Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics




Desperately Needed Infrastructure Improvements Must Be Given Dedicated Funding

NY water main break

A water main break in Manhattan (photo: Laura Shin)

Earlier this month, BNP Paribas plead guilty to money laundering and falsifying business records. The French Bank will pay $8.9 billion in fines, with approximately $4 billion directed to New York State and its municipalities. As politicians and civic leaders rushed to offer recommendations for directing this windfall, a consensus began to emerge: the construction, rehabilitation and maintenance of New York State infrastructure.

While the recent settlement is a significant sum, even if it is wholly applied, it will not be enough to address New York's aging and outmoded infrastructure. In New York City alone, thirty-seven percent of subway signals exceed their 50-year useful life; 63 percent of cargo facilities at John F. Kennedy airport are considered "non-viable" for modern screening; 24 percent of the water that enters distribution mains never reaches customers due to leaks and other diversions; 11 percent of bridges are structurally deficient; and nearly 60 percent of NYCHA buildings do not comply with Local Law 11 standards for exterior and façade conditions.

The Center for an Urban Future estimated that $47 billion is needed over the next four to five years simply to bring the city's aging infrastructure to a state of good repair. However, based on accumulated funding gaps and shortfalls in upcoming capital plans, unmet needs will reach $34.2 billion. To address this large and growing funding gap, it's imperative that city and state policymakers identify new dedicated revenue streams and ensure that existing revenue streams are not raided, as they have too often been in the past.

Sam Schwartz's "Fair Plan," for instance, would introduce new tolls on those East River bridges carrying vehicles into the city's central business district while sharply reducing tolls on five non-Manhattan bridges. Most importantly, the dedicated revenue from Schwartz's plan would generate $1.2 billion annually for transit projects and regional highway improvements.

For an additional dedicated funding stream, New York City should follow Seattle, Philadelphia, and 500 other cities in replacing its sewer charges - currently assessed at 159% of the water rate - with a more nuanced stormwater management fee. Property owners would be charged according to the percentage of rainwater captured on their lots (before it enters the city's overburdened sewer system). This would incentivize increased water retention on private property, with customers paying a lower fee as they introduce new green elements – trees, swales, porous pavement, green roofs. This could be coupled with a credit program to help customers finance the installation of green elements, with loans repaid each month via a utility or property bill.

Finally, while the BNP Paribas fine is often described as a "one shot deal", it too could be converted into a continuous, dedicating funding source. By depositing the $4 billion into an infrastructure trust fund, it could generate $200 million a year in perpetuity, assuming a conservative 5 percent annual return (the MTA, by comparison, assumes a 7 percent annual return on its pension investments). This $200 million is hardly pittance. In New York City, it would afford 800 new units of low-income housing, the resurfacing of 1,300 lane-miles of city streets, or 34 miles of reconstructed sewers each year.

Moving forward, political wrangling and posturing over court settlements – like the protracted dispute between Governor Cuomo and Attorney General Schneiderman over control of an earlier $613 million settlement with JPMorgan Chase – could be avoided if the state Legislature mandates that a fixed share of future court settlements be deposited into the infrastructure trust. This would help stabilize the state's critical infrastructure for years to come.

As the city and state consider these new funding streams, political officials should refrain from diverting or dipping into existing (and already insufficient) dedicated revenue sources - a practice that has been all-too-common in recent years. At the MTA, $30 million from the Metropolitan Mass Transportation Operating Assistance account was transferred to the state's General Debt Service Fund in 2014. Funds from the Dedicated Highway and Bridge Trust Fund have also been used to cover state budget expenses. In New York City, revenue dedicated to the water and sewage system is redirected to the city's expense budget through "rental payments." Since 2005, these rental payments have increased significantly, from $109 million to $183 million.

The city's airports have also been affected by political interference. While the airports generate significant revenues from landing fees, gate fees and other levies, $214 million at JFK was diverted to non-airport related activities between 2004 and 2010. Though federal regulations require airport operators to reinvest all airport revenue into their facilities, the Port Authority was granted an exemption. In several instances, area politicians have pushed the Port Authority to use funds generated by the airports to prevent toll and fare increases at other Port Authority-managed assets, such as the PATH train.

The protection of these dedicated revenue streams, as well as the introduction of new funding sources, should not be delayed. Without immediate, sustained, and generous investment in its core infrastructure, New York's quality of life and economic competitiveness will quickly diminish.

Adam Forman is research associate at the Center for an Urban Future, a New York City based think tank. He is the author of "Caution Ahead," a report published in March by the Center documenting New York's infrastructure vulnerabilities.

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The Small Business Corner, with GoBizNYC

NYC from Top of the Rock

City of opportunity - and challenges

Small businesses are the backbone of our local economy. They define the character of our neighborhoods and exemplify the entrepreneurial spirit of both new and native New Yorkers. Often, they are where young people get their first work experience and where seniors find a job that helps them make ends meet in their retirement years.

