What If a Quest for Equity Defined Our Public Investment?

Tourists get free shuttle rides while low-income workers pay high fares for lousy service. Fare-free buses may be more feasible than you expect, a social and climate justice issue. Also today an innovative way to pay for a local safety net & a stirring video of a holocaust hero.

Today’s Blog: Next Cities is featured again today with a summary of two reports, one on how cities could create fare-free bus transit and the other on how Houston is using Community Benefit Agreements to fund key social justice objectives in the city.  At the end of the blog is a stirring video about a holocaust hero and Italian cycling hero, a remarkable tale that depicts how one person can change lives. Before we examine what Next Cities has to offer, two announcements.

We are ten days from the primaries. Most of us are probably disgusted by the degrading ads and social media vitriol. But a refreshing antidote to that is to get out and talk with voters about how they feel, to canvass. Click here for information on how you can canvass or call for any one of five great candidates. The link also includes information about next Tuesday’s Meet & Greet with Andrea Romero. Next Saturday on Retake’s weekly radio show I will do a 30 minute show on the campaign process, what you might learn from it and what Retake has learned.

The New Poor People’s Campaign Tuesday, May 29. The third in six direct actions, is being held this Tuesday at the Roundhouse. Join us as this movement builds towards it national kick-off in Washington, D.C. on June 23. If you are going to participate in the June 23 march, let Roxanne and I know, as we will be there, too.  Paul@RetakeOurDemocracy.org.

Is Fare-Free Transit an Absolute Right? 

Next Cities answers the question of whether Fare-Free Transit is possible with a stirring YES. It goes further to assert that if equal access to public places is to be viewed as a right, then it is incumbent upon cities to address the lack of access to public spaces because poor families can’t afford the transit to access these public spaces. Put another way, in a city that makes sure tourists can easily (and without cost) shuttle from La Fonda to Museum Hill and back, how is it just that we charge our low-income workers to shuttle back and forth to work?  Where is the justice in that?

A Next Cities article focuses on the work of Jason Prince and Rosalie Rey whose book “Free Public Transit: And Why We Don’t Pay to Ride Elevators,” is an anthology of articles that include research, analysis of the benefits of fare-free transit and models from other cities. As of the book’s publication last month, there were 97 cities and towns with fully fare-free public transit (the book uses the term fare-free transit because, of course, transit costs money whether fares or taxes pay for it).

From Next Cities: “Research shows that, if the bus were free, people would ride it as much as 50% more in the first year, dramatically reducing car use, traffic, and pollution, while redistributing wealth and increasing social inclusion for poor and working people. But free public transit alone is not enough; it must also be combined with much better service and reserve bus lanes to be effective.”

The book offers specific solutions to the challenge of providing free transit, beginning with who will pay for it if not riders? From Next Cities: “All public transit systems require some form of subsidy already. But fare-free systems tend to rely more on taxes to fund service. Getting that funding source right is important. After all, the progressive goal of fare-free transit would be rendered moot if it was funded by a regressive tax such as sales tax that takes a larger percentage of low-income residents’ earnings than wealthy residents. In France, a small payroll tax on all employers with 11 or more employees is used to subsidize transit.” The argument for employers paying the cost is that their employees are likely a key user of the transit.

The book also argues that cities should consider using property taxes to pay some of the freight, since transit systems can raise the value of adjacent properties. From Next Cities: “One land value capture model not described in the book includes Hong Kong’s MTR, wherein the transit agency establishes revenue-sharing agreements with developers for the land around transit stations.” As described below, this concept has been embraced in Houston although to fund other social goals.

Click here to read the full Next Cities article on fare-free bus transit. It prominently includes a link to a website where you can purchase Free Public Transit: And Why We Don’t Pay to Ride Elevators.

Community Benefit Agreements: Quid Pro Quo. If a City Gives You Funds, You Give Back

It makes too much sense. Developers and business start-ups seek city funds, low-interest loans, tax credits, or waived fees and assessments and in exchange they develop projects intended to make profit. But a quid pro quo arrangement would dictate a ‘quo’ coming back from those taking public funding in the form of some kind of public benefit. Just such a quid quo pro policy has been developed in Houston.

Last summer, the Texas Organizing Project issued a report card for the City of Houston’s economic development programs, and found quite a bit of room for improvement. TOP gave the city an F in six areas from job creation to setting and achieving equity goals to workforce development and community engagement and a “D” for transparency. The report card was part of a larger report called Tax Breaks for What? which assessed the city’s tax abatements and development grants, explored their return on investment, and discussed policies that could improve the situation.

