Author Archive: Johnny Magdaleno

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, MITalent.org, 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.”

Connecticut Bets on Arts, Entrepreneurship for Equity

Downtown Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum (Photo by Edward J. Sweeney)

The arts are often seen as a pastime of elites. Indeed, in cities like Hartford, Connecticut, people with college degrees, or those who make more than $100,000 a year, are more likely to take advantage of their local museum or concert hall than those who make less or didn’t finish college.

Kristina Newman-Scott has long wanted to change that narrative. She started by doing what most creative types would never dream of doing: She got into government.

“I thought, I’m not ‘the man,’ I’m an artist,” she remembers. Up until joining the city of Hartford in 2012 to run its cultural affairs department, she was working in Boston, helping artists to revision their practices as if they were small businesses.

In government, however, she saw an opportunity to instill a deeper impact at the local level. “You need to start thinking about how you can shift your tool kit, using community development in a way that supports economic development,” she says she told herself. (Newman-Scott​ is a Next City Vanguard.)

That internal dialogue worked. Since 2015 she’s been the head of cultural programs at the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development — which last month debuted a new strategy to build the arts into the state’s greater push for equitable economies in Connecticut’s cities. While the plan doesn’t outline concrete programs, the goals include partnering artists from underserved areas with local industries.

It’s one approach to solving the ills of a Connecticut city like Hartford. It was recently ranked the 49th worst U.S. capital city, falling a place behind Jackson, Mississippi, in a 2017 analysis of census data by NerdWallet. The assessment dinged the city for low housing affordability, economic well-being and quality of life. Two years before that ranking, an estimated 37 percent of the city’s population was living below the poverty line.

But a look into Newman-Scott’s past work in that city suggests she’ll bring some of her strategy — a blend of artistic outreach, startup incubation and providing spaces for local entrepreneurship — to the equitable development conversation. Here’s how that connection plays out in a simple chronological summary: If you bring artists together from a diverse array of communities, and have them produce works that have potential to become cultural or economic emblems in neighborhoods, those areas may then attract more foot traffic and pull in additional investment from local businesses.

While the director of the marketing, events and cultural affairs division in Hartford, her team led a modest art installation series, titled “Outside the Box,” that brought local artists together to decorate utility boxes with cubed murals.

“It’s now a three-year-old program, all [the boxes] still look fantastic, no one has ruined them,” she says. “Business owners are still calling me: ‘What if we wanted to do this in this street?’” she says.

Kristina Newman-Scott

From there, she gradually stepped up the level and ambition of her neighborhood-based projects, bringing a series of pop-up entrepreneurial ventures to downtown Hartford in 2013. The city center bustles with activity during the work hours but “over 60 percent [of the workers] leave at 5 p.m. to go to their suburban homes,” according to Newman-Scott.

To try and slow some of that daily exodus, they worked with three local businesses: Hartford Prints, Hartford Denim Company, and Naturally Dogs and Cats. They’re all local producers, artisans in card printing and jean making and pet food (respectively), and with the assistance of Newman-Scott’s office they were allowed to set up in previously vacant storefronts along Pratt Street as part of the iConnect initiative.

“Two of [those businesses] went into long-term leases, incubated for nine months and got 10,000 unique visitors after 5 p.m.,” she says. “Which was unheard of for downtown at that time.”

Pushing for the arts to be a line item in the economic development budget isn’t a common government refrain, but maybe that’s because it needs to be test-driven more often. “Risk leads to innovation, and in government that’s not always easy,” she says. “But you’ve got to take risks when we’re talking about urban innovation, especially in small cities [like Hartford].”

There’s still room for more productivity in this space, according to Mark Abraham, executive director at Connecticut-based community data nonprofit DataHaven. He endorses Newman-Scott’s focus on how the arts can be a star player in Hartford’s economic development.

“Besides the ability to draw in people, there’s business retention because it’s also seen as a quality-of-life issue,” he says, referring to what would happen if more ventures like iConnect and “Outside the Box” were rolled out in other parts of the city. Bringing those investments over to Hartford’s poorest neighborhoods could “spill over into all sorts of communities” at the city level, he says.

Newman-Scott is overflowing with ideas on how to make that happen. Now it’s just about creating the right programs that aptly lift up the underserved while also vivifying the city’s lackluster spots for the entire population.

What Drives Social Impact Entrepreneurs?

Social good company ROAR’s jewelry line doubles as an alert system in the face of violence.

Yasmine Mustafa was plucked out of a bomb shelter in Kuwait by United States diplomats as Saddam Hussein’s forces advanced at the start of the Persian Gulf War. They gave her and her family two hours to pack before boarding a plane to Philadelphia.

She spent her adolescent years in the Pennsylvania city; her parents managed a 7-Eleven. Then, when she went to apply for college, a search for her social security number led to a startling realization: She was undocumented. She started working under the table for a few unscrupulous employers who paid her little and forced her to work long hours, well aware that her legal status would prevent her from complaining to local authorities about the violations.

“It sucked. It really sucked,” she says. “But I’d just look at them and say, ‘One day, I’m going to be a nicer version of you.’”

Those experiences made Mustafa want to be her own boss, but they also made her want to make a profit by giving power to the defenseless. During a six-month trip traveling throughout South America, she came up with ROAR, the social good company that makes discreet-yet-sleek jewelry items for women that double as alert systems in the face of violence or sexual assault.

Nearly every time she befriended other women travelers, she heard the stories. “It was either ‘my boyfriend used to beat me,’ or ‘my dad or my uncle whipped me as a child’ — horrific stories, one after the next.” She says ROAR now gets emails “every day” from women who’ve been abused. The first product, called Athena, is as big as a quarter, can be worn on a necklace or belt, and sends a signal to friends and family alerting them that you feel unsafe or are in a dangerous situation when you push it like a button.

