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Max & Murphy Podcast: City Planning Commissioner Michelle de la Uz

Jarrett Murphy, left, of City Limits, and Ben Max, right, of Gotham Gazette

March 19, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Michelle de la Uz

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Michelle de la Uz is a commissioner on the City Planning Commission, where she was originally appointed by then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, and Executive Director of Fifth Avenue Committee, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that manages affordable housing projects and provides other services to low- and moderate-income New Yorkers. De la Uz has been an independent voice on the City Planning Commission, regularly voting "no" on major proposals coming from de Blasio's administration. She joined the podcast to discuss the current housing crisis in New York City, the mayor's approach to development, and more.

Listen to the full conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy and guest Michelle de la Uz. You can listen to the episode through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Hears Bill on Charter Revision Commission

Fernando Cabrera

Council Member Fernando Cabrera (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

A day after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced initial appointments to a Charter Revision Commission that he is convening to examine the city’s campaign finance laws, Public Advocate Letitia James and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer testified before the City Council on their own alternative proposal to create a Commission to examine the structure of city government.

The Charter is the city’s seminal governing document, laying out the powers and functions of every level of city government. It is also a living document, and state law allows the mayor to create a 15-member Charter Revision Commission under his executive authority and also gives the City Council power to create one through legislation. Past mayors have availed of this power, some more than once. In February, de Blasio announced at his State of the City address that he intended to call a commission that could put proposals on the ballot for the November general election.

On Friday, speaking before the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, James and Brewer advanced their proposal, which they had put before the Council in December and which City Council Speaker Corey Johnson recently signed on to as a lead co-sponsor. (The hearing had been on the schedule all week, perhaps explaining the timing of the mayor’s Thursday announcement.)

As opposed to the mayor’s commission, where he appoints all 15 members, the James-Brewer bill would allow other elected officials a say in the process. The mayor would get four appointments, as would the City Council speaker. The five borough presidents, the public advocate, and the comptroller would each get to choose one member. An updated version of the bill grants the Council speaker the power to appoint the commission’s chair, a change that coincided with Johnson signing on as a co-sponsor and the Council pushing ahead with Friday’s hearing.

James, in her opening statement, lauded the mayor’s intent in creating a commission but said it suffers from the same problems as previous commissions: “predetermined conclusions, a narrow focus on issues within Council authority, and a timeline far too tight to do the job right.” During his State of the City and since, de Blasio has indicated he wants his commission to focus on campaign finance and electoral reform, though he has acknowledged that by law the commission can look at the entirety of the charter.

“The bill you will consider today...is a vehicle for a truly democratic and holistic process,” James said. Although both James and Brewer spoke of changes to the charter that they would be glad to see -- for instance, a stronger role for the Council in city budgeting, a greater voice for communities in land use decisions, enhanced oversight of city agencies -- they emphasized that those were not mandates that their proposed commission would be charged with. (Perhaps the only issue that James said she would not want on the table is changes to term limits for elected officials.) Rather, they would empower a commission to deliberate on the entire charter with ample time to consider the ramifications of any changes -- their commission would make proposals to go on the ballot in 2019.

“Those discussions will not be had if the mayor simply appoints a slate of proxies and tells them what conclusions to reach,” said James, a Democrat like de Blasio, Brewer, and Johnson who is widely expected to run for mayor in 2021.

James and Brewer also sought to dispel the notion that the commission they are proposing would competing with the mayor’s, pointing to the 2019 timeline and noting that they invited the mayor to join their effort. “This does not need to be a zero-sum game, or even a competition,” James said.

Brewer, in particular, emphasized that past commissions had been formed by mayors to fulfil particular agendas and that appointees of the mayor were unlikely to consider proposals that could curb, in any way, the power of the mayor’s office. “I think all of our ideas would benefit from the give and take and compromise that would be necessary in a commission not controlled by any one elected official,” she said.

Council Member Fernando Cabrera, chair of the committee, praised the bill and said he supported it because it was a “far better approach” than the mayor’s. “It will be a charter revision for everyone,” said the Bronx Democrat.   

But, Council Member Kalman Yeger, who was just elected to the Council in November, wasn’t sure about the proposal. “My perspective is that I have some discomfort with outsourcing my work, if you will, to an unelected body of 15 people,” he said, noting that though the speaker may get appointments on a commission, the other 50 Council members would not. He also raised concerns about proposing ballot referenda in 2019, an off-year in the election cycle when voter turnout is expected to be extremely low.

James pushed back against those concerns. “I believe we should democratize this process,” she said, acknowledging that all the stakeholders in the commission would have to work hard to engage voters and generate interest in the revision process.

Yeger, a Brooklyn Democrat, also pointed out what is most ironic about the two commissions: that they are being proposed by Democrats who ardently opposed holding a Constitutional Convention to examine the state constitution, which was a question on the ballot last November. Both Brewer and James conceded that though they opposed the ConCon, as it was colloquially called, the charter revision process has sufficient checks and balances, particularly with diverse appointees on a commission.

James also noted that one of the big fears about the ConCon was about the individuals behind the curtain who would control it, which isn’t the case with their proposed commission. “There is no Wizard of Oz in this particular process,” she said. “It’s the Manhattan borough president and Letitia James, who you both know and work with.”

Representatives for the four other borough presidents also testified in support of the bill, as did a number of government reform groups and advocates.

Stanley Fritz, campaigns manager at Citizen Action of New York, encouraged the Council to set aside funds for a public education campaign to engage voters in the charter revision process. The bill currently calls for the Commission to hold at least one hearing in each of the five boroughs and to conduct extensive outreach to civic and community leaders.

Fritz also advocated for amending the bill’s prohibition on appointing lobbyists to the commission, insisting that it should ensure that only lobbyists employed by for-profit entities should be barred, and that those who advocate for non-profits should be allowed to serve. Otherwise, “it would exclude virtually the entire New York City good-government community, including the sorts of advocates who are testifying before you today,” he said.

Doug Muzzio, political science professor at Baruch College's School of Public and International Affairs, has also testified before an expert panel of the 2010 Charter Revision Commission created then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. On Friday, he emphasized that any new commission should “articulate clear and compelling goals” related to broad subject areas such as governmental structure and land use, without which it would be directionless. He also said the commission should look at the unfinished business of past commissions, and “beware the unintended consequences,” though he didn’t offer specifics.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said the bill was “skeletal” and should add language to ensure that staff of those elected officials making appointments should be excluded from working for the commission. She also questioned why Speaker Johnson would be allowed to appoint the chair of the proposed commission, as opposed to the commission members choosing their own leader.

Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor for Reinvent Albany, had a few prescriptions for a potential commission. He said the speaker and mayor should jointly appoint the chair of the commission;  and stressed that the commission should abide by the state’s Freedom of information and Open Meetings laws, and should require public posting of events, materials, reports and archives.

He also suggested that the bill include language requiring commission members and staff to solely use government emails to carry out their work and that any lobbying directed at the commission should be publicly reported.  

Camarda also encouraged the Council and mayor to work together on one commission, warning that two commissions could result in “conflicting policy, public confusion, excessive politicization, inefficiency, and litigation.”

