Controversy over Cochran Gallery is a symptom of preservation problem

By Ean Marshall

As the nation’s capital, Washington D.C. has a rich historical legacy. The Smithsonian Institutions, the monuments on the mall, the plaques and signs marking historical events in various neighborhoods, and the many federal buildings that can be found across the city all keep this legacy alive and well.

One of the most treasured buildings in DC whose rich legacy was recently threatened is the Corcoran Gallery. Originally founded in 1869 by William Corcoran, it was one of the oldest art galleries in the nation, and was opened to the public seven years later in 1874. It hosted a valuable collection of works by artists like Picasso, Monet, and others, as it was the oldest and largest non-federal museum in DC. It was first added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, and then designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1992. It was also home to D.C.’s only professional art school, the Corcoran College of Art and Design.

Last year, due to financial losses, the Corcoran Trustees decided to go to court to have the institution dissolved, which was granted. The art collection was donated to the National Gallery of Art, while the college and the $200 million building were donated to George Washington University.

“We were planning to do some extensive renovation in many of the interior spaces of the Corcoran” said Alan Wade, current Interim Director of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in an interview over email. “Spaces like the basement, some staircases, and several galleries,” claiming that they would be used for developing arts education.

In response, the D.C. Preservation League (DCPL), one of the biggest local historic preservation groups, submitted a nomination to extend the national historic landmark status of the Corcoran to include some of its interior spaces, such as the galleries that were accessible to the public. This led to several hearings on the issue between GW, and the DCPL, over the course of two months, presided by the DC Office of Planning’s Historic Preservation Review Board.

Peter Sefton, one of the trustees of the DCPL, said over phone that the organization became involved when “some former employees of the Corcoran came forward and told us that plans were very imminent for GW to take the whole thing over, and the interior would possibly be used for other purposes.”

To get support for the nomination, Sefton said “Every building has a story, and you kind of have to figure out what that narrative really is… You have to have a narrative to start with.” That narrative was the idea that the Cochran was “a very radical, groundbreaking kind of gallery… It was the only place you could see art in the city.”

Sefton added that by “doing pretty deep archival work about the late 1890s and 1900s” he discovered that in its early days, the Cochran’s atrium was where the visiting Archbishop of Canterbury had his public reception, its oval helicycle was where the McMillan architectural plan that created the modern National Mall was presented, a place “where Washingtonians could take in contemporary art.” He credited the people that worked at the Cochran for helping his organization, because “We had to work under pretty tight deadline, so any jump start you can get is pretty positive.”

Support for nominating the interior for historical preservation status came from all corners of the country. In an email from March 15, Elizabeth Punsalan, the Corcoran’s former director of special events and now living in California, wrote “I believe the building should be preserved not only as a an architectural treasure in the nation’s capitol, but also for the history that has passed through it.”

Earlier on March 12, Jerry Weiss, an instructor at the Arts Students League of New York, believed “once a landmark of architectural and historical beauty is changed, the renovation can not be undone,” offering the evidence of the renovated Penn Station, “its place taken by a new and aesthetically failing structure, is perhaps our most dramatic lesson in the tragedy of renovating a significant space.”

And closer to home, Benjamin Fogery, who served as an art critic for the Washington Star and the Post, said in an email on March 18 that “the whole enterprise of preparing these notable interiors for new life in the 21st century is an epic challenge.”

Though Sefton was very happy with the ruling, despite the review board not designating every part of the interior as having historic status, like four galleries and he does see GW’s attempt to renovate the Cochran as the latest casualty of something that non-Smithsonian museums face in the District. “A lot of these private museums are under a great deal of financial pressure now. It’s becoming so expensive to run them. In Washington, any place that makes you pay some sort of admission… is up against all these free government museums. And it makes your situation very difficult” he says.

Though he thinks that the Cochran Gallery’s situation is a little special due to being in competition with the Smithsonian Institutions, he believes that its closure is part of a bigger issue, that of a growing trend about how private corporations and organizations are attempting to repurpose or demolish historical sites, even if these sites are listed on either the Register of National Historic Places or as National Historic Landmarks. “You see it in a lot of different types of museums besides art museums” Sefton explained, “for example like house museums. You know, where you have a historic house, and you pay an admission charge. It’s become so expensive to operate, and their attendance is either stagnant or declining.”

When this happens, a piece of history is lost, and the sites are usually demolished or converted into something completely different from what they used to be, they are removed from the National Register Register of Historic Places.

Bruce Yarnell, the Operations and Grant Grants Manager for the DC Historic Preservation Office, said that even if a site is on the register, “doesn’t mean they are immune form change, as it is only an honorary national designation.”

“There’s the Old Post Office Pavilion for one” he mentions, “Although it was the city’s main post office and housed the National Endowment of the Arts, that didn’t stop the Trump Organization from stepping in.”

Donald Trump plans on converting the place into a luxury hotel in 2016, so the historic site shut down almost exactly a year ago on May 1.

According to data obtained from the National Park Service, which is in charge of the Register of National Historic Places, at least 1,750 sites have been removed since 2012. Though the data shows that a majority of these were delisted in 2000, no doubt due to the fears about Y2K, there were about 50 removals in 2011.

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 10.59.12 PM

For now, most of the historic interior space of the Corcoran has been saved, and the building’s history has been preserved. “

“We’re lucky in Washington that we have such strong local laws” Sefton explains, as those residents in other states (such as Arkansas, which has removed 147 sites since 1970) “might be surprised to find that a building they thought was protected is now gone.”

But with organizations like the DCPL on the watch, the historic legacy of Washington’s architecture has potential to continue.

Experiencing Homelessness: Young and Disadvantaged in the District

By: Haleigh Francis

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Recently-elected D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser has a vision. She plans to instigate the elimination of homelessness in the District, and to totally eradicate it by 2025.

However, the rate of homelessness is growing in D.C. This winter, there were around 4,000 individuals in emergency shelters on a weekly basis. The national rate of homelessness is going down, however in our nation’s capital, the numbers continue to rise. Between 2013 and 2014, the rate of homelessness in D.C. rose by 13 percent.

Bowser’s task is a daunting one. What complicates the issue even more is the fact that many of these homeless individuals are neither fully grown, or living on their own – homeless families, often headed by young women, are struggling to not only survive, but stay together.

https://infogr.am/literally_homeless_in_dc

Michael Ferrell, Executive Director of the D.C. Coalition For the Homeless, has seen firsthand the difficulty that young women burdened by poverty and homelessness go through, especially when they have a family to support. Many of these women in the 18-24 age range have never held a lease in their own name.

“When you start looking at the cause-and-effect relationships, more likely than not you’re going to find that the young woman became pregnant while she was in high school, or junior high school, and never completed high school,” Ferrell said.

This, he explained, places a heavy burden on them, and makes gaining housing for themselves and the families that they are responsible for even more difficult. In general, the notion of facing homelessness as a young person is extremely difficult.

Simply finding a place to stay even temporarily is a huge problem that disadvantaged youths faced. In 2013, a $700,000 cut to budgets funding homeless shelters for youths left many out on the streets. In a time when homeless families are getting increasingly younger, this becomes especially problematic.

“At this particular time, as I noted earlier, the age range for homeless families has gone down. And so that 18-24-year-old group is really important, because in many cases, these are young women who have not had a lease in their names,” Ferrell explained.

“They have always lived with someone else, whether that’s a parent, or a friend or a guardian, and so they’ve never been a lease holder.”

Making that step from never having had a home of their own to being a homeowner is not an easy transition. There are several organizations that exist to serve young people who are in the midst of such issues, including Covenant House, an advocacy organization and emergency shelter for youths aged 18-24 in Southeast D.C.

Quinzzy Pratt, coordinator of Safe Haven Emergency Housing (a part of the Covenant House program), says that the most important thing that other people can do for individuals this age who are facing homelessness is not making donations. Rather, spending time with these young people, talking with them and giving them guidance, is most crucial.

“To me, what’s more important is the volunteer work, the advocacy. And so, my goal or intention has been to connect them with other young people to provide good information, just be a positive person in their lives. So, aside from the technical ‘stuff’ you could give, whether it’s toiletry items, detergent… all that stuff is helpful, but what’s important to me is actually spending time with young people,” Pratt said.

Mentoring, Pratt believes, is the strongest and most helpful gift that can be given to the disadvantaged youths that Covenant House and other like organizations serve. Melvin Tibbs, a 19-year-old client of Covenant House, agreed with Pratt’s sentiment. Having slept on the streets on and off since he was 15 years old, Tibbs has known the trials of being a youth debilitated by not having somewhere to call home.

