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Opinion

Now’s the Time for Automatic Voter Registration in New York


primary voting parkslope

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Over the last several decades, 15 states across the country – both red and blue – have modernized their voting laws, including our neighbors in New Jersey and Massachusetts. Unfortunately, here in New York we remain mired in the past, refusing to implement reforms to fix the state’s poor electoral system and erecting arbitrary barriers to voter participation.

The results are clear: New York routinely has some of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country. In 2018, New York ranked 48th in turnout. Also important to this discussion is that in the midst of the 2016 election, upwards of 200,000 voters were illegally purged from the voter rolls in Brooklyn due to errors at the New York City Board of Elections.

Now, more than ever, New York has an obligation to make it simpler – not harder – for people to vote.

This legislative session in Albany, we can make real change. New York can move our elections into the future by passing Automatic Voter Registration, or AVR.

The idea behind AVR is simple: instead of putting the burden of registering to vote on individuals, the state automatically registers them when they interact with government agencies and they can elect not to participate if they so choose. Here’s an example of how it would work.

When an eligible voter goes to the DMV or enrolls in Medicaid, he or she is already supplying a variety of data – name, birthdate, address, etc. From that single interaction, New Yorkers can and should be able to sign up for the service they’re seeking and register or update their voting information.   

Automatic Voter Registration would securely collect and electronically transfer the data of eligible voters to the state Board of Elections, which would then send a pre-paid postcard to the voter to give them the chance to opt out of registration. If the individual doesn’t opt out, he or she is added to the rolls.

It's simple, it’s commonsensical, and it promotes civic engagement. AVR not only allows more individuals to participate in the democratic process by easing the registration process, it also ensures that voter rolls are accurate and up-to-date.

And we know it works.

In Oregon, for instance, 94 percent of individuals who interacted with the DMV and were eligible to vote were registered. Research suggests that 44 percent of the new registrants subsequently voted, leading Oregon to have the largest turnout increase between 2012 and 2016 of any state. In 2018, it had one of the highest turnout rates in the country.

AVR also saves the state money by eliminating the costs of provisional ballots, costly paper transactions, and manual data entry. Across the country, localities have saved an average of about $3.54 in costs per registration by moving from a paper to an electronic method.

And the time freed up allows election officials to focus less on data entry and more on running elections smoothly and efficiently. That’s something New York desperately needs.

The question is whether we have the will.

Here at home, polling released by a new New York advocacy effort, AVR NOW, from Civis Analytics shows there is positive support for AVR in almost every single New York state Senate district. Statewide, a supermajority of 64 percent of New York voters support AVR. That’s not surprising here in New York because even the most casual voter knows our elections are dysfunctional.

This session, New York has a chance to modernize our elections, tear down arbitrary barriers to voting, and reaffirm that our state works for all the people.

We should seize it.

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State Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens is the incoming Deputy Majority Leader and author of New York's Automatic Voter Registration bill. Sean McElwee is a policy analyst, writer and co-founder of Data for Progress. On Twitter @SenGianaris & @SeanMcElwee.

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New York City is No Longer Just a Union Town; Open Shop Construction Workers are Finding Their Voice and Must Be Heard


construction workers

(photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)


We’ve all heard that old refrain: “New York City is a union town.” In some cases, that’s still true, as many unions remain both politically influential and dominant in their industries.

But the truth is that New York City is no longer a union town when it comes to construction, as the vast majority of private sector work is being done by the open shop. A review of New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) pulled permits shows that most private construction work across the city – approximately 80 percent – is now done by open shop workers. That equates to more than $15 billion of work for the non-union workforce.

And despite what you might hear from the unions themselves, that’s actually a good thing for local communities and workers who’ve been left behind by the building trades. Men and women of color are finding new opportunities to enter the construction industry, and rates of local hiring on new projects are increasing.

The problem now is that even though construction unions no longer have most of the work in New York City, they still have the loudest voice. Whenever there’s a public discussion about laws or rules affecting the industry, politicians and policymakers always hear from union bosses – but they rarely hear from open shop workers about their interests and their needs.

More elected officials should recognize that the open shop is a prime source of employment and career paths for New Yorkers of color. Around three-quarters of open shop workers are black or Latino and residents of the five boroughs.

Officials also need to understand that construction workers in the open shop are earning good wages and benefits that far surpass those offered in entry-level positions in other industries. Workers are earning at least $20 per hour upon getting into the industry, as well as accessing crucial health insurance and 401k programs.

Beyond the obvious economic benefits for our city’s marginalized families and communities, open shop has also begun to reverse the impact of decades of discriminatory hiring practices in the construction industry. While unions have certainly come a long way, many barriers still stand in the way for people of color entering the field of construction.

This is all because, as its name implies, the open shop provides a particularly inclusive hiring model. And given the high rate of diversity in our part of the industry, employers now are investing more in construction safety and skills training programs for non-English speakers. The incorporation of bilingual instructors into these programs has facilitated efforts to attract workers from diverse backgrounds and expanded open shop job opportunities further.

