Local Leaders Respond to COVID-19

For the latest installment of Off-Kilter’s ongoing COVID-19 series, Rebecca talks with Helen Gym, Philadelphia City Councilmember-at-large, about how local leaders have been stepping up and leading the way amid a slow and inadequate federal response. Subscribe to Off-Kilter on iTunes.

As of Friday, March 28th, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures, state or public health emergency declarations have been issued in every single U.S. state and territory, including the District of Columbia. Meanwhile, at least thirty-four states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have introduced legislation to support state action related to COVID-19. States and cities have been passing bills addressing topics such as insurance coverage, medical costs, and telehealth services. Others involve paid leave, unemployment benefits, guidance or support to schools, workforce protections for those in quarantine or isolation. Some bills address price gouging or eligibility for public services, temporarily prohibit evictions and ensure utility services, or extend certain legal deadlines. Thirty-one states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, as well as dozens of cities have enacted or adopted legislation along these or similar lines.

So for the next installment of Off-Kilter’s ongoing series of COVID19 conversations… Rebecca sat down (virtually) with Helen Gym, a powerhouse member of Philadelphia’s City Council and the vice chair of Local Progress, a network of municipal leaders across the country. She’s been one of the local leaders leading the way on responding to COVID19, and stepping up amid a slow and inadequate federal response.

This episode’s guest:

  • Helen Gym, Councilmember-at-large, Philadelphia City Council & Vice Chair, Local Progress (@HelenGymPHL)

For more on this episode’s topics:

This episode’s transcript:

REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas.

As of Friday, March 28th, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures, state or public health emergency declarations had been issued in every single U.S. state and territory, including the District of Columbia. Meanwhile, at least 34 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico have introduced legislation to support state action related to COVID-19. States and cities have been passing bills addressing topics like insurance coverage, medical costs, telehealth services. Others involve paid leave, unemployment benefits, guidance or support to schools, workforce protections for those in quarantine or isolation. Some bills address price gouging or eligibility for public services. Some temporarily prohibit evictions and ensure utility services remain on during the pandemic. Some extend certain legal deadlines, particularly for low-income families. 31 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico, as well as dozens of cities, have enacted or adopted legislation along these or similar lines.

So, for the next installment of Off-Kilter’s ongoing series of COVID-19 conversations, I sat down virtually, of course, with Helen Gym, a powerhouse member of Philadelphia’s City Council and the vice chair of Local Progress, a network of municipal leaders across the country. Helen’s been one of the local leaders leading the way on responding to COVID-19 and stepping up amid a slow and inadequate federal response. Let’s take a listen.

Helen, thanks so much for taking the time to come on the show.

HELEN GYM: I love being here, Rebecca. Thank you.

VALLAS: So, before we get into the actions that you and other local leaders have been taking in terms of their response, tell me, what do things look like on the ground in Philly? I’m struck that it’s one of the cities that’s home to a disproportionate share of people who are likely to be hardest hit in all of this because it’s the poorest big city in the U.S.

GYM: Yes. So, thanks so much, Rebecca, and thanks so much for all your work. It’s so appreciated. You know, one of the things that we have to grapple with as a nation is the fact that, I think people have said this before, but this crisis isn’t going to break the country. It’s not the thing that breaks the country. It exposes what is already broken. And in a city like ours, the poorest large city in the country, we’re the largest American city without a public hospital. We’ve got 112,000 people without health insurance. We’ve got 40 percent of our children living in poverty, when a president threatens to cut off SNAP benefits, for example. It’s a big question, not even just, you know, obviously just right now in the short-term, but also in the long-term.

That’s why I think our priority has been to really focus in on the areas that we’ve been fighting for, for a long time. We’re looking at a political agenda that’s rooted in human rights. They’re the basic rights to housing, to healthcare, to a basic income, to utility access that keeps housing habitable. And I was really glad that on the early end, we were able to lead on a moratorium on evictions, on foreclosures, tax liens, bank garnishments, and utility shutoffs, which has started to morph into more of a thing around we’re starting to reconnect services now. We’re starting to expand Wi-Fi access and provide free Internet to families because our kids are online, for example.

And I think that this is a moment where we are trying to be very aware of the crisis that exists right now and how to keep families like ours alive who are barely, you know, who were struggling before and are in grave danger of being left out of any stimulus or relief funds or those kinds of things. But I think we have to double down on making sure that people’s basic needs and rights are being met. And that’s a really important agenda to follow right now.