“I was sleeping outside, and I didn’t have no place to go. And people used to talk to me, and it made me better… They told me to do the right thing and be patient. Like, things are gonna happen if you work with it, you know? … You gotta go small to go big… You can give people all the money in the world, but what can that do? … Money can’t make me happy,” Tibbs said.

Covenant House has services for young mothers who come in needing to care for their children, as well.

Covenant House looks at homelessness among young people as symptomatic, not defining. Not having a place to live, in other words, does not have to label these youths homeless. Rather, ‘disconnected’ is how the organization describes its clientele, or ‘experiencing homelessness’.

“When you phrase it that way, it just becomes a chapter in the story of their lives, it’s not defining who they are as people,” Pam Lieber, Director of Outreach and Residential Services at Covenant House Washington, said.

“If I’m disconnected, I can be connected somewhere,” Lieber explained.

Lieber says that they’ve noticed spikes in instances of youths experiencing homelessness as members of the LGBTQ community. In addition to this, human trafficking has become a much more prominent part of the conversation as well.

“I think members of the LGBTQ community are always in increase… Also right now there’s a lot of talk and energy around human trafficking, and young people who have had to exchange sex for basic survival… Because of that, there’s a lot of trauma connected to it, so the work of getting yourself stable begins by addressing some of that trauma,” Lieber said.

The stigma surrounding young people experiencing homelessness is an issue as well. Those who are young may seem able to others, but it isn’t always that simple. A lot of different circumstances can complicate one’s ability to sustain themselves.

Lieber explained that a lot of people make the assumption of disadvantaged youths that:

“’You’re young and mobile and energetic, so why don’t you just go out and do something?’ And the reality is it’s not always that easy to do something. When you’ve dropped out of school and have an eighth grade education, you’re not going to be able to get a job.”

According to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, there are two primary challenges to eradicating homelessness. These are a decrease in affordable housing and an increase in rent prices. These two issues make finding and securing housing extremely difficult for those who cannot afford to pay rent at the current cost in the area.

Homelessness among young people and young families in the D.C. area has everything to do with circumstance. Providing a temporary place to call home is a first step, but Lieber explained that it isn’t the ultimate solution to the problem.

“It’s not just giving them a home, it’s not just giving them a job, it’s really about kind of helping heal their soul, their heart, all of the things they went through that brought them here,” Lieber said.

The Great American Witch Hunt

By Tom O’Connor

WASHINGTON- The sun pours in through the windows of Professor Nathan Vladeck’s office at American University’s Washington College of Law. Students here in D.C. enjoy the beautiful weather, but in some parts of the world, clear skies could mean a death sentence.

“There’s a question about how much we should trust our government,” Vladeck said.

“The one thing in which I’ll agree with President Reagan in is ‘Trust, but verify.’”

The US campaign of drone warfare has focused on four nations – Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia. The great majority of the strikes have occurred in Pakistan and Yemen, two countries that the US has not formally declared war on.

According to the Long War Journal, the United States has conducted 383 drone strikes in Pakistan and 112 in Yemen since 2002. Nearly 8% of casualties have been civilian, while the Bureau of Investigative Journalism puts it at over 9%.

Graphic design company Pitch Interactive put together an online visual data set entitled “Out of Sight, Out Mind” that places the civilian fatality rate between 2004 and 2013 as high as 16.7%.

The data is admittedly difficult to calculate because of the government’s vague definition of who is and is not an enemy operative. In 2012, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration “counts all military-age males as in the strike zone combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them otherwise.”

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that out of anywhere from 2,437-3,940 killed in drone strikes in Pakistan, only 721 have been reported identified at all.

Professor Vladeck specializes in federal law, specifically national security and jurisdiction. He says that federal jurisprudence in regards to drone warfare is rather obscure.

“I don’t think it’s intentional, I do think it’s knowing,” he said. “I think the Supreme Court has increasingly used procedural obstacles as a means of constricting access to rights in ways that go far beyond national security.”

“I think with drones, specifically, the accountability question is a big one,” he continued.

He explains how the courts have taken on the massive task of interpreting what the executive branch and Congress have refused to address directly. Countless litigation has been brought against the government in regards to drone strikes, mainly Freedom of Information Act requests and damages sought by victims and their families.

One such claim was brought by Nasser al-Awlaki, whose son, Anwar al-Awlaki and 16-year old grandson, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki were killed in drone strikes in Yemen in 2011. Anwar al-Awlaki was a suspected al-Qaeda leader, while his son died weeks later in a drone strike whose intended target was not at the location. They were both American citizens.

The question arose as to whether the US government or military could target and kill an American citizen without due process. Thanks to a 2014 ruling by the 2nd US Court of Appeal, the Department of Justice was forced to release the memo that green lighted al-Awlaki’s killing.

The DOJ memo stated that in cases in which an American citizen has joined a terrorist group, “the Constitution would not require the government provide any further process” in targeting him or her as compared to a foreign national. Essentially, any US citizen suspected to have sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda or any other recognized terrorist group was fair game.

Al-Awlaki was not the last American citizen to be killed in a drone strike either.

In the past weeks, the debate on drones has reignited after it was revealed that a drone strike killed two Western hostages, one American and one Italian, in rural Pakistan. To the administration’s credit, this information has been made public. They took their time, however, as the strike occurred on January 15th.

“There’s not nearly enough transparency surrounding what we’re doing,” Vladeck said, “And there’s not nearly enough accountability.”

Medea Benjamin is the co-founder of the social justice NGO Code Pink: Women for Peace. She’s been advocating against war since the American invasion of Iraq in 2002 and has taken a particularly strong stance against the use of drones as well as the lack of accountability.

“When you have programs that are involved in the most serious issues of life and death and they’re done behind the backs of the American people, that is not good for a democracy,” Benjamin said.

In 2012, Benjamin published Drone Warfare: Killing By Remote Control and brought her group on a speaking tour of over 200 cities in the US. She then began organizing trips to Pakistan to allow people to see for themselves the consequences of drone warfare abroad.

The year after her book was published, Benjamin attended a speech by President Obama at the National Defense University and called out to the president, briefly interrupting the event. Among the demands she made before being escorted out of the building were those that pertained to the administration’s use of covert drone warfare.

“We feel like drones is part of what keeps us in a state of perpetual war,” she said. “That should not be the norm, we should be in a state of perpetual peace.”

Through her organization, Benjamin has also been a part of coalitions such as Global Drone Watch and, along with organizations such as the National Lawyers Guild and the Institute for Policy Studies, hosted a conference in 2013 entitled “Drones Around the Globe: Proliferation and Resistance.”

In fact, the issue has attracted a number of coalitions comprised of a wide spectrum of groups. In January, groups of Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Sikh faiths held the Interfaith Conference on Drone Warfare in Princeton, New Jersey.

The conference was the result of the Interfaith Working Group on Drone Warfare, based in DC and co-chaired by Nathan Hosler, director of the Office of Public Witness at the Church of the Brethren.

“When we think of Jesus, we think of God coming close to heal,” said Hosler, “and drones are precisely opposite of this.”

Hosler strove to make drones an issue of the Church of the Brethren, which is known as one of the historic peace churches, along with Quakers and Mennonites. Like Benjamin, the church is opposed to all kinds of warfare, yet finds drone warfare particularly problematic.

“It felt as though there was a distinct shift,” Hosler said. “It changed the nature of war and how we go about attacking our enemies as a country.”

With the help of Hosler, the Church of the Brethren released the Resolution Against Drone Warfare in 2013.

As per their mission, the document condemns war in all forms, however it mentions, specifically, that the church is “troubled by the quickly expanding use of armed, unmanned aerial vehicles,” and that “concealment of covert activities generates confusion, results in the deaths of countless targeted people and bystanders, and undermines international law and cooperation.”

Hosler also explains that, while he is theologically and morally opposed to drone warfare, he also believes that there are fundamental flaws in the common narrative we hear on the pragmatic use of drones.

“If the point and the argument for using drones is to increase our security, cut down on the threat of terror and build peace, even by that sort of argument and reasoning, drones very practically haven’t met their objective,” Hosler said.

“Out of Sight, Out of Mind” estimates that less than 2% of the 3,213 victims of drone strike victims in Pakistan were high-profile targets.

After I spoke with Hosler, he told me that he’s got another call. This time it’s with Elizabeth Beavers, Legislative Associate on Militarism and Civil Liberties at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. This is the social advocacy wing of the Quakers.

The FCNL wrote a letter in 2013 to President Obama in which it urged the administration “to follow judicial due process” and for Congress “to exercise oversight to guard against continuing or extending the practice of targeted killings, without charges or trial, of individuals suspected of presenting a threat to the U.S.”

