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Economic Development in a Pandemic: A Local Response

In a city that was particularly hard hit by the coronavirus outbreak, the borough of the Bronx — the poorest in New York City (1) and home to the most impoverished congressional district in the nation (2) — is suffering severe economic consequences. These negative effects include singularly high levels of unemployment, an erosion of the borough’s small business base, declining health insurance coverage, and deepening food insecurity.

While the pandemic has wrought financial and personal pain across the country, the worsening situation in the Bronx calls for immediate and creative solutions. Unemployment has reached Depression-era levels (3) and it is in this context that I propose the Bronx be used as a pilot for launching a job-creation and small business support program grounded in the values of equity, sustainability, and resilience.

Employment

As a candidate for New York City Council District 11 in the Bronx, I am deeply committed to worldwide action on climate change. The job creation program I propose is modeled on, and more equitable than, the Civilian Conservation Corps born in the early years of the Great Depression. Like the CCC of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Bronx Pandemic Reconstruction Program will be primarily focused on work that can build an equitable and resilient future for the borough. The Bronx PRP will include training and education in skills that we need to adapt and thrive in the mid-21st century. And it will exclude work that furthers our destruction.

In the spirit of FDR’s New Deal, I believe that in a time of economic crisis government at all levels must be deeply involved in job creation and, when need be, become a major employer.

The Bronx Pandemic Reconstruction program that I am proposing entails five basic tracks, each creating 2,000 jobs for a total of 10,000 new two-year positions. Free, degree-pathway classes at area CUNY and SUNY schools will prepare program participants to undertake their roles. The tracks include:

  • Green technology jobs (like building retrofits, solar, and geothermal) that will help transition us away from fossil fuels
  • Infrastructure rebuilding to repair our crumbling city
  • Entrepreneurship to create new nonprofit and for-profit businesses in the arts, environment (composting and community gardens), public safety, independent bookstores, high tech, food creation and distribution
  • Child Care to ensure that parents can work and young adults can become mentors (see below for details)
  • Elder Care to eliminate isolation, provide transportation, age-appropriate programming, and health-related supervision

More on Child Care

After months of lockdown, remote work, and online education, it has become abundantly clear to many parents of school-age children that they can either manage jobs or kids, but not both (4). Meanwhile, teenage and young adult unemployment in the Bronx has skyrocketed (5) as jobs in retail shops, bars, and restaurants have disappeared. As a part of the Bronx Pandemic Reconstruction Program, I am calling for all parents across the Bronx to join with others to form their children into “pods,” small groups of 6–10 children, who can be cared for by teenagers and young adults employed by the BPRP as tutors, after-school counselors (for the hours when children are not physically in school due to split shifts and staggered days), and coaches. With commercial space more widely available as businesses have shut down, these pods can be out of the house but competently supervised by their Bronx PRP minders in neighborhood indoor and outdoor locations, arranged by the Bronx Pandemic Reconstruction Program.

Small Business Support

With more than 270,000 working people in the Bronx as of July 2019 (6), nearly 70,000 were employed by businesses with fewer than 50 staffers (7). These Mom and Pop outfits range from bodegas to pharmacies, dry cleaners and construction firms, landscapers, doctors’ offices, opticians, restaurants, and clothing stores. During the first three months of the pandemic, many of these businesses were shut down completely, with their employees at best furloughed, or worse, laid off permanently. Some of these small business owners tried to apply for aid from the Paycheck Protection Program (provided for in the federal CARES Act of late March 2020) but much of that money went, at least in the first round, to the large clients of the big banks (8). Small businesses, including in the Bronx, did better in the second tranche of federal help, which came in mid-April, but overall the Bronx suffered more than its peers. According to a report by NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office, “In the hard-hit Bronx, 40% of small businesses were granted PPP loans, below the citywide average of 50% and the lowest share of the five boroughs.” (9) To make the situation even more catastrophic, the money provided comes in the form of loans that primarily cover employee salaries and must be paid back if owners do not meet the outlined requirements. These loans do not apply to sales lost due to the long lockdown during the height of the pandemic, or damage incurred and inventory stolen in the looting that followed the nationwide protests against the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police (10). Rent has become unmanageable for many of these businesses and their inability to pay has forced many to shutter their doors forever.

Despite the intense difficulties endured by small businesses in the Bronx during this time, their insurance companies have refused to honor business interruption claims and provide much-needed compensation. Many of these businesses, many of which are owned by people of color, will not survive. But it is impossible (and widely acknowledged) that a great city cannot exist without a diversity of small stores and firms in its neighborhoods (11). On a single block in my Council district, we have an Irish bar, a Dominican restaurant, a Korean-owed dry cleaner, a bagel bakery, a stationary store, and a Chinese takeout. To ensure that this rich tapestry of urban landscape is not eviscerated, I am calling on the New York State Department of Financial Services to guarantee that insurance companies compensate Bronx small businesses for all business interruption claims made during the pandemic, and to aid companies in filing these claims.

