Tiny Houses for the Homeless: An Affordable Solution Catches On

An architect's rendering of Quixote Village in Olympia, Wash. Image courtesy of Panza.

On a Saturday in September, more than 125 volunteers showed up with tools in hand and built six new 16-by-20-foot houses for a group of formerly homeless men. It was the beginning of Second Wind Cottages, a tiny-house village for the chronically homeless in the town of Newfield, N.Y., outside of Ithaca.

On January 29, the village officially opened, and its first residents settled in. Each house had cost about $10,000 to build, a fraction of what it would have cost to house the men in a new apartment building.

The project is part of a national movement of tiny-house villages, an alternative approach to housing the homeless that's beginning to catch the interest of national advocates and government housing officials alike.

"It's certainly something that we would encourage other communities to take a look at," says Lee Jones at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

For many years, it has been tough to find a way to house the homeless. More than 3.5 million people experience homelessness in the United States each year, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Shortages of low-income housing continue to be a major challenge. For every 100 households of renters in the United States that earn "extremely low income" (30 percent of the median or less), there are only 30 affordable apartments available, according to a 2013 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

But Second Wind is truly affordable, built by volunteers on seven acres of land donated by Carmen Guidi, the main coordinator of the project and a longtime friend of several of the men who now live there. The retail cost of the materials to build the first six houses was somewhere between $10,000 and $12,000 per house, says Guidi. But many of the building materials were donated, and all of the labor was done in a massive volunteer effort.

"We've raised nearly $100,000 in 100 days," he says, and the number of volunteers has been "in the hundreds, maybe even thousands now."

The village will ultimately include a common house, garden beds, a chicken coop, and 18 single-unit cottages.

"Camp Quixote" becomes a village

"The typical development for extremely low-income housing is trending up toward $200,000 per unit. That's a lot of bills," says Jill Severn, a board member at Panza, a nonprofit organization that sponsors another tiny-house project called Quixote Village. (The organization's name is a play on Sancho Panza, Don Quixote's sidekick in Miguel de Cervantes' classic novel.)

Quixote Village opened in Olympia, Wash., right before Christmas. But it began in February 2007 as "Camp Quixote," a protest held in a city-owned parking lot. A group of homeless people assembled there to oppose an Olympia ordinance that made it illegal to sit, lie down, or sell things within six feet of downtown buildings. When police evicted the campers eight days after the protest began, the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation stepped in to help, offering temporary refuge on their land.

Residents of Quixote Village in Olympia, Wash., move in with their belongings. Photo courtesy of Panza.

For five years, the camp's location rotated, moving and reassembling every 90 days at one of several different local churches. Panza was formed by a corps of volunteers from the faith communities assisting the camp, and the organization worked with the city council to secure and rezone a parcel of county-owned industrial land near a community college and create a permanent site for the village. In December of 2013, the residents of Quixote Village settled into their new homes there.

Quixote Village has fostered a positive relationship between its residents and local government and police, says Severn. Despite this, the project was held up in court for a year by a local organization of businesses and landowners called the Industrial Zoning Preservation Association, which cited concerns over the potential impact on local businesses in a nearby industrial park.

Panza used the time to fundraise and build an outreach campaign to win over the public. They had the support of legions of volunteers, mostly from local churches, who had staffed the camp.

"Having hundreds of [residents] get to know people that were homeless made a huge difference in the success of getting this off the ground," says Severn.

Today, the 30 structures that make up Quixote Village are home to 29 disabled adults, almost all of whom qualify as "chronically homeless," by the standards of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Homelessness in Austin, Texas, costs taxpayers more than $10 million per year.

The residents also have a common space with shared showers, a laundry, garden space, and a kitchen. By sharing these amenities, the community was able to increase the affordability of the project and design a neighborhood they believed would fit their needs and make them more self-sufficient.

The shared space has also helped them create a supportive community. The residents, who are self-governed, have developed a rulebook that prohibits illegal drugs and alcohol on the grounds and requires that each member put in a certain number of service hours per week. They meet twice a week in the evenings to discuss problems or concerns and to share a common meal that they take turns cooking.

The main complaint right now, says Raul Salazar, the village's program manager and only full-time staff member, is that the postal service still hasn't started delivering mail.

The cost of units at Quixote Village is significantly higher than at Second Wind—about $88,000 per unit—but that's still less than half the cost of the average public housing project, according to Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Quixote has had access to state funding and local community grants, as well as private funding from individuals, businesses, and two Native American tribes. The project also received a Community Development Block Grant for $604,000 from the State of Washington Department of Commerce and a $1.5-million grant from the Washington State Legislature.

Two architecture and design firms, MSGS Architects and KMB Design Groups, also contributed design services pro bono, and the Thurston County Commission is leasing the land to Quixote for $1 per year.

Gaining acceptance

Many other tiny-house projects are just beginning to get of the ground, raise money, find land, and gain approval from local officials and members of the public. But the unorthodox nature of the small houses presents unique legal zoning limitations and barriers that limit where tiny houses can be stationed.

In Madison, Wisc., Occupy Madison has been facing this very challenge, as the group forged ahead with plans for a tiny house village.

Each home will be about 99 square feet if you include the porch, and volunteers enjoy the joke: "We are the 99 square feet!"

In the spring of 2011, prior to the launch of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a series of protests at the Wisconsin State Capitol—focused on the state's controversial anti-collective-bargaining bill—prompted additional legislation that prohibited groups from gathering without a permit. When the protests joined forces with Occupy in the fall of 2011, this created a unique opportunity for the voices of the many homeless people in Madison to be heard.

"There were some great moments throughout the Occupy movement where a lot of dialogue was going on between the people without homes and the people with homes," says Allen Barkoff, one of the board members of Occupy Madison, Inc., a nonprofit formed in December 2012 to address the need for legal places where homeless people in Madison could congregate and stay safe. The organization first looked into buying an apartment building or a shared house for the homeless but ultimately settled on tiny houses as the most flexible and economical way to create homes for people.

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In this case, the cost of building the tiny homes comes to around $5,000 each, funded by private donations and an online crowd-funding campaign. The nonprofit also plans to apply for some city grants. Each home will come with a propane heater, a composting toilet, and an 80-watt solar panel array—and will be about 98 square feet in size, 99 if you include the porch. (The volunteers enjoy the joke: "We are the 99 square feet!")

But the question of where the houses can legally be located is still up in the air. Volunteers are now building houses for six people. Because of a recent ordinance change, the houses are allowed to sit on church property in groups of three. City regulations also permit them to be placed on the side of the road, as long as they are relocated every 48 hours. But Madison's snowy winter makes the houses hard to move, explains Barkoff.

Now Occupy Madison, Inc., is in the middle of a lengthy process to purchase a parcel of land on the east side of the city to accommodate 11 houses, along with a central building (a converted gas station) that can serve as a workshop for making more homes. This spring, they will continue to hold neighborhood meetings about the project, talk with police, and work with the Madison Planning and Development Department—and, eventually, the city council—to negotiate zoning issues for the village.

The real cost of homelessness

Efforts to break through the red tape and raise money to house the homeless almost always pay off for a community. Even the most expensive tiny-house projects—such as a new, ambitious $6-million campaign to build a 200-person tiny-house park this year in Austin, Texas—can't rival the cost of homelessness to taxpayers, which was more than $10 million per year in Austin, for example, as YES! reported in December 2013.

"It's a very important step in terms of the kinds of services we should be providing to people that need assistance."

"Chronically homeless people—people who have disabilities and are homeless for long periods of time—can be very expensive to systems of public care," explains Roman. In 2007, the National Alliance to End Homelessness compiled three studies showing that it costs the same or less money to provide permanent housing as it does to allow people to remain homeless. In Denver, Colo., a housing program for the homeless reduced the costs of public services (including medical services, temporary shelter, and costs associated with arrests and incarceration) by an estimated $15,773 per person per year, saving taxpayers thousands of dollars.

Government officials and city planners are beginning to see the tiny-house village as one viable solution for addressing homelessness.

"It's certainly something that we would encourage other communities to take a look at when it comes to creating solutions for housing the chronically homeless," says Lee Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "It's a very important step in terms of the kinds of services we should be providing to people that need assistance."

Currently, the various efforts to house the homeless in tiny-house villages comprise a small and pioneering movement: But each new project helps create lessons and a model for other communities.

For example, Quixote Village, as a recipient of state funding, is considered a "pilot" project: It is required to report its progress to the state legislature in five years. In the meantime, says Severn, the residents will be settling in, putting in garden beds, building a carpentry workshop, searching for jobs, and simply living their lives.

"One of our residents has been homeless for about 25 years," Severn says. "He told me he's excited to start a little rose garden. It really touched me to hear that."

Erika Lundahl wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Erika is a freelance writer living in Seattle.

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New Video from Harry Potter Director Promotes Tax on Wall Street

Some of Europe's biggest film stars are promoting a tax on Wall Street speculation through a new short film. David Yates, who made the last four Harry Potter movies, is the director, and one of the actors is Andrew Lincoln, the star zombie-fighter from the hit TV show "The Walking Dead."

The video is set 10 years in the future, with Lincoln anchoring a newscast looking back at the impact of the tax. Bankers from Spain, Germany, and France boast about how the tax has generated revenues to help fund public services and combat poverty and climate change.

The video is timed to influence the final phase of negotiations over a tax of less than one percent on each trade of stocks, bonds, and derivatives.

Meanwhile, a British banker (played by Bill Nighy from the comedies The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Love, Actually) becomes increasingly embarrassed over his country's failure to implement the tax and eventually throws a complete hissy fit.

The video is timed to influence the final phase of European negotiations over a tax of just a fraction of one percent on each trade of stocks, bonds, and derivatives. Eleven governments from the European Union have formed a "coalition of the willing" to coordinate such a tax. They include Belgium, Germany, Estonia, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Austria, Portugal, Slovenia, and Slovakia.

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The international aid agency Oxfam helped produce the film and is hosting a "million strong" petition that could make the tax the most popular in history. For four years, John Cavanagh's organization, the Institute for Policy Studies, has worked with Oxfam and numerous labor, environmental, public health, and other civil society groups around the world as part of this campaign.

It's been thrilling to watch the progress in Europe, and once people there start raising massive revenue from the tax, it will boost momentum in the United States. While the Obama administration is not yet supportive, there are several congressional proposals that include some form of financial transaction tax.

Many financial experts say the tax would help curb dangerous speculation that has no value for the real economy.

Rep. Keith Ellison has introduced the Inclusive Prosperity Act , which proposes tax rates of 0.5 percent on stock, 0.1 percent on bond, and 0.005 percent on derivative trades, with exemptions for lower-income investors. Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. Peter DeFazio have proposed a slightly more modest version, which could be expected to raise $350 billion over 10 years.

Beyond the revenue benefits, many financial experts argue that the tax would help curb dangerous short-term speculation that has no value for the real economy. IPS has helped organize a letter signed by more than 50 financial professionals who believe "These taxes will rebalance financial markets away from a short-term trading mentality that has contributed to instability in our financial markets."

We've had the people on our side for some time now. In a January 2013 poll conducted by Hart Research, 62 percent of Americans approved of a "small tax on all stock/bond/market trades." Having major cultural figures join the fight will greatly increase our chances of overcoming opposition from Wall Street.

John Cavanagh and Robin Broad wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.

Robin is a Professor of International Development at American University in Washington, D.C. and has worked as an international economist in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Congress. John is director of theInstitute for Policy Studies, and is co-chair (with David Korten) of the New Economy Working Group. They are co-authors of three books and numerous articles on the global economy, and have been traveling the country and the world for their project Local Dreams: Finding Rootedness in the Age of Vulnerability.

