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Special Elections Deserve Democratic Deliberation, Not Backroom Deals


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former State Sen. Dan Squadron, right, with other officials (photo: @LtGovHochulNY)


When Daniel Squadron released his statement resigning as a New York State Senator, many of us were surprised and disappointed to see a legislator committed to progressive reforms go. In particular, Sen. Squadron fought the LLC loophole allowing corporations to exceed donation limits by contributing through multiple entities treated as individuals, and Squadron cited the dysfunction of Albany as one cause for his decision to step down.

With a district that spans the Brooklyn waterfront and lower Manhattan, the voters who elected a reformer deserve a fair, transparent process for selecting his successor. As Squadron himself has acknowledged, that may very well not transpire.

What happens now?
Because 2017 is not a state election year, a special election will have to be called. Squadron stated that he timed his announcement with the intention the seat being filled, and thereby ensuring district representation, as soon as possible. Governor Cuomo will need to set the date for the special election, which is anticipated to be the same as the general election on November 7.

State election law states that “[p]arty nominations for an office to be filled at a special election shall be made in the manner prescribed by the rules of the Party.”

The rules of the State Democratic Party provide for a system of filling vacancies in political subdivisions (such as Assembly or Senate districts) through election by members of the county committee representing that area. County committee members from that particular political subdivision (such as Senate or Assembly district) come together and vote, in accordance with the county party rules, on a replacement candidate for a special election. The candidate elected by the Democratic county committee then appears on the ballot as the Democratic nominee in the special election.

In Manhattan earlier this year, for instance, the party used the New York County Committee to select the nominee to fill the State Senate seat vacated by Bill Perkins, with a special election held in May that saw Sen. Brian Benjamin elected.

This is one of the few substantive powers that county committee members are empowered to exercise. County committee members, in Kings County (Brooklyn) especially, are afforded few other meaningful roles, and quite often act as a rubber stamp for the party leaders. It is the closest to democracy that we have for special elections, especially since county committee seats are open to any Party member who can collect the necessary petition signatures.

However, when a vacancy occurs in a political subdivision that spans more than one county, such as Squadron’s Senate District 26, the rules of the Democratic Party of New York State permit the chairs of the respective county committees to select the candidate who will appear on the special election ballot. Though Frank Seddio and Keith Wright are the party bosses for Brooklyn and Manhattan, respectively, the county committee chairs are actually Charles Ragusa for Kings County and Nico Minerva for New York County.

So what?
There are several problems with this system. Two Democratic Party insiders will alone choose who will be the Democratic nominee for this State Senate seat in the general election this year. There will be no primaries.

Because Senate District 26 is vastly Democratic, the nomination process will likely decide who the future State Senator will be. Once elected, on average across the state, two-thirds of incumbents don’t have challengers in their party primaries -- meaning that the nominee is likely to be State Senator for quite a while (there are no term limits in the state Legislature). In other words, two people have the power to pick a Democratic candidate who could stay in office the rest of their life.

The county chairs are under no obligation to state their criteria or rationale for selecting a candidate, nor are they required to consider the opinion of voters or even county committee members. Doing as little as is required would be not transparent to voters and not fair to candidates, and it would also further reduce the power of rank-and-file Democratic county committee members to influence who represents them and their neighbors. This would be disempowering to county committee members who would be stripped of the one important role they would otherwise have.

Whomever is chosen for the Senate position will essentially be handed a seat for as long as they would like to keep it, or, as Squadron decided, they are tired of dealing with the inaction and corruption of Albany and move on to greener pastures.

Citizens deserve to have a say in who represents them in government, lest we want to cast away our democratic principles.

What should the process be?
In his letter to the party leaders, Squadron called on Seddio and Wright to permit the county committee members from both New York (Manhattan) and Kings (Brooklyn) Counties to come together to pick the candidate, and we at New Kings Democrats echo this call. County party leaders have the ethical responsibility to conduct the process with a commitment to transparency and inclusion.

