Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/22 Mon, 25 Mar 2019 04:05:07 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Getting to Truth, and Solidarity, on Loft Law Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8369-getting-to-truth-and-solidarity-on-loft-law-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8369-getting-to-truth-and-solidarity-on-loft-law-reform nyc loft tenants rally

Rally for the Loft Law bill (photo via @NYCLT)


Recently, there has been considerable attention paid to a Loft Law “clean-up” bill that is on the table in the New York State Legislature. Advocates have worked tirelessly for over three years to make it law; an effort stymied by a Republican-controlled Senate in 2017 and 2018, resulting in eviction of many loft tenants.

In November 2018, Democrats won enough seats to take control of the Senate this year and thus all of state government. Many Democrats won hard-fought elections, including Julia Salazar, running on a platform of strengthening rent laws to protect tenants. This blue wave raised hopes that, along with other legislative actions to strengthen New York’s rent laws, the Loft Law clean-up bill would finally pass.

Early this year, the bill was introduced, sponsored in the Assembly by Deborah Glick – a longtime champion for loft tenants – and in the Senate by Salazar. The bill offers a platform around which housing rights advocates should rally – it protects tenants across the city, creates additional affordable housing units, keeps working-class labor markets intact, and regulates rent in communities threatened by gentrification.

Yet, opposing forces have once more succeeded in stalling its enactment, by disseminating misinformation about its contents, impacts, and the Loft Law in general. This has poisoned solidarity of communities who share the same interests, struggling to fight real estate development.

We believe that the strife must end. As diverse groups fighting to protect and strengthen tenants’ rights, we are on the same side and must stand united in solidarity. Universally strengthened rent laws cannot be accomplished if loft tenants are left out in the cold.

With that in mind, it is critical to dispel the misinformation and misconceptions around the Loft Law and the clean-up bill. Three central claims have been advanced by critics.

The first is that it will negatively impact jobs in the North Brooklyn Industrial Business Zone (IBZ), threatening approximately 20,000 industrial and manufacturing jobs in the IBZ. This is false. In fact, the bill does exactly the opposite.

The bill and Loft Law in general contain structural limitations on which residential units can be protected. Tenants must show that their apartments were residentially occupied during two narrow windows of time in order to be protected (2008 – 2009 and 2015 – 2016). Only units that were and are already occupied residentially will qualify. Thus, future illegal “M-R” conversions (from manufacturing to residential) will not be protected under the Loft Law and are precluded by the IBZ’s zoning restrictions.

The current Loft Law provides that the entire IBZ is subject to potential claims for coverage. This has been the state of the law since 2010. There is no evidence, nor has any been presented, that during those nine years there was any job loss in the IBZ caused by the Loft Law or loft tenants. The Loft Law has been amended multiple times since 2010 without any objection regarding the IBZ. Additionally, and missed in this argument, is that the Loft Law does not displace existing manufacturing or commercial use – it protects units and buildings that are and have long been residential. The argument is thus the very definition of a red herring.

Nevertheless, to address recently-expressed concerns about the potential impact on the IBZ, the bill removes approximately 90 percent of the IBZ from Loft Law coverage by excluding areas that are zoned for heavy manufacturing (M3) uses, thereby preserving the vast majority of the area for manufacturers and related jobs. Failure to pass it would therefore have precisely the opposite effect of what critics want: the entire IBZ would continue to be subject to the Loft Law.

The second criticism is that it will catalyze community displacement.

We, as a part of the housing rights community, share the concern over policymakers designing laws that intentionally or inadvertently advantage certain groups at the expense of others. However, an amended Loft Law will contribute to community preservation, not undermine it.

The Loft Law protects low-income people and families by preventing landlords from charging higher, market-rate rents for protected loft units. Preserving these units as additional affordable housing units increases market supply, causing downward, not inflationary, pressures on rents.

The third criticism is that it will invite residential use in heavy manufacturing buildings, opening the door to unsafe living conditions. As stated above, the bill does not do this – by excluding M3 zones, the bill prevents this outcome. Not passing the bill perpetuates the very problem identified in this critique.

The Loft Law has always considered uses such as those in the light or medium manufacturing (M1/2) districts in the IBZ, when conducted as part of a live-work space, to be permissible; and historically there have been many buildings and units containing such mixed uses. But, again, the argument is a red herring, for landlords who illegally rent out spaces for residential use will continue to do so if the clean-up bill does not pass; meaning that any “hazard” posed for tenants will continue to exist, unabated.

One fundamental purpose of the Loft Law is to ensure legalization of covered buildings and units already converted into residential use. Part of that process includes measures to ensure that buildings meet the city’s safety and health codes. The bill will therefore increase the safety and well-being of residential tenants.

It is dismaying that long-standing allies in the fight for strengthening tenant rights have assumed opposing positions. We believe that has been the result of misunderstandings of the issues addressed here. But the time for disagreements is over. We, as a community of people who share common interests and goals, cannot afford any further division to be sown. People have been, and are on the precipice of, losing their homes, and without passage of the clean-up bill, many more will join them. This is unacceptable, unjust, and inconsistent with the larger movement to strengthen New York’s rent laws, protect tenants, and slow gentrification and displacement. Accordingly, we call on the community to support the passage of the Loft Law clean-up bill.

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Alison Dell, Ximena Garnica, McDavid Moore & Zefrey Throwell are New York City Loft Tenants (NYCLT) members and live-work spaces advocates. Michael Kozek is an NYCLT member and Loft Law lawyer. Michael McKee is treasure of Tenants PAC. On Twitter @NYCLT.

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Getting to Truth, and Solidarity, on Loft Law Reform Mon, 18 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Proposal Would Subvert Efforts to Address Affordable Housing Crisis http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8345-proposal-would-subvert-efforts-to-address-affordable-housing-crisis http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8345-proposal-would-subvert-efforts-to-address-affordable-housing-crisis mayorsoffice aff

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


One of the greatest and most immediate challenges facing New York is a statewide affordable housing crisis that continues to affect millions of families. Elected officials must support and promote new legislation and policies that will help our state produce more affordable homes and, correspondingly, do no harm to much-needed housing efforts.

The reality today is that more than 3 million households across the state still pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs, which means they are “rent-burdened” and often struggle to afford housing and other necessities like health care and child care.

This crisis is what led Governor Cuomo and the Legislature to dedicate $2.5 billion to support an ambitious five-year statewide housing plan and preserve crucial low-income housing tax credits that were under threat by the federal government.

But our state’s ability to address the affordable housing crisis is now at risk of being undermined by new legislation that proposes to expand the definition of public work and the application of the prevailing wage mandate to private construction projects – including low-income housing developments – based on the public subsidies they rely upon to be built.

As an organization whose members deeply believe in supporting the needs of low- and middle-income New Yorkers, we also believe in good, fair wages for all workers. But the wide application of prevailing wage, which is far in excess of the median wage and can raise construction costs by 25 percent or more, is not actually a path to higher pay for construction workers. In fact, it is certainly a way to ensure there are fewer jobs, fewer new developments, and fewer affordable homes for New Yorkers.

This would be a step backward for New York, where construction costs are already the most expensive in the world, averaging $362 per square foot in New York City, according to Turner & Townsend’s 2018 report on international construction. The report also notes that those costs will only continue to rise and are expected to jump by another 3.5 percent over the next year. Other costs and regulatory burdens remain major obstacles all across the state.

Whether they live in Brooklyn or Buffalo, New Yorkers simply cannot afford to lose opportunities for new housing construction and the many good jobs that come with them. It is worth noting that the creation and preservation of affordable housing supported more than 300,000 total jobs throughout the state between 2011 and 2015.

The state Legislature now has an important choice to make. Rather than advancing well-intentioned but misguided legislation that would diminish new affordable homes and good jobs across the state, we hope lawmakers will fully consider these negative impacts before they proceed with imposing prevailing wages on the construction of affordable housing in New York.

The further that lawmakers explore this issue, the clearer it will become that it is unwise to hastily advance these proposals and risk undercutting New York State’s much-needed housing plan. And if they make the right choice, all New Yorkers will benefit.

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Jolie Milstein is president and CEO of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing, a trade association that represents nearly 400 members responsible for the construction and preservation of affordable housing across the state.

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Proposal Would Subvert Efforts to Address Affordable Housing Crisis Tue, 12 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The Loft Law Bill: Inequity on Stilts http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8336-the-loft-law-bill-inequity-on-stilts http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8336-the-loft-law-bill-inequity-on-stilts wbgp oft


We are individuals and organizations who collectively have been representing, serving, assisting, or employing thousands of low-income families of color and minority- and women-owned businesses residing in Greenpoint, Bushwick, and Williamsburg well before these places were hashtags and hotspots; some of us also are loft tenants. As such, we oppose the bill being proposed in the state Legislature to amend New York’s Loft Law.

We have met with proponents of the bill and recognize the good faith, and human need, that motivates them to push for a measure addressing loft tenants’ concerns. But we feel compelled to raise concerns that the bill, pending before the Assembly and Senate in Albany, and specifically the Senate’s Committee on Housing, Construction, and Community Development, fails North Brooklyn on all fronts of housing, construction, and community development.

Even more concerning, the proposed bill undermines the longstanding goal of safe, decent, and fair housing in communities long needing such.

The bill harms communities long under siege in three ways.

