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Medical Treatment Should Be My Choice, Not My Landlord’s


Gotham Gazette: Treatment

A rally by Three-Quarter House Tenant Organizing Project


The landlord gave him a choice: go back to using heroin or be kicked out onto the streets. “Do what you do,” the landlord told him. So to keep a roof over his head, after nine months clean and sober, he got high. The landlord let him stay. Strange as this may sound, it was routine where I used to live, and for thousands of tenants across New York City.

I used to live in a “three-quarter house.” These are private, for-profit buildings, where as many as ten tenants may be packed into single rooms at very low rents. Though they aren’t licensed, they call themselves “programs” and promote themselves as “sober homes” or “transitional houses.” They even have names like “Uplifting Men” or “Back on Track.”

Landlords recruit people coming home from jail or prison, exiting rehab, or who have nowhere else to go. They promise “services,” but provide none. Instead, many landlords profit by forcing tenants to attend an outpatient drug treatment program of their choosing, regardless of whether the person wants or needs the treatment. Tenants attend that program daily, because they know that if they don’t, they will lose their housing. The provider of the drug treatment program—which is reimbursed by Medicaid for each participant—then cuts the landlord a portion of those Medicaid reimbursements.

In my house, the landlord, Yury Baumblit, would personally kick us out of bed early each morning and send us to Canarsie Aware Inc. If a tenant couldn’t show proof of attendance, Baumblit would pack their bags and throw them out of the house on the spot. If someone went to treatment elsewhere, they would be evicted. If someone got a job that interfered with their ability to attend the program, they had to quit the job or be evicted.

This scam is widespread and well-known. This year Baumblit was arrested and charged with fraud and illegal evictions. In 2014, the executives of Narco Freedom—the biggest three-quarter house operator in the city—were arrested and indicted for Medicaid fraud and kickbacks for a similar scheme. In 2013, a drug treatment provider called the New York Service Network lost its license after being investigated for Medicaid fraud and kickbacks to landlords.

After these indictments, I was hopeful for change. But these abuses are as rampant as ever and tenants still have few protections.

I’m a member of the Three-Quarter House Tenant Organizing Project (TOP), a group of three-quarter house tenants working in partnership with MFY Legal Services, Neighbors Together, and VOCAL-NY to stop the exploitation of tenants. We have worked with City Council Members Ritchie Torres, Jumaane Williams, Corey Johnson, and Donovan Richards to introduce a package of legislation to protect three-quarter house tenants.

Intro 1168, introduced by Council Member Torres, would make it illegal for private landlords to threaten eviction or retaliation for tenants’ medical treatment choices – exactly what happened to me and so many others. This bill is common sense: landlords are not doctors, and they have no business interfering with or even asking about tenants’ medical choices. It’s also basic fairness: landlords should not be allowed to prey on the health of people who are desperate to keep a roof over their heads. And it’s smart policy: Medicaid kickback scams cheat the State out of millions of dollars and take up scarce treatment resources.

Intro 1168 by itself won’t solve the deeper problems that allow three-quarter houses to exist -- the severe shortage of truly affordable housing and the lack of options for people in recovery and reentry – but it will strike a critical blow against exploitation. If Intro 1168 had been the law back when I lived at Baumblit’s house, getting treatment would have been my choice, not his. Most importantly, if it becomes law now, it will help stop the next landlord who gets the idea to exploit New York’s most marginalized tenants for personal profit. We need this law now, before another tenant is forced to choose between health and home.

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Darryl Gates is a member of the Three-Quarter House Tenant Organizing Project (TOP). He is a former three-quarter house tenant.

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New Affordable Housing in Every Neighborhood, Including Mine


 margaret chin committee

Council Member Chin, the author (photo: Charles Eshelman)


No one said it would be easy.

When voters overwhelmingly elected Mayor de Blasio almost three years ago, New Yorkers chose an elected official who pledged to tackle the tough issues plaguing us — including a promise to create 80,000 units of new affordable housing for a city in desperate need.

Almost three years later, Mayor de Blasio — in partnership with many of my City Council colleagues — is making steady progress towards that goal. In March, after a substantial amount of public review, I joined an overwhelming majority of Council members to approve a sweeping change in zoning law that promises to accelerate the creation of affordable housing where none would otherwise be built.

Identifying sites for affordable housing in a city as crowded as ours can be a monumental challenge. Communities must be consulted about changes coming to their neighborhoods. It is they, after all, who bear the brunt of nearly constant construction and other serious quality of life issues affecting a city in the midst of an unprecedented building boom.

But in almost every case, the question before us must not be if, but how affordable housing is to be created.

We are not living in ordinary times. People who have lived in their neighborhoods for decades, whether it be in Battery Park City or Little Italy in my Council district or elsewhere, are facing the reality of losing their homes.

Some have already received a letter from their landlord informing them of a double-digit rent increase. Others, including too many of our seniors, are desperately searching for any space available in a city that seemingly has none.

It is true that our city needs more open space for residents of all ages. But this crisis demands that we make tough decisions to accommodate the pressing needs of all New Yorkers.

That is why I am proud of the public process that led to the inclusion of at least 5,000 square feet of publicly-accessible space at a new affordable senior housing project on Elizabeth and Mott streets in Little Italy in my Council District.

When it is built, this permanent open space will be the result of the advocacy of a group of passionate neighbors fighting for more places for New Yorkers to play, relax, and enjoy the natural world around us. These neighbors, along with the local Community Board, have spoken in a clear voice, and I hear them.

I also hear the pleas of our seniors for housing that is safe, age-friendly, and above all, affordable. Their voices matter, and must be taken into consideration.