Financing the Bronx Pandemic Reconstruction Program

When New York City went through its financial disaster in the 1970s, Lazard Freres banker Felix Rohatyn led the newly-created Municipal Assistance Corporation to issue debt that his fellow Wall Streeters considered a better investment than the city’s general obligation bonds (12). While some critics argue that this debt was never really paid off, just refinanced, there are parts of the Rohatyn model that can be adapted to help in New York City’s current crisis. (And for those who doubt that New York City is facing similar strife, I refer them to the unemployment rate in the five boroughs for June 2020, which topped 20 percent.) (13)

The infrastructure track of the Bronx Pandemic Reconstruction Program can easily be underwritten by existing New York City capital funds. In the case of grants for social and for-profit entrepreneurs as well as subsidizing green tech jobs, we can seek public-private partnerships with the city’s biggest banks and corporations, which must step up as they did during the financial crisis of the 1970s. For elder and child care, we can mine the large pockets of waste that already exist in the New York City budget and convert that fat into job creation. We should also raise enough money to create a Bronx endowment that could produce self-sustaining interest income.

While these ideas may seem daring I again remind those who find them controversial that the City of New York is facing an unprecedented crisis. The only way to solve our current challenges is to apply unique and innovative solutions. We are told again and again how tough New Yorkers are, how we faced down 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy. Today, we are confronted by a two-headed calamity, a simultaneous public health and financial emergency. To surmount them both, we must embrace unusual prescriptions for ameliorating the impending harm that threatens ourselves, our neighbors, and the great city we call home.

1. The Bronx remains the poorest borough in the city, with a median household income of $37,525, compared to Manhattan, the richest borough, where the median is $77,559, according to a census analysis by Social Explorer, a research firm. The New York Times, September 14, 2018, “The Bronx is Great, Thonx,” by Stefanos Chen, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/14/realestate/the-bronx-is-great-thonx.html?searchResultPosition=1

2. See New York Daily News, September 29, 2010, “South Bronx is Poorest District in Nation, U.S. Census Bureau Finds: 38% Live Below Poverty Line,” by Richard Sisk, https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/south-bronx-poorest-district-nation-u-s-census-bureau-finds-38-live-poverty-line-article-1.438344

3. See Crain’s New York Business, July 22, 2020, “Bronx Hits Depression-level Unemployment,” by Ryan Deffenbaugh, https://www.crainsnewyork.com/economy/bronx-hits-great-depression-level-unemployment

4. See The New York Times, July 2, 2020, “In the Covid-19 Economy, You can have a Kid or a Job. You can’t have both,” by Deb Perelman, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/02/business/covid-economy-parents-kids-career-homeschooling.html?searchResultPosition=1

5. Welcome2The Bronx website, May 18, 2020, “Bronx Youth Face Worst Economic Prospects in the Country,” https://www.welcome2thebronx.com/2020/05/18/bronx-youth-face-worst-economic-prospects-in-the-country/

6. United States Census Bureau Quick Facts, Bronx County, New York, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/bronxcountybronxboroughnewyork

7. Annual Report on the State of Small Businesses 2019, New York Empire State Development, https://esd.ny.gov/sites/default/files/2019_ESD_ANNUAL_REPORT_ON_SMALL_BUSINESS.pdf

8. See CBS News, April 20,2020, “Biggest Banks Prioritized Larger Clients for Small Business Loans, Lawsuits Claim, by Stephen Gandel, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/paycheck-protection-program-big-banks-loans-larger-clients-over-smaller-businesses/

9. See The Wall Street Journal, July 15, 2020, “New York Didn’t Get Fair Share of PPP Loans, Comptroller Report Says,” by Akane Otani,

https://www.wsj.com/articles/new-york-city-didnt-get-fair-share-of-ppp-loans-comptroller-report-says-11594837297?mc_cid=00398c685e&mc_eid=9123d01651

10. See Spectrum News NY1, June 5, 2020, “On Fordham Road in the Bronx, Looting Leaves Store Owners Shattered,” by Amy Yensi, https://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/news/2020/06/05/fordham-road-hit-hard-by-looters-amid-george-floyd-protest-unrest-across-nyc-

11. See The Life and Death of Great American Cities, New York: Random House, 1961, by Jane Jacobs: “The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts. It grows out of people stopping by at the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery and nodding hello to the two boys drinking pop on the stoop…hearing about a job from the hardware man and borrowing a dollar from the druggist…”

12. See City Journal, December 18, 2019, “Municipal Master,” by Nicole Gelinas, https://www.city-journal.org/felix-rohatyn

13. Crain’s New York Business, July 16, 2020, “City Unemployment Rate Climbed Above 20% in June,” by Ryan Deffenbaugh.

Written by

Climate activist, tech entrepreneur, and working mom of four, running for NYC Council, District 11 in The Bronx. www.JessicaHaller.com

Climate activist, tech entrepreneur, and working mom of four, running for NYC Council, District 11 in The Bronx. www.JessicaHaller.com

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