Mayor de Blasio demonstrated his concern for small business earlier this month, when the Department of Consumer Affairs made good on his campaign commitment to reduce fines and begin to reform city inspection processes. That is a good start, but much more remains to be done.

City and state government regularly add to regulatory and legal mandates that fall most heavily on the city's more than 179,000 businesses with fewer than 20 employees. Rhetorical support for small business too often does not translate into public policies that promote their sustainability.

One reason for this disconnect is that the small business community has not fully been a part of the citywide policy conversation. GoBizNYC, a small business initiative of the Partnership for New York City, aims to change that.

GoBizNYC was launched a year ago to elevate the small business voice and, in that time, we have built a network that reaches over 25,000 small businesses across the five boroughs. Our mission is to strengthen the voice of small, immigrant, and minority-owned businesses, and to create an environment where small businesses can create more jobs and build our city's neighborhood economies.

By working collaboratively with small business groups across the city, including the Five Boro Chamber Alliance, local development corporations, merchant associations, business improvement districts, industry associations, and community-based organizations, we help support the small business community by ensuring that small business concerns are heard and thoughtfully considered by local policymakers.

As part of our effort to amplify the voice of the New York City small business community, we are collaborating with Gotham Gazette to publish the "Small Business Corner," a bi-weekly column featuring the opinions and perspectives of small business owners and advocates from the GoBizNYC network on the range of issues that concern the city's small businesses.

These op-eds will address policies that impact a small business directly, such as government efficiency and regulations, while also considering issues that affect a small business' ability to survive and thrive in New York City, such as infrastructure, public safety, education, and livability. This effort also exemplifies Gotham Gazette's commitment to bringing a wide range of voices and issues into the civic discourse through both its original reporting and its op-ed pages.

To all New York City small business owners and advocates: we hope this new platform will better enable you to engage in the local policy conversation and we look to you to support us in this endeavor by sharing your thoughts, experiences, and voices. To learn more about how you can be a part of GoBizNYC and participate in this effort, visit


Victor Wong is the Director of Business Outreach & GoBizNYC at the Partnership for New York City


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The New York City Green Cart Initiative: Expanding Access to Healthy Produce in Low-Income Neighborhoods

green cart one

A New York City Green Cart vendor (photo: Marc Shavitz)

When New York City launched its Green Cart Initiative in 2008, residents in low-income areas were suffering disproportionately from obesity and diet-related disease, while these same neighborhoods lacked sufficient access to retailers selling fresh fruits and vegetables. According to a 2008 study by the City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) and the Department of Planning, approximately three million New Yorkers lived in neighborhoods with few grocery stores and high rates of diabetes and obesity.

Challenged by this public health crisis, Mayor Bloomberg's Office of Food Policy decided to focus on increasing access to healthy food in these specific local communities, which are sometimes referred to as "food deserts." Food deserts are areas of the city where access to fresh food outlets is limited and where consumption of fruits and vegetables is particularly low. The public policy bet was simple: increasing access would, in theory, increase consumption and, in the long-term, improve public health. The Green Cart program was implemented by the Mayor's Office of Food Policy and the City DOHMH in partnership with the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund as part of a broader citywide food access strategy.

In mid-2013, after six years in operation, the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund engaged Columbia University, SIPA to independently determine if Green Carts was meeting its goals.

We focused our analysis on 1) assessing the effectiveness of Green Carts in improving access to fresh fruits and vegetables for low-income New Yorkers; 2) assessing the economic viability of Green Carts as small businesses; 3) determining whether Green Carts is changing customer behavior; and 4) examining the role of philanthropy in promoting and supporting innovative public policy. As baseline data was not available, our research team spent three months (July – September 2013) locating and interviewing (in Bengali, Spanish and English) Green Carts vendors and their customers to collect extensive primary data on vendor location and neighborhood characteristics; cart locations, vendor demographics and business practices; and customer demographics, purchasing behavior and consumption behavior. Key findings of the report indicate that the NYC Green Cart initiative has been an extraordinary success. Green Carts is achieving the following:

Increasing access to fresh produce in targeted neighborhoods. We located 166 Green Carts operating across four boroughs during peak vending season. The DOHMH has subsequently released data that it observed and inspected 329 unique permitted Green Carts operating during a twelve month period. As an added benefit, the DOHMH also recently found an increase in produce in small grocery stores and bodegas in green cart zones.

Reaching the low-income populations in neighborhoods exhibiting characteristics associated with "food deserts." Green Carts are all located in neighborhoods with high rates of diet-related diseases and high rates of poverty. According to a spatial analysis, most Green Carts are located in areas with relatively low produce store density, indicating that Green Carts is achieving its goal of reaching communities with unmet needs. Moreover, 68 percent of customers earn less than $50,000 per year, close to the federal guideline for a family of four living at 200 percent of poverty.

Changing customer behavior, with customers reporting regular visits and increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. 71 percent of customers surveyed reported increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables since shopping at a Green Cart, and 63 percent of customers are "regular" shoppers (at least once a week).