The county committee chairs should defer their votes to the county committee members in a meeting open to the general public to observe.

The parties involved should disclose the weighting of each county committee member’s vote in an accessible and timely manner to ensure that the vote is in compliance with State Election Law. The parties should be diligent and timely in all of their notifications regarding this meeting, including by taking steps to notify committee members by using multiple means of communication (snail mail and email, if not phone calls as well) and identifying the candidates under consideration.

The parties should also work to ensure that the people living in Senate District 26 are aware of the chance to vote in an even more important general election in November. Allowing the party leaders to handpick a candidate with no public participation or communication would be unacceptable.

This instance also impels us to consider whether the rules of the game need to be changed. Reformers from across the state are paying closer attention to Democratic Party rules -- and realizing they are not as democratic as they ought to be.

Just two weeks ago, New Kings Democrats and fellow Brooklyn reform clubs Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, Southern Brooklyn Democrats, and Prospect Heights Democrats for Reform were able to get the Democratic Party of Kings County to pass some key reforms. For instance, the Party may no longer endorse or support a candidate who has been convicted of a felony related to corruption or malfeasance in public office or their party position. Modest changes were also made to the notorious proxy system, which enables the party boss to hold undue power in the county committee, by making it easier for county committee members to designate their proxies to someone else by filling in a blank space following the executive committee chair’s name.

Reformers outside New York City are organizing as well. Ulster County Democratic State Committeewoman Kelleigh McKenzie introduced a set of reforms to the State Democratic Party. Two of those reforms were passed a few weeks ago, and make some much-needed steps toward improving communication with and cultivating participation from Democratic State Committee members.

While both sets of reformers have proposals that did not pass or have not passed yet, the openness of establishment Democrats to accept criticism and work together to form a more functional and democratic Democratic Party is critical at this moment in time.

At a minimum, we hope that the chairs of both relevant counties agree to convene their county committee members within Squadron’s district and fairly endorse a candidate. This is in the best interest of democracy, and of the Democratic Party. We can’t cry foul at the Republican Party’s attempt to forgo democratic processes across the country, and be caught doing the same here in New York.

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Brandon West and Anusha Venkataraman are on the executive committee of New Kings Democrats, a progressive Democratic club in Brooklyn. On Twitter at @NewKingsDems.

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Hiram Monserrate Has No Place in Elected Office


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Rep. Velázquez, the author, rallying for Moya for Council (photo: @ydanis)


Elections send messages.

You don't have to look any farther than the victory of Donald Trump to see that electing a racist, misogynistic demagogue helps to normalize abhorrent behaviors in the eyes of some Americans. That may be why, as the Southern Poverty Law Center reports, our country saw 1,094 bias incidents in the first 34 days after the November election.

If the president advocates for violence against opponents and unabashedly sexualizes and demeans women, then how can we effectively combat these dangerous practices?

The same can be said for our local elections. While there is far less media coverage of who runs for our local city and state offices, the implications are arguably just as great. Your local City Council member or state senator is often your most important local advocate. They work to bring resources to your district and manage problems that arise -- and they host park cleanups, sponsors holiday toy giveaways, and hand out merit certificates at your child's local school.

In fact, for many of our youngest New Yorkers, these most local elected officials are the first and most enduring images of a politician that they will have in their lives.

That's why I refuse to stand by and watch as corrupt former official Hiram Monserrate plots his reentry into New York politics with a run for the 21st City Council District in Queens.

For those who don't know, Hiram Monserrate is a former Council member and state senator who was ejected from the Legislature for slashing his fiancée in the face and, to cover his actions, drove her over an hour to the hospital avoiding Elmhurst Hospital only blocks away. Additionally, in 2012 Monserrate was sentenced in federal prison for stealing tens of thousands of dollars in public funds.

