Gotham Gazette Sat, 21 Oct 2017 06:33:43 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) The Future of Latino Politics in New York City ruben diaz jr

Ruben Diaz Jr. (photo: @rubendiazjr)

Just last month the annual Somos El Futuro legislative conference took place in Albany. Over 30 years ago a group of Latino elected officials and community leaders initiated the conference as a means to highlight issues important to Latinos and to shine a light on the plight of Latinos in New York. The visionary leadership of these early pioneers was to capitalize on and give consciousness to the ever-growing presence of Latinos in the state. Perhaps the name itself, Somos El Futuro -- We are the Future -- was not only a testament of the current influence of the Latino presence in New York at the time but also an apt moniker of the eventual significance of this surging community.

In a recent column, I highlighted the growing Latino electoral presence in New York City. Latinos now make up almost a quarter of the entire city electorate. Based on sheer numbers Latinos can now claim that they are not just the future but that estamos aqui ahora -- we are here now.

With this increasing presence has come a steady growth in Latino political representation, even though gentrification poses a real threat to some Latino-majority districts. The rise of the Latino presence citywide produced some noteworthy political leaders that in fact became pioneers and leading figures in our community. Among them we can note the work of Tony Mendez, Oscar Garcia Rivera, Herman Badillo, Olga Mendez, Angelo Del Toro, and Jose Rivera (who continues to serve in office).

Without a doubt, these pioneers have paved the way for a newer crop of Latino political leaders, many of whom are doing excellent work in their respective communities. Many are not only providing pivotal leadership in their districts, some have the potential to be serious and credible candidates for citywide office in the near future. It’s important to also note that the extremely important work of providing leadership in Latino areas—communities often riddled with rampant poverty, decrepit housing, and overcrowded schools—is not only being provided by elected officials. In fact, there are a number of Latino community activists, many of them young, fighting ardently for the justice that Latinos demand and deserve.

The last time a Latino gained a top spot on a citywide ballot was Fernando Ferrer in 2005. Prior to that it was Badillo, whose 1977 mayoral candidacy gained the affection of Latinos in New York (he also ran two more times for mayor). It is my belief that for the 2021 elections, Latinos can once again have a Latino (possibly more than one) launching a credible campaign for citywide office. The question is, who might these candidates be that can gain the attention of not only Latinos but also a wider electorate and public? Who will be the next Ferrer or Badillo?

The first that has to be highlighted is Ruben Diaz, Jr., the current Bronx Borough President. Very recently, Diaz, Jr. was a constant name in the ever-present rumor mill regarding a potential challenge to Mayor de Blasio. Diaz, Jr. instead has decided to seek re-election. Over the years, he has taken credit for a boon in Bronx development projects (something which in fact began occurring during Ferrer’s tenure in the borough presidency) and has been a fierce advocate for the people in his borough. While lacking the intellectual heft of a Badillo and Ferrer, Diaz, Jr. has a magnetic personality that is sure to attract many as his final term as borough president nears an end.

There is also Melissa Mark-Viverito, the current speaker of the City Council. Her position has given her the most Latino clout in recent years to influence citywide policy, some of which she has used. This platform has provided Mark-Viverito an ample opportunity to garner broad attention and to push for policy issues pertinent to a wider public and also to Latinos in particular. However, since she is term-limited and likely will be out of the public eye on a consistent basis, her chances for a successful citywide race in four years will be virtually impossible.

One person to keep an eye on is Ritchie Torres, a Bronx City Council member. Elected in 2013, at the youthful age of 25, Torres has proven to be a solid legislator, championing important causes, and also fighting ardently for better housing conditions for public housing residents. Torres is charismatic, well liked by his peers, and whip-smart. He has the uncanny ability to probe and articulate complex policy matters. At 29 years of age, Torres will surely be one to watch for years to come and could be a formidable candidate for either Bronx borough president or the city’s public advocate if he chooses to aspire to either position.

When looking at the horizon of Latino political leaders, the future seems bright -- the three aforementioned names are not the only ones on the list. With the continuing rise of Latinos in the overall population and increased voting participation, it may be quite possible that New York City will soon have its first Latino mayor.

[Also by Eli Valentin: Latino Voters and the 2017 New York City Elections]

Eli Valentin is a Democratic consultant and pastor of the Iglesia Evangelica Bautista in New York City. He is a frequent political analyst on Univision, and has appeared on NY1’s “Inside City Hall.” On Twitter @EliValentinNY.

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The Future of Latino Politics in New York City Tue, 16 May 2017 17:52:06 +0000
Bill Aims to Ensure Heat is On When It Should Be ritchie torres arms crossed pink tie

Ritchie Torres (photo: John McCarten)

City Council Member Ritchie Torres will introduce a bill on Thursday that aims to ensure landlords follow the law and keep the heat on for tenants when it should be.

Torres’ bill, being introduced in partnership with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, would require landlords of buildings with more than three units to install tamper-proof heat sensors in the living room of each unit. These “temperature reporting devices” would be monitored by tenants, landlords, and the city’s housing agency, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).

The model for such a device was developed by Heat Seek, a winner of the city’s 2014 BigApps competition. With their legislation, Torres and Adams want to make sure that all tenants have heat when they are supposed to, and to create a new deterrent for landlords who might abuse heat settings as a way to drive tenants out of rent-stabilized housing.

“The bill is based on a recognition that laws governing heat and hot water, which are among the most common complaints among tenants, can be the hardest to enforce,” Torres said in an interview on Wednesday.

“It's bringing housing code enforcement into the 21st century,” Torres said. “And it’s allowing us to hold unscrupulous owners accountable, and drive down the rate of heat and hot water violations in New York City.”

Working with Heat Seek, tenants, and housing lawyers, Adams recently announced a lawsuit against one large Brooklyn landlord whose Brownsville building had a number of heat complaints.

Landlords must provide tenants with heat and hot water when the outdoor temperature falls below 55 degrees during the day and below 40 degrees at night during the October 1-May 31 “heat season.” HPD tracks violators.

“My message to landlords across New York City is that we’re watching; don’t harm your tenants’ quality of life all because of greed,” Adams said in a statement. “We are using cool technology to warm the homes of Brooklynites, while putting bad-acting landlords on the hot seat for their harassing behavior. I am proud to work with Council Member Torres, the innovative team at Heat Seek NYC, our incredible legal advocates, as well as courageous tenants who are standing up for their housing rights.”

As originally drafted, if passed by the Council and signed by the Mayor, the provisions of the bill would go into effect for January 1, 2018. It would require rules to be drafted and contract procurement by HPD (Heat Seek would not be guaranteed the contract for the devices). The bill will be heard in the Committee on Housing and Buildings, which is chaired by Council Member Jumaane Williams. Torres chairs the Committee on Public Housing, but the bill does not apply to the New York City Housing Authority, which is separate from the private landlords the bill is targeting.

There are already amendments to the bill being discussed. Most significantly, according to Torres’ office, the bill is likely to be changed so that the temperature monitors are required of landlords with repeated violations related to providing heat, not of all landlords. The idea will be to identify when there has been “willful deprivation of heat and hot water” so that HPD can then monitor it and ensure that landlords are not repeatedly violating the law or driving out tenants. At times, landlords are accused of not providing heat but then raise the heat for HPD inspections. Sensors would allow for regular detection.

Torres' office is looking at perhaps coordinating with the Public Advocate' "worst landlord" list that is released each year as those involved seek to identify negligent landlords or landlords that harass tenants.

According to data provided by Torres’ office from HPD, last heat season HPD inspectors attempted 117,767 heat-related inspections and wrote 7,548 heat-related violations. HPD completed $2.7 million in heat-related emergency repairs that was charged to building owners and filed 3,151 heat cases in court, collecting $1.7 million in civil penalties against more than 3,100 properties.

Heat Seek is looking forward to expanding its work. In a statement, the company said, “Heat Seek is grateful for Councilman Torres’s and President Adams’s forward-thinking approach to solving problems experienced by many New Yorkers. We know that underheated apartments are too common for our neighbors, and we believe that sensor technology has the capacity to change the way landlords provide services for their tenants and how our city enforces the Housing Code."

Tenants are encouraged to call 311 to report issues with their heat and their landlords. Some tenants have taken to keeping a "heat log" but the tamper-proof devices from Heat Seek can provide more indisputable evidence.

“I think most landlords make good effort to comply with the law,” Torres said, but it will be important to monitor and punish “actors who have a consistent pattern of heat and hot water violations.”

