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Term Limits Heighten Need for Community Boards to Become Data Literate


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(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


On November 6, New York City voters approved a ballot proposal to impose term limits on community board members for the first time since their role was written into the city’s Charter in 1963. The proposal was introduced by Mayor de Blasio’s Charter Revision Commission and proved to be the most contentious of the three proposals listed on this year’s ballot.

Several City Council members and one borough president, among others, argued that imposing term limits would help diversify boards that have historically failed to represent the demographics of the neighborhoods they represent. Dissenters argued that forcing the removal of long-term members would threaten the already tenuous authority of boards to oppose land use and licensing proposals that would negatively impact their communities. These folks claimed that limiting board terms would undermine the board’s institutional knowledge and would make it possible for real estate developers to take advantage of inexperienced board members.

The debate, at least because of the opposition argument, pins diversity against authority - representative democracy against an ability to get things done; it subtlety though forcefully suggests that community boards - the city’s most local formal government body, of which there are 59 across the five boroughs - cannot have both. How has it become so intractable for boards to effectively and legitimately speak on behalf of their communities, while also reflecting the composition of their communities? At BetaNYC - a community-based organization dedicated to improving lives in New York through civic design, technology, and data - we believe that disparities in information and information infrastructure play a major role in propagating this problematic dichotomy.

In local New York City governance, there is a significant power imbalance when it comes to who has access to information, who has the expertise and experience to manipulate it, and who has the authority to present it as evidence. When coming before community boards, real estate developers and business owners often gather and aggregate data to craft a narrative as to how their proposals will positively impact a community or to demonstrate how their proposals will not harm a community. Developers may suggest that a rezoning will result in a certain number of new jobs or new affordable housing units to sway a community board towards supporting their proposal. A restaurant owner may present data to argue that setting up a sidewalk café will have minimal impact on foot traffic and pedestrian safety.

Since community boards can only put together advisory resolutions, it is important for them to be able to legitimate their arguments for or against the proposals with evidence. However, many community boards do not have the technical literacy or infrastructure to fact check the presented data or to offer counter-posing statistics. With the approval of the term limits ballot proposal, their ability to do so is further compromised.

It takes time to learn the intricacies of zoning and licensing law, let alone to develop the skills to aggregate and present data in ways that can affect zoning and licensing decisions - all of which board members must accomplish on volunteered time. The fact that elected officials are concerned that diversifying board voices will undermine the board’s authority highlights a much deeper issue - that the balance of information access, expertise, and legitimacy in the city’s formal decision-making processes is far from equitable and just.

Ironically, the information and expertise that community boards do bring to their positions - rich experiential knowledge of the history, people, and problems that characterize their communities - often gets written off as anecdotal evidence or angry voices as their advisory resolutions move through the city’s processes. This evidence is often considered to lack the authority of seemingly more objective (and less passionate) quantitative data. An unfortunate consequence of discourse around “data-driven decision-making” is that numbers and statistics have become a privileged form of evidence - with little reflection on the disparities in who controls these numbers and statistics, and what other forms of evidence are undermined in the process.

This is why BetaNYC has placed community boards at the center of our vision to expand civic data literacy and advocate for civic data infrastructure in New York City.

We believe that communities are empowered when their community boards are equipped with both the knowledge and the resources they need to challenge information practices that ignore or misrepresent people and problems in their neighborhoods. Since 2015, BetaNYC has been researching the technical and information infrastructure available to community board district offices and the data training offered to community board members and district office staff. We have documented the challenges boards face in leveraging the city’s open data resources to advance their resolutions, and have outlined several specific use cases in which community boards could leverage city or state data to back up their claims.

The results of this research are summarized in a report we published in October 2017, entitled “Data Design Challenges and Opportunities for NYC Community Boards.”

Through this research, we have been able to expand our technical offerings, develop new open data curriculum, and foster new collaborations with the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA) and the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DOITT). We produced BoardStat (a 311 data dashboard), SLA Mapper (a tool to track noise complaints, underage drinking complaints, and restaurants healthgrades for bars seeking liquor license renewals), and Tenants Map (a tool that maps rent-stabilized units and housing-related 311 complaints to highlight potential tenant harassment).

BetaNYC also offers public training on how to use the city’s open data portal, how to map open data with Carto, and how to integrate open data with Census data using spreadsheets. We work closely with borough president offices to ensure that community boards know about and have access to these trainings. Finally, in October, we testified before the City Council in favor of legislation, Intro. 1137-2018, which would not only codify MODA into the city Charter, but also require that they offer training on the use of the open data portal to community boards. We are thrilled to see this legislation passed.

As new voices filter into community boards positions, it will be more important than ever to equip them with skills, resources, and tools to effectively advocate for their communities. If the new Civic Engagement Commission, the creation of which was also approved by voters through a ballot measure on Election Day, is going to provide technical assistance, it should focus on building up a new class of community board members who are digitally and data literate, savvy online/offline organizers, and great public facilitators. BetaNYC looks forward to working with boards, city agencies, and elected officials to ensure that these needs are met.

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Lindsay Poirier, Ph.D., is the Lab Manager at BetaNYC and soon to be Assistant Professor of Data Studies at University of California Davis. On Twitter @lindsaypoirier & @BetaNYC. (Note: Thanks to Noel Hidalgo, Executive Director of BetaNYC, for advice on this piece.)

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Rebooting the Republican Party in New York City


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Senator Marty Golden (photo via State Senate website)


The fall of State Senator Marty Golden and Congressional Rep. Dan Donovan should put the Brooklyn Republican Party on notice: there is a need for younger, more diverse candidates that can connect with the community, and provide unique solutions to problems plaguing our urban neighborhoods.

It’s no secret that New York City is a liberal bastion that has made it difficult for Republicans and the Republican Party to find an audience. However, that is just as much the fault of the local party apparatus as it is the tribalist politics of the five boroughs. The Brooklyn GOP has so far failed to reflect the people it’s trying to represent.

I agree with Republican Congressional Rep. Mia Love of Utah, recently defeated as she sought reelection, when she said, “Republicans never take minority communities into their home and citizens into their homes and into their hearts, they stay with Democrats and bureaucrats in Washington because they do take them home – or at least make them feel like they have a home.”

Today’s voters look to leaders who care about their needs. And to the vast majority of New York City voters, the Republican Party has become synonymous with callousness and corruption.

However, empathy and conservative principles are not mutually exclusive. If Republicans want to broaden our appeal among college-educated urban and suburban voters, we need to revisit George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism.

We need to fight for people, not abstract concepts.

The next generation of Republicans must reaffirm a better future for all. We must get back to basics and start reconnecting with local communities – speak their language (even literally) – and, for example, explain what we would do to fight residential displacement.

New York City Republicans need to reach out to minority communities and refocus party priorities on bipartisan issues that the Mayor, the City Council, and Albany have consistently dropped the ball on, from housing to education, criminal justice to healthcare.

We need a message that sets us apart, that moves us beyond the demagoguery of Donald J. Trump and provides solutions to problems plaguing so many New Yorkers.

If that means adopting some liberal ideas, or compromising in order to codify a kinder, more gentler society then that is exactly what we should do – and we absolutely can do it without sacrificing our core principles of fiscal probity, free enterprise, personal freedom, individual responsibility, and self-government.

According to the New York State Board of Elections, there are 3.5 million registered Democrats and 522,540 registered Republicans in New York City.

Time to face reality.