The question now is how to keep moving the needle. As the open shop continues to expand, the need for support and resources from city and state officials will only continue to increase. These workers work hard to support themselves and their families – and they deserve fairness from politicians across the spectrum.

Politicians at all levels must identify a long-term, ongoing effort to create resources for open shop workers and residents of this great city. New York City really is not just a union town anymore. We’re proud of that and ready to fight to keep that progress going.

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Brian Sampson is president of the Associated Builders and Contractors, Empire State Chapter. On Twitter @ABCEmpireState.

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As City Minimum Wage Hits $15, Much to Celebrate and More To Do


de Blasio business visit

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


They may not know, but the million-plus people who crowd into Times Square on New Year’s Eve have reason to cheer the dropping of the ball because it will also signal rising wages. Beginning December 31, 2018, New Yorkers working minimum wage jobs in the city for companies with 11-plus employees will see their hourly compensation rise to $15.

But like all events in New York City, coordination and planning are needed to make this a celebration and not a disaster. Serious questions and profound possibilities surround this policy shift. The nearly 1.5 million people making a minimum wage in New York City will see their lives change markedly for the better. Workers already making slightly over $15, meanwhile, will have the opportunity to pressure their employers to better their own interests, yielding opportunity but also potentially conflict.

These changes mean big adjustments for all players in the New York economy. However, there are some relatively simple ways that government, both municipal and state, can help the New York City workforce and its servicers stay secure and effective through the transition.
One: help businesses adapt. Businesses have little in the way of resources, tools, FAQs, and how-to sheets for adapting to the minimum wage increase, and job-seekers lack access to public materials on searching for work in the changing market, with new expectations and barriers as well as earning opportunities. There also isn’t anyone outside of Albany, and specifically not in New York City Hall, charged with monitoring how businesses and workers fare during this transition: who is struggling and in what ways, and which decisions businesses and workers are making in the short- and long-term. But, administrative changes and public synthesizing of information can go a long way towards ensuring that the $15 minimum wage is as much of a victory as it should be — for everyone.

Two: secure the funds. City and state government bureaus must provide enough funding in their contracts with social service agencies to ensure agencies can afford to pay workforce professionals a living wage. The average human service professional in New York City made only $29,600 annually (in 2015 dollars), and advocates have pushed the city and state governments for contracts that meet cost of living needs to mixed success. To make this wage raise work, the people servicing employment relationships on the ground must be able to keep up.

Three: shine more light. New York City can do better compiling and sharing information, which would make this transition feel less like a shot in the dark. Workforce agencies don't currently have data that can shed light on who is being served, in what ways, by whom, to what effect and at what cost. Moving forward with the city's common metrics initiative could illuminate who is going through workforce programs and successfully attaching to certain jobs, better equipping professionals to match job opportunities with candidates in a new market.

Finally, this wage increase is promising but poses new questions for New Yorkers. Will the availability of internship opportunities, now more expensive, decline? Will higher compensation levels create a bigger barrier to entry for those who’ve been unemployed and want to get back to work? Will firms invest more in automation?

In order to make the most of this incredible sea change for working families, it’s on us as a city to deal with these questions and broaden the horizon of these possibilities to the best of our abilities. By taking the right steps, New York City can show the world once more what it can do.

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Stacy Woodruff is the director of The Workforce Field Building Hub.

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A Dog-Friendly City Must Adapt to the Times


chelsea winston house edit

photo via DogSpot


There you are, walking your dog in the neighborhood and you pass a new coffee shop that just opened in a long-vacant storefront. You really want to check out their lattes and support a local entrepreneur, but instead you keep walking because there’s no way you are leaving your dog tied up and vulnerable on the sidewalk just so you can get a caffeine fix. Sadly, this scenario – in which small business owner and responsible dog owners all get shorted – isn’t so hypothetical. It happens every day in New York City, where more than half a million dogs live and where nearly two-thirds of stores do not allow them inside.

That’s why we started DogSpot in a garage in Bedford-Stuyvesant in 2014. Our communities needed a solution to this problem that no one was solving, so we designed a secure and comfortable spot for dogs to wait while dog owners briefly run into a store or restaurant. For more than two years, we operated a network of these secure, climate-controlled, smart dog houses on Brooklyn sidewalks, keeping dogs safe and driving business to local retailers. It wasn’t until we unexpectedly got a cease-and-desist letter from the Department of Transportation (DOT) – ironically sent while we were exhibiting at a Smart Cities Expo in Spain by invitation from New York City Hall – that we learned the city’s regulatory enforcement didn’t allow for this type innovative solution to this common problem.

So now, while pet owners and shop owners across the U.S. are enjoying the benefits of DogSpot, our hometown of New York City is out of luck, casualty of an antiquated regulatory approach.

Fortunately, unfortunate headlines like “She Had a Genius Idea, Then the City Showed Up” could soon be replaced by “New York City at Forefront of Urban Innovation” and “Dog-Friendliness Proves a Boon for Small Business Owners” thanks to the New York City Council. Last month, the City Council held a public hearing on a new bill from Council Member Rafael Espinal, Jr. (Intro. 886) that would clear the path for pet harbors like DogSpot to operate outside commercial businesses on city sidewalks.

