Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/272 Tue, 17 Oct 2017 02:05:01 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) At the City Council, Better Gender Balance Among Chiefs of Staff http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7205:at-the-city-council-better-gender-balance-among-chiefs-of-staff http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7205:at-the-city-council-better-gender-balance-among-chiefs-of-staff aya keefe and cm mark levine crop

Council Member Mark Levine & his Chief of Staff, Aya Keefe (photo: Levine's office)


The New York City Council, a 51-member body, currently includes only 13 women, down from 18 in 2009, and that number is likely to soon fall to 12 when the next Council is seated in January, if this year’s elections continue as expected. There has been widespread recent attention given to the City Council gender imbalance, in part because the Council’s Women’s Caucus released a report on the subject, and there are efforts underway to improve female representation in the Council through future elections.

But, at one level at least, the Council is faring much better in gender balance. Of the 50 sitting Council members, 24 have women serving as their chiefs of staff, the highest ranking aide, buoying hopes among members, aides, and advocates that these positions can serve to further the political careers of numerous qualified and experienced women in city government. For men and women alike, being a top aide to a City Council member is often a path to elected office, as evidence by the victory in last Tuesday’s primary election by Diana Ayala, the former deputy chief of staff to outgoing City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who is term-limited.

Ayala, seen as an underdog against sitting Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez, secured a narrow victory in the primary, with Mark-Viverito’s help, and is expected to easily win the general election in November.

Chiefs of staff play vital roles in Council members’ offices, overseeing their legislative headquarters near City Hall and their local district offices where staffers provide constituent services. It’a role that involves liaising with other Council members’ staff, advocates, and others, and can require a working knowledge of priorities and policy proposals of nearly the entire Council. Most significantly, it can serve as a foundation for political careers. Many Council staffers, particularly chiefs of staff, go on to run for elected office, often to fill seats left vacant when their bosses are either term-limited or leave office for other reasons.

“As the saying goes, ‘If you wanna get something done, ask a woman to do it,’” said Council Member Laurie Cumbo, who is co-chair of the Council’s Women’s Caucus and whose chief of staff is a woman, in a phone interview from a restaurant. “Women are awesome, dynamic multitaskers,” Cumbo said, chuckling that she was talking to a reporter, ordering food and breastfeeding at the same time. Cumbo was pregnant on the campaign trail as she ran for reelection, and recently gave birth to her son. She won a tough primary battle on September 12 and is expected to easily beat two opponents on November 7.

Cumbo stressed that the role of a chief of staff involves “really wearing multiple hats at the same time,” being able to understand the issues a Council member is focused on and being able to troubleshoot problems before they arise. And, as much as she said she hates stereotypes, “Women are able to do that well,” Cumbo said.

In a city government so heavily dominated by men -- the mayor, the comptroller and most of the City Council are men, while the public advocate is Letitia James, the first woman of color to hold citywide office -- having women serve in top positions helps inform policy and the legislative process, Cumbo said. And chiefs of staff bring that valuable perspective to the table. “I think it’s something that happens by nature, because of staffers eating, breathing, and sleeping this work,” she said.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the second woman and first Latina to hold that powerful seat, has made it a future priority to increase the number of women elected to the City Council. She is spearheading the “21 in ’21” movement, which aims to elect 21 women in 2021, when more than 30 Council seats will be up for grabs along with incumbents seeking reelection. The speaker also launched the Young Women’s Initiative to provide enhanced services to girls and women, particularly those of color, between the ages of 12 and 24.

Monica Abend, Cumbo’s chief of staff, said her position gives her the opportunity to “participate in contributing ideas to legislation, to policy and contributing to progressive legislation for a progressive city that is a frontrunner in many of those policy areas.”

“To be able to wear that chief of staff role positions you in a wonderful arena to understand local government,” she said. It’s on-the-job training in the legislative process and in understanding how the city changes at the local level, she said. “While our communities change on a constant basis, a lot of the work stays the same,” she added.

Abend doesn’t envision running for office any time soon but she did agree that working for a Council member provides the skills to do so. “Maybe one day in the future,” she said.

Under the de Blasio administration and the largely progressive City Council, led by Mark-Viverito, the city has increased its focus on issues of gender equity. The mayor established the Commission on Gender Equity in 2015 through an executive order, and also banned city agencies from inquiring about salary history, a step towards ensuring pay equity for women.

The Council has passed and the mayor has signed numerous bills related to empowering and aiding women across all walks of life. These include legislation to enhance support for caregivers, who are largely immigrant women of color; establishing public lactation stations; increasing access to feminine hygiene products in shelters, jails and schools; improving contracting opportunities for women- and minority-owned businesses; enhancing protections for victims of domestic violence; among other measures. A bill from Public Advocate James to ban inquiries about salary history in the private sector was passed and signed earlier this year.

The Women’s Caucus also released its report last month that examines the cultural and institutional barriers to women’s representation in New York politics.

“I think that the City Council is really a great place for women to work and take on leadership positions and express themselves, and advocate for policies that benefit all New Yorkers,” said Aya Keefe, chief of staff to Council Member Mark Levine. She noted that Levine’s director of constituent services and budget and legislative director are also women. “It’s a powerful statement for our office,” she said. “We’re very much a partnership-driven office. There’s a strong female style of management, not necessarily being hierarchical but collaborative. And that works really well on legislation. Ultimately, you have to bring a lot of interests to the table and women are uniquely positioned to do that.”

Keefe personally has no intention of running for office, she said. “But I definitely think that chief of staff gives you great insight into the ins and outs of working in government,” she said. She also noted, as did others, that there should be a push to translate the gender balance at the staff level into elected positions.

Alexis Grenell, a Democratic political consultant and writer on gender issues, cautioned against being overly celebratory about the number of women chiefs of staff, saying it meets the “baseline expectation” since women represent half the population. “Women make up more than 50 percent of many graduate degree programs, making them arguably more qualified than their male counterparts,” she said.

She argued that it’s more important for women to receive support in their aspirations for elected office, pointing to the “crisis in women’s leadership” in the City Council, where the next speaker is likely to be a man for the first time in 12 years. “Empirical data shows that gender balance directly results in better outcomes,” she said. “This is true for corporate boards, and for legislation. That is undeniably the case.”

She did agree that chief of staff is a pipeline to the Council, with outgoing Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland being a prominent example. She also pointed to two Council staffers -- Ayala and Carlina Rivera -- who ran for City Council this year to replace the term-limited Council members who they worked for. Ayala was deputy chief of staff to Mark-Viverito before leaving to run for the speaker’s seat in District 8. Rivera, who served as legislative director to outgoing Council Member Rosie Mendez, handily won the primary for Mendez’s District 2 seat on the Lower East Side. “These are women who served in the Council for two terms and backed their staffers to replace them,” Grenell said, in the hope that other Council members do the same for their own staff.

While Ferreras-Copeland, who decided not to seek another term due to family considerations and a move to another state, is being replaced by a man, term-limited Council Member Darlene Mealy will be replaced by a woman, Alicka Samuel, who won a crowded primary in District 41. And while term-limited Annabel Palma is being replaced by a man, Adrienne Adams won the competitive primary to replace Ruben Wills, who had recently vacated the seat due to a corruption charge.

Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization for Women of New York, also hoped that the Council’s “abysmal” record of women’s representation would improve. “The good news is that while there are less than 25 percent of women in the City Council, a 50 percent rate of women chiefs of staff says to me that there’s a lot of potential,” she said. “They know the community well, they know the job.”

She agreed that women add a diversity of opinion that is necessary for good policy. “But we need a representation of leaders that reflects our community,” she said.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal, co-chair of the Women’s Caucus, whose chief of staff is also a woman, said the numbers were “heartening” but was cautious of drawing any conclusions. “I think that sounds normal to me,” she said of the nearly 50 percent representation. “It doesn’t necessarily reflect in what people are submitting legislation about or doing in their districts.”

“To the extent that there aren’t barriers to having chiefs of staff, it is an equalizer,” she acknowledged. But she wondered about the larger questions it raises about the entire city government. She also recognized that the Council as a body should perhaps do more to support women. “Should we have a daycare?” she said, for instance. “I think that’s something we should talk about.”

Council staffers also don’t have set pay ranges with titles, so it’s hard to gauge whether there is pay parity across the Council. “It’s not something I’ve explored,” Rosenthal said. “It’s a great question. Every Council member has their own fiefdom. Council members can choose to pay staff whatever they want. We’re not given a range and perhaps we should.”

“I’m lucky to have strong women leadership in the office and I benefit from it every day,” said Council Member Levine. “I think we certainly strive to be accommodating to women,” he said of the City Council, adding that he would support extending maternity leave. “We can do more,” he said, “there’s no doubt about it.”

