Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union



High Stakes for Affordable Housing in City Council Speaker Race

cornegy speaker forum crop

Robert Cornegy (far right) at a City Council Speaker forum (photo: @RobertCornegyJr)

Eight members of the New York City Council are asking their colleagues to elect them as the new Speaker after the new legislative body is seated January 1.

Seven of the candidates oppose allowing Airbnb and other on-line platforms to continue their assault on our scarce affordable rental housing. But one of them, Robert Cornegy, Jr. of Brooklyn, does not.

In a June 2016 opinion piece for City & State, Council Member Cornegy argued that Airbnb brings extra income to his struggling constituents in Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, ensuring that they can continue to live in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. This column was straight out of the Airbnb playbook, and contradicted by the fact that roughly 75 percent of Airbnb revenue in New York City is generated by commercial hosts with multiple listings, not “regular folks” renting their own place.

North and Central Brooklyn are the epicenter of gentrification in New York City, and Airbnb has played a destructive role. In Council Member Cornegy’s district, there were some 3,400 listings for Airbnb in October. Of these, almost 1,300 were for entire homes. If these “entire homes” are in apartment buildings, then they are illegal, as short-term rentals are against the law if the tenant is not present. (Renting out a room while the tenant is living in the apartment is not illegal, although tenants who do so risk eviction if the landlord finds out.)

Airbnb’s negative impact on Council Member Cornegy’s district is merely one part of a larger trend in the borough. Four City Council districts stretching from Williamsburg to Crown Heights are represented by Steve Levin, Antonio Reynoso, Laurie Cumbo, and Cornegy. These four districts combined had Airbnb listings for more than 16,000 units in October. By contrast, the top four Council districts in Manhattan combined had 10,800 listings.

A study last March by Inside Airbnb tallied the host photographs in the 72 predominately African-American neighborhoods in the city. The Airbnb host population in these communities was 74 percent white, while the white resident population was only 13.9 percent. White hosts in these neighborhoods earned 73.7 percent of the income from Airbnb rentals. Despite Airbnb’s claim that they make it possible for people of color to supplement their incomes, it is clear that the newer, white residents in these gentrifying neighborhoods are the main beneficiaries of the “sharing economy.”

So, who suffers? These units have been withdrawn from the rental market because short-term rentals are more profitable. Long-term residents therefore face a tighter market, and are subject to harassment and rent gouging.

This is not only a Brooklyn or even a New York problem. From Vancouver to London, local governments are taking action to curb short-term rentals. Airbnb’s response is to stonewall, and enlist surrogates to spin its public relations web.

I have a friend whose family owns a restaurant in a year-round resort town in the northeastern United States. He told me recently that until a couple of years ago, the cooks and waiters could share a house for $700 to $800 per month. Now there are no such rentals available, because owners can make that much in a weekend through Airbnb.

The sheer scope of this crisis makes the future of New York City’s government all the more critical. The rest of the nation and even the world look to us as a model for policy and politics, and we must do everything we can to make our housing market more affordable.

Ensuring that the next Speaker of the City Council is a true advocate for tenants, and for preserving our threatened stock of affordable rental housing, is the first next step in addressing the host of problems we face: weakened rent laws, lax enforcement by state and city, predatory speculators paying excessive prices for apartment buildings with an eye to driving out the rent-regulated tenants, constant upward pressure on rents, construction as harassment, and more.

We cannot afford to have in our house of government a Speaker who will not fight to protect the homes of its citizens. I urge Council Member Cornegy’s colleagues to take a look at this before casting their votes, and show that they stand with tenants, not the companies that are forcing them out.

Michael McKee is treasurer of Tenants Political Action Committee. On Twitter @TenantsPACNY.

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

De Blasio Administration Disappoints at Rikers Hearing

martin 10 years sucks via close rikers

Glenn Martin & JustLeadershipUSA (photo: @GlennEMartin)

New Yorkers depend on City Council hearings to hold agencies accountable and to demand transparency from the mayor’s administration. On Monday, what the City Council members of the Fire and Criminal Justice Committee got instead was a dismissive attitude cushioned in lofty rhetoric from a mayor’s office that seems unwilling or unable to make closing the jails on Rikers Island a priority.

Time after time, representatives from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) and the city Department of Correction (DOC) sidestepped important questions, reaffirmed their adherence to a too-long ten-year timeline to closing Rikers jails, and adamantly refused to offer a concrete plan for how to achieve even that goal.

