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Criminal Justice

Video: Los Angeles Rejects Spy Program

What the Los Angeles Police Department advertised as a community engagement program turned out to be a policy of surveillance of local Muslims.

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Learning Curves

New Report Tallies the Hidden Costs of Charter Schools

Also in this week’s column: Omarosa reveals Betsy DeVos’ nom de Trump. Austin Beutner hires Chris Christie’s Newark schools supe. Gary Hart’s “legislative jiu-jitsu.”

Bill Raden

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Omarosa Manigault Newman photo by Gage Skidmore

“Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to  braden@capitalandmain.com, @BillRaden.


 

Though last year’s 25th anniversary of California’s Charter Schools Act of 1992 came and went with little fanfare, former state Senator Gary Hart, the author of that deeply polarizing law, surfaced at EdSource this week to take a birthday bow. In an interview with John Fensterwald, the retired Democrat grudgingly admitted “some districts face loss of revenue due to charter growth” and suggested that some sort of state mitigation for siphoned-off enrollment might be in order.

But Hart’s most telling admission is the act of “legislative jiu-jitsu” he said it took to squelch deliberation on his radical experiment in privatized education before the full senate: “[We] pulled the bill out of conference committee and passed it quickly off the senate floor with no debate and sent it to [Republican governor Pete] Wilson.” Had the teachers unions been permitted to be heard on the bill, he added, “it likely would not have passed.”

The lost-revenues impact of Hart’s law gets put into powerful dramatic relief in a five-minute documentary (shown above) posted this week by education advocates In The Public Interest. The unequivocally titled “Charter Schools Are Draining California’s Education Funding” canvasses the same three highly chartered and fiscally teetering districts profiled in ITPI’s charter fiscal impact study from May — Oakland Unified, San Diego Unified and San Jose’s East Side Union High School District.

We can now stop wondering whether Donald Trump has a private endearment for Betsy DeVos. According to this week’s bombshell from former Trump White House adviser Omarosa Manigault Newman, he does, and it’s “Ditzy DeVos.” To be fair, it’s an unusually mild pejorative considering the half-baked bigotry attributed to the Secretary of Education in Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House, Manigault Newman’s sensational tell-all memoir.

Recounting the Amway billionaire’s reaction to being booed by angry graduates at historically black Bethune-Cookman University, Manigault Newman writes that DeVos afterwards dismissed the protesters, saying, “They don’t have the capacity to understand what we’re trying to accomplish.” “Oh no, Madam Secretary,” Manigault Newman claims to have shot back. “They get it, and they aren’t happy about you or your goals.” Ditzy promptly bumped her from the motorcade.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line about there being no second acts in American lives clearly doesn’t apply to a pair of veteran ed reform consultants just hired by L.A. Unified schools chief Austin Beutner.

Before joining Team Beutner, ThirdWay Solutions founder Cami Anderson was Newark, New Jersey’s parent-alienating schools superintendent from 2011 to 2015. Her Mark Zuckerberg-funded “One Newark” universal enrollment scheme led to numerous neighborhood school closures, mass firings and multiple complaints of civil rights violations.

And Erin McGoldrick Brewster, a partner at “portfolio district” specialists Kitamba, was singled out in a 2011 investigative piece by USA Today for helping then-Washington, DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee stonewall an investigation into higher-than-typical erasure rates on multiple-choice standardized tests during Rhee’s controversial test score-linked merit pay program.

The consultants, who are part of a new deregulation initiative announced by Beutner last week, will be paid off the LAUSD books, courtesy of a $3 million discretionary fund partly financed by billionaire school privatizer Eli Broad.


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Environment

Lead Poisoning Widespread Among California Workers

The problem in California doesn’t appear to lie with finding out about lead-poisoned workers, but with what happens — or doesn’t happen — when some state officials get that information.

Joe Rubin

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Remaining part of Bay Bridge during 2015 demolition, left. (Photo: Burkhard Mücke)

Despite their company’s safety promises, 12 employees working on the demolition of part of the Bay Bridge were lead-poisoned between 2013 and 2016.