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A Passion for Peppers: The Movement to Save New Mexico's Treasured Chiles

YES! Illustrations by Julie Notarianni

Here in New Mexico, autumn starts with the smell of roasting chile. In parking lots and on roadsides, aproned vendors turn the cranks on rotating gas-fueled drums filled with fragrant chile peppers. Even as a young child, before I could get through a whole plate of my aunt's spicy enchiladas, before I enjoyed my father's piquant chile caribe, before undergoing the New Mexican rite of passage from tender-tongued child to ardent chile-eater, I savored the wafting smell of chile that enveloped my hometown every harvest season. It was then, and always will be, the smell I associate with shorter days, returning to school, wood-gathering time, and most of all, home. For New Mexicans, chile is more than just a food: it is an icon, a passion, a tradition.

Worldwide, we are losing traditional, local varieties of domesticated plants at an alarming rate. Facing extinction

But New Mexico is losing its traditional landrace varieties of chile, due largely to modern agribusiness and the societal shift away from small farms. "Landrace" is a term for domesticated plants and animals that have been raised in a specific area for long periods of time and have adapted to a particular region. They have a much broader genetic spectrum than modern hybrids, which are bred for a narrow range of specific traits. These older landrace varieties are remarkably resilient and their DNA is a valuable genetic resource, especially as we face climate change and increasingly unpredictable weather.

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Worldwide, we are losing traditional, local varieties of domesticated plants at an alarming rate. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that "Since the 1900s, some 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost as farmers worldwide have left their multiple local varieties and landraces for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties."

Chile was first cultivated in Central and South America—the word chilli is from the Aztec language, Nahuatl. Spanish Captain General Don Juan de Oñate, who colonized the Rio Grande, is generally credited for bringing chile seed from Mexico in 1597. Since Oñate's arrival, successive generations of Native and Hispanic farmers in New Mexico have been selecting and planting chile that exhibit characteristics favorable to their particular locale. Dozens of distinct chile landraces have developed along the Rio Grande Valley, each named for the place it has been cultivated: Cochiti, Escondida, Jemez, Puerto de Luna, and so on. And in the higher altitudes of northern New Mexico—where summer afternoons that soar to the 90s are often followed by nights that cool to the 50s—local varieties cope much better with the temperature range than lowland varieties.

It's not just about survival. "The cool nights and hot days are what give our chile its incredible flavor," claims farmer Matt Romero, dangling a specimen of his family's Alcalde chile variety between his thumb and forefinger. He adds, "This chile is ready to harvest in 70 days." I met with Romero at his farm in the village of Alcalde on a hot late-August morning. The Rio Grande rumbled just a couple hundred yards away, beyond an impressive stand of cottonwood and locust trees. Romero's lush fields of cauliflower, eggplant, squash, and chile contrasted with the dry, naked bluffs rising across the river.

High-desert mountains, like the Sangre de Cristos that surround my hometown of Santa Fe and the Romero family farm in Alcalde, offer conditions that can augment greater levels of genetic diversity. I learned this one fall afternoon while I sat underneath a narrow-leafed cottonwood tree. I had taken my two daughters to Little Tesuque Creek so they could play on their favorite swing, a tire suspended by a thick rope from a large limb of the cottonwood. The creek is dry in early October, and autumn leaves filled the narrow creek bed. The girls shrieked in delight as they swung over the silent stream of leaves, golden in the glow of late afternoon, while I sat nearby in the sun and read.

I had taken along Gary Paul Nabhan's book, Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine. Nabhan, a farmer, seed conservationist, and ethnobiologist, expands on the pioneering studies of Nikolay Vavilov, a Russian botanist and geneticist renowned for identifying the centers of origin of domesticated plants. In his global travels from 1917 to 1933, Vavilov discovered that semiarid, mountainous regions were ideal for fostering reticulate evolution, a process that requires a delicate balance between isolation and hybridization.

Nabhan explains that when seeds are dispersed into distinct watersheds, they become isolated from others of their own species by the harsher, non-arable terrain surrounding the watershed. This microclimate, with its various "bugs, birds, and microbes, places new selection pressures on the plant population, and it sooner or later diverges from its source population." Seeds and pollen from other locations make their way into each isolated valley either by human hands or carried by animals, floods, fires, and high winds, providing a limited, but crucial, source of novel genes.

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That golden afternoon, I put my book down and looked across the dry creek. I realized my girls and I were playing and reading in the very kind of watershed Nabhan describes. His description of reticulate evolution gave me a new understanding of the relationship between food and place. When Hispanic and Native farmers began planting the Aztecs' chile seed, each watershed and valley was isolated enough that in the ensuing four hundred years, under the influences of both natural selection pressures and human cultivation, each landrace diverged from the original seed stock and each valley developed a slightly different landrace from the next.

Chimayó chile has adapted to cope with the diseases, pests, and drought patterns specific to the Chimayó valley; Jemez chile has the genetic information to survive conditions in Jemez, and so on. This diversity is valuable for sustaining our future food supply. Paul Bosland, Regents Professor of Horticulture at New Mexico State University (NMSU) and director of the Chile Pepper Institute, emphasizes that "the genetic diversity found in these [landrace] varieties will be very useful as the climate changes," especially as we experience drier, more volatile weather.

Traditional New Mexican farmers are aging, and younger generations are abandoning farming. Those who do still farm find it hard to resist the higher-yield crop varieties that can bring in more revenue. But because modern hybrids like Big Jim or New Mexico No. 9 are selected for specific traits like thicker, straighter fruit or higher yield, they lose the complex genetic makeup of their progenitors. Homogeneity provides a more consistent crop, but increases a crop's vulnerability to disease and difficult growing conditions.

But landrace crop varieties are going extinct, too, and just like the Dodo, once lost they’re gone forever.

Landraces are "fading fast," explains Kraig Kraft, co-author (with Nabhan and Kurt Michael Friese) of Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail. "The problem is that, with the declining number of growers for each of these types, each population or variety of chile has fewer and fewer plants out in the field, reducing the genetic diversity in each."

When modern hybrids cross-pollinate with landraces, the resulting seed is contaminated with some of the genes of the hybrid. A study by Bosland and his colleagues at NMSU explains that the landraces that made the newer New Mexico chile cultivars a commercial success have already been lost. Farmers either stopped growing them in favor of the new varieties or crops were "genetically 'swamped' through uncontrolled outcrossing" with hybrids in neighboring fields.

Extinction is often associated with undomesticated species—frogs from the Andes, birds from the Solomon Islands, medicinal plants from the Amazon. But landrace crop varieties are going extinct, too, and just like the Dodo, once lost they're gone forever.

New demand for heirloom chiles

There are probably more landrace chiles growing in Chuck Havlick's little experimental plot than in any other single location in New Mexico. As we walked along ridges and furrows, Havlik, an NMSU graduate student, pointed out the subtle differences between varieties with the tenderness of a loving parent. He hopes his studies will eventually help chile farmers "find more economic value" in their local varieties and that awareness of the landraces will help communities protect them for future generations. Havlik is hopeful; he believes there is a burgeoning market for place-specific food.

"These varieties have become cultural markers for small communities within the state," he says. "There is passion in these communities for the chile they grow. There is pride."

Even conventional farmers are slowly beginning to respond to the consumer trend toward local varieties. John Bunker, owner of Fedco Seeds in Maine, has made a name for himself in the last forty years saving old apple varieties and has developed a large and diverse following. He has even, as he puts it, "wormed his way into the hearts" of nearby conventional orchardists, even though they initially thought his obsession with old local varieties was crazy: "I got to know a few commercial apple growers over the years. They would frequently say that the old varieties were just yuck and that we should just get rid of them. Now my commercial orchardist friends say, 'Hey, I sold all the heirloom varieties I had today. I could have sold twice as many!'"

When we support farmers by buying their local varieties, they have more economic leverage to continue their work.

This is the good news about preserving heirloom and landrace varieties—we have power as consumers and eaters. Whether we're chile-eaters, apple-eaters, endive-eaters, or all of the above, we can seek out varieties specific to our region. Farmers markets and CSAs are gaining ground, and any eater should be able to be part of the Slow Food movement.

Matt Romero is proud of the Santa Fe Farmers Market's robust food stamp program. He feels that many of the folks shopping at his stand know they could make their penny or food stamp go farther in a big box grocery store, but they choose his food because it’s local, fresh, tastier, and more nutritious. When we support farmers by buying their local varieties, they have more economic leverage to continue their work and plant the crops that can help carry us to a safer, more sustainable, more stable, more satiating food future.

An uncertain future

It's an especially cold, wet December. I trudge through ten inches of snow to the extra freezer we keep out in our shed for a bag of Romero's Alcalde chile. The smell of it defrosting in the sink brings warm October afternoons into my kitchen.

As I watch my husband chop green chile with garlic and then add salt, much the way his mother did and his grandmother before her, I think of the stories behind this ancient food: how it was first cultivated alongside avocado and beans, how the Aztecs perfected the art of chile domestication and had markets filled with dizzying arrays of different varieties, how the Spaniards, not wanting to live without this new, adored food source, brought seed north with them to New Mexico, and how it has been shaped both by the people who have grown it and by the high-desert-mountain valleys that have sheltered it for the last 400 years.

This food has traveled thousands of miles, endured tens of thousands of fall harvests, and fed generations. This is one of the many ancient stories that accompany the food on our table. As my daughters, my husband, and I sit down to eat, I wonder: Will we continue to plant, eat, and save these old varieties? Will we honor their stories?

Nina Bunker Ruiz wrote this article for Education Uprising: The New Rebels Taking Back Our Public Schools, the Spring 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. Nina is a freelance writer native to New Mexico. She currently lives in Santa Fe with her husband and two daughters.

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Free Community Capital Toolkit

Beyond Money - Mon, 02/10/2014 - 19:37

The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) is offering a Community Capital Toolkit that can be downloaded free of charge from the BALLE website.

In case you’re not familiar with BALLE, here is a brief description of the BALLE vision and mission from their website:

Within a generation, we envision a global system of human-scale, interconnected local economies that function in harmony with local ecosystems to meet the basic needs of all people, support just and democratic societies, and foster joyful community life.

At the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, BALLE [bawl-EE], our work is focused on creating real prosperity by connecting leaders, spreading solutions that work, and driving investment toward local economies.

BALLE equips entrepreneurs with tools and strategies for local success, and we provide the national forum for the most visionary local economy leaders and funders to connect, build their capacity and innovate. …more…

Toolkit includes: The 20-page Guide to Community Capital
Seven FREE past webinar recordings
Access to a community capital library of resources

You can download it here.

Categories: News

The emerging market mess and US manipulations

Beyond Money - Thu, 02/06/2014 - 23:40

Anyone who wants to understand present-day geopolitical phenomena must pay attention to former Assistant Treasury Secretary, Dr. Paul Craig Roberts. Roberts is one of a handful of people who understands what is going on–and is willing to tell people about it. Explore his website http://www.paulcraigroberts.org/, and be sure to listen to his recent interview with Eric King, here.

In that interview, Roberts tells the story of how and why the US interferes in money and securities markets, and the effects those manipulations have on others around the world. He also predicts that the Federal Reserve will soon be faced with the choice of either saving the banks or saving the dollar, perhaps as early as the end of this year. But I suspect that the Fed may not quite yet have exhausted their bag of tricks. Because banking corporations dominate politics in most of the world, and because the dollar’s role as the global reserve currency has served the purpose of Western dominance, the Fed, in alliance with other central banks, will try to save both the banks and the dollar for as long as they can.

What is actually being protected is the global usury-based debt-money regime, that unholy alliance between politicians and top level banks that enables central governments to spend far in excess of their tax and other revenues, thereby thwarting democratic government and the popular will, while enabling banking institutions to privatize our collective credit and charge us interest (usury) to access it.

So what do the central banks have left in their bag of tricks as they taper off their massive amounts of  “quantitative easing” (currency inflation)? That’s the question to ponder. I think it’s obvious that they will (1) try to corral everyone’s savings and all surpluses into government securities and Wall Street equities (think, privatization of Social Security), and (2) outright confiscation of bank deposits via selective bank failures and assessments on depositors (ala the recent Cyprus trial balloon).

Still, those can only be, at best, delaying tactics, and not without serious social and political repercussions. The real solution will continue to be denied and delayed by the powers that be. Thus it must emerge from the bottom, from the creative instincts and talents of innovators in many fields who are bringing to market better ways of mediating the exchange of value and financing the creation of sustainable, Earth-friendly, and life-supporting products and services. –t.h.g.

