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California Pensions: Encouraging News v. Scary Headlines

Dan Braun

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“California pension funds are running dry,” warned a recent Los Angeles Times headline.

“The unfunded liability— that’s the difference between promised benefits and projected funds to fulfill those obligations — grew from about $6.3 billion in 2003 to a little more than $198 billion in 2013,” Santa Rosa’s Press Democrat chimed in, helpfully doing the math to point out that’s a 30-fold increase in 11 years.

“The system, in short, is completely, utterly broken,” concluded the Orange County Register.

Despite nothing significant changing in the retirement plans themselves, public employee pensions are back in the news, and apparently panic is in the air.

Why? In late October State Controller John Chiang posted data on 130 state and local pension funds as part of his new By the Numbers website. The data aren’t new – they’re drawn from regularly required reports – but they are for the first time collected and easily accessible in a central location, as part of an effort by the Controller to increase transparency in government. However, the new appearance of existing numbers proved plenty of excuse for public sector pensions’ antagonists to launch their new round of alarm.

A Quick Guide to Pension Mechanics

A pension is a defined benefit plan, so called because the employer is guaranteeing a certain level of benefits to employees once they reach retirement.

In order to pay for those retirement benefits, a pension system needs to accumulate the funds required, which it does through contributions from the employer, contributions from the employees and investment of funds on hand. CalPERS, for example, touts that for every dollar paid out to retirees, 67 cents comes from investments, 21 cents from employer contributions and 12 percent from employees.

That mix can shift over time, though. Investments, by their nature, rise and fall. Employee contributions are usually set through a contract, though they may be adjusted by agreement, as some systems did to confront the recent recession. Employer contributions are set annually by actuaries who determine the anticipated costs or liabilities over time, the estimated value of assets over that time, and then set the amount employers will need to keep the system in balance (or as in recent cases, help move it gradually back into balance).[/box]

Pension funds are huge,[1] and we can only evaluate them against assumptions about tricky things like investment returns, inflation and life expectancy, all projected decades into the future. It’s not surprising that such a combination of size and the unknown is an effective fuel for fear. But is the panic warranted?

For his part, the Controller seems to see the state’s pension systems as a management challenge rather than a crisis. In a statement emailed to Capital & Main, Chiang said:

In the wake of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the State’s pension systems are enjoying a rebound in investment earnings that has averaged over 12 percent during the past five years.  But banking on greater investment returns, alone, is not a complete and sustainable solution.  More needs to be done.

Steering the Ship

To some extent, managing a pension fund is like sailing a large ship across an ocean. A one-degree change in trajectory can add up to a few miles of difference on the far shore. Changes in wind and current push you one way or another, and you continually adjust using the tools you have to stay reasonably on target.

The largest sources of income for pension funds are investment returns. On the good side, that means most of the funding for pensions doesn’t come directly out of public budgets and employees’ pockets. In fact, as the market boomed in the 1990s, investment returns covered almost the entire funding requirements of some systems. The downside is that pensions’ primary piece of funding is at the mercy of the markets, which are not always booming.

When markets fall short, pension systems adjust and make up the gap over from the following years by recalibrating assumptions and increasing contributions from employers (and sometimes employees). This happened after the dot-com crash just over a decade ago. Indeed, as the By the Numbers data open with 2003, the large pension funds are experiencing the end of the dot-com crash and stabilizing.

To push our nautical metaphor, let’s say that at the turn of the century a storm blew us off course and we started working our way back over the next few years. Then in late 2007, we sailed into a hurricane.

Unfunded Liabilities: What’s the Damage?

One of the main headline grabbers to come out of the Controller’s data involved the “unfunded liability” – and its seemingly unidirectional increase from 2003 through 2013, at which point the chart ends, so the viewer must proceed off the screen and into the future. (See below.) Media coverage like that cited above certainly help a reader along towards the conclusion that public employee pension funds are sailing off the edge of the world.

UAAL

To some degree, the concern is warranted: the unfunded liability is indeed an important number. The Unfunded Actuarially Accrued Liability (UAAL) is a pension system’s best estimate of the amount by which its resources fall short of expected need. Such a shortfall will be addressed in part by increased contributions from the employer and, in the case of public budgets like these, that means costs to public budgets. In other words, given the economic hits taken by pension funds, the UAAL is a best estimate of the damages.

But taking a step back, the picture shaped by the decade of uninterrupted increase is tightly framed by the exact timeline included in the dataset – so it looks like a portrait of disaster. The impact we see reported by pension funds lags behind the current economy. This is in part due to the nature of accounting for investments, and in part due to the lag in reporting.

Take the state’s largest pension system, CalPERS,[2] as an example, for which the UAAL jumped from $7.9 billion in 2003 to $22.3 billion in 2004. At first sight, it would appear that there must have been some major jolt in those years, to triple the unfunded liability when the economy was booming (the Dow went up almost 28 percent between January 2003 and 2004). But the reporting date for each year is the previous June 30, so the change in those years is actually showing the tail end of the dot-com downturn. CalPERS was in such a strong position prior to that downturn, entering the new century with assets exceeding expected liabilities by $32.9 billion, that it wasn’t until the end of that downturn that CalPERS actually had an unfunded liability.

On the other end, the 2008 market crash and recession pushed the UAAL to $57.2 billion by 2012. In addition to the impact of investment losses, pension liabilities were amplified by public budget shortfalls. Hiring freezes and layoffs in state and local agencies meant that fewer active workers were paying into the system while more drew retirements. Strong returns in the chart’s final year nearly caught up to the liability increases, so the UAAL held fairly steady at $57.4 billion in 2013. When CalPERS releases its annual report in a few weeks, incorporating an 18.4 percent net rate of return for the last fiscal year, the UAAL will surely go down.

The upshot is that the 2003-2013 timeframe gives us UAAL charts that start on the left at nearly zero and shoot up – seemingly inevitably – to the right.[3] Historically, the UAAL has saw-toothed up and down, following the economy and markets. It was high in the early ’80s, improved until the recession in the early ’90s when it grew again, only to completely disappear in the late ’90s as the stock market boomed.

We should pay attention to the unfunded liabilities in California’s pension systems. We should be concerned with addressing them in a prudent way over the long term. However, we should not draw the conclusion – as do the critics of public employee pensions – that the last decade represents a one-way trend apart from the ups and downs of economic history, or that pension liabilities are on their way to swallowing California’s economy whole.

Funded Ratios: Are We Off Course?

One key indicator of a pension plan’s health is its funded ratio – that is, the percentage of a pension system’s future costs that can be covered by assets on hand or in the stream. If a pension plan has exactly enough resources to cover expected future costs, the funding ratio is 100 percent. If it had half the necessary assets on hand, a pension system would be 50-percent funded and that system’s managers would be making adjustments to close that gap over time.

There is no exact yardstick, but 80-percent funded is often considered a standard for a healthy pension system. Fitch Ratings has looked at a funded ratio of 70 percent or higher to be adequately funded, while Standard & Poor’s considers funded ratios of 80 to 90 percent as “above average.”[4] Obviously 100 percent is the goal, and the farther from that goal, the more work and resources will be required to get there.

Historically, funded ratios have moved up and down with investment returns as well as changes in pension systems. In contrast to the end-is-nigh commentary on the current state of pensions, funding was much worse 30 and 40 years ago. A Standard & Poor’s report notes that the average funded ratio of state pensions was just 51 percent in 1975, improved with better accounting standards in the late 1980s, then topped out over 100 percent with the investment boom of the 1990s before falling since.[5]

There is a wide range among the systems in the Controller’s data set. But zeroing in on the largest funds, most are right around the 80-percent mark. (See table below.) Only one lags below 60-percent funded.[6] Not perfect, but not seriously unhealthy, either.