 

Last March, Capital & Main launched an investigative series, “Battery Blood,” which revealed that hundreds of workers at the former Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon, California, had for decades been exposed to lead poisoning. Even worse, the state’s public health department knew about it but failed to act. Now, utilizing data obtained from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), our joint investigation with the University of Southern California’s Center for Health Journalism has found at least 80 companies — including one that recently dismantled parts of the iconic  San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge — continue to have  workers in California who are lead-poisoned at levels high enough to cause birth defects, tremors and a variety of brain disorders.

Once again we found that CDPH routinely failed to refer even the most egregious employers to state enforcement officers who can levy fines and require mandatory changes.

Some of the most extensive problems were found at other car battery recycling plants in working-class areas of Los Angeles. At one plant, Trojan Battery Recycling Company had 174 employees with elevated levels of lead in their blood between 2015 and 2016.


A state safety agency accepted the dismantling company’s explanation that one bridge worker was lead-poisoned because he chewed tobacco.


“It’s beyond upsetting,” Bell city councilman Nestor Valencia said. He lives in one of the roughly 10,000 residential properties contaminated at levels above what is safe for kids by lead emissions from the Exide plant. “You know we need these jobs, but not at the expense of worker health or keeping kids who live nearby safe. This is what state government is supposed to be for, and they are failing us.” Valencia said he was shocked to learn that other nearby plants continue to have lead-poisoned workers.

The Bay Area also has serious ongoing problems. There were lead-poisoning victims among those working on the demolition of the eastern span of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. Despite promises to keep workers safe from lead, California Engineering Contractors, which received a $200 million dollar state contract to dismantle the earthquake-damaged span, had 12 cases of lead-poisoned employees between 2013 and 2016.

And at Target Masters West, an indoor gun range in the city of Milpitas, there have been more than 25 lead-poisoning cases in the last decade amongst workers who clean and manage the range. Seven cases were reported during 2015 and 2016, the most recent years for which data is available.


The California Department of Public Health has shown a stunning level of reluctance to turn lead-poisoning cases over to Cal/OSHA for enforcement.


Target Master West owner Bill Heskett bristled at the suggestion his workers had been poisoned, asserting that a spate of recent findings by public health experts that lead at lower levels is harmful to human health “isn’t based in real science and has been set by a bunch of clerks with no accountability.” Heskett said that the recent spikes in lead levels at his range were attributable to an employee “who wasn’t following protocols.” The employee was terminated, Heskett said.

In response to the Exide revelations in our March investigation, a bill was introduced in the California legislature by Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-San Jose). Assembly Bill 2963 would require mandatory inspections at any workplace where a worker’s blood lead level is at or above 25 micrograms per deciliter. Even at levels as low as 10 micrograms per deciliter, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Controls (CDC), people with prolonged exposure to the neurotoxin are at higher risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease and reduced fertility.

While the legislation has faced stiff opposition from industry groups and only passed out of the Assembly by a single vote, it has stronger support in the Senate and appears likely to make it to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk.

Among AB 2963’s supporters is Senator Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont), who expressed dismay that problems at the Milpitas gun range (which is in his district), the Bay Bridge project and elsewhere have been allowed to linger. “If you had a family member or a friend exposed to high blood lead levels, you would want to see immediate action taken to reduce that exposure,” Wieckowski said. “The health and safety of all workers should be the top priority.”

Two Agencies Working in Silos

The problem in California doesn’t appear to lie with finding out about lead-poisoned workers, but with what happens when some state officials get that information.

At battery plants, gun ranges and other workplaces where exposure to lead is common, the state of California requires companies to test their workers for elevated levels of lead. The custodian of that testing information is a division of CDPH called the Occupational Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (OLPPP). The division is funded through a small fee on employers in industries that work with lead. In theory, OLPPP provides education to companies and at the agency’s discretion can refer serious cases to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, better known as Cal/OSHA. The enforcement agency can then determine the cause of problems and issue fines when unsafe practices are found.


“They’ve lost sight of the fundamental mission, to make sure that at the end of the day workers come home to their families safe and sound.”