Keefe, Levine’s chief of staff, also said the Council should do more to accommodate women. “I think we should have a better maternity leave policy, that sets the example for businesses and nonprofits across the city,” she said. She did note that when she gave birth last year, she received three months leave, but that that isn’t the standard policy across the Council.

Abend, from Cumbo’s office, said, “There’s always room for improvement,” but insisted that “this has been an incredible time to be a woman in local city government.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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At the City Council, Better Gender Balance Among Chiefs of Staff Tue, 19 Sep 2017 04:00:00 +0000
As Incident Reports Rise, City Officials Seek New Answers to Combat Domestic Violence http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7203:as-incident-reports-rise-officials-seek-new-answers-to-combat-domestic-violence http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7203:as-incident-reports-rise-officials-seek-new-answers-to-combat-domestic-violence de Blasio McCray Ferreras domestic violence

De Blasio & others announce new measures (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Increases in reports of domestic violence have gotten the attention New York City officials, from Mayor Bill de Blasio to the NYPD to members of the City Council. The de Blasio administration has taken a series of steps to address the problem and is promising more; while new legislation is expected to soon pass in the City Council.

On Monday, the Council’s Committee on Courts and Legal Services will hold an oversight hearing on New York’s Domestic Violence Courts and Integrated Domestic Violence Courts, which dedicate specific judges, counselors, and other resources to domestic violence cases. The committee, chaired by Council Member Rory Lancman, has indicated the hearing comes “as the number of domestic violence crimes in New York City continue to rise and domestic violence has become the leading cause of homelessness in the City.”

In 2016, there were 76,237 domestic violence incident reports in New York City, up from 75,241 in 2015. There were 59 intimate partner homicides in New York City in 2016, up from 49 in 2015, according to the mayor's office.

In November 2016, de Blasio launched a domestic violence task force, noting that while the city’s homicide rate has dropped 82% over 25 years, domestic violence homicides have remained stagnant, and the mayor received its report in May of this year, promising “$7 million to better apprehend abusers [and] ensure support for survivors.”

In August, Bea Hanson started as executive director of the Domestic Violence Task Force, according to a City Hall spokesperson, and she is working with First Lady Chirlane McCray and NYPD officials, including Commissioner Jimmy O’Neil, to implement task force recommendations. More will be announced next month, in October, which is domestic violence awareness month, according to the spokesperson.

The spokesperson added that the city is working to develop a better coordinated criminal justice and social service response to incidences of domestic violence. As the city’s overall crime rate has dropped significantly, domestic violence incidents have become an increasingly high proportion of violent crime.

“It’s a good thing that we’re hearing more and more,” said City Council Member Helen Rosenthal of Manhattan, a member of the Council’s Committee on Women’s Issues and co-chair of the Council’s Women’s Caucus. “That means that people trust the police enough to call more and more.”

One initiative in place to combat domestic violence, started by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, is the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, which runs New York City Family Justice Centers, which serve nearly 3,000 victims and their families every month. The Family Justice Centers, now located in every borough, offer both civil and criminal legal aid, healthy relationship training for youth, as well as social services, and are a “one stop shop” for information and resources related to domestic violence, sex trafficking, and even elder abuse, according to Elizabeth Dank, a deputy commissioner at the Office to Combat Domestic Violence (OCDV).

“One of the biggest programs out of our office [are] the New York City Family Justice Centers,” said Dank. “The first Family Justice Center was launched in Brooklyn in 2005, and it was the first one in the city and it was actually one of the first ones in the country. We have the largest network of Family Justice Centers in the country per municipality.”

According to Dank, the OCDV was one of the first government agencies in the country to be devoted to domestic violence, and it tries to do as much outreach as possible to remain a cutting-edge force in preventing and prioritizing domestic violence.

“We also have [partners] who help with benefits and economic empowerment classes, financial literacy classes, computer skills, and job training classes, so really the goal is that victims can come to one location and receive all of the services they need instead of having to jump around government agencies to get the services they need,” said Dank. “We do also do a lot of work around training.”

Training initiatives include the healthy relationship training, which focuses on raising awareness among young people about dating and sexual violence among. The OCDV also helps train advocacy groups, and works closely with the Domestic Violence Task Force, which is tasked with finding innovative ways to combat domestic violence.

In the Domestic Violence Initiative Report from October 2016, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office calls domestic violence “one of the most underreported crimes in the United States” with reporting rates of less than 30 percent, primarily due victims’ fear of retaliation by abusers, fear of losing child custody, fear of losing financial resources, or the belief that a report to the police will not change their situation. For domestic violence involving one or more immigrants, fear of deportation is also prevalent.

“One issue [people] have been focusing on is financial abuse and economic barriers to independence,” said Jae Young Kim, supervising attorney for the Domestic Violence Legal Education and Advocacy Program at the Urban Resource Institute, which is host to six victim shelters and offers legal aid to victims. “Even though we’re not in the 2008 recession anymore, the economy is still not great. I think when you’re dealing with [survivors] especially, economic stability is often times one of the top issues when people are deciding whether to leave a relationship or not.”

A large part of obtaining and maintaining financial independence for victims includes being able to leave their residence and find a new place to live, but according to Kim, the state law allowing victims to leave, RPL 227-c, is “completely unworkable.”

Diane Johnston, a staff attorney for Legal Aid Society, agrees, stating in her testimony at a hearing held by the City Council’s Committee on Women’s Issues that “While well-intentioned, the current law is unduly burdensome and effectively bars countless survivors from obtaining the intended relief,” citing the often difficult eligibility requirements as the problem.

“It required someone to be current on their rent, have an order of protection, and then they would reach out to the landlord and say, ‘I need to terminate my lease for my safety,’ [then] notify their co-tenant, and if the landlord chose not to terminate based on that written request, then they’d be able to go to court to file [asking] the landlord to terminate their lease,” said Kim.

The process could take several months, during which the victim must remain current on their rent, even though they would not be living in their apartment anymore, thus severely limiting their options.

“Most people can’t afford to pay rent on two apartments,” said Kim. “This is New York City!”

The report also mentions that leaving an abuser “is no guarantee of safety” as “victims are at the greatest risk of homicide, severe physical and sexual assault, stalking, and menacing in the first few months after attempting to or succeeding in leaving an abuser.”

Kim confirmed this, and said that she has seen it happen while representing victims in court.

“You’re going to a place, usually once every six weeks for a year, and you’re safe in the courthouse but eventually you have to leave,” said Kim. “You have to go home, and it’s always a potential spot where an abuser can follow you, can stalk you, and I’ve seen that...It’s not safe.”

According to Kim, despite an often overwhelming police and legal presence, batterers will sometimes ignore protection orders and attempt to approach victims after court proceedings, even following them all the way back to her office.

The City Council Committee on Women’s Issues’ hearing, in late June, was in response to some of these concerns, and an attempt to try to improve the system and to provide more justice to domestic violence victims by making their process of breaking a lease easier.

At the hearing, the committee introduced two bills, Intros. 1610 and 1496, which would, respectively, , add “at least one hour of training biennially to persons licensed to practice cosmetology,” so that hairdressers can better spot domestic violence victims, and change the term “chronic offender” to include perpetrators who had “been identified in more than one domestic incident report” in order to identify those who are batterers in multiple relationships, and a resolution, Res. 1292, which calls for modifications to the state law, 227-c, to make it easier for victims to move out of their residences.

The change to current state law being sought would make it that the only thing needed from victims to break their lease would be a relevant police report. Police reports would be considered adequate on a case by case basis, crimes must be related to domestic violence to qualify.

“That’s the toughest one to get through, because this is an area the state regulates, and the state would have to pass legislation that will make it easier for people to break their leases,” said Rosenthal. “What the city will do, what we’ll do, is pass a resolution in support of specific ideas that will make it easier for people to break their leases. But it’s the state that has the power on this one. They will have to amend the Real Property Law to do that.”

Rosenthal stressed that the City Council will be working with state colleagues to get the legislation pushed through.

“I think the important thing here…is the distinction between using something in the criminal justice system in order to break a lease, versus something that requires less criminal justice intervention,” said Rosenthal. “It may be the case that getting a court order is not something [a victim] can do, so what we’re asking the state to do is make it easier.”

In addition to the lease legislation, the additional prevention and identification measure of requiring hairdressers to take a course on how to spot signs of domestic violence among clients was also introduced. Rosenthal was inspired both by a similar bill passed in Illinois, and by a conversation she had with a woman doing her nails while on vacation, who said that even though she often sees signs of domestic violence from clients, she didn’t know who to turn to.

