In Episode 50, Quinn & Brian discuss: How D.C. and LA are dealing with urban heat issues.
Our guests are Yesim Sayin Taylor and Molly Peterson. Yesim is the founding Executive Director of the D.C. Policy Center and Molly is a renowned reporter focusing on the environment and climate change (and our first returning guest!).
We all remember when Nelly said, “It’s getting hot in herre,” but not a lot of people remember the whole verse: “It’s getting hot in herre, so take off all your clothes / all of the poor minorities in America are suffering and dying before everybody else / Uh, uh, uh, let it hang all out.” But it’s a shame, really, because if we’d just paid more attention to Nelly’s important message back in 2002, maybe we wouldn’t be facing this problem today.
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Learn more at https://www.dcpolicycenter.org
Yesim on Twitter: https://twitter.com/yesimsy
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Molly on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/mollydacious
Greater Greater Washington: https://ggwash.org
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Quinn: Welcome to Important, Not Important. My name is Quinn Emmett.
Brian: And I'm Brian Colvert Kennedy.
Quinn: And this is episode what, Brian?
Brian: Pretty huge.
Quinn: We made it to 50.
Brian: That's insane.
Quinn: That's to everybody for listening along the way.
Brian: I don't think I've done 50 anything in my life.
Quinn: Not pushups. Topic today, great rapper, Nellie, said it first, "It's getting hot in here." But what's the lyric you've never heard? It's getting hot in here, and all the poor minorities in America are suffering and dying before everyone else because, of course, they are, Brian.
Brian: Yeah. And it's crazy.
Quinn: Yeah, it's crazy, but totally predictable. So today we are digging into how Washington D.C. and Los Angeles specifically are dealing with urban heat issues. And, of course, it's more complicated than you think, but we do what we do, which is give you some context, get some answers from our incredible guests, plural, and then give you some really specific action steps you can take to help fix this shit show.
Quinn: Good guests today, Brian.
Quinn: Guest number one Yesim Sayin Taylor. She's an economist and the founder executive director of the D.C. Policy Center, hailing from Turkey. She's got a PhD in economics from George Mason and has worked in the private sector as well as the D.C. political structure itself.
Brian: I wish we had more time. I wanted to tell her that I've been to Turkey.
Quinn: Oh, really?
Quinn: That's exciting.
Brian: It was very exciting.
Quinn: Well, maybe we'll just call her back.
Brian: Okay, now?
Quinn: No, not now.
Brian: Okay, got it.
Quinn: Not now. Our second guest and our first returning guest ...
Brian: Returning guest.
Quinn: ... Very exciting, reporter Molly Peterson, one of my favorite humans and one of the smartest humans on the planet. Molly is a renowned reporter focusing on the environment and a lot of climate change these days. She has worked at Southern California Public Radio, she's been funded by NASA, she's traveled through and reported for Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She is a fellow for the International Women's Media Foundation and she's now at Pactio, a super cool groundbreaking new organization supporting independent journalists. So you can check out Pactio, as well. Pretty cool.
Quinn: Brian was very happy to just get the hell out of the way for the most part on this one.
Brian: It's very true.
Quinn: One where we clearly didn't have a lot of expertise.
Brian: Only this one.
Quinn: Sorry, number 50 where we didn't have a lot of expertise. But these two incredibly smart, and curious, and impactful women were able to really help illustrate for us what's going on often right outside out door here. And again, point our listeners in the direction where they can be the most helpful. So excited for everybody to hear it. Should we do it?
Brian: Me too. Let's do it.
Quinn: Our guests today are Yesim Sayin Taylor and returning probably with great remorse the intrepid reporter Molly Peterson. And together, we're gonna discuss the following: it's getting hot in here and America's poor are not surprisingly dying faster than everyone else. Yesim and Molly, welcome.
Yesim ST: Thank you.
Molly Peterson: Thank you so much.
Brian: We're very happy to have you.
Brian: Okay. Well, let's just do some quick intros. Yesim, if you just wanna tell everybody who you are and what you do.
Yesim ST: Yeah, my name is Yesim Sayin Taylor. I am an economist and I run a think tank that's focused on the district of Colombia.
Quinn: Interesting. And what specifically are you guys focused on there? I mean, I know D.C.'s a pretty complicated endeavor.
Yesim ST: Yeah, it's a very interesting city. It's essentially a very poor city and a rich city combined altogether. And we work on the demographic changes that's happening in the city, and gentrification and displacement are big problems. Also, differences in quality of life in different parts of the city. So anything that has to do with the city's economy, demographic, and things that make the city attractive to the residents, and things that push residents out of the city, and education, healthcare, and such.
Quinn: I like it. Two things, one, inequality in a city that's ... We've got Molly on the line for a reason. LA and D.C. are very different and at the same time very similar. And two, I'm actually from Virginia, so D.C. was my big city experience growing up. I have a big of familiarity to it and it's been very interesting to watch it both change and not change at all over the past 20, 25 years. Are you from that area? Why did you chose D.C.?
Yesim ST: Well, I live in the area and I've moved from Turkey, to United States, to Northern Virginia, and I've not lived anywhere since then. I worked on the city's finances, I was part of the group that does the revenue estimates for the city for about 10 years. And that was a natural transition, to move into more of the policy areas from just the fiscal side.
Quinn: Sure, that makes sense. Molly Peterson, could you rehash for our listeners who you are and why you're here today?
Molly Peterson: Yeah. I'm an independent climate change reporter. I work in public media and for the last couple of years I've been measuring heat in communities in Southern California and in Northern California in people's housing circumstances and at work. And I specifically focused on people who are in precarious situations or people who don't have air conditioning.