Pension Chart

Numbers are funded ratios (in percentages) for California’s largest state, county, and city agency pension funds. From bythenumbers.sco.ca.gov.
Click table to enlarge

The two economic hits – the dot-com crash and the Great Recession – can again be seen in this data, as most of the pension systems start out in excellent positions, falling in the first year as the end of the first downturn works through the systems. They are then stable and starting to increase slowly through the middle of the decade, before the recession hits, leading to a slide from 2008 to 2013. Only by the end of that run are more than a couple of the funds down below the 80-percent mark, and as we noted with CalPERS above, we may soon see that things have started to turn for the better when 2014 data arrive.

The Moody’s credit rating agency seems to agree that the funds are in decent shape and recovering, improving CalPERS and CalSTRS (California State Teachers’ Retirement System) ratings to Aa2 this year due to the improving economy and sound management decisions.

 

So Should We Panic?

To be sure, California’s pension systems have taken an expensive hit, with a hurricane of a market crash following just a few years after the turn-of-the-century recession. This has been the story of pensions over the last few years, and the Controller’s new data site again shows the impact of the twin recessions clearly. Pension funds that had previously been strong fell behind. There have been and will continue to be budget costs, but the outlook is improving.

Controller Chiang credits some prudent decision-making with helping to improve pension systems’ outlooks, though he cautioned in his email to Capital & Main that it’s not all smooth sailing yet:

Importantly, state lawmakers have moved the discussion in the right direction by enacting pension reforms that are projected to save between $42 billion and $54 billion for all state, school and local agency CalPERS plans over the next 30 years. Likewise, CalSTRS’s unfunded liability is projected to be erased within the next three decades as the result of a legislative compromise requiring the State, teachers and local school district employers to increase their pension contributions.

However, until those savings are fully realized, California and its local communities will continue to wrestle with how to responsibly manage the unfunded liabilities associated with providing retirement security to police, firefighters, teachers and other providers of critical public services.

California’s pension systems fell into a deep rut, it’s true, but it’s a challenge that Californians can manage our way through.

In the meantime, California may indeed be running dry. But its major pension funds are not.


[1] The defined benefit systems in the Controller’s By the Numbers data cover more than 2.1 million active employees and more than 1.2 million retirees.

[2] The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS, manages retirement benefits for state workers as well as local governments, school districts and other employers. With 1.6 million members, it’s the country’s second-largest pension fund after the federal government’s main system.

[3] This is the shape graphs take when they broadcast the inevitable.

[4] A methodology document from Fitch Ratings explains that “Fitch generally considers a funded ratio of 70 percent or above to be adequate and less than 60 percent to be weak, while noting that the funded ratio is one of many factors considered in Fitch’s analysis of pension obligations.”

[5] In its 2013 report on public pensions, Standard & Poor’s Ratings Service traces a brief history of pension funded ratios:

Most state governments have a long-term track record of making adjustments and improving funding ratios. […] According to a Federal Reserve study, in 1975 the aggregate funded ratio of public pensions for states was 51 percent. However, as Baby Boomers reach retirement age, and given increased longevity, the risks from weaker funded ratios are higher now than they were in the 1970s.

State pension funded ratios made what we consider strong gains in the 1990s, climbing to funded ratios above 100 percent by 2000, compared with approximately 80 percent a decade earlier. Above-average investment returns, particularly from equities, contributed to this rapid increase. […]

During the past decade, however, the funded ratio trend shifted quite rapidly when public pension funds suffered a number of setbacks, including two recessions.

[6] The Public Agency Retirement Services, or PARS, is a private firm that administers retirement programs for public agencies that contract with it. It is a competitor to the state-owned CalPERS, though each serves many public employers in California.

 

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Is Goldman Sachs’ New Fund Really Just Greenwashing Stocks?

Critics are questioning the motives behind a banking giant’s socially responsible investment strategy.

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Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Even as Goldman Sachs markets itself as a champion of social responsibility, it is helping CEOs block key environmental and social justice reforms proposed by their shareholders.


 

Co-published by The Guardian

When Goldman Sachs and billionaire Paul Tudor Jones announced a partnership three months ago to help socially conscious investors support “just business behavior,” they promised that their new index fund would generate solid returns for savers while directing their investment dollars towards truly humane companies.

“Capitalism should be a positive force for change,” said Jones in a press release announcing the fund, which is designed to track an index of socially responsible companies identified by his nonprofit JUST Capital. “Its future will be driven by a new definition of corporate success that is aligned with the values and priorities of the public.”


 Socially responsible investing (SRI) offers
Wall Street an image makeover in a time of growing public distrust in the financial system.


The partnership comes as pension funds, university endowments and other institutional investors increasingly seek to put their financial weight behind ethical and sustainable corporate behavior — and as Goldman Sachs tries to shed its reputation as a “vampire squid.” So far, the rebrand seems to be working: The JUST fund debuted in June to rave reviews from the financial press and ended its first day of trading with over $250 million in assets, making its launch one of the most successful in recent history.

However, a Capital & Main review of corporate documents shows that some of JUST’s largest investments are in fossil fuel firms that have been sued for suppressing global climate research, Wall Street behemoths fined for defrauding investors, a social media platform accused of helping rig elections and a tech industry giant criticized for paying its workers starvation wages.

Table Graphic: Chase Woodruff

Moreover, proxy voting records reveal that even as Goldman Sachs now markets itself as a champion of social responsibility, the firm has been using its existing stakes in many JUST fund companies to help CEOs block key environmental and social justice reforms proposed by their shareholders. Those initiatives range from gender pay gap and diversity initiatives to corporate governance reforms; from efforts to increase lobbying transparency to prohibitions on doing business with companies tied to genocide and other human rights violations.

Meanwhile, in the months before JUST fund’s launch, Goldman was slammed for blocking a human rights resolution at its own company — and one of Goldman’s key lobbying groups in Washington was working to shape Republican legislation that would make it far more difficult for shareholders to file environmental, human rights and other socially minded initiatives in the future.

“You shouldn’t be able to, with a straight face, invest in the Dakota Access Pipeline with your left hand, and with your right hand tell people that you’re doing responsible investing,” Lisa Lindsley, Capital Markets Advisor for the shareholder advocacy group SumOfUs, told Capital & Main. “The compartmentalization is very hypocritical.”

Through a spokesperson, Goldman Sachs declined to comment on the process by which its equity funds vote on shareholder proposals, and how that process may differ with the JUST fund — which, as a newly launched fund, has not yet participated in proxy voting for any of the companies in which it holds stock.

“Ethically Motivated Versus a More Greenwashing Approach”

Goldman’s new fund spotlights socially responsible investing (SRI) — a financial strategy that represents Wall Street’s more affirmative answer to negative or exclusionary “screening” tactics like divestment from fossil fuel producers and tobacco firms.

While a recent directive by the Trump administration has been viewed by some experts as an effort to limit SRI strategies, the market for such investments remains strong. According to the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment, U.S.-based assets managed using SRI strategies more than doubled to $8.7 trillion between 2012 and 2016, and now account for more than one in five dollars under professional management in the country.


Goldman’s hostility toward many SRI initiatives is illustrated by its votes on resolutions at the companies now in its JUST fund.


