Quantcast

Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union
 

Opinion

Opinion

My Vision for the Role of Public Advocate: Rafael Espinal


raf espinal op

Rafael Espinal, the author (photo: @NYCCouncil)


“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them,” wrote the great novelist James Baldwin, a true son of New York City. It’s the same with many New York politicians who cling to the same old ideas that have not fixed our city in the past and won’t work today either. The problems our city faces in 2019 are the same problems we faced in 2009 and 1999, only they’ve gotten worse.

Unaffordable apartments. Crumbling public housing. A subway system that barely holds together. Our city is becoming less livable every day.

New York City needs bold ideas, but unfortunately too many of our elected officials are missing big opportunities for long-term change. They quarrel over how to pay for things, when we are one of the wealthiest cities in the world. They look for reasons why problems are too hard to fix, instead of seeking out opportunities to fix them. Those politicians have had their chance. It’s time to think outside the box and focus on the people. That’s why I’m running to be the next New York City Public Advocate.

Some policy decisions move as slowly as Manhattan’s gridlocked traffic when what we need is courage and action. For example, for over 100 years New York has had a modest tax on stock trading, but since 1981 stock traders have been able to claim 100% of it back in rebates. If we stopped rebating 100% of New York’s Stock Transfer Tax back to Wall Street stock traders, we could raise $11 billion a year, at no cost to everyday New Yorkers. That could be invested in fixing the subway and NYCHA housing, without raising the cost of living for everyday New Yorkers.

Other proposals like congestion pricing would take a lifetime to raise the $40-60 billion that the MTA says is needed to fix the subways, but using stock transfer taxes would achieve it within a decade. Raising MTA fares will just make New York an even more unaffordable place to live. Some people have suggested using the revenue from marijuana legalization to fix the subway, but it won’t be enough to make a difference – only $300 million a year, when the MTA needs tens of billions. And, the revenue from marijuana legalization should be invested back into the communities that have been targeted by drug law enforcement, through economic development opportunities and criminal justice reform. 

As a City Council member representing the people of Bushwick, Brownsville, Cypress Hills, and East New York, I have delivered a quarter of a billion dollars in investments for unprecedented levels of new affordable housing and community development to neighborhoods in my district that felt ignored and forgotten for decades. But those neighborhoods exist all over New York and I will be the Public Advocate who stands up for all of them.

My record shows that when I commit to advocating for change on behalf of a community, I get the job done. 

I have led the fight in City Hall to reduce the waste caused by single-use plastics, a fight we are winning. I’ve worked alongside dedicated New Yorkers to protect our community gardens from demolition. And my legislation to require solar panels or rooftop gardens on all buildings would be a game-changer. It would empower people to generate their own clean power and break free from the big utilities that burn fossil fuels that cause climate change, as well as to grow their own healthy food. 

On public housing, I was one of the only elected officials with the foresight to provide funding for a new heating boiler at a NYCHA development in my district, even before it became clear that our public housing tenants were in crisis. And I was the first to call for the use of electric buses during the L train shutdown, because communities who endure some of the worst air quality in the city shouldn't have to suffer insult to injury. 

The Amazon deal has thrown new light on how politics in our city operates. We’ve seen decisions being made for the good of giant corporations, not the people of New York. As the only City Council member in this race not to sign the now infamous 2017 letter inviting Amazon to come to New York, I am the only Public Advocate candidate who can be trusted to hold Amazon accountable.

My parents moved here from the Dominican Republic and were able to make it in New York thanks to good union jobs that paid enough to raise a family and provided healthcare for me and my brothers. Those are the foundations of a livable city, which strong communities need to grow and thrive. I know that for young families in New York today, things are much harder. I see it in my community and across the city. New York is becoming less livable. But together we can change that. The Public Advocate’s job is to be the voice of the people in city government. For me, people will always come first.

***
Rafael Espinal is a City Council member representing parts of Brooklyn and a candidate in the special election for New York City Public Advocate. On Twitter @RLEspinal.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

15 Ideas for Expanding Economic Opportunity in New York in 2019


govandcuomo oppagenda

(photo: Governor's office)


New York’s Legislature has been on a tear in the first days of 2019, passing the DREAM Act to help undocumented students pay for college, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity, and overhauling the state’s antiquated election laws. Now lawmakers have an opportunity to take similarly bold steps to reduce income inequality statewide.  

It’s time to build on early momentum and help lift more New Yorkers into the middle class. To do so, the Center for an Urban Future (CUF) has laid out 15 proposals that the state Legislature can implement this year to help thousands more New Yorkers build the skills and educational credentials needed to get ahead in today’s economy.

1. Double the number of apprenticeships statewide
Research shows that apprenticeships are among the most successful strategies for lifting low-income residents into the middle class, allowing participants to earn a living while learning on the job. But with a workforce of more than 8.2 million and just 17,000 apprentices, New York has an enormous opportunity to expand this model into fast-growing industries from healthcare and tech to hospitality and green energy. The Legislature should pass legislation supporting this goal, which Governor Cuomo proposed in his 2019 agenda, and allocate funding to expand apprenticeship programs statewide.

2. Boost the number of college graduates by creating a Student Success Fund
A college credential has become the floor to accessing a well-paying job in today’s economy, but college completion rates are alarmingly low among the state’s community colleges. Only 26 percent of SUNY community college students graduate in three years, and at CUNY community colleges that rate is just 22 percent. New York should create a statewide Student Success Fund to implement and expand evidence-backed programs that boost student success at SUNY and CUNY community colleges. This fund could be used to lower the ratio of college advisors to students, expand highly successful initiatives like CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), and support the development of corequisite instruction models that help underprepared students succeed.

3. Establish the nation’s first Automation Preparation Plan
Automation and artificial intelligence will likely displace thousands of jobs across the state and transform millions more. CUF’s research suggests that 1.2 million jobs statewide could be largely automated using technology that exists today, with lasting consequences for workers in every corner of the state. New York should get ahead of this by launching the nation’s first Automation Preparation Plan, which would include new investments that upskill workers in fields that are most at risk of displacement, provide new opportunities for New Yorkers to pursue lifelong learning, and retrain workers whose jobs are eliminated.  

4. Tweak the Excelsior Scholarship to benefit more students
New York’s Excelsior Scholarship helps make college affordable for more families, but a few strategic tweaks would ensure that many more New Yorkers can take advantage of this promising—but far too limited—scholarship program. In the program’s first year, only 3.2 percent of the 633,543 undergraduates statewide received an award from the Excelsior program. The Legislature should enact reforms to reduce the program’s credit requirement to equal a regular full-time courseload, support summer enrollment to help students progress more quickly, and add funding to cover more non-tuition financial barriers that otherwise derail low-income students from the path to graduation.

5. Develop a statewide workforce development plan
New York lacks enough skilled talent to meet the current and future needs of the labor market. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers could benefit from new skills and credentials that can help them get ahead in a fast-changing economy. To meet these growing needs, New York needs to develop its first statewide workforce development plan. The Legislature can support this goal by directing the state’s new Office of Workforce Development and every state agency with a role in the system to work together on developing a fully integrated plan that leverages shared resources, connects services, and establishes clear outcome measures.

6. Expand bridge programs to boost skills while preparing New Yorkers for jobs
Governor Cuomo and the Legislature passed a historic $175 million investment in workforce development last year, which will help thousands of New Yorkers train for jobs. But for millions of New Yorkers who lack math and literacy skills, gaining entry to effective workforce programs will first require boosting their basic skills. That’s what bridge programs do best: help adults with limited formal education acquire the skills they need to transition into training and higher education. Legislators should increase support for this highly effective approach and ensure that programs using the bridge model are available to workers statewide.

