Quantcast

Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union
 

Opinion

Opinion

Setting the Record Straight: Mayor de Blasio’s Housing Plan Can and Should Do More for the Homeless


cluster apartments convert

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


Mayor de Blasio has been under constant fire for offering homeless New Yorkers access to just 5 percent of the units created and preserved by his 12-year, 300,000-unit affordable housing plan, even as homelessness has reached a new all-time record high. He has been confronted at his home, at the gym in Park Slope, and on the steps of City Hall, with a growing coalition of advocates, experts, elected officials, and homeless families demanding that the mayor increase that figure to 10 percent of the total, including 20 percent of all new construction. This would result in 30,000 units of affordable, permanent housing for homeless New Yorkers, with 24,000 units to be created through new construction, by 2026.

The progressive mayor who campaigned to end the “tale of two cities” has responded dismissively, sometimes with anger – and always with a series of excuses that don’t hold up to closer examination. Let’s take a look:

The mayor says his Housing New York 2.0 plan addresses the affordable housing crisis for everyone, and adding more homeless units would take access to housing away from other New Yorkers who need it. But here’s the thing: New York City’s affordability crisis disparately impacts those with the lowest incomes. There is no shortage of private market apartments affordable to higher-income households: the vacancy rate for units renting above $2,500 per month is in fact a whopping 8.74 percent, while the vacancy rate for apartments renting for less than $800 per month is only about 1 percent.

Yet a full 20 percent of the mayor’s housing plan is for households making between $70,000 and $142,000 annually, at rents ranging from $1,700 to $3,500 per month, while at the same time dedicating a mere 5 percent to help homeless New Yorkers. Fully 10 percent of the apartments created through the mayor’s plan will have rents at or above $2,500 per month, a level at which there is currently a glut of vacant units. The mayor’s housing plan should target its help for those who need it most.

The mayor says his housing plan is just a small part of what the city is doing to address homelessness. That much is true, but it is not a fact to be proud of. Mayor de Blasio plans to build only 200 new apartments per year for homeless New Yorkers out of the 10,500 apartments per year to be constructed between now and 2026. Other programs implemented by the city that serve homeless people with disabilities, help pay off rent arrears, or provide subsidies for market-rate apartments can’t meaningfully reduce homelessness unless the city also sets aside far more newly-constructed housing for the homeless. The numbers bear this out: homelessness continues at record levels five years into de Blasio's New York, with more than 63,500 people sleeping in city shelters each night, including over 23,000 children. They are paying an extraordinary price for bad policy, as is our city as a whole.

And finally, the mayor says that adding more homeless housing to his plan is not financially feasible. But the House Our Future NY Campaign is urging Mayor de Blasio to designate just 10 percent of his overall housing plan, including 20 percent of the new construction target, for homeless New Yorkers: 30,000 units overall, with 24,000 to be created through new construction. Funds the mayor has already committed to the plan, including over $1.3 billion in city funds each year for the next eight years, show that the mayor has the resources to significantly reduce homelessness. He simply lacks the will.

The mayor’s obstinacy in the face of record homelessness and an ongoing housing crisis for low-income New Yorkers belies his professed values as a progressive leader. Without swift course correction, this wrong-headed approach will lock the City of New York in a state of ever-expanding homelessness for the foreseeable future. The only way out is with bold solutions. Mayor de Blasio must immediately dedicate 10 percent of his housing plan, including 20 percent of all new construction, to house homeless New Yorkers. Tens of thousands of our neighbors languishing in shelters and on the streets – indeed all New Yorkers – deserve a housing plan that offers a responsive and robust answer to record homelessness, not more equivocation in the false promise of fairness for all.

A full examination of the Mayor’s claims can be read in a new policy brief released by the Coalition for the Homeless here.