Her product is three weeks away from its first shipment, but Mustafa is one in a long line of social entrepreneurs marrying positive impact and profit into startup ventures. The National Women’s Business Council (NWBC) published a report in February on social entrepreneurship across the U.S. to capture the dynamic behind this small but growing business sector.

They define “social entrepreneurs” based on criteria offered up by researcher Greg Dees in 2001. The ventures are formed to create and sustain social impact. Founders have a deep sense of commitment to the people they serve and the outcomes they produce — all while pursuing tenets typical of all strong, nimble businesses, with investments in product innovation, adaptation and a conscientious use of resources.

Currently, women make up 39 percent of traditional entrepreneurs in the U.S., but 49 percent of all social entrepreneurs. There are more men than women in the process of trying to start up a social enterprise, with 9.9 percent of men and 7.3 percent of women who define themselves as “entrepreneurs” interested in bringing social ideas to scale.

But what was most compelling to Whitney Keyes, a member of the NWBC, was that women seemed to see a significantly lower funding hurdle to get their ideas off the ground.

While men who were social entrepreneurs estimated they’d need anywhere from more than $50,000 to upward of $1 million to start, women on average said they thought they could tackle the initial phase of an enterprise with less than $1,000.

There’s no consensus on exactly why that is. “Are women more resourceful? Do women have greater networks?” asks Keyes. “We will probably be digging into that in the coming year.”

When the NWBC was hosting community meetings across the country with female entrepreneurs, comments of interest in social entrepreneurship are what pushed her organization to start putting this report together. That’s also where she learned that a lot of women start social enterprises on a small scale for the good of the community, but they don’t necessarily reach profitability.

Keyes has worked with women entrepreneurs in developing countries across the world, but she says there are a couple commonalities that she sees everywhere. “Women have often been pioneers when it comes to social justice, human rights, underserved communities, caring for children and so forth,” she says. “They may be involved or thinking about it at a very personal level.”

Mustafa agrees wholeheartedly — thinking of her trials as an immigrant in the U.S., and the trials of those women she met traveling through South America. “I believe women tend to be more nurturers, and are looking to make an impact within their communities and their networks,” she says.

Nashville Steps Up on Youth Jobs to Combat Violence

Downtown Nashville (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

In Nashville, youth under the age of 25 face some tough odds as they navigate schooling and try to lay the foundation for their futures. The city estimates that about 3,000 of its homeless population are 24 years old or younger. Youth poverty impacts around 30 percent of those ages 18 and under. And 74 percent of kids in the city’s public schools get their lunches for free because their families live below the federal poverty line.

Ronnie Steine, a consultant to Nashville Mayor Megan Barry on youth development, says these aren’t just the particulars of a Nashville story. He sees it as a replica of what’s going on among the school-aged in Boston, New York, Chicago — just a few cities Nashville has turned to recently to help figure out how to handle its youth issues.

“Unfortunately a large number of youth in the community might not have caring adults in their lives to help them make their choices,” he says. “I don’t think Nashville is unique in that way.”

Now they’re rolling out a new jobs program, called Opportunity Now, to give local students and their peers the hook-ups they need to become self-sufficient. Already over at the program’s job board there are around 8,000 opportunities, according to Steine, and they’re expecting that number to grow as more and more local businesses jump on board.

Listings are broken up into four categories. For the younger slice of that population there’s Experience Work, community service-style jobs. The High School Internship lasts six weeks during the summer, and places 17- and 18-year-olds at local companies or community organizations. Summer Plus offers entry-level positions for high school graduates, and Work Now has job listings for anyone out of high school.

“All are paid positions,” says Steine, and most are part-time. They’ll range from $8 an hour for the youngest workers to market rate for those with a little more experience. Of the 8,000 job listings up there, about 2,500 are internships for those ages 14 to 18 — a monumental leap up from the 150 paid youth internships that the city coordinated just a few years ago.

Barry’s original goal was to reach 10,000 job or internship spots in the first year. “We may not hit 10,000 but we’ll be in excess of 8,500,” says Steine. They’ll go beyond putting cash in the hands of young employees by linking them up with local nonprofits that can share lessons on financial education.

The program originated when Barry’s office held a series of five youth summits in 2015 and 2016 to gather public comment on the crippling issue of youth violence in Nashville. Twenty public agencies, ranging from the Juvenile Court to the Metro Arts Commission, and 400 high school students descended on at least one of each of the summits. These gave the administration a window into just how much the economic burden issue is connected with lapses in public and domestic safety in the area.

“Particularly for high school students, [providing jobs during] out of school time had been a relatively low priority for Nashville,” says Steine. “In the summer time in particular, the city has really been lagging behind what other communities have done for young people.”

Between 2011 and 2015 there were 16,955 “violent incidents” among people ages 25 years old or younger. Sixty-four percent of youth homicides in 2015 were black youth. One student who came to the summit commanded the city: If you want us to walk a tightrope, you’ve gotta provide us with a safety net.

So Barry’s office built out an agenda based on six pillars: meaningful youth engagement, health awareness and access, restorative justice and diversion, safe environment, education, and jobs and employment opportunities. Opportunity Now is the fruit of efforts to build out that last pillar, and it’s based on models like Boston’s SuccessLink program. That program started off employing 3,000 youth a year but is now up to 10,000.

A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston took a look at 800 youth who participated in SuccessLink, and found that minority youth — and particularly those on the younger end of the spectrum — saw the greatest benefits when it came to interest in enrolling in an academic institution after high school. Youth across the board benefited from the additional knowledge on how to prepare a resume and build interview skills.

In total, it looks like investing in summer job programs has been a consistent win for youth in Massachusetts’ largest urban area — and it may just be the safety net that Nashville’s younger citizens are asking for.