The bill thoughtfully addresses concerns raised by DOT about obstructions by only allowing pet harbors in locations with very wide sidewalks and within a limited clearance from the building, making pet harbors no different than the sidewalk furniture and children’s rides that are currently permitted across the boroughs. Simultaneously, it would update regulations that understandably did not anticipate new technologies or urban design.

At the end of the day, the positive impacts of this common sense regulatory fix will be significant. One in seven households in our city have at least one dog and there are approximately 600,000 dogs across the five boroughs. This bill would give DogSpot members in Brooklyn access to a humane alternative to leaving dogs unattended, and provide dog owners in the other boroughs the same access to a safe option. And what’s more, local retail businesses – many of which struggle to make it in New York City – would no longer need to turn away customers with pets.

What the City Council has an opportunity to do with Intro. 886 is to simultaneously support small businesses, keep pets and sidewalks safe, and send the message that as technology evolves, New York City’s regulations actually can evolve along with it. Those innovators working to solve today’s urban challenges are watching and waiting to see if New York City is welcoming to modern problem solving and passing this bill now would be a clear signal that the answer is yes.

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Chelsea Brownridge is the CEO & Founder of DogSpot.

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Bans on Shackling Pregnant Women Don't Work; New York Must Do Something Else


criminal justice building


A federal lawsuit filed this month alleges police in the Bronx kept a pregnant woman shackled while she gave birth in February. Allegedly, doctors at Montefiore Medical Center warned that shackling a woman in labor poses high danger to a fetus, but the cops cited a manual that they said allowed them to do it.

If you’re thinking shackling pregnant women during childbirth should just be banned to prevent this barbaric practice, you’re wrong. Shackling pregnant inmates is already prohibited in New York.  

Securing metal clasps around a pregnant woman’s ankles has been illegal in the state for almost ten years.

In 2009, New York became the sixth state to ban restraints during birth when then-Governor David Paterson signed the Anti-Shackling Law, which prohibits shackling during labor, delivery, and recovery. When it was amended in 2015, the law prohibited shackling of women eight weeks post-partum and while being transported in custody.

The problem is that few police or corrections officers appear to obey this law. The Corrections Association of New York, a reform and advocacy organization, interviewed 27 women who gave birth while in custody of the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision after the 2009 shackling ban went into effect. A full 85% of them said they had been shackled while pregnant in flagrant violation of state statute.

Aside from the fact that the practice is inhumane and impedes normal labor and delivery - women need to move around for pain management and cervical dilation for vaginal deliveries -  the health effects of shackling women are harmful for both mother and child. Shackles all but destroy prompt and uninhibited diagnosis of vaginal bleeding, and being able to discern preterm labor pain from other treatable conditions.

Some may call it fortuitous that such a lawsuit was filed right now, when shackling of pregnant women is getting increased scrutiny. A ban on shackling is a provision of the federal FIRST STEP Act, the contentious prison and sentencing reform bill passed by the House of Representatives and pending before the Senate.

Back in September, when the Senate version of the FIRST STEP Act remained unknown, three female Representatives (Karen Bass (D-CA), Mia Love (R-UT) and Katherine Clark (D-MA)) introduced the Pregnant Women in Custody Act of 2018, which would have created a national standard of care for pregnant women in all federal prisons and required the Department of Justice to collect health data on that population. Last year, an anti-shackling plank was included in the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act (sponsored by Democratic Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Richard Durbin). The Pregnant Women in Custody Act and the Dignity Act were never voted on in committee, much less in the larger chamber.

But even if these bills had been made law and applied to all incarcerated women, not just federal prisoners, officers probably would have ignored them. What’s happened in New York proves that even codified prohibitions of this conduct don’t prevent it.

The risk of litigation -- other women suing like Jane Doe is -- has little hope of curbing these abuses. For one, Jane Doe isn’t incarcerated now so she doesn’t have to clear those monumental hurdles to file a lawsuit in federal court imposed on inmates by Prison Litigation Reform Act. Women who are shackled during pregnancy must exhaust internal remedies before their claims of civil and human rights violations can be presented in federal court. Those tasks, on top of nursing (if in a facility that has a nursery) or wrestling with the separation from their children, are often insurmountable for new mothers. Besides, officers are often indemnified by their employers - and your tax dollars.

Since bans alone won’t cut it to stop officers from shackling women, more needs to be done, like amending the Anti-Shackling Law by criminalizing this conduct so that individual guards face some accountability.

Dangers hide in the criminalization of any activity, namely the chance of unjust prosecution and conviction. That risk might be higher in paramilitary systems like law enforcement, where officers of lower rank must follow the orders of supervisors or risk discipline or termination.

But those risks are minor enough that they can’t be fairly weighed against the prospect of physical harm and death for a mother and her newborn from shackling.

As long as there is little to no consequence for officers who break this law, we will continue to put women and children in harm’s way. A ban on shackling women needs to be more than symbolism or a moral stance. When it’s still happening despite the fact that it’s unlawful, we need legal force to create practical effect.