The GOP has a lot to offer, but we need to figure out what we’re offering in an urban environment like New York and we need to be consistent here.

We have an obligation to stand up for everyday New Yorkers who are struggling to make it, who yearn to start a family, or are striving to raise one. If we’re about the working class then our statutes and our systems need to sing it from the rafters. We can’t get caught up in the quagmire of self-aggrandizement or appeasing special interests; it’s the overall community that matters, not party, and not corporate interests.

If we’re for rooting out corruption, then let’s root out corruption. No more corporate PAC money. No more labor union money. Only individuals.

And yes, we can have a great message, but messaging means nothing without the proper messengers.

Running young, qualified, well-vetted candidates that reflect local communities is our best way of communicating our ideas to a new audience. Communities outside of parts of Manhattan, brownstone Brooklyn, western Queens, and a few other places have been ignored and require more forceful, more vociferous representation at the state level.

Ultimately, it’s not about right versus left, Democrat versus Republican, but instead practical versus fantastical; smart versus irresponsible. There are major crises in state finances and with homelessness, public housing and public transportation; income inequality has sky-rocketed, and Democrats have few solutions other than spending more money. The status quo of corporate welfare is not working; New York’s business climate now consistently ranks 49 out of 50, according to the Tax Foundation.

We need to rethink how we’re doing almost everything in New York -- and Republicans can be the party of ideas and solutions.

This past election cycle has left many New York Republicans searching for answers. We can start to build a new Republican Party in New York City and State before it really is too late.

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Joel Acevedo is a board member of the Brooklyn Young Republican Club and founder of the Sunset Park Republicans. On Twitter @JoelMAcevedo.

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A Simple First Step to Help the MTA Re-Establish Credibility


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Andy Byford (photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)


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

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is teetering on financial collapse and still struggling to overcome a meltdown in subway service and collapse in bus ridership. No one doubts that the MTA has serious problems and riders are suffering. But before the State Legislature approves tens of billions of new funding, the MTA needs to show it is serious about improving its decision-making and transparency.

Politically, the MTA has met the enemy: its lack of credibility.

Former Chair Joe Lhota at the MTA Board’s October 2018 meeting acknowledged this, saying, “I’m aware that before we can credibly appeal for billions of dollars of public money, we must continue to advance a reform agenda.” New York City Transit’s Fast Forward plan is a whopping $40 billion appeal and promise to improve the subways and buses. Andy Byford, New York City Transit’s president and the plan’s architect, in unveiling the plan stated that NYCT is working on the “rollout of a new transit organization - one that is built around a customer centric, continuous improvement model, one that emphasizes transparency and accountability, and one that going forward delivers on its promises.”

One of the easiest ways for the MTA to show that it is serious about improving transparency is to bring its Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) process into the 21st century. This means putting it fully online with an OpenFOIL website, modeled on the successful platforms already used by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the City of New York, and as developed by the Obama administration for federal agencies.

The idea behind FOIL is that the public can ask for and get information that government decisions are based on -- information that we, the public, paid for with our taxes (and, in some cases, fares and tolls). Ideally, much of this information should already be online in an open format that is easy to search, download and use. But in 2018, the MTA is still a long way from putting important information online and in accessible formats. For journalists, researchers, and watchdogs that seek to hold the MTA accountable, that means FOIL is often the only way to get certain public records.

Gotham Gazette: Unfortunately, the way the MTA implements FOIL is not working for either MTA staff or the public. A recent report by my organization, FOIL that Works: Increasing MTA transparency and accountability by putting FOIL online, dug into the MTA’s FOIL process and found a dysfunctional and fragmented mess.

The MTA received nearly 9,000 requests in 2017 (see chart below), with those inquiries handled differently among its eight separate agencies. New York City Transit still responds to many FOIL requests with paper letters instead of by email. Complicated requests can take over a year to fill, and most FOILers don’t have the legal resources to take the MTA to court to speed things up. FOIL requests might be deemed “closed” by agency staff, but this does not mean the requestor actually received the information sought.

There is a better way to do things, and fortunately for the MTA, it doesn’t have to look far. The Port Authority in 2012 revamped its freedom of information access policy, and created an online portal for FOI requests. This reform was led by Pat Foye, then the Port Authority executive director, and now the MTA’s president, as well as Scott Rechler, who has since switched boards to the MTA. Now, once a record is released to the public, it goes online in a searchable portal for everyone else to benefit from. This saves both the Port Authority staff and the public time - a win-win.

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The City of New York also has an Open Records web portal, which eases the FOIL process for the public and agency staff. The code for the portal is available in open source, which is essentially free for the MTA to adopt and expand for its needs.  

The MTA also doesn’t segregate information requests the way it should. As shown in the chart above, in 2017 two-thirds of MTA FOIL requests - more than 6,000 - were for police incident reports. But these don’t have to go through FOIL. The state Department of Motor Vehicles has an in-house online collision reports portal where the public can privately request their own incident reports, and the MTA should do the same. The MTA’s FOIL staff should focus on other types of FOIL requests to ensure that they don’t languish for so long.

OpenFOIL and an online police incidents portal for the MTA are supported by 13 other city, state, and national organizations - a diverse group including good government, transportation, freedom of information, and environmental organizations including the National Freedom of Information Coalition, Riders Alliance, League of Women Voters of the City of New York, NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign, and Environmental Advocates of New York.

The MTA can and should put FOIL online on its own. But should it not, the public has another important backstop - the state Legislature. Newly elected and re-elected legislators, in particular Senate Democrats, have promised to tackle MTA reform, and if the MTA can’t reform itself, they should require it. Passing legislation requiring OpenFOIL for the MTA is a great start for legislators to take their oversight role seriously.

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

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Rachael Fauss is Senior Research Analyst at Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @RachaelFauss & @ReinventAlbany.

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New York Democrats Won Big on Election Night, But Many Legislative Wins Were Razor-Thin


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rally for now Senator-elect Gounardes (photo: @LizKrueger)


The slumbering Democratic midterm electorate awakened this year, in New York and around the nation, and won significant victories. Across the country, the sum of the votes of the Democrats for every House of Representatives race in the nation is 60.1 million and counting. In 2014 only 35.6 million voted Democratic.

While Democrats are celebrating their booming turnout and major wins including flipping control of the House of Representatives, there’s a big question Democrats need to ponder: can they sustain and even grow this kind of voter turnout in 2020 and hold onto many razor-thin wins of these midterms? Will the Democrats stay motivated?

First, let’s look at some key numbers nationwide and in New York:

In 2018 the Democrats have gained more than 24 million more votes for the House Democratic candidates than in 2014 (this is called the National House Popular Vote), 67% more than the past midterm election. The Republican House Popular Vote this year is 50.7 million and counting, compared to 40.1 million in 2014, a gain of an extra 10.6 million, 26% over the prior midterm. The Democrats flipped 40 seats in the 435-seat House and took the majority, and there is still one race in California uncalled, according to the Cook Political Report.

In New York, Governor Cuomo and the statewide Democratic ticket won an overwhelming victory. Compare the election night results by region on New York's gubernatorial line in 2018 with those same regional results in 2014:

election results region brennan 1

The overall statewide turnout increased more than 50%, from 3.8 million in 2014 to 5.7 million this year (absentee and other paper ballots will soon be added). In New York City, the turnout surged 90%, nearly doubling, from 1 million in 2014 to 1.9 million this year.

