Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics




Citywide Rezoning Plan Would Benefit Developers, Hurt Neighborhoods

cranes in BK

Cranes over Brooklyn (photo: Michael Flynn)

A citywide rezoning proposal quietly released by the de Blasio administration last month has begun the public review process. 'Zoning for Quality and Affordability' sounds like mom and apple pie, as it purports to make new housing less costly and meet higher standards. But a closer examination calls these premises into question. Big real estate, not average New Yorkers, would be the main beneficiary of some of the plan's key provisions, and its cost would be the undoing of neighborhood zoning protections years in the making.

The proposal is quite broad in its scope. But a central element is raising the allowable height of new development in "contextual zoning districts" -- areas where specific height limits and streetwall requirements help ensure that new buildings fit their context. These rules are meant to keep much of the "sore thumb" development we see around the city from cropping up in residential neighborhoods with strongly defined character, from the Lower East Side to Harlem, Crown Heights to Jackson Heights, the Village to Sunset Park.

Many of these height limits took years of effort by local communities to secure, and often involved compromises and trade-offs with the city and real estate interests to attain modest controls.

Now those rules would be upended, with the height caps lifted by as much as 20 to 30 percent, across the board.

As the plan's title implies, the rationale for these proposed changes are improvements in "quality and affordability," but neither seems likely to result from the current plan.

First, in many cases the proposed height limit increases would apply to purely market-rate housing. For example, in one of the more common contextual zoning districts, developers would automatically get to build about 20 percent taller than currently allowed for new luxury development. In the fraction of those districts where developers get more square feet if they reserve 20 percent of the units for affordable housing, there would be an additional 10 percent bump in the allowable height for such construction.

But even the height increase for developments that include 20 percent affordable housing raises serious questions. In existing contextual zoning districts such as the East Village, we have seen affordable housing included in some new developments built with the current, hard fought-for height limits, though not in every one. The City says higher height limits will mean more affordable units built, but the mixed results in places like the East Village don't offer any clear indication that this is so.

Including affordable units is currently optional in these zones, and this plan would not change that. It seems that the optional nature of the program, along with a variety of other factors, have a much bigger impact upon the number of affordable units built, rather than the height limits.

But for argument's sake, let's say raising height limits in contextual zones would increase participation in the 20 percent affordable housing program. Advocates for this approach point to the two areas of the city where significant numbers of affordable units have been produced through this program, West Chelsea/Hudson Yards and Williamsburg/Greenpoint. They have much looser height restrictions on new development and a significant number of their tidal wave of new, luxury developments include 20 percent affordable housing.

At the same time, though, in the ten years since that program has been implemented in those neighborhoods, they have seen a nearly unprecedented rise in rents and housing prices. In other words, in the two cases where this program has been most successful – where we have seen the highest rates of developers choosing to include 20 percent affordable housing in their new developments – we have also seen perhaps the most dramatic overall loss of affordability.

Is this the future we want? And is this not the inevitable result of tying the production of every new affordable apartment to four market-rate, super-luxury ones, which is enshrined in this proposal?

The other rationales for the increased height limits in the plan are equally dubious. The City claims current contextual zoning rules result in flat, boxy buildings; undesirable street-level ground floor apartments; and substandard floor-to-ceiling heights that discourage development. By lifting the overall height of buildings and loosening the contextual zones' streetwall requirements, the City claims more attractive and livable buildings that are cheaper to construct will result.

In fact, while some new buildings in contextual zones are mediocre in design, some are actually quite appealing – it really depends upon the architect and developer. But non-contextual zones, with no height limits or streetwall requirements, routinely see some of the most uninspiring, cringeworthy new designs in the city, poking a big hole in the "less restrictions equals better design" theory.

And as for the notion that current height limits are discouraging development or making for substandard apartments, one need only look at the flood of new construction in contextual zones from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Astoria, Park Slope to the Upper East Side. People are lining up to live there, and developers are making a hefty profit.

But perhaps not as hefty as they would like. Fewer restrictions on height, allowing grander floor-to-ceiling heights and apartments with more commanding views, would fetch developers even higher prices. But it certainly would not make these new apartments more affordable. And neighborhoods would pay the price with less light, air, and sky, and a loss of the character and scale they fought so hard to maintain.

The main beneficiaries of these aspects of the 'Zoning for Quality and Affordability' plan appear to be real estate interests, not those who care about quality design or affordable housing. It's likely no coincidence that these proposed changes are ones that deep-pocketed developers have sought for years. Now, wrapped in claims about quality and affordability, they finally have a chance to get them.

The mayor's 'Zoning for Quality and Affordability' plan is not without good points, and its stated goals are worthy of support. But substantial modifications are needed to protect neighborhood character and benefit average New Yorkers before it can live up to its lofty premise, and before it should be considered for adoption.

Andrew Berman is the Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

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Separating Fact from Fiction on the DREAM Act


The author at a rally for the DREAM Act

The gridlocked Congress' failure to produce needed, overdue immigration reform prompted several states to create their own versions of the proposed federal DREAM Act, which would provide publicly financed college tuition aid to undocumented immigrants.

Texas, a red state; California, a blue state; and New Mexico, a purple state; each has adopted its own version of the DREAM Act.

In New York, the DREAM Act enjoys the support of editorial boards as varied in their opinions, politics, and geographical concerns as Newsday, the New York Post, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the New York Times, the Albany Times Union, and the New York Daily News.