Providing entrepreneurial opportunities to vendors. Green Carts is economically viable in the long-term. 80 percent of vendors consider themselves "very profitable" or "somewhat profitable." 50 percent of vendors have been vending more than two years; 75 percent of vendors believe their experience running a Green Cart will help them open a larger business.

While the NYC Green Cart initiative has achieved unprecedented success, we also identified several opportunities that we hope can enhance the program in the future and be useful to other cities adopting the model:

  • The market-based approach, allowing vendors to locate anywhere within the designated zone, does not evenly distribute vendors across the designated high-need areas. Vendors who succeed economically are choosing locations with high foot traffic, near bodegas and near bus stops. Incentives could be given to vendors to move into locations which have greater economic risk.
  • Vendors are locating close to public housing in only one borough. This suggests that there may be more opportunities to reach high-need populations through a partnership with NYCHA.
  • There is inadequate tracking of operational Green Carts and no way to identify exact vendor locations or which vendors are actually operating their carts. Improved tracking and a market analysis would help to determine the appropriate number of vendors for each targeted neighborhood.

We also found that the public-private partnership model was critical to the success of the Green Carts Initiative. The Illumination Fund's initial grant enabled the City to implement an innovative program, and as the program progressed, it provided additional supports that government was unable to fund. Certainly, there are many ways to improve the program, as our research indicates. The overall findings are, however, very clear: Green Carts has been a success for both vendors and customers in underserved low-income communities and is a model program for densely populated urban areas across the United States

Ester R. Fuchs, Professor of International and Public Affairs and Political Science, Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs


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Green Carts in the Food Desert: Oasis or Mirage?

Green Cart

Domingo Jose, a vendor participant in WHEDco's Green Cart Training Program (WHEDco)

The Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market provides approximately 60 percent of the fresh produce that New Yorkers eat every day. Yet less than two miles from Hunts Point, in the neighborhood of Crotona Park East, it is nearly impossible to find a fresh tomato.

The New York City Green Cart Program started in 2008 as an experiment to plant mobile produce carts in food deserts like Crotona Park East, neighborhoods with low access to fresh food and high risk for diet-related diseases. The program was an opportunity to improve the health of residents across the city, including in the Bronx - once again ranked as the least healthy county in the state. But the Green Carts program also had potential as a viable model for small business creation in low-income communities. With the right support, people from low-income backgrounds can start successful businesses that support families and enable financial independence. We saw great potential in the Green Carts program to accomplish these goals.

But a recent report by Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs reveals that the program has not lived up to its full potential. Created by the Mayor's Office of Food Policy (under the Bloomberg administration), the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund, with critical support from the Deutsche Bank Foundation and Karp Resources, Green Carts is an innovative program that succeeds in delivering fresh produce to its target low-income population. Yet over the five years of the program's operation, of the 1,000 Green Carts permits created, only 492 permits are active, and the Columbia team could identify only 166 Green Carts that are still operational day. Those carts that are still in business tend to cluster near shopping districts and transit stops with high foot traffic, often far from where low-income residents live, and especially far from public housing developments. Those numbers are no surprise to those who saw the program's problems in real time.

At WHEDco, we spent significant time working side-by-side to help vendors, from permit application to site selection to operation. We saw the program from the vendor's perspective, and found the permitting process to be unnecessarily complicated. A Bronx resident would need to make at least six trips to Manhattan to complete food safety courses and file permit applications. The timing of the application process was unclear to WHEDco and other community-based organizations providing technical assistance to vendors, making it difficult to advise our clients. When vendors couldn't find storage for their carts in our neighborhood, WHEDco built a storage facility in the parking lot of our Intervale Green building to safely store four Green Carts, a process that required filing new building plans and an additional grant from Deutsche Bank. We conducted micro-market studies to help Green Cart operators in our neighborhoods identify locations that lacked fresh food. But many other operators received little guidance on where to set up shop, leading to the "clusters" the Columbia team found.

We still believe in the potential of the Green Carts program as a means to promote health and small business creation at the hyperlocal level. If it continues, the program should leverage the support of community-based organizations that can connect potential vendors and local business leaders, though new funding sources must be identified to support CBOs in this work. The Health Department's District Public Health Offices should be able to process permit applications locally, saving low-income vendors valuable time. And the Green Carts program should stick to its original intention and incentivize vendors to locate close to where people live, making it as easy as possible for Bronx residents to eat healthy while supporting local entrepreneurs.

Nancy Biberman is the Founder and President of the Women's Housing and Economic Development Corporation (WHEDco)
WHEDco on Facebook


Is The VA Ready For The Onslaught Of Returning Veterans?

obama vet handshake

(photo: Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images)

In early May, the National Commander of the American Legion called for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and other Under Secretaries in his agency to resign. It was the first time since 1941 that the veterans organization called for such a measure. The American Legion Commander cited poor oversight and failed leadership in the VA when explaining his position. He listed a number of recent high-profile scandals, which have "infected" the VA system as reasons for his public request.