Our year-long investigation found a stunning level of reluctance on the part of CDPH to turn lead-poisoning cases over to Cal/OSHA for enforcement. Of the eight companies with some of the most persistent problems with lead exposure in California between 2013 and 2016, Cal/OSHA confirmed that it received no referrals from OLPPP for any of them during the last 10 years, and conducted no lead-related inspections at any of the companies. Many of the workplaces have had lead-poisoned workers for decades.

CDPH has declined repeated interview requests and did not respond in time for publication to written questions about its management of lead poisoning cases.

Through the state Public Records Act, Capital & Main obtained communications between OLPPP and California Engineering Contractors (CEC), one of the companies awarded a contract by California’s Department of Transportation to dismantle the Bay Bridge.

Read Documents Related to This Story

In October 2013, OLPPP informed the company that workers on the project would be exposed to lead coating as the steel bridge was dismantled. “Our role is to assist employers in identifying and correcting work practices that can result in employees being over exposed to lead,” the OLPPP wrote in a letter.

Within a year, workers on the project showed signs of elevated blood lead levels. The company asserted in an August, 2014 email to OLPPP that it could bring the situation under control. “We are confident we can get even the highest exposed workers under 10 µg/dl (BLL) with aggressive oversight and support,” wrote CEC safety director Robert Ikenberry.

Despite assurances, the problem of lead-poisoned employees grew worse. By 2015 one worker’s blood lead levels had exceeded 40 micrograms per deciliter, a level deemed “very high” by the CDC.  Michael McKinney, a safety manager for CEC had an explanation, which he provided in an email to OLPPP.  “The employee admitted to us that he was chewing tobacco during work. We feel that this practice is what caused the high lead level,” McKinney wrote.  OLPPP appeared to accept that explanation, and never referred the Bay Bridge project for Cal/OSHA inspection, even when elevated blood levels amongst workers jumped 25 percent the following year.

Mariano Kramer, a former district manager for Cal/OSHA, said that simply accepting emailed assurances from a company with lead-poisoned workers is not acceptable. “There are a myriad of issues which can cause elevated blood lead levels. A trained inspector knows how to identify them.”

In 27 states, workplace occupational lead safety standards are administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a federal agency. In those states, any blood lead level above 25 micrograms triggers an automatic OSHA inspection, through which fines for unsafe conditions can be levied and changes can be mandated. A similar standard would go into effect in California if AB 2963 becomes law.

Kramer said he supports the proposed legislation because it would empower his former agency to more aggressively target workplaces that lead-poison workers.

“But,” he added, “there are cultural issues within both agencies that no law will fix. They’ve lost sight of the fundamental mission, to make sure that at the end of the day workers come home to their families safe and sound.”

This article was produced as a project for the 2017 California Data Fellowship, a program of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.


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Labor & Economy

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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Labor & Economy

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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Politics & Government

Proposed Los Angeles Law Would Give Tenants Access to Attorneys

The City Council is considering a ‘right to counsel’ program that could help curb evictions and homelessness.

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Photo by B-A Graphix

An estimated 30,000 eviction cases are filed in court each year against Los Angeles city residents. Many more tenants do not show up in court since they know “they have limited legal rights and they have limited access to legal representation,” according to a recent report by Tenants Together, a renter advocacy organization.

Urged on by renter advocates, a Los Angeles City Council housing committee voted August 8 to support the creation of a ‘right to counsel’ law similar to ones that have been adopted by San Francisco and New York.

The committee approved a motion, authored by L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz, which directs staff to craft a program that would give more tenants facing eviction access to attorneys.

“Basic fairness dictates that if one side of an eviction proceeding has legal representation, the other side should have representation, too, and that equality before the law shouldn’t depend on income level,” said Jerry Jones, director of public policy at the Inner City Law Center. Jones joined about a dozen speakers at the committee meeting.

Compared to the high cost of addressing the homeless crisis, eviction defense is a relatively inexpensive means to prevent people from becoming homeless, according to Jones.