The decision to pursue this 100 percent affordable housing project has not been an easy one. But in my heart, I know that this is the correct decision. Because for me, leadership isn’t about always doing what is popular, but what is right.

By pursuing this project in the heart of Little Italy — a place steeped in history that welcomed my newly-arrived immigrant family a half-century ago — I am fulfilling my promise to those who elected me to preserve what makes this tiny slice of our city great, and to ensure that the people who made it great can afford to stay there.

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Margaret S. Chin is the City Council member representing Lower Manhattan. On Twitter @CM_MargaretChin.

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Jail Abuse, Lawsuit Show Need to ‘Raise the Age’


raise the age five protesters

"Raise the Age" advocates (photo: Correctional Association)


Last week, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York filed suit against the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office in Syracuse for placing juveniles in solitary confinement. According to the suit, children aged 16 and 17 have been subjected to extended and arbitrary solitary confinement for up to months at a time despite mental health and personal safety concerns. These practices continue in Onondaga County despite the fact the both New York State prisons and New York City jails have banned it. And just this summer the Obama administration also banned the solitary confinement of juveniles in the federal prison system.

In December 2014 the New York State Advisory Committee of the US Commission on Civil Rights, on which I sit, released a report calling for the elimination of solitary confinement for everyone under the age of 25 in New York City and across New York State. We interviewed young people who had been in solitary, toured facilities, heard from experts in the field, and reviewed the existing academic literature and found that these practices are extremely detrimental to the health of young people and do little if anything to make either jails or communities any safer. In fact, spending time in solitary confinement is correlated with higher recidivism rates upon release. There is no evidence that the use of solitary reduces violence in prisons or jails.

We also found that while solitary is an extreme and damaging punishment for adults, it is especially harmful to juveniles given that their brains are still developing and they may not have the same coping skills of a more mature adult. We need only look at the case of Kalief Browder, who killed himself after spending almost two years in solitary at Rikers Island as a juvenile.

Throughout the country juvenile facilities have banned the use of solitary confinement. It continues to be practiced only in a handful of places that place juveniles in adult facilities -- something New York is phasing out even though it remains just one of two states in the country to try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. Alleged abuses in Syracuse are even more reason for New York to “raise the age” of adult criminal responsibility, a push that has languished in the state Legislature, largely due to State Senate Republicans.

The NYCLU lawsuit is on behalf of six black and Latino young people who have been subjected to assaults, sexual harassment, threats, and denial of educational access over the most minor infractions or at the whim of guards. Here are some of the details of the individual plaintiffs who are identified by an initial because they are juveniles:

--R is currently in solitary, in part for singing a Whitney Houston song in his cell. In solitary, guards heard the adult above him shout “I’m gonna stab you in the showers” and threatening sexual abuse at all hours of the night, and they responded by moving the adult directly next to him. Yesterday that same adult used a cup to throw his urine in R’s face during recreation.

--V is currently in solitary, and has not been able to change his clothes since September 8. A pre-trial detainee who has never been convicted of a crime, he nonetheless has spent over 115 days in solitary.

--C, currently at the Justice Center, once tried to file a grievance in solitary, and a guard drew a penis on his form before throwing it away. “Being in the box changes you. It makes you do things like think about jumping off your table into the ground,” C said.

--M, currently at the jail, has been sent to solitary for reasons including wearing his shower shoes at the wrong time. A deputy once responded to his complaints by threatening to “bash [his] skull in.” After being in solitary, M now finds it hard to even be in a regular cell for any period of time.

While Onondaga County needs to ban the practice of putting juveniles in solitary confinement, this problem could also be eliminated if the state Legislature would pass the “raise the age” bill. Treating 16- and 17-year olds as adults in the criminal justice system is an inexcusable policy based on the politics of retribution and the hysteria over youthful predators that surfaced in the 1990s, just as juvenile violent crime rates plummeted.

According to Raise the Age NY, the campaign to raise the age that has helped bring the issue to a boiling point, including support from Governor Andrew Cuomo:

--Studies have found that young people transferred to the adult criminal justice system have approximately 34% more re-arrests for felony crimes than youth retained in the youth justice system.  Around 80% of youth released from adult prisons reoffend often going on to commit more serious crimes

--Studies show that youth in adult prisons are twice as likely to report being beaten by staff, and nearly 50% more likely to be attacked with a weapon than children placed in youth facilities.

--Youth in adult prisons face the highest risk of sexual assault.

--Youth in adult prisons are often placed in solitary confinement. The isolation young people face in adult facilities is destructive to their mental health and can cause irreparable harm.

--Youth are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult facility than in a juvenile facility.

Last year the State Assembly passed a raise the age bill, only to see it blocked by the Senate. It’s time for the Legislature and the governor to act on this issue as well as put pressure on Onondaga County to join the rest of the state in banning this cruel and counterproductive practice.

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Alex S. 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. He is senior policy adviser to the Police Reform Organizing Project and serves on the New York State Advisory Committee to the US Civil Rights Commission. You can follow him on Twitter @avitale.

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Improving Entrepreneurial Opportunities for Hispanics Will Be a Boost for the City


pichardo presser

Assemblymember Pichardo, one of the co-authors


New York City is, and always will be, one of the world’s economic powerhouses. Yet that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. In fact, although unemployment across the city has fallen faster than the rest of the country since the recent recession, areas like the Bronx still lag.

While the Bronx has seen some progress, there is still much work to be done for shared prosperity and economic opportunity for all. With the right tools and policies focused on entrepreneurial growth, the most impoverished borough can have the opportunity to complete the city’s economic boom and ensure that the entire city, not just the lower half of Manhattan and a few other areas, experiences long-lasting economic growth.