7. Fix TAP to make college affordable for part-time students
Part-time students now account for 43 percent of all students enrolled in community colleges statewide—up from 32 percent in 1980—but the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) is almost exclusively available to full-time students. This hurts New Yorkers from low- and moderate-income communities who understand the importance of a college credential but can only afford to attend school on a part-time basis. To help more working New Yorkers pay for college, legislators should lift restrictions on the state’s current part-time TAP program and make college affordable for part-time students, too.

8. Build a statewide hub for labor market data to improve workforce programs
To make the most of New York’s vital new investments in workforce development, the Legislature should mandate the creation of a publicly-accessible labor-market information tool, managed by the Office of Workforce Development. This tool will help inform workforce development providers, employers, and job-seekers, and ensure that state-funded programs are more responsive to the needs of employers and more effective for their participants.

9. Revise seat-time requirements so students can learn through hands-on experience
Innovative high schools across the country are getting students out of the classroom and into the real world, whether through apprenticeships, career-exploration programs, or internships in fast-growing industries like tech and healthcare. But New York is restricted in its ability to cultivate hands-on programs for high school students by long-standing “seat-time” requirements, which typically require students to spend 90 percent of their days in class. New York can spark new approaches to hands-on learning by rolling back these requirements and replacing them with proficiency-based credits.

10. Create new challenge grants to incentivize remedial education reform at New York’s public colleges
Each year, thousands of students are placed into remedial education at SUNY and CUNY colleges, with serious consequences for their academic and economic futures. These students typically use up their financial aid without earning college credit and the vast majority drop out without a degree. Research shows that many underprepared students can succeed in alternatives to traditional remediation—and both SUNY and CUNY have new programs that are working. But to incentivize these reforms at scale, New York should create new time-limited challenge grants to spur every campus to reform remedial education.

11. Increase funding for adult education for the first time in decades
More than 1.5 million adults in New York lack a high school diploma or equivalent, and 2.3 million are less than proficient in English. For these New Yorkers, adult education programs can provide a critical link to effective job training, educational opportunities, and better wages. But New York’s primary funding source for adult education, the Employment Preparation Education (EPE) program, has plunged 36 percent since 1996, after adjusting for inflation. The Legislature should reverse this alarming trend with a new investment in adult education.

12. Invest in high school equivalency preparation and bring adult education into the 21st century by computerizing TASC test centers
Too few New Yorkers are taking and passing the state’s high school equivalency exam, known as the TASC. The number of residents earning a credential has fallen by nearly half since 2010, and New York is tied for the lowest pass rate in the nation. To help more New Yorkers get a foothold in a changing economy, New York needs to significantly boost high school equivalency attainment statewide. The Legislature can help ensure more New Yorkers pass the test by increasing funding for test preparation, accelerating the development of computer-based testing centers, and expanding professional development to train instructors.

13. Launch a statewide Career Pathways fund to spur new education and training programs
The state’s fragmented funding system for workforce development makes it difficult to develop workforce programs that meet the full scope of needs statewide. As part of a broader effort to create a cohesive statewide workforce development plan, the Legislature should launch a Career Pathways funding application that supports activities across the full spectrum of workforce programs, including innovative bridge models, pre-apprenticeships, initiatives focused on youth and older adults, and other important programs that could otherwise be left behind.

14. Encourage low-income New Yorkers to save by nixing asset limits for assistance programs
Federal programs intended to combat poverty, like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), are a vital source of support for New

York’s low-income families. But a little-known state rule restricts families who receive public benefits to just $2,000 in savings or assets. The result is that low-income families are penalized for saving. The Legislature should follow the lead of states ranging from Hawaii to Alabama to eliminate this rule and help more New Yorkers get on the path to financial stability.

15. Fulfill cost-of-living adjustments for human services organizations with state contracts
Critical but often overlooked, New York’s human services organizations provide the foundation of support required to help New Yorkers on the path to economic opportunity. But these organizations themselves face significant financial burdens, including government contracts that fail to cover the true cost of services. To strengthen New York’s vital human services sector, state legislators should reinstate the statutory human services workforce cost-of-living adjustment—providing salary bumps to workers who have gone nine years without an increase—and continue to include $100 million in capital funding for nonprofit infrastructure.

***
Jonathan Bowles is executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, a New York–based think tank focused on expanding economic opportunity. Eli Dvorkin is CUF’s editorial and policy director. On Twitter @jbowlesnyc & @wetwax & @NYCFuture.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Mayor De Blasio Needs a Clearer Focus on Climate Change, with a More Aggressive Agenda


fund climate ed

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


Mayor de Blasio plans to travel nationally to discuss the ideas in his recent State of the City speech, but if he does, he won't be talking about climate change, because his speech didn't deal with it. He mentioned divesting $5 billion from fossil fuel stocks, but he never uttered the words "climate change" and said nothing about how New York City is progressing toward key goals for reducing its own climate impacts.

The omission speaks volumes. De Blasio previously pledged the city would cut overall greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050 (including cutting city fleet emissions 80% by 2035), and to stop 90% of our waste from going to landfills by 2030. He should be held accountable. Both goals are crucial for fighting climate change, and New York should lead the country and the world in implementing them. Instead, we're lagging. Of 27 megacities worldwide, New York uses the most energy and generates by far the most solid waste.

How we handle our waste affects our emissions. Thirty percent of our waste stream is organic waste, 2 million tons of which rot in landfills each year, emitting more than 60,000 tons of methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. To prevent that, in 2013 de Blasio pledged a mandatory organic waste collection program within five years. It hasn’t materialized. We’re stuck with a limited, voluntary program that the Sanitation Department recently delayed expanding.

This pulls a big punch in the fight against climate change, because our organic waste stream -- including the 1.2 million tons of food waste we generate annually and municipal wastewater from our 14 treatment plants -- is not only a source of climate pollution; it’s also a massive renewable energy resource. Methane from decomposing organics can be captured and refined into ultra-low-carbon renewable natural gas (RNG).

As a transportation fuel, over its lifecycle RNG is net carbon-negative, meaning it prevents more GHG from getting into the atmosphere than it emits. Producing it captures more greenhouse gases that would otherwise escape, and using it to power buses and trucks displaces more carbon-intensive fossil fuels.

Sacramento, Portland, Toronto, and other cities collect their organic waste and process its gases into RNG, which fuels their municipal vehicle fleets. Nationwide about 30,000 buses and trucks run on RNG.

New York’s should, too. Getting city trucks and buses off diesel and onto RNG would vault us toward the mayor’s goals of cutting city fleet emissions 80% by 2035, and making New York’s air the cleanest of any major U.S. city by 2030.

Diesel exhaust aggravates our sky-high asthma rates, afflicting over 13% of our youth – more in low-income neighborhoods where truck and bus depots are located. Natural gas buses and trucks with “near zero” engines running on RNG would cut health-damaging nitrogen oxide and particulate pollution to almost nothing.

RNG is available in New York City via pipeline, and we could also tap our organic waste to produce it locally. Using it would save the city money over the service life of vehicles compared with "renewable diesel" or other alternatives.