VALLAS: Well, and with kind of that note of people’s basic needs as a main focus for you and for others, particularly at the local level in this moment, it feels like, on the heels of now this third package moving through Congress being signed into law, it’s another major stimulus. Obviously, a lot to be celebrated in it in terms of unemployment insurance and other important things, direct payments. But also, it needs to be said: there are a lot of gaps. And obviously, the federal response has not just been somewhat inadequate and tied up with politics. It’s also been very slow. So, you noted in some of the priorities that you and others have been taking on, particularly in Philadelphia, that a major need that you have zeroed in on is the need for action to halt evictions and foreclosures, as well as utility shutoffs. Because so many families across the country in this moment are just going to be unable to keep up with their rent or their mortgage now that they are facing these kinds of widespread job losses, income disruptions, and so forth. This is an area where local leaders have really been stepping into the breach.

You mentioned that right at the outbreak of the crisis in Philly, you called for a moratorium on evictions and on residential foreclosures, as well as utility shutoffs. Talk a little bit about that, how that’s playing out now. I understand while the Council closed the week after you called for these actions, there wasn’t actually the opportunity for a formal vote, but that you actually did win this fight because you were able to get those concessions from courts and from utility companies privately.

GYM: Yeah. I mean, in this moment, all of us are going to have to be bigger than the office that we hold. This moment requires us to go be beyond the boundaries of what may be just your jurisdiction or anything, and you’re going to have to work inter-governmentally anyway. So I think what I’m really glad about is that local leaders did lead the call on the eviction moratorium all the way up to dialogue around the federal relief package. And we’ll take a look at how well it’s kind of encapsulated there.

But the one thing I want to also really talk about is that the housing focus did not come out of a conversation just about sympathy or compassion or pity or anything like that. It came out of this recognition that housing is fundamental to our public health, and that if we are asking people to shelter in place for the good of the overall public health, then we should be recognizing the fact that there are individuals who, if required to shelter in place, will need basic things. That means they need housing stability. That means they need utilities to be on and functioning and working. It means they need a basic income to cover rent and mortgages and other types of debt that they may be holding right now. And so, this is very much an economic investment. It’s very much of a health investment. And I’m wanting to have the conversation about these essential needs from a place of recognition that they anchor our economy, they anchor our health, and they anchor our city’s future. It’s not just about what do those people need, or what do certain types of people need? It’s really about the good of everybody. So, that’s one.

The second thing is, is that there are things to celebrate in the federal package, but we learned no lessons from a decade ago when we saw big corporate bailouts with few strings attached. And the package that appears to have moved through Congress has that at three, four, five times the rates that we saw before. It is really staggering for us as a nation to comprehend that individuals and entities and corporations and businesses that got one and a half trillion dollars in tax cuts benefited from that over the last two years are now the first at the table to divvy up the largest amount of taxpayer money.

And I’m on a call last night with dozens of immigrant communities across the state. Earlier, we were on a call with over 300 or 400 workers who have been dislocated and largely will be left out of that federal package because they are in different types of work. Some of them are undocumented. And we need a different approach towards economic stimulus relief. And, you know, we need a better plan for those folks. And what it means is, is that we’re going to have to organize again. And we’re going to have to go back, and we’re going to have to seek relief that really focuses in on exclusively the people of this country who’ve worked so hard to keep this nation driving economically, culturally. Who have driven and remade our economic corridors, who populate our public schools, who have revitalized and driven Philadelphia’s population growth and other places. I think they are being left out right now. And on the call last night, it was very clear that while we can be and have always been resilient as immigrant communities, we’re going to have to do a tremendous amount of organizing to make sure that there’s a new package that reflects the wider swath of the American public that isn’t being included in the federal stimulus.

VALLAS: Yeah, you’re mentioning, and it really can’t be overstated, how much immigrant communities are currently being left behind from direct payments, from other forms of assistance in this moment because of frankly, political unwillingness on the part of Republicans in the Senate and the White House to make sure that those communities receive any level of assistance in this moment. People with disabilities are another group that has largely been left behind. That’s something that I’ve been, was actually just doing some tweeting about yesterday and talking to a bunch of disability leaders about. Those are a couple of the other coming series of conversations we have on Off-Kilter actually focused on those topics as well.

