Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/63 Mon, 18 Feb 2019 00:12:32 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) City Council Public Housing Chair Weighs in on HUD Deal, NYCHA’s Future http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8287-city-council-public-housing-chair-weighs-in-on-hud-deal-nycha-s-future http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8287-city-council-public-housing-chair-weighs-in-on-hud-deal-nycha-s-future Ampry-Samuel NYCHA

Alicka Ampry-Samuel (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)


As Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced his “NYCHA 2.0” plan to secure the future of the city’s public housing authority, an agreement with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that includes a new federal monitor of NYCHA, and a new interim chair to lead the authority, the City Council member charged with oversight of NYCHA has some questions.

Alicka Ampry-Samuel is the chair of the City Council’s public housing committee and represents parts of central Brooklyn, home to many NYCHA residences. During a recent appearance on the Max & Murphy show on WBAI radio, Ampry-Samuel explained some of her concerns about the latest NYCHA-related developments, said that de Blasio had not reached out to her ahead of announcing that Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia would be named interim NYCHA chair, and promised a public hearing on the city’s deal with HUD in the coming months.

Ampry-Samuel had measured praise for de Blasio’s NYCHA 2.0 plan, which includes fairly aggressive measures to bring in new revenue to address the housing authority’s $30 billion-plus in physical needs, but she joined the chorus of critics who have questioned the mayor’s deal with HUD that includes no new federal money for NYCHA.

“We are seeing better things, but tell that to the person who’s suffering right now,” Ampry-Samuels said of the general situation across NYCHA, particularly relative to last winter, when there were widespread heat and hot water outages. “It’s hard for them to receive that response because they’re thinking, ‘What about me?’ That’s not the case in my home.”

On January 31, de Blasio announced at a press conference with Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson a deal that includes the federal government taking more direct oversight of NYCHA in response to years of crisis, criticism, management turmoil, and federal law enforcement inquiry.

Opponents have criticized the deal as giving too much power to a federal government that has often been at odds with the de Blasio administration and not supportive enough of public housing. The deal includes no new federal funding but a federal monitor who will be tasked with tracking NYCHA’s actions.

“Who is this person?” Ampry-Samuel said of the impending monitor. “Do they care about public housing, or is just a business-minded person who’s coming in to change and reform management, coming in to change the operational structure? Or is this someone who’s going to come in and look at NYCHA 2.0 and raising revenue to deal with the $32 million capital repairs it needs.”

Ampry-Samuel took a measured, pragmatic approach throughout the discussion. “With there now being federal monitor, this is opportunity to have an independent voice and be able to sit down with residents and the City of New York and say, ‘These are the things you have in place’ and review it. Go line by line and say, ‘You have not been able to do what you needed to do in the past and this is a way forward.’”

In December, de Blasio announced NYCHA 2.0, a revamped comprehensive plan to reform NYCHA and bring in more than $20 billion in revenue to repair the crumbling and dangerous public housing home to more than 400,000 New Yorkers. Some of the measures de Blasio had either rejected in the past or supported in far more limited fashion, but he said that without large-scale federal help, the city had no other viable options.

According to a de Blasio press release, the plan will resolve $24 billion in repairs, including renovations for 175,000 residents. Some of that will depend on new development on underused NYCHA land, such as parking lots, where a mix of market-rate and affordable housing will be erected. Ampry-Samuel appeared to acknowledge the elements of the plan as necessities, despite the fact that many have expressed grave concerns about such “infill” housing. The development process must be community-led, she said, and the money from development must be reinvested in the particular NYCHA projects where the new housing is built.

“We have to figure out ways to bring money in, but we have to make sure that the residents who are already part of the fabric of that development benefit from all the deals,” she said. “And we have to make sure it doesn’t happen to them -- it happens with them.”

Just last week de Blasio announced his next choice for interim chair of NYCHA: Kathryn Garcia, commissioner of the city’s Department of Sanitation, whom de Blasio had also recently put in charge of lead remediation efforts, which came out of the NYCHA lead paint scandal. Garcia replaces outgoing interim chair Stanley Brezenoff who recently criticized the city’s deal with HUD.

“I can’t figure why [the next NYCHA chair] is someone who has no housing background, no one with experience to that level,” said Ampry-Samuel. “She’s a great woman, with a great career, she rose through the ranks at Sanitation, but we can’t play musical chairs with this type of situation.”

A permanent chair, perhaps Garcia, is expected to be named after the federal monitor is in place, given that the monitor will have a say in approving de Blasio’s choice to head the authority.

The City Council Committee on Public Housing plans to hold an oversight hearing with Garcia, the administration, and a HUD representative on the deal between HUD and the city and NYCHA in the next several weeks, Ampry-Samuel said. She called for the creation of a chief resident officer as an advisor to the chair of NYCHA. The position, she hopes, could spur a greater relationship between NYCHA and NYCHA residents, though there are also tenant councils.

Asked about a time frame for the hearing she promised, Ampry-Samuel was hesitant to provide specifics, given how unsettled things are and how fresh the deal with HUD was, but she said she looked forward to a public discussion of all the recent changes and those to come.

[Listen: Max & Murphy Podcast: The Future of NYCHA with City Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel]

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by Truman Stephens, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Public Housing Chair Weighs in on HUD Deal, NYCHA’s Future Thu, 14 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
In Budget Testimony, De Blasio Critiques Cuomo Plans, Presents City Albany Agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8275-in-budget-testimony-de-blasio-critiques-cuomo-plans-presents-city-albany-agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8275-in-budget-testimony-de-blasio-critiques-cuomo-plans-presents-city-albany-agenda de Blasio city hall budget

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio received a warmer reception in Albany on Monday than he has in past years as he testified before the state Legislature on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2020 executive budget proposal and how it would affect New York City. Over the course of more than two hours, the mayor argued for more education funding, emphasized the need for a comprehensive revenue plan for the MTA, enlisted legislators to help fend off proposed funding cuts and costs shifts, and defended his administration’s work on multiple fronts.

In prior appearances before the Legislature, de Blasio has faced the ire of Republicans who controlled the state Senate and have used the annual budget hearing to criticize the mayor’s policies and management of the city. But with Democrats now in control of both legislative chambers, the mayor found himself largely in agreement with lawmakers and their priorities on everything from school aid and transit funding to criminal justice reform, rent regulation and marijuana legalization.

He called on the Legislature to give the city design-build authority for infrastructure projects, pushed for the expansion of a speed camera and red light camera program in the city, asked for repeal of Section 50-a of the state civil rights law, which prevents disclosure of police officer disciplinary records, and advocated for a commercial vacancy tax to fight a crisis of vacant storefronts in the city.

De Blasio appealed to the Legislature to aid New York City in avoiding what he said is nearly $600 million in proposed cuts and cost shifts included in the governor’s budget. He reiterated the city’s slightly more rocky budgetary prospects that he raised in his own $92.2 billion preliminary budget proposal last week, where he noted that his administration is implementing a PEG (program to eliminate the gap) for the first time, with the goal of $750 million in total savings across agencies by the time the mayor releases his own executive budget plan in April (at which point he’ll also have to factor in the final state budget, which is due by April 1). City agency cutbacks, he warned, would be exacerbated if the governor’s budget passes in its current form.

