Federal Advocacy in 2017: In a Year of Transition, Cities Seek Certainty and Opportunity

NLC is advocating for what may be cities’ most important federal priority in 2017: promoting a positive narrative around cities to the incoming administration and new lawmakers in Congress.

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The majority of decision-makers inside the Obama Administration understood that the overall success of federal policies requires good local input and leadership. NLC will continue to build a strong relationship between local leaders and the White House during the Trump Administration as well. (Getty Images)

In the nation’s capital, the remarkable success of the Republican Party in the 2016 election surprised many and started a fresh debate over the message voters wanted to deliver to Washington. Outside the Capital Beltway, Americans remain deeply divided in ways that could impact the division of power and authority within the intergovernmental partnership.

For a non-partisan organization like the National League of Cities (NLC), representing 19,000 cities of every size, such divisions are a concern for sure. Fortunately, NLC was not caught off guard by the election outcome because our 2017 Advocacy Agenda began taking shape two years ago, when our bipartisan leadership first started thinking about what a presidential transition would mean for cities.

In 2015, NLC convened a number of highly respected city leaders to form a Presidential Election Task Force with the goal of forging a truly bipartisan campaign platform for cities. The campaign, Cities Lead, was built on a platform of three issues important to every city: public safety, infrastructure, and the economy. City leaders around the nation used the Cities Lead Playbook to engage with the presidential candidates of both parties and to obtain assurances and commitments that areas of broad bipartisan consensus would remain on solid ground — regardless of the party in power.

Thanks to the work of that task force, NLC was able to create engagement opportunities during President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign and spotlight city leaders at the Republican National Convention (and Democratic National Convention). On election night, when the Trump campaign declared victory, NLC was there to congratulate him as the president-elect of the United States.

There is a fair amount of uncertainty about the priorities of the next administration and the 115th Session of Congress, but we are certain of at least three areas of common ground between the incoming administration and cities: the need to create greater resources for infrastructure, a desire to help cities and neighborhoods reduce crime and grow opportunity, and a focus on creating and retaining jobs.

It is unfortunate that the president-elect too often relies on mischaracterizations of cities, and there appears to be an urgent need for city leaders to build relationships with stakeholders inside and outside of the new administration. That’s why NLC is taking the lead and focusing on what may be cities’ most important federal priority for 2017: promoting a positive narrative around cities to the Administration and new lawmakers in Congress.

In 2008, then-Candidate Barack Obama said along the campaign trail that “we need to stop seeing our cities as the problem and start seeing them as the solution.” There is little question that, within the recent intergovernmental partnership, local governments were empowered by the greater value placed on cities by the outgoing administration.

Place-based programs prospered across federal agencies and allocated federal funding directly to local governments, including those programs strongly associated with NLC like the My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge and the Mayors Challenge to End Veterans Homelessness. The appointment of multiple former mayors and city officials to lead federal agencies, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation, sent a message about the value of local leaders and ensured a city point of view inside the Obama Administration and at every cabinet meeting.

Of course, there were many actions taken by the Administration which drew criticism from NLC, including President Obama’s repeated proposals to cap tax exempt municipal bonds to achieve a balanced budget, and the $1 billion cut to the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program early in his first term that has yet to be reversed.

The fact remains that, as the result of a strong relationship between local leaders and the White House, the majority of decision-makers inside the Obama Administration understood that the overall success of federal policies depends on good local input and leadership.

This, then, is our main advice to the incoming administration: gain local insight.

Alongside our Cities Lead Advocacy Agenda, NLC also remains focused on specific legislative priorities. Our top asks for Congress this year are to protect tax-exempt municipal bonds, to authorize the collection of sales tax on internet purchases, and to allocate funding for infrastructure directly to local governments.

NLC has built a history of progress and success with both Democratic and Republican leadership in Congress, and we are poised to continue that success. Over the previous session of Congress, NLC helped deliver legislative victories for cities: a five-year transportation bill that puts more money in the hands of local governments; a water bill that includes resources for cities with contaminated water, like Flint, Michigan; a public health bill that significantly increases resources to battle the opioid epidemic tearing through communities; and spending bills that have largely maintained level funding for local priorities — just to name a few.

What’s most impressive is that Congress sent all of these measures to the president without tampering with municipal bonds.

New challenges and opportunities await cities, and NLC, in the coming year. Yet, as a non-partisan organization, NLC is the best-placed organization to build a new partnership for cities with the incoming administration, to advance policies where we are aligned, and to express opposition without fear of reprisal.

In turn, we are asking city leaders to help us in our mission by reintroducing their city to members of Congress (and Congressional staff) in their district as well as to the new administration officials in federal agencies overseeing the programs that matter most to their city.

mike_wallace_125x150About the author: Michael Wallace is the Interim Director of Federal Advocacy at the National League of Cities. Follow him on Twitter @MikeWallaceII.

Research, Innovation and Cities: The Year in Review

Throughout 2016, NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research presented and spoke on a wide range of city topics to audiences from San Francisco to Shanghai and everywhere in between – making sure that, wherever possible, city voices are elevated and heard.

Photo by Jason Dixson Photography. www.jasondixson.com

NLC continues to shape the national dialogue on cities, work with city leaders on the ground, and help local officials lead. Pictured here at City Summit 2016 discussing the future of autonomous vehicles in cities: Jon Shieber, senior editor at TechCrunch; Debra Lam, chief innovation & performance officer of Pittsburgh; Justin Holmes, director of corporate communications and public policy at Zipcar; Brooks Rainwater, senior executive and director of Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. (Jason Dixson)

This year has been one of growth and success for NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research (CSAR). Throughout 2016, we released impactful research across a range of focus areas – from the nuts and bolts of governing to future transportation and workforce shifts, innovation districts, and what cities need to know about drones.