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Categories: News

A "Pay-It-Forward" Approach to Funding Solar Power

Andreas Karelas of RE-Volv and Kaia Burkett of the Kehilla Community Synagogue (l to r), with signed papers that provide investment funds for the synagogue's solar power installation. Photo courtesy RE-Volv.

Solar energy doesn't spill or pollute, it's often cheaper for consumers than many other power sources, and three-quarters of Americans want more of it, according to recent polling. So why do so few buildings sport photovoltaic panels?

Payments are rolled back into a revolving fund, providing the seed money for the next solar project.

Any building owner or individual household that chooses to go solar must manage the steep costs of installing panels. Despite tax rebates and government incentives, such initial investments can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

RE-Volv, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization, is working to make solar more financially accessible to local community groups. The organization is building a program that allows community centers to make the switch to clean energy with no upfront costs.

Here's how it works: Money donated to RE-Volv by community members and a growing network of solar enthusiasts is used to finance the purchase and installation of solar panels for a community center. Then, instead of paying a power company, the community center makes a monthly payment to RE-Volv. These payments are then rolled back into the revolving fund, providing the seed money for the next solar project. With each new project, RE-Volv increases the size of the fund—making more financing available to facilitate the spread of solar.

For example, the group's first project put solar panels on the Shawl Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley, Calif., last year.

"We raise the money [and] finance the system," said Andreas Karelas, executive director of RE-Volv. "[The community centers] pay us back every month and the amount [we bill them] comes up to 15 to 30 percent less than what they were paying for electricity before. And they don't have to put any money down."

There are other organizations that use a crowdfunding model to invest in solar projects, including Solar Mosaic and Collective Sun. The revolving fund is the difference between RE-Volv and these groups. Rather than offering a gradual return on an initial investment, donations to RE-Volv are continually reinvested in solar installations, providing an opportunity for backers—such as community members and solar enthusiasts—to make an impact that lasts well beyond the initial donation. The intent of the donors is critical: RE-Volv's supporters are motivated primarily by a desire to facilitate the spread of solar, rather than to see a financial return.

Karelas says he hopes the project will eventually reach a critical mass.

Moreover, while other solar funders help to finance solar installations for a wide variety of businesses, RE-Volv only supports projects for community centers. Karelas lists several reasons for this. First, the mission-driven nature of community centers means RE-Volv's hard work will always go to an organization making a positive impact on people's lives. And by focusing its efforts on well-established community anchors, RE-Volv believes it is able to maximize its marketing impact. Solar panels go up. People talk about it. More people are turned on to the benefits of solar.

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Karelas says he hopes the project will eventually reach a critical mass: Once the solar program has 12 projects sending payments back to the revolving loan fund, it should generate enough revenue to allow RE-Volv to fund one new project each year—without the need to crowdsource new funds to get started. As the organization grows, the number of active projects should increase.

RE-Volv recently raised funds to finance the installation of a 26-kilowatt system for the Kehilla Community Synagogue in Oakland, Calif., an LGBTQ-friendly, progressive faith community of about 350 families, which places emphasis on social justice and sustainability. RE-Volv estimates that the project will save the synagogue a total of $150,000 over a 20-year period and keep an estimated 18,500 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere each year.

Corey Hill wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. He is the membership and outreach coordinator at Global Exchange. Follow Corey on Twitter at @Newschill.

Read more:

  • Building a Solar Economy: 4 Lessons from Hawai'i
  • What's Cheaper than Solar, Slashes Carbon Emissions, and Creates Jobs in Kentucky?
  • Like Shopping at Local Businesses? Now You Can Invest in Them, Too
Categories: News

Success stories

Beyond Money - Tue, 02/04/2014 - 20:45

Every day brings new stories about the successful application of new exchange mechanisms that are helping people to survive and thrive in the face of monetary dysfunctions and misguided government policies that are becoming ever more prevalent.

This report from Kenya is a moving and inspiring account of one aging woman’s efforts to keep her family fed and housed.

Maciana Anyango’s husband died a long time ago, leaving her with 5 children to care for alone. Even though she is 64 now, and most of her children are grown, she still bears the burden for caring for her family. Her oldest son, who might have taken on this responsibility, also died, and her oldest daughter is disabled from a bout of TB. Her surviving son was trained as a driver, but he’s been unable to find work, so he, his wife, and his two children live with Marciana, along with Mariciana’s disabled daughter and youngest daughter (17 years). Marciana didn’t have the money to send her youngest daughter to secondary school. And, although she received some training as a tailor, she is also unemployed.

So, Marciana supports this household from the sale of porridge and a bean and maize soup. The porridge sells for 15ksh ($0.18) and soup for 10ksh ($0.12). She usually makes around 600ksh ($7) a day to feed a family of 7. Technically, this puts her above the international poverty line based on the lower cost of living in Kenya, but, as she leaned her forehead against a pole, looked down at her worn red flip flops and dust covered feet, and told us about her life, we could feel the exhaustion caused by her efforts to keep her family fed and housed, and some sadness at being unable to keep her daughters in school and in good health.

Things are improving for Marciana now. She became a member of Koru’s Bangladesh Business Network in December and started trading the Bangla-Pesa voucher with fellow members. More…

And a world away in the United States, commercial trade exchanges (sometimes called “barter exchanges”) are continuing to proliferate and develop in ways that promise to make moneyless trading mechanisms ever more effective and accessible. Trade Authority is an entity that is promoting the proliferation of member-owned trade exchanges and plans eventually to network these exchanges together to enable members to spend their trade credits over a wider area. View their introductory video here.


Categories: News

As Trans-Pacific Partnership Falters, Opponents Go After Fence-Sitting Pols

Linda Newton, Vandana Whitney, and Eiya Wolfe (l to r) deliver a "spineless citation" to the staff of House Democrat Suzan DelBene, who has not taken a public position on fast-track legislation for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Photo by Jeff Dunnicliff / Backbone Campaign.

Eric Ross spent much of the morning on Friday, January 31 standing on an overpass above Interstate 90 in Bellevue, Wash., holding a 30-foot-wide banner that read: "Stop Reichert's NAFTA. Flush the TPP. Vote No on Fast Track."

The "Reichert" called out in Ross' sign is Congressman Dave Reichert, R-Wash., and at issue is his active support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sprawling deal that would change the way international trade is conducted in 12 countries around the Pacific Rim, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Vietnam, Peru, Australia, and Japan.

Volunteers with the Backbone Campaign hold a banner urging opposition to the TPP over Insterstate 90 in Bellevue, Wash. Photo by Jeff Dunnicliff / Backbone Campaign.

As opponents of the TPP frequently point out, the deal isn't just about trade: leaked sections of the text, which is not available to the public, reveal that the TPP would also lead to significant changes to policy areas such as intellectual property rights (especially on the Internet), the creation and enforcement of environmental protections, and the labeling and marketing of agricultural products.

Opponents of the deal say that the TPP would roll back the gains of almost every people's movement, especially those concerned with labor and the environment.

Ross says he received wide support for his banner, judging by the number of honks he heard from the vehicles passing beneath. An organizer with the Vashon Island-based organization Backbone Campaign, he says that illustrates that the work he and others have done to educate the public about the TPP over the past few years is starting to pay off.

"For the past 18 months, it was negotiated with essentially no media coverage, and activists had to teach their own representatives what the TPP was," Ross said. "But it isn't as secret as it used to be."

All eyes on fast track

On Friday, that secrecy took another hit as opponents gathered in more than 50 cities across North America in a noisy, colorful, continent-wide day of rallies, marches, and teach-ins. Events were held in New York, Toronto, and Mexico City, but smaller towns turned out as well. People marched and rallied in Red Deer, Alberta, held a press conference in Fresno, Calif., and protested in the downtown office of Republican Congressman Charlie Dent in Allentown, Pa.

Ross said he saw Friday's gathering in Seattle as more of a celebration than a protest.

The Allentown rally was intended to put pressure on Mr. Dent not to support Trade Promotion Authority. Also known as "fast track," this is special legislation that would allow the Trans-Pacific Partnership to move more quickly through the United States legislature. Lawmakers would get to vote yes or no on the deal, once it is approved by the trade representatives of the 12 negotiating countries, but would  be prevented from altering any of its specificities.

Critics of fast-track say that it harms democracy by putting unelected trade negotiators and corporate advisers in charge of trade policy, while specifically excluding input from elected representatives. Some call it unconstitutional, since the United States Constitution grants only Congress the right to make trade agreements.

Events on Friday showed a new focus on demanding that elected representatives commit to opposing fast-track legislation. The march and rally in San Francisco, for example, criticized California Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who has refused to state her position on the fast-track bill since it was introduced by Senator Max Baucus, D-Mont., on Jan. 9.

In Washington state, volunteers with the Backbone Campaign entered the offices of  U.S. Representative Dave Reichert, a Republican who actively supports fast track through the "Friends of the TPP" caucus, and issued him a "spineless citation." Democrats Suzan DelBene, Dennis Heck, Derek Kilmer, and Rick Larsen also received "spineless citations" for taking no position on the issue, while fellow House Democrat Jim McDermott received a thank-you letter (with an illustration of a spine, of course). McDermott has pledged to oppose fast track.

Their positions matter because the TPP would almost certainly be approved if Senator Baucus' fast-track bill passes, Lynne Dodson, secretary-treasurer for the Washington State Labor Council, told the crowd gathered in Seattle on Friday.

"No trade deal has ever been defeated once it got to fast track," she said.

Cause for celebration

Eric Ross told YES! that he saw Friday's gathering in Seattle's Westlake Center as more of a celebration than a protest because, after years of hard work, the TPP’s momentum appears to be breaking down.

This vibrant movement seems likely to build on the victories it's already earned.

Two major chapters of the document's text were published by Wikileaks in December and January, resulting in renewed and largely critical media coverage of the deal.

Next, right on the heels of the second leak, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters on Jan. 29 that he opposes fast-track legislation and might refuse to bring the bill to a vote.

That led writer David Cay Johnston to wonder whether fast track was now "dead:" "If Reid stands firm," he wrote in Al Jazeera, "it means new trade deals are likely to be worked out in the open, where the people and their elected politicians can debate the merits."

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The TPP is also suffering from problems internal to its negotiations, which failed to meet the December 2013 deadline set for them by President Barack Obama. Talks in Singapore last December were bogged down over disputes about protections for agricultural products, among other issues, and no final agreement emerged.

In the wake of that failure, Japanese Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Akira Amari told reporters that negotiators should meet again this month.

"The upcoming meeting is very important," Amari said, "as it will be held before U.S. midterm congressional elections in November."

Amari's statements indicate that Japanese negotiators will push for a deal to be hammered out before stateside electioneering begins in the summer.

For opponents of the TPP, that means that the time to act is now. If Friday's events were any indication, this vibrant movement seems likely to build on the victories it's already earned.

Eiya Wolfe holds a sign at Seattle's rally against the TPP at Westlake Center. Photo by Alex Garland Photography.

James Trimarco wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. James is web editor at YES! and you can follow him @JamesTrimarco.

Nur Lalji and Molly Rusk provided additional reporting for this story.

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Categories: News

To Truly Address Inequality, Let's Build a People-Centered Economy

President Obama got one thing right in his State of the Union address. "It is [we] the citizens who make the state of our union strong."

Just look at his speech. After years of saying the word "poverty" fewer times than any president in memory (and talking about the middle class more), here was Obama talking about inequality and workers stifled by low wages. That's thanks to public activism.

Many Americans are already creating worker owned co-ops, community-owned businesses, and public services that feed the stomach and the soul.

"Inequality has deepened"; "No one who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty." The president's best applause lines were lifted from protest signs. Now "citizens" (and would-be citizens) will have to come up with solutions too, because his won't take us very far.

