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Opinion

A Path to Reduce Building Energy While Preserving Affordable Housing


affordable housing align green climate

photo via the Urban Green Council


When it comes to combating climate change, the stakes have never been higher. The Trump administration’s failure to address this crisis means progressive urban leaders must do much more to reduce carbon emissions – especially in large apartment buildings that contribute so heavily to climate change.

One of the greatest challenges to addressing carbon emissions in residential buildings is ensuring that crucial energy efficiency upgrades don’t trigger rent hikes for low- and middle-income tenants living in rent-stabilized apartments. Rent-stabilized units account for a significant percent of large multifamily building space, so it is important to find a way to address this situation.

The good news is that we and dozens of other organizations have joined forces on a new proposal that would tackle this challenge – among others – by reducing carbon emissions at 50,000 New York City buildings while providing a plan to avoid hitting rent-stabilized tenants with the bill.

The new Blueprint for Efficiency by the Urban Green Council’s 80x50 Buildings Partnership – of which we and other organizations in the Climate Works for All Coalition are members – lays out a roadmap for cutting large building energy use by 2050.

As the Blueprint notes, city and state law currently allow the cost of many “major capital improvements” (MCIs) – including some efficiency measures like boiler replacements – to be passed on to tenants in rent-stabilized apartments. These costs then become permanent rent increases. They can also push units toward deregulation: above a set rent threshold, the units are forced out of stabilization. For too many tenants, MCIs mean higher rents they can’t afford, or even losing an apartment for tenants who are already stretched to the limit, rather than benefiting from lower energy bills and a healthier, better-maintained home. Additionally, taking apartments out of rent stabilization reduces the affordability of our housing overall.

So as part of this proposal, we are recommending new rules promoting low-cost, energy-saving measures for the rent-stabilized sector that do not qualify as MCIs, and oversight to ensure that if measures cause rental increases, action is taken to change the rules. We also believe there should be support and incentives provided so that the rent-stabilized sector can achieve the same kind of efficiency gains as market-rate buildings.

This kind of approach allows us to achieve significant energy reduction goals across the board, while protecting rent-stabilized tenants at every turn.

Beyond the rent-stabilized market, affordable housing owners and nonprofits often face thin margins and financing challenges, so efficiency upgrades are rarely a priority. The Blueprint recommends helping them through greatly expanded support programs, incentives, improved access to financing, and coordination with state-level programs that help reduce energy use.

Working with stakeholders who don’t often find themselves in the same room together we came up with these recommendations based on robust discussion and consensus-building.

Alongside all the Buildings Partnership members, we look forward to working as quickly as possible with the City Council and the de Blasio administration to translate our broader proposal into new legislation that can be advanced this year.

This would be a real win-win for all New Yorkers who care about combating climate change and preserving affordable housing across our city.

***
Maritza Silva-Farrell is Executive Director of ALIGN: The Alliance for a Greater New York & Stephan Edel is Director of New York Working Families. On Twitter @MaritzaSf and @GreenJobsNY.

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

New Approach to Low-Level Offenses is Working


mayorsoffice police

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


How should police respond when someone is drinking a beer in the street, dropping litter, or engaging in other minor offenses? Up until a year ago, a criminal summons was the only answer, and if the person didn’t show up in court, he or she could be arrested on a warrant.

As a result, New Yorkers had as much contact with the system for low-level offenses as for serious crimes.

Consider that in the first half of 2017, there were 112,000 criminal summonses compared to 98,000 misdemeanor arrests and 50,000 felony arrests. The summonses practice had a snowballing effect on the justice system: over its history of this practice, many people failed to take a day off of work or find the time to settle the criminal summons.

More than a million warrants accumulated.

Last year, that all changed.

In city legislation called the Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJRA)—passed by the City Council under then-Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio—police now have the option to issue a civil summons instead of a criminal summons, which can be handled like a ticket in the city’s administrative law court, the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, known as OATH.

Under the CJRA, if the summons is filed at OATH for the hearing, the punishment is a fine. If a court date is missed, it does not result in a warrant and arrest like it could in criminal court.

And if found in violation after a hearing, the option is available to pay the fine or do community service. Community service at OATH is instructive and aimed at preventing future offenses instead of solely requiring the performance of menial tasks.

The effect of the law has been dramatic.

Since June 2017, criminal summonses and warrants for CJRA-eligible offenses are down 89 and 94 percent, respectively. Over the same period, serious crime fell 13 percent.

Warrants issued for failure to appear in court for a small set of low-level offenses—for example, drinking in public, entering a park after dark, unreasonable noise, and public urination—could reach as high as 5,000 in a single month. Now they are around a few hundred.

During this time, the Mayor's Office and the City Council also worked with the NYPD, district attorneys, the courts and other partners to clear more than 644,000 warrants for minor, non-violent offenses that were 10 years old or older.

There are, of course, exceptions to the new enforcement option for low-level offenses. Someone may still be directed to criminal court if he or she has two or more felony arrests in the past two years, has three or more unanswered OATH summonses in the past eight years, is on probation or parole, or if there is another legitimate law enforcement reason.