First, in doubling down on the late Vito Lopez’s unprincipled concession of North Brooklyn’s Industrial Business Zone (IBZ) by allowing even more lofts within the IBZ, it threatens nearly 20,000 industrial and manufacturing jobs that pay North Brooklyn’s working, immigrant families double what retail, service-industry jobs do. As Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign reminds us, good paying jobs in the community are not merely an abstract economic issue; they are at the core of what fair housing laws are meant to secure. Such laws exist to ensure that historically ignored and marginalized communities have access to opportunities and resources – jobs, schools, healthcare, and prospects for social mobility – too often tied to zip codes.

Allowing for lofts in North Brooklyn’s manufacturing areas where there are currently good-paying jobs for residents – existing jobs, not those brought in by outsiders like Amazon – threatens employment that pays the rent; by that, they threaten long-term residents’ place in the greatest city of opportunity this country knows.

Second and more directly, the bill is a harbinger of further direct displacement, both in wholesale and retail, for a community already decimated by such. On the wholesale level, lofts change the character of manufacturing areas to residential, leading to an explosion in variance applications. That explosion, in turn, comes to justify zoning conversions for market-rate luxury housing.

This is a key mechanism through which communities of color, which cannot afford the new housing or the increased rents near it, get wiped out in the tide of gentrification. This is the precise pattern that led to the unsuccessful rezonings of the Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront (2005), Rheingold (2013), and Pfizer (2018), all separate episodes that contributed to a 30% decrease in people of color within our communities.  

This wholesale pattern emerges out of the retail dynamic on the ground, where lofts, wholly unintended by their civic-minded occupants, become part of the market forces pushing low-income families of color out of communities. This is because lofts simply are not the same type of housing as the apartments in which North Brooklyn’s working families of color reside.

Constructed for transient populations, not long-term renter families, and characterized by very high turnover, loft tenancies often have higher rents at amounts unaffordable to North Brooklyn’s low-income families – whose median yearly income is approximately $55,000 for a household of four.

In the same way that unscrupulous landlords and developers prefer market-rate tenants to long-term rent-stabilized families of color, so too do they prefer higher paying loft tenants as a stepstone to the luxury market. This preference leads to all those deplorable tactics forcing out such families and small businesses, which we in North Brooklyn sadly experience every day. The recent New York City Council debates about tenant harassment have made the public aware of this dangerous dynamic.

Third, the proposed bill, in opening the door, for the first time ever, to residential lofts being built within the same structure as heavy manufacturing uses such as amusement facilities (think bowling alleys or batting cages), automobile service centers (think mechanics shops), and heavy industrial uses such as metal finishers and carpentry shops, seems to invite adverse effects and inequity.

The effects that lurk are in the obvious health and safety risks raised by having people live among such uses so incompatible with residential uses. Inequity is a threat because of the outcomes we have observed from these clashes in the past – it is the businesses employing local residents, many of color, who will be displaced to make way for folks who decided to insert themselves among factories with good jobs – are grossly unfair.

To be clear, we do not want loft occupants to be evicted and recognize that they too are opponents of developers, who force them out long-term. In fact, we along with the NYC Loft Tenants coalition stand together to highlight that any bill seeking reform of the city loft law needs to be comprehensive and address our mutual vision.

Such legislation must ensure that our community is protected from the forces of gentrification that lofts unleash and that our IBZ is treated like others, namely preserved to protect the manufacturing jobs that are so crucial to communities. If other IBZs are not part of the loft law, then ours shouldn’t be either, especially given that it is full of jobs that sustain low-income families in our neighborhoods.   

We call on elected officials – especially the Chair of the Housing Committee Senator Brian Kavanagh and Senator Julia Salazar, both of whom represent North Brooklyn, to consider these aspects of the loft law question. More importantly, we call on them to engage the North Brooklyn community with town halls and public hearings to get more input and perspective on the important questions raised by the bill before killing good jobs and destroying what remains of working-class communities in North Brooklyn with bad legislation.

Unlike many areas throughout the city, in North Brooklyn the Loft Law bill raises important social equity questions; so, there must be a process to ensure these issues are discussed in an open forum with residents and workers. In a democratic system, working class communities of color majority voices should not be sidelined in favor of the interests of a minority – our legislative process must live up to its promise and include all voices within our community.

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by Anne Guiney and Edwin Delgado on behalf of Bushwick Community Plan Steering Committee; Gregory Louis on behalf of Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A; Alexandra Fennell on behalf of Churches United For Fair Housing (CUFFH); Leah Archibald on behalf of Evergreen Exchange; Jose Lopez on behalf of Make the Road New York; and Rolando Guzman on behalf of St. Nicks Alliance.

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The Loft Law Bill: Inequity on Stilts Sun, 10 Mar 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Public Advocate-Elect Jumaane Williams' Promises and Positions http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8312-what-jumaane-williams-has-promised-to-do-as-public-advocate http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8312-what-jumaane-williams-has-promised-to-do-as-public-advocate cm jw pa

Jumaane Williams (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Brooklyn City Council Member Jumaane Williams, who unsuccessfully ran in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor last year, won in convincing fashion the Tuesday special election for public advocate of New York City.

Over the course of his campaign, Williams, a former tenant organizer, made several promises and pitched policies that he said would transform the office of public advocate, which has limited statutory authority or budget but provides a platform for outspoken advocacy.

“This job is not to be adversarial just because. It’s to be a voice for the people,” Williams said at the first of two official televised debates in the short special election, on February 6. He is seeking to make the public advocate more responsive to everyday New Yorkers, he’s said, with the ability to involve communities in city policy rather than see initiatives imposed on the populace from the de Blasio administration’s ivory tower.

Williams top stated priorities for taking on the citywide position are affordable housing, criminal justice reform, improved mass transit, and increased transparency and accountability in local government, whether it be at the NYPD or in economic development deals such as the failed Amazon “HQ2” proposal. He also has said he would focus on transit in the city, pointing the finger on Governor Andrew Cuomo for mismanagement of the MTA.

Rethinking Rezoning and Housing
“New York’s housing crisis is out of control,” Williams writes on his campaign website. “While Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo claim to take this crisis seriously, they do little more than tinker at the edges.”

Williams was among the three Council members who voted against Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, a significant but controversial change to the city’s housing policies that formed the basis for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing program launched in his first term. MIH set a new baseline for the inclusion of affordable housing in development projects that receive city permission to build larger than land use rules would otherwise allow. It was heralded by de Blasio and most Council members as historic and trend-setting, but Williams believes it did not go far enough.

Throughout the public advocate campaign, Williams has continued to criticize MIH and called for fixing the policy to incorporate deeper housing affordability. “Housing is the number one issue,” he declared at the first debate.

Williams has promised to push for three bills that he had already introduced before the Council -- one to place a moratorium on neighborhood rezonings, which the mayor has pursued in several low-income communities of color; a bill that would mandate a racial impact study before any rezoning; and a third one to end the city’s third-party transfer program, which has led to what many call deed theft of the homes of low-income residents of color.

He has also promised to push for a 15 percent of units set aside for homeless individuals in housing projects that receive city funding and to end the sale of public land to private developers.

The scandal-plagued and financially ailing New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), home to nearly half-a-million New Yorkers, also loomed large in the public advocate’s race and Williams promised to investigate the work of NYCHA home inspectors and living conditions in developments. Though the authority has also been the subject of multiple lawsuits, including one by the federal government that was settled with the city, Williams has also pledged to sue the authority over what his campaign termed a breach of human rights.

Deputies in the Boroughs
Williams has promised a more ground-up approach in the public advocate’s work, emphasizing at the second televised debate of the race on February 20, “The problem this administration has is it too often tries to do things to people. We have to have someone that’s gonna try to do things with people.”

"I want to reorganize how the public advocate office works," Williams said on the Max & Murphy podcast. He said he would set up satellite offices in the boroughs that have a high number of complaints filed with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates police misconduct, with a deputy public advocate stationed at each one to more closely track problems at their source.

Subpoena Power
Williams has said he will introduce legislation to give the public advocate the power to subpoena city agencies for records, which would help him perform the duty of “charter cop” that he said is an essential role for the office, referring to the city charter, its foundational government document.

Williams also wants the ability to be able to vote on legislation before the City Council. The public advocate can introduce legislation to the Council, but does not have a vote.

All the candidates, including Williams, generally agreed that the office needs more resources and should have an independent budget that is not subject to the whims of the mayor or the City Council.

Williams told Max & Murphy that several agencies aren't living up to expectations in his view and need more scrutiny. He named agencies dealing with housing, policing, and health care, among others.

Fossil Fuel Divestment
Williams has called for the city to divest its public pension money from fossil fuels and, as public advocate, would be one of the trustees of the city’s multi-billion-dollar pension fund. His position would allow him to advocate for divestment, a position that his predecessor also supported.

Police Transparency
As a longtime critic of the NYPD, Williams has pushed for policing reforms, and for greater transparency and accountability in police disciplinary procedures. He was one of the architects of the Community Safety Act, passed over a veto by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which cracked down on discriminatory policing and imposed an inspector general on the police department.

Williams has been vocal about the need to repeal section 50-a of the state civil rights law, which prevents officer disciplinary records from public disclosure. He has vowed to continue that advocacy from the public advocate’s podium.

Marijuana Legalization
Williams introduced the Marijuana Reform Act at the City Council, which would prohibit employment discrimination, as well as against license applications, by city agencies based on marijuana-related arrests and convictions. He favors legalization of adult-use marijuana but wants tax revenue reinvested in communities that have been most harmed, as he puts it, by racially-biased law enforcement of drug laws.