In mid-May, the VA undersecretary for health, Dr. Robert Petzel resigned the day after testifying about the scandals on Capitol Hill. Some say the resignation was more like an early retirement, as he had planned to go later in 2014. By Memorial Day, Secretary Shinseki was also history, and a number of other changes and management staff shuffles have taken place since that time. While WWI veterans may never have received their bonuses, VA personnel certainly did while the VA number-fudging continued over time.

The list of VA problems is long and is not new to veteran advocates who continue to urge the government to do better. Advocate and VA watchdog Jim Strickland enumerates the current allegations at the Phoenix, AZ VA hospital and the VA clinic in Ft. Collins, CO, as well as problems at VA medical facilities in Fayetteville, Virginia, Brockton, MA and Dallas, TX. Government inquiries and reports on the VA are also listed on his website as they become available.

There have been other recent accounts of the long-standing backlogs of VA claims, which have been reduced by 44% to "just" 344,000 on March 31, resulting in "only" an average wait of 119 days to receive a decision on a claim, provided that all the "T"s are crossed and the "I"s dotted. Veterans and their Service Officers will tell you that they consider the claims of reduced processing times to be bogus.

With these current, unacceptable problems, we must ask: is the VA ready for the coming onslaught of newly discharged veterans?

According to the VA, the agency is currently involved with administering services for:
* 8.9M veterans enrolled in the health care system.
* 4.3M vets and survivors receiving compensation and pensions.
* 2M veterans with active home loans, with 950 applications approved daily.
* 1.6M veterans and dependents receiving education and training benefits under the new post-9/11 GI Bill.
* 120,000 who receive final honors or burial in one of the VA's 131 cemeteries.

According to the budget proposed in February by the Obama Administration, the Army is expected to soon shrink to pre-WWII levels. There are also calls to retire hundreds of aircraft and warships. National Guard units are also expected to be downsized.

Like the post-draft Vietnam Era drawdown, advocates worry that soldiers will be discharged to the streets just short of vesting for military pensions. In New York State alone, 44,027 newly discharged veterans are expected to return within the next five years. If trends hold, upwards of half this number can be expected to return to the City of New York.

These brave men and women will be in need of services and benefits, and will be filing claims in an already overwhelmed VA administrative system. They will be seeking health care in an already overwhelmed VA medical system. They will also be seeking housing, education and most importantly, jobs, in a most challenging economic climate.

Former Lt. Governor Betsy McCaughey said it best in a recent NY Post editorial: "Veterans' demand for medical care exceeds the VA's capacity. Again and again, VA bureaucrats have responded to that problem by lying, gaming the electronic-monitoring system and making false promises to the public."

The looming question as to whether the VA is up to the task, and whether the President and the Congress are ready to meet the challenge is one that I shudder to consider.

Lee Covino is a US Army veteran. He became an advocate for veterans affairs as a peer counselor while attending the College of Staten Island on the GI Bill from 1973-1977. From 1980-1984, he worked as an intervention counselor for the VA's Vietnam Veterans Outreach Center in Brooklyn and Staten Island. In 1990, he was appointed to the Borough President's Cabinet, where he served as the Veterans Affairs Advisor and Director of Contracts & Procurement until his retirement in 2014. In May 2002, Covino was appointed to the City's Veterans Advisory Board by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He was re-appointed to the board by the mayor in 2007 and in 2012.


Community Schools Will Succeed If Parents Are Engaged

Gonzalez and Farina at a school

The author, left, and Chancellor Fariña make a school visit

Last week, Mayor de Blasio announced he is ready to move on his pledge to open 100 community schools by the end of his first term by utilizing a $52 million grant to create 42 new community schools in high-needs neighborhoods.

Community schools hold the power to tackle the tale of two cities in our school system—where deep educational disparities have meant 80% of students graduating college-ready in Tribeca and only 8% in Mott Haven. The innovative model will turn schools into community hubs that bring together social-emotional, medical, adult education, recreational, and job training services, and, along with a positive school climate, can address the needs of students, families and the entire community.

As a parent of two sons, I've experienced the best of times, and the worst of times, through two very different New York City public schools. Based on my experience, I believe parent engagement is the key to making the mayor's community schools initiative succeed. In turn, the community schools initiative can serve as the guiding vision to support all public schools to succeed.

The worst of times was at PS 73 in the South Bronx, a school left to struggle and which my sons no longer attend. Under the Bloomberg administration, the school stood at risk of closing for poor performance, while being underfunded and neglected. Students, parents, teachers and staff were kept on the edge of their seats, with repeated threats of phase-out and closure. In the end, they never closed the school. But, they also never provided any additional resources or supports, and the majority of parents were shut out from any meaningful role in school improvement.

The year my sons graduated from PS 73, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity commitment, which had promised us billions of added classroom dollars for struggling schools across the state, was put on hold for a third year. I was forced to accept budget cuts, instead of high quality education for my two sons.

