San Francisco’s Prop C Would Make Tech Companies Address the Homelessness Crisis They Helped Create

National media coverage of San Francisco’s Proposition C — which would raise taxes on the city’s largest businesses in order to increase funding to address the city’s homelessness crisis — is largely focused on how the question has divided tech titans.

The highest-profile spat has been between Salesforce’s Marc Benioff and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, the former of whom gave millions of dollars to the campaign to pass Proposition C, while the latter has derided the initiative as “quick acts to make us feel good for one moment in time.”

But this debate isn’t really about tech companies and the political preferences of their wealthy CEOs. Proposition C is about our priorities at a time when wealth and power are more concentrated in America than they have been in decades.

Were Proposition C to pass, taxes would increase for 300 or so of the city’s biggest businesses, raising $250-$300 million  for homelessness supports. (Last year, the city spent $380 million on homelessness programs, so this proposal would increase that funding by at least 65 percent.) At least half of the new funds must be dedicated to permanent housing, which research shows is the most effective way to combat homelessness, with the remainder split between mental health care, shelters, and prevention efforts.

“The idea is simple. It’s about taxing our largest and wealthiest corporations and redistributing that to our most vulnerable communities,” said Sam Lew, policy director at the Coalition on Homelessness. “The everyday San Franciscan won’t be impacted by this tax. It’s really those who are making the most profit and asking them to pay their fair share and give back to the community.”

If this sounds somewhat familiar, that’s because it is. Seattle’s city council passed and then rescinded a corporate tax to bolster funding for homelessness prevention in April, backtracking after the city’s biggest companies — and most prominently Amazon — objected and threatened to put a direct vote over the issue onto the ballot in November. Amazon also halted a construction project in the city during the dispute, threatening to blunt its economic activity if the tax remained in place.

“I and other people out on the streets have reached the conclusion that this is not a winnable battle at this time. The opposition has unlimited resources,” said one city council member who voted first for the tax and then for its repeal.

A similar dynamic is at play in San Francisco ahead of November’s vote. The threat from big businesses, such as Square, Lyft, Stripe and the others who have donated to a “No on C” campaign,  is that Proposition C would kill jobs or deter companies from coming to the Bay Area without solving the homelessness problem. However, a report from the city controller found that were the tax enacted, there would only be 725-875 fewer jobs in the city over the next 20 years, amounting to just 0.1 percent of total employment, while the measure would provide housing for thousands of people.

The “Twitter tax break” saved companies $34 million in 2014 alone.

One of the selling points for Proposition C campaigners is that the measure would simply offset some of the tax benefits that corporations received in 2017 courtesy of the Trump administration and conservatives in Congress. It would also begin to counteract some of the vast under-investments that the federal government has made in affordable housing funding since the Reagan administration, says Lew.

“Because of that huge divestment in public housing, there’s been an increase in homelessness across the United States and there hasn’t been a reinvestment in that in the last 30-35 years,” she said. “What we’re saying in San Francisco is that we’re going to be leaders in providing housing for people who need it. We’re actually going to spend the money that we need to spend to house people.”

San Francisco has about 7,500 people who are homeless, according to the latest data, which is almost certainly an undercount due to the inherent difficulties in accessing the homeless population. People experiencing homelessness in San Francisco are also disproportionately people of color or members of the LGBTQ community, per the city’s most recent survey.

Homelessness in both San Francisco and the U.S. has risen in recent years for many reasons, but one of them is growing economic inequality. In California and San Francisco in particular, that inequality is boosted in no small part by the presence of America’s tech titans. Plenty of research has shown that tech clustering is responsible for the growing wage gap in big cities, and for the divergence between wages in those cities and elsewhere. And that clustering didn’t happen completely organically: San Francisco provided tax breaks to tech companies that settled in the city, with one known as the “Twitter tax break” saving companies $34 million in 2014 alone.

Tech workers have seen their incomes rise in California. Everyone else hasn’t been so fortunate.

Tech workers, especially at the richer end of the income scale, have seen their incomes rise in California. However, everyone else hasn’t been so fortunate:  According to a recent report, wages for 90 percent of California workers are lower than they were 20 years ago.  There’s also no shortage of stories about other inequalities in the Bay Area, on everything from food to transportation to education.

