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Opinion

Proposal Would Subvert Efforts to Address Affordable Housing Crisis


mayorsoffice aff

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


One of the greatest and most immediate challenges facing New York is a statewide affordable housing crisis that continues to affect millions of families. Elected officials must support and promote new legislation and policies that will help our state produce more affordable homes and, correspondingly, do no harm to much-needed housing efforts.

The reality today is that more than 3 million households across the state still pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs, which means they are “rent-burdened” and often struggle to afford housing and other necessities like health care and child care.

This crisis is what led Governor Cuomo and the Legislature to dedicate $2.5 billion to support an ambitious five-year statewide housing plan and preserve crucial low-income housing tax credits that were under threat by the federal government.

But our state’s ability to address the affordable housing crisis is now at risk of being undermined by new legislation that proposes to expand the definition of public work and the application of the prevailing wage mandate to private construction projects – including low-income housing developments – based on the public subsidies they rely upon to be built.

As an organization whose members deeply believe in supporting the needs of low- and middle-income New Yorkers, we also believe in good, fair wages for all workers. But the wide application of prevailing wage, which is far in excess of the median wage and can raise construction costs by 25 percent or more, is not actually a path to higher pay for construction workers. In fact, it is certainly a way to ensure there are fewer jobs, fewer new developments, and fewer affordable homes for New Yorkers.

This would be a step backward for New York, where construction costs are already the most expensive in the world, averaging $362 per square foot in New York City, according to Turner & Townsend’s 2018 report on international construction. The report also notes that those costs will only continue to rise and are expected to jump by another 3.5 percent over the next year. Other costs and regulatory burdens remain major obstacles all across the state.

Whether they live in Brooklyn or Buffalo, New Yorkers simply cannot afford to lose opportunities for new housing construction and the many good jobs that come with them. It is worth noting that the creation and preservation of affordable housing supported more than 300,000 total jobs throughout the state between 2011 and 2015.

The state Legislature now has an important choice to make. Rather than advancing well-intentioned but misguided legislation that would diminish new affordable homes and good jobs across the state, we hope lawmakers will fully consider these negative impacts before they proceed with imposing prevailing wages on the construction of affordable housing in New York.

The further that lawmakers explore this issue, the clearer it will become that it is unwise to hastily advance these proposals and risk undercutting New York State’s much-needed housing plan. And if they make the right choice, all New Yorkers will benefit.

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Jolie Milstein is president and CEO of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing, a trade association that represents nearly 400 members responsible for the construction and preservation of affordable housing across the state.

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Tale of Two Transit Plans: Johnson’s Is Real, Cuomo’s Is Likely


 mta cuomo cojo

Gov. Cuomo (governor's office) & Speaker Johnson (William Alatriste/City Council)


On February 26, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio released a 10-point plan to “transform and fund” the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). The vague, crisp proposals are designed to centralize splintered MTA operations to further State control, formally unify support for revenue-generating policies like congestion pricing, and establish external monitoring of the struggling authority, which runs the New York City subways and buses, as well as regional rail networks.

One week later, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced a transit plan of his own, several months in the making. The speaker’s 104-page white paper has a slew of ideas to reform governance, financing, accessibility, and surface-level transit.

The boldest proposal in Johnson’s very bold plan is the City take over subway and bus mass transit -- which it hasn’t managed since 1968 -- plus local bridges and tunnels, while leaving control of commuter rail, suburban buses, and capital projects to the MTA.

This would streamline transit accountability by making the mayor directly responsible for the subway and buses (like in London). Johnson also wants congestion pricing, whether the State passes it or the City enacts its own measure, and several tax hikes.

To be clear: neither plan has all the details. That’s the nature of politicians creating policy, and needing subject-specific experts to chime in. The difference is the Cuomo-de Blasio 10-point proposal lacks the basic necessities of a policy plan, whereas Johnson’s is a well-thought out series of policies, just without some next-level details.

It’s unclear the joint Cuomo-de Blasio plan, which needs approval from the state Legislature, will actually help alleviate deeper MTA problems with performance, operations funding, capital expansion, labor costs, or debt service. In his Signal Problems newsletter, journalist Aaron Gordon noted there’s a “fundamental misunderstanding” of different technological options for upgrading the signal system.

Johnson’s white paper glazes over politically-challenging aspects like labor costs that the Cuomo-de Blasio plan ignores entirely, and takes a radical stance on taxes generating permanent operations revenue. In response, Cuomo outright mocked Johnson’s proposal, while de Blasio dismissed it as an impossibility before the April 1 state budget deadline.

Plenty in the transit world is already being debated, and that fast-approaching state budget deadline brings a Legislature more focused on fiscal policy than urban planning into the conversation. Especially since all three leaders -- Cuomo, de Blasio, and Johnson -- agree congestion pricing needs to happen, the actual proposals are less significant than the policymaking tenor with which they’ve been proposed and discussed, and what the differences mean for governance of the city’s mass transit system.

Johnson’s plan is a substantive, comprehensive proposal, while Cuomo’s plan (I’ll call it Cuomo’s, because his stamp is on practically the entire thing) is dangerously short on details relative to what one should expect from a government leader impacting millions of people. Details are a precursor to meaningful dialogue about transit reform, and the rigor simply isn’t there in 10 bullet points. (Clearly, that’s not just a local problem.)

Cuomo’s team insists they’ll throw together enough details in the state budget. The governor often waits until the last hour to force budget changes, like when his team ushered in a congestion surcharge of $2.75 for rideshare vehicles and $2.50 for taxis last year.

Cuomo’s transit input isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a troubling indicator of dictatorial, politically-driven decision-making in transit, an excessively technical endeavor at its core.