The success of CJRA is not just that police now have more options. Nor is it just that there is more proportionality in how we enforce the laws, though that is important. It is also that more people are attending to their summonses.

In May of 2017 appearance rates on criminal summonses were at 64 percent. In April of 2018 that number had risen to 71 percent—which is also a credit to the multiple partners, courts, police, district attorneys, and others who helped develop a redesigned summons form, to make directions more clear, and sending text message reminders that alert people of their upcoming court dates.

Enhanced appearance rates are not happenstance. One thing we know well, both from research and from everyday experience, is that people are more likely to obey the law when they believe that they are treated fairly and that the system is responding appropriately. When the punishment for low-level offenses is out of step with the seriousness of the offense, New Yorkers lose confidence in the fairness of the system as a whole and are less likely to comply.

It is one reason why the NYPD had already been issuing fewer criminal summonses even before the CJRA, considering new approaches to low-level offenses, and has expanded neighborhood policing, which emphasizes building partnerships with the community.

We do not know for sure whether this is the dynamic that is changing behavior but we have asked the Misdemeanor Justice Project at John Jay College of Criminal Justice to do an evaluation of the effects of the CJRA and hope to learn more in the year ahead.

We know this will not fix everything. Racial disparity still persists and we have work to do. However, this dramatically lightens the volume and weight of the system’s touches on New Yorkers who commit low-level offenses.

We are hopeful that this approach that relies on residents to live cooperatively with their neighbors while ensuring compliance through proportionate measures will create a virtuous cycle in which rules are followed because they are fair and just.

***
Elizabeth Glazer is the Director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. On Twitter @CrimJusticeNYC.

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

Reimagining the Brooklyn Democratic Party


voting brooklyn

(photo: Gotham Gazette)


The New York Times recently published a story about the Queens Democratic Party and how it stacked its Democratic County Committee with at least 21 people who had no idea that they were running for the position. One of the “candidates” actually lived in Florida. The Times article said, in part: “it is not entirely clear why the party would want to populate the committee with people who did not know they were on it.” In Brooklyn, it is totally clear.

For background, the Kings County Democratic Committee has a general membership of approximately 3,000 people. Every two years, in the September primary, each Assembly District elects both a male and female District Leader (officially called a “Member of the State Democratic Committee”). Collectively, the District Leaders make up the executive committee of the Brooklyn Democratic Party.

Like Queens, the general membership of the Brooklyn Democratic Party is filled with people who are unaware they are party officials or who have no interest in serving the Party. The leadership of the Brooklyn Democratic Party exploits this ambivalence by holding County Committee meetings in hard to reach locations, inaccessible by public transportation, and then telling members that they can skip the meeting if they give the County Chair their proxy votes.

By collecting proxies from uninterested or unaware members, the Party leadership gets the votes they need to maintain full control over the direction and agenda of the Party. It gives the Party leadership the numbers it needs to beat back any reform efforts and to deny grassroots Democrats a voice in the selection of the Democratic nominees for State Supreme Court or to fill a legislative vacancy.   

The specific problems that exist in Queens have somewhat receded in Brooklyn. To his credit, when Frank Seddio took over as Chair of the Kings County Democratic Party, he agreed to adopt incremental reforms being pushed by the Brooklyn Reform Coalition. Many of these reforms are the ones that Queens reformers are still fighting for today. While there has been some improvement, Brooklyn still has a long way to go.

In the short term, the Brooklyn Democratic Party must end proxy abuse. No person, whether the County Chair, a District Leader, or a general member, should be allowed to hold more proxies than the number of County Committee members serving in their Assembly district.

Likewise, the Party currently will only pay for the County Chair to send a proxy solicitation to all members of the County Committee. District Leaders have no budget and lack the financial resources to individually send a similar solicitation. This imbalance can be cured by allowing proxies to be submitted electronically or by the Party funding a mailing for each and every District Leader who wants to solicit proxies.

The long-term goal, however, is to end governance by proxy.

There are over 1 million Democrats in Brooklyn. Certainly we can find a few thousand who are committed to building a vibrant, transparent, and inclusive Brooklyn Democratic Party. Every board or committee I have ever sat on had a rule against missing too many meetings. The same needs to be true with the Brooklyn Democratic Party. At the same time, to ensure a diverse and inclusive party, meetings need to be held at a variety of times and locations so that no one is excluded due to a serious obligation, such as working at night or childcare responsibilities.

All over the country, local Democratic Parties are vibrant, active, and impactful. They meet regularly, have subcommittees with important party-building responsibilities, and develop and promote a political platform. Brooklyn is the largest local Democratic Party in the country and does none of these things. Instead of being national leaders, we are lagging far behind. Implementing the reforms I’ve outlined here will allow us to grow into a national model of what a fighting Democratic Party can accomplish.

These are not revolutionary ideas. This is what local Democratic Parties do all over the country. Once Brooklyn’s rank-and-file Democrats demand these changes, these ideas will be impossible to stop and we will finally have the Democratic Party that Brooklyn wants and deserves.

***
Doug Schneider is a candidate for Member of the Democratic State Committee/District Leader in the 44th Assembly District in Brooklyn. On Twitter @DougSchneiderBK.

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



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