Why should parents have to accept that their children receive an unequal education? I didn't, and no parent should.

Now in the best of times, my sons attend the New Settlement Community School, with the community schools model that Mayor de Blasio is going to expand. The school has everything: a clinic if they have a cavity or any other health needs; strong academics; swimming, ballet, and music programs; parent workshops regarding school involvement and nutrition; and so much more—all under one roof.

My sons now get up early in the morning to play basketball in a full, well-maintained court and stay after-school for reinforcements in math and reading. I have never seen either of them more focused or motivated. The community school makes both of my sons' education complete.

The key to the success of this school, which should be applied to each of the mayor's 100 community schools, is strong parent engagement from the beginning in both design and evaluation. Unlike at PS 73, parents at New Settlement are treated as full partners. The doors are open, there is mutual trust among teachers, administrators, and parents, and constant outreach is made to parents to get us involved.

In the mayor's initiative, each school will receive a full-time resource coordinator. They will recruit partnerships and resources for the school, working with the principal and school community to create a well-designed and effective community school. I strongly believe that this is a job for people with passion—for individuals who truly believe transforming education is possible.

The engagement of parents must be a large part of measuring the success of these resource coordinators. They must meet parents where they are, and reach out especially to parents who aren't involved in the school through home visits, phone calls, community meetings, whatever it takes. They should listen to parents' ideas, their anxieties and their vision. Parents should be offered clear pathways to become leaders in the school and the community.

My optimism for real improvements in our education system is now revived. The community schools model transformed the education of my two sons, and now our mayor and chancellor are committed to expand this model and move the public school system in a direction that is focused on educating the whole child.

Jose Gonzalez is a parent leader with United Parents of Highbridge and the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice. His two sons attend the New Settlement Community School in the South Bronx.

At A Hearing On Veterans Affairs, Missed Opportunities

mova hearing

MOVA Commissioner Terrance Holliday & his deputy at Monday's hearing (Mario Figueroa of United War Veterans)

On Monday, the New York City Council Committee on Veterans, chaired by Council Member Eric Ulrich, held an oversight hearing on the Mayor's Office of Veterans Affairs (MOVA) and its role in serving New York City's roughly 200,000 veterans.

Since Mayor de Blasio was elected in November, there have been renewed discussions in the veterans community regarding MOVA, its resources, and its direction. Beside awaiting the mayor's decision on an appointment to head MOVA, the community has been lobbying the administration to allocate $250,000 dollars in the new budget to continue MOVA's benefit counselor initiative. The City Council also asked the mayor for additional funding toward mental health, employment, and legal assistance services for veterans.

So the lead-up to the first oversight hearing of MOVA in a number of years was filled with anticipation and concern. Would this be a hearing about MOVA's role in helping veterans or a popularity hearing from those who want Mr. Terrance Holliday to stay as MOVA commissioner? It turned out to be both.

At the packed hearing, Commissioner Holliday gave fairly standard testimony by addressing all the good things MOVA does. He spoke on how MOVA provides "advocacy, referral and short-term case management services to veterans." He talked about MOVA's coordination of the city's Veterans Advisory Board (VAB) and the establishment of a Women's Advisory Committee. He talked about the Indigent Burial Program, the City's Agency Liaisons; the office's veterans clothing initiative and the office's coordination of City Services.

Despite the commissioner's presence, this hearing was no different from others. The commissioner concluded his remarks and Council Member Andrew Cohen started asking a few questions. His question regarding the veteran liaisons at city agencies and their periodic training should warrant a future hearing - no one followed up by asking what the liaisons were trained in, who trained them, or even how they could verify the training actually took place.

However, it was when Council Member Paul Vallone asked the commissioner for his thoughts on his budget that everyone really leaned in. The community has known for many years that MOVA is underfunded. Every director or commissioner I have known has had to deal with the problem of underfunding. So when the Commissioner was asked if he was comfortable with his budget and what the Council could do to help, he incredibly stated that he has not needed money to get things done and that he obtains needed resources from other city agencies.

This comment came back to hurt him on a couple of occasions. When Council Member Vallone asked if MOVA has offices in the outer boroughs, the commissioner stated he only has an office of four individuals, at which point Council Member Vallone brought him back to his point of the office needing more money.

This happened again when the discussion turned to the benefit counselors and Council Member Vallone asked what the plan was when the Robin Hood funding that supports the counselors ends. The commissioner's response was: "I'm still thinking about it, still trying to figure it out, how to work it out."

Again, Council Member Vallone brought him back to the office needing money.

And as if to drive home the point, the Council Member asked for the current budget breakdown between salaries and services. The commissioner's response was that just about the entire budget goes to salary.

What the committee members and everyone in the room wanted to hear the commissioner say was that he wants and needs more money – not that he has to ask other agencies for help or that he would take money if it was given to him. How can MOVA provide more services and better assist veterans without better funding?