“There is no doubt two commissions convened in the same year would be unprecedented in recent memory and create a high degree of uncertainty,” he said.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Council Speaker Backs Charter Commission Bill That Gives Him More Sway

Corey Johnson

Speaker Johnson (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said last week that the Council would forge ahead with legislation to create a Charter Revision Commission to review the broad structure of city government, bucking Mayor Bill de Blasio’s intention to unilaterally create a commission meant to explore campaign finance and electoral reforms. And Johnson’s support of the bill -- first proposed in December by Public Advocate Letitia James and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer -- also came with one significant change to its language. Instead of the commission members electing a chair and vice chair from among themselves, the speaker would get to appoint the head of the commission.

The original James-Brewer bill was introduced amid a frenzy of other activity on the last day of the 2014-2017 session of the City Council and, just two months later, was undercut by de Blasio’s announcement in his State of the City address that he would convene his own commission. The mayor said that he would solicit input from others, but that he would appoint all the commission members, exercising his executive prerogative.

On Friday, however, The New York Times reported that Johnson would support the James-Brewer proposal, which calls for a commission with four members appointed by the mayor, four appointed by the Council speaker, one member appointed by each borough president, and one member appointed by each the public advocate and the comptroller.

The original version of the bill proposed that the commission would get to choose one of its members to lead it through the process of examining, debating, and reimagining the charter, effectively the city’s constitution. The process takes months at the minimum, depending on the scope of the commission’s review, and its proposals are put to the voters on the ballot.

The amended version of the bill, on which Johnson was added as a lead co-sponsor along with James and Brewer, contains the change giving him more power. “The speaker of the city council shall appoint from among the membership a chairperson,” it states.

Joseph Viteritti, a professor at Hunter College who was research director for the Charter Revision Commission convened by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2010, said the change “certainly makes the Speaker a more important player in this.”

“A very important function of the chair is to select the staff of the commission, the executive director, and the research director,” Viteritti said, pointing out that much of the work is driven by those staffers. “From a working point of view, I think it is significant...That’s what drives the process in the end.”

Jennifer Fermino, a spokesperson for Johnson, maintained that the change in the bill was not noteworthy. “The structure of the commission remains unchanged. The sponsors of the bill agreed that having a chair appointed by the Speaker would make the process of setting up the Commission more efficient, as it has for past Commissions. The Chair can accept space and initial staff which will enable the Commission to get to work more quickly,” Fermino said in a statement.

Spokespeople for James and Brewer did not provide comment for this article. A mayoral spokesperson declined to comment.

Viteritti did note that any commission, whether created by the legislative branch or the executive, is virtually unhindered in scope and can choose to explore any section of the charter its members deem necessary. Both camps proposing a commission -- the mayor on one side and the council speaker, public advocate and Manhattan borough president on the other -- have made clear the issues they want to pursue, however.

De Blasio was more direct, stating in his February 13 State of the City speech that he would appoint a commission and “give it the mandate” to propose changes to campaign finance law, reducing the influence of wealthy donors in elections, as well as empower the city government to handle responsibilities currently entrusted to the Board of Elections, a quasi-state agency.

Johnson is hoping for a broader assessment of city government, without any “pre-baked” ideas and proposals, and not including proposals that fall under the Council’s legislative authority, such as campaign finance reform. “A Charter Revision Commission should look at things that are structural in the governance of New York City,” he said when asked by Gotham Gazette, at an unrelated news conference last week, two days before The New York Times report.

Among the ideas he floated -- some of which have been supported by James and Brewer as well -- are independent budgeting for the offices of the public advocate, the borough presidents, the comptroller and community boards; an “advise-and-consent” role for the Council on additional mayoral appointees and nominations; examining changes to the city’s land use process and units of appropriation as part of the budget process.

“Those are things that we at the Council cannot legislate,” Johnson added. “They’re in the City Charter, they go to the structure of city government and we can’t legislate them. The issues that the mayor put forward, while they may be worthy issues, they’re not issues that the public needs to vote on as part of a Charter Revision Commission. The council could legislate those items.”

The Council bill is set to be heard by the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations on Friday.

“You never can entirely predict where a commission is going to go,” Viteritti said. “If you know where you’re going before you get there, what’s the point of calling a Charter Revision Commission.”

[Read: De Blasio Promises Fairness, Democracy in State of the City Address]

[Read: Next Steps and Recent Precedents for De Blasio's Charter Revision Commission]

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Unions Max Out to Council Speaker’s Inauguration Committee

Corey Johnson Stuart Applebaum

Above: Speaker Johnson and Stuart Applebaum (photos: William Alatriste/City Council)

Political action committees affiliated with prominent unions in the city invested heavily in the 2017 municipal election cycle, contributing to candidates in races for City Council, borough-wide and citywide positions. And that giving continued after the election was over, with many of the same unions having another opportunity to donate to elected officials. The new City Council Speaker Corey Johnson was one of the beneficiaries of that giving, taking in maximum-allowable donations from several union-linked PACs for his transition and inauguration committee.

During the January 22-31 period, which came after Johnson was formally elected to lead the Council, the new speaker’s transition and inauguration entity (TIE) took in $31,500 in 14 donations from political action committees, according to disclosures filed with the New York City Campaign Finance Board. Ten of the donations were for the maximum amount of $2,750 that donors can give to City Council candidates.

The committee spent $31,254 on Johnson’s inauguration, which was hosted at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Midtown Manhattan. Johnson was sworn in by U.S. Senator Charles Schumer of New York, with several prominent Democratic elected officials and party leaders in attendance including members of Congress, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Comptroller Scott Stringer, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., and dozens of Council members.

Most of the maximum donations to Johnson’s TIE came from groups that had already maxed out to his reelection campaign -- during which he faced no significant competition but generously moved money to colleagues’ campaigns as he sought their support for his speaker bid -- effectively meaning that they gave him $5,500 in total.

Those PACs, many associated with major labor unions, include the 32BJ United American Dream Fund, New York Hotel Trades Council’s PAC, the Local 6 Committee on Political Education, the Doctors Council SEIU COPE, the Mason Tenders’ District Council PAC, and the United Federation of Teachers.

A few PACs didn’t donate to Johnson’s reelection committee but did so for his transition, after his election as speaker, while others gave larger donations to his transition after giving to his reelection. The Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union PAC, for instance, gave Johnson’s transition committee $2,750 after only a $1,000 donation to his reelection effort, while the Building and Constructions Trades Council PAC gave $2,750 to the transition after foregoing a contribution to his reelection. Others like the Council of School Supervisors PAC gave lower contributions to the transition committee after having already donated to his reelection.

“We want the new Speaker to be successful, and we wanted to support his transition efforts and his agenda for working New Yorkers,” said Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, in a statement. “We have contributed to him in the past for both of his elections to the city council; and we would expect to contribute to him again in the future. When he first ran for city council, his campaign operation was located in our offices.”

Johnson’s transition fundraising is barely a drop in the bucket compared with his own campaign, which raised more than $505,000 and spent about $416,000. But the contributions are a window into the groups, many of them with business before the city, seeking to curry favor with the leader of the city’s legislative body.

The Hotel Trades Council, the largest hotel workers union in the country, whose PAC donated generously to Johnson, has been pushing for stronger regulations against home-sharing services such as Airbnb. Metropolitan Public Strategies, a political consulting group with ties to HTC, also helped Johnson in his bid for the speakership. Just last month, Johnson, who has long-running ties to HTC, promised a strong crackdown on illegal hotels and illegal Airbnb listings.