It’s hard to trust the New York details will be as substantive as plans in Berlin, London, Paris, or Singapore, considering the simplicity of the toll shoved through last year’s state budget. A $2.75 surcharge on ride-share vehicles is the price of a city transit fare, while the $2.50 surcharge for taxis was simply less than the $2.75.

What accounts for the differences in rigor? Cuomo “expects” his plan to be approved behind closed doors in Albany, whereas Johnson is promoting transparency and accountability. Cuomo’s already in charge, Johnson wants the City to be.

The governor acts as if he can change practically anything atop the MTA without pushback. Maybe he’s onto something. Neither advocates and journalists outside government, nor MTA leadership and legislators within government, have consistently scaled back Cuomo’s transit proposals, even those that overstep his bounds or are not economically sensible.

Consider the new L train tunnel repair plan: despite wild uncertainty in changing plans three years in the making at the last second, the MTA Board acted handcuffed in even exercising due diligence. Criticism simply didn’t manifest into meaningful resistance.

It’s less about dialogue, since the governor’s tactics don’t really invite public discourse or any semblance of democratic norms. Cuomo’s threatening a 30 percent fare hike should he not get his way with congestion pricing, and the governor’s response to Johnson’s plan was to withdraw the State’s $10 billion in funding should the City control the subway.

Effectively, it’s Cuomo’s way, or the highway. A plan this vague and politically-driven, yet still likely to pass given the governor’s power in changing the MTA and influencing the state budget process, can only exist in an accountability vacuum (a phrase I wrote in an earlier version of this article that Johnson used in his State of the City speech).  

It’s clear the speaker’s 104-page plan takes governing, accountability, and rigor seriously. Johnson’s plan sets clear, quantifiable expectations for improvements, makes the mayor the subway’s political figurehead, reforms transit government boards, and specifically references a multitude of programs to expand. The spirit of Johnson’s white paper mirrors that of Berlin’s comprehensive proposal in late February to inject billions of euros into its already-heralded system.

However, it doesn’t mean Johnson’s proposal is the right one for New York. Former head of the MTA Richard Ravitch, who is credited for resurrecting the authority and its subways in the early 1980s, said of Johnson’s plan, “It’s a very thoughtful proposal, I just don’t agree with it.” Having the City take over mass transit is a massive undertaking, and the taxes he proposes may drive business out of the City, a delicate subject any time, especially post-Amazon.

That’s why the devil is in the details. Without knowing what Cuomo’s plan really entails, how can the MTA Board, State Legislature, City Council, journalists, and the commuting public decide what to make of the two plans side by side?

The tale of two plans is a stark reminder New York’s political landscape needs reforming, just as much as its transit system needs an overhaul. In essence, there’s only one real plan on the table: Johnson’s. Yet, the plan without plans—Cuomo’s—is what New Yorkers should expect to happen.

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Tim Lazaroff is a freelance journalist specializing in transit.

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One Way to Keep Good, Middle-Class Jobs in New York


wikimedia call center

(photo: Wikimedia Commons)


Long gone are the days when a family could live comfortably with a minimum wage job. In 1968, a worker making the federal minimum wage could support a partner and a child above the poverty line. Today, you can’t even support yourself and a child on it. Even with the recent increase to the minimum wage, hitting $15 an hour in New York City, it’s impossible for families in many parts of the state to live on minimum wage.

Economic anxiety has unfortunately become the new norm. Traditionally, most families’ golden ticket out of poverty was a solidly middle-class job, like at a call center. Those jobs, however, are increasingly being lost to corporate greed.

Since 2006, over 40,000 call center jobs were lost in New York. Forty thousand.

That means 40,000 families have had to face the emotional and financial stress of losing a job. It’s not as though the need for call center jobs has decreased; the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 5% growth rate for customer service representative jobs between 2016 and 2026.

Unfortunately, there has been an upward trend of massive corporations looking to ship these jobs elsewhere so they can pay workers less and often find better tax incentives. Outsourcing work to other parts of the country or abroad has become a common corporate tactic to reduce costs. Middle class jobs are replaced with cheaper labor (often with subpar working conditions).

With the Trump administration’s tax cuts last year, outsourcing has become even more attractive to corporations, accelerating the process. The law rewards corporations with tax cuts and incentives for profits made overseas, with corporations paying as little as half or less of the corporate tax rate on profits earned abroad as they would here at home.

This is why I support the New York State Call Center Jobs Act, a bill that would finally prevent companies from being rewarded for outsourcing these good jobs elsewhere.

In January, AT&T announced it was closing a call center in Syracuse, eliminating 150 jobs. The workers in the call center had just two weeks to decide whether to accept a severance package or relocate.

Call center jobs are critical lifelines to sustain a robust middle class and it’s important we recognize that moving these jobs out of state has devastated families and communities across New York. We can no longer allow corporations to line their own pockets at the expense of hard-working New Yorkers.

This bill would help New York protect call center jobs at employers with 50 or more full-time or full-time equivalent employees. Employers would be required to notify the Public Service Commission if they intend to relocate at least 30% of call volume in a year. Those companies would lose all grants, loans, tax benefits, and state contracts, since our government should not be giving tax dollars to companies that are leaving the state. It would also ensure that all call center work related to state business is performed by New York companies.

This legislation passed last year in the Assembly and had considerable support in the Senate. Now that the Senate leadership has changed, we can and should get this done this year. I urge my fellow legislators to do what is right and protect New York’s middle class.

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Senator Jessica Ramos represents State District 13, which includes the Queens neighborhoods of Corona, East Elmhurst, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and parts of Astoria and Woodside. On Twitter @JessicaRamos.

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