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Bill Aims to Ensure Heat is On When It Should Be Wed, 14 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000
Bill Would Prioritize Repairs at NYCHA Senior Developments torres nycha tour

Council Member Torres, right (photo via NYCHA on Flickr)

A new report by City Council Member Ritchie Torres’ office found a vast backlog in necessary repairs of sidewalks outside New York City public housing, particularly developments for senior citizens. Torres, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the Council’s Committee on Public Housing, believes this is a serious issue of public safety and will introduce a bill on Wednesday that would require the Department of Transportation to prioritize sidewalk reconstruction at senior-only developments within the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).

At the end of the fiscal year, NYCHA provides DOT with a list of sidewalks to be repaired outside housing developments. DOT has access to limited capital funds for these repairs, which leaves many sidewalks broken for years. Last year, in an effort to expand repairs, the DOT increased its annual commitment to NYCHA sidewalks from $1 million to $3 million. Torres’ report, which was previewed by Gotham Gazette, points out that senior-only developments tend to be low on the priority list provided by NYCHA.

“The city’s policy to senior citizens, concerning sidewalks, is essentially, ‘break a leg,’” Torres said in a phone interview. He stressed that seniors are particularly susceptible to trip-and-fall hazards, and at greater risk from the resulting injuries, and that NYCHA needs to give special consideration to senior housing developments when determining which sidewalks should be repaired.

Currently, there are more than 61,500 New Yorkers, age 65 and older, living in NYCHA developments. Of the city’s 328 total public housing properties, 41 are senior housing developments and 15 are senior-only buildings within mixed population developments. “Common sense would dictate you give special consideration to senior citizens who have special needs,” Torres said. “The city’s policy is basically a rejection of common sense.”

sidewalkThe report notes recent increases in DOT’s budget for NYCHA property reconstructions that should first go to senior developments. It is estimated that roughly $327.2 million of DOT’s $8.9 billion ten-year capital budget is meant to be allocated towards sidewalk and ramp repair for approximately 28.6 million square feet of citywide. The eight-page document from Torres’ office also includes pictures (left) of sidewalks from senior developments across the five boroughs and estimated costs for repair, with some of them relatively easy fixes. Only one senior development, Cassidy-Lafayette Houses on Staten Island, was ranked at the top of DOT’s priority list for repairs.

So far this year, the DOT has repaired sidewalks outside 11 NYCHA developments, nine of which have on-site senior centers, according to a NYCHA spokesperson. These nine include Melrose Houses in the Bronx, Reid Apartments in Brooklyn, Vladeck Houses in Manhattan and South Jamaica Houses in Queens. The spokesperson also said the DOT was aiming to complete repairs at three more sites with senior centers before the end of the construction season.

“NYCHA and DOT maintain a strong partnership – and we are committed to working together with the Council Member to address these issues, ensuring improved quality of life and safe sidewalks for all of our residents,” read a joint statement emailed to Gotham Gazette. “We look forward to reviewing the legislation.”

Torres will introduce his bill at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, it may then be heard in committee.

The de Blasio administration has not weighed in on the proposal yet. “We’ll review the bill upon introduction,” said Aja Worthy-Davis, deputy press secretary in the mayor’s press office.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated. 

Bill Would Prioritize Repairs at NYCHA Senior Developments Tue, 27 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Visit to Bronxchester Shows NYCHA in Transition, Section 8 Concerns NYCHA NextGen Olatoye BK

NYCHA Chair Olatoye at a NYCHA event (photo via NYCHA on Flickr)

There are several pieces to the affordable housing puzzle in New York City. One is the city’s large public housing stock, home to about half a million people across the five boroughs. Another, at times overlapping piece is Section 8 vouchers, also known as Housing Choice Vouchers, which are federal subsidies that allow low-income tenants to live in a variety of locations, depending on where those vouchers are being accepted.

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is in charge of both traditional public housing properties and the Section 8 voucher program in New York City. As public housing properties have continued to wither after decades of use and lack of continued investment, especially from the federal government, the repair needs and costs far exceed what NYCHA alone can afford. While federal funds have moved toward privatization, thus the Section 8 program, New York City has grappled with how to properly keep up its public housing. In 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYCHA Chair and CEO Shola Olatoye announced and began implementing an ambitious new plan, NextGeneration NYCHA, which aims to get the authority back on solid fiscal footing over the course of a number of years.

The Section 8 voucher program is funded by the federal government, but it is administered by local housing authorities. The program has been in the news of later because the federal government is considering a major shake-up of Section 8 with the goal of fostering neighborhood integration and socioeconomic mobility. But, the proposal has alarmed many in New York City who want the city exempted from the new rules.

New Yorkers wishing to obtain a Section 8 voucher can apply for one through NYCHA, which screens applicants and administers the most vouchers of any public housing authority in the country. The program allows voucher holders to rent a privately-owned apartment within in a certain rent limit - the participant spends 30 percent of their income on rent and the voucher serves as a federal subsidy that covers the remaining cost.

Meanwhile, the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program is a new form of federal assistance designed to help public housing authorities across the country pay for unmet repairs and redevelopment in public housing properties. The “national backlog of deferred maintenance” on public housing properties across the country currently totals to approximately $26 billion. In New York, NYCHA’s public housing properties’ “unfunded capital needs” total approximately $16.5 billion, more than half the national sum.

The goal of RAD is to alleviate the debt burden felt by local public housing authorities by allowing them to sell a stake in their properties to private development firms that can then refurbish the units. When a public housing authority sells a stake in their public housing property to a private developer and redevelopment of a public housing development takes place, the tenants living in these units are no longer tenants of a public housing development but become Section 8 voucher holders living in a private-public property, while the housing units themselves are required by law to continue as affordable housing units.

NYCHA’s Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT) program is the operation that facilitates the use of RAD funding in New York City. While NYCHA is applying to have 40 public housing properties transformed into Section 8 properties through RAD/PACT -- a transformation that will allow the housing authority to harness the resources of private developers for refurbishment -- it has already implemented a public-private partnership for several properties around the city.

Bronxchester Houses is one such property. The redevelopment that has taken place at Bronxchester is not a RAD project simply because the property, while owned and operated by NYCHA since its acquisition in the 1970s, was never public housing but was rather always Section 8 housing. This status as Section 8 housing owned by NYCHA is one shared by five other properties, and when the housing authority sold a 50 percent stake in the properties to a private developer, Triborough Preservation Partners, which is itself a partnership between L+M Development and Preservation Development Partners, in late 2014, the sale allowed for the redevelopment of approximately 875 apartments.

Situated near The HUB shopping district in the South Bronx, the Bronxchester Houses are home to 208 apartments. The repairs completed by Triborough are both structural and cosmetic. The courtyard, once covered in asphalt with one small splash of grass, is now covered with greenery and includes a new playground, a new basketball court, new park benches, and new picnic tables.

On a recent visit accompanied by members of the media, Olatoye, the NYCHA chair and CEO, called the refurbished property a “haven for the community,” and an “island of respite,” descriptive language not frequently used when discussing NYCHA properties.

The cosmetic repairs made by Triborough were as important to NYCHA as the structural repairs. Olatoye noted that it was important for NYCHA to see the old, yellow cinder block walls so strongly associated with public housing replaced by brighter, more welcoming material in redevelopment. The elevators and mailboxes in the lobby were replaced and refurbished, creating a friendlier entrance. The purpose of these aesthetic changes is to create an environment for residents that is welcoming and destigmatized.

The updates to appearance, security, and structure made to the Bronxchester Houses would not have been possible without private funding. NYCHA is prohibited by law from placing debt on its properties, but a private company faces no such restriction. And while the currently established public-private partnerships in New York City are not RAD-funded, the future of this type of housing redevelopment will be.

The first property that will undergo rehabilitation through RAD/PACT funding is the Ocean Bay property in Queens. If the housing authority’s application for RAD funding is approved, 40 other NYCHA properties, which consist of 5,200 housing units, will follow.

NYCHA’s Vice President for Development, Nicole Ferreira says that the RAD program will allow NYCHA to chip away at the $16.5 billion capital needs deficit it faces. “The 5,200 [units] is just the beginning. We had talked in the NextGen report about at least getting 15,000 units. But I would say, though, the 5,200 equals one billion dollars in capital repairs, so if we get through that, that’s a billion dollars. The entire 15,000 units we’d like to get to, and maybe it ends up being bigger than that, who knows, but the entire 15,000 units is about 6 percent of our portfolio, but it represents 20 percent of our capital needs. 15,000 units equals three billion dollars in capital.”