We published familiar annual titles including our State of the Cities report, which analyzes the top issues for our nation’s mayors. We released the 31st edition of our City Fiscal Conditions report, which found that cities’ fiscal positions are strengthening as they continue to recover from the great recession. We finished out the year with our City of the Future research focusing on the critical role that automation and other disruptive changes are having on the workforce. At the core of each of these research products, our primary focus is analyzing how major, timely issues will impact cities.

Coinciding with our broad research agenda, CSAR experts have been on the ground in cities across the country working hand in hand with mayors, councilmembers, and city officials to build equitable, sustainable, financially sound communities that are prepared for future opportunities and challenges. And, in response to the growing opioid crisis, CSAR worked across NLC and together with the National Association of Counties (NACo) to convene the City-County Task Force on the Opioid Epidemic, which recently published recommendations to help local officials to put an end to the epidemic.

Our Rose Center for Public Leadership continued its leading work on local land use challenges with the 2016 class of Daniel Rose Fellows. Those cities included Denver, Rochester, N.Y., Long Beach, Calif., and Birmingham, Ala. The Rose Center also launched the first-ever Equitable Economic Development Fellowship, selecting six cities to participate in its inaugural year: Boston, Houston, Memphis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Charlotte, N.C. This fellowship builds the capacity of America’s cities to ensure that prosperity is shared across their communities.

CSAR’s Sustainable Cities Institute (SCI) launched new programs in 2016 that support and recognize NLC members’ efforts to preserve a clean environment, promote green jobs, and tackle climate change. The SolSmart program was launched in April to help cities make it easier for their residents and businesses to go solar. SCI also announced Leadership in Community Resilience, which is working with 10 cities from around the country to help local officials, city staff, and community partners share their experiences and advance local resilience efforts.

This year our team also incorporated NLC University into the Center, working to provide more focused programming and expanded capacity for city leaders. One example of this shift can be seen in this year’s City Summit attendance in Pittsburgh, where we had a 60 percent increase over last year. Additionally, with the hiring of new staff, we are looking to expand online learning and enhance the annual Leadership Summit.

NLC continues its work to end veteran homelessness, encouraging local leaders to make a permanent commitment to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring. Through our leadership on the Mayors Challenge to End Veterans Homelessness, we facilitated on-the-ground engagement and assistance to city officials nationwide. We also continue to work together with the State Municipal Leagues on an annual research project focused on the critical intersections between city and state policy. This year we published Paying for Local Infrastructure in a new Era of Federalism, offering a state-by-state analysis of infrastructure financing tools.

CSAR also hosted a number of large events across the country. In the spring, we held the third annual Big Ideas for Cities event with a range of compelling stories from our nation’s mayors, expertly facilitated by the Atlantic’s James Fallows. In the fall we hosted the Big Ideas for Small Business Summit with economic development officials from 25 cities sharing strategies for building local small business and entrepreneurial ecosystems. Most recently, we hosted the second annual Resilient Cities Summit with the Urban Land Institute and U.S. Green Building Council, which brought together mayors from 15 cities across the country to focus on critical resilience strategies. These annual events allow NLC to elevate the voice of city leaders on issues that matter to communities across America.

Through our work on these important issues, we solidified partnerships with agencies across the federal government and worked with them on key programming, ensuring we are effectively communicating the voice of cities at every level. Some of these included: Small Business Administration for Startup in a Day, the Department of Veterans Affairs on veterans homelessness, the Department of Housing and Urban Development on the Prosperity Playbook, and Department of Energy on Net Zero Energy.

Throughout the year, our team presented and spoke on a wide range of city topics to audiences local, national, and global – from San Francisco to Shanghai and everything in between – making sure that, wherever possible, city voices are elevated and heard. We continue to help shape the national dialogue on cities, work with city leaders on the ground, and help mayors and councilmembers learn and lead – and we look forward to our work in 2017.

Read our 2016 publications:

About the author: Brooks Rainwater is Senior Executive and Director of the Center for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities. Follow Brooks on Twitter @BrooksRainwater.

 

New NLC Task Force to Focus on Expanding Economic Opportunity

Launched by NLC President Matt Zone, the task force will pursue a three-pronged strategy over the next year that will include municipal engagement and peer learning, documentation of promising and emerging city approaches, and education and training for city officials.

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Cities on the NLC task force are already taking action to expand economic opportunity in many ways, such as focusing on housing affordability in high poverty neighborhoods. (Getty Images)

This post was co-authored by Courtney Coffin and Heidi Goldberg.

“Cities are where hope meets the streets.” – Mayor Kasim Reed, City of Atlanta

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s insightful words in his opening reflections as Chair of NLC’s new Task Force on Mobility and Opportunity last month recognize the vital role that city leaders must play to address the growing economic gaps that plague our cities.

NLC President Matt Zone, a Cleveland councilmember who has committed to making economic opportunity his key issue for his year as NLC’s chief elected officer, launched the task force comprised of 22 local elected officials from across the country in November. Under the leadership of Mayor Reed, the inaugural meeting marked NLC’s commitment to address economic disparities and the beginning of a three-pronged strategy over the next year that will include municipal engagement and peer learning, documentation of promising and emerging city approaches, and education and training for city officials.

As shown by discussions throughout the recent election process, although unemployment is at an all-time low, millions of financially strained families are desperate to find ways to increase their economic stability. Growing economic disparities in communities across the country highlight the need for access to well-paying jobs, housing and assets for families struggling to achieve the American Dream. These challenges are a key concern for city leaders as the financial health of a city depends on the economic security – and mobility – of its residents.