The rise in SRI investment comes amid questions about whether corporate boards are adequately evaluating environmental and social justice concerns when they look at their company’s long-term financial prospects. PwC’s 2017 survey of corporate officials found “that directors are clearly out of step with investor priorities in some critical areas” and the report added that “one of these areas is environmental issues.”

High-profile initiatives like the JUST fund are a chance for the industry to tout its eagerness, as Goldman Sachs executive Timothy O’Neill put it in a press release, to “[allow] investment to flow toward a more sustainable and equitable future, while seeking to generate attractive returns for investors.”

The trend has given Wall Street an opportunity for an image makeover in a time of growing public distrust in the financial system: According to a Gallup poll conducted last month, fewer than half of Americans under 30 report having a positive view of capitalism, a 12-point drop in just the past two years.

For some activists and investors, though, the rapid expansion of the market for SRI-branded financial products has raised concerns about greenwashing — the practice by which companies market themselves as socially or environmentally responsible without actually adopting business practices that meet those goals.

“Putting the word ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’ in the name of a fund does not make it so,” said a report by British investment advisory firm Castlefield, whose recent reports documented how some environmental funds include investments in fossil fuel firms. “It is increasingly important to differentiate between those funds genuinely responding to customer demand for a sustainable approach and those which use terms like ethical, Socially Responsible Investment or stewardship in their name but include companies such as British American Tobacco or Shell in their key holdings.”

Goldman’s Record on Socially Responsible Investing

Amid surging interest in SRI funds, Goldman’s JUST U.S. Large Cap Equity ETF aims to convince investors that the company is serious about injecting a spirit of ethics and morality into its financial strategies. To that end, the fund says it directs money only into companies that are ranked highly by JUST Capital.

The 426 companies featured in the JUST index were selected on the basis of their performance across seven different criteria, including labor practices, customer service and environmental impacts. Goldman itself ranks in the top tenth of the JUST rankings, despite the company being attacked for supporting the fossil fuel industry and also being fined $5 billion in 2016 by the Department of Justice for “serious misconduct in falsely assuring investors that securities it sold were backed by sound mortgages, when it knew that they were full of mortgages that were likely to fail.”

Whether Goldman’s new JUST fund represents a step in a larger shift towards socially responsible investment remains to be seen. Baruch College’s Jared Peifer says that one way to judge a firm’s commitment to social responsibility is to watch how it deals with resolutions brought by shareholders, whereby investors attempt to force management to adopt socially responsible policies.

“There is variance to the degree that SRI funds are ethically motivated versus a more greenwashing approach,” Peifer told Capital & Main. “Is the fund dialoguing with management? Issuing shareholder proxy votes, voting on others? If so, that seems like a more ethically motivated fund to me, because they are exerting additional effort many other funds do not bother with.”

In recent years, Goldman executives have been fighting off SRI resolutions at their own company, including initiatives that have asked management to more transparently disclose their political lobbying and create a human rights committee to review the company’s policies regarding doing business with governments engaged in censorship and repression. Only three months before Goldman announced the JUST fund, Goldman successfully pressed the Securities and Exchange Commission to bless its move to block shareholders from voting on a resolution asking the company to honor indigenous peoples’ rights.

“The company’s extraordinary no action request shows the notable lengths that the Company is willing to go, and to stretch credulity, in order to prevent its directors from shouldering fiduciary obligations on indigenous and human rights,” wrote shareholder proponents at the time.

Last year, Goldman was lauded by Share Action, an SRI activist group, for switching its position and using its holdings to support a series of climate-change-related shareholder initiatives. In its proxy voting guidelines, Goldman says it will generally vote for proposals asking companies to report on “policies, initiatives and oversight mechanisms related to environmental sustainability, or how the company may be impacted by climate change.”

However, those guidelines do not make the same commitment when it comes to initiatives requiring companies to actually reduce their carbon emissions. The guidelines also say the company will generally vote against “proposals requesting increased disclosure of a company’s policies with respect to political contributions.” The company further says it will vote to remove representatives of employees or organized labor from a company’s board if they are overseeing company audits or executive compensation, and if there is no legal requirement for them to be in that position.

Goldman Votes Against Resolutions at JUST Fund Companies

Goldman’s hostility toward many SRI initiatives is illustrated by its votes on resolutions at the companies now in its JUST fund.

For example, there is Chevron Corporation, which ranks as the JUST fund’s 17th-largest holding as it faces accusations that it is trying to intimidate environmentalists and avoid cleaning up pollution in the Amazon rainforest.

In May, the oil giant’s shareholders were asked to vote on a slate of seven proposals, including a requirement for the company’s board to nominate a director with environmental experience; the preparation of a report on transitioning to a low-carbon business model; increased transparency relating to lobbying activities; and stronger prohibitions on Chevron’s interests overseas from doing business with governments that are complicit in genocide or crimes against humanity.

As shareholders in Chevron, 14 different Goldman Sachs Asset Management (GSAM) funds voted on these proposals. The majority of funds voted in support of just one, a request for the company to prepare a report on its efforts to minimize methane emissions. In every other case, the funds unanimously or overwhelmingly opposed the proposals.

Proxy-voting records from dozens of shareholder meetings reviewed by Capital & Main show a similar pattern. In rare cases, Goldman funds did vote in favor of some shareholder reforms, including the preparation of a report on the gender pay gap at Facebook and Google. At several pharmaceutical companies, including AbbVie, Amgen and Eli Lilly, Goldman funds supported increased accountability for executives regarding high drug prices.

Such votes, however, were few and far between. Of the 10 companies that make up the largest share of Goldman’s JUST fund, eight considered shareholder-proposed reforms that were overwhelmingly opposed by Goldman-managed funds at their most recent annual meetings. The proposals included prohibitions on offshore tax avoidance schemes, increased transparency on lobbying activities and requirements that companies appoint an independent board chair — a governance model that advocates say leads to more responsible corporate behavior. The remaining two companies, Microsoft and Visa, did not consider any shareholder proposals.

At JPMorgan, the recipient of JUST’s fourth-largest investment, Goldman funds voted unanimously against a requirement for the company to release a report on its investments in PetroChina, a firm that activists accuse of helping to fund crimes against humanity due to its ongoing business relationships with oppressive regimes in Syria and Sudan. Goldman made that move despite its own proxy voting guidelines saying the company would “generally vote for proposals requesting a report on company or company supplier labor and/or human rights standards and policies, or on the impact of its operations on society.”

Eighteen of the 19 Goldman funds with shares in JPMorgan also voted against an effort to prohibit the accelerated vesting of awards for executives who enter government service, a practice often criticized for fueling the revolving door between Wall Street and financial regulators.

A shareholder proposal to the board of pharmaceutical manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, expressing concern that the company’s compensation practices “may insulate senior executives from legal risks” relating to the opioids crisis, recommended that opioid-related litigation costs be factored into executive pay. All 16 Goldman funds with stock in Johnson & Johnson voted to defeat the proposal.

Goldman asserts that its fund is designed to invest in firms that rank well in JUST Capital’s ratings. But even that assertion is not what it seems.

Because the index features companies ranked in the top half of their respective industries, it includes dozens of firms in sectors like energy and financial services that score poorly overall. For example, the fund invests in both National Oilwell Varco, a drilling equipment firm, and Entergy, a Louisiana utility, despite the fact that the companies rank 626th and 676th, respectively, among the 875 companies evaluated by JUST Capital.

“Every industry is represented at approximately the same weight as [in] the Russell 1000,” said JUST Capital’s Hernando Cortina, referring to the best-known index fund tracking the largest publicly traded companies. Cortina added that the JUST fund is designed to feature responsible companies “while providing diversified equity exposure to every industry.”

