployment rate. For immigrants or minority communities who think they’re onto a good business idea, Mirabella urges them to give his office a call.

As for Draze, he’s not harboring any illusions. “It’s absolutely ambitious, but if you don’t pick something that’s too big for you, you’re picking up the wrong thing. If I aim for 100 and I got 50? Man, I’m ecstatic. We get 27? I’m excited.”

To Support Entrepreneurs, Charlotte’s Starting With Questions


To glimpse the hurdles keeping Charlotte, North Carolina, from becoming a hot spot for entrepreneurs, all you have to do is try a batch of one woman’s homemade cookies.

Her great-great-aunts used to bake them. And then her grandmother. They’d whip up a batch during times of hardship and rally the family around the oven. And now the recipe has landed in one Charlotte resident’s hands, rich with an intimate history.

It’s the perfect backdrop for a marketing campaign. But last year when the woman met with Holly Eskridge, who heads the city’s entrepreneurship and small business development program, she said she didn’t even know where to begin if she wanted to get more customers. There’s a circle of friends and neighbors who can already attest to their deliciousness, but what about beyond that?

The city had already funded a website,, which puts small businesses in touch with online resources. But after hearing the woman’s story, Eskridge realized the online portal wasn’t a fit for her needs.

“She really does need someone to sit down with her,” Eskridge says.

She’s leading the city’s push to make sure more minorities and women are included in Charlotte’s entrepreneurial fabric, and has been holding focus groups and conducting local surveys to determine what’s holding back nascent entrepreneurs like the baker. “There was data presented that said there are people who are not able to access the amount of opportunity that others are. We looked at that and said, OK, that has to be happening in the business community as well,” says Eskridge.

The data she’s referring to is from work by economist Raj Chetty and others examining how economic mobility relates to where you were born in the U.S. They determined Charlotte had the worst score among the 50 largest metros in the country: If you were born into a family whose annual income is less than that of 80 percent of the population, you only had a 5.4 percent chance to make it to the top 20 percent of that income spectrum later on in life.

“When somebody presents a report like that, it makes you think about reporting in a more specific way,” she says. Charlotte’s ranking in that 2014 study prompted city leaders to form a task force, and that group released a report this week on its findings about poverty in the region. Next steps include setting specific goals around creating opportunity and raising money to fund the efforts.

Meanwhile, Eskridge’s department is trying to create a completely revamped needs assessment among the entrepreneurship community. They’re sifting through the data, which they collected from interviews with 200 small businesses, to find ways they can direct resources so tech innovators and not-so-tech-savvy innovators alike can get the resources they need, delivered in the way they prefer.

The push isn’t only for the benefit of the business-minded. “If you don’t have a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem,” says Eskridge, “I don’t believe that your city is going to be financially healthy.”

The sentiment has been echoed in research by organizations like the Fund for Our Economic Future. In 2013, the Ohio-based think tank looked at economic performance among U.S. cities between 1980 and 2011, and found that cities with higher rates of self-employment and a well-rounded support ecosystem for entrepreneurs had the highest shared prosperity.

Eskridge says Charlotte is getting creative with its approaches to tapping into undiscovered entrepreneurs — including one method that involves engaging people entering the city’s new career training pipeline.

Last year, the city gave the Urban League and Goodwill Industries $1 million to build out an already up-and-running workforce development program. Eskridge and her crew helped spread the word throughout the city about the program, and 46 trainees became part of the first cohort in December.

But on top of preparing those workers from low-income neighborhoods for careers in booming industries like construction and fiber-optics installation, they’re also going to ask them about their interest in entrepreneurship, in a search for innovative ideas that otherwise would have remained in the realm of “What if?”

“According to Goodwill and the Urban League, this is an absolute need,” says Eskridge.

Her department is still in the startup phase when it comes to building these ideas into bona fide systems, and cities throughout the U.S. have yet to uncover one single, barrier-shattering approach to building equity alongside entrepreneurship. One test will be whether or not they can help an unknown voice with a marketable product — baked or otherwise — rise to the top.

“I personally don’t face tremendous equity issues, so I need to get out there and try and talk to the people we need to help,” says Eskridge. “Really what I think what we all want to do is to really, truly figure out a way to help each other. And that’s what [the local baker’s] business model has been built on.”

Indianapolis Disagrees With Trump’s CDBG Claims

(Photo by Daniel Schwen)

President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget plans kick a lot of federal programs to the curb. Among the many casualties in a proposal released two weeks ago: community development block grants. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development distributes the flexible funding, which cities use to help many low- and moderate-income families through projects ranging from affordable housing and job creation to neighborhood stabilization.