New York City’s resilience was again proven by an impressive return to economic prosperity after the recent worldwide recession. Although it’s near 5 percent overall unemployment rate may make much of the rest of the country envious, the Bronx continues to have a rate above 7.5 percent, more than 50 percent higher, while the 1.5 million Hispanics in the borough also make up a majority of its unemployed.

Hispanics in New York City total nearly 2.5 million people; alone they would be the fourth-largest and one of the fastest growing cities in the country. Even while Hispanics still constitute a disproportionate amount of the unemployed, also losing more of their wealth than any other demographic during the recession, Hispanic-owned businesses have proliferated across New York. In fact, new business growth in this demographic has increased at a rate of more than eight times the overall rate, simultaneously improving total payroll by 40 percent and revenue by almost 50 percent.

Local representatives and appointed officials shouldn’t take these statistics lightly. While we’ve always known that something has to be done to improve economic outcomes in more disadvantaged areas such as much of the Bronx, what hasn’t always been clear is what will drive results. It should now be clear: the best opportunities for long-term growth reside in improving entrepreneurial opportunities.

There is plenty of room for improvement. While the Governor Cuomo’s Unemployment StrikeForce is a great program to increase employment, New York City was recently ranked 145 of 150 U.S. cities for Hispanic entrepreneurs. More should be invested in creating entrepreneurial opportunities, while also ensuring that regulations don’t impede them.  

When asked, one of the greatest impediments to creating and growing a business is the lack of access to capital. Hispanics in particular receive funding at rates far lower than the rest of the population. In one recent study, it was found that across the country less than one percent of venture capital funding went to Hispanics. Grants and other creative funding opportunities should be pursued through both the private and public sectors, especially here in the New York City.

While some ventures require significant capital to start, it should be noted that thousands of small business owners across the city continue to bootstrap their way to success. While few are lucky enough to get angel funding and share space with other like-minded entrepreneurs, many more start businesses selling products such as those offered by Herbalife, which focuses on expanding its line of nutrition products and is especially popular in the Hispanic community.

With little up front capital, these “micro-entrepreneurs” are creating additional income for their families that is otherwise hard to obtain. When considering easing the burden of the city’s bureaucracy, officials should realize that many of these smaller startups might not find it worthwhile to take the time – and pay the fees – to navigate the existing regulatory process. Although tempting to focus on the direct revenues gained from complying with existing regulations, if we have to choose between a profitable, tax-generating, employee-paying business in operation versus an entrepreneur sitting on the sidelines, the former should always win.

Incubators and accelerators are another alternative to promote economic development and are fast becoming the best way to improve the economy of a particular region, especially one that is currently plagued by poor economics. Thus far, few of these exist in areas outside of Manhattan.

It’s not unreasonable to ask a municipality to get involved in the creation and development of a local accelerator; after all, the entire region benefits. Just ask 1776, which has incubated hundreds of local startups in Washington D.C. with a relatively small grant from the city and has begun expanding across the country, recently opening a branch in Brooklyn. New York should have similar success stories in every borough.

Whether a future business mogul looking to get that tech startup on its feet or a local family just hoping to help make ends meet with income selling nutritional products within their neighborhood, one thing is certain: New York’s future resides in these entrepreneurs. Local appointed and elected officials should remember that New York City’s best chance to grow is through the expansion of new, and improvement of existing, entrepreneurial opportunities outside of lower Manhattan. Only then can we guarantee the successful future that New York has always promised.

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Assemblymember Victor M. Pichardo represents the 86th District in the New York State Assembly.

Justin Vélez-Hagan is the executive director of the National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce and an economic policy researcher at the University of Maryland.

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Why We’re Marching to Close Rikers


Martin Close Rikers

Glenn Martin & others rally to #CLOSErikers (via JustLeadershipUSA)


For years, New Yorkers have been barraged by stories of violence and corruption on Rikers Island. On Saturday, September 24, hundreds of New Yorkers -- including people who have spent time on Rikers Island and their families; criminal justice reform activists; faith leaders; and elected officials -- will march together and demand that Mayor de Blasio #CLOSErikers.

Led by JustLeadershipUSA, in partnership with the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice, the growing campaign has been endorsed by nearly 100 organizations representing a broad swath of New Yorkers. Saturday’s march and rally mark a turning point in the effort to shut down what City Comptroller Scott Stringer has called “an urban shame.” This is a movement with momentum that cannot be ignored.

By now, the reasons to shutter this jail once and for all are painfully obvious. The “systematic culture of violence” identified by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in his scathing 2014 report continues unabated, contrary to the Mayor’s blandishments that conditions are improving.

On Aug. 28, the Daily News reported that its review of internal documents showed that Rikers Island higher-ups were routinely “purging” unfavorable violence statistics to create an “illusion of reform.” Every week the media reports new atrocities: rapes, beatings, knifings, suicides. This cannot go on. Rikers Island is a human grist mill and an ugly stain on our city’s reputation for being progressive and compassionate. Rikers cannot be fixed; violence and corruption are embedded in its DNA.

With all of these problems, who can oppose closing Rikers? Mayor de Blasio has contended that closing the facility is “unrealistic” and too costly. On Saturday speakers will point out that our current system is too costly: We are spending $208,500 a year to detain one person on Rikers Island. That is money that can be better spent on programs to help individuals and communities. Furthermore, 80 percent of the people detained on Rikers are pre-trial, and should be waiting at home until they have their day in court.

