Terms of Engagement After Sandy

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Photo credit – Eliud Echevarria: FEMA News Photo.

Sandy and the surges of water that accompanied her didn’t discriminate in terms of which lives, homes and businesses they devastated. People of all income levels and companies of all sizes were hard hit. Thousands in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut remain without power, hampering the relief effort. All of this is to say: there’s a long road ahead and communities must work with decision-makers now to create a plan for allocating reconstruction financial resources.

After past disasters such as the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, Congress created federal assistance programs that became dominated by those that needed it least: large corporations and luxury housing developers. It’s safe to assume these interests, the typical beneficiaries of “disaster capitalism,” are trying to influence similar legislation after Sandy.

Post-September 11, 2001 federal resources helped firms that already had vast resources—such as Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley—or “small businesses” like boutique brokerage houses and law firms (see Good Jobs New York’s Database of Deals for more information). As recently reported by our Good Jobs First colleagues, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, most of Louisiana’s allocation of the federal Gulf Opportunity Zone Bonds went to giant petrochemical companies not located in the hardest hit areas.

Here are some suggestions on how to do it right this time:

Do help small businesses get back on their feet quickly with a minimum of red tape. This includes helping them deal with private insurance carriers. Provide technical assistance that helps them firm up their operations by making them more sustainable.

Don’t prioritize luxury housing. Real estate interests made sure that 9/11 Liberty Bonds for Lower Manhattan had so few strings attached that they fueled housing for the fabulously wealthy and no new affordable housing construction.

Do focus on the needs of residents and small businesses most affected. Subsidies and/or other land-use policies shouldn’t displace existing or future generations from working and living in healthy, affordable neighborhoods. Private Activity Bonds after Hurricane Katrina were available to such a large geographic area that those who needed resources the most were left with little access to these funds.

Don’t ignore the needs of low-income workers. The 9/11 attacks had a huge direct impact on the financial sector of Lower Manhattan, but they also had a severe ripple effect on low-income workers; think of the baggage handlers at the airports, retail workers in Lower Manhattan or restaurant employees in Chinatown. Before Congress in 2007, Interfaith Worker Justice testified that after Katrina, loose regulations lowered wages and greatly undermined job standards.

Do subsidize projects that create high-road employment in both the construction industry and for permanent jobs. If recent reports are any indication, there are decades’ worth of employment opportunities. Many of the areas swept away or without heat and hot water are home to the poor and working class and between 70,000 and 80,000 residents of the New York City Housing Authority have been impacted by the storm. If these people don’t have decent -paying jobs to return to, it will have devastating long-term impacts on the economy

A message to Katrina victims from some community groups engaged in 9/11 rebuilding still rings true after Sandy: Officials at all levels of government, particularly in Congress, must consider four things before creating reconstruction subsidy programs:

1) Programs must be created using broadly democratic and transparent planning principles.

2) The allocation of funds must prioritize the creation of good jobs and building sustainable neighborhoods.

3) Programs must focus on fiscal stewardship by rebuilding infrastructure and public goods that will help existing businesses rebound and foster new ones.

4) Programs must incorporate clawback provisions to make sure that recipients (especially large firms) live up to those job-creation requirements. Some of the largest recipients of 9/11 funds had grants withheld or were forced to repay them after laying off workers.

Some might argue that these safeguards will slow the recovery from Sandy. We think the opposite is true: if loose rules allow big companies with the most lobbyists and consultants to hog the trough, the neighborhoods hit hardest will get short-changed and suffer longest.

2 Responses to “Terms of Engagement After Sandy”

  1. Marc Brenman Says:

    This is not true: “People of all income levels and companies of all sizes were hard hit.” Low income people and people of color were more adversely affected. The rich could, and did, escape. In general, climate change and sea level rise affects low income people and people of color more adversely. If anyone is interested, Robert Garcia, Tom Sanchez, and I have a couple of articles on social equity lessons from Katrina. Send me an email. mbrenman001@comcast.net

    • Bettina Damiani Says:

      Hi Marc: Thanks for your note.

      Our post doesn’t discern how much more or less wealthier people were impacted by Sandy. Though you may notice the point of the blog was to focus on the fact that low-income people will have a more difficult time rebuilding their neighborhoods than wealthier ones, so we urge that funds be prioritized there.

      Though, it was only fair to acknowledge that large businesses and residential areas of NJ and CT where upper income families live were greatly impacted, too.

      Also, our colleagues in DC analyzed GO Bonds (see the link in the post) that show funds were not allocated fairly. Also you might have missed we link to testimony that job standards were lowered for Katrina rebuilding, in the piece.

      Thanks for reading.
      Bettina

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