Election Reforms
Williams has supported instant-runoff voting, also known as ranked-choice voting, which gives voters the ability to choose candidates by preference and distributes second-choice votes if no single candidate meets the required threshold to claim a victory. The system is designed to prevent costly and laborious runoffs like the one held for the public advocate’s seat in 2013. Williams has also said he’s supportive of nonpartisan elections.

Municipal Control of the MTA
At the first debate in the race, when the ten candidates on stage were asked if the mayor should have control of the city’s subways, Williams only half raised his hand. Though he agreed that the city should increase its contributions to MTA capital funding, he said it should come with a “commensurate amount of control” for the city. Currently, the mayor controls 4 of 17 appointments to the MTA board, which Williams said should be increased. But, he said mayoral control wasn’t ideal since, in his opinion, it hadn’t worked well for the school system. Instead, he said he’d like to see “municipal control” which also gives the City Council the ability to have a say.

Education
Williams attended Brooklyn Technical High School, one of the city’s specialized high schools where Mayor de Blasio wants to diversify the student population by scrapping the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). But Williams has taken issue with the mayor’s plan, which critics say would pit different racial and ethnic groups against each other, taking away seats from Asian-Americans to improve representation of blacks and Latinos. “This is an issue about access points,” Williams said at the first debate, emphasizing that the city should be looking at multiple criteria for admissions and evaluating the entire Department of Education.

Williams has also called for fully funding the state appeals court’s Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision, which would require the state to allocare billions more in the budget for struggling schools. CFE funding has been a perennial issue at the state level and Governor Cuomo has sought to change the funding formula this year. As public advocate, it’s likely that Williams will be among those on the frontlines fighting those efforts as the state budget deadline nears.

The Amazon Deal
Williams was among the elected officials who signed a letter urging Amazon to choose New York City as the home for its new HQ2 campus. But once the deal was announced by Mayor de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, Williams called it a “debacle” and said it should be quashed. At the second debate, which took place shortly after Amazon scuttled their plans to move to Long Island City, Williams explained that he took issue with the secrecy of the deal and that he would be “derelict” if he had refused to engage in conversations to create between 25,000 and 40,000 jobs in the city. “We should applaud and be thankful that people’s voices were heard but we should lament the fact that we didn’t have an honest discussion,” he said.

He said he would advocate for the passage of Council Member Brad Lander’s bill, which he has co-sponsored, to ban non-disclosure agreements for economic development deals, like the NDAs that Amazon had required elected officials to sign.

Small Businesses
Williams has supported the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which is meant to commercial tenants the right to renew their leases and prevent the closure of small businesses from exorbitant rent hikes. Recent versions of the bill have languished for more than a decade in the City Council but it has picked up momentum under Council Speaker Corey Johnson -- a hearing was held in October for the first time in ten years.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

This article has been updated to add several other Williams positions expressed during the campaign.

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Public Advocate-Elect Jumaane Williams' Promises and Positions Tue, 26 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
How New York Can Become a Real Democracy: Re-Center Race as Legislative Progress Continues http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8280-how-new-york-can-become-a-real-democracy-re-center-race-as-legislative-progress-continues http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8280-how-new-york-can-become-a-real-democracy-re-center-race-as-legislative-progress-continues gov cuomo dna

(photo: Governor's Office)


For decades, the phrase “three men in a room” has been used to capture how the leadership of New York state government (the governor, the state Assembly speaker and the state Senate majority leader) in Albany decides in back-room negotiations what legislation lives or dies. Finally, this year, state government can remake itself much closer to the image of true democracy. Leaders in the Assembly and Senate, Carl Heastie and Andrea Stewart-Cousins, are for the first time both African-American, and one is a woman.

This is an undeniably exciting moment, but it is also a moment fraught with uncertainty and real questions about what it means to have a truly inclusive democracy, one that reflects a multiracial society and advances solutions to benefit all, not just a select few.

While it is Democrats who are leading the charge on voting and campaign finance reforms – issues at the very heart of democracy – both parties have participated in, and benefited from, a system run on corporate money and machine politics. That system consists of a very small, very wealthy, and very white donor class that occupies the place that democracy should.

Recently passed reforms such as early voting and changes to the “LLC loophole,” which limits the amount of money powerful individuals and companies can contribute to candidates, are game-changers for New York. Still, much of the hard work of disentangling the deep, white roots of money from politics remains, work that must be done in order to have a true democracy in New York. In particular, automatic voter registration and public financing of elections are essential to achieving this goal. But there’s more.

In the public discourse on many issues, the flag of economic equality flies high. What has been less talked about is the systematic exclusion and oppression of communities of color as a direct result of our current system. Democracy reforms are not just about good governance, they are about giving people of color access to the political power from which they are all too often excluded. Race has become a footnote in a discussion when it should be the headline, for the simple reason that we cannot achieve a truly inclusive democracy if we do not start by acknowledging who has been excluded and why.

A recent column on the housing crisis by State Senator Zellnor Myrie and Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change, centers the impact of money on the most basic and essential of goods – shelter.  

“For the real estate industry, these donations [to candidates] are a calculated investment to protect and expand their soaring profits,” they wrote in The Daily News. “Albany returns the favor by granting favorable tax breaks for developers and blocking meaningful action on the rent laws, which protect millions of tenants and families.”

At Community Voices Heard, a member-led, multiracial organization working to secure racial, social, and economic justice for all New Yorkers, we know the consequences of this relationship are far too real. In 2018, we organized tenants in Ossining, New York, to enact the Emergency Tenant Protection Act (ETPA). ETPA provided tenant protections for more than 2,000 residents. Just a year later, the mayor and village council have proposed repealing ETPA without offering an alternative proposal, a troubling development for the residents fighting against a profit-driven industry to stay in their homes. Without strong leadership in Albany to protect tenants, battles like these will become an endless war.

Legislation to mitigate climate change tells a similar story. As is well known, the fossil fuel industry ranks among the top political campaign contributors and spends enormously on lobbying as well. The impact of a toxic environment is not being borne equally. According to The Nation, studies show that the majority of people living near hazardous waste sites are people of color. According to the same article, in cases where communities filed complaints with the Environmental Protection Agency alleging a violation of their civil rights, 95 percent of the claims were denied. In New York, one can see similar trends in the decades of negligence and mismanagement of public housing under the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) or the city’s response to Hurricane Sandy.

In recognition of this, the Climate and Community Protection Act, re-introduced this session by Assemblymember Steven Englebright and Senator Todd Kaminsky, contains provisions aimed specifically at ensuring an equitable transition to renewable energy, including allocating 40 percent of funding to frontline and historically disadvantaged communities. This approach, which both acknowledges racial inequity and ensures that it informs policy-making, is an important step in the fight for an inclusive democracy and should serve as an example for advocates and lawmakers alike.

Business as usual in Albany has often meant that lawmakers, lobbyists, experts, and advocates are quick to embrace a “race-neutral” dialogue when talking about the momentous issues at stake: voting, climate, housing, healthcare, jobs, and more. But it is worth remembering that these issues were core tenets of the Civil Rights Movement. The weeks ahead present both a challenge and an opportunity: to disrupt the normal discourse, to be explicit about racial inequities, and to fight for policies that can build a truly inclusive democracy.

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Afua Atta-Mensah is Executive Director of Community Voices Heard. On Twitter @AfuaAttaMensah & @CVHaction.

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How New York Can Become a Real Democracy: Re-Center Race as Legislative Progress Continues Wed, 13 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Despite Need, Gaining More State Support for Affordable Housing Remains Major Challenge for De Blasio http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8252-despite-need-gaining-more-state-support-for-affordable-housing-remains-major-challenge-for-de-blasio http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8252-despite-need-gaining-more-state-support-for-affordable-housing-remains-major-challenge-for-de-blasio cuomo gov housing

(photo: the governor's office)


Right now, New York City’s government should be taking advantage of the Democratic majority in both houses of the New York State Legislature to make progress addressing the affordable housing and homelessness crisis affecting city residents. But success requires a skillful effort since the political challenge is daunting, despite overwhelming public concern.

Why now? We have a new Democratic majority in the state Senate elected in 2018. The state Assembly, controlled by Democrats since 1975, has been a liberal body limited by Republican power virtually the entire time, until now.

But there is no immediate consensus on what the housing solutions might be, how much money might be available, whether the new Senate Democrats would be willing to vote for a new tax, even if just levied in New York City, or the extent to which the Cuomo administration is willing to spend more money. The population in need is large and diverse, and the resources to address any particular segment of the needy population are severely limited.

What’s the city been doing up until now? City government has made major investments in affordable housing and used its resources to stabilize evictions and step up emergency assistance -- to prevent the crisis from getting worse. But there is little let-up in a cycle of rapid growth, gentrification, and development, rising rents and prices, and the inability of large segments of the city’s population to afford higher rents on limited incomes as low rent apartments have grown scarce.

Housing data show us exactly where New York City stands. The dimensions of the housing crisis are staggering:

-There are more than 2 million rental apartments in the City of New York, with about 1 million in the private rent-stabilized or controlled system, according to Housing NYC 2018, the annual Rent Guidelines Board report. Median household incomes in rent-stabilized apartments are about $45,000 a year in 2016, and median rent stabilized rents were $1,270 in 2017.

-A report by Comptroller Scott Stringer (Nov. 2018), entitled The Housing We Need, identified 396,000 households in the City with incomes of less than $28,000 a year as severely rent-burdened, meaning their rent was 50% or more of their income. Additional households are also severely rent-burdened but their incomes are higher.

-There are 61,000 persons in the shelter system right now, not counting people living on the street (DHS Daily Report).