The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association PAC, affiliated with the largest uniformed police officers union in the city, also gave to Johnson, both for his reelection and his transition. The PBA stepped up its involvement in local races in the 2017 election cycle, hoping to increase the sway it holds over members of a body that has, in the last few years, proposed and passed a slew of policing reforms.

In December, three weeks before the speaker vote, Johnson was among the majority of Council Members who voted to pass a controversial police reform package known as the Right to Know Act. One of the two bills in the final package, sponsored by Council Member Ritchie Torres, was roundly criticized, both by police reform advocates for being watered down at the behest of the mayor and the NYPD, and by the PBA for being a cumbersome burden on police officers. Chris Coffey, a consultant at Tusk Strategies, represents the PBA and is also a close advisor to Johnson, having worked on his speaker bid.

Many labor unions have exercised strong influence over legislation under the previous class of the City Council and through de Blasio’s first term. One notable example is 32BJ SEIU, the building-service workers union, which played an active role in shaping a package of legislation related to non-unionized fast-food workers, down to the very bill language, according to a Politico New York report.

Neither a spokesperson for Johnson's campaign nor a spokesperson for Johnson's City Council office returned a request for comment for this article.

This year wasn’t the first time Johnson created a transition committee. After the 2013 cycle, when he was first elected to the Council, he raised $35,147 and spent $34,831 on his inauguration. Of the 22 donations he received that year, however, only five came from PACs.

Along with Johnson, several other elected officials also created TIEs. Save for Mayor de Blasio,  -- who raised about $78,000 and spent about $77,000 on his transition -- Johnson outspent all the others including Comptroller Stringer and Public Advocate Letitia James.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to note that RWDSU donated $1,000 to Corey Johnson's reelection effort.  

On Land Use, Johnson Promises 'Deference' to Members But 'No Veto'

Johnson Rodriguez City Council

Speaker Johnson, center, & CM Rodriguez, right (photo: William Alatriste)

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said Thursday that the elected Council members of the body he leads will get “deference” but “no veto” on land use matters.

Even before he was officially elected the new speaker of the Council, Johnson had already begun to define how he would approach the job. In clear breaks from his predecessor, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Johnson promised greater independence from the mayor, expanded oversight over city agencies, and a more active role in land use decisions, which is one of the most significant roles played by the 51-member legislative body.

Promising to bolster the Council’s land use division with more resources and staff, Johnson seemed to want a heavier hand in local development projects, or land use applications, where the previous speaker tended to almost completely defer to the local Council member’s sentiments and negotiations. Johnson, however, has implied that he won’t allow the same kind of leeway that Mark-Viverito gave to members to oppose or reject proposals in their districts, which, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, include a number of neighborhood rezonings that can shape the landscape and character of neighborhoods for generations.

At an event Thursday, hosted by the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, Johnson explained his approach, saying that he would involve himself in land use applications if a local Council member requested it, but at the same time, would not allow any single member to act as an obstacle to a worthwhile project with benefits for a community.

When asked about the ongoing land use process for a proposed rezoning in Inwood in Uptown Manhattan, Johnson first admitted that he knew little about the ins-and-outs of the particular plan. “On the Inwood rezoning, this is not me in any way shirking, but I honestly, I haven’t been briefed on it,” he said, when panellist Debralee Santos from the Manhattan Times asked him about his general approach to land use issues and specifically two rezonings, a recently completed one in the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx and the ongoing one in Inwood in Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez’s district.

“I’ve been so crazy dealing with so many other things across the city,” Johnson added. “I see people tweet at me about it, and I’ve read some articles about it, but I have not had the opportunity to sit down with Councilman Rodriguez or the other elected officials and have a conversation about it.”

In the past few years, the City Council and the de Blasio administration have come face-to-face with the fact that even with rezonings that invest hundreds of millions of dollars in a neighborhood, that have gone through months of negotiations and received hundreds of hours of testimony and feedback from communities, there are inevitably those who remain dissatisfied. In some cases, Council members capitulate to community backlash, killing a project, but often they do not.

For instance, in 2015 East New York became home to the administration’s first successful neighborhood rezoning. Despite Council Member Rafael Espinal negotiating commitments of more than $260 million in investments from the city as well as a slew of other community benefits -- besides the affordable housing and economic development that undergirded the rezoning -- a segment of housing advocates argued that the rezoning would continue, and exacerbate, the nascent gentrification of the district. (The advocates even threatened to organize a challenge to Espinal’s 2017 reelection bid but did not follow through.) Espinal approved the project in the end, claiming advocates did not recognize the quality of the deal coming to the long-ignored community.

But, in 2016, owing to vocal community resentment, Council Member Rodriguez announced his opposition to a proposed development, also in Inwood, the day before it was scheduled to be voted on by the Council’s land use committee. The project was unanimously rejected by the committee based on Rodriguez’s verdict.

It was different, however, for Council Member Laurie Cumbo, who faced widespread criticism for vacillating on the proposed redevelopment of the Bedford Union Armory in Crown Heights. Eventually, faced with angry residents and a strong primary challenger, Cumbo rejected the proposal before her, which forced the city to amend its plans to later have them approved.

On Thursday at CUNY, Santos pointed to the Inwood Library as one controversial aspect of the larger rezoning, where residents of the neighborhood have called for an entirely separate land-use application for the building. “That’s a local institution that people believe should merit its own process altogether, its own ULURP [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure],” Santos pointed out.

“So I don’t know anything about it,” Johnson conceded. “But I’m happy to work with the stakeholders involved and find a solution. My general principle is, unless the rezoning or the land use action that’s proposed is totally off-the-wall and doesn’t make any sense or if there is no community buy-in, which it may be this case in Inwood from what I’m seeing, I try to get to a place of ‘yes.’”

Johnson recounted his own experience with the rezoning of Pier 40 in his Manhattan district in 2016, where in the end, he managed to extract $100 million worth of investments from the city while creating affordable housing and senior housing. “I worked on it for two-and-a-half years. There were many places where I wanted to walk away from that rezoning, it was frustrating me so much that I didn’t think I’d be able to close the deal. But in the end, I always work to get to a place of ‘yes,’” he said.

Would he get similarly involved in the Inwood rezoning, Santos asked.

“If I’m asked by the local elected official,” Johnson said. It’s unclear to what extent Johnson will assert himself if asked by other parties in a negotiation, such as the mayor’s office or real estate developers.

And though he noted that most rezonings go through a negotiated process, and most of them are approved, he said he will not allow a local Council member to determine the fate of any single land-use process that he deems worthy. “One thing I said is, is there member deference involved? Of course, there’s member deference involved,” he said. “But there’s no veto. No one gets a veto. There’s a difference between deference and a veto. If someone is opposing a project or asking for things that are totally unreasonable, someone needs to step in and say, ‘that doesn’t make any sense.’”

Though Johnson said he was not up to speed on the Inwood rezoning, in a statement to Gotham Gazette, Council Member Rodriguez indicated he is pleased with the speaker’s support thus far in the process.