While approval for RAD funding for those 5,200 units is not guaranteed, Ferreira is optimistic about NYCHA’s chances. “Our 5,200 units are on the HUD waitlist, so there’s a 185,000 unit cap nationwide, so any other additional units have been put on a waitlist, but we’ve been having very positive conservations with HUD about, as other public housing authorities can’t close projects that, or they have no longer any interest, that maybe NYCHA would be prioritized.”

Judith Goldiner, the attorney in charge of the Civil Law Reform Unit at Legal Aid Society is cautiously optimistic about the RAD program.

“What we hope will be good about RAD is sort of twofold: one is that the bad parts of RAD we think that we have tried to address by keeping basically all the ton of protections that tenants have in public housing now if their building is converted to RAD, and the hope is, the other good part of RAD would be that there’s money for repairs that there are not currently in public housing,” she said. “The concern, obviously is that we’re losing apartments in the public housing portfolio, and that’s not where we’d like to be.”

The RAD program signals a significant shift away from maintaining public housing in its traditional form and toward the preservation and rehabilitation of properties transformed from public housing to Section 8 housing, with private funding and without the additional step of privatization.

Section 8 refers to the section included in the federal Housing and Community Development Act that outlines the Housing Choice Voucher program. The federal program was established in 1974 under President Richard Nixon as a free-market alternative to public housing. It was originally designed to give low-income Americans agency and mobility in the housing market. It was also designed to save the government money; constructing and maintaining public housing is expensive. Transitioning away from public housing was seen as a win-win scenario for both the government and tenants because by the 1970s, living in public housing had become increasingly untenable as conditions for tenants continued to deteriorate and the federal government disinvested.

Vouchers allow qualified applicants to live in apartments of their choice up to a certain price -- which differs by location -- and devote approximately 30 percent of their income to rent while the federal government covers the remaining cost each month. While these vouchers were intended to give potential tenants with low incomes more choice in housing, in many cases that has not occurred. Because the amount of rent the federal government will subsidize is limited based on the average cost of rent in each specific area, voucher holders’ choices of apartments are limited, and thus, they are often confined to poorer neighborhoods. Currently, there are 90,000 Section 8 vouchers in use in New York City, and there are 147,033 families on the waitlist for vouchers.

Recently, the Obama administration proposed changes to the Section 8 voucher system, intending to increase the choices available to voucher holders and improve racial and socioeconomic integration in wealthier neighborhoods throughout the country. If enacted, the new regulations would adjust the rent subsidy based on average incomes in a given area, offering more subsidy in wealthier areas, less in poorer ones. The proposal targets the fact that because of limits, most Section 8 participants use the subsidy in poorer neighborhoods; by offering a higher subsidy ceiling, the hope is that more low-income earners will rent in wealthier areas.

There is, however, considerable debate - especially here in New York City - of whether the Obama administration’s goals will actually come to fruition through these changes. Some say that the changes would so disrupt things for low-income tenants in the city, with its unique housing market and incredibly low vacancy rates, that a spike in homelessness would be guaranteed.

The President’s proposed changes, announced in mid-June, are just the latest development in the long, turbulent history of affordable housing policy in the United States. A centerpiece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s political agenda, the availability of affordable housing is an especially important issue for many New Yorkers. No city in the country distributes more Section 8 vouchers, but with 2.5 million people applying for only 2,600 affordable housing units last summer, affordable housing continues to elude many New Yorkers.

While the RAD program is intended to transform public housing into Section 8 housing, the Obama administration’s proposed changes to Section 8 vouchers are intended to move voucher holders to neighborhoods that are far away from most public housing. The plan to distribute smaller subsidies for tenants living in poorer neighborhoods is the main source of tension. While many officials in the Obama administration point to studies showing the inherent benefits of living in a wealthy, resource-rich neighborhood and the moral interest in desegregating some of the country’s biggest cities, a diverse coalition of stakeholders in New York City has emerged in opposition to the proposed changes.

Bronx City Council Member Ritchie Torres, chair of the Council’s public housing committee, fears that homelessness could rise as the federal government decreases subsidies for tenants living in poorer areas. In an op-ed for NY Slant, Torres wrote, “Moving people to neighborhoods that offer them a better life is a worthy endeavor, to be sure, but what happens when there is essentially no place for people to move? What happens when voucher holders, facing a vacancy rate of 1.8 percent for units affordable to them, have nowhere to go? HUD's romantic rhetoric about mobility and opportunity is at odds with the unromantic reality of the New York City housing market.”

Goldiner, of Legal Aid, also points to New York’s unique housing market as evidence that the city is unsuited to the proposed changes.

“New York has almost a 50 percent turn-back rate, which means when people have to move and get a voucher to move, almost 50 percent of them are not able to,” she said.

The critiques expressed by liberal politicians like Torres and nonprofits like Legal Aid Society are shared by some landlords who fear that these changes will result in more tenants finding themselves unable to pay their rent each month. The city is already dealing with a homelessness crisis hovering around 60,000 people without stable housing.

Despite this alarm, the studies to which the Obama administration points when justifying the new proposals show that location is key when it comes to one’s chances for upward social mobility.

Professors Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren of Harvard University studied the effect of place on the long-term economic outcomes of children who moved during their childhood. Their research focused on whether the number of years a child spent growing up in a low-poverty neighborhood versus a high-poverty neighborhood had any effect on their success as an adult. They found that it did. As reported by the New York Times, low-poverty neighborhoods are not just areas where poverty is low, they are also areas where inequality, violent crime rates, and segregation across racial and socioeconomic lines are low, schools are good, and two-parent households are prevalent. According to the research, the earlier in life a child moves from a high-poverty neighborhood to a low-poverty neighborhood, the better.

Chetty and Hendren’s research shows that growing up poor in all parts of New York City does not bode well for a child’s earnings and livelihood as an adult. Many poor neighborhoods in New York City are areas with a high concentration of Section 8 voucher holders - areas of the city like Central Brooklyn, the South Bronx, and Upper Manhattan.

The concentration of voucher holders in poorer neighborhoods, a phenomenon in existence across the country, stems not only from tenants’ limit in choice due to government subsidy cutoffs, but it can also be attributed to landlord preference.

In many higher income neighborhoods, landlords do not prefer to have voucher holders as tenants. In 2008, the practice of discriminating against a potential tenant based solely on their status as a Section 8 voucher holder became illegal in New York City under the New York City human rights law; however, that does not always deter landlords from engaging in the practice, and in many areas of New York State the practice is perfectly legal.

Additionally, there is no federal law forbidding discrimination based on legal source of income. This fact has prompted U.S. Congressional Rep. Nydia Velazquez of Brooklyn to introduce a bill to Congress that would outlaw housing discrimination against Section 8 voucher holders across the country.

This discrimination is in line with much of the history of housing throughout the country. Access to housing in the U.S., including affordable housing, has been marred by discrimination for decades, and this discrimination has had serious consequences. According to proponents of the changes, Chetty and Hendren’s research shows that the road to equality is a matter of location and integration, and with the proposed changes to the Section 8 voucher program, the Obama administration is attempting to implement the tools to create a solution. But critics of the changes say that if the program can only be made possible by taking away subsidies from voucher holders living in poorer neighborhoods, a potential rise in homelessness is a real threat, especially in a city as large and as expensive as New York.

The proposed changes to Section 8 and the RAD program present New Yorkers with two possible options for change in how some affordable housing is created and maintained. Whether either option will do more harm than good for those in need of affordable housing remains to be seen.

In terms of improving NYCHA’s properties and consequently, residents’ homes, VP Ferreira is mindful of the strengths of public-private partnerships made possible by RAD, but also recognizes the need to explore all options when it comes to improving affordable housing for New Yorkers.

“The goal is, there’s not one program that’s going to address everything, but we have to use all of the tools at our disposal, and RAD is just one of those tools,” she said.

by Libby Wetzler, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected with the correct number of NYCHA developments or properties in the RAD application: it is 40, not 29.

Visit to Bronxchester Shows NYCHA in Transition, Section 8 Concerns Thu, 25 Aug 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Procedural Move Could Lead to Vote on Right to Know Act right to know protest city hall

A Right to Know Act rally

Last week, City Council Members Ritchie Torres and Antonio Reynoso sent out a joint statement in which they addressed the ramifications of the impending retirement of NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton. “With the departure of William Bratton,” the statement reads, “we are reminded that administrative agreements are every bit as short-lived as commissioners themselves, coming and going in the moments we least expect.”