New Sacramento Accelerator Focuses on Women Entrepreneurs

(Photo by J. Smith)

Even amid the media’s best efforts to profile female entrepreneurs, Tracy Saville notices a marked fascination with the well-educated and ultra-driven.

And that’s all fine, but when lumped together as a representation of women working in startups, it doesn’t exactly paint an accurate picture of what’s going on in cities around the U.S.

“I’m 50, I’ve got a mother with onset dementia, I’ve got a 25-year-old son, I’ve got issues that a 50-year-old woman has — but I’m still expected to be a particular type of person,” she says. To her, fitting that “type” means “I shouldn’t have outside interests, my startup should be the only thing I do, I should be not sleeping for three days straight” while working on her project to show her commitment to success.

Saville is working on a new artificial intelligence product, and she’s also the co-founder of a new Sacramento startup incubator that was originally based out of Los Angeles, called Fourthwave. They’re looking for tech projects in big data, agriculture, civic/government, health services and other industries, with a company ownership that’s at least 50 percent women; there’s an emphasis on entrepreneurs of color too.

To her, the archetype of the woman who sacrifices everything for her prototype is actually a rare one. She wants to shift the startup zeitgeist into one where men don’t judge women who aren’t working ridiculous hours to get the job done. She remembers one of her advisers getting an email from her venture capitalist brother, suggesting she give a cold shoulder to Saville’s plan to only court female investors because they wouldn’t “get any points” for attracting what he described as “female money.”

Or, the time a 67-year-old venture capitalist took her out to dinner in San Francisco, and told her everything she needed to do to become successful. That included becoming “more demure” — and he offered to help her achieve that (and other more “successful” traits) if she paid him a small service fee of $15,000 a month.

“I know women who were trying to raise capital but [were] laughed out of business meetings because they were three months pregnant,” she says. “I wouldn’t want a 12-year-old girl today to have to go through what I went through.”

Countrywide, about 80 percent of active entrepreneurs are white, and 65 percent are men, according to a 2017 report by the Kauffman Foundation. But that’s changing, as business leaders age out and the U.S. shifts toward greater racial and ethnic diversity. In Sacramento, the change brought on by that trajectory is already evident; last year it was listed as the top city for minority entrepreneur growth in the country by Forbes.

But on top of having women and entrepreneurs of color in leadership positions, Fourthwave insists applicants have to commit to what Saville calls “conscious leadership.” It’s inspired by Whole Foods founder John Mackey, who wrote a book called “Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business” that extols a raising of the bar on business ethics that also purports to bring in more profit over time.

Fourthwave cites a multitude of research that backs this model, with a focus on women leaders. Companies with women in leadership roles produce higher returns on equity, more robust stocks and higher company valuations, according to an October 2016 report by Credit Suisse.

“We’re finding that those going out and pursuing conscious leadership values are outperforming on a ROI basis, employees stay longer, the value chain of vendors is happier — every metric of the company is better when we achieve that,” she says.

Fourthwave is taking the move to Sacramento from Los Angeles after one year as a chance to tweak the incubator in some ways. Nancy Perlman, Fourthwave’s original founder, says the L.A. program was just a pilot run, but they were able to provide pitch assistance to startups like Blue Fever, a Netflix-like service that streams media made by, or featuring, women in key roles. As they go forward, Perlman and Saville want to shift away from the traditional, high-speed boot camp model of most incubators, replacing pitch sessions with community dinners where investors take a seat at the table and converse without the sole goal of making profit.

Toward that end, it received a $25,000 grant from the Rapid Acceleration, Innovation and Leadership in Sacramento (RAILS) program to help get up and running, as part of Sacramento’s goal to become the U.S. “capital of entrepreneurship.”

Compared to Los Angeles, Sacramento is, to Saville, a smaller city with a higher prevalence of the old guard. “It’s the philanthropic, banking, capital sectors, housing construction sectors — a city for bigger business and employer sectors that have predominantly been controlled by white middle-aged men,” she says. “They’re at that point of aging out but still control quite a bit of the business community.”

That’s why for this first cohort, they’re aiming for quality over quantity when it comes to how they’ll determine whether or not they’ve made an impact. “If we could even help a fourth of our cohort to achieve positive capital outcomes, with capital that wasn’t readily available or wasn’t available at all … that’d be a success.”

Small Town, Big Success With Reentry Program

Lawrence County Courthouse in New Castle, Pennsylvania, about 50 miles outside Pittsburgh

Three years ago, in New Castle, Pennsylvania, District Attorney Joshua Lamancusa was at a hearing for a 29-year-old who’d been falling behind on his court bills. If he kept missing the payments he risked ending up in jail, so Lamancusa asked him what was going on.

“He said he couldn’t get a job. And I asked him, ‘Have you applied?’ And he said he’d applied to 28 different places and was denied employment from all 28 because he had a felony conviction,” Lamancusa remembers.

Doubting the man’s story, Lamancusa asked him to provide copies of all the applications he’d submitted to no avail. If he could do that, Lamancusa would try to persuade the judge to be lenient.

When the man returned with the 28 applications in a fat stack, Lamancusa was taken aback. “Every one had been denied because he had been convicted of a felony 10 years ago for a drug charge,” he says. “At that point, I realized we needed to do something about this.”

So in May 2014, Lamancusa stepped outside the sphere of typical DA duties and requested a grant from a local community foundation for a job program he named “Jail-to-Jobs.” The goal: Put 100 citizens returning from prison into the workforce by the following year.

The program is now nearing the end of its third year, and Lamancusa says it’s put a little over 260 people into full-time jobs with local employers, with nearly two-thirds of those finding work in New Castle. (About 50 miles outside of Pittsburgh, New Castle is the most populous city and seat of Lawrence County.)

