The Municipal Justice Project
In case you’re new here, it should be apparent to you (my friends, family, and strangers who read my opinions online) that I am incredibly passionate about making progressive change. This includes dismantling systemic racism and other forms of bigotry and discrimination, transforming our economy away from one with such rampant poverty and inequality, and defeating the climate crisis. I worked my butt off to elect Joe Biden and to defeat his fascistic predecessor, and since then, I’ve used my platform to fight to pass the agenda he ran on.
It’s been exhausting. This president and a few conservative Democrats in the Senate have been insisting on preserving the filibuster that requires 60 votes to pass most major pieces of legislation. Consequently, despite the overwhelming majority of Americans voting for Democrats last November to control the government, they have made little to no progress on issues voters care about. We’ve seen little to no action done on immigration, gun control, voting rights, reproductive rights, healthcare, the environment, police/prison reform, LGBTQ rights, affordable housing, and financial/tax reform. Simply put, the federal government is not delivering. Progressives should keep up the pressure, but we need to expand our fight for justice and take it to municipal governments.
Cities are the laboratories for progressive change. The fight for $15 really took off when Seattle announced it would phase in a minimum wage increase to $15/hour. Cities like Eugene, Oregon invested in alternatives to policing for non-violent crimes as a means of reducing police violence. And dozens of cities have been already transitioning away from fossil fuels and toward clean and renewable energy. The path to an anti-racist, progressive future will come through activists demanding bold solutions at the local level and not relenting until they see results. In this essay, I hope to underscore several ideas cities can employ to advance the cause of justice and carve a pathway for activists to engage their local elected officials. The key to unlocking local progress towards a just and equitable future will be knocking down statewide preemption laws that allow governors and state legislatures to supersede local authority. This will be by no means an easy task, but it is paramount and demands a maximum, unyielding pressure campaign.
Inequality and Labor Rights
Income and wealth inequality in America has been steadily rising for over four decades. At the same time, workers rights and union membership have been steadily declining. The two are not unrelated. The trickle-downers who have been writing the rules of the economy throughout this period have argued that measures to reduce inequality like raising the minimum wage and empowering workers would hurt businesses and, thus, lead to higher unemployment. Dozens of reputable studies have refuted this argument. Raising the minimum wage has little to no effect on employment levels while having definitely positive benefits for workers. Cities can and should raise the minimum wage to at least $15/hour, though many cities have the capacity to go higher. If the minimum wage had kept pace with productivity since its inception, it would be about $24/hour or $48,000/year. In other words, a household in which two parents are working minimum wage jobs should be bringing home $96,000/year; in reality, it’s about $30,000/year. This is how bad wage suppression has gotten. Local elected officials in states without preemption have no excuse. It’s time to raise the minimum wage.
Tackling inequality is paramount to building an equitable, sustainable, prosperous future, and cities and counties have the power to take bold steps. In the 2020 presidential primary, Elizabeth Warren ran on the idea of implementing a wealth tax that would levy an annual fee on the fortunes of individuals and families with over $50 million in assets. This small tax would raise trillions in revenue due to the immense wealth concentrated in the hands of those at the top. When the wealth tax was introduced, it was perceived as a novelty, but municipal governments have already been implementing wealth taxes for centuries; they just call them property taxes. Municipalities can, in the spirit of the Warren wealth tax, implement elevated property tax brackets for estates (and yachts) worth over $2 million. There are dozens of ways to redistribute the revenue to yield shared local prosperity: K-12 schools, child care, income subsidies to low-wage earners, down payment assistance, municipal broadband, parks and city amenities, etc.
Beyond directly mandating wage increases, there are a number of ways that municipal governments can improve quality of work for their residents. They can set the standards by providing benefits to all local government workers with reasonable work hours (no more than 40 a week), 4–5 weeks of paid vacation, a generous and inclusive paid leave policy, affordable and comprehensive health benefits, and a union contract. And they can require that any private company that wishes to do business with the city provide their employees with comparable benefits and wages. This will put pressure on all businesses within the city to raise their wages and benefits to compete with the government. They can also try to create a cooperative relationship between businesses and the government to boost wages and democratic participation.