The Council members were referring to an agreement between Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Bratton on the police department internally implementing certain provisions of the Right to Know Act, a proposed package of bills regulating police officer conduct during street stops of civilians. The bills, sponsored by Torres and Reynoso, have majority support in the Council but the speaker chose not to give them a vote and instead struck a compromise with Bratton - one that his replacement, now Chief of Department Jimmy O’Neill has pledged to uphold. That deal didn’t sit well with Torres and Reynoso (or other reform advocates, both in and outside the Council) and the two vowed to move forward without the speaker’s blessing.

“As the sole legislature in New York City, ‎the City Council exists to hold agencies accountable through oversight and legislation,” the statement says. “Passing the Right to Know Act to advance accountability and transparency in policing, is an extension of what we were elected to do. ‎Let us honor the legislative role to which the public, through their votes, has assigned us – it’s beyond time for the Council to pass the Right to Know Act and we will seek to do just that without any further delay.”

For the two Right to Know Act bills to get a vote before the full Council, they would typically have to first be voted through the Committee on Public Safety, chaired by Council Member Vanessa Gibson, who is a co-sponsor on Torres’ bill. But committee hearings are scheduled by the Speaker’s Office, which can deny a hearing, and in this case is clearly opposed to these bills receiving a vote.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Torres and Reynoso have no options to push the bills through. Under the Council rules, a bill sponsor can get seven other members to co-sign a motion to discharge the bill from committee. That motion would have to be submitted to the Speaker and the relevant committee chair at least a week before a Stated Meeting of the full Council. The motion then gets voted on by the Council, and if passed with a simple majority, the bill then gets a vote at the next Stated.

Council Member Gibson said it was too soon to consider that tactic. "The conversation on the Right to Know Act is not over, so I think it's premature to talk about a vote without the Speaker's support that might fracture good working relationships in the Council,” she told Gotham Gazette in an email. “I respect the Speaker's decision and I look forward to continuing to work with her, the rest of my colleagues, and incoming Police Commissioner Chief O'Neill as we see these administrative changes come to fruition."

A spokesperson for Council Member Torres said that a discharge motion had not been filed as of Wednesday afternoon. Torres declined to provide any comment for this story. The Council’s next stated meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, August 16. After that, the next Stated is set for September 14.

Torres’ bill, Intro. 182, would require police officers to identify themselves by name, rank and command when a street stop does not end in an arrest. The bill has 33 sponsors. Reynoso’s bill, Intro. 541, requires officers to obtain consent when searching a person, vehicle or home and also to inform a person of their right to refuse consent. That bill has 28 sponsors.

The compromise between Mark-Viverito and Bratton incorporates certain aspects of the two bills, but not all. Under the agreement, the NYPD will make changes to its patrol guide, requiring officers to obtain a clear "yes" or "no" response after asking to conduct a consent search - meaning a search where there is no probable cause. Officers will also be required to give out business cards when they search a person, property, vehicle or home or at checkpoint stops and the search does not result in a punitive action.

Council Member Jumaane Williams, an ally on both Right to Know bills and an outspoken critic of the deal between the speaker and commissioner, said he was glad Torres and Reynoso had decided to forge ahead with the bills. “I’ll follow their leadership,” he told Gotham Gazette in a phone interview. Williams agrees that the provisions of the bills need to be codified in law to be effective.

“The Speaker has said the legislative door isn’t closed,” he added, referring to Mark-Viverito’s pledge to re-evaluate as they see implementation of the administrative changes, which will include adjustments to the NYPD patrol guide and new training of officers. “Hopefully there’s some common ground that we can reach to move [the Right to Know Act] forward,” Williams said, adding that Bratton’s retirement provides an opportunity “to take a new look at where we are with this act.”

On Thursday, a number of prominent advocacy organizations that have been pushing the Right to Know Act and criticizing Mark-Viverito over her compromise with Bratton held a Twitter rally calling for passage of the two bills with the hashtag #RightToKnowAct. Leading the call was Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition group of dozens of nonprofits. Organizations that lent their voices to the effort on Twitter include the Legal Defense Fund, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the New York Working Families Party, Justice League NYC, and Color of Change, among others.

So far, the speaker has not responded to the indications that Torres and Reynoso would seek a vote without her express approval. She has time and again reiterated that the agreement with Bratton is an effective reform measure and one that goes into effect faster than legislation could. “This is yet another set of critical police reforms that will continue to keep New Yorkers safe while also ensuring better interactions with the communities they serve,” the speaker said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “This agreement is about more than talk, it is about action. These reforms serve as a model for how we can work collaboratively to achieve lasting change.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Procedural Move Could Lead to Vote on Right to Know Act Thu, 11 Aug 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Use of Abstentions Varies Widely Among City Council Members 27083071523 4affcb6e87 z
City Council chambers (Sofie Hecht for Gotham Gazette)

Hundreds of times a year, City Council members vote on pieces of legislation, including the city’s budget, land use matters, and a wide variety of bills and resolutions. Members almost always vote “yes” or “no.” But sometimes, Council members choose to abstain, actively deciding not to declare they are for or against what is in front of them, and in the 51-seat City Council, abstentions are used by members to widely varying degrees.

In the New York State Assembly, lawmakers may only abstain from a vote when doing so would constitute a conflict of interest. In the New York City Council, however, lawmakers must abstain from a vote if there is a legitimate conflict of interest, but may abstain for other personal or political reasons as well. This leeway has led to some interesting voting patterns. Of the Council’s current 51 members, 34 did not abstain from a vote during this iteration of the Council, which began in January of 2014, through May 12, 2016. The other 17 Council members have abstained between one and 103 times.

At Gotham Gazette’s request, data on all votes from the current Council session -- January 2014 to May 12, 2016 -- was scraped from the City Council website by NYC Councilmatic and DataMade, a civic technology company.

City Council Member Ruben Wills, who has been indicted on corruption charges and also dealing with health issues, has abstained 103 times. Wills, who has also been declared absent for many votes, which is different from abstaining, declined to comment when contacted. The second most abstentions over the two year-plus period was by Council Member Jumaane Williams, who abstained 36 times. Council Members Andy King and Inez Barron abstained 21 times each, and Council Member Rosie Mendez abstained 14 times.

The other 13 Council members who abstained during the tabulated time period did so between one and four times.

(Note: some Council members abstained on the same bill or issue brought up at different times, like in committee and at the full Council. Bills must pass through committee, then the full Council to go to the Mayor’s desk.)

Two-thirds of Council members did not abstain from a single vote during the period studied. Two of those Council members who spoke with Gotham Gazette expressed similar opinions about the importance of voting, citing conflict-of-interest as the lone justifiable exception for abstaining. Council members who have abstained gave a variety of explanations when asked.

“I have one job. That job is to vote,” said City Council Member Ben Kallos, who has not abstained on a vote since joining the Council in 2014. “It is the one power, the one privilege that I have that no one else has and I take it seriously, and come to a decision every time. I was elected by the people to vote and for constituents to know where I stand on these issues.”

Nine Council members who have abstained on at least one vote gave reasons to Gotham Gazette, including: being supportive of part of but not the whole bill, and believing the bill needs more work, but not opposed to the concept enough to warrant a “no” vote; concern about the unintended consequences of a bill; needing additional time to review the legislation and/or gather feedback from constituents; deference to colleagues; and avoiding making a politically unwise move.

“I imagine there are three reasons for abstaining,” said Council Member Ritchie Torres, who has not abstained since joining the Council in 2014. “You might abstain out of ethics: you have a conflict of interest. Or you might abstain out of politics: you wish to avoid making a politically inexpedient vote. Or you might abstain out of ambivalence about the merits of the vote in question.”

Of those three, Torres continued, “the only sensible justification is ethics,” the other two are “insufficient justifications for abstaining.”

Council Members Mark Treyger and Alan Maisel have both abstained only once, on a 2014 bill that eventually resulted in the creation of the city’s IDNYC municipal identification card program. Treyger and Maisel, both former educators, were supportive of the policy, but had concerns about the way the data gathered to create ID cards for potentially undocumented immigrants would be stored, and who might have access to that data.

During a hearing on the bill, “Maisel and I asked about the security and the storage of the names of the applicants when they apply for the card, who holds it, who stores it, and is this information accessible by the Department of Homeland Security,” Treyger told Gotham Gazette. “The answer was ‘yes,’ we were told they have to store the information for a number of years, and it can get turned over to the [federal] government.”