“We drafted [the program] ourselves,” says Lamancusa. “District attorneys don’t usually engage in this, but it just was a need we had in our community.”

In 2013, Pennsylvania as a whole reported a three-year recidivism rate of 60 percent. But research like this 2016 study by Harvard law professor Crystal S. Yang suggests that counties with ample work opportunities for returning citizens produce the lowest rates of recidivism.

That’s what Lamancusa recognized when he saw that stack of rejected applications. “If someone had an opportunity to make a living, to put food on the table, then they wouldn’t have to turn back to the streets,” he says.

Jail-to-Jobs partners with regional businesses, running the gamut from pizza places to construction contractors to regional corporations, to build up these career pipelines. “Some of the people who come into our program, they’ve never worked. They’ll be 30 years old, and they’ll never have held a job,” he says. The approach there is to start them off in a minimum wage role — working a cash register or landscaping for the county — and then have them work for six or seven months until they build up just enough experience to compete for a higher-paying gig.

The district attorney’s office also works with local workforce development services, like Pennsylvania CareerLink, to pair job seekers with employers outside Jail-to-Jobs.

Its one annual grant of $50,000 just covers a salary for a head coordinator, the one and only employee, but Jail-to-Jobs plans to expand its employer base again this year. A bond policy for employers that hire ex-inmates helps to encourage more participants. In Pennsylvania, businesses can get up to $5,000 in insurance from the federal government if they hire an employee considered “high risk” or returning from prison. It’s a light guarantee that’s intended to “protect from loss of money or property due to employee dishonesty.”

That, plus the fact that workers are vouched for by the highest level of law enforcement in the county, have helped entice more than 40 employers into welcoming job seekers through the DA’s flagship (and only) jobs program.

Lamancusa says traditional job training programs and district attorneys nationwide could look to what they’ve done because it’s a sign of what can come when government offices step outside their bureaucratic comfort zones for the good of the community.

“It’s great because it’s putting people back [in society], helping the local tax base, helping our local community in that [ex-inmates aren’t] at risk to commit additional crimes,” he says. “We’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem. We have to make sure we’re allocating resources to the other end of the spectrum.”

Autism Jobs Program Wants to Cut Disabled Unemployment Number

Adrienne Walls has worked three internships through the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute.

Adrienne Walls is in the middle of her third internship thanks to the Project SEARCH program, a job training initiative in Philadelphia for people on the autism spectrum that’s being hosted by Drexel University.

The 20-year-old used to help out at the university’s student center. After that she went on to work with the transportation department, surveying campus to make sure parked cars had the right permits.

This current job’s her favorite, though. “I like doing job applications, doing emails, and going to Barnes & Noble every morning,” she says. She’ll do one more internship through the program before graduating and going out to hunt for work.

Project SEARCH is finishing up its pilot year at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, and Walls is one of seven students from local public schools who will finish at the end of spring. The program started at a Cincinnati hospital in 1996, and has since been replicated at the city level in every U.S. state and 11 countries.

But this one’s a flagship, as it’s the first time Project SEARCH has been incorporated by a higher ed institution. It’s backed by a lattice of regional and state support programs that’s partly funded by the 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, a federal job training support program. Partners include the School District of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation and Pennsylvania Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services.

Interns spend four three-month blocks assisting part-time at partner businesses or campus offices. They generally clock six hours of work each day.

Dianne Malley, a project director at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, says the first group has gone so smoothly — training in data entry, bookseller services, hospitality and more — they’re looking to speak with more local businesses to bring in a few more industries for the 2017-2018 school year.

“Unemployment rates for people with autism are staggering,” says Malley. With one in every 68 newborns in the U.S. classified on the autism spectrum, she says it’s time to start finding ways to integrate this population into the working class. “Many are underemployed, or they have far more skills than they’re using at their positions.”

About one-third of autistic youth in the U.S. don’t go on to get a postgraduate education or a job after high school, and nearly 20 percent of U.S. citizens with disabilities aren’t in the workforce. Nonprofits like Autism Speaks claim employment is so low only because employers haven’t researched how people with disabilities like autism can contribute to the workplace. (They started a jobs board for autistic workers, called TheSpectrumCareers.com, to try to reverse that culture.)

That’s why Project SEARCH is “huge for these individuals’ lives,” says Malley.

Clayton Walls, Adrienne’s father, agrees. He was reluctant to submit Adrienne to the program at first, knowing she’d have to navigate Philadelphia’s public transit system to get to and from work multiple times a week.

At first, he was shocked the Project SEARCH team would even suggest such a commute. “Anytime we went out [before], we took her, or someone we trusted took her to wherever she was going,” he says. In the first days of the program last fall, he’d get on the bus with Adrienne and tell the bus driver to make sure she got off at the right stop.

But Project SEARCH’s team shadows interns as they make their first attempts at a morning commute, keeping their distance in transit and stepping in if interns make a mistake. Adrienne’s on her own now.

“She leaves here at 7 in the morning, and I watch her go down the street, and then at 4 o’clock she comes right back,” says Walls.

A.J. Drexel Autism Institute interns

The program claims its approach to vocational training has an 80 percent job placement rate across its 300 sites in the English-speaking world. Placement in this case means a graduate finds a job that runs 16 hours or more a week, is year round, pays minimum wage or higher and has an integrated workforce, where those with mental impairments work side-by-side by those without.

But despite its reported success, there’s one alarming issue about the program. Students who go through its yearlong pipeline don’t get paid.

Its website sizes it up with the clinical rotations that medical students have to go through, calling them “unpaid student work experiences,” or unpaid internships.