“Speaker Johnson and the Land Use Committee staff have been very supportive throughout the rezoning,” Rodriguez said. “Land Use has taken the time to understand the needs of the community the council members share. They understand council members have the best knowledge of the whole population in their districts and are seeking an optimal outcome.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Anti-Harassment Bills Don’t Apply to the City Council

Johnson City Council staff

Speaker Johnson and others (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

Last week, the City Council proposed a legislative package aimed at confronting sexual harassment in private and government work environments. It includes 11 bills, four of which would apply to city agencies should they become law. Council members sponsoring the bills, including Speaker Corey Johnson, touted the legislation as evidence of the Council taking significant action toward preventing and punishing the type of harassment that has become the focus of a national movement. But the bills do not apply to the City Council itself.

“All New Yorkers are entitled to a safe, respectful workplace – and this starts with sending a strong message to employers that there is no place for sexualharassment in New York City,” Johnson said in a press release. “With more and more sexual harassment cases being brought to light, it has never been more important for the government to play a role in the movement to end sexual harassment and assault.”

There was also some confusion among the bill-sponsoring Council members and in the speaker's office as to whether the bills applied to other non-mayoral government entities such as the offices of the Comptroller, Public Advocate, or Borough Presidents. After this article was originally published, a Council spokesperson clarified that "The legislation as it is written will cover non-mayoral government entities, including the offices of the Comptroller, Public Advocate, or Borough Presidents. The Council will be covered through a rule that will be drafted to ensure compliance."

Speaker Johnson, along with Council Members Helen Rosenthal, Mark Levine, and Adrienne Adams, are the primary sponsors of the bills that add requirements to city agencies’ anti-sexual harassment policies and procedures. Johnson’s bill would mandate twice-annual sexual harassment training; Adams’ bill would instruct the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) and Commission on Human Rights to partner in determining risk factors “associated with sexual harassment” in city agencies; Levine’s would mandate that city agencies collect and then report sexual harassment cases; and Rosenthal’s would direct the Commission on Human Rights to administer surveys that test “general awareness and knowledge of workplace sexual harassment policies and prevention.”   

When originally asked about the omission of the Council and other non-mayoral entities in the legislation, a City Council spokesperson said that the Council is in the beginning stages of the legislative process, the bills may change, and that the Council will adhere to the laws they pass. There was no discussion of the Council’s own policies at the hourslong hearing on the bills held February 28 at City Hall.

A spokesperson for Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Women, told Gotham Gazette that the process is in its early stages, insisted the Council would comply with the practices in the new laws, and said that many of the provisions in the bevy of bills are already the Council’s policy, such as the provisions included in Johnson’s bill.  

A spokesperson for Adrienne Adams also said the Council was early in its process and “intended to comply” with the legislation.

A spokesperson for Mark Levine did not respond to requests for comment. Last year, Levine announced plans to introduce legislation that would designate Council staff complaints as the purview of the Council’s Standards and Ethics Committee, which currently only has oversight of elected Council members. The proposal has yet to make it into bill form.

For the several hundred employees of the City Council, the body’s own harassment policies and procedures are not public and Gotham Gazette is still awaiting the results of a Freedom of Information Law request for information regarding how harassment complaints are handled and how the Council’s equal employment committee (EEC) functions.

When it comes to handling complaints at the Council, sources indicate that there is a process for making and evaluating complaints through the EEC. Elected Council members themselves, are subject to the Committee on Standards and Ethics, made up of Council members, which evaluates complaints and can adjudicate punishment, as it recently did with Council Member Andy King, who was assigned additional training after a complaint of undue attention to a staff member was substantiated.

The bills will likely be changed before they are voted through committee and then the full Council, but to what extent remains unclear.

It was also unclear whether the offices of the Comptroller, Public Advocate, and Borough Presidents were aware of their inclusion in the legislation. When asked about their exclusion, working from apparently incorrect initial responses from the Council, those offices sent the following replies.

A spokesperson for Comptroller Scott Stringer declined to comment regarding the Council leaving itself out of the legislation, but provided Gotham Gazette with the office’s policies and procedures on sexual misconduct.  

A spokesperson for Public Advocate Letitia James did not respond to a request for comment.

In a statement, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said, "We have a standing EEO policy and trainings are conducted annually in coordination with DCAS. Even though the agency is not required to do so, Brooklyn Borough Hall implements the same anti-sexual harassment training that is applied in mayoral agencies. I will continue to apply the highest City standard for combating sexual harassment in the workplace, and I appreciate the City Council taking up this important issue.”

A spokesperson for Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. told Gotham Gazette, "Our office has a comprehensive sexual harassment policy that reflects the policies published by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services on the issue."

A spokesperson for Queens Borough President Melinda Katz said they had to review the legislation before commenting and that the office has existing policies in place for sexual harassment.

A spokesperson for Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer declined to comment on the legislation.

A spokesperson for Staten Island Borough President James Oddo also declined to comment on the legislation, but told Gotham Gazette the Borough President’s office follows the procedures used by city agencies and has both a male and female Citywide Diversity and Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) officer.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY, told Gotham Gazette that the omission of the City Council is part of a “pervasive disease of legislators.” “They like to prescribe vaccinations for everybody else but themselves,” she continued. “I have no idea what the motive is.”

Note: this story has been updated in several places based on new information provided by the City Council after the story was originally published.

Now Overseeing Closure, Council Member Makes First Visit to Rikers

Keith Powers Rikers Island

City Council Member Keith Powers (photo: John McCarten)

Last week, members of the New York City Council’s Committee on Criminal Justice toured Rikers Island to see for themselves the conditions at the problem-plagued jail complex, which is slated for closure within the next ten years. It was the first visit for the new chair of the committee, Council Member Keith Powers, who spoke with Gotham Gazette about what he and his colleagues saw, their conversations with detainees and corrections officers, and the issues it moved him to pursue.

The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Gotham Gazette (GG): How was Rikers?

Council Member Keith Powers (KP): “It was my first time going. It was quite educational and you know, I wouldn’t use the word ‘surprising’ because I’m not surprised but it certainly reconfirmed my belief that we should be doing what we are doing, which is to move in a hopefully expedited time manner to move into communities and create new borough-based facilities. It was super informative.

“We were surprisingly joined by the head of the correction officers’ union [Elias Husamudeen], who came along. We also had Stanley Richards, who’s the Board of Correction member from The Fortune Society, who also came. So with those two joining it was even better than I think we expected and had more conversation than just sort of what was going to be normally presented to us by the agency.”

GG: What was the tour like? How many buildings did you see? Did you meet with any inmates, any officers?

KP: “Yeah we did, we did a bunch. We saw the visitor’s center. We saw what they call ‘advanced supervision housing,’ which replaced solitary confinement for young inmates. We went there, we saw two parts of that. The one for the most restrictive and the one that’s least restrictive. But they’re all the most violent young, or the ones that have had a violent incident amongst the young folks. In one of them, they’re actually restrained, they can’t even get up from their desks even when they’re in the open area and in the second one there’s more freedom...We stood there and we talked to inmates in both of those facilities.

“These are young inmates who have had an incident, whether it’s a slashing or a fight or something else that led them to get in there, and so we talked to them there. We saw the academy, the school for the young inmates, we saw a sort-of medium facility...we saw the welcoming and visiting center where you actually come and show up if you’re a family member, you drop packages off -- we looked at all the protocols there. And we looked at one unit where there’s a pilot program around bringing dogs actually into one of the units, which is kind of like a reward for good behavior, I think.”