“I quite frankly did not feel comfortable with these answers, so I abstained as a sign of a lack of confidence with the security and protection of the names, but I didn’t reject it as a whole, because I did advocate for resident discount cards for New Yorkers,” Treyger added.

Both Maisel and Treyger said that their previous experience as educators had shown them that some immigrant parents were deeply concerned about sharing information, and the two Council members were worried that information gathered for IDNYC cards could end up in the wrong hands.

“For example,” Maisel said, they would essentially end up creating a list for “a certain presidential candidate who could possibly become elected president, and we know where he stands on people who are undocumented,” in obvious reference to Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee who has talked about rounding up undocumented immigrants for deportation.

Five Council Members abstained on a recent bill to limit the space in which costumed characters and other performers can operate in Times Square. The five members who abstained on the bill are all members of the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus: Andy King, Rosie Mendez, Inez Barron, Vanessa Gibson, and Antonio Reynoso (Robert Cornegy Jr., also a member of the BLAC, was the lone “no” vote on the bill).

Mendez and King said that they chose not to vote “yes” or “no” on the bill because King had introduced a similar bill back in 2014, yet neither King nor his bill were included in the drafting and passage of the new bill, introduced by Council Member Corey Johnson.

“When multiple Council members have ideas for the same or similar legislation, they will combine the Council members,” Mendez said. King had proposed the legislation years ago, Mendez said, but “King was never asked, never told anything, and his bill was disregarded.”

“When I didn’t see Andy’s name on it, I decided to abstain,” Mendez continued, adding that she did not have a chance to compare Johnson’s bill against King’s bill to see how similar or dissimilar they were. “At the end of the day I had real concern about..the role of community boards not being included in the legislation.”

“It got a little personal, so I chose not to vote on it, because I believed still more work needed to be done,” King said of Intro-1109, the pedestrian plaza bill, which is now law.

“As you know, I started this conversation in 2014,” King continued, “and I thought it didn’t play well in the Council for other Council members to pass something without inclusion of legislation that was already in the queue to address that…I chose not to participate rather than saying “no” to this one, I wanted to work to put more teeth in it.”

A spokesperson for Council Member Antonio Reynoso said that he abstained (his only abstention over the two-plus year period examined for this article) due to concern about “potential unintended consequences of the bill. However, many members and advocates that we work with regularly and whose judgment we trust were for it, so he didn’t want to go against it either. Instead he opted not to take a formal position.”

Council Members Gibson and Barron were not made available for comment, despite numerous requests.

Occasionally, Council members will abstain from voting on a bill because they do not entirely approve of it (whether it is due to what they see as potential unintended consequences or simply falling short of what would be ideal for their constituents).

For example, Mendez abstained on one of two controversial changes to city land use rules (Zoning for Quality and Affordability, or ZQA) in committee because she felt that “recent contextual rezoning that happened in the last ten years should've been kept intact.”

Yet, Council members “made changes, so I didn't feel it merited a “no” vote,” she said. “But they didn't make enough changes to get me to a “yes.” So I abstained….it wasn’t completely wrong, it wasn’t completely right, so I felt like that was the appropriate vote.”

To Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, occasionally abstaining on a vote because some elements of the bill warrant a positive vote, but some warrant a negative vote “makes a great deal of sense.”

“But,” Muzzio continued, “Ruben Wills abstaining 103 times indicates that he’s a very confused Council member, and a very conflicted Council member.”

“An excessive amount of abstentions,” Muzzio said, suggests “that he doesn’t have very clear ideas in his mind of how to asses a policy so he takes the easy way out, which is abstaining.”

At other times, Council members may choose to abstain, as King puts it, “as a professional courtesy to my colleagues, as opposed to saying that we’re not all on the same page.” “Unless it’s something that has a really, really devastating impact on my constituents,” King added.

Abstaining out of deference seems to occur more often in the context of a vote on land use items, where the Council is known to defer to the local member whose district is directly involved. “I have abstained usually land use items that are in a particular member's’ district,” Mendez said. “I would have otherwise voted “no,” but in deference to the Council member of that district I will abstain.”

This is because, as Mendez puts it, “I really feel like I know my district better than anyone else…Likewise, I’m not sitting in on all the minutiae of what [another Council member is] trying to negotiate for their district.”

But as Torres sees it, “land use is the only context which a rank-and-file Council member can emerge as a counterweight to the Mayor’s Office,” and abstaining in land use out of deference to another Council member means those members who abstain “are enjoying the benefits of local deference themselves while denying the benefit to everyone else. There’s a word for this - parasitic.”

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s parasitic,” Torres continued. “It’s not inaction, you are actively undermining the Council as an institution and…reaping the benefit of local deference to yourself while denying it to your colleagues.” For Torres, the only valid reason for choosing not to vote “should be ethics.”

On April 14, Council Member Jumaane Williams abstained on a vote on the East New York rezoning plan in subcommittee, only to change his vote to a “yes” when the same bill was heard in the Land Use committee less than an hour later.

“I just got the final plan this morning. I want to make sure to review it properly,” Williams said at the time when asked by Gotham Gazette. “At first glance, it looks good. I’m still a little concerned about MIH [Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, the companion land use change to ZQA], but there wasn’t much more you could ask him [Council Member Rafael Espinal] to do. That’s why I changed my vote to a “yes” in Land Use.”

“I will vote “yes” on the floor,” Williams said, and did. “There’s obviously people left out of the plan. We have to figure out how to address that. But with the tools at his disposal, I think [Espinal] did the best that he could.”

According to Travis Lamprecht, a spokesperson for Council Member Vincent Gentile (who has abstained four times), the Council Member “will choose to do so when he needs additional time to gather feedback from his district in order to make an educated decision for his constituents.” Gentile has abstained twice on land use matters; once on Williams’ 2014 bill to prohibit discrimination when hiring based on a person’s arrest record; and once on Council Member Helen Rosenthal’s 2014 bill in relation to traffic violations and serious crashes and license suspension.

Council Members Brad Lander and Helen Rosenthal, both of whom have not abstained in the aggregated period, declined to comment for this story. Council Members Vanessa Gibson (four abstentions), Inez Barron (21), Robert Cornegy (four), Andrew Cohen (four), I. Daneek Miller (two), Eric Ulrich (two), Chaim Deutsch (two), Darlene Mealy (one), and Paul Vallone (one) all were not made available for comment, despite numerous attempts.

It should be noted that abstaining is different from “non-voting,” which can occur when a Council member is not present for the vote. Council members may also be marked as “excused” from voting for medical reasons, or for jury duty, parental leave, and bereavement.

Vallone’s only abstention was on legislation prohibiting Council members from earning most forms of outside income and making the position of Council member full-time (one of Deutsch’s two abstentions was also for this legislation).

Ulrich's two abstentions were on bills introduced by Brad Lander requiring the NYC Commission on Human rights to perform an employment discrimination investigation and a housing discrimination investigation.

Three of Gibson's four abstentions occurred on April 7, 2016 (on the pedestrian plaza bill, on a bill to increase penalties for illegal street hails at the city's airports and other designated areas, and on a bill to create a universal license for taxicab and for-hire vehicle drivers and require that English language proficiency not be assessed through a written exam).

“Abstaining can mean several things,” as Muzzio said, but “one should always explain an abstention, because in a sense, it’s a chicken[expletive] vote, meaning it’s a way to evade a hard choice.”

“Ultimately,” says Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, “the voters are the judge, because their interest is what is supposed to be represented.”

“City Council members are accountable to the people who elect them, and it’s important for the public to know if a Council member chooses not to vote on an issue that a constituent thinks is important,” Horner said. “The Council member should have to explain it.”

When abstaining, Council members occasionally give a brief explanation for their vote.

“We are giving Department of Transportation the authority to justify the complete removal of costumed characters from Times Square,” Reynoso said during an April vote on the pedestrian plaza bill. “Should it lead to unintended consequences...we would be left with little recourse outside of legislation to undo any action,” he added, expressing concern over the potential tension and competition that could arise should the costumed characters in Times Square be “corralled” into the proposed spaces, and he abstained.

“This has been a very important process, not perfect, but better than when it started,” Mendez said during the March vote on rezoning plans. “I think some of the Voluntary Inclusionary Zones could have been made mandatory…And I'm not happy with the fact that we are getting some height increases in the non-contextual zones,” but, Mendez continued, “since some work was done on this, and I feel that it is important to have a mandate inclusionary housing, I will be voting “yes”” on two pieces of legislation and “abstaining on LU 335 and the accompanying Reso 1023.”