In a 2010 fact sheet from the U.S. Bureau of Labor, the federal government offers some clarity on the “free work” issue in a description of whether or not interns qualify for pay. It says if interns are performing “productive work” like assisting customers or filing items, then whatever light skills training they leave the program with “will not exclude them from the [Fair Labor Standards Act’s] minimum wage and overtime requirements because the employer benefits from the interns’ work.”

Malley, however, says one of the particulars that keeps it outside the Bureau’s “employment” definition is that the employer engages with the internship to help train them, often costing managers and workers time when they weren’t in need of any store help. Those are two stipulations that could balance Project SEARCH further away from the Bureau’s exception.

Clayton Walls says he doesn’t take issue with his daughter not getting paid. “To me, this is a lot better than her going sitting in a classroom in an autism support class all day, just to finish out her last days of high school,” he says. “She feels like she’s a part of something, she feels connected — it’s an adventure. What she’s doing now opens the door for a lot of things to come.”

Adrienne, meanwhile, says she’s ready for whatever follows that adventure. “After I graduate Project SEARCH, I’d like to work at a store,” she says, noting that her favorite part of working at Barnes & Noble is getting to sell T-shirts.

Can “City of Design” Title Help All Detroiters?

(Photo by Derek Gauci)

When Chioke McRae drives by the massive Shepard Fairey mural on the Compuware Building in downtown Detroit, he sees a great piece of art.

He also sees a sign that he’s in one of the select neighborhoods that the city holds up as an example of its revitalization efforts. “It’s great, and he’s a popular graffiti artist,” says McRae. “But it does nothing.”

Detroit nabbed the only City of Design designation by UNESCO in the United States back in 2015, a nod to the Ford Motors home city and its $2.5 billion creative economy. Now, economic developers are partnering with creative leaders like McRae to spread some of Detroit’s design resources and opportunity to entrepreneurs in impoverished neighborhoods.

Olga Stella, executive director of the Detroit Creative Corridor Center (DC3), believes design can be a new economy in the neighborhoods miles outside of Detroit’s downtown where, McRae says, the people are still asking when they’ll be included in the “new Detroit.” (DC3 promotes the city’s creative businesses and applied for the UNESCO designation.)

“What would seem to be unlikely stakeholders would be drawn into this process — like returning citizens [from the criminal justice system],” Stella says. “A big part of what we’re hoping to achieve with all of this is to draw on Detroit’s diversity, and its authenticity, to help develop a strategy that leverages our innate creativity [for] an equitable and sustainable city.”

Indeed, there’s a robust spirit of entrepreneurship far outside the Downtown circles where the term “entrepreneurship” is a buzzword. Grace in Action, a nonprofit in Southwest Detroit, is the guiding hand behind a youth-owned company called Stitching up Detroit that screen prints, makes textiles and runs a graphic design arm. The operation provides youth with a window into how design can double as a business venture in a neighborhood where more than 50 percent of residents don’t have a high school diploma.

“I think that there’s a huge opportunity for Detroit’s young people to be the next user interface designers,” she says, referring to those developers who program what apps and computer programs look like on our screens. “It’s about creating those pipelines and connecting [with] a number of different training programs, teaching people how to code and reaching out into minority communities,” she adds.

Three years ago, with the help of $1 million from the New Economy Initiative, a philanthropy-driven economic development fund, DC3 was able to provide mentorship, a space to meet and office equipment to local minority entrepreneurs like McRae, who’s a partner at the marketing company Root 4 Creative. He’s a believer that the creative industry can break down its walls and go to Detroiters who would have to bus into Downtown to access a co-working space.

As a researcher keeping an eye on Detroit’s comeback from its 2013 bankruptcy, Jenny Lendrum has more questions than answers about DC3’s optimism. When asked if the creative economy can be a financial boon to poor residents, the PhD candidate in sociology at Wayne State University wonders how DC3’s program will ensure impact far beyond the classrooms of the educational facilities guiding much of its support.

“For example, in the neighborhood I study, one of the single mothers, living in subsidized housing without access to a vehicle, has a 20-year-old daughter who has been drawing since age 7 or 8. While she graduated from a charter high school in Detroit, she has no college or art school prospects in her future,” says Lendrum, referencing her research into Detroit’s informal economies. “How might DC3 reach out to someone like her, with natural talent, but very limited resources?”

Or the elderly man she knows who builds and sells doghouses from the garage a stone’s throw from the house he’s lived in most of his life. “He is older, I imagine with few formal computer or tech skills, but has managed to sustain a small business for himself in the neighborhood, with a reputation for his work. How will the initiative help transfer these types of skills?” she asks.

They’re incisive questions — exactly the type that could guide DC3 as it shapes a strategy for deploying a recent $1 million grant from the Knight Foundation. Stella says a team to write that blueprint will be announced later in March, and includes two firms — one that’s “working in inclusive economic development” and another with a background in “social impact projects in our community.”

DC3 is confident that the Detroit residents highlighted by Lendrum will be exactly the ones to benefit from a broader design community that’s no longer limited by ZIP code. “It’s not design for design’s sake or creativity for creativity’s sake,” she says. “There are real opportunities for our makers to scale, and we want to look at ways to increase those opportunities.”

Movement for Black Lives Pushes for Victories City by City

Last October, teachers, students and parents across Seattle public schools wore “Black Lives Matter” shirts to promote racial equity in schools. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Six months ago, social and economic justice groups with a stake in what’s largely known as the Black Lives Matter movement illuminated an exit path out of decades of systemic racism in the U.S.

Beneath the banner of the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), and arguing the disparities faced by black communities across the U.S. had to be broken down “not [by] reform but transformation” of a swath of contemporary laws, they proposed policies that took a page out of progressive theories on urban development that would reverberate across the spectrum of race and class at the city level. Tax incentives for local businesses that make their workforce more diverse. Shifting more federal funds out of police departments and into employment programs. Favoring community-based sustainable energy projects that employ neighbors.

