Feb 18, 2021

Axios Cities

As it snows today in New York City, my thoughts turn to how lucky I am to enjoy heat and electricity while so many Americans suffer grievously. (How to help Texans.)

This week's newsletter is 1,454 words, which will take you 5½ minutes to read.

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Situational awareness: Miami will study whether and how it can use bitcoin to pay employees and accept payments from citizens.

1 big thing: States embrace broader "expungement" laws

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Michigan is poised to enact the nation's most lenient "expungement" law, loosening the criteria for having a crime erased from one's record — and other states may soon follow suit.

Why it matters: In cities like Detroit, where a third of residents have felony or misdemeanor convictions that harm their ability to get a job or rent a house, expungement paves the way to a higher income, better life prospects and the ineffable joy of enhanced dignity.

Driving the news: Starting in April, Michigan's expungement rules will be generously expanded, making it a lot easier for people with criminal records to seek employment, housing and financial aid — even to volunteer at their children's schools.

  • People will be able to expunge "up to three felonies and an unlimited number of misdemeanors" from their records," per the Detroit Free Press.
  • Two "assaultive" crimes will be allowed, as well as many more traffic and marijuana-related offenses.
  • Under a "one bad night" clause, multiple felonies or misdemeanors stemming from the same 24 hours can count as a single conviction.
  • By 2023, Michigan's expungement system will be automated, with misdemeanors automatically cleared seven years after sentencing, and felonies after 10 years. 

"This is more than a criminal justice issue — this is an economic issue," Carrie Jones, senior adviser to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and top point person for his Project Clean Slate initiative, told me.

The big picture: Other state legislatures — like Virginia, Mississippi and Florida — are debating measures that would broaden expungement rules.

  • The bills tend to have bipartisan support.
  • Some are aimed at automating the process, which tends to be expensive and time-consuming.
  • Code for America, a government reform nonprofit that's pushing for automated expungement, says 1 in 3 Americans have a criminal record that shows up on routine background checks, and nearly half of U.S. kids have at least one parent with a record.

Details: Detroit's Project Clean Slate, begun in 2016 at the behest of Duggan, employs staff attorneys who handled 300 convictions last year — and are seeing a surge in applications as a result of the new law.

  • "The biggest thing for our clients is the number of convictions" that can be expunged starting April 12, Stefani LaBelle, the lead attorney for Project Clean Slate, tells Axios.
  • Crimes that can't be expunged include murder, carjacking, kidnapping and criminal sexual assault.
  • The program — which acts as a sort of one-stop-shop for expungement — is seen as a role model: "We've been contacted by cities all over the state and country looking to implement a program like ours," Jones tells Axios.

The bottom line: A University of Michigan study found that most people eligible for expungement don't apply for it — only 6.5% — but that people who do get their criminal records wiped tend to have "extremely low subsequent crime rates."

  • They also see their wages rise by 25% on average within two years.

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2. A shake-up in the ranks of superstar cities
Data: Milken Institute; Chart: Axios Visuals

San Francisco fell from No. 1 and was supplanted by Provo, Utah, in the Milken Institute's annual ranking of big metropolitan areas with the best regional economies.

Why it matters: As the pandemic prompts people to move from pricy superstar cities to mid-tier ones where life is cheaper and easier, traditional powerhouses are being upstaged by smaller places focused on economic vitality.

Driving the news: What a difference a (pandemic) year makes: The 2021 Milken Institute Best-Performing Cities Index, released Wednesday, shows San Francisco, San Jose, Reno, Seattle and Dallas falling out of the top 10 places for job creation, wage growth and innovation.

  • "Large cities in the Intermountain West and South are outperforming many areas on the coasts, mainly due to their higher levels of short-term job growth and more affordable housing," Milken said.
  • "Housing affordability" and "broadband access" were added as new index criteria this year.

The big picture: This seismic shift of people and power can be a boon to the smaller cities that prosper — attracting more companies, capital and citizens — but can also have deleterious effects on the qualities people cherish about them, like affordability and middle-class values.

  • Californians have been flocking to Idaho in such droves that they're pricing out locals, as Conor Dougherty writes in the NYT.
  • "Home prices rose 20 percent in 2020, according to Zillow, and in Boise, 'Go Back to California' graffiti has been sprayed along the highways."

Details: Large metropolitan areas with the biggest gains in the Milken rankings — even though they didn't crack the top 10 — include Wichita, Kansas; Harrisburg-Carlisle, Pennsylvania; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Madison, Wisconsin; and Lincoln, Nebraska.