Hosler says he’s trying to keep the momentum going after the conference held earlier this year. The group is continuously trying to establish and coordinate multifaith platforms of discussion on the topic, secure more visits to Capitol Hill and expand their coalition to a wider group of faiths.

In the end, it seems that faith is all we have.

Professor Vladeck says that, while many groups have sprung up advocating for individual causes, no one single group is pushing for “restoring sensible federal remedies.”

“I think that it’s ironically left to people like me, who no one listens to, to write articles and to blog about why we need to have judicial remedies in the national security sphere for government misconduct.”

He believes that if change does come, it could come with next fall’s elections and potential changes in the Supreme Court. With three justices reaching 80 or older, there’s a good chance that the next President of the United States’ judicial appointments will be crucial.

In the meantime, he, like many of us, continues to ponder the complexities of just how much to trust our government in communicating with us openly and honestly on matters of life and death.

“I actually have faith that our government is not systematically engaged in massive violations of domestic and international law in the context of its drone campaign,” Professor Vladeck said.

“But it’s only faith.”

FCC Aborts Internet Innovation with Title II Approach

by Bailey Edelstein

In February 2015, rules were passed by the FCC to re-classify the Internet under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, but some are wary this heavy regulatory approach will kill Internet innovation softly.

(Above) A router configured for a fixed Internet service shows all green lights that indicate successful access to an Internet connection facilitated through an Internet Service Provider (ISP). Photo by Bailey Edelstein

(Above) A router configured for combined broadband Internet access shows all green lights, indicating a successful  connection through an Internet Service Provider (ISP). Photo by Bailey Edelstein

The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) assumed a more active role in regulating how Internet Service Providers (ISPs) deliver data services to customers starting Feb. 26, 2015, when they passed a new set of rules guaranteeing the Internet would remain “net neutral” for future generations. To do this, they re-classified the Internet under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, re-defining the technology as a “public utility.” This re-classification is riling up the big dogs like Comcast and Verizon for regulatory reasons, but is also raising concern for the lesser-known ISPs and garage “Net-trepreneurs” who were promised opportunity for competition and the potential for easier entry into the Silicon Valley marketplace.

Internet Service Providers will be treated like phone companies under Title II, which is part of regulatory legislation from the 1930s. Some worry this reclassification may hinder the Internet’s innovational growth and discourage competition among ISPs. Republican Federal Communications Commissioner, Ajit Pai, and the legal advisers at a telecommunications advocacy group called Tech Freedom are among those voicing concern about competition. Their opinions on the Title II route to net neutrality suggest bad news for American consumers who could see additional taxes and fees, a bleak future for small ISPs who are starting or growing their businesses, as well as slowed deployment of advancements in Internet technology and a decrease in affordable access.

“Media often conflate the issue of net neutrality with Title II. There is largely a bipartisan consensus on core net neutrality principles,” said Evan Swarztrauber, the Communications Coordinator at TechFreedoom, a technology policy think tank in DC that is fighting against the FCC’s Title II classification of the Internet.

The net neutrality principles prohibit ISPs from blocking access to sites, throttling or increasing Internet speeds and allowing paid prioritization, where content providers like Netflix and Google can pay for faster loading speeds for their web content. In an interview with Brian Dietz, the Vice President of External Communications and Media Strategy for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), he explains why this Title II regulatory approach went too far.

“[The Title II classification] is the kind of issue where it actually hurts the small companies a lot more than the big companies because the big companies tend to have a lot of lawyers already,” Dietz said. “Small companies don’t and this is where it tends to become problematic for them.”

The NCTA represents the cable operators who provide service to 90 percent of cable households nationwide, 200 special programs including ESPN and National Geographic Channel, and the equipment providers, who supply the cable-boxes, routers and wire fixings for Internet access. The NCTA advocates on behalf of the big guys like Comcast who serve more than 15 million broadband customers, as well as the little guys in rural areas that include the Midwest, Minnesota, Iowa and Alaska who could have as few as 200 customers.

“We’ve seen some phenomenally great projects come out over the Internet—I mean Google started in the garage, Netflix, all of these services that we now take for granted all started as very small companies and grew into the big ones they are now,” Dietz said. “The problem with Title II is that it makes it much more difficult for any company to get into the business.”

In 1989, Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web which has served as a platform for unprecedented opportunities for innovation and communication. The FCC adopted the net neutrality principles using Title II with the goal of preserving Internet openness. Members of the telecommunications industry are upset that this New Age technology is being paralleled with the 100 year old invention of the telephone.

“[Back then], people really had to be worried that [the phone company] would abuse their power and do things that would harm consumers,” Dietz said.

Public Knowledge, a technology policy advocacy group that represents consumers, agrees with the FCC’s Title II approach to employing the principles of net neutrality. Vice President, Michael Weinberg, sees the Internet and telephone networks as compatible entities and applicable under the same legislative umbrella.

“[Our role is in] advocating to make sure that on the larger scale, the kind of protections we kind of assume we have in the telephone network right now, continue to exist on whatever network it is [we are using] in the future,” Weinberg said. “And certainly within the protections we think of as key to net neutrality, are key between us and our network providers.”

The ISP companies and the and organizations advocating on their behalf didn’t see a completely unregulated approach as the appropriate means of securing net neutrality. However, they hoped the rules would be implemented with similar light-touch regulations the Web has been under since its conception 26 years ago.

“There is never a case where more regulation makes business easier,” Dietz said. “We agree that some regulation is necessary and it’s good for consumers but there is a place where you can go too far. [The FCC] said they were going to do net neutrality and they went way beyond that.”

Joseph Montgomery, Owner-Operator of an small ISP company called “Wicked Broadband” based in Lawrence, KS agrees that a heavy regulatory Title II approach will pose obstacles for growth of small ISPs like his.

Joshua Montgomery, Owner/Operator of “Wicked Broadband,” a small ISP based in Lawrence, KS.  Photo courtesy of arstechnica.com.

Joshua Montgomery, Owner/Operator of “Wicked Broadband,” a small ISP based in Lawrence, KS.
Photo courtesy of arstechnica.com.

“With the Title II stuff, yes it is big for consumers who are currently consuming their content from the cable conglomerates—which is most consumers,” Montgomery said. “But in terms of promoting competition, I don’t see that. All it is going to do is create headaches for smaller ISPs.

According to a report on “Competition Among U.S. Broadband Service Providers,” by the U.S. Department of Commerce, “Market competition can significantly affect consumer prices.” With cost of Internet service as one of the primary issues restricting more than one quarter or American homes from acquiring Internet access, they set out to analyze how many ISPs are available to consumers at different levels of download speeds. They found that most Americans have the choice between two.

“We [created an ISP start-up] as a community service. In terms of it making financial sense, building one of these makes no sense at all,” Montgomery said. “There are very few of us out there [in the United States] who have done it and in our case, we have pretty much given up the concept of growing and are now diversifying into other projects.”

In January 2015, the Executive Office of the President published a summary on “Community-Based Broadband Solutions: The Benefits of Competition and Choice for Community Development and High-speed Internet Access,” which explains the importance of increasing the number of options a consumer has when deciding which ISP to use for their home or business.

The summary states: “Basic economics suggests that increased competition leads to a better deal for consumers.”

Title II could increase regulations and heighten barriers to enter the already inflexible ISP marketplace which would mean fewer consumer choices for affordable Internet.

“If there’s more regulation involved it just becomes much more difficult for a new company to get into the marketplace,” Dietz said.

Number of choices American consumers have when it comes to choosing what ISP's type of broadband to subscribe to: classified as “Fixed” (via ADSL fiber optic cable/ telephone wire) , “Mobile” (wireless access via mobile phone technology) and “Combined” (via modem and wireless router) to demonstrate how varied a consumer’s choice in broadband is and whether that connection is sufficient. Graphic by Bailey Edelstein.

Number of choices American consumers have when it comes to choosing what ISP’s type of broadband to subscribe to: classified as “Fixed” (via ADSL fiber optic cable/ telephone wire) , “Mobile” (wireless access via mobile phone technology) and “Combined” (via modem and wireless router) to demonstrate how varied a consumer’s choice in broadband is and whether that connection is sufficient. Graphic by Bailey Edelstein.

In 2013 a Pew Internet Research Project indicated that 70% of Americans have high-speed broadband connections at home.If consumers are cornered into choosing from minimal options of ISPs and the available provider’s pricing options exceed that consumer’s budget, they will likely not pay for access and be sentenced to join the population of unwired America. The Executive Summary indicates that facilitating competition for ISPs could, in fact, diversify consumer choice instead of perpetuate America’s Digital Divide.