Quinn: Awesome. I think that's gonna be a pretty fascinating topic here today.
Brian: Yeah, glad to have you both. All right, so as always, we're gonna set up some context for today's conversation and the end goal is to get some questions answers, that those answers are actionable. So we can have all of our listeners support you and support what you're doing and what you're saying, if that sounds good.
Yesim ST: Yes.
Quinn: Rock and roll. All right, so Yesim and Molly, we start with one important question, something to set the tone, Yesim, instead of saying, "Tell us your life story," we like to ask why are you vital to the survival of the species?
Yesim ST: I have children.
Quinn: Great answer.
Yesim ST: I don't know. I am an economist, so by design, it makes me very optimistic about our future, but also makes me very aware of what it takes to do even a single thing. People think of economists as those naysayers, dooms day people telling you what you cannot do all the time. But when I look around me, I see how markets work together to bring us stuff. And that makes me very optimistic about the future. I do care deeply about the future, but I don't really care about five years, 10 years from now. I care much deeply about 50, 100 years from now. I'm very curious about it.
Yesim ST: And other than that, and adding to the demand and making the machine work. I think the universe can survive without me quite fine.
Quinn: I love it. Molly, you've actually answered this question before, but I'm curious if you have any update on that. And you put forth a great Tom Stopper quote, information is light, about anything is good. Which I couldn't agree with more, but boy, is that under fire these days. Any new thoughts on why you're making the universe run?
Molly Peterson: Can I just copy what Yesim said because I'm also very interested in where we're going in five years, and 10 years, and 50 years. And yet, I'm also very interested in the thing we don't talk as much about, which is what's happening to people right now. So I think I'm valuable to the survival of the species because I'm interested in the lives of so many people in our species.
Quinn: I love that. That is awesome. We're trying our best over here, but as we've said or tried to say publicly as many times as possible on this podcast, we're a couple white guys and we've had our turn. So the more we can help enable folks like you the better because then the universe and species will be a much better place finally. All right, so let's set up a little topic for today's question, which again is about heat in the cities. And Yesim and Molly, please jump in, correct us, hang up, whatever you feel is most appropriate. I'm gonna build to where we are here.
Quinn: So look, life expectancy is down in the US for the third year in a row. It's the longest since the Spanish flu, which is most drugs, alcohol, and suicide, we're having a lot of issues there. Of course, it's not effecting everyone equally. The rich are living longer, five years longer than they were decade or two ago, the poor even less so. And of course, we're attacking the very things that are keeping them alive, whether that's CHIP, or Medicaid work requirements. Men at the top 1% right now are living 15 years longer than the men at the bottom 1%. Women, about the same thing, it's a 10 year gap.
Quinn: And interestingly enough, access to healthcare theoretically applies to only 10% to 20% of health outcomes, but smoking, eat healthy, exercise, and of course, environmental exposure, which is a pretty broad term, is a large part of it. We are 43rd among 195 nations with an average life span of 78.7. And the latest moves from the President and his wonderful friends are projecting us out to drop to 64th by 2040. So why else? Environmental issues, whether it's air, water. We're seeing it everywhere in the world and it's actually visible in so many places. You look at what's happening in Delhi, where the air theoretically is costing folks nine years of their life expectancy.
Quinn: Look at London, exposure to fine particles are contributing to seven million premature deaths a year, which is about the same as tobacco and 15 times as many as war, and homicides combined. And it's not just poor cities, it's not just rich cities, it's the sprawling cities in the middle, like Delhi and Cairo. But people want the fix, but they're also doing things like rebelling because there's a lot of inequality. Look at Paris, what's happening there. They're protesting the fuel taxes, but also so much more despite 2,500 premature deaths a year from the air there. And we look at what's happening again in New York, look at what's happening in London and Los Angeles.
Quinn: But of course, pollution isn't the only culprit. It's getting a hell of a lot hotter and the poor are feeling it the most. They can't afford air conditioning, and thanks to our broken and possibly expensive healthcare system, they're more likely to have health conditions exacerbated by heat. And now they can't escape it because their neighborhoods don't have a ton of trees or parks. When you don't have trees, it doesn't get cooler at night, which is really important for our bodies to turn down. And that's true in many cities, a lot of southern cities certainly like D.C., and Atlanta, Texas, Florida where there's a lot of older folks, and certainly Los Angeles.
Quinn: So let's dig into that. Let's dig into the heat because, as usual, inequality is spiking, has spiked, is going further, and the heat is doing the same thing. So Yesim, if you could tell us a little bit about what makes Washington D.C. unique in this context, what the overlap is with geography, demographics, industry, et cetera?
Yesim ST: I'm not sure if in terms of urban heating indices Washington D.C. is unique, but any day in D.C., let's say in a summer day the official temperature is 90 degrees, there will be parts of the city, and I'm not talking about types of [inaudible 00:12:30] or things like that, neighborhoods in the city where it's as low as 80 degrees Fahrenheit because of tree coverage. And there will be parts of the city that will be as warm as 102 degrees Fahrenheit. For example, downtown area where there are no trees, but also parts that are east of the Anacostia River, which are generally lower income parts of the city where there is deeply concentrated poverty. There are no trees, there is no way to shield from the heat.