Several Council members were quick to point out that a ten-year timeline is not justified by any information that has been presented to them, but the de Blasio administration made clear that they see the challenge of closing Rikers jails as a “steep climb,” and something that will be nearly impossible to achieve in anything less than ten years.

Glenn E. Martin, president of JustLeadershipUSA and founder of the #CLOSErikers campaign, voiced a concern that many were palpably feeling during the hearing when, in his testimony, he described Mayor de Blasio’s actions on closing Rikers as “opaque, narrow, and visionless.” Martin and others voiced concerns over some of MOCJ’s proposals, including the use of risk assessments in evaluating the population at Rikers Island, as well as the language used by new DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann, who constantly referred to people incarcerated on Rikers as “inmates.”

On Twitter, Martin noted that Brann’s call for cultural change at Rikers – what he sees as an untenable given the deeply-entrenched culture of brutality on the island – was rendered meaningless by her refusal to “recognize the humanity of the people there.”

There were other moments in testimony from MOCJ and DOC offering insight into how the mayor is approaching the problems presented by Rikers Island.

MOCJ Director Liz Glazer reaffirmed her office’s commitment to using data to help reduce the number of people incarcerated at Rikers, while pointing out that the seriousness of the charges that many are facing may make it difficult to immediately relocate or release several of those people. Additionally, DOC Commissioner Brann highlighted some of the increased programming that has been introduced at Rikers, and walked Council members through some of the recent reforms that are a result of oversight efforts from the court-appointed Nunez Monitoring Team.

However, even with these moments, the hearing felt like a missed opportunity to communicate the mayor’s vision, if he has one, to a city eager for concrete action and meaningful change. “While today's hearing should have been an opportunity to engage with the administration and learn about what they have done and intend to do, the hearing showed that the mayor is simply not interested in crafting meaningful and bold solutions in the effort to close Rikers,” said Martin.

What was perhaps most shocking, however, was not just how little was said about what’s next, but how little was said about whatever has been achieved up to this point. The City Council was given very little substantive information to work with, and was instead forced to reckon with the fact that, in many ways, the mayoral administration’s work on closing Rikers still sits at square one. In fact, judging by the few proposals and initiatives that were discussed by the administration, it would appear that they still do not understand the scope or the urgency of this issue.

Much of the testimony offered from the mayor’s representatives felt like it could have been spoken, without changing a word, several years ago. This is despite what the mayor claims has been significant progress on criminal justice reform throughout the second half of his first term. Time and again, MOCJ and DOC testimonies were centered on platitudes about the challenges that remain and the general vision that the mayor reluctantly adopted when he did finally agree that the city should work to close the Rikers jail complex.

But that was pretty much all they offered, and that’s the problem.

Rikers Island continues to be a destructive force for New York’s communities, budget, and conscience. It is, as Comptroller Scott Stringer has said, a stain on the moral fabric of our city. For this administration to offer little more than empty words and half-hearted ideas is a true disappointment for all of the New Yorkers eager to work with this mayor to end the trauma that results from this national embarrassment. Perhaps most importantly of all, this administration’s attitude was a deeply painful insult to the people who’ve been directly harmed by Rikers, many of whom were in the audience, looking on as the mayor’s representatives seemed to look past them.

Shanequa Charles is a #CLOSErikers campaign member.

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

Yeshiva-Gate Could Imperil De Blasio’s Second Term

de blasio israeli flag parade

Mayor de Blasio (photo via The Mayor's Office)

For Mayor de Blasio, controversy over some ultra-Orthodox Jewish day schools’ duty to provide students with required secular studies may turn into a significant second term scandal. Yeshiva-gate, as it could be called, may imperil de Blasio’s next four years, after the mayor kicked the can down the road throughout his first term, with a long-stalled investigation still incomplete.

The Mayor-controlled city Department of Education is obligated under State Education Law to assure that nonpublic schools within the district provide education “substantially equivalent in amount and quality” to requirements for public school students. This includes consistency with State Learning Standards for all children ages 6 – 16 in English, social studies, math, science, technology, visual arts and music, physical education, career and home studies, health, and library/information skills.

The Mayor understands this mandate, having stated at a recent town hall meeting, “We have a legal requirement to make sure that the proper education happens in every kind of school.”  

