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Community Group Endorses Four Women of Color for ‘Open’ City Council Seats

rivera velazquez

Carlina Rivera, left, & Marjorie Velazquez, center (photo: @CarlinaRivera)

In an effort to promote women’s representation on the City Council, the political arm of one of New York’s largest grassroots immigrant advocacy organizations has endorsed four women of color running for “open” Council seats this year.

Make the Road Action (MRA), the political affiliate of Make the Road New York, a group that represents about 20,000 Latinos in New York City and Long Island, will announce its endorsement on Friday for four progressive City Council candidates - Carlina Rivera, Alicka Ampry-Samuel, Diana Ayala, and Marjorie Velazquez. Each is seeking to fill a seat that is being vacated due to term limits.

“These four powerful women offer the powerful progressive leadership that our communities and our city need,” said Maria Cortes, an MRA member, in a statement. “They stand with working-class people of color like me on issue after issue including preserving and building truly affordable housing, reforming the NYPD, protecting immigrant families, standing up for workers’ rights, and making sure that all people’s voices are heard in our democracy.”

There are only 13 women currently on the 51-seat City Council, down from 18 in 2009, and four of them face term-limits this year, including Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Council member Inez Dickens recently stepped down after being elected to the state Assembly, and she is being replaced by State Senator Bill Perkins, who just won a special election.

With male candidates overwhelmingly represented in races across the board, there has been a push to ensure the success of women candidates. Mark-Viverito, Council Members Elizabeth Crowley and Margaret Chin, along with good government groups and women’s organizations, recently launched the “21 in ’21” campaign to encourage women to run for City Council and bring the total number of women members to at least 21 through the 2017 and 2021 city election cycles.

“It is shocking that in the most progressive city in the United States, only one quarter of our City Council members are women,” Mark-Viverito said in a statement announcing the initiative. “All New Yorkers suffer when we don’t have equal representation in government and I intend to do everything I can to bring true equity to the Council at long last.”

MRA has identified this issue and intends to mobilize its members, numbering in the thousands, to back women candidates who have shown support for progressive causes. Friday’s announcement is its first wave of endorsements and more are expected to follow in the coming months, leading up to the September primaries when most City Council races are actually decided in Democrat-heavy New York City. (Make The Road New York receives discretionary funding through the City Council and individual Council members, for a variety of community programs and services it performs.)

The group has similarly endorsed progressive candidates in prior elections. In 2013, MRA’s sister PAC, Make the Road Political Action, even spent $27,323 for independent mailings supporting Antonio Reynoso for the District 34 Council seat, and opposing Vito Lopez, Reynoso’s primary competitor. Reynoso was victorious.

The four candidates now being backed by MRA, in statements accompanying the announcement, noted the importance of MRA’s advocacy at a time when immigrant communities face a volatile political climate at the national level.

Carlina Rivera, who is running to replace Council Member Rosie Mendez in Manhattan’s District 2, said she was “honored” to receive MRA’s endorsement. Citing the “despicable and dangerous” policies of the Trump administration, she said, “Make the Road Action has been a leading force in the city’s resistance and through organizing they have built power and self-determination in neighborhoods everywhere. Throughout my career in service, I have strived to achieve these same goals in my own community. The issues we fight for are both important and personal to me.” Rivera, who is Mendez’s legislative director and was endorsed by the Council member, is currently leading the race in fundraising, ahead of five opponents so far, four of whom have no funds to their name.

“In these times of fear and uncertainty for our immigrant communities, the work of MRA is more important than ever,” said Diana Ayala, deputy chief of staff to Mark-Viverito, who is running to replace her boss in District 8, which covers East Harlem and the South Bronx. Mark-Viverito endorsed Ayala last year, writing in a Facebook post, “Diana is a reflection of who I fight for each [and] every day [and] what motivates me to do what I do. There is no better person to represent this district.” Ayala currently has three competitors for the seat, but has far surpassed them in fundraising so far.

In District 13 in the Bronx, a crowded field of candidates has declared a run for Council Member James Vacca’s seat. Marjorie Velazquez, a Democratic district leader, has Vacca’s endorsement but will face an uphill challenge. She is second in fundraising, trailing behind state Assembly Member Mark Gjonaj. Velazquez said she was “proud and humbled” that MRA had endorsed her. “This incredible organization helps give a voice to so many people and provides valuable assistance to New York families in need,” she said, in a statement. “Now, more than ever, their services for immigrants, women, senior citizens, tenants and members of the LGBT community have the potential to make real, positive changes in the lives of millions.”

The race for Council Member Darlene Mealy’s seat in Brooklyn’s District 41 has seen little action so far. Alicka Ampry-Samuel is one of six candidates in that race, and none of them have posted much in the way of campaign fundraising. “In our current national climate, local municipalities must now become the stewards of protection for all people of color; no matter their country of origin,” Ampry-Samuel said. “I will always fight for New York City to remain a safe haven for the freedoms and rights upon which our country was founded.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Related: Candidates for 2017 City Elections

Related: The Early Money Race in ‘Open’ City Council Seats

De Blasio Faces Local Questions About ‘Mansion Tax’ Plan

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Mayor de Blasio (photo: Edwin J. Torres/ Mayor's Office)

A report released by the city Independent Budget Office has raised questions about the potential effects of the so-called “mansion tax,” a proposed part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing strategy that would levy a 2.5 percent surcharge on the sale price over a threshold of $2 million for residential properties.