So what’s stopping us? New York City fleet agencies are resisting change and sticking with diesel. Rather than buying natural gas trucks and buses and fueling them with RNG, they’re buying diesel vehicles and experimenting with "renewable diesel," which has climate and air quality properties inferior to RNG’s. They argue RNG trucks are slow to refuel and can’t plow snow, or that it would be better to migrate to electric vehicles.

Those are excuses. RNG trucks are plenty powerful. Stations carrying RNG stand ready to fuel city vehicles now. Heavy-duty electric vehicles are years from service-ready and prohibitively expensive, and their emissions are only as good as the energy source charging the batteries -- mostly fossil fuels.

The real obstacles to adopting RNG in New York are the same ones that kept the State of the City speech weak on climate change: lack of focused leadership and a preference for symbolic gestures over accountability for achieving concrete goals.

The climate can’t afford that. The city already has over 1,000 natural gas vehicles, including buses, trucks, and vans, that could start running on RNG tomorrow, simply by taking out a new fuel procurement contract. That would be a welcome first step toward fleet sustainability. The logical destination is to stop buying dirty, outmoded diesel vehicles.  

Last year, concerned City Council members sent letters urging the mayor and the MTA’s New York City Transit to show environmental leadership by adopting RNG. If they don’t, the Council has power through legislative and budget processes to make city agencies to get started. It’s time to use it.

***
Joanna D. Underwood is the founder and a director of the NGO Energy Vision, which researches, and promotes technologies and strategies for a sustainable energy and transportation future. On Twitter @energy_vision.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

It’s Time for Parole Reform in New York; Here are the First Three Steps


victor della plaza hotel rally

(photo: The Release Aging People in Prison Campaign)


For years, advocates, community members, and New York State lawmakers have worked to change our state’s unfair, biased, and harmful criminal legal system. We came together as supporters of common sense, cost-saving reforms that would benefit all New Yorkers. But our efforts were stymied by a political landscape that prevented us from making these important changes.

Now that landscape is different and the power dynamics in the state Legislature have shifted, it is time for New York to promote justice and safety once and for all. Reforming our parole system is an important component of this agenda.

While New York has recently seen a steady decline in the overall prison population, the number of older people in prison and those serving lengthy prison sentences has skyrocketed. New York now holds more than 10,000 older people in prison and has the fifth highest population of those serving life sentences in the country. People are dying at great moral and financial costs to all of us. Families and entire communities of those aging and despairing behind bars throughout our state have pushed for needed changes for decades. We must side with justice and place ourselves on the right side of history.

As the Chairs of the Senate Committee on Crime Victims, Crime and Correction, and Assembly Committee on Correction, we will push for critical parole reforms this legislative session.

We will begin by working to fully staff the State Parole Board with Parole Commissioners who believe in the concept of rehabilitation and come from professional backgrounds that allow them to thoroughly evaluate incarcerated peoples’ current risk to public safety and readiness for release. The Board is currently understaffed, with seven vacancies, and does not afford Commissioners and incarcerated people alike the time and process they deserve during parole interviews. Our state should allocate the resources necessary to fully staff the Board, embark on a transparent and thorough appointment and confirmation process, and onboard Commissioners who believe in rehabilitation and will be independent actors of fairness and justice.

Legislatively, we will prioritize changes to the state executive law that make parole a forward-looking process and ensure that release determinations are not exclusively based on the nature of someone’s crime but instead on who they are today. To that end, we will push for “fair and timely parole,” which would ensure that parole release is based on rehabilitation and current risk to public safety. Our parole laws should center the values of redemption and transformation, not retribution and vengeance.

Finally, we must tackle the crisis of aging in prison by passing elder parole. Decades of research from across the country and around the world shows that peoples’ risk to public safety significantly decreases as they age, and that prison sentences that amount to death do nothing to keep us safer or deter crime. Based on this evidence, elder parole would allow for a consideration of parole release for incarcerated people aged 55 and older who have served 15 years in prison. Passing this bill in a fair and inclusive way would allow our state to restore mercy and compassion, while saving taxpayers dollars that could be re-invested in communities throughout New York.

Taken together, these three measures would make significant progress towards ending mass incarceration, promoting public safety, and re-connecting families and communities. We call on our colleagues in the Legislature and Governor Cuomo to join us in these worthy efforts. The lives and well being of countless New Yorkers depend on us.

***
Senator Luis Sepulveda represents the 32nd Senate District in the Bronx and is the Chair of the Senate Committee on Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections. Assembly Member David Weprin represents the 24th Assembly District in Queens and is the Chair of the Assembly Correction Committee. On Twitter @LuisSepulvedaNY & @DavidWeprin.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

A School Finance Fix to Aid Education and Local Taxpayers


Cuomo education aid

(photo: The Governor's Office)


The annual Albany showdown over school aid started early this year. Even before Governor Cuomo’s State of the State speech, new State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins called for a permanent cap on local property tax increases to fund schools, signaling agreement with the governor’s long-held position.

So where’s the dispute?

Other legislators, particularly the Assembly’s powerful New York City delegation led by Speaker Carl Heastie, will likely oppose the measure. Taking their cue from teacher unions and other advocates for increased education spending, city pols have no need to worry over the cap.

The controversy is less between Democrats and Republicans (Cuomo and both legislative majorities are Democrats) and more between city and suburban voters. Under New York’s school finance laws, big cities, including New York, fund their schools from general revenues, supplemented by state and federal aid. Suburban and rural districts, though, fund their local burden by dedicated property taxes, so the cap is enormously consequential to those residents’ bottom line while far from obvious to city voters.

When was the last time a city legislator was criticized – let alone lost an election – for failing to bring home the state aid bacon? Never. It’s a non-issue because we don’t see the dollar for dollar trade-off between local property taxes and state school support. But that is often the biggest issue upstate and on Long Island. Every penny from the state offsets identifiable local school taxes. And property taxes are a particularly painful drain on suburban homeowners since, unlike paychecks, property values are not easily liquidated to pay the taxman.

But there’s a solution to the city/suburban school aid impasse. Foundation Aid to the rescue!

Foundation Aid is based on a complex formula for distributing state money to local school districts. If property taxes are capped, then Foundation Aid can pick up the increased burden if it is based on far more progressive state income taxes.

Moving school funding from dependence on local revenues to state sources makes all kinds of sense and can be done without further burdening middle-class taxpayers who need relief, not replacement of one tax burden for another.

An incremental increase in marginal income tax rates on high-wealth individuals to meet the needs of kids and overburdened middle class residents of the state’s highest-need districts makes sense. Those with high net-worth just got a bonanza from the federal tax cut, far in excess and disproportionate to lower earners. Taking a slice from that inequity to support middle class adults and better educate over 3 million New York children seems a fair solution to the Albany impasse.

In addition, an increase in Foundation Aid would allow the state to make needed tweaks to the formula itself, promoting Cuomo’s promise to divert resources from better financed districts and schools to those more in need. The Educational Conference Board, a statewide coalition of district administrators and parents, recommends reweighting categories of Foundation Aid more efficiently, basing assistance on student poverty, disability, enrollment growth, English proficiency, and population density. 

Sometimes, legislative compromise can yield better solutions than opponents’ original, polarized stands. This year, state school finance reform presents such an opportunity for reducing local taxpayer burdens while improving education. Legislators and the governor should seize the moment.

***
David C. Bloomfield is Professor of Education Leadership, Law, and Policy at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center. On Twitter @BloomfieldDavid.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

My Vision for the Role of Public Advocate: Dawn Smalls


dawn smalls ig

Dawn Smalls, the author, middle (photo: @dawnfornewyork)


I say: no more delays.