Equally essential to closing Rikers is our demand to build communities. For decades, Rikers Island has meant tremendous suffering to our city’s most vulnerable communities. Most detainees come from the city’s poorest neighborhoods and 89 percent are black or Latino. More than 40 percent of the detainees have a diagnosed mental illness. Many others suffer from drug addiction. Confinement at Rikers only exacerbates these conditions. Spending months and even years in detention before trial because of the inability to raise bail money leads to the further impoverishment of families, including children. Claiming that ending a human rights disaster in our midst is “unrealistic” dishonors this great city.

The only thing preventing us from figuring out how to do the right thing is a lack of political will. And the right thing includes investing in those neighborhoods that have been most seriously damaged.

There have been efforts to close Rikers in the past – once during the Koch administration in the late 1970s and again under Mayor Bloomberg. Both efforts suffered from a lack of community involvement and support. Today, the #CLOSErikers campaign is building momentum with community support from across our city.

For many of the people who are part of this campaign, who will be on the streets Saturday, this issue is deeply personal. We’ve both been directly affected by experiencing the terrors of Rikers -- Glenn spent time on Rikers twice during the 1990s; Anna’s son Jairo recently spent more than five years there waiting for trial. Most striking is that the horrors of Rikers Glenn experienced in the 1990s remain largely unchanged today.

We are marching because we have had enough of the human carnage and want to spare future generations of New Yorkers from it. It is time to close Rikers and build communities.

The march will begin in Astoria at Steinway Street and 30th Avenue at 1 p.m. on Saturday, September 24.  New Yorkers will march to a rally at the foot of the Rikers Island bridge at 19th Avenue and Hazen Street, where we’ll call on Mayor de Blasio to take action and close Rikers. Speakers include Emily Althaus, actress in Orange Is The New Black, elected officials from the City Council and the state Legislature, and numerous community leaders who have been impacted by Rikers. Join us.

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Glenn E. Martin is the Founder of JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA), an organization dedicated to cutting the US correctional population in half by 2030, and a national criminal justice reform advocate who spent six years in New York prisons. On Twitter @glennEmartin.

Anna Pastoressa’s son Jairo spent nearly six years at Rikers awaiting trial, suffering physical and emotional torment. She endured the indignities of visitation and the outrageous delays in the criminal justice system and is now a prison reform advocate.

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Keeping a Republican State Senate Majority is Essential for New York


Flanagan and co

Senate Leader Flanagan & other GOP Senators (photo via NYS Senate)


Whether it’s at the state or federal level, recent history has demonstrated that when one party controls government, checks and balances go out the window. Recent history has some important lessons as we approach this year’s crucial elections.

In 2008 Democrats took control of Congress and along with the election of President Barack Obama, controlled the executive and legislative branches in Washington. In Albany, for the first time since 1964, Democrats gained a majority in the state Senate and along with Democrats in the Assembly and Governor’s office, controlled all of state government.

In Washington, Democrats enacted Obamacare and tax increases to pay for a health care program most people didn’t want. They ignored larger economic issues and failed to deliver on things Americans really wanted like jobs and tax relief. They rejected compromise and bipartisanship and governed largely on their own.

In New York, it was even worse. Democrats had a lock on state government and controlled the Legislature and every state-wide elected office. In the state Senate they set out on a path that rejected bipartisanship in favor of an agenda that left many without a voice, particularly upstate and in the suburbs.

Emboldened by their new majority status and dominated by New York City members, Senate Democrats had to prove they could govern and deliver results. And deliver they did. But in doing so they nearly bankrupted the state and made it more difficult for middle class families to make ends meet.

Without a single Republican vote, they enacted record spending hikes and some of the largest tax hikes in state history. New spending totaled $14 billion, matched by $14 billion in new taxes enacted. A new MTA tax on businesses was instituted and STAR rebate checks for homeowners were taken away. Limited state resources were shifted to New York City at the expense of upstate and the suburbs.

Democrats presided over a dysfunctional Senate where chaos ruled, culminating in an uprising led by renegade Democrats that produced an unprecedented disruption in state government and a constitutional crisis that forced the state’s highest court to step in and restore order.

New Yorkers clearly had enough. They took matters in hand and returned Republicans to the Senate majority in 2010.

Working with a new governor and more recently, new leadership in the Assembly, Senate Republicans got things back on track. They turned a $10 billion deficit into a surplus. They delivered six on-time budgets, enacted a property tax cap and new rebates for homeowners. They produced record increases in aid to education and delivered the largest tax cuts in state history.

They also undid much of the damage. New payroll taxes on businesses were repealed, property tax rebate checks were returned, and damaging cuts in education aid that forced schools to needlessly suffer were restored.

But some of the damage could not be undone. The disruption and divisions within the Senate Democrat Conference were beyond repair. Many senators grew frustrated with the dysfunction and misguided policies as their moderate views no longer fit in. They didn’t feel welcome.

So they did something about it. A number broke away and formed a separate Independent Democratic Conference, the IDC. Another decided to sit with Republicans and join their conference. All were determined to restore bipartisanship in the Senate. Together they forged a working partnership with Majority Republicans that continues to this day.

But some divides remain. None more so than the upstate-downstate divide, which continues to challenge lawmakers. Democrats, with their majorities overwhelmingly from New York City, see urban policies that favor New York and other large cities as their primary focus. Republicans fight to ensure that upstate and suburban areas get their fair share.

It is a constant battle. And without a seat at the table, upstaters and suburbanites get left out and suffer the consequences. We’ve seen it happen.

That’s why maintaining a Republican Majority in the Senate is critically important. Their members are from upstate and downstate; from suburban, rural, and urban communities. They give voice to small businesses and middle class New Yorkers and serve as their protectors in a government dominated by New York City interests.

Having spent nearly 30 years in the Senate, I witnessed it all. I watched Republicans serve as a responsible check on Assembly Democrats and governors from both parties. I saw them stop tax increases and government overreach because they were the lone voice of reason. And I was there when battles were lost and compromise was necessary to keep government functioning.