GG: This sounds like a long tour. How long were you there?

KP: “We got there around 10 o’clock and we were there till about 5 o’clock. It was really a long day. We left at 9 a.m. and we got home around 6 so basically 9 to 6, and we sort of spent an hour each way but the [DOC] actually set up the bus so we had a bus to get both ways.”

GG: What was your first impression?

KP: “Certain facilities are almost like a century old and they are, even if they’re not unsafe, even if they maybe were, they were perceived to be safe in the past, they’re certainly not, they’re not really set up to succeed, I think, on a lot of safety measures. You have, and the Department of Correction would say that, there’s some facilities that are old and the materials they used could be used, they don’t have modern materials in some of the cells, in some of the facilities that are, that would make it easier to protect the inmates, not being able to be transformed into weapons, things like that.

“And the second is that, a new facility would seem to lend itself to set up so that you could actually have less direct contact between staff and inmates, especially the very violent ones. And the other thing is that you go into a cell and you see how ridiculously small and lacking a cell is, especially particular cells we saw. It’s incredible to think that you have to spend your entire life for some period of time in one of these cells because they’re tiny and they’re not modern...it depends on where you are but there are jails that go back to the 1930s, so you’re in something that was built before World War II. It’s incredible.

“So it’s shocking, it’s really shocking. When you talk to the inmates directly, some of them are really candid, they didn’t really hide why they were there. They speak openly about what they did to end up in Rikers but also end up in a unit where, what the situation was that caused them to go into a unit with additional security.

“You know getting there and getting into the facility, the time it would take to do a whole trip there and see a loved one, that takes an entire day out of your life. And second, once you’re in there, you can see how these are really not, these are really meant to be upgraded, modernized and put closer to home.”

GG: At any point did you lock yourself in a cell to see how it feels

KP: “We went into one cell...I actually asked them to open one up…[O]ne of the most fascinating points was when Elias [Husamudeen] from the correction officers union and Stanley Richards had a kind of impromptu back and forth about solitary confinement. The argument is that corrections officers want to see solitary, punitive segregation as they call it, restored for inmates that are under the age of 21, believing that they’re still a risk...not having them in solitary, a policy the city took a few years ago to end it.

“So his argument is that it’s basically just the same thing as being in a regular cell, and so all you’re doing is having less hours outside of your cell, it’s not a dungeon or anything. So I actually asked them to open one up so I can walk in and see what it would feel like to be inside of a cell for like a minute, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for someone to be in there for 23 hours a day. We can always talk about ways to keep it more secure but I don’t think, an average stay on Rikers is 60 days and solitary is less than that but any period of time to be in a cell for 23 hours, that seems beyond reason, I think anybody would agree with that.”

GG: How did it feel? Claustrophobic?

KP: “The one I was in was small, I saw other ones that would be claustrophobic and almost impossible to believe that you could stay within your own senses. They were tiny and they were old and they, you know, they’re meant to be jail cells, I mean they’re meant to be restrictive. They’re claustrophobic...you feel your lack of freedom while you’re in there.”

GG: You said you spoke with inmates. What did they feel about the jail? Did anyone talk about what they wanted? About what they felt the jail was like?

KP: “We talked to a few. We went to the high school and we saw some that are getting ready to take the TASC [Test Assessing Secondary Completion] test, which is the new GRE, and were taking actually a sample test, so we talked to them a little about what they were doing. I gotta say, the teacher that was in that classroom won, I think, an award last year for being one of the best teachers in New York City. She seemed fantastic.

“I think they were just reading ‘The Alienist’ and she seemed to really challenge them, but the challenge in that setting is that they can be only there for 100 days or a year and so it’s only a moment in time where they’re getting a particular education. We talked to them a bit..Then we went to the unit where we really talked about what got them in and, you know, look there was a sense of frustration. We had certainly some complaints about process-related stuff, about them believing that they were supposed to get a hearing and that the hearings weren’t getting recorded...wasn’t being recorded correctly. Two of them told us that they received notice that they had refused a hearing and they hadn’t. So there were a lot of process related complaints.

“One of them talked about an altercation that he had with a corrections officer where he admitted that he got in a fight with a corrections officer and instigated it, well, was part of the instigation of it. A lot of it was about the relationship between the staff and the inmates...But I think we all understood that I think almost anybody in a restrictive climate would feel restricted and then thereby would have complaints about those who they have to deal with on a daily basis. You know a lot of it was talking about why they got in, particularly what got them in a specific unit, and then a lot of it was about process of getting a hearing, but acknowledging they had an audience and they knew we were City Council members and that this was an opportunity to raise any points that they wanted to.”

GG: Did you talk to any of the guards?

KP: “We talked to a lot of them. I will certainly tell you two things. One is, we met with a lot of guards, we met with wardens, deputy wardens, we met with corrections officers, we met with people working in the mental health unit. We met with one of them in the mental health unit who I would say demonstrated to me a real compassion and care, he was deputy warden, I think, in that unit, been there for like 30 years. Elias told me he retired and then unretired and really seemed to care.

“I thought the staff was, I thought they were really impressive. They were smart, they had a real care for the job, the ones we met at least. They really had a deep knowledge, not beyond just the job they do but more like the whole ecosystem around Rikers Island. We were there briefly for a security incident where they actually put the vests on and there was light that was going off, and we talked a lot about security and safety in there.

“Look, they have a really, really, really tough job and I was impressed by a lot of the staff that we met and their commitment to the job but recognizing that they would all tell you how difficult it can be and how safety and security is the top priority for them, not just themselves but for the inmates as well, the inmate-on-inmate violence and keeping people safe.

“I’m recognizing that there are people on that island who are not even guilty, who potentially could not be found guilty... so there’s a lot of different constituencies...in any building on the whole island. So we talked to a lot of staff and they were knowledgeable and they were smart and had a care for the job. But none of them would tell you it’s an easy job or that they feel safe at all moments.”

GG: Has it pushed you on wanting to move on one specific thing first? Has it changed your priorities at all?

KP: “Yeah it did. Number one is, it reaffirmed to me that we can build safer facilities and put people close to home and the proximity to your family and loved ones, the ability to have safer facilities and more modernized facilities and the ability for people to come and get there much easier is all worth it. It’s all worth what we’ve been talking about all along. The Close Rikers campaign was grounded in people’s real experiences, it was not just an ideological goal. People had come to this with real concerns.

“The second part of it is, I think we want to look at safety and security protocols in two ways. This opened my eyes. One is the procedures ongoing about keeping the people that work there safe in light of the incident a few weeks ago [where a guard was attacked] and in light of the things that we talked about. I think I would like to have a hearing at some point on the safety and security of everybody who works there and ways we can improve it. And second is, we were already planning on talking about contraband, but my visit to the visitors center, or the welcome center where you first walk in, did highlight for myself and some members the idea that it seems to me we could be doing more around preventing people from getting contraband into the prison.

“We asked a number of questions about packages and people that are entering into the jail and I think we still have a lot unanswered questions about safety of the inmates and security based on who and what is coming onto the island. So I think a hearing on two safety items - you know the people that work in the facility and people who work in the jails and two is the contraband.