-There are 208,000 households on the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) waiting list, and 148,000 households on the Section 8 waiting list, with new applications closed (NYCHA Fact Sheet).

-Only about 18% of rental households live in a subsidized situation, like NYCHA, Section 8, or the Mitchell-Lama program, which has privately-owned but regulated units with low-cost financing and tax abatements to make them affordable (NYU Furman Center, 2017, Changes in NYC Housing Stock).

-About 19% of New York City residents, or 1.7 million people, lives in poverty.

The federal government added to the crisis by curtailing new subsidized housing in the 1980s and ‘90s.  

But, by 1994, New York City became governed for 20 years by Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, for whom low-income housing was not a major priority. The shelter population was 24,000 in 1993, 28,000 in 2001, and 49,000 in 2013, the end of Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure. Mayor Bloomberg developed a program called Advantage to help residents exit the shelter system, which had a two-year cap on a voucher-like subsidy to encourage recipient families to become independent. The cap was criticized for its lack of permanency and the state eliminated its share of the cost in 2011, whereupon the mayor refused to pick up the state share and the program lapsed.

State Senate Republicans, in power during Mayor de Blasio’s tenure up until now, were not interested in proposals from the mayor like the “mansion tax,” a surcharge on real property transfers above $2 million, with the new money dedicated to housing vouchers for the elderly. Aside from the universal pre-kindergarten victory in his first year, the city has spent much of its political energy in Albany trying to limit damage to the city budget from proposals by the Cuomo administration to shift social service, higher education, Medicaid, criminal justice, and transportation costs from the state to the city, winning on some issues but losing others, rather than obtaining major new resources from the state for housing.

There are a few programs in place right now that attempt, with varied levels of success, to help ease the housing crisis:  

Supportive Housing: Since the 1990s, both the state and city have committed more resources to supportive housing, which assists persons with serious addiction or mental illness, the frail elderly, and others, and recently have embarked on new programs in this area. The state has committed to 6,000 more units of supportive housing over five years (not all of which will be in New York City), starting around 2016, and the city has made a commitment to 15/15, meaning 15,000 more supportive housing units over the next 15 years, beginning around 2016. But these units will be available not just to persons with psychiatric disabilities in the shelter system, but to persons leaving psychiatric hospitals, prisons and jails, adult homes, or just coming from their own homes and families but diagnosed with severe illnesses. There are 16,000 single adults in the shelter system now. 21,000 single adults entered the shelter system in Fiscal Year 2018, while fewer than 9,000 exited in that year (DHS Management Report, FY18). The capacity of new supportive housing units to rapidly absorb single adults from the shelter system is limited.

Affordable Housing: The large city affordable housing program, now called Housing New York 2.0, initiated by the de Blasio administration in 2014, has created or preserved 122,000 units since inception; the full plan calls for 300,00 units by 2026; 39,000 of the 122,000 units are new construction; the remainder preservation. Preserved units are also vital to long-term affordability because owners are agreeing to retain their building in regulated status in exchange for low-cost financing for repairs and large percentages of their residents are low- and moderate-income.

The new units are created through capital grants and low-cost financing to private developers to reduce the cost of construction, allowing some units to be marketed to low- and moderate-income tenants. Other units are rented at market rates and are not counted in the affordable classifications. Some projects are 100% affordable, meaning they have heavier subsidies and are not offered to higher-income households. Affordability relates to income levels; more than 50% of the affordable units have been slated for households making between $47,000 and $75,000 a year for a family of three. About 25% of the units have been slated for incomes below $47,000 a year.

But there is concern that not enough of the units are for very low-income households. A change for lower-income households would, however, require more subsidies, assuming the number-of-units goal remains the same. Without more money overall, the city would have to forsake some moderate-income units for lower-income units. Nonetheless the city has made a major commitment to getting more housing units built, in addition to the resources to reduce homelessness. The State of New York produces some affordable housing through its own programs, or sometimes in combination with city programs, but the scale of the state’s effort does not match the city’s.

There are several other significant proposals to address the affordable housing crisis that do require state involvement:

-Comptroller Scott Stringer proposed to change property transfer taxes to raise more revenue and concentrate the capital grant subsidies of the Housing New York program to the low-income population and the homeless.

The mortgage recording tax in the city would be eliminated while the real property transfer tax would become more progressive. The change would raise $400 million a year and the funds used to provide deeper subsides to help the city’s neediest population. But planned Housing New York units for the moderate-income group between $47,000 and $75,000 a year, and those above that level, would be switched over to the lower-income group and thus be displaced.

A modification to the Stringer proposal might be to use the $400 million a year as a targeted add-on for the lower-income population, rather than a substitution away from the moderate-income group. After all, both groups, the moderate-income, and the very low-income, need housing. Mayor de Blasio’s proposal, the Mansion Tax, and the comptroller’s plan both require a tax increase. But can the mayor persuade some of these new suburban Senate Democrats to agree to a tax increase for a housing purpose, when they are also being asked by the governor to support congestion pricing?

-Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi’s legislative proposal, named Home Stability Support, creates a Section 8-like voucher for the shelter population, as well as the at-risk of eviction population, funded at 14,000 vouchers a year. Cost estimates have ranged from $450 million a year to close to $1 billion a year (Renewed Push for Homeless Subsidy, Gotham Gazette, Dec. 2017). An effort by the Assembly and Senate last year in budget negotiations to fund even a start-up at $15 million a year was rejected by the governor’s Division of the Budget.

The Mansion Tax, the Hevesi proposal, the cancelled Advantage program, and current city emergency rehousing assistance efforts, which cost $200 million a year (NYC OMB, Mayor’s Message, 2018), all involve Section 8-like vouchers concept to help residents pay for rental apartments. New vouchers are very expensive. Section 8 usually pays a landlord up to $1,500 a month, or $18,000 a year, to cover one household. Each new 1,000 vouchers thus cost up to a new $18 million a year. Who should get the priority for new vouchers? The homeless? The elderly? The 148,000 households who are on the current Section 8 waiting lists, who have also been vetted as in need?

Some serious coalition building is in order to make progress. Gaining a political consensus about where to put new funds, and where the money will come from, means Mayor de Blasio must pull together support among housing advocates, the Assembly and the Senate, and run the gauntlet of Governor Cuomo and the state Division of the Budget. Is there sufficient political will to address this intractable problem?

***
Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Despite Need, Gaining More State Support for Affordable Housing Remains Major Challenge for De Blasio Mon, 04 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
A Closer Look at ‘Vital Brooklyn,’ Cuomo’s Plan for ‘One of the Greatest Areas of Need in the Entire State’ http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8144-a-closer-look-at-vital-brooklyn-cuomo-s-plan-for-one-of-the-greatest-areas-of-need-in-the-entire-state http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8144-a-closer-look-at-vital-brooklyn-cuomo-s-plan-for-one-of-the-greatest-areas-of-need-in-the-entire-state billion vital bk

Cuomo & Vital Brooklyn (photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)


In March of 2017, Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled what he described as a groundbreaking initiative to “bring health and wellness to one of the most disadvantaged parts of the state.” That place was Central Brooklyn, where roubling health indicators of all types plague residents, from diabetes rates to poverty levels to inadequate access to quality health care.

Cuomo said the plan, named Vital Brooklyn, came with $1.4 billion in state funds to pay for a long list of items across the borough, from playground renovations to job training to resiliency projects — all with the aim of fighting “entrenched pockets of poverty” in a comprehensive way, he said at the time.

“What is the area in this state that has the greatest social need? If you look at unemployment rates, food stamps, physical inactivity, number of murders, one of the greatest areas of need in the entire state is Central Brooklyn. And it’s not even close,” Cuomo said.

Since then, the governor has made nearly a dozen announcements related to Vital Brooklyn, six of them taking place from June to September in the lead-up to this year’s gubernatorial primary in which candidates for statewide offices heavily courted Central Brooklyn voters. At those events, Cuomo emphasized state funding for an oyster reef restoration project ($400,000), 22 community gardens ($3.1 million), fresh food programs ($1.8 million) and a new 407-acre state park to be named after iconic Brooklyn Congressional Rep. Shirley Chisholm — an announcement made eight days before the primary.

In total, the governor’s office says there are 8,800 projects funded under the Vital Brooklyn umbrella, funded by the $1.4 billion (a dollar amount unchanged since spring of 2017, according to the state budget office). However, it’s important to note that those touted by the governor — such as those gardens, farmers markets and state park — make up a small slice of the total funding. The much larger pieces of the pie fall into just two (albeit very big) categories: housing and health care.

In fact, nine out of every 10 dollars spent through Vital Brooklyn fall into the housing and health care columns: $578 million for subsidized housing in rapidly gentrifying areas (for example, a 2,400-unit project just announced in East New York) and $700 million, allocated in 2015, for a new health care system that aims to restructure and revive three of Brooklyn's struggling hospitals.

While some aspects of Vital Brooklyn are quickly taking shape, others will take months or years to materialize. Some officials, including several who have excitedly joined Cuomo at celebratory announcements, are lauding the investments, but critics of the project worry it’s not enough — and take issue with how Vital Brooklyn was rolled out, and how the money is divvied up.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said in a recent interview that his office wasn’t asked to give input on the project (the state instead took comments from advisory boards convened through the area’s elected state Assembly members) and he feels the funding is too small in scope and dollar amount, even if the governor’s frequent appearances make it appear otherwise.

“We have to have a re-examination of the state allocations and are we doing what’s right by Brooklyn,” he said, particularly in relation to the Bronx, which Adams feels has gotten significantly more financial help from the state; Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. is a close ally of the governor.

