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Opinion

Shola Olatoye Did a Lot of Good for NYCHA


NYCHA Olatoye

Outgoing NYCHA Chair Olatoye, center (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


As faith leaders in communities with large populations of NYCHA residents, we have witnessed the results of chronic disinvestment in public housing first-hand. NYCHA’s aging buildings are crumbling and many residents are worried about the health and safety of their children, elders, and neighbors.

Since 2001, NYCHA has been shortchanged $3 billion in federal operating and capital funding. NYCHA has been struggling to maintain and repair its aging housing stock for decades. And this is larger than New York City, public housing authorities all over the country are set up to fail, facing gutted budgets and regulatory barriers.

When she took her post as Chair and CEO of NYCHA, Shola Olatoye knew she needed to address these problems, so she worked with communities to make a plan. Under her leadership, we developed NextGeneration NYCHA, a 10-year plan to preserve and protect public housing for current residents as well as the next generation of New Yorkers and beyond. That plan became the road forward to safe, healthy, connected homes and communities for NYCHA residents.

Four years later, as NYCHA has strived to meet the NextGen goals, we have begun to see positive changes for the lives NYCHA residents. Under NextGen NYCHA, about 8,000 residents have been placed in jobs and 18,000 have been connected with services. NYCHA launched 14 new Youth Leadership Councils to give young people the tools they need to work with NYCHA leadership to help make policy decisions that impact the quality of life of NYCHA residents, and empower them to bring their perspective to the table.

We have also seen repair response times reduced from an average of 13 days down to four days and new “FlexOps” schedules that make frontline staff available for longer service hours. NYCHA has achieved more than $313 million in savings from NextGen initiatives and NYCHA has built up nearly 3 months of operating reserves. We are proud to have served on NYCHA’s Faith Leaders Committee and are grateful for Chair Olatoye’s leadership over the last four years.

To be clear, NYCHA’s problems didn’t come with the Chair and they certainly aren’t leaving with her. It is also now up to all of us to continue to fight for the 400,000 New Yorkers who call NYCHA home. We all bear some of the burden to fix this.

We are heartened to hear the commitment of Mayor de Blasio to the NextGeneration NYCHA plan, and hope the new Chair will continue to build upon this progress. We look forward to continuing to serve on NYCHA’s Faith Leaders Committee, supporting the incoming leadership, and working together for a brighter future.

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Rev. Marc Rivera leads Primitive Christian Church and Rev. Al Cockfield leads God’s Battalion of Prayer Church.

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The Justice System Case for Radical Incrementalism


mbdb graduation

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


Social media was full of despair as advocates bemoaned the failure of New York state government to approve bail reform legislation in the recently-passed budget. The push to eliminate cash bail brought together dozens of organizations and hundreds of concerned citizens to advance an important reform. This kind of mobilization is not atypical – advocacy campaigns tend to focus on passing legislation or electing officials.

Eliminating cash bail is a good idea, and over time, our bet is that it will end up succeeding in Albany. But we know from the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform chaired by former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman that you don’t need to pass new legislation in order to transform the justice system. Indeed, the commission made the case that it is possible to reimagine criminal justice in New York City – including closing Rikers Island – without any new legislation whatsoever. In fact, this process is already underway.  

The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice has just announced that the city's jail population is now less than 8,500 – down from a high of over 20,000 in the 1990s. This did not happen overnight. It also did not happen thanks to the passage of any single piece of legislation or the election of any single official.

Reducing incarceration in New York City took place over the course of multiple decades and mayoral administrations. It was a slow, incremental process, involving dozens, if not hundreds of decisions by different agencies and actors, the vast majority of which never made newspaper headlines. For example, in 1997, New York City’s criminal court judges released roughly 50 percent of defendants on their own recognizance pending trial, without setting bail. Today, this figure is closer to 70 percent. The implications of this shift in practice are enormous – it adds up to tens of thousands of defendants being given the chance to avoid the harms and abuses of Rikers Island.  

Based on our work in New York and our recent examination of successful reform efforts across the country in Start Here, we argue for an approach to criminal justice reform that focuses on practice not politics. We believe that we need to transform the culture of our justice system – and that the best way to achieve this is by working directly with the police officers, prosecutors, judges, and correctional officials who staff our precincts, jails, and courts to help them change the way they do their jobs on a daily basis.

Many criminal justice reformers go over the heads of practitioners and speak directly to elected officials. Legislating change is an enormously tempting path to pursue. A successful bill in Albany or Washington can alter the course of government more or less overnight. At least that's the promise. In reality, things often don't pan out that way.

As Michael Lipsky pointed out more than a generation ago in Street-Level Bureaucracy, frontline staffers can sabotage or undermine any initiative that they do not believe in. That's why real criminal justice reform requires time – time to change the hearts and minds of the people who run the criminal justice system.

Let’s be real: it can be profoundly frustrating to take an incrementalist approach to reform. While there is much to celebrate in New York City, which now has the lowest rate of incarceration of any major American city to go along with dramatically reduced levels of crime, there is also much work still to be done. A trip to criminal court reveals that racial disparities are still very much with us. A visit to Rikers Island indicates that we have a long way to go before we can say that our system treats defendants with decency and dignity.