Half a year in, organizers say, they’re still working out a way forward — and dealing with the November 2016 election of President Donald Trump.

“There were very few people who were not blindsided,” says Cathy Albisa, executive director of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI). Her organization is one of those that helped to craft the M4BL platform.

Their approach thus far has been to act local but think national, by influencing policymakers in the cities where M4BL’s main players operate: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Sacramento, Portland, Ferguson and a handful of others. They’re unified by that city-scaled approach, but when asked about the organization’s national front, Albisa says she’s “not sure what anyone’s strategy is three weeks into the new administration.”

The uncertainty is understandable. Trump’s speeches thus far suggest his gaze on urban issues will lead us leaps away from the legacy laid out by former President Barack Obama. His appointment to run the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Ben Carson, has expressed inconsistent opinions about federal assistance programs for low-income and underserved communities.

Last week, members of both the House and the Senate served up two bills pleading for a permanent version of the New Markets Tax Credit program, which has helped create 750,000 jobs through $75 billion in investments in cities across the country, but it’s still too early to say how this administration will fare on urbanism.

For now, Thenjiwe McHarris, co-founder of movement builder Blackbird, says M4BL groups are turning anxiety into energy at the ground level while the federal government takes form.

“We recognize that, considering the violent political climate and the current administration, our focus must be on supporting visionary local reform,” she says. That means providing educational resources for small groups that want to bring the M4BL policies to their own cities, and creating spaces in cities and online where “organizations can dream, scheme and implement needed reforms.”

Those reforms, she says, will “mitigate the immediate threats against our people while allowing us to build the power and vision we need to actualize the [M4BL] platform.”

Part of that means linking up with national movements that were gathering momentum since before Trump took office. Through the M4BL, Albisa and NESRI have started collaborating with the Black Youth Project 100, an advocacy group focused on millennials that’s currently putting its weight behind the $15 minimum wage campaign in Chicago. Forty-six percent of black workers in that city work low-wage jobs.

Last fall, the National Black Worker Center Project (NBWCP) joined other workers’ rights groups at a meeting with the U.S. Department of Labor to push one of the biggest economic reforms on the M4BL list: They demanded an update to a 1965 anti-discrimination law, to ensure an increase in the percentage of black workers hired for federal projects, noting: “It is unconscionable that it has not been updated in 36 years, given the increased diversity of our nation’s population and the growing poverty in our communities.”

Since August, M4BL organizers say they’ve influenced a few successful divestment campaigns at the city level. Last week Alameda, California, removed millions of dollars of its shares in Wells Fargo because of that bank’s active role in financing private prisons and the Dakota Access Pipeline. At the end of January, racial and economic justice group Enlace, an affiliate of the Movement for Black Lives, helped a student group organize and push the University of California school system to divest $475 million from Wells Fargo for the same reason.

No matter their next effort, Albisa says, the vitriol of the presidential campaign only reinforced how necessary a guiding light the M4BL policies can be across the next four years. “That work of pushing forward at a moment like this is more valuable than we even realize,” she says.

New Model Could Help Cities Predict Gentrifying Neighborhoods

Redeveloping Shaw/U Street neighborhood in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Derek Hyra)

Run a Google search for “gentrification” and you’ll get thousands of news items and scholarly articles on how urban revitalization risks pushing low-income communities out of cities. Despite all that research, Ken Steif, director of the Urban Spatial Analytics grad program at the University of Pennsylvania, says it’s remarkable how cities are still struggling to stop displacement when investment starts to rise.

On Jan. 31, he debuted a model that may help. It provides policymakers with a rough glimpse into the future by relying heavily on U.S. Census data to predict gentrification. The initial framework, which was rolled out through his consulting firm Urban Spatial, was applied to 29 legacy cities mostly clustered around the Northeast, but also included urban areas like Chicago, Birmingham, New Orleans and St. Louis.

Along with researchers Alan Mallach, Michael Fichman and Simon Kasse, Steif blended datasets of median housing prices for 3,991 census tracts in these cities during 1990, 2000 and 2010. They also recorded the average housing prices for groups of census tracts surrounding each census tract, and looked at other variables like changes in resident income, to measure the incline of housing values in a given region.

If they could plug data from 1990 and 2000 into this model and get a prediction for 2010 that lined up with what housing prices actually looked like in 2010, the experiment would’ve proven successful. And that’s sort of what happened. The margins of error in Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, for example, rested between 14 percent and 12 percent. At the lowest end of the spectrum, South Bend, Indiana, and Erie, Pennsylvania, were both under 5 percent.

What researchers did find notable was that there weren’t any distinct patterns of error — for example, larger cities on average didn’t show different proportions of error than smaller cities. “The model is not biased toward smaller cities or larger ones or those with booming economies,” note the authors, concluding that “this is evidence that our final model is generalizable to a variety of urban contexts.”

It’s an exciting addition to the debate on how to slow gentrification’s negative influence, with an eye towards the power it could bring to community development financial institutions, nonprofits or policymakers who want to channel city growth into a more equitable, accessible future. “If developers can commonly access data like this, if these sorts of analytics can be democratized, it puts us all on the same page,” says Steif. To him, that could directly translate to outlining a game plan for transit improvements based on neighborhood fluctuations among low-income populations dependent on the bus. Or, organizers using the model to help frame their community benefit agreements with major developers looking to move into a neighborhood.

But it’s not the first time researchers have attempted to peer into future growth patterns. In a 2016 article published at Cityscape, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s research journal, authors Karen Chapple and Miriam Zuk from the University of California, Berkeley point out that policymakers have been consulting “early warning systems” to scope out neighborhood shifts since at least the 1980s.