In my last two years, with New York City Democrats in charge, I also saw Republicans entirely shut out of the governing process. I witnessed the dysfunction and chaos that ensued and policies that nearly bankrupted and ruined our state. It was enough to convince voters that they had to change course.

In November voters will be faced with a similar choice. They can maintain the checks and balance so vital in our democracy or they can give Democrats sole control of state government and enable a New York City Mayor like Bill de Blasio to expand his reach on Long Island, the Hudson Valley, and even upstate.

Now that we’ve come this far, New Yorkers don’t want a return to the past. They want a healthy two-party system and assurances that all regions are treated fairly and equally. That’s why Senate Republicans should, and I believe will, be returned to the Senate Majority. Republicans offer the best hope to those who want checks and balances in government and the accountability that comes with it.

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John McArdle is President of Capitol Communications, a government consulting and communications firm. He worked in the State Senate from 1981 to 2010 and was Communications Director for three Majority Leaders.

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In the Face of Bigotry, Teachable Moments


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(photo via @NYCSchools)


This school year is very different from previous years. This September, students began their classes in the midst of a heated presidential race and a hostile political climate where nearly every young New Yorker -- black, Latino, immigrant, LGBTQ, female, and Muslim -- has been maligned by politicized messages of racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and bigotry.

This year, however, could also be different in other ways. If parents, teachers, and community leaders step up to the plate, this could be a year where we take time to educate our children about our nation’s First Amendment.

This nation was founded on the premise that all people should have freedom of religion; it is part of what makes our country extraordinary. No one should live in fear because of the color of their skin, the language they speak, or how they pray. This year is the perfect time to educate our children about what it really means to stand as one nation, undivided, no matter our faith traditions or our country of origin.

Students who are Muslim or perceived to be Muslim are under particular attack this year. Within a four-week range, there have been three murders of Muslims in New York, the city I call home. In Brooklyn last week, two women were assaulted while pushing their children in strollers for no reason other than they dared to leave their homes wearing headscarves. A Muslim woman in hijab window shopping in midtown Manhattan was set on fire. One can’t help but wonder how many other incidents of harassment and abuse go unreported in communities across the city and country.

Obviously, this is not a local problem. On a national level, anti-Muslim rhetoric has increased exponentially during the current presidential race. Our nation’s children have seen, again and again, proposals to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, to launch a database specific to Muslims, or even reintroduce internment camps.

In a school system of 1.1 million students, I can’t imagine what it is like for Muslim students and those perceived to be Muslim in New York City, especially during this time. Sadly, students experience prejudice and discrimination from their peers. In the days after Donald Trump’s initial call for a ‘Muslim ban’ back in the Spring, 10-year-old Nadine’s mother called me that her daughter was bullied in school and asked what should she do about it. Nadine, who lives and goes to school in the Bronx, was told by one of her peers that all Muslims are terrorists and ISIS and Muslims should go back to their country. Nadine’s heart sank and she felt defenseless in front of peers who said nothing to her aggressor, her mother told me.

Nadine is not alone, there are children across the US who are being bullied based on their religion. Bayan Zehlif, a Muslim student and senior in Rancho Cucamonga, CA was misidentified as “ISIS Philips” in her high school yearbook photo. What a terrible way to end your high school career.

Incidents like these can be prevented if schools make a concerted effort to create a caring and nurturing environment in every classroom where every child sees a reflection of him/herself in their peers. While we teach Common Core standards, prepare for AP tests, and coach our students before the SATs, we must not forget to prioritize students’ civic education. Their understanding of the world around them must include a focus on the virtues of a pluralistic society and empathy for their fellow human beings.

Empathy and respect for plurality can be fostered from simple “getting to know each other” activities, sharing stories of culture, costumes, and traditions, and discussions of what holidays stand for. Even hosting an open conversation about what it is like to be different from each other, and how that makes our democracy stronger, can shift the perspectives of our students to a more productive place.

When we invest in the time to do this, we connect our students, by mind and heart. We build bonds between them to see each other as allies and fellow students, not adversaries. As a result, we empower students to be upstanders, not bystanders, when one of their peers comes under attack. After all, this is what we want our country to look like. It should start in the classroom.

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Dr. Debbie Almontaser is the founding and former principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy. On Twitter @DebbiAlmontaser.

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Illegal Conversions and South Brooklyn’s Affordable Housing Crisis


south brooklyn illegal conversions affordable housing 

A home that has been illegally converted (photo: Tarry Hum)


Described as “a secret world of New York City housing” by The New York Times, several actions by the Department of Buildings (DOB) this summer exposed the ubiquity of illegal subdivisions in South Brooklyn’s immigrant neighborhoods.

Two August incidences within a two-block area near 70th Street and 7th Avenue in Dyker Heights received local media coverage while the raid of 818 55th Street in Sunset Park was reported only in the Chinese language press. In each case, a two family home was illegally subdivided to house multiple families including those with children.

The Sunset Park property was divided into 25 single room occupancy (SRO) units. According to one media outlet, Kings County Politics, these incidences “lend credence” to City Council Member Vincent Gentile’s ongoing efforts to pass legislation to impose severe civil penalties on “unscrupulous landlords” and expand the authority of DOB and the Environmental Control Board to inspect properties and issue fines and other penalties.

Earlier this summer, Council Member Gentile introduced his most recent bill, Intro 1218, co-sponsored by Council Members Williams and Grodenchik with the strong support of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and members of the New York State Assembly and Senate.