The commissioner's continued reiteration of getting it done without additional funding, but then talking about expanding services was conflicting and is detrimental to how MOVA can better help veterans. Sadly, this was then compounded by the commissioner leaving the hearing after he finished his testimony.

The remainder of the hearing consisted of several panels made of up people who gave testimony on how MOVA can better address the needs of veterans; why the city needs to fund the benefit counselors program; or that the commissioner is doing a great job. This last one was apparent as Council Member Ulrich asked all who testified to rate MOVA's performance on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the best) and several individuals rated it a 10. This rating was more out of fondness for the commissioner and wanting to see him stay on than the role MOVA serves in helping veterans.

If the commissioner had stayed, he would have seen that the majority of those who testified agreed that MOVA's current mission as defined in the City Charter is too broad and too vague and everyone who testified agreed that MOVA needs more money.

The United States has been at war for over a decade and while veterans are shown respect by our local elected officials, we're still trying to find a seat at the political table. Testimony from Coco Culhane of the Veterans Advocacy Project said it best: "The Mayor's budget proposal, which offered a paltry few extra dollars to MOVA, sent a message about the priority of veteran's issues for this administration."

Veterans need help with housing, education, jobs, health care, and, most of all, knowledge of the array of programs that are available to them. MOVA still has the potential to do great things, but it is underfunded. Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Council Members Ulrich and Vallone represent a change in direction - and they showed that with their budget commitments to veterans services. As the son of a veteran, Mayor de Blasio needs to get onboard though. MOVA is, after all, the "Mayor's Office of Veterans Affairs." I know we can do better.

Joe Bello served 11 years in the US Navy/Naval Reserve and has been a veteran's advocate in New York City for almost two decades. He is the founder of NY MetroVets.

The Crucial Role of Year-Round, Part-Time, Private-Sector Employment

job fair

Job seekers (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Advocates for the poor rallied last month for additional summer youth jobs. City Councilman Jumaane Williams said many youth in the city have to decide between getting a legitimate job or turning to drug dealing to make money. "It is unfair to ask young people to make the correct choice when we give them no choice," Williams said.

While there is something positive about summer employment, much more substantial benefits come from year-round part-time employment. As Councilman Williams points out, teens from poor families have substantial consumption needs, but these needs are year round. Unfortunately, the teen employment rate in 2013 was little more than half what it was fifteen years ago as firms shifted to young adults and retirees. Nationally, only one in ten black teenagers from low-income households is employed. While I strongly endorse a minimum wage increase, there is some evidence that it may accelerate this shifting of employment to older workers.

Legal employment for young men reduces the temptation to engage in illegal activities. Less discussed, is the impact of joblessness on young women. Without paid employment, many must rely on male partners; men who will demand sexual favors that put these young women at risk for sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. These problems are most pronounced for disadvantaged black teen women whose incidence of gonorrhea and chlamydia are at least seven times the rate for white teen women. Each year in New York, 13 percent of black teen women becomes pregnant - a rate 3.5 times higher than the white rate. While paid employment is not a magic bullet, it will help many young women avoid these risks.

Continuous teen employment has other benefits. The Community Service Society recently documented the substantially higher graduation rates for black and Latino students who attended Career and Technical Education (CTE) High Schools. These CTE programs not only prepare students with the academic skills necessary to succeed in the world of work, but also provide mentoring and the work skills needed, including team work, work discipline, and communication skills. Many of these same skills are developed through paid teen employment.

There are already a number of programs that aid disadvantaged youth. Year Up is a successful program to prepare promising students for demanding occupational programs that lead to backroom employment in the financial sector. Other programs focus on disconnected youth who are neither in school nor employed. None of these programs, however, focus on high school students who are at risk of not graduating. There is a crucial need to introduce to the world of private-sector paid employment this large group of disadvantaged students before they become disconnected from school and work.

There are a number of ways that government support can move significant numbers of students into year-round part-time private-sector employment. In the 1990s, the government shifted many long-term welfare recipients into the workforce; and continues to have a number of programs that move ex-offenders into paid employment. As in both cases, a critical component of work-readiness programs is preparing participants for the behavioral traits private-sector employers require; and ongoing counseling to help facilitate effective employment.

Besides the work readiness and ongoing counseling, other modest incentives can be given to the national retail chain stores and fast food establishments to induce them to increase their teen employment. In addition, government should find ways to induce firms that provide summer employment to extend, for a modest proportion, employment into the school year. Once hired, employment counselors can help students to balance work and school and to develop strategies to reduce risky sexual behavior. By providing soft skills, mentoring, and spending money, year-round employment could move disadvantaged youth forward.

by Robert Cherry, Stern Professor of Economics, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of CUNY


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Hynes' Dubious Battle


Former Brooklyn DA Joe Hynes (Bryan Thomas for the New York Times)

As revealed by the recent Department of Investigation inquiry, former Brooklyn DA Joe Hynes spent a significant amount of his final year in office fretting about local media coverage.

