Thinking back to 2021, organizing things differently turned out to be the theme of the year for our economic coverage at Next City.
At the very end of ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Years,’ writes author David Graeber, ‘all of these things are human arrangements and if democracy is to mean anything, it is the ability of all to come together for it. arrange things in a different way. “
Thinking back to 2021, organizing things differently turned out to be the theme of the year for our economic coverage at Next City. Across all levels of the economy, from the lowest to the Federal Reserve, doing things differently has come under full prominence.
Become aware of commercial real estate
This year, we have reported a lot about communities finding ways to do commercial real estate without relying on the conventional model of developers taking ownership of land and stacking capital to generate the highest possible financial returns.
We covered Seattle’s New Cultural Space Agency, a city-sponsored entity similar to a housing authority but dedicated to property development on behalf of the arts and cultural organizations of Seattle’s Black communities, Indigenous communities, and others. ‘other communities of color. Rather than a conventional configuration where the mayor chooses who runs the agency, the communities it serves choose who runs it.
In New Orleans, we covered the Crescent City Community Land Trust by helping a century-old, third-generation black business finally innovate to revitalize their home, which was nearly destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. Community land trusts have primarily emerged in recent decades as a model of property to decommodify housing – permanently removing it from the market so that it can remain permanently affordable and responsible for meeting community needs. Crescent City is one of several community land trusts across the country that take the model back to its roots by protecting the ability of black people to have some economic self-determination, in addition to a stable and affordable place to live.
This year, we also attended the inauguration of the Commongrounds Co-op in Traverse City, Michigan. The owners of this new real estate cooperative are a combination of companies soon to be moving into the space along with their clients, workers and other supporters. Even potential residents of new apartments located above commercial and community spaces can choose to purchase and become co-owners of the building.
The evolution of worker power
Worker-owned co-ops are nothing new in our economic coverage at Next City. This year, we’ve caught up with a few that we’ve covered in previous years, including ChiFresh Kitchen, CERO, and the growing network of food industry worker co-ops in Baltimore. In addition to organizing against giants like Amazon and Starbucks, workers across the country continue to rely on this different model of business ownership as a way to regain power over the means of production.
But worker-owned cooperatives continue to face a distinct disadvantage in terms of access to capital for start-up and growth. During the pandemic, thousands of cooperative businesses gained access to something they had never had access to before: loans backed by collateral from the Small Business Administration. Congress could make co-ops’ access to SBA loan guarantees permanent beyond the pandemic, but the legislation remains in limbo. In the meantime, this year we reported on the progress of a national network of worker co-op lenders created by and for worker co-ops.
The worker co-op model has also ventured into one of the most competitive markets in cities today – the ridesharing app market, where Uber and Lyft have fought and trampled the taxi industry. in the process. Earlier this year, we covered the launch of The Drivers Cooperative, the first ridesharing app company created by and owned by drivers. Its app, âCo-Op Ride,â opened to the public on May 30, and we even caught up with the co-op later in the year for an episode of the Next City Podcast.
No business has experienced more unrest during the pandemic than restaurants, bars and cafes. Some workers in the food industry, like in Baltimore, looked to the cooperative model years ago as an alternative that can restore dignity and humanity to their workplace. This year, we covered the first acquisition of the very first group of worker-owned cooperative restaurants. It’s an attempt to take a page out of the private equity playbook – by buying out an entire portfolio of struggling companies – but reversing the model so that workers are the biggest beneficiaries.
Raise the green curtain
Around the same time last year, we called 2020 âthe year of demystifying money for citiesâ. This year we have continued to pick up that thread with some of the most reported stories of the year.
In keeping with Graeber’s idea of ââwhat democracy means, these stories focused on how democracy has reshaped or could reshape the way money flows – raising the green curtain to understand where the money is coming from. money, how it gets where it goes, and what it might take to get more of it to get to where it hasn’t been for too long.
After years of pilot programs in limited locations, guaranteed income programs have taken off across the country over the past year – and we’ve mapped them out as we heard about them. This year, we visited the oldest guaranteed income pilot program to date, in Jackson, Mississippi, to learn more about race and gender dynamics in the design and policy of cash assistance programs. without conditions.
Not to mention the dramatic changes to the federal child tax credit program, which effectively turned it into a nationwide guaranteed income plan. But those changes are currently set to expire at the end of this year, even though all the evidence so far shows it works and fewer children live in poverty today, even with all of the pandemic-related turmoil in. the economy. Racist politics and stereotypes about the poor remain a major obstacle.
This year, we also took a deeper dive into the Federal Reserve, one of the most powerful but least understood economic institutions in the world. During the pandemic, its flotilla of emergency lending programs helped make it more visible than it has been for many decades. Some have called on the Fed to do more for real people and less for businesses. A year-long struggle with high inflation has also drawn attention to the central banking system.
The political choices made by elected officials have shaped all of the Fed’s emergency programs and the entire Fed itself. For as much power as it appears the Fed and its senior officials have, it is delegated power by Congress, and with it comes certain obligations as prescribed by Congress. For many decades, racial justice advocates have argued that the Fed failed to live up to its Congressional-imposed obligation to promote full employment – for example, by allowing black unemployment to consistently linger twice. that of white unemployment.
But, as we covered this year, the Fed is now doing things differently. It was not a response to the pandemic, as changes had been underway for years within the Fed before COVID hit, but the change was timely. The Fed is now paying attention to factors like racial disparities in unemployment or wage growth to determine whether it should continue to push the economy to grow or to slow things down. Some racial justice advocates are calling on the Fed to change even more.
It shouldn’t come as such a surprise that democracy – messy, problematic, and often frustrating as it is – can and has shaped things as powerful as the Fed. If this sounds so surprising, maybe it’s because of who benefits the most by keeping most of us out of the room when it comes to making decisions about how the economy works. It certainly wouldn’t bother Wall Street if it were the only voice in conversations about the Fed or anything to do with financial sector regulations and policies.
With another election year ahead of us, there will be plenty of opportunities to ask everyone who runs for office what they think about doing things differently when it comes to commercial real estate, worker ownership, or the Fed. If they seem like they need more thoughts on this, I hope you can refer them back to whatever we wrote about it last year or over the next year.
Oscar is Next City’s senior business correspondent. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief of Next City from 2018-2019 and was a Next City Equitable Cities member from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered funding for community development, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha and Fast Company.