Take that minimum wage hike for federal workers. Ten dollars and ten cents an hour is nice, but $20,000 a year is hardly a ticket out of poverty, even if you can find a full-time job in the public sector. The demand on the street, in case the president missed it, has been for $15 an hour, and the right to bargain collectively so workers have some power. (On Twitter that's #Fightfor15 or #raisethewage.)

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Yes! Magazine held a live Twitter-fest during the president's speech. Among the messages that flew in were the following suggestions.

To stop the shrinking of the public sector, the president needs to bring jobs back home, said union members. The feds spend a reported $1.5 billion a year buying camo pants and TSA uniforms from companies overseas. Obviously the government needs to set labor standards for overseas procurement and stick to them. But instead of subcontracting to sweatshops why not buy #Americanmade? In fact, why not shop locally at all levels of government? (For more on the local procurement issue, follow #shoplocal or #localbiz on Twitter.)

The president talked about speeding approvals for infrastructure repair and high-tech "hubs." Why not do away with the middleman? Hire those workers directly and pay them a living wages with good benefits?

Good Jobs First (@GoodJobsFirst) has documented that tempting profitable businesses into "hubs" with tax breaks and incentive cash is wasteful. If government's going to invest in private businesses, why not demand an ownership share for the taxpayers? Create anchor institutions that are connected to the local economy. Better yet, invest in the businesses that are already there. (In a recent report, @GoodJobsFirst shows that ending corporate subsidies and loopholes could end state pension crises.)

Antifracking activists responded to President Obama's support for natural gas as "a bridge fuel." It's a bridge to nowhere, several said. Invest now in wind and solar and it'll pay off handsomely down the road. And why not keep those companies public, so the profits, not just the risks stay with the taxpayers?

The tweet that sticks with me most came from George Goehl at National People’s Action:

There r 3 paths we can take 1) Fight 2 preserve the little we have left 2) Work 2 revive the old economy 3) Reimagine what's possible #SOTU

— George Goehl (@GeorgeGoehl) January 29, 2014

President Obama said, "We all owe it to the American people to say what we're for, not just what we’re against." There's also a responsibility to listen. Many Americans are saying loudly what they're for, and they're making it happen: creating worker owned co-ops, community-owned businesses, and public services that feed the stomach and the soul.

At Yes! Magazine, I'm calling it "Commonomics"—as one follower described it, "people-centered economics." That's economics that serves local people and the planet first, not ever-increasing profit. As Goehl suggests, it's possible to make a fairer economy, but not if policy makers only tinker, and not if "citizens" wait for someone else to do it. As the president said, the strength of the union is built by we the people.

Laura Flanders wrote this article for YES! Magazine's Commonomics project. Laura is YES! Magazine's 2013 Local Economies Reporting Fellow and is executive producer and founder and host of "GRITtv with Laura Flanders." Follow her on Twitter @GRITlaura.

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Categories: News

Obama Calls for "Opportunity for All": 8 Policies to Make It Happen

President Barack Obama gives the State of the Union address on Jan. 28, 2014. Official White House photo by Chuck Kennedy.

As expected, President Obama made economic opportunity a centerpiece of his State of the Union message on Tuesday. He even took a small step forward by announcing a $10.10 minimum wage for employees of federal contractors.

This is a move in the right direction, albeit a small one. For years, the budget deficit—not the well-being of working Americans—has dominated political discussion.

We need to invest in an all-out effort to convert to a climate-friendly economy.

But bolder solutions are called for. While U.S. policies allowed transnational corporations, Wall Street banks, and the wealthiest Americans to recover from the collapse of 2008, for many in the 99 percent, this remains a time of sustained unemployment, low-wage jobs, and economic insecurity.

After years of pressure by well-endowed think tanks and lobbyists, President Obama as well as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have bought into the idea that our country is broke. This is not the case. GDP per capita, has doubled over the last 40 years, while wages have stagnated. It’s not that our nation’s wealth has gone away—it’s just being tied up by the top 1 percent. And their power over politicians is keeping it that way.

In fact it is just this concentration of wealth that makes the economic growth we see in GDP charts so ineffective at improving the quality of our lives. If we were to measure the real wealth of our society—our health and well being, the health of the natural world, our level of education, etc.—we would see that inequality itself is reducing our nation’s well being, and the power of big corporations is allowing the degradation of our communities and environment.

In the State of the Union address, President Obama called for opportunity for all Americans:

What I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all—the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead.

What would it take to make that dream a reality? Here are eight places to start. Some require action that President Obama could take without waiting on a recalcitrant Congress—like scrapping the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Others are already being implemented at the state or local level and could be implemented much more widely.

1. House the homeless.

While some cities are criminalizing homelessness, the state of Utah has chosen a simple and compassionate approach: giving people homes. With a roof over their heads, people can take on substance abuse, recover from domestic violence, look for work or attend school. There are no strings attached. These residents are not required to be sober or to get help, although they are encouraged to do so. The result: a 78 percent reduction in homelessness, and the state expects to have ended homelessness by 2015.

2. A debt-free college education.

A college degree should not require decades of indebtedness. The average student debt now sits at just under $30,000. Oregon has found a good solution. By a unanimous vote, the legislature adopted a plan call "Pay it Forward, Pay it Back," which creates a special fund that will allow students to attend state universities tuition-free. In exchange, they will pay 3 percent of their salaries for up to 24 years after graduation. This plan lowers the barriers for anyone who is willing to work hard for an education.

3. Medicare for all.

President Obama's Affordable Care Act was designed to allow insurance companies to continue profiting from our health care system. The result is a system bogged down in bureaucracy, with multiple plans offering benefits and expenses at different levels and a complex system of subsidies designed to make private insurance affordable.

The TPP is being negotiated in secret but leaked documents suggest it would trump local and national food safety laws.

The upshot? We’ll still be spending a major portion of our health care dollars on overhead and profits (estimates range up to 30 percent), making medical care less affordable for us as patients and as taxpayers. Medicare, on the other hand, provides health coverage for about 3 percent overhead. The state of Vermont is among the states looking at adopting a plan like Canada’s, in which everyone receives coverage similar to Medicare. Relieving us of the cost burden of a bureaucratic health coverage system could do a lot to relieve poverty.

4. End the war on drugs.

The United States imprisons its people at the highest rate in the world; more than 2 million Americans are now behind bars. This is devastating to impoverished families and communities, especially communities of color. And it costs taxpayers on average over $30,000 per year per inmate—much of which goes to a private prison system that lobbies for tougher prison terms to keep their facilities full.

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Even years after their release, many formerly imprisoned adults are unable to get jobs or receive public services, and many aren’t allowed to vote. Ending the failed "War on Drugs" in favor of substance abuse treatment would save taxpayers billions and allow vulnerable families and communities to heal. Washington and Colorado have taken an important first step in this direction by legalizing (and taxing) marijuana.

5. Guarantee everyone a basic income.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama celebrated the drop in unemployment rates. The truth is that there simply aren’t enough jobs for those who would like them; 10.4 million remain unemployed and an additional 10.2 million have temporarily given up looking or work part time because they can’t find full-time jobs. There were on average 2.7 unemployed people for every job opening, as of November.

Instead of punishing these people, or the disabled, or those raising children or caring for elders, we could simply guarantee everyone a basic income. Many countries in Europe do this. A guaranteed minimum income could simplify safety net programs while making sure no one is destitute. And, since everyone would have money to spend, it would maintain a stable customer base for businesses.

6. Invest in averting more climate emergencies.

Extreme weather is now costing the world $1.2 trillion a year, according to The Guardian. Climate change threatens the southwest with drought, coastal regions with flooding, vast areas of the west with wildfires, and the Midwest with tornedoes. Cities around the country may face extreme heat, and even the extreme cold experienced by much of the country in January is likely a function of disruptions in the jet stream caused by a warming Arctic region.

These changes are happening with only 0.8 degrees of warming over pre-industrial levels, but much more is on the way. Instead of the “all-of-the-above” energy strategy President Obama promoted in his State of the Union address, we need to invest in an all-out effort to convert to a climate-friendly economy.

Doing so would not only help avert even greater climate-related disasters, it would employ Americans in jobs located here at home. And the spin-off benefits would include cleaner air, more resilient and up-to-date infrastructure, and efficient public transportation.

7. Scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)

...And other trade deals that favor transnational corporations over American workers and local businesses. The TPP is being negotiated in secret but leaked documents suggest it would trump local and national food safety laws, clean air and water standards, land use regulations, and other laws that protect our way of life. Buy America and buy local policies could be outlawed, as could regulations to avert another Wall Street meltdown, leaving our economies vulnerable.

To achieve real, sustainable prosperity, we need to take on the underlying causes of economic insecurity.

And, just like with NAFTA, jobs and wages could take a big hit from the TPP. According to the Economic Policy Institute, NAFTA resulted in a net loss of 1 million jobs from 1994 to 2006. And, according to a recent report by Public Citizen, workers without college degrees (who make up 63 percent of the work force) saw a loss of about 12 percent of their earnings as a result of NAFTA, even when the savings from cheaper imported goods are factored in.

We don’t need trade deals that favor transnational corporations over the rest of us, and Vernon County, Wisc., is among the local jurisdictions that don’t mind saying so.

8. Establish ­­­state banks that invest in us, not Wall Street.

The state of North Dakota set up a public bank in 1919 to hold the state’s deposits and to be the source of credit for state investments. Profits from the bank go back into the state treasury—not to Wall Street.

The result? North Dakota is the only state that has consistently enjoyed a budget surplus, even during the recent recession, and has very low rates of unemployment (its reserves of oil are not the only reason). The bank also partners with community banks, which are in the best position to make loans to local businesses, keeping borrowing costs low in communities throughout the state. It’s a great model that builds our wealth and the prosperity of our locally rooted business sector, instead of the profits of Wall Street banks.

After years of working with this Congress, it’s understandable that the ambitions President Obama spoke to in his State of the Union address are so much lower than when he was elected.

But to achieve real, sustainable prosperity, we need to take on the underlying causes of economic insecurity. That means standing up to the corporations pressing for the TPP and continued lax regulation of Wall Street. And it means confronting head-on what may be the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced—the climate crisis.

To build a sustainable society that works for everyone, bold solutions are what we need. Fortunately, many of the solutions described here are already being pioneered by wise state and local leaders. Their courage and vision are worth emulating.

Sarah van Gelder wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Sarah is editor-in-chief of YES!

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Categories: News

Newsletter – January 2014

Beyond Money - Fri, 01/24/2014 - 03:03

Hi, This is my first newsletter since mid-October. An excuse, if I need one, is that I’ve been traveling. To be truthful, I’ve been lacking in motivation and I’ve felt the need to reassess both the scope and the methods of my work. Pondering the question, “What makes an old man grumpy,?” I think I’ve begun to figure it out—

Despite a half a lifetime of work and dedication, the world has yet to heed my advice and conform itself to my view of how it ought to be.

So there it is. There’s the root of my late-life discontent. My muse tells me that I ought to lighten up and enjoy whatever time I might have left; the world will muddle through, with or without me. Maybe I’ll take up the challenge to become a stand-up (or sit-down) comedian. In the meantime, while I try to hone that skill, I offer below a few bits of hopeful (and not so hopeful) news and an overview of my recent travels, including links to my photos which you can browse at your leisure.


Bangla-Pesa officially relaunched in partnership with the Kenyan Government.

You may recall earlier reports about the Bangla-Pesa community currency project that launched in Kenya last May. One of the most promising community currency projects on the current scene, Bangla-Pesa quickly ran into a major roadblock in the form of government interference that included unfounded criminal charges against the organizer and five board members. We are extremely pleased to learn that all of that nonsense has been sorted out and the Bangla-Pesa project is now back on track. According to project founder, Will Ruddick, Bangla-Pesa has just been relaunched, this time with official government support. Ruddick states that the relaunch celebration included several government representatives who have unanimously requested that the program be replicated in other areas in the county as a means of reducing poverty. You can read the details at http://koru.or.ke/bangla-pesa-relaunch.