Next month, Democrats will control both houses of the New York State Legislature; Republicans won’t be able to block meaningful criminal justice reform. Amending the Anti-Shackling Law to include accountability for officers who continue these human rights violations is essential to any positive change in New York correctional culture.

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Chandra Bozelko is the Vice President of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and member of the junior board of the Women’s Prison Association. On Twitter @aprisondiary.

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Why The Amazon Deal is In Trouble


amazon protest via nycchange

Amazon protest (photo: @nycchange)


Amazon, Mayor de Blasio, and Governor Cuomo have recently gotten a first taste of how deep the backlash against the deal to bring the company to Queens is in New York City. They should be worried. First,Queens Neighborhoods United held an anti-Amazon rally in Astoria that drew hundreds of community members, another in a series of key actions against the deal. Then, members of the New York City Council peppered underprepared executives from Amazon while a raucous crowd booed and threw up signs. More actions are coming.

There is plenty of cynicism running through all three parties to the deal, so weathering some political grandstanding and protests was baked into the process. It’s why they went through a General Project Plan to bypass any public involvement or City Council review (which meant that the hearing was largely political theater — for the moment). No one seriously worried about the deal getting derailed.

But they are wrong and must know it by now. It seems clear that collectively they miscalculated on three factors:

One, Amazon’s terrible reputation as a neighbor and employer is more widely known than they expected.

Two, Americans, including New Yorkers, no longer buy that corporate giveaways are good for them

Three, New York City’s crumbling infrastructure has cost the mayor and the governor any credibility with New Yorkers.

These points are obvious to most people who don’t work for Amazon, the mayor, or the governor, but since no one outside of those three groups were involved in the deal, they were underestimated.

That’s easier to understand given the PR strategy, which became clear at the Council hearing. All three parties are banking on Amazon’s popularity with customers to see the deal through.

That’s potentially a sound, if deeply cynical, strategy. Amazon is really cheap and fast. Over 50% of Americans have an Amazon Prime account. Amazon is trusted more than Congress.

They have early evidence to support that in New York City. At the hearing, Amazon representatives and the city’s president of the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), James Patchett, cited a recent Quinnipiac poll saying that New Yorkers “overwhelmingly support” Amazon locating a second headquarters in Queens: 57% support it, while only 26% oppose it.

Look a bit closer and you’ll see that the result isn’t as strong as it seems. The primary question includes the statement “Amazon locating one of its new headquarters in Long Island City in Queens.” That’s innocuous language, but only 57% supported that?

It’s also a lot different than the reality of the deal. More accurate wording would be “Amazon, a $1 trillion company, getting $3 billion of public money as well as public and private land to build a new campus.”

Not surprisingly, when the poll referenced the “incentives” included, it tells a very different story: 46% of voters said they support the deal, while 44% was opposed.

While Quinnipiac has a sterling reputation and should, framing the $3 billion as “incentives” is doing a lot of heavy lifting. That may be technically accurate, but it is also accurate to call it “subsidies” or a “transfer of public funds” which would likely impact a respondent’s answer differently. Quinnipiac is using the language offered by the city and state, a choice that does involve accepting an ideological framing, which has consequences to the public discourse.

Since Amazon, the de Blasio administration, and the Cuomo administration are relying on the poll as vindication, it’s fair to say that they should be worried. Aside from the slightly generous wording of the poll, the simple fact is that most New Yorkers aren’t all that jazzed about HQ2, and the deal and company have barely seen the type of local scrutiny that is already starting.

Most New Yorkers can’t possibly be closely familiar with details of the deal. Even the City Council just found out about it — the MOU was only made public when the deal was announced.

The details around the $3 billion are worth examining (see a lot more about the incentives here and here), but the key points are troubling. All parties stress that the “incentives” are performance-based which is half-true, but how Amazon’s performance is measured is still intentionally vague. A lot of pubic money will be guaranteed, but Amazon has not made similarly detailed promises.

As more of this and other information about Amazon comes to light, I have a hard time believing that New Yorkers will support the deal. Community groups, the Democratic Socialists of America, elected officials, labor unions, and others are making sure more people hear about those details, through door-to-door canvassing, community meetings, and other efforts. Amazon will counter and spend a lot of money on consultants and hide behind the rushed-to-life community advisory board, but the deal stinks and people will see that for what it is.

The biggest question that Amazon, the mayor, and the governor have to answer is the most obvious: why does Amazon even need help to move to Long Island City?

The Amazon executives were shockingly flat-footed when they were asked this at the hearing. They claimed that talent was the main driver but that subsidies “mattered,” which more or less reveals the obvious: they were coming here anyway. They also tried to repeatedly say that the incentives are performance-based, but that does not answer why the company needs them. And, they had no good answer when directly asked if they would give the incentives for public use, but indicated the company would not.

Holding hundreds of cities over the barrel just to make sure that New York and Virginia (Crystal City) came up with incentives shows you how unethical Amazon is. Holding a gun to the city’s and state’s heads before moving in doesn’t make you a good neighbor. They aren’t and never will be, and that’s even before touching on their anti-union labor practices and what they do to local retail.