“If [you, the consumer are] in rural Iowa or rural wherever, you may not get that service for another couple years or may have to rely on something else because the cost of Title II and this additional regulation makes it too burdensome to [acquire those updated services],” Dietz said.

During the Feb. 26 hearing, Commissioner Pai warned how Title II would suffocate the technological and innovational growth that has largely been attained over the Internet’s 26-year life as a unique tool structured upon minimal government regulation.

“Literally nothing in this order will promote competition among ISPs. To the contrary, reclassifying broadband will drive competitors out of business,” Pai said. “President Obama’s plan to regulate the Internet is nothing more than a Kingsbury Commitment [a settlement of AT&T’s first anti-trust lawsuit] for the Digital Age.”

All of the ambiguity could make it harder for rural ISPs to stay afloat, setting up the White House goal for failure in reaching their goal of affordable access, and the ISP market could increase prices to compensate for costs of complying with new regulations among other things. Tech Freedom’s coalition supports small businesses like Montgomery’s and the sees future of the innovative Internet as inhibited by Title II regulations, further barring entry to the market.

“Established, large companies have armies of lawyers that can help them navigate complex regulations,” Swarztrauber said. “Startups have limited resources, and they should focus them on developing products and securing investments — not complying with excessive regulation.”

Montgomery said he will “just fold up and say ‘we’re done,’” if the paperwork and compliance to new regulations become too overbearing for Wicked Broadband. Possible aftershocks of Title II to existing and future ISPs could include: increases costs for building and improving ISP network technologies and additional fees for access to content providers like Google and Netflix as they take over most bandwidth usage.

“So all of those things have an end result on the consumer,” Dietz said. “You may not see it today or tomorrow, but a month from now, six months from now, a year from now, then you’ll start to see the effects of it.”

Additionally, Telecommunications services are taxed differently and consumers could be taxed by the states. Dietz said many states can opt to raise their taxes because the Internet would be classified as a telecommunications service, but Weinberg of Public Knowledge counters this taxation rumor.

“[Taxation] was an anti-net neutrality talking point that lingers. It’s easy to scare people with taxes,” Weinberg said. “Chairman Wheeler made it clear that there is no direct connection between Net Neutrality and Title II and taxation of anything. Furthermore, they made it clear that they were actually going to forbear [or refrain] from any part of title II that would have already increased the taxes.”

According to Dietz, the NCTA has welcomed Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune R-S.D., House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton R-Mich. and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden R-Ore. all of whom declared interest in establishing a bipartisan legislative approach to re-classifying the Internet in a way that remains faithful to the tenets of net neutrality.

“We have this dynamic, thriving, Internet that everyone loves and everyone wants more of and wants it to be faster and everyone wants more choices,” Dietz said. “The FCC just plopped this huge thing [Title II] on top of it which is really going to send chills through the market.”

Dietz also noted the NCTA’s support of Bill Nelson D-Fla. of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and this alternative “Title X” legal approach to the Communications Act.

“[“Title X”] is the net neutrality position of the Communications Act,” Dietz said. “Not all the unnecessary baggage and regulation without all of the unnecessary baggage and regulation of these other titles that don’t really apply to the Internet.”

As the politics of the decade-old Internet neutrality debate continue, advocates on both sides lobby in support of their convictions on Capitol Hill. In the meantime, small ISPs like Wicked Broadband are not holding their breath waiting for the next trust-busting messiah to resurrect a competitive atmosphere in telecommunications world.

“The pace of that innovation that we have seen could be slowed down by [Title II].” Dietz said. “[The NCTA’s] question is: Why is that necessary? We don’t think it is.”

DC Prepares for More Flooding, Climate Change

Kierstyn Schneck

April 30, 2015

Washington, D.C.– Residents of the District of Columbia should expect to get their feet wet in the upcoming years and not metaphorically.

The District is on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s list of cities set to experience routine flooding due to rising sea levels. According to the World Meteorological Organization, nations have been experiencing more extreme weather and rising sea levels, all signs of climate change. The global mean sea level could rise up to six feet in the next century, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and most areas near the coast, including the District, could face 30 or more days of flooding by 2050.

The District government, along with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, is working with the Georgetown Climate Center to prepare a plan for this wet future.

The Georgetown Climate Center works with state and local governments to help them update their climate, energy and transportation policies, according to its Adaptation Program Manager Jessica Grannis.

“They [District government officials] know that they have a current flood problem, and that problem is only going to get worse over time,” Grannis said. “We’re helping them think through what some of the strategies are that they can adopt and can help them mitigate those flood risks.”

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments is an association working on regional issues affecting the District, Maryland and Virginia and is also collaborating on this project.

What are the flood risks?

The current flood problem for the District involves three types of flooding: tidal flooding from the Chesapeake Bay; surface flooding from stormwater; and river flooding from the Potomac River and the Anacostia River and its tributaries.

Any area near the river and streams is expected to experience routine flooding. However, flooding isn’t limited to areas near water sources; low-lying neighborhoods are still susceptible to interior flooding during large storms.

While DC isn’t as at risk for extreme weather as other cities, hurricane Sandy proved it isn’t as immune as everyone thinks, according to floodplain manager Phetmano Phannavong of the District Department of the Environment.

“The probability is probably lower than other areas along the coast, but our consequences are very high,” Phannavong said. “How can we ignore the cost of all these cultural and historical artifacts and government shutting down?”

Areas most affected by flooding are Anacostia, Bloomingdale, LeDroit Park, Rock Creek Park, the Georgetown waterfront and the National Mall.

Each neighborhood requires a different approach when preparing for flooding, according to climate program analyst Kate Johnson of the District Department of the Environment.

The strategies Georgetown Climate Center are developing for the District depend on many different factors, including economic limitations, ongoing development status and environment improvement opportunities.

New construction determines how to prepare

The local government can dictate how new buildings should be flood proofed, according to Johnson, through building codes.

The District government requires builders to keep at least 20 percent of the site green, according to the District Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. This department is responsible for permits, building codes and zoning codes. By including a green roof or small garden, builders can reduce the amount of stormwater that would end up in the drainage system, Johnson said.

While some neighborhoods are experiencing new construction, others are not. Preparing those neighborhoods focuses less on enforcing building zoning codes and more so on expanding the drainage system.

This system is managed by DC Water, which is currently building tunnels underneath the Anacostia River and the Potomac River to increase the capacity for stormwater that can make it to its wastewater treatment facility in Blue Plains.

“We are a dense, urban environment,” Johnson said. “When there’s a lot of rain, that stormwater needs to go somewhere and we have old stormwater systems that can’t drain it quickly enough, and that’s where you see flooding in the areas of the city that are no where near the rivers like Bloomingdale and LeDroit park.”

Other areas of the District, such as the National Mall, make use of the levee system to reduce flooding. The levee structure at 17th street was completed in the fall as a barrier in cases of high water flooding from the Potomac River and is currently under testing.

Being green can reduce flooding

While bigger, better pipes take water away, the District also looks for opportunities to create green infrastructure.

Green infrastructure is using the natural environment to help retain runoff water, rather than letting it flow into the storm drainage system, Johnson said. Green roofs and restoration projects can be examples of this type of flood reduction tactic.

An example of green infrastructure near Union Station in Washington, D.C.

An example of green infrastructure near Union Station in Washington, D.C.

Cleaning up streams and reintroducing native plants can reduce the chance of flooding, though these projects have alternative purposes of water quality and habitat restoration.

Tunneling is more effective in taking away stormwater and surface flooding, according to DDOE environmental protection specialist and project manager Josh Burch, but stream restoration takes into consideration what effect that would have on the environment.

“When tunneling, you are completely taking away that surface flow and putting it in a pipe somewhere, whereas with the natural stream restoration project you’re still trying to keep the water above grade and just try to manage it better,” Burch said. “Tunneling might decrease flood issues, but you’re taking that water away from the surface, which could also decrease habitat area.”

 

Outdated flood maps won’t prepare the District for climate change

Other factors the District needs to consider involve who is considered to be in the flood hazard area, as defined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood maps.

The District’s flood map was last updated in 2010 and shows where flooding will occur based on historical data only. It does not take into account sea level rise or changes in precipitation.

In order to factor in how climate change will change where and how much flooding will occur, the District Department of the Environment needs a forward looking flood map, Johnson said.

The flood map also determines who is required to purchase flood insurance, as part of the National Flood Insurance program. This means that residents who don’t live in the flood hazard area as shown in the FEMA flood map are not likely to have the insurance to cover damage in cases of flooding.

Federal Emergency Management Agency data, 2013

For example, Bloomingdale is not considered a flood risk, according to the FEMA map. However, Bloomingdale residents experienced property damage during the floods in 2012. The neighborhood had to request a relief fund for the damage caused because flood insurance is not required in the area.