County and city officials are struggling to find temporary and permanent housing for the tens of thousands of residents who become homeless every year. And while there has been a slight decrease in the county’s homeless population since last year, the number of homeless – 53,000 – is still staggering, according to the last count. In addition, more people were homeless for the first time this year than last, suggesting unaffordable rents may be pushing people onto the street.

At the hearing, Janet Gagnon, a representative of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, complained that a right-to-counsel program would “simply give money to defense attorneys.” She said that public money would be better spent on vouchers “so that the people can avoid the eviction process entirely.”

But a 2017 analysis of pilot programs that offered free legal service to tenants concluded that providing counsel does have benefits. Eviction cases involving represented tenants are more likely to end in settlement, and most of those settlements reduced back-owed rent or helped protect tenants’ credit by keeping eviction notices off the public record.

The study, which was conducted by the Judicial Council of California, also found that 67 percent of cases involving represented tenants settled, as compared to 34 percent of cases in which people represented themselves. While all clients in the study received eviction notices, only 6 percent were ultimately evicted from their homes.

Jim Bickhart, a representative of Councilman Paul Koretz, said that the intent of the proposed measure was to expand the capacity of the current network of legal services, which currently serves “several thousand clients a year.”

“There is no way this proposal could provide free legal service to every tenant faced with eviction, but we should start somewhere,” he added. The motion is scheduled to be voted on by the full City Council on August 17.

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Hate Crime Watch

2 arrested in possible hate crime attack on Sikh man

Published by NBC News

Police believe the teenagers, one the son of a California police chief, may have been trying to rob the victim.

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Learning Curves

Betsy DeVos Throws Education Department in Reverse

DeVos takes an ax to student-loan forgiveness. A charter school folds in Los Angeles, while striking Banning teachers walk the line.

Bill Raden

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Closure: Misspelled notice on Celerity website.

“Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to  braden@capitalandmain.com, @BillRaden.


 

DeVos Watch: For shareholders in unscrupulous for-profit colleges, July brought the best kind of tidings from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — a reversal of key Obama curbs on industry practices that a 2012 Senate report described as “exorbitant tuition, aggressive recruiting practices, abysmal student outcomes, taxpayer dollars spent on marketing and pocketed as profit, and regulatory evasion and manipulation.”

To defrauded, debt-saddled students and their families, however, DeVos’ draft regulation rescinding Gainful Employment rules, and her rollback of loan forgiveness for victims of predatory colleges, come as the latest confirmation that the department has left the business of improving access to high-quality postsecondary education. And she’s only warming up.

Next on the chopping block are baseline student protections — whose “hollowing out,” advocates warn, will open up Title IV federal student aid dollars to sketchy programs by virtually eliminating oversight. DeVos’ negotiated rulemaking committee is expected to dismantle regulations on:

  • The credit hour, academia’s longstanding measure of student progress and a safeguard against course inflation and degree fraud;
  • State authorization and its guarantee that online programs satisfy state licensing requirements;
  • Accreditation, and assurance that colleges offer a quality education;
  • Regular and substantive interaction by online instructors with their students.

“It’s an undoing from the inside out so there are no rules at play,” Antoinette Flores of the Center for American Progress told the education news site Inside Higher Ed.

Say goodbye to Celerity Rolas Charter School, one of seven schools operated in Los Angeles by the corruptiontainted Celerity Educational Group. The charter organization announced last month that the Eagle Rock K-8 elementary and middle school didn’t have the enrollment to open its doors for the new term. In a bizarre parody of local control, Rolas had been one of two new Celerity schools authorized by the State Board of Education to open July 1 of last year — one day after, and with the same principals in the same locations as two other Celerity charters that were closed after being denied renewal by SBE. Schools that were meant to be shut down by three different education agencies effectively got away with simply changing their names.

Though the closure hardly makes a dent in California’s 1,275 charter school inventory, it’s hard not to see it as yet another indicator that mass school privatization may be losing its appeal among California parents, along with a good deal of its political welcome. Since California passed its first charter law in 1992, charters have failed to meaningfully outperform public schools — a fact which may have contributed to voters’ overwhelming primary rejection of Antonio Villaraigosa, the movement’s $23 million-backed candidate for governor. And last week, Ed Source reported that California charter growth has slowed dramatically in recent years — a rate that could grind to a halt should a Governor Gavin Newsom sign anticipated charter reforms into law.