Even a decent paying job is no guarantee of affordable housing, thanks in part to the tech-industry driving gentrification and increased housing prices in California’s major cities. Average rent in San Francisco varies depending on how it is calculated, but many analyses place it above $3,000 per month. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, renting a modest two-bedroom home in the city requires a wage of more than $60 per hour.

These figures, not which tech CEO said what on Twitter, get at the essence of Proposition C. The only question that really matters is: Will San Francisco will ask its wealthiest corporations to pay slightly more so that thousands of currently homeless people can have a roof over their heads?

“We’re on this national platform now because two CEOs of tech companies are fighting about whether it should be passed,” said Lew. “But at the end of the day we’re fighting for a measure that’s going to save lives regardless of what billionaires are thinking.”



Winter Is Coming, and Fuel Costs Will Hit the Poor the Hardest

Winter is coming, and it’s going to be colder for some than others.

“Starting junior year,” recalls Alexis Stewart, a West Virginia-based writer and musician, “my mom said we couldn’t afford heat and I had to ‘suck it up.’ I don’t know if we didn’t qualify for [the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program] those years or if the funding ran out before they got to us. I bought a space heater with money from my part time job, but because of the poor insulation, I’d still wake up to a stiff frozen blanket.”

Stewart grew up in a low-income household and today still struggles with the cost of heat. While living in one antiquated shared home in Huntington, “the food bank used to see a lot of me between November and March” thanks to high heating bills that were challenging even when split among six people.

Stewart is not alone in experiencing the “heat or eat” bind. A 2015 Department of Energy study found 25 million American households skipping food and medicine to pay for energy, with 7 million reporting they did so every month.

A household faces a high-energy burden, also described as energy insecurity or fuel poverty, any time heating costs exceed 10 percent of its income. Prices for fuel oil and propane spike in January and February, during the coldest part of the winter, and are on track to increase in 2018 over 2017, with propane costs per gallon across the country 8 cents higher in October 2018 than October 2017, according to the Department of Energy. (The amount of fuel needed by a household varies significantly depending on location, temperature, insulation, and other factors.)

Electricity prices tend to peak in summer, reflecting cooling costs, but are also on a steady upward trend. And these numbers do not necessarily capture the true cost of heating a home to a comfortable temperature, as Stewart’s experience demonstrates, only what is spent on heating.

Data show high energy burdens hit low-income people particularly hard, and that prices are heavily racialized as well, with Black households paying more thanks to inequalities in access to credit, paired with pricing structures that can penalize households that use minimal electricity. Elderly and disabled people can also face a high energy burden between medical conditions that may necessitate warmer temperatures and their higher poverty rates.

Poorly maintained heating systems and homes that lack energy efficiency updates can drive up heating expenses even further. A 2017 WUFT investigation in Gainesville, Florida, identified “substandard housing” as a significant culprit in differential energy costs, noting that low-income people are more likely to live in homes with energy efficiency shortcomings. Lauren Ross, Director of the Local Policy Program at American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, notes that her research has shown this to be a particular problem in rural areas, where housing stock is of much poorer quality.

Precise numbers on deaths associated with extreme cold are a subject of dispute, as there are many ways to define a cold death beyond obvious cases of hypothermia caused by exposure, but it’s a certainty that cold kills. Secondary illnesses and other complications associated with cold can cause cold-related deaths as well.

A 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study on deaths attributed to weather on death certificates found that two thirds — about 1,200 people annually — were associated with cold, with those in low-income communities much more likely to experience weather-related deaths. In 2015, a Lancet paper found deaths attributed to cold were 20 times more common than those associated with heat, making particular note of the fact that extreme cold wasn’t the leading cause of death: Even moderately cold temperatures were enough to kill.

Cold also makes people sick, especially elders, disabled people, and the Black community, according to the Lancet research. Cold can cause health problems for people with preexisting heart conditions, respiratory disorders, and more. A 2010 UK study noted children raised in cold conditions experienced developmental delays and other health complications.

Carbon monoxide poisoning caused by broken or unvented heaters used in enclosed rooms to combat cold, as has been observed in households trying to heat themselves without power after storms, is also a potential issue for households struggling with energy insecurity.