City leaders can prioritize expanding economic opportunities for residents while also balancing municipal budgets. Research from the Urban Institute has found that financially healthy families are more likely to be able to contribute consistently to local government revenues and are less likely to need city supports. City revenue streams depend on utility payments, sales and property taxes generated by residents and local businesses. If the local economy isn’t thriving and residents are not financially stable, the city as a whole suffers.

The solutions for these issues are increasingly found at the city level as policy action is often stalled at the federal and state levels. In this environment, city leaders are well-poised to stabilize their cities by serving as champions for expanding economic opportunity.

Cities are already taking action. In Pittsburgh, for example, task force member Mayor Bill Peduto is working hard to ensure that all residents can participate in the city’s revitalization and newfound prosperity. Partnering with PolicyLink, the city developed a five point plan focused on housing affordability in high poverty neighborhoods, equitable economic development, expanding employment and asset building opportunities, addressing racial inequities, and working with coalitions and community organizations to build community power.

Task force member and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh is committed to addressing poverty with an agenda focused on economic equity and inclusion. His agenda includes increasing wages and employment opportunities, business development strategies for low-income residents, wealth creation strategies including financial empowerment services and children’s savings accounts, as well as strategies to build economic mobility for youth.

These strategies and many more identified during the first task force meeting will be examined during the group’s year-long tenure. The task force is charged with identifying recommendations for local action to address common economic barriers keeping many families from sharing in our country’s prosperity.

In his first speech to members as president of NLC, Councilmember Matt Zone challenged cities to make economic mobility “a pillar that supports our work for America’s cities.” He added, “Now more than ever, the economic well-being of our families is at risk, and we, as local officials, can be the key instruments of change and economic mobility. We must build a future where every one of us has economic mobility and opportunity… we must be intentional about promoting equity in all of our policies and projects.”

About the authors:

courtney_coffin_125x150 Courtney Coffin is an associate for Economic Opportunity and Financial Empowerment in the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. Contact Courtney at coffin@nlc.org.

 

heidi_goldberg_125x150Heidi Goldberg is the Director for Economic Opportunity and Financial Empowerment in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. Follow Heidi on Twitter at @GoldbergHeidi.

8 Ways Cities Can Prepare for the Future of Work

We know that automation and artificial intelligence will have a great impact on the future of work, play, and life – but we shouldn’t jump to the assumption that this will be a net negative.

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Advocates from the tech world tout a basic income as a way to counteract the economic blow of automation replacing jobs currently occupied by humans. (Getty Images)

This post originally appeared on Business Insider. The post was republished with permission.

Fundamental shifts in society are upending the current nature of work. With automation and artificial intelligence already permeating nearly every sector of the economy, disruption is happening at an accelerated pace.

Our recent presidential election made clear that workforce shifts are felt by a broad swath of the American public. People are looking to elected officials at every level of government for a new response to these changes.

We have to move the policy discussion away from job retraining towards job rethinking.

NLC’s latest report, The Future of Work in Cities, examines the rapid changes occurring in today’s workforce. Here are eight suggestions from that report on how city leaders — the most responsive government leaders — can approach the rapidly shifting future of work.

Rethink education and workforce training programs.

The strength of cities comes from the people that live in them. As cities prepare for the future of work, they must address talent development by collaborating with business leaders, educational institutions, and community-based organizations to ensure education and training programs match workforce needs.

Update policies to reflect the changing composition of the workforce.

Tomorrow’s workforce will be significantly more diverse. Women will continue to make up a larger portion of the workforce, and the racial and ethnic makeup of the workforce will change. The workforce is also getting older, as many elderly workers delay retirement and younger people delay working. These changes shift the fundamental needs of employees and, subsequently, the way employers should respond. Flexibility will be critical.

Support entrepreneurs and startups as a core workforce development strategy.

Innovation is the lifeblood of city economic growth. Local leaders need to create a strong startup culture through low tax and regulatory barriers, and strong regional networks with access to capital that allow startups to scale. As cities continue to lower barriers of entry for small businesses and support local startups, innovation will flourish.

Build equitable business development programs.

Equity is critical to building a strong workforce. Policies that promote equity in areas such as health and education often have positive effects on economic growth. Likewise, policies that address marginalized groups reduce political conflict and strengthen public institutions and social organizations, feeding into a virtuous cycle of growth.

Invest in digital and physical infrastructure that supports the workforce of tomorrow.

Investment in reliable, high-speed internet and expanded broadband services is critical to supporting a competitive workforce. In addition to digital infrastructure, cities must also invest in roads, bridges and transit systems.

In cities, people like to walk, bike, and take public transit, while single occupancy vehicle use continues to decline. This preference, combined with a move toward autonomous vehicles, means that cities will need to rethink investment priorities while considering new uses for car-oriented infrastructure like parking garages.

Ensure access to paid leave for families.

The United States is one of few developed countries that doesn’t offer some type of guaranteed paid leave for new parents. Yet companies that offer these policies retain more employees and avoid lengthy talent searches. Cities are leading in this space. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors, for example, mandates six weeks of paid parental leave for workers. This long overdue policy benefits everyone, giving parents the opportunity to maintain their careers, helping organizations retain employees, and bringing stability to the city’s workforce and economy.

Consider offering portable benefit systems.

As workers change jobs more frequently and contract work becomes more common, the policy environment around benefits needs to shift. Benefits that once accompanied most employment situations are becoming more elusive, and portable benefits, which are tied to individuals rather than employers, represent one potential solution.

These typically wrap together some form of paid leave, health insurance, worker’s compensation/unemployment, and retirement fund matching. Proposals for this type of system vary.