ABSTENTION DATA, provided by Councilmatic and DataMade
Council members and number of abstentions from the current session, January 2014 to May 12, 2016

Ruben Wills 103
Jumaane Williams 36
Inez Barron 21
Andy King 21
Rosie Mendez 14
Andrew Cohen 4
Vincent Gentile 4
Robert Cornegy 4
Vanessa Gibson 4
Chaim Deutsch 2
Eric Ulrich 2
I. Daneek Miller 2
Mark Treyger 1
Paul Vallone 1
Alan Maisel 1
Darlene Mealy 1
Antonio Reynoso 1

Ben Kallos 0
Ritchie Torres 0
Brad Lander 0
Helen Rosenthal 0
Steven Matteo 0
Margaret Chin 0
Peter Koo 0
Fernando Cabrera 0
Costa Constantinides 0
Elizabeth Crowley 0
Laurie Cumbo 0
Inez Dickens 0
Daniel Dromm 0
Rafael Espinal 0
Mathieu Eugene 0
Julissa Ferreras-Copeland 0
Dan Garodnick 0
Barry Grodenchik 0
Karen Koslowitz 0
Stephen Levin 0
Mark Levine 0
Melissa Mark-Viverito 0
Carlos Menchaca 0
Annabel Palma 0
Ydanis Rodriguez 0
Donovan Richards 0
Deborah Rose 0
James Vacca 0
Jimmy Van Bramer 0
Joe Borelli 0
Rafael Salamanca - 0

*Maria Carmen del Arroyo, Vincent Ignizio, and Mark Weprin also served as Council Members during this session before resigning and being replaced by Salamanca, Borelli, and Grodenchik, respectively, though none of the three abstained on any vote during the aggregated period.

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Use of Abstentions Varies Widely Among City Council Members Wed, 22 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
With Few Reservations, Council Finalizes New $82 Billion City Budget Council Mayor budget

The Mayor & the City Council (photo: William Alatriste)

The City Council chambers at City Hall were filled with grief on Tuesday. Before the Council would conduct its business for the day -- approving an $82.1 billion budget for the city’s 2017 fiscal year -- members first paid their respects to the 49 people killed by a terrorist who shot patrons at a gay nightclub in Orlando on Sunday. One by one, Council members read out the names of victims and placed small electric candles on the dais at the front of the chamber. Almost every Council member expressed solidarity with the LGBT community by placing a small rainbow flag on their desks.

The somber mood soon turned celebratory, though, with the earliest adoption of the city’s budget in 15 years. Following months of hearings and negotiations, after funding for a number of Council priorities was added to the mayor’s final proposal, and amid concerns of a widely expected economic slowdown and potentially insufficient savings, the Council approved a plan that increases city spending by about $3.6 billion over last year’s adopted budget. The new fiscal year begins July 1.

“With this budget agreement, once again this City Council has proven itself to be a champion for all New Yorkers in all five boroughs,” said Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, at Tuesday’s vote. “This is a budget for everyone. We’re investing in jobs. We’re investing in youth. Above all else, we’re investing in New Yorkers and we’re investing in our future.”

The final budget is $100 million lower than the mayor’s executive budget (but almost the exact amount of the preliminary budget proposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in January). It makes targeted additional investments in the city’s youth, seniors, immigrants, cultural institutions, public safety, healthcare, social services, and education, among other areas. However, there are some concerns from within and outside the Council that the city budget is growing too quickly and that there is not enough being put aside in reserves, though rainy day funds are at their highest levels ever.

“Today’s Council vote marks the earliest adoption since 2001,” said de Blasio in a statement, “and further highlights the good work that can be done when the Administration and City Council come together. The adopted budget is responsible, progressive, and honest.”

At the insistence of the Council, the budget was geared to creating larger savings and setting aside more reserve funds. The Citywide Savings Plan of $2.7 billion over the next two years is the largest it has been in five years. The city reserves stand at $3.9 billion, with $250 million added to the Retiree Health Benefits Trust fund before the final budget agreement.

Nevertheless, multiple Council members who voted to approve the budget and one who didn’t expressed reservations, mostly with the increase in spending and what they viewed as an inadequate level of reserves. Budget watchdogs and fiscal monitors have praised the city’s budgeting and fiscal health, but concerns about an eventual economic slowdown remain. Comptroller Scott Stringer has also stressed that the city needs to reach higher reserve levels, between 12 and 18 percent of expenses. Currently, the city stands at just over 10 percent.

At the vote, Council Member Dan Garodnick warned that the massive increase in spending and the ballooning of the city’s workforce would mean trouble in the future. Citing a possible budget deficit of $3.8 billion in fiscal 2019, he said, “As a city we must take steps now in good times to prepare for the inevitable bad times ahead. Progressive, honest and responsible budgeting protects people not only when revenues are strong but when they are weak. We should better protect ourselves from having to lay people off and cutting core services when that happens.” Council Members Corey Johnson and Ben Kallos expressed similar concerns.

Council Member Rosie Mendez was the only member to vote against the budget, which passed 48-1 in the 51-seat Council. Mendez cited spending increases, a rushed process, and issues with funding that was supposed to go to her district in the current budget.

A number of Council members voted to affirm the new spending plan and explained the specific area or areas of funding they were most happy with. Council Member Margaret Chin, chair of the Committee on Aging, was particularly proud of the budget’s increased funding for seniors. But, she said, “we still have a way to go before the Department for the Aging’s core funding fully reflects the needs of all seniors.” She pointed out that the Council will contribute a large chunk, $21 million, to DFTA’s $330 million budget in the coming fiscal year.

Chin’s sentiment was echoed in a statement by two of the largest senior advocacy groups in the city, AARP NY and LiveOn NY, which criticized the budget for cutting senior homecare services by $2.2 million and other changes. “Today’s enacted budget agreement is short-sighted and clearly insufficient to ensure a livable city for New Yorkers of all ages,” said Beth Finkel, state director, AARP, in the statement. LiveOn NY’s director of public policy, Bobbie Sackman added, “The inability and unwillingness of the de Blasio administration and City Council to reach an agreement to fully fund these programs creates a hardship and a dangerous reality for seniors who so desperately need and rely on support.”

Throughout the budget process, Council Member Helen Rosenthal, chair of the contracts committee, has been calling for increased funding for human services nonprofits that contract with the city but struggle to meet costs of salaries, administration, equipment, rent, and maintenance. While voting for the budget on Tuesday, Rosenthal again decried that this funding hadn’t been included and said the city’s commitment to these providers, who operate shelters, food pantries, adult literacy programs, and more, “could be better.” Without the government’s help, she said, “we’re setting these providers up to fail.”

Another major item that remains somewhat unresolved is the administration’s plan for the city’s municipal hospital system, New York City Health + Hospitals. Speaker Mark-Viverito said at the “budget handshake” announcement with the mayor last week that the plan was still under discussion. At the budget vote, Council Member Ritchie Torres criticized the administration for acting too late. While supporting the city’s infusion of about $2 billion into the ailing system, he insisted that the problems in the system were foreseeable and a plan should have been in place three years ago. “The city’s late and lackadaisical approach hardly inspires confidence about the future of Health + Hospitals,” Torres said. “I am concerned and low-income New Yorkers should be as well.”

The budget vote came quick on the heels of the Council’s Monday release of the “Schedule C,” a document listing the Council’s adjustments to the budget, terms and conditions set on spending, and $59 million in discretionary grants or member items sponsored by individual Council members and the Speaker. The discretionary funding supports programs at nonprofits throughout Council districts “in order to meet local needs and fill gaps in City agency services,” according to the document. Each Council member received $400,000 in base funding, with additional pots of $25,000, $50,000, $75,000 and $100,000 depending on poverty levels in their districts. The Council again identified five areas for discretionary funding -- spending on the aging, youth, anti-poverty programs, local initiatives, and borough-wide needs. Each year, Council members are able to submit their plans for allocating these funds to their chosen organizations and initiatives.

A separate “Speaker’s Initiative” for citywide needs, totaling $3.39 million, is also included under the funding.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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With Few Reservations, Council Finalizes New $82 Billion City Budget Tue, 14 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Bills Aim to Expand NYCHA Jobs Program, Measure Impact NYCHA trees building people

photo via NYCHA on Flickr

City Council Member Ritchie Torres and colleagues are introducing two new bills aimed at improving conditions and outcomes for residents of the city’s public housing. About half a million people live in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings.