Precise numbers on deaths associated with extreme cold are a subject of dispute ... but it’s a certainty that cold kills.

The consequences of being unable to afford heating go further, though. Being unable to pay utility bills can reflect negatively on tenants’ credit and may indicate that a household is at risk of foreclosure or eviction; utility bills were identified as a potential cause of homelessness in a 2007 University of Colorado, Denver analysis of the state’s Point in Time homelessness count.

Programs such as LIHEAP and the Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program are designed to address these issues, but they fall short on funds, community outreach, and scope — they sometimes have rigid rules that will allow a program to replace a heater, but not to repair a badly warped door that allows freezing air to blast through a house, for example.  Financial assistance programs administered by utilities and community organizations have similar shortcomings. So people often rely on support from churches, friends, family, and strangers – sites like GoFundMe include fundraisers asking for help filling fuel oil tanks, paying off delinquent bills, and repairing heating equipment.

LIHEAP, established in 1981, offers state-administered funds to people making 200 percent of the federal poverty level or 60 percent of state median, but it is a first-come, first-serve program that often runs out of funds before it’s reached all the people who need it. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, just 20 percent of households who qualify receive funding each year. The Trump administration has also tried to eliminate the program, twice.

But increasing LIHEAP and efficiency program funding alone won’t solve the bigger problem. State-by-state laws on maintenance of heating infrastructure and whether landlords are required to provide heat vary widely, creating uncertainty about landlord responsibility for the safety and operability of heating equipment. Even in states where landlord responsibility is clear, tenants may fear retaliation if they ask for repairs or energy efficiency improvements.

Ross says many local programs aimed at addressing these problems don’t take advantage of stacking available funds — like federal dollars and a regional energy efficiency grant – to address underserved households with improvements that will lower energy bills and improve quality of life. Changes to restrictive policies that limit how funds can be spent are also necessary.

“In adulthood, I’ve moved an average of once every two years in the past ten. Most of those were mostly economic driven,” said Stewart. Lower heating bills — and higher wages — could change that.


First Person

We Voted for a Union at Columbia and We’re Willing to Fight For It

Graduate workers at Columbia are the people who teach courses and discussion sections, grade papers and exams, hold office hours and meet with students. We’re the teaching assistants and research assistants who conduct the daily work essential to keeping the university’s many labs and research institutes running.

However, the pay and benefits we receive do not reflect our vital role within the institution, so we voted to unionize in December 2016. The federal government certified the union election months ago, but the university has refused to come to the bargaining table. We went on strike in April to protest this denial to recognize our democratically chosen union, and we’re willing to do so again.

The inability of Columbia workers to collectively bargain for better wages and benefits has many concrete consequences. They are felt day by day, such as when one of us is sitting at the dentist, reading through treatment plans and weighing the costs.

Fillings? Have to happen. Everything else can certainly wait, right? New glasses might be in order, but aren’t covered by insurance, either.

During the academic year, around half of our pay goes toward rent, and our summer stipends force us to stretch around $3,300 (before taxes) across three months. Stipends vary across departments, but they aren’t all guaranteed and can depend on individual advisers’ access to grant money. So we do what many of our colleagues do: Take care of only the most urgent concerns while putting everything else off.

For some, that even means putting plans to have a family on hold, since Columbia’s $2,000 annual child care subsidy, while a saving grace for those who receive it, still barely puts a dent in covering the cost of child care in New York City.

The university has not only refused to recognize our union, but also engaged in a long battle to prevent us from holding a vote in the first place. In fact, the Columbia administration argued in front of the National Labor Relations Board that graduate workers are not workers at all, and then actively propagandized in an attempt to dissuade workers from voting to unionize.

The administration lost both battles, with the NLRB affirming graduate workers’ right to unionize in August of 2016, and 72 percent of the graduate worker body subsequently voting in favor of a union in December.

It would require a minuscule fraction of Columbia’s budget to cover dental and vision insurance for its graduate workers or to increase the child care subsidy, which makes its refusal to recognize our union worse. What amounts to pocket change for a university with an endowment of $10.9 billion would mean a drastic increase in the quality of life for graduate workers.