Some suggest that it should be universal and administered by government or a public/private institution created for such a purpose. Others think it should be administered by non-governmental community-based groups. Either way, portable benefits have the potential to support those who work outside the realm of the traditional nine-to-five economy.

Explore basic income and other broad-based social support systems.

Basic income, which guarantees every citizen a regular, unconditional sum of money, is gaining support in policy conversations. This is intended to serve the same function as a living wage by bringing all individuals up to an economic baseline. In some ways, this proposal resembles existing welfare systems, with the major exception that the benefit goes to everyone, regardless of age, ability, class status, or participation in the workforce.

Advocates from the tech world tout it as a way to counteract the economic blow of automation replacing jobs currently occupied by humans. Other supporters argue that basic income is more streamlined, efficient, and transparent than current social welfare systems. Finally, there are others who argue that a basic income might allow individuals to pursue more creative, enjoyable interests. A full-scale of examination of the cultural and financial implications of basic income will be key to implementing such a system.

We know that automation and artificial intelligence will have a great impact on the future of work, play, and life. However, we shouldn’t jump to the assumption that this will be a net negative.

Despite the evolving nature of the economy, people are still working, the economy is still growing, and indicators show that life has gotten better for the majority of the world’s workers. To stay on that path, these and other such ideas should be higher on the agenda of policymakers. Cities are the place where new ideas and opportunities happen first, so we should prepare for the technological shifts to come and usher in a future that works for everyone.

About the author: Brooks Rainwater is the Director of the Center for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities. Follow Brooks on Twitter @BrooksRainwater.

Affordable Housing is the Real Issue Behind the Oakland Warehouse Fire

Clutter, code enforcement, and safety regulations are simply distractions. Here’s how city leaders can prevent tragedies like the Ghost Ship fire in their own communities.

(photo courtesy of oaklandghostship.com)

The social, cultural, and psychological links between living spaces and their inhabitants are real; spaces often reflect the values of their inhabitants. Beyond just displaying a preference or style, spaces like the Ghost Ship warehouse are built forms for a shared identity that is usually overlooked in most communities. (photo courtesy of oaklandghostship.com)

The tragedy of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland earlier this month may be a difficult one for cities to absorb. How much was the fire a result of the underground activities and unsafe conditions in the Ghost Ship? How much responsibility does a city – through its building and safety code adoption and enforcement power – have for tragedies that occur in structures those codes are designed to help keep safe?

Code violations and safety hazards were diverse and numerous at the Ghost Ship. The warehouse was home to stairs made out of wooden pallets, cluttered collections of found furniture, no real fire walls separating the spaces of the several tenants who lived there. It’s clear from the photographs of the Ghost Ship that some level of this arrangement was by design, contributing to a bohemian aesthetic with an eclectic collection of East Asian sculptures and furniture, mannequins, paintings by local artists and friends, fabric hung over light fixtures, and an immense collection of pianos, organs, speakers, and other musical instruments. The electrical system posed a hazard as well; reports claim that occupants of the space siphoned power off neighboring properties with a system of ganged extension cords connected to aging fixtures and appliances.

The nature of counter-culture communal living spaces like the Ghost Ship is in opposition to dominant social norms, so it can be easy for people to view he Ghost Ship photographs with an air of smugness and think how different that type of living scenario looks compared to the relatively less cluttered homes many people occupy. But rather than counting the number of unsafe conditions in those photos and pinning blame for this tragedy on the victims themselves, we should focus on education efforts like this public safety video, which was produced by occupants of similar communal living spaces together with fire safety experts involved in the famous Burning Man festival. The video includes numerous safety tips such as locating bars and dance floors near exits, ensuring that battery-lighting signs are placed at two or more exists, and testing fire safety equipment before major events.

For city leaders who are already working to increase fire safety education in their communities, the next question may be: How much blame lies at the feet of code inspectors or fire officials in these scenarios? The city of Oakland’s planning and building department had investigated the warehouse as recently as last month following complaints about trash outside the property and illegal internal structures, but their role is limited and underfunded. In fact, the Oakland firefighters union made several public statements blaming the Fire Chief for understaffing inspection functions in the department.

But Oakland, like its peers, has overlapping agency responsibilities for building inspection and enforcement. In many cities, the fire department works in partnership with departments of planning, public health, public works, and building inspection to inventory, inspect, and enforce code compliance in man-made structures. Given this complex matrix of authority, an incident like the Ghost Ship fire might not represent the failing of any one agency or department but rather a lack of communication among them. In this particular tragedy, no city agency had any record that the Ghost Ship was being used as anything other than a warehouse, and its officially unoccupied status meant that a state-mandated fire inspection was never called. No city official had conducted a formal inspection of the building in more than 30 years.

Ultimately, though – and this represents the largest challenge, systemically, for cities – the fire at the Ghost Ship is a reminder of the costs we pay as a society when we do not provide affordable housing options to artists and other creative types living in communal settings or at society’s margins. Years ago, I lived just four blocks from the Ghost Ship when I rented a room from a sculptor who owned a warehouse she used as her home and studio. The neighborhood was fairly rough-and-tumble at the time, and despite the fact that many considered its buildings incompatible with residential use, artists moved into the area because industrial neighborhoods like that offer creative types the opportunity to live in an affordable setting with less interference when it comes to musical performances and eccentric lifestyles.