So why did the New York DREAM Act go down in defeat—narrowly—in the Legislature last year? Mostly because of fear and anger stirred up by opponents through the spread of misinformation.

If New York is to enact the DREAM Act this year and make the commonsense investment in its workforce and future that editorial boards, elected officials, and New Yorkers across the state are calling for, we need to separate the fact from the fiction.

Fiction: The DREAM Act will take money away from students who were born in this country and give it to those who were not.

Fact: New York's Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) is an entitlement program. Each and every student who meets the TAP income eligibility and other requirements is entitled to financial aid—no matter what. The additional cost of providing TAP dollars to Dreamers is estimated to range between $17 million and $27 million, about a .00018% increase in the state budget.

Fiction: The DREAM Act will reward people who broke the law.

Fact: Punishing young people for something their parents did is not the American way. And let's not lose sight of the fact that what the parents of Dreamers are guilty of is wanting a better life for their children, like generations before them and generations to come.

Fiction: The DREAM Act doles out tax dollars to people who themselves don't pay taxes.

Fact: According to a study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, undocumented immigrants contributed an estimated $744,276,000 New York State taxes in 2010. At the federal level, the Social Security Administration each year keeps $6 billion to $7 billion in social security contributions from W-2s that cannot be matched with a correct social security number. The vast majority of that money comes from undocumented immigrants who are forbidden by law to access many of the most basic government services which they help fund.

And the Fiscal Policy Institute has calculated that bachelor's degree holders pay an additional $3,900 in annual state taxes, meaning that TAP funding for the undocumented would more than pay for itself within six years.

In other words, making college more affordable for all is a smart investment in workforce development and our state's future. The more educated our workforce, the better it is for our economy - and Dreamers will most certainly be part of our workforce. They don't know any country other than the United States. Their futures are here.

Let's follow the bipartisan example of the five states that have already passed a DREAM Act. Let's come together in New York and make the DREAM Act a reality.

by Steven Choi is Executive Director of New York Immigration Coalition (on Twitter @stevechoinyic@thenyic).

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Our Time in Selma


Council Member Dan Garodnick, in Selma

Last weekend, my wife Zoe and I had the privilege of going to Alabama to trace some steps of the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement as part of the jubilee celebration of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. We were honored to pay respect to those who gave so much of themselves in pursuit of justice and who changed American history in the process. We immersed ourselves in that history as part of a group organized by the Faith and Politics Institute, and came away with an even deeper resolve to further their work.

We sat in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where a bomb exploded over 50 years ago, tragically stealing the lives of four young black girls, their futures taken from them while they were changing into their choir robes.

We visited Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, where ordinary Americans gathered to learn the tactics of nonviolence, and steeled themselves for the unknown as they endeavored to march 55 miles to Montgomery to deliver a clear message to the Alabama Governor, and ultimately to the world.

And we went to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of Bloody Sunday -- where so many of them were brutally attacked by an angry mob of police -- precisely a half-century ago.

We heard Congressman John Lewis, leader of the first march in Selma, describe being beaten unconscious on that bridge as he and his compatriots attempted to march quietly, two-by-two in support of their fundamental rights.

He wasn't doing it to be a hero. He was doing it because of a deeply held belief in the equality of man, and with his faith that God would protect him from harm. Indeed, while he might have anticipated a night in jail - and had stocked his backpack with an apple, toothbrush and book for that eventuality - he didn't actually expect the march to result in violence, which it did, at the hands of billy clubs, horse hooves, and tear gas. He does not remember how he got off the bridge.

We admired his bravery in moving forward, as the police in Selma had put out a call to a mob of young white men to serve as "deputies" to help them stop this march from proceeding.

We heard him tell the story about the man who visited his congressional office in 2009, who had assaulted him years earlier, and asked for his forgiveness. Without an ounce of bitterness or regret, John Lewis forgave him and "called him my brother."


Council Member Garodnick with his wife, Zoe, and Rep. John Lewis

Among other giants from the movement, we spent time with Juanita Abernathy, the widow of Ralph Abernathy, who never missed a march.

We heard from the daughter of Viola Liuzzo, a mother of five from Detroit who heeded Dr. Martin Luther King's call to come to Selma, and who was murdered when her car was run off the road by the Ku Klux Klan. When asked why her mother went to Selma, she responded: "The real question is: Why didn't everyone go to Selma?"

And of course, we were moved to see John Lewis and President Barack Obama embrace at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The president, whose very presence next to that bridge spoke volumes, captured the spirit of America when he referred to the courage of the foot soldiers, and asked: "What could be more American than what happened in this place?" He added: "We were born of change."

The most important takeaway for me: while times have changed significantly, the work of Selma is not complete. There is so much more to do.

On police-community relations, an issue that animated much of this past year, President Obama reminded us that the citizens of Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland "just want the same thing young people here marched for – the protection of the law." At the same time, he cautioned against marginalizing our police, as they are "members of the very communities they risk their lives to protect." This conversation will appropriately continue in New York, and all across this country, and in the tradition of Dr. King, we must do so with peace and civility in our hearts.

Significantly, our voting rights themselves are under attack. The Supreme Court recently struck down key portions of the Voting Rights Act, which gave the federal government the chance to "pre-clear" voting rules in areas with historic discrimination. At the same time, states have been enacting laws designed to make it even tougher for people to vote. All of this in a country that already has among the lowest voting rates among free nations. Those facts are beyond disappointing; they are actually disrespectful to those who gave so much to solidify basic rights for all Americans.