“The conversation was fascinating…and as [it] went on, she said that she was a victim of domestic violence herself,” said Rosenthal. “That conversation was an eye-opener for me, and I’m really glad we’re trying to find a way to have similar legislation here in New York City.”

“Our goal is to have the legislation pass in October, which is domestic violence awareness month,” Rosenthal said this summer. “I think [it will pass] -- our conversations have been very constructive.”

Another measure that could pass next month is the “paid safe leave” legislation introduced by City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland in conjunction with the de Blasio administration, which would amend the city’s paid sick leave law to allow domestic violence victims to use paid sick leave when seeking help, refuge, or justice.

When Ferreras-Copeland and de Blasio announced the legislation, last October during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, de Blasio noted that in 2015, “the NYPD received on average one domestic violence report every two minutes.” In June of this year, NYPD statistics show over 16,000 police responses to domestic violence related calls. At a press conference earlier this year, NYPD officials responded a question from Gotham Gazette with a frank assessment of how challenging it is to drive down instances of domestic violence. Top NYPD leaders indicated that they are constantly assessing patterns and ways to work with partners to prevent domestic violence and bring abusers to justice, but that they are among the most complicated and delicate crimes.

Meanwhile, the report from de Blasio’s task force, published earlier this year, includes its own series of recommendations, all part of accomplishing four broad goals: “prevent violence and abusive behavior before it happens; increase early reporting and engagement by survivors; enhance the response of the criminal justice system; and create strategies for long-term violence reduction and innovative practices to hold offenders accountable.”

The recommendations also fit four broad categories: “Expanding child and youth prevention and intervention; Enhancing criminal justice system responses; Strengthening New York City communities; and Improving citywide coordination to maximize resources.”

The recommendations range from standardizing domestic violence data collection and reporting across city agencies to “OCDV will introduce evening hours one day per week at the three NYC Family Justice Centers (FJCs) with the highest client flow.” The city is also looking to integrate more services with those that are part of First Lady Chirlane McCray's ThriveNYC mental health care program.

Another example of a specific recommendation is expanding “Child Trauma Response Teams,” which provide “a coordinated, immediate, trauma-focused response to children and their family members who are exposed to domestic violence.” This recommendation comes, in part, because of the fact that “children exposed to domestic violence are more likely to become involved in an abusive relationship in their teens or as an adult.”

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by Jynn Schubert and Ben Max

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by Jynn Schubert for Gotham Gazette
@JynnWasHere  @GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected with accurate data on domestic violence reports in 2016 and 2015; and data for 2014 and 2013 was removed.

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As Incident Reports Rise, City Officials Seek New Answers to Combat Domestic Violence Sun, 17 Sep 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Forecasting the Upcoming City Council Gender Imbalance http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7180:forecasting-the-upcoming-city-council-gender-imbalance http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7180:forecasting-the-upcoming-city-council-gender-imbalance rose rosenthal chin

CMs Chin, left; Rose, center; & Rosenthal, center right (photo: Gotham Gazette)


There are currently only 13 women in the 51-seat New York City Council, a troubling 25 percent. The number is down from 18 women in the Council a few years ago. With the city’s quadrennial elections upon us, a new Council class will be inaugurated in January, with the September 12 primaries largely determining who will fill the city’s legislative body for the next four years in this very Democratic city.

Most would agree that gender balance in the City Council improves the legislative, oversight, and constituent services provided to the public. The dynamics of this year’s elections are not promising for improving the Council gender balance: five of the Council’s 13 women are not running for reelection, four of them due to term limits. Notably, all five are women of color: Rosie Mendez, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Annabel Palma, and Darlene Mealy are all term-limited and Julissa Ferreras-Copeland has decided not to seek reelection.

Ferreras-Copeland is certain to be replaced by a man, as the race to replace her is between two men; while the other four could be as well, though there are women running competitively for each seat.

There are five other “open” seats this cycle where the incumbent male Council member is not running for reelection, in three cases -- Dan Garodnick, James Vacca and Vincent Gentile -- due to term limits. While Gentile is almost certain to be replaced by a man, for Garodnick’s seat and Vacca’s seat there are competitive races that include female candidates with a solid shot at victory. The fourth case is David Greenfield, who will be replaced by one of the two men seeking his seat. And the fifth case is Ruben Wills, removed from office after a recent corruption conviction, who is likely to be replaced by a woman, Adrienne Adams, the favorite in the race.

Additionally, there are a handful of incumbent female Council members being challenged by men in their reelection bids and two incumbent male Council members facing significant challenges by female candidates.

All told, the number of women in the Council could realistically dip as low as six. It could realistically increase to as many as 16. Both extremes are unlikely, but plausible.

The City Council’s Women’s Caucus, which is chaired by Council Members Helen Rosenthal and Laurie Cumbo, each of whom is facing a tough primary challenge this year (Rosenthal from a transgender man, Cumbo from a woman), recently released a report on the gender imbalance in the Council. It notes barriers to office-seeking for women, especially “structural barriers and issues of perception” that “create a “political ambition gap.””

“Traditional gender roles force women to choose between careers and family, limiting the potential pool of female candidates,” the report states. “Electoral gatekeepers then fail to reach out to and support women. Women also underestimate their own qualifications and overestimate the challenges they will face in electoral politics.”

The report recommends “more aggressive recruitment of female candidates and stronger mentoring efforts.” (It notes that the number of women in the Council “is projected to decrease even further, to as low as 9 for the upcoming term ending in 2021.” The problem is even more potentially dire than the report indicates. It appears its authors did not consider Ferreras-Copeland’s departure or that incumbent female members could be ousted by male challengers.)

The current City Council Speaker, the aforementioned Melissa Mark-Viverito, previously helped launch a nonprofit, 21 in 21, which seeks the election of 21 women to the City Council through the 2021 city election cycle. Due to the tinkering done to term limits by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council, there will be more than 30 “open” seats in the 2021 cycle, making for a lot of opportunity to address the Council gender balance.

But there are also opportunities this year, and little seems to be in motion in terms of major collective efforts by the Democratic establishment to see more women elected through the 2017 voting cycle (48 of the 51 Council members elected in 2013 are Democrats).

Mark-Viverito is doing a great deal to see her preferred successor, Diana Ayala, defeat Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez in one of the races to replace a female Council member that could go either way. Given his status as an elected official, Rodriguez is at least a slight favorite in this race to represent East Harlem and parts of the South Bronx.

For Mendez’s seat, which represents parts of the Lower East Side, her preferred successor is Carlina Rivera, who has received a good deal of establishment support and is considered the favorite, though she has tough competition from Mary Silver and Ronnie Cho.

Alicka Ampry-Samuel has a lot of establishment support to keep Mealy’s central Brooklyn seat represented by a woman. But, she is in a tough race with several male candidates, most notably Henry Butler and Cory Provost.

For Garodnick’s East Side seat, a very crowded primary includes several strong female candidates. The favorite in the race, however, is Keith Powers. Still, Marti Speranza could quite plausibly prevail, which would flip this seat from male to female. Bessie Schachter, Vanessa Aronson, Rachel Honig, and Maria Castro are also running, with varying less likely paths to victory. Garodnick has not endorsed in the race. Of the unions, elected officials, political clubs, newspaper editorial boards, and others that have, Powers and Speranza have each received a lot of support.

For Vacca’s seat in the Bronx, he is backing Marjorie Velazquez, but she is facing a significantly uphill race against sitting Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj. There’s been no groundswell behind Velazquez.

There’s a similar situation for Palma’s Bronx seat: Amanda Farias is a strong candidate, but she is likely to lose to State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. and little seems to be happening to rally behind her candidacy.

The Queens establishment and other members of the Democratic political elite are behind Adrienne Adams for Ruben Wills’ empty seat. But, Rich David is also running and could pull off an upset.

As previously stated, Ferreras-Copeland will be replaced by a man, either Assemblymember Francisco Moya or former State Senator Hiram Monserrate, who has been convicted for both assaulting his girlfriend and illegal use of city money. Greenfield will be replaced by either his preferred successor, Kalman Yeger, or by Yoni Hikind, both men. And the crowded competition for Gentile’s seat is almost all men, including the most likely winners, led by Justin Brannan (this Southern Brooklyn race is actually one where a Republican could win the seat, though Brannan, a Democrat, is generally seen as having the upper hand, both in a tough primary and the eventual competitive general).

