Rachel M. Cohen

Rachel M. Cohen is a writing fellow at The American Prospect

Recent Articles

The Senate Wants to Eliminate One of the Most Successful Affordable Housing Programs

For more than 20 years, the HOME Investment Partnerships Program has helped rural, suburban, and urban communities provide housing for some of their most vulnerable citizens. HOME is the largest federal block grant for state and local governments that can be used to create affordable housing for low-income populations, including seniors, families with children, people with disabilities, veterans, and the homeless.

In FY 2010, Congress allocated $1.8 billion to the HOME program. One year later, thanks to the Budget Control Act of 2011—also known as the “sequester”—Congress sharply reduced HOME’s budget to $900 million. It hasn’t gone up since.

The lack of quality affordable housing is one of this nation’s most pressing economic problems. Despite this, the proposed FY 2016 House budget only provides $767 million for HOME—a 58 percent reduction from pre-sequester levels.

The Senate goes even further, proposing a mere $66 million for HOME—a 93 percent reduction from 2010. (HUD breaks down those cuts by state here.) Experts agree this would effectively kill the program.

On July 27, more than 1,500 organizations sent Congress a letter in support of HOME and urged legislators to lift sequester spending caps:

These constraints, and the severe HOME cut specifically, would have a drastic, negative impact on our nation’s ability to provide decent, safe, and sanitary affordable housing for those most in need at a time when housing markets and the broader economy continue to struggle and the need for affordable housing continues to grow. Therefore, we call on you and your colleagues in Congress to lift these caps and restore HOME funding to no less than $1.06 billion, as requested by the Administration for Fiscal Year (FY) 2016.

According to Enterprise Community Partners, a real estate investment company that focuses on affordable housing and community development, HOME has helped to build and preserve more than one million affordable homes and has provided direct rental assistance to hundreds of thousands of families. The White House Office of Management and Budget says the proposed Senate cuts would lead to a loss of roughly 39,000 affordable housing units for low-income families.

HOME’s flexible block grant dollars have also been used to help fill financing gaps within other federal housing programs like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and the U.S. Department of Rural Housing. That means HOME cuts could negatively impact those initiatives too.

Moving forward with these cuts would be disastrous. According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, in 2013 only 26 percent of very-low-income households that were eligible for rental assistance received any assistance. And researchers say that nearly 2.2 million housing units could disappear from the nation’s affordable stock over the next decade. We need greater federal investments, and fast. 

Ohio Charter Teachers Fired for Organizing Will Be Reinstated

Teachers at the Ohio-based I CAN charter network decided to organize a union during the 2013-2014 school year. Yet when the school year ended, the administration did not renew contracts for seven teachers leading the union drive—resulting in a cancellation of the scheduled union vote. While about 40 charter schools in Ohio are already unionized, those are mostly conversion schools, meaning teachers had already worked for the district before going to work for a school-district sponsored charter. These I CAN schools would have represented the first start-up charters to go union in the state.

After the firing, I CAN educators and the Ohio Federation of Teachers filed a federal complaint, which accused I CAN of making teachers feel like they were under surveillance and for pressuring employees to reveal the identities of union leaders. The complaint also alleged that I CAN increased staff salary and benefits just before the scheduled vote in order to dissuade teachers from joining a union.

One of the fired teachers, Kathryn Brown, told The Plain Dealer that she wants a union because teachers don’t feel valued. "The I CAN network believes that administration and a teaching template are all you need for education,” said Brown. “That's the big flaw and why I got involved in unionization. A school is not just administration."

This past October, the NLRB regional director sided with the teachers and accused I CAN of “interfering with, restraining and coercing employees.” The founders of the charter network, Marshall Emerson and Jason Stragand, denied the allegations, insisting that nobody was fired specifically for union organizing. (They pointed out that most involved in the union effort did have their contract renewed.) But Emerson and Stragand also made it clear they want to keep their schools union-free. "It would really cripple our principals and administrative staff. It could dramatically change the model. It could drastically change what we do," said Emerson.

While the I CAN schools would have been the first Ohio start-up charters to organize, other charters in the Buckeye State have since moved ahead with their own successful campaigns. This past March teachers at the Columbus-based Franklinton Preparatory Academy voted to join a union. Since then three more charter schools in Youngstown have also voted to unionize.

As for I CAN, this week the NLRB finally reached a settlement with the charter network and imposed penalties for interference. I CAN will have to re-hire four of the fired teachers and give all seven teachers back pay. School officials will also have to post a statement in their school buildings that says they cannot interfere with union organizing efforts. However, the NLRB settlement did not include any finding of wrongdoing and I CAN only needs to pay $69,000 to be split among the seven teachers.