In the New York City suburbs, the turnout rose 46% over 2014, but, more importantly for the State Senate races, the Democratic turnout in the suburbs rose 60%, from 483,000 votes in 2014 to 774,000 votes in 2018. Governor Cuomo's margin in the suburbs in 2014 was 60,000, winning 52%-45%, but this year his margin rose to 208,000 votes, and a win of 57%-41%. The dramatic improvement in the suburbs for the Democrats was a critical factor in their flipping seven Republican State Senate seats, four on Long Island and three in the Hudson Valley (they won an 8th in Brooklyn).

Long Island Wins for Democrats
A look at the results on the Governor's line and the six seats won by Democrats, including two incumbents, on Long Island:

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Republicans lost four State Senate seats on Long Island and have been wiped out in Nassau County. Just four years ago they held all nine Long Island seats; when the Democrats take control in January, the Republicans will hold three. Their troubles began with the corruption conviction of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos; his seat was won by a Democratic Assembly member and former federal prosecutor, Todd Kaminsky, in a special election held the same day as the New York presidential primary in April 2016. Another Democrat, John Brooks, won a second Long Island Senate seat in November 2016 by 314 votes. This year Kaminsky won handily and Brooks won over 54%. In the four new victories the Democratic candidates had two 10,000-vote wins. The other two victories were close, however, one by 2,500 votes and the other by 1,400.

Hudson Valley Wins for Democrats
A look at the results on the Governor's line and the three Senate seats in the Hudson Valley where the Democrats won, by county in the northern suburbs of New York City and the upper Hudson Valley:

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The Democrats won three Republican seats in the Hudson Valley. Democratic Assemblymember Jim Skoufis, who won his Assembly seat in 2012 at the age of 25, ran for the seat vacated by retiring Republican Bill Larkin and won by 6,700 votes, with nearly 54%. He won in Orange County by more than 4,000 votes and in Rockland County by 3,000 votes. Democrat Jen Metzger won the seat held by retiring Republican John Bonacic by a slim 2,500 votes, 51%-49%. She won Ulster County by 5,000 votes and lost Orange County by only 61 votes, 23,708 to 23, 647. Both Skoufis and Metzger likely ran ahead of Cuomo in Orange County, but his wins in Ulster and Rockland surely helped their campaigns.

Democrat Peter Harckham won the third seat in the Hudson Valley in another close race, defeating Republican incumbent Terence Murphy by 2,100 votes, 51%-49%. Harckham lost in both Putnam and Dutchess Counties, as did Cuomo, but he won solidly in Westchester, where most of the district is located, by 10,000 votes. Cuomo won Westchester County two-to-one. Democrats are celebrating their wins in the Hudson Valley, but two of the three wins were very tight.

Congressional Wins for Democrats
Below is a look at the results of the three Congressional wins in New York for the Democrats. The two upstate victories, in the 19th and 22nd Congressional districts, occurred entirely outside the New York City suburbs:

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In the two upstate districts, the Democratic candidates ran ahead of Governor Cuomo, and needed to do so to win. In the 19th Congressional district, Democrat Antonio Delgado defeated incumbent Republican John Faso by over 7,500 votes. But in Ulster County he won by 16,000 votes, 43,000 to 27,000, while Cuomo's margin in Ulster was 6,000 (the Governor won there 37,000 to 31,000). Delgado also won by small margins in traditionally Republican Columbia and Dutchess County, while Cuomo lost there by slim margins. Faso defeated Delgado further north, in Rensselaer County and the Catskills, where Cuomo did not do well.

In Central New York, Democratic Assemblymember Anthony Brindisi overcame many challenges to win a very close race against incumbent Republican Claudia Tenney. Despite a 30,000 voter registration edge for the Republicans and polls showing majority approval of Trump in the district, Brindisi won by slightly more than 1%, 122,000 to 119.000. Nearly all the absentee ballots have been counted there. Brindisi won his home base in Oneida County 38,000 to 37,000, and won Broome County, where the City of Binghamton is located, by 8,000 votes. He managed to stay close to Tenney in other heavily Republican counties. Here's a comparison of the Cuomo-Molinaro race with the Brindisi-Tenney race in counties overlapping with the 22nd Congressional District. The results demonstrate how competitive Brindisi was in Republican turf.

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New York City
In New York City the Democratic margins were staggering. Cuomo won 81%-15% and by 1.27 million votes. The lone New York City Republican member of Congress, Dan Donovan, was defeated. One of the only two Republican State Senators in New York City, Marty Golden, whose Brooklyn district somewhat overlapped Donovan's Congressional district, which is 70% Staten Island and 30% Brooklyn, was also defeated. Democrat Max Rose won the Brooklyn side of the Congressional district by 10,000 votes, and, amazingly, won Staten Island by 1,400 votes. The Democratic electorate on Staten Island woke up.

In the Democratic part of Staten Island, the North Shore, Rose won the Assembly district there by 16,000 votes, a margin Republicans were unable to overcome in the rest of Staten Island. Rose had more than double the vote of the Democratic candidate for the seat in 2014, 95,000 vs. 45,000. In the State Senate race, the Democratic candidate, Andrew Gounardes, defeated Senator Golden by just over 1,000 votes, another close election. Gournardes and Rose benefited from the energy and synergy of running in the somewhat overlapping sections of the Congressional and State Senate districts.

Keeping the Seats
2020 will be a big challenge for Democrats to hold the victories in New York and the nation. Many of the State Senate and Congressional wins were very close. Republicans in New York and the rest of the country will make intense efforts to recover during the presidential election, when turnout will be higher and President Trump will likely be on the ballot. Of course, Republicans have the repudiation of President Trump to blame for their losses this year. Exit polls also showed Democrats won the 18-29 age group by 35 points, a very encouraging long-term sign for Democrats. Nonetheless, the Republicans will be highly competitive in most, if not all, of these districts and the Democrats can take nothing for granted.

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

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New York City Shouldn’t Regulate Ride-Hailing Apps - It Should Compete With Them


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(photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


Smartphones are transforming transit in cities all over the world, and city governments are struggling to figure out how to best manage the change. If the world was looking to New York City’s recently enacted legislation affecting for-hire vehicle companies, then there will be disappointment given that, once again, the city’s political establishment decided to impose an outdated regulatory regime on innovative firms, making life harder for thousands of new taxi drivers while raising the price of rides for millions of New Yorkers and visitors to the city. The law, enacted this summer, caps the number of e-hail licenses in the city for a year and also enables the city to impose regulations on the type of compensation structures offered to drivers.

Who benefits? Politicians argue that it’s existing drivers who received their taxi registration before the one-year moratorium on new licenses was implemented, but if you think they’re the primary beneficiary then there’s a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.

In reality, politicians got behind this legislation because they want to send a message to Silicon Valley, the startup community and their financiers: If you want access to the 8-plus million person New York City market, you’ll have to go through the local political class first, and that will cost you: in form of taxes, campaign contributions, lobbyists, and more.

True to form, the left and right have staked out their normal positions on this issue. For the left, it’s all about protecting the wages and rights of the less-than-10,000 existing drivers, even if that means higher costs for all New Yorkers and more obstacles for people who want to earn money by driving a car. For the right, it’s about protecting businesses and drivers from regulatory controls that will raise prices for consumers, even if that means facilitating the big business takeover of an industry that has been a source of wealth for independent individuals and small businesses in New York City for a century.