Earlier this year, he put it more bluntly earlier in an interview on the Max & Murphy podcast.

“You can’t keep brushing off and rolling out the same billion-dollar project,” he said in May.

When asked to respond to that claim — and whether or not the Vital Brooklyn announcements were made in relation to this year’s primary — Cuomo spokesperson Tyrone Stevens’ comment was brief: “Bogus.”

“This is simple: Our significant new investment in Brooklyn is based on a multi-pronged strategy to uplift communities that have been ignored for too long,” Stevens said in an email. “We’re proud of this effort, and we will not be shy about talking to local residents about the important work we’re doing to make their neighborhoods a better place to live.”

Big Spending: Health Care
Of Vital Brooklyn’s $1.4 billion, fully half is dedicated to a new health care system for Brooklyn. That funding comes from a $700 million capital grant made through the Health Care Facilities Transformation Program included in the 2015-2016 state budget, allocated two years before it was announced as part of Vital Brooklyn.

The funding will go to One Brooklyn Health System (OBHS), a newly formed operator that will combine the management of three previously separate Central Brooklyn hospitals — Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center in East Flatbush, Interfaith Medical Center in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Brookdale University Hospital Medical Center serving Brownsville and East New York — into one not-for-profit corporation.

LaRay Brown, previously the president and CEO of Interfaith, is heading up the new venture. She says she’s been pushing for years for the “incredibly impactful” amount of state funding that will support dozens of major projects throughout the new health care system.

Inside the buildings, the $700 million will pay for “boring things, but essential things,” Brown said, like replacing elevators, repairing HVAC systems and updating an outdated fire alarm system.

“I say they’re boring, but they’re critical to providing safe and comfortable patient care,” she said.

The medical centers will get major upgrades to their patient facilities, too. According to Request for Proposal documents from OBHS, Brookdale will build out a new 33-bed intensive care unit, renovate a 40-year-old operating room suite and upgrade all of the facility’s inpatient psychiatric units among others improvements. At Interfaith, the medical center’s emergency room will be upgraded and expanded, inpatient medical units will be renovated and new equipment such as MRI and x-ray machines will be installed. Major medical equipment will be replaced at Kingsbrook, as well, the documents show.

Overall, the idea for the restructuring and redesign is to merge services among the three hospitals in order to form a more streamlined organization — and hopefully, in the end, become more financially stable.

That’s according to state officials from the Public Health and Health Planning Council who approved the creation of OBHS in December of 2016. A report to the council at the time concluded that, operating separately, the hospitals require hundreds of millions of dollars in operating subsidies from the state every year “and are otherwise not financially sustainable.” (According to budget data from a PHHPC report, operating funds given to the three hospitals from the state totaled $169 million in 2015-16, then rose to $245 million in 2016-17 and $250 million in 2017-18.)

“They've come together … in an effort to try to restructure and become more efficient and reduce its dependence on specialty subsidies,” state health department official Charles Abel told the council before it approved the OBHS application.

To achieve those efficiencies, OBHS will reorganize how certain operations run within the three hospitals. For example, Brown said, Kingsbrook will no longer have inpatient medical-surgical beds and, though it will still have an emergency room, patients in need of ongoing acute or complex care will be transferred elsewhere, likely to Brookdale, which Brown said will become the system’s “center of excellence.”

LaRay Brown Brooklyn“As the inpatient acute care role diminishes at Kingsbrook, that role increases at Brookdale,” said Brown (pictured).

But Brown is careful to note the restructuring effort should not be considered a consolidation. Current assessments by OBHS show no material difference between the number of current beds and projected beds in the system, according to OBHS’ Dona Green. In the end, Brown says the quality and quantity of services will expand.

“Because these hospitals are coming together and because of the state’s commitment to invest in these hospitals, the Central Brooklyn community served by these hospitals will get more services, and not less,” Brown said.

That sentiment was echoed by Assemblymember Latrice Walker of District 55 in Brownsville, who has been waiting for years to see this funding come through for the hospital system, particularly at Brookdale, where many of her constituents go for care — and where her own brother died of gunshot wounds when he was 19, she said.

“I’m confident the services will be reinvigorated and enumerated. I don’t think we’re going to lose anything here,” she said. “Quite the contrary — we’re actually gaining.”

By the totality of the health facilities in the works under Vital Brooklyn, that appears to be the case. A chunk of the initiative’s healthcare funding — $210 million in all — is allocated to create 32 new ambulatory care facilities, or community health centers, under the OBHS umbrella. The goal there is to create more medical offices, outpatient surgical facilities and urgent care options with a more long-term goal of reducing unnecessary trips to emergency rooms.

“We need to start moving toward people having primary care physicians so that the emergency room isn’t their doctor office,” Walker said.

Cuomo put it this way when announcing some of the 32 ambulatory care locations in July of this year: “It's not just about a hospital where you go when you're very sick.”

“Prevent the illness in the first place,” he continued. “Have more community-based healthcare systems that are focused on wellness, and health, as opposed to waiting for a person to get sick, and then be in acute need.”

These new ambulatory centers are meant to handle a diverse slate of same-day health services, including diagnostic work, rehabilitation, or even major procedures such as hip replacements, according to Bill Hammond, the Director of Health Policy at the Empire Center think tank.

Ambulatory centers have a lot of benefits, he said. For the patient, it’s generally a more comfortable experience to avoid spending a night at a hospital, and there’s less risk of infection. For hospitals, increasing outpatient services makes a lot of financial sense.

“It’s less expensive,” he said. “Hospitals come with a lot of overhead.”

That idea is in line with a healthcare trend more generally to move patients out of traditional inpatient hospitals and toward ambulatory centers for all kinds of services, from preventative doctor visits all the way up to certain surgeries. The move from “reliance on hospital-based services” to more outpatient services “is a major policy shift,” said Brown of OBHS. And it takes place within the context of years of financial struggle, and at times closure, for many hospitals, particularly those serving low-income communities, as costs have continued to rise.

To combat that, the Vital Brooklyn plan puts a priority on the financial viability of health care projects funded under the plan. Included in guidelines for evaluating applicants to Vital Brooklyn, the state’s website says it will consider “the extent to which the proposed projects further the development of primary care and other outpatient services; the extent to which the proposed projects contribute to the long-term sustainability of the applicant or preservation of essential health services; and the extent to which the proposed projects involve partnerships with community-based health care providers,” among other criteria.

With the funding for the new 32 health facilities, the state hopes to roughly double the number of ambulatory care visits in Central Brooklyn, increasing capacity for 742,000 more visits every year, according to the governor’s office.

Exactly where all that new health care capacity will be built is unknown; all 32 locations have not yet been finalized. But Cuomo announced plans in July for renovations and the expansion of several existing health care centers, including the Bishop Walker Health Care Center in Prospect Heights, the Pierre Toussaint Health Center in Crown Heights and the Brownsville Multi-Service Center. In addition to those locations, several health care providers including the Bed-Stuy Family Health Center, Community Health Network, and ODA Primary Health Care Network have been chosen by the state to build new health centers in Brooklyn, providing both primary and specialty care.

Some of the 32 new ambulatory health centers will be built within new developments underwritten by the second largest piece of the Vital Brooklyn funding: affordable housing.

Housing on State and Hospital Sites
In all, the state will spend $578 million — or more than 40 percent of the total Vital Brooklyn package — on subsidized housing, with a goal to build 4,000 new units over several years.

The governor has repeatedly linked overall health goals of Vital Brooklyn to housing, particularly in rapidly gentrifying areas such as East New York where speculative buying and building, combined with a 2016 rezoning, has put pressure on poor residents.

“It starts in the home, having the right housing, having the right environment, having the right support. And that's where we're going to start. We need afford affordable housing because out people are being displaced. Gentrification is everywhere,” the governor said at a Vital Brooklyn event earlier this year.

How all those units will be constructed is still up in the air, but details on some of the development sites are beginning to emerge. Late last month, the state announced four winning bids to develop housing on land owned by the three OBHS hospitals or on state-controlled land, including one complex in East New York that’s set to deliver the bulk of the subsidized housing funded under Vital Brooklyn.

On Nov. 29, the state chose Westchester-based L+M Development Partners, Harlem-based construction group Apex Building, and two social services organizations — RiseBoro Community Partnership and Services for the Underserved — to bring a massive, 2,400-unit development to the site of the former Brooklyn Developmental Center, a home for developmentally delayed adults that closed in 2015. The three other chosen projects — two to be built on land owned by Interfaith hospital and another on land owned by Brookdale Hospital — will bring another 328 subsidized units to the borough.

At the same time the state announced those projects, it rolled out another set of request for proposals (RFPs) on eight state-controlled sites around the borough, including several hospital parking lots set to be replaced by new buildings. Proposals for five of the sites are due by February 28, 2019 and the three others are due by April 30, according to the RFP documents.

A majority of the affordable housing will be funded by $568 million allocated through the state’s Homes and Community Renewal agency, with a goal of creating 3,000 units. In addition, the governor said in August $15 million in federal tax credits have been allocated by the state for future housing developments on land controlled by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). In his announcement on that initiative, the governor said he hopes to support the creation of 1,000 units of housing. However, no specific sites for those developments have been announced and will be “reviewed on a rolling basis by HCR as NYCHA makes properties available through its disposition process,” according to a press release.

The need for housing is the number one priority for Brooklyn residents, Borough President Adams said, and he gave credit to Vital Brooklyn for addressing the issue. He also acknowledged the plans would bring much-needed resources — including park space and options for healthy food — to the area. But he thinks it doesn’t go far enough.