Unfortunately, Congress has not yet acted to fix what the Court has done.

The Voting Rights Act was, as President Obama said, a "crowning achievement of our democracy" and it is now "subject to partisan rancor." That cannot be. Re-activating key portions of the Voting Rights Act is the right way to honor those brave men and women who marched in 1965, and Congress should act without delay. If you agree, you can add your voice here.

And of course, right here in New York, we need to lead on ballot access issues. We should take steps to allow for early voting and same-day registration, as well as no-excuse absentee voting and instant runoffs - all ways to make it easier for people to participate in the electoral process. But that alone won't solve our voting issues. People still need to see a reason to come out and cast a ballot. In our last statewide election in New York, a pathetic 28.8 percent of eligible voters turned out to the polls. Scandal, negative campaigning, and general frustration are contributing factors – and we need to turn the ship around.

The visit to Alabama was inspiring and humbling at the same time. We must honor the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement by giving people a reason to participate, and by defending and strengthening the rights that they fought so hard to achieve. 

Dan Garodnick is a member of the New York City Council, representing the fourth district, in Manhattan.

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Dear Speaker Heastie: Support for your DREAM Act push is strong

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Speaker Heastie (photo: Lori Van Buren)

Dear Speaker Carl Heastie:

A few weeks ago, you shared your initial priorities as the new Assembly Speaker. It was refreshing to see you focus on expanding access to opportunity for all of New York's youth, including the thousands of undocumented students who deserve a fair chance at going to college. We, the College Access Consortium of New York (CACNY), a network of over 100 professionals representing community-based organizations, colleges, and secondary schools, stand by you in fighting for the NY DREAM Act this session.

The American Dream is based upon the principle of equal opportunity for all. However, making that dream a reality for thousands of first generation college students cannot wait another year. According to USA Today, of the more than five million first generation low-income students, only 11 percent will earn a college degree.

In May of 2011 the NY DREAM Act was introduced to level the playing field for the children of undocumented immigrants. This idea builds upon bipartisan legislation passed over a decade ago by Governor Pataki that granted in-state tuition rates to undocumented youth. At its core, the NY DREAM Act is key for thousands of youth across the state to obtain post-secondary opportunities by allowing them access to state financial aid, just like any other student proudly walking across the stage at their high school graduation or dancing at their senior prom.

As college access and success professionals, members of the CACNY community know that unequal access to the Tuition Assistance Program and other forms of state aid can be the proverbial 'straw that breaks the camel's back,' preventing an otherwise willing and capable student from accessing and succeeding in college and subsequently contributing to the workforce of our state.

As a fellow New York City native, I have seen first-hand the negative educational and economic impact that delaying the NY DREAM Act for four years has had on our communities. In solidarity with our fellow CACNY members, we express our collective support and desire that your efforts this year will yield a different outcome.

by Felipe Ayala Jr., Chair of the College Access Consortium of New York

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Real Answers to Improve Diversity at the Specialized High Schools

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Brooklyn Tech HS (photo via school website)

Critics of the Specialized High School Admissions Test as the sole criteria for admission to Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and five other schools continue to lament the low admissions rates of African-American and Latino students. While they do so, two remarkable developments occurred last week when the latest admission results were announced.

First, NYU's Research Alliance for New York City Schools released a significant new research report. It shows many of the changes being urged on elected policy makers - such as using state assessment test scores, grades, and attendance - either would result in little change in the admissions rates for these groups or would actually result in fewer black and more white students being offered admission.

The study states that the only way to make dramatic demographic change through altering the admissions criteria was to eliminate the test and substitute guaranteed admission to the top ten percent of students at each middle school. But it makes clear that this would come at the significant cost of lowering the academic preparation of the student body to do the rigorous coursework that make the specialized test-in schools the turbo-charged engines of advancement to the best colleges for the children of New York City's working class, poor, and immigrant families. (Two-thirds of the city public school graduates attending Harvard, Princeton, or Yale graduate from only three high schools - Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant, and Bronx Science - where 50% of the combined student body qualifies for free or subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.)

Given this dilemma, the NYU Research Alliance urged policy makers to consider better outreach to underrepresented communities to raise the number of high-performing students who sit for the test and offer better free test prep to ensure they are prepared to do well on the test. That is the same prescription advocated by alumni when we have urged lawmakers not to change state law mandating the sole use of the SHSAT for admissions. That state law covers Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant and Bronx Science. Five additional specialized high schools created administratively by the old Board of Education also use the test to determine admissions.

The other relevant development last week is the wildly positive demographic results obtained at Brooklyn Tech – where I graduated in 1970 and now head the Alumni Foundation – resulting from innovative efforts made recently by the school and its alumni. Improvements in the numbers of African-American and Latino students being admitted to the school show that change is possible without moving away from the SHSAT.