“And the third one I think is grounded in conversations I had...today with [Board of Corrections] members but also based on being there, which is health services on the island and ensuring that we’re providing appropriate medical services to people on that island who really need it. And we didn’t get to go to the women’s facility but I think in that facility particularly there’s probably a lot of services that are required. So I think we should dive into health care on the island and connected to the island as well.”

GG: What do you think about what’s happening with the Bronx jail site proposal?

KP: “I think that, when the announcement was made and that was obviously the newest jail, while the other ones had been discussed and previewed in the past, and they’re based on existing sites, this is a totally new one. So it’s not totally surprising to me that there are a lot of questions that are coming from the community and that we end up talking about concerns.

“I think that there is a way that we can work with the community and the elected officials there to find something or find some compromise, or some way to work to site it there. I think that everybody understands the need and the importance of having the borough-based facilities and the fact that the Bronx would be one of them. But the elected officials that represent that area or nearby...found out about it from a press conference and were concerned about it. I think every community, every elected official wants to find out well in advance, at least have an opportunity to talk to the community about it.

“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised that it’s caused a conversation about location and the siting of it but I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to get to a place where all communities that are receiving new sites will be comfortable with them and will find the appropriate balance between their needs and the needs of the city.”

GG: Do you think Rikers will be shut down in less than 10 years?

KP: “Yes, I do. I do and I think that there’s two points that matter here. One is, we’re now on the land use, siting, and design process part of it -- which is, we’ve actually put us on a timeline on the process...if they certify the ULURP in November or December, which is what I think they’re expecting to do, and then they go through the ULURP. Then that’s a year or so by which they’re sited. That’s the good news. That was the importance of doing this now, to actually get that year of process out...I think we’re ahead of the ten-year schedule and we’re gonna be moving faster. And if we can get some reforms in Albany like speedy trials and bail reform and design-build...I think we move even faster than expected.”

[Related: Bronx Electeds, Residents Cry Foul as Mayor and Council Announce Jail Site]

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Questions Arise as De Blasio Rezones Series of Low-Income Neighborhoods

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City Planning map of East New York rezoning area

Later this year, the Department of City Planning is slated to release a “draft planning framework” as part of a process to rezone Gowanus, an initiative spearheaded by Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander aimed at increasing affordable housing and making a variety of other neighborhood improvements. Rezoning Gowanus, a middle-to-upper income, majority-white neighborhood, would be a departure from the city’s prevailing approach to reimagining a number of neighborhoods across the city.

At the beginning of his mayoralty, Bill de Blasio set an objective to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing in the city, a goal that has since been expanded to 300,000 by 2026. To that end, de Blasio listed about ten neighborhood to rezone, the central purpose of which is to permit added housing density. The community-wide plans that have moved forward or are on the verge of passage through the City Council thus far have include lower-income communities: East New York, East Harlem, and the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx. Downtown Far Rockaway was also rezoned, and plans are moving ahead for Inwood and on the North Shore of Staten Island.

The rezonings include changes to an area’s land use rules, typically allowing for taller residential buildings that must include a certain set percentage of affordable housing units, and promises of amenities like new schools, improved street designs, and other community benefits.

But from the start, questions have arisen around which neighborhoods are chosen for such major changes, and whether those changes accelerate forces of displacement for current residents. A City Limits analysis of East New York, East Harlem, and the Jerome Avenue corridor found that 85 percent of the residents included in the rezoning areas are black or Latino and over 50 percent of the households take in less than $35,000 annually. Far Rockaway and Inwood are in line with demographic profile of the three main, larger city-led rezonings.

Asked by Gotham Gazette about the pattern of his administration’s rezonings falling in lower-income neighborhoods, de Blasio said in February that the sample size of the rezonings is small, so no sweeping conclusions could be drawn from the pattern. He also reiterated his view that low-income communities are the ones that are most suitable for increased development.

“The opportunities to create more affordable housing have been first and foremost in some communities that have been been underbuilt for a variety of reasons,” he said. “We look for where is the opportunity to make the biggest impact.”

“East New York is the classic example,” the mayor continued. “There was a lot to work with. In some cases, there’s public land or private sites that hadn’t been built out.”’

De Blasio went on to insist that his rezoning plans have been focused on increasing affordable housing stock wherever the opportunity presents itself.   

“So my point would be, one, on the rezonings, we’re still first and foremost going to be focused on affordable housing. That’s the reason we’re doing the rezonings, overwhelmingly. And two, that’s going to be where land and where building sites are,” de Blasio explained. “But at the same time, anything we can get our hands on -- Gowanus is in the pipeline as an example.”

While de Blasio has pushed through different elements of the zoning packages, including the mandatory affordable housing attached to any upzoning, in something of a surprise, de Blasio’s practices have tracked with that of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, in terms of the neighborhoods tabbed for such increases in density. A 2010 Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy study of the rezonings under then-Mayor Bloomberg, for example, found that rezonings in areas with whiter than average populations were more likely to retain restrictive zoning ordinances. In turn, the city allowed comparatively more density in rezonings in black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Nevertheless, the de Blasio-led rezonings, which do include many more safeguards for communities than Bloomberg’s, have been embraced by many local elected officials, especially those who’ve been able to negotiate for more local investments from the city. The de Blasio rezonings, however, have also been met with resistance from various affordable housing advocates and some elected officials.

“Overall the neighborhoods that are being rezoned are mostly low-income communities of color,” Emily Goldstein, senior campaign organizer at the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development, told Commercial Observer in February. “They’ve all had many years of disinvestment, and now they’re facing this idea that, in order to get reinvestment they’ve needed all along, it has to come with a rezoning. I think there’s huge concern of how these shifts in the market will affect displacement. There’s a question of what’s going to get built and for whom.”

In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Katie Goldstein, executive director of affordable housing advocacy group Tenants and Neighbors, argued the city's rezonings have created housing that is nominally affordable, but in reality too expensive for the residents in certain neighborhoods. And the location selections, she said, exacerbate displacement pressures and gentrification. “What we’re seeing now is really just city-sponsored gentrification in these neighborhoods that have already been experiencing displacement pressures,” Goldstein told Gotham Gazette.

In an interview with Gotham Gazette last month, Comptroller Scott Stringer voiced similar concerns regarding the mayor’s approach to affordable housing. “Sometimes, there’s disconnect between the housing that we’re building and the people that can access that affordable housing,” he said. The overarching question that many have asked about de Blasio’s larger affordable housing plan, including the housing to be built in rezoned neighborhoods, has been “Affordable for whom?”

For his part, de Blasio argues the rezonings will not spur out-of-character development, nor significant displacement. Instead, the mayor says, creating affordable housing in low-income areas helps to reduce displacement pressures, especially when paired with provisions that require 30 percent of the units to be built under the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) guidelines that de Blasio and the City Council passed last term.

New York City must build its way out of the housing crisis, de Blasio believes; sitting on existing housing stock will only lead to higher rents and more displacement. He also regularly reminds critics that the rezonings are not only paired with MIH, but also significant investments in eviction prevention efforts.

In addition, de Blasio offers, the added housing density in rezoned neighborhoods is coupled with improvements to infrastructure, schools, parks, public transportation, job training, and more, allocating resources for the community at hand and its thousands of new residents. Furthermore, low-income neighborhoods, in de Blasio’s telling, have been underdeveloped compared to more affluent areas, as they have not been rezoned for decades.  