Some of these systems were extra diligent in their approach, compiling data on everything from building permits to condominium conversions to mortgage lending characteristics within the region in question. That type of thoroughness can burden a prediction model, though, if its source information isn’t easily collectable on a year-to-year basis, and you’re a community group with barely enough resources to research local poverty in its present form.

Then there’s the issue of whether or not that data communicates a clear message to politicians or nonprofits who aren’t versed in statistics or the sciences. “I can develop stat models left and right, but if nobody can [read] them, it’s pointless,” says Steif, suggesting why past models rarely led to successful preventive action on the ground.

Efficiency also has its risks. James Jennings, a researcher at Tufts University who’s investigated gentrification trends in Boston for decades, says on top of relying on official sources — and presenting their implications in a way that’s understandable by all tiers of the community — researchers need to speak with the people in the neighborhoods they’re forecasting and collect their observations as another form of data.

“A lot of the literature on this completely leaves out the voices of people feeling the angst of gentrification — the ones actually being displaced,” says Jennings. “It’s those local voices that help to highlight nuances and subtleties and little pieces of information that give us a better sense of how our city enables changee.”

That piece of research by Chapple and Zuk buttresses Jennings’ observation. In the Cityscape article, they point out how an empty lot, or crippled building, can appear to outside observation as a sign of disinvestment. Sometimes it’s just the case that the landowner is sitting on that property and waiting for the value to increase before rehabbing it — the type of information you could get from residents next door if the data isn’t easily available from the city planning department.

The goal for Steif now is to partner up with funders or other think tanks to reformat this model to additional sets of data culled from the city level. He says there’s at least one local government that’s already reached out to him to talk about adopting his model, which he describes as “using data to make improvements in the lives of people.”

“That is the overall goal,” he adds.

Mobile Wants to Matriculate Its Way Out of the Wealth Gap

(Photo: Mobile Area Education Foundation)

An Indianapolis foundation has teamed up with 75 U.S. cities to accomplish a goal that could be the most direct path to getting Americans back to work: massively increasing the number of college graduates entering the workforce.

By 2025, the Lumina Foundation has set its sights — and 1.4 billion endowment— towards upping the number of college-educated Americans to 60 percent of the U.S. population, up from 40 percent, according to Lumina.

Mobile, Alabama is one of the foundation’s partners and for good reason. The Mobile region’s rates of upward economic mobility ranks in the bottom third among U.S. metropolitan regions and local leaders say lagging rates of educational attainment are a large part of why, particularly for people of color in the region. More than half of Mobile’s population is black, yet in 2015 only 28.5 percent of students leaving college with a bachelors degree were black. Meanwhile, about a third of the county’s black population lives in poverty. A degree would be be a game-changer for families; Mobile’s college graduates made an average of $43,539 in 2014 — $16,432 more than those who only had a high school diploma.

Chandra Scott is the director of strategic outputs for the Mobile Area Economic Foundation, a local partner recognized this month by Lumina for its work to achieve a local goal of doubling the number of college degree holders by 2030, jumping from 22 percent to 44 percent in 13 years. She says her group is helping people prepare and pay for the ACT and SAT, easing at least one burden for low-income students. The local foundation is looking beyond those of traditional school age to increase matriculation rates. Many older people haven’t been priced out of higher education but would benefit from a bridge back into the classroom, she says. “How do we get those who aren’t able to afford to get back into the education pipeline? That’s something we’re trying to get to the heart of,” says Scott. “We’ll get data [we need to] re-engage with those that have never been engaged, to make sure the financial barriers aren’t the only reason people aren’t participating in the pathway.”

In addition to helping people overcome SAT and ACT hurdles, MAEF is working with local employers to connect graduates to job opportunities in real time, partnering with Pre-K programs to help instill the benefits of degree attainment at the earliest age possible and working with other local agencies to create a system for tracking employment and educational gains. “Are students successful, are they completing training, getting jobs? There was no data system or data alignment that found that that was in store,” she says.

Meanwhile, more employers have already started to settle in Mobile and job growth in the region is projected to rise upwards of 30 percent over the next ten years. The city has already had some success attracting international businesses, such as steel manufacturer AM/NS, which bought out a plant run by ThyssenKrupp in 2014 for $1.55 billion. “If we [don’t] have the human capital to fill [employers’] needs, this would leave a huge void in our community,” says Scott.

Jobs for Homeless Program Gets Applause, So What’s Next?

(Credit: City of Albuquerque)

In 2015, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry made national headlines when he debuted a no-frills effort to reduce panhandling and homelessness in the city. With one driver and one 10-seater van, the program, called There’s a Better Way, would transport the city’s jobless to six-hour gigs pulling weeds in parks, picking up trash or tidying up the grounds at the local dump.

What started off as a $50,000, six-month pilot is now an $181,000 annual program that has inspired spin-offs in Denver, Dallas and the state of Wisconsin. Anaheim, California, became the most recent municipality to get on the trend, with Mayor Tom Tait telling an audience of 800 at the State of the City address on Feb. 7 that jobs were the solution to homelessness.

Experts on equitable economies, however, say it’s not that simple. There’s a Better Way is catching the interest of U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle because it’s low cost and easy to deploy, but researchers say it’s a short-term fix with short-term results if municipalities don’t link it with a robust system of local services like long-term career training and housing assistance.

“My impression is close to half of persons who are homeless have employment, regardless whether their city offers this type of program,” says Sandy Darity, a professor of public policy at Duke University. “They just have poorly paid employment.”

Even if an individual were to work these jobs full-time, Darity notes that it’s still not enough pay to bring someone out of the cycle of homelessness — regardless of any short-term cash injection. Earning $9 an hour at 40 hours a week comes out to about $17,000 a year. “That’s below the poverty line,” he notes.