***
Giselle Routhier is Policy Director for Coalition for the Homeless.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

New York Needs to Restore Access to Driver’s Licenses for All in 2019


access drivers op

a rally for driver's licenses for all (photo: Make The Road New York)


For many New Yorkers who cannot access public transportation and need to drive, a routine traffic stop can lead to something much worse than a ticket; it can lead to deportation. That’s why restoring equal access to driver’s licenses for all New Yorkers is not controversial, it is a necessity.

All over the state, immigrants need to go to work, school, and attend doctor’s appointments, but in places like upstate New York, Long Island, and parts of New York City, a lack of public transportation means driving is the only option.

Jorge Cotraro, a father and husband on Long Island, has been forced to drive without a license because he needs to get to work, and on time, and because missing his children’s doctor’s appointments is also not something he can afford. Every time that Jorge is forced to drive, he leaves his home with fear and uncertainty if he will be able to come home to his family because a routine traffic stop can lead him down the path to deportation. That’s because interactions with local law enforcement can trigger immigration consequences, as they’re often used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to justify detention and deportation. And it’s why Jorge, a member of community organization Make the Road New York, has joined his neighbors to fight for driver’s licenses for all across the state.

New Yorkers should not fear that they will be separated from their family. For the first time in a decade, in January the New York State Legislature will be under complete Democratic control, with leading legislators in all chambers of state government who have stated publicly that they support restoring driver’s licenses for all. Legislation we strongly support will achieve this vital goal, and it’s time for us to move ahead and pass it in 2019.

The legislation would allow the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to issue a Standard License to all New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status. Immigrant New Yorkers, regardless of their immigration status, would then be able to be properly licensed as well as operate a registered, inspected, and insured vehicle -- helping make everyone safer.

Besides being the right thing to do, this would lead to an economic boost to New York State. According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, passing this legislation would yield an estimated $57 million in combined annual government revenues, plus $26 million in one-time revenues projected as a result of people getting licenses and purchasing vehicles. It’s no wonder that 12 states throughout the country, and Washington D.C and Puerto Rico, already allow all people of a certain age, regardless of immigration status, to drive. It’s also why our neighbors in New Jersey are moving towards passing a similar measure.

Equal access to driver’s licenses for all will not only boost our economy and protect people like Jorge and his family, but it makes sense for the public safety of all New Yorkers. One of us is the ranking member of the Crime Victims, Crime and Correction committee, and it is imperative that New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status, are able to come forward to report a crime. Undocumented New Yorkers should not fear prosecution for not having proper identification when coming in contact with local law enforcement.

Support from elected officials for this effort is strong across the state. Governor Cuomo has said he supports this plan. In upstate New York, Saugerties Police Chief Joseph Sinagra and his police department have spoken in favor of the “Driver’s License Access And Privacy Act.” Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams has expressed the urgency and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer supports it. Many new State Senators-elect from across the state have expressed their support, making for strong momentum as the new Democratic majority takes the Senate reins in January.

It is time we take the necessary steps to protect our communities, make our roads safer, and boost our economy. It’s time to restore access to driver’s licenses to all.

***
Luis Sepulveda is the New York State Senator for the 32nd District and sponsor of the driver’s license legislation. Javier H. Valdés is the Co-Executive Director of Make the Road New York. On Twitter: @LuisSepulvedaNY @JavierHValdes @MaketheRoadNY.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Moving Toward a Metro-Regional Approach to Planning and Advocacy


metro region explorer3

(photo via NYC Planning)


New York City and its neighbors have a problem. Unlike Los Angeles, Chicago, and the other major U.S. metropolitan areas that fit neatly within the standard city, county, and state political boundaries, our metropolitan area of over 22 million people does not. We’re spread out over four states and 26 counties, five of which are called “boroughs” and were integrated together to create our city over 100 years ago.

All these complex boundaries and jurisdictions have resulted in a metropolitan area that has been “divided and conquered” by the politics of patronage, enabling networks of political insiders and special interest groups to dominate New York City’s electorate, advancing their own interests at the expense of ours. This has resulted in our area’s city and state governments passing higher taxes and providing lower quality services, more corruption, and less infrastructure investment than comparable cities and regions around the world.