The mayor blamed nearly half the Cuomo “cuts” on education funding. Those include a $148 million shortfall in mandated spending on charter schools and special education services and a newly proposed school funding formula that de Blasio said would create a “winners and losers situation” by shifting existing funding away from needy schools. “Although I am certain the proposal’s well-intended, there are real problems with it,” he said under questioning from Assemblymember Ed Braunstein. The governor’s office has disputed de Blasio’s characterizations of “cuts,” noting that some of the mayor’s assessment is based on faulty expectations by the city.

De Blasio also insisted, as he has often done, that the state should provide full funding under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision, which would mean about $1.2 billion in additional fair student funding for the city. “We should all be outraged that something that was decided by our highest court to help our children….somehow has not been brought to full fruition,” he later said. Again on this topic, Cuomo has disagreed with the mayor’s interpretation, which is shared by many Democratic officials, with the governor saying that the Campaign for Fiscal Equity has been paid off and is a thing of the past.

De Blasio did commend the governor for backing a three-year extension of mayoral control of city schools, which Republicans often used as a cudgel against the mayor in order to extract concessions from the city. At Monday’s hearing, the mayor was able to tout his administration’s success with little pushback, pointing to record-high graduation rates.

Senator Robert Jackson, however, did prod the mayor for more accountability within the system. “I don’t believe in control...I believe in authority with oversight at an appropriate level,” Jackson said.

De Blasio was willing to concede, “The phrase might be better called mayoral accountability.” At various points, he said that his administration is seeking greater input from parents on issues such as school closures and consolidation, though it could always do better. And he also defended his authority to appoint the schools chancellor through a discretionary process. A nationwide public process would undermine the city’s ability to hire top-notch educators, he said. “The power of [mayoral control] is, everyone here and all the parents of New York City get to hold me accountable,” he said. “That was not true in the past.”

Legislators focused a significant amount of time on the MTA and proposals to find sustainable sources of revenue for the beleaguered authority, responsible for the subways and buses, while making its operations more efficient. Cuomo has proposed a congestion pricing system with some details left undetermined, but that would, among other things, give the Triboro Bridge and Tunnel Authority control over city streets. And he has said the city should split halfway any remaining MTA capital shortfall after congestion pricing revenue is counted. The governor has also been railing against the MTA structure and leadership, who he appointed, and has been arguing for greater control of the agency, which he already effectively controls.

De Blasio has rejected congestion pricing as a silver bullet to solve the MTA’s woes and has said he would prefer a millionaire’s tax to raise the requisite funds for subways and buses. He repeated that argument at the hearing and said the MTA would need a “multi-element” solution that includes several different long-term streams of revenue, including perhaps a mansion tax, an internet sales tax, and revenue from legalization of recreational marijuana use, and a lockbox to ensure congestion pricing revenue is not diverted away from the MTA. Splitting capital costs with the state, he said, would be overly burdensome on the city’s already massive ten-year capital plan, which hit $100 billion for the first time when he released it last week.

He also insisted he could only support a congestion pricing plan that had “hardship exemptions”, which went down well with some legislators but not others. For instance, Senator Jim Gaughran, a Long Island Democrat, agreed, saying he hadn’t seen a feasible proposal yet. He suggested a regional program that could also take into account commuters who use the Long Island Rail Road and bus systems, and a carve out for small businesses. Democratic Assemblymember Bobby Carroll of Brooklyn, on the other hand, said the mayor’s insistence on a progressive congestion pricing proposal seemed “disingenuous” since various carve outs would render the program insufficient.

“I think it’s a balance point,” de Blasio responded. “I think there’s a way to figure out what is a fair hardship exemption and what is not, what does it do to our revenue and what revenue we need.”

And though de Blasio has feuded with Cuomo over blame for the MTA’s failings, he generally supported the concept of giving more control to the governor. “I liken it to mayoral accountability for schools,” he said.

De Blasio also found himself defending his role in the deal to bring an Amazon campus and an estimated 25,000 to 40,000 jobs to Queens, which would give the tech giant $3 billion in tax incentives and grants. To persuade Amazon, the mayor and governor struck an agreement to circumvent the local City Council-led land use process, drawing widespread criticism.

De Blasio insisted on Monday that the $3 billion in incentives the company will receive is out of the city’s control -- most of the tax breaks are as-of-right incentives that Amazon would receive like any other company based on its location and job-creation, and $500 million of it is coming from the state in a capital grant. And he also revealed that he did not negotiate with the company to ensure neutrality if its workers attempt to unionize. When asked by Senator Jessica Ramos, a former de Blasio aide, he said he only insisted that the campus be built by union labor and that building services jobs should go to union workers. De Blasio has repeatedly said that he will continue to put pressure on Amazon related to its approach to employee unionization, and that the larger New York City pro-union environment will also play a role.

In back-and-forth with lawmakers, de Blasio also made promises, some concrete and some speculative. He said that a commission looking at the city’s property tax system would release its recommendations this year. He said the city could shave years off the Rikers Island jail closure plan if a variety of criminal justice reforms are passed by the state. He said he would work with legislators to introduce a commercial vacancy tax bill in the coming weeks. And he promised to invest in improved bus service in the city even if congestion pricing does not come to pass.

Of course, there were moments when de Blasio also pushed back. Senator John Liu, a Queens Democrat and 2013 primary opponent, pushed the mayor on his “seemingly magical solution” to expand healthcare access to 600,000 uninsured New Yorkers at an eventual cost of $100 million annually. Liu wondered whether that would mean the state could pass a single-payer program that doesn’t include New York City. “I would like to say yes to that but I can’t,” de Blasio responded, noting that single-payer healthcare would be a better option.

Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican who ran against de Blasio in 2017, noted that the mayor was raising alarms about budget shortfalls in the city while also increasing spending by $3 billion. “If we are anticipating all these problems with less revenue coming into the city, why are you continuing to increase the budget dramatically?” she wondered. She also asked the mayor to cap increases of the city’s property tax levy, one of the few tax burdens under the city’s control.

De Blasio did agree that the city needs a “more equitable solution” to property taxes though he disagreed that the city should cap the levy. He also defended the city’s budget more broadly, emphasizing that much of the increased spending has gone to pay increases for the municipal workforce in new labor agreements reached under his administration which had lapsed for years.

The state Legislature will continue budget hearings over the next few weeks before each house -- or perhaps both houses together -- release responses to the governor’s proposal. First, Cuomo will release 30-day amendments to his budget plan. Negotiations will heat up in March as the April 1 state budget deadline looms.