Harvard, Brown, Cornell, NYU, The New School, Tufts, Brandeis, American University, and Georgetown have all recognized their graduate worker unions and are at various stages of negotiations or already have agreed to a contract, while Columbia remains steadfast in its attempts to deny us our rights. The contract negotiated at NYU awarded grad workers some of the benefits we deserve, such as dental coverage, and increased their stipends.

We know that rising inequality in the United States is making it increasingly difficult for those without privileged backgrounds to succeed.

As sociologists, we know that rising inequality in the United States is making it increasingly difficult for those without privileged backgrounds to succeed. We also know that unions reduce inequality, increase wages, and improve conditions for workers of color. The issues at stake are not just material, however. For example, union organizing is helping to provide much-needed support for graduate workers experiencing sexual harassment.

Columbia’s administration is led by a Board of Trustees whose members include investment bankers and venture capitalists, high-powered lawyers, real estate developers, and a pharmaceutical executive. When they persistently — and illegally — ignore multiple NLRB decisions and refuse to bargain with our graduate worker union, it is clear that they are engaging in the same attack on workers that has led to the concentration of income and power for those at the top of the economic hierarchy.

These attacks make apparent the hypocrisy and ease with which powerful institutions depicting themselves as defenders of democracy align with some of the Trump administration’s worst policies, so as not to forgo a drop of their control and capital.

And as sociologists, we know, too, that power concedes nothing without a demand. Since the administration has made it clear that it does not intend to respect the NLRB’s rulings, and since recent Trump appointees to our nation’s courts are unlikely to side with workers, we have few options left other than withholding our labor – which, of course, Columbia claims is not labor at all. We hope a prolonged strike will tip the cold economic calculations surely underlying the administration and the Board of Trustees’ decisions.

Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University and a co-chair of the prestigious National Academies of Sciences’ committee on the future of voting, has said that “Nothing is more essential to a functioning democracy than the trust citizens have in casting their ballots.” However, he and the rest of administration have not extended that principle to recognize the results of our legal, democratic vote in favor of unionization.

So our union is ready to demonstrate not only that our labor is critical to the functioning of the university, but that as workers, we have power in numbers – and the power to strike. Because when democracy is under attack, what do we do? Stand up and fight back.



Unionized Baseball Players Making Millions Just Crossed a Hotel Picket Line

On October 4, the New York Yankees were in Boston for the playoff series against the Boston Red Sox. A Boston Magazine reporter posted a video to Twitter of the Yankees walking into their hotel, the Ritz-Carlton. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be newsworthy.

This was different; the Yankees were crossing a picket line of unionized hotel workers who were striking outside the hotel. The players mostly avoided eye contact with the workers, keeping their heads down as they walked through the protest and into the hotel. Crossing a picket line is considered egregious enough, but what made it even more galling to some is that Major League Baseball players are themselves members of one of the strongest unions in the country: The Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA).

The hotel strike has been ongoing since October 3, after months of negotiations between the hotel workers’ union, UNITE HERE, and Marriott failed. It has grown to include workers in eight cities, including San Francisco, Oakland, San Diego, San Jose, Detroit, Honolulu, and Maui. UNITE HERE Local 26 is representing hotel workers at seven Marriott properties across Boston, the first to strike, as they fight for more consistent hours, greater job stability, job protection against automation, and increased protection from sexual harassment on the job. Thousands of workers have participated in the strike, according to the union. On Wednesday, two weeks after the strike began, Boston City Council unanimously voted to support the workers.

For the striking workers, the actions of the Yankees players felt like a personal affront. “It was a huge slap in the face, honestly,” says Courtney Leonard, a 28-year-old server in the Birch Bar inside the Westin Boston Waterfront, where she’s worked for seven years. “They’re a union and we’re a union and we’re supposed to all stick together.” Why didn’t the Yankees players see themselves as allied with fellow union members in the hospitality industry?

According to The Nation, the Boston hotel workers are at least 60 percent female and 85 percent Black, Latino, and Asian, and include many immigrants. “Housekeepers—by far the largest segment of the unionized hotel workforce—earn an average of $21.45 an hour, the equivalent of about $44,000 for those who work 40 hours a week year-round,” The Nation reported. By contrast, the minimum salary for MLB players is $545,000, and the average salary is $4.5 million.