We deserve better.

People living in the New York Metropolitan Area (NYMETA) might live over 100 miles apart, but we still work at the same jobs and in the same industries, go to many of the same universities and hospitals, and root for (or at least have strong opinions about) the same sports teams. We often travel the same roads, ride the same train lines, use the same airports, drink from some of the same aquifers, eat the same foods, and get rained on from the same clouds.

With so much shared environment and infrastructure, you’d think that there would be powerful entities helping us align our shared interests, coordinate our actions, and deliver us results at a regional scale. Unfortunately, that isn’t happening.

There is no single entity or group responsible for systematic coordination within our metropolitan area. Instead, we have a hodgepodge of coordinating bodies spanning different sectors, areas and functions. Sometimes those bodies are prestigious nonprofit entities with relatively meager budgets like the Regional Planning Association, other times they’re multi-state authorities with huge budgets run by political elites like the Port Authority, and often it’s informal coordinating bodies that do little more than network individuals and hold annual meetings, and most commonly, there is just no coordination taking place at all.

What types of opportunities could a better coordinated region be generating? Here are some examples.

We’re experiencing a housing crunch in New York City, and there are a myriad of housing development opportunities in the Hudson River Valley and tons of New Yorkers who’d happily commute from a high rise in Poughkeepsie to a job in Midtown Manhattan if the commute could be done in under two hours and for a reasonable price. A coordinating body -- let’s call it NYMETA -- would be responsible for bringing all the players together: Metro North Railroad, town governments, real estate developers, and New York City to streamline regulatory processes, align incentives, and get deals made and buildings built.

Another example: New York City schools are feeding over a million kids a day, our regions small farms are looking for reliable consumers of their products, and the school system is looking for locally sourced healthy food, but their corporate contractors are trucking in frozen produce from hundreds of miles away. The city is also building programs that expose youth to nature, rural communities, and agricultural-based industries. NYMETA could work with rural counties to help them aggregate and organize food supply, and work with New York City to aggregate and organize school demand, and then build the relationships needed to get our kids eating healthy local food and empowering our regional farmers at the same time.

Beyond managing classic coordination challenges like road and rail linkages, we also need an entity that can represent our region on the national and global stages, where major cities and their regions are playing an increasingly important role in global affairs. Many leaders, including major CEOs, politicians, philanthropists, philosophers, and futurists have predicted that, over the course of the 21st century, nation-states will cede more and more political power to cities and metro-regional governments, and those governments will network together to coordinate policies at global scale.

Evidence of the rise this “municipalist” power structure is everywhere, from the United Nations HABITAT conference that brought cities together through the U.N. structure for the very first time in 2016, to various networks of city governments like the League of Cities and Networks of Cities, and through outcomes like the C40 process to tackle global warming. Places like Paris and Los Angeles have, through the luck of sensible political boundaries, entities that can, to some extent, represent their metro region at these events. NYMETA could perform this function for us, enabling our region to leverage our massive population and other resources when negotiating agreements and deals with other major global regions, not to mention what could be done within the U.S.

An important step towards any political organizing project is collecting and displaying the most basic information about geography and demographics. Who would fall within a metro regional government? What would its boundaries be? The new Metro Region Explorer website from New York City’s premier digital service organization, NYC Planning Labs, answers these questions with an open source software tool that mashes a bunch of datasets about our metro region together to provide data-driven stories about demographics, employment, housing, and other baseline statistics needed to understand our region.