[Read: 9 Key Takeaways for New York City from Cuomo's State of the State and Budget]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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In Budget Testimony, De Blasio Critiques Cuomo Plans, Presents City Albany Agenda Mon, 11 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
What's The [Data] Point? $92.2 Billion, Mayor de Blasio's Preliminary Budget http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8268-what-s-the-data-point-92-2-billion-mayor-de-blasio-s-preliminary-budget http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8268-what-s-the-data-point-92-2-billion-mayor-de-blasio-s-preliminary-budget whats the data point


What's The [Data] Point? Episode 65 -- $92.2 billion, Mayor de Blasio's Preliminary Budget, with Sally Goldenberg [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

sally goldenberg wtdp

Mayor de Blasio released his $92.2 billion preliminary budget plan for fiscal year 2020, which begins July 1 of this year, and Sally Goldenberg of Politico New York joined the podcast to break it down and preview what's next in city and state budget deliberations.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis of CBC (@MariaDoulis). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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What's The [Data] Point? $92.2 Billion, Mayor de Blasio's Preliminary Budget Fri, 08 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Citing Causes for Concern & Promising Cuts, De Blasio Presents Still-Growing Budget Plan of $92.2 Billion http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8266-citing-several-causes-for-concern-de-blasio-presents-still-growing-budget-plan-of-92-2-billion http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8266-citing-several-causes-for-concern-de-blasio-presents-still-growing-budget-plan-of-92-2-billion may bill de blasio fiscal 20

Mayor de Blasio presents his budget (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


When Mayor Bill de Blasio presented his preliminary budget proposal last year, he issued solemn warnings about the threats posed by cuts in the state budget and from federal maneuvers that could mean fewer resources for the city. On Thursday, de Blasio repeated that message, but in more dire terms, as he unveiled a $92.2 billion spending proposal for the 2020 fiscal year that starts July 1.

While the plan calls for another significant annual increase in spending -- about $3 billion, or 3.4 percent, from the budget adopted last June -- the mayor also said his administration would have to make difficult decisions in the coming months, instituting a new savings program to find efficiencies in city government while ensuring that front-facing services do not suffer.

“We have some tough choices up ahead under any scenario,” de Blasio said in City Hall’s Blue Room. “We will be guided by the need to make hard choices, to find savings and then when we have to choose, we will favor the priorities that we believe are most strategic and high impact. If a program is nobly intended but not as strategically central or not as valuable, that’s where you will find the cuts.”

The mayor’s proposal will soon become the subject of City Council hearings, and the mayor will be in Albany on Monday to testify at a state budget hearing, where he will tell legislators they must help him undo elements in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget plan, which the mayor said totaled about $600 million in proposed cuts and cost shifts to the city.

The $3 billion in increased city spending outlined in de Blasio’s preliminary budget includes about $1 billion additional spending stemming from recent contract agreements with labor unions, $632 million in added education spending, $358 million in debt service costs, $325 million in fringe benefits for city employees, $113 million in mandatory charter school spending, and $109 million to expand the city’s 3-K for all program.

Overall, the preliminary budget represents a nearly $20 billion increase since the last budget modification before de Blasio took office in 2014.  

But de Blasio cautioned of an economic recession on the horizon, the symptoms of which are already beginning to show and are forcing the city to tighten its belt. The city is projecting that personal income tax revenue would be $935 million less this fiscal year than last year, for instance, with most of the drop off in December and January revenue collections. (Similarly, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced earlier this week that the state is expecting a $2.3 billion shortfall because of lower income tax revenue. De Blasio noted that Cuomo had already looked to the city to make up state deficits before the recently-announced shortfalls.)

Along with those concerning tax receipts, de Blasio pointed to additional pressure from developments at the state and federal levels. He pointed to the proposed Cuomo cuts and cost shifts that the city may have to bear in spending on education, financial assistance and health services for needy families, and spending for at-risk youth. “These are permanent cuts...when these cuts occur in the state budget, it’s not just for one year. The money goes away, never comes back,” he said, promising to oppose them but conceding that some losses may happen despite the city’s best efforts. 

The governor's administration later sought to rebut the mayor's comments on decreased education funding. "We don't know how the City considers a $282 million school aid increase over last year a cut, and a cut from what you ‘expected’ to get is a bizarre concept," said Morris Peters, a Division of Budget spokesperson, in a statement. "The state has a formula that outlines what the funding increase will be year to year – so why the City would expect to get something higher than that is nonsensical and a pure fabrication."

The threat to the city emanating from Washington is far less certain. The federal government faces a February 15 deadline to reach a budget agreement and preempt another disruptive government shutdown. If that agreement fails, de Blasio said the state would lose about $500 million every month starting in May, with the city losing about $110 million monthly. There are the more nebulous effects of the fluctuations in the stock market, which have been partly to blame for lower city revenue, and federal trade policy.

Taking those factors into account, the mayor announced that for the first time since he took office in 2014, he would institute a PEG (Program to Eliminate the Gap), which former Mayor Michael Bloomberg employed to control agency costs. Unlike Bloomberg’s program, however, de Blasio does not plan to institute a citywide percentage-based cut in spending at all or most agencies. Instead, he said he will direct most if not all agencies to cut a collective $750 million in costs by April, including by expanding a partial hiring freeze that the city estimates has saved $448 million since it was announced in April 2017. Each agency will receive a target figure for spending cuts from the city’s Office of Management and Budget, de Blasio said.

The preliminary budget also includes $1 billion in savings across fiscal years 2019 and 2020, and $1.6 billion in savings on healthcare spending in fiscal year 2020, increasing to $1.9 billion in fiscal year 2021. Yet, notably the mayor did not dedicate additional resources to the city’s reserves, keeping them flat over last year -- they include $1 billion in the general reserve, $250 million in the capital stabilization reserve, and $4.5 billion in the Retiree Health Benefits Trust Fund. Budget watchdogs have repeatedly said that while the city has solid reserves, they are not enough, especially as de Blasio continues to increase spending, to truly weather a recession.

The mayor’s preliminary budget includes few major new investments in programs, and continues funding for those that are already underway or have been announced by the mayor in the last few months. Those include $25 million for NYC Care, which will give healthcare access to uninsured New Yorkers. The program is expected to launch in the Bronx this summer and will expand citywide by 2021 at a cost of $100 million annually, serving 600,000 people. The city also plans in next fiscal year to spend $106 million to continue funding Fair Fares (half-priced MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers); $5.3 million to speed up Crisis Intervention Training for NYPD officers; $25 million to expand 3-K for All in the Bronx and Brooklyn; and $2.7 million to increase bus speeds by 25 percent by the end of next year.

Also, for the first time ever, the city’s preliminary ten-year capital strategy reached triple digits, for a high of $104.1 billion, an increase of 8.7 percent. The city’s expense and capital budgets are calculating and presented separately. Every two years the capital strategy is re-established.  

“You’ve all heard the truism that budgets are a statement of values. That’s gonna play out in these coming months,” de Blasio said. “If we get continued good news from Washington, from Albany, from our broader economic context, we’ll have more freedom. If we get bad news, we’ll be ready to make some very tough decisions.”

In the next few weeks, the mayor’s budget proposal will be dissected in a series of City Council hearings, where officials from the administration will be called to testify. On Thursday, the Council acknowledged the city’s difficult fiscal position but indicated that it was ready for tough negotiations.

“We know there are challenges presented by the economy, as well as funding shortfalls from the state, particularly in education and social services. We will work with the Administration to get our fair share from Albany,” said Council Speaker Corey Johnson, finance committee chair Daniel Dromm, and capital budget chair Vanessa Gibson, in a joint statement. “But even while recognizing the challenges, we also know this City’s economy is strong and we will fight for a fiscally responsible plan that protects the social safety net.” They vowed to push for funding for Fair Fares, education, immigrant families, and permanent housing for those who need it. “These are our values and we will never walk away from them.”