Additionally, local governments can pass laws like Just Cause protections and right-to-strike laws that give workers in the private sector greater power. There’s nothing stopping city counselors and county commissioners across the country from taking initiative and passing measures like these except political will. Let’s ignite some.
The central reason why so many people are living on the streets, in shelters, or in their cars is because we are in an affordable housing crisis. Unhoused people are among the most vulnerable in society facing elevated levels of violence and healthcare needs. Municipal governments are the key combating this crisis. Jerusalem Demsas does an excellent job explaining how zoning and land use policies restricting supply are the main culprit to our lack of affordable housing. These restricting zoning laws inadvertently hurt Black and Brown communities disproportionately and contribute greatly to neighborhood segregation and racial disparities in homeownership rates. These laws are the byproduct of so-called neighborhood defenders that show up to city council and zoning commission meetings demanding policies that prevent the construction of new housing, low-income and or luxury, for fear of traffic or that it will affect their property values. While there is substantial evidence that fears of the latter are entirely unfounded even when new housing is low-income or Section 8, new housing generally does lead to more traffic. That’s a tradeoff we can argue is worth it and make a pretty strong case. First of all, increased traffic will only make the case stronger for European-style transit which will save residents money and reduce emissions. Second, spending five more minutes at the red light on Sherman Oaks Ave (made up road) is not that big of a deal. Believe me, you’ll get over it. Third, more affordable housing and housing in general will increase sales at local businesses and grow the local economy. Maybe we should skip over the second one. All in all though, the case is strong; we just need YIMBY (yes, in my backyard) activists to show up and outnumber the NIMBYs.
In addition to increasing supply, municipal governments don’t have to wait for the private sector to build and build the type of housing their residents can actually afford. They build their own and only charge enough to break even. Social housing or not-for-profit government housing is actually much more common in Europe and incredibly popular and successful in Vienna; their model allows residents to enjoy luxury condos at affordable rates with ample green space, a great deal of amenities, and walkable neighborhoods with easy access to grocery stores and child care centers. It’s time for local elected officials to have the ingenuity and courage to transcend the status quo of letting private developers and wealthy homeowners dictate the housing market and build social housing developments and walkable communities.
The array of reforms I’ve referenced and recommended above will inevitably change the makeup of the suburbs, and that’s a good thing. The sprawled landscape in suburban communities is less energy efficient, less cost effective, yields greater carbon emissions, and elevated levels of loneliness. It may be considered radical to advance a colossal reimaging of where we live and how close we are to one another, but the benefits justify making the case, even if there is a great deal of push back.
Congress can’t even pass an anti-lynching law let alone the most modest police reforms while advocates and activists are demanding a reimagining of public safety in a way that divests/defunds significantly from policing. Some cities are already stepping up. I recently wrote how I would transform the public safety infrastructure in my own community.
While municipal governments cannot transform auto-manufacturing away from oil and gas, they can leverage their buying power and partner with utilities in transitioning their power to clean energy. Lots of cities are already doing it, and some have already done it! Just watch this video of a Republican mayor from Texas explaining why he made the decision and how it is saving his city money. There’s literally no reason not to do it. Transitioning to clean power is the easy party of sustainability. Reducing waste consumption is far trickier.
We create a lot of garbage in our society, and it’s a problem. Landfills release toxic chemicals that disproportionately affect communities of color, and garbage patches and islands harm marine life around the world. Tackling this problem will require changing human behavior. Cities can help by attracting or creating zero-waste grocery and supply stores. They can ban single-use plastics and tax excessive waste. These are all sound policies, but they require a good deal of public buy-in.
Lobbying your member of Congress can be excruciatingly difficult since most of them only listen to their donors and major endorsers. Meeting with your local elected officials is much easier because, for one thing, they represent less people and are more dependent on pleasing their constituents to get reelected. Now, you could message them on Facebook and try and meet them for coffee. That might work! It literally just did for me. But if you want a long-term strategy that will actually deliver transformative results, you’ve got to go bigger. I recommend forming a Citizen Action Committee and doing group visits to offices and showing up at City Council meetings. But also, I really don’t have all the answers, so if you do, feel free to message me. And let’s get progressive change at the local level!