None of this is surprising to people who pay attention to Amazon’s history. They have bullied Seattle and small businesses and startups on their platform. They have exploited warehouse workers, third-party delivery services, and even white-collar employees. They have worked with ICE and the DOD. In the City Council hearing company representatives fell over themselves trying to say they aren’t a monopoly, but how else do you have the chutzpah to ask New York for $3 billion while insisting on a completely secretive process including non-disclosure agreements?

Maybe the mayor and the governor couldn’t “stop” Amazon from coming, but they could and should have done everything in their power to protect the many communities of New Yorkers who will be negatively impacted by Amazon (and already are). This deal doesn’t do that. Instead, they put aside their mutual disgust and saw “HQ2” as a legacy-defining victory.

But the political landscape in New York City and across the United States is changing. “Job creation” used to be enough for politicians to support a corporate giveaway, but people know those jobs aren’t good-paying or union-protected. “Spillover effect” used to be enough for technocrats to justify public wealth transfers, but people look around at crumbling subways, crowded schools, and overflowing sewers and wonder why there isn’t enough money to fix those directly.

Amazon, the mayor, and the governor are left hoping that people’s love of cheap goods delivered to their door quickly will save the “HQ2” deal. They think people are lazy and stupid, basically. The reality is, people are overworked and poor. Corporations like Amazon getting billions of what should be public money from politicians are a big reason why. Community groups and the DSA plan to keep knocking on doors throughout the city sharing that message.  Let’s see what the polls look like after that.

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Peter Harrison is a member of NYC-DSA and CEO/Co-founder of homeBody, a public benefit startup. On Twitter @PeteHarrisonNYC.

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Imagining an ‘Asset Light’ Sanitation Department


sanitation truck snow plow

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Recent news that the New York City Department of Sanitation had its trucks evicted from a Chelsea garage on West 30th Street and will now park them on a side street near Manhattan’s Bellevue South Park should raise a question: why does Sanitation need to garage its trucks in the first place? It's not as if sanitation trucks are Lamborghinis requiring careful protection or 1970s era Jaguars that spent more time in the shop than on the road.  

Since Sanitation is street-parking the trucks now, and has for several years over near the West Side railyards, why are any garaged overnight at all?

Sanitation, and thus the City, could realize substantial efficiencies, capital and operating cost reductions in its garage operations by using an "asset light" strategy with a much smaller footprint for its structures.

Some of the city’s 2,100 garbage collection trucks have been maintained for years outdoors in various locations throughout New York City.

What if Sanitation used small fueling and washing facilities around the city where, say, a half-dozen trucks could be power-washed and fueled at a time, every so often, in a "roll-in, roll-out" facility, and then parked at a location near the start of their routes?

According to press reports, the Sanitation workers union rules require its trucks to be parked near Sanitation facilities that house lunchrooms, showers, and locker rooms. But what if that were not the case? What if the City were to negotiate with the sanitation union so as to use existing facilities in police precincts, hospitals, firehouses, or in some of the smaller footprint Sanitation fueling and washing facilities, and park its trucks near those facilities?

Why couldn't workers, who are actually first responders to some of New York City’s worst weather events, be reimbursed for parking their personal vehicles in commercial parking lots and garages or at reserved parking spots near where the trucks they operate are parked, along with the 1,000 or so cars and light-duty trucks sanitation department operates?

Certainly, there are some department vehicles that would still need to be garaged.  Mechanical brooms, front-end loaders, and snow-melters don’t really lend themselves to outdoor parking. But there are less than 800 of those vehicles -- of the total 3,400 Sanitation vehicles -- and they could be spread among smaller facilities throughout the city.  

Going asset light would allow Sanitation to sell off massive garages that occupy huge footprints, some on prime real estate, in Manhattan and the four other boroughs, and instead operate from smaller ready and repair shops where trucks could be cleaned, fueled, and serviced on a fixed schedule and prepared for snow removal service. Equipment for maintenance, repair, and snow-plow service could be trucked to these smaller footprint satellites from central locations in industrial areas of the five boroughs on an as-needed basis.

All of this would,  of course, require a radical rethinking of the way the Department of Sanitation currently operates. The unions would have to buy in and members compensated by some means, perhaps by a shorter workday as routes would be accessed more quickly. But re-thinking how Sanitation functions would reduce its operating costs and allow existing facilities to be sold off for development -- as warehouses for UPS, Amazon, FedEx, or other commercial businesses; to ameliorate a dearth of active park play space in Manhattan and other boroughs; or to develop into affordable housing.

“Amazing Grace” Hopper, the pioneering computer scientist and U.S. Navy Reserve admiral who laid the groundwork for COBOL, UNIVAC, and other world-changing computer technology, once said that “The most dangerous words in the English language are, ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it.’”  

The Department of Sanitation and civic leaders should take the admiral’s words under advisement and re-think the means by which the city operates the department.

