Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics




A Historic CUNY Labor Contract


(photo: Dave Sanders)

At 2 a.m. on Friday October 18, I walked out of the Manhattan headquarters of the City University of New York (CUNY) having helped to line-edit a labor contract memorandum of agreement (MOA) for the sixth time that day.

I sit on the bargaining team of the Professional Staff Congress, an American Federation of Teachers local that represents some 30,000 employees at CUNY. The bargaining unit includes adjunct and full-time faculty, professional staff, graduate employees, college laboratory technicians, and many others. More than half a million students, a majority working class and people of color, attend CUNY each year.

When I left the building, we had a deal that moved tens of millions of dollars to enhance pay for some 12,000 adjuncts, an accomplishment with national resonance for institutions of public higher education. On top of that, the tentative agreement included significant enhancements for a couple thousand graduate employees.

PSC Delegates are currently discussing the MOA, and will vote on recommending it to the membership on November 7. Assuming the contract is ratified, by Fall 2022, the bottom of the adjunct pay scale at CUNY will move from the current $3,222 per three-credit course to $5,500, for a three-credit course and a paid office hour, a 71% increase.

Adjuncts across the country have been organizing in recent years, at universities like Tufts, George Washington, and many more. They are fighting for better pay, job security, benefits, and other improvements to working conditions. Though adjuncts have long been organized at CUNY, they have faced an uphill battle as decades of austerity have been foisted on the country’s largest urban university by powerful political and financial forces. Yet this round of bargaining represents a significant reversal of the inequality between full- and part-time faculty that has characterized the work life of 12,000 CUNY adjuncts.

One piece of the raise comes from a traditional hourly increase, but the other comes from a so-called “office hour.” Adjunct faculty at CUNY are as dedicated as any to the students they teach. They have long held offices hours and met with students as much as those students need, but mostly without compensation. This new hour of pay for every course begins to recognize the many hundreds of thousands of hours of uncompensated labor that CUNY adjuncts perform every semester.

This wage increase is a moral victory. It will matter in the lives of the 12,000 adjuncts who labor at CUNY, many at the very bottom of the pay scale. But it is also a structural victory that I hope will be repeated throughout the country.

There is not a president, provost, or department chair at our university who will fail to do some basic math and realize that converting adjuncts to lecturers – CUNY’s title for college instructors who have full-time work, job security, and strong benefits, but who do not have a research obligation – will become a much more rational choice with this contract. In this sense, this outcome may mean the beginning of the end of adjunctification at CUNY.

But there is also a host of gains for graduate employees, the group that I (and many others!) have spent the past six years cohering into a political force at CUNY. When we started organizing, membership rates for Graduate Assistants – the title of many though not all graduate employees – were at just 22%. Today, the chapter is vibrant, and membership has increased three-fold. The gains from this round did not come from magic, but rather from the power that comes from dozens and then hundreds and then thousands engaging in union activity.

Starting next semester, those employed at CUNY in their sixth and seventh years of doctoral study will no longer pay tuition if they are New York residents, and will have their tuition reduced by some $2,700 annually if they are not. Gone are the days of getting tagged for exorbitant fees, just as we are trying to finish our dissertations!

The outcome that I am most proud of, though, is the huge step we have made toward eliminating an entire tier of doctoral students – so-called “tuition-only fellows,” who lack stable funding and access to health insurance. CUNY has committed the money to provide health insurance for this entire group, and we will work with the Graduate Center to construct an employment system that will allow them consistent access to these funds. This will require some work – and organizing – in committee, but when we are done, this highly exploited class of graduate sometimes-employees will be eliminated.

There is yet another way to understand the combination of graduate employee and adjunct demands the tentative agreement represents: at the end of this contract, doctoral students who have a standard five-year funding package (which includes a stipend) and who adjunct for their full workload will bring in approximately $50,000 annually.