David Quolke, the president of the Cleveland Teachers Union told The Plain Dealer that he and other Ohio Federation of Teacher leaders feel vindicated by the NLRB settlement, calling it “one of the strongest we’ve seen in our years of helping to organize our fellow teachers at charter schools.”

I CAN teachers are reportedly planning to schedule a union vote this coming fall. They will join a growing number of charter teachers around the country who are also organizing their own union drives.

There’s Still No Money In Sight for New Rail Tunnels Under the Hudson River. Blame Chris Christie.

In 2010, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie cancelled a tremendously important rail tunnel project under the Hudson River that had been in the works for nearly 20 years; billions of dollars had already been saved up for it. The only tunnels that currently exist there were built more than 100 years ago, are incapable of handling projected ridership growth, and have suffered serious deterioration—especially after Hurricane Sandy. The new tunnels would have helped not only New Jersey commuters but also all passengers who travel along the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C.

Christie’s decision to cancel the tunnel project, motivated by a fear of raising his state’s extremely low gas tax and thereby risk jeopardizing his national political ambitions, was one of the most irresponsible and reckless of his career. He not only cancelled the project, but he also spent the money that had been saved up for it on other things—leaving riders with no tunnel, and no solid prospects for one in the future. (For more details, see my cover story on Christie’s cancellation.)

Though my report was published in January, five months later there had been, according to the New York Times, little progress made towards securing funding for Amtrak’s proposed alternative rail project, which has an estimated price tag of $16 billion. Peter M. Rogoff, the under secretary in the federal Transportation Department, had reportedly “pleaded with transportation officials from throughout the metropolitan area to pull together on a plan.”

Well, it looks like those pleas didn’t go very far. Just yesterday Politico reported that Obama’s transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx, expressed great frustration at the lack of regional leadership in taking steps towards building the new tunnels. He said the region’s failure to act is “almost criminal” and that building these tunnels is “perhaps one of the—if not the—most important project in the country right now that’s not happening.”

Amtrak has estimated that their two-tube rail tunnel project under the Hudson River could be built by 2025 if funds were appropriated immediately. Yet after months of urgent begging, still nobody’s coughing up the money. To make matters worse, Amtrak officials aren’t even sure if the existing tunnels can hold up for another decade due to their age and the damage they’ve sustained from Hurricane Sandy.

This is a serious, serious mess. And as this presidential campaign season drags on, don’t forget that it was Chris Christie who orchestrated the disaster.

Why the Dichotomy Between Racial and Economic Justice is A False One

Yesterday, Vox’s Dara Lind published a post analyzing what this past weekend’s protests at Netroots Nation tell us about splits within the progressive movement. I personally don’t think Bernie Sanders handled the Black Lives Matter demonstrators very well, and I imagine his advisers had several serious conversations with him following the conference about how to better approach these voters going forward. He’s a politician—I’m pretty confident he’ll figure out how to campaign more effectively.

It’s the media analysis I’m more worried about.

Lind writes:

There is a legitimate disconnect between the way Sanders (and many of the economic progressives who support him) see the world, and the way many racial justice progressives see the world. To Bernie Sanders, as I've written, racial inequality is a symptom—but economic inequality is the disease. That's why his responses to unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore have included specific calls for police accountability, but have focused on improving economic opportunity for young African Americans. Sanders presents fixing unemployment as the systemic solution to the problem.

Many racial justice advocates don't see it that way. They see racism as its own systemic problem that has to be addressed on its own terms. They feel that it's important to acknowledge the effects of economic inequality on people of color, but that racial inequality isn't merely a symptom of economic inequality. And, most importantly, they feel that "pivoting" to economic issues can be a way for white progressives to present their agenda as the progressive agenda and shove black progressives, and the issues that matter most to them, to the sidelines.

We must push back against this false dichotomy of “racial justice progressives” and “economic progressives.” I think it’s a harmful way to frame what’s going on, and it suggests that we can have racial justice without economic justice, and that economic justice can come about without tackling racism. Neither is true, at all.

Racial justice amounts to far more than dismantling our racist criminal justice system and reining in police brutality. Affordable housing, public education, and quality health care are all issues that impact individuals directly based on class and race. Drawing imaginary lines between them just doesn’t work.

I’m not frustrated with the coverage because, as Lind suggests, I just want to defend Sanders. I am frustrated because attempts to separate economic issues—whether it’s jobs, or retirement savings, or health care, or prisons, or loans, or taxes—from racial justice, is a deeply troubling way to lead a national conversation about racism. 

More on Charters Going Union

For The Prospect’s summer issue I wrote a feature story about the growing number of charter school teachers looking to form unions at their schools. Elias Isquith, a staff writer at Salon was kind enough to interview me about my piece. We talked about some things I covered in the story, and a few other points that didn’t make it in. You can read it here!

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