The City of the Future is Not a Technical Problem

New Orleans We have been lucky the last month. ACORN International has enjoyed the help of a smart and adventuresome young woman, Luba Batembergska, from Sofia, Bulgaria with wide interests in social justice, environment, education, and social welfare. We have tried to embed her deeply in various organizing field experiences to give her tools and techniques that would advance her work in various projects and campaigns when she returns home from this Professional Fellows program coordinated by the Great Lakes Consortium focusing on younger people from Eastern Europe. As her time runs down for the last ten days, my piece has been to meet with her several hours a day as her sounding board on various ideas about strategy and tactics.

Recently, we spent a lot of time talking about community benefits and how to structure demands and negotiations around developments in Sofia and along the Black Sea. As a talking point, we have used the proposal offered by Google/Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs for a huge project along the waterfront in Toronto. She spent some time looking at the Sidewalk Labs website and came in very excited about what she felt it offered. Not having read the Model Lab background, I was confused. I kept asking her where people fit into these various models. We ended up at the same dock after a half hour of dialogue, but for a long time we were two ships passing in the ocean which was rare for our conversations.

She sent me a link, and I read it in order to get a better grip on what Sidewalk Labs was selling, and how my organizing colleague might have found it so seductive. Boiled down to its essence their argument is that the secret to building a better city is data. They believe for some problems where they cannot test differing realities and make conclusions that they can adapt anonymous cellphone data to determine how people move and then build models or simulations that could be used by transit planners for example. In another section they went to some length on “population synthesizers” that were basically a ways and means to slice population characteristics for planning purposes and then link them to Bayesian Networks, which is a mathematical construct that is critical to a lot of algorithm construction.

What we were missing became clear as I read. I kept asking Luba where people intersected the process, and she kept answering that they could interact with the models. I had countered that an assumption that this would all be internet interactive left out most of our low and moderate income constituency, and she kept responding that the levels of the simulations were designed for input. Indeed, people were at the heart of the Sidewalk Lab population synthesizers, but they weren’t real people, they were real data points. The notion that there might be real people acting collectively about their interests would have been an outlier point in the mathematics. The notion that there are systemic inequities that permeate the needs and demands for public services doesn’t really synthesize. The Sidewalk argument is an advertisement for the speed and delivery of big data, which is no doubt invaluable, but there’s a hole in the middle where real people fit and where they seem somewhat clueless.

Here’s an example: “We believe convex optimization gives analysts a more logical framework to make trade-offs among competing “truths”…” I’m pretty sure we would be classified as advocating a competing truth. There is also no concept in the “optimization” for power. Describing another tool that is not quite ready for prime time called the Doppelganger they say it “will create a synthetic population that matches each of the marginals perfectly. If the marginals are not internally consistent, which is almost always the case in practice, the user must tell Doppelgänger which of the marginals are more or less important.” I’m pretty sure that we – and our concerns – would be a “marginals,” and unless we are well organized and hitting our fists on the door, the so-called “user” that decides what marginal concern is “more or less important” is not going to be us or anyone factoring in our issues importantly. Elsewhere in the “models” section, Sidewalk Lab lets it slip that much depends on the “assumptions” that input into the models. It’s probably that same user, a software engineer or perhaps an urban planner, who will be making them.

Widgets unite! We have nothing to lose but our cities if we don’t organize now as people!


Please enjoy Neil Young’s Already Great

& The Urban Renewal Project’s Hide.

Thanks to KABF.


Generation Rent Unable to Break the Grip of Unregulated Financing

UK rent signs

New Orleans  A headline in the papers claimed that the level of homeownership inched forward enough to hit the 2014 mark for the highest percentage since the 2008 Great Recession. Funny how a figure like that has so quickly become almost meaningless in this continuing period of housing shortage and soaring home prices in what seems an almost endless credit desert.

In Britain, we worked closely with an organization called Generation Rent. When I first heard the name of the group several years ago, it seemed strange to me, but it didn’t long in organizing all around the United Kingdom for me to get it. The notion of potential homeownership in the United Kingdom was virtually unthinkable for a whole generation of low and moderate income families, so their generation would be renting for sure. The United States seems to be knocking on the same housing door with our own generation rent these days.

A former Ohio-based tenant organizer, Spencer Wells, has come to the same conclusion in a recent column in Non-Profit Quarterly, saying,

There’s an emerging social movement in US cities that’s sometimes characterized as the Renter Nation. This movement brings together young urban renters, childless boomers choosing an urban lifestyle, and former homeowners who have been displaced into single-family rentals by the Great Recession. These “new renters” are adding fuel (and political power) to the struggle of low-income households in inner-city subsidized developments.

Renter Nation, Generation Rent, six of one, half-dozen of another, this speaks to the building housing crisis already holding much of the nation in its grip. The social movement isn’t here yet, as Wells says, but the demand is huge.

Squeezing renters even more is the inability to access conventional mortgage loans to move into homeownership. Admittedly, the housing market in New York City is sui generis, one of a kind, but a recent report by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD) nails the growing power of non-bank lenders, unregulated by the Community Reinvestment Act:

…non-bank lenders are taking over an increasing portion of lending on 1-4 family homes, particularly to borrowers of color and low- and moderate-income (LMI) borrowers. Lenders in HMDA are categorized as banks, credit unions, and non-bank lenders, which are mortgage companies that do not take deposits from customers or businesses. We define non-bank lenders as non-depository lenders that are not owned by or affiliated with a bank or credit union.


  • In 2016, 30% of all home purchase loans were originated by non-bank lenders, up from 23% in 2012. The percentage of non-bank lenders was 50% for refinance loans in 2016, up from 23% in 2012.
  • Non-bank lenders made 30% of home purchase loans to LMI borrowers and 58% of refinance loans to LMI borrowers. They also accounted for 31% of home purchase loans and 61% of refinance loans in LMI neighborhoods.
  • 25% of home purchase loans to White borrowers were made by non-bank lenders versus 59% and 50% of the loans to Black and Hispanic borrows, respectively. Similar disparities appear for refinance loans.

Much of the disparities to LMI borrowers and borrowers of color relates to the higher concentration of Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans to these populations and the decline in FHA lending by the largest banks. There certainly remain questions about qualified borrowers possibly being steered to FHA loans, which are more expensive than conventional loans. But, the overall concern this trend raises is that non-bank lenders are far less regulated than their bank-chartered peers, nor are they covered by the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). In the run up to the 2007 economic crisis, the majority of dangerous sub-prime loans were made by non-bank lenders chasing relatively high rates of return for their investors and basing their businesses on relatively costly sources of capital.

Am I worried? Oh yeah, totally!


Please enjoy

Buffy Sainte-Marie’s You Got to Run

Remington with Amy Jack’s Dallas till I Die

Wild Belle’s Hurricane

Thanks to KABF.