There are also competitive incumbent primaries where the Council gender balance is at play. As mentioned, Rosenthal is facing a tough primary, from Mel Wymore, on the Upper West Side, though Rosenthal is likely to prevail. Wymore is seeking to become the first transgender member of the City Council, and has not lived what we may think of as a typical male life. Council Members Margaret Chin in downtown Manhattan and Elizabeth Crowley in Queens are also facing competitive challenges from male candidates, though both are favored to be reelected.

The female incumbents either certain or nearly sure to win reelection are Vanessa Gibson, Inez Barron, and Karen Koslowitz. As mentioned, Laurie Cumbo could lose to another woman, Ede Fox, though Cumbo has significant advantages of incumbency. And, Council Member Debi Rose, of Staten Island, is facing a tough challenge from another woman, Kamillah Hanks.

In the other direction, Council Member Peter Koo is facing a tough challenge from Alison Tan, and Council Member Mathieu Eugene is facing formidable opposition from Pia Raymond, a woman, as well as from Brian Cunningham.

We’ll know a lot more on Tuesday night when the primary results come in.

In its report, the Women’s Caucus explains why it is important to elect more women and have gender balance in government. It says, in part:

“Women legislators bring with them lived experiences and crucial viewpoints that allow them to identify and take on the unique challenges that women face. As a result, women legislators have been shown to introduce more legislation directly affecting women, children, and families. Additionally, women have been shown to introduce more legislation overall, and are also more likely to work across party lines.”

One of the “strategies for the future” that the report identifies is: “Party leaders, advocacy organizations, and other political groups also need to make an active effort to reach out to individual women about running for seats. The women in City Council should make an effort to encourage politically active women in their circles to run for of×ce, as current or former Council Members have a unique ability to address many of the factors that discourage women from running.”

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Forecasting the Upcoming City Council Gender Imbalance Wed, 06 Sep 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Protecting Tenants from Construction Harassment http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7096:protecting-tenants-from-construction-harassment http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7096:protecting-tenants-from-construction-harassment sts op ed

photo, including three of the authors, via the Progressive Caucus


We’ve seen it in our districts. A new landlord takes ownership of a building and starts a construction project that never finishes in order to evict long-term residents. They may turn off the cooking gas indefinitely; they may even knock out the boiler with no explanation.

For too many New Yorkers, this nightmare is their reality. The stories are plentiful: heat and gas shutoffs in the middle of winter, jackhammering causing cracks in apartment walls, loss of power, and lead dust in the air lasting for months on end. For years, city and borough officials and community advocates have encountered a critical mass of stories like these, detailing the unscrupulous conduct of landlords as well as the insufficient response from the City of New York.

We, as members of the City Council members and its Progressive Caucus, see the writing on the walls: our city needs more protections in place for tenants facing construction harassment.

Understanding the need to strengthen the ability of the Department of Buildings (DOB) to protect tenants from construction as harassment, the grassroots Stand for Tenant Safety Coalition (STS) has partnered with the Progressive Caucus to put forth a package of legislation aimed at achieving just that.

These 12 STS bills, most of which are sponsored by members of the Progressive Caucus, with strong support in the Council, will put in place much tougher penalties against abusive landlords for illegal construction practices and enact preventative measures to help tenants protect their homes.  

The goal is to change the way DOB handles construction harassment so that the agency is empowered to become more proactive with regard to issuing construction permits and facilitating communication among tenants, landlords, and city agencies. Such renewed tenant protections are intended to quicken and fortify the City’s response to construction harassment so vulnerable residents in rapidly changing neighborhoods are able to stay in their homes and communities.

As policymakers, we know that construction harassment by unscrupulous landlords only exacerbates the affordable housing crisis already facing residents of New York City. In recent years, the average rents in some city neighborhoods have risen by 20%; in such neighborhoods especially, unethical landlords can use construction as a way of cashing in on rising rents instead of protecting the existing tenants. Calls the City has been receiving from New Yorkers reflect this; construction-related complaints number in the thousands each year.

Even as preserving and creating affordable housing has remained a focus of both the City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, the myriad loopholes landlords use in existing laws allow the number of rent-regulated apartments to dwindle. With both the cost of living in the city and rent continuing to rise, protecting the health and safety of tenants through legislation is the minimum of what can be done, the least of how this city can maintain a fair and just society. With the city losing affordable housing every year, we cannot afford to ignore any way in which tenants are threatened by eviction from their homes.

As the clock ticks toward the end of the current City Council session, we need the Council to pass this Stand for Tenant Safety package of legislation as soon as possible. The New York City Council just made history by passing the city’s first ever Right to Counsel legislation, which will provide legal assistance to tenants facing eviction in housing court. We urgently need to continue making progress on tenant rights in New York City by strengthening preventative measures that will help keep tenants from facing eviction in the first place.

It is time that the City renew its commitment, through strengthening the enforcement power of the Department of Buildings, to standing up for residents living under adverse conditions and protect our communities from abusive, unethical landlords. As long as economic inequality and hazardous building conditions threaten health and safety, the City must continue to strengthen every person’s opportunity for a livable and affordable place to call home. As progressive City Council members, we hope our colleagues and the de Blasio administration will work together with us to ensure that our city’s most vulnerable tenants are protected.

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Antonio Reynoso, Donovan Richards, Helen Rosenthal & Ben Kallos are all members of the City Council and leaders of its Progressive Caucus. On Twitter @CMReynoso34 & @DRichards13 & @HelenRosenthal & @BenKallos, & @NYCProgressives.

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

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Protecting Tenants from Construction Harassment Sun, 30 Jul 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Control or Not, Calls Continue for Contracting Reform at City Department of Education http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7021:mayoral-control-or-not-calls-continue-for-contracting-reform-at-city-department-of-education http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7021:mayoral-control-or-not-calls-continue-for-contracting-reform-at-city-department-of-education 34245950295 dc5da482b5 z

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Mayor de Blasio (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


New York City elected officials and independent watchdogs continue to voice concerns about the Department of Education’s transparency and contract procurement process. The issue became a flashpoint in the debate over mayoral control of New York City schools, which Albany lawmakers have yet to extend despite a June 30 expiration date. Like other powers over the schools, education-related contracting -- totaling billions of dollars per year -- has been centralized under the Mayor and the DOE through the mayoral control model of school governance.

In the recently adopted city budget for fiscal year 2018, which begins July 1, about one-third of the $85.2 billion of operating funding is allocated to the DOE. Most of that funding goes to personnel, but there is a significant sum, about $7 billion, which will be devoted to outside contracts. While there have been no major recent scandals, the process by which the DOE awards those contracts, as well as the availability of information about the contracts, continues to draw criticism.

Chief among those critics have been Comptroller Scott Stringer and City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Contracts. They are joined by nonprofit leaders who have scrutinized DOE practices for years, including under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who first won mayoral control of city schools in 2002, ending the old Board of Education system. While there have been multiple high-profile contracting scandals, recently the concern has been a constant stream of smaller-scale, everyday contracts awarded without proper processes, critics say.

Stringer has repeatedly and publicly pressured the DOE to disclose more information and clean up its procurement practices. Most recently, Stringer did so in testimony to the City Council as the new budget was being debated. In part, Stringer said that as revenue growth to the city is slowing, there is heightened need for the DOE to be sufficiently scrupulous.

According to Stringer, the Department still does not pay enough attention to ensuring the DOE’s billions in contract funding is spent efficiently. “Time and time again, my office finds that current departmental processes are inadequate,” Stringer stated in his testimony, citing $6.7 billion for fiscal year 2018. “Whether it is through an audit of DOE or a review of DOE’s contracts, we find a lack of transparency and a lack of detail that is frightening when you are talking about billions of dollars earmarked for our children.”

“The DOE claims to have a system of checks and balances,” Stringer continued, “but if you dig into the details you will find a lack of independent review, a lack of accountability and whole lot of rubber stamps.”

Stringer also called the DOE “one of the least transparent agencies in the government,” adding he felt the DOE would “rather hide everything than open up their books." (Stringer’s statements were quickly used by state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, against Mayor Bill de Blasio in the mayoral control debate. The comptroller quickly reiterated his support for mayoral control in no uncertain terms.)

When pressed for specifics, a spokesperson for Stringer pointed to wasted funds on technology initiatives, failure to detect collusion to drive up prices by food suppliers, late release of 70% pre-kindergarten contract information prior to the 2014 school year, and overpaying on custodial supplies, which Stringer has pointed out over the last three-plus years since he took office as Comptroller and de Blasio became Mayor.