From Next Cities:  “From a community-based perspective, we argue that if economic development tax breaks are not addressing a community need in the service of advancing equity, then they deserve to be called out for what they really are—a windfall for the private sector and a drain on our city’s cash-strapped budget,” the report said.

Houston created new guidelines that defined how applicants for tax abatements would be required to commit to providing community benefits in at least one of eight areas: local job recruitment, public improvements, crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED), affordable or workforce housing, job training, participation in re-entry programs, or paid internships for low-income students. In addition, all applicants would be required to meet six other criteria, including making good faith efforts to hire from low-income communities and advertising jobs in the city’s Community Re-Entry Network Program

From True Cities:  “More cities are reassessing the ways they incentivize private development, with an eye toward extracting more public benefit in the process. In 2016, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority began requiring developers to outline the “social impact” of their proposals when responding to RFPs for publicly owned land. Detroit began including community benefits provisions in negotiations over big projects in 2015, as Next City reported. Minneapolis is considering requiring an affordable housing component in projects that take advantage of tax increment financing. And the principle behind the proliferation of inclusionary zoning is much the same: If developers are going to receive public financial support, they should provide clear, enforceable benefits for the communities they’re building in.”

In Houston: “a task force on equity issues appointed by Mayor Turner cited the Texas Organizing Project’s report card in a report that recommended, among other things, wage requirements, local hiring, and apprenticeship programs for companies that receive tax abatements or other subsidies. It also recommended strong reporting requirements and compliance measures for subsidized projects.”

We can learn much from other cities who struggle with the same challenges we face here in Santa Fe and throughout New Mexico. And it is interesting how Houston’s placing a lens on equity can shift investments and priorities. We are in the midst of a planning process for the Santa Fe University of Art & Design. Imagine a city requirement that the developer must provide a quid pro quo for fees that are eliminated or for the use of tax credits to make the finances work. That is what they are doing in Houston.  Click here for the Next City a very interesting article on community benefit agreements.

In solidarity,

Paul & Roxanne

Internationally Known Cyclist Smuggled Fake IDs to Jews in Italy in the Frame of His Bike. Inspiring.

Need an uplift?  This is an inspiring story of how a previously apolitical individual, faced with a situation that provided an opportunity for him to act on behalf of Jews who were being identified and shuttled off to death camps. And the story is worth 6 minutes of your time. Enjoy.

6 thoughts on “What If a Quest for Equity Defined Our Public Investment?

  1. “If developers are going to receive public financial support, they should provide clear, enforceable benefits for the communities they’re building in.” I couldn’t agree more. Big business has externalized their costs and taken public money for private profit for far too long. Time for a big change.

  2. “If developers are going to receive public financial support, they should provide clear, enforceable benefits for the communities they’re building in.” I couldn’t agree more. Big business has externalized their costs and taken public money for private profit for far too long. Time for a big change in our way of thinking about this.

  3. The idea of free public transit was actually discussed in some of the forums in the recent mayor’s race. (As I recall, Joseph Maestas was a strong advocate for it). His assertion was that fare revenues only provide a tiny part of the transit budget anyway, so it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to eliminate fares completely.

    On the other hand, the city of Santa Fe already has a fairly stringent inclusionary zoning program called “the Santa Fe Homes Program” (SFHP). See https://www.santafenm.gov/santa_fe_homes_program

    Through the SFHP, the City of Santa Fe requires that all new housing developments provide a percentage of the homes as affordable (although this requirement is sometimes met through alternative mechanisms such as paying a fee in lieu of providing affordable units or by providing land donations for other affordable housing projects).

    • Yes, the transit is a relatively small fix, sends a positive message to low-income riders, and fixes justice-confounding practicing of subsidizing tourist transit while charging our low-income residents.

      As to the SFHP, the level of compensation or fees collected through the SFHP has declined over the years….the amount not being fresh in my brain. But that is an example of what is being done in Houston only more comprehensively.

      • The requirements of the SFHP has bounced around over the years. There were a number of adjustments during the economic downturn when there was very little construction going on to try and help get some construction going.

        There are some other critiques of inclusionary zoning programs: The most valid one is that it doesn’t distribute the costs (or locations) of affordable housing equitably across the community, rather locating new affordable housing in new developments that have to bear the entire costs of their construction.

        For example, in Santa Fe, most new construction has been in lower and middle income neighborhoods on the South side (many residents of which were displaced from gentrifying neighborhoods on the East side). Since there isn’t much new housing stock being built on the east side, the generally more affluent people living there don’t have to contribute anything to help with affordable housing, and there is next to no chance that any affordable housing units will show up in their neighborhoods. Not a very equitable solution…

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