He has a history of violent outbursts and altercations that should immediately disqualify him from office. If that isn't enough, he also helped orchestrate the State Senate coup that handed power over to Republicans and doomed countless pieces of truly progressive legislation from becoming law, from the Dream Act to enshrining the protections of Roe v. Wade into New York law.

Thankfully, there is another choice in this election: State Assembly Member Francisco Moya.

I am proud to support Francisco for City Council. Not only have I known Francisco since he was a staffer in my Congressional office, but I have had the chance to watch him grow into a leader on countless issues in Albany.

Where Hiram Monserrate's collusion set our progressive goals back, Francisco Moya moved them all the more forward. Francisco sponsored and championed the Dream Act, so that all New York students, regardless of immigration status, could have access to affordable higher education. He stood up to the real estate industry to secure needed affordable housing for our city. Most of all, he fought time and again for policies like paid family leave and $15 minimum wage that strengthen families and ensure that they have the resources to lead healthier, more prosperous lives.

This is why countless unions, advocacy groups, and elected officials at all levels of government have joined me in supporting Francisco's candidacy. I know that they share my belief in Francisco's ability to bring his unparalleled leadership to City Hall, just as I know that they are deeply afraid of what Hiram Monserrate would do in that same Council seat.

Let's be clear: Monserrate comes nowhere near Moya in terms of community supporters, positive accomplishments, or campaign funds raised. His electoral track record is even worse. Since 2010, Monserrate lost three straight elections and hasn't won a Democratic primary since 2005. In this sense, Moya has the clear advantage going into the September 12 vote, but nothing can be taken for granted.

We shouldn't forget that many people wrote off Donald Trump. It was assumed that a thrice-married, fraud-tainted reality star with a trail of sexual assault accusations would never be president, and yet here we are. We must not be this complacent again in the face of a corrupt abuser like Hiram Monserrate with a criminal record looking to secure a prestigious job in city government.

Electing Hiram Monserrate would send the message that it’s OK to steal taxpayer money. Electing Hiram Monserrate would send the message that abusing your partner is OK and can be explained away by a momentary lapse in judgement. This is deeply troubling, especially as so many struggle with the wounds of domestic abuse and sexual assault.

After all, this is New York and the world is watching. Our city overwhelming rejected Trump and his politics of hate and abuse at the ballot box. Even today, we continue to send the message that our city is place of diversity, tolerance and equality. Will the voters of the 21st City Council District send the message that Hiram Monserrate doesn't reflect our values, as they did with Trump? I certainly hope so.

***
Rep. Nydia Velázquez represents New York’s 7th Congressional District, which includes parts of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. On Twitter @ReElectNydia.

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Engaging the Private Rental Sector to Address Homelessness


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Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Steve Banks participate in homeless outreach (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


The recent 40 percent increase in New York City street homelessness per the 2017 HOPE Count has brought much deserved attention to bringing those street homeless inside. It’s also important to assess efforts to permanently house those street homeless once they come inside.

According to data from the Mayor’s Management Report, single homeless adults are increasingly bottlenecking in city shelters, and when they are housed, they too often return to shelter within a year. Since fiscal year 1999 (FY99), a single homeless adult’s shelter stay has more than tripled from 108 days to 355 days in fiscal year 2016. Also, since fiscal year 2001, nearly one in five adults -- 17.2 percent in FY01 to 18.9 percent in FY16 - return to shelter within a year of permanent housing placement.

This indicates a lack of permanent housing exit options as well as homeless adults struggling to maintain tenancy once housed. To some extent, better exit options and sustained tenancies are on the horizon. Over the next 15 years, New York State and City will create 35,000 units of much needed supportive housing. This alone will not address these persistent issues though. Not all homeless adults will need supportive housing or be eligible.

Given these figures, would it not be better to engage an existing housing supply -- the private rental sector -- so it better fits the purpose of housing the homeless? While the private rental sector often causes homelessness, it may be part of the solution, particularly in the low-vacancy, high cost market of New York City.

