Cities depend on density. They
depend on people milling around downtown, or at neighborhood parks,
or street fairs and restaurants. Not only does this milling about
bring energy to urban areas, but it also contributes dollars to city
coffers. Now with the coronavirus causing some cities to issue
"shelter at home" orders, close restaurants except for pick
up and delivery, and order the use of facial coverings in public
places, the gush of revenue has slowed to a drip, and cities are
being forced to revise their budgets to manage the new reality.
Francisco's Mayor London Breed was quick to act, issuing a "shelter
in place" order in late February. In contrast, New York City
Mayor Bill de Blasio dragged his feet on issuing a shelter in place
order. While some cities closed schools in early March, de Blasio
dragged his feet until mid-March. As a result, San Francisco is in
much better shape, in terms of infections, than New York is. At the
same time, both San Francisco and New York are both grappling with
the impact of decreased revenue. People won't necessarily feel it
right away, and there will be some federal help available, but it
will likely take cities years to recover.
District of Columbia started the year with a projected budget
surplus. It had 77 days of reserves on hand, more than they've had
in years. These reserves were partly due to the steady leadership of
Mayor Muriel Bowser and the economic expansion of the past several
years. But as soon as the coronavirus lifted its ugly head and Mayor
Bowser wisely ordered all non-essential commerce to cease, city
finances were at risk. The mayor recently said the city will end
this fiscal year $600 million in the hole, which will cause a hiring
freeze, a salary freeze, and other austerity measures.
tourism industry is virtually non-existent these days, and many
cities fund some services with taxes on tourists. In San Antonio,
about 270 employees will be furloughed because their positions were
funded by the Hotel Occupancy Tax. In Detroit, the mayor expects to
cut its already "to the bone" budget by $100 million.
Baltimore is relocating homeless people to motels to limit their
exposure. In the short run, it is heartening that they chose life
over budget. In the long term, we must wonder how the budget will
was fiscally fragile when Mayor Lori Lightfoot was elected a year
ago, and she faced crushing deficits. Now, dealing with the
coronavirus, she has had to cancel projected tax increasing, plunging
her city even further into the hole. She has imposed a 9 pm curfew
until April 30 and exploring other ways to promote social distancing
in her city.
are Blacker, browner, older, and younger than the rest of America.
These folks, among the neediest, are also the ones at more risk to
the coronavirus. It was no surprise to learn that Black folk are
more likely to get the coronavirus than others. For example, African
Americans are 23 percent of the Chicago population, but a whopping 70
percent of th coronavirus cases. People want to be tested,
especially if they are experiencing symptoms, but testing sites are
not well geographically distributed. Those areas who can flex
political muscles are likely to get more services, while Black and
brown communities are likely to be ignored.
an aside, it is essential to note that Black folk are among those
most likely to risk their lives to ensure that life moves smoothly.
We are quick to thank the doctors and nurses, and most deservedly so.
Some are now lifting up grocery store workers (who earn an average
of $12 an hour), which is important because they keep us fed. But
the invisible workers are our sanitation workers, and in some cities,
these are mostly Black men. Imagine what might happen if these men
disappeared? They are essential to city operations.
Years ago, David Caplovitz wrote a
book, The Poor Pay More, that spoke of the "poverty
penalty" that comes when the poor pay more for goods and
services than their wealthier, whiter neighbors. Now the coronavirus
is extracting a poverty penalty, especially in cities, for those who
are most vulnerable. The penalty is the immediate disproportionate
impact of coronavirus on Black folk. The penalty will continue to be
extracted when, after the coronavirus epidemic subsides, cities will
have to adjust their finances. Who will pay? The homeless?
Education? Social services? City services? Urban leaders must speak
up and talk about the price their cities will pay, and how they might