Torres, a Bronx Democrat and chair of the Council’s Committee on Public Housing, is hoping to spearhead a citywide expansion of a jobs program offered to residents of NYCHA and also proposing that the city track the health and effects of services provided to those residents.

On Wednesday, Torres and co-sponsors Council Members Rafael Salamanca Jr., Laurie Cumbo, Donovan Richards and Mark Treyger will introduce the two bills at the Council’s full-body Stated Meeting. The first proposes an expansion of JobsPlus, a federal-local partnership program that works with nonprofits to provide site-based career services and ancillary supports to NYCHA residents. Besides job placement and training, the program also provides financial counseling, education, childcare, and transportation services, all aimed at ensuring stable career pathways for residents.

Under the bill, the city’s Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO) would have a year to create a plan that expands JobsPlus from the nine current sites serving specific developments to the entire city. There would be one facility for each geographical zone identified by NYCHA. The plan would include estimated costs and a timeline for implementation and would be submitted to the Council Speaker, the Comptroller, and the Mayor.

“JobsPlus is the most successful workforce development program, the most successful jobs program that you’ve never heard of,” Torres said in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette. “It’s the best kept secret in public housing.”

Torres cited the challenges that public housing residents face and the successes of the JobsPlus program in helping boost opportunity. According to CEO, about 46 percent of working-age residents in the city’s 334 NYCHA developments do not report employment income and about 84 percent of households earn below the city’s median income. A 2010 report by the MDRC found that average earnings for residents in developments targeted with a JobsPlus program increased by 16 percent and those effects stayed strong for three years after the program ended.

The program was first implemented in New York City in 2009 and then expanded to seven additional sites in 2013.

“My goal is to shine a light on the lack of opportunity in public housing and to offer what I believe is the most empirically proven workforce development program in public housing,” Torres said. Comparing it to other such programs, he said JobsPlus is easier to gauge, owing to the division into geographical zones, and it provides the “missing ingredient” of financial empowerment that goes beyond wage increases.

Nonprofit providers who implement the program are, expectedly, excited about Torres’ bill. “It’s an ambitious and commendable aspiration,” said David Garza, executive director of Henry Street Settlement, which implements the program on the Lower East Side.

Garza emphasized that JobsPlus enhances accessibility and the organization’s ability to serve residents. “The ‘Jobs’ is all about employment. The ‘Plus’ is about vital support services to help individuals and families get stable,” he said. These support services can include tax preparation, legal aid, financial advice, among other services.

The key aspect is that it meets needs on-site, at the developments. “JobsPlus in concept and in practice reflects that core element in our program design” of location-based services, Garza added.

“It’s academic, it’s practical, it’s social,” said Bishop Mitchell Taylor, CEO of Urban Upbound, another organization that implements JobsPlus in Astoria, Queens. Taylor said Urban Upbound was an early adopter, informally implementing the program since 2005 before eventually partnering with the city. “It’s a great bite-sized way to get at unemployment in public housing neighborhoods,” he said.

He called Torres a “visionary” and said the bill would be a “great opportunity for people that have been underserved and overlooked for a very long time.” He pointed out that an important aspect of success in the program is neighbor-to-neighbor networking and community relationships.

Kizzie Brown-Duah, program director of JobsPlus at Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration, echoed the sentiment. “It’s about connecting residents with the community and getting the word out,” she said. Her organization has enrolled about 1,600 people in the program since it started three years ago and of those about 580 have received employment. “It’s not just about getting them a job but helping them develop a career pathway and financial stability,” Brown-Duah added. “It’s a model that works.”

The’ second bill Torres and others are introducing would help measure the successes of the program. It requires the city to provide annual reports on the effects of services provides to NYCHA residents, including employment-related services (the number of residents placed into full-time or part-time jobs, for instance), outcomes of educational services and effects of financial assistance. The bill also mandates a survey of the health of public housing residents, determining whether they have access to health insurance and the approximate number of residents suffering from asthma, diabetes, obesity and HIV/AIDS.

[Listen: NYCHA's 'Core Challenge' - a conversation with Council Member Torres]

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Bills Aim to Expand NYCHA Jobs Program, Measure Impact Tue, 07 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
NYCHA's 'Core Challenge' torres twin parks west nycha

Council Member Torres & "VP Nelson" at Twin Parks West (photo via NYCHA on flickr)

In a special edition of "Max & Murphy on Housing," our weekly discussion of New York housing politics, City Council Member Ritchie Torres joined Jarrett Murphy and me to discuss the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA, which Torres has oversight of as chair of the Council's public housing committee. Torres also grew up in NYCHA housing in the Bronx. The Democratic first-term Council member talked with us about the challenges facing the system that houses at least half a million New Yorkers, saying that NYCHA's "core challenge is not funding a funding challenge...ultimately, it's a political challenge." With more political support, Torres says, funding and many other NYCHA-related services would improve.

Why is NYCHA so lacking in political support even considering that Mayor Bill de Blasio is giving it more attention than his predecessors? Listen to our discussion of that question and several others, including whether NYCHA should be phased out, if the City Council is giving enough prioritization to public housing, and more. Listen (find prior episodes of Max & Murphy on Housing here):

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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NYCHA's 'Core Challenge' Thu, 12 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Calls for Candidates to Address Urban Issues in Presidential Race workers nycha scaffolding

Workers at a NYCHA building (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)

For the first time in decades, New York has become a competitive battleground in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. As the race heats up in this delegate-rich state, the two Democratic candidates, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State and New York Senator Hillary Clinton, have ramped up their outreach, particularly in New York City, home to millions of Democrats.

Each side has been increasingly fervent in its vollies against the other and on Thursday, April 14, just five days before primary voters head to the polls, the two candidates will meet for what may be the last debate of the Democratic race. While the candidates have been outspoken on national issues, domestic and foreign affairs, experts agree that both campaigns have largely failed to articulate policy for American cities and ways in which the federal government can improve urban life.

“It seems the Democrats have got stuck on who hates inequality more and they’re not focused on the specific things that the government can do and needs to do right away to fix our schools, to rebuild infrastructure, to invest in creative economies that help cities thrive,” said Charles Euchner, Fisher Fellow for the Middle Class Jobs Initiative, Center for an Urban Future.

Clinton and Sanders will square off at the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s Duggal Greenhouse in a contest televised on NY1 and CNN. Both candidates have New York ties - Sanders was born and raised in Brooklyn before eventually moving to Vermont, while New York is Clinton’s adopted political home that she represented in the U.S. Senate for eight years, 2001-2008.

Germane urban issues like infrastructure, transportation, resiliency, and national security have been addressed to some extent in the campaign, but not at a great level of specificity or regarding local jurisdictions like New York City. As both primaries hit the city, the lack of attention to such an agenda underscores the long-running gripe that New York State gives more to the federal government in taxes than it receives in federal investment.

Last week, Politico reported on efforts by City Council members and advocacy groups to inject issues of housing and urban policy into the campaigns, even pushing for the two Democratic candidates to visit a public housing development in the city. Public housing is one glaring example, many say, of federal disinvestment from cities like New York. City Council Member Ritchie Torres, who grew up in public housing and chairs the Council committee on the subject, will appear on MSNBC Wednesday evening to discuss the lack of federal attention to what was once a prized investment. Torres and Council Member Brad Lander led host Lawrence O’Donnell on a tour of NYCHA buildings in the Bronx.

Housing generally is essential to the New York political conversation, perhaps as much now as ever, and NY1’s Errol Louis, who will be one of three moderators for Thursday’s debate, has indicated it might form the basis of one of his questions. As they prepare for the debate, Sanders and Clinton are likely preparing for city-centric and New York-focused questions, as well as broader material for a national audience.

“We really haven’t had an urban policy in this country for a really long time,” said Euchner of Center for an Urban Future. He insists that the country as a whole has not considered an outright policy for cities since President Jimmy Carter’s Commission for a National Agenda for the Eighties, which recommended migration of people away from poverty-stricken industrial cities in the north. The commission, chaired by former Columbia University President William McGill, “basically said cities are in trouble,” Euchner said, insisting that an urban policy had not been revisited since then.

The reasons, he said, are simple - suburban and rural interests, which have a disproportionate influence on politics, have been historically hostile to cities. Euchner believes this hostility has diminished in recent years, giving rise to an opportunity to reframe urban issues.