“We’re dealing with historical inequities. People who were denied food access before — OK, let’s give them more farmer’s market,” he said. “Those things are great. But if we’re going to invest, let’s be visionaries in our investment.”

He would have liked to see more funding allocated to grandparent housing, which is set aside for grandparents who are the primary caregivers to young children, and even more resources given to the hospital network, he said.

More criticism of the governor’s Vital Brooklyn plan came from the East New York district where the large Brooklyn Developmental Center site is set to be rebuilt under the initiative. The complex will have 100 percent subsidized apartments set aside for a combination of formerly homeless New Yorkers, households earning less than 50 percent of the area median income (AMI) — a federal guideline for determining the cost of affordable housing — and the rest for households earning less than 80 percent of the AMI. Currently for a family of three, 80 percent of AMI equals $62,150 a year.

That may sound like a win in a low-income area like East New York. But with the median household income of East New York at $34,512 per year (according to data from the city’s Housing Preservation and Development agency), the development doesn’t satisfy one of the neighborhood’s longtime leaders.

Assemblymember Charles Barron says his district needs even more low-cost units because only a fraction of its residents are in the 80-percent income range. And, overall, he thinks Vital Brooklyn doesn’t go far enough in a state with a $168 billion budget, and billions more in capital spending.

“You see $600, $700 million and think it’s wonderful and a lot of money,” he said. “That is peanuts.”

In particular, he wants to see more support for the healthcare system.

“It’s simply not enough money for three hospitals,” he said.

In response, Cuomo spokesperson Stevens said in a statement that the Vital Brooklyn investment is “delivering substantial resources and coordinated services to support neighborhoods that have long been neglected.”

“We believe this massive commitment is something to celebrate, not politicize with cheap attacks that are untethered to reality,” he said.

Looking for Results
The governor has often said, for him, Vital Brooklyn is a project that brings his own career full circle, from when he was working on housing in East New York as a young man, to now. In speaking about it, he says he has wanted to help turn Brooklyn around for years.

Cuomo Brooklyn“I never lost the inspiration, and the hope, and the optimism, of what you can do when you do it right,” he said in a speech on the project in April, nearly half-way through his eighth year in office. “For me, this is something special. This is something that is long overdue. It's an investment in people who desperately have needed help, and have been ignored for too long.”

But it may take quite a while to see all of the Vital Brooklyn projects come to life. Some of the smaller pieces of the puzzle, like a pilot program for youth-run food markets and construction on new playgrounds, are beginning this year and next, the governor has said. For the larger, more complicated parts, however, it could take years; for example, some of the first units of housing are estimated to come online in 2021 and others — like the East New York project — is not slated for completion until 2026, the governor’s office said.

The health center restructuring, too, will takes years to finish. When it’s finally complete, it remains to be seen whether the largest part of Vital Brooklyn — the $700 million in health care capital funding — will make a substantive difference to financially shore up the three Central Brooklyn hospitals.

Hammond of the Empire Center said if the plan is a good one that reconfigures the facilities’ operations significantly, it “could put them in a different position to succeed,” though he was hesitant to say whether he believes the restructuring will prove successful long-term.

But the health funding is not peanuts, as Barron said, nor is it a groundbreaking amount, as one may think from the governor’s announcements. The reality is somewhere in the middle.

“The state routinely spends billions and billions of dollars on health care all over the state,” both in discretionary grants and capital allocations, Hammond said. “On any given day, you could go to a different community and announce a very large-sounding dollar amount…and it would be absolutely routine.”

However, on a per-resident basis, Brooklyn is getting more than the average — while falling far below the state’s most generous allocations. Hammond found the state spent $190 per resident in capital health care spending in the last five years in New York State. In Kings County, the per-resident breakdown equaled $264 per resident, which is “significantly more than the state average,” he said. But that figure is dwarfed by another capital grant also given in 2015 to a hospital system in Oneida County, where spending totaled $1,297 per resident.

For all those funding plans, however, the dollars have not yet started to flow, according to Brown of OBHS. Before that happens, several bureaucratic steps must take place, including complying with transparency regulations approved by the state comptroller’s office. She hopes that will be complete in the new year.

“Everyone is endeavouring to get [approval]…by early 2019,” she said, while emphasizing it’s hard to make an exact estimate, as she and her team are figuring out the complexities of the project as they go along.

“We’re all entering a new journey here,” she said.

***
by Rachel Holliday Smith for Gotham Gazette
@rachelholliday
@GothamGazette

All photos via the Governor's Office on flickr.

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A Closer Look at ‘Vital Brooklyn,’ Cuomo’s Plan for ‘One of the Greatest Areas of Need in the Entire State’ Thu, 13 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Setting the Record Straight: Mayor de Blasio’s Housing Plan Can and Should Do More for the Homeless http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8135-setting-the-record-straight-mayor-de-blasio-s-housing-plan-can-and-should-do-more-for-the-homeless http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8135-setting-the-record-straight-mayor-de-blasio-s-housing-plan-can-and-should-do-more-for-the-homeless cluster apartments convert

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office)


Mayor de Blasio has been under constant fire for offering homeless New Yorkers access to just 5 percent of the units created and preserved by his 12-year, 300,000-unit affordable housing plan, even as homelessness has reached a new all-time record high. He has been confronted at his home, at the gym in Park Slope, and on the steps of City Hall, with a growing coalition of advocates, experts, elected officials, and homeless families demanding that the mayor increase that figure to 10 percent of the total, including 20 percent of all new construction. This would result in 30,000 units of affordable, permanent housing for homeless New Yorkers, with 24,000 units to be created through new construction, by 2026.

The progressive mayor who campaigned to end the “tale of two cities” has responded dismissively, sometimes with anger – and always with a series of excuses that don’t hold up to closer examination. Let’s take a look:

The mayor says his Housing New York 2.0 plan addresses the affordable housing crisis for everyone, and adding more homeless units would take access to housing away from other New Yorkers who need it. But here’s the thing: New York City’s affordability crisis disparately impacts those with the lowest incomes. There is no shortage of private market apartments affordable to higher-income households: the vacancy rate for units renting above $2,500 per month is in fact a whopping 8.74 percent, while the vacancy rate for apartments renting for less than $800 per month is only about 1 percent.

Yet a full 20 percent of the mayor’s housing plan is for households making between $70,000 and $142,000 annually, at rents ranging from $1,700 to $3,500 per month, while at the same time dedicating a mere 5 percent to help homeless New Yorkers. Fully 10 percent of the apartments created through the mayor’s plan will have rents at or above $2,500 per month, a level at which there is currently a glut of vacant units. The mayor’s housing plan should target its help for those who need it most.

The mayor says his housing plan is just a small part of what the city is doing to address homelessness. That much is true, but it is not a fact to be proud of. Mayor de Blasio plans to build only 200 new apartments per year for homeless New Yorkers out of the 10,500 apartments per year to be constructed between now and 2026. Other programs implemented by the city that serve homeless people with disabilities, help pay off rent arrears, or provide subsidies for market-rate apartments can’t meaningfully reduce homelessness unless the city also sets aside far more newly-constructed housing for the homeless. The numbers bear this out: homelessness continues at record levels five years into de Blasio's New York, with more than 63,500 people sleeping in city shelters each night, including over 23,000 children. They are paying an extraordinary price for bad policy, as is our city as a whole.

And finally, the mayor says that adding more homeless housing to his plan is not financially feasible. But the House Our Future NY Campaign is urging Mayor de Blasio to designate just 10 percent of his overall housing plan, including 20 percent of the new construction target, for homeless New Yorkers: 30,000 units overall, with 24,000 to be created through new construction. Funds the mayor has already committed to the plan, including over $1.3 billion in city funds each year for the next eight years, show that the mayor has the resources to significantly reduce homelessness. He simply lacks the will.

The mayor’s obstinacy in the face of record homelessness and an ongoing housing crisis for low-income New Yorkers belies his professed values as a progressive leader. Without swift course correction, this wrong-headed approach will lock the City of New York in a state of ever-expanding homelessness for the foreseeable future. The only way out is with bold solutions. Mayor de Blasio must immediately dedicate 10 percent of his housing plan, including 20 percent of all new construction, to house homeless New Yorkers. Tens of thousands of our neighbors languishing in shelters and on the streets – indeed all New Yorkers – deserve a housing plan that offers a responsive and robust answer to record homelessness, not more equivocation in the false promise of fairness for all.

A full examination of the Mayor’s claims can be read in a new policy brief released by the Coalition for the Homeless here.

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Giselle Routhier is Policy Director for Coalition for the Homeless.

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Setting the Record Straight: Mayor de Blasio’s Housing Plan Can and Should Do More for the Homeless Mon, 10 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Criticizing De Blasio's Approach, Stringer Releases Alternative Affordable Housing Plan http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8111-criticizing-de-blasio-s-approach-stringer-releases-alternative-affordable-housing-plan http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8111-criticizing-de-blasio-s-approach-stringer-releases-alternative-affordable-housing-plan stringer housing presser1

Comptroller Stringer (photo: @NYCComptroller)


City Comptroller Scott Stringer unveiled an ambitious plan on Thursday to address New York’s affordable housing crisis, criticizing Mayor Bill de Blasio for not doing enough and calling for investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funds, increasing the share of affordable housing units for homeless and very low income people, and funding it by shifting tax burdens towards the wealthiest New York homeowners.