What did Tech and its alumni do? Quite a bit: A consistent outreach effort was undertaken, targeted at many Brooklyn middle schools sending few or no students to Tech. The school increased the number of tours offered to prospective applicants. With the assistance of the Alumni Foundation, the school also developed a "Tech in the Middle" project which brought middle school classes into the building for special sessions and tours which enabled teachers to speak about the opportunities created by getting a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education. Alumni went to Community Education Council meetings to speak with principals and parents about the school. Seventh grade students visiting Brooklyn Tech were given copies of the Specialized High Schools Student Handbook, which means information about the test being distributed to students a year in advance of their sitting for the exam. Through the efforts of the Alumni Foundation, a print and television public relations campaign was rolled out highlighting positive news about STEM education and the school.

In partnership with the Alumni Foundation and National Grid New York, which is led by Ken Daly, a Tech graduate, and has employed dozens of diverse Tech graduates, the school announced a pilot STEM pipeline program aimed at high-achieving middle school students to encourage them to study STEM subjects and pursue energy carriers.

National Grid is dedicated to developing the next generation of science, energy, and environmental leaders to develop sustainable energy solutions and tackle climate change. National Grid pledged $300,000 for this effort and the Alumni Foundation underwrote the costs of providing free test prep to the group through the Science Schools Initiative. This program is different than any other because it aims to get kids excited about future careers after studying STEM while also preparing them for the test. In addition, we conducted a special high school admissions session with the parents of these students to teach them about the process - parental buy-in is very important to the success of the program.

The results of the first cohort taking the test have been spectacular: 87 percent were offered admission to a specialized high school. Of the 30 students completing the year-long program who took the SHSAT, 16 were admitted to Brooklyn Tech and 10 to Stuyvesant. (The remaining four will also be going to great high schools, one each to Beacon, Bard, Bedford Academy, and Brooklyn High School for the Arts.)

The demographic results were also encouraging, with 50 percent of the students admitted to Tech being African-American or Latino, and 62 percent being female. Our program also managed to boost Stuyvesant's demographic admissions statistics with two of the ten black students admitted this year having come through our program.

While offers of admission increased overall at Brooklyn Tech by 6 percent, offers of admission to African-American and Latino students surged by 12 percent and 22 percent, respectively, when compared to the year before. Over 300 African-American and Latino students were offered admission to Brooklyn Tech this year, reversing a downward trend of many years.

So what does this mean for policy makers? It means that significant efforts can be successfully undertaken to improve the admissions of African-American and Latino students without sacrificing the educational opportunity guaranteed by use of the test as the sole criteria for admissions. Thought should be given to having public monies intelligently spent to scale our STEM pipeline program and also bring it to Stuyvesant and Bronx Science and the other specialized science high schools.

We recognize that other efforts also need to be made to improve diversity, promote fairness, and maintain merit at these schools. Better and more enriched educational opportunities must be made available in the elementary and middle schools serving predominantly African-American and Latino communities. A refitted Discovery Program can significantly increase the numbers of these students at all the specialized schools by redefining eligibility for the program to include attending an underperforming middle school. Discovery offers students just missing the cutoff score for admissions a second chance to qualify through summer courses preparing them to meet the challenges posed by the rigorous curriculum of the specialized schools. The program once sent hundreds of eighth-graders to the specialized high schools, but has since fallen into disuse.

Other types of efforts could be made to improve the situation at little cost to the public. Thirty minutes could be added to the test to permit students not taking test prep the additional time needed to complete all the questions on the exam, for example. We want to see a practice test administered in the seventh grade to enable children to know a year in advance what they need to study to do well on the actual exam.

We have fought to keep "the test" as the sole criteria for admission because proposals to add additional criteria pose ineffective answers to the problem of declining diversity at these schools and risk destroying what is good and unique about them.

Those of us who benefited from the rigorous education provided by the specialized high schools agree that the lack of diversity is a problem the city should address, but not through abandoning the meritocratic test as the sole criterion for admission. The challenge the city faces is to identify high-performing students at younger ages – perhaps through their scores on standardized state tests – and nurture those children to prepare them for the rigors of the SHSAT and the schools' curriculum.

There are more than 700 programs at 400 high schools in the public school system, and there ought to be room for a handful of test-in only schools just as there needs to be schools using multiple criteria for admissions decisions. There are real answers that will help diversify the specialized schools. The Department of Education and our elected officials need to consider and implement them.

Larry Cary is the president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation and the chair of the Coalition of Specialized High Schools Alumni Organizations.

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The Perfect Parking Spot for Congestion Pricing

packed street

(photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

New York City can achieve the goals of a long-vanquished congestion pricing plan through the management of its own parking property – all without making a single call to Albany.

New York is famously a city of contradictions and contrasts. Perhaps the most fundamental duality is its status among the world's most important cities and the fact that it yields much of its own governance to a hamlet up the Hudson River. Battling Albany is the oldest pastime in New York City politics. However, as Mayor Bill de Blasio continues to lobby for home rule and maneuver legislative alternatives, there already exists a latent opportunity to turn around one of the major defeats of the previous mayoral administration: congestion pricing.

A rare crushing defeat of the Bloomberg Administration, congestion pricing is a policy that attempts to lessen congestion in central urban areas by charging a fee to enter a demarcated zone. Following the lead of other major world cities, Mayor Michael Bloomberg sought to enact a congestion pricing plan in 2008, but Albany brought the mayor's plans to a halt when Speaker Sheldon Silver could not secure enough Democratic votes to bring the plan to the floor of the Assembly - where Democrats have long-held a wide majority - before the legislative session expired.

Other professionals and advocates have renewed efforts at securing more measured transportation policy from Albany. But in the meantime, New York City can pursue many of the same goals of congestion pricing through the administration of its own property: parking spaces.