One place to look for guidance is the United Kingdom. They share similarities regarding causes of homelessness including inadequate welfare housing benefits, rent increases outpacing wage growth, and a diminishing supply of public or social housing. Individuals in both countries also encounter similar barriers to renting. These include unstable rental histories, unaffordable rent and a lack of affordable housing as well as landlord imposed barriers -- refusal to rent to those enrolled in a government program, charging increased access costs to rent, and biases about renting to the homeless.

Organizations in the UK, however, use these barriers as opportunities to engage the private rental sector so it better fits the purpose of housing the homeless. One example is Crisis, a 50-year old homeless charity operating in England, Wales and Scotland. It has worked since 1997 to make the private rental sector a viable housing option. In April, through the Transatlantic Practice Exchange, I spent three weeks at Crisis with its Edinburgh and London housing teams, learning about its private rental sector work.

Based on my learning, I have four recommendations for City homelessness regarding exit options and tenancy sustainment.

1) Offer Tenancy Support to Those in Shelters, Alternatives to Shelters and Supportive Housing
Crisis addresses landlord barriers to renting by working directly with the homeless on landlord concerns before and during tenancy. This helps prepare individuals to live on their own and maintain a tenancy. As Crisis’ Private Renting Program Manager Bridget Young stated, “What’s good for the tenant is good for the landlord.”

At Crisis, potential members attend a housing induction to acquaint them with housing services. This two-hour group session covers topics such as an individual’s housing priorities and compromises. For example, one man came into the group set on living in a certain London borough but left understanding he would need to be flexible in his housing search. I was impressed with the early candid conversations such as these to acquaint individuals with the realities of the tight London rental market and the need to adjust housing expectations. After induction, members attend a Mini Renting Ready workshop. This addresses how to search for housing, the type of housing to search for and the rent one can afford. After that, members work with a housing coach and attend a property searching club. Crisis staff also support tenants during tenancy. This can include offering an accredited “Renting Ready” course with topics such as housing rights, money management and communicating with roommates and landlords, or it may involve aftercare from housing coaches for up to 12 months after moving in.

Tenancy training enhances exit options and tenancy sustainment. It facilitates an individual’s transition to housing, helping address barriers that prevent them from moving into a home and maintaining it. According to staff at Crisis and other UK housing and support agencies, landlords appreciate tenancy training and are more inclined to offer tenancies to someone who has engaged in it. Tenancy training also addresses the informational inequities among those unstably housed, equipping them with information they lack such as their housing rights. A more informed tenant would know about grounds for eviction and about their right to counsel in housing court, and thus contest an eviction instead of entering shelter.

New York City should offer tenancy training to those in the homeless services system and supportive housing. Similar to Crisis’ work, it could include early conversations with those individuals about housing as well as housing education. It may be particularly useful for those most estranged from housing - chronically homeless adults and those exiting the criminal justice system - as well as those lacking housing experience such as homeless youth and those exiting foster care. The city could pilot a program involving these groups, assessing its impact by tracking tenancy length and return to permanent housing.

2) Match Individuals in Transitional Housing as Roommates Prior to Moving into Shared Permanent Housing, and Provide Shared Housing Support
Another type of tenancy support is roommate matching. This consists of matching individuals in transitional housing with their shared permanent housing roommate prior to moving, and supporting sharers before and during shared housing. An example is Scottish provider Trust in Fife’s Tenancy Share, a transitional housing program helping those under the age of 35 to move into shared housing. Before sharers move, they’re matched with their roommates via a matching assessment, discussions and meetings. Fife transitional housing staff also support sharers before, during and after they move.

Matching attempts to improve shared rental housing, which is a byproduct of the unaffordable housing market for homeless single adults. It prepares individuals so they are not blindly moving into living with strangers. It also gives tenants a support system during and after their transition. This enhances tenancy sustainment. From 2013-16, Tenancy Share created 45 shared tenancies with a six-month tenancy sustainment rate of 90 percent.