Unlike many GIS tools with lots of confusing check boxes that you need to click off and on to get useful information, Metro Region Explorer does the work for you by giving you some stories you can toggle through and menu items that reveal the most important data. Click around the site and insights will likely pop into your head as they did mine: New Jersey is building tons of housing while western Nassau and eastern Westchester counties aren’t. Lots of jobs are moving out of Connecticut and into New York City and Long Island. Central Jersey has a huge immigrant population. Wow.

tristate map

Metro Explorer isn’t just a cool mapping tool for planning nerds. As Gotham Gazette reported in its article “With New Data, City Takes First Step Toward Regional Planning,” its development indicates that the city is getting serious about improving our region’s capacity to understand itself and coordinate between and among jurisdictions.

As the largest government with the most capacity in the region, it’s up to New York City to begin the process of developing a more integrated regional coordinating body. But building a dedicated office to do this work is not enough. We need an entity accountable to the 22 million people, 900 municipalities, and 26 counties of NYMETA. Developing such an entity will produce tangible benefits in the short term and create a whole new set of opportunities over the long term.

It’s time to start envisioning NYMETA.

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

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Handicapping the Public Advocate Special Election


Jumaane Williams Melissa Mark-Viverito

Jumaane Williams & Melissa Mark-Viverito (photo: William Alatriste)


New Yorkers who think they are done with elections until 2020 will be in for a rude awakening when Mayor Bill de Blasio calls a special election to fill the vacancy of the Public Advocate position. The position’s current occupant, Letitia James, was elected in November to become New York State Attorney General, and will switch posts at the beginning of January. In all likelihood, New York City voters will head to the polls again at the end of February. With so much at stake—the Public Advocate is next in line in the case of a mayoral resignation or death—New Yorkers need to know the lay of the land in this important race.

The Top Candidates
As can be expected for an open seat election, there is a crowded field of candidates vying to replace James. Who are the top candidates? I believe there are four in the top tier:

Michael Blake
The young Bronx Assembly member is undoubtedly a formidable candidate. Blake is smart, charismatic, and ambitious. He has several things to capitalize on in this race. One, he’s a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and former member of the Obama administration. His relationship with national Democratic leaders can surely help him raise money quickly, which he did for his initial Assembly win in a competitive race. Being able to raise money quickly in this type of race, which is citywide and short by law, will give him a distinct advantage. Blake is also, at the time of writing, the only Bronx candidate. Manhattan and Brooklyn each have several candidates vying for this seat, so Blake can potentially overwhelm his opponents in the Boogie Down borough.

Melissa Mark-Viverito
As the former speaker of the City Council, Mark-Viverito will be one of two candidates in this race with higher name recognition. In such a shortened and fast-paced election, name recognition will be especially pivotal. Furthermore, Mark-Viverito has always maintained close relationships with key labor groups, having once been employed by the state’s biggest union, 1199 (though Blake also has close ties to 1199). If some of these bigger labor groups decide to back her, she will be a force to be reckoned with. There are some observers that list Mark-Viverito’s Latina background as another advantage, but with City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez in the race (he represents a district with the highest Latino turnout in the city), as well as City Council Member Rafael Espinal, it is not a given that Mark-Viverito will win the lion’s share of the Latino vote.

Danny O’Donnell
The Upper West Side Assembly member (and brother of comedian/actress Rosie O’Donnell) has long represented the district with the highest Democratic turnout in the nation. As was evident in Scott Stringer’s 2013 race for Comptroller, among others, the Upper West Side vote can be pivotal in a close race. As a long-time progressive champion, and representing this key region of the city, O’Donnell will be one to watch.

Jumaane Williams
The Brooklyn City Council member is coming off an impressive lieutenant governor race against the eventual winner, Kathy Hochul. Without a doubt, Williams will join Mark-Viverito as the other candidate with the highest name recognition. Yet Williams is hardly a shoo-in for this seat. In that most recent race, he benefited from a certain wing of the Democratic electorate that has been dissatisfied with Governor Cuomo. Williams was able to capitalize on that voter dissatisfaction then. But this is a quite different race.

Key Outside Players
In an election such as this one—a shortened election cycle and a citywide race with candidates that are generally unknown to the wider electorate—the impact of outside groups could be great. Here are a few of the most prominent potential players in the special election for Public Advocate who could help swing the race.