Comptroller Scott Stringer also took note of the “warning signs” for the economy and commended the mayor for instituting a PEG, which he has called for repeatedly. “It’s past time for City agencies to seriously evaluate how effective their spending really is in achieving results for New Yorkers,” he said.

Year after year, fiscal watchdogs and rating agencies have praised the city’s responsible budgeting but have also raised alarms about spending trends that could backfire in an economic crunch. Andrew Rein, president of the nonprofit Citizens Budget Commission, reiterated some of those concerns on Thursday, noting that the budget showed “modest restraint” in increased spending.

“Much bolder action is needed to ensure the City is prepared for an economic downturn,” Rein said. “Spending growth should be limited to inflation and reserves should be increased. The PEG announced today should be developed with an eye to making operations more efficient and generating recurring savings.”

Last week, CBC recommended that the city pursue a four-part strategy of lower spending growth, greater reserves, improvements to the capital plan and strengthening the fiscal health of three major public authorities -- the New York City Housing Authority, NYC Health + Hospitals, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The mayor said his budget did not include any new funding for the MTA, funding for which is expected to be a major source of contention between de Blasio and Cuomo over the next several months.

A state budget is due by April 1, at which time the mayor and City Council will have significantly more information to work toward their next spending plan, which is due by July 1.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated with a statement from a state Division of Budget spokesperson. 

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Citing Causes for Concern & Promising Cuts, De Blasio Presents Still-Growing Budget Plan of $92.2 Billion Thu, 07 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
City’s New Civic Engagement Commission, Set to Be Named in April, Is Accepting Applications http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8265-city-s-new-civic-engagement-commission-set-to-be-named-in-april-is-accepting-applications http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8265-city-s-new-civic-engagement-commission-set-to-be-named-in-april-is-accepting-applications city council torres lander levine barron pub

Council Members Lander, Torres, Barron & others (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The Civic Engagement Commission that city voters approved in November is now accepting applications from New Yorkers interesting in serving on the panel that will help craft strategies for getting more residents of the five boroughs engaged in civic life. Though appointments to the commission will be made by top city elected officials, the open application process allows regular New Yorkers to throw their names and resumes into the pool of candidates for placement on the commission that will deal with things like citywide participatory budgeting and election poll-site translation services.

The commission, which is scheduled to be empaneled on April 1, will consist of 15 members: eight appointed by the mayor, two by the City Council speaker, and one by each of the borough presidents. The initial appointees will have either two- or four-year terms to stagger subsequent appointments; later members will serve four-year terms, with the exception of the chair, who would serve at the mayor’s discretion. The commission was created out of a proposal from a Charter Revision Commission empaneled last year by Mayor Bill de Blasio that put three questions on the November ballot, all of which were approved.

New Yorkers have until February 22 to apply through a fairly simple online form that asks several questions about the applicant’s interest in the commission and relevant experience, with a function for uploading a resume. Potential applicants are reminded that the purpose of the commission is “to enhance civic participation in order to enhance civic trust and strengthen democracy in New York City,” and that the commission will do its own work while also partnering with public and private entities to help foster civic engagement across the city.

Applicants are told to “please take note that an application submitted on this site may not be the only method by which candidates for appointment are identified by the appointing authorities, including the Mayor, and does not create a right to any further process or to appointment to the Commission or to any other City position.”

City Council Member Brad Lander, who had introduced legislation to create a similar entity, an office of civic engagement, and championed the Civic Engagement Commission put forward by the mayor's charter revision commission, sent out an e-mail blast to his constituents on Thursday celebrating the launch of the commission and application process, and encouraging people to apply.

"I’m pleased to report that it’s getting started in the right way, with openness and participation," Lander wrote, noting that "unlike any other citywide board or commission" the Civic Engagement Commission has an open application process. "The Civic Engagement Commission has the potential to breathe new life into our local democracy," Lander wrote. "If you know someone with great experience and relationships, who’d make a difference as a commissioner, please encourage them to apply. We are, of course, looking for a Commission that is as diverse as New York."

While many of the commission’s endeavors will be determined by its members, some are prescribed, chief among them a new citywide participatory budgeting program, expanding a program that currently exists in 34 of 51 City Council districts at the discretion of local Council members.

Participatory budgeting, first used in New York City in 2011 when four Council members used some of their discretionary funds for the program, allows residents to propose and vote for specific projects in their district to be financed via capital funds allocated to Council members. At least $1 million per district is budgeted via direct democracy, and residents have funded projects ranging from fixing school bathrooms to mobile showers for use by homeless people, among many other projects.

The commission would be required to develop the program by the start of Fiscal Year 2021 on July 1, 2020, when the mayor would implement it.

The commission’s other initially-delegated tasks include improving language access for New Yorkers at poll sites and in other city programs, assisting and training newly term-limited community boards, and partnering with community organizations in their own efforts at enhanced civic engagement. The commission will also develop new civic engagement initiatives in the years to come.

There are few restrictions on who can apply or be appointed to the commission. An applicant must be a resident of the city and a U.S. citizen, and cannot be an “officer of a political party” or a candidate for various elected offices, from mayor to borough president to City Council. The commission seeks candidates “who are representative of, or have experience working with” immigrants and those with limited English proficiency.

With the exception of the city’s non-citizen population, the commission is essentially open to anyone. The report by the mayor’s Charter Revision Commission last year said that, besides the immigrant and non-English-proficient communities, the panel would seek applicants representative of “people with disabilities, students, youth, seniors, veterans, community groups, good government groups, civil rights advocates, and categories of residents that are historically underrepresented in or underserved by City government.”

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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City’s New Civic Engagement Commission, Set to Be Named in April, Is Accepting Applications Thu, 07 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.

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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
10 Burning Questions After Cuomo’s State of the State and Budget http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8242-10-burning-questions-after-cuomo-s-state-of-the-state-and-budget-2 http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8242-10-burning-questions-after-cuomo-s-state-of-the-state-and-budget-2 cuomo legistlation pro

Gov. Cuomo with Lt. Gov. Hochul & legislative leaders (photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, delivered his State of the State speech earlier this month, laying out his proposed $175.2 billion executive budget for the 2020 state fiscal year that begins April 1. Calling it his “justice agenda,” Cuomo unveiled a long list of proposals, some new and many rehashed, expressing confidence that full Democratic control of the state Legislature would allow for a slew of sweeping policy victories that had been denied by years of Republican obstruction in the upper chamber. In the two weeks since then, the Assembly and Senate have indeed advanced several bills -- some of which the governor has quickly signed -- to reform the state’s voting laws, protections for the LGBTQ community, reproductive health rights, and criminal justice system.

The budget gap for next fiscal year, which begins April 1, is about $3.1 billion, lower than the one the state had to cover last year. Cuomo has proposed a 3.6 percent increase in spending each for healthcare and education, the two largest buckets in the budget. Under Cuomo’s plan, which will now be the subject of negotiations with the Legislature, the health care budget would increase by about $700 million, reaching $19.6 billion, and education spending would increase by $1 billion, for a total of $27.7 billion. The governor has also proposed a new education funding formula that he calls “Education Equity,” which would redistribute funds to the poorest schools in the poorest districts, he says, and will be a central element of budget discussions.