  • The biggest losers in the rankings: Salinas, California; Elgin, Illinois; Santa Cruz-Watsonville, California; Lake County-Kenosha County, Illinois-Wisconsin; and Des Moines, Iowa.

Read the full story.

3. Where San Franciscans are really going

From this San Francisco neighborhood, it's possible to look longingly across the Oakland Bay Bridge to Alameda County. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

We've all seen countless stories about San Francisco tech workers decamping for Texas and Florida — but according to U.S. Postal Service change-of-address records, they're actually just moving to Bay Area suburbs, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

The big picture: The Chronicle analyzed postal service records and found that "the top six destinations for those fleeing the city were all Bay Area counties: Alameda, San Mateo, Marin, Contra Costa, Santa Clara and Sonoma."

  • After that came Los Angeles, San Diego, Napa and Riverside.
  • The No. 1 destination — Alameda County, where Oakland is the biggest city — is directly across the bay from San Francisco.
  • Austin and Denver were the "only two out-of-state destinations that made it into the Top 20," per the Chronicle.

Details: "While the influx of new residents coming into the city remained constant between 2019 and 2020, the number of households leaving skyrocketed by more than 35,000 — from 45,263 in 2019 to 80,371 in 2020."

  • Roughly 41% of the change-of-address requests were moves within San Francisco.

Between the lines: The tally is city-specific and doesn't capture all of the people coming and going from the Bay Area, which includes all the counties close to San Francisco proper.

Read the full story.

4. Cities push back on facial recognition

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Minneapolis City Council voted recently to bar its police department from using facial recognition technology, Axios Twin Cities' Nick Halter reports.

  • Minneapolis will join other cities that have restricted the technology, including Portland, San Francisco, Oakland and Boston.

The big picture: Even as efforts to restrict facial recognition at the local level gather momentum, the technology is being used across U.S. society, as Axios' Bryan Walsh writes.

  • Clearview AI, one of the leading firms selling facial recognition to police, reported a 26% jump in usage from law enforcement agencies the day after the Capitol insurrection.

Flashback: Baltimore's police department used secret aerial surveillance in an effort to combat a high murder rate — as Bloomberg reported — only to be forced to stop.

  • "The planes were grounded amid backlash from residents and civil liberties groups, who called for the immediate suspension of the program and details on what data the city had been collecting," per Wired.
5. The stark racial gap in homeownership

Reproduced from the National Association of Realtors; Chart: Axios Visuals

The homeownership rate for Black families is nearly 30 percentage points lower than that for white families, according to a new data analysis by the National Association of Realtors, writes Axios' Kadia Goba.

6. Rojo, Portland's celebrity llama, lives on

In life — and death — Rojo the llama greets the public in his signature bow tie and top hat. Photo: Lori Gregory of Mtn Peaks Therapy Llamas & Alpacas

After more than a decade entertaining Portland, Oregon, residents at parades, parties and weddings, Rojo the llama has permanently retired to the Washington State School for the Blind in Vancouver.

  • Rojo, who died in 2019 at age 17, has 29,000 followers on Instagram and 15,000 on Facebook.
  • Carefully restored by a taxidermist, he will spend his afterlife introducing blind students to what a llama feels like.
  • "It's pretty amazing how much he was loved," said his co-owner Lori Gregory, noting that her daughter, Shannon Joy, raised $13,000 through a GoFundMe campaign to have him preserved.

The backstory: Rojo often visited the School for the Blind when he was alive, attending annual track meets and Easter egg hunts.

  • The school is home to a tactile museum — or "sensory safari" — that uses Braille, audio and preserved animals to introduce students to various species.
  • Gregory and her daughter — who keep six llamas and seven alpacas at their farm, Mtn Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas — had the place in mind when Rojo started showing signs of age and fatigue.

When she learned that Rojo had stomach cancer, Gregory started searching for a taxidermist.

  • "Nobody would touch the idea of doing taxidermy on a llama, because it’s not common," she told me.
  • A Vancouver taxidermist who had previously stuffed a buffalo raised his hand to try.
  • "His fiber is still nice," Gregory said.

The bottom line: Though Gregory has several gregarious therapy animals — like Smokey the llama and Jean-Pierre the alpaca — Rojo was her first, and she still chokes up when she talks about the days leading up to his death.

  • "It was so surreal and crazy," she told me, "but the thought of him serving the school for the blind is what got me through it."

There's nothing like watching a pair of freshly shampooed 300-pound llamas stroll into a nursing home to brighten your day. Here's a story I wrote about "llama therapy" in action.

Oh, and: Sign up for Axios Cities here.