Commentary Barbara L. Finch: Where are people supposed to live?
November 25, 2020
Disturbing articles appear frequently in the Post-Dispatch, but few have rung alarm bells quite so insistently as one that appeared last month on the front page under the headline, “Luxury units drive apartment rents higher.”
The article described a flurry of new construction with top-flight amenities and one-bedroom units that start at $3,100 per month. A developer quoted in the article said, “Luxury markets have been ignored here.”
Something else has been ignored here: affordable housing. And as luxury units proliferate and rents increase throughout the area, the question arises: Where are people supposed to live? In the middle of a pandemic when everyone has been urged to stay home, the issue of adequate shelter for all looms large.
As far back as six years ago, half of all renters in Missouri were considered “cost-burdened,” according to William R. Emmons, lead economist for the Center for Household Financial Stability at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. In a program delivered for Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice, he described cost-burdened as paying more than 30% of pre-tax income on housing.
Adults who find themselves working in minimum-wage jobs almost certainly fit into this category. Also likely to find themselves cost-burdened are teachers aides, nursing assistants, grocery workers, bus drivers, retail and restaurant employees, and others who serve our communities but can’t afford to live in them.
Since the alarming story about luxury rentals appeared, there have been other articles about housing in our community: the upcoming tsunami of evictions expected later this year when the federal moratorium expires, and the difficulties completing the Preservation Square low-income housing project in north St. Louis. And some good news: Midwest BankCentre has donated nearly two acres in the Bevo Mill neighborhood for an affordable housing complex for senior citizens.
Adequate housing that is accessible and affordable for every citizen is a prerequisite for a healthy community. And communities are stronger, more welcoming, richer and more vibrant when diverse people can live in them.
There are many commissions, task forces, study groups and coalitions working on the issue of affordable housing in both St. Louis city and county. Perhaps they could be inspired by initiatives in other parts of the country. For example, in Boston, the city is looking at new ways to confront its housing crisis, including a tax on high-end real estate deals with proceeds going to the development of more units for lower income residents. Also under consideration is letting the city levy a tax of up to 2% on all property sales, including commercial property, when the sale price is more than $2 million.
Oregon recently became the first state to institute statewide rent control, capping increases at 7% per year. The state also ended single-family-only zoning in communities of more than 10,000 people, allowing duplexes or four-family buildings to be constructed anywhere. Minneapolis recently moved to rezone most of the city to ban new single-family homes. Several Sun Belt cities, including Houston, Atlanta and Austin, Texas, now encourage a percentage of affordable housing units in any mixed-use project.
Most people would agree that everyone wants to live in a nice neighborhood. In St. Louis, many of these nice neighborhoods — sometimes called “communities of opportunity” — lie along the central corridor in the county. They provide good schools, access to transportation and health care, convenient shopping options, parks and other amenities. They are the suburbs, where the legacy of racial segregation continues to exist.
It is time to reverse the geography of inequity created by barriers to affordable housing in these communities. Next year Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice will launch a campaign called “Hold The Door Open.” Our members will be working in their own local communities to study laws and ordinances and proposals that perpetuate segregation and discourage equity and inclusion.
We don’t expect this to be easy — or well-received by some. Our hope is that those of us who are fortunate enough to have doors held open for us won’t continue to let them slam in the faces of others.
Commentary published in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, November 25, 2020
Statement on the Supreme Court Nomination of Amy Coney Barrett
While it is the duty of the President to suggest nominees to fill vacant positions on the Supreme Court, the current actions of the Senate are completely hypocritical. When a vacancy occurred early in the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency, the Senate refused to consider the nominee. They stated that the people should have a voice in the appointment and that the hearing to consider Merritt Garland needed to be postponed until after the 2016 election. Now, when a vacancy occurred just weeks before the general election, the Senate is racing to confirm President Trump’s nominee. We urge you to make a call today and point out this hypocrisy to Senators Blunt and Hawley. Senator Blunt 202-224-6154. Senator Hawley 202-224-5721.
Statement on the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
September 21, 2020
Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice joins the family of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and all Americans who strive for justice and equity in mourning her death.
When Justice Ginsburg graduated first in her class from Columbia Law School in 1959 no New York law firm would hire her because she was a woman. Their rejection of a brilliant lawyer turned out to be a huge gain for gender equity and equality. She accepted an academic position which gave her the opportunity to pursue her interest in fighting gender discrimination. The rest is, as they say, history. Both before she was appointed to the US Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton and during her tenure on the Court, RBG pursued equity and equal justice for all Americans.
Women’s Voices, with our focus on gender equity, voting rights, reproductive rights and access to healthcare, is committed to honoring her legacy by working even harder to achieve her vision of justice. We share Justice Ginsburg’s fervent wish that the person who is appointed to fill her seat on the Supreme Court will value justice and equity above all.