Yesim ST: And the heat itself is not particularly a problem. It's bad, but can you escape it is the second question. So obviously, in low income neighborhoods, I was very surprised when I heard stories that elderly people will open their refrigerator doors, stand in front of them, and just get pneumonia, and die. I've never heard that before and I come from a relatively poor country. That was a whole different story of poverty for me that was just really shocking. But also, imagine that you're in downtown D.C., if you've never been here, it's lots of offices, lots of people on the street. If it gets too hot, you just walk into a coffee shop, you go into a bank, stand next to the ATM machine, you go to a library and you can escape heat in public places, or places open to public.
Yesim ST: If you're in certain parts of the District of Columbia, there are no restaurants, there are no coffee shops, there are no bank branches, nothing. So you can't escape the heat by even taking refuge in somebody else's place. And that makes a problem even harder. And when you include humidity, which is terrible here, the heat index can go up to 115 degrees, and it's intolerable, and people don't have anywhere to escape. What makes it really bad is this exposure to this kinds of risks. You talked about smoking, drug use, and things like that, some of those things, you could just say, "It is the social/cultural problems are deeply rooted in the family.
Yesim ST: It's really hard to turn them around, but with the heat stuff, the only thing that really matters here is access to amenities. That can be solved relatively easily, but there's very little will power to do that.
Quinn: And do you mean will power from the city itself? And maybe we try to do this as often as we can, D.C. is obviously a unique place because it is not a state, it is not a city. Could you actually just very quickly for our listeners describe how Washington D.C. works really technically? Because I don't think most people realize how ti works or it doesn't work.
Yesim ST: Yeah. D.C. is not a state or a city, it's both. So unlike many other states where there's a distinct division of state level functions and local level functions, for example, in California the state will do health policy and transportation policy, but it will be the localities doing zoning, police, firefighters, schools. And in the district, they're all together. At the same time, the city can also raise both state level taxes, usually it'll be income taxes, franchise taxes, things like that. And local level taxes, property taxes, in California are very local, goes to the local jurisdiction. In the district, the revenue raising power is also concentrated in the hands of the government.
Yesim ST: And it's about a $13 billion operation, the district's government. About $8 billion of it's collected through own resources. The remainder is federal grants like Medicare, Medicaid, what everybody else gets, and it's in the hands of the city counsel made up of 13 people and a mayor that's very much like a governor. Just very concentrated government and it's also the seat of the nation. So we have a very progressive counsel and we are open to many, many ideas. Lots of people come to D.C. because it's easy to pass legislation. They'll come out with ideas and say, "Hey, let's do it in D.C., we can push this thing through."
Yesim ST: So we struggle a lot with a lot of well intentioned ideas, but not necessarily good fits for the city. So we hear it first here, but then ...
Quinn: Thank you for describing that, by the way. I think that's really helpful. And of course, for everyone to understand, Washington D.C. does not have representatives in Congress, or Senate, which is a nightmare. But you said it can be very progressive and yet there's not a lot of will power to fix the issues. Could you just talk to us a little bit about that? Where would that will power come from? Is that among the people? Is that among the D.C. voting electorate? Is that among the city counsel and the mayor?
Yesim ST: I think all, including the business community, as well. I mean, I work with the business community very closely. There is certainly a concentration issue. There are parts of the city that are really great to live in. I mean, we attract about 10,000 new residents every year and they go to parts of the city, singles, and couples, and millennials, and increasingly families, they find themselves looking for housing in places where the schools are good, where the infrastructure is good. So there is larger concentration of people in places with amenities, certainly, and a relatively higher income are more likely to participate in the politics, and express themselves more strongly.
Yesim ST: And then there are parts of the city that don't have very good schools, the buses don't go nearby. I mean, we have a metro station, across from it are two single family homes and a Denny's. That is crazy. There should be huge buildings there, packing people, coffee shops, and things like that. But it's a poor part of the city, so even we don't take very good advantage of the public amenities. So when it comes to that kind of investments that will trigger interest from the businesses and things like that, they have largely escaped some parts of the city. And because the housing market is too restrained, even in the poor neighborhoods, people both want investment and not want investment.
Yesim ST: They look at Starbucks', and Jim's as markers of gentrification. They feel like if a coffee shop comes, the next thing that's gonna happen is they're gonna have to pack their bags and move outside of the city. Just very complicated feeling.
Quinn: Sure. Very interesting. That's really helpful. Thank you, and I'm looking forward to digging into that more. And I wanna note on the humidity front, like I said, I'm from Virginia. I'm fully aware of that humidity. Sometimes I miss it, when I wake up in Los Angeles with a bloody nose because it's so dry here. But the New York Times actually did some reporting recently on, and I know you guys both talked about thinking about what the next 50, 100 years is gonna look like and this is happening in some places in the world already, where in 30, 40, 50, 80 years there will be combinations of heat and humidity so extreme, and this is quoting from the New York Times, that the evaporation of human sweat won't sufficiently cool our bodies, leaving even healthy adults at risk of death from over heating.
Quinn: And the projections say that by 2080, more than 3 billion people could experience a heat index above 122.
Quinn: Because everything is on fire out here. Molly, could you step in and compare, and contrast, and illustrate for Los Angeles a little bit? You've done a ton of reporting. Could you talk a little bit about how you got into the reporting you've been doing and where you've been focusing?
Molly Peterson: Yeah, to also reinforce Yesim's point, I think D.C. is a really stark example of urban heat because it's not a unique example, but it's a really stark example, a really extreme example, of the urban heat island effect. So there's the urban heat island effect, of course, and then there's the urban heat people experience through all of these environments that they spend time in. Whether they're in an apartment that doesn't have heat, a brownstone where the heat rises, or standing in front of a refrigerator getting a cold. I got really interested in heat for a couple of reasons. One, the obvious selfish reason, I live in a place that's 100 years old that doesn't have air conditioning. So I was really feeling it when we started doing satellite office work a few years ago, one of the outlets I worked at, because they were like, "Work in your home office."