The Trump administration, however, says CDBGs have failed to fulfill that mandate. The budget plan describes the HUD program as “not well-targeted to the poorest populations,” and alleges that it “has not demonstrated results.” Cutting CDBGs, it continues, will take the onus for community development off the federal government’s back and hand it down to the state and local level.

Lindsey Richardt, a spokesperson for Indianapolis’ Department of Metropolitan Development, says her office hasn’t seen CDBG funds go to waste. “There’s a small part of it that goes towards some administrative costs,” she says, but most of the $8 million they receive on average each year “goes to help those living in distressed neighborhoods.”

“Whether that’s through economic development, affordable housing, employment training or job training,” she says, “it’s fair to say in Indianapolis that we would disagree” with the president’s negative assessment.

Indianapolis is one of 1,209 local governments and organizations in the U.S. that receive CDBGs. HUD started handing them out in 1974, and since 1975 the city has collected nearly half a billion dollars, although annual funding allotments have continually been on the decline, according to data provided by Richardt. (For more on how CDBGs have steadily decreased, see Next City’s “What Happened to Federal Funding for Community Development?”)

Richardt’s department has a system for making sure these funds follow the general HUD rule. Seventy percent of all CDBG money disbursed nationally has to demonstrably impact the lives of those living under 80 percent of the median income in their area.

In Indianapolis, they start by highlighting neighborhoods that demonstrate the greatest need for outside assistance, like the Near East Side, a high-poverty area where the John H. Boner Community Center will get $20,000 this summer.

Then, they make sure organizations receiving money establish a network of funders that aren’t government-bound. “CDBG is almost never used as the sole source of the project,” says Richardt. In 2016, Indianapolis’ CDBG award totaled $8,211,848, but the community centers and workplace development organizations that shared those funds were able to bring in $8,134,980 in additional investments from philanthropy groups and private funds, essentially doubling HUD’s impact.

Here’s how just a fraction of the money from those two streams goes to work in Indianapolis. In 2016, the John H. Boner Community Center provided 568 youth with afterschool services, taught 601 residents about financial planning (159 participants saw their incomes go up afterward), put 485 individuals within access to affordable housing, and set aside funding to create 100 new jobs, some of which will go to people with barriers to employment like prison records, for community redevelopment projects.

It’s also worth noting that instead of forcing struggling neighborhoods into a dependence on federal funds, CDBG support magnetizes investment and helps communities become more self-sufficient. The CDBG Coalition, a coalition of 20 nonprofit organizations across the U.S., says that each CDBG dollar invested in a community brings in an average of $3.65 in private and public investments to that community.

The Near East Side was one of 12 urban areas nationwide designated by HUD as a “Promise Zone” in 2015. By the end of the first year of that designation, it had received $9.6 million in grants through CDBG funds and seven other federal programs. James Taylor, CEO of the John H. Boner Community Center, said these investments have helped attract more support from new local businesses that want to set up shop in the area. Since 2004 it has collected $180 million in private and public funding to local projects.

The results of these investments — and the stories and numbers behind the lives they changed — are then collected, crunched and communicated back to the federal level. “The city reports to HUD on the progress to date of every project that’s CDBG funded. HUD also audits the city on an annual basis in person,” Richardt says. “In short, they have the data and fully understand where and how the funding is being used.”

It’s not quite clear what data the administration’s Office of Management and Budget is basing its CDBG downgrade on. But in Indianapolis, cutting out the program could mean cutting down the prospects of a neighborhood’s future.

Texas Border City Hopes Entrepreneurship Can Break Tide of Poverty

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

When Jorge Sanchez thinks about the entrepreneurial landscape in McAllen, Texas, the chamber of commerce vice president considers it largely untapped. The next great entrepreneur could be someone living in poverty and wondering if he’ll ever get to give his ideas a chance, like Lamar Jones did.

Jones moved to the McAllen area in 2013 and shared a two-bedroom apartment with a friend. They had no mattresses so they slept on the floor, and relied on cheap takeout food. With every ordered meal, Jones found himself underwhelmed by the barbecue sauces he was served. So he created his own.

Sanchez, who’s in charge of business development for the chamber, was impressed with Jones’ recipe to the point that he helped put him through an eight-week incubator called Idea Place. At the end, Jones got a $10,000 grant to bring his food product to market, through the McAllen Innovation Grant.

“He first started selling at local markets. Now he’s selling it at over 160 H-E-Bs,” says Sanchez, referring to the Texas chain grocery store.