Baseball players officially gained union status in 1966, after struggling to get a foothold in the years before that. Their ability to become an officially recognized union came thanks to Marvin Miller, a former steelworkers’ union economic advisor and Brooklyn Dodgers fan. A year after Miller took charge of the union, the minimum salary was set at $6,000 ($45,984 in today’s dollars) and the average salary was $19,000 ($145,616). Under Miller, the MLBPA helped the players go from what Miller called “the most exploited group of workers I had ever seen—more exploited than the grape pickers of Cesar Chavez,” to a group with incredible strength and bargaining power. Over the years, this has allowed players to negotiate things from more control over their schedule to better travel arrangements to being able to achieve free agency, which would allow them opportunities to make more money and play in different markets.

UNITE HERE is also in the organizing tradition of Chavez; he personally supported UNITE HERE, speaking at one of their rallies and saying during a televised interview in the 1980s, “I couldn’t believe the conditions the workers were working under when I came in.”

Over the years, there have been several player strikes in major league baseball, with players utilizing their collective power to demand better job conditions—like the UNITE HERE workers are doing in Boston. A Yankees player who makes $11.5 million per season, like Brett Gardner does, may not feel like he has much in common with the hotel workers he brushed past. But his job security and salary were negotiated through the same organizing tactics the UNITE HERE workers are using to negotiate theirs.

Under criticism, the MLBPA released a statement to SBNation about the Boston strike, saying, “From what we understand, these workers have been trying to negotiate a fair contract for more than six months. They deserve to be heard and they deserve our support.”

What would it look like for members of the MLBPA to support the UNITE HERE strike? As union workers with considerably more power, the athletes could put pressure on Marriott by bringing attention to the strike and expressing their solidarity with the workers by not staying at Marriott-owned hotels while the workers are on strike. Instead, not a single New York Yankee—nor the team itself—has issued a statement of any kind, nor does it seem any individual athletes have, either.

Not a single New York Yankee—nor the team itself—has issued a statement of any kind, nor does it seem any individual athletes have, either.

“They like being able to come here and stay in these luxurious hotels but the men and women who are the ones who actually work to make sure their accommodation is up to their standards, we have to work two sometimes three jobs just to make that happen,” says Leonard, who has been priced out of her hometown of South Boston and now commutes 105 miles each day to work from New Bedford, Mass. “It’s not easy for any of us to be out here, but we’re all out here because we know we can’t keep going at this pace and we know we work for the largest and richest hotel company in the world. Their support would have been much appreciated, but it is what it is now, unfortunately.”

Today, the MLBPA is run by Tony Clark, a former member who lacks the experience of the various labor lawyers that preceded him. With the exit of the staunch union men, it’s possible that players lack the kind of worker solidarity that may have existed at another point in time; MLB players haven’t been exploited and underpaid in the way they once were for decades, and it’s certainly not anything that the current crop of players has ever experienced. While many of the players have increased social status that comes with being a professional athlete, many of them are also children of immigrants or come from working class backgrounds. The upward mobility of the athletes themselves may help explain why the two unions have such comparatively different positions.

Still, the Boston workers expect more from the ballplayers. After all, as D. Taylor, the International President of UNITE HERE, told The Nation, “We are fighting for exactly what the baseball players once fought for.”



How Banks Slid Into the Payday Lending Business

Meet the new payday loan. It looks a lot like the old payday loan.

Under the Obama administration, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau attempted to rein in abusive payday lending, by, among other measures, forcing lenders to ensure borrowers had the means to pay back their loans. The Trump administration, under interim CFPB Director Mick Mulvaney, is looking to roll back those rules and give payday lenders, who as an industry donated significant amounts of money to Mulvaney when he was a congressman, more room to operate. A high-profile rule proffered by the CFPB to govern payday loans is under review, and Mulvaney’s CFPB has also dropped cases the bureau had previously pursued against payday lenders.

Payday lenders have taken notice, and are already adapting their business to evade regulation. Meanwhile, small-dollar, high-interest lending has migrated to other parts of the financial industry, including traditional banks. Banks aren’t actually calling their loans “payday loans” — preferring names like “Simple Loan” — but the problems, including high costs and the potential for creating a debilitating cycle of debt, are largely the same.