At its core, congestion pricing operates with one simple mechanism: attaching a higher cost to the activity of driving into the city center. Parking is an inherent cost associated with driving – and not just a monetary one. While the City may not have comprehensive power to demarcate congestion zones or raise tolls on Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) bridges and tunnels, parking is still inevitable at the end of every trip, and can serve as an effective proxy for raising prices on the activity of driving.

There are three main ways that New York City can lower congestion, stop subsidizing personal car ownership, and raise revenue through the management of its own parking spaces. While I go into further detail on all these reasons, and the data behind them, in a white paper published by the Roosevelt Institute, here is how the City should do so in brief:

Raise parking meter rates, and ideally enact "smart" demand-responsive pricing systems
In New York City, parking simply remains far too cheap, way below market price for how valuable a resource it is. While the rate for one hour of parking in a private garage in Manhattan can easily hit $30, the most expensive street parking in the city is $3.50 an hour. This discrepancy encourages drivers to cruise around in search of dirt-cheap street parking, and constitutes a surprisingly large portion of overall congestion. Correcting the underpricing of metered street parking has proven effective at removing this particular source of congestion in other cities, in addition to raising revenues.

The most thorough manifestation of this concept is the dynamic pricing system put into effect in San Francisco, where a "smart" grid of electronic meters allows prices to be changed based on demand in nearly real-time. New York City already administers a less precise, lower tech version of this with its "Park SMART NYC" program, which raises prices during business hours based on demand in certain neighborhoods. The Department of Transportation should expand such pricing schemes until installing the kind of infrastructure in San Francisco is viable.

Residential parking permits
While metered parking is a great illustration of how parking is subject to supply and demand pressures, it ultimately constitutes a very small percentage of all parking spaces in New York City – by some estimates, a maximum of 2 percent. The vast majority of the parking stock is completely free parking spaces on residential side streets. Such an egregious underpricing of residential spaces represents a de facto subsidy for personal car ownership within the city. In addition to removing this subsidy, a residential parking permit would raise revenue from an untapped source of rentable city property, and offers residents increased certainty that a parking space will be available when they return home – a crucial factor that helps gain support from residents.

Dedicating public spaces for car-sharing vehicles
A final solution involves careful public-private partnerships to dedicate on-street parking spaces for the exclusive use of vehicles in a car-sharing service, such as ZipCar or Cars2Go. Car-sharing services provide many benefits that have already proven popular in New York. For those who cannot afford the high costs of purchasing, insuring, and fueling a car, paying a small subscription rate and hourly fee for when they actually use a car is a viable alternative. Car-sharing can also ease the decision to move to a carless lifestyle - which should be encouraged - by providing an alternative for bigger trips such as errands to big box stores or moving.

Traffic congestion remains a critical problem in New York City. In addition to the dangers of pedestrian casualties, environmental emissions, and low quality public space resulting from car-centric design, traffic congestion is estimated to have cost New York City $1.9 billion in logistical, inventory, and personnel costs, and up to $4.6 billion in unrealized business revenue.

A comprehensive congestion pricing plan should remain a goal for anyone interested in a better New York City. But while Albany continues to seethe and combat its own corruption, there is nothing holding back a self-described progressive mayoral administration and City Council from managing the city's own public space in a smarter way.

Brit Byrd is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and a Columbia University student.

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Governor’s Student Loan Relief Plan Helps Less Than One Percent

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Governor Cuomo (photo: @NYGovCuomo)

Just over 2.8 million New Yorkers hold nearly $74 billion in student loan debt. Governor Cuomo’s Get on Your Feet Loan Forgiveness Program wouldn’t even help one percent of them with their debt, even when fully phased in.

The proposal would apply to New York State residents who graduate from college in the state, continue to live here, and make less than $50,000 per year. It would allow those New Yorkers to pay nothing on their student loans for the first two years out of school. Instead, the State would make loan payments so long as debt holders are participating in a federal program - the Pay As You Earn (PAYE) income-based loan repayment program – an option that forgives the remainder of a federal loan after 20 years of consecutive monthly on-time payments or 10 years if you're enrolled in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.

It’s great that Governor Cuomo is thinking about the student debt crisis by helping a few recent graduates get on their feet. However, without addressing the high and rising cost of going to college, which is the root cause of high and rising student debt levels, debt will continue to cripple an entire generation’s ability to fight ever-growing inequality. Some are referring to bleak employment prospects, unemployment rates, and low wages for young people as the “Lost Decade” effect.

This unprecedented student debt crisis continues to impact economic markets like housing. According to a report by Young Invincibles, the average single student debtor is likely ineligible for a typical home mortgage due to their debt-to-income ratio.

It’s important to note that this wasn’t always the case. Prior to the Great Recession, homeownership rates of those with a history of student debt were substantially higher than those without. This is because earning potential is higher for those with degrees. However, despite it being a buyer’s market, student loan debtors are still less likely than non-debtors to buy a home.

The biggest growth in student loans came in the past decade, as student debt rose an average of 14 percent per year from $364 billion in 2004 to over $1 trillion today, according to the New York Fed. To be fair, total student debt has ballooned in part because more people are going to college and therefore taking out student loans. It’s good that more people are earning college degrees. However, that’s not the only contributor to the ballooning of student debt. The cost of getting a bachelor’s degree is 12 times higher than it was 35 years ago, far outpacing medical care, housing, and all other commodities – and that’s accounting for inflation.

