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Special Election Provides Testing Ground for Push to Elect More Women to City Council


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The City Council Women's Caucus (photo: @WomensCaucusNYC)


In 2009, there were 18 women in the 51-seat New York City Council. A decade later, after resignations and members term-limited out of office, that number has dropped to just 11, most of whom are serving their second and final term. It’s a paltry ratio for a legislative body that prides itself on inclusion and diversity, and one that the “21 in ‘21” initiative is striving to address.

The nonprofit organization is building a network to boost women seeking local elected office and could make its first mark in the city’s political scene next month in a special election for the District 45 Council seat in Brooklyn, recently vacated by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.

The 21 in ‘21 initiative was launched in 2017 by then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Council Member Margaret Chin, then-Council Member Elizabeth Crowley (she lost her seat later that year), and Effective NY, an advocacy group. The goal is to elect at least 21 women to the City Council in the next municipal elections in 2021, when at least three dozen Council seats will be up for grabs, along with the five borough president posts and all three citywide positions of mayor, comptroller, and public advocate.

The group is set to make its first official endorsement of a candidate in the District 45 special election.

“If women ran with the same frequency as men, we would have equal representation, not only in the City Council, [but] all over state legislatures and in the federal government,” Crowley, the chair of 21 in ‘21, said at a meeting of its members at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning in Queens on Monday. The initiative was buoyed that day by a show of support from U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks, who, as the new chair of the Queens County Democratic Committee, will play a powerful role in 2021 when 11 Council seats will be open in that borough alone.

“We’ve got work to do. Instead of us progressing, we went back. Instead of us continuing to lead, we’ve lost our numbers,” Meeks said of the diminishing number of women in the Council. It’s not immediately clear what his actual commitment to the 21 in ‘21 effort is, however.

The District 45 special election on May 14 will be the 21 in ‘21 initiative’s first outright foray into elections as the organization plans to endorse one of the five women running for the seat -- Monique Chandler-Waterman, Jovia Radix, Farah Louis, Xamayla Rose, and Adina Sash -- out of nearly a dozen candidates. The organization will hold a candidate screening on April 29 where its 235 members will have the chance to assess the five candidates before recommending an endorsement.

“This is kind of going to be a pilot, test run for what’s going to happen in 2021,” said Moira McDermott, executive director of the organization, in a phone interview. “We’re looking to make sure that they’ll commit to helping the mission in the Council and that they’ll commit to mentoring women to run...or in general to prepare, and having more women on their staff and helping women into leadership positions on the Council.”

[Read: Crowded Field Forms for Special City Council Election to Replace Jumaane Williams]

Till now, the organization has been building its base, recruiting would-be candidates and holding trainings on navigating the political process, including how to conduct community outreach and how to raise money for a campaign. Meeks’ support in Queens is also helping build momentum that could convince other elected officials and county Democratic organizations to support their efforts, McDermott said.

“Our goal isn’t necessarily accepting all the endorsed county candidates but it’s a matter of working together to make sure that any women they have in the pipeline, to bring them into the organization and...encouraging them to work with the women that we have in our pipeline,” she said. “So it’s a joint effort to have the most viable and qualified candidates.”

“We feel incredibly optimistic,” said Crowley, in a subsequent phone interview, confident that District 45 will elect a woman to the Council next month. “We want to make sure that candidates have been involved in their communities, that they understand how it takes a full investment of oneself to be a Council member, and certainly to have the opportunity to be a successful candidate,” Crowley added.

She also emphasized the grassroots strength of the organization, which she said will boost its chosen candidates and sets it apart from other political action organizations. “It’s not like we give a check and walk away. We’re engaging other New Yorkers to believe in you and believe in your candidacy,” she added. Crowley herself doesn’t intend to run for the City Council in 2021, she said, but she wouldn’t say if she’d run for higher office. There may soon be a special election for Queens Borough President if the current officeholder, Melinda Katz, wins this year’s District Attorney race.

21 in ‘21 is not the only organization pushing to get more women elected locally. Amplify Her, which launched with a similar mission and endorsed several successful female candidates for state Senate last year, is holding a candidate forum on April 23 for the District 45 race.

Public Advocate Williams has emphasized that his successor should be a woman and he’s already endorsed Chandler-Waterman, a close ally and former aide. “While there are many good candidates running in this race, particularly women of more color, there unfortunately is only one position available and Monique is the best person for the job,” he said in a statement.

“I like the idea of an endorsement, it does show strength, it does show unity, and it certainly shows power,” said Queens Council Member Adrienne Adams, another 21 in ‘21 supporter, in a brief interview outside City Hall. “The more we can show strength and at least try to get some balance, the better of course we’ll be as a city.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Little-Used Community Land Trust Model for Affordable Housing May See Big Boost


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Council Member Rivera (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Manhattan City Council Member Carlina Rivera is part of a growing coalition of Council members pushing for city government's first major commitment to a seldom-utilized affordable housing model. In the face of rapid gentrification, they say, the city should invest $850,000 in Community Land Trusts, or CLTs, in the city budget currently being negotiated.

Doing so could help advocates and nonprofits acquire land to operate deeply affordable housing and amenities -- albeit on a small scale -- in perpetuity.

“They're not a silver bullet but should be a major component of any affordable housing plan,” Rivera told Gotham Gazette. Other allies include Queens Council Member Donovan Richards and Manhattan Council Member Margaret Chin.