Lander, who replaced de Blasio in the City Council almost a decade ago, is helming the Gowanus rezoning, in its early stages, with community input. The process began in fall 2016 with a series of community visioning and planning meetings. As Lander has repeatedly noted, Gowanus would be a different type of rezoning than the ones de Blasio has put forth.

According to the aforementioned City Limits analysis, Gowanus -- a neighborhood bordering Park Slope that shares a name with the canal that runs through it -- is over half white with a annual median income of over $65,000.

Lander believes the city should not only rezone Gowanus but should make it a priority to upzone other more affluent neighborhoods throughout the city. According to Lander, loosening zoning restrictions and building affordable housing in traditionally tightly-zoned, affluent neighborhoods can help desegregate New York.

“I think it is our responsibility to affirmatively focus on upper-income neighborhoods and white neighborhoods [for upzonings],” he said. “We’ve started to have a conversation about Fair Housing and about what we do to combat residential segregation, and build a more integrated city.”

“One central way of doing that,” he explained, “is by rezoning wealthier neighborhoods.”

Moses Gates, director of community planning and design at Regional Planning Association, told Gotham Gazette that it is not as if Gowanus is the sole low-density, tightly-zoned, middle-to-upper-income community throughout the city that could use more affordable housing.

Gates said that, contrary to de Blasio’s claims, lower-income neighborhoods are not necessarily better-suited for upzonings. “If the response is ‘we’re doing it in low-income neighborhoods because this is where we have historically had housing development,’ I’d ask the city, ‘What does that mean?’” Gates said. “It’s not like there’s no people in East New York. It’s not like East New York has less density and better transit access than Forest Hills.”  

Along with Forest Hills, urban planning experts have pointed toward middle-to-upper-income, low-density neighborhoods such as Long Island City, Bayside, Midwood, and Chelsea as opportune locations to upzone. The de Blasio administration has also raised the prospect of rezoning Washington Heights, Bushwick, Chinatown, Southern Boulevard, Flushing, and, as mentioned, the Bay Street Corridor on Staten Island’s North Shore.  

More broadly, Gates contended the de Blasio administration has not been clear on what it is trying to accomplish with its rezonings and it has not chosen optimal locations for them. “I think the city needs to look at transit-accessible places,” said Gates. “I think the city needs to look at places that do not currently have affordable housing opportunities.”

One of the obstacles to rezoning proposals can be opposition from local City Council members, many of whom are loath to invite outcry from constituents and community boards that are often opposed to adding density close to home. Though he has made clear his philosophy is one of ‘getting to ‘yes,’’ new City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has also indicated he will continue the tradition of heeding the local Council representative’s wishes on land use matters, including neighborhood rezonings, and involving relevant community boards and other stakeholders. The City Council as a whole has the final vote to approve neighborhood rezonings, or single projects that require a land use approval process.

“Council Member Koo was not happy with the Flushing rezoning, and it didn’t go anywhere,” Johnson said at a press conference last month when asked by Gotham Gazette about the mayor’s neighborhood rezoning selections. “Every district has individual needs.”

He added, “Anytime you talk about rezoning, it needs to be a process that respects the local Council member, the local community board, [and[ the Borough President.”

The Jerome Avenue corridor rezoning moved through committee at the City Council on Tuesday, and will soon be voted through the full Council. The final deal reached between the de Blasio administration and local City Council Members Vanessa Gibson and Fernando Cabrera is projected to bring 4,600 new homes to the 95-block rezoned area, according to the mayor's office, and includes two new schools, about $56 million in parks investments, and other community benefits. According to the mayor's office, all housing built in the area will be affordable and subsidized in the near-term, will measures in place to ensure permanent affordability for about 1,150 of the housing units.

“The Jerome Avenue Neighborhood Plan invests in communities that have never before gotten a fair shake," said Melissa Grace, a spokesperson for the mayor, in a statement.

Council Member Donovan Richards, who represents Far Rockaway, a community home to a rezoning led by the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) and more focused on commercial than residential growth, positioned himself as a cautious supporter of de Blasio’s neighborhood selections. “We’ve seen opportunities and communities like the Rockaways, because there is a lot of land that’s never been tapped into,” he said during a phone interview. “When you look at East New York, also -- neighborhoods with immense amounts of land where the city has never invested.”

But Richards -- who last term chaired the zoning subcommittee and participated in key negotiations to amend zoning codes and on individual projects -- said efforts to increase affordable housing stock should not exclusively “fall on the back of communities like Far Rockaway or Jerome [Avenue] or Inwood.”

“I don’t think the focus should be just in low-income communities,” Richards continued. “We should be looking for opportunities everywhere.”

Additionally, Richards argued New York is “still a very segregated city,” a problem the city’s housing policies need to address. “We need to work toward righting that wrong if we’re going to give low-income residents an opportunity at succeeding in New York City,” he said.

Asked why he believes the de Blasio administration has not adopted this strategy, Council Member Lander said he wasn't sure. “I don’t want to speculate; I don’t know the answer to it,” he said. “And I think it’s a fair question.”

Max & Murphy Podcast: De Blasio's Progress Fighting Homelessness

Jarrett Murphy, left, of City Limits, and Ben Max, right, of Gotham Gazette

March 5, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: De Blasio's Progress Fighting Homelessness, with Giselle Routhier of Coalition for the Homeless

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Mayor de Blasio took office with a large and growing homelessness crisis that he promised to take head on. At the end of his first term about 10,000 more people were homeless in New York City, but his administration had broken the trajectory of the increase so that the number had leveled out at about 63,000 for most of 2017. According to Giselle Routhier, policy director for Coalition for the Homeless and this week's podcast guest, the mayor should be credited for doing some positive things -- for going from "nothing to something" -- but he must do a lot more, including "changing the composition" of his affordable housing plan. "He's not targeting to where the need actually is," Routhier said, while going into significant detail about the mayor's policies and what should change.

Listen to the full conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy and guest @Giselle_Ashley of @NYHomeless. You can listen to the episode through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Begins Examination of De Blasio Budget Plan

Speaker Corey Johnson podium

Council Speaker Johnon (photos: John McCarten/City Council)

City Council members pressed budget officials from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration for more transparency and a better accounting of spending and revenue plans at a Monday hearing on the mayor’s $88.67 billion proposed preliminary budget for the 2019 fiscal year, which begins July 1. It was the first hearing of what will be weeks of public discussions, and the first under the new City Council speaker and new Council finance committee chair.

“I want to focus on what will be a recurring theme of these hearings -- ensuring that the City budget is fair, transparent, and accountable to New Yorkers,” said Council Speaker Corey Johnson, in his opening statement, kicking off the series of hearings at which agency heads and top city officials will present to the Council their funding priorities for the next fiscal year while defending their programs and practices.

“For too long, administration after administration has presented the budget to the Council in a manner that makes it difficult for us to do our Charter-mandated duty of budget oversight and review,” Johnson said, decrying the “frequent usage of vague and over-inclusive units of appropriation” that make city spending hard to track, and the lack of measurable connections between budgeting and results.

Johnson also expressed concern about the ballooning of the city budget under de Blasio, noting that the city expects to spend as much as $95.2 billion by the 2022 fiscal year, and promised a “renewed focus” on the city’s capital budget. Johnson has created a special capital budget subcommittee for that purpose.

