May 21, 2020

Axios Cities

By Kim Hart
Kim Hart

💻 Happening soon: Axios is hosting a live virtual event on the challenges and opportunities of remote learning and what to expect in the fall. Join me and Axios co-founder and CEO Jim VandeHei at 12:30pm ET for a conversation with Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.) and president of the American Council on Education Ted Mitchell. Register here.

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  • Today's edition is 1,648 words, a 6-minute read.
1 big thing: The next battles between cities and states

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Legal battles between cities and states are expected to intensify in the coming months with dust-ups over municipal broadband networks, paid sick leave and affordable housing policies at the forefront.

Why it matters: After some high-profile disputes with governors over pandemic-related restrictions, some mayors are emboldened in pushing back on state laws prohibiting city-level policies that, they say, will be important to recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • "When states handcuff cities, they don't have the flexibility, autonomy or policies in place to deal with emergencies," said Kim Haddow, director of the Local Solutions Support Center. "These are three areas that, if they'd been in place before the pandemic, cities would have been in a better position to respond to the crisis."

1. Community-run broadband networks: 19 states have legal barriers or bans on municipal-owned broadband networks.

  • This impacts millions of schoolchildren who may still be grappling with remote learning in the fall and at-home workers who are more reliant on an internet connection.
"You have the dual effect of communities that are completely disconnected in a world that is more interconnected than ever before, combined with the realization that telecommuting is effective. Cities wanting to be competitive are looking at ways to move that forward."
— Columbia, South Carolina, Mayor Steve Benjamin

Where it stands: More than 500 communities have some sort of publicly owned broadband networks, per the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

  • Some states— like Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina — have eased restrictions on phone and electric cooperatives to facilitate broadband in rural areas where private providers are unlikely to invest.

2. Paid sick leave: About 40% of service sector workers don't have paid sick leave, including many of the essential workers who are still on the job during the pandemic.

  • That leaves tens of millions of workers with a very difficult decision if they get sick: Go to work and risk infecting others or stay at home and lose their paycheck.
  • Only 13 states and Washington, D.C., require paid sick leave, while 20 states have passed laws preempting cities from requiring employers to provide paid sick leave.
  • A new CityHealth poll shows 78% of Americans support paid sick leave for U.S. workers.
"Never has it been more important that people have the ability not to go into a workplace, and the public really gets that now."
— Shelley Hearne, CityHealth president

Where it stands: Despite the pandemic, a federal judge in March blocked Dallas from enforcing a local ordinance requiring private employers to offer paid sick leave, per the Dallas Morning News. Similar ordinances have been blocked in San Antonio and Austin, with Austin appealing to the Texas Supreme Court.

3. Affordable housing: A number of cities and states have implemented eviction moratoriums to give relief to renters suddenly out of work, but some are already expiring.

  • Rent strikes and #CancelRent rallies are trying to focus policymakers' attention on the severe lack of affordable housing that could lead to spikes in homelessness as the pandemic drags on.

Where it stands: Despite a dramatic expansion of tenants' rights laws over the past few years with rent control laws in New York, Oregon and California, 31 states have statewide laws preempting rent control, said Haddow.

  • In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker is under pressure to use his emergency powers to repeal the state's ban on rent regulation, but Pritzker has deferred to the state legislature, per the Chicago Tribune.
2. Food deserts spread in Louisiana
Data: UrbanFootprint; Note: Colored by census blocks and grouped by county-level urban/rural classification; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Driven by a dramatic rise in unemployment, more than one in three Louisiana residents now lives in food-insecure communities due to COVID-19, according to an analysis by data firm UrbanFootprint.

The big picture: The number of Americans considered food insecure has risen 46% since the beginning of the outbreak, according to Katie Fitzgerald, chief operating officer of Feeding America, in an April interview.

Zooming in: Louisiana ranks third in the nation for risk of food insecurity, following the District of Columbia and Georgia. Nearly half of newly food insecure communities are small towns and unincorporated rural areas.

  • 1.6 million Louisiana residents now live in food insecure communities, an increase of more than 500,000 since the beginning of the crisis.
  • Food insecurity has jumped dramatically in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, where approximately 65% of residents live in food-insecure communities. 

Details: The analysis tracked changes in social vulnerability, economic stress, health risk and accessibility.

  • The steep climb in unemployment across the state (now 35%) has been the biggest driver, said Joe DiStefano, CEO and co-founder of UrbanFootprint. New Orleans now has a 51% unemployment rate.

What's next: Pop-up food pantries at schools and churches in food desert neighborhoods can boost access, ideally allowing residents to be within a 10-minute walk of a grocery store or food outlet that sells healthy options.

Go deeper: How the coronavirus is disrupting the global food supply

3. Chart du jour: Real estate forecast
Reproduced from Urban Land Institute; Chart: Axios Visuals

This year's real-estate outlook is bleak, but commercial property rents are expected to improve over the next two years, according to the Urban Land Institute's annual survey of real estate economists and analysts.