[READ: 15 Notable Cuomo Proposals Not In His State of the State Speech]

There’s a great deal to be hashed out, both in terms of policy and the state budget, in the next three months, including stakeholders beyond the governor and legislators, such as advocates, service-providers, local officials like Mayor Bill de Blasio, and others. Though the governor finds himself largely allied with the Legislature on broad progressive priorities, there are areas of disagreement, small and large, and details to be worked out on a host of complicated policies.

Now that Cuomo has framed the discussion with his policy and budget plans, the Legislature is fast at work passing bills and others around the state are pushing their agendas, here are ten of the outstanding questions for the upcoming Legislative session and budget:

1. Will the state stick to a 2% cap in spending increases?
Cuomo is fond of touting his administration’s fiscal discipline and his self-imposed 2 percent cap on increased spending each year. But it’s become a tradition for him to use maneuvers that move spending off the state budget to help mask the actual uptick in spending.

“One of the things that we noticed was that the governor again purports that this keeps state spending at 2 percent,” said Dave Friedfel, director of state studies at Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan watchdog, said of the governor’s executive budget plan, “and it looks like it’s closer to 3 percent. It’s probably a touch more, based on some quick adjustments that we could see right away where money was moved out of state operating spending in a budget year but not in the current year for the calculation.”

2. Will the state put away more money in reserves?
The state would have just $2.3 billion in rainy day funds based on Cuomo’s budget, a pittance compared to the $175 billion in planned spending and an amount that would be insufficient for the state to survive an economic downturn if one should occur without major spending cuts and/or tax increases. The state, and the country at large, is reaching the tail end of the second-longest economic expansion in history and most experts say it will not last too much longer.

“The tide will turn eventually,” Friedfel said. “It’s a matter of how severe that recession is going to be. So we were hoping to see more deposits to the state’s rainy day funds.” Friedfel praised the governor’s proposal to put $500 million more into reserves over the current and upcoming fiscal years but said it wouldn’t be strong enough. “In the absolute best case scenario, [based on] the last three recessions, you could expect to see a revenue shortfall of $20 billion over four years and right now the state’s rainy day fund, even with the governor’s deposit is gonna have $2.3 billion,” he said.

Experts like Friedfel have pointed to California, a similarly high-tax and high-spending state, as a model to follow since that state has put away nearly 10 percent of its operating budget into reserves -- the California rainy day fund is expected to reach $15.3 billion by next year.

3. What will congestion pricing look like?
Cuomo has embraced congestion pricing -- tolling traffic into the Manhattan business district south of 60th Street -- as a crucial method to fund the MTA (and help reduce traffic). At his State of the State, he said the proposal could bring in as much as $15 billion over ten years. But he gave few details of what he believes the program should look like and his budget similarly does not outline exact tolls or methodology.

For elected officials in New York City and its suburbs, congestion pricing is far from a settled idea (there is also concern upstate about transportation funding). New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly emphasized that he would prefer a millionaire’s tax to fund the MTA, and has hemmed and hawed about an ideal congestion pricing plan, while lawmakers in outer boroughs have raised concerns that the program will hurt the pockets of their constituents. However, support for congestion pricing has grown significantly over the last few years, and Cuomo appears committed to passing some version of the program.

Still, there are many questions to answer as a scheme is crafted.

“But I think the bigger question too is, the city runs the roads and bridges that will generate this revenue, so how much of the money will go back to maintaining these roads and bridges?,” said Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a think tank. “That’s something the city really has a stake in. You wouldn’t want to see the city having to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to rehabilitate these bridges every few decades and then they’re generating money that only goes to the MTA.”

The governor's proposal, as Gelinas pointed out in a column for the New York Post, would give the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, which falls under the MTA, the ability to take over city streets, sidewalks, roads, bridges and tunnels to build the infrastructure to implement congestion pricing. In effect, it would put city infrastructure under the control of the state which could potentially, Gelinas warned, use that power to demolish bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly spaces and create more space for cars. "This would be a huge deal even if the state were offering something in return: a bigger say over how the MTA spends our money," she wrote. "Instead, Cuomo has said that he’d like more control over the MTA. More money from the city — and more dominance over its future."  

4. Will the governor and Legislature force New York City to split MTA costs with the state?
The governor has suggested that any shortfalls in capital funding for the MTA, after congestion pricing revenues are accounted for, should be split 50-50 between the city and state. He dubiously argued in his speech, as he has before, that he doesn’t control the MTA and that the city is legally responsible for funding subway and bus system capital needs. “And it is worth splitting the cost with New York City, to make the investment we should've made for decades to keep that transportation system vital,” he said, indicating that he could leave it entirely to the city.

Mayor de Blasio disagreed with the governor’s contention, and pushed back against his suggestion that the city had funded the majority of capital plans in past decades. But the mayor may have no choice in the matter if the governor and Legislature force his hand through law, as they did last year in compelling the city to fund half of the $836 million Subway Action Plan put into motion to arrest the rapid decline of subway service over the last few years.   

“On the MTA, it’s going to be very difficult negotiations to start off from here,” said Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute. “It’s hard to see the city going along with having to pay a much bigger portion of the MTA capital budget without having some kind of greater say in what happens at the MTA. The governor seems to want to go in the opposite direction with giving the state a bigger say, although it’s not really clear.”

In the weeks since the speech, Cuomo has repeatedly criticized the very management that he has appointed at the MTA while arguing that it should be restructured to give him more control, though he effectively already has near-absolute power over it.

“I think it’s a little disturbing that he would tie the rest of the existing [2015-2019] capital plan money for the MTA to all of this reform because that’s money that was already promised,” Gelinas added. “They’re already bidding out contracts based on that money. If you’re gonna say that $7.3 billion won’t be available unless we completely restructure the MTA, not only then do you have to worry about the future capital budget but now he’s sort of creating a big hole in the current MTA capital budget...It would be really hard to conceive of an MTA where the city, the suburbs, they’re still providing this money...but they don’t have say over the major capital projects that the MTA embarks on.”

5. What will Cuomo’s new education funding formula look like?
Cuomo proposed $1 billion in increased education funding overall, about $1.1 billion less than what the state Board of Regents recommended. In a series of slides during his speech, Cuomo pointed to education funding disparities across the state stemming from the current “Foundation Aid” formula, also known as Fair Student Funding, and how local districts distribute it to their schools, insisting that more money was being funnelled to richer schools in the poorest districts. His argument formed the basis for his “Education Equity” proposal, which would require school districts to dedicate a significant amount of foundation aid money to the poorest schools.

De Blasio was among those to quickly critique the governor’s proposal, insisting that in New York City at least, funding had been sent where it was needed, despite figures Cuomo had for the first time presented during his speech. The mayor, and education advocates and elected officials, have repeatedly urged Cuomo to fully fund the state Court of Appeals’ Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) decision that first led to the creation of foundation aid -- a decision Cuomo insists is no longer relevant, with a commitment he says has already been met -- which would require billions more in funding, which Cuomo has refused to provide.