Lisa Lindsley of SumOfUs said the situation spotlights how socially responsible investing is seen on Wall Street not as a values-based cause, but as yet another way to trick investors into believing that the investment industry has reformed itself a decade after the financial crisis.

“The reason they’re going into this is that there’s money there. It’s all driven by greed,” she said. “It’s pretty easy to do some greenwashing and call yourself a responsible investment manager.”

As Goldman now markets its JUST fund, it remains unclear whether the company will change its proxy voting or its posture towards shareholder resolutions in general. Those resolutions, though, could be more rare, if congressional Republicans pass their legislation that would make it more difficult for shareholder resolutions to qualify for a vote. Federal records show that the American Bankers Association — which lists Goldman Sachs as a member — has been lobbying on that bill, which critics say could undermine the SRI movement.

“Shareholder proposals play an important role in ensuring that owners get a say in how their companies are run, and in setting the broader agenda across the market,” wrote Dimitri Zagoroff of the shareholder advisory firm Glass Lewis. “Making it harder for shareholder proposals to be resubmitted from year to year would make it that much harder for proponents to refine their ideas and build a coalition of support. This often takes several years, both to generate interest in the underlying topic, and to convince other shareholders that the specific proposal offers the appropriate means of addressing the topic.”


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Medi-Cal Home-Delivers a New Prescription: Healthy Meals

California’s Medically Tailored Meals pilot program could lead the medical industry, and especially insurers, to include nutrition as part of overall health care.

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One study showed that patients who received three medically tailored meals per day had a
50 percent lower rate of hospitalization.


A $6 million Medi-Cal pilot program launched in April may demonstrate what many in the health care field have reported anecdotally: That tailored nutrition can improve health for chronically ill patients and lower medical costs. The three-year Medically Tailored Meals (MTM) pilot provides free curated, low-sodium meals brought through in-home visits for 1,000 patients who suffer from congestive heart failure — a group with some of the highest rates of hospital readmissions.

Meals will be delivered by registered dietitians from six California nonprofits in the Food is Medicine Coalition: Project Angel Food (Los Angeles County) Project Open Hand (San Francisco), Ceres Community Project (Sonoma County), Mama’s Kitchen (San Diego), Food For Thought (North Bay Area) and Health Trust (San Jose). The funding was included in Senate Bill 97, a budget bill approved in June 2017 by the California Senate.

The program is already showing results, according to Richard Ayoub, CEO of Project Angel Food. Ayoub points to three out of four clients who have avoided a hospital stay during the pilot’s first 30 days. In a YouTube video, one of Project Angel Food’s pilot study patients, Candice, explains how she’s already enjoying better health through three daily prepared meals.

“For years,” Ayoub says, “we’ve known that what we do here helps people live longer and happier, and now we’re seeing results that are quantitative. We can see health care systems saying, If it was good for congestive heart failure maybe it will be good for renal disease, maybe it will help keep people off dialysis.”

The Medi-Cal pilot is modeled off a small 2013 study led by Philadelphia-based nonprofit MANNA (Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance). That study showed that patients who received three medically tailored meals per day had a 50 percent lower rate of hospitalization and 37 percent shorter stays for those who went to the hospital, compared to a control group. On average, patients had a 31 percent reduction in health care costs, which equaled $13,000 per month per patient.

Sue Daugherty, MANNA’s CEO, said four companies that administer Medicaid in southeastern Pennsylvania have signed contracts with MANNA to deliver specially tailored meals for selected patients with diabetes and cancer, and she’s hoping that the California study will lead her state’s Medicaid agency to include medically tailored meals as part of treatment.

“The big barrier is getting folks to realize we’re not talking about just food,” Daugherty said. “When people hear ‘food’ they start shutting down and thinking ‘entitlement,’ and forever. What we’re doing is something that a health care provider will prescribe.”

Daugherty added that food is often an afterthought among medical providers, and that when a diet is prescribed, little thought is given to how patients will access that food and pay for it. With the exception of the four Pennsylvania providers, food is not included in any medical plans.

Richard Seidman, M.D., chief medical officer of L.A. Care Health Plan, one of the public agencies that administers Medicaid insurance in L.A. County, said he hopes that if the pilot program is as successful as the MANNA study suggests, California lawmakers will expand it.

“With nearly 13 million people receiving Medi-Cal benefits, it’s not a giant leap to suggest that food insecurity is a barrier to good health for many, not just those with chronic conditions,” Seidman wrote in an email.

Seidman and other supporters say if the pilot is as successful as they expect, it could lead the medical industry, and especially insurers, to include nutrition as part of overall health care.


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Los Angeles’ Burdened Renters

For more information, read Jessica Goodheart’s story on squeezed Los Angeles tenants, “The Rent’s Getting Too Damn High!”


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Do Incarcerated Firefighters Deserve a Path to Employment?

Since 1983 six inmate firefighters have died while working on fire containment. Today they are paid $2 per day — and an extra $1 when fighting active fires.

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Cal Fire crew photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

California estimates that the Conservation Camp inmate-training program saves state taxpayers up to $100 million per year through firefighting and responses to other emergencies.


 

As California’s wildfire season grows ever longer and more intense, the state has relied heavily on thousands of prisoners, including women, to battle blazes alongside approximately 6,000 professional full-time and seasonal firefighters. Prisoner advocates, however, point out that these inmates’ criminal records prevent them from working as firefighters almost anywhere in California after their release.

Critics of the inmate program also say prisoners risking their lives to battle dozens of fires every year should get more out of the program than their current $2 per day and the additional $1 they receive whenever fighting active fires. The state’s Cal Fire firefighters earn between $3,273 and $4,137 per month, plus benefits, not counting overtime, according to a Cal Fire spokesperson. California has been using inmate firefighters since World War II, when the workforce for Cal Fire was depleted.


Approximately 3,700 inmates work at fire camps and about 2,600 of those are qualified to work on the front lines of active fires.


When Laura Weigand applied to California’s Conservation Camp, the program that trains inmates to fight wildfires, she knew it would be an uphill battle, literally. She was 43 when she joined the camp in 2009, twice the age of most of the women in pre-camp endurance trainings. One endurance test – hiking two miles straight uphill in 45 minutes – felled plenty of younger women, but Weigand was the first to the top of the hill, which meant she had her choice of camps to complete her trainings. She picked Malibu.

Two weeks after she completed training, she was working alongside Cal Fire firefighters to put out the Crown Fire, earning a fraction of what professional firefighters made for the same amount of risk. But she said she didn’t feel exploited because she went into the program to get away from the prison grounds.

“The days flew by, because there were different experiences. Even though it was not good pay it was better than you get in prison,” she said. But a foot injury threatened her limited freedom.

“I was hiking on a broken metatarsal bone for two years and was afraid to tell them about it because I didn’t want to get kicked out of the program.”

Weigand eventually became a “swamper” or trainer of other incarcerated firefighters. She estimated that she trained about 300 women before she left prison in 2012.

A Cal Fire inmate hand crew head to the fireline on a brush fire. (Photo:  David Toussaint/Getty Images)

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), cooperating with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) and the Los Angeles County Fire Department, operate 44 conservation camps across the state, including three female camps. Camp populations range from 80 to 160 inmates working and learning in minimum-security facilities, supervised by correctional staff. When they’re working on an active fire, Cal Fire staff supervise them.