FEMA is working on a pilot project with the District government to see what the flood insurance map would look like if it did consider climate change. However, the intent of the project is not to update who is required to purchase flood insurance, according to Phannavong, who works on the National Flood Insurance Program for the District. FEMA will not require any changes, Phannavong said, but once the project is completed by the end of summer, the District could decide to use the pilot project to update the requirements on its own.

Who can’t afford to prepare

The District government needs to consider the economic implications of their policies and projects, especially for lower income areas, according to Grannis.

Bigger, non-residential building projects in the District have to be certified to be energy efficient and to conserve water, according to the District Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. This can be a costly requirement.

The Georgetown Climate Center is working on how the District could get incentives, such as rebates for green infrastructure, and on how it could reduce flood insurance rates for District residents, according to Johnson. By exceeding the standards of the National Flood Insurance Program, the District could reduce the rates by up to 45 percent, according to FEMA.

With the help from the Georgetown Climate Center, the District will have to consider what areas are the most vulnerable to flooding because of the lack of resources. The District government is looking for different ways to target initiatives residents in those areas, according to Johnson.

“You can imagine how much more difficult it is if you’re already struggling financially and your basement floods,” Johnson said. “Maybe you are able to rent that basement and that’s how you have the income you need month to month.”

Not everyone at risk has flood insurance to cover possible damage, Johnson said, and for these residents, education is key.

“Just because you’re not in a floodplain doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re never going to experience flooding,” Johnson said, “and that you shouldn’t be planning and trying to mitigate those risks.”

D.C. college counseling centers unable to tackle increased demand

Georgetown University's counseling center

Georgetown University’s counseling center

by Heather Mongilio

At 19, Georgetown University student Ben Saunders, now 21, noticed something was wrong with his brain. He had trouble with his academics, and the subjects he studied like Japanese or economics were difficult to recall.

Saunders went to the Counseling and Psychiatric Services, the counseling center at Georgetown University, where he was diagnosed with depression.

“For me, [being diagnosed with depression] was a relief, I guess,” Saunders said.

Saunders was one of the many students that visit the Counseling and Psychiatric Services, which is known as CAPS to the students, each year. The counseling center sees about 10 percent of the undergraduate student body each year, Asfin Nili, Psy.D., the assistant director for Outreach and Satellite Operations at CAPS, said. This is roughly equal to about 760 students as Georgetown’s population is 7,636, according to U.S. News and World Report.

As the demand for mental health services increases, colleges in D.C. are having trouble providing services. In 2014, 12.1 percent of students reported being diagnosed with depression, an increase from 10.7 the year before, according to the American College Health Association’s National Survey. There were also increases in anxiety, panic attacks and people who experienced both depression and anxiety.

While Georgetown provides long-term services, it cannot serve the entire population of the school, Nili said. American University and George Washington University cannot provide long-term services to their students because of the limited resources. The lack of on-campus services means students are forced off-campus or choose to not seek out services.

The 2013 National Survey of College Counseling Centers run by the American College Counselors Association found that 64 percent of college counselling center directs reported that their jobs were more stressful in 2013 than it had been in the past five years, with time constraints as the number one cause of the stress and budget concerns as the second.

“There needs to be more support for college counseling centers in terms of resources,” Nili said.

CAPS limited by resources

CAPS does not cap the amount of sessions for each student, Nili said. But the counseling center caps how many students they can see. If it was to see every student on a long-term basis, they would not be able to take any new students each year, he said.

“So here at CAPS, we have, basically, free evaluations for students,” he said. “It can be between one to two to three or longer, depending on each case, so we take it case by case.”

During the initial assessment, CAPS professionals determine if the student needs continuing services. If the student does, CAPS works with the student to determine the best course of therapy appointments, Nili said.

CAPS does not provide free appointments, but uses a sliding payment scale to help students pay for the services. The counseling center staff will also help connect students with outside resources that can help provide scholarships or financial help for services, Nili said.

However, the limited amount of slots for appointments means that students will have to wait a week or two to get an appointment, he said. Students are usually seen within a week, but when volume, such as during midterms or finals, picks up it could be two weeks, he said.

Wait times during this busy period are not unusual to colleges. According to the 2013 National Survey of College Counseling Centers, 35 percent of counseling centers had problems with wait times during certain period of times.

CAPS also offers group therapy sessions.

The center also offers two hours each day for priority cases and has an emergency page number for students to call. The center does not define what an emergency is, and instead, allows students to determine what an emergency is for them.

“We are basically available 24-7 for consultation,” Nili said.

But Saunders said the wait time for appointments can reach up to three weeks. Between the long waits and limited funding for CAPS, it isn’t practical for students to rely on CAPS as a long-term service provider, he said.

“I get a sense that a lot of students have negative opinions of the counseling center,” Saunders said.

Saunders is one of the co-founders of Georgetown’s Active Minds chapter. He is also currently serving on a student government committee to look at mental health services. While he is biased by hearsay, he said, he gets a feeling that CAPS is not good for many students.

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Problems across D.C. colleges

The problems that plague CAPS are not limited to Georgetown. These problems also affect American University’s Counseling Center and the University Counseling Center at George Washington University.

Approximately 1,100 students used the AU Counseling Center’s services from mid-May 2014 to mid-May 2015, according to Amanda Rahimi, Ph.D., the assistant director for Training at the Counseling Center. AU’s undergraduate enrollment is similar to Georgetown, with an undergraduate enrollment of 7,341, according to U.S. News and World Report.

The Counseling Center saw roughly 15 percent of the undergraduate body using Rahimi’s numbers.

The amount of students that use the center increases each year, Rahimi said. The increase in students seeking help from counseling centers is a national trend.

The increase and limited funding resources often result in long wait times, and the Counseling Center caps how many appointments students can have at the center. The Counseling Center is not meant to be used as a long-term service provider, Rahimi said.

“I think given the student demand, I think we do a good job with meeting with every student,” she said.

The wait times at the Counseling Center at AU can vary depending on each student, Rahimi said. Some will not have to wait, while others will wait a couple of weeks. In December, the average wait time for an initial assessment was three weeks, according to an article in The Eagle, the student-run newspaper at AU.

Students can be seen by a graduate psychology student, which can decrease the wait time. Students are also given the resources to go off campus if they do not want to wait for an appointment at the Counseling Center, Rahimi said.

AU’s psychology department also runs the James Gray clinic, which is considered to be an off-campus resource because it is a community clinic. The clinic is more affordable for students, Rahimi said.

GW also offers short-term services for students with a cap at 12 sessions, according to the University Counseling Center website. According to the website, most students at GW need one to three sessions to get assistance, while others may use the maximum amount.

After students reach the limit for sessions at on-campus counseling centers, both AU and GW will help students find an off-campus service.

Georgetown will also help students find an off-campus service if they cannot use CAPS or wish to seek services outside of Georgetown, Nili said. Freshman and sophomores often choose to stay on campus, while older undergraduates and graduate students may seek off-campus services.

Georgetown also has adjunct professors that work in practices in DuPont, and the professors will work with students to make the services affordable, Nili said.

Off-campus problems

But going off campus can be challenging for students, Saunders said.

“I think it is not easy for students,” he said.

D.C. has more psychologists per capita than any other city, Rahimi said. Psychology Today, a psychology magazine verified more than 950 mental health professionals in the D.C., with prices ranging from as low as $20 to upwards of $200 or more.

But while there are many options available in D.C., students are busy so going off-campus may be more of a challenge than going to appointments on campus, Saunders said.

Transportation can also be an issue, Rahimi said.

Kristie Chua, a student at AU, said she used the school’s Counseling Center until she finished all of her sessions. She did not pursue services off campus because she will not be staying over the summer and she did not want to find an off-campus psychologist for a short period of time, she said.

However, if she had decided to pursue off-campus resources, she said the Counseling Center would have helped her find someone. During her sessions, she was matched with multiple places off campus.

The cost factor also made her shy away from seeking off campus help. Services are expensive, she said. Mental health services can cost anywhere from $100-$5,000 out of pocket, according to a 2012 Washington Post article.

The AU Counseling Center will work with students to find match them with services that work in their price ranges. Costs can vary depending on what insurance a student uses, whether it is the school insurance or a private insurance.

When students seek out off-campus services, the staff member will talk about concerns with the student, such as reasonable costs. But off-campus therapy is very accessible for those who want it, Rahimi said.

“It’s students wanting to take the first step,” she said.

Parental stigma

Chua has not told her parents she was seeking mental health services, partly because of the stigma associated with mental health, she said. It can be a problem to convince parents to pay for services, she said.