Like many issues involving new technology, we need to look beyond the left-wing or right-wing way to manage these technologies, and instead look to the “open source way.”

What do we want? Safe, convenient rides, with low prices for riders, high income for drivers, positive impacts on traffic, and data protection for everyone involved.

The best way to achieve these ends isn’t complex licensure regimes, quotas on new taxis, or putting more surveillance technologies in our cars or on our streets. Instead, New York City should do for its local cab industry the same thing successful industries do for themselves: standardize how information is formatted and exchanged between systems. This makes it possible for information from one app, like Uber, to be read, understood and interacted with by another app, like Lyft or Google Maps.

Making ride-hailing data more standardized and interoperable will have a number of benefits.

First, it aggregates supply and demand, which increases competition in the taxi market leading to lower prices for riders and more business for drivers.

Second, it gives riders and drivers more options, allowing them to use an app with the mission of benefiting New Yorkers instead of benefiting investors in giant tech corporations.

Third, it mitigates a threat many people fear: that Uber, Lyft, and other venture-backed ride-sharing apps are subsidizing their own cab rides to undermine the legacy taxi industry, and then once the legacy industry is dead, they’ll jack up prices. That strategy won’t work if New York City is committed to maintaining a system of its own.

The idea of establishing a “ride sharing” (or “e-hail”) standard isn’t new. It has been discussed and proposed by a number of people in New York City’s tech community for years, including Ben Kallos, a tech-aware City Council member who proposed it in a 2014 bill, and by Chris Whong, now the lead developer of NYC Planning Labs, who proposed it in a 2013 blog post.

Critics of this approach have claimed that the city doesn’t have the capacity to develop its own e-hailing systems, but that simply isn’t true. Generic apps similar to Lyft and Uber exist in hundreds of markets around the world. Even local cab companies in New York City have developed their own apps.

Creating an e-hailing system for New York City would likely involve a three-step process: (a) develop a “ride sharing data standards” body that would bring riders, drivers, city agencies, and app developers together to create specifications for how all taxi-hailing information should be formatted and exchanged; (b) develop and operate a basic, open source e-hail smartphone application that would use these data standards to, like any one of the dozens of ride-hailing apps available around the world, allow New Yorkers to request rides and drivers to fulfill those requests; and (c) create a city-administered server that not only processes information from the current city taxi app but also allows other ride-sharing apps to exchange their information with the server.

This approach would give Uber, Lyft, and other popular apps a choice: they can plug in to the city’s e-hail exchange server and share their rider and driver information with other apps - or go it alone and face the consequences of having less access to rider and driver information than their competitors.

This approach leverages the city’s considerable influence to produce a number of benefits:

By following established best practices from government digital service organizations and open source communities, this system could be produced quickly and inexpensively. And by open-sourcing an app and inviting other cities to use and modify the New York City code, we could join a small but growing community of cities around the world developing and sharing open source software (such as Madrid’s Consul project) that enables them to provide government services faster, better, cheaper, and in a more ethical manner.

The original meaning of “regulation” wasn’t the levying of taxes and fees to penalize innovation -- it was to “make regular” through the implementation of transparent business practices and the adoption of standard operating procedures. That is precisely what New York City should be doing, and it can do so by modelling best practice behavior that challenges Silicon Valley (and its New York-based counterparts) to produce better products, for lower prices, in more responsible ways, with more respect for the rights of their users.

Any municipality can throw rocks at Silicon Valley by imposing taxes and creating obstacles to market entry, but few have the capacity and scale to challenge Silicon Valley by creating innovative products. New York City has that ability. Let’s use it.

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Devin Balkind is a technologist and nonprofit executive who works on civic technology projects in New York City. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

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Pushing the Envelope on Rent Reform in Albany 2019


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


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

Today, New Yorkers are living in an era of mass displacement due to the skyrocketing cost of rent. This makes it absolutely imperative for rent-stabilized tenants to maintain their rights and for these rights to be extended to tenants currently living without them. We must act swiftly to implement the bold policy of universal rent-control in order to protect tenants from market forces.

Close to half of the nearly 2.2 million housing rental units that exist in New York City are rent-stabilized. Tenants living in rent-stabilized units benefit from having the right to a renewal lease once their current lease expires, plus legal limits on how much their rents can be raised annually or biannually. Additionally, rent-stabilized tenants have succession rights, granting them the right to pass their unit on to a family member living in the unit.

All of these tenant protections provided under New York state law, however, are set to expire on June 15, 2019. In the upcoming legislative session, New York state legislators will be tasked with ensuring that we pass stronger rent laws before the June deadline. With the State Senate now having the largest Democratic majority we’ve seen since 1912, state legislators have a responsibility to not only extend the rent laws to protect all New York tenants, but to also eliminate the harmful loopholes that exist in the current laws.

The Flaws with our Rent Regulated System
Although certain tenants are protected under New York’s rent-regulated system, there are loopholes that exist within the system that landlords take advantage of in order to deregulate units and to push low-income tenants out. Currently, if a rent-regulated tenant’s monthly rent reaches above $2,733.75, the landlord becomes entitled with the right to deregulate the unit and subsequently raise the tenant’s rent to any amount they see fit or simply not renew the tenant’s lease. This phenomena—known as vacancy decontrol—is responsible for the loss of at least 155,664 rent-regulated units from the years of 1994 through 2017, according to the New York City Rent Guidelines Board.

Vacancy bonuses allow landlords of rent-regulated units to increase rents up to 20 percent to incoming tenants once an apartment is made vacant. This is an amount that is seven times more than any rent increase approved by the Rent Guidelines Board – the appointed board that determines yearly increases for rent-regulated tenants – in the previous five years.

The other two loopholes that landlords take advantage of to generate more profit through the rent laws are preferential rents and major capital improvements (MCIs).

Many tenants across the city are paying preferential rents, which are below the legal margin that landlords can mandate to be paid. Why is this a flaw within the rent-regulated system considering that tenants would benefit from paying lower rent? Unfortunately, it’s been widely proven that landlords provide these lower rents while simultaneously registering a higher, fraudulent legal rent to the state. Once a tenant’s lease is up for renewal the landlord could increase the tenant’s rent to the higher, fraudulent registered amount.

Landlords also use MCIs, building-wide improvements made through the landlord’s finances, to increase rents up to 6 percent. These increases all too often surpass the 6 percent margin and are permanent increases. Landlords also game the system by fraudulently claiming improvements they don’t make or more expensive improvements than they actually make.

Vacancy bonuses, MCIs, and preferential rents are all loopholes and tactics that landlords legally and illegally utilize to raise rents and eventually deregulate a unit through vacancy decontrol.

Housing Justice for All: the Platform
Bills to repeal the loopholes in our rent-regulated system have already been written and have been stalled from passing mostly because of the Republican-led state Senate and their outgoing allies (mostly in the former Independent Democratic Conference).

A bill to end vacancy decontrol has been introduced in the past by Linda B. Rosenthal in the Assembly (A433) and by soon-to-be Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in the Senate (S3482). Bills to eliminate vacancy bonuses have been introduced by Assembly Member Daniel J. O’ Donnell (A9815) and Senator Jose M. Serrano (S1593). Bills to prohibit landlords from adjusting the amount of preferential rent upon the renewal of a lease have been introduced by Assembly Member Steven Cymbrowitz (A6285) and Senator Liz Krueger (S6527). The offices of Senator Michael Gianaris and Assembly Member Brian Barnwell are working with the Housing Justice for All Coalition (HJFA) to write bills that would ban landlords from passing the costs of MCIs onto tenants forever (MCI costs would rather last to the end of each tenant’s lease from the moment the MCI officially took place).  