With schools starting next week amid tense face-offs between teacher unions and school districts up and down California, a looming question is whether this bluest of blue states could see an outbreak like last spring’s red-state teachers rebellion.

In California, teacher exasperation at being asked to do more with less is never far from the boiling point. It comes after a 40-year, statewide schools disinvestment that a pre-Great Recession adequate funding study by the Public Policy Institute of California conservatively pegged at $17 billion.

In May, Oakland’s teachers union, angry over the district’s poor pay, immense turnover, large class sizes and dilapidated facilities, declared an impasse in contract negotiations and told teachers to prepare for a strike when school resumes in August. Ditto for teachers in San Jose’s Evergreen School District, which ended the last school year in stalled contract talks and the possibility of a strike in the fall. And in Los Angeles, where a deadlock between L.A. Unified and United Teachers Los Angeles has moved to state mediation, union president Alex Caputo-Pearl announced a strike authorization vote for the week of August 23.

But it was tiny Banning Unified in Riverside County, where teachers, furious over the district’s uncompensated, unilateral lengthening of the work day, became the first on Wednesday to actually call a three-day walkout. Whether or not strike fever spreads may lie more with the sympathies of parents than in the spirit of compromise.


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Labor & Economy

Trump’s Treasury Department Hands Banks a Windfall

Co-published by Splinter
The Treasury Department not only sided with banking lobbyists’ definition of “financial services,” but its new rule’s fine print echoed their interpretations of the 2017 federal tax law.

David Sirota

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Treasury Department photo: AgnosticPreachersKid

Co-published by Splinter

 

Do “financial services” include banking? Not according to the Trump administration, whose new rule, issued Wednesday by the Treasury Department, argues there is a difference — and then cites the alleged difference as a means of extending lucrative tax breaks to the banking industry. The new rule represents more than semantic hairsplitting and hands a huge windfall to the banking industry.

At issue is the Trump tax bill’s treatment of so-called pass-through income — or income that is gleaned from partnerships, LLCs and S corporations. The 2017 Republican tax legislation dramatically slashed tax rates on income from such entities, generating a firestorm of criticism that it was a giveaway to real estate moguls like Trump, U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) and other Republican backers of the legislation who have such entities in their personal portfolios. (The criticism became known as the “Corker Kickback” scandal.)

To reduce some of the cost of the overall tax cut bill — and to mute some of the specific criticism of the pass-through sections — GOP lawmakers included provisions prohibiting certain kinds of businesses from qualifying for the pass-through tax cut. One such business was “financial services,” and its removal countered assertions that the bill could enrich big banks.

However, less than a year after passage of the tax legislation, the Treasury Department, headed by former banker Steve Mnuchin, issued the proposed rule whose fine print asserts that “financial services” actually do not include banking. If that interpretation of the tax bill stands, hundreds of banks operating as S corporations — as well as their owners — could claim the tax cut.

“This is illustrative of the rigged process behind the bill, which was rushed through Congress without a single public hearing,” the Center for American Progress’ Seth Hanlon told Capital & Main. Hanlon served on President Obama’s National Economic Council. “How many members of Congress, let alone members of the public, understood that ‘financial services’ didn’t mean banking, and therefore that bankers would get a massive tax cut? This is the opposite of real tax reform.”

Banking industry lobbyists pushed for the interpretation — acknowledging that the bill generally blocked pass-through tax cuts for businesses in financial services, but arguing that “financial services are, however, clearly something other than banking.”

“We had extensive discussions with Congressional staff and various members in both the House and Senate,” wrote the American Bankers Association, Independent Community Bankers of America and Subchapter S Bank Association in a letter to the Treasury Department. “In the course of these discussions, we were assured repeatedly that S Banks would qualify for the lower tax rate for pass-through businesses.”

The Trump Treasury Department not only sided with the lobbyists, but in the fine print of its new rule, which is now subject to a public comment period before it goes into force, echoed their views.