Those who do not tell their parents might try to take on the payment themselves or choose to not seek services in order to avoid telling their parents, Chua said.

Nili has also heard this complaint from students at CAPS, he said.

The stigma can also convince students from seeking services, Emily Cepla, the program director of the Child and Adolescent Advocacy Center in the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said.

People are afraid of seeking services, mainly due to the stigma associated with mental health, Cepla said.

At AU, students often feel that they should be able to handle everything, Rahimi said, and asking for help is thought of as weak. This type of stigma is hard to overcome, she said.

BRIDGING THE FINANCIAL GAP

BYELINE: Turki Buyabes

WASHINGTON- Islamic Finance is a growing concept in the business world, particularly in Europe and the Middle East as alternative form of financing.

 

What makes Islamic Finance different from conventional financial methods is that it adheres to sharia islamic law, which prohibits interest rates and the relationship between the Islamic Finance institution and the client, sometimes, is partnership. That is in addition, that Islamic Finance deal with productive and useful ventures (no gambling, pornography, for example are included in the list of ventures to be financed).

Some of the common Islamic Finance concepts are prominently used around Europe and the Middle East. For example when a bank does not loan money to a person who buys a house; instead, it buys the property itself, this allows the customer the option to either buy it back from the bank at a higher price paid in installments, this concept is called murabaha literally  meaning “winnings” or they can make monthly payments to the bank comprising both a repayment of the purchase price and rent until the customer owns the house completely, this is the concept ijara meaning “leasing” in Arabic.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 10.27.38 PM

 

This growing global financial tool has not made its way into the United States, but Dr. Ghiyath Nakshbendi, an executive in residence at the Kogod School of Business at American University  and an international businessman with over 35 years of experience, working in several Middle Eastern countries, is trying to change that. Nakshbendi, an executive in residence at the Kogod School of Business at American University  and an international businessman with over 35 years of experience, working in several Middle Eastern countries, is trying to change that.

 

Dr.Nakhsbendi with a few of his students

Dr.Nakhsbendi with a few of his students

He currently is trying to form an advocacy group that will lobby for the implementation of Islamic Finance in the United States. He began teaching a class on Islamic Finance. Last fall, the first of its kind in the area, to educate students, on this growing concept. Now he wants to educate the country.

 

“I am trying to explain the foundations and the principles of the field, because the knowledge base is very limited here in the U.S. I use conferences, lectures, etc. to share my knowledge of the field to whomever is interested to listen. There is no such opposition, because, as I said, our knowledge in the U.S. about it is still limited,” He said.

 

Although Islamic Finance offers interest free product and services, and puts an emphasis on institute-client relationship, there are still certain aspects to it that will make it hard for U.S. financial institutions to accept and integrate it into their economy. Dr. Nakshbendi explains that Islamic Finance is not perfect even with its specialized core concepts.

 

“There are definitely pros and cons to Islamic Finance, like any other financial tools. The pros are many including investing in ‘socially responsible businesses’ and avoiding charges that are not justified. The cons are it will take a long time to modify and make changes in our legal regulations (banking and taxation) to make it feasible.”

Dr. Hossein Askari, a fellow International Business professor at George Washington University and author of several books on Islamic Finance laments the fact that most people think Islamic Finance provides interest free loans, but it is more then that .

 

“Islamic Finance prohibits risk-shifting and advocates risk-share. It still carries the notion of debt which is called Qard Al Hassan which literally translates into “loan of goodwill” , but you cannot have debt that carries that interest. It is a system that promotes equity finance (owning shares, being a partner in a contract, even bonds are allowed, as long as said bonds have direct access to assets. For example, a Sukuk which are Islamic bonds, allows you to buy an asset such as a house and rent the house and pass the income to the bond holder, which important that they have access to assets,” he said.

 

A prime example of a successful Islamic finance operation that operates on these principles is the Ijara Loans company. Ijara literally means “lease” in Arabic and Ijara Loans provides is a company specializing in Islamic finance alternatives. It is operated by SAMAD American Holding Corporation.

 

According to their website they are not a loan originator or broker, but a Sharia (Islamic Law) structuring company working with licensed providers to structure Sharia compliant financial transactions. They offer  services in Commercial, Business and Residential finance and Sukuk/Murabaha investments.

 

“Our mission, we are a community oriented, non-profit organization that is striving to keep people out of Riba (interest), and I believe that Allah has blessed us for our motives and has allowed us to survive despite the pettiness of our competitors.” says Shoeb Sharief an Ijara representative and agent for the company.

Although they are successfully operating in more than 50 states, they still faced obstacles to their success.

 

Mr. Sharief, talked about how in 2001, SAMAD American Holding Corp. (SAHC) attempted the creation of an Islamic Bank.

 

“I was invited to join them, but after 9/11, it was nearly impossible to get any governmental support for the creation of an Islamic bank,”  he said.

 

They also faced obstacles from political and business perspective. Firstly, from the government, IjaraLoans had to comply with licensing requirements, specifically the Dodd-Frank Act. The second obstacle from a business point of view was that their competitors would badmouth their services in the community.

 

“ We get a lot of bad mouthing from our competitors, some more subtle than others, one of the comments made is “we have been in business for X year and we only operate in 16 states, how can they operate in all 50?”  so this simply leads people to have doubts for no reason, when the reality is that it is not profitable for them to be in all 50 states, so they only chose to focus on profitable states, while we use our model to service all 50 states and as we are a non-profit, the motive is different, they also try and attack our Sharia compliance, even though they use essentially the same processes and funding mechanisms, but Alhamdolillah, most of our community is smart enough to see beyond these tricks and see the real benefit of our product,” he said.

 

Dr. Askari however sees that in the bigger picture it would be very difficult to integrate Islamic Finance in the United States. As it would require a complete overhaul of the US financial system.

 

“The U.S. bank system is based on a subsidy FIBC, which makes banks takes risks and handout loans. Banks will accept these risks, and if it goes bust they get bailed out by the government.”

 

There is no incentive to change the financial system. In 2012 the Financial Reform Act was introduced in order to lay out regulations, but as soon it was passed, the government went back on it.” He said.

He says Islamic Finance will never be accepted in the US due too much opposition and interests that will be comprised.

 

“The Financial Lobby is most powerful lobby here, and they own the congressmen.”

 

Nancy Wells, a veteran in the finance industry based in New York City, stated that it would not be easy at first for the American people to accept the cores of Islamic Finance

 

“Although many of the principles such as Allah owns all wealth and allowing for a free market system would seem to integrate. However, this means there is no interest because growing existing wealth would violate some of the principles. Foremost, the prohibition of certain practices such as gambling, which if viewed in a certain way is a standard practice in financial markets, also would not go over with the American people,”  she said.

The biggest obstacle she says is the inherent lack of understanding and somewhat biased view of the Islamic religion and practices by the American people.

 

“We fear what we do not understand, so this would be difficult to get the average investor to do. However, as large banks like Goldman Sachs, have recently started to issue Islamic bonds, there is a chance that in the financial world, these practices would be accepted.”

She also thinks that  the media would play the deciding role in whether Islamic Finance would be accepted by the masses.

 

“The media does not usually show any facet of the Islamic culture, religion, or financial world with a lot of depth or understanding, exacerbating the problem of an uninformed American public fearing Islam. The media would be central in educating the masses on the importance of the Islamic finance system, and how certain parts of it can be applied to the United States. We will never see a full integration, but the media would need to help educate people, especially those outside the financial world,” she said.

Nakshbendi and Askari have different views in regards to the growth of Islamic Finance in the United States.

 

Askari believes the only thing that could help Islamic Finance grow its reputation here is its complete adoption by Muslim countries and whether or not it would be successful .

 

“If Muslim countries adopt the system and make it work, then in 100 years it will spread across the United States.”

 

Professor Nakshbendi on the other hand sees no problems to Islamic Finance being accepted as an alternative form of financing.

 

“I do not see it having any problems of it being accepted here and other countries, after people learn more about it and having institutions who are willing to offer such services. As it prominently used in a few European capitals, like London and Paris who are working to expand the use of this alternative methods of financing. The more we learn about, the more, I think, will join forces to advance it in their economies. It just make sense. IF withstood the global financial crisis, is in that a strong testimony of its value and benefits!”

D.C. Homelessness Fueled by Low Wages and High Housing Prices

Screenshot (8)

by Bryan Park

Sophia Sibert is the manager of the Valley Place Family Apartment, a building that is surrounded by cherry blossom trees, located in a quiet suburban neighborhood, with several three-bedroom options.

The apartment is also surrounded by many boarded houses, located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the District of Columbia, and its rooms are occupied by families who are well past the poverty line.