A Community Land Trust is a nonprofit that acquires and manages land, either one continuous plot or scattered sites. People who live and work on the land collectively set the terms of use, and can mix residential and commercial space with community centers and gardens. Most CLTs prohibit their properties from ever being sold for profit, ensuring affordability in the long term.

There are currently 11 community-based organizations with CLT projects underway across the five boroughs. Though several are still in early planning stages, groups hope to ultimately control thousands of housing units and hundreds of small businesses citywide.

A new $8 million bank settlement from Attorney General Letitia James is also being parceled out this spring to land trust projects across the state. Municipalities can apply for up to $2.5 million each. “The interest in CLTs has expanded a lot,” said Elizabeth Zeldin, director of Enterprise Community Partners, which is distributing the funds.

New York City’s oldest CLT model, the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association, is in Council Member Rivera’s district. It has grown to nearly 400 apartments and 20 small businesses since its formation in 1994 (including one of Rivera’s personal favorites, Pageant Print Shop, which sells antique prints and maps). “I think we have to plant seeds for these CLTs to grow,” she said. “They can ward off mass speculation of developers, like happened in Cooper Square.”

With citywide elections on the horizon in 2021, “Every front-runner in every office race should be discussing this as part of their affordable housing platform,” Rivera said.

Rivera’s spokesperson, Jeremy Unger, told Gotham Gazette that “the Councilwoman is planning a Council briefing on CLTs” and will be discussing the model during internal deliberations as the Council prepares to negotiate with the mayor’s office.

“We look forward to working with the City Council throughout the budget process and will evaluate the proposal from CLTs,” de Blasio spokesperson Raul Contreras said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. (The Council recently held a month of preliminary budget hearings, then issued its official response to the mayor’s initial budget plan for fiscal year 2020, which begins July 1.)

Barriers to CLT expansion include limited funding for housing development and renovation, and limited access to viable land. The model stands in contrast to de Blasio's 300,000-unit affordable housing plan, which predominantly enlists large for-profit developers to construct and preserve mixed-income housing on a large scale.

Council members have contributed to individual land trusts in their districts over the years. But the $850,000 ask would contribute to a broader project, organizers say, covering hiring costs for one staff member for each community group currently developing a land trust, plus technical and legal assistance.

With this funding, says Deyanira Del Rio, co-director of the New Economy Project and board chair of the New York City Community Land Initiative, CLTs can "deepen the organizing, education, and partnership development," so they can acquire and rehab properties down the road.

Del Rio draws a comparison to the city’s Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative, which has seen worker-run businesses more than double from 21 to 48 since the City Council started funding it four years ago.

The East Harlem El Barrio CLT, one of the more established in the bunch, is currently closing on a portfolio of four residential buildings in East Harlem with 36 apartments among them. The buildings are in poor condition, and the CLT is negotiating additional preservation assistance from the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).

“With the Second Avenue Subway coming through,” says El Barrio project coordinator Athena Bernkopf, “there are concerns about what that will do to the housing and economic landscape.” Ultimately, the CLT hopes to add more buildings “facing immediate gentrification pressure.”

Other CLTS are in earlier planning stages. Chhaya CDC, a non-profit serving the city’s South Asian Community in Queens, hopes to establish a land trust in Jackson Heights to manage affordable community space and shops. While CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities envisions a land trust in Chinatown with affordable senior housing and storefronts for immigrant-owned businesses.

HPD began working with affordable housing groups and nonprofit developers to study the viability of CLTs in the summer of 2017, distributing a $1.65 million grant from a $3.5 million bank settlement from then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Part of that initial funding covered a two-year program called the NYC CLT Learning Exchange, organized by the New Economy Project, where community groups met regularly to learn about the model.

Now, says City College of New York Political Science Professor John Krinsky, groups will begin to delve into the inevitable challenges of working together to decide how a piece of land will be used and operated. For example, “What are the tradeoffs when we are thinking about financing and affordability, and what that means in the long term?”

Down the road, advocates are hopeful that New York City will establish a pipeline of land for CLTs, and more long-term financing tools to support extremely low-income households. “I think we have to be looking at vacant lots,” Council Member Rivera told Gotham Gazette. While the city’s reserve of such lots has been dwindling over decades, there are still dozens that can be utilized for housing, with many in the pipeline for development through HPD.

Oksana Mironova is a housing policy analyst at the Community Service Society, and helps facilitate the New York City Community Land Initiative's policy work. She’s hopeful that the ongoing collaboration between various CLTs will help ensure that they don’t become affordable islands in gentrifying neighborhoods. Cooper Square, for example, organizes with neighboring tenants at risk of displacement.

“There’s a way to do CLTs where they become a sort of oasis that only benefits the people who live on the CLT,” she said. “But then there’s a way to make CLTs that are benefiting not just the people who live on the CLTs…that take a bigger look.”

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by Emma Whitford, Gotham Gazette
@emma_a_whitford

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Max & Murphy Podcast: The City Council Takes on Climate Change


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Council Member Constantinides (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)


April 17, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The City Council Takes on Climate Change

costa const 150City Council Member Costa Constantinides joined the show to discuss a package of legislation he's shepherding through the City Council that aim to fight climate change, including by major requirements for reducing building carbon emissions, as well as his vision for the future of Rikers Island, and more.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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