New Yorkers have been placed in an impossible situation by government agencies and elected officials who seem to be at a standstill in providing them the services that are essential to daily life and in many cases are inefficient, antiquated - or straight up broken.

The subway that built this city and made it great is crumbling beneath our feet, affordable housing is not affordable for working families, the homeless crisis is increasing at alarming rates among women and children, and democracy reforms in New York have been woefully behind other states that are considered far less progressive.

Given the New York City Public Advocate’s mandate to serve as a watchdog, these issues require someone who is experienced in government agencies to break through the bureaucracy.

When I was Executive Secretary at the Federal Department of Health and Human Services I was part of the leadership team that made the Affordable Care Act a reality for millions of Americans. We were so proud to have passed this landmark legislation - but passing the law was only the first step. I often had to wade and ultimately break through the bureaucracy to deliver on our mission to provide affordable, comprehensive health care. I intend to bring the same focus to the Public Advocate’s office.

That’s why I’m running on the party line “No More Delays” on the February 26 ballot and focused on four key areas where we must make rapid progress.

Transit
New Yorkers cannot wait on the platform while the Mayor and Governor bicker over the subway.

The subway is the heart of the city; without it, the city cannot function. As a candidate I am advocating for fair fares, more and better buses, and full transparency and accountability as solutions are proposed by the Mayor and the Governor to get the system on track -- and I will continue to do so as the next Public Advocate. I will also call out any proposals that divert resources from the infrastructure improvements necessary to ensure the system can function.

I believe the Public Advocate has a responsibility to speak to any stakeholder that impacts the way services are provided to our communities. That includes the Governor and federal agencies that provide funding for city government. If the Mayor can go to Paris, the Public Advocate can go to Albany and D.C.

Housing
New Yorkers cannot spend another day searching for an affordable place to live while developer interests continue to be placed above community interests.

We cannot continue to allow working class New Yorkers who are the bedrock of this city to be forced out because they can’t afford to live here.

We need to ensure that commitments to build affordable housing really are affordable for the residents that currently live in the neighborhood. Housing stock needs to meet levels of deep affordability and developers need to be monitored and held accountable for the commitments they make toward affordable housing. Additionally, developers should be required to contribute to infrastructure in the neighborhoods where they build and investments in street repairs, schools or parks should be discussed and prioritized with input from the local community.

Homelessness
New Yorkers, especially women and children, cannot bear the instability of being shuffled from shelter to shelter.

We have to confront, head on, the remarkable number of families that are homeless in this city. There are more children under the age of six living in homeless shelters than adult men. Women and children living in shelters should be given preference to be placed in permanent housing.

As a mother of three who is living, working, and raising my children in this city, I am aware of the social and emotional needs of these young children and how the lack of a stable home affects their emotional wellbeing and development. To help children create much-needed routine stability in their lives, I’d advocate for ‘Children’s Advocates’ to help homeless and low-income families navigate the school system and other services that will help children feel safe and secure.

Voting
New Yorkers should not be waiting hours in lines wrapped around the block on election day due to antiquated systems and broken machines.

In New York City, just 12% of eligible voters showed up for the 2017 primary. This is shameful anywhere, but certainly for a place that puts itself forward as one of the most progressive in the nation.

I’ve managed tens of millions of dollars in grants at the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Foundation promoting community organizing, political reform, and civic engagement. Now that New York State is passing a slate of voting reforms, the Public Advocate will play a key role in making sure these new laws are implemented properly, and swiftly for New Yorkers.

I’m running to be New York City’s next Public Advocate because as an African-American, a woman, and a mother, I believe government is a force for good, and one of the most impactful ways to improve people’s lives -- but only if it works. I’ve spent my career as an advocate, carrying out the belief that no problem is too big to solve, and no amount of bureaucracy or infighting will stop me from getting a job done.

As a first-time candidate who is completely independent of the local power structure, I am uniquely qualified for the office of Public Advocate. I have the experience, the knowhow, and the wherewithal to bring New Yorkers what they deserve: a government that works and works to serve to serve them. I hope to earn your support in the election on February 26.

***
Dawn Smalls is an attorney and former foundation leader and member of the Clinton and Obama presidential administrations. She is a candidate for Public Advocate and on Twitter @DawnForNewYork.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

In Amazon Debate, Atlantic Yards Lessons Beyond Those Aired at First City Council Hearing


barclays center ground

An Atlantic Yards groundbreaking (photo: Spencer T Tucker)


More public participation might help. So might ULURP. But rigorous skepticism is more important.

It was fascinating, having watched in 2004 and 2005 two New York City Council subcommittee hearings on the announced Brooklyn Atlantic Yards project, to see the Council's Committee on Ecomomic Development, with the Speaker prominent, on December 12 take a distinctly adversarial stance toward the proposed Amazon campus in Queens.

Back then, not only were the Governor and Mayor gung-ho for “jobs, housing, and hoops,” many Council members, despite their questions, were essentially enthusiastic. Meanwhile, the developer and supporters got significant time from the hearings’ start, relegating opponents to later slots.

And it was curious to hear both proponents and opponents of the Amazon deal rather tritely invoke lessons from Atlantic Yards (now called Pacific Park), suggesting the need for either broader public participation or the importance of the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), which gives the Council the final say (rather than using the state General Project Plan, which puts the Governor in charge).

Don’t get me wrong: neither broader participation nor ULURP are necessarily bad things. But they’re hardly saviors when big money and powerful players are at work, and when projects unfold over time and multiple economic cycles.

For example, promises made in Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs), or even in state approval documents, as we’ve learned, can be followed by contracts that offer crucial slack. For example, the fine print allowed Atlantic Yards, estimated to take ten years, a 25-year buildout.

So, while these massive development projects differ significantly, the Atlantic Yards experience makes clear that, as the Amazon deal unfolds, more muscular, and consistent, skepticism and oversight is needed. We’ll see how much surfaces at the next hearing, held by the City Council's Committee on Finance, scheduled for January 30.

Circumventing ULURP?
In December, at about an hour into the first of several promised Council hearings on the Amazon deal, Council Speaker Corey Johnson confronted James Patchett, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, about a line he’d truncated—for faster delivery—from his prepared statement: “this is by no means an attempt to deliberately circumvent the ULURP process.”

“Former deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff was asked, when he left city government” about the avoidance of ULURP for Atlantic Yards, recounted Johnson. “If I had to do it over again,” Johnson said, paraphrasing Doctoroff, “I would bring Atlantic Yards through ULURP…because it's the right process to get community buy-in, and the public review is worthwhile.”

“Now, I don't agree with Dan Doctoroff on everything, but I thought that was an interesting comment,” Johnson continued, pressing Patchett on “why it was important…to facilitate the subverting” of ULURP.

Patchett replied that the “UDC Act”—referring to the Urban Development Corporation, the state authority that can override local land use—“is available to do more comprehensive planning,”  and is “more powerful” than ULURP for certain projects. Certain things, he said, can’t happen with ULURP, like having the state hold title to project land. Hmm—similar tactics were used with Atlantic Yards, but Doctoroff, in retrospect, would’ve used ULURP.

So when Patchett said the city’s primary focus was getting the promised 25,000 jobs, it sounded like the end justifies the means. “More powerful” also translates as “certain passage by appointees who answer to the governor.” With Atlantic Yards, that meant not only initial passage of the project, but steady agreement regarding revisions of the timetable and thus promised public benefits.