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J.G. Collins is the managing director at The Stuyvesant Square Consultancy, an advisory and consulting firm. On Twitter @StuySquare.

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The High Stakes of Shopping Hyper Local


nyc sbs 2

(photo: @NYC_SBS)


This holiday shopping season has been marked by the ninth annual Small Business Saturday, an initiative intended to encourage people to buy holiday gifts at small, independent brick-and-mortar shops instead of large chain outlets or online vendors. With the retail madness now in full swing, many small and independent businesses must wonder: can “shopping small” be an everyday experience rather than just an annual promotion?

Small businesses are at the center of an emotional debate about the economic and cultural vibrancy of our neighborhoods. But do their contributions justify the attention?

In new research with colleagues at the NYU Furman Center, we measure the importance of local patronage—the steady stream of customers that small and independently-owned businesses rely on to keep their doors open. Neighborhoods count on these businesses for services, personal goods, food, and keeping the streets dynamic and safe. Our results suggest that these benefits are at risk when external factors reduce support for local businesses.

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy produced a large and unexpected economic shock that devastated a number of waterfront communities in New York City. There were also neighborhoods in the flood zone that were untouched, and we use this disparate impact to understand how an extreme interruption to local demand affects the viability of commercial businesses that rely on a nearby consumer base, like grocery stores or hardware stores. Data show that the storm had a larger negative effect on these neighborhood-based establishments than it did on businesses that draw on broader markets that are less location-specific, like financial services or building supply companies.

Among all classes of businesses we examined, only neighborhood-based establishments suffered meaningful and persistent losses. Moreover, losses were borne almost entirely by the smallest, independent enterprises. Retail operations were nearly 50 percent more likely to close in areas with more severe flooding. They also lost on average nine jobs per city block and experienced a 14 percent drop in sales revenues for a surprisingly long period following the storm – revenues and employment still had not rebounded as of late 2016. Establishments with broader consumer bases – the bankers and builders – also declined on severely flooded blocks. But unlike their neighborhood-based counterparts, this was largely due to fewer new openings rather than more closures. Businesses with broader customer bases also avoided the economic hit that shuttered so many neighborhood establishments.

These findings put numbers on the visceral losses felt by New Yorkers—fewer services and more empty storefronts, essentially the disappearance of a vibrant streetscape that is the lifeblood of urban neighborhoods. There are also fiscal implications for the city overall. Across the city those blocks with severe flooding experienced a net loss of 540 establishments, 3,700 jobs, and $2 million in sales revenue. Even if some of that is regained in other, less affected parts of the city (an outcome not apparent in our data), these are potentially millions of dollars lost in tax revenues.

While our focus was the response to a natural disaster shock, these results also have implications for the economic forces reshaping cities. E-commerce, for example, has dramatically changed how people shop for goods and services in their neighborhoods. There are growing calls for government policies to protect local businesses from such shocks, such as commercial vacancy taxes and rent protections, or for Internet sales taxes that can rein in online competition.

However, our data imply that much of the solution is in the hands of everyday consumers, in their decisions to walk to a nearby retailer rather than to order something from a far away distribution center. Though the price might be a few dollars higher, the benefits that you and your neighbors receive from having vital local businesses are well worth the cost. And even same-day shipping can’t compete with the instant gratification of a quick stroll to the store.

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Rachel Meltzer chairs the Public and Urban Policy M.S. Program at the New School’s Milano School of Policy, Management, and the Environment. On Twitter @ProfRachelM.

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My Vision for the Role of Public Advocate: Ron Kim


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Ron Kim (via Kim campaign)


I’m running for New York City Public Advocate to put people over corporations.

In six years representing parts of Queens in the state Assembly, I’ve watched politicians at all levels of government bend over backwards to prioritize the needs of the largest companies in the world. Whether it’s bailing out predatory financial institutions after they send the world economy into a tailspin, giving away the store to corporations like Amazon to lure them into a city they wanted to come to anyway, or handing tax breaks to big developers who turn profits on the backs of working people; our government is too often beholden to corporate interests.

Meanwhile, subways are crumbling, children in NYCHA housing are poisoned by lead, and economic disparity is skyrocketing due to the crushing debt burden that millions of New Yorkers struggle to manage. The twisted prioritization of corporations has starved our communities of badly-needed resources and created an environment where it’s virtually impossible for 99% of people to make better lives for themselves and their families.

But government doesn’t exist to serve corporations. It exists to improve the lives of people. We need a new and bold agenda to shift the paradigm in favor of everyday New Yorkers and a leader who is determined to execute it. That’s why I am running for New York City Public Advocate and why I am proposing “The People’s Deal.”

Cancel Student Debt
The first step in “The People’s Deal” is to cancel student debt. New Yorkers have $35 billion of student debt alone and hundreds of thousands will never be able to pay that back. This prevents them from buying homes, starting businesses, and providing for their families. My vision for the Public Advocate is to transform the position into the first elected office dedicated to eliminating student debt for New Yorkers. We can do so by using eminent domain to seize outstanding loans from the predatory banks that control them and cancel them starting with the most distressed. We will pay for this by fighting to end corporate subsidies to companies like Amazon. This bold step is 100% doable and it would have a measurable and immediate impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.  