HJFA is a coalition of tenant advocates, tenant unions, and housing organizations from across the state that are demanding the passage of the bills cited above. On November 15, 2018, over 700 members of the coalition showed up to downtown Manhattan on a snowy and icy night to march for these demands and then some.

HJFA is fighting to extend current protections under our rent laws to tenants that live in buildings that are five units or fewer, including 1- to 2- family homes (with exception to those where landlords reside). This concept is known as universal rent control, a policy proposal that recent gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon and Lieutenant-Governor candidate Jumaane Williams, and Senator-elect Julia Salazar campaigned for.

Fifty-four counties across New York are not able to opt into having the rent-regulated protections that New York City tenants currently have, making them all vulnerable to predatory housing companies that use lax or non-existent rent regulations to push people out of their housing. HJFA is also demanding that renters across the state be granted the opportunity to bring rent controls to their communities through the expansion of the Emergency Tenant Protection Act (ETPA).

It is vitally important to point out that these demands have not yet taken the shape or form of a bill. And it is these additional demands that figures with authority, like Governor Cuomo, must deliver in 2019.   

Going Beyond: Truly Delivering for Tenants
Democrats were able to take full control of state government by flipping eight Republican-held Senate seats. As of January, they will hold a majority in the Assembly and in the Senate, and the Governor’s Office. The change in the political landscape in Albany grants a window of opportunity for our leaders to strengthen our rent laws to the degree that HJFA is outlining. Unfortunately, the Democratic leadership might not be too keen on setting the bar higher and delivering universal rent control, but may rather just flirt with the idea of eliminating loopholes.

Governor Cuomo recently came out in public support of ending vacancy decontrol. Although we may all applaud this statement, the fact of the matter is that this, along with ending MCIs, preferential rents, and vacancy bonuses, should be relatively easily accomplished as soon as we enter the next legislative session.

In 2015, when the rent laws were renewed only after facing a near two-week expiration, Cuomo coined an op-ed in the Daily News and expressed his full support for passing these basic reforms. He wrote, “We must eliminate vacancy decontrol or at the very least significantly raise vacancy decontrol thresholds; further limit vacancy bonuses to ensure landlords aren't rewarded financially for schemes to force tenants out; make major capital improvements and individual apartment improvement surcharges that go away once recovered by landlords, instead of ways of artificially raising a unit's monthly rent; and make the preferential rent operate as the legal rent for the life of the tenancy. These should be foundational elements of any new rent regulation legislation.” These were the words of our governor on June 6, 2015.

Gotham Gazette: Ending the various loopholes pertaining to our rent laws should be a given considering the blue wave that just occured. Leaders like Governor Cuomo with the power to push the rent regulation envelope further should not exclude from the discussion universal rent control and their support (or lack thereof) of the concept. Tenants in New York needed loopholes closed in 2015, and in 2019 the tenant movement requires protections for all tenants. Swiftly passing long-needed reform measures is important, while also tackling the challenges of today.

There will be no excuse for Governor Cuomo and other leaders if the Legislature simply passes the set of reforms the governor was calling for almost three years ago. The Republican majority is no more, the opportunity for real reform is there for the taking in 2019.

And let’s be clear: universal rent control is not a radical idea. In response to high inflation rates in 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted Federal Rent Control through the Emergency Price Control Act (EPCA), which allowed for “a universal, nationwide price regulatory system.” By 1950, we had 2.5 million units that were rent-regulated in New York, more than double the stock we have today.

New York City today faces an affordability crisis that it has not seen since the Great Depression and 89,000 people across the state live in homeless shelters, while tens of thousands of children sleep in insecure housing. Communities like Williamsburg, Brooklyn has seen over a quarter of their communities of color displaced. So-called economic development projects like bringing Amazon to Queens will only exacerbate the city’s affordability crisis, though stronger rent regulations would help stem the tide.

As Governor Cuomo wrote in 2015, “the crisis of affordability is back with a vengeance,” and it will continue unless we boldly act to provide protections for all of our tenants. Our task is simple and it requires the moral courage from our elected officials to stand up to real estate interests. We must prove to tenants that at a time when we have a corporate politician leading us awry in the White House that we don’t need a corporate Democrat doing so in Albany as well.

In 2019, there is no room for political posturing. We must act to not just end the loopholes within our current rent laws but also to extend protections to all renters. We must finally deliver for the largest constituency in New York, the tenant-renter constituency.   

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

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Boris Santos is a former public school teacher, DSA member, and soon-to-be Chief of Staff to Senator-elect Julia Salazar.

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Designing Bus Routes to Attract Passengers and Reverse Declining Ridership (Part 3)


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(photo: Marc A. Hermann/MTA)


The first two parts of this series discussed the causes for bus ridership decline, the Fast Forward plan as it relates to buses and why its focus needs to be changed to reverse this decline, a plan that worked: the southwest Brooklyn changes, and MTA studies that did not achieve their desired results. Read part 1 and part 2. This third and final part discusses Brooklyn bus route changes needed now and larger conclusions about bus planning that should inform redesigns to come.

Brooklyn Bus Route Changes Needed Now

1. Routes need to be straightened so that a direct north-south bus route serves Maimonides Medical Center.

2. Service on 16th Avenue discontinued in 2010 needs to be restored using better routings serving additional areas so that it does not merely duplicate a nearby route with better service. 

3. Improved east-west access is needed across Bensonhurst and Marine Park and Gerritsen Beach.

4. New shopping centers have been built in Spring Creek and in Canarsie that remain largely inaccessible by public transit. A 20-minute car trip from southern Brooklyn to Spring Creek should not take between 90 minutes and two hours by bus.

5. Service gaps on Empire Boulevard, Clarkson, and Albany Avenue require indirect travel to make simple trips accounting for the huge numbers of cabs outside Kings County Medical Center. 

6. Several new routes are needed to serve JFK Airport for employees as well as visitors. A single route from Bedford Stuyvesant is grossly inadequate and converting it to SBS is not a solution. 

7. Improved access is needed between Sheepshead Bay and the Rockaways, also a 20-minute trip by car, but up to a two-hour trip by bus.

8. The B44 SBS should have a branch to Kingsborough Community College when school is in session, operating non-stop from Avenue X.

9. Routing problems also exist in northern Brooklyn, but to a lesser extent. One example is the service gap caused by the elimination of the B71 on Union Street in 2010; residents and elected officials have been asking for its return in an extended fashion to also serve lower Manhattan, with no response from the MTA.

Most of these changes are described in greater detail on my website. All the proposals there with the exception of the B83 extension were rejected by the MTA in 2004, but are now under reconsideration. The fare also needs to be addressed to completely eliminate double fares by changing to a time-based fare instead of vehicle-based fare as described here.

None of these improvements will happen with the MTA's bus redesign plan unless the MTA starts thinking about its customers as people, not merely regarding them as numbers, and is less focused on operating costs.

Conclusions

1. The MTA must care more about its passengers and stop penny pinching. Service for the recent Staten Island express bus redesign, which went into effect this past summer was inadequately planned, leaving hundreds of riders stranded without enough buses and has been called a disaster by commuters. The MTA, in its concern to keep operating costs low, underestimated demand in terms of scheduling and spans of service. It has been tweaking the new system to satisfy numerous complaints. 