Molly Peterson: And my home office was 95 degrees during the day. But more importantly, the state of California looks at public health impacts from climate change. There's some very obvious ones, Southern California has terrible air, for example. But heat is this threat multiplier that dries out vegetation, that makes the air worse, that raises risks for fire. And I thought, "Nobody really studies heat or pays a lot of attention to it." So I worked with something called IC change and NASA citizen's science observation group that was working with WNYC to measure heat in Harlem.
Molly Peterson: And I thought, "You know what? Let's do it in the San Fernando Valley, too." So I did it in Pacoima in a neighborhood that sounds a lot like where Yesim was describing. It's a food desert, here's a Starbucks the next town over and everyone's really suspicious of it. And measuring heat in these houses, I've found that these houses hold onto heat into the times of day when people return from work and school, and make it uncomfortable for people at the time they spend the most time inside a building.
Molly Peterson: So to Yesim's point, the infrastructure that we've built, and there's a lot of science behind this too by the way, I talked to a researcher at UC Berkeley who looked at 300 cities and found that in general, people of color, particularly African Americans in urban areas are more likely to live in this high heat risk neighborhoods compared to white people. And the disparity is more extreme in racially segregated cities where there's less communal effort towards building parks, and areas of trees where things can work out. D.C. is a complicated example of that because there's this beautiful rock creek park, and [inaudible 00:23:38] and all these places in the northwest part of the city where there's all those trees that cool everything down.
Molly Peterson: But D.C. also has a really segregated history.
Quinn: I think that's an understatement. And Molly, you lived in D.C. a little bit, right?
Molly Peterson: Yeah, I went to college there, but I worked at NPR, too. So a couple times.
Quinn: Got it. That's interesting. And now, you've talked a little bit about, again, how these buildings and these homes hold the heat into the evening and then night. So they are crisp and at times very sweaty by the time you get there. But Molly, you've also done some work on the heat in schools, as well, is that right?
Molly Peterson: Yeah, that's right. I mean, basically I looked every place people spend huge amounts of time. The greatest place that people spend time, it's something like 71% in the rest of the country and 60% in California is in their home. But kids spend time all day long in school, and so I was curious about ... The Los Angeles Unified School District, like a lot of school districts in California frankly, has 100% air conditioning. But that air conditioning breaks down or may never work. So we looked at air conditioners breakdowns over the last 10 years and found that it roughly tracked to as it gets hotter, there's more breakdowns. And also, in some neighborhoods where the buildings are more poorly maintained, where the investment in the community is poor, and coincidentally where it's hotter.
Molly Peterson: Generally, there were more breakdowns. So southeast Los Angeles, Huntington Park, these neighborhoods ... Los Angeles, for people who aren't familiar with it, the city of Los Angeles also has around it these very small cities that are part of the Los Angeles unified school district, but have the same climate as greater Los Angeles, just south of downtown, and those neighborhoods really suffer.
Quinn: I had what was called exercise induced asthma growing up. And I remember the Virginia humidity always made it terrible. And I have five or six ambulance trips to the hospital because I'd have a terrible attack. They'd pull me out of the pool I used to swim and race in and I'd go, and then they would make me stay home and say in the air conditioning all the next day and be cool. And that makes me think of a few things, one, that my family could afford to pay for those ambulance rides which are incomprehensibly expensive, two, that I had the air conditioning that I could then go home from. Three, that I had a parent who could stay home from work to take care of me the next day because they'd just crush you so much.
Quinn: And I think again about how that was 30 years ago and about how many more children are exposed to that on a day to day basis. And it's not just exercised induced, that they have these things that are endemic to their environment and they have nowhere to go, or they can't pay for those bills. And it is just a travesty and it seems pretty equal among the two places.
Brian: So Yesim, you mentioned that there's little or less than needed push to attack these issues in D.C. What has D.C. done and what's the low hanging fruit that could be tackled, that our listeners should be most aware of?
Yesim ST: Yeah, so there are a number of things that come to mind. But before I get to that, I just want to make another comment on how our environment is changing. We've seen from the fires in California, and some other news that came out of Europe, that we focus on heat and we say [inaudible 00:27:11] explained that there will be a time, or you've talked about when the heat becomes so intolerable, so hot, that it gets to a point where we can't really survive under it. But even before we get there, certain things that we do and don't really think twice about will become hugely problematic, like throwing a cigarette butt out the window can cause fires now because it's so hot and dry.
Yesim ST: So there's certain actions that we take, not really worrying about their implications will become increasingly dangerous. And I think we will learn those things the hard way. So going back to D.C., I think there are a number of low hanging fruits or obvious things to do. In the District of Columbia, we are famous for taking things very simple and turning them into very complicated problems. So I would not venture to say there are simple things to do, but for example, Molly mentioned the Rock Creek Park. And it is a fabulous asset, but it's really not accessible to people who are east of the river. But think of the other coast area where there's a second river that runs through the city. Around it is largely federal land. First, it's incredible polluted. There is a lot of work in cleaning it up, but it's a huge asset that really is not used because it's got salt in it, it needs to be dredged, terribly expansive.
Yesim ST: The jokes about what you will find in it if you are ever to go in. It's just not even funny anymore. But look at the land around it is largely federally owned, has use restrictions on it, so you cannot really open parts near the river with trees that can be very conducive to a cooler place. Because the feds say to the District of Columbia, "Here, you can only have sports specialties." If I am poor, I don't really care a bit about another soccer field. It's great that I don't wanna make people who play soccer angry, [crosstalk 00:29:26]
Brian: You're talking to a soccer lover right here.