New York is no outlier. State tuition has increased by nearly 130 percent at New York’s public four-year colleges over the last two decades. Tuition at the City University of New York (CUNY), which was once free for all city residents, will increase nearly 60 percent from 2008 to 2016 alone. Meanwhile the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) remains grossly inadequate. This is why 60 percent of New Yorkers graduate owing student loan debt with an average amount of $26,381.

To seriously address the student debt crisis in New York, Governor Cuomo must:

  1. Inject general resources into SUNY and CUNY so the universities can rely less on tuition revenue. Decades of disinvestment has made higher education either inaccessible for many or comes with an unsustainable and long-lasting cost.

  1. Rollback the annual tuition increases made since the Great Recession. Raising tuition through a recession and the years that followed unfairly burdened families during difficult times while also reducing the multiplier effect we could be realizing if dollars weren’t being drained into paying high tuition and then paying off student loans;

  1. Bring TAP into the 21st century through a number of common sense reforms. This includes streamlining the rules of the program to open access to students in need and increasing the maximum award to $6,500 to keep up with rising costs associated with going to college.

  1. Integrate rewarding and incentive-driven loan forgiveness programs in all economic development initiatives to help address the more than 2.8 million state residents with student loan debt. This includes expanding the reach of initiatives like the NY SUNY 2020 Grant Challenge Program, STARTUP NY, and others to reduce and forgive the student loan debt of employees as a baseline of doing business in the state and benefiting from these very rewarding programs.  

The shared value in the above four policies that the state requires is simple: an increase in the capital that can be reinvested into the New York economy in other ways by reducing the monthly and overall amount of student debt that New Yorkers are paying.

It’s time for the governor and state policy-makers to start thinking differently about higher education and student debt. Most of the conversations happening around student debt policy don’t actually reduce payments or forgive debt. Instead they make loans cheaper or easier to repay - this type of thinking will only further fortify the crisis that is already having long-term negative effects on millions of people and the American economy.

But, implementing policies that reduce debt owed and forgive total debt will dig us out of this hole, and propel us into a brighter economic future.  

Kevin Stump is Leadership Director at Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network

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The Limits of Community Policing


NYPD Transit (photo: @NYPDLTrain)

We share many of the recent concerns about overly aggressive, discourteous, and unlawful policing that have been raised in the last several months. Every day hundreds of mostly poor and non-white New Yorkers have unwanted and problematic interactions with the police including unjustified stops and illegal searches, frequent issuances of summonses for non-criminal behavior, and harassment and intimidation by police. Therefore we applaud the holding of a hearing Tuesday by the Public Safety Committee of the New York City Council on improving policing. There is a need for major reforms in how policing is conducted in New York City.

We are very concerned, however, that the leadership of both the NYPD and the City Council are proposing to add 1,000 police officers to the NYPD headcount under the guise of expanding community policing. Too often, community policing means more intensive and invasive policing of minor disorderly behavior that serves to criminalize mostly people of color without dealing with the underlying causes of this behavior like poverty, homelessness, problematic drug use, mental health issues, and more.

The majority of New Yorkers are not actively engaged in the political life of their local neighborhood. Some may be politically active in other venues, others may be focused on national or international concerns, and most are caught up in the daily struggles of home and work.

Part of the problem with so-called community policing lies in the nature of community. Those who are active in community affairs are not always representative of the full diversity of views and experiences in our many neighborhoods. Community Boards and Precinct Community Councils tend to be populated by long-time residents, those that own rather than rent their homes, business owners, and landlords. The views of renters, youth, homeless people, and the most socially marginalized are rarely represented in these bodies.

Community policing tends to turn all neighborhood problems into police problems. Across the country, community police programs have been based on the idea that the community should bring its myriad of concerns about the condition of the community to the police, who will work with them on developing solutions. Invariably, however, the range of community problems extends far beyond serious crime. Why should the police necessarily be the sole or even lead agency in developing strategies to address community concerns about disorder and public safety?

One of the most frequent concerns of neighborhood residents is the presence of low level drug dealing and use. This generates a tremendous number of calls to 311 and 911. Enhancing the ability of police to respond to these community concerns will just further criminalize people involved with low level drug use and sales. The failed "War on Drugs" strategy of criminalizing these activities has done nothing to reduce the availability and negative effects of drugs on individuals or communities, has produced substantial negative collateral consequences for those arrested, and has been a major drain on city resources. The cost of running each bed at Rikers Island comes to over $150,000 a year; money better spent on prevention, harm reduction, treatment, and jobs programs.

There is extensive research that shows that most complaints that "community representatives" take to the police are about "quality of life" problems rather than serious crime. People tend to raise concerns about local disorderly conditions such as noise and traffic, or public behaviors they find annoying such as small-time drug dealing, prostitution, and any gatherings of young people. More intensive police attention to these "community" concerns will invariably lead to further unnecessary and counterproductive harassment and criminalization of many of New York's poorest and most vulnerable.

As an example, at a recent 67th Precinct Community Council meeting in Flatbush, Brooklyn the main complaint of community members was the regular presence of homeless people in and around businesses at the corner of Church and Nostrand Avenues. Some of these people had obvious mental health problems and others panhandled for money for subsistence purposes. The local police commander pledged to respond to these concerns but acknowledged limited capacity and resources to do so. Increased police responsiveness to these complaints, in the absence of new services, will lead to the harassment and arrest of these people in the name of community policing. This is not the kind of improved policing we need.