Brick-and-mortar retailers, which were already shrinking before the pandemic, are suffering across the board. Meanwhile, e-commerce is rapidly increasing its market share.

Apartments are necessities, and rent collections haven't dipped as much as expected — yet. There will likely be a slowdown in building new multi-family projects.

Office demand is expected to improve over time. Even if more people decide to work from home, social distancing could require companies to lease more space to accommodate workers.

The bottom line: The big question that will determine how quickly rents bounce back is whether the crisis will prompt people to swap a city lifestyle for a more spread-out suburban one.

4. Coronavirus is reshaping urban mobility

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

There could be colliding interests as commuting begins to revive while environmental advocates fight to preserve and expand the newly airy spaces opened up for pedestrians and cyclists, Axios' Ben Geman reports.

Why it matters: Cities face a new reality of uncertain duration even as restrictions are eased.

  • Public transit systems must run at greatly reduced capacity thanks to social distancing and budget woes, and passengers may stay away to avoid exposure.
  • London, in announcing its plan to open more streets for walkers and bikers, warned that a mass exodus to private cars would worsen congestion and air quality.

The big question: How many of these changes will be made permanent even once people are largely able to return, in theory, to pre-crisis norms? London and Paris officials have signaled the changes could last.

But, but, but: Cities could face pressure in the other direction. There's already evidence that driving levels are bouncing back from April's troughs in a big way.

  • "Many transportation planners are concerned that the combination of reduced capacity, as well as fears of using transit in a pandemic world, will result in a shift towards personal vehicles," said Regina Clewlow, CEO of Populus, which provides transportation data analytics to local governments.

What they're saying: Urban transportation expert Yonah Freemark points out that in the 2000s, New York City's then-transportation chief Janette Sadik-Khan experimented with pro-pedestrian and cycling changes. Many became permanent.

  • "The clear benefits these improvements provide to neighbors, as well as their limited negative impacts on traffic, will likely build support for them and make it difficult for political officials to walk back on these policies," said Freemark, who authors The Transport Politic website.
5: Southern states see rise in coronavirus cases
Expand chart
Data: The COVID Tracking Project; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Several Southern states are seeing a rise in new coronavirus cases, moving them further away from an important target for safely reopening parts of their economies, Axios' Sam Baker and Andrew Witherspoon report.

Why it matters: The Trump administration's reopening guidelines call for a consistent decline in new cases before proceeding with the process — and some states are proceeding even without clearing that threshold.

Between the lines: The total number of cases is only one piece of the puzzle.

  • The number of new cases will rise as a state performs more testing, so looking at this metric in isolation can give the false impression of a worsening outbreak.

Where it stands: South Dakota has made the most progress over the past week, cutting its new cases by over half.

  • North Carolina and North Dakota bring up the rear, with spikes in new cases of around 40%.

The bottom line: No one measurement tells the whole story, and there are signs that most of the country is moving in the right direction.

  • But there's a big difference between moving in the right direction and being out of the woods, and there will be no victory over the coronavirus without a sustained, documented decline in the number of new cases.
6. Urban files

People practice social distancing in white circles in Brooklyn's Domino Park. Photo: Johannes Eisele / AFP via Getty Images.

Isolating coronavirus patients isn't as easy as it sounds (Axios)

COVID-19 continues spreading in counties with strong Trump support (Brookings Institution)

Even the pandemic can't kill the open-plan office (CityLab)

Let the coronavirus break up the "Super Zips" (Washington Post)

States are reopening: See how coronavirus cases rise and fall (ProPublica)

7. 1 🛴 thing: Scooters that scoot to you

Photo: Courtesy of Tortoise

Scooters that (somewhat) drive themselves are now a reality — at least in Peachtree Corners, a suburb of Atlanta, writes Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva.

  • Scooter rental company Go X and Tortoise, a startup that's aiming to build self-driving tech for scooters, are rolling out their first fleet of 100 scooters in the Georgia town as part of a six-month pilot program with local tech incubator Curiosity Lab.

How it works: Riders in PeachTree Corners can open the Go X app and hit a button to summon the nearest scooter.

  • Going at about 3–5 mph, it would take about 15 minutes to reach a rider who's half a mile away.
  • In between rides, the scooters will travel back to one of six hubs in the city where Go X workers will clean and sanitize them and take care of any other maintenance needs like recharging them.
  • For now, the scooters are operated remotely by Tortoise staff in Mexico City to help refine the tech while it amasses training data, though the plan is to eventually have self-driving technology instead of humans.

Between the lines: Some experts predict a boom in scooter and bike use — as long as they are cleaned frequently— in the near future as people look for alternatives to public transit, which may feel too risky during the current coronavirus pandemic.

Kim Hart

Have a great (and safe) week!