Over the course of several hours, the Council heard testimony Monday from representatives of the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Finance, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and representatives of the Independent Budget Office. The hearing saw a few testy exchanges between Council members and new OMB Director Melanie Hartzog, indicative of the increased independence that Johnson has promised under his leadership. Members pushed hard when Hartzog gave them answers that they believed lacked sufficient detail and Hartzog, in turn, seemed to dig in when faced with repeated critical questions.

Council Member Daniel Dromm, the new chair of the finance committee, emphasized in his opening statement that the Council would have a clear eye on “accountability, performance and efficiency” in the upcoming budget hearings. “Even within an $88 billion budget, resources are scarce and our city’s needs are great,” he said. “With so many competing, worthy priorities, we owe it to our constituents to honestly evaluate all levels of the budget.”

Although Dromm noted that de Blasio had proposed little in the way of new spending -- $393.5 million in additional spending for the current fiscal year and $364 million for the next -- he said particular items called for increased oversight.

Among those are spending on homelessness, which has increased by $2.8 billion under de Blasio, including a $150 million baseline increase in the preliminary budget for shelters. “Obviously, the Council supports spending money in order to combat homelessness and to provide everyone in the shelter system with a safe and permanent home,” Dromm said. “But that does not mean that we will authorize the administration to spend carte blanche.” He said the Council had yet to hear a “clearly articulated strategy” on homelessness from the administration.

Dromm also questioned whether the mayor’s Citywide Savings Program (CSP), a voluntary program for city agencies, was finding “real efficiencies” and pushed for reporting by the administration on the CSP’s implementation in the annual Mayor’s Management Report.

“Our emphasis in the preliminary budget is caution,” OMB Director Hartzog told the Council, stressing that the $750 million in new spending across the two years in the budget was offset by $900 million in savings. Hartzog took over her portfolio two months ago after her predecessor Dean Fuleihan was appointed first deputy mayor by de Blasio.

In her testimony, Hartzog warned of nearly $1 billion in fiscal threats the city faces from the state and federal budgets that will affect everything from education and public safety to affordable housing, health care, and transit funding. “Facing great risks from both Albany and Washington, we respond with caution by adhering to the same foundational principles of fiscal management that we have in the past,” she said.

In keeping with past years, the city has set aside “strong reserves that serve as a buffer to the unexpected,” Hartzog said. The preliminary budget includes $5.5 billion in reserves, including $1 billion in the general reserve, $250 million in the Capital Stabilization Reserve, and $4.25 billion in the Retiree Health Benefits Trust Fund.

Hartzog touted the city’s “targeted, prudent investments” in the new budget, including the expansion of pre-kindergarten for more three-year-olds in the city, efforts to increase the city’s affordable housing stock, funding to protect tenants from construction harassment, increased capital funding for the New York City Housing Authority, spending on mental health services and the full rollout of the NYPD’s body camera program, among others.

Hartzog also said that funding for DemocracyNYC, a voter engagement program announced by the mayor in his State of the City speech last month, would be included in the executive budget which is released after the Council has held weeks of hearings and had an opportunity to respond to the preliminary spending plan.

It was clear early on that Johnson did not intend to take it easy on the administration, jumping straight into property tax reform as he questioned Hartzog. The mayor had promised action on property taxes in January but has yet to make any policy moves. Despite repeated pushing from Johnson, Hartzog was similarly noncommittal. “As the mayor said, you’ll hear more from us very soon,” she said, without providing a concrete timeline.

In several instances, when Council members expressed disappointment with the funds allocated to certain programs and agencies, Hartzog promised to have ongoing conversations with them. But, at Dromm’s urging, Council members avoided going deeper into agency-specific questions, a break from previous years when members grilled top budget officials on various aspects of city government. There will be specific agency budget hearings beginning Tuesday.

One issue that several members returned to, however, was the city’s spending on housing homeless New Yorkers in cluster sites and emergency hotel shelters. Hartzog repeatedly told members the city could not delineate that spending, owing to constant updates and reestimates of costs related to homelessness spending. Johnson noted that the preliminary budget included a $169 million increase in baseline funding for shelters, but with few results to show for it.

“It’s concerning to the Council that we keep adding hundreds of millions of dollars on an annual basis but we haven’t seen a significant decrease in the homeless population,” Johnson said to Hartzog at one point.

Johnson also failed to get a commitment from Hartzog on providing more units of appropriations in the budgets for city agencies that lack detail and transparency. He noted, for instance, that the Department of Corrections has one budget line for jail operations, despite running several jails across the city. Hartzog said she could not commit then and there to creating more units but promised to work with the Council on its concerns.

Other members followed Johnson’s lead, some forcefully pushing their priorities that included funding for the summer youth employment program, increased contracting for minority- and women-owned businesses, senior services, health coverage, and more.

Council Member Rory Lancman, a vocal critic of the de Blasio administration, raised the issue of funding for the ailing MTA and scandal-ridden NYCHA. “They are two areas where the mayor has to some degree or another, I won’t say abdicated, that’s too judgmental, but has offered the view that they are either not his problem or the origin of the problems lie elsewhere,” Lancman said.

Hartzog tried to float arguments that de Blasio has put forward -- that the state should fund the MTA and new MTA revenue streams should include “lockboxes” to keep the money in the city, and that the administration had made unprecedented investments in NYCHA in the absence of federal and state funds. Lancman, though, cut Hartzog off and insisted she focus on the budget before them.

Although tensions did not boil over, it was obvious that the Council was not pulling its punches. Johnson acknowledged as much at the end of his round of questioning. “It’s never personal,” he told Hartzog. “It’s just doing our job.”

Comptroller Scott Stringer, who testified in the afternoon, praised the mayor’s budget proposal for including more funding for the expansion of 3-K for All, capital funds to repair and replace NYCHA heating systems, and for closing the first jail on Rikers Island.

But Stringer had a warning for the Council and the administration. “I am concerned that we are beginning to see warning signs of a slowing economy,” he said, emphasizing as he has done for years that the city needs to set aside more rainy day funds. “More than ever, our spending decisions must be data-driven and evidence-based. We must ensure that no dollar is going to waste,” he added. Two signs he pointed to were significant job losses in the last quarter of 2017, after years of sustained employment growth, and a reduction in the city’s cash balance -- from $5.4 billion in fiscal year 2017 to only $1 billion in the current fiscal year -- from slowing growth of non-property tax revenue.

Stringer had clear prescriptions for the city. He has called for a “budget cushion” between 12 and 18 percent of the city’s operational budget, while the city’s reserves currently stand at only 9 percent or $8.5 billion.

“A more robust savings program is critical to building up our reserves and reducing the likelihood of cutting city services down the line,” he said. “But it is not enough to find a few efficiencies here and there. It’s time to start applying a much more rigorous test to our spending – are we getting real results for our investments?”

He also reiterated that he would be closely examining the budgets and expenditure of city agencies on his “watch list” -- the Department of Homeless Services, the Department of Education,2 and the Department of Correction. “Let me be very clear here in saying that I wholly agree with, and share, the mayor’s goals of reducing homelessness, improving our public schools, and closing Rikers,” he said. “But we must ensure that we are working toward these goals as efficiently and effectively as possible. Because as things stand now, I’m concerned that we are in a weaker position than we should be.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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