To the extent that police need to be involved in managing quality of life community concerns, it should be restricted to responding to truly dangerous conditions. The police could also play a role as gatekeeper to enhanced services, such as how Seattle's Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program diverts low-level drug offenders and sex workers to social services instead of jail. For too long the city has over-relied on the police as first responders to a range of community concerns that might better be dealt with through other city agencies. The police primarily have punitive tools at their disposal, such as arrest and the use of force. What is needed instead are responses that are less punitive and provide real pathways out of addiction, joblessness, homelessness, and poor health.

We do want the police to be more courteous, professional, and respectful, but expanding the ability of police to respond to community concerns will lead to more criminalization of people trying to survive when their most basic needs are not being met. Therefore, we oppose any increase in the number of police at this time and instead call on the City Council to use whatever resources it would have used to increase the headcount of the NYPD to instead invest in supportive housing, harm reduction programs, evidence-based drug treatment, and health services that can play a much more positive and sustained role in reducing very real community concerns about disorder and public safety.

by Alyssa Aguilera and Alex S. Vitale

Aguilera is Political Director at VOCAL-NY.

Vitale is Associate Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics.

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A Short-Sighted Garbage Plan

garbage truck

(photo: @wasterecycling)

Effective management of waste is a topic that concerns many individuals, community leaders, and business organizations, especially when new proposals presented in the City Council threaten hard-earned jobs in the waste and recycling industry.

On February 13, union workers, city council members, business leaders, and waste industry experts joined forces to oppose Intro. 495, a proposal that seeks to reduce waste transfer station capacity in select neighborhoods in New York City.

The idea behind the legislation is attractive, but naïve, as it simply glazes over current problems without providing real waste and recycling processing solutions. The proposal aims not to reduce waste, but simply to distribute it to different neighborhoods in the city. In doing this, Intro. 495 actually adds truck miles throughout the city as sanitation trucks will have to travel further to these alternative transfer stations, and will result in higher costs for New York City businesses.

Proposals like Intro. 495 would also destroy good-paying jobs. Despite claims from opposing parties, private waste companies are required by federal, state, and city law to ensure their trucks are in good working order for their trained workers and the communities they serve. Intro. 495 would eliminate many jobs in a workforce predominantly composed of people of color. These opposing parties are unions that represent a tiny fraction of the private sector waste industry, and are trying to use Intro. 495 to further their own interest while harming the majority of workers who would be adversely affected by this ill-conceived plan.

New York City produces more than 35,000 tons of waste every day. Were the marine transfer stations called for in the plan to open, around 5,700 tons per day would be diverted to these facilities. As a result, more than 400 trucks per day would be redirected from areas targeted by Intro. 495. These are part of the City's Solid Waste Management Plan, which is in the process of being implemented. We firmly believe careful planning and measurement should be a priority before passing laws that will adversely affect communities, jobs, and our environment.

Waste workers work when it's sunny, raining, or blistering cold outside. They don't get a "day off" when natural disasters hit our fast-paced city. They quickly respond to emergencies in order to keep New York City open for residents and commuters. The transfer stations targeted by Intro. 495 played a crucial role in managing debris after Superstorm Sandy, and this capacity would not be available if the bill is enacted.

For all of these reasons, dozens of representatives from Laborers Local Union 108, United Service Workers Union Local 339 and the International Union of Journeyman & Allied Trades Local 726, NW&RA members, and business leaders joined to express their opposition to Intro. 495 on the steps of City Hall on January 22.

We are open to discuss other options with the City Council and de Blasio Administration to reach a more viable solution without jeopardizing union jobs and neighborhoods. We know already that Intro. 495 is not the answer to this complex problem.

Tom Toscano chairs the National Waste Recycling Association NYC Chapter and is CFO of Mr. T Carting.

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The Case for Mayoral Control

bdb reading school

Mayor de Blasio reads to students (photo: @MelindaKatz)

The state legislature will soon decide whether to reauthorize, amend, or eliminate mayoral control of the New York City public schools. Mayoral control should be extended and, as suggested by the Mayor, made permanent - with the possibility of amendment as with any law.

The most important reason to keep mayoral control is to keep city funding of our schools at a high level. Prior to mayoral control there were incessant and critical battles over the city's underfunding of our schools. That in part resulted from the demise of the old Board of Estimate, which set the City budget, and its mirrored membership on the Board of Education, consisting of single representatives of each Borough President and 2 mayoral appointees.

Once the Board of Estimate was eliminated, the connection between operational and budgetary authority of the schools was lost. The effect was immediate and harsh. An era of underfunding ensued, propelled by a new City Charter giving the Mayor strong budgeting powers but without authority for schools. As a result, the Board of Education budget withered while mayoral agencies were privileged.

Only with mayoral control did city funding increase and increase substantially. We no longer hear cries of impoverishment over the city's education budget. The fight now is over State funding because mayoral control means more money. Pure and simple.

While adequate city funding is the main reason for retaining mayoral control, there are additional benefits. The old Board of Education was a recipe for paralysis because six appointing authorities controlled seven votes on the Board. As Board Counsel, I saw petty political horse trading, patronage, and personal ambition mean more than quality education since no one was in charge. Kids, parents, and taxpayers bore the consequences, not those who bore real responsibility. A parade of short-term Chancellors came and went, leaving a legacy of instability that subverted any stirrings of instructional success.