2. Reducing operating costs by eliminating bus stops and so-called duplicative routes must not be the highest priority. Nearby routes are often serving different destinations and are not duplicative at all, but only appear so if your analysis is limited to studying a bus route map.

3. Efficiency must be increased, for example, by better integration of New York City Transit and the MTA Bus Company so that each company can use each other’s depots reducing the number of deadhead or non-revenue service miles and centralizing administrative functions such as planning and scheduling. Presently, the MTA regards non-revenue miles as more productive than miles where passengers are carried, rather than as wasted mileage. That is because service levels are planned assuming all buses run on time; labor cost savings can be achieved when partial trips to and from the depot are made without passengers and in less time. Wasteful scheduling practices whereby buses can travel up to ten miles while not in service must end.

4. Increased efficiency must not be at the expense of the passenger, like when eliminating bus stops on a massive scale. Bus stops should only be removed on a case-by-case basis, not by increasing the walking standard so that it will be necessary for some to walk up to three-quarters of a mile to or from a bus.

5. Planning should not be done by only considering able-bodied riders on good weather days. Increased walking to and from bus stops is especially burdensome on the elderly, handicapped, those with temporary health issues, and those with packages or strollers whose needs must also be considered.

6. Passengers want buses that are not overcrowded so they can board the first bus that arrives. They also want buses to arrive on time. Increasing reliability was passengers’ number one concern 40 years ago, as it is today.

7. Cooperation is needed among all relevant agencies. The MTA cannot continue to claim reliability is solely caused by traffic conditions, which is out of its control because traffic is the responsibility of DOT. What was the point of putting DOT’s commissioner on the MTA board if the two agencies will not work cooperatively? The city claimed it was not involved in the MTA’s recent decision to halt the introduction of new SBS routes until 2021. As long as the NYPD, charged with keeping bus lanes clear, continues to block the lanes with its own vehicles, and as long as the MTA bus schedules do not reflect realistic running times, and each agency blames another one, with little cooperation, reliability will not improve.

8. The emphasis must be on reducing total trip time for passengers, which is a greater passenger concern than increasing bus speeds or time spent on the bus; impacts on other traffic should not be ignored. Connections must be made easier, and routes straightened where possible.

9. Investments must be made in additional service within budget constraints, to reduce service gaps and improve passenger convenience. Shuttle routes at 30-minute scheduled intervals should not be the wave of the future in developing areas.

10. Service planning should not be designed only for existing customers. Total demand including those who use services such as Uber because the routing system is inconvenient and unreliable must be considered. If the MTA continues to assume that increased service will not result in increased ridership and revenue, and that only operating costs matter, ridership will continue to decline. 

After 40 years, it is time to reflect on those 1978 southwest Brooklyn bus route changes, so the same type of successful changes that converted low-usage routes into highly-patronized routes can be duplicated. Simply providing straighter wider-spaced bus routes with fewer stops with little concern for serving destinations that are presently difficult to reach will not reverse the decline in bus ridership. Byford claims the bus route redesign will be customer driven. Let's hold him to his word. “Community consultation” does not mean that the community is merely informed of MTA changes they may not want.

This is part 3 of a 3-part series. Read part 1 and part 2.

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Allan Rosen is former Director of Bus Planning, MTA NYC Transit. On Twitter @BrooklynBus.

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The Mayor and Governor Found Amazon a New Home Right Down the Street from My Shelter


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(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


The red carpet has been rolled out and Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo are giddily holding open the doors: Jeff Bezos and Amazon are coming to town, for the low price of $3 billion, a helipad, and prime real estate in Queens. For years, homeless activists have pressed the mayor and governor to invest resources and political will to tackle the historic crisis of homelessness plaguing both our city and state. Instead, they partnered in selling out taxpayers and sidelining politicians to make the Amazon deal a reality.

But not everyone will accept this reality without a fight. In fact, the Amazon giveaway has been criticized by everyone from newly-elected democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the corporation-friendly editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. They join homeless activists like me, city and state elected officials, and thousands of others who are concerned about responsible government and the rights of immigrants, workers, tenants, students, and many more.

I am one of 89,000 people that live in the shelter system across this state, one of the 60,000-plus that live in New York City. I am from Flatbush, but I live in a homeless shelter in Long Island City, just blocks away from where Amazon is planning to make its home. In recent months, Mayor de Blasio has faced major scrutiny for refusing to set aside 30,000 housing units in his 300,000-unit affordable housing plan to house homeless New Yorkers. I confronted him at his gym and on the radio, and others have faced him at town halls. On every occasion, he denies us the basic thing we need -- housing -- and lectures us on why his housing plan is “for every kind of New Yorker.”

“Every kind of New Yorker,” including the ones who haven’t arrived yet and the ones Amazon claims would earn an average salary of $150,000 per year.

Meanwhile, Governor Cuomo has done no better. He refuses to follow through on his own housing commitments for the homeless. In 2016, he committed $20 billion in the state budget to tackle affordable housing and homelessness -- including 20,000 units of supportive housing -- but only a tiny sliver of those resources were made available after a year of campaigning and protests.

The governor pledged to create 6,000 units of supportive housing over five years, yet two years later, 559 units were reportedly open as of August of this year. He's reduced funding for rental assistance, forced cities to shoulder the cost of shelters, and blocked legislation attempting to solve the problem with new housing assistance, like Assembly Member Andrew Hevesi’s Homes Stability Support plan.

The mayor and governor have refused to adequately help the homeless, but they’ve been quick to negotiate a deal with the richest man in the world. Take a look across the country to predict what happens next.

A Seattle county official said the city was “asleep at the switch” when Amazon arrived. By the time the giant settled in, rents had skyrocketed and homelessness soared from 8,522 people in 2017 to 12,000 during a one-night count in January 2018. In 2017, 169 people experiencing homelessness reportedly died in Seattle, and today record-numbers of people are living in cars and in tent cities. In an attempt to reverse the damage, the Seattle City Council introduced a bill to tax companies like Amazon in order to fund homelessness initiatives. The bill passed, only to then be crushed by Amazon, which refused to be taxed and threatened to stop construction in the city. This it the kind of power we are up against in New York. Our homes, neighborhoods, and our lives are on the line.

Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo have long-ignored the true needs of the homeless across New York. But by bypassing democracy and giving Amazon billions in incentives and grants to move here, they are trying to erase us -- and many others -- from the map.

We won’t have it. We must remember, this is not the mayor’s city nor the governor’s city, and it’s certainly not Amazon’s city -- it is ours.

Now it is critical that we fight back against this plan and demand the future we all deserve: safe and affordable housing for all New Yorkers, quality education for our kids, a transportation system that works, strong small businesses that remain the lifeblood and culture of our city, a powerful unionized workforce that bolsters fair wages, families that are never divided, and companies that don’t profit off the imprisonment and deportation of our loved ones.

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Nathylin Flowers Adesegun is a community leader at VOCAL-NY. On Twitter @VOCALNewYork.

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Amazon Will Only Exacerbate Long Island City School Overcrowding


mayordeblasio mccray chancellor

(photo: Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office)


The plan to provide Amazon up to $3 billion in city and state tax cuts and other subsidies to site one of their new headquarters in Long Island City leaves the children who are living there in the lurch. The booming community is already severely short on school seats, a problem that Amazon’s move to the area will only exacerbate given recent trends, Department of Education projections, and the details of the Amazon deal that have been released.

