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july 10, 2000

Rising tides. Want to fix up your property? If you own rental units in San Francisco, the city does its best to promote the general welfare of your pocketbook, allowing landlords to raise tenants’ rent to pay for major building improvements. Says tenant Carolyn Blair, who faces a major rent increase, "My landlord gets 100 percent of the profit, but I’m paying 100 percent of the costs and the worst part is that he writes it off on his tax return!" The tide may soon turn, if the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco has its way. In recent weeks HRC, a Tides Center project and the largest tenancy advocacy membership group in the city, has collected 16,000 signatures on a ballot initiative to restrict the practice unless owners can show they are actually receiving a less than fair return on their property. Voters can get on board in November.

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Making waves. The digital divide has been deepened by some of the telecommunications industry’s own key players, argues a report just released by the tech mavens at another Tides Center project, NetAction. "How the Bells Stole America’s Digital Future" describes a whole flotilla of unkept promises, as phone companies offered to wire "nearly half of America's households and the vast majority of the nation's schools… with high-speed fiber optic networks capable of delivering super-fast two-way Internet connections, interactive video, and more." In return, they received relief from pro-consumer regulations. Author Bruce Kushnick of the New Networks Institute, who has monitored the Baby Bells’ finances since the break-up of AT&T, says the wiring never materialized. Nevertheless, on the basis of the deals, the companies managed to net a tidy profit — more than twice that of other regulated utilities — and Baby Bell customers subsidized the non-wiring to the tune of $45 billion in extra phone charges. The report concludes by urging Congressional hearings on these excess profits before giving in to pressure to expand the Bells’ territory into long distance sea lanes.

Lifting boats. In the midst of the much-hailed U.S. economic boom, poverty is increasing, reports a study issued by the Conference Board and funded by the Russell Sage Foundation. Looking at historical data from the past several decades, the study notes that poverty declined dramatically in the 1960s and early 1970s but has been on the rise ever since. "The rising economic tide in the US. has clearly not lifted all boats," says Linda Barrington, an expert in poverty measurement at the Conference Board. "The number of full-time workers classified as poor increased between 1997 and 1998. Over the last quarter century, the poverty rate among full-time workers has been higher than today only twice — 1982 and 1983 — years in which the economy was coming off a recession." In 1998 nearly 3 percent of all full-time workers lived below the official poverty line of $13,003 (for a family of three). Including dependents, that’s more than 5 million people. The data take a surprising tack when broken down according to race and ethnic group: marked differences between regions suggest the strong influence of local economic structures rather than traditional prejudices. In the West, for example, the only part of the country where all racial and ethnic groups occupy more or less the same berth, poverty among people of color has dropped. It is now lower than it is for the entire full-time workforce, while poverty among white has been climbing ever since the 1970s. Notes Barrington, "Simply working full-time year-round, even in a booming economy, is not enough to lift everyone out of poverty." Living wage, anyone?