“Commenters requested guidance as to whether financial services includes banking,” the Treasury Department said, referring to the banking industry. “The Treasury Department and the IRS agree with such commenters [that] financial services should be more narrowly interpreted here.”

The department then concluded that its interpretation “limits the definition of financial services to services typically performed by financial advisers and investment bankers…This includes services provided by financial advisers, investment bankers, wealth planners, and retirement advisers and other similar professionals, but does not include taking deposits or making loans.”

Tax attorney David Miller of the Proskauer law firm told Capital & Main: “The interpretation is consistent with denying the flow-through deduction only to labor-intensive industries. Banks tend to be capital, and not labor, intensive.”

“Treasury’s decision delivers a benefit to roughly 2,000 banks around the country that qualify as S corporations,” said University of Chicago tax law professor Daniel Hemel. “It’s a safe bet that most of the S corporation shareholders benefited by today’s decision will fall into the upper reaches of the top one percent — not many middle-class folks own a bank. The notion that ‘financial services’ excludes banking should be quite a surprise to members of the House Financial Services Committee, which thought that it had jurisdiction over banking.”

Hemel calculated that banks would end up reaping a big payout from the interpretation.

“If you assume a return on assets of around one percent and S corporation bank assets in the range of $400 billion, then the move reduces the total tax liability of S corporation bank shareholders by $300 million per year for 2018 through 2025,” he said. “We’re talking about something like $2.5 billion total. Small in comparison to the magnitude of the rest of the December 2017 giveaway, but $2.5 billion isn’t chump change.”

Steve Rosenthal of the Urban Institute said that while the Treasury Department fine print explicitly solidifies the tax cut for bankers, he said he believes the interpretation does not contradict congressional intent.

“I thought Congress gave away the house in the legislation, and I spoke to Hill staffers who said subchapter S banks are going to get a 20 percent deduction, and so I don’t think the new Treasury rule runs contrary to what Congress wanted,” he told Capital & Main. “This is definitely a huge giveaway — I just think it was Congress that did the original giveaway.”


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Environment

Can the EPA Roll Back California’s Clean Air Standards?

Co-published by The American Prospect
The Trump administration wants to argue that California has no special right to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. But their case, experts say, is weak.

Judith Lewis Mernit

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Los Angeles sunset.

The new Safer and Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles rule would nullify California regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from tailpipes and its zero-emission vehicle program.


Co-published by The American Prospect

When officials within the Trump administration, on August 2, proposed scaling back Obama-era fuel-economy standards and revoking California’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from tailpipes, they were betting on the chance that courts can’t tell the difference between a law against gas guzzlers and one against carbon belchers. Low-mileage cars and low-emissions cars are often one and the same, they may have reasoned. If you’re requiring a car to emit less carbon dioxide, you’re also asking that it burn less fuel.

That part might be mostly true, although there are emissions controls that have nothing to do with gas mileage. But from a legal standpoint, fuel economy and tailpipe emissions take distinctly different routes to regulation. Fuel-economy standards, known as the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE standard, as defined in the Energy Policy Conservation Act, forbid states from making their own rules. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration enforces them; states have no control.

The 1970 Clean Air Act, on the other hand, gives California the explicit authority to regulate air pollution, albeit with EPA sign-off in the form of a “waiver” each time the state wants to impose a new standard. Other states can adopt California’s stricter rules (12 of them and the District of Columbia, have). Or states can stick with the standards set by the federal government. Tailpipe emissions of other pollutants from cars and trucks — carbon monoxide and nitrous oxides, for starters — have long been a chief source of air pollution, and California since 1961 has acted to curtail them.


“California regulators were the first to understand how smog was formed, the first to act on how to control that smog.”


That’s one of the reasons why the administration might lose its coming battle with 19 states and a host of environmental groups gearing up to fight the “Safer and Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles” rule, as the Environmental Protection Agency calls its apocalypse-hastening rollback, which would freeze the CAFE standard at 37 miles per gallon instead of aiming toward the 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 that the previous administration had set. It would nullify not only California regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from tailpipes but also California’s zero-emission vehicle program, which requires carmakers to market a certain number of all-electric or hydrogen vehicles in the state.