Empire State Development, the successor to the UDC, has, in my observation, steadily affirmed the governor’s (and developer’s) will regarding Atlantic Yards. Only at state legislative oversight hearings have ESD officials faced hard questions. That key state authority, we should remember, avoided the first City Council hearing on Amazon, just as it sidestepped those Atlantic Yards hearings held by the Council.

Community buy-in?
“We certainly did take lessons from Atlantic Yards,” Patchett continued, citing “the importance of community input, the importance of genuinely involving people in the way the project ultimately looks. That's why we set up the Community Advisory Committee.”

Pre-empting the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) announcement, state Senator Michael Gianaris and Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer announced on November 21 that they would boycott such a body, calling it “a thinly veiled attempt to present the Amazon development as a fait accompli.” That’s hard to doubt, though it is possible that the CAC -- supposed to advise on issues like workforce development -- could have some impact.

The CAC has 45 members (though one’s already resigned), appointed in consultation with local elected officials and stakeholders, and is supposed to meet quarterly; its three subcommittees -- including one that will advise on local infrastructure spending -- are supposed to meet monthly. Town halls should be held two weeks after each quarterly meeting, reported Christine Chung of The City. That could add some sunlight.

Given the very low bar, this has more legitimacy than the Atlantic Yards CAC, which was not set up until some 28 months after the project was announced and barely met. When Atlantic Yards opponents, in a lawsuit challenging the project’s environmental review, called the CAC illegitimate, a judge disagreed, saying the law is so slack it’s even legit to establish such a committee after a project is approved.

A somewhat transparent CAC also seems better than the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), a private contract that purported to guarantee such things as job-training and affordable housing, but had crucial loopholes; for one thing, the developer never hired the required Independent Compliance Monitor.

The CBA was used as a political wedge. The developer gained support from groups -- some with track records, others astroturf -- led in large part by black leaders in Central Brooklyn, who had legitimate grievances about past developments and could help a large corporation to argue that middle- and upper-class opponents living closer to the project site, largely white, were selfish NIMBYs.

So it’s surprising that Amazon has not already organized some Queens stakeholders to vouch for the company’s intentions to lift up some of the borough’s struggling precincts. After all, Amazon has already taken a page from the big-developer playbook, buying ads in the tabloids (and mailing several flyers to New Yorkers) repeating, for example, the dubious claim that the project would bring $27 billion in new tax revenues.

Keep in mind that even seemingly robust public consultation may only go so far when the state’s in charge. In 2014, a volunteer body, the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC), was set up to advise ESD, as part of a 2014 settlement to avert a potential lawsuit on fair housing issues. However, it’s mostly toothless.

A few now-departed AY CDC members have raised questions about the project, while most -- the board is controlled by the governor -- are there to nod yes. Though the AY CDC is supposed to meet quarterly, last year it held its second meeting -- essentially to support an ESD contract renewal -- with just one day’s notice on March 30, and hasn't met since.

How good is ULURP?
Though ULURP offers more public input, and New York City legitimacy, than the state process, it typically leads to tweaks, not significant changes. Doctoroff has said the Bloomberg administration at the time doubted its rezoning prowess, so it pursued the expedient route around the City Council. “With twenty-twenty hindsight,” he wrote in his 2017 memoir, “I am positive we could have placated our opponents in negotiations and gotten the process through ULURP.”

Well, not quite; some people adamantly opposed the arena (now Barclays Center), or the project’s density. But ULURP would at least have put the debate in the public sphere, and empowered the local Council member, then Letitia James.

It should be noted that the two Council committee hearings regarding Atlantic Yards came under the leadership of then-Speaker Gifford Miller. After the project was approved, while the Speaker was Christine Quinn, known for her closeness to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Council wouldn't green-light future oversight hearings requested by James and colleague Brad Lander.

Today, compared to the Atlantic Yards history, the Council Speaker is less beholden to the mayor; the economic impacts of the 9/11 attacks are more distant; we don’t have the distraction (and lure) of professional sports; and we’ve seen the explosion of gentrification near the waterfront. Moreover, Amazon is a lightning-rod company, to say the least.

(Still, it would be interesting to see whether an office project at the Long Island City waterfront without subsidies -- or Amazon -- would generate such pushback. After all, the Amazon site was once to encompass two huge mostly residential rezonings -- Anable Basin, Long Island City Innovation Center -- arguably adding more neighborhood burdens.)

Yet, Johnson surely knows that ULURP is its own political game. Consider the Council’s recent approval of a giant two-tower project, 80 Flatbush, at a site that bridges Downtown Brooklyn and low-rise streets. After the project’s developer sought to nearly triple the allowable density, Council Member Steve Levin expressed concern, while the local community board was staunch in its opposition.

Eventually the project was approved with only modest reductions, and Johnson, according to Levin, was very much in the loop. While the public learned a lot about the expected benefits -- affordable housing, a replacement school, a new school -- ULURP never ventilated a key question: the value of the additional square footage the developer gained via an upzoning.

Regarding Amazon and ULURP, not everyone sees a silver bullet. As urban planner Sylvia Morse tweeted, “The people are shouting NO AMAZON, not ‘we want 7 months of procedural theater, during which speculators will drive up housing prices in LIC, followed by a bad deal getting rammed through anyway after council members get to pretend they tried.’”

A better planning process
Last September, Council Member Lander offered some cogent criticism before the Council-spurred 2019 Charter Revision Commission, suggesting that, with challenges like affordability, sustainability, and aging infrastructure, “our highly reactive ULURP process just is not getting the job done."

"Each application is brought either by a private developer or by the administration,” Lander said, “and it's not judged against a broad set of goals we've collectively agreed to, for sustainability or affordability or how to share and distribute the challenges and benefits of growth.”

He suggested "a comprehensive and proactive planning process.” What might that mean regarding Amazon? Perhaps the city and state should’ve set some goals for transit and other infrastructure for Long Island City beforehand, beyond the modest $180 million announced by the city on October 30. Remember, the two percolating rezonings were not being judged in that proactive way. (See criticism from the Municipal Art Society.)

A broader effort at planning might have put the city and state “incentives” (subsidies) in context. Sure, we’re not necessarily shoveling cash, outside a state construction grant that could be worth $505 million, as a special favor to Amazon, given that most of the subsidies are as-of-right and performance-based.

But some dialogue and data might clarify, as critics have argued, whether such subsidies are wise and deserve to be perpetuated. After all, Amazon admitted that the prime, not sole, driver was the talent pool.

Stronger analysis
There are also other murky parts of the deal, such as a seemingly low fee for public land and generous lease terms, as I wrote last month for Gotham Gazette. It was interesting to see Speaker Johnson scorn the state projections that saying Amazon would be a financial boon for the city and state, and argue for an independent study.

New York has a vehicle for such analysis; it’s called the city’s Independent Budget Office and, when called in 2005 and 2009, IBO raised serious skepticism about Atlantic Yards (and should probably do an update). With that project, however, government officials and many in the press embraced a study paid for by the developer, which was wrong from the start and which is now clearly way off (in part because the project wasn’t built in ten years).

Another analysis is needed, too. At one point during the Amazon hearing, Council Member Francisco Moya requested an independent study to report on such things as the project’s economic, infrastructure, and housing impact. The NYC EDC’s Patchett, nonplused, responded that, of course, the state process requires a study.