Labor
Big labor unions can potentially play an outsized role in this race; unions such as 1199, DC 37, 32BJ. These labor groups come with proven and well-oiled political operations that can be quickly put to use on behalf of their candidates, including their access to foot soldiers readily available to promote candidates. Yet much will hinge on whether labor agrees to back one candidate or splinters into different factions -- or if most unions stay out of the race altogether given the many candidates and unpredictable nature.

PACs
The 2013 citywide elections saw the rise of outside interest groups that spent loads of money on city races for mayor through City Council. Some of the PACs were formed by real estate interest groups and some by charter school advocates, among others. Millions were poured into races across the city. Will these groups see a need to invest in this special election?

Party Organizations
While the influence of party organizations continues to wane, two party committees persist in wielding some influence—the Queens and Bronx Democratic organizations. In a shortened campaign season, a unified party operation could impact the election. It remains to be seen who these respective party organizations will endorse, and eyes should stay focused on what Chairs Joe Crowley and Marcos Crespo will do.

Where will the race be decided?
History suggests that special elections elicit low voter turnout. This election for public advocate will likely be no different, especially since the election will probably take place in February. New York City voters are not accustomed to battling the brisk winter air to get to the polls.

To complicate matters further for political observers and analysts in New York, there is really no precedent when it comes to a citywide special election, since we have not had one in recent memory. But perhaps the public advocate runoff election of 2013 can suggest how voter participation might look in such a context.

Interestingly, 67% of that vote, when James defeated then-State Senator Dan Squadron, came from Manhattan and Brooklyn. Given Brooklyn’s size and Manhattan’s solid voting participation, expect similar numbers this coming February. What these numbers mean for the respective candidates will remain to be seen. But they would be wise to focus efforts in those two boroughs.

It will be an intense, crowded, short race. Let the campaign for public advocate begin!

***
Eli Valentin teaches political science at Monroe College and is a frequent guest political analyst on Univision NY. On Twitter @elivalentinNY.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Several Roads to Decarceration, All of Which Should Be Taken


govandcuo dannemora

(photo via the Governor's Office)


As the year comes to a close, it is undeniably true that criminal justice reform is in the air. The federal First Step Act, even with critics on the left and right, heralds a less punitive approach than the “get tough on crime” policies of the past several decades. Recent elections yielded a number of prosecutors swept into office on platforms focused on confronting racial disparities and rethinking approaches to low-level offenses. Earlier this month, hundreds crammed into a hotel in West Hollywood for a Criminal Justice Summit that brought together activists, journalists, celebrities, and philanthropists to talk about dismantling the punishment paradigm that has inflicted incalculable damage on communities of color.  

All of these efforts are righteous and long overdue but we need to think more expansively to redress the past 50 years of hyper-aggressive policing, processing, and punishing, and to make a dent in the physical embodiment of the plague of mass incarceration – the 2.2 million people, disproportionately black and brown, currently behind bars.

To be crystal clear, this is not about innocence or so-called low-level, non-violent drug offenders.  To tackle mass incarceration means facing head-on an emotionally charged question about punishment – how long must someone serve in prison for an admittedly violent act?  

Last year, the august American Law Institute, a non-governmental organization of judges, lawyers and academics, approved the first-ever revisions to the historic Model Penal Code. One recommendation specifically addresses the epidemic of people behind bars. The Code now calls for state legislatures to enact a “second look” provision; to create a procedure to reexamine a person’s sentence after 15 years regardless of the crime of conviction or the length of the original sentence. Such a law would be a legislative recognition that a sentence once imposed is not thereby automatically rendered, just, fair and appropriate for eternity.