Payday loans are short-term loans, so named because they are meant to be paid back when the borrower earns her next paycheck. The interest rates on these loans are high, running up to 400 percent or more. (For comparison’s sake, a borrower will pay about 5 percent interest on a prime mortgage today, and between 15 and 20 percent on a credit card.) Payday lenders tend to cluster in areas where residents are disproportionately low-income or people of color, preying on economic insecurity and those for whom traditional lending and banking services are unavailable or insufficient.

It’s not only those high interest rates that make the loans lucrative for lenders and damaging for borrowers. Much of the income payday lenders derive comes from repeat business from a small population of borrowers who take out loan after loan after loan, engaging in so-called “churn.” According to the CFPB, more than 75 percent of loan fees come from borrowers who use 10 or more loans per year. These borrowers wrack up big fees that outweigh the economic benefit provided by the loans and become stuck in a cycle of debt.

This is serious money we’re talking about: Prior to the Obama administration’s attempt to more strongly regulate the industry, payday lenders  made some $9.2 billion annually. That total is down to about $5 billion today, even before the Obama team’s rules have fully gone into effect. Meanwhile, many states have also taken positive steps in recent years to regulate payday lending. (The loans are also outright banned in some states.)

However, that doesn’t mean payday lending is going out of style.

Payday lenders seem well aware of the state of regulatory flux in which they find themselves.

For starters, old payday lenders have revamped their products, offering loans that are paid in installments — unlike old payday loans that are paid back all at once — but that still carry high interest rates. Revenue from that sort of lending increased by more than $2 billion between 2012 and 2016. The CFPB’s rules don’t cover installment-based loans.

“They claim that these loans are different, are safer, are more affordable, but the reality is they carry all the same markers of predatory loans,” said Diane Standaert, director of state policy at the Center for Responsible Lending. These markers include their high cost, the ability of lenders to access borrowers’ bank accounts, and that they are structured to keep borrowers in a cycle of debt. “We see all of those similar characteristics that have plagued payday loans,” Standaert said.

Meanwhile, big banks are beginning to experiment with small-dollar, short-term loans. U.S. Bank is the first to roll out a payday loan-like product for its customers, lending them up to $1,000 short-term, with interest rates that climb to 70 percent and higher. (Think $12 to $15 in charges per $100 borrowed.)

Previously, American’s big financial institutions were very much discouraged from getting into small-dollar, high-interest lending. When several major American banks, including Wells Fargo and Fifth Third, rolled out short-term lending products prior to 2013, they were stopped by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulates national banks. “[These] products share a number of characteristics with traditional payday loans, including high fees, short repayment periods, and inadequate attention to the ability to repay.  As such, these products can trap customers in a cycle of high-cost debt that they are unable to repay,” said the OCC at the time.

In October 2017, however, the OCC — now under the auspices of the Trump administration — reversed that ruling. In May 2018, it then actively encouraged national banks to get into the short-term lending business, arguing that it made more sense for banks to compete with other small-dollar lenders.  “I personally believe that banks can provide that in a safer, sound, more economically efficient manner,” said the head of the OCC.

However, in a letter to many of Washington’s financial regulators, a coalition of consumer and civil rights groups warned against this change, arguing that “Bank payday loans are high-cost debt traps, just like payday loans from non-banks.” Though the terms of these loans are certainly better than those at a traditional payday lender, that doesn’t make them safe and fair alternatives.

Per a recent poll, more than half of millennials have considered using a payday loan, while 13 percent have actually used one. That number makes sense in a world in which fees at traditional banks are rising and more and more workers are being pushed into the so-called “gig economy” or other alternative labor arrangements that don’t pay on a bi-weekly schedule. A quick infusion of cash to pay a bill or deal with an unexpected expense can be appealing, even with all the downsides payday loans bring.

Payday lenders seem well aware of the state of regulatory flux in which they find themselves; they have made more than $2 million in political donations ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, the most they’ve made in a non-presidential year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

That’s real money, but it’s nowhere near as much as borrowers stand to lose if payday lending continues to occur in the same old way. In fact, a 2016 study found that consumers in states without payday lending save $2.2 billion in fees annually. That’s 2.2 billion reasons to ensure that small-dollar lenders, big and small, aren’t able to go back to business as usual.