The only zoned elementary school in Long Island City, PS 78, is already at 135% capacity, and more than 70 children who were zoned to the school were put on the waitlist for kindergarten last spring, while classes for numerous pre-K kids are being housed in trailers.

There are plans for two small elementary schools of about 600 seats each to be created as part of a huge 5,000-housing unit Hunters Point South development, but these schools are likely to be immediately overcrowded the day they open. There are already three sections of kindergarten students attending class in an incubation site at a nearby pre-K center, waiting to attend the first elementary school, which will not be completed until 2021.

An already-planned middle school had been proposed to be built on city-owned land as part of a mixed-use 1,000-unit project, but this area is now to be incorporated into the Amazon development. Contrary to Mayor de Blasio’s claims, the memorandum of understanding with Amazon includes no new school for the neighborhood. Instead, the MOU merely says that the company will pay for this middle school already in the city’s capital plan – but moved to another location, as yet undetermined. As Chalkbeat NY explained, “The company agreed to house a 600-seat intermediate school on or near its Long Island City campus, replacing a school that had already been planned in a residential building nearby.”

From 2006 to 2017, more than 20,000 residential units were built in Long Island City. A study found that 12,533 apartments in 41 separate developments were built in the community between 2010 and 2016 – not just the highest number in New York City, but more than any other neighborhood in the entire nation.

The housing start data recently posted by the School Construction Authority projects 20,000 residential units to be built between 2018-2024 in Queens’ District 30, which includes Long Island City. According to the DOE formula used to estimate how much school enrollment growth this will generate, there will be a need for seats for about 4,000 additional elementary and middle school students. Meanwhile, the new proposed five-year capital plan for 2020-2024 includes only 1,012 new seats for the entire district – a shortage of nearly 3,000 seats, before the impact of the Amazon deal is even considered.

Though nearly all Queens high schools are already overcrowded, there are fewer than 1,000 high school seats for the borough in the proposed five-year plan, while the housing start data alone would generate the need for about 5,000 additional high school students.

Another part of the deal includes Amazon making payments in lieu of taxes into an infrastructure fund that, starting 11 years after the deal, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) can spend on nearly any sort of use, “including but not limited to streets, sidewalks, utility relocations, environmental remediation, public open space, transportation, schools and signage,” according to the MOU.

And to add the most grievous insult to injury, the city now plans to give Amazon a large DOE office building, one that community members have been fighting to convert into much-needed schools and a community center instead. A petition, now with more than 1,500 signatures, to the mayor and local elected officials was posted last year by the Long Island City Coalition.

This is not the first time the community’s needs for schools have gone entirely ignored. In 2008, EDC re-zoned city-owned land for the Hunters Point South project without any plan to create a single new school, ignoring the thousand or so children who were likely to inhabit these new apartments. It took a concerted organizing effort of Long Island City parents and elected officials in 2015 for the city to agree to belatedly include two small schools in the plans.

We’ve seen this poor planning repeatedly, wherever new residential developments are springing up. The Amazon deal is but a particularly egregious example of how the city’s policies are driven by the interests of the real estate industry and private corporations while the educational needs of our children are too often overlooked. As many education advocates, parents and community leaders have pointed out, the school planning process in New York City is broken, resulting in more than half a million students crammed into overcrowded schools and classrooms, with the problem likely to get worse as the city’s population continues to grow.

In March 2018, the New York City Council released a report, Planning to Learn: The School Building Challenge, which documented many of the problems inherent in the city’s dysfunctional planning process. Before that, Class Size Matters released two reports, Space Crunch and Seats Gained and Lost: the Untold Story, which identified many of the same problems, showing how the city’s methodology to plan for new schools is inherently flawed and lags further and further behind the actual need.

The city has consistently underestimated the real need for public schools and to plan accordingly. The school capacity formula is aligned to excessive class sizes of 28 students per class in grades 4-8 and 30 in high school, larger than the current citywide averages, and thus would tend to push class sizes even higher in these grades.

The Department of Education’s projections also are based upon housing start data that is highly unreliable, especially the ten-year data, which estimate only a tiny number of new units to be built after the first five or six years. For example, the housing start data posted in March 2017 used to create the current five-year plan projected not a single new housing unit to be built in Brooklyn between 2020 and 2024. The housing start data used for the new proposed capital plan projects 45,000 new housing units will be built in ten school districts between 2018 and 2024, but not a single one the next three years. In District 24 in Queens -– currently, the most overcrowded district in the borough -- the data projects over 3,000 new units to be built during the first six-year period, but only 150 additional units thereafter.

Worse yet, a consideration of the need for new schools is only triggered when a proposed development is projected to increase school overcrowding by at least five percent – even in areas like Long Island City, where the schools are already severely overcrowded.  

Instead, every new large-scale project should require new schools to be built where schools are already overcrowded or likely to become so as a result of new housing and/or current enrollment trends. Parent-led community education councils should be consulted in a meaningful way about the likely impact on schools each time a large-scale project or rezoning is proposed, as they know the educational landscape directly, not just community boards.  

The formula for projecting enrollment should include 3-K and pre-K students and should be updated regularly with the latest Census and American Community Survey and housing data.  And the need for schools should be based upon more realistic ten-year housing trends – not just five-year trends, as it usually takes far more than five years to site and build a new school.

Class Size Matters and other parent leaders are proposing these and additional critical reforms to the school planning process to the 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission so the city’s students are not left in even worse conditions in the years to come. Meanwhile, the Amazon deal should be scotched or revamped, because, as is stands, it is yet another giveaway to a corporate giant with no consideration of the need to alleviate the overcrowded schools and classrooms under which the neighborhood’s children struggle to learn.

If New York City is to thrive and offer opportunities to all its residents, we must ensure that investment in our public schools is a top priority for all agencies, including those focused on economic development. School construction should be the first consideration in all our development goals, rather than added as an afterthought years later, when the overcrowding has become too extreme to ignore. In the end, our investment in education will provide far better financial returns than yet more public land and tax giveaways to developers and corporations.

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Leonie Haimson is Executive Director of Class Size Matters; Sabina Omerhodzic is a Long Island City resident and a member of the Community Education Council in District 30.

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Designing Bus Routes to Attract Passengers and Reverse Declining Ridership (Part 2)


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(photo via NYC Department of Transportation)


This is the second part of a 3-part series. Part 1 discussed the causes for bus ridership decline, the Fast Forward Plan as it relates to buses and why its focus needs to be changed to reverse this decline. In this part: measures that have worked in the past.

The Southwest Brooklyn Changes of 1978
No other group of bus route improvements were that comprehensive. The 1978 changes also differed from others in that they were not initiated by the MTA, but by the New York City Department of City Planning (DCP). It was the only time another agency suggested bus route changes to the MTA; all other route changes originated in-house. I authored the DCP route changes and headed the study, which took four years due to the MTA throwing up roadblocks. First, MTA reps suggested we expand the study’s scope; then they claimed the scope was too large, making the changes infeasible. 

In the end, about 25 percent of the proposals became reality after a lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council included a provision requiring the MTA to take actions in southern Brooklyn to alter bus routes to improve air quality in Manhattan per the 1970 Clean Air Act. 

DCP met with community boards before and during the study to solicit bus problems and to describe both the positives and negatives of the proposal. That approach resulted in approval by three boards with the other three boards, which were least-affected, taking a neutral position. No board objected.