But there is a silver lining to the uptick in interest in this program: With more municipalities putting their weight behind it, it could attract federal dollars and open up similar no-paperwork programs leading homeless or unemployed communities into other industries.

If you’re unemployed with barriers to employment, like a prison record or mental health issues, There’s a Better Way maintains your anonymity. There’s no form to fill out, no ID required, no background checks — living on the streets is enough to qualify. (Kellie Tillerson, the employment director of St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, which oversees the program in Albuquerque, says when approached for work “most people say yes, and those that say no are typically physically unable to do the work.”)

There’s enough demand in construction, hospice care and other public job needs across the U.S. to bring this approach to more cities and more, potentially better-paying projects.

“What we’d want to do is take an inventory at the municipal level and identify what the most pressing local needs are,” Darity says. “Then structure a jobs program so we could match those needs with the skills, interests and talents of folks who seek public sector employment.”

In its current form, the impact There’s a Better Way yields isn’t going to change neighborhoods over night, but it could very well lay the seed for homeless or jobless individuals to want to seek out more gainful employment. Lack of education, no access to transportation, an empty CV and mental health issues are just some of the reasons homeless populations are reluctant to seek out work. So work that goes straight to a homeless person is also bound to bring unprecedented personal benefits.

“There’s a lot of research that links unemployment with virtually every socioeconomic problem you can think of,” says Pavlina Tcherneva, an economics professor at Bard College. She notes that the program’s quick employment opens the door for “these positive multiplier effects on homelessness, mental health issues, school retention, on crime” in the cities in question.

Tcherneva says even six hours of work is enough to get residents interested in maintaining their community long-term.

“If you put people just to sweep the streets, it already confers so many benefits. Imagine if you put them to do some basic conservation stuff,” she says, referencing the vast natural landscapes where she lives in Upstate New York, and the need for everything from river maintenance to forest conservation projects. “Then it’s not just sweeping the streets, but you kind of start building a skill set, but you’re filling these gaps in the public service sector.”

Since September 2015, the program has given 1,689 day jobs to 488 Albuquerque residents, putting about $90,000 total into the pockets of people living far below the poverty line. It’s now trying to forge partnerships with the local private sector to create similarly lean jobs programs in other industries — a long-term approach that future cities should note when trying to bring the model into their own long-term homelessness goals.

Driver-Friendly Ride App Sets Its Sights on U.S. Expansion

(Photo by Karlis Dambrans)

Maly Paul had been a driver for Uber for more than a year when another job opportunity literally stepped into his back seat. He was ferrying passengers around Boston when he got a pickup request in the Leather District from a young Russian techy named Vlad Christoff who would soon be one of the co-founders of an on-demand ride service app that claims it’s revolutionizing the gig economy.

The nascent company, Christoff told Paul, was called Fasten. It was built on the premise that a ride service could profit without pocketing 25 to 30 percent of a driver’s cut per ride, like Lyft and Uber do. Drivers with his company, Christoff said, would keep the entire ride fare save just a buck, which would go to headquarters.

Paul was convinced. He started working for Fasten in June 2015, lending a hand in the startup’s effort to recruit new drivers. Nearly half of the administrative team running Fasten is ex-Uber and Lyft drivers, and Paul says it’s easy to see why employees of those other companies would want to jump ship.

“With Uber, the end user is the customer,” says Paul. “But with us we treat the driver as our customer. And the person that uses the service is the driver’s customer.”

Since it debuted in Boston in September 2015, Fasten has set up shop in Austin, Texas, taking advantage of a service gap left in that city when Uber and Lyft fled because voters said they needed to fingerprint their drivers for background checks. Now Fasten, which has 89 administrative employees, is planning to expand into at least one additional market this year, though CEO Kirill Evdakov declined to disclose which markets it was considering.

Part of its pro-driver model is that wherever Fasten operates, it sets up lounges where drivers can hang out, meet with the faces behind the company and attend local get-togethers. Paul says they plan to replicate that model in every future city as they expand.

“The drivers know us by first name,” says Paul. “When I was driving with Uber, it was like ‘here’s this app, just drive.’ They don’t have that personal part.”

Evdakov says those who drive “full time” and exclusively for Fasten make upward of $2,000 a week, though he didn’t say what Fasten’s definition of “full time” was. Like Uber, they also cover liability claims for upward of $1 million when drivers have the app on.

“Even though it appears as though platforms pay drivers, we actually charge them for our services,” says Evdakov. “We see ourselves as an ATM — a platform to transfer the money drivers have earned directly to them.”

When asked for evidence from the drivers’ side that vets the company’s driver-friendly claims, he points to a 2015 study by Uber that shows nearly 50 percent of its drivers quit within a year after they downloaded the app. Fasten, says Evdakov, is running hot with a retention rate of more than 80 percent.

“It’s not the only evidence we have, but it’s the boldest and the most blunt,” says Evdakov.

Last October, Uber drivers in the United Kingdom forced a national ruling that drivers in the U.S. have been prodding at for years when a court in London said the company had to treat its drivers, which traditionally register with the app as independent contractors, like full-time employees. That means the 40,000 Uber drivers in England and Wales are now guaranteed paid holidays, paid rest breaks and minimum wage.

Fasten will continue on with the independent contractor model in the U.S., but its dollar-per-ride model means drivers will be making anywhere from 20 to 30 percent more per ride than they would with some alternative services. It faces steep competition as multibillion-dollar companies like Uber have more than enough capital to wield sign-up and loyalty incentives full steam at new customers and drivers. But Paul is optimistic that they’re healing the wound between gig economy companies and labor that Uber isn’t equipped to stitch.

“This is our business plan. We want to be seen as different,” he says. “And the thing that makes us different is the connection we have with our drivers. We’re definitely planning on keeping that.”