Along with these examples, there have been several other instances in which improper contracting practices have cost the city and harmed the DOE’s reputation. In 2008, the city Special Commission of Investigation (SCI) found the DOE had squandered $437,000 on payments to DynTek, a vendor for the DOE’s Department of Instructional and Information Technology which had been paying computer consultants employed by ERS Systems without the DOE’s authorization. “ERS billed DynTek for these services and DynTek, in turn, marked up these costs before billing the DOE,” according to the SCI. Three years later, a consultant Willard (Ross) Lanham was charged with funneling $3.6 million of DOE funds into his own pockets.

In 2015, Custom Computer Specialists, a contractor the DOE considered, almost received a $1.1 billion deal to provide hardware and software to schools despite questions about the size of the contract and process involved, as well as the firm's indirect connection to an overbilling scheme. Outcry, led by education activist Leonie Haimson and Council Member Rosenthal, killed the potential deal. Most recently, in May, the Comptroller’s office released an analysis that revealed that after spending over $347 million on upgrading internet services, 45 percent of teachers said their schools’ internet quality “did not meet their instructional needs,” a survey of middle school teachers found.

At a May City Council hearing regarding the 2018 budget, Rosenthal asked if the city Office of Management and Budget has unearthed similar problems to the ones in 2015, such as approval of “specious contracts.” “I would like to know that the OMB is doing a regular audit of its contracts,” Rosenthal said.

“I would want to know that the DOE is regularly being investigated,” said Rosenthal. “If we were to do that more systematically then we would have more available to us to spend on things we so desperately need.”

Rosenthal, who chairs the contracts committee and sits on the education committee, credits Haimson with calling attention to chronic DOE contracting deficiencies. As a response to Haimson bringing awareness to the issue, she has headed efforts to ignite change in the Department. Rosenthal, however, declined to explicitly comment on Stringer’s testimony, and separated herself from the Comptroller's narrative. The Manhattan Council member believes that the DOE has actually improved considerably of late in contracting and openness, especially since she's undertaken efforts to bend the department toward better practices.

“I do thank you for what’s been done,” Rosenthal said to Dean Fuleihan, Director of the OMB. She framed the situation by contending the previous mayoral administration had “dug a hole,” and the current one is in the process of getting New York City public education out of it.

"What I’ve seen is positive steps that have allowed for more oversight and transparency,” Rosenthal said in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

The Upper West Side lawmaker emphasized that, in her view, DOE has allowed City Hall to both scrutinize the Department and collaborate with it. "They have made the contracting process more transparent...they have improved, I think, the oversight relationship with the city agencies,“ she said. Rosenthal noted that if capital and service contract costs rise, that information is now relayed to the City Council. "That's a big change.”

According to Rosenthal, contracting practice woes have been ameliorated and their details brought into the limelight in recent years, as evidenced by the Department beginning to post contract information online.

Still, while Rosenthal was clear that the DOE has progressed, there is room for improvement. "Is it perfect yet? Of course not,” she said. “But is it much better? Absolutely.” Rosenthal was optimistic about the prospect of additional improvements. She said the City Council and DOE have a “good constructive relationship moving forward.”

Nonetheless, Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, a nonprofit advocacy group, is not as satisfied with the DOE as Rosenthal. “The budget is still increasing with little or no transparency," Haimson said in an email to Gotham Gazette. By phone, Haimson expressed skepticism about how the DOE manages its enormous budget and its forthrightness in doing so.

“I am very disappointed in the whole process because we’ve been sounding the alarm for years now about the lack of transparency with these huge contracts that go through the PEP [Panel for Educational Policy],” she said.

The PEP is a body consisting of 13 members appointed by elected officials, predominantly by the Mayor. Mayor Michael Bloomberg created the Panel to replace the Board of Education after the city gained mayoral control of schools. The PEP is designed to conduct independent oversight of the Department of Education but has not necessarily functioned in that manner.

As the New York Post reported last summer, one former PEP member alleges the group is comprised of members who were not equipped to properly review the budget and were pressured into doing the Mayor’s bidding. And, in Haimson’s opinion, the PEP still does not properly vet contracts, allowing the DOE to act with impunity. "I don't think it’s ever turned down a contract in its existence,” Haimson said, referring to the reputation the PEP has as a rubber stamp, both on policy and contracting. "It hasn't gotten better in some ways and in many ways it has gotten worse," she said of the DOE overall.

The DOE engaging in sloppy, questionable dealings in secret is not new, said Haimson, who has worked as an education activist since the early aughts. Like Rosenthal, she alleges these problems became rampant under Mayor Bloomberg. “[A]s the budget rose dramatically and the oversight was more critical, Bloomberg didn't want any more scrutiny,” she said.

However, unlike Rosenthal, Haimson says the DOE’s forthcomingness has gotten worse, not better, with de Blasio at the helm. “Under Bloomberg, I was able to go to OMB meetings,” she said, alleging she had been barred from these meetings in recent years. "The fact that the Mayor’s Office has more oversight may be good. [But] [w]e don't even know," Haimson said. “There doesn't seem to be anyone looking over their shoulders," she said, adding that providing ample DOE oversight would necessitate an independent commission.

The Department of Education disputes claims that it is not careful or candid in its contracting processes. “Our procurement process is transparent and has strong oversight mechanisms, while delivering essential services to students and schools,” a DOE spokesperson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

Though not related to contracting practices, Council Member Ben Kallos introduced a bill in February that would require the DOE to more thoroughly disclose information about applications and enrollment to New York City public schools. The bill was pre-considered, and a hearing was held on it before it was introduced. 

"The bill has received some internal support, it has had its hearing and negotiations are ongoing to possibly move it forward," said a spokesperson for Kallos regarding the bill’s status.

A representative for City Council Member Daniel Dromm, who chairs the Committee on Education, did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the status of the Kallos legislation, along with inquiries pertaining to DOE transparency and contracting practices.

“We have our own issue with DOE," Kallos’ spokesperson said. "Obviously Council Member Kallos wouldn’t have released the bill if [the DOE] was a model of transparency.”

Note: This article has been updated to clarify the status of the bill introduced by Council Member Ben Kallos.
Note: This article has been updated to more accurately depict the situation involving Custom Computer Specialists and a potential contract it was being considered for.

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Mayoral Control or Not, Calls Continue for Contracting Reform at City Department of Education Thu, 22 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Considers Subcontractors Bill of Rights http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7022:council-considers-bill-of-rights-for-subcontractors http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7022:council-considers-bill-of-rights-for-subcontractors 12331075774 34a53d8c6d z

Council Member Helen Rosenthal (photo: William Alatriste/New York City Council)


The City Council’s Committee on Economic Development and the Committee on Contracts held a joint hearing on Thursday to discuss proposed legislation that would create a bill of rights for subcontractors working with the city.

Intro.1615, sponsored by Council Members Laurie Cumbo, Robert Cornegy, Jr., and Helen Rosenthal, would require the Department of Small Business Services to create a bill of rights that clearly lays out expectations for prime contractors and subcontractors, and makes it easier for subcontractors to find out what services and resources are available to them should they have a problem or concern with their contract. The legislation would apply to any contracts worth more than $100,000.

“[Contracting] is the heart of so much of what we do here -- construction of public infrastructure and affordable housing, a whole range of human services from pre-K all the way up to senior services,” said Rosenthal, chair of the contracts committee, in her opening statement. “The contracting process is an essential part of how New York City government works.”

The city has registered 12,949 expense contracts worth $20.3 billion in the 2017 fiscal year, which runs through June 30, and subcontractors accounted for $558 million of that sum, according to data available on the comptroller’s Checkbook NYC website. These subcontractors often face a number of hurdles including a lack of access to adequate legal representation to navigate contracts, receiving late payments, and not being able to apply for loans. This is especially true for subcontractors working in human services.

“Contractors often pay subcontractors late because they cannot disburse government funds prior to completion of the service they are paying for, and they themselves are paid late,” explained Tracie Robinson, a senior policy analyst at the Human Services Council of New York, in her testimony. HSC represents thousands of nonprofits in New York and advocates for human services providers as a whole. “[Subcontractors] operate in the context of a broken contracting system. Only if we address the underlying causes of subcontractor instability -- problems at the government-contractor level -- will we be able to set prime contractors and subcontractors alike up for success.”

Many subcontractors are nonprofit organizations and small businesses that are overshadowed by larger entities and do not have the same access to credit and fundraising. Intro. 1615 would make sure that subcontractors get an overview of the payment process, know the points of contact between government agencies, and can get the appropriate documents necessary to get the information and assistance they need.

“Many smaller nonprofit organizations do not have in-house attorneys or staff with experience understanding and administering government contracts,” said Laura Abel, senior policy counsel for Lawyers Alliance for New York, a provider of business and legal services for nonprofits. “City contracts are long, dense, and full of legalese. As a result, nonprofit organizations may take on obligations that they do not understand and cannot fulfill.”