Quinn: And again, it comes back to the fact that you don't even have representation in Congress to fight these fights. You have to ask someone else to do it. It's insane.
Yesim ST: Yeah. So the land use is a terrible thing, but also land use in the District of Columbia, too, not just under the control of the feds, but under our own control through our own zoning rules. It is also incredibly segregational, if I may say. I mean, if you go anywhere in this ...
Quinn: I think that's pretty fair.
Yesim ST: If you were to say, "There are too many Hispanics in my neighborhood," you know the progressive heads will explode. Nobody will talk to you, you will be ostracized forever. You could say, "I like my neighborhood the way that it is. I love the single family homes and I don't want a multi family unit." But it's essentially the same kind of nativism, it's the same kind of ... I don't want those people who live in multi family units, they smell like curry, and they [crosstalk 00:30:28] you were saying the same thing, really. And I think there is also this big discrepancy in the sense that there is a part of the city which is so rich.
Yesim ST: I mean, I'll give you some data point that made me really think hard, since 2000 I was looking at housing in D.C., we have added about 22,000 condominiums, not family units. And the total value of condominiums in the city, not just anyone's, but everything increased by about $17 billion. Great, right? Since 2000, we've added 85 single family units. Fine, that's good. We should not really be building single family units, this is not suburbia. When I grew up in Turkey, only villagers and poor people lived in single family homes. Everybody else lived in a city, in an apartment. We've added 85 single family homes. The total value of single family homes increased by $25 billion.
Quinn: Wait, I don't even understand the fucking math on that.
Molly Peterson: Something that occurs to me as you're talking is Los Angeles has a lot of these same problems. We aren't densifying and we have all kinds of representations. So representation isn't necessarily gonna be this cure all. When I talked to the city of Los Angeles last year about all my findings about housing in these neighborhoods, Los Angeles was doing this big sustainability push. I talked to the city's chief sustainability officer. I was describing to her the rise in housing disputes and low income housing overheat in which there was one family that I memorably talked to who the oldest daughter was six and she was in diapers because she was afraid to get out of her bed at night because during hot times, the rats would come running out of the wall into the house to cool down.
Molly Peterson: And that's a real problem right now that's not getting addressed by representation. So on the plus side, because there is a positive here, the positive here is that there are neighborhood level efforts, and even efforts that utilities are involved in to try to think about how to transform small areas and give them a different relationship to an urban environment. Yesim, I'm sure you know so much about this, D.C. has this ... There's beautiful urban planning and urban designing, and then there's challenges as a result of it. The heat that builds up in the tall row houses and I'm thinking even in northeast, around Georgia Avenue.
Molly Peterson: There's no room for trees in between those houses. They've got tar paper on the roof. Those attic rooms, people die in there. I talked to some urban designers in Los Angeles about how you can keep those building intact, but maybe put vegetative structures over them so you can keep the urban footprint as it is. You wouldn't have to dedensify, but you could also improve the flow of cooling moisture and cooling air in some places. And there's adjustments that can be made, but where the government has to help with that, or where private industry would help, would be with the retrofit and incentive money that would help do that.
Yesim ST: Yeah. I actually ran into this really interesting group that does some work on its own on especially housing in low income areas, especially for children who have asthma. They found this brilliant way of paying for all of this stuff and it's true Medicaid. They basically make a case that if you go an improve the conditions in the homes, the trips to the hospitals will be reduced.
Brian: Will go down, sure.
Yesim ST: So they've been able to use some federal money that would otherwise go to pay for doctors and services to actually make improvements in houses. Of all the things that we could do, it's just a small amount of money. And retrofits are really important, but when you start thinking about retrofits, think of rent control buildings. There's very little incentive. I'm an economist, so I don't like rent control. I'll be very open about it. It's very hard for a mayor to come and say, "I hate rent control." Again, she'll just lose, or he'll just lose.
Yesim ST: But when we force large multi family units into this, there's no incentive for the landlord to make improvements. There's so much of user error in some of this stuff. It's really hard to make a whole lot of impact.
Molly Peterson: I'm thinking about enterprise community partners, which has its roots where you are, but they do a lot of work in southern California that I've covered that has focused on increasingly in southern California on multi unit buildings which are renting. Depending on whether they're in the city of Los Angeles or not, they're subject to rent control. But they basically figured out a way to leverage financing to make this work out and they leverage private ... Now, I'm talking completely ... I'm not an economist, so I'm afraid of saying the wrong thing. My poor economics professors in college are like [crosstalk 00:36:06] but basically, they combine private financing with federal grants, and federal programs, and they find low interest rate loans and they help these building owners do this.
Yesim ST: Absolutely. I think when you look at the universe of affordable housing in the District of Columbia. A lot of the privately owned affordable housing units are owned by mission driven organizations. And you absolutely need that, but can you mix incomes in those neighborhoods, that's really the hard part.
Molly Peterson: Yeah, and that's certainly not even remotely a point of discussion for these neighborhoods. I mean, at this point, this is really more about ... I think because Los Angeles county is so sprawling and really can be very, very economically segregated. The discussion is really more I find that what I cover is people talking about bringing some neighborhoods up to some sort of an equitable level rather than integrating them economically better. They way you would have to do in a place like D.C.