But you know, Helen, it strikes me that, if people knew nothing else about this latest package and they were to hear that $500 billion had been earmarked for that corporate slush fund you were just talking about with minimal strings, and yet the package includes not a dollar to expand SNAP, food assistance, which pays $1.37 per person per meal on average and runs out for most families two to three weeks into the month, it feels like that probably tells people everything they need to know about who’s being centered in the minds of the Republican majority that’s driving this conversation despite Nancy Pelosi and others’ heroic efforts to try to strengthen a package that, at its core, is a corporate bailout.

GYM: Yeah. No, I think that is exactly right. I mean, it’s not only just SNAP benefits. It’s that they recognize that evictions and mortgage foreclosures are not good in this time, but they need debt relief. You know, they need to cancel debt. They need actual payments that go directly to either small landlords or directly to renters and individuals that is more than just a one-time check. They need a UI probably for folks who need it. And that these, again, are not matters of small constituencies. They are the folks who will, you know, who are the central backbone of the American economy.

And one of the realities that we’re trying to grapple with as local electeds is that what the federal government doesn’t do, we are eventually going to have to pick up. And so, it’s really in the interest of local electeds to be among the loudest. I think that’s how we won the recognition around housing, around the need for expanded unemployment compensation. But it’s also the reason why we’re going to have to move into a lot of effort to cancel debt, as opposed to just delay it, delay payments on it. It’s why we’re going to have to double down on housing and basic income that’s much more expansive and responsible for folks. And why we really need to ensure that Medicare is truly Medicare for All, especially in the middle of the health crisis, that we need free testing. We don’t need people being screened because our homeless population, immigrant groups, people struggling with healthcare already are really going to be left out of that. And that puts the rest of the public at risk as well. So, we want them to be healthy in order for all of us to be healthy.

VALLAS: So, you mentioned earlier when we were speaking that there’s a large hospital in Philadelphia that’s no longer operational. It used to be called Hahnemann Hospital. And you were talking about how, and I really would love to dig into this with you, because this is such a kind of a timely and hot topic within Philadelphia and its COVID-19 response right now. But the broader context here to zoom out just a little bit as listeners will be familiar, a whole bunch of cities have been seeking out all available opportunities to expand their number of hospital beds, obviously, amid what is projected to be a shortage. And this is something that’s been going on in Philly and has actually been getting some level of national attention because — and this is what you were starting to reference — there have been negotiations ongoing between the city and the owner of what used to be Hahnemann Hospital, a major hospital in the center of Philadelphia, to put the site to use as a COVID-19 treatment site. And you’ve been one of the people on the front lines calling for the city to take back this site, possibly using eminent domain, if that’s what’s required. Would love to hear you talk a little bit about what’s going on. I should note that the dude at issue, the current owner of what used to be Hahnemann Hospital is a particularly unsavory dude. And he actually bankrupted the hospital last summer as part of essentially a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s a story that’s worth telling as sort of the backstory to what the city is running into in the way of a profit-based obstacle right now. Tell the story of how we got here with Hahnemann Hospital.

GYM: Yeah. So, this COVID-19 pandemic is filled with stories of heroes and good Samaritans and people doing amazing work to support each other. And then there’s the story of Joel Freedman, who is the private equity owner of Hahnemann Hospital. He bankrupted a hospital that had stood in Philadelphia since the Civil War, largely serving a population of people who were requiring subsidies. And two thirds of the tens of thousands of people who came through its doors had recipients or needed medical supports and that kind of thing. And so, it was one of the safety net hospitals. It was one of the last safety net hospitals here in the city of Philadelphia. And as I said before, we’re the largest American city without a public hospital. New York City, for example, has 11 public hospitals! Philadelphia, the poorest large city in the country, has none. Zero. And so, when Hahnemann closed, it was devastating. 3,500 people lost their jobs. 500 doctors and medical professionals had to be relocated. He had separated out the land underneath it from the operations of the hospital. So, during bankruptcy proceedings, people who had worked there for decades were looking at pennies on the dollar in terms of recouping in pensions or even benefits other creditors left behind. But he’s sitting on this building in the middle of our city.

And then this health crisis hits, and he is gouging the city of Philadelphia for a million dollars a month, charging it like it’s a premium hospital in the middle of downtown Los Angeles — charging rates that are comparable to that — and demanding that a city that is in desperate need of medical centers and treatment centers in terms of quarantine, in terms of potentially hospital beds, we’ve even talked about needing another morgue. To think that he is out there trying to scheme and profit is not only a story about one man and one city, but a story about American healthcare. Why did this hospital go under in the first place? It’s because it has been allowed to become a system based on greed and profit that enables private equity managers like Joel Freedman to even buy a central safety net hospital in the middle of our city in the first place. And then to allow him to continue to exploit the federal bankruptcy system so he can hold on. It exposes the weaknesses around private equity and its responsibility in…. You know, we had an oil refinery blow up that was owned by, on national TV, that was owned by private equity. And our hospital collapsed because of private equity.