Illegal subdivisions are long standing and fairly pervasive in immigrant neighborhoods.  While there is no question that illegal conversions create substandard, unsafe, and overcrowded conditions that strain public infrastructure including transportation, utilities, and local schools, illegal SROs and basement units are often housing options of last resort for the city’s working poor.

A 2008 Pratt Center and Chhaya CDC study estimated that hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers live in illegal subdivisions or “phantom apartments.” In fact, MFY Legal Services attorneys argue, “the City depends on illegal SROs to ward off a homeless crisis that would ‘dwarf’ anything seen before.” Council Member Gentile and his co-sponsors seek to punish landlords who construct illegal and unsafe subdivisions and the provisions of Intro 1218 may be more effective in protecting and preserving the residential character of low-density neighborhoods than addressing the housing crisis faced by working poor New Yorkers.

Leading the charge for greater DOB enforcement and civil penalties for offending property owners are Community Board 10, Dyker Heights Civic Association, and Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance. Their well-attended town hall in February 2015 held at the Bay Ridge Knights of Columbus provided an opportunity for numerous residents to vent their long-standing anger and frustration. Most recently, these groups participated in a three-part informational series on illegal conversions produced by a Chinese language media outlet.

While the rationale for legislative action is framed around public safety due to potential hazards for emergency responders and tenants, and concerns about strained public services and infrastructure, Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance’s Bob Cassara made clear that the grievances are not just about public welfare and overcrowded schools. He asks, “Why do people want to live here? Why are those houses multi-million dollar homes? Because they’re maintaining the look of the neighborhood and that’s what we want to maintain over here as well.  So people are welcome here but they gotta play by the same rules. If they’re not playing by the same rules, they’re really not welcome in this community.”

A hyper-speculative real estate market has elevated and sustains the multi-million dollar value of South Brooklyn’s housing stock largely comprised of one- and two-family properties. However, these same market conditions are also the driving force for predatory equity and the practice of illegal conversions.

Sunset Park’s 818 55th Street is a particularly egregious example of greed and exploitation. Tracing the ownership of this property provides a genealogy of Sunset Park’s demography as the modest, two-family rowhouse passed from an Irish owner to a Norwegian owner, in 1973, and then, a series of Chinese owners beginning in 1987. Most significantly, when the property was sold in March 2015 to 818 Inc., it ceased to be a family home and became an investment vehicle.

Given Sunset Park’s speculative real estate market, within six months of 818 Inc.’s $1.45 million purchase, the investor group flipped the property for a mere $100,000 profit in the sale to Access 818 LLC in September 2015. A short month later, the first of several complaints that the two-family building was illegally subdivided into a SRO hotel with 25 rooms was registered with DOB. Although a full vacate order was issued in May, the Chinese press reported that at least 13 tenants were still living at the property, each paying a monthly rent of $400 for a closet-sized room, when the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement took action July 14. Access 818 LLC has since been issued six Class 1 violations indicating immediately hazardous conditions and incurred $69,000 in penalties.

Right around the corner from this illegal SRO hotel is a huge construction site for the future Winley Plaza Condominium, a modern, glassy six-story commercial condominium building with ground level retail. Financed, in part, with a Cathay Bank mortgage and EB-5 investments, the developers seek an unprecedented total sellout of $76.3 million which, according to The Real Deal, “would be the most expensive condo offering of any kind to date” in Sunset Park.

Developer confidence in the lucrative profitability of the neighborhood’s commercial real estate is evidenced further south on 8th Avenue near the Dyker Heights border, where a “ginormous” mixed use development is proposed. Purchased for $51.5 million in 2014, the developer and investment partners plan to build an office tower, two luxury residential towers and a hotel anchored by a Chelsea Market-style retail base. Nearby, a third place-making project called the Brooklyn Friendship Archway, an ornate traditional Chinese pagoda gateway, is expected to receive Public Design Commission approval later this month.

Some community leaders have deemed Council Member Gentile’s bill a form of “tough love” – unpopular but necessary. They also call for more residential development to alleviate the outstanding need for affordable housing. Given the current market climate, more development will not only fail to address the housing gap but will further exacerbate the affordability crisis faced by the working poor. As long as real estate properties are viewed as investment vehicles with tremendous untapped value, predatory activities such as illegal conversions will continue to shape the residential landscape of the city’s neighborhoods.

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Tarry Hum is a professor at The City University of New York (CUNY) and author of Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood. On Twitter @TarryHum.

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Democrats Must Control the State Senate


ASC and other Sen Dems

Sen. Stewart-Cousins and fellow Senate Democrats (photo: @AndreaSCousins)


This November millions of New Yorkers will head to the polls on Election Day. While our state legislative races receive far less media attention than the Presidential race, they are still critically important. Today, much of the dysfunction in our state, and our government’s failure to address the real needs of working people, young and old, is a direct result of continued Republican control of the State Senate.

Now that the primaries are over, it is essential that New Yorkers focus on Democratic control of the Senate through November’s vote.

There are currently 32 Republicans in the 63-seat State Senate, including Simcha Felder, who was elected as a Democrat but conferences with the Republicans. The five Democratic senators who make up the Independent Democratic Conference have conferenced with the Republicans under a power-sharing agreement first announced in December 2012. Although the people of New York State went to the polls in November 2012 and elected a true Democratic majority, the victorious Senate Democrats have been relegated to minority status in the State Senate since 2013, despite holding a technical majority in the chamber.

Defenders of the current majority leadership point to recent successes on issues like the minimum wage and paid family leave. However, support for those vitally important initiatives was a long-fought effort of the Democratic Party, the Working Families Party, labor unions, faith-based organizations, and progressive community organizing groups. That effort, which Governor Cuomo only began championing in early 2016, was met with outcry and dissension from the Republican-led majority. Today, the minimum wage agreement has resulted in a three-tier structure, with different wage limits and phase-ins that offer only limited relief to the poverty-level pay of workers in Upstate New York and Long Island.