Quinn: Right. And just again for our listeners who are not in Los Angeles, and sometimes I realize even Los Angeles folks don't realize this, just to paint the picture again when we're talking about how we get stuff done, and is their progress, and how does it get made, Los Angeles is not one city, even though we talk about it sometimes, it's not five or ten. There are 88 cities in Los Angeles County. Yet, for example, we have one school system for that entire country for better or worse. Just random statistic, the budget for food for Los Angeles County LAUSD students is six and a half billion dollars. But at the same time, Molly, you talked about, and this is where I wanna dig in a little bit here, is where progress is being made here and where the low hanging fruit is.
Quinn: It seems like a lot of that is starting to be, or should be, or could be even one of those 88 cities, or even on a more specifically local level because the county is so unwieldy and sprawling.
Molly Peterson: Yeah. For example, one of the stories I haven't really reported out, but I've talked to people involved in the program is Southern California Edison, which is a utility had federal grant money to explore. They're just trying to learn more. One of the huge problems is an absence of data. We're at this point where in California we're talking about smart meters. But people are worried about being surveilled or worried about devices being hacked. So there's this tension barrier about whether that's a good idea. And so what they're trying to do is learn more about when people use energy in these low income communities and how that energy use differs.
Molly Peterson: So a researcher at UCLA, Stephanie Pincell, made something called an energy atlas that shows by neighborhood, and in some cases city, all around Los Angeles who uses what energy where. And it's really striking because you learn a lot about not only what times of day people use energy, but in some cases, they've done more research, what kind of appliances they use it on. Obviously, people with massive single family homes use a huge amount of energy. This gets complicated really fast and we're not gonna have time to get into this, but our energy use influences the cost of the energy. We have time of use pricing in California. And one of the very real problems we're gonna run into in the future is there's something called a duck curve.
Molly Peterson: It basically looks like the back of a duck and there's huge energy use in the morning, and then it declines during the day as people go to ... This is residential energy use, as people go to other places, use their air conditioning, use their power, and then they return home, and do laundry, and dishwashers. That curve means that even poor people who can afford to run the air conditioner soon will be paying more money. So we're at a place where we have two or three years to really start trying to think very, very hard about a solution or we very well might see more heat illness problems in certain communities.
Brian: I just don't think people realize how connected everything is. I don't.
Quinn: Right. Now, you do.
Brian: So what should citizens, specifically in this case our listeners who are in LA, and D.C., and cities like it should be asking of their representatives? What should they be demanding?
Quinn: And most of our listeners are lucky enough, or worked hard enough, however you wanna phrase it, aren't in those situations, or not as badly though. If things keep getting hotter, they will be. Regardless, we want them to have specific ways to use, as we like to say, their voice, their vote, and their dollar to stand up for those that are, like Molly said, already feeling that right now. So let's get specific, start with D.C. for me, Yesim. What are the questions they should be asking, or what should they be demanding specifically?
Yesim ST: I think the first thing is to really educate the citizens, the residents of the districts of Columbia on how important density is. There's a great distaste for density in D.C., and similarly, many places in the United States. People do value space, backyards, and things like that, but there's a very, very high cost of living in these spreads or situations. I think the second thing that's really important is bridging the gap. There are lots of good ideas out there in the District of Columbia. They're developed by people who do not live through the problems that they want to solve, whether it's high heat, or [inaudible 00:41:59] of pollution, or bad schools.
Yesim ST: And that really isolates communities. We have all these solutions that are not particularly a good fit for us. I think the residents should demand to learn more about the full life outcomes in the city.
Quinn: And if I could actually just pause right there and ask, so where are the best places our listeners could go to, to educate themselves on density and things like that? Are there specific resources?
Yesim ST: Yeah, for example, greater greater Washington is a great collection of researchers, techy type people, and transportation nerds. Socially inaccessible, but can write really well.
Quinn: Those are our people.
Yesim ST: That's right. And even just trying to go to the other side of the city, one of the pet peeves I have is this car free stuff that's going on. People talk about car free, car free, car free, D.C., car free D.C. It means a different things if you live in a neighborhood with no [inaudible 00:43:12] stores, no bus stops, no job centers. Car free is actually not possible, car free is a sign of being rather affluent in the city, just like walking and riding your bike to work is basically you won the income lottery. Otherwise, you're too far away from these places. Just go and check out the other parts of the city and see what's going on there.
Yesim ST: There's a part of the city that acts like a foundation with a big endowment. So it's [inaudible 00:43:46] in its past and they're doing everything they can to preserve it. And that leads to all kinds of policies that can be very influential, but they're not particularly have lots of people who's [inaudible 00:43:57] has never been in their past. It's hopefully in their future if they do have a good shot in life. Just bridging that gap to me is really important and that's the work we're trying to do at the policy center, [inaudible 00:44:13] that I run.
Quinn: No, I think that's all very fundamental and makes a lot of sense. And you're right on the car free thing. On one hand, cars are such a significant part of our emissions, and yet on the other hand, sprawl and lack of affordable public transportation, or like in Los Angeles any public transportation at all, makes it really hard to go without a car. So Molly, can you dig in a little bit on specifically what, again, in an area with massive inequality, what our listeners should be asking and demanding in Los Angeles?
Molly Peterson: I think looking at heat, and if my origin story for reporting on this issue's any example, can just be a really selfish inquiry because heat is a sneaky thing that you encounter that we also accept. I talked to this research climatologist who gave me the sensors to measure the temperatures around all the different places from Arizona State, David Hondula. And he said, "When I talk to people, they think that they have a right to ask for clean air and clean water, but they don't think they have a right to ask for less heat." And so part of it's just a mindset that you can change.