But that’s not a truly independent study. In projects like Atlantic Yards, such environmental reviews, however sufficient to pass legal scrutiny, serve the interests of the project’s sponsors and the agency boosting it.

The Council could fund a such an independent study. Sure, this doesn’t address the question of Amazon-the-company, with business practices that, to some, disqualify it. But, at the very least, if the chief executives of New York City and State are going to offer pre-cooked ambitious plans, the obligation of the legislative branches should be continued oversight.

***
Norman Oder is a Brooklyn journalist who writes the watchdog blog Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report. On Twitter @AYReport.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

It’s Time for New York to Embrace New Modes of Transportation


lime bikes

(photo: Lime Bike)


Over the last few weeks, the governor’s decision to cancel the L train shutdown dominated New York transportation news. People cheered the decision, thankful that thousands of riders along the route won’t be stranded during the week as they go back-and-forth to work, run errands, and shuttle around their city.

But for a lot of New Yorkers – myself included – the L train news provided no comfort. Actually, it stung a little. Because while the MTA and our leaders are focused on merely keeping our existing mass transportation system from failing, there are millions of us who do not live within easy walking distance of the subway, and who do not have any reliable, affordable transportation options whatsoever.

So one subway line will remain open. Great. What about the rest of us?

The subway lines concentrate in Manhattan, then scatter into the outer-boroughs, missing huge swaths of middle- and lower-income New Yorkers. In other words, those who need reliable public transportation the most tend to have the worst access.

Take where I live, for example. To get to Manhattan from my apartment in the NYCHA Richmond Terrace complex on Staten Island, I have to walk for nearly a half-hour to the ferry. That’s almost an hour of walking, both ways. To his credit, the mayor just announced a new fast ferry plan for Staten Island that will help overall travel time -- but actually getting to the ferry is still a haul.

And my commute is nothing compared to others’ across the city. According to the Pratt Center for Community Development, 750,000 New Yorkers travel more than one hour each way to work. Notably, two-thirds of them earn less than $35,000 a year. Most of those New Yorkers are also black or Latino.

New subway lines and stops are not going to fix that because no one is planning to build any. The MTA is a financial mess and new lines are prohibitively expensive. New bus lines would be welcome, but those would also be costly and vulnerable to budget cuts.

But there are other modes of transportation that require little or no infrastructure that could effectively address the problem now – and the City Council held a hearing on them this week.

On Wednesday, Council members debated legislation to legalize electric scooters in New York, and to expand access to dock-free bikes and scooters citywide. The bills – which now have significant support from Council members – cannot be passed soon enough.

There are companies ready and willing to deliver dock-free bike- and scooter-share service right now. Start-ups like Lime and Jump already provide pedal bikes and e-bikes in pilot zones in the Rockaways, part of the Bronx and on the North Shore of Staten Island. My organization successfully partnered with Lime this summer to serve Richmond Terrace’s alternative transportation needs.

These new, convenient options are operating successfully in other big cities such as Seattle and Paris at citywide scale, carrying thousands of people a day from point A to point B and connecting them to public transportation, significantly shortening their trips.

Dock-free bikes and scooters are also affordable. The standard fee for dock-free bike rides is a third of CitiBike’s price and comparable to a subway or bus fare, allowing people of any income or zip code to move around more easily.

And dock-free bikes and scooters will connect a more diverse population to affordable, reliable transportation. Lime surveyed about 600 riders in its New York City pilot zones and found that about 70 percent of its riders identify as non-white. Sixty-one percent of riders said they were from households that earn $50,000 a year or less.

Governor Cuomo recently endorsed legislation that will authorize cities like New York to allow dock-free electric bikes and scooters. The Legislature should pass those bills as soon as possible, and the city should follow suit.

The city’s transportation equity crisis is real. We must deliver new transportation options to New Yorkers -- especially those who are stranded by mass transit. We deserve at least the right to choose a better commute. Let’s make it happen.

***
Sarah Blas is the Executive Director of the Richmond Terrace Therapeutic Gardens.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

A Strategy That’s Working in New York School Turnaround


mayorchancellor eng

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


For decades, decisions about education policy in New York have been filtered through state and local conflicts. Indeed, politics often dominates, divides, and obscures the conversation, causing many to lose sight of the most fundamental question for anyone who cares about education reform: how do students learn?

In looking for an answer, we found a school improvement framework that has the potential to unite all sides of the debate.

Our research team from Teachers College at Columbia University examined the implementation of a train-the-trainer model called Strategic Inquiry that was introduced in Renewal Schools, a Mayor Bill de Blasio administration initiative that included providing struggling schools with additional funding and support from the New York City Department of Education in an effort to improve student outcomes.

We found substantial improvements in student performance and school culture measures – at a low implementation cost and in a relatively short time-frame. Notably, these improvements were mostly achieved in schools with underperforming students and English language learners, two groups that have been traditionally hard to reach.

So how did this model work where others have failed?

Among other things, customization and buy-in from school leaders were key. Strategic Inquiry established a process that empowered teacher teams to identify specific students who have been historically underperforming. These teams then diagnosed and implemented what is needed to improve performance for those particular students. This, in turn, led to the improvement of school and district systems that have systematically contributed to those students’ challenges.

What also worked was Strategic Inquiry’s process of “getting small” by focusing on the precise things that evidence suggested students needed, rather than large areas dictated by accountability measurements. In other words, teachers and administrators identified breakdowns in learning and fixed them in real time as opposed to following an impersonalized reform plan dictated from above.

This study found several indicators of improvement in student achievement. After controlling for various factors, students in schools that adopted Strategic Inquiry principles were almost two-and-a-half times more likely to be on track to graduate and less than half as likely to be off track to graduate, compared to students in schools without this approach. Surprisingly, we observed these results despite the fact that the sample schools were only in the third year of implementation of a program designed to last five years.

In addition, teacher participation on inquiry teams was high, principal support for the program was strong, and educators reported extremely positive feedback about the support they received from Strategic Inquiry representatives.

There were no shortcuts. Investments in deep training of district and school-based leaders required the full engagement of educators. Teachers worked in partnership to study how students were struggling to learn. They designed and tested interventions, and applied what was working to improve the systems that had constrained students’ success. Engaged – and empowered – educators taught colleagues to do the same and spread the best practices across each building. This cycle worked to shift school culture and improve student achievement.

Strategic Inquiry shows that investing in the learning of educators can deliver real results in the learning of students. It offers optimism in achieving the highly-coveted, but often elusive outcome of improved student performance results in a relatively low-cost, minimally resource-intensive manner. It’s also worth noting that the program generated these positive outcomes while targeting some of the most difficult-to-reach student populations.

Without rendering judgment on the totality of Mayor de Blasio’s Renewal program, our study shows promising results for this model. It’s clear that there are some valuable components that succeeded and are worth pursuing and adopting elsewhere. Regardless of what type of school you prefer, Strategic Inquiry’s train-the-trainer approach ought to be part of the education reform toolbox for educators, policymakers, and parents alike.

***
Dr. Priscilla Wohlstetter is Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Education & Social Analysis and co-author of a new report from Teachers College at Columbia University.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Private Sector Failure Requires NYCHA’s Preservation


mayor private

(photo: Mayor's Office)


Many New Yorkers likely wonder why Mayor de Blasio wants to spend $24 billion on saving the aging towers of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). Much of this public housing consists of plain brick towers, which the city built rapidly from the 1930s to the 1960s, in a dated “towers in the park” design, now worn down from decades of hard use. In Singapore and much of Europe, government policy has targeted public housing of this age and type for billions in spending to remake projects to match changing urban tastes, family size, and rising densities.