Rather, the governor’s budget briefing book took pains to argue that CFE has no relation to foundation aid. But he did not outline what his new proposal would entail, instead leaving it up to the state Department of Education to hammer out a plan.

6. Will Cuomo leverage mayoral control of city schools to get concessions from de Blasio?
Cuomo’s budget book noted his support for extending mayoral control of New York CIty schools by three years, a position he has taken in the past as well. But in the past, the governor -- and Republicans who controlled the state Senate earlier -- used mayoral control as a form of leverage over de Blasio, who is more closely allied with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and the teachers unions, attempting to enact concessions including an expansion of a charter school cap.

Cuomo did not mention charter schools in his speech and his budget briefing book has only a small section dedicated to them, but he has been friendly to the sector in the past, and charter school donors have been generous to his campaigns. It’s not clear yet whether Cuomo will pursue increasing the statutory cap, which is close to being reached, especially since Republicans who favor the charter sector no longer have clout in Albany. There are some Democratic legislators who are supportive of charters, but it is unclear how loud those voices will be in their conferences, and whether Cuomo will put any political capital into another expansion of charters’ ability to grow.

And if it isn’t charter schools, it’s unclear what, if anything, Cuomo may try to trade for extending mayoral control.

7. What will marijuana regulation look like?
This is one particularly burning question that has more answers than the others. Cuomo proposed a regulated program to legalize adult recreational marijuana use and raise $300 million in revenue annually, though it allows counties and municipalities to opt out. His budget puts forward the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act, which would impose three taxes on the cultivation and sale of marijuana for recreational use. He has also insisted that regulation must be accompanied by decriminalization for those already convicted on marijuana-related arrests and set a legal use age of 21.

But as legislators negotiate what Cuomo has outlined, questions remain about where the marijuana revenue will go and what the new regulation will look like in practice, particularly for businesses, among other details to be decided. The governor is a more recent convert to the cause of legalization and he has heeded the advice of advocates and other elected officials who have long supported legalization and have insisted it should come with benefits for the communities that have been most adversely impacted by marijuana enforcement.

“Now we just have to put it in place, and we have to do it in a way that creates an economic opportunity for poor communities and people who paid the price, and not for rich corporations that are going to come in to make a buck,” Cuomo said in his speech.

New York City is expected to comprise a majority of the state’s marijuana market and de Blasio, who was until recently opposed to legalization himself, also warned against the “corporate takeover of the marijuana industry.” Speaking at a news conference in Albany after the governor’s speech, he said, “[T]his should be a community-based form of business, a small business focus, and a focus on those who are economically harmed by the previous policies.”

8. Will Cuomo’s ‘Green New Deal’ have legislative backing?
Cuomo proposed a “Green New Deal” to increase New York State’s investment in renewable energy and reach 100 percent clean energy by 2040. It was a sweeping declaration from the governor, who has long faced criticism from activists that his environmental record has not been strong enough. At the same time, Cuomo failed to mention the Climate and Community Protection Act, a bill that seeks to accomplish similar goals but has not moved in the state Legislature, though it may this year.

It’s unclear what compromise might look like, or whether the Legislature will force Cuomo’s hand -- the proposals have differing timelines for achieving certain milestones, among other differences, and advocates say the governor’s ideas don’t go far enough. With legislative action, the proposed environmental regulations would also have the strength of law rather than being enacted administratively and being vulnerable to cuts in the future. Senator Todd Kaminsky has indicated that he will continue to pursue the CCPA, potentially setting up a clash between the governor and lawmakers.

9. Will the Legislature advance the New York Health Act for single-payer health care?
While running for reelection, the governor was ardent that he supports a single-payer health care program, the likes of which would be established by the proposed New York Health Act -- but he has repeatedly said it should be mandated and funded by the federal government rather than the state. New York would have to increase overall state government revenue by $139 billion by 2022 to pay for the program, according to a RAND Corporation study. It would provide health coverage to all New Yorkers -- they wouldn’t have to purchase insurance or receive it from employers -- and patients would not have to pay deductibles, co-payments or out-of-pocket costs. The study estimates that total health care spending in this case would be similar to what current levels are expected to be in 2022, and would be about 3 percent lower by 3031, “with the ten-year cumulative net savings being about $80 billion, or 2 percent.”

The bill -- which its sponsors say will be altered in a new version soon to be introduced -- has passed the Assembly but not the Senate, though both houses are now under Democratic control. Still, legislative leaders have not listed the New York Health Act as a top priority for this year. Several Democratic state lawmakers successfully flipped seats last year on platforms that included support for the New York Health Act, and some legislators, especially the lead sponsors, Assemblymember Richard Gottfried and Senator Gustavo Rivera, are expected to continue pursuing it, which could create a significant fissure both within the Legislature and with the governor’s office.

“It was clear in the country and New York that healthcare was the number one issue on voters’ minds,” Gottfried, chair of the Assembly Health Committee, said in an interview with Gotham Gazette right after the November election. “A solid majority of the new state Senate has either been a cosigner, voted for it in the Assembly, or campaigned on it. So I think we’re on track to get it passed in the Assembly and state Senate.”

10. Will the Legislature fully close the LLC loophole and pass stronger ethics reforms and a public campaign finance system?
The state Legislature passed several ethics and campaign finance reforms within the first few days of the new session, including severely limiting donations that can be made by Limited Liability Companies and requiring increased disclosure of the ownership of those firms. But that measure did not completely close the so-called ‘LLC loophole,’ which has allowed untold amounts of money to flow into state elections from moneyed interests and has drawn the ire of good government advocacy groups.

Cuomo, the biggest beneficiary of LLC donations of any elected official in the state, has said he wants to close the loophole entirely, a pledge he reiterated at his State of the State while also calling for a ban on corporate contributions to political candidate campaigns -- under the new law passed by the Legislature, LLCs, like corporations, can donate a maximum of $5,000. The Legislature is expected to take up further campaign finance reforms as well, which could mean that LLC and corporate donations may soon become a thing of the past, while a state public campaign finance system could be put into motion.

Cuomo has also proposed a broader agenda of reform that includes curtailing contribution limits across the board, a proposal that could meet with some resistance, and expanding the state’s Freedom of Information Law to cover the Legislature, to which lawmakers have been strictly opposed, among a variety of other reform measures.

[READ: Cuomo's 2019 Agenda of Election, Campaign Finance and Government Ethics Reforms]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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10 Burning Questions After Cuomo’s State of the State and Budget Wed, 30 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Mayor De Blasio Needs a Clearer Focus on Climate Change, with a More Aggressive Agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8238-mayor-de-blasio-needs-a-clearer-focus-on-climate-change-with-a-more-aggressive-agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8238-mayor-de-blasio-needs-a-clearer-focus-on-climate-change-with-a-more-aggressive-agenda fund climate ed

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


Mayor de Blasio plans to travel nationally to discuss the ideas in his recent State of the City speech, but if he does, he won't be talking about climate change, because his speech didn't deal with it. He mentioned divesting $5 billion from fossil fuel stocks, but he never uttered the words "climate change" and said nothing about how New York City is progressing toward key goals for reducing its own climate impacts.