Despite the raft of negative stories about various aspects of his tenure that appeared in all the dailies, Hynes seemed to think that endorsements from the city's leading editorial boards could carry him to reelection. As a result, he continually tried to spin his actions in ways that would impress these opinion-makers.

Is this how any elected official, scandal-plagued or otherwise, should act?

Hynes seemed particularly concerned with winning the Grey Lady's nod, stating in one email that it was the "only opinion page that matters." The D.A. likely perceived that the Times held sway over voters in Brownstone Brooklyn. Other emails captured his considerable frustration with the views of the Daily News and Post editorial boards.

In his attempt to impress the Times, Hynes went so far as to assemble a 9.5-page brief outlining his case for reelection. In preparation, he solicited feedback from Judge Barry Kamins, a frequent adviser, whom Hynes in his letter said was known for "his expertise in Legal Ethics."

Here as elsewhere, Hynes either defended or distanced himself from many ongoing charges, notably those involving his alleged mishandling of child sex abuse cases in Brooklyn's Ultra-Orthodox community as well as the murder cases involving Detective Louis Scarcella. As Kamins had recommended, amidst the campaign Hynes formed a high-profile review panel to study the Scarcella cases.

But throughout the summer, challenger Ken Thompson kept attacking Hynes on these and other issues, and the six-term incumbent could not shake the perception that he had mismanaged the D.A.'s office. As the September primary approached, only the Daily News editorial board weighed in on the race, giving a notably lukewarm boost to Thompson based on its "judgment compelled by serious evidence that Hynes has presided over miscarriages of justice."

Hynes' failure to win over the leading editorial boards thus contributed to his lopsided defeat in the primary. Yet even if he had the endorsements he coveted, it's unlikely they would have made much difference. In the mayor's race, Christine Quinn ran the table, but nonetheless went down to a humiliating defeat.

Newspaper endorsements, of course, cannot alone shape popular perceptions of candidates. One of the leading criticisms of Quinn was that she remained too close to Mayor Bloomberg - which also explained why she got the support of the same editorial boards that helped sanction Bloomberg's third term. So "playing to the boards" certainly can be a losing campaign strategy.

Moreover, as the role of social media expands, the views of powerful opinion leaders will face increasingly more competition. Online readers are paying less attention to what's on A1 of the Times, raising questions about the future influence of the official positions taken by the city's legacy media institutions.

It nonetheless would be a mistake to dismiss Hynes' view of the dominance of editorial boards as a thing of the past. They obviously can still steer the popular discussion. Consider the tabloids' relentless charter school advocacy, the Daily News' crusade to save horse carriages, or the Times' robust support for reforming stop-and-frisk. And as evidenced by the Espaillat campaign's enthusiastic reaction to receiving the Times' endorsement, all candidates still welcome the instant credibility provided by a leading board's support.

The best lesson that the Hynes example teaches current and future elected officials is simply this: spin things all you want, but you're not going to impress any civic leaders when you're not upholding the basic responsibilities of your office.

Theodore Hamm (@HammerDaily) is chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph's College in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.


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A Free-Market Solution To The Affordable Housing Crisis

Hammel Houses - NYCHA

Hammel Houses, NYCHA (wikimedia)

Mayor de Blasio's recently released affordable housing plan is extensive and forward thinking – but also extremely expensive. The 200,000 units it envisions are estimated to cost $41 billion, of which $8 billion will come from City coffers.

We could reach the same goal without such astronomical spending. In fact, the City could do it without spending a single dollar from its budget.

To accomplish this feat, we need to harness the power of the market. Here is a five-point plan for how we can do so to create a housing plan that serves all New Yorkers:

First, we must put to use the vast sums of funding in the capital markets to build mixed-income housing and provide for low-income households through a partnership between the public and private spheres. This funding can help generate more housing in a cost-effective way.

Second, there are numerous tracts of land around the city that are not meeting their full potential. By enabling development in these areas, we can reduce the overall cost of land to a level that promotes the creation of affordable housing. For a start, more than 30 million square feet of development rights related to NYCHA projects are sitting unused in Manhattan. In addition, the City controls or outright owns many other properties around New York, including the nine blocks in the Seward Park Urban Renewal Zone and the 90 acres adjoining the Brooklyn Army Terminal, that could be turned into thriving mixed-income developments.

Third, developers should be required to lease the ground on which new projects are built, which can generate ground rents through the luxury component of the development. The additional funding, in turn, can be set aside for a self-funded rent voucher program.

Fourth, the solution to low-income affordability is not more low-income housing; rather, it is more income. We can empower struggling working households by providing them with the income needed to rent an apartment like others in the marketplace, in the form of transferable or "sticky" vouchers. These rent vouchers would be self-funded by the new mixed-income communities to be created under this proposal.

Fifth, to make these ideas a reality, we need to create an independent Affordable Housing Authority. An Authority with the appropriate mandate and powers can solve the problem using a public-private partnership model. Similar agencies, such as the 42nd Street Development Corp., have successfully revitalized neighborhoods around the city. The new Authority would simply apply this proven archetype on a citywide scale.