Governor Cuomo, who wields enormous power and benefits from a divided Legislature, was indeed able to push some legislation through in this year’s budget. But should progress in our state depend on the discretion of one person? And what about important progressive issues like the DREAM Act, campaign finance reform, increased MTA and education funding, election reform, and closing tax loopholes—the carried interest loophole among them—that benefit millionaires and billionaires at the expense of the middle class?

A number of bills passed by the Democrat-led Assembly can’t get a vote on the floor of the Senate because the Republican leadership won’t allow it; examples include Nicholas’s Law, which would require the safe storage of firearms in homes, and GENDA, which would outlaw discrimination based on gender identity or expression and has passed the Assembly nine times in consecutive years. Even the tenth plank of the Women’s Equality Agenda, which governs abortion rights, can’t pass the Republican-led chamber in a state that prides itself on being a progressive leader among other states.

Americans are conditioned to see a fully funded public education as the right of every child and every family. Our state constitution guarantees a sound public education to every student. Yet despite the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, decided almost a decade ago in favor of New York parents, public education here remains underfunded to the tune of billions of dollars, leading to the most racially and economically segregated classrooms in our nation.

Super PACs advocating for charter schools, which often siphon resources away from public education, and for tax credits for private and parochial schools have not shied away from advertising their interest in maintaining a Republican-led majority. In the primaries, one such PAC, New Yorkers for Independent Action, specifically targeted a Democratic senator and three Democratic Assembly members representing communities of color. Thankfully, these efforts were unsuccessful as voters chose candidates who support public education.

Fulfilling the promise of public education—and supporting the hard-working teachers who provide it—has become a Democratic prerogative.

This year saw corruption exposed at an unprecedented level in Albany. Nevertheless, despite promises of strong ethics and government reform, New Yorkers have been disappointed time and again by the paralysis of our state Legislature. Reforms that get passed are inevitably watered down. Last month, for example, the governor signed an “ethics reform” bill that was roundly criticized by good government groups and editorial boards for not going far enough or attacking the root of the problem. Rather than addressing the perverse amounts of money being thrown at our state legislators, the bill simply increases disclosure requirements for independent expenditures and lobbyists.

By contrast, the Democrats, led by State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, are looking to close the LLC loophole, which allows corporations to give nearly unlimited funds to candidates. They also propose enacting a public financing system for elections and lowering contribution limits for campaigns. These reforms would fundamentally improve our system of government by taking power out of the hands of large corporations and powerful lobbyists, who are able to wield extraordinary influence in Albany at the expense of tenants, immigrants, seniors, and students.

This November New Yorkers have a chance to take back some control of their state Legislature by electing a real Democratic majority. We urge New Yorkers to restore and expand on the promise of Election 2012 in this crucial election year.

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Kate Linker and Kim Moscaritolo are the president and vice-president of the all-volunteer advocacy organization Greater NYC for Change, a partner in the Demand Democracy campaign. Kim is the Democratic District Leader in AD76 in New York City.

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For a Better Judicial Nominating Process, Support a Constitutional Convention


judicial swearing in de blasio judges

Mayor de Blasio swears in judges (photo: Ed Reed, Mayor's Office)


We need to change the New York State Constitution to curb corruption in our government, we simply cannot wait for our elected officials to make those changes for us.

Finding examples of corruption and self-serving behavior among our politicians in New York City and State is not difficult. It is part of all three branches of government - the legislative, executive, and judicial. In fact, New York has a judicial nominating process that has been condemned by Supreme Court justices. There is too much secrecy and politics in the process by which our judges are chosen, threatening to delegitimize our courtrooms.

Of the moment, this Summer New Yorkers are again witnessing the results of a judicial nomination process controlled by the political parties in Manhattan and Brooklyn. In Manhattan, Supreme Court Justice Doris Ling-Cohan was not recommended for reappointment by the Manhattan Democrats, and the party only allowed her to proceed to the nominating floor after party members and lawyers expressed their outrage. In Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Democratic Party declined the reappointment of Justice Laura Jacobson earlier this summer. Although there is much speculation regarding the political machinations that led to both of these experienced, well-regarded judges losing the Democratic Party’s support, we don’t know the actual reasons in large part because the process is shrouded by the private political organizations which make these decisions.

New York’s party control over the judicial nomination process is legal, and supported by our State Constitution. Current Surrogate Court Judge Margarita López Torres challenged the state judicial nomination process when the Brooklyn Democrats refused to nominate her for State Supreme Court in spite of her qualifications. She fought it all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and it was Justice Antonin Scalia who wrote the final opinion against her. She lost in a unanimous decision, but the Justices certainly did not endorse our State judicial nomination process.

In his opinion, Justice Scalia described the New York judicial nomination process and its criticisms. “In 1911, the New York Legislature enacted a law requiring political parties to select Supreme Court nominees (and most other nominees who did not run statewide) through direct primary elections. The primary system came to be criticized as a ‘device capable of astute and successful manipulation by professionals,’ Editorial, N. Y. Times, May 1, 1917, and the Republican candidate for Governor in 1920 campaigned against it as “a fraud” that ‘offered the opportunity for two things, for the demagogue and the man with money,’ N. Y. Times, Oct. 23, 1920.”