The plan, entitled “NYC For All: The Housing We Need,” is intended, Stringer said, to address issues with the affordable housing program embraced by not only the de Blasio administration, but administrations going back to the days of Mayor Ed Koch. Stringer characterized the proposal as a “war on poverty.”

“I believe it's time to change our approach,” Stringer said at a press conference announcing the plan. “We need to break the mold.”

Stringer noted that despite New York’s record number of jobs, low unemployment, and high population, the city’s aging housing stock has not kept up with demand, and rents have consequently risen in price dramatically, particularly in the past ten years. Most left behind, Stringer explained, are extremely and very low-income New Yorkers who face severe housing pressure, numbering 515,000 people, according to an analysis by his office, who are severely rent-burdened, meaning they pay more than 50 percent of their income in rent.

“Behind the numbers are real people,” Stringer said. “They’re actually working New Yorkers. The home health aides for our aging parents, the cashier at the local supermarket, the person who empties the trash and vacuums the office floors late at night. People we see and rely on every day.”

According to the report released on Thursday, the majority of units under de Blasio’s 300,000-unit affordable housing plan are being allocated for households with incomes of up to $75,120, which is categorized as “low-income” by the Stringer report, while far fewer units are allocated to very low and extremely low-income households. Extremely low-income households, which are characterized as those making less than $28,170 per year, are allocated about the same number of units under the plan as “middle-income” households, where household income reaches up to $154,935.

The report notes that this allocation does not accurately represent those who are actually in need of affordable housing, the main thrust of Stringer’s argument that the city’s plan is not appropriately calibrated to need, a point he and a variety of other elected officials and advocates have stressed for years but de Blasio has regularly challenged, saying he believes the plan must include segments for a broad spectrum of New Yorkers looking for affordable places to live.

The 515,000 extremely and very low-income households who are severely rent-burdened represent the vast majority of the 580,000 households citywide that are severely rent burdened or living long term in a shelter. However, only 75,000 units, or 25 percent of the proposed units under the de Blasio plan, are intended for those households.

“The current plan is simply out of line with where we need to build,” Stringer said.

To ameliorate the problem, Stringer’s plan calls for $500 million in additional annual funding for extremely and very low-income housing, including $375 million in capital costs and $125 million in operating subsidies. This would support the construction and maintenance of affordable units for the poorest New Yorkers, for whom construction is more expensive if landlords are going to charge lower rents.

The number of units would remain the same as under de Blasio’s Housing New York 2.0 Plan, which calls for building 120,000 new affordable units as part of the larger plan for 300,000 affordable units, most of which are those being “preserved” under affordable rent regulations. Stringer’s report noted that 34,000 apartments were already completed or are underway, and 85,000 remain to be built. Under the Stringer plan, 98 percent of those 85,000 units would be constructed as deeply affordable.

The plan also calls for tripling the number of units set aside in the Housing New York plan for homeless New Yorkers, from 5 percent to 15 percent, echoing a push by homeless advocates and a recent City Council bill introduced by Council Member Rafael Salamanca of the Bronx; and applying that percentage to both new construction and preserved units. Stringer cited statistics from the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), stating that the city has not even met its 5 percent stated goal, with only 1 percent of units allocated to homeless families.

“Mayor Koch, as our research showed, set aside just 10 percent of units in his housing plan for the homeless,” Stringer said. “And the shelter population went down by more than a third in just three years. We can do that again.”

De Blasio has repeatedly opposed such calls, including when recently challenged by a homeless woman, who is an activist with Vocal New York, at his gym and on the radio.

Stringer’s plan also calls for at least 20,000 additional units to be developed on 600 plots of vacant, city-owned land by community land trusts or land banks controlled by non-profit entities.

To pay for these reforms, Stringer is proposing a sweeping change to the city’s property tax system that he says would increase annual city tax revenues by $400 million, through a more progressive tax system that raises rates on wealthy homeowners and eliminates a “double tax” on the middle class.

His plan would involve scrapping the “mortgage recording tax,” which Stringer characterized as being an extra tax on middle class homeowners.

“This system is patently unfair,” Stringer said. “It’s a penalty on the middle class who can’t pay all cash to buy a home.”

The current property tax scheme provides for both a tax on the cost of the transaction, and a tax on the value of the mortgage, with three brackets: under $500,000, between $500,000 and $1 million, and over $1 million. This system favors those who purchase apartments in cash, who tend to be wealthier and buy more expensive units, and do not have to pay the mortgage tax. Under the system, middle class homeowners often pay more than wealthy condo owners.

Stringer noted that in 2016, 80 percent of condo sales and 90 percent of townhouse sales in Manhattan were all-cash deals. Those cash deals escaped being subject to the MRT. The greater percentage of a transaction that is financed with borrowed money, the higher the tax incidence, putting a greater burden on buyers without the resources to do a cash deal.

While ditching the MRT, Stringer proposes creating a more graduated, progressive taxation system based only on the value of the transaction, taking into account high prices of some real estate by upping the top echelon from $1 million to $10 million. For properties over $10 million, the tax rate would be increased to 8 percent. Below $500,000, the rate would be 1 percent. Stringer hopes that, beyond funding affordable housing, the reformed tax structure could help encourage more middle- and working-class homeownership in the city.

The tax reforms would have to be approved by Albany. Stringer, who is widely expected to run for mayor in 2021, said that the new Democratic majority of the state Senate set to take power in January means that the tax reform is, for the first time in a long time, a possibility.

“We are beginning the conversation with legislators,” he said in response to a question. “And they are going well. Again, I want to stress that the state of play has fundamentally changed, we all know it’s changed. I believe that, obviously there are priorities like renewing and strengthening the rent laws, and they have a lot on their plate, but this can get done now because we have like-minded people who understand the housing crisis.”

Getting the mayor on board with the plan may be a different story. Stringer said that de Blasio has recognized some issues with the housing plan, but noted that City Hall has not given a firm answer on certain things.

“He has recognized that the plan originally put forth was not meeting the needs of the people who need the housing the most,” Stringer said, referring to the fact that de Blasio has made some tweaks to the plan, even while resisting some of the other calls for more sweeping changes.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Criticizing De Blasio's Approach, Stringer Releases Alternative Affordable Housing Plan Thu, 29 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
As Affordability Crisis Becomes More Acute, Real Estate Donations Emerge as Litmus Test for Some Democrats http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8112-as-affordability-crisis-becomes-more-acute-real-estate-donations-emerge-as-litmus-test-for-some-democrats http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8112-as-affordability-crisis-becomes-more-acute-real-estate-donations-emerge-as-litmus-test-for-some-democrats  Ocasio-Cortez Teachout

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez & Zephyr Teachout (photo: Gotham Gazette)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

Queens City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer has said he will refuse donations from wealthy landlords and the real estate industry as he runs for borough president. Julia Salazar, a democratic socialist in Brooklyn, defeated an eight-term incumbent state senator using her rejection of real estate donors as a rallying cry. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did the same when she toppled Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley and became the youngest woman elected to the United States House of Representatives. Zephyr Teachout sought the Democratic nomination for attorney general while eschewing real estate contributions and making it a core plank of her campaign. Nomiki Konst, an investigative reporter, recently launched her campaign for New York City public advocate with the same promise.

New York’s real estate industry, most of it concentrated in the dense confines of New York City,  has long played a significant role in funding candidates for elected office up and down the ballot across the state and beyond, a role that candidates of both major parties and political insiders have always recognized. But as voters, particularly energized, activist Democrats, focus on the affordable housing crisis and take heed of the state’s broken campaign finance laws, including loopholes that donors, especially those in real estate, have exploited to pad the coffers of legislators and executives, some progressive Democrats have begun to reject campaign contributions from the real estate industry.

Affordable housing policy, including the already-begun debate over rent regulations decided in Albany that will be a significant issue in 2019, is at or toward the top of many activists’ lists, and housing justice advocates increasingly see campaign finance pledges as a litmus test for candidates. Increasing numbers of Democrats eschewing real estate money, or at least any given through the so-called LLC loophole, has given those activists and advocates cause for optimism that real estate’s role in state elections may be on the decline and that their elected representatives will heed the clarion call to protect tenants and listen to small donors over wealthy special interests.

“I think that it’s clearly a concern amongst a growing number of voters,” Van Bramer told Gotham Gazette. “I think it’s increasingly one of those issues that people want a response on from their elected officials and candidates. And I think that they’re right to be concerned about the influence of big money, generally speaking.”

“Money still plays a huge role in our elections and real estate is a good way to raise money in New York City and New York State,” said Celia Weaver, research and policy director at New York Communities for Change, a leading housing and economic justice advocacy group pushing campaign finance reform, strengthened rent regulations, and deeper affordable housing development. “It’s like oil in Texas.”

Though questions about the influence of real estate money have swirled for decades, Weaver traced the budding trend of declarations against taking any of it to Diana Richardson’s election to the state Assembly in 2015, in a district that includes rapidly gentrifying Crown Heights and at a time when state rent regulation laws were up for renewal in the state Legislature. “Her decision to refuse real estate money in that election turned what would ordinarily be a pretty boring special election where the Democratic machine just gets to anoint the person who’s going to run and take the line to a widely covered exciting race that was really a referendum on the real estate industry and its role in politics,” Weaver said. “That became a huge touchstone for voters in the district.”