CDCR says approximately 30 percent of applicants who volunteer for the program successfully complete the curriculum. Not all inmates are eligible. Those who have committed more serious crimes, such as arson, rape or other sex offenses are disqualified.

Overall, there are approximately 3,700 inmates working at fire camps and approximately 2,600 of those are qualified to work on the front lines of active fires, according to CDCR. As of August 31 there were just over 1,100 inmate firefighters across 123 crews deployed to the Carr, Mendocino Complex, Hirz, Cooks, Cherae, Stone, Cache and Holy Fires.

After being released in 2011, Weigand didn’t apply to be a professional firefighter because she was above most fire departments’ threshold age. But Weigand, who now works at Social Model Recovery Systems, a substance abuse and mental health nonprofit, says even if she were younger, she probably couldn’t have gotten such a job, because most local and county firefighting jobs require an emergency medical technician (EMT) license, and most former inmates, even those convicted of lower level felonies, can’t obtain that.

In an email, a Cal Fire spokesperson said the department doesn’t require an EMT license for employment, but admitted that many fire departments throughout the state have at least the expectation of an EMT license for employment.

Such a barrier doesn’t make sense to Romarilyn Ralston, who was imprisoned 23 years and served as a fire camp swamper and clerk for Cal Fire while incarcerated. Now, as a member of the Los Angeles chapter of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, and program coordinator for Project Rebound at California State University, Fullerton, she’s advocating for raising state employment opportunities for former inmates who made it through the Conservation Camp program.

Ralston told Capital & Main that, even though the program offers valuable training, the lack of EMT training at the camps, as well as the seeming prohibition against hiring former felons for many firefighting jobs statewide, amounts to “an exploitation of prison labor.”

“They should be paid at least the minimum wage, which is $15 in L.A. County,” Ralston added. “They’re putting their lives on the line and saving California hundreds of millions a year.”

The CDCR has estimated that the Conservation Camp program saves California taxpayers between $90 million and $100 million per year through firefighting and responses to other emergencies. Those who make it through the program, when not fighting active fires, may also be asked to clear firebreaks, maintain parks and clear fallen trees and debris. Since 1983 six inmate firefighters have died while working on fire containment, according to CDCR.

Recently California has taken steps to ease restrictions on former felons, though none of the measures would mandate local emergency medical services authorities to allow them to earn EMT licenses.

As part of the 2018 budget bill, Governor Jerry Brown expanded employment opportunities for former inmate firefighters through the Ventura Conservation Camp (VCC), in Ventura County. The program is for parolees only, and the first group of 20 is set to begin training this fall.

An omnibus safety bill, AB 1812, approved by Governor Brown in June, would allow graduates of approved fire camp training to apply for lower-level emergency medical responder (EMR) licenses, though not for EMT licenses.

California’s legislature is taking other small steps toward lowering the employment bar for incarcerated firefighters and other ex-cons seeking professional employment.

Assembly Bill 2293, in its original version would have, with certain conditions, prevented the authority licensing paramedics and EMTs from denying certification to anyone with a criminal record. But faced with strong opposition from the Emergency Medical Services Administrators Association of California, and the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians, who said hiring those with criminal histories could pose a public safety risk, AB 2293 was amended down to a data reporting bill, according to California Assemblywoman Eloise Gómez Reyes (D-San Bernardino), who assisted in crafting both versions of the bill.

“We decided to address a glaring deficiency, which is the lack of data [on who is being denied jobs],” Gómez Reyes said of AB 2293, which now heads to an uncertain future on the governor’s desk.

Today, Gómez Reyes added, the state only has anecdotal data on many former prisoners being denied EMT certification or jobs based on their criminal past, but no hard numbers yet. “We’re trying to see in what circumstances are people being given these licenses, and what we suspect are the majority of circumstances of people being denied because of past offenses. Whatever decision we make in the future is going to be based on accurate data.”

Another bill, AB 2138, authored by Assemblymen Evan Low (D-San Jose) and David Chiu (D-San Francisco), would ease licensing restrictions for former inmates in a variety of occupations, but not firefighters. That’s still an important step, according to David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, because its passage could remove some “arbitrary” barriers to employment.

“In many states there are over 100 occupations that former prisoners can’t pursue,” Fathi said. “One of the best predictors of successful reentry is securing and keeping stable employment. And yet as a society we go out of our way to make it difficult for prisoners to get a job when they get out. This is especially absurd when the prisoner has learned the skill in prison.”

Fathi points to a neighboring state, Arizona, which last year eased restrictions on ex-cons from becoming professional firefighters, as well as to a study from Arizona State University, which showed that states with larger employment barriers for felons have higher recidivism rates.

“Employment disqualification for former prisoners should be the rare exception,” Fathi said, “and it should be based on an individualized assessment of the risk posed by the particular person — not simply upon a criminal conviction.”


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Ohio, NJ and California Pension Funds Invested $885 Million in Hedge Fund That Controls National Enquirer Parent

Co-published by MapLight and Fast Company
Under Republican governors, two states pumped hundreds of millions of dollars of pension cash into a high-risk hedge fund that took control of the National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc.

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Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Co-published by MapLight and Fast Company

During the last five years, taxpayers in New Jersey, Ohio and California  have owned large financial stakes in the owner of the media company that allegedly helped the Trump campaign bury negative stories, according to documents reviewed by Capital & Main and MapLight.

Under Republican governors, New Jersey and Ohio committed at least $650 million of pension cash into Chatham Asset Management, a high-risk hedge fund that has taken control of the National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., which is at the center of the federal investigation into President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. California’s pension fund also has a $235 million stake in a Chatham fund.

The hedge fund is run by Anthony Melchiorre, a GOP donor who reportedly met with the president and AMI CEO David Pecker at the White House soon after Trump took office. Melchiorre and his wife have donated more than $100,000 to Republican candidates and party committees since 2010.

Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen, recently pleaded guilty to breaking campaign finance laws stemming from payments he made to women to hide affairs with the former reality TV star and real estate magnate. AMI executives helped Cohen purchase stories that could have hurt Trump’s presidential bid, according to the Wall Street Journal.

AMI has denied it helped Trump’s campaign, although Pecker was recently granted immunity as part of the Cohen probe. Former FEC commissioner Trevor Potter, the head of the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, last week said the situation “presents a serious legal problem for AMI.” If those legal troubles end up depressing the market value of AMI, teachers, firefighters, cops and other public employees also could potentially suffer losses at a time when their pension funds are already facing shortfalls.

A New Jersey Treasury Department spokesperson said in an email that its Division of Investment “is in regular contact with its investment partners regarding underlying portfolio companies and provides feedback when appropriate. While DOI plays no role in the management of a fund’s portfolio companies, it expects the funds to invest in good businesses with strong management teams that follow all applicable laws.”

“I am personally appalled by the Enquirer being an accessory to Cohen’s criminal behavior on behalf of the candidate,” said Tom Bruno, a state union representative who is the chairman of the pension’s board of trustees and serves on New Jersey’s State Investment Council, which oversees the pension system’s investments.

“If the allegations are true, I would vote and argue for full divestiture,” he said. “I cannot talk on behalf of the entire SIC, but I will be doing everything in my power to convince a majority to vote the same way.”

Chatham did not respond to questions about how exposed taxpayers and pension systems might be to AMI and any financial consequences of its legal entanglements. A spokesman for the Ohio pension system said Thursday that the state asked for its money to be withdrawn from the Chatham fund in 2015; the money was redeemed in 2017.

“State officials are well-positioned and duty-bound to investigate allegations of potential wrongdoing in hedge fund portfolios,” said former Securities and Exchange Commission attorney Edward Siedle.