Molly Peterson: There's ways that heat is in your neighborhood, there's ways that heat might be in your kid's school. We've had people die in nursing homes in California at an alarming rate. And actually in the gulf coast, in Florida, when people weren't prepared for very high heat events, like after hurricanes. And you can ask your nursing home, for your loved one who's in a nursing home, to tell you whether they have a plan for heat. And if they don't, that tells you something. It's something I just learned because I've been doing this investigation. It's something that I just learned, so there's all these ways that heat is present in our lives already that you could just think about differently.
Molly Peterson: So the first thing I'd recommend is a transformation in thinking and then you could start at the neighborhood level and make sure that if your home, for any reason, becomes too hot, even if you have air conditioning, if yo air conditioning doesn't work, is there some cool place that's not paved, that has trees, that you could protect and nurture. And then beyond that, I think you vote with your pocketbook and you vote with your actual vote for politicians who are aware of these issues.
Quinn: Sounds pretty damn good to me. Take care of yourself and recognize that it is ...
Molly Peterson: I mean, plant a tree, but plant the right tree.
Quinn: Right. And I feel like we could have a whole different discussion on planting the right tree, and why that is actually way more complicated than people think. It's not just not palm tress. Awesome. That's really, really helpful.
Brian: Wow. Well, you've been here for a while and we thank you for that. We wanna run some lightning round questions if that's okay. Molly, you remember.
Molly Peterson: I do.
Quinn: Yeah, hopefully these have evolved a little bit. So Yesim, thank you again for your time today and your perspective. We really appreciate it, coming to the US and D.C., and focusing on that area will hope to provide a better future for a small, but important part of our country. So Yesim, when was the first time in your life when you realized you had the power of change or the power to do something meaningful?
Molly Peterson: At a very young age. I grew up in Turkey during a very hard time. I'll explain it to you like this, when I moved to the United States, I would not touch anything that's on the ground. For example, we would take our kids to the playground and there's a bucket there. And if my kid touched it, I would scream and say, "Don't touch it. It could be a booby trap." And everybody around me would look like, "Where the hell did you grow up?" I grew up in a place where things were like that. And I did not want to live in an environment where I'm always afraid all the time.
Molly Peterson: So in our neighborhood, we organized walking parties. We'd walk anywhere, not worry about somebody shooting at us. If you're in a group, you're less likely to be hit. And that meant that I can change my environment if I really put my mind to it. And then I moved to the United States when I was 21 and never looked back, and never even talked about can I do this, will I succeed, will I not succeed, can I create the right environment for myself? Never even doubted it and I'm grateful because the US is a fantastic place to exercise this will. And I would not have accomplished what I accomplished here in a different environment, in a different country.
Molly Peterson: That's why it's hard to see with the Trump administration right now. It's terrible. I have this internal migration to somewhere else. I don't even want to think about it.
Quinn: Sure. Wow, that is impactful. Molly, you doing anything change worthy or meaningful lately?
Molly Peterson: This is a very small thing, but it's inspired by what could be my answer to your question to Yesim. When I was growing up, I went to a Catholic school where the nuns, they told us a lot about social justice. And we had [inaudible 00:49:46] and we always did a lot of clothing drives and food drives during the holidays. A friend of mine are sponsoring some families for LAUSD's homeless family program. So after I do this taping, I'm gonna go to Walmart and get them some things on their gift list.
Quinn: That's awesome.
Brian: Hell yeah.
Quinn: That's awesome and something everybody can do. Yesim, who is someone in your life that has positively impacted your work in the past six months?
Yesim ST: I'll tell you who, it was Arnie Dunkin, the secretary of education under Obama. I had the chance to meet him in November and ended up reading his book. And the way he talked about education for a very long time, we do have an education program in my organization, but it made me realize this transition from high school to college is so difficult and his focus on really expanding public education to grade 13 and 14. I'm completely into and now we decided to work on this issue, and make it real in the District of Columbia. It was very eye opening for me.
Quinn: Awesome. I don't know if it's been six months since we talked to you, but anybody new, anybody specific that's impacted you hustle, your day to day?
Molly Peterson: I mean, I always get impacted. I think usually say something like somebody I just interviewed, and in this case, I'm thinking of a guy named Jose who's a warehouse worker. He experienced heat at work. The warehouse workers I measured spent time above a heat index of 90 degrees half to three quarters of the time. And so this guy was super tough, but he was in his late 40s and he'd been doing this for 20 years, and he was really starting to feel the heat. He really taught me something about complaining because it took me four or five tries to get him to tell me actually how it felt about it.
Molly Peterson: And it really reminded me that sometimes you have to work really hard to find out what the actual truth is.
Quinn: Sure. Why do you think it took a while for him to speak up?
Molly Peterson: I think he's very macho and didn't want to show weakness by complaining about heat. But I also think sometimes people think that they can't talk about a problem. And if there's something that I learned in the last year from other people both professionally and personally, it's that there's really no harm in speaking up.
Brian: It is wild, though, how one could feel so strongly that way. I can relate.
Molly Peterson: Yeah.
Quinn: Yesim, what do you do when you feel overwhelmed specifically? What is your self care?
Yesim ST: Exercise and read a book. I don't watch TV, so most of my entertainment is in the form of a book.
Quinn: I like it. Have you read anything good lately? What are you reading now?
Yesim ST: Probably three books at the same time. I'm reading a book on the workforce development, and what can be done about it. I am just starting a book by Chinese author about a group of women banding together. Have to look up the names, I'm very bad with names. I've just finished reading a book about housing markets in LA, so that was very cool.
Quinn: Very cool.
Brian: I love that those are the books that were ... I just reading a stupid book and I thought it was great. Your fun books are very important. Good for you.
