Jul 30, 2020

Axios Cities

By Kim Hart
Kim Hart

I'm back after a week off with my kids. Speaking of kids, I'll be spending a lot of time in the coming weeks reporting on back-to-school plans. Send me your thoughts and tips.

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  • Today's edition is 1,854 words, a 7-minute read.

Let's dive in...

1 big thing: Mayors face off with Trump over federal law enforcement

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The escalating war of words between President Trump and Democratic big-city mayors — brought to a head by confrontations in Portland and Seattle — is a preview of what's to come in the months leading up to November.

The big picture: Trump is using Democratic mayors as the foils for his law-and-order re-election message, while they've called his deployment of federal agents in their cities "a step short of martial law" and heightened their criticism of the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic.

It's the latest clash between Trump and liberal mayors, who've been convenient contrasts on a host of issues, including immigration, homelessness and public health.

What they're saying: "We've been forced to take these extreme actions in the face of unwarranted, and we believe unconstitutional, abuse of federal power," Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said earlier this week while speaking with other members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors on a press call.

  • He added that the "federal occupation of our streets" only heightened tensions with protesters. "Escalation has been met with escalation."
  • Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan called the deployment of federal law enforcement for political purposes "a step short of martial law."

The latest: The administration has since agreed to a "phased withdrawal" of federal troops from Portland, and Washington state officials said on Tuesday that the federal agents who arrived in Seattle last week would be departing.

  • “As the President and [acting Homeland Security] Secretary Wolf have both made clear, federal law enforcement officers will not leave until the seat of justice in Portland is secure," said White House deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews in a statement.

Yes, but: Despite the federal pullback from Portland and Seattle, mayors are warning of "unprecedented" and "dangerous" use of federal law enforcement as tensions rise across the country.

  • The Justice Department has expanded its "Operation Legend" program aimed at combating violent crime into Albuquerque, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee.

What we're watching: Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said the city will collaborate with federal law enforcement as long as there's a clear understanding of the mission and parameters of those efforts, which are usually laid out in an official agreement beforehand.

  • That did not happen with Operation Legend, he said.
  • "Contrary to all our other interactions with federal law enforcement, we were given no notice at all," he said.
2. The social media census

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Census Bureau has placed a big bet on digital outreach, especially on social media networks, as it enters the last big push to get people to respond to the 2020 count.

The big picture: Not only is this year the first online census count, it's also a giant experiment in how to reach people virtually in a fragmented media environment during a public health crisis that sidelined in-person field operations.

Why it matters: The census determines how $1.5 trillion in federal funding gets allocated across state and local governments.

Ten years ago, 8% of the bureau's advertising budget was spent on digital outlets, and that was mostly banner ads on websites.

  • This year, approximately 30% of the budget (about $105 million) is getting spent across programmatic, search, site direct and social media advertising, Stephen Buckner, the Census Bureau's assistant director of communications, told Axios.
  • He said about 80% of the people who've responded to the 2020 census so far have done so online — a much higher percentage than the bureau expected.

Details: Census ads (in 13 languages) have appeared on Facebook, Twitter, Google search, YouTube and Nextdoor.

  • The single biggest day for responses was in March when Facebook displayed a message encouraging people to respond, driving a spike of traffic to 2020Census.gov. Facebook did another push last week.
  • Nextdoor has proven effective in urging neighbors to respond, Buckner said. Census staff members have been posting messages on the social network since March to increase awareness and correct misinformation about the count.

Text messaging has also become an important form of outreach in the mobile era. For example, more than a dozen states have partnered with CommunityConnect Labs and Twilio to provide information about the census to respondents via text.

What's next: Door-to-door canvassing will be in full swing beginning Aug. 11 to follow up with nonresponders and historically hard-to-count populations.

  • "Under normal circumstances, we are pretty much done with the census at this point," Buckner said. "But we still have the biggest operation to go, which is the follow-up efforts in August."
  • So far, nearly 4 in 10 households haven't responded. The census concludes in October.
3. Transit agencies want more federal help to survive COVID-19 crisis

Bus ridership is way down, leading to budget shortfalls for transit agencies. Photo: Jeenah Moon/Getty Images

Public transportation agencies are getting squeezed by higher costs and lower revenues because of the pandemic, and they're warning they'll have to furlough employees or cut service without more government assistance, Axios' transportation correspondent Joann Muller writes.

The big picture: The funding squeeze is not just a big city problem. Transportation agencies in rural areas are suffering, too. Without a way for people to get to jobs, stores and schools, local economies can't recover.

What they're saying: Transit agencies are seeking $32 billion in federal aid to keep buses and trains running, on top of the $25 billion they already received in March under the initial CARES Act.

  • It could be years before transit agencies recover, said Andrew Aiello, general manager of the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky, where ridership is down 50%.
  • "Take transportation away and see what happens to the base economy. You’re not going to like it," Scott Smith, CEO of Phoenix's Valley Metro system, said.

Driving the news: Transportation was left out of the latest $1 trillion stimulus bill proposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other GOP leaders this week.

  • House Democrats' $3 trillion plan includes $16 billion for transit agencies, about half of what the American Public Transportation Association says the industry needs to survive the crisis.
4. Trump wades into suburban housing wars

The Trump administration has rescinded the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, an Obama-era policy aimed at curbing discriminatory housing practices and racial segregation.

  • In a second tweet, Trump said: "Your housing prices will go up based on the market, and crime will go down."

Why it matters: The suburbs are where some of the fiercest zoning battles regarding affordable and multifamily housing are playing out across the country.

  • Suburban votes will be crucial in the upcoming election.