In 2013, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration moved $300 million of pension cash into the Chatham Fund, LP, which has owned a stake in AMI, according to SEC records. Last year, barely three months before Christie left office, his administration steered another $200 million to another Chatham vehicle.

In 2013 and 2014, an Ohio pension system partially controlled by Gov. John Kasich’s appointees committed $150 million to Chatham. The hedge fund finalized its deal to buy an ownership stake in AMI in the summer of 2014.

The Christie administration’s shift of $500 million into Chatham makes New Jersey retirees a substantial investor in the hedge fund, which manages $3.2 billion in assets, according to state records. Those records show the original $500 million investments are now worth as much as $692 million.

Best known for its lurid Enquirer headlines (“Aliens Are Living in My Toilet”), AMI has been beset by a difficult environment for print publications. Chatham has warned that its investments are risky and that a client “may lose its entire investment in a troubled company.” In early 2018, private equity giant Blackstone removed Chatham from one of its major investment funds.

Along with the public pension funds, four other private pension funds — including those for Ford and Toyota Motors employees — have had investments with Chatham, according to financial research firm Preqin.

AMI represents a large portion of Chatham’s portfolio. Internal hedge fund records from late 2017 show that AMI investments comprised 23 percent of the Chatham Asset Partners High Yield Fund’s portfolio. The hedge fund also has officials who serve as directors at AMI.

Attorney Jay Youngdahl, a former Harvard researcher who has served as a steelworkers pension trustee, said state officials may be able to take action to try to protect retiree investments.

“There are often clauses in agreements between pension funds and hedge funds that give states certain rights and recourse if they believe retirees’ money has been invested in companies engaging in criminal activity,” he said.


This story has been updated from its original version.

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Los Angeles Tenants: The Rent’s Getting Too Damn High!

A local dispute over evictions highlights the emergence of a tenants movement that is pushing back against rapacious landlords and a nationwide housing affordability crisis.

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Jose Nuñez, a tenant facing eviction. (Photos by Jessica Goodheart)

California tenants are taking their grievances to local governments, to courtrooms
and to the ballot box.


 

The ad on Redfin’s website suggested a “wonderful” opportunity for an investor: a 25-unit building in a “NO RENT CONTROL AREA” of Los Angeles County. But it also obliquely warned of impending peril for the inhabitants: “[D]rive by only, tenants are unaware of the sale.”

On October 2016, the tenants of a complex on East 61st Street, in an unincorporated area of South Los Angeles County, received a letter informing them that the two-story stucco building, built in 1925, had a new owner.

The entry to Nuñez’s apartment building.

What happened next suggests the lack of protections afforded the state’s low-income renters, particularly those residing in neglected and deteriorating housing. But the tenants’ response also highlights the emergence of a movement that is pushing back against rapacious landlords and a nationwide housing affordability crisis that cuts across income levels, but hits the country’s poorest residents hardest.

In California, tenants are taking their grievances to local governments, to courtrooms and, in November, to the ballot box, where voters will decide a controversial measure that could give municipalities more latitude to regulate rents.

Jose Nuñez, 62, was one of about a dozen tenants in the 61st St. building in Florence-Firestone—one of the county’s most densely populated neighborhoods—to receive an eviction notice, according to Silvia Marroquin, an organizer with Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), a Los Angeles-based non-profit that is working with the tenants.


At one property, a desiccated rat was visible in the exposed laths of one of the building’s archways. Water dripped from the ceiling of an empty apartment that had been gutted.


Nuñez says he was puzzled to be given 60 days to vacate the apartment he has lived in with his wife, Juanita Rodriguez, for 20 years. “I was asking myself Why? because I always paid my rent on time,” he says.

Nuñez suspects that the building’s owner was unhappy that tenants had begun to demand repairs in response to being asked to pay for parking and utilities. “The owner shouldn’t have been so unfair with us. He should have come to us and let us know that he wanted to raise rents,” said Nuñez through an interpreter. He added that he would have kept quiet about repairs and agreed to modest rent increases.

Marroquin thinks the owner has other motives, as well: finding new tenants who will pay higher rents.

On a mid-August visit to the property, a desiccated rat was visible in the exposed laths of one of the building’s archways. Water dripped from the ceiling of an empty apartment that had been gutted. The unit’s former tenant, Monica Gomez, a 49-year-old seamstress, remembered being woken in the middle of the night more than a year ago by water dripping on her head. (She and her two sons have since moved out of the apartment and in with a friend.)


Los Angeles County has not had a rent control policy for its unincorporated areas since Ronald Reagan was president.


The building’s owner, 3 Peacocks, is a limited partnership with ties to Swami International, a 40-year-old property management company with which it shares the same address in the city of Gardena. As of September 2017, the building was being managed by Torrance-based Crystal Property Management, according to a letter sent to tenants.

A group of about 20 tenants plan to file a lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court early this week and will name all three entities as defendants, according to Grant Riley, the tenants’ attorney, who claims the owner and property managers have been negligent in maintaining the building.

Monica Mittal, who works for Swami International and is listed as a signatory for the corporate general partner of 3 Peacocks LP, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Crystal Property Management.

Several tenants have left in response to the eviction notice, but others – like Nuñez – have remained, turning down $1,500 if they agree to vacate the building by the end of July, according to Marroquin, who says it is not enough money to allow them to find housing in the area.


L.A. County supervisors are getting pressure from landlords, who argue that rent control will make the housing crisis worse by providing a disincentive for new investment in housing.


Jose Nuñez is in visible pain as he paces an immaculate room that holds the couple’s bed, couch and a folding table. He left his job at a plastics factory five years ago after injuring his back. He’s looked at apartments in the area and has been dismayed by rents that range from $1,000 to $1,200 per month. The $668 monthly rent he says he now pays eats up a sizable chunk of his $975 monthly disability payment.

But even as Nuñez gets ready to do battle in court, he has joined an effort to affect policy at the local level. His eyes light up as he shows me a hand-made sign. In Spanish, it reads, “Here in the County of L.A. Firestone and Florence: We want a stop to the high rents. Now!”

Stopping or slowing Los Angeles County’s rising rents will take some work.  The county has not had a rent control policy for its unincorporated areas since Ronald Reagan was president. But Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors members Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis moved the ball forward on rent regulation in May of last year, the same month that a group of tenants from gentrifying East Los Angeles marched to the board’s Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration auditorium in support of rent control. The supervisors voted to establish a “Tenant Protection Working Group” of real estate professionals, tenant lawyers and social service providers, which has been meeting since early January to hammer out recommendations.

In its final report, dated August 15, the working group recommended by a 7 to 2 vote (with one abstention) that the county adopt a rent stabilization policy that would limit allowable rent increases for certain multifamily apartment buildings in unincorporated parts of the county. There are more than 93,000 rental units in unincorporated Los Angeles County, according to a report by the county’s chief executive office.

The working group also recommended the establishment of “Just Cause” eviction protections, which limit the reasons tenants can be evicted from their apartments. Such a policy would be most applicable to the predicament that the East 61st Street tenants now face, says Dagan Bayliss, SAJE’s organizing director.

If supervisors are feeling the heat from tenant groups in East and South Los Angeles, they are also getting pressure from landlords, who argue that rent control will make the housing crisis worse by providing a disincentive for new investment in housing. (Rent control proponents counter that there is no evidence that rent stabilization laws—which typically exempt new construction—have that effect.)