By using this model, the funds needed for new developments can be financed through capital markets without the massive outlays of the mayor's plan. Indeed, we can completely redevelop many of the city's aged and dilapidated NYCHA projects, using this very model.

Creating affordable housing is one of the major public policy challenges of our time. Fortunately, we have the financing and know-how to fix this problem in an economical way. Now we need only the political will to make it happen.

Leonard Grunstein is Managing Member at Hanlen Real Estate Development & Funding

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New York City's Classroom Space Crunch


(photo: Michael Albans)

Last week Class Size Matters released a new report, Space Crunch, which analyzes the school overcrowding crisis in New York City, and points out the need to improve the City's proposed five year capital plan for school construction. While the real need for seats is likely over 100,000, the plan would create only about 38,000 new seats at most.

Among the findings in the report:
School overcrowding has worsened in the last six years, especially at the elementary grade level. Elementary school buildings currently average 97.4 percent capacity, according to the DOE's figures in its utilization report, known as the Blue Book. The median figure is at a shocking 102 percent. High schools are not far behind at an average of 95.2 percent.

What this means in real life terms is that class sizes are pushed above reasonable levels, students have lost their art, music and science rooms, are assigned to lunch as early as 10 a.m., or have no access to the gym. Many special needs students are forced to receive their mandated services in hallways or closets rather than in appropriate dedicated spaces.

In eleven city school districts, elementary schools average above 100 percent capacity; in 20 out of the 32 districts, they average above 90 percent. In addition, high schools in Queens and Staten Island average above 100 percent. More than 30,000 additional seats are needed in just these districts to bring their average down to 100 percent.

Even more seats are needed to address overcrowding at the neighborhood level, as evidenced by thousands of students sitting in trailers in 21 districts, and thousands of prospective kindergarteners on wait lists for their zoned school in 19 districts. In addition, the city's population is growing fast, and the two consulting companies hired by DOE to project enrollment have predicted increases of 60,000 to 70,000 students over the next five to ten years.

At the same time, most experts believe that the utilization figures reported by the DOE are faulty and actually underestimate the actual level of overcrowding in our schools, The Chancellor has appointed a taskforce to improve the formula.

Thus while the real need is likely greater than 100,000 seats, there are only 33,754 to 38,654 seats in the proposed five year capital plan – with the latter figure dependent on whether the state's "Smart Schools" bond act is approved in November. Unless the plan is significantly expanded, our students are likely to be sitting in even more overcrowded schools in the years to come.

The capital plan is also unlikely to achieve the DOE's widely-publicized promise to eliminate trailers or temporary classroom units (TCUs). While it has been reported that "only" 7,158 students are sitting in these trailers, the actual number of these students is likely 50 percent higher – as the DOE has omitted from its count thousands of high school, middle school and elementary school students, as well as severely disabled students, who attend classes in these substandard structures in more than 40 schools.

Moreover, although DOE officials have promised that the capital plan will accomplish the goal of eliminating trailers, many of which are in disrepair and long past their expected lifetime, and have allocated nearly $500 million to remove them and recondition the school yards on which they sit, there is not a single dollar in the capital plan dedicated to replacing their seats.

The past failures of the City to adequately address the problem of school overcrowding is due to many factors, including the disappointing record of the Bloomberg administration in school construction, with fewer schools built than in earlier periods. In addition, the DOE has redefined the size of a classroom downward in recent years, which may lead to building code violations, as more and more children are squeezed into smaller and smaller spaces. This year, the city's class sizes are at a fifteen-year high in grades K-3, and the largest in grades 4-8 since 2002.

The Department of Education has also made policy choices that have worsened overcrowding; including hundreds of small schools and charter schools inserted into existing buildings, eating up classroom space through replicating administrative offices and specialty rooms. In the report, these breakdowns of policy and planning are revealed by the DOE's own data, surveys, and interviews with principals and other school officials.

The report concludes with a number of policy recommendations, suggesting how the DOE can improve the school utilization formula. These reforms, along with enhancements to the planning process, and a more aggressive capital plan funded in part by "impact fees," would help ensure that more of the city's students are provided with the space they need to learn.

We are urging the City Council to insist on expansion of the plan to at least 50,000 seats this spring -- the DOE's admitted need – and for the City Comptroller or another independent agency to undertake a needs assessment that is more credible than the DOE's. There has not been a transparent needs assessment for our schools undertaken for more than twenty years. None of the goals for improving public education, including expanding pre-kindergarten, reducing class size, providing a well-rounded education, or establishing community schools with wrap-around services, are possible without a more ambitious capital plan. Only with significantly improved planning, policies, and funding can our public school students be provided with the facilities – and the quality education – they deserve.

Leonie Haimson is the Executive Director of Class Size Matters, a citywide advocacy group dedicated to improving opportunities to public school students through reducing class size.