End Corporate Subsidies
The next step is to fight to end those corporate subsidies. Something is desperately wrong when elected officials give $3 billion of taxpayer money to Amazon, one of the wealthiest companies in the world, and millions in tax breaks to wealthy developers. While lead paint poisons children in NYCHA housing, it’s clear the priorities need to change. If we end the taxpayer giveaways, we can reinvest that money into the people of this great city. This action will have a direct and positive impact on working New York families and simultaneously spur economic growth.

Bust the Trusts
The final step is to bust the trusts. In the old days, the trusts were Standard Oil and US Steel. Now it’s Amazon, Uber, and Facebook and these companies arguably have more control over our daily lives, more personal information about us, and more ability to violate our privacy than Standard Oil or US Steel ever did. At the same time, small businesses are getting pushed out of our communities due to prohibitive costs and harmful government policies. My plan is to lead a push to break up the modern-day monopolies and use the bully pulpit of the Public Advocate to establish a new era of community and small-business empowerment. Studies show that dollars spent in local communities have a stronger multiplier effect than handing subsidies to mega-corporations who distribute them to shareholders.

The People’s Deal is bold. The millionaires, billionaires, and corporations won’t like it because the system works for them. But New York is a place where big ideas with an eye towards fairness can be realized. We are the home of FDR and the New Deal, which lifted millions out of poverty during one of the worst crises in our history. The people of New York deserve leaders who are committed to empowering them and to putting their interests first. That’s why I am running for Public Advocate.

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Ron Kim is a member of the state Assembly representing part of Queens. On Twitter @rontkim.

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The Governor's Right to Call for a New York Green New Deal, But Here’s What It Should Look Like


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Gov. Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s draft resolution for a Green New Deal has sparked new momentum for climate action among progressives and young people across New York and beyond. Not only is her federal proposal spreading like wildfire on social media, but group after group — from the Sunrise Movement to Moveon to Indivisible to 32BJ SEIU — is mobilizing thousands of activists in support of the message. Four members of New York’s congressional delegation have already endorsed Representative-elect Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal, thanks to constituent pressure: Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Jose Serrano, Adriano Espaillat, and Nydia Velazquez.

And now even Governor Cuomo is on the Green New Deal train. Just Monday, in his speech outlining his 2019 legislative agenda, he declared his own intention to enact a so-called “Green New Deal” in New York.

Cuomo is right that here in New York we don’t have to wait on the federal government for our own Green New Deal. We must take immediate action to cut carbon emissions and shift to renewable energy, while creating green jobs. What he failed to mention, however, is that the New York State Assembly has already passed what is essentially a Green New Deal for New York several years in a row. And that version is better than what Cuomo sketched on Monday, which he said would “make New York's electricity 100% carbon neutral by 2040 and ultimately eliminate the state’s entire carbon footprint,” though he gave no timetable for that.

The Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA) would compel the state to invest in green jobs, renewable energy, and community development while setting meaningful, enforceable targets for reducing carbon emissions for all energy sectors to zero by 2050. This is the Green New Deal we need for New York.

Like Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal, the CCPA is a visionary climate justice bill: it ensures that our transition to renewable energy will protect society’s most vulnerable, and treats climate action as an opportunity to create fair-paying union jobs and grow the economy. And unlike the electricity-focused vision outlined in Cuomo’s speech, the CCPA would cut emissions to zero for all sectors and prioritize investing in communities that suffer most from climate consequences.

Up until now, the CCPA has failed to come to the floor for a vote in the State Senate, which has been controlled by Republicans. So too it has been mostly ignored by Governor Cuomo while it languished. But in 2019, with an overwhelming Democratic majority in both the Assembly and Senate and early indications from the governor that he wants to capitalize on the Green New Deal’s momentum, New York leaders can and should make the Climate and Community Protection Act state law. Not all Green New Deals are created equal.

As with federal level climate action, the CCPA has broad support among voters. The CCPA and its companion bill, the Climate and Community Investment Act — an “upstream” tax on corporate polluters that would fund the CCPA’s just transition — are supported by NY Renews, a growing coalition of nearly 150 grassroots organizations and labor unions across New York. These are the same groups that propelled Democrats to victory and a new Senate majority, and who will be able to collectively mobilize hundreds of thousands of people across the state for what comes next.

As this year’s federal report on the economic cost of climate inaction illustrates, we cannot afford to wait any longer to pursue transformational climate action. According to the new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have just ten years to drastically reduce carbon emissions in order to avoid climate catastrophe. With a pro-polluter President and a divided Congress, it is life-or-death essential for blue states, especially states with large economies like New York, to take the lead on eliminating emissions, shifting to renewables, and investing in climate resiliency now, in 2019.