Catch up quick: The 2015 AFFH rule required communities that receive federal housing aid to also address racial segregation in their local housing practices.

  • Last week, the Department of Housing and Urban Development said the AFFH rule was "unworkable" for localities.
  • Democrats and housing advocates blasted the rule reversal. Sen. Elizabeth Warren called the move "blatant racism."

Reality check: Trump's appeal to the "Suburban Lifestyle Dream" plays to a vision of suburbia that might be outdated in an era when Black Lives Matter signs line so many lawns. But it also touches a nerve for homeowners who fear that steps to add affordable or multifamily housing will impact property value in their neighborhoods.

  • NYT reporter Conor Dougherty, who writes extensively about the housing crisis in the San Francisco Bay Area, summed it up:
5. Rural small businesses may not survive another shutdown
Expand chart
Reproduced from Center for American Progress; Chart: Axios Visuals

Rural communities are seeing rising numbers of COVID-19 cases and will struggle to bounce back from a second shutdown.

Why it matters: Without additional federal relief for rural regions, "people and businesses will not have enough confidence to return to their jobs and daily activities," Center for American Progress senior economist Olugbenga Ajilore argues in an analysis released Monday. "The result will be a prolonged, deep recession."

What's happened: The $1,200 direct payments to households as part of the CARES Act, along with expanded unemployment insurance, revived spending and business revenues in April and May. Small businesses began to shut down again in late June as COVID-19 cases spiked, per CAP's analysis.

  • In southern rural communities characterized by large Black populations, household expenditures rebounded in May as southern states such as Georgia and South Carolina aggressively reopened. But that trend reversed in June with steep drops in the number of open businesses and revenue.
  • Midwestern rural communities characterized by blue-collar jobs saw an even steeper drop in household spending, although it has since plateaued. Small businesses are struggling to stay open.
  • Western rural communities followed a similar pattern, with the number of open merchants and revenue both plummeting at the end of June as household spending plateaued.

Even rural areas with higher pre-pandemic economic success have been hit hard, including "Graying America" communities with large aging populations in the West, as well as the Northeast and Florida (see chart above).

The big picture: Rural America has a high-risk population and fewer safety-net programs for people who get sick. And many rural communities are still struggling to recover from the Great Recession.

6. Parents and teachers are stressed — for different reasons
Data: Back-to-School National Educator Survey/Teachers Pay Teachers. Chart: Axios Visuals

Parents and teachers have proven to be powerful forces in influencing local back-to-school plans, but many feel conflicted about their local districts' fall plans and others feel unprepared to tackle all-virtual or hybrid learning.

Parents' top concern is their child getting COVID-19 (66%), followed by their child being a carrier of the virus and spreading it to someone else (51%), and children not social distancing (49%), according to a Care.com survey of 2,019 parents.

  • 74% of parents say they're not satisfied by or don't know what their local government's back-to-school plan is.
  • Only 17% of parents feel prepared for virtual learning or homeschooling.
  • 65% of parents expect to need more child care than they currently have in the fall.

A majority of teachers (52%) are worried about implementing the instructional models they've been directed to prepare for the fall, whether it be in-person classes, remote instruction or hybrid models, according to a survey of 1,101 preK-12 teachers by Teachers Pay Teachers.

  • 93% of educators are worried about providing equitable instruction to all students.
  • 82% predict a lack of internet access for students will be at least somewhat of a barrier, while 79% say the inability to communicate with students and families will be a barrier.
  • 71% are taking courses to learn more about remote instruction or are brushing up on tech tools for the fall.

Go deeper: Parents turn to "pods" as schooling solution

7. Urban files
Reproduced from KFF Health Tracking Poll; Note: Share includes responses for "very/somewhat worried"; income is household income; Chart: Axios Visuals

Reopening schools is a lose-lose dilemma for many families of color. (Axios)

Is the pandemic finally the moment for a universal basic income? (FastCompany)

The gig economy is failing. Say hello to the hustle economy. (OneZero)

Coronavirus surges in smaller cities test hospital capacity. (NPR)

White House privately warns 11 cities must take "aggressive" action against coronavirus. (Center for Public Integrity)

8. 1 Y thing: Pandemic forces YMCAs to close

A camper plays Minecraft at the Danvers YMCA Summer Camp in Danvers, Massachusetts, earlier this month. Photo: Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

The financial strain of the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing YMCAs across the country to close their doors.

Why it matters: In many communities, the local YMCA is a vital resource for youth needing after-school activities, organized sports and summer camps. Local chapters also serve as food pantries and shelters during crises.

Driving the news: This week, the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities in Minnesota said it is closing fitness centers in St. Paul, Lino Lakes and Prior Lake and is considering repurposing them as "community hubs," the StarTribune reports.

  • The Y in West Dallas also announced its closure, per the Dallas CBS affiliate. The closest Y location is 6 miles away, which is too far for children to travel after school or for families without cars.
  • The pandemic sped up the permanent closure of a YMCA building in New Haven, Connecticut, which had been open since 1971 and was in need of expensive renovations. The organization is trying to build a new location, but has a long approval process ahead of it, per the New Haven Register.
  • In May, three Chicago-area Ys closed permanently due to the "enormous strain" from the coronavirus outbreak, per NBC5 Chicago.

The backdrop: Many YMCAs had already been struggling financially before the outbreak due to declining membership and increasing costs of maintaining old buildings.

What they're saying: "I'm very concerned, because like most nonprofits, most of our YMCAs don't have significant reserves. We're sure that there will be some YMCAs that will not be able to survive," YMCA CEO Kevin Washington recently told Time.

Kim Hart

Have a great week.