Here are three changes in practice that would go a long way toward making our justice system more fair and more effective.

First, police officers and prosecutors need to create off-ramps so that more low-level cases can be diverted out of the system entirely. Second, judges and court administrators need to do everything in their power to expedite case processing and avoid unnecessary delays – especially when defendants are being held in jail pretrial. And finally, elected officials need to make deeper investments in pretrial services and alternative sentencing programs so that judges have options beyond jail and nothing.

None of these fixes requires new laws to be passed -- just the active engagement of the people who run the justice system in New York City. The good news is that policymakers are aggressively pursuing all of the above.

New York City is a case study for the kind of justice reform that takes a long time to see to fruition – but it’s the kind of reform that is both durable and sustainable. The process is gradual; the results are nothing short of radical.  

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Greg Berman is the director of the Center for Court Innovation and co-author of Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Incarceration (The New Press). Julian Adler is the director of policy and research at the Center for Court Innovation and co-author of Start Here.

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

A Closer Look at This Year’s Specialized High School Admissions


mayorsoffice brewer

(Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office)


Critics of the test used for admitting students to New York City’s specialized high schools -- Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and five others -- failed to properly assess this year’s test and admission results because they yearned for a more robust increase in offers to black and Latino students, when compared to the year before. The city had improved the test and increased outreach and free test prep, all efforts intended to redress their underrepresentation, but in a school system where more than 70 percent of students are from black and Latino families, just 10 percent of the seats in the specialized high schools were offered to students from those communities.

This disparity is unacceptable. But so too is a failure to properly analyze the test and admission results, and thereby call the city’s efforts a total failure and demand simply that the test be eliminated in one way or the other. Such an approach overlooks what is and can be done to help remedy the city’s decades of neglect in many of the schools serving black and Latino communities.

While a sudden turnaround was not to be expected, this year’s test results did show that as a percentage of all offers, there was a small increase in offers made to black students. In absolute terms, 207 black students received offers compared to 194 the year before. On the other hand, Latino admissions declined by 10, to 320 from the latest test. Because both white and Asian offers of enrollment declined this year, both absolutely and as a percentage of total offers made, it could be argued that these results potentially show an inflection point for black admissions. However, since the students self-identifying as “multi-racial” nearly doubled, to 128, and because the race of 419 others is unknown, it would be premature to make such a claim.

Also ignored by critics of the test, was any appreciation of the city’s contradictory efforts.

On the one hand, it increased free test prep. On the other, it changed the test, making it harder to prepare. While the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, which I head, supported changing the test to make it better aligned with what is supposed to be taught in our schools, and thereby mitigate against a test prep advantage, we shouldn’t entirely ignore this issue in our discussion of the latest test’s results.

Notably, while 450 more Asian students took the test this year, fewer were admitted this year than last in both absolute and percentage terms. Because the accusation has frequently been made that the test’s results are skewed because so many Asian students do test prep, the city’s effort to mitigate test prep advantages may well have worked. Since the city is again changing the test to be administered later this year, by, for example, including poetry, a fair and proper assessment of the city’s efforts may take a few more years.

Other efforts can and should be made. One step the city could take is to revamp the Discovery Program – a long-standing, if unused, program which lets “disadvantaged” students who fall just short of the test’s cut-off score get a second chance for admission. By a targeted redefinition of what “disadvantaged” means, focusing on the underrepresented schools and communities, more high-performing black and Latino students will have increased chances for success.

Another effort that should be adopted is the bill in Albany sponsored by Bronx State Senator Jamaal Bailey, a Bronx Science graduate, that mandates administration of a free and voluntary practice SHSAT, the specialized high school test, to be offered in sixth grade, with students receiving an analysis of test results to identify areas in need of improvement before the test is given in eighth grade. We give a PSAT for obvious reasons, why not a PSHSAT?

Alumni from all eight test-in schools believe deeply in increasing diversity at their schools, but believe just as deeply in keeping the test as the single criterion for admissions as an objective measure immune to the kinds of influence many more affluent white families use to gain entry for their children to better schools that use the kind of subjective criteria that Mayor de Blasio and others have said should replace the test. For example, the student body of Brooklyn Tech, which sits in the middle of Brownstone Brooklyn, is 80 percent students of color.

The decades of declining enrollment in specialized high schools experienced by the black and Latino communities correlates with the elimination of enriched educational programs at many of the elementary and middle schools in these communities. Today only 15 middle schools account for over half of the students in the specialized high schools; none are in black or Latino communities. A fair assessment of the city’s efforts simply cannot ignore the impact of decades of neglect by the Board of Education and its successor, the Department of Education.

Ultimately, the city needs a plan to promote the creation of pipeline middle schools located within the black and Latino communities of our city. This requires the creation of vibrant gifted and talented programs in the elementary schools and enriched coursework in the middle schools. The new chancellor would be well-advised to create such a plan.

At the same time, efforts to increase outreach, free test prep, reconfiguring the Discovery Program to enroll more disadvantaged students from black and Latino communities, among other measures, can help to promote more diversity at Brooklyn Tech and the other test-in high schools. Such efforts should be fairly and accurately evaluated, not skipped over in a rush to demand elimination of the test.

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Larry Cary is a Manhattan lawyer and president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation.

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



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