Quinn: Well, that's why we're lucky to have her.
Brian: Yes, we are.
Quinn: Molly, what have you been doing lately when you feel overwhelmed by everything?
Molly Peterson: I go to Korea town and I get dumplings, and then I go to the Korean movie theater, which has $7 Tuesdays. There's basically five kinds of Korean movies, there's gangster movies, very slow, romantic movies, bizarre fantasies, there's unlikely friendships between old people and young people, and then recent political stories of Korea. And I basically like learning Korean history through its films. It'd basically be like if you thought you knew American history because you watched Spotlight.
Yesim ST: That's awesome.
Quinn: That's amazing. That's pretty amazing.
Brian: Also, $7 for a movie, you can't beat it.
Molly Peterson: Also, the dumplings. $7 for the movie plus dumplings.
Quinn: Yeah, we're gonna have to talk about that dumplings spot.
Brian: Do you ever hit up the spa? The spas in Korea town are fantastic.
Quinn: Yeah, my wife lives there.
Molly Peterson: Yeah, I know. They are very good.
Brian: Yesim, how do you consume the news usually? Not television, we know that.
Yesim ST: Not television, true prints largely. Actually, I try to read the paper, hold it in my hand, so I continue to subscribe to everything. I hate Twitter and I tweet, but like the idea of rolling your thumb down to catch one thing after another. It puts me in a trance. And as my screen scrolls down, my mood sinks. I feel the same way about Facebook, too. That scrolling down to me, I always visualize it in my mind's eye as me gradually falling down and crumbling, so I hate that.
Brian: Good Lord.
Yesim ST: But I try to catch up both with local news and also international news, true print.
Brian: I can't remember the last time I held a newspaper in my hand.
Quinn: If that isn't a perfect indictment of social media, I don't know. Molly, I don't recall your answer. How are you keeping up with the news these days?
Molly Peterson: I think I should obviously say radio first and then copy all of Yesim's answer. And then also something I do is ask everybody I talk to where they get their news and then I try to do it their way because then I learn why other people are interested in things that I'm not interested in, or where there's something that I should be paying attention that I haven't been. And honestly, sometimes that means that I read conservative blogs, and watch Fox news just because every once in a while it's important to remember how people lose track of facts.
Brian: Yesim, if you could Amazon Prime one book to the President, what would it be?
Yesim ST: Current president?
Brian: Yeah, the current President of the United States.
Quinn: Assuming he's still there, yes.
Yesim ST: How cruel can I be?
Quinn: We have had everything from coloring books, to the Constitution, we've had a few repeats. Basically, we have an Amazon Prime wishlist that our listeners go to and they can click on the books, the list everyone's recommended and it goes to the White House. So we'd love to know what yours is.
Yesim ST: I have a perfect answer. The book is called The Man Who Reads Love Stories. And it is about an amazon man in search of a wild cat. And he's put in this mission because he's the one who can actually talk to the Indians. It's actually called The Old Man Who Reads Love Stories. It's a book by Luis Sepúlveda. It's about 40 pages, I would like to send him this book in Spanish to him.
Quinn: I love it. That's amazing.
Quinn: I love it. Molly, do you have a new answer for us? Anything new?
Molly Peterson: I continue to not believe in wasting my good book buying money on sending it to the President.
Brian: Yeah, that's fair.
Molly Peterson: I mean, the one thing I would say is a book that is probably about people he knows is that I read this book called Dancing In The Glory Of Monsters by Jason Sterns. Basically, it's about kleptocracies in Africa. And I feel like that's a book that he might want to comment factually on because he might understand the business practices of some of the people.
Quinn: Yeah, because they're his people.
Molly Peterson: Yeah, exactly. But no, I spend my book buying money on poor kids who wanna read books.
Quinn: I love that. Awesome, good answer. I appreciate it. Hey guys, Yesim, I know you said you hate social media with the passion of 1,000 suns, but where can our listeners follow you online?
Yesim ST: On Twitter. I write a lot on our website dcpolicycenter.org. And I try to tweet about the academic papers that I read in a way that relates to people.
Brian: What's your Twitter handle?
Yesim ST: Don't know. It's Y-E-S-I-M-S-Y.
Quinn: Awesome. We will put that in the show notes. And Molly, yours?
Molly Peterson: Mollydacious.
Brian: Of course.
Quinn: Awesome, perfect. We can't thank you both enough for your time today, your perspective. I loved hearing the discussion between you two on the comparing and contrasting two troubled, complicated, important, and fundamental cities in America now and going forward. Who have unique but very shared challenges, and couldn't be more different in a lot of ways, but couldn't be more similar. So thank you so much for all that you do and for your time today, and please keep kicking ass out there. We look forward to talking to you guys some more.
Yesim ST: Thank you for having me.
Quinn: Of course.
Molly Peterson: Keep going, guys. Great, thank you.
Brian: Thank you so much very much.
Quinn: Thank you guys. Talk soon.
Brian: Take care.
Molly Peterson: Okay, bye.
Quinn: Thanks to our incredible guests today and thanks to all of you for tuning in. We hope this episode has made your commute, or awesome workout, or dish washing, or fucking dog walking late night that much more pleasant. As a reminder, please subscribe to our free email newsletter at importantnotimportant.com. It is all the news, most vital to our survival as a species.
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Brian: And you can find the show notes from today right in your little podcast player and at our website importantnotimportant.com.
Quinn: Thanks to the very awesome Tim Blane for our jamming music, to all of you for listening, and finally most importantly, to our moms for making us. Have a great day.
Brian: Thanks guys.