Abel also added, “I have asked clients dealing with an unexpected development what their contract says about that issue, only to hear, ‘Oh, it’s all boilerplate, it’s no help.’ A subcontractor bill of rights can help by encouraging subcontractors to consult counsel before entering into a contract, and whenever they have questions during the life of the contract.”

In addition, subcontractors are frequently minority- and women-owned businesses, commonly referred to as M/WBEs. The city has been trying to encourage the growth and development of M/WBEs to ensure a more equitable distribution of city money. M/WBEs also tend to be more familiar with local community needs compared to larger contractors. M/WBEs accounted for $245.8 million in subcontracts registered in fiscal 2017. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s OneNYC plan includes a commitment to award at least 30 percent of city contract dollars to M/WBEs by 2021 and to award $16 billion in city contracts to M/WBEs by 2025.

Michael Owh, director of the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services and the city’s chief procurement officer, said the de Blasio administration supports the bill and that it “is a step in the right direction toward providing information to businesses and connecting them with resources.”

When asked by Council Member Daniel Garodnick, the chair of the Committee on Economic Development, if the bill warranted any changes or edits, Owh emphasized that it would need input from all the stakeholders. “[We] want to make sure that we get enough feedback from not just our agencies but also the community, the contracting community, as well as the subcontracting community to make sure that we are able to take in all of the various factors,” Owh said.

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City Council Considers Subcontractors Bill of Rights Thu, 22 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Tenant Advocate Bill Met with Resistance http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6884:city-council-tenant-advocate-bill-met-with-resistance http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6884:city-council-tenant-advocate-bill-met-with-resistance Councilmember Helen Rosenthal

Council Member Helen Rosenthal (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)


The City Council’s Committee on Housing and Buildings on Wednesday heard more than a dozen bills that would enhance tenant protections and combat abuses by landlords. Among those proposals was one that would create a new ombudsman within the Department of Buildings whose responsibility would be to prioritize the welfare of tenants when property owners and builders apply for construction permits.

The bill, Intro. 1523, was introduced by Council Member Helen Rosenthal last month and heard for the first time Wednesday. It would create an Office of the Tenant Advocate, charged with approving and monitoring tenant protection and site safety plans submitted to the Department of Buildings for construction work on occupied multiple dwellings.

The OTA would receive and redress complaints from tenants and would be required to publish quarterly reports on its work, including data on the number of complaints received, time taken to respond to complaints, and the number of tenant protection and site safety plans reviewed.

Rosenthal, a Democrat from the Upper West Side, said the OTA is a crucial tool to fight tenant harassment by landlords, particularly those who may use legally approved construction work to continually hassle and drive out rent-stabilized tenants. “Dealing with building owners who operate unscrupulously can be a Sisyphean task,” Rosenthal said in a phone interview, “and having more eyes on the ball can only help. Having an office or deputy commissioner on equal footing with other deputy commissioners at DOB will allow tenant voices to be heard.”

But her bill received push back from the de Blasio administration as well as the real estate industry, both of which argue that the OTA would be redundant. “While we generally support the bills discussed at yesterday’s hearing, we’re concerned that this particular legislation would duplicate work the Department already performs,” said Joseph Soldevere, a DOB spokesperson, in an email.

Soldevere said the department’s experts thoroughly examine tenant-protection and site-safety plans and, along with other agencies like Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), have a “robust system” for responding to tenant complaints. DOB also partners with HPD and law enforcement agencies, Soldevere added, in a joint city-state Tenant Harassment Task Force which has conducted more than 2,000 inspections since 2016.

Council Member Stephen Levin, a Brooklyn Democrat, is a co-sponsor on Rosenthal’s bill. He criticized the DOB’s often-delayed response time to complaints, calling them “totally ineffective” and insisting that the raft of proposals, dubbed the “Stand For Tenant Safety” package, was essential. “It’s important that agencies coordinate their actions in working with tenants,” he said.

The Real Estate Board of New York, the trade association that represents more than 16,000 members, including developers, property owners, managers and brokers, filed a legislative memo with the City Council committee on Wednesday, stating its outright opposition to the OTA bill and generally to the larger package of proposals.

“The creation of the Office of the Tenant Advocate within DoB might be a worthy endeavor,” the REBNY memo reads, “if the Office is devoted not only to protecting the interests of the tenant during construction, but also to assisting tenants with their responsibilities during such times.” It goes on to argue, similar to the administration’s stance on the bill, that other units within the DOB already cover the office’s proposed duties. They also insist that the bill should drop any references to site safety plans which are “technical documents requiring high-level expertise and developed to safeguard the general public and workers on-site, not specifically tenants.”

For Rosenthal, those concerns aren’t unfounded and she said she’s not looking to duplicate efforts already underway. Rather, she wants to streamline existing resources and prioritize the city’s response to tenant concerns. “Simply organize it in a fashion that would be more supportive for people going through construction, where construction is used for harassment,” she said. “What I’m trying to do is level the playing field within the DOB so that a tenant’s voice is heard as well as a building owners.”

The broader package of bills addresses a number of issues, with proposals including oversight of contractors that work without a permit; added requirements for information in tenant protection plans; a safe construction bill of rights for tenants; a rebuttable presumption of harassment for certain landlord actions; increased civil penalties for harassment and enhanced definitions of acts that constitute harassment; among others.

The package is also keeping in line with the City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s increased focus on tenant protections, including the recently agreed upon “Right to Counsel,” which provides free legal representation or advice to tenants facing eviction. The mayor has pointedly cited his anti-eviction and pro-tenant policies as a significant part of his overall agenda to combat the city’s record levels of homelessness and affordable housing crisis.

Kerri White, director of organizing and policy at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, a tenant advocacy group, said the Office of Tenant Advocate would be a step towards addressing systemic issues that tenants face. “DOB still perceives each problem as its own island and that’s not the reality,” she said, emphasizing that the city needs a comprehensive approach that recognizes the larger context of tenant issues. She said HPD has in part embraced this need, after years of advocacy, but DOB lags behind. “Right now there’s no centralized person you can talk to,” she said. “You call 311 and put in complaints but those are not always effective.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Tenant Advocate Bill Met with Resistance Thu, 20 Apr 2017 22:04:05 +0000
With Trump Presidency Looming, City Officials Reevaluate Financial Picture http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6671:with-trump-presidency-looming-city-officials-reevaluate-financial-picture http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6671:with-trump-presidency-looming-city-officials-reevaluate-financial-picture ferreas copeland presser nyccouncil

Council Member Ferreras-Copeland (photo: @NYCCouncil)


The potential repercussions of President-elect Donald Trump’s policies on New York City’s budget loomed over a Wednesday City Council hearing. The Council’s Committee on Finance met for oversight on the de Blasio administration’s November Financial Plan Update, which shows a projected increase in spending of $1.3 billion this fiscal year, as well as additional savings being set aside by the city.

On Wednesday at City Hall, Council members led by finance Chair Julissa Ferreras-Copeland had questions for city budget officials, who explained that most of the new spending stems from an increase in federal and state funding. The current fiscal year runs through June.

The budget modification does not account for how Trump’s proposals -- from a promised freeze on funding to so-called sanctuary cities to tax code changes to eliminating the Affordable Care Act -- may affect the roughly $7 billion in federal money that comes to the city annually of late.

While Trump may have a difficult time following through on his promise to withhold all funding from sanctuary cities -- which are those like New York that are welcoming to undocumented immigrants -- he may be able to take a piecemeal approach. Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to fight several of Trump’s most extreme campaign promises, like mass deportations.

At the budget hearing this week, City Council Members and Dean Fuleihan, director of the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, agreed that in the coming months, the Council and the administration must work together to evaluate the impact of possible federal actions and prepare a response.

“Our fiscal management will be a critical asset as we move into a period of uncertainty at the federal level,” Fuleihan said. “At this time, the consequences of federal action are unknown and potentially widespread.” He noted several times throughout the hearing that city reserves are at “historic levels.” This is true in terms of the raw dollar amount, which is several billion, but with a $83.4 billion budget that has expanded rapidly under de Blasio, the city is somewhat short of a safe “budget cushion,” according to Comptroller Scott Stringer and other watchdogs.

The November budget update anticipates the $1.3 billion increase in spending from the June adopted budget, much of which stems from increases in federal and state funding, including aid for Hurricane Sandy recovery projects. The plan forecasts a $127 million reduction in projected tax revenues, and also includes $1 billion in savings, through changes in municipal government function, like increased use of electronic payments and expanded car sharing among agencies, as well as spending re-estimates at various agencies.