But the fact that artists are often drawn to edgy neighborhoods and affordable co-living spaces with ramshackle interiors doesn’t absolve us from a collective duty to provide better housing options to all city residents. Consider what would have happened if code compliance inspections had been completed at the Ghost Ship and the findings showed violations. Former residents as well as associates of the Ghost Ship’s founder and master tenant, Derick Ion Almena, describe him as mercurial and unresponsive to the complaints of his tenants – and the building’s owner, Chor Nar Siu Ng, has a long history of building violations that have caused the city to place liens against her and partners. So, if the city had exposed code violations, it seems likely that either Ms. Ng would have evicted the entire Ghost Ship operation, since their residency was not a legally permitted use of the building to begin with, or Mr. Almena would have evicted several of his tenants to avoid the risk of losing his occupancy altogether. And in those cases, given the white-hot San Francisco real estate market, the individual artists living there would likely have few affordable housing alternatives. Already, residents of other similar spaces have begun receiving eviction notices.

Oakland and the rest of the Bay Area have seen rents and home sales prices rapidly escalate in concert with the local technology boom centered in nearby Silicon Valley. Real estate service Zillow shows that the average monthly rent in the area is $2,899, up about 70 percent from five years ago — the fastest increase in the nation. In this context, renting a space in a co-living situation for $700 is attractive – even without consistent heat, water, or power. California is home to roughly 13 percent of the nation’s population, with a population growth rate slightly higher than the national average. But somehow, the state has accounted for only 8 percent of all national building permits in the past twenty years.

Just days after the Ghost Ship fire, the City of Oakland announced a $1.7 million philanthropic grant to help arts groups stay in Oakland. Even large gifts like that are stopgaps in the scheme of the region’s viciously competitive real estate market, though. And research shows that many affordable artist housing programs end up subsidizing white, non-poor artists. Diverse neighborhoods like Oakland’s Fruitvale have already experienced decades of displacement of communities and artists of color by marginally more resourced artists who see cheap living conditions among the industrial spaces of the neighborhood. Individual artists, artist communities, and the other residents of dramatically changing neighborhoods like Fruitvale all deserve more comprehensive approaches.

California’s dramatic housing shortage has hit the Bay Area hard, and Oakland is especially vulnerable to displacement and gentrification pressures stemming from the region’s rising wealth and dismal housing production. Oakland has long appealed to artists, musicians, and those interested in alternative, Do-It-Yourself culture – even more so since the Silicon Valley boom fueled a frenzied real estate market in neighboring San Francisco. The sky-high costs of living there have pushed artists across the bay to Oakland where they compete with existing residents as well as low-, middle- and even upper-income San Franciscans driven out of the city for limited housing. Many of the displaced are people of color, being pushed out of neighborhoods formed in the aftermath of white flight and blockbusting in the 1960’s.

The devastating fire at the Ghost Ship may have gained speed from the kindling of unsafe Bohemian clutter, or allowed to spread through some neglect in proper inspections – but even without those factors, an astoundingly unaffordable housing landscape is always going to drive some segment of the market into off-the-books, unpermitted and fundamentally unsafe spaces.

City leaders must educate residents in similar living situations about basic fire safety and prevention strategies, such as how to check smoke detector batteries. We also need to hold inter-agency meetings to see how we can better coordinate inter-agency responses and code inspections. These are perennially worthwhile endeavors. Most importantly, though, we need to develop comprehensive, well-considered solutions to housing affordability. Not just a measure here, or a program there – I’m referring to the kind of throw-everything-at-it approach that leaves no idea untested and no possible funding source unexplored. The city of Oakland suffered a devastating loss in the Ghost Ship fire. Working together, we can prevent a similar tragedy in our own communities.

About the author: An architect and city planner, Jess Zimbabwe is the Executive Director of the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use, a program of the National League of Cities in partnership with the Urban Land Institute. Follow Jess on twitter at @jzimbabwe and @theRoseCenter.

Seven Ways Cities Can Support Small Businesses During the Holidays

Efforts to shop small and shop locally are especially critical because they bolster the local economy – and since local sales taxes are often not collected for online purchases, encouraging residents to support local merchants is also a fiscal win for many cities.

In Roanoke, Virginia, the city's Dickens of a Christmas events on Friday evenings in December include a tree lighting, pet costume parade, and local vendors selling food and gifts. (Getty Images)

In Roanoke, Virginia, the city’s Christmas events on Friday evenings in December include local vendors selling food and gifts. (Getty Images)

‘Tis the season for spending money. The latest National Retail Federation survey estimates that the average American consumer will spend $935.58 during the holidays on gifts, food, and other seasonal items. The majority of holiday shoppers plan to spend their cash at large department stores, big-name discount shops, or online. Unfortunately, only 23 percent of respondents said they planned to shop at a local or small business.

With the holidays now in full swing, there are several strategies your city should implement to ensure local businesses are reaping the benefits of this season of gift-giving and celebrating. Efforts to shop small and shop locally are especially critical because they bolster the local economy. Since local sales taxes are often not collected for online purchases, encouraging residents to shop at local brick-and-mortar establishments is also a fiscal win for many cities.

Here are seven ways you can ensure your city’s local businesses enjoy a holiday season that is merry and bright:

Convene your local business owners and follow their creative lead. Use your role as a convener to help local businesses connect, collaborate, and feel empowered to establish creative marketing tactics to attract holiday shoppers. As a case in point, small business owners in Edmond, Oklahoma, developed a small business passport that offers incentives and prizes to shoppers that receive a “stamp” at multiple stores.

Develop a “Made In” branding campaign. Shoppers are increasingly looking for unique, hand-made items from their hometowns to purchase for themselves and as gifts. One way to indicate to shoppers that an item is made locally is to create a branding campaign for locally-made goods. New Haven, Connecticut, Mayor Toni Harp recently collaborated with local artists and businesses to develop a “Made in New Haven” logo to “showcase New Haven as a home of people with great ideas.”