A sign of the landlords’ sway might be found in the board’s recent decision to delay a vote on an interim rent cap proposed by Kuehl and Solis. Concerned that rents were beginning to “spiral upward” while the working group met over a period of months, the two county supervisors had introduced a stop-gap motion in late June to direct staff to draft a six-month ordinance to limit rent hikes to three percent. That vote was scheduled for late July but never took place, to the disappointment of East 61st Street tenants who staged a brief protest in the supervisors’ auditorium. The California Apartment Association had put out a call to action on its website in late June to rally opposition to the proposal.

When asked in mid-August about the temporary rent cap, supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who represents the Florence-Firestone neighborhood, told Capital & Main in an email that, while he understood “the pressures are particularly acute for tenants,” he “would like the opportunity to be informed by the working group’s perspective before taking up any elements of this agenda.” Board meetings will resume after Labor Day.

This local activity is part of a larger battle swirling around a state ballot measure, Proposition 10, which would repeal the Costa-Hawkins Act, a 23-year-old law that restricts rent control policies from being applied to buildings constructed after 1995, and to multifamily dwellings.

That ballot initiative has also drawn opposition from real estate interests, which have raised more than $20 million to defeat the measure, and more than $12 million in support — the vast majority from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

Not all the East 61st Street tenants are joining the lawsuit or activities surrounding a proposed county rent stabilization ordinance.

Less than a year ago Judien Langshaw, who is 33, moved into one of the building’s remodeled apartments that includes a fresh coat of paint and new-looking countertops, although a flimsily constructed sink cabinet door hangs on by a single hinge.

Langshaw squats down to show me how she’s fending off rodents with glue traps and an empty water bottle wrapped in duct tape that she uses to plug a hole under her sink. Her 4-year-old daughter is absorbed in play with two action figures from the Incredibles movie.

She pays a monthly rent of $983, significantly more than Nuñez. But the owner, after all, operates “like any business,” she says.

Langshaw recognizes her luck at having housing at all. “From here, you’re going into homelessness,” she says.


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Home, Shared Home: Renters Watch as Their Buildings Become Apartels

The displacement of renters by large-scale operators who turn apartment buildings into de facto hotels has hit urban areas like Greater Los Angeles hard.

Bobbi Murray

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The Ellison Suites' courtyard. (Photo: Bruce Kijewski)

Apartment Renter: Short-term guests begin lining up around 11 a.m., spilling out onto the street as other guests check out.


Home-sharing. This cozy phrase once conjured images of a homeowner generously opening up a room to out-of-towners—while the fee charged by the owner helped him with mortgage payments. Or perhaps we pictured an apartment dweller who left for the weekend and made a little extra cash letting someone else use the premises.

But the present reality of home-sharing is not so cozy for single-family residential neighborhoods, where out-of-town guests may feel no social pressure to allow the neighbors a peaceful night’s sleep or to not trash the rental home.

To see today’s home-sharing up close, visit the Ellison Suites in coastal Venice, just a block from the famed Venice Boardwalk. Built in 1913 and covered with gigantic murals of Jim Morrison, Marilyn Monroe, John Hurt and Lana Del Rey, it boasts 58 units—but only 12 apartments are occupied by permanent tenants, according to one resident.


“We used to have neighbors for 20 years—now we have them for 20 hours.”


Photo: Bobbi Murray

Beyond the Ellison’s courtyard, people bump wheeled suitcases up the building’s front steps and, on Fridays, signs advertise the night’s upcoming party. It might offer a fire dancer, but most parties will at least include free beer and wine — and music that reverberates up through the courtyard.

“We used to have neighbors for 20 years—now we have them for 20 hours,” said Bruce Kijewski, one of the remaining tenants, who has lived here since 1977. In the summer, he said, guests begin lining up around 11 a.m., spilling out onto Paloma Avenue as other guests check out.

An online search for The Ellison Suites yields a number of home-sharing and lodging platforms—Booking.com and Expedia among them–advertising its amenities as a short-term beachside rental. The building’s own website promotes it as a vacation destination, extolling Jonas Never’s murals as “Venice Masterpieces.”

The displacement of tenants by large-scale operators who turn their buildings into de facto hotels hit hard in urban areas like Greater Los Angeles, which is plagued by a nearly three percent rental vacancy rate.

Photo: Bobbi Murray

While mom and pop are in on some of the home-sharing, today its booming business model most benefits commercial operators who can make more on short-term rentals (STRs) than on permanent residents.

STRs are promoted by a slew of home-sharing platforms, including Airbnb, now valued at $31 billion as it moves toward being publicly traded; and HomeAway and subsidiary VRBO, valued around $3 billion in 2015. The platforms profit by collecting a percentage on every rental offered on their sites by home-sharers.

Local municipalities are scrambling to figure out and ameliorate STR impacts on their neighborhoods and housing stock. In May, a Los Angeles City Council measure was sent to the city attorney’s office for language changes and is expected to go before the city planning commission in September. The proposed ordinance would set up a permitting system for short-term rentals and establish a 120-day yearly limit for home-sharing. Two nuisance violations—enforced by a city agency—could get an operator’s permit revoked.

The Ellison Suites, zoned as a rent-stabilized apartment building, in effect operates as a hotel.

The lowest nightly rate listed on the website is $149. That apartment, when rented to vacationers, could yield $4,470 monthly.

With the Ellison’s current rent-stabilized protections, it’s hard to straight-up evict someone, but there are ways of persuading them to flee their apartments to make them available for tourists and other visitors.

Michael and Susanne Detto, Ellison residents for 14 years, rented their apartment for $2,000 a month before they moved out in May. All-night parties in the courtyard below their apartment made it impossible to sleep—both work 12-hour shifts as nurses. “It was so loud we couldn’t even talk to each other,” Susanne Detto said.

Photo: Bruce Kijewski

Breakdowns in maintenance–power outages, faulty plumbing, leaking ceilings—plus an altercation with management during one of the raucous parties were all part of what the Dettos claim drove them out.

“Especially in summer, he makes three times the money if he rents out every day,” Michael Detto said of the Ellison’s landlord.

Kijewski and other Ellison tenants say landlord investment goes into creating a hotel entertainment experience rather than supporting habitable apartments. Residents have filed dozens of complaints with the city against building owner Lance Jay Robbins’ Paloma Partnership LLC, citing bad plumbing, inadequate water supply, construction without permits and change of use/occupancy without a building permit. (Multiple attempts to get a response from Robbins for this story were unsuccessful.)


Michael spoke wistfully of a community where neighbors once shared poetry readings, art discussions and fundraisers in the courtyard now occupied by high-octane weekend parties.


The company appealed the building’s status to Los Angeles’ Building and Safety Commission, arguing that short-term rentals should be allowed because the city’s initial certificate of occupancy designating the Ellison a residential apartment was in error and that the building is a hotel.

The company lost. Another appeal is headed for the city planning department.

Meanwhile the Ellison continues to advertise online as a hotel.

With today’s lucrative rates of return, it’s easy to see why, for large-scale operators, short-term stays make for a more attractive business model than permanent housing. Customers staying for a few nights might do some hating online, but won’t be there to press on long-playing maintenance issues.

Tenants at the Metropolitan in Hollywood experience the same push-out climate as Ellison residents, according to Susan Hunter, a case worker with the LA Tenants Union, which is part of a coalition that includes representatives from Los Angeles’ hotel industry, labor unions and community groups.

Hunter counts a dozen permanent residents remaining in the sleek, 12-story high-rise that boasts sweeping views of Hollywood and sits within walking distance of Hollywood Boulevard sites.