Generally, Council Members were pleased to see that the November Plan includes more savings, which the Council has been pushing for. “The highlight of the November Plan is a Citywide Savings Plan with savings of more than $1 billion in fiscal years 2017 and 2018,” said Council Member Ferreras-Copeland. “This early release of a savings plan signals a cautionary approach and aligns with the Council's push for programmatic, lasting savings that offset spending increases. I'm also pleased to learn that OMB has put together a team to focus on developing real baseline savings across agency boundaries.”

Gotham Gazette previously reported that OMB had launched a new citywide savings unit to coordinate greater agency savings.

Other concerns with the November Plan addressed at the hearing included the added $115.1 million in new needs funding allocated to the Department of Homeless Services for increased shelter costs; the inclusion of $130 million to cover pension fund obligations due to the fund’s underperformance this year; and $14.4 million allocated to the Department of Correction related to the implementation of the 14-point plan to reduce violence in Rikers Island.

Of the $115 million in new shelter costs, $52 million comes from city funding, a 10 percent increase from the amount in the budget at adoption. “What is causing FY17's increasing shelter costs,” Ferreras-Copeland asked, “and how confident are you that these figures reflect what the city will actually be spending on shelter costs in FY17, and we won't be having this conversation again in the spring?”

“It's important to remember that shelter costs have been increasing since the end...of 2009, when there were about 37,000 in shelters,” Fuleihan said (there are currently more than 60,000 in city shelters). “We have, with your help, instituted programs - government assistance and other preventative measures - that we believe have changed what the shelter population would be today,” Fuleihan added.

Noting that the homeless shelter population varies day to day, Fuleihan asserted that what the November Plan provided is OMB’s “understanding of that population and the costs associated with DHS [Department of Homeless Services] services.”

Asked whether homeless shelter costs would continue to increase beyond what is included in the November Plan for FY 2018, Fuleihan said the administration is making changes and “hoping to stabilize this...there are going to be more additional plans coming out, and as we do that, we will continue making assessment” as the city gets closer to the preliminary budget.”

Mayor de Blasio has also recently said the city will be coming forward with new plans to tackle the homelessness crisis.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal took issue with the city’s rising pension obligations due to the underperformance of the city’s pension funds, noting that the November Plan included nearly $100 million more than what was spent to cover the city’s pension obligations in FY 2016, and that OMB projects the number will increase by about $300 million in the following years. Pensions to former city workers are guaranteed, with city funds required to make up gaps in the returns from pension fund investments. The city is currently paying billions of dollars per year toward pension obligations.

“I'm concerned about the fact that the city is having to put in more money to our pension funds, I'll be interested to hear from the comptroller as to why our investments are coming in lower so that city taxpayers have to put in our current dollars for our retiree expenses,” Rosenthal said, calling the situation “alarming.”

Fuleihan noted that OMB is “simply reporting the earnings that the comptroller gave us,” and that they are committed to “fully funding the pension system by 2032.”

The Department of Correction also accounted for a significant amount of the funding for new needs added to the November Plan. As Ferreras-Copeland noted, the de Blasio administration has consistently increased funding “over multiple financial plans for the DOC’s contract with McKinsey Group to accelerate and sustain the department’s anti-violence reform agenda.” Since fiscal year 2016 (July 1, 2015-June 30, 2016), the administration has added $24.2 million for consulting fees, including the $9.9 million for consulting fees included in the November Plan.

Yet, Ferreras-Copeland said, neither the administration nor DOC has shared details of the contract with the Council, or information regarding the exact nature of the McKinsey Group’s role in DOC’s reform agenda.

“Can you provide more details on why administration increased funding for DOC consulting fees at each fiscal year, and when do you expect McKinsey Group to finish its consulting for the department on its reform agenda?” Ferreras-Copeland asked, adding that she is seeking information clarifying what exactly the Council should be expecting to see as a result of the added funding.

Fuleihan said the McKinsey group is expected to finish its consulting in April, which the additional $9.9 million from the November Plan should cover, and promised to get Ferreras-Copeland information regarding the McKinsey Group’s role.

While the population at Rikers Island jails is down significantly under de Blasio, to about 7,500 daily, violence continues to plague the facilities. There are about 10,000 detainees and inmates across all city jails on any given day at this point.

Overall, the November Plan’s inclusion of a savings program and increases to city spending were well-received. Some specifics regarding the budget update remain troubling, like the increasing pension obligations, which are projected to cost the city more in years to come, and homeless shelter costs, yet much of the conversation at the hearing was dominated by concerns over New York City’s uncertain financial future when Donald Trump becomes President.

Funds from the federal government reflect about 10 percent of the resources in the city operating budget this year. Trump’s comments have raised concerns among city officials. “Federal funds make up a significant portion of several agencies and authorities - DOE, HPD, NYPD, and NYCHA,” Ferreras-Copeland said, later adding Health + Hospitals, and asking Fuleihan what could be done to mitigate potential damage to city resources moving forward.

“Right now, it’s very difficult to make an assessment as to what is going to happen,” Fuleihan said, though that picture should become clearer in the coming months. “We should, working together, coordinate our response to any action that may be taken in Washington,” he told the Council, and identify what federal aid may be at risk.

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by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

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With Trump Presidency Looming, City Officials Reevaluate Financial Picture Thu, 15 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Women's Caucus Rallies for Equity Legislation http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6644:city-council-women-s-caucus-rallies-for-equity-legislation http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6644:city-council-women-s-caucus-rallies-for-equity-legislation womens equality rally pic via cumbo

Equality rally at City Hall (photo via Council Member Cumbo)


The Women’s Caucus of the New York City Council announced a legislative package Tuesday aimed at equal rights and opportunities for women. With an “equality rally” outside City Hall before the full Council held a meeting at which some of the bills were introduced, legislators, advocates, and service providers expressed support for the legislation and argued for its necessity in light of Donald Trump’s election as President.

The co-chairs of the Women’s Caucus, Council Members Laurie Cumbo and Helen Rosenthal, spearheaded this first-of-its-kind legislative effort by the caucus. The 11 bills and resolutions range widely, while some have already been passed into law and others are completely new. The entire package should be enacted at the city level in conjunction with other state and federal policies, those who rallied said. The concern, though, is that the federal government will not be advancing gender equity under President Trump. Council Member Cumbo, who represents District 35 in central Brooklyn, said she’s worried about Trump’s treatment of women and his misogynistic language

The legislative package seeks to address issues like the needs of unpaid caregivers, access to feminine hygiene products, services for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, the gender pay gap, and more.

“We have seen all across this nation the challenges that women face when attempting to become leaders,” Cumbo said. “All across this country we have seen the level of disrespect. We have seen women who want to have families, who want to have babies, and a president-elect saying that pregnancy in the workplace is a problem.”

While Council Member Rosenthal praised the City Council and the de Blasio administration for their efforts to help women achieve equal opportunities through legislation and by creating the Committee on Gender Equity, she said advocacy groups and public officials should still push for progress.

“With the challenges that we now face, it is critical that we redouble our efforts towards the promise of equality and we refocus our outreach and organization as a caucus to ensure there’s a success in that effort,” said Rosenthal, who represents District 6 on the Upper West Side. “This legislative package will make a difference in the lives of not just women, but all of New York.” 

Council Member Margaret Chin, who represents District 1 in Lower Manhattan, said this presidential election served as a reminder of the long fight ahead for equal rights under a Trump presidency: “When a President-elect with a record of belittling, harassing and abusing women is about to take office, we have the responsibility to act now — to demand equal rights in our city and across the nation.”

Last July, Governor Cuomo signed legislation to eliminate sales tax on feminine hygiene products in New York. One of the bills in the package, sponsored by Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, would provide feminine hygiene products at no cost for students on Department of Education premises. Ferreras-Copeland has been at the forefront of other city legislation to improve access to feminine hygiene products at city schools, shelters, and jails.

Additional components of the legislative package include a new resolution, sponsored by Rosenthal, pushing the state to give domestic violence survivors greater ability to break leases with landlords; legislation, sponsored by Chin and already passed into law, that helps address needs of unpaid caregivers; and a resolution, sponsored by Council Member Annabel Palma that calls for passage of a state law to prohibit employers from asking salary history. (Public Advocate Letitia James, a former Council member, has such legislation at the city level.)

According to a report released by James, women in New York City earn annually approximately $5.8 billion less in wages than men. Women of color face the greatest wage gap, with Hispanic, black, and Asian women experiencing a gap of 55, 54 and 37 percent, respectively, relative to white men. New York City ranks higher for racial disparities in salary than most cities in the country, according to James’ report.

