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Citizens Union
 

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Opinion

Public Financing of Elections is a Matter of Racial Justice


public financing cuomo

(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)


“Black humanity and dignity requires Black political will and power. Despite constant exploitation and perpetual oppression, Black people have bravely and brilliantly been the driving force pushing the U.S. towards the ideals it articulates but has never achieved. In recent years we have taken to the streets, launched massive campaigns, and impacted elections, but our elected leaders have failed to address the legitimate demands of our Movement. We can no longer wait.”

Those words launch the policy platform that more than 50 organizations that make up the Movement For Black Lives policy table signed onto last year.

A key component of this policy platform is public financing of elections -- because we know that we can’t truly build Black political power and combat racism and oppression if wealthy donors continue to hold outsized influence.

While Black representatives may be gaining in number and power, without systemic campaign finance reforms these gains will be fleeting. This is true here in New York, where we celebrate a historic occurrence -- leaders of both chambers in the state Legislature are Black: Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

To get true democracy -- especially for historically oppressed people -- you need to have fair elections. That includes both public financing and easier access to the polls.

It’s time for New York to become the leader in campaign finance reform. All three top leaders in New York State government (Stewart-Cousins, Heastie, and Governor Andrew Cuomo) -- along with the majority of sitting Senators and Assembly members -- have long supported this important reform that would give public matching funds to candidates who raise small-dollar donations from average New Yorkers. With “fair elections” legislation in place, elections would no longer be funded primarily by wealthy, white donors.

New York, under “fair elections,” would be more likely to prioritize the needs of poor and working class New Yorkers, including poor and working class Black people.

The current situation is stacked against us. All too often the donors that are funding campaigns in New York have very different needs than the working families that make up a majority of a politician’s constituency. When implemented, these campaign finance reforms -- and specifically, a small dollar matching system -- can bring more and continued diversity to New York State’s candidate and donor pools and improve responsiveness to and accountability with voters.

It’s no secret that our country has a legacy of racism and has systematically disenfranchised Black people through our political system — whether through mass incarceration or voter suppression laws. But campaign finance plays a similar, if more hidden, role. The dominance of big money in our politics makes it much harder for poor and working-class Black people to express political power and effectively advocate for their interests. For too long the power and wealth in our country -- and in our state -- is consolidated to a very small, very white population and the Black community has been left behind.

New York’s Legislature, now with all-Black legislative leadership, shows that change is possible, but we can’t rest until we change the system for the long-term. For such a progressive state, New York has some of the worst campaign finance rules in the country. Yet finally, with progressives in both houses of the Legislature and a governor who wants to change them, New York campaign finance laws could, should, and must quickly change to make sure everyone's voice is heard -- even if you don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to donate.

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Monifa Bandele & Richard Wallace are on the Leadership Team of the Movement for Black Lives Policy Table.

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Seizing the Moment for Bold Climate, Green Job & Environmental Justice Legislation in New York


aerial solar panels

(photo: mayor's office on flickr)


On Friday, March 15, over 1 million students from 125 countries walked out of school to demand that we act on climate change.  As New Yorkers, we’re already seeing the devastating impacts of climate change in our communities. We all remember the damage to homes, lives, and communities caused by Superstorm Sandy, and we know we’ll face more intense storms in the future. As summers get longer and hotter, more of our elderly neighbors will be at risk for heat stroke or even death.

We also know that the impacts of climate change do not  affect everyone the same way. From heat waves to hurricanes to sea-level rise, low-income communities, communities of color, and communities historically burdened by polluting and extractive industries are often more vulnerable to climate risks.

But discussion of climate change does not have to be all doom and gloom. In New York State, we have an opportunity to move to a fossil-fuel-free economy while also investing in good, high-wage jobs and creating real investment in communities most impacted by the climate change.

If we want a carbon-free future, or some would say, any future, we need to reduce our emissions from all sources and we need to set an enforceable timeline to do it.

This crisis gives us an opportunity to re-imagine our priorities as a state. It will take planning and investments to move to a fossil-free future. We need to direct some of those investments to marginalized communities and people already hurt by the climate crisis. We need to make sure green jobs pay livable wages, and create opportunities among low- and middle-income communities across the state. We need to end our dependence on fossil fuels while building a better economy that does its best not to leave anyone  behind.

This is part of the reason why I sponsor the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA), which has passed in the State Assembly three years in a row.  This year has brought with it more opportunities, and the time is right to create a green and equitable future.

The CCPA has the support of over 160 grassroots community, labor, and environmental organizations. It creates an enforceable timeline to move our entire economy to 100% renewable energy by no later than 2050. It is based on the timeline scientists recommend to avoid catastrophe. It also includes the strongest equity provisions in the nation to invest in communities hit hardest by the climate crisis.

The CCPA is about more than just the environment. Under the bill, 40 percent of state funds directed towards greening our economy would go to environmental justice communities. That includes low-income communities, communities of color, and folks at high risk of being adversely impacted by major storms or sea-level rise, and communities already experiencing polluted air and water from carbon-burning facilities.

The CCPA also sets wage and apprenticeship standards so that new green jobs are well-paying, livable jobs. It is estimated that the CCPA will generate the creation of 150,000 jobs related to the green energy transition, revitalizing communities and providing opportunities for New Yorkers across the state.

We can and should get this done this year.

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Assemblymember Steven Englebright represents parts of Long Island. On Twitter @SteveEngles.