The website for Apartments.com says there are no apartments presently available.

Zoned as a residential building, the 52-unit Sunset Boulevard property owned by the Harridge Development Group is advertised online as an “apartel.” Tenants approached for this story didn’t want to speak, they said, for fear of retaliation, but they have complained to Hunter of loud parties, with fighting in the halls and kicked-in doors.

Apart from creating chaotic conditions for tenants sharing space with STRs, the home-sharing model leaves an even larger social footprint. The incentive for large-scale operators everywhere to acquire units—including entire homes — and move them off the permanent housing market places upward price pressure on housing.

From Seattle to New Orleans to Barcelona and beyond, housing advocates are assessing the effects of short-term rentals on housing markets and figuring out how to respond.

In New York City, short-term rentals have resulted in a loss of as many as 13,500 rental housing units, according to a January 2018 report from the School of Urban Planning at McGill University. (The study was commissioned by a labor group opposed to home-sharing.) New York has passed legislation requiring registration and other monitoring measures.

A 2015 San Francisco Board of Supervisors Budget and Legislative Analyst report estimated that Airbnb short-term rentals alone had removed between 925 and 1,960 units from the city’s housing market. These, along with 8,000 units already being used for short-term rentals, add up to an 11 percent reduction in rental housing.

Like other cities, San Francisco has aimed to define and enforce the number of nights STRs are permitted. Studies based on data from insideairbnb.com show that, in Los Angeles, renting out a property as a short-term rental for 83 nights or more annually produces more profit than the property could earn as a long-term rental.

In San Francisco, the cradle of Airbnb and adjacent to tech hubs, municipal leaders face an affordable housing shortage and a vacancy rate below three percent, and have established a registration process for short-term rental hosts. Regulations set a cap of 90 days per year for hosts that don’t live on the property. Violators are subject to stiff fines.

Seattle, headquarters of several tech giants, took an approach that attacks the short-term rental issue as part of the affordable housing problem. The city defines a short-term rental as a maximum stay of 29 nights and sets up a licensing system.

Using a wider lens on the affordable housing crunch, the city council in May approved an “Amazon tax” that charges the larger employers such as Groupon and Amazon $275 per worker annually to support housing and homeless services. (The city council repealed the tax in August.) Seattle comes in third, behind only New York and Los Angeles, in the numbers of homeless, while boasting only a fraction of those cities’ total populations.

Joan Ling, an urban policy analyst who has worked in affordable housing and mixed-use development for over 30 years, supports short-term rental regulation but sees it as only a piece of the larger question of creating affordable housing to support working families. Los Angeles, she said, “has a ways to go . . . Anything is better than nothing. What [regulation] can do is reduce the harm that can be done [by] removing units. The affordability crisis is so pervasive, so deep—we need a huge number of policies to address the crisis.”

Michael and Susanne Detto are happy living in their new apartment in Santa Monica—no all-night parties, the plumbing works and it’s a 10-minute walk to work. But before the Ellison got pieced out for short term-rentals, the couple also liked their Venice home.

Michael spoke wistfully of the community where neighbors once shared poetry readings, art discussions and fundraisers in the courtyard now occupied by high-octane weekend parties.

Susanne likes where the couple landed, but reflected on the overall cost as tenants got pushed out by the STR model.

“We lost a lot. We lost a lot of our neighbors. We’re still kind of recovering.”


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California Protects Low-Income Access to Farmers Markets

Food deserts and food swamps have limited poor people’s ability to obtain fresh produce. Allowing SNAP use at farmers markets ensures that the markets are accessible to low-income people and are not the sole domain of the rich and well-off suburbanites. 

Kalena Thomhave

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This story first appeared in The American Prospect. Capital & Main is co-publishing it in partnership with the Prospect.


 

Last month, a complex government contracting decision created tumult in the farmers market world by threatening the ability of nearly 2,000 markets across the country to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as food stamps. However, thanks to a resilient state program, only one of those markets was in California.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture runs a program in which private contractors provide software and Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) processing equipment to farmers markets. But as the Prospect reported last month, the federal government abruptly changed its contract, forcing one major software company to announce it was going out of business during prime market season. The nonprofit Farmers Market Coalition began to crowdfund for markets to buy new equipment, and the National Association of Farmers Market Nutrition Programs and the state of New York hashed out plans to fund the software company, Novo Dia, so it could continue to operate for the rest of the summer season.

Through it all, however, farmers markets in California remained almost entirely insulated from this problem. In some states, farmers markets can choose a state program instead of the federal one to help pay for SNAP/EBT processing equipment, as this equipment can be expensive for farmers markets that often operate on slim budgets. While some states with their own equipment programs provide a limited amount of funding, California’s program pays all associated costs and fees for such transactions and provides free equipment to all approved markets. Nearly all of the state’s markets choose to work with the state program, which is run by the California Department of Social Services (CDSS).

Ever since EBT gained popularity two decades ago, California has been committed to making farmers markets accessible to people who use SNAP benefits to buy groceries, says Carle Brinkman, the food and farming program director at the Ecology Center, a sustainability nonprofit in Berkeley. In 2003, as paper food stamps were becoming obsolete in favor of EBT software, CDSS funded a project with the Ecology Center to pilot wireless point-of-sale devices that helped cement SNAP/EBT access at farmers markets. Since 2008, California has negotiated with its statewide EBT-processing vendor to include such equipment in the vendor contract itself.

“This mean[s] that the individual farmers market vendors or managers [do] not have to research which terminal to purchase, worry about coming up with the money for the terminal, or have to learn how to set it up on their own,” Michael Weston, CDSS’s deputy director of public affairs and outreach, told The American Prospect in an email. “The free wireless terminals have supported the farmers markets and direct farmers and have proven to be a real success in California,” he says.

There are 588 farmers markets, individual farmers and community-supported agriculture projects that accept California’s SNAP benefit, CalFresh. In 2017 alone, more than $4 million in CalFresh benefits were redeemed through farmers and farmers markets.

The free equipment, says Brinkman, is just a “regular old card reader” that she and colleagues refer to as “the brick” because of its clunkiness and its durability. Brinkman and the Ecology Center provide guidance and resources to farmers markets, such as assistance in applying for approval to accept SNAP, as well as connecting them with CDSS’s equipment program.

A history of crop subsidies for the ingredients in processed food has long made unhealthy foods both cheap and widely available, and food deserts and food swamps have limited poor people’s access to fresh produce. Allowing SNAP use at markets is key to ensuring that markets are accessible to low-income people and are not bastions of the rich and well-off suburbanites, as is commonly perceived.

California’s state equipment program “has been incredibly successful in taking a major step to make sure that farmers markets are for all people,” says Brinkman. Many markets nationwide, including hundreds in California, offer incentive programs that can double the value of a shopper’s SNAP benefit at the market, increasing the amount of produce they can put in their shopping bags. California’s Market Match program, which the Ecology Center manages, has served hundreds of thousands of shoppers since it began in 2009. According to a 2013 survey, the vast majority of low-income people reported that such incentive programs helped draw them to their farmers market. Brinkman says that these programs are one way to draw farmers markets to low-income communities, too.

California’s program is “allowing greater access to the farmers markets as a community resource,” says Brinkman. Entire communities can participate in “a sort of alternative local food system” where both farmers and the local community benefit. Many markets offer activities, Brinkman points out, like Zumba or reading programs for kids. More than a collection of healthy food stands, they can become community gathering spaces. But for that to happen, markets need to be supported with the resources to operate.


 

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