By contrast, all presentations of MTA studies provide limited facts, omit the negatives, and community recommendations are only considered when massive numbers support or oppose a change. That results in opposition to all MTA bus changes. The southwest Brooklyn changes went virtually unnoticed by the media because the last citywide newspaper strike occurred in the autumn of 1978.

What the Southwest Brooklyn Changes Did Not Accomplish
As complex and successful as it was, three-quarters of the proposal was rejected. It also recommended the meandering B16 serving Fort Hamilton Parkway and 13th Avenue be split into two direct routes along each of those streets to better serve Maimonides Medical Center and make bus transferring more direct. This important traffic generator has only one east-west bus route serving it and an elevated line over a quarter-mile away. The B16 would have passed directly in front of the hospital, greatly improving accessibility.

Outdated bus routes are a problem throughout the city.

Some routes were never properly designed when they were created. According to The New York Times, when the U shaped B21 was created in 1946 (then named the 21) from the combination of two other routes, there was a protest outside Coney Island Hospital that the route did not meet the needs of the community. Yet it remained in place for over 30 years until it was discontinued as part of the 1978 southwest Brooklyn changes.

Comparison with MTA-Led Studies
Unwillingness to compromise has characterized several MTA bus studies, such as the northeast Bronx study circa 1993 that resulted in no route changes. A Staten Island study in the early 1980s resulted in only two route changes and an early 1980s Brooklyn study and early 1990s study resulted in no changes at all. That is why the 1978 study stands out for its accomplishments.

It proved that comprehensive studies can work, something the MTA refuted, because its studies failed, until a few years ago when it undertook a northeastern Queens bus study at the insistence of local elected officials. Recent support of comprehensive studies by the Bus Turnaround Coalition also led the MTA to rethink its piecemeal rerouting approach. 

The DCP southwest Brooklyn study cost only $250,000. The MTA spent well over $20 million on its bus route studies and has little to show for them. Only a Bronx study in the mid-1980s and the northeast Queens study resulted in a few meaningful bus route changes. The MTA also mixes good and bad ideas in its plans with too much of a focus on reducing operating costs and too little emphasis on improving service.

Examples are a service extension in Brooklyn around 2001 to the Gateway shopping center, which was combined with a route cutback in Ridgewood in order to save a single bus. Similarly, an improvement combining service on the two portions of Ralph Avenue also was coupled with a cutback in service on St. John's Place to keep costs neutral. That created a new service gap and reduced accessibility. The approach to mix good with bad ensures opposition to MTA plans.

Unwillingness to invest in providing additional bus miles to attract new patronage has partially been the reason for ridership declines. The MTA has long-insisted that bus route changes be cost neutral with the exception of the SBS program. In recent years, service in developing neighborhoods has been addressed by the creation of shuttle routes or extensions operating every 30 minutes without consideration of the rest of the bus system; those routes have not performed well. A B67 extension caused additional routing problems by terminating a few blocks from a major transportation terminal, hindering transferring, also to save a single bus. 

In other words, if you make sensible proposals that do not needlessly hurt communities and are honest with them by telling them the entire story — the positives as well as the negatives, as DCP did — they will support your plan. Conflicting and partial information, refusing to compromise as in the northeast Bronx study, and refusing to respond to questions, as with the SBS program, will result in opposition.

This is part 2 of a 3-part series. Read part 1 here. The final part discusses routing changes that are still needed in Brooklyn and what needs to be changed in the Fast Forward plan.

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Allan Rosen is former Director of Bus Planning, MTA NYC Transit. On Twitter @BrooklynBus.

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Infrastructure Planning Should Not Include Vilifying Workers


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Development and infrastructure are among the most widely discussed topics in New York City. Over the last few weeks, for example, City & State hosted the Rebuilding New York Summit focusing on infrastructure, financing, and policy; an article came out regarding MTA contracting reform; and several City Council members had a press conference to call for an investigation into MTA spending. But typically missing from the conversation are the people actually doing the work. When workers are mentioned, it’s usually to argue that the costs associated with labor make it harder to take on or to complete new projects. These recent instances fell right into this familiar pattern.  

The New York State Laborers’ Organizing Fund, which participated in the Rebuilding New York Summit, was pleased to be able to provide the perspectives of our more than 40,000 members -- men and women who work day-in and day-out to keep New York running. Our members in New York are skilled, knowledgeable, and professional Construction Craft Laborers including cement and concrete workers, drill runners and demolition specialists, asphalt pavers and asbestos workers, sandhogs, or tunnel workers, hazardous waste workers, and more.

This workforce paves our roads, builds our railways, bridges, and utilities. The Laborers ensure this workforce is well-trained, safe, and sustained so that it may continue to build and repair projects for years to come. Workers receive competitive wages to support themselves and their families, safety and skills training, health Insurance, and savings toward retirement. The unionized construction industry provides workers with a sustainable career, which raises the bar for non-union workers as well, and benefits everyone in society.

Investing in infrastructure is necessary. It contributes to economic growth by producing reliable and quality projects which allow New Yorkers and products to move around more easily. It supports the continually increasing population of the city, as well as those who visit it. And finally, it creates jobs and increases the demand for a skilled workforce. But we cannot talk about the building and infrastructure needs without including those who will physically do the often dangerous work.

Is the cost of labor too high?
In December 2017, a New York Times piece reported the costs of tunnel labor in Paris and compared it to the cost in New York City, and what was clear is that they were not the equal. The piece claimed that workers in New York City are paid over $100 an hour while a similar worker in Paris is paid the equivalent of $60. But, left out of that math is that a large portion of hourly “wage” in New York actually goes to paying for healthcare, retirement, and paid leave. These benefits exist as government-sponsored programs in many places around the world, but not here. What these tunnel workers here in New York are left with as take-home pay at the end of the day is actually less than someone doing the same work in Paris.

New York taxpayers are construction workers and construction workers are taxpayers who also want jobs completed efficiently, safely, and by the most skilled workers to ensure quality. We ride the trains, drive on the roads, and live in the buildings with our families, and those of our neighbors.

All building and repairing projects in New York must include worker protections. This can help to ensure workers have basic wage and safety expectations and that projects are done in a professional and competent manner. But when the New York City subways received many headlines for their state of disrepair, workers were targeted. Scapegoating construction worker wages, and decisions made to build a well-trained workforce, is a simplistic argument to describe the challenges of complex and multi-billion-dollar projects.

Instead of demonizing workers because they can support themselves and their families, we should strive to raise the bar for all workers and penalize worker exploitation. We cannot support projects where taxpayer money is used, and workers are exposed to irresponsible contractors with histories of wage theft, safety violations, and low-wages.

It’s a matter of life and death for workers. How much is a worker’s life worth? Working in construction is dangerous. When workers are represented they may feel less pressure to work on an unsafe jobsite or perform a task they do not know how to do. Newly immigrated workers and day laborers may put their lives in dangerous situations for their livelihood. Union contractors ensure the safety of workers and uphold the standards of the industry while nonunion contractors continually cut corners using unsafe cost-saving measures, putting the scrupulous contractors at a disadvantage.

We must continue to raise the standards for all workers and to demand that contractors and developers do the same, and remember the worker when discussing infrastructure needs in New York.

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Vinny Albanese is Director of Policy and Public Affairs at New York State Laborers’ Organizing Fund (LIUNA).

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