Host a holiday event with pop-up shops featuring local retailers. A holiday-themed market or event in your city’s downtown area is a wonderful placemaking strategy, and also gives local retailers the chance to share their goods and services with the community. In Roanoke, Virginia, the city comes together for “The Dickens of a Christmas” events on Friday evenings in December. The city’s events include a tree lighting, pet costume parade, and local vendors selling food and gifts.

Share resources for businesses about the holiday shopping season. The holiday season usually means a surge in new customers, and particularly for newer businesses, it’s important to make sure this isn’t a missed opportunity. As a way to help local shops prepare for the season, New York City’s Small Business Services office shares holiday tips for business owners, including how to recruit and hire seasonal help and how to participate in holiday markets and events.

Market local businesses through an online store or social media. Join forces with other cities in your region or state to build an online site where local businesses can advertise and sell their items. Celebrate Local is an organization and online shop for artisans and makers from all across the state of Ohio. Holiday shoppers have access to over 300 local shops selling everything from salsa to soap to stickers made with homegrown products and ingredients. Social media is also a great way to help market local businesses. Shops in West Hollywood, California, are encouraged to submit photos of their decorated storefronts to the local chamber of commerce’s Instagram account as a way to spread holiday cheer, and attract customers.

Donate items from local small businesses. If your office is hosting a charity drive during the holidays, encourage your colleagues to purchase clothing and food from small shops. Donating items from local stores is a win-win for the local economy and for helping neighbors in need.

Buy local, celebrate local. What would the holidays be without an office holiday celebration? If you’re reading this, you’re also undoubtedly planning to attend an office lunch or gathering at some point in December. Show support for your local small businesses by serving your favorite local coffee and placing a catering order with a local food truck.

From all of us at NLC, wishing you a happy and healthy local economy (and holiday season)!

About the Author: Emily Robbins is Principal Associate for Economic Development at NLC. Follow Emily on Twitter @robbins617.

4 Reasons Why e-Fairness is Good for City Economies

The online sales tax loophole isn’t just an unfair disadvantage for local businesses – it also prevents cities from collecting the taxes already owed to them on remote online purchases.

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While events such as Small Business Saturday help promote brick-and-mortar sales, more needs to be done. Now is the time for Congress to close the online sales tax loophole. (Getty Images)

As we enter the season of gift-giving, local officials should be aware of an issue that costs their cities billions of dollars every year: the online sales tax loophole. Each year, an estimated $23 billion in owed sales tax goes uncollected from online transactions – funds that cities could use on public safety, fixing sidewalks, building libraries, and many more services for their residents.

Despite their necessity to our cities, local brick-and-mortar retailers compete at a five to 10 percent disadvantage to online sellers by collecting legally-required sales tax at the time of purchase – something online retailers are not required to do. In a year in which more people participated in Cyber Monday than Black Friday, this trend is especially frightening – not only for local retailers, but also for local governments. While events such as Small Business Saturday help promote brick-and-mortar sales, more needs to be done. Now is the time for Congress to close the online sales tax loophole.

Current legislation such as the Remote Transactions Parity Act (H.R. 2775) and the Marketplace Fairness Act (S. 698) are good for local retailers and help to create a level playing field. By allowing local governments to collect sales tax on internet purchases, cities will be better able to close budget gaps and use the funds to provide critical services to residents – at no additional cost to the federal government. NLC continues to advocate for these bills, and will fight for similar legislation in the next Congress. Here are four reasons why:

  1. Opinion polls consistently show that local government is the most trusted level of government. E-Fairness legislation gives cities and towns the ability to better serve their residents and businesses without impacting the federal deficit.
  2. Cities are where America comes together to live and work; they are the primary drivers of economic development and growth. Main street retailers shouldn’t be subjected to a legislative loophole that can cause the loss of revenue and jobs, and cities shouldn’t be at a financial disadvantage when it comes to collecting the taxes owed to them.
  3. A century ago, just 14 percent of Americans lived in cities; today, 80 percent do. Cities manage the physical and civic infrastructure on which America depends. Local governments own and operate 78 percent of the nation’s road miles, 43 percent of the nation’s federal-aid highway miles, and 50 percent of the nation’s bridge inventory. Additional financial resources would allow cities to build new infrastructure and improve existing infrastructure.
  4. The decision to levy a sales tax should be decided at local level, with no interference from the federal government. Cities need a partnership with the federal government – not a mandate that preempts their ability to collect taxes and creates an undue financial burden.

Our goal in advocating for e-Fairness legislation is simple: give cities the tools they need to thrive in the economy of the future and empower city leaders with the autonomy they need to run local government more efficiently.

About the author: Brett Bolton is the Principal Associate for Federal Advocacy (Finance, Administration and Intergovernmental Affairs) at NLC.

The Midwest is No Longer the Rust Belt – It’s the “Production Belt”

Mayors Bill Peduto and Virg Bernero explain why now is the time to invest in America’s infrastructure and make a national commitment to advanced manufacturing.

(Getty Images)

For every $1.00 spent in manufacturing, another $1.81 is added to our economy – the highest multiplier effect of any economic sector. (Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Mayor Bill Peduto and Mayor Virg Bernero.

Advanced manufacturing is the engine powering our nation’s economy and driving today’s innovation, which is why it is time for a national blueprint for manufacturing. We implore President-elect Trump and the 115th Congress to make a Marshall Plan-style commitment to advanced manufacturing, starting with rebuilding the infrastructure that makes American manufacturing possible.

As mayors and as co-chairs of the National League of Cities’ new Manufacturing Initiative, we recognize that this must be a bipartisan mission, as the success of our manufacturing sector will benefit communities from Connecticut to California.