“We really try to not give the impression that our building is a shelter,” said Sibert. “It makes it easier for the families living here to feel at home.”

Sibert’s apartment is one of the 12 shelters under The Coalition for the Homeless, an organization that houses some of the 850 homeless families in the district. The coalition handles both transitional and permanent housing, with the goal of training its residents to become financially self-sufficient.

Though the coalition is one of the largest homeless shelter organizations in the district, it houses only a small portion of the 12,000 people currently living in the streets of D.C., according to a report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

It is estimated that there are currently 45,000-70,000 people on the waiting list for public housing, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. Shelters such as Sibert’s have been feeling the weight of managing more clients, and finding it harder to transition them into affordable housing.

“There is a need [for affordable housing] and that need isn’t going to disappear any time soon,” said Sibert.

Michael Ferrel, the executive director of coalition, said that while wages are not keeping up with increasing rent, housing that is being built is not being built for people with lower income.

In a decade, more than half of the District of Columbia’s low-income and affordable housing units have been lost, according to a 2015 report by the non-profit District of Columbia Fiscal Policy Institute. The disappearance of these cheap homes, combined with low wages and rising housing prices, has led to a high number of homeless families living in shelters.

Homes with rents of less than $800 per month fell from 58,000 units to 33,000 between 2002 and 2013, while homes with rents up to $1400 nearly tripled. The cheapest affordable units usually have tenants making 30 percent or less of area median income or $29,000 for a family of three, with the most expensive units having 80 percent of area income or making under $78,000 for a family of three, according to the DCFPI report.

2013 Rent Costs

2013 Rent Costs Information from DCFPI

2003 Rent Costs Information from DCFPI

2003 Rent Costs

 

Ferrel said that since there is such a scarcity of temporary housing for the growing number of homeless, more than 300 homeless families are currently living in motels at the city’s expense. An additional 300 families are in an emergency shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital complex in Southeast Washington, according to Ferrel.

“Almost half of these homeless families in the District are headed by a parent between the ages of 18 and 24, mostly by single mothers with one or two children,” Ferrel said.

While the number of homelessness is growing in the district, the general population of the city has actually grown. The chief factor of that is the lack of affordable housing options for poor families, said Ferrel.

“The core issue is that families are having a much harder time transitioning from shelters to affordable homes,” said Ferrel.

Ferrel said that while there has not been any significantly sharp rises in homelessness in the past decade, the gradual accumulation, especially in Ward 7 and 8 of the district, is highly alarming. He believes that of the 45,000-70,000 currently on the waitlist for public housing, a good portion of them are temporarily living with family in the city waiting to have their housing applications accepted. Ferrel claims that if the problem is not solved soon, almost every person waiting for housing will eventually end up homeless and the system of shelters would be completely overrun.

Schyla Pondexter-Moore, the housing organizer for the grass-root activist organization Empower DC, suggests a huge factor of both the decline of public housing and increase in homelessness is due to the redevelopment of lands with public housing communities.

“If you’re tearing down these public and affordable housing units… where is that leaving the demographic of people that need the housing,” said Pondexter-Moore.

Pondexter-Moore has advocated for the tenants of public housing communities in D.C. since 2007. The people living in these communities don’t have the political voice that they need, and need someone to speak on their behalf, according to Pondexter-Moore.

She is currently involved in speaking on the behalf of residents who have lost their homes, due to the reconstruction of public housing communities that occurs when these government-owned lands are sold to private developers, according to her.

Pondexter-Moore, herself a resident of a public housing community, describes how some of the people currently on the wait list for public housing are former residents who were promised to have their homes broken down and rebuilt, only to become lost in the complicated application process required for returning to their new homes, according to her.

The confusion of returning tenants most likely occurs due to the transferring of public units to private, a change that includes new rules and regulations, said Pondexter-Moore.

“Suddenly, here comes these private rules, qualifications, and credit checks,” said Pondexter-Moore. “And not a lot of these people are going to get past that.”

The rebuilding of these public housing communities is part of the local government’s plan to create a mixed-income neighborhood, said Pondexter-Moore.

Creating a mixed-income neighborhood involves breaking down an old public housing community, privatizing the land, and building a new community filled with tenants from a greater diversity of socio-economic backgrounds. The theory is to bring wealthier tenants into these neighborhoods, to alleviate the local poverty levels, according to Pondexter-Moore.

Former residents are temporarily relocated to other public housing units in D.C., and are forced to stay until reconstruction is complete. The rebuilding could take several years to complete, and some tenants must relocate several times due to the decreasing number of available housing units, according to Pondexter-Moore.

Ed Lazere, the executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, said it is not uncommon for a city to think of its vacant land as an asset and to sell that land to bring development to that area. Lazere said that up until 2014, some lands with affordable housing was being sold to private developers and didn’t have any requirements by law to build any affordable housing on it upon redevelopment.

Since the Disposition of District Land for Affordable Housing Act of 2013 was passed last year, it has now become part of regulation that at least 20 percent of the privatized land must contain affordable housing units after redevelopment, according to Lazere.

That there is still much work to be done in redeveloping public housing communities in the district, said Lazere. The importance of maintaining low-cost housing in D.C. will involve solving the issue of displacement by redevelopment, and replacing these units one-to-one.

“It’s about how things start out sounding nice on paper, but in the end don’t provide what people want,” Lazere said.

Lazere did not have information on which developers were frequently buying land in the district, and he also did not know how much revenue the city was making by selling public land.

Jeff Lawhead, a former consultant to local developers in the district, said that the previous lack of initiative to address the decline affordable housing has led to the accumulated number of homelessness.

To tackle this issue, there needs to be more funds that are allocated towards affordable housing, especially towards the Housing Production Trust Fund, a fund administered by the DC Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), that gives financial assistance to a variety of affordable housing programs and opportunity in the district.

Additional funds under past-Mayor Vincent Gray were not properly given towards the housing production, but as clashes with developers and affordable housing tenants continue, Lawhead hopes that there will be greater dialogue to have a strong initiative in saving funds and setting regulations.

“There needs to be more of an organization piece,” said Lawhead.

Marshall Cusaac, the Housing Regulations Specialist for the DHCD, was not available for comment about future funding projects for affordable housing.

Wes Rivers, the Policy Analyst of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and author of the D.C. report on housing Going Going Gone Rent Burden, said that new initiative by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on Mar. 31 that includes $1 million in her proposed FY16 Budget for the Housing Production Trust Fund were aimed at helping to build and preserve more low-income units in the city.

Rivers also referred in his report that the District should identify a more stable source of funding for the housing fund. Because housing developments take years to plan and build, predictable funding is needed for developers who are considering a new housing project, according to Rivers.

In her latest budget proposal, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser also proposed increasing the sales tax rate from 5.8 percent to 6 percent.

Sibert says that these new initiatives are beneficial to shelters like her own, but she is cautious about going along fully with the plans and would rather wait to see what happens.

“Politicians and mayors always promise something but later they say ‘do we still need funding for this?’” said Sibert. “That’s why I’m going to wait to see if things really change for us.”

Ethical, Logistical Concerns Threaten Military Drone Program

By Sam Bermas-Dawes

WASHINGTON, D.C.— Former drone U.S. operator Brandon Bryant recalls a mission from Afghanistan years earlier during a BBC interview.

“It wasn’t until after the missile hit that I was like, ‘Did we just kill a kid?’” Bryant says, staring off into the distance. “There is no recoil, there is not anything to say that we’ve done a shot. It’s just click, click, click.”

Bryant might have been thousands of miles away from his mission, remotely-operating his Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) from military bases across the United States. This is the nature of the job for operators of the U.S drone fleet who have operated on a growing scale since the Obama administration took office. Since 2008, President Obama has authorized 283 strikes in Pakistan, where the Taliban hides in tribal areas.

These operations are having negative effects on the operators behind the drones, compromising the continued existence of US drones. This is a unique situation, with a unique set of problems.

Drone pilots sometimes commanding the unmanned flying vehicles in foreign theaters like Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan from thousands of miles away. Drone pilots can operate the Air Force’s fleet of drones from bases in the United States, known as being deployed-on-station, meaning they commute to work.

A Government Accountability Office Report from April 2014 raises concerns over the management of current and future US UAV operations.

“Their dual role juxtaposes stress related to supporting combat operations with the strains that can occur in their personal lives,” said the report, made to congressional requestors.

UAV pilots were placed in focus groups to discuss their experiences. The results, shown in the info-graphic below, highlight some of the issues pilots brought up in those focus groups.

Info Graphic

UAVs are used in battlefield surveillance, while some drones, such as the Predator, are equipped with missiles.