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Getting to Truth, and Solidarity, on Loft Law Reform


nyc loft tenants rally

Rally for the Loft Law bill (photo via @NYCLT)


Recently, there has been considerable attention paid to a Loft Law “clean-up” bill that is on the table in the New York State Legislature. Advocates have worked tirelessly for over three years to make it law; an effort stymied by a Republican-controlled Senate in 2017 and 2018, resulting in eviction of many loft tenants.

In November 2018, Democrats won enough seats to take control of the Senate this year and thus all of state government. Many Democrats won hard-fought elections, including Julia Salazar, running on a platform of strengthening rent laws to protect tenants. This blue wave raised hopes that, along with other legislative actions to strengthen New York’s rent laws, the Loft Law clean-up bill would finally pass.

Early this year, the bill was introduced, sponsored in the Assembly by Deborah Glick – a longtime champion for loft tenants – and in the Senate by Salazar. The bill offers a platform around which housing rights advocates should rally – it protects tenants across the city, creates additional affordable housing units, keeps working-class labor markets intact, and regulates rent in communities threatened by gentrification.

Yet, opposing forces have once more succeeded in stalling its enactment, by disseminating misinformation about its contents, impacts, and the Loft Law in general. This has poisoned solidarity of communities who share the same interests, struggling to fight real estate development.

We believe that the strife must end. As diverse groups fighting to protect and strengthen tenants’ rights, we are on the same side and must stand united in solidarity. Universally strengthened rent laws cannot be accomplished if loft tenants are left out in the cold.

With that in mind, it is critical to dispel the misinformation and misconceptions around the Loft Law and the clean-up bill. Three central claims have been advanced by critics.

The first is that it will negatively impact jobs in the North Brooklyn Industrial Business Zone (IBZ), threatening approximately 20,000 industrial and manufacturing jobs in the IBZ. This is false. In fact, the bill does exactly the opposite.

The bill and Loft Law in general contain structural limitations on which residential units can be protected. Tenants must show that their apartments were residentially occupied during two narrow windows of time in order to be protected (2008 – 2009 and 2015 – 2016). Only units that were and are already occupied residentially will qualify. Thus, future illegal “M-R” conversions (from manufacturing to residential) will not be protected under the Loft Law and are precluded by the IBZ’s zoning restrictions.

The current Loft Law provides that the entire IBZ is subject to potential claims for coverage. This has been the state of the law since 2010. There is no evidence, nor has any been presented, that during those nine years there was any job loss in the IBZ caused by the Loft Law or loft tenants. The Loft Law has been amended multiple times since 2010 without any objection regarding the IBZ. Additionally, and missed in this argument, is that the Loft Law does not displace existing manufacturing or commercial use – it protects units and buildings that are and have long been residential. The argument is thus the very definition of a red herring.

Nevertheless, to address recently-expressed concerns about the potential impact on the IBZ, the bill removes approximately 90 percent of the IBZ from Loft Law coverage by excluding areas that are zoned for heavy manufacturing (M3) uses, thereby preserving the vast majority of the area for manufacturers and related jobs. Failure to pass it would therefore have precisely the opposite effect of what critics want: the entire IBZ would continue to be subject to the Loft Law.

The second criticism is that it will catalyze community displacement.

We, as a part of the housing rights community, share the concern over policymakers designing laws that intentionally or inadvertently advantage certain groups at the expense of others. However, an amended Loft Law will contribute to community preservation, not undermine it.

The Loft Law protects low-income people and families by preventing landlords from charging higher, market-rate rents for protected loft units. Preserving these units as additional affordable housing units increases market supply, causing downward, not inflationary, pressures on rents.

The third criticism is that it will invite residential use in heavy manufacturing buildings, opening the door to unsafe living conditions. As stated above, the bill does not do this – by excluding M3 zones, the bill prevents this outcome. Not passing the bill perpetuates the very problem identified in this critique.

The Loft Law has always considered uses such as those in the light or medium manufacturing (M1/2) districts in the IBZ, when conducted as part of a live-work space, to be permissible; and historically there have been many buildings and units containing such mixed uses. But, again, the argument is a red herring, for landlords who illegally rent out spaces for residential use will continue to do so if the clean-up bill does not pass; meaning that any “hazard” posed for tenants will continue to exist, unabated.

One fundamental purpose of the Loft Law is to ensure legalization of covered buildings and units already converted into residential use. Part of that process includes measures to ensure that buildings meet the city’s safety and health codes. The bill will therefore increase the safety and well-being of residential tenants.

It is dismaying that long-standing allies in the fight for strengthening tenant rights have assumed opposing positions. We believe that has been the result of misunderstandings of the issues addressed here. But the time for disagreements is over. We, as a community of people who share common interests and goals, cannot afford any further division to be sown. People have been, and are on the precipice of, losing their homes, and without passage of the clean-up bill, many more will join them. This is unacceptable, unjust, and inconsistent with the larger movement to strengthen New York’s rent laws, protect tenants, and slow gentrification and displacement. Accordingly, we call on the community to support the passage of the Loft Law clean-up bill.

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Alison Dell, Ximena Garnica, McDavid Moore & Zefrey Throwell are New York City Loft Tenants (NYCLT) members and live-work spaces advocates. Michael Kozek is an NYCLT member and Loft Law lawyer. Michael McKee is treasure of Tenants PAC. On Twitter @NYCLT.

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