But the rollback doesn’t pass legal muster, says Irene Gutierrez, clean-energy attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Among its many legal and factual flaws, the proposed rule seeks to revoke California’s authority over tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases on the grounds that “the environmental problems it addresses are not particular or unique to California.” Yet nowhere does the Clean Air Act mention “particular or unique” as a waiver requirement.


California’s transportation sector puts more carbon-dioxide and its equivalents into the atmosphere than any state but Texas.


“The EPA has not in the past looked at California and said, ‘Prove to us that your ozone problems are worse than any other place in the country,’” Gutierrez says. “It’s not like there aren’t polluted air basins in other states.” When past waivers were granted — there have been more than 50 — it wasn’t because California and California alone had an air-quality problem. It was because California was seen as particularly aggressive about cleaning up its air and, in 1970, was far ahead of the federal government in doing so.

“California regulators were the first to understand how smog was formed, the first to act on how to control that smog,” says Meredith Hankins, a legal scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles. So it allowed the state to forward with what’s known as “technology-forcing” regulation.

“Technology-forcing means regulators aren’t picking the technology, aren’t picking the winners and losers,” Hankins says. “They’re saying ‘You figure it out — you’re the technology experts. All we care about is public health.’”


Climate change is undeniably hitting the state now with a particular and unique dose of fury.


But even if the law said California had to be unique in its suffering from greenhouse gas emissions, it would not be hard to make the case that it is. For one thing, with its glut of cars, California has an urgent responsibility to reduce its contribution to greenhouse gas pollution from cars and trucks. Forty-one percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, according to the California Air Resource Board’s latest climate inventory. The state’s transportation sector puts more carbon-dioxide and its equivalents into the atmosphere than any state but Texas.

Plus, climate change is undeniably hitting the state this moment with a particular and unique dose of fury. “There are 18 fires burning in the state right now, and none of them are contained,” Gutierrez says. Several more have already leveled neighborhoods. One of them, near Redding, in Northern California, burned so hot that it scorched away a layer of earth.

It’s an odd time, then, for the Environmental Protection Agency to be fighting against environmental protection. Especially in California.

California’s climate gas waiver for cars was first denied by the Bush administration in 2008, when then-EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson made basically the same case: That California does not “need to meet compelling and extraordinary conditions” with respect to greenhouse gas pollution. Six months into the Obama administration, the EPA officially reversed that decision. “Opponents of the waiver have not demonstrated that California does not need its greenhouse gas emission standards to meet compelling and extraordinary conditions,” EPA Administration Lisa Jackson wrote at the time. She also affirmed that “Congress recognized that California could serve as a pioneer and a laboratory for the nation in setting new motor vehicle emissions standards.”

“Trump is trying to rehash those old Bush administration arguments,” Gutierrez says. Trump’s administration is also adding a bonus caveat: that clean vehicles are, by definition, small and unsafe. The proposal claims that canceling out both national fuel standards and California’s waiver will reduce traffic fatalities by 12,700 from 2021 to 2029.

Never mind that it’s possible to produce a substantial, low-emissions plug-in hybrid, such as Chrysler’s Pacifica minivan, just as it is to make a smaller car that pollutes (the 2009 model of the Ferrari F430, for instance, isn’t particularly big, but it packs the same climate wallop as the 2001 model of the hulking Ford Explorer.) Carmakers are getting better all that time at designing more substantial, longer-range and affordable cars that qualify as clean. Nearly every manufacturer has a plug-in hybrid crossover SUV on the line for 2019. Even Ford, which has been slow to the EV game — dutifully churning out “compliance” vehicles just to qualify for the strict California market — has announced a plug-in hybrid model of its crossover SUV, the Escape.

Besides, the goal of saving 12,000 lives rings a little hollow when you consider that heat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is the leading cause of all annual weather-related deaths in the U.S. The World Health Organization predicts that between 2030 and 2050, 250,000 people will die globally due to climate-related health impacts. Maybe we could all just drive a little more carefully.


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