Three years ago, the McAllen Chamber of Commerce spent $220,000 to rehabilitate a 60-year-old library and turn it into a new co-working space. It was around that time that the chamber also started offering up its McAllen Innovation grants and Idea Place incubation rounds.

Today TechPlace, the co-working space, is running at 88 percent occupancy, giving freelancers or individual entrepreneurs a desk and WiFi for only $25 a month, and small-size enterprises their own meeting space for between $200 and $400 a month. They’re hoping that investing in nascent businesses will shake the city free of the deep poverty that characterizes its neighborhoods.

“We understand poverty levels are top level here,” he says. “One of the main factors [pushing people] to want to be an entrepreneur is to leave that lifestyle.”

In a new study by Penn State researcher John Iceland that looks at concentrations of poverty across the U.S., McAllen, which presses up against the U.S.-Mexico border, has the greatest density of entire neighborhoods where 40 percent of the population is living below the federal poverty line. Whereas gauging poverty as a whole means looking at how many people are living below the federal poverty line across cities, states or countries, concentrated poverty measures the number of neighborhoods within those statistical areas that have big clusters of impoverished families and individuals.

McAllen took the top spot between 2010 and 2014, a designation Iceland put together by using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. But it was also the first in the country in terms of percentages of neighborhoods living among concentrated poverty in 1980, 1990 and 2000, relying on traditional census info.

“The poor themselves are more likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods than a decade ago,” says Iceland. Even though the highest levels of concentrated poverty on average throughout the U.S. are in predominantly black neighborhoods, poor Hispanic and white populations are showing up in income-segregated communities at nearly the same rate that black populations are. The McAllen area was number one for concentrated poverty among all ethnicities, though 84.6 percent of the population is either Hispanic or Latino. Hidalgo County, where McAllen is the county seat, reported total poverty rates of 33.5 percent and child poverty rates of 45.5 percent of the entire population.

“We understand there’s a real struggle, a problem when you have an amazing idea but you don’t have the resources,” says Sanchez. “For some people it’s difficult for them to acquire an investor or an angel or a venture capitalist eventually so that’s why we created” these resources, he said.

And it seems to be generating excitement in the area. Even though the chamber of commerce doesn’t do any marketing, entrepreneurs “keep coming,” according to Sanchez. The hope is that they can bring another struggling innovator out of the drudges like they did with Jones. “That’s the whole idea,” he says.

Skid Row Artists Brace for Big Changes in Los Angeles

(Credit: Los Angeles Poverty Department)

Since the mid-1980s, artist John Malpede has watched nonprofits in Los Angeles’ Skid Row district aid small wins against tide after tide of downtown development.

The Los Angeles Community Action Network was instrumental in pausing a hotel construction boom in 2006 so that the city could figure out ways to renovate affordable housing. In 2012, the United Coalition East Prevention Project and other groups prevented the delivery of a liquor license to a ground-floor restaurant in a mixed-income housing development, citing concerns that some low-income residents living above may be recovering addicts.

Malpede’s Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), which claims to be the first performance group whose actors are homeless or previously homeless, eventually turned that dispute into a play. And with a new zoning plan for the neighborhood that would pit social services providers against market storefronts by 2040, it doesn’t look like his troupe will come up short on sources of inspiration anytime soon.

More than 5,000 of Los Angeles County’s 47,000 homeless residents live in Skid Row. They line the streets in camping tents, shopping carts and cardboard boxes, and fill up the more than 60 temporary shelter hotels nearby. Malpede charges that the new zoning blueprint, called DTLA 2040, will hide this problem more than eradicate it.

“The zoning plan is going to shred [Skid Row] completely,” he says.

His LAPD is coordinating a series of performances and workshops that started this May and run the entire summer, called the Back 9. He wants L.A. residents and the millions of international visitors who flood through downtown every year to learn what’s going on just a few blocks away from the double-decker bus tours.

Their theater of choice? A temporary golfing green. In an ode to the sport of the upper class, LAPD is working with local artist and urbanist Rosten Woo to roll out a mini-golf game in the Skid Row History Museum & Archive that brings players, hole by hole, through the history of developers and zoning issues that have shaped downtown.

City planners described the 2040 plan as their push to make Los Angeles a more walkable city during a Back 9 workshop on March 18, according to Malpede. But the Skid Row residents who attended were more concerned about what that means for low-income residents, complaining to the planners that there’s already a need for more amenities for homeless families.

One man who lives in shelters pointed out that he and his wife have to live blocks away from each other. “So here’s a situation where poor people can’t have families with their apartments but people with more money can,” says Malpede.