And so, now as we come in the midst of this pandemic, and we see this continuing, not even just relentlessly, but proudly, defiantly in the middle of our city, I think it’s time that authorities take a stand. We have rights. We have the ability to do things when it is deemed necessary. And whether or not our mayor chose to take that action now or ever, the story should not be left untold that Joel Freedman, and many of his like, have broken the American healthcare system, leaving cities and towns and states all across the country uniquely unequipped to handle American healthcare needs before going into this crisis. And now, as we’re in the middle of it now, as we talk about morgues and death rates and crises — we’ve got unemployment through the roof — they’re still out there relentlessly profiting and seeking to price gouge.

And I hope it still has the capacity to shock us. I hope it still has the capacity to make us angry. Because during this crisis, we should remember, and after this crisis, we should remember. Because we have to fix the system on a broader scale. And we’re going to make that fight here in Philadelphia. And we want to make that story about Joel Freedman, about Hahnemann and a city in need. But it is a bigger story than that. And I think that’s why people have latched onto it. Because it is a symbol of things that have gone wrong in our society and in our economy for a long time. And the people who suffer and the people who pay are the neediest people in the city of Philadelphia and in one of the largest American cities in the country.

VALLAS: Well, and the latest kind of shoe to drop in that story, that’s sort of how we got here, and I could not agree with you more. I mean, I was literally just catching up on the news yesterday as the negotiations had been halted or potentially have actually ended outright because Joel Freedman was trying to charge the city of Philadelphia $400,000 a month to use a building that is sitting vacant as an emergency COVID-19 treatment site, right?

GYM: Mmhmm.

VALLAS: That was his latest effort to profiteer from a crisis. And the city was forced to walk away from those negotiations because it couldn’t afford the terms. So, that’s the latest in how this story has played out.

GYM: The $400,000, by the way, the $400,000 was just for the rent. And then on top of that, he charges per bed. So, it actually worked out to almost a million dollars a month.

VALLAS: It’s incredible. Incredible. And as you note, people’s lives will be lost as a result of this kind of profit motive. And that bespeaks the larger problem that got us here, as well as the individual and incredibly just evil, frankly, decisions being made on the part of a person who can only think of money at a time like this.

Helen, I want to spend the remaining time that we have actually thinking about what should be and what you want to see from the next package that moves through Congress. Negotiators have promised that there will be a fourth package. Although we don’t know when that’s going to happen, in large part because the Senate doesn’t seem to — and I should say Mitch McConnell in particular doesn’t seem to — be feeling much urgency right now to be in session. But that being said, we are told there is going to be a fourth package. People have been making their lists about what they want to see in it. As someone who represents a section of one of the poorest cities in the U.S., as we mentioned, the poorest big city in the U.S., a place that has scores of residents who went into this pandemic already economically struggling, are going to be some of the hardest hit in this moment, what do you hope to see in a next package? And what do you hope that federal leaders learn from the state response so far in ways that has not already trickled up?

GYM: Yeah. I think that there is a two-tier that we’re looking at. There’s relief right now in this moment, and then there’s stimulus to get the economy going afterwards. So, I’ll separate those two out. Relief right now was not provided in the most recent package approved by the federal government, in part because it left out too many people, and it provided delay and not forgiveness. So I think again, one of the things in crisis is that we drill down to fundamentally what it is that people need in order to be safe and healthy and to provide for their families. And that starts with housing. So, it’s not enough to have an eviction moratorium. I think it’s about direct payments to either relieve or cancel rent or provide for efforts to ensure that there’s no rent spikes or any type of thing that happens over the next six months as a result to hurt renters. Similarly with mortgages so that people don’t spiral down into debt because they can’t afford to have paid. For example, three months of mortgage payments is extremely difficult for a lot of people to make up from. Similarly, healthcare. We want Medicare for All. We need free treatment, free testing right now. No one should be afraid to be tested. I mean, we’ve had stories in the press about people who die or languish because they’re terrified about potential medical bills. That should never happen in this crisis. We’ve made that so clear, and we’ve actually mandated it. You can’t go out. So, you have to get tested. So, if all those things are true, then we must make them, we must provide people with the tools to allow them to follow the directives that we are saying is utmost in terms of the public health and our economy.