New York City should implement a pilot akin to Tenancy Share in which drop-in centers, Safe Haven or shelter providers would match shared housing roommates as well as provide support during the transition to and tenancy in shared housing. Those ripe for a pilot are youth aging out of foster care and homeless youth in drop-in centers or shelters. Matching would provide these individuals with support, particularly valuable given their diminished support systems. The housing itself would equip them with independent living skills and build rental histories.

3) Develop a Housing Pilot Program for Single Adults Exiting Transitional Housing in Need of Tenancy Support
Crisis also works to strengthen the private rental sector as a viable housing option for the homeless by funding and advising Help-to-Rent projects. Help-to-Rents support tenants and landlords during tenancy. An example is Trust in Fife’s Fife Keyfund. Fife negotiates a one-month written guarantee, instead of a cash deposit, with the landlord, who may claim it in case of property damage. Their staff maintain regular contact with tenants, visiting them and working with them to save towards the deposit. They also serve as a point of contact for landlords to resolve tenancy issues.

Tenants in Help-to-Rents sustain their tenancies. From 2014-15, Fife Keyfund created 318 tenancies with an 85 percent tenancy sustainment rate. Help-to-Rents also entice landlords to rent to those homeless, even at lower rents. Fife staff stated that landlords buy into their housing program because they know Fife provides support. According to Stephen Green, the Board Chair of the UK housing and support provider Nomad Opening Doors , even when landlords leave for the commercial market, they return as they find it easier to rent to Help-to-Rents.

New York City should develop a housing pilot for single adults in transitional housing exiting to permanent housing in need of tenancy support. It could be modeled after Fife Keyfund and the city’s scattered-site housing program. The pilot for adults with more stable rental histories would mirror Fife Keyfund where the temporary housing provider negotiates a lease for the client. The pilot for those with unstable rental histories would mirror the city’s scattered-site housing with the transitional housing provider renting units from private rental sector landlords and subletting them to clients. Ideally, after the first year, the individual would enter into a lease with the landlord instead of subletting. For each pilot, the transitional housing provider would be the named contact for the landlord to address tenancy issues. Keeping the housing provider as the service contact provides continuity for the tenant and ensures the landlord has contact with staff most familiar with the individual’s housing.

4) Advocates and Electeds Should Engage Landlords in Homeless Advocacy
Crisis recognizes its common interest with landlords in resolving homelessness issues and engages them in policy recommendations and campaigns to address issues. An example is its work to improve homelessness prevention for single adults. Prior to the UK Parliament’s passage of the Homeless Reduction Act earlier this year, local authorities often reneged on their duty to advise and assist adults coming to them with an eviction notice. Crisis recommended statutorily obligating authorities to assist individuals earlier in the process. This would prevent evictions and address landlord concerns about authorities returning tenants to their property without assistance until bailiffs evict them. Crisis then engaged landlords in advocacy to adopt the recommendations. It reached out to landlord associations and membership groups. It also invited landlords to lobby Parliament by signing an online petition and directly speaking with Members of Parliament.

New York homeless advocates and elected officials should recognize their common interests with landlords and engage them in advocacy. An issue ripe for this is the inadequate state shelter allowance. Just like English landlords benefit from obligating authorities to assist tenants earlier in eviction, New York landlords benefit from a higher shelter allowance. It addresses their reservations about renting to those homeless due to a shelter allowance inadequate to pay rent.

Encouragingly, New York City’s largest landlord group, the Rent Stabilization Association, has endorsed the Home Stability Support bill proposed by Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi to create a state subsidy to supplement the shelter allowance. Advocates and elected officials should capitalize on this and use the opportunity to bring other landlords and State legislators on board. Ending homelessness requires various sectors working together.

***
Nicole Bramstedt is the Director of Policy at Urban Pathways, a nonprofit social services and supportive housing organization. On Twitter at @UrbanPathwaysNY.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email [email protected]

 



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