Mayoral control has given us continuity and stability, prerequisites for educational improvement. Despite the churn of the last decade - and my strong public opposition to Bloomberg/Klein policies - leadership stability has been a plus. (Remember the chaos of Cathie Black!) Nothing is worse for a system than constant leadership changes and mayoral control has brought surprising system stability.

And stability is good for direction. Like it or not, clear institutional direction - the ability to make and implement decisions - is another requirement of strong institutions. I know that many of my friends claim the need for "checks and balances," but public education is not a national government to be protected from extremes of political volatility. It is fundamentally an executive function, requiring the clarity of mission and organizational structure that comes from having someone in charge.

It is easy to criticize the present scheme; harder to find a practical alternative, especially under a Charter giving the Mayor such strong fiscal power. Why believe shared authority will work when it failed before? Why believe elections will make schools less political and any more stable? When Board of Education members served fixed terms, we had the ridiculous spectacle of Board appointees betraying their Borough Presidents to side with Rudy Giuliani in a political power play, resulting in the anti-Dinkins "Gang of Four." This was not about kids but personal ambition.

If we need tweaks - and I warn of opening the door to all manner of tweakers - City Council advice and consent over the Chancellor's appointment and removing the Chancellor from PEP membership would create greater community input into DOE leadership and more pluralism in PEP deliberations.

As a former President of the Citywide Council on High Schools, I see the need for greater collaboration between the DOE and parent groups at the central, district, and school levels but that requires non-legislative solutions, not more regulation.

Much of the current opposition to mayoral control is a reaction to the Bloomberg years. But we have only begun to explore the opportunities and proven strengths of the law. If mayoral control has so far not yielded school policies attractive to particular constituencies, that is not the problem of governance but those who govern. Let's not be led astray by believing our policy preferences can be guaranteed by some new structure.

David C. Bloomfield is Professor of Education Leadership at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of American Public Education Law, 2nd edition, among other works.

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Responsibility for Akai Gurley's Death

nypd recruits

NYPD recruits (photo: @CommissBratton)

A Brooklyn grand jury recently indicted NYPD probationary Police Officer Peter Liang in the death of Akai Gurley, who was shot in a darkened public housing stairwell in November. The indictment means Liang will be brought to trial on homicide charges.

But an important question remains: is anyone else responsible for Gurley's death?

The finger of blame points at two of New York City's largest and most important agencies. First, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) must bear responsibility. NYCHA knows that stairwells are crime-prone locations that require regular patrols by the NYPD. By failing to maintain a properly lit stairwell, NYCHA placed its tenants and the city's police officers at serious risk of harm.

Worse, Gurley and his girlfriend used the darkened stairs after growing tired of waiting for an elevator, which apparently wasn't working properly. Another example of the disrepair that we know plagues NYCHA buildings, yet receives too little attention.

Indeed, the darkened stairwells that were the norm at the Louis Pink Houses created a crime prone location that no doubt necessitated the NYPD conduct vertical patrols in the buildings' staircases and on its rooftops. The darkened stairwells also contributed to the practice of officers performing these vertical patrols with their guns drawn, as it appears Liang did.

Clearly, NYCHA's failure to maintain a lighted stairway created a dangerous condition for both tenants and police officers which directly contributed to Gurley's death.

The NYPD is responsible for this tragedy as well. Two inexperienced and unsupervised "rookie" officers – Liang and his partner Shaun Landau – were given the dangerous job of patrolling the stairway. The officers may very well have been inadequately trained, and they were authorized by NYPD to draw their weapons while they patrolled the unlit staircase.

It is especially troubling to consider why the NYPD assigned two rookies to conduct a vertical sweep of this housing complex. Compounding the problem, Police Commissioner William Bratton - before Gurley's death - recognized that his predecessor's practice of pairing rookies together must be changed.

Unfortunately NYPD's decision to eliminate this risky practice of teaming inexperienced officers is ending too late for Gurley and his loved ones - and for the officers involved. Perhaps if a more experienced officer had been partnered with Liang, this tragedy might have been avoided.

As Bratton publicly stated, Gurley was "a total innocent" and the shooting was "an unfortunate accident." But, the NYPD's institutional culpability must not be overlooked. Calling it "an unfortunate accident" does not absolve NYPD's managers from its responsibility.

Gurley's death – whether caused by criminal or civil negligence – is a tragedy of enormous proportions. The criminal process may bring some closure to Gurley's family and friends, notwithstanding the fact that a trial verdict is always uncertain.

In the end, two major City institutions – NYCHA and NYPD – failed Gurley and Liang.

We must not allow those in charge of NYCHA or the NYPD to hide behind "no comment" when questioned about their roles in this tragedy. Although criminal and civil matters are pending, these city officials must tell the people of New York what institutional mistakes were made and how these mistakes are being corrected.

What's needed now is the light of full disclosure. If these agencies fail to acknowledge their roles in this terrible event, further investigation by the Brooklyn District Attorney may be required.

In the realm of public accountability, there should be no darkened stairwells.

Arnold Kriss is a former NYPD Deputy Commissioner-Trials and Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney. He is presently a Manhattan attorney.

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