Justice John Paul Stevens, in a concurring opinion, went further and quoted Justice Thurgood Marshall, saying "The Constitution does not prohibit legislatures from enacting stupid laws." In spite of the 2008 decision’s emphatic condemnation, this is still the system we have today.
To be sure, we cannot completely eliminate the politics from choosing judges. However, we live in a democracy that values the impartiality and strength of its judiciary. We should do all we can to instill people with confidence that when they go into the courtroom, they are being heard by the most impartial decider possible. Nobody going through a messy divorce wants a political hack making a decision over which parent gets custody on an appeal. And no judge should have to worry about whether their decision on an election matter will risk their reappointment years down the line.

Let’s remove the judicial nomination process from the total control of the political parties. In most of the city’s boroughs, Democrats decide who gets on the ballot and those candidates win without any actual opposition due to their majority voting bloc. Our elected officials will never have the will to change this system because they have zero incentive to do so. The best way to achieve this reform is by voting “Yes” in November, 2017 to a Constitutional Convention and working out a better, less partisan, less tightly controlled process for nominating, voting on, and appointing judges in New York State.

UPDATE: On September 14, 15 members of the New York County Independent Screening Committee Panel submitted a letter stating that Justice Ling-Cohan merits continuation in office.

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Richard Semegram is a practicing tenant lawyer. On Twitter @richagram.

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'Excellence & Equity' Must Include Smart Approach to Top High Schools


de blasio edu speech bennett

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Rob Bennett, Mayor's Office)


As this school year began last week for over one million students, Mayor Bill de Blasio took advantage of the first day of classes to publicly highlight his efforts to improve the educational offerings of New York City schools. The mayor is now doing so under his banner “Equity and Excellence” agenda.

There is a long way to go. Currently, only about 38 percent of the students in our elementary schools are reading at grade level. About 70 percent of students graduate high school. Of those graduating, large numbers are not prepared to do college-level course work -- nearly 80 percent of our high school graduates attending CUNY community colleges must take remedial courses in reading, writing, and math.

According to one study, only students lucky enough to get into 34 of the system’s 428 high school programs that report graduation statistics have a decent shot at making it through college successfully.

To many, the challenges seem overwhelming. Because of their magnitude, I applaud Mayor de Blasio for recognizing the problems and trying to do something about them by adding pre-kindergarten, expanding course offerings, hiring more guidance counselors, and focusing on reading on grade level by third grade.

Unfortunately, instead of recognizing the outstanding performance of schools like Brooklyn Tech, which use a Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) as the criteria for gaining admission, the mayor also used opening day to bash these test-in schools by repeating debunked mythology about the need for multiple criteria to correct for a test that supposedly limits diversity.

Contrary to the mayor, according to NYU’s Research Alliance for New York City Schools, substituting multiple criteria for the test “would not appreciably increase the proportion of Black students admitted and alarmingly several of these alternative criteria would actually decrease the number of Black students offered” admission. The root problem for the demographic outcomes of the test, and the mayor’s initiatives recognize it, is that our school system provides unequal educational opportunities for many of the children in our city’s black and Hispanic communities.

Newsweek magazine recently published its annual list of the top high schools in the country doing an outstanding job of educating students from families qualifying for free and subsidized lunch, the criteria used in educational circles for measuring poverty. These schools are not only educationally exemplary – among the top 500 in the nation - but given the poverty levels of their student bodies, they are considered off the charts, so to speak, for producing college-ready graduates as measured by graduation rates and passing scores on Advanced Placement tests. New York City had five of the top ten schools in the nation on Newsweek’s “disadvantaged” list.

Of the five, four were test-in high schools, including Brooklyn Tech. Townsend Harris, which uses multiple admissions criteria, was the only other city school making the top ten list. Townsend’s admissions criteria include consideration of the applicant’s middle school grades in English, math, social studies and science; scores on state tests in language arts and math; and middle school attendance and punctuality. According to the Department of Education, black students make up only 5.6 percent of Townsend Harris’ student body. By comparison, black students at Brooklyn Tech are 7.5 percent of the student body. While Townsend is home to 64 black students, Brooklyn Tech educates 417.

The Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, which I head, is working with Tech to increase the number of its black, Hispanic, and female students. We are in our third year of running a successful pilot STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) Pipeline program which targets underrepresented middle schools in Brooklyn. With the help this year of $250,000 from the New York State Legislature we doubled the number of students in our program. In the past, we have had great success and we hope to do more with this additional funding.

The Legislature also added money to fund programs at the other test-in schools, including Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, to reach out to middle schoolers from underrepresented communities and prepare them to succeed on the SHSAT and to do well at a specialized school once admitted.

Our efforts, along with the DOE’s, to improve diversity at the test-in schools are important. But more must still be done. The DOE should revive the Specialized High School Discovery Program, which is moribund at most of the test-in schools but is the legally available alternative mechanism for disadvantaged students to gain admission to these schools. Highly effective for promoting ethnic and racial diversity in the past, economically disadvantaged applicants just missing the cutoff scores took summer classes to demonstrate mastery of skills needed to do the advanced coursework required by these schools.

Because poverty rates are now roughly equal among black, Hispanic, and Asian families living in New York City, to be effective a revived Discovery program should also redefine “disadvantaged” to include attending a poorly performing or poorly represented middle school. Because of segregated housing patterns, this would help deal effectively with the educational inequality suffered by too many of the students in our city’s black and Hispanic communities.

The city’s school system is not fair. We all know that. But that said, four of the top ten schools in the nation for working class, immigrant, minority and low-income families are test-in schools here in New York City.

I applaud Mayor de Blasio and the DOE for continuing to work on improving educational excellence and diversity in our schools, but it does little good to attack a test giving every test-taker an equal and fair shot at gaining admission, especially since elimination of the test as the lone admissions factor would negatively affect diversity at these special schools.

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Larry Cary is a Manhattan lawyer and president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation.

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