Ending the Growth Imperative

Richard Heinberg, in his recent article, Shutdown and default: the worst-case scenario (http://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-10-10/shutdown-and-default-the-worst-case-scenario ), stated that, “Almost nobody in the commentariat mentions that the US economy is currently being held together by deficit spending and quantitative easing. Rapid economic growth as experienced during the mid-20th century is over and done with.”

Heinberg is surely right about that, but how are we to get out of the predicament we are in? I have said repeatedly that our financial system is set up to require continuous and accelerating growth, that creating money based on banks’ lending at interest results in exponential growth of debt, which, in turn, forces exponential growth in economic activity to justify further growth in debt to prevent financial collapse. All of the major central banks, the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, The Bank of Japan, and the European Central Bank, have been buying government bonds to keep the system going and avoid the inevitable shift to a steady-state, resource efficient, non-polluting economy.

How long can the monetary authorities continue to inflate their currencies under the euphemistic rubric of “quantitative easing” (QE), without causing prices to spin out of control? If they were to stop, however, that would cause a cascade of defaults, financial market chaos, and major global economic depression. They are between a rock and a hard place.

Heinberg goes on to say, “In 2008 it became clear that, as limits to growth are encountered, the inherent instability of financial systems can precipitate a much faster crash than would otherwise be the case. It also became clear that governments and central banks will undertake extraordinary measures to avert a fast-crash scenario. The rapid expansion of household debt, which had kept the growth balloon inflated since 1980, effectively ceased with the advent of the Great Recession. The balance sheet of the Fed stretched dramatically, and the Federal Government’s debt levels soared, as policy makers strove to keep the economy from imploding.”

He concludes with this advice: “Pass a new debt limit and re-open the government, no conditions attached. Then get to work designing a post-growth, post-fossil fuel economy that protects people and planet. Do it in that order. Simple.”

Well, not quite so simple. The debt limit has been raised and the government shutdown ended as everyone knew it would be, but there is still no sign that the powers-that-be have any interest in promoting a “post-growth, post-fossil fuel economy.” To undertake such a mission would require that they give up the “usury game” and the central banking system that has enabled them for so long to centralize power and concentrate wealth in their own hands, and that they surrender power to the people in a government that is truly democratic. No, the massive changes required must come from the bottom, from creative efforts that result in new structures, especially of exchange, finance, and cooperative enterprise, that reduce our dependence upon the dominant systems and make them irrelevant.

The prescription I’ve provided in my books and presentations for creating a new world order in which the people govern instead of a global elite oligarchy is to Share, Cooperate, and Restructure. We must recognize that the seat of sovereignty is the individual, not in isolation, but as a free moral agent within a convivial community, we must assert our independence from the dominant political, economic, and financial power structures, and we must organize new structures, under local control, that empower people and provide for the basic needs of all.

Our urgent need is to transcend the global interest-based debt money system, but digital commodities like Bitcoin are not the answer any more than a return to using gold, silver or other real commodities as payment media. The better and more complete answer to the money problem in the one I’ve been proposing in my books and presentations for many years. What I foresee is a global network of small credit clearing exchanges that proved a means of payment that is locally and cooperatively controlled, yet globally useful.


ReinventingMoney.com website redesign and relaunch

Thanks to the good graces and enormous efforts of Matthew Slater, my ReinventingMoney.com website has been redesigned and relocated to WordPress. The url remains the same, http://reinventingmoney.com/.

ReinventingMoney.com is mainly an archival site for researchers that was compiled several years ago. If you are aware of any useful material, such as case studies, correspondence, or academic treatises that are particularly important, please send us a description and the link or file. Also, I’d be grateful to have a volunteer willing to help maintain that site. My active site is http://beyondmoney.net/.



My current odyssey began on Nov 13 when I boarded a plane for Istanbul where I gave a presentation at the Green Economy and Commons conference. After spending a few more days exploring the city, I flew on to Kuala Lumpur, then a couple days later went by bus to Georgetown on the island of Penang, a world heritage city and my favorite place in Malaysia. On December 5, I began my month-long Cambodia adventure, making stops in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Otres Beach, Kampot, Kep, and Siem Reap where I visited the amazing ruins of Angkor Wat. Since January 3, I’ve been in Thailand. Chiang Mai is one of my old haunts and a good place to get my teeth cared for at very reasonable prices.

My Cambodia visit got off to an inauspicious start. After checking into my hotel, I decided to take a stroll down by the river. While crossing the street through relentless traffic, I got sideswiped by a motorbike that went roaring past in the far lane. I managed to get to the other side and sat down on a convenient bench where I almost passed out. My left shin was skinned and bruised in a couple places, but needed no stitches. I got some aid from a British friend I had been traveling with for some days, and a Polish couple who happened to be passing by. My wounds have fortunately healed well by now and I seem to be none the worse for it.

Siem Reap and Angkor

One should not miss an opportunity to visit Siem Reap and Angkor. The ruins of Angkor are numerous and cover a vast expanse. Angkor Wat is only part of it. Exploring them requires a lot of walking and climbing, though, as vehicles can take you only so close.

Cambodia is certainly a third world country with much inferior infrastructure but it is rapidly developing with help from outside and gearing up to be a major tourist destination. The people are friendly and helpful, and you can find accommodations at every level from backpacker hostels to luxury hotels. In Kampot I had a nice clean room with private bath, hot shower, free Wi-Fi, and cable TV for $8 per night.

No coins in Cambodia

One thing that is noticeably strange about Cambodia is the fact that I had no coins jingling in my pocket. Strange, too, is the fact that market transactions are conducted mostly in U.S. currency. Yes, Cambodia has its own currency, called the Riel, with an exchange rate of about 4,000 riels to the dollar, but ATMs dispense dollars, and riel notes are used only as small change. Prices are typically stated in whole dollars and quarter dollars. So, if I buy a restaurant meal for $3.75 (not an uncommon price there) and I tender a five dollar bill to pay, I’ll generally get back in change a one dollar bill and a 1,000 riel bill. The smallest denomination note I saw, though not a very common one, is 100 riel, which is considered to be worth one fortieth of a dollar or two and half cents (and we in North America quibble about keeping the penny).

If you want to see images from the places I have visited, my photos can be viewed at the following links:

Istanbul: https://picasaweb.google.com/112258124863172998784/201311IstanbulTurkey?authuser=0&authkey=Gv1sRgCJv3nPOd34igcQ&feat=directlink

Malaysia: https://picasaweb.google.com/112258124863172998784/201311Penang?authuser=0&authkey=Gv1sRgCMnztYHzp4268gE&feat=directlink

Cambodia: https://picasaweb.google.com/112258124863172998784/201312Cambodia?authuser=0&authkey=Gv1sRgCL_hyunb-fnu4gE&feat=directlink



By the way, I’m keeping my Verizon wireless account active. The number is 520-820-0575.  I don’t keep that phone turned on while I’m abroad so you won’t reach me directly that way, but you can leave a voice message (I cannot retrieve text messages) and I will get it when I check messages every few days.

I do have another mobile phone with me and as long as I’m in Thailand, you can reach me at +66 93 170 2910.


Events Upcoming

The New Economy Coalition is convening a gathering at Northeastern University in Boston, MA from June 6-8, 2014. You can get more information and signup here: http://neweconomy.net/content/june-6-8-2014-national-gathering-new-economy-movement?utm_source=New+Economics+Email+List&utm_campaign=2a4c2d8654-New+Economy+Newsletter+-+October+2013&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_6f7a9ab0ed-2a4c2d8654-18189817

Wishing you a happy and productive New Year,


Categories: News

How a Fruit and Vegetable Auction in Rural Ohio Helps Appalachian Farmers Thrive

Boxes of jade beans are ready to be auctioned off at the Chesterhill Produce Auction in Chesterhill, Ohio, on Thursday, October 24, 2013. Photo by Brooke Herbert Hayes.

Bob Fedyski was adamant: his friend, Chef Matt Rapposelli, needed to check out the Chesterhill Produce Auction.

But for a while, Rapposelli stalled: he didn't believe an auction in rural, Appalachian Ohio could provide nearly enough produce for his needs—after all, as executive chef at Ohio University he was serving three meals a day to roughly 8,000 students. Besides, Morgan County—where Chesterhill is located—had been a food desert, where people had to travel for miles to find fresh food.

One way Chesterhill has sought to overcome its challenges is by encouraging farmers to collaborate for mutual benefit.

"For Chesterhill, they have two convenience stores, but you can't buy a tomato there," explained Fedyski, a specialist in local food for Rural Action, a community development nonprofit.

But finally, one summer afternoon several years ago, Fedyski offered up a compromise: he and Rapposelli would go for a motorcycle ride ("a common addiction") and end up at the Chesterhill Produce Auction.

They pulled up to an open pavilion, whose broad roof and open garage shaded a concrete patio. Twice a week, May through October, this patio floods with boxes of seasonal produce for the auction block, from apples to squash to, yes, tomatoes. During these auctions, horse-and-buggy teams can be spotted between the parked cars; many of the auction's most prolific farmers are Amish and live just miles away.

Rapposelli would soon become a regular customer.

"I was stunned," Rapposelli remembered of that first visit. "Number one, seeing where it was, because it is in the middle of nowhere—it is out. And I was amazed at the number of people who were there: the purveyors, the buyers, and the spectators."

The auction is not only a bustling sight—it's also something of a novelty. A produce auction guide printed in Ohio counts only 50-plus auctions in the entire United States. But Chesterhill and Ohio's eight other produce auctions fill a critical niche—bridging the gap between small producers outside the world of industrial ag and a lower-income populace in need of healthy, affordable food.

Ohio food, Ohio dollars

One in six Ohio residents works in the agriculture industry, and the food and ag industries contribute an estimated $79 billion to the state's economy each year. Yet nearly 90 percent of the food Ohioans buy comes from outside the state, according to a 2011 report from food systems analyst Ken Meter of the Crossroads Resource Center. The result, Meter estimates, is that Ohio's economy loses $30 billion a year.

It's a loss that weighs heavily on an already struggling state. Much of Ohio's poverty is concentrated in the Appalachian region, where 16.7 percent of the population is poor. In non-Appalachian Ohio, the poverty rate stands at 14.3 percent. In Morgan County, where the Chesterhill Produce Auction is based, 19.5 percent of the population is poor.

An Amish farmer brings farm products to the Chesterhill auction by horse and buggy. Photo by Brooke Herbert Hayes.

Boosting in-state food purchases to 15 percent could increase farm incomes by $2.5 billion, Meter estimates. And Brad Bergefurd, extension educator in agriculture and natural resources with Ohio State University Extension, thinks produce auctions have already made a big difference when it comes to keeping local food in the state.

"We believe it's at least a $15 to $20 million industry," Bergefurd said. And considering the roughly 50 to 100 percent markup at most grocery stores, he added, the actual size of the industry could be more like $40 million.

How a produce auction works

Farmers markets are often clustered around bigger towns, like nearby Athens. But for several reasons, those markets are not ideal for a large proportion of farmers. They're too far to reach by horse and buggy, they often require a farmer to spend all day preparing and tending to the booth, and there's no guarantee that all the produce will sell.

VanHorn has helped to transform the auction into a community hub by organizing potlucks about three times a year.

Produce auctions help to solve these problems. "The produce auction, you can take everything out there that you have that day, everything sells, and you don't have to bring nothing home," said Karen Blackburn, who sells a broad variety of produce, from raspberries to kale, at the Chesterhill auction.

Auctions typically take a 10 to 15 percent commission on sales to cover the costs of marketing, the auctioneer, and the facilities. The initial investment makes up the biggest cost for most auctions.

Bergefurd has been involved in every one of the state's produce auctions, in one role or another, since the first was founded in Geauga County in 1992. The initial investment for the Chesterhill Produce Auction was nearly $150,000—much of which was used to construct the building and driveway. Some of this funding came from Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation grants, but most was a personal investment by Jean and Marvin Konkle, who founded and operated the auction until Rural Action purchased it in April 2010.

In the world of produce auctions, this was actually pretty affordable; a study of Pennsylvania auctions from 2002 found average startup costs to be around $1.5 million.