Supporters of military’s use of armed drones, like American University Senior Tobi Rosenzweig, who studies counterterrorism in the School of International Service say that drone allows the US to curtal elements of Al-Qaeda without risking American lives.

Last February, The Obama Administration agreed to allow the export of armed drones to US allies. A press release from the White House said that besides strengthening the operational capabilities of allied nations, the move will ensure appropriate participation for U.S. industry in the emerging commercial UAV market, “which will contribute to the health of the U.S. industrial base, and thus to U.S. national security which includes economic security.”

Fiduciary Standards: In the Retirement Savers’ Best Interest?

By Ann Cleven

On April 14, the Department of Labor proposed a new rule that would hold financial advisers of 401(k)s and IRAs to a fiduciary standard that would require them to look out for the best interest of a client.

“401(k)s and IRAs are retirement savings, and retirement savings are extremely important for folks,” said Laura Hearn in an interview, vice president and wealth adviser of RMB Capital Management.  “Consumers should receive higher quality advice on their investments due to the standards. They should also see a decrease in commissions and fees on investment recommendations.”

Currently there are different standards for financial advisers and brokers dealing with these funds, but the new rule would apply to everyone giving financial advice on 401(k) plans and IRAs.  The goal of implementing this fiduciary standard is to ensure retirement savers get full disclosure of the risks and benefits of certain plans, and hold brokers and 401(k) managers to the standard of a financial adviser.

The rule, proposed earlier this month, has a 75 day public comment period before it can be passed in Congress.

BACKGROUND ON RETIREMENT FUNDS

retirement_plans

There are three types of tax-preferred retirement plans: defined benefit plans, defined contribution plans, and individual retirement accounts (IRAs).  A defined benefit plan includes a monthly payment from an employer to the retiree, with the monthly income being dependent on the employee’s’ work history, salary and standing with an employer.

A defined contribution plan includes an employee’s regular payments to a retirement fund along with contributions from an employer.  401(k)s, 403(b)s, the Federal Thrift Savings Plan, and profit sharing plans are all considered defined contribution plans.  IRAs are outside of an employer, and benefits are dependent on the retiree’s savings and investment returns.

In addition to choosing from different retirement plans, savers can choose a few different forms of financial advice.  If a person has the designation of a financial or third party adviser, she must act in the best interest of her client.  Because 401(k) plans are offered by an employer, the employee can hire someone from her company to be her financial adviser.  When a person is hired or has the title of financial adviser, she is paid at an hourly rate and held to the fiduciary standard, or acts in the best interest of the client.

Employees can also take more informal advice from their colleagues that manage 401(k) plans.  This isn’t technically considered financial advising, so the person giving financial advice is held to the suitable standard.

“Often time they will steer a client towards a fund that most likely someone from their company manages,” Denis Liburkin, a Financial Analyst for Fannie Mae said in an interview.  “They’re not acting as a financial adviser, per say, even though the 401(k) plan manager is the one giving financial advice.”

This creates an issue because the person giving financial advice for 401(k)s is not legally bound to a standard that would require advice in the best interest of the client.  A person from the company giving financial advice may still benefit from the deal, but is not held accountable for the advice he gives other employees.

Brokers also deal with retirement funds.  A person with an IRA, for instance, may opt to use a broker to manage retirement funds because it is dealt with outside the realm of an employer.  Technically, brokers are not considered financial advisers, even though they give financial advice on how to manage retirement plans.  Yet, brokers receive commissions when dealing with these funds, so some say there is a conflict of interest between the broker and client’s best interest.

Because of this perceived conflict of interest, the Department of Labor proposed the fiduciary standard, that would make all of these parties giving advice on 401(k) plans and IRAs to act in the best interest of their clients.

broker_vs_adviser

THE CURRENT STANDARD

The Department of Labor’s proposal to create a fiduciary standard has been backed by the White House, which released a report in February on the costs of not holding all advisers and brokers of retirement funds to a fiduciary standard.

Currently only a half of IRA holders have a financial adviser, according to the White House report.  That means that 50 percent of IRA holders do not seek formal advice from a financial adviser, and their account management through a broker is not held to the fiduciary standard.

IRAs also have other fees, such as rollover costs.  When an employee changes a job, her retirement savings and investments can be “rolled over” into a different retirement fund without tax.  These funds can be transferred to the new employer’s 401(k) plan or an IRA.  It is not until the funds are withdrawn from the retirement fund that they will be taxed.

The White House report finds in its report that “rolling over” balances into an IRA account can be costly to the client.  401(k)s have low trading costs and mutual fund expenses, but expensive management fees.  With a 401(k), an employee’s plan will earn around 6 percent, after half a percent of his earnings are subtracted for the plan’s different expenses.

IRAs on the other hand have no management expenses, but higher mutual fund expenses and trading costs.  Because the stocks in IRAs are managed more frequently by brokers on the stock market, the trading costs are higher.  Instead of earning 6 percent in dividend earnings, a retirement saver will only earn 5 percent with a broker, after 1.5 percent of earning are subtracted for costs, according to a White House report.

Ira_401kgraphic

The White House finds that the average person between ages 55-64 lose $100,000 in retirement earnings through rolling over previous retirement savings into an IRA account with the account’s additional fees and $12,000 is lost with the funds’ transfer.

The White House’s report calls this “conflicted advice,” as a person who rolls over investments into an IRA will be losing one percentage point in earnings per year.  The report finds that 12 percent of retirement earnings are lost in retirement due to “conflicted advice.”

THE PROPOSED STANDARD

The Fiduciary Standard rule proposal would hold all managers of retirement plans to a higher standard. Instead of allowing employees managing 401(k) plans to give informal investment advice, the new rule would require these employees give advice in the clients’ best interest.

“The fiduciary standard helps protect those folks who do not have good knowledge,” said Hearn.  “Client interests should be first when it comes to selecting investments. When advisers and administrators are held to the fiduciary standard, they must put client interests first. I believe it is a good thing for the consumer to have the regulation in place.”

The proposed fiduciary standard would extend the title of what a financial adviser is.

“I would think it would make advice more strict” Liburkin said.  “You would no longer advise someone for free without being under contract.”

With the new standard requiring all advice be held to higher legal standards, some argue low income and minority communities will suffer.  Instead of being able to receive more informal and free advice through other employees, people will have to pay for a financial adviser’s advice.  Though the advice will be in the best interest of the client with the new proposed rule, the retirement saver will now have to pay for this advice.

“I went to a seminar held by my company earlier in the year on 401(k) plans and the benefits of the different plans,” said Jess Halvorsen, an accountant at Calibre CPA group.  “Seminars like those can no longer take place unless I contract the 401(k) manager as my financial adviser and hire him, if the rule is passed.  I will no longer be able to get this type of advising for free.”

The new fiduciary standard proposal would also resolve the misleading nature of senior designation titles.  These titles are given to financial advisers or brokers that have earned a special license to deal with senior citizens and the management of their retirement funds.  These titles mislead clients to think they are dealing with someone that is looking out for their best interest.

A report by the CFPB finds that these titles are not indicative of an adviser’s ability to manage retirement funds, as they often do not require much training.  Often times these titles are easy to attain and can, in some instances, be earned in the course of a lunch seminar.

The fiduciary standard, would make designation titles less misleading, a solution that is backed by the AARP.  Currently, a broker holding a designation title is not bound by regulation to act in the best interest of her client.  The concern is that brokers can use these titles to their advantage and attract senior retirement savers, yet make commission off of what they sell.

“If somebody is trying to mislead people and just turn commissions for themselves for instance, if they’re commission salesmen, what they would get out of that is more people through the door,” said T. Ryan Wilson, a senior policy adviser at AARP.

This creates a principal agency problem, where one party knows more than the other, and what is in the best interest of the client is not in the best interest of the broker.

ISSUE OF ELDER ABUSE

The new fiduciary standard plays into the greater issue of elder abuse.

“We used to do more to ensure financial advisers aren’t taking advantage of our elders,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren at a senate committee meeting on elder abuse in February.  “A one percent increase in fees could cost a retiree 100,000 dollars in savings.”

The committee meeting featured testimonies of financial abuse of elders, in most cases the abuser is a relative, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse.  Because many seniors suffer from some type of mental decline, they are increasingly vulnerable to abuse or exploitation.

The new fiduciary standard rule, if passed, would help protect seniors from being taken advantage of for the sake of commission and would resolve this issue when dealing with retirement accounts, seniors’ main source of income.

Yet the scope of financial abuse is huge, affecting an estimated 7-10 percent of seniors, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse.  The fiduciary standard proposal is merely a drop in the bucket towards a solution for elder abuse.