De Blasio put forward a version of the mansion tax proposal, which requires approval by the State Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo, in mid-2015. It failed to gain traction then. The mayor presented the current updated form at an Albany legislative state budget hearing in late January and reiterated it at his State of the City address February 13.

The mayor has said that he hopes the revenues from the tax, estimated by his Office of Management and Budget at $336 million in fiscal year 2018, will be used to subsidize rents for seniors.

The IBO report shows that about 8 percent of citywide home sales between 2014 and 2016 carried price tags of $2 million or more; and of those sales, 86 percent were for properties in Manhattan.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer had requested that IBO examine the impact the tax would have on her constituency. Often in agreement with de Blasio, a fellow Democrat, Brewer told Gotham Gazette that she is opposed to the mayor’s mansion tax proposal.

“Manhattan should not be the cash cow for the rest of the boroughs,” Brewer said during a phone interview, adding that she would be “much more comfortable with [a threshold of] $5 million and not $2 million.”

At the State of the City speech, the mayor told his constituents to “ask [state legislators] if you think someone selling a home for more than $2 million can afford a little bit for senior citizens.” The tax would be paid by the buyer, according to de Blasio’s plan.

Brewer also raised concerns that mansion tax revenues would not be guaranteed to go to rent subsidies. “Any tax that has been enacted then has to be allocated. It could go to seniors, or it could go to homeless services, or it could go to anything,” she said.

Asked if she would publicly oppose and testify against the tax if given the opportunity, Brewer said she would. She said she had not been in touch with the mayor or his staff about the mansion tax specifically, but had heard from constituents concerned about the measure’s effects.

In emailed comments expanding on the report, IBO Chief of Staff Doug Turetsky said there were arguments for and against the tax. A possible issue is the specter of a price cliff: “suddenly you will probably have a lot of sales priced just under the threshold for the mansion tax.”

However, he touted the proposal’s potential to level the playing field, as both co-ops and high-end residential sales paid in cash or with foreign financing are not subject to the city’s existing mortgage recording tax. “As a result, purchasers of a comparatively moderate priced home will likely pay both the city’s mortgage recording tax and real property transfer tax, while many buyers of the city’s most expensive residential properties will only pay the transfer tax,” he said.

Along with skepticism from Brewer, de Blasio is facing a long road to mansion tax passage in Albany, where both Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, and the state Senate Republican majority are philosophically opposed to new taxes. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has said his conference is interested in cutting taxes, and he is facing a Cuomo proposal to extend the state’s “millionaire’s tax.”

De Blasio has said that recent progressive victories indicate nothing is impossible to see through Albany if there is enough support. The mayor also argues the city needs the mansion tax revenue to bolster his affordable housing plan, especially for seniors, though the city has been rapidly adding to its budget under the mayor without additional taxes, given revenues have been strong amid a booming city economy.

“I don’t think the mayor has thus far made the case why the tax is needed for any particular agenda he wants to pursue,” said Carol Kellerman, president of the Citizens Budget Commission, adding that “it would seem to us that the mayor and the [City] Council are able to fund anything they need $330 million for” out of the already expanded, $84.7 billion budget the mayor has proposed for fiscal year 2018.

Melissa Grace, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, dismissed the idea of a price cliff, arguing that, since the tax would only apply for the price over $2 million, “that’s not going to affect any buyer or seller’s behavior.” She also pointed out that the average home purchase affected by the tax would be $4.5 million, an argument the mayor also raised at an unrelated press conference this week when Gotham Gazette asked about his tax plan.

In response to Brewer’s concern of the money being used for other purposes, Grace said that according to the city’s proposal, the funds would go specifically to the recently announced Elder Rent Assistance program and could not be used for anything else.

Asked at a Tuesday press conference about previous statements that the mansion tax was justifiable given tax cuts for the wealthy the mayor is anticipating from Washington, D.C., the mayor said that President Donald Trump “has been salivating for the opportunity to reduce corporate taxes and taxes on the wealthy...So I think it’s a really, really good betting assumption there will be tax cuts for the wealthy and the corporations.”

The mayor added that, even if a federal tax cut does not materialize, “I still think the mansion tax makes sense...Someone who’s buying a $4.5 million home can afford to spend a little bit more.”

by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette

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Pointing to Progress, Deputy Mayor Says City Hears Nonprofit Funding Concerns

Deputy Mayor Richard Buery speaking Medgar Evers

Deputy Mayor Richard Buery (photo: Medgar Evers College)

As city-contracted nonprofit organizations continue to call for funding increases from the de Blasio administration, Deputy Mayor Richard Buery insists that the administration is “sympathetic” to those concerns and is doing everything in its power to ensure a “strong and robust” nonprofit sector.