In general, startup funding for Ohio auctions has come almost entirely from local people, not from government grants or subsidies. Many Amish and Mennonite farmers are opposed to receiving such funding, Bergefurd explained. Instead, communities fund an auction by selling shares locally. Roughly five years into the life of a typical auction, it starts yielding returns on those shares.

Bob Fedyski and Tom Redfern (l to r) pose for a portrait at the Chesterhill Produce Auction. Photo by Brooke Herbert Hayes.

For its first three years, the Chesterhill auction operated at a net loss, but around 2008 and 2009 there was a turn. Growers were making more income from the auction, and people from surrounding areas were starting to flock in twice a week to buy produce or just watch the bidding. Commercial buyers started buying in bulk from the auction, and some vendors purchased produce there to resell at farmers markets and fruit stands.

Today, according to Fedyski, the Chesterhill auction has more than 1,300 registered buyers and 35 to 40 commercial ones. Yet annual operating costs hover just around $4,200, according to a case study from 2010.

"This year we grossed $223,000 and we basically cut checks to 130 farmers," said Tom Redfern, sustainable agriculture coordinator for Rural Action. "Probably 10 of those were the majority of that money."

The state's largest, Mount Hope Produce Auction, traded more than $10 million in produce annually as of 2011. But the area is more densely populated and lies between Cleveland and Columbus—a different world, perhaps, from the rural food desert of Morgan County.

One way Chesterhill has sought to overcome its challenges is by encouraging farmers to collaborate for mutual benefit. Farmers meet before each growing season to strategize, which helps prevent oversaturation of any single item.

The auction has also connected farmers with classes to help them improve their agricultural processes and sell their produce, and has in turn boosted the local food economy. Blackburn is one of hundreds who have attended training sessions conducted by Rural Action in partnership with OSU Extension. The training ensures that farmers know how to clean and prepare produce for direct sale.

A better deal for the producer

In the scheme of the larger Ohio food economy, $40 million may look like a drop in the bucket. But for many Appalachian farmers, it has meant a real improvement in lifestyle and livelihood.

Paul Linscott is one such farmer. He's retired and mainly sells black raspberries at the Chesterhill auction in June and July; he doesn't rely primarily on his auction income. He freezes and cans a lot of his produce, and the auction prevents the excess from going to waste.

"It's just a great avenue to take your surplus," Linscott said.

Warren Fussner agrees. He's an Amish farmer who clerks at the Chesterhill auction, inspecting all the food that comes through for quality. "It's something that, if people want to get involved, there's an income for any family," he said.

Fussner lives six miles from the produce auction at Chesterhill; it takes him about an hour to get there by horse and buggy. Before the auction, he said, prices were unstable and sources of income uncertain. Farmers who sold produce directly off their farm could be tricked by dishonest buyers into selling too cheaply.

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In part because of their role in stabilizing prices, produce auctions throughout the state have helped Amish and Mennonite communities thrive, Bergefurd believes.

"They're buying farms and land and buggies and irrigation supplies," he said. "They're buying more farms for their children so their children can be vegetable farmers."

That's especially important because many Amish and Mennonite communities across the state have shut down their dairy operations over the last few decades as a result of new dairy production regulations. The regulations demanded that farmers use technologies, such as mechanical cooling equipment, that these communities often avoid.

In lieu of dairy, many have transitioned to produce. And the auctions seem to have helped these communities thrive economically—many in the next generation who might have had to move away to make a living are able to stay in their tight-knit communities.

On the closing day of the seasonal auction, the community hosts a potluck to thank the farmers. Tristen Keller (far left) gets a plate of food for her children, Lucas and Abby, while her father Allen Clark holds her youngest son, Clark Keller. Photo by Brooke Herbert Hayes.

Ups and downs for commercial buyers

The volume and variety of produce at the Chesterhill auction impressed Rapposelli enough that he started buying it for Ohio University. And because he was able to communicate his needs to farmers face-to-face, they started growing more of the types of produce he wanted most in the following year.

"They were really responsive," Rapposelli said.

Today, he supplies his two private restaurants with food from Chesterhill. But buying from a produce auction isn't exactly easy for a busy business owner.

"It's the least convenient thing you could possibly do," Rapposelli said, laughing. A typical restaurant owner could source ingredients more quickly through a few Internet orders: "Fifteen, 20 minutes and I'm done."

Getting food from the auction tends to be more time-consuming. Rapposelli used to drive there and spend several hours bidding; afterward, he arranged to transport the food.

So why go to all that effort?

"At the very basic, basic level, it's because the food's better," he said. And secondly, "If you have an opportunity to support a neighbor rather than a corporate entity, you should support the neighbor."

What Rapposelli refers to as "real food" is becoming more of an "everyday thing" in Morgan County.

Today, the situation has much improved for commercial buyers. Rapposelli wasn't at the auction once for the 2013 season because Fedyski now does proxy bidding for big buyers. He bids for them and often arranges a pickup location for the produce.

It seems to be working well—remote bidding accounted for 10 percent of sales in 2013, Fedyski said. A hospital also buys from the auction, and Fedyski is working to arrange a collaboration between local schools and a nearby culinary college, in which the college would do the prep work most school cooks don't have the time for.

The other challenge for a commercial buyer is the unpredictability. You're not always going to get the product you want for the price you want, Rapposelli explained.

"I always have to have a backup plan," he said. "It's one of those things that, once you do it a little bit, it's really easy."

A community built around food

What Rapposelli refers to as "real food" is becoming more of an "everyday thing" in Morgan County, according to auction regular Mary VanHorn.

"It's my garden during the summer," said VanHorn, who lives just a few miles away. She, like many buyers, freezes enough produce from the auction to last through most of the cold months when the auction isn't open.

Before the auction opened, she said, there wasn't a comparable community gathering place anywhere in the county. VanHorn has helped to transform it into a community hub by organizing potlucks about three times a year. The result is a place where "everybody knows everybody else."

Fedyski agreed that the auction has become a place for people to meet and families to gather. "A lot of families go there together, husbands and wives, and because it's a communication hub they'll get there and they'll split up. … They'll end up across the auction floor bidding against each other."

Erin L. McCoy wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Erin worked as a newspaper reporter and photographer in Kentucky for almost two years. She is now a Seattle-based freelance writer specializing in education, environment, cultural issues, and travel, informed by her time teaching English in Malaysia and other travels. Contact her at elmccoy [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter @ErinLMcCoy.

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Categories: News

Seeking the future

Beyond Money - Sat, 01/11/2014 - 19:51

There is no doubt that the world is in the midst of an unprecedented mega-crisis. It is a time of excitement and rapid change, as well as great danger. What can we do to try to discern how it will all turn out? Every society and every era has had its “seers” or “prophets,” but how does one judge which of them are to be believed? In the modern era, we tend to give more weight to predictions that are based on broad knowledge and rational arguments than upon religion and superstition. Two widely regarded present day seers are Kevin Carson and John Michael Greer. Things get interesting when there is a fundamental disagreement. So it is between these two, as described in a recent web post at City of the Future.

The debate that is described in the article, Catabolic Ephemeralization? Carson Versus Greer, is summarized in this excerpted paragraph:

So which is it? Are we headed for a future in which short-wave radio returns and a rebuilt postal service takes over from failing server farms, as Greer would have it? Or will we be able to “leapfrog” away from our old imploding infrastructure toward a world of distributed, highly efficient, peer-to-peer manufacturing facilitated by open source design?

It’s well worth reading. Find it here.

Categories: News

10 Clever Ideas From Around the World to Root Out Inequality (Like Fining Extreme CEO Pay)

Photo courtesy of Thinglass/Shutterstock.

Nurses, philosophers, and trade unions have over the past 12 months all shared some fascinating ideas on how we can make our societies more equal—and much better—places to live.

Economic inequality, we suspect, may have crept into more conversations in 2013 than ever before. But people aren't just talking about how unequal we've become. They're talking about antidotes to the avarice all around us.

I've assembled out of those discussions, a list that samples 2013's most promising and provocative inequality-busting ideas, proposals, and campaigns.

Some of these notions seek to make an immediate, politically practical impact. Others raise hopes that many might deride as pure "pie in the sky."

I like practical. I also like pie. I think you might, too. Read 'em and think!

1. Attention, share-the-wealth shoppers

Consumers committed to sustainability can buy forest-friendly paper. But what about consumers who want to strike a blow against corporate pay inequality?

Toronto activists have an alternative to offer: Wagemark, a new initiative that offers a special insignia to enterprises that pay their top execs no more than eight times what they pay workers.

Canada's top 100 CEOs currently take home 235 times Canadian average worker pay. Big-time U.S. CEOs average 354 times worker pay.

2. Nursing hopes for a more equal future

Top officials of the Massachusetts Nurses Association have just submitted petitions—with more than 100,000 signatures—calling for a new state law that levies fines against any state hospital, profit or nonprofit, that compensates its CEO more than 100 times the hospital's lowest-paid worker wage.

If state lawmakers don't act on the petition, the nurses plan to collect the 11,000 additional signatures necessary to place their proposal on next November's 2014 statewide ballot.

3. An Alpine assault on privilege

In Switzerland this fall, young activists fell short in their attempt to limit CEO compensation to no more than 12 times worker wages.

In a national referendum, voters rejected the proposal—but only after a massive corporate ad blitz. Just weeks before the late November voting, the "1:12 Initiative for Fair Pay" was actually even in the polls. Expect more on the 1:12 front in the year ahead.

4. Irish eyes smiling—on a wealth tax

In the Great Recession's wake, austerity budgets are squeezing working families the world over. But instead of slashing public spending on programs the public needs, two Irish think tanks are pointing out, governments could be taxing the enormous wealth that has concentrated at society's economic summit.

A mere 0.6 percent annual levy on household wealth over 1 million euros, note the TASC and Nevin Economic Research Institute think tanks, could recast Ireland's entire fiscal landscape.

5. Ignore inequality? Fuhgetaboutit!

New York City voters amazed the nation this November by giving a landslide victory to a mayoral candidate who made fighting gaps in income and wealth his campaign battle cry.

Among the proposals the newly elected Bill de Blasio will be pushing when he assumes office: an 11 percent hike in the city tax on income over $500,000 to finance universal access to pre-kindergarten and after-school programs. That proposal, with a few tweaks, could begin remaking America's most unequal city.

6. Caucusing against concentrated wealth

If Congress ever gathered up the nerve to take a swipe at plutocracy at budget time, what might the resulting budget include? Probably everything in the "Back to Work" budget the lawmaker Progressive Caucus brought to the House floor earlier this year.

In the plan, tax rates on high incomes top off at 49 percent and are applied to all income, even capital gains. Also in the budget proposal: a financial transactions tax on Wall Street speculation, and a much higher estate tax rate.

7. Giving our wealthy options

How can we keep the wealth of the wealthy from distorting our politics?

Dean Machin, a political philosopher at University College London, suggests we give the wealthy a choice. Under his simple proposal,"the super rich could either pay a 100 percent tax on the wealth that makes them super rich, or lose their political right to lobby, bankroll think tanks and political parties, or control media outlets."

Those ultra-wealthy who choose money over political clout, proposes Machin, would still get to vote.

8. More transparency

Only 17 members of Congress last year voluntarily released their tax returns. Emory law school's Dorothy Brown wants the IRS to start releasing an annual summary of lawmaker tax returns. A report on this order, says Brown, might build public pressure for moves against tax loopholes.

Back in 1934, Congress actually enacted a law that required all high-income earners to reveal their incomes and taxes paid. But America's wealthy quickly mobilized and, in less than a year, had the law repealed.

10 Hopeful Things That Happened in 2013 to Get You Excited for What's to Come

9. Pension power

Britain's major unions announced this past March that they will be voting the shares their pension funds hold in UK corporations—currently worth more than $1.5 billion—against any corporate pay plans that compensate CEOs at more than 20 times what workers receive.

British unions will apply the 20-to-1 ratio, at first, to the gap between executive and average or median worker pay. They hope eventually to apply the ratio to the gap that divides top executives and their company's lowest-paid workers.