The omission speaks volumes. De Blasio previously pledged the city would cut overall greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050 (including cutting city fleet emissions 80% by 2035), and to stop 90% of our waste from going to landfills by 2030. He should be held accountable. Both goals are crucial for fighting climate change, and New York should lead the country and the world in implementing them. Instead, we're lagging. Of 27 megacities worldwide, New York uses the most energy and generates by far the most solid waste.

How we handle our waste affects our emissions. Thirty percent of our waste stream is organic waste, 2 million tons of which rot in landfills each year, emitting more than 60,000 tons of methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. To prevent that, in 2013 de Blasio pledged a mandatory organic waste collection program within five years. It hasn’t materialized. We’re stuck with a limited, voluntary program that the Sanitation Department recently delayed expanding.

This pulls a big punch in the fight against climate change, because our organic waste stream -- including the 1.2 million tons of food waste we generate annually and municipal wastewater from our 14 treatment plants -- is not only a source of climate pollution; it’s also a massive renewable energy resource. Methane from decomposing organics can be captured and refined into ultra-low-carbon renewable natural gas (RNG).

As a transportation fuel, over its lifecycle RNG is net carbon-negative, meaning it prevents more GHG from getting into the atmosphere than it emits. Producing it captures more greenhouse gases that would otherwise escape, and using it to power buses and trucks displaces more carbon-intensive fossil fuels.

Sacramento, Portland, Toronto, and other cities collect their organic waste and process its gases into RNG, which fuels their municipal vehicle fleets. Nationwide about 30,000 buses and trucks run on RNG.

New York’s should, too. Getting city trucks and buses off diesel and onto RNG would vault us toward the mayor’s goals of cutting city fleet emissions 80% by 2035, and making New York’s air the cleanest of any major U.S. city by 2030.

Diesel exhaust aggravates our sky-high asthma rates, afflicting over 13% of our youth – more in low-income neighborhoods where truck and bus depots are located. Natural gas buses and trucks with “near zero” engines running on RNG would cut health-damaging nitrogen oxide and particulate pollution to almost nothing.

RNG is available in New York City via pipeline, and we could also tap our organic waste to produce it locally. Using it would save the city money over the service life of vehicles compared with "renewable diesel" or other alternatives.

So what’s stopping us? New York City fleet agencies are resisting change and sticking with diesel. Rather than buying natural gas trucks and buses and fueling them with RNG, they’re buying diesel vehicles and experimenting with "renewable diesel," which has climate and air quality properties inferior to RNG’s. They argue RNG trucks are slow to refuel and can’t plow snow, or that it would be better to migrate to electric vehicles.

Those are excuses. RNG trucks are plenty powerful. Stations carrying RNG stand ready to fuel city vehicles now. Heavy-duty electric vehicles are years from service-ready and prohibitively expensive, and their emissions are only as good as the energy source charging the batteries -- mostly fossil fuels.

The real obstacles to adopting RNG in New York are the same ones that kept the State of the City speech weak on climate change: lack of focused leadership and a preference for symbolic gestures over accountability for achieving concrete goals.

The climate can’t afford that. The city already has over 1,000 natural gas vehicles, including buses, trucks, and vans, that could start running on RNG tomorrow, simply by taking out a new fuel procurement contract. That would be a welcome first step toward fleet sustainability. The logical destination is to stop buying dirty, outmoded diesel vehicles.  

Last year, concerned City Council members sent letters urging the mayor and the MTA’s New York City Transit to show environmental leadership by adopting RNG. If they don’t, the Council has power through legislative and budget processes to make city agencies to get started. It’s time to use it.

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Joanna D. Underwood is the founder and a director of the NGO Energy Vision, which researches, and promotes technologies and strategies for a sustainable energy and transportation future. On Twitter @energy_vision.

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

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Mayor De Blasio Needs a Clearer Focus on Climate Change, with a More Aggressive Agenda Tue, 29 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Private Sector Failure Requires NYCHA’s Preservation http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8216-private-sector-failure-requires-nycha-s-preservation http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8216-private-sector-failure-requires-nycha-s-preservation mayor private

(photo: Mayor's Office)


Many New Yorkers likely wonder why Mayor de Blasio wants to spend $24 billion on saving the aging towers of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). Much of this public housing consists of plain brick towers, which the city built rapidly from the 1930s to the 1960s, in a dated “towers in the park” design, now worn down from decades of hard use. In Singapore and much of Europe, government policy has targeted public housing of this age and type for billions in spending to remake projects to match changing urban tastes, family size, and rising densities.

But in the United States and New York there is no equivalent housing program with the funds to replace NYCHA’s 175,000 apartments (400,000 registered tenants), which rent on average at just $550 per month. The mayor, in the unprecedented $24 billion NYCHA 2.0 plan he released in December, is forced to rely on a complicated and potentially uncertain financing plan integrating city, state, federal, and private funds; private sector management of fully one-third of NYCHA’s portfolio; and hoped for revenues from “infill” ground leases and sales of air rights.

Added together the plan’s various elements will still barely provide for basic renovation when spread across a massive system that has a minimum of $31 billion in capital needs; NYCHA 2.0 certainly won’t cover redevelopment to a twenty-first century standard. Even if New York had the funds for massive redevelopment, it would still be a risky proposition to take NYCHA projects offline (many of which have 1,000 units or more each). NYCHA is already full to overflowing and the private market lacks sufficient low-cost units to accommodate relocation needs.

The risk is high in losing any of NYCHA’s units because the most endangered commodity in New York City is the privately-operated apartment that rents for less than $1,000 -- with rent-regulated units in particularly perilous straits. Public housing is now such a crucial part of that low-cost market that to lose the system, or even part of it, would, according to the respected Regional Plan Association, drive up homelessness, take housing from working-class people, and worsen conditions citywide because the market cannot replace the units.

A Brief History of Massive Failure

private building(Lewis Hine, Elizabeth Street, 1912. Library of Congress)

Today’s private sector housing failure is nothing new; instead, lousy and expensive housing has been a persistent dimension of New York City life for over a century. The city was once dominated by thousands of privately owned tenement buildings that crowded land and people together at density levels the world had never seen before. The creation of the subway in 1904 relieved that pressure for a time, allowing for a mass exodus to newer tenements, apartment buildings, or small homes in the outer boroughs. NYCHA also launched in the 1930s as an all-out attack on these tenements.

Tougher housing regulations and the suburban boom accelerated the tenement exodus from the 1930s onward, but many tenements in areas such as East Harlem and the Lower East Side backfilled with migrants from the south and Puerto Rico in the mid-twentieth century. Owners of many vestigial tenements abandoned or burned many of them from the ‘60s to the ‘80s.

Gentrification since the 1970s in New York City generated a new twist on private sector failure. Landlords of surviving apartment buildings good and bad won revisions in rent control and stabilization since the 1970s. They have used these lenient rules ever since to raise rents or drive out long-time tenants. Many private landlords haven’t cared if a tenant family must pay 50 percent or more of their income on rent. Dangerous conditions in many of these lower-rent buildings, which are not as widely publicized as those at NYCHA, are a mixed bag with irregular heat, lead exposure, and mold common.