Statement on the Special Session on Violent Crime
August 16, 2020
Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice urges the Missouri General Assembly to vote down the misguided proposals Governor Parson put forth in the current special session. In 2018 and 2019, Missouri took positive actions to join the more than forty states that are now reducing prison populations while also addressing racial equity and public safety concerns. One step was extending the age of the jurisdiction of juvenile court to youth until they are 18.
We are distressed that on July 6, Gov. Mike Parson announced that he would sign Senate Bill 600, returning Missouri to the path of failed “tough on crime” policies. We were alarmed when we were told by the Governor’s staff that they were not counting the number of phone calls they received opposing SB600.
Women’s Voices believes that the Missouri Senate passed a deeply flawed legislative package in SB1. Then, in an unprecedented move, on August 10, Governor Parson included a proposal to expand concurrent jurisdiction. This would allow the Missouri Attorney General to prosecute some cases normally handled by the St. Louis City Circuit Attorney. Women’s Voices strongly opposes this. For 145 years, local prosecutors have operated independently. Legislating the end of local control in solely one County is particularly onerous and is a threat to local control.
We also strongly oppose increasing the kinds of crimes for which children as young as 14 can be certified as adults. This backtracks on progress made in Missouri that is grounded in developmental science and common sense. We know that youth who commit crimes are better served in the juvenile justice system where they can access educational and rehabilitative services and supports. Being incarcerated as adults increases their likelihood of recidivism, and places life-long barriers to successful re-entry into society.
Women’s Voices believes that a “tough on crime” approach does not substantially increase public safety, and that attention also needs to be placed on police reform and investing in communities to assure equitable opportunity for all.
Using White Privilege to be Allies for Racial Justice
July 10, 2020
A worldwide pandemic. Nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd. These pivotal events have upended Americans’ lives in just a few months. We learned that we’re not immune to catastrophic viruses; white Americans have seemingly been “woke” to systemic racism. And both are public health crises.
COVID-19 has disproportionately affected African Americans; in Missouri, 38 percent of people who died from COVID-19 as of mid-May are African-American, even though they comprise only 12% of the population. There are several possible reasons including the inability of many African Americans to work from home if they work in the service sector and that people of color have higher rates of underlying conditions that put them at risk for the virus including hypertension, diabetes and asthma. We often don’t think of racism as a public health issue. Yet, it is killing Black Americans—both by fueling police violence against them and by propelling adverse socioeconomic conditions that contribute to serious health issues, according to a June 4, 2020 op-ed in the Washington Post by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Dean Michelle Williams and Jeffrey Sánchez, a former Massachusetts state representative.
Many Americans are now seeing the ugly truth that police departments across the country have engaged in a longstanding pattern –excessive use of force and abuse of power. In 2019 data of all police killings in the country compiled by Mapping Police Violence, showed that Black Americans were nearly three times more likely to die from police than white Americans.
The heartbreaking video of George Floyd’s death at the hands for four Minneapolis police officers jolted Americans to the core. Weeks of continuing protests in small and large cities have enjoined diverse crowds –often led by people of color — to emphatically proclaim “Black Lives Matter.”
There are calls for action: to reallocate a portion of police department budgets to increase funding for social and mental health services; and for city councils considering bans on choke-holds, no-knock warrants, and other commonly used law enforcement practices. Recently filed legislation in the U.S. Congress includes these reforms.
Locally, Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice is one of several organizations addressing systemic racism. As a 15-year-old grass roots organization, whose 504 members are primarily white, we are encouraged by the recent rise in protests including in predominantly white suburbs. Women’s Voices has focused on racial justice issues long before Michael Brown’s murder in 2014. We continue to struggle with this question: “What is the role of the white community in addressing systemic racism? How can we best “use” our white privilege?”
We determined that our first job was to educate ourselves and the general community about our country’s long history of discrimination including the Jim Crow laws that lasted from post- Civil War to 1968. Despite landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960’s, racism lives on in America including: the continuing practice of “redlining” that perpetuates housing segregation; underfunding of primarily Black public school; and disparities in health care that lead to shortened life spans for Black Americans.
To educate ourselves, we have: a Racial Justice Book Club that has discussed 26 books over five years; sponsored 16 free programs that address the complex factors that contribute to systemic racism; and an active Racial Justice Committee that advocates for public policy reforms in criminal justice, education, health care, and employment, among other areas.
We work in partnership with groups like Missouri Health Care for All, Jobs with Justice, the League of Women Voters and the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition so that together our voices are strengthened. Over the next several months, we will focus on voter registration and voter turnout for the August 4 and November 3 elections. We will advocate for approval of the August 4 ballot measure to expand Medicaid in Missouri. We will fight voter suppression efforts in Missouri and nationally.
We have learned much by listening to leaders in the Black community. Last June we sponsored a free community program with the nationally known African-American activist and St. Louis native Brittany Packnett. She advised us about the role of white people in addressing racial justice.
“See becoming an ally as a first step. Ask the people who are most affected by an issue for their solutions. Your work is to let them set the agenda and support it. Your work isn’t to lead but to push others forward. The risk you take pales in comparison to theirs.”