10. Rescuing the minimum wage

Few of America's ultra-affluent have publicly called for a significantly higher minimum wage. What might get more of these privileged behind a fair shake for the working poor?

How about a new tax bracket for income above 25 or 50 times the annual take-home of a minimum-wage worker, suggest two Institute for Policy Studies analysts. With that linkage in place, CEOs might actually have an incentive to hike pay for their lowest-wage workers, not just simply exploit them.

What could the linked new top rate be? Why not the 91 percent top-bracket tax level in effect throughout the 1950s?

Sam Pizzigati is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. This article originally appeared in Too Much, the Institute's weekly on excess and inequality. It has been reposted here with permission.

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After 20-Year Fight, Bronx Community Wins Big on Development Project Committed to Living Wages and Local Economy

The Bronx's Kingsbridge Armory. Photo by Pro-Zak.

Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter never dreamed she’d become an activist. “I was just a mom concerned about school overcrowding,” she says, until a neighbor invited her to a meeting of a local community organization, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC). “I was used to people complaining about what was missing in our community," she recalls. "It was at NWBCCC that I first heard people talking about how to bring about solutions."

Public schools in the Bronx were overflowing, she learned, because the population was growing. And although the shopping options in the area were multiplying, investment in public services like schools wasn’t keeping up.

When she joined the board of the Coalition in 2005 and discovered that the local armory was lying empty, Pilgrim-Hunter found herself engaged in a deep public process of imagining what might be brought in to fill the building: not another low-wage mall or a big box store to benefit some far-off owner, but a project that offered real opportunities for her children and her grandchildren; something that would lift the spirits and boost the economy of local people.

“We knew we didn't need a mall,” she says. “More poverty wages in this, the poorest urban district in the country? Just to send another generation into poverty?”

This fall—more than a decade later—Hunter-Pilgrim gazed past the chain-link fence that still surrounds the block-long Kingsbridge Armory, and peered into what was once the National Guard Drill Hall. At 180,000 square feet, the cavernous room is big enough to contain a world of dreams—and right, now it’s holding hers. “What we need in the Bronx isn’t just jobs.  It’s a new economy,” she said.

“Our new economy: this is it. This is where it starts.”

The Bronx on ice

A long-empty landmark building in the Northwest Bronx is set to become what is being billed as the largest indoor ice-skating center in the world, according to a plan approved by the New York City Council this December in a 48-1 vote. The 750,000-square-foot Kingsbridge National Ice Center will feature a suite of nine rinks, including a 5,000-seat rink for international competitions. It will attract the world’s greatest athletes, say its backers, who include former New York Rangers star Mark Messier and figure skating Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes.

Research from Community Benefits Agreements: Making Development Projects Accountable by Good Jobs First. Graphic designed by Michelle Ney/YES! Magazine.

The Bronx Armory development will also be a highly visible test of a new tool that’s in vogue in development circles: Community Benefits Agreements, or CBAs. These are private cooperation agreements between developers and community organizations, drawn up with the purpose of securing benefits for the community from the development project; and, for the developer, ensuring community support—or at least acquiescence—during the city’s official approval process.

In 2009, a plan to turn the same armory into a shopping center failed largely because the NWBCCC and local unions protested that it would promote low-paying jobs and displace local businesses.

The ice center promises to bring far fewer jobs than the proposed mall, but it won support nonetheless—in no small part because the developer spent months in negotiations with a group of community and labor organizations (including the NWBCCC). These groups agreed to put their picket signs away and support the plan. In return, they got the developer’s pledge to set aside $1 million annually for 99 years to pay for free ice time for local kids, 50,000 square feet of “community space,” green construction, and a promise to pay the facility’s estimated 260 permanent workers at least $10 an hour.

The official agreement includes 27 pages bearing the signatures of church leaders, business owners, labor unions, and community organizers, including Pilgrim-Hunter, who signed on as board president of her local housing association.

Kevin Parker, founder and chairman of KNIC Partners (the developers), says the new Center will solve an ice shortage. The Bronx has no year-round rink, and New York, his studies show, suffers from a lack of available ice time for ice sports fans.  A self-described “hockey dad,” (and former Deutsche Bank hedgefund manager), Parker says he’s just happy to solve a problem for his kids.

Pilgrim-Hunter is looking for way more than that.  “I see this as the center of the revitalization of the Northwest Bronx," she says. "More than that, I see it as the hub of the community."

Will it work? Will this quiet Bronx community, where shop owners sweep their sidewalks and shoppers mostly drive by on their way elsewhere, become a thriving hub of visitors seeking figure skating, ice-racing, and hockey? More importantly, are individual private agreements really the best way to reform a city’s planning process?

Community groups from Los Angeles to New York are hailing CBAs as the way for local residents to have a voice in city planning. They’re certainly an improvement over being shut out of the process altogether. But it’ll be no easy task for other communities to mimic what the activists in the Bronx have achieved this time—and the Bronx is littered with developers’ pledges that have been broken, long after the development’s done.

Can organizers be sure that won’t happen again?

This photo of the Cross Bronx Expressway was taken by Jack E. Boucher in December 1973 or January 1974. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

"The Bronx is building"

Sitting at the intersection of Kingsbridge Road and Jerome Avenue, the Kingsbridge Armory looks like a medieval castle. Get off the elevated subway platform just 40 minutes north of Downtown Manhattan and you find yourself eye-to-eye with a turret.

Yorman Nunez, who got involved in the community campaign around the Armory when he was just 13 years old, grew up a few blocks from here and would pass by on his way to school. “I always wondered," he said, "how is there a castle there, out of nowhere?”

Opened in 1917 to house the National Guard, at least half of the sprawling building looks like something out of Camelot, with turrets and terracotta and slits in the brick battlements for archers. The other half looks more like a classical railway station, complete with vaulted steel girders, skylights, and an iron and copper roof. Standing in the gaping space, one half expects to see Anna Karenina or Sir Lancelot emerge from the shadows.

When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his support for the ice center proposal this spring, he stood with developers, politicians and skaters Hughes and Messier inside the Drill Hall and declared, “Allowing this armory to remain empty and stand as a symbol of the abandonment that once plagued the borough was simply unthinkable.”

And then he quipped, “The Bronx is building.”


He was recalling the one phrase that’s haunted the Bronx since 1977, when sports commentator Howard Cosell uttered it during a World Series baseball game at nearby Yankee Stadium. To explain the fire and smoke caught on a live camera scanning the run-down neighborhood, Cosell said, “The Bronx is burning.”

Years of repetition and media stereotyping have ensured that the borough’s consistently been associated in the public mind with burnt-out buildings, abandoned lots, and “urban blight”.

But the Bronx is a big, diverse place. The Northwest, where the Armory is, always stood in leafy, relatively well off contrast to where the ballpark sits, some four miles to the south.  “Blight” was never the borough’s problem so much as poor policy choices by far-off decisionmakers, including redlining by government, disinvestment by banks, and “slum clearance” by master planners like Robert Moses.

Of the Armory, urban journalist and author Roberta Gratz says, “It’s a miracle that Moses didn’t put a road through it.” After redesigning much of the city (with an emphasis on parks and beaches, but also high-speed highways and slum clearance), Moses forced an expressway through the southern part of the Bronx that was completed in the 1960s.

In one mile-long stretch, the Cross Bronx Expressway demolished 1,530 apartments housing 5,000 people (by Moses’ own estimate). Of the community’s opposition—led by local mothers and grandmothers—Moses told his biographer, it was nothing but “A political thing that stirred up the animals.” To his critics, he scoffed: “I raise my stein to the builder who can remove ghettos without removing people… the chef who can make omelets without breaking eggs.”

Since Moses’ day, the Bronx has gradually re-emerged, brought back, as Gratz likes to say, “block by block” by local residents. While progress is still uneven, in the last decade the Bronx increased in population at a rate which ranks the borough near the top in growth. It’s still the county with the highest unemployment, highest infant mortality and highest obesity rate in the city, but around the Armory especially, on the east side of the Harlem River, real estate prices and rents have been rising.

The massive armory stands like a castle among local businesses. Photo by Jim Henderson.

The Bronx is no longer burning, but it is heating up.

Local businesses know that change is coming. On Kingsbridge Road, small family-owned stores huddle low against construction cranes that are rising all around. Across the street from the Armory, a family-owned Morton Williams is one of the few unionized grocery stores in the area. The Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) hiring hall is just next-door.

A few blocks south of here lies Fordham Road, one of New York City's busiest shopping areas, where local businesses struggle to keep competitive against huge national chains that typically hire low-wage workers and keep out unions.  A few blocks north sits Target, sucking bargain-seeking customers from local shops.

Gene Bass, whose store, Forever Young Healthy Food, directly faces the Armory’s main entrance says she’ll be glad to see something other than emptiness in the building across the street. Still, she’s worried: Development nearby has rarely brought good news for union workers like those of the RWDSU or small commercial renters like Bass.

“My sister and I founded this business 22 years ago," she said. "We want to stay.”

"Community benefits" means community buy-in

Community Benefits Agreements grew out of a frustration in cities like this one, where development, often subsidized by local taxes, has ended up profiting far-off corporations while displacing local businesses and leaving public coffers depleted.

In the late 1990s, when the first CBAs were being developed, states, counties, and cities in the United States were spending close to $50 billion in public dollars on sports stadiums, entertainment centers, big box retail malls, and upscale property development every year. Local residents could do little but protest and try to sway the city’s approval process. Benefits agreements were developed as a way to not necessarily stop development, but try to benefit from it.

Related had influence, Bloomberg’s backing, and the city’s building frenzy running in its favor. What the firm hadn’t bargained on was an organized community.

Generally, CBAs take the form of private agreements between developers and community organizations that detail the benefits a developer will provide in order to secure the cooperation, or at least tolerance, of community groups regarding the developer’s application to the city for permission to develop a particular project. The first major CBA, the Los Angeles Staples agreement, was signed in 2001. Since then, scores of CBAs have been negotiated across the country, in Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Milwaukee, Minneapolis/St. Paul, but not, until now, successfully in New York City.

“The Armory CBA is really pivotal for New York City, for the Bronx, and for CBAs,” said Julian Gross, an attorney who has worked with dozens of groups on Community Benefits Agreements—including the Staples agreement—and who consulted with the NWBCCC early on in the process.

The deal takes the form of a “cooperation agreement” between the directors of KNIC Partners and the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA), a team of community and labor institutions that the NWBCCC helped to found 17 years ago with the specific purpose of being a negotiating partner for developers—whenever such a developer came along.

“It‘s New York City’s first real CBA,” says Gross of the eventual deal that was reached. The deal was “driven by a legitimate community coalition, with no successful attempt by the city to control or manipulate it. It’s a real agreement with real legal language.”

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There was good reason for KNIC to seek community “cooperation.” The last plan to develop the Bronx Armory went down to defeat when the developers of a proposed mall refused to come to agreement with the community over living wages. Related Companies, a major developer in New York, had secured Mayor Bloomberg’s support to buy the building for just $5 million with nearly $50 million in taxpayer subsidies and exemptions to build a mall. Related had influence, Bloomberg’s backing, and the city’s building frenzy running in its favor.

With members who were Irish, Latino, Jewish, Italian, African-American, and Caribbean, the Coalition also drew on the Bronx’s hefty population of organized, socialist, and immigrant families who’d moved north from Manhattan’s Lower East Side tenements.

What the firm hadn’t bargained on was an organized community. NWBCCC and the RWDSU organized a year’s worth of rallies, each larger than the the one before, complete with churchleaders, celebrities, and local politicians, and the final vote in the city council was 48-1 with all the Bronx delegation voting against.

When KNIC Partners came in with the ice center deal, “We knew from the beginning that this project would only work if the community wanted it,” developer Kevin Parker told Commonomics in an email.  “So we sat down with them early on to determine how we could create a worthy vision that would benefit everyone involved.”

The people of the Northwest Bronx had made themselves a credible force to be reckoned with. That’s lesson number one for groups seeking to mimic what happened in the Bronx deal, says Bettina Damiani, project director of Good Jobs New York. The community groups in the area had developed a very clear agenda for the armory years before the developers arrived.