But in the United States and New York there is no equivalent housing program with the funds to replace NYCHA’s 175,000 apartments (400,000 registered tenants), which rent on average at just $550 per month. The mayor, in the unprecedented $24 billion NYCHA 2.0 plan he released in December, is forced to rely on a complicated and potentially uncertain financing plan integrating city, state, federal, and private funds; private sector management of fully one-third of NYCHA’s portfolio; and hoped for revenues from “infill” ground leases and sales of air rights.

Added together the plan’s various elements will still barely provide for basic renovation when spread across a massive system that has a minimum of $31 billion in capital needs; NYCHA 2.0 certainly won’t cover redevelopment to a twenty-first century standard. Even if New York had the funds for massive redevelopment, it would still be a risky proposition to take NYCHA projects offline (many of which have 1,000 units or more each). NYCHA is already full to overflowing and the private market lacks sufficient low-cost units to accommodate relocation needs.

The risk is high in losing any of NYCHA’s units because the most endangered commodity in New York City is the privately-operated apartment that rents for less than $1,000 -- with rent-regulated units in particularly perilous straits. Public housing is now such a crucial part of that low-cost market that to lose the system, or even part of it, would, according to the respected Regional Plan Association, drive up homelessness, take housing from working-class people, and worsen conditions citywide because the market cannot replace the units.

A Brief History of Massive Failure

private building(Lewis Hine, Elizabeth Street, 1912. Library of Congress)

Today’s private sector housing failure is nothing new; instead, lousy and expensive housing has been a persistent dimension of New York City life for over a century. The city was once dominated by thousands of privately owned tenement buildings that crowded land and people together at density levels the world had never seen before. The creation of the subway in 1904 relieved that pressure for a time, allowing for a mass exodus to newer tenements, apartment buildings, or small homes in the outer boroughs. NYCHA also launched in the 1930s as an all-out attack on these tenements.

Tougher housing regulations and the suburban boom accelerated the tenement exodus from the 1930s onward, but many tenements in areas such as East Harlem and the Lower East Side backfilled with migrants from the south and Puerto Rico in the mid-twentieth century. Owners of many vestigial tenements abandoned or burned many of them from the ‘60s to the ‘80s.

Gentrification since the 1970s in New York City generated a new twist on private sector failure. Landlords of surviving apartment buildings good and bad won revisions in rent control and stabilization since the 1970s. They have used these lenient rules ever since to raise rents or drive out long-time tenants. Many private landlords haven’t cared if a tenant family must pay 50 percent or more of their income on rent. Dangerous conditions in many of these lower-rent buildings, which are not as widely publicized as those at NYCHA, are a mixed bag with irregular heat, lead exposure, and mold common.

Private Sector Saviors?
Many private real estate companies have, in fairness, played a crucial role in affordable housing management and development since the 1960s. Indeed, the various tax credits and breaks, and zoning bonuses, have created new “affordable” units that are modern and comfortable. Yet the supply of these units is relatively small (as they are often a minority percentage of a building); apartments time out of affordability after a specified period (requiring new public financing); and most apartments are targeted for income levels higher than public housing.

The result is scarcity and insufficient affordable housing production: the odds of landing one of the new privately developed and managed affordable units produced in 2018 was just 1 in 592. At the current rate of new private construction in Mayor de Blasio’s broader housing plan, which produced a record 7,857 affordable units in 2018, it would still take two decades or more just to replace NYCHA’s 175,000 units.

The real estate industry has also stepped up to play a central role in the conversion of public housing to private sector management and may end up running about 66,000 units of NYCHA housing under what NYCHA calls PACT (nationally it is RAD). Builders also hope to ground-lease NYCHA sites that could provide funding for renovation of surrounding buildings and additional affordable and market-rate units.

Private companies aren’t taking on these NYCHA projects or infill projects for entirely altruistic reasons, of course. Infill projects, even with affordable components, can be profitable. Private managers who take over existing NYCHA projects are being handed thousands of well-located, structurally-sound, mostly debt-free, fully-tenanted, property tax-free, federally-subsidized (Section 8) apartments they can borrow money from banks to renovate. Managing and renovating these buildings is a heavy lift, but there is a significant upside if done right.

Time to Step Up!
The private sector, even given these good steps, is still not doing enough for either NYCHA or the average low-income renter. Without a large-scale program of new production, the region will continue to be uncompetitive as business shifts to places where lower and even middle-income people can afford to live decently. The city’s private sector is booming today, for sure, but so is the national economy. When times get tight, New York City may seem much less attractive. A desperate population is also likely to be drawn to draconian rent regulations, higher taxes, and more “socialistic” policies to try and level the playing field. It isn’t pretty when recessions hit New York.

Both real estate interests and large employers should be putting more of their energy and funds into expanding affordable housing programs at the state and federal levels. Only when the real estate industry starts producing tens of thousands of affordable units per year do they earn a right to speak about NYCHA’s future and/or redevelopment. It also wouldn’t hurt if a business titan or two stood up for public housing funding and improvements.

Instead of putting so much of its energy into fighting rent stabilization or marketing overpriced apartments to foreign investors, business leaders could take a cue from their wealthy predecessors. Governors Roosevelt, Lehman, and Rockefeller developed and fought hard for creative programs to boost low-cost housing production. Or they can look west. Microsoft’s new commitment of $500 million to affordable housing in Seattle reflects, hopefully, a new era of commitment from employers to making more equitable housing market.

Where is New York City’s Microsoft of affordable housing?

***
Nicholas Dagen Bloom is a professor at New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) and a NYCHA scholar, and has a new book on state/urban policies: How States Shaped Postwar America.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

How We Got Here & Where To Go: The Centuries Old Legislative Pay Debate in New York


gov cuomo carlheastie

(photo: Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin)


New Yorkers have been upset by state legislators’ compensation for more than 200 years. At the 1821 constitutional convention, Ezekiel Bacon, a former member of the Assembly and of Congress, called the pay issue “…a hobby horse of ambitious demagogues and peddling politicians, that caused the great questions that affected the vital interest of the state too often to be overlooked.” The current debate is nothing new. We’ve never liked how much legislators are paid. We’ve never liked how the matter is decided.  

At first the decision was left to the Legislature and the Governor (who was then far less powerful than today). Public distress at the members’ generosity to themselves led to the specification of a $3 per diem rate ($56.28 in today’s money) in the state constitution by the convention of 1821. This made the pay alterable only by constitutional amendment, which required public ratification after passage in two successive legislative sessions or adoption by a following convention. The Governor, with no role in the amending process, was denied formal involvement. The people -- always skeptical, sometimes hostile -- were left with a decisive voice.

No constitutional convention held after 1821 during the period that legislative pay was still constitutionally specified -- in 1846, 1867, 1894, 1915, and 1938 -- succeeded in increasing it. Some delegates, like the publisher Horace Greeley in 1867, thought public service was sufficiently rewarded by a legislator’s “consciousness of honorable usefulness” and the “gratitude’ of other citizens. If provided at all, those who held this view believed, pay for legislators should be sufficient only to cover expenses. At later conventions most delegates, many of whom had been or were senators or Assembly members, voiced support for better compensation for legislators, but failed to act on the matter because of the  expense, or because of fear that public hostility to a pay increase would lead to overall defeat of their work at the polls. Indeed, the constitution proposed in 1915, the only one offered by a convention that included a pay increase for legislators, was rejected by the public at referendum.