But a 86-page September report, “Non ≠ Equivalent,” by Yaffed, an advocacy organization, documents that a sub-group of ultra-Orthodox yeshivas provide far from adequate secular studies, with male adolescents especially short-changed. Many students have come forward attesting to the crippling economic and social effects of their inability to communicate in English and their ignorance of basic math, science, and technology. The Netflix documentary “One of Us,” as well as Yaffed-produced videos, present numerous heart-breaking examples of ultra-Orthodox yeshivas’ systemic flouting of the Education Law. Press exposés have appeared in the Times, Post, Daily News, NY1, and CBS, among others.

Despite this overwhelming evidence, a promised report by the Department of Education has failed to materialize. After over three years and numerous missed deadlines only six of the 39 schools supposedly under review have been visited and then only under strict yeshiva controls. The investigation has now taken more time than the Warren Report on the Kennedy assassination yet there is no end in sight.  Chancellor Carmen Fariña has repeatedly side-stepped the issue, dismissing criticism as politically-motivated.

Enter the New York State Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. Last February, in People v. Flanagan, the Court interpreted the elements of Penal Law § 195.00, Official Misconduct. There, a student’s heist of $3,000 worth of school electrical equipment eventually led to the conviction of a high-ranking police official who failed to pursue the investigation on behalf of the student’s father, a friend. The Court held that “the defendant, acting alone and with others in his official capacity, caused the abdication of the inherent duty to investigate...where there was overwhelming evidence.” Sound familiar?

Further, the required mental state for conviction of Official Misconduct is “the intent to obtain a benefit or deprive another of a benefit.” Here the Mayor’s Yeshiva-gate actions fail both prongs. The yeshivas gain from the Mayor’s failure to assure legal compliance by continuing to receive millions of dollars in public aid provided to them for ostensibly secular purposes. For de Blasio, behind the thin veil of his dilatory investigation, is the clear benefit of Orthodox leaders’ electoral support, with thousands of bloc votes supplied by their followers. The other side of the coin is the deprivation to yeshiva students of mandated secular studies. Case law makes clear that the benefit and deprivation need not be monetary and the official’s actions don’t have to be successful. Just the attempt is enough.

A strong case can be made that the Mayor is guilty of illegal action (“malfeasance” in legal terms) and inaction (“nonfeasance”) in this respect, violating both subsections of Section 195.00. A Freedom of Information Law request by Yaffed for City communications on the yeshiva issue was filed years ago yet is still unanswered. If the FOILed documents are ever produced – or unearthed by prosecutors doing their job – they will likely reveal orders to stymie the DOE’s yeshiva report. Just as glaring is the Mayor’s obvious inaction, a crime since he has a duty to investigate, as in Flanagan.

Similar charges are viable under the related Penal Law, Obstruction of Government Operations. There appears to have been interference with the routine administration of required nonpublic school oversight. That, too, is a crime.

All of this makes de Blasio vulnerable to removal from office by the Governor under section 9 of the City Charter. While he might be sorely tempted, it is unlikely that Cuomo would take such a step after de Blasio’s re-election victory. Removal over Yeshiva-gate would also pit Cuomo against the Chasidic community, a statewide, as well as local, political force.

Should the Manhattan District Attorney, who has jurisdiction, bring and win a case carrying a jail term of up to a year, resignation under pressure could occur. De Blasio has escaped D.A. Cyrus Vance’s clutches before, coming close to breaking election laws and earning Vance's scorn but not charges. Now Vance is under greater pressure to prosecute the powerful. This time the Mayor may have stepped over the line.

David C. Bloomfield is Professor of Education Leadership, Law and Policy at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of American Public Education Law, 3d edition and other works. On Twitter @BloomfieldDavid.

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

Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice

Gotham Gazette: Embracing Sanders, De Blasio Leaves Behind His Clinton-Cuomo Era Embracing Sanders, De Blasio Leaves Behind His Clinton-Cuomo Era Gotham Gazette: Sworn In for Second Term by Bernie Sanders, De Blasio Claims 'New Progressive Era' Sworn In for Second Term by Bernie Sanders, De Blasio Claims 'New Progressive Era' Gotham Gazette: What's The [DATA] Point? Podcast What's The [DATA] Point? Podcast Gotham Gazette: Max & Murphy on Politics Max & Murphy on Politics


The comments section is provided as a free service to our readers. Gotham Gazette's editors reserve the right to delete any comments. Some reasons why comments might get deleted: inappropriate or offensive content, off-topic remarks or spam.