We also endeavor to dispel several myths about manufacturing. First and foremost: the Midwest is no longer the “Rust Belt” of shuttered factories, but rather the “Production Belt” of advanced manufacturing that accounts for 10 percent of our workforce. In 2015, the manufacturing sector contributed $2.17 trillion to the U.S. economy, representing a growth of nearly one half-trillion dollars since 2009.

Another myth is that manufacturing is a relic, that we’ve become a “service” economy. The truth is, the manufacturing sector is more advanced and growing stronger than it has in decades, and it’s re-invigorating technological innovation and entrepreneurship.

America is home to the world’s most productive workers, with manufacturers accounting for 75 percent of our nation’s R&D and 90 percent of our patents. The “magic of manufacturing” is the spinoff activity that supports transportation, supply chains and more. For every $1.00 spent in manufacturing, another $1.81 is added to our economy – the highest multiplier effect of any economic sector. And, despite the myth that manufacturing jobs don’t pay well, the truth is that the compensation of the typical U.S. manufacturing worker is $81,289 annually, including pay and benefits.

Today’s manufacturing is a wholesale improvement over our grandparents’ dirty, monotonous production jobs. Today’s jobs offer a creative opportunity to innovate, using state-of-the-art equipment in diverse fields like aerospace, semi-conduction, robotics, biotechnology and engineering. Many manufacturers even offer a “learn and earn” model of apprenticeship training that pays workers to learn their trade. Yet these advanced jobs require a talent pipeline to connect them with skilled workers. Experts project that the U.S. will have over two million jobs go unfilled due to the skills gap.

The fact is, American manufacturing is also a matter of national security. Retired U.S. Army Brigadier General John Adams wrote a report detailing the ways domestic manufacturing keeps us safe. A strong domestic manufacturing base supports the Arsenal of Democracy.

Advanced manufacturing can also pave the way for a “green” industrial revolution that reduces our carbon footprint – not only by producing alternative energy products like solar panels, wind turbines and fuel cells, but also by standardizing sustainable production methods for everyday commodities.

There are several national policies that can help shape a national blueprint, including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s efforts to codify the Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership – which has already invested $23 million to support 49 IMCP projects across 26 states. These projects will create or save more than 1,080 jobs, and generate nearly $855 million in private investment. We also support resurrecting the COMPETE Act (S. 2715) to incentivize more research and development, because R&D tax credits are really job credits. Another important win would be establishing a National Infrastructure Bank so we could fund economically-viable infrastructure projects nationwide and incentivize private investment.

The only way to reverse the overly-fragmented model of manufacturing is to establish “production ecosystems” that connect Main Street manufacturers, universities, and inventors into local networks. By strengthening these collaborations with coordinated local, state and federal policies, we can create a lasting national blueprint for advanced manufacturing.

In the international marketplace, we have an unprecedented opportunity to produce the most competitive brand of manufactured goods – those marked proudly as “Made in America.” Let’s get to work to make it happen.

About the authors: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Mayor Bill Peduto and Lansing, Michigan, Mayor Virg Bernero are co-chairs of the National League of Cities Manufacturing Initiative.

A Crash Course in Urban Development

The Urban Land Institute has recently developed a day-long training geared specifically towards elected officials to help them better understand the nuts and bolts of municipal real estate projects and how they’re financed.

How can city leaders know if they are getting the wool pulled over their eyes or if they are negotiating a mutually beneficial deal that will leverage private dollars towards a community renaissance? (Getty Images)

How can city leaders know if they are getting the wool pulled over their eyes or if they are negotiating a mutually beneficial deal that will leverage private dollars towards a community renaissance? (Getty Images)

Community activists sometimes decry market-based urban development projects (and their managers) using words like monstrosity, Satan, and scumbucket. But any public official will tell you that it is impossible for a city to accomplish its development or redevelopment goals without private sector investment in the community.

To that end, the nonprofit Urban Land Institute (ULI), an NLC partner, has recently developed a day-long training geared specifically towards elected officials to help them better understand the nuts and bolts of municipal real estate projects. The training is called UrbanPlan, and it will be offered next month at the 2016 NLC City Summit in Pittsburgh.

UrbanPlan is a realistic, engaging, and demanding curriculum in which elected officials learn about the fundamental forces that affect development in the United States. Participating officials will experience the challenges, private and public sector roles, trade-offs, and fundamental economics of complex urban development projects.

The workshop was originally designed for university-level economics courses, and is now taught at colleges and high schools across the country. In 2015, ULI redesigned the curriculum specifically for city officials. The Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use (an NLC program in partnership with ULI) acted as an adviser in the curriculum overhaul. The revamped workshop is offered in a single day as one of NLC University’s pre-conference seminars in Pittsburgh.

Participants in the seminar will develop proposals for a hypothetical urban neighborhood. Each attendee will take on a real-life role, such as site planner, financial analyst, or marketing director.

During the process, team members will learn firsthand the intricacies of urban renewal projects – and because profit is often a primary goal, the seminar will also include some down-to-earth lessons in financial reality. Accordingly, the proposed developments created in the seminar will need to address diverse issues such as affordable housing, transit needs, open-space beautification, historical preservation, and the district’s retail requirements. Once a project plan is hammered out, the teams will construct a preliminary model of their design – using Legos – and then go before a “city council” of volunteer land-use professionals to pitch their project. After a detailed analysis, participants will tweak their product for a final presentation.

ULI, NLC University, and the Rose Center recently held a pilot session of this seminar. Two of the participants described their experience:

“Land use decisions are among the most difficult that elected officials face. The Urban Plan Workshop illustrates that a development project can be a financial success for the developer and locality as well as meet the community’s goals for sustainability, inclusion and aesthetics. The Urban Plan Workshop is fast paced and hands-on, and elected officials will gain and retain insight into their role in finding the balance between the needs of the developer, locality and community.”