Nonprofits in the city that provide a range of contracted services, from mental health care and early childhood education to homelessness prevention, say they are facing a crisis of financial instability brought on by decades of underinvestment by successive administrations. As their costs soar and contracts remain relatively flat, many are cutting staff or whittling down their services to remain afloat. Nearly one in five are insolvent.

“There really has been absolutely a history of disinvestment in the sector which makes their work harder,” said Buery, who heads strategic policy initiatives for the administration, in an interview at City Hall. “I think under our administration, there’s really been an acknowledgement of that and I really do believe a real effort to address it.”

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, a first term Democrat, there have been incremental efforts to buoy the sector and those who work in it, particularly by providing salary increases for employees at city-contracted nonprofits. Two years ago, the city gave 2.5 percent cost of living raises to human services nonprofits. The city subsequently announced a $15 minimum wage for all city-contracted nonprofit personnel and, in the mayor's recently-released fiscal year 2018 budget plan, is proposing 2 percent raises annually for three years for the 90,000 employees of human services nonprofits.

The city also established a Nonprofit Resiliency Committee last year, to examine structural problems in the sector and “streamline some of the bureaucratic challenges which wind up having a dollar impact, a financial impact on nonprofits that try to get work done,” Buery said.

Still, nonprofit groups argue that salary increases, though laudable, are not sufficient in the face of rising costs for insurance, rent, infrastructure, and more. “I think it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem,” said Allison Sesso, executive director of the Human Services Council. “The institution itself is financially struggling,” she said, separating the questions of employee wages and organizational solvency.

Sesso is one of nearly 200 human services nonprofit leaders who wrote to Mayor de Blasio in December, calling for a 12 percent increase in contracts across the board at an estimated $500 million price tag. “You count on us each day to ensure the wellbeing, safety, and security of our fellow New Yorkers,” the letter reads. “We fully embrace your equity agenda, but are compromised in our ability to help achieve it given the years of City neglect of our work. You inherited this situation, but it has continued to worsen and we need bold leadership now to fix it.”

Deputy Mayor Buery stressed that the city is committed to those fixes and is engaged in constant dialogue with the nonprofit sector, but change doesn’t happen overnight. “I think everybody understands that...problems that have taken decades to create, are not gonna be solved in one budget cycle, or two budget cycles,” he said, pointing out that the challenges faced by the sector aren’t a problem specific to the de Blasio administration but one faced by city government at large.

Buery also said that the services provided by these nonprofits are particularly critical at a “vulnerable” time for the city, facing a period of economic slowdown and potential federal budget cuts.

That vulnerability and uncertainty about the future is precisely why Sesso from HSC said the city needs to invest in nonprofits now, to shore up a sector that serves the city’s neediest population. And while she agrees that the crisis can’t be solved immediately, “It’s important they make a substantial move forward this year,” she said.

Sesso commended the administration for creating the Nonprofit Resiliency Committee and ensuring ongoing conversations with nonprofits. But, she said, “As an advocate, until I see the money in the budget, I’m not satisfied. You can’t solve the problem through efficiencies alone.”

The city budget cycle recently began with de Blasio’s presentation of his preliminary budget. It will continue with a round of City Council hearings, behind-the-scenes negotiation and lobbying, de Blasio’s executive budget, more hearings and negotiations, and a budget deal between the mayor and the Council by the July 1 start of the new fiscal year.

The Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, one of New York’s largest nonprofit service providers, has been pushing for increased funding not only in the city but also at the state level. And while the state has yet to engage with their efforts, the city’s initiatives are encouraging. “We’re seeing some evidence of interest in addressing the issue,” said Emily Miles, director of policy, advocacy and research for FPWA. Miles cited the minimum wage increase and the cost of living adjustment. “But there’s some ways to go,” she said.

Miles and her colleague, policy analyst Carlyn Cowen, praised the administration for tackling structural issues and soliciting feedback from organizations through the Nonprofit Resiliency Committee, something prior administrations ignored. “Having everybody at the table is pretty unprecedented,” said Cowen. But they emphasized the pressing need to strengthen human services nonprofits, echoing Sesso’s warning of how federal policies may impact New Yorkers.

For the administration, the fact that nonprofits are voicing their concerns is a badge of honor, Buery said. “The light that’s being shined on the problem is a good thing,” the deputy mayor told Gotham Gazette, “but it is in part a reaction to an administration which has been willing to shine that light and open that conversation.”

Buery expects that dialogue will continue through the budget process as the city assesses revenue, and analyzes where best to allocate spending. “The mayor’s really shown his commitment to putting his money where his mouth is and so we intend to move forward with this sector to make sure we continue to do so,” he said.

With the city economy humming, and jobs and tourism at record highs, de Blasio has rapidly increased the city budget over his three years as mayor. He has continued to announce new funding initiatives already this year.

Asked at a news conference on Tuesday about the funding for nonprofits in his latest budget, Mayor de Blasio said, “I think the issue of how to make sure each preventive service organization does their job as best as possible is a broader qualitative question and to make sure we have enough of these services available when we need them for families in immediate need...we have to make sure the quantity and the quality is right. In the meantime we’re certainly looking for every opportunity to improve the dynamics for those workers and the compensation they get.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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