We need UI to go out much. Broader universal income, that is probably several months in timespan. I think the unemployment compensation is grand. It’s great if you filed 2018 tax returns. It makes no sense if you didn’t file 2018 tax returns. We know that 1 in 10 American families are of mixed status. That means at least one member of the family has an undocumented member in the nuclear household. So, that is a tremendous amount of concern. And there are many immigrants who are deeply worried that public charge, which must be ended, but at the very minimum, it should be suspended during this time of crisis, because people cannot make the choice between sustainability and life and whether they can become a U.S. citizen. Those are literally two terms and two choices that are diametrically opposed to one another. Citizenship and the American dream is about life. It is about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is about sustainability and the ability to take care of yourself here in this country. So, we need to make sure that benefits like universal income or other types of checks that are going out to sustain and uplift people are not being denied on the basis of status.

And finally, I think we need debt cancelation. You know, like student debt, you can delay. But again, as I said, you can’t really, it’s very difficult for a lot of people who’ve been economically dislocated to then be able to keep up with all these payments. And when we’re looking at tens of thousands, there’s a half a million unemployment claims that got filed in the state of Pennsylvania for this month alone. It’s staggering. So, this is more than just about a small subsection of the economy. This is the economy. So, supporting folks right now in those ways in this moment is about economic relief, and it is about economic stimulus. Because we learned from 12 years ago that we cannot do it through big industry. They will still do buybacks. President Trump eliminated out the oversight board and the requirements around oversight at the moment that he signed it. I mean, it’s almost laughable if we weren’t in such a serious situation.

So, the last thing I would want to add is that we need more money for small business that doesn’t go through the Small Business Administration, which is a rather hapless entity and has been poorly run for a while. It really should go through states and large cities so we can get the money out to small businesses that are making less than half a million dollars and have seen their barber shops their corner stores and their bodegas and other places really suffer and struggle. Our restaurant industry relies on it. Our hospitality industry relies on it. Our airports, stadium workers, many of whom are not going to benefit, really rely on this. So, we’ve got a long way to go.

And I think my feeling is, is that wherever it is, if it’s being led from Congress, we’ve got a problem. And if it’s being led from the ground up, we’ve got a fighting chance. And so, for folks who are out there listening, we’ve got to be mobilizing now, pulling our immigrant groups with our labor unions, with housing rights advocates, with landlords. We’re all actually in this together. And I think one of the issues that we’re looking at with this president is that he’s really effective at pulling out small pieces and threads and special interest constituencies and the very top of the top of the fraction of 1 percent that is really benefiting here. And if we truly do focus in on an mobilizing and organizing strategy from the ground up, we’ll have a fighting chance. If not, we’ll continue to see it continue. At the end of the day, whatever relief, there’s got to be the reality that whatever relief there is, is going to be overseen by probably the most incompetent and if not corrupt administration that we’ve seen in my lifetime, for sure. And that’s got to be a wakeup call to folks. And so, we’ve been resilient in the past. We’re warriors and fighters. But we’ve really got to pull together and pull in small businesses and others along with us to really make a go at the next effort.

VALLAS: I’ve been speaking with Helen Gym. She’s a member of Philadelphia’s City Council and also the vice chair of Local Progress, a network of municipal leaders across the country, many of which, like Helen, have been stepping up to respond to COVID-19 in their communities amid a slow and inadequate federal response. Helen, thanks so much for coming on the show. It’s been an absolute pleasure having you on, finally, after a long time of wanting to have you on Off-Kilter.

GYM: Thank you, Rebecca.

VALLAS: And that does it for this episode of Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas. The show is produced by Will Urquhart and Allison Young. Transcripts are courtesy of Cheryl Green. Find us on the airwaves on the We Act Radio Network and the Progressive Voices Network, and say hi and send us your show pitches on Twitter @OffKilterShow. And of course, find us anytime on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. See you next time.

♪ I want freedom (freedom)

Freedom (freedom)

Now, I don’t know where it’s at

But it’s calling me back

I feel my spirit is revealing,

And now we just trynta get freedom (freedom)

What we talkin’ bout…. ♪

Off-Kilter is a podcast about poverty and inequality — and everything they intersect with. Hosted by Rebecca Vallas and powered by CAP Action.