– Sandy Spang, councilmember, Toledo, Ohio

“Elected officials often hold biases, even if unintentional. But today, achieving great projects requires creativity and compromise. UrbanPlan lets you participate in that process. As someone that both serves on an elected body and has gone through the UrbanPlan workshop, I would encourage my peers to do the same.”

—Michael Wojcik, councilmember, Rochester, Minnesota

We are pleased to offer a special discounted registration rate to CitiesSpeak readers for the upcoming UrbanPlan seminar in Pittsburgh. Register here using the discount code NLCUL13 and save $100 off the registration price.

About the author: Jess Zimbabwe is Executive Director of the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use, a program of the National League of Cities, in partnership with the Urban Land Institute. She’s an architect, city planner and politics junkie. Follow Jess on twitter at @jzimbabwe and @theRoseCenter.

State of the City Speeches Reveal Push for Inclusive Economic Development

This year’s National League of Cities analysis of State of the City speeches reaffirms that mayors are optimistic about the growth of their local economies, and also that cities are developing economic development agendas to ensure this prosperity is widespread.

Mayor Emily Larson of Duluth, Minnesota, said in her speech, “We intend to expand the number of local businesses in our purchasing pool, and make renewed efforts to ensure that local area businesses know about bid opportunities. We’ll lead an effort to identify local vendors (particularly minority and women-owned businesses) who want to be notified by the city about purchasing opportunities. And then we’ll mentor those businesses on how to navigate the city’s contracting process.” (Getty Images)

Mayor Emily Larson of Duluth, Minnesota (pictured above), said in her speech, “We intend to expand the number of local businesses in our purchasing pool… we’ll lead an effort to identify local vendors who want to be notified by the city about purchasing opportunities, and then we’ll mentor those businesses on how to navigate the city’s contracting process.” (Getty Images)

It makes sense that mayors are feeling positive about the state of their cities. Municipal budgets in many regions are returning to pre-Recession levels. Jobs gains and business growth are on the rise. Overall, crime is down, and local housing markets are improving. However, recent studies about the income inequality and socioeconomic disparity in cities are worrisome, and likely the driving force behind the mayoral push we’re seeing for more equity and inclusion, particularly in economic development.

More than half (55 percent) of the mayors referenced recent job gains as an economic win for their cities. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Mayor Kip Holden said, “Today, we’re at a record level of jobs in our parish. I could tell you about the more than 7,000 jobs created, or the $327 million in new payroll.” Muriel Bowser, Mayor of Washington, D.C., acknowledged local employment growth reached 1,000 new jobs in her city. Mayor Joseph Curtatone of Somerville, Massachusetts, touted that the workforce in his city grew by 15 percent in the last year.

At the same time, mayors of nearly one third (30 percent) of cities described workforce development efforts to help fill these new employment opportunities, often with the goal of inclusive job readiness. As San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer explained in his speech, “The impact of this skills gaps is particularly harsh on low income communities – especially for our young adults.” Apprenticeships and on-the-job training, vocational programs, and alternative education were put forth by mayors as policy solutions that will help level the playing field in terms of accessing well-paying jobs in their communities. Columbus, Ohio, Mayor Andrew Ginther summarized this approach well by saying, “[A] college degree is not the only road to the middle class. There are many different paths to success.”

A large number of state of the city speeches also highlight the strength of local business environments, and feature city programs proactively ensuring minority and female small business owners are thriving in this period of growth. Overall, business growth was mentioned by a third (33 percent) of mayors, and 22 percent of speeches highlighted local small businesses. In particular, mayors shared how their cities are becoming more business-friendly by streamlining processes and providing more business services online, such as business license applications. In Columbia, South Carolina, Mayor Stephen Benjamin shared in his speech, “We will be expanding our online offerings for business — where now, for the first time ever, business licenses can be acquired through our city’s website, and soon, the entire building permit process will be available in a single, seamless online system.”

In this current climate where businesses are opening and expanding, mayors are cognizant that all businesses should have an equal chance at success. That’s why several cities are implementing procurement programs that encourage local businesses to apply for city contracts. Mayor Emily Larson of Duluth, Minnesota, said in her speech, “We intend to expand the number of local businesses in our purchasing pool, and make renewed efforts to ensure that local area businesses know about bid opportunities. We’ll lead an effort to identify local vendors (particularly minority and women-owned businesses) who want to be notified by the city about purchasing opportunities. And then we’ll mentor those businesses on how to navigate the city’s contracting process.”

In Jersey City, New Jersey, Mayor Steven Fulop noted the city’s new Office of Diversity and Inclusion would spearhead similar efforts to assist minority and women-owned businesses with accessing city contacts. Mayor Fulop said in his speech, “It is our hope that this initiative will encourage the growth of our minority and women-owned businesses, while also working to foster inclusive neighborhoods and increase the diversity of the city’s small businesses.”

As the 2016 State of the Cities report describes, these mayoral speeches help forecast the future priorities of cities. It’s welcomed news that so many local economic development agendas are giving attention to equity and inclusion. It is our hope that even more cities join this movement and strive to do what Syracuse, New York, Mayor Stephanie Minor calls “creat[ing] a concentration of opportunity to combat our concentration of poverty.”

This post is part of a series expanding on NLC’s 2016 State of the Cities report. Check back next week as we delve deeper into what mayors had to say about infrastructure.

About the Author: Emily Robbins is Principal Associate for Economic Development at NLC. Follow Emily on Twitter @robbins617.