In the hundred years between 1846 and the end of World War II, voters did approve two amendments offered by the Legislature providing for members’ pay increases. The first of these, passed in 1874 and supported by both Democratic Governor John T. Hoffman and Republican Governor John Adams Dix, increased legislators’ annual compensation to $1,500 ($33,030 in current dollars) from the maximum of $3 day for 100 days ($8,318 in current dollars) set by the 1846 convention. This was the first specification of legislative pay as an annual salary, not as a per diem for what was then still universally regarded as part-time work. In 1911 voters defeated an amendment calling for a salary increase to $2,500. This increase ($35,966 in current dollars) was finally passed in 1927 as part of a broad package of reforms championed by Democratic Governor Alfred E. Smith.

The provision of costs for travel was long an important element of the debate in New York over legislative compensation. The 1846 constitution provided for coverage of travel expenses to and from the regular annual legislative session. Based upon the time travel took, the assumption then was that payment for one round trip would suffice; once members got to Albany they would stay there for the session’s duration. As time passed, faster travel by boat and train made regular return to legislative districts possible. Members desirous of pursuing both political and private business sought to return home during legislative sessions, and constituents expected to see them there. But provision for payment for only one round trip was specifically retained in the 1894 constitution. At the 1915 convention, future Democratic Governor Smith asserted that coverage of the cost of members’ professional travel to assure their return to Albany during the regular session, and thus the presence of required quorums to do business, was more important to the effective functioning of the legislator than was their increased pay. Coverage of the cost of one round trip a week was finally added by the 1938 constitutional convention.

There is an established practice in New York State of paying some legislators additionally for additional work. Because they specified a per diem rate with a limit of 100 days for which members could be paid, drafters of the 1846 constitution felt it necessary to assure members got pay for added days when they were required for special sessions. They also specified that the Assembly Speaker was to “receive an additional compensation equal to one-third of his per diem allowance as a member.” In 1857 Republican Governor King’s veto was overridden to allow legislative committee members to be paid for work between annual sessions. The 1894 constitution eliminated added pay for the Speaker, but did provide it for “Senators, when the Senate alone is convened in extraordinary session, or when serving as members of the Court for the Trial of Impeachments, and such members of the Assembly, not exceeding nine in number, as shall be appointed managers of an impeachment, shall receive an additional allowance of ten dollars a day.”

An amendment passed in 1964 further constitutionalized added pay for added work; that is, what has become known as the ”lulu” system. It provided “Any member, while serving as an officer of his or her house or in any other special capacity therein or directly connected therewith not hereinbefore in this section specified, may also be paid and receive, in addition, any allowance which may be fixed by law for the particular and additional services appertaining to or entailed by such office or special capacity.”

In the immediate post WWII period legislators debated whether to try to amend the constitution to seek a doubling of salary (from $2,500 to $5,000 per year) or to seek to reinstitute the practice of legislative control of members’ compensation by statute, of course with gubernatorial approval. Either approach required a constitutional amendment. They took the later course, and succeeded. There ensued eight legislative pay raises in the 50 years between 1948 and 1998, compared to two, as noted, in the previous century.

Five of these raises occurred in the 25 years between 1948 and 1973, during times that the GOP controlled both legislative houses and the governorship. In 1948, the annual salary doubled, to $5,000. It was increased to $7,500 in 1954; $10,000 in 1961; $15,000 in 1966; and $23,500 in 1973. When measured in 2017 dollars, 1973 pay reached $131,806 per year.

The period of divided partisan control of state government that began in 1974 and persisted almost continuously through 2018 saw the use of many of the techniques later evident in the 2018 debate over legislative salary: employment of commission recommendations to diminish political pressure; linkage to salary increases for statewide elected officials, judges and commissioners; gubernatorial support made conditional on legislative action on other policy matters, related and unrelated; and the use of the lame duck session to address the issue, to diminish political risk. Following the recommendation of a five-person commission appointed by the Governor and legislative leaders, a bill was approved in 1979 that increased legislative salaries to $32,960 to be spread out over five years, with concomitant raises for judges and agency heads. Another was passed in 1984 in a lame duck session; it raised legislative salaries to $43,000. Governor Mario Cuomo’s support in 1987 for a salary increase for legislators to $57,500 was linked to their passage of ethics legislation that he championed and they resisted. Governor George Pataki made his support for the last increase, to $79,500, conditional on passage of legislation creating charter schools in the state.

We then went 20 years without increasing legislative salaries, the longest such period since 1948. Until the increase now moving forward, though under legal challenge and rhetorical dispute, a state legislator’s salary bought less in 2018 than it did in 1961. Two centuries of debate about legislative pay in New York have consistently been driven by skepticism about or hostility toward legislators, their integrity and their motives. Earlier reformers sought ways to discourage (or sanction) part-time legislators’ inclination to lengthen sessions to collect more per diem pay. Less was better.

Modern reformers want their legislators to work full-time, without the distractions and conflicts that arise from earning outside income. More is better. Early reformers searched for ways to encourage (or require) legislators to actually show up for sessions so that the necessary quorums could be assembled,  rather than “...play at ten pins, or sit at their hotels, or take rides to Saratoga.” Modern reformers also have their “performance standards,” e.g. timely budget passage. Yet is this really what the conversation about legislative pay should be about?

Two similar observations made almost a century-and-a-half apart are convincing in suggesting that the answer is “No.” In a debate at the 1821 constitutional convention, Robert Clarke, a former Assemblymember and delegate to the 1821 constitutional convention, argued that the goal should be to  make legislators’ pay “not so large as to be an object of cupidity, or so low as to prevent men in the middling paths of life from attending without great sacrifice to private interest…making the job only interesting to…nabobs and those having no honest employment.”

In 1984, Assembly Speaker Stanley Fink, a foremost legislative leader of the 20th century, said: ”If you want to continue [increasing] the quality and caliber of legislators on both sides of the aisle and don’t want a legislature composed by independently wealthy people or people who couldn’t hack it somewhere else you have to keep pace.”

Yet so long as the pay decision is in the self-interested hands of the Legislature itself, citizens will never believe that to attract people of competence and integrity to public service is the primary motive in setting legislative pay.

The state Legislature often lives quite comfortably with self-interested behavior: witness its devotion to gerrymandering in drawing its own district lines. But in 2018 enlightened self-interest prevailed on the pay issue, and the Legislature tried to do the right thing: it gave the decision -- not just the power to recommend -- to an independent commission, subject to a “legislative veto.” The pay increase the commission adopted is reasonable, even modest; it fairly makes up for the real erosion in legislative pay experienced in recent years. But the commission went beyond its brief; legislators didn’t ask for and don’t like the conditions it linked to the recommended raises, though there have commonly been conditions linked to raises for much of the state’s history.

And there is a bigger problem: this process is unconstitutional. The state constitution says that “Each member of the legislature shall receive for his or her services a like annual salary, to be fixed by law.” Clearly, the Legislature must set the pay itself; it cannot delegate the decision.

The lesson: right church, wrong pew. On legislative pay, as on redistricting and ethics, on all matters in which legislators are inextricably self-interested, we need a constitutional amendment to create a separate, truly independent, constitutionally-rooted body to make the decisions. This will move us toward competence and integrity in our elected institutions and help restore citizen trust in government.

***
Gerald Benjamin is director of The Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.