It’s common knowledge that the real estate industry has been a staple in electoral politics for decades and its members’ donations have been part of the picture across the political spectrum. Democrats and Republicans have benefited from them, none more so than Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat recently re-elected to a third term. But the recent election cycle, the first since Donald Trump was elected president, saw greater awareness among voters about the power of state government and the special interests that fund campaigns. Actor and education activist Cynthia Nixon also used that backdrop to run a competitive primary challenge against Cuomo. She refused donations from real estate and issued a scathing indictment of the governor’s reliance on big donors in the industry, while calling for sweeping housing justice reforms.

Weaver also pointed to the high-profile corruption convictions of former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican, in trials that exposed how a real estate firm, Glenwood Management, attempted to wield influence over legislation. Glenwood, an enormous donor to Cuomo and many legislators, recently made massive contributions to Senate Democratic candidates ahead of the November election where it appeared likely they would become part of a new majority in the chamber.

The primary mechanism for real estate donations has been the gaping loophole in state campaign finance law that allows limited liability companies with opaque ownership -- a common instrument in the real estate business -- to circumvent contribution limits. City Limits reported in September that LLCs had been used to donate more than $188 million to political campaigns since the late 1990s, with about $31 million given to gubernatorial candidates alone, including Cuomo. “Combining his campaign for attorney general in 2006 and his three runs for governor, Cuomo has received roughly one of every eight dollars donated by LLCs,” City Limits found. Those donations are largely dominated by the real estate industry.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has also come under scrutiny for accepting significant real estate donations, especially to a political nonprofit he established to push his agenda that became the subject of law enforcement investigations related to whether City Hall did favors for its donors.

A collaborative report in 2016 by ProPublica, The Real Deal and the National Institute on Money in State Politics tracked how real estate developers who benefitted from a prominent tax incentive called the 421-a program gave about $21 million to party committees and candidates since 2000, out of $83 million that the real estate industry donated in the same time.

“I think people are very much aware that rich donors including real estate developers and landlords are distorting our election system,” said Michael McKee, treasurer of Tenants PAC, a political action committee dedicated to affordable housing. “I think that’s the growing awareness. There’s no question about it.”

It was in that context that a slew of progressive Democrats ousted their more moderate and real estate-tied partymates from office with the support of smaller donors and by rejecting corporate backers. “The housing crisis in this city is out of control and going into a year when candidates are going to be debating rent regulations in Albany, voters wanted candidates that are gonna act with integrity and widely believed that candidates who work for the real estate industry won’t,” said Weaver.

Besides Salazar, Zellnor Myrie and Alessandra Biaggi similarly ran for and won Democratic primaries in the state Senate in opposition to wealthy real estate interests. Each of the three represents a district, much like a lot of the city, grappling with a deep affordability crisis and pockets of gentrification displacing low-income residents of color. Their opponents all received significant contributions from real estate.

The decision to reject real estate seems based in both principle and pragmatism. Biaggi made housing justice a prominent campaign issue as she successfully dethroned Senator Jeff Klein, once the powerful leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway faction of eight senators that propped up Republican control of the Senate. Democratic voters rejected six of the IDC members, blaming them for preventing the passage of many bills, including stronger rent regulations, and replaced them with progressive Democrats, including Biaggi and Myrie.

“It’s not necessarily that taking real estate money makes you a bad legislator or a bad person...but for me, it’s very clear that it’s a slippery slope,” Biaggi said in a phone interview.

Even as she acknowledged how difficult it can be to run for office without wealthy donors, Biaggi said it was important to her to retain her independence and answer to everyday constituents, not just those who can write big checks. “The winning can’t take precedence over the fact that, once you’ve won, the people who have helped get you there are the people who are going to come knocking on the door and that’s really a very challenging thing to come to terms with,” she said. Biaggi spent about $330,000 on her campaign and won with 53.1 percent of the vote, while Klein disbursed more than $3 million to try to keep his seat and got 44.5 percent.

Salazar said her commitment, and Myrie’s and Biaggi’s, to refuse real estate donations proved that it’s possible to run a viable campaign with small donors, and build grassroots support and trust in communities by doing so.

“I think advocates have long recognized the correlation between the amount of real estate money that many electeds have taken and their failure to advocate vigorously for tenants,” she said. “When other candidates see those campaigns being successful and they see this growing and increasingly loud demand from advocates, I think that is what is translating to them paying more attention.”

Those in the real estate industry push back against being made the boogeymen of state politics. Real estate is, without a doubt, central to New York City’s fortunes and the industry comprises a large part of the city’s tax base. The sector is scapegoated more so than other industries and groups, like those in health care, finance, or education, that also employ somewhat similar tactics in state elections. And of course, many candidates regularly pursue real estate donors when running for office.

“There are people who are willing to accept our contributions because our philosophies or the ideas that we are espousing are aligned with their philosophies,” said John Banks, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, in an interview. “There are people who don’t want to accept real estate money because their philosophies don’t align with the work that the real estate industry does and there are people who move back and forth across that continuum.”

Banks pushed back against any notion that his industry has used the LLC loophole to improperly sway the political landscape to its benefit. “The real estate industry respects and follows both the letter and the intent of the law and to say that someone who follows the letter of the law is in someway undermining the legitimacy of the political process is a naive statement,” he said.

And, he noted, the real estate industry is intrinsically a part of New York’s landscape, more than any other, even finance, or technology. “Unlike some of the other industries, mobility is not something that is an option for us,” he said.

There are also Democrats, even those who call themselves progressives, for whom real estate donations are far from an insurmountable liability, even if they are unpopular with the party’s left wing. Cuomo sailed to reelection, in part by taking millions combined from LLCs and the real estate industry that he then used to overwhelm his less-funded primary and general election opponents over the airwaves. New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, not a close friend to real estate, accepted similar donations and was resoundingly elected the next attorney general of New York State. In the attorney general primary, for instance, James ran on a platform that included criticism of bad landlords and yet received $10,000 from an LLC linked to the Durst Organization, one of the largest real estate developers in the city. That LLC and seven others under the Durst umbrella also gave a combined $150,000 to one of James’ opponents, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, which became a line of attack from Teachout.

“The real estate industry is pretty broad and diverse,” said Jordan Barowitz, spokesperson for the Durst Organization. “I work in it, as do members of 32BJ and the super in your building and the residential broker who leased you your apartment.” He said “painting all these people with a pretty broad brush” is problematic. “Unfortunately there’s a lot of blaming in politics these days and it’s easy to point to one group or person or industry and say they’re responsible for everything that’s bad in this world and that’s pretty simplistic and wrong.”

“Honest politicians don’t take bribes and reputable donors don’t request quid pro quos,” he added.

There is a distance between bribes and quid pro quos on one hand, of course, and donations having some influence on policy-making, even if simply by virtue of how donations help candidates get elected.

McKee of Tenants PAC noted, for instance, that REBNY had begun donating larger sums in this election cycle to Democratic candidates once it seemed apparent that the party was going to regain control of the state Senate and, by result, the entire Legislature.

“REBNY saw the handwriting on the wall. They’re equal-opportunity opportunists. They don’t care who’s in the majority. They’ll try to buy influence with them by giving them money,” McKee said. “I’m not suggesting in any way that the mere fact that REBNY has started giving money to Democratic senators means that those Democratic senators are going to sell tenants out. That’s not my point. My point is that this is how they try to win friends and influence people, with big money.”

The influence of such donations can come down to seemingly small changes in policy, like the exact threshold at which an apartment leaves rent regulation, not necessarily major new legislation that would raise flags as donor-favors.

Gotham Gazette: Myrie wanted to avoid even the perception of corruption when he took his pledge, he said. “The number one reason that I did it was because...when we were gonna be facing the fight in Albany on whether or not we’re gonna protect tenants, I wanted there to be no confusion about which side I was on,” he said.

It would be hard to argue, he said, that real estate hasn’t had a corrupting influence on politics. “Albany for the longest time has passed watered down legislation,” Myrie added. “We have not protected tenants the way that we’ve needed to and that, you can draw the direct correlation to the increase in the amount of real estate donations to the Legislature. I think anyone looking at that objectively could say that it has had a corrosive effect on how we pass policy affecting our tenants.”

“Once you take that money, of course it influences how you legislate,” Biaggi said. “Now I think there are ways to protect against that, and that goes into campaign finance reform.”

Biaggi asserted that the path to stronger rent regulations runs directly through reforming the state’s campaign finance system, primarily through closing the LLC loophole, but also through lowering individual donation limits, where New York has some of the highest in the country. Closing the LLC loophole alone, advocates say, would take away real estate’s biggest weapon of political influence, and they insist it should be accompanied by a public campaign financing program, like the one currently used in New York City, to boost the voices of ordinary New Yorkers who only give $25 or $100 to a candidate.

Democrats in the Assembly have repeatedly attempted to reform campaign finance law but have been roadblocked for years by Republicans in the Senate, who have been major beneficiaries of real estate donations. Many, Cuomo included, have emphasized that ending the LLC loophole is among their priorities in the upcoming legislative session in January.

“If you had these kinds of reforms, candidates wouldn’t have to spend so much time cultivating rich people to make big donations,” McKee said.

On the other hand, Republicans have long-argued that labor unions often use campaign contributions to support and influence Democrats, and that any LLC reform should also institute limits on how local chapters of unions are classified in campaign finance law.

Weaver, from Communities for Change, said, “Not only are rent laws coming up in 2019 but I think there’s gonna be a big referendum on the role of money in politics generally…and the campaign finance stuff is also gonna be a referendum on tenant issues and real estate money in politics specifically.”

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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As Affordability Crisis Becomes More Acute, Real Estate Donations Emerge as Litmus Test for Some Democrats Thu, 29 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000