Council Member Rosenthal said she was especially impressed by the show of support on Tuesday from so many advocacy and nonprofit groups. “In the city, nonprofits are hungry to do what they can to support anyone who might suffer consequences of a Trump administration....based on outcomes of his misogynistic view of the world,” Rosenthal said in an interview.

The Women’s Caucus, which includes 14 members in the 51-seat Council, said the package serves not only women of New York, but all of its residents by providing improved transparency into city programs, support for families, and efforts to reduce sexual assault and domestic violence against all genders.

“As a national model, we must maintain our upward momentum to end gender and racial inequality through public policy that celebrates our diversity,” Council Member Cumbo said at the rally, pointing to other city and state efforts like the municipal identification card program and a higher minimum wage.

The Women’s Caucus includes the Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, who is one of several women term-limited out of the Council at the end of 2017. Mark-Viverito, Rosenthal, James, Ferreras-Copeland, and other city elected officials have been involved with efforts to encourage more women to run for elected office.

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by Devin Gannon and Milka Nissinen
@GothamGazette

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City Council Women's Caucus Rallies for Equity Legislation Wed, 30 Nov 2016 05:00:00 +0000
New Study is Latest Salvo in Airbnb Lobbying Fight as Governor Weighs Bill http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6486:new-study-is-latest-salvo-in-airbnb-lobbying-fight-as-governor-weighs-bill http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6486:new-study-is-latest-salvo-in-airbnb-lobbying-fight-as-governor-weighs-bill apartment bronx airbnb story

photo: Sofie Hecht for Gotham Gazette


As Governor Andrew Cuomo weighs whether to sign it, a high-stakes fight continues over legislation to regulate Airbnb, the popular home-sharing service. Before and since the state Legislature passed the bill this Spring, the related lobbying battle has touched on various socioeconomic factors including tech entrepreneurship, the sharing economy, affordable housing, organized labor, and more.

Airbnb is now entering into the fray a new study, previewed by Gotham Gazette and to be released Friday, called “How Airbnb Can Support Low-Income Communities in NYC,” which indicates that New Yorkers in low-income neighborhoods are able to supplement their earnings in important ways as Airbnb hosts.

The report finds that Airbnb listings from low-income neighborhoods in the South Bronx, Harlem, and North-Central Brooklyn are growing at a faster rate than in the city as a whole, and that Airbnb income in these areas equates to nearly half the amount of aggregate public assistance cash directed to residents (not including non-cash support like food stamps). Company data shows “significant demand for accommodation in these neighborhoods and that home sharing is already a critical lifeline” for many residents.

The report comes as some city and state elected officials, aligned with affordable housing advocates and the major hotel workers union, organize in efforts to convince Gov. Cuomo to sign the bill that would greatly limit advertising of Airbnb rentals in New York City and argue that Airbnb rentals harm low-income New Yorkers by contributing to housing scarcity.

The legislation passed by the Legislature in June (A8704-C/S6340-A) would make it illegal to advertise entire home or entire apartmentment rentals for fewer than 30 days—a type of rental that comprises the majority of Airbnb listings in the city.

Airbnb representatives and supporters, including some elected officials, have called the bill an overreach, crippling to an essential element of the modern “sharing economy,” and the product of undue influence by special interests, like the hotel workers union.

Such short-term renting arrangements have been illegal under New York City’s multiple dwelling law since 2010, but advertising them remains legal. If the proposed bill is signed by Cuomo, posting an entire home renting arrangement for under 30 days on Airbnb could warrant a $1,000 fine for first-time offenders and up to $7,500 by the third violation. The governor has said he’s reviewing the legislation, but he has not taken a definitive position, so lobbying from both sides continues.

Anti-Airbnb efforts are being led by the “Share Better” coalition - the group has received funding from the New York Hotel and Trades Council, which represents hospitality workers who stand to gain from a more favorable climate for hotels. Efforts are being run by executives from Metropolitan Public Strategies who have connections to HTC.

One key issue for the anti-Airbnb effort and the bill before the governor is how much public pressure to put on Cuomo to sign the bill.

Those in favor of the bill argue that commercial operators abuse Airbnb to make millions from illegal short-term listings, citing a 2014 report by State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman that identified 72 percent of Airbnb listings in the city as being in violation of the city’s multiple dwelling law. In essence, the argument is that New Yorkers have been running illegal hotels.

While the AG’s report uses data from 2010 through 2014, which Airbnb calls significantly outdated, proponents of greater regulation say the illegal listings have grown since and have a negative impact on the city housing market, including much-needed affordable housing.

In an email to Gotham Gazette, Airbnb spokesperson Peter Schottenfels responded to those calling for the governor to sign the bill by pointing out that 96 percent of Airbnb hosts in New York only rent out one home, and that 78 percent earn “low, moderate, or middle incomes.”

“By failing to truly distinguish between commercial operators running illegal hotels and average New Yorkers who occasionally share their own homes, the 2010 law has failed to root out truly problematic actors,” Schottenfels wrote. “In fact, an estimated 9,000 New Yorkers avoided foreclosure or eviction last year because of the money [they] earned sharing their home.”

In July, 15 members of the New York City Council’s Progressive Caucus sent a letter to Cuomo, calling for “stopping the proliferation of illegal hotels that currently puts affordable housing at risk.” A spokesperson for the Caucus told Gotham Gazette that “a similar cohort” of Caucus members are involved in additional organizing efforts, which are said to include a broader group of officials.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat who is part of the Progressive Caucus and has been a leading voice calling for further regulation of Airbnb, told Gotham Gazette that she wants Cuomo to sign the bill primarily to stop Airbnb from skirting the existing regulations.

“Airbnb knows that hosts break the law on their website, and yet Airbnb won’t take them off the website, and they could take them off very easily,” Rosenthal said. “They could ask, you know, ‘Are you renting your whole home or a room in your apartment?’ If the answer’s a room in your apartment, then, fine. If it’s your whole home, that’s not fine, that’s illegal.”

Rosenthal added that she and other legislators have worked with housing advocates and Share Better, who all say entire-home renting is contributing to a citywide housing shortage, citing 8,000 units that would otherwise be on the rental market.

Share Better and Metropolitan Public Strategies, a consulting and communications firm, have coordinated to publicize hotel and housing special-interest groups’ opposition to Airbnb, with the firm's Executive VP Austin Shafran acting as a spokesperson for Share Better. In the past, Metropolitan Public Strategies' CEO Neal Kwatra has served as a director for the Hotel Trades Council and as Chief of Staff to Attorney General Schneiderman before founding the firm in 2014.

In recent months both organizations have written talking points for City Council members. Rosenthal has drawn on Share Better points and worked with the coalition on an op-ed against Airbnb. "Share Better and I work together because we align on protecting affordable housing. I appreciate depth of data analysis and research they bring to the table," Rosenthal told Gotham Gazette.

Share Better also organized a campaign at the Democratic National Convention, trying to influence the public debate around regulating Airbnb, which, like other aspects the "new" economy and disruptive "innovations" like charter schools, has divided Democrats.

Airbnb warns further regulation will do more to harm homeowners than protect them, according to Schottenfels, who added that the company has already removed over 2,200 listings that it believes could affect the permanent housing market.

“They rushed to enact legislation that would fine middle class people thousands of dollars for sharing their homes occasionally,” Schottenfels of Airbnb wrote. “The new law threatens everyday New Yorkers with draconian fines, even for renting out their own home. Meanwhile, it does nothing to target commercial actors by distinguishing their activity from that of responsible home sharers.”

Now, the new report from Airbnb seems to echo a key argument that was made by Uber in its fight to fend off New York City regulations of its car-hailing service: that low-income New Yorkers, especially people of color, are benefiting from its existence. The report focuses on certain low-income communities in Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx referred to as “revitalization areas”—which generate about 10 percent of total Airbnb income in the city—and highlights that revitalization area residents can increase their household income by renting out their home for three nights per month, on average.

For his part, Gov. Cuomo has not yet indicated whether he intends to sign the bill. When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the governor told Gotham Gazette that the bill “remains under review by Counsel's office."

The bill has not yet been sent to Cuomo’s desk. The Governor has until January to sign all bills passed in this year’s legislative session, but once he requests a bill from the Legislature, he has 30 days to sign it, veto it, or let it die by pocket veto.

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by Aaron Holmes, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

with reporting by Ben Max

Note: this article has been updated with additional comment from Council Member Rosenthal and clarification on her collaboration with Share Better.

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New Study is Latest Salvo in Airbnb Lobbying Fight as Governor Weighs Bill Thu, 18 Aug 2016 04:00:00 +0000