Like most observers, Damiani singles out the Coalition: “NWBCCC didn’t just convene the players around the negotiating table; they built the table,” she said.

The roots of the Coalition reach deep. Roger Hayes (father of MSNBC’s Chris Hayes) co-founded the group in 1974, inspired by clergy who’d moved north from the southern part of the borough hit by Moses’ Expressway. Parish-priests are place-based organizers by definition; those eggs in the developers’ omelet are their parishioners.

The Bronx clergy had seen what happened when people moved en masse, leaving buildings empty and blocks vacant. With members who were Irish, Latino, Jewish, Italian, African-American, and Caribbean, the Coalition also drew on the Bronx’s hefty population of organized, socialist, and immigrant families who’d moved north from Manhattan’s Lower East Side tenements. “People came from very different places,” said Hayes, “but the church leadership was very sophisticated; they’d sit down with anyone and talk.”

In the years when landlords stayed away and banks and government divested, “NWBCCC was there,” says Hayes. (By the mid-2000s, the group had 4,000-5,000 active members with experience providing services, occupying and managing buildings, protesting banker bias, and electing representatives to office.)

Millions of dollars in public subsidies for more poverty-level wages and more people needing food stamps were not on the community’s list of priorities.

So in the mid-1990s, when the NWBCCC held mass meetings to imagine a new future for the Kingsbridge Armory, hundreds of people attended. When they invited local politicians to sign on to their list of priorities for the building (which became the basis for the CBA), those politicians signed on.

In the run up to the vote on the Related company’s mall, NWBCCC members marched from a local church to the armory and wrapped the entire building in yellow caution tape. Ava Farkas, who was the NWBCCC armory organizer at the time, recalls: “The tape read, ‘It’s our Armory’, and that’s really how it felt. The community felt ownership over it. It was our space.”

After the City Council rejected the mall, Mayor Bloomberg blamed small groups of people “out to feather their own nests and extort money from the developer.”

But hurled at NWBCCC, that charge didn’t stick.

“We’d been dealing for years with a view of the Bronx from people who didn’t live there,” said Mary Dailey, who worked with the NWBCCC for a decade before becoming its director in 2004-2005. “People in the community looked at it from the perspective, what would make this a better place to live?”

At the time of the shopping mall proposal, average Bronx retail workers were earning about $16,700 a year. Low wages forced workers to rely on taxpayer subsidized safety net programs just to make ends meet.  Millions of dollars in public subsidies for more poverty-level wages and more people needing food stamps were not on the community’s list of priorities.

Lesson number two: Organize for forty years?

It’s here that the Bronx story gets hard to mimic. Not every community is blessed with a 40-year-old coalition, immune to the criticism that the signatories to the agreements are self-selecting and unrepresentative.


In Brooklyn, signatories to a CBA negotiated with the developers of the Atlantic Yards redevelopment hailed that agreement as a great achievement, too. Opponents saw those signatories as pawns, and the CBA as a tool the developers had used to manufacture the appearance of consent and co-opt local politicians.

In the Bronx, another Related Companies plan to redevelop the Bronx Terminal Market into a retail complex was approved after a CBA, negotiated by local politicians, was finalized just before the City Council voted. Almost immediately questions were raised about kickbacks to the politicians involved. And 17 months after a similar deal was reached around construction of a new Yankee Stadium, the New York Times reported that community groups had still not received any of the promised funds from the New York Yankees (see sidebar further down).

Even though the NWBCCC is massively popular in the Bronx, some residents still wonder how KNIC got chosen over an alternative proposal.

Legendary DJ Afrika Bambaataa and an alliance of Hip Hop stars backed a different developer, Youngwoo and Associates, whose plan for the armory included a “Mercado Mirabo”—a community “plaza”-style market—and “town square” with a mix of food, entertainment, cultural space, and $10/month gym access for Bronx residents.

The Youngwoo proposal also included a Hip Hop Museum.  “An international museum of Hip Hop, located in the Bronx where the movement started, will attract worldwide recognition and bring visitors from around the globe” said Bambaataa at the time.

Pilgrim-Hunter says the Youngwoo company wouldn’t commit to all of the points of KARA’s proposed CBA.  Sources close to Youngwoo say the CBA process encourages developers to promise more than they can actually deliver. Youngwoo still believes its plan more closely reflected the community’s expressed priorities than world-class ice skating.

At the end of the day, the benefits promised under the CBA hang on the success of the KNIC business model.

“We wish the best for the community. The armory project is a very visible place and this is a very big project,” said Adam Zucker, Director of Business Development at Youngwoo. “The community made itself a strong player and they deserve something great.”

“CBAs are a community’s next best alternative to getting what they actually wanted.”

Less charitably, others wonder if KNIC’s goal of attracting 2 million visitors annually to the Bronx is realistic. After an initial contribution of $8 million for construction of community space and support for local business developments, the benefits KNIC will contribute to the community hang on the success of the overall project. Most of the benefits are in-kind, and while there will be many different ice sports on offer, none is particularly associated with the urban people of color and immigrants who dominate the Northwest Bronx community. Perhaps the KNIC will change the hue of the NHL.

Still, a lot is riding on the ice.

The best tool in town?

You can almost feel the neighborhood's residents actively willing the ice center development to be successful. Asked if he was a skater, the security guard minding the armory’s massive loading door this November beamed broadly and exclaimed, “No. But I’m going to be.”


Gabriel Vangelatos, son of the owner of the New Capital Diner across the street, is considering adding special dishes to his menu for visiting Canadians. Referring to the former New York Rangers Hockey star who’s agreed to serve as CEO of the Center, Vangelatos says, “Mark Messier was my childhood hero. What’ s not to like?”

Nonetheless, in calling the armory deal the city’s first “real” CBA, supporters sidestep the poor record of area CBAs until now.

“New York’s past CBAs weren’t enforceable. This one is,” says attorney Gross.

Sure enough, KNIC and KARA are signatories to a legal pact. Still, Tom Angotti, who teaches urban affairs at Hunter College, says if the Center fails to deliver, “KARA can sue but they’ve got to find a lawyer and take them to court. Good luck with that.”

Angotti served on a citywide task force on CBAs in 2010 that concluded that the process needed to conform to clear, uniform standards. Even then, he adds, “CBAs are a community’s next best alternative to getting what they actually wanted.”

Roberta Gratz, author of The Battle for Gotham, is even more skeptical: “Real estate power still owns the city,” she says. “When a community’s strategy to get what it really wants has failed, CBAs are a way to get the best out of a bad situation.” (The Coalition's original proposal for the armory, drawn up after lots of community meetings, included three 800-seat schools to address school overcrowding, a sports complex, a green market, a bookstore, a community center, and a park. Not skating.)

Ideally, cities would have strong policies on the books, covering affordable housing, local hiring, and living-wages (that are really livable)—in which case, communities wouldn’t have to work though these deals on a case-by-case basis.

“If community groups had confidence that cities would negotiate and enforce those things, they wouldn’t need CBAs” says Gross.

Similarly, if the public process through which development proposals were approved was reliable, accountable, and adequately funded, public bodies (like community boards, in New York City) could do their own research on the kind of development that would truly benefit neighborhoods, and community organizations like the NWBCCC wouldn’t have to hire their own consultants and run the risk of being called “unrepresentative.”

“One of the things we’re looking forward to is people in our community becoming the developers. That will be the testament to what started here: [If], 20 years from now, we have given birth to other folks from the Bronx owning their own businesses."

“As a practical matter, the best place for the planning to go on is at community board level,” says professor Angotti.

New York City residents ostensibly have a say in the planning process through community boards that vote on land use and development proposals. But board members are appointed volunteers with little to no staff. They struggle—especially in working-class neighborhoods—to deal with day-to-day business, let alone planning for the long-term, and with public resources always stretched board budgets are on the chopping block.

“They’re the community planning institution and they’re a failed institution,” says Agnotti.

In a developer-driven process, CBAs may be the best tool in town. But they’re not the end of the story for communities seeking a say in their own future.

Next steps to community wealth

“One of the things we’re looking forward to [in the Bronx],” says Pilgrim-Hunter, 
“is people in our community becoming the developers. That will be the testament to what started here: [If], 20 years from now, we have given birth to other folks from the Bronx owning their own businesses."

Pilgrim-Hunter’s not alone in seeing the Kingsbridge Armory CBA as just the first step in a longer journey for the borough. To get where she wants the Bronx to go, she says, “It's going to take community partnerships with development and businesses; it's going to take leaders actively advocating; and its going to take legislation, and all of us being able to understand and pass laws to support community ownership…”

After the defeat of the Related shopping center, Ava Farkas, the former Coalition organizer, moved on to work for living-wage policies—not for developments in the Bronx, but for any development receiving public subsidies anywhere in New York City.

“It was the logical next step, to take the energy we’d unleashed and pass legislation so that neighborhoods don’t have to fight with every developer,” says Farkas.

“We learned that although our organizing has been getting better and better, our membership base has been getting poorer and poorer. That’s because wealth is leaking out of the borough.”

In June of 2012, the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act passed. Under the terms of the legislation, any private developer accepting $1 million or more in subsidies must now pay employees a living wage of $10/hour with benefits, or $11.50 without. The Act was co-sponsored by Oliver Koppel, a Bronx Democrat, whose council district borders the armory.

“People didn’t think we could go up against Related and win, and we did,” says Farkas. “They didn’t think we could pass living wages either. But we did… Organizing works.”

Yorman Nunez, who was 13 when he first got involved in the Coalition, believes that that local procurement goals in the Bronx Armory CBA can be a catalyst for building more wealth in the borough.  Around the Armory fight, he says, “We learned that although our organizing has been getting better and better, our membership base has been getting poorer and poorer. That’s because wealth is leaking out of the borough.”

Residents had energy and ideas for the armory long before the city or any developer had a plan, but no resources to implement them:  “We’re the ones that got people together to come up with ideas [for the armory]” he said. “We got the city to fix the roof, but only outsiders had the wealth to develop it.”

Today, Nunez is co-coordinator of the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative. To evaluate the borough's internal resources, the Initiative commissioned a study, led by Jeffrey Hollender of Seventh Generation and the American Sustainable Business Council, that took a close look at the borough’s challenges and assets. Nunez intends to use the research to provide KNIC with a database of local vendors.

Welcome to Commonomics: How to Build Local Economies Strong Enough for Everyone

The Initiative includes local business leaders, organized labor, and anchor institutions, including Montefiore Medical Center, Fordham University, Hostos Community College, Bronx Community College, the New York Botanical Garden, and the Bronx Zoo, as well as local nonprofits like the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, Mothers on the Move, the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, and others.

Pilgrim-Hunter considered a run for state senate in 2010. She says she’s ruled out another run. For now, she says she's looking forward to the armory setting a new standard for development in communities across the country: Development in which “community, businesses, government, and politicians come together to plan community redevelopment—not in opposition but together.”

Reached on the day after the city council vote, she said that she intends to take some time off—to celebrate the armory win with her grandchildren.

“It's my younger Daughter Cassandra and [her son] Cole's faces that keep me going,” she explained. Pilgrim-Hunter recently heard that her daughter's family were moving to North Carolina.

Cassandra has two jobs—one in mid-town Manhattan and the other upstate. “[Cassandra] has spent her whole life commuting to school and now trying to piece together work,” Pilgrim-Hunter told me.

“I'm heartbroken to be losing my daughter to another state. By the time my grandson Cole is old enough my hope is establishing these kind of living-wage development projects will mean my daughter won't have to hear the same thing from him. He can stay close to home because he'll be able to find work he can thrive on.”

Laura Flanders wrote this article for YES! Magazine's Commonomics project. Laura is YES! Magazine's 2013 Local Economies Reporting Fellow and is executive producer and founder and host of "GRITtv with Laura Flanders." Follow her on Twitter @GRITlaura.

Graphics designed by Michelle Ney. Research by Natalie Lubsen.

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