There are several paths for newly-elected prosecutors to take to foster decarceration. One requires rethinking their approach to applications for parole, clemency, or resentencing. The common practice in most prosecutors’ offices is to oppose those applications when the crime of conviction was violent in nature. In those cases, the prosecutor’s focus is on the crime itself to the exclusion of serious consideration of who the person is today, decades after the crime.  Instead, prosecutors should carefully examine who the person is at present -- what programs has he completed; has he shown insight into who he was and what he did; has he acknowledged his role in his crime, accepted responsibility, and conveyed genuine remorse for the harm he caused? Ultimately, is the evidence of rehabilitation such that more time in prison serves no purpose beyond inflicting eternal punishment?

Many prosecutors’ offices now have Conviction Integrity Units that aim to ensure that innocent people have not been convicted. The best of these units have a significant measure of independence so that they can be as objective as possible and avoid the pitfalls of confirmation bias and tunnel vision. In similar fashion, prosecutors should establish independent Sentencing Review Units. Much like the legislation proposed by the Model Penal Code, these units would review all sentences after 15 years to determine whether a reduction is now appropriate.  

Parole boards across the country are regularly roundly criticized. It is common practice for cronyism to mark membership on the board in lieu of a diligent selection process looking for diverse and qualified people with directly relevant backgrounds and experience. It is also common knowledge that parole boards are reluctant or unwilling to release anyone serving time for a violent crime.    

The laws, rules and regulations governing parole must be amended to dictate a forward-looking approach centered on what the person has accomplished while incarcerated, as opposed to the prevalent current practice that emphasizes the seriousness of the crime, a fact that can never change. This shift would also acknowledge the countless parole-eligible people who have aged out of crime and present no threat to public safety, as well as the elderly behind bars who are in the midst, or on the cusp, of health related problems.

In Pennsylvania, more than 100 people have been released since the Supreme Court ordered states to take a second look at people who had received mandatory sentences of life without parole as juveniles. Not one of those people has been convicted of a new offense.

All 50 state constitutions allow for some kind of executive clemency. The authority to grant clemency in the form of a sentence commutation is typically described as absolute and virtually incontrovertible. Power of the sort galvanized at the Summit in West Hollywood should be marshaled to compel governors to exercise their virtually unfettered, but seldom used, power to grant clemency.

The timing is right -- besides the current clarion call for criminal justice reform, clemency is traditionally an end-of-year announcement cast as an act of benevolence consistent with the merciful spirit of the holidays. Just last week, California Governor Jerry Brown granted 70 sentence commutations, including for people convicted of murder.

The crisis of mass incarceration has fueled a burgeoning movement for criminal justice reform.  Multi-pronged efforts to decarcerate must be at the forefront of that movement.

***
Steven Zeidman is a professor of law at CUNY School of Law. On Twitter @SteveZeidman.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Term Limits Heighten Need for Community Boards to Become Data Literate


mayorsofficefiscal

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Rebooting the Republican Party in New York City


03 29 18650 28 0030 1

Senator Marty Golden (photo via State Senate website)


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

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

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

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

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

We need to fight for people, not abstract concepts.

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

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

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

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

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

Time to face reality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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


mta rf

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mta image1

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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


gounardes state senate rally

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


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

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

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

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

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

election results region brennan 1

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

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

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

election results long island brennan 2

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

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

election results upstate brennan 3

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

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

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

election results congress brennan 4

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

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

election results cd22 brennan 5

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

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

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

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

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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


mayorsoffice balkin

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Pushing the Envelope on Rent Reform in Albany 2019


mayorsoffice chirlane mccray fac

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice


Gotham Gazette: 2021 Comptroller Race Now Features Two City Council Members2021 Comptroller Race Now Features Two City Council Members Gotham Gazette: 10 Burning Questions After Cuomo's State of the State and Budget 10 Burning Questions After Cuomo's State of the State and Budget Gotham Gazette: City's 311 Upgrade Set for Mid-Year Launch City's 311 Upgrade Set for Mid-Year Launch Gotham Gazette: The Max & Murphy Podcast The Max & Murphy Podcast