Private Sector Saviors?
Many private real estate companies have, in fairness, played a crucial role in affordable housing management and development since the 1960s. Indeed, the various tax credits and breaks, and zoning bonuses, have created new “affordable” units that are modern and comfortable. Yet the supply of these units is relatively small (as they are often a minority percentage of a building); apartments time out of affordability after a specified period (requiring new public financing); and most apartments are targeted for income levels higher than public housing.

The result is scarcity and insufficient affordable housing production: the odds of landing one of the new privately developed and managed affordable units produced in 2018 was just 1 in 592. At the current rate of new private construction in Mayor de Blasio’s broader housing plan, which produced a record 7,857 affordable units in 2018, it would still take two decades or more just to replace NYCHA’s 175,000 units.

The real estate industry has also stepped up to play a central role in the conversion of public housing to private sector management and may end up running about 66,000 units of NYCHA housing under what NYCHA calls PACT (nationally it is RAD). Builders also hope to ground-lease NYCHA sites that could provide funding for renovation of surrounding buildings and additional affordable and market-rate units.

Private companies aren’t taking on these NYCHA projects or infill projects for entirely altruistic reasons, of course. Infill projects, even with affordable components, can be profitable. Private managers who take over existing NYCHA projects are being handed thousands of well-located, structurally-sound, mostly debt-free, fully-tenanted, property tax-free, federally-subsidized (Section 8) apartments they can borrow money from banks to renovate. Managing and renovating these buildings is a heavy lift, but there is a significant upside if done right.

Time to Step Up!
The private sector, even given these good steps, is still not doing enough for either NYCHA or the average low-income renter. Without a large-scale program of new production, the region will continue to be uncompetitive as business shifts to places where lower and even middle-income people can afford to live decently. The city’s private sector is booming today, for sure, but so is the national economy. When times get tight, New York City may seem much less attractive. A desperate population is also likely to be drawn to draconian rent regulations, higher taxes, and more “socialistic” policies to try and level the playing field. It isn’t pretty when recessions hit New York.

Both real estate interests and large employers should be putting more of their energy and funds into expanding affordable housing programs at the state and federal levels. Only when the real estate industry starts producing tens of thousands of affordable units per year do they earn a right to speak about NYCHA’s future and/or redevelopment. It also wouldn’t hurt if a business titan or two stood up for public housing funding and improvements.

Instead of putting so much of its energy into fighting rent stabilization or marketing overpriced apartments to foreign investors, business leaders could take a cue from their wealthy predecessors. Governors Roosevelt, Lehman, and Rockefeller developed and fought hard for creative programs to boost low-cost housing production. Or they can look west. Microsoft’s new commitment of $500 million to affordable housing in Seattle reflects, hopefully, a new era of commitment from employers to making more equitable housing market.

Where is New York City’s Microsoft of affordable housing?

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Nicholas Dagen Bloom is a professor at New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) and a NYCHA scholar, and has a new book on state/urban policies: How States Shaped Postwar America.

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Private Sector Failure Requires NYCHA’s Preservation Wed, 23 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Passes Legislation Authorizing Electeds to Create Legal Defense Funds http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8224-city-council-set-to-pass-legislation-authorizing-legal-defense-funds http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8224-city-council-set-to-pass-legislation-authorizing-legal-defense-funds mayorcouncilfisacl

(Photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)


Update: This article was published on Wednesday and the City Council passed this legislation on Thursday afternoon with a 42-5 vote. Council Members Joe Borelli,  Chaim Deutsch, Steven Matteo, Carlos Menchaca and Eric ulrich voted against the bill. Council Member Jumaane Williams abstained from the vote. 

A bill that would allow elected officials to set up trusts to raise money from private sources to cover legal fees is set to be approved by the New York City Council on Thursday.

The legislation, sponsored by City Council Member Stephen Levin, would allow city officials to raise as much as $5,000 from individual donors through trusts, to pay for legal fees arising from criminal or civil investigations that are unrelated to their governmental duties, such as those involving campaign activity (legal fees related to government duties can be covered by public funds).

The trusts would have to file detailed quarterly reports on fundraising and spending with the city Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB), and would be prohibited from taking donations from lobbyists, corporations, LLCs, and people doing business with the city. The reports will be posted publicly online.

Levin’s bill is meant to fill a gap in the city’s legal framework that allows elected officials to use taxpayer funds to cover their defense in investigations arising from their official duties, but not in the case of non-governmental activity. Mayor Bill de Blasio found that out the hard way after facing dual state and federal probes into his fundraising activities through outside nonprofit groups and, in one, related government actions, which eventually led to no charges being filed but left the mayor with hefty legal fees running into the hundreds of thousands, even after he reversed course to utilize public funds to cover the bulk of over $2 million in fees related to the federal inquiry of whether he directed government favors based on campaign donations.

The mayor initially sought to use a legal defense fund to cover the costs but the COIB issued an advisory opinion limiting any donations to a mere $50, viewing them as gifts to an elected official which are severely limited by law. The mayor then used public funds to pay for the costs related to his government duties -- about $2.6 million -- but said he could not cover a separate bill that related to his non-governmental activity. De Blasio is not the only elected official who has had significant legal bills to deal with related to their official or non-governmental activity, he and others have pointed out.

The legislation is scheduled for a vote at a hearing of the City Council’s Governmental Operations Committee on Thursday morning, in what seems to be a rushed vote -- the bill was introduced on January 9 and the committee held an initial hearing on it last Monday, at which several questions were raised by COIB representatives and Council members. Spokespeople for Levin and for Council Speaker Corey Johnson said the bill is expected to pass through the committee and to be approved at a meeting of the full Council in the afternoon. It is very rare for any legislation at the City Council to move so quickly from introduction to passage.

The government reform community is split in its opinion on the legislation. Groups like Common Cause New York and Reinvent Albany have supported the effort to create a framework around legal defense funds, while another reform group, Citizens Union, disagrees with the very concept. In a letter of opposition sent to the Council on Wednesday, Citizens Union argued that the bill “creates the risk or appearance of corruption and undue influence, and will necessitate a complex regulatory scheme to mitigate.” The group urged the Council to, at minimum, tweak the legislation to bring donation limits in line with the lower limits that apply to campaign contributions.

The Campaign Finance Board, which monitors campaign fundraising and expenditure in municipal elections, also raised concerns about the bill. Executive Director Amy Loprest noted in her testimony before the governmental operations committee on January 14 that the legislation seems to allow officials to use trusts to pay for fines incurred from campaign finance violations. Officials can already cover those costs from their campaign accounts, which are subject to stricter fundraising limits.

“By providing certain candidates, i.e. those who are elected officials or public servants, with an additional vehicle to raise funds, Int. No. 1325 creates a path for those candidates to solicit and accept contributions from individuals that aggregate well over the existing contribution limits,” Loprest said in her testimony, urging that the bill be amended. “A clear majority of voters in last November’s Charter referendum voted to reduce these limits by more than half, with reducing the risk of corruption as the main rationale.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Passes Legislation Authorizing Electeds to Create Legal Defense Funds Wed, 23 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000