In just a few weeks, Cuomo and legislators will have a chance to immediately pass the Climate and Community Protection Act. It is not just about reducing emissions or reaching “carbon neutrality,” it’s about justice and the bold comprehensive change needed to successfully protect humanity from climate crisis. It’s been ready and waiting in the wings and now it’s ready for the spotlight. Legislators and Governor Cuomo should follow through on their promises and pass the Climate and Community Protection Act this year and make a true Green New Deal for New York a reality.

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Liat Olenick is a public school science teacher, union leader, and co-president of non-profit Indivisible Nation BK. On Twitter @Liat_RO.

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As We Close Rikers, Criminal Justice Reformers are Ready for Full Partnership in Albany


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(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


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

Riding high on the crest of a Democratic blue wave powered by grassroots progressives, New York Democrats finally took back the state Senate for the first time in nearly a decade. With this accomplishment comes a responsibility to finally act upon a long list of priorities that have been stymied by the Republican-controlled upper chamber of the Legislature in Albany.  

Chief among these priorities is criminal justice reform, a topic that the New York City Council has been tackling aggressively for some time. Perhaps the Council’s most ambitious effort in this sphere has been to close all jails on Rikers Island. The decrepit jails on this island embody human misery and tragedy and it is our moral imperative to close them forever.

Any realistic effort to close these jails requires reducing the pretrial detention population, as close to 90 percent of those housed on Rikers are merely accused and not convicted of crimes. While the city has managed to take several bold steps in this area, state action will be required to make the dream of closing Rikers a reality. Over the past few years, our efforts at state reform have been hamstrung by an uncooperative state Senate. Throughout the process, our progressive allies in the Assembly majority and Senate minority voiced support for progressive criminal justice reform but were unable to move key bills to fruition.

Their inability to move legislation through the Senate did not stop some state elected officials from crafting bills that would greatly improve our criminal justice system. This legislation now stands a strong chance of passing once the new Democratic majority sits for the 2019 legislative session.

agenda19v2 aFirst and foremost, bail and speedy trial reform must be prioritized. Both efforts would go a long way towards a more equitable criminal justice system writ large, while lowering the detainee population on Rikers Island. While we here on the City Council have done much to make our bail system fairer, only Albany can implement the deep and systemic reform necessary to make our pretrial detention system truly fair and just. There are a number of bills in the Assembly and Senate that either significantly restrict or eliminate cash bail, encourage the use of monitored release in lieu of detention, and help ensure that pretrial detention is reserved for only the most severe cases. Any of this legislation would go a long way towards fixing what is a fundamentally broken and unfair bail system.

Meanwhile, speedy trial reform is arguably even more important in reducing pretrial detention. Given that close to 90 percent of the jail population is pretrial detainees, cutting the speed with which cases are resolved has a direct and massive impact on the jail population: a 25 percent faster system would mean close to a 25 percent reduction in the jail population. Much like our state’s bail laws, our speedy trial laws are outdated and ineffective, lagging far behind the federal system and other states. As they say, justice delayed is justice denied, so resolving criminal prosecutions faster not only reduces our jail population, it also helps our criminal justice system as a whole. While Senate Democrats tried to push for some minor reforms to our broken speedy trial laws in recent years, our new Senate leaders must be aggressive in tackling this issue.

There are also lesser-discussed issues that could be enormously transformative, such as parole reform. Approximately 16 percent of the population of Rikers Island jails is incarcerated for parole violations, and the state controls this issue in its entirety. According to a report issued by Columbia University’s Justice Lab, the state parolee population is the only jail group that saw an increase in its size over the past four years. Thankfully, Albany is aware of the issue, evident in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2018 State of the State speech, in which he touched on the importance of parole reform. When the new state Legislature convenes in January, it can move to shorten parole terms, incentivize good behavior, and require speedier hearings on these issues.

Though its impact on our jail population may not immediately be apparent, discovery reform should also prove critical in helping the city to run a more just criminal justice system and to close Rikers Island jails. Discovery is the process by which the prosecution provides its evidence to the defense. New York State has among the most restrictive discovery laws in the country. While the issue may seem complex, it is actually fairly simple: since well over 95 percent of criminal prosecutions result in a plea or dismissal, the faster the defense is able to assess the strength of the prosecution’s case, the faster a plea or dismissal can be reached. Luckily, there is already legislation in Albany to ameliorate the situation, and our new leaders should embrace these progressive reforms.  

Over the past several years, we here at the City Council worked hard to bring our criminal justice system into the 21st century. However, there has always been a limit to what we can accomplish without willing partners in Albany. In early January, when our fellow Democrats in the state Senate take their seats as the new majority and work with the Democratic majority in the Assembly, the possibilities for progressive criminal justice reform will widen tremendously.

The progressive activists who helped make Democratic victories a reality in November will be watching the new Legislature closely. It is imperative that our state elected officials finally act to create a criminal justice system in New York that reflects our values as a state and a city.

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

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Diana Ayala, Margaret Chin, and Stephen Levin are members of the New York City Council, representing parts of the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn, and members of the Council’s Progressive Caucus. Their districts are all slated to be home to new or larger jails as Rikers Island facilities are closed. On Twitter @DianaAyalaNYC & @CM_MargaretChin & @StephenLevin33.

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