“It really is time for a new community compact that acknowledges the challenges of cities and towns,” he said. “All communities need some good rules of the road in pursuing common interests.”

David Birdsell, dean of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs, believes the upcoming debate may change that. “This has been a campaign that has had virtually nothing to say about the prospects of cities,” he said, also raising the point that cities receive little attention because of how electoral votes are distributed. “This debate, given the candidate’s constituencies, may change that pattern somewhat. There are a lot of spins on national issues that look different when discussing from inside of the nation’s largest city.”

He hopes to see the candidates address issues like mass transit, immigration, global warming, and infrastructure. “These are local issues and these are national issues,” Birdsell said. “They resonate differently when you talk about them in New York.”

A nuanced local debate is exactly what Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said is necessary for concerns about infrastructure, transit, housing and counter-terrorism, which she identified as some of the biggest issues for New York City. The position of presidential campaigns so far has been to throw money at these issues without talking about the “impediments to those investments,” Gelinas said. “The reality is, no matter what they say, these are difficult issues you can’t just solve with more money. These are problems that are really hard to solve from Washington.”

Gelinas said there needs to be a better focus on the wage structures and state labor rules that eventually end up pushing up the costs of infrastructure projects, along with a streamlining of the federal environmental review process for projects under the National Environmental Policy Act.

CUF’s Euchner echoed Gelinas. “One of the things we need desperately is an approach to making government work better,” he said, chalking up much of the dysfunction in federal investment to “logistics and bureaucracy.”

Euchner also agreed that infrastructure is probably the number one priority in the country and the candidates have to rethink their approach to it. He said the federal government needs to leverage its power and funding to nudge local jurisdictions towards the right path, whether it involves issues of poverty, transportation, education, or counter-terror.

Part of the lopsided federal investment into New York seems to stem from its relative success in comparison with other cities after the Great Recession. “The disparity among cities makes it tougher to have an urban policy today than 30 years ago,” Gelinas said, pointing to cities such as Detroit, Chicago, or Flint, Michigan that are still struggling to recover from the recession.

New York largely has the means to take care of itself. It has a large tax base, especially centralized in New York City, and is a “donor state” - an issue that former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, of New York, highlighted in an annual report called “The Fisc” in which he analyzed the significant imbalance between federal taxes and federal aid. Moynihan died in 2003 but the issue of “The Fisc” did not die with him. An October 2015 report by State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, which mentioned Moynihan’s work, found that New York paid $214 billion in federal tax revenues in Federal Fiscal Year (FFY) 2013 and received $19.9 billion less than that in federal spending.

“It’s no surprise that a high-income state would generate more in federal taxes than many others. But other factors complicate the picture, raising questions about equity in New York’s balance of payments with Washington,” DiNapoli’s report says, citing the state’s higher poverty rates and health care costs.

“New York’s consistent pattern of underinvestment by the federal government is nothing new,” said Birdsell. “That gap has certainly widened substantially.” He said issues of grave importance to the city, including coastal infrastructure, resiliency and counter-terror, are key in this federal investment argument.  

Euchner criticized the idea that New York City was expected to take care of its own issues without federal aid, particularly since the city and the state are early adopters of many policies that set standards for others. “It’s a place where experiments take place,” Euchner said. “It’s really the country’s biggest laboratory.”

The most recent iteration of this federal trend came in President Barack Obama’s proposed cut of $90 million from New York City anti-terror funding, a move that brought heavy consternation from Mayor Bill de Blasio, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, New York Senator Charles Schumer, and others. Just this week, Hillary Clinton took the President to task on the issue and promised to fight for restoring the funds.

Gelinas, Birdsell, and Euchner all agree that, of all issues, terror is one that affects New York City more so than any other urban center. “Even in general, the foreign policy debate affects New York,” said Gelinas. “One could argue that the foreign policy decisions made at the federal level going back 15 years have made New York City more vulnerable.”

Euchner added, “It’s imperative that the federal government not pull away from New York. We need every tool that’s available - big data or boots on the ground in the city. I would be looking for very specific commitments in this debate.”

Thursday’s debate will be watched eagerly across the state, particularly since a New York primary has not been a close contest among Democrats since 1988, when former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis won a heated race against prominent civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson. New York Assemblymember Michael Blake, a former White House aide to President Obama, indicated he would be looking to the candidates to discuss issues of diversity and justice. “From racial to gender, from economic to social, it is critical to hear what these candidates will do for Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprises, Criminal Justice reform and Educational equity so that communities of color go from cradle to the career,” Blake said in a statement emailed to Gotham Gazette.

Mayor Bill de Blasio will also be paying close attention. He served as Clinton’s campaign manager for her first Senate run in 2000 and is a vocal supporter. “Mayor de Blasio is looking forward to hearing Secretary Clinton lay out her plans to move our country forward at Thursday’s debate,” said a spokesperson for the mayor in an email. “He believes that Hillary has the most progressive platform of any incoming President of the United States in a generation. This platform will fundamentally increase wages and benefits for working people, it will bring us things like full day Pre-K for all. It will rein in Wall Street, tax the wealthier at a higher level. The Mayor believes these are the changes we need in New York City and across the country.”

“The Mayor has also talked a lot about the need for a federal government that supports our cities by investing more in things like mass transit and public education, and he looks forward to hearing the candidates address these issues on Thursday,” the spokesperson added.

This year, the state’s large delegate count is a necessity for Sanders, who is coming off his eighth win out of the last nine primary contests with a total of 1,069 delegates, but is still far behind Clinton’s 1,758. A candidate needs 2,383 for the Democratic nomination. If Clinton should win New York with a big margin, which she is poised to do, she would have the nomination in the bag. The state has 247 delegates up for grabs: 163 are pledged and 84 are at-large delegates selected by the state Democrat Party at the May convention and allotted proportionately based on voting results. There are an additional 44 superdelegates, some of whom have already decided to back Clinton even if Sanders should somehow win the popular vote. A recent NBC News/WSJ/Marist poll (conducted between April 6-10) gives Clinton a 14-point lead over Sanders among likely Democratic voters.

blitzer bash louisCNN’s Wolf Blitzer will moderated Thursday night, joined by Dana Bash, CNN’s chief political correspondent, and Louis, NY1 political anchor and a CNN contributor. Louis told Gotham Gazette in an email that he couldn’t share any particular questions in advance of the debate. “But I'm sure that both campaigns and our national media partner all know what it means to have NY1 and the Daily News involved: a firm, fierce focus on what we need to make a great city greater,” he wrote. (pictured l-r: Blizter, Bash, Louis)

Louis also appeared on The NY Slant podcast to discuss preparations for the debate. He estimated that there would be roughly 17 to 20 questions asked of the candidates over the two hours, setting aside time for commercial breaks, introductions, questions, answers, follow-ups, and rebuttals.

“What things do you want of those twenty? Well, you want some New York questions for sure,” Louis said, stressing that he had yet to formulate specific questions. “You want some, for lack of a better word, news of the day questions,” he added, in reference to everyday happenings on the campaign trail including any latest barbs exchanged by the candidates.

Asked about how he would approach the question of urban issues and urban disinvestment at the federal level, as raised by the Politico article from last week, Louis seemed to make the same point as Baruch College’s Birdsell.

“There a lot of urban issues that are disguised as other issues,” Louis said. “If you look at say issues of policing and community relations, you tend to think of it as a criminal justice question, but then you look at where all the hot-button cases have happened -- it’s Baltimore, it’s Chicago, it’s New York -- it starts to look a little bit like an urban issue. When you talk about education, everybody has a school district, everybody has to send their kids to school. But where are the biggest problems with the achievement gap and the funding questions and the charter schools and so forth? You know, it’s New York, it's Chicago, and you‘re right back to, is this an urban question? There’s also an open question about whether there needs to be an urban policy.”

Louis went on to say that “things really happen through the state level and the relationship of cities to their state in some ways is more important than - depending on the issue or the funding stream that you’re talking about - than the issue of all of those cities to the whole United States.”

There’s been so little, Louis said, that “you almost want to have a policy discussion which we need urban policy?” But, he noted, “the debate is not the place to have that.”

Prior to the 9 p.m. debate on Thursday, April 14, Gotham Gazette and City Limits will co-host a forum in Manhattan, from 6-8 p.m., where political experts will provide their perspectives on the presidential race. There will also be multiple campaign representatives on hand. Details & RSVP.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Calls for Candidates to Address Urban Issues in Presidential Race Wed, 13 Apr 2016 20:36:00 +0000