The modern contour of Skid Row, which rests between the Arts District and the cusp of the Financial District, took shape after a 1975 community plan contained homeless and public services to the southeastern corner of downtown. Up until 1999 the entire downtown district had 8,371 affordable housing units and 2,426 market rentals.

But since then, market rentals have skyrocketed and now number at 20,211, according to a fourth-quarter report by the Downtown Center Business Improvement District. Affordable rentals increased in the same time period up to 12,255.

And when it comes to what’s already in the works, right now there are 71 affordable units under construction — a sliver of a fraction of the 8,883 market rentals being built.

The sight of tents and shopping carts belies a system of self-sufficiency that the neighborhood’s residents and service providers have built out of necessity, says Malpede. “It’s a dynamic neighborhood situation, where there are services but also a community ethos that understands what people’s problems are and how to deal with a range of people with more understanding and passion that’s available elsewhere,” he says.

How the city plans to transplant all that ethos — and the people who depend on it — by 2040 isn’t quite clear. And what’s to come of the vessel for these events, the Skid Row History Museum & Archive, which has been tracking the neighborhood in gallery form since 2008?

“As long as we can pay the rent,” says Malpede, with a laugh. “We’re pretty resilient I would say.”

In 2017, Track Corporate Welfare Like Never Before

A new bill in the Michigan Senate seeks to broaden tax incentives for businesses. (Photo by Brian Charles Watson)

Last Thursday, Michigan legislators backed by private sector leaders dropped a bill on the state senate floor that asked for a greater range of new tax incentives to reel in more businesses. If it passes, companies that enter or expand their imprint in Michigan cities and attract between 250 and 500 new jobs will see part of their paid state income tax refunded every year they keep those jobs. State Senator Jim Stamas and proponents say the bill is necessary because Michigan has a less robust incentives program when compared with neighboring states, according to Crain’s Detroit.

Critics of states using incentives like tax breaks to entice companies to relocate, an approach referred to as “corporate welfare,” charge that it’s not a smart way to put people to work or stimulate economies. For years, everyone from journalists to nonprofit policy center Good Jobs First has been examining the practice and assessing its efficacy.

Now, there’s another way to track how corporate subsidies connect to local economies. A new database by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research looks at the average state and local taxes of a given industry in a given state, and projects how different incentive types would factor out if a hypothetical company were to set up shop within the state over a 20-year period. Included in those calculations are the tax regimes from 47 cities in each of its 33 states.

The data, compiled by economist Tim Bartik, reveals that Michigan spent 49 percent more on incentives as a ratio of its total economy than Ohio, 27 percent more than Wisconsin and 35 percent more than Illinois on incentives in 2015 alone. Indiana was the only nearby state where that ratio was greater than in Michigan.

Cities like Lansing and Detroit have a storied past with incentives programs to keep automakers in the area, and the Michigan Economic Growth Authority (MEGA) tax credit program left taxpayers with a $9.4 billion bill to cover corporate subsidies in 2011. Bartik says if there’s one takeaway he wants policymakers to get from his database, it’s that investing in job seekers will deliver “more bang for your buck” than if you put that money toward property tax abatements or job creation tax credits like Michigan has in the past.

“Most states do not devote much in resources to customized training, which is not a tax incentive, it’s a service that’s provided,” he says. Customized job training, however, he adds, is “highly effective, and the dollar might have 10 times the effect of a dollar devoted to cash incentives and other tax incentives.”

Enrollment in vocational training in Michigan has been diving since 2006. At the same time the state was pushing to create more incentives nearly a decade ago through programs like MEGA, lawmakers placed college enrollment rates at the heart of a statewide education campaign, leaving students too stretched between college prep classes and regular curricula to enroll in vocational programs.

The total number of students enrolled in at least one vocational class in the 2015-2016 school year was 108,000. Go back nine years and enrollment was up at 136,000. Meanwhile, last month 47,000 new jobs were posted at the state’s employment portal,, that only require an associate’s degree. Governor Rick Snyder is currently pushing for more than $40 million in state investments in local job training programs to alleviate that.

Yet Michigan is not alone in thinking that a highly trained job pool is not enough to sweeten the deal to bring in more employers.

“What’s interesting is states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Tennessee, historically didn’t do much in the incentive game, but the last 10 years they’ve started getting into it fairly heavily,” says Bartik, citing his data.

He plans on updating the database once every two to three years and eventually bringing in states like Rhode Island, which has also relied heavily on incentives to woo corporations. When combined with another incentive database guided by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) that’s set to be released in 2017, the year ahead will be marked by unprecedented local disclosures of just who’s getting off the tax hook — and where taxpayers are paying for it.

Bartik’s work provides estimates on the long-term impact of incentive deals, so while the forthcoming GASB numbers will let us see how incentives are impacting local economies today, Bartik’s data let’s us see how they may impact local economies years from now.

Even though they’re projections, there’s a reason why trying to articulate these incentives that far ahead is valuable to policymakers and their constituents. “The reality is, given how short-term-oriented business decision makers are, it seems unlikely the tax abatement you’re offering in year 10 or 12 really affects decisions very much. What it does is gives away the next governor or mayor’s tax base,” Bartik says. “And it’s a little easier to give away a future tax base than your current tax base, politically speaking.”

Recent Solar Jobs Count Is More Than Just a Number

A worker installs solar panels. (Photo by Jon Callas)

In February, the U.S. Department of Energy released its second U.S. Energy and Employment Report to applause by businesses in the renewable industries. Clean energy, the department found, had passed the 3 million job mark in the U.S.

Zoom in on that number and you’ll likely find one story after another of how the sector has changed lives. That’s largely because of groups like GRID Alternatives, a solar nonprofit that provides systems to low- and moderate-income households, and targets its training initiatives at people with barriers to employment like incarceration records.

One of those lives is Jose Ramos’. He’s a solar installer in the Los Angeles region who was thrust into the South Central gang wars in the late ’80s. He got his first taste of juvenile detention just a year after getting jumped into his first gang at the age of 12.

From then on, it was one run-in with the law after another. But when the only organizations taking interest in your block are gangs, what you see in your front lawn is also what you see as the only way to make it in the world. “There were times when I wished, ‘Man, somebody come rescue me, somebody save me,’” Ramos remembers. “I was forced to do things that I didn’t want to do, and I was a scared little kid. It damaged me. Just talking about it right now makes me feel like throwing up.”

When he was 26, he was sentenced to 17 years in jail. He watched from the interior of a cell as his youth slipped away, and even though it wasn’t the type of savior he had in mind when he was younger, incarceration did make him decide to never return to the street.

On parole in his early 40s, he got out with a criminal record and no clear direction. But a friend told him to get in touch with Homeboy Industries. The paragon in the nonprofit job training space for ex-gang members in L.A. eventually put him through a volunteer and training program for a career in solar energy that was led by GRID Alternatives.

Daisy Meyer, the workforce development manager at GRID Alternative’s Bay Area hub in Oakland, makes it clear that they’re not a job program. “We’re a nonprofit solar installation organization that also offers job training,” she says.

That training is done through one of the myriad local organizations they partner with to do hands-on training in cities like San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland, New York and Denver. The benefit of working with an organization like Rising Sun Energy Center in Berkeley, for example, is that those institutions already have the capacity to act as full-fledged, independent job centers.

“One of the big ways we connect is we partner with job training organizations that are construction-minded, and also offer case management support in addition to training,” says Meyer.

But GRID prefers community organizations that align with the values laid out by some of their targeted initiatives, like RISE, which stands for Realizing an Inclusive Solar Economy. To build the core of that program, GRID Alternatives works with local stakeholders like community colleges and housing authorities to spread the word that solar can be a viable career no matter your criminal or education history. To date, they’ve trained 4,000 workers through RISE.

There’s also the National Women in Solar Initiative. “Women make up around 20 percent of the industry, which is way below 50 percent, and that’s including installers and staff in the office,” says Meyer. GRID Alternatives wants to attract more women to the industry and offer them the professional support they need to stay.

Ramos says because of an emphasis on bringing a more diverse roster into renewables, GRID Alternatives’ programs changed his life. He was trained at the East Los Angeles Skills Center. “That little school right there,” he says, “is a jewel.”

By going through the training process he was even able to get his parents, who he describes as retired but living in poverty, their own solar setup. All of his five siblings are still involved in the gang life, but he’s pushing the 16-year-old son of his brother to change his path, to save himself while he still can.

And maybe even get a job in the solar industry.

“It’s cutting edge, and it’s about giving our next generation a hopefully cleaner environment, to become less dependent upon the dirty fuels like coal and nuclear and all that,” he says.

It’s also given him immense confidence by letting him work alongside the types of professionals he never had in his life while growing up.

“Under different circumstances I would have never met or been in the same room as a UCLA student or engineer or someone who works for Tesla,” he says, describing some of his past work meetings with GRID Alternatives. “There’s a lot of hip people in the solar industry — people that are more open to people like myself.”