On the one hand, I do not want to overstate this. As many know, living in New York on even this much money is not easy, and the full workload is a lot. But I don’t want to understate it either. This amount of money enables those from working class backgrounds to obtain a PhD without accruing debt. It is a substantial improvement over current conditions, and we achieved it even while making a huge step toward eliminating altogether the bottom tier of graduate employees.

Union contracts are, in the end, a measure of power. The many good, even transformative, gains in the proposed PSC-CUNY contract are a precise reflection of the power that we have built as members and as an organization. But we did not win everything. Adjunct faculty deserve yet higher wages; we have more work to do to drive home the win for tuition-only doctoral fellows; and a more fundamental political project remains substantially unaddressed: will the city and state directly and fully fund CUNY the way it was when the working class of New York was whiter than it is today?

This is of course a fight – a political project – that extends well beyond CUNY. Institutions of public higher education are under attack everywhere. Our local fights are fundamentally national ones.

Members of the PSC have a lot to be excited about in this proposed new contract. Many of us are taking a moment to celebrate. But tomorrow – later tonight, even – the work continues.

Luke Elliott-Negri is a non-teaching adjunct at the School of Labor and Urban Studies and a doctoral candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he is the PSC chapter chair. He serves on the PSC Bargaining Committee, the PSC Pension Committee, and the Working Families Party State Committee.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Note: this column has been updated to clarify information around covered doctoral students.

When Inexperience Wins, New York City Loses


(photo via PayLock)

The only thing worse than getting a parking ticket is having your car towed for unpaid fines. For decades, it was the ultimate New York hassle: spend hours looking for your car only to find out you’ve been ticketed, towed, charged a storage fee, and forced to rescue your vehicle from a distant decrepit parking lot.

Driving has its place in New York City, which is why there are two million registered cars in the city. With those cars comes tens of millions of dollars in unpaid tickets and fines. That’s why the city embarked on a pilot program in 2012 designed to address motorist inconvenience while increasing the ease and efficiency of collecting overdue fines that help the city pay for schools, parks, and other priorities New Yorkers care about. The idea was to introduce a simple technology designed to end this municipal headache.

Seven years ago, PayLock, where I serve as CEO, presented the city with an innovative solution to the draconian policy of impounding a person’s vehicle for unpaid infractions. Rather than towing, PayLock places a patented immobilizing self-release car boot on a vehicle when they have fines over $350. Once in place, the boot can only be removed after the driver pays their fines.

Through a mobile-friendly website or call center, the driver receives a code to unlock their boot and has 48 hours to return it. As a result, the city gets its money, and motorists get their car back hassle-free within minutes. In fact, PayLock’s focus on making a tough situation better recouped over $50 million in unpaid tickets for the city in 2018 alone.

Sadly, New York City will transition to a new program on Friday, November 1, and New Yorkers should ask why.

Last Spring, the city announced a public request for proposals (RFP) to select a company that would run the program for the next five years. The city called for companies with at least three years of experience to apply. We were happy to put our expertise and technology up against any other company. Our seven year track record in New York would speak for itself. We are the only company in the United States successfully operating in over 20 municipalities, including Los Angeles, Seattle, and Baltimore.

To our amazement, the bid was awarded to a newly formed company called RIS NYC, which was incorporated three months after submitting its proposal to the city and brought together one of the city’s tow truck and parking lot operators.

RIS NYC has never implemented a self-release booting program for any major city. It also appears that the city went so far as to extend the proposal deadline to respond to the RFP several times just to give RIS NYC time to apply. Then it was awarded the contract even though it lacked the one thing the RFP said was most important: experience.

How is it possible that an untested company was selected to run the largest self-release booting program in the country?

This is why PayLock formally submitted protest letters and later filed an Article 78 legal petition to fight an unfair and nontransparent process. We submitted a proposal backed by data and experience. We brought to the table a total of 14 years of experience collaborating with local governments to run self-release booting programs across the country.

In good faith, we continued to improve and add services at no additional cost to New York taxpayers over the course of the past seven years. We have a great working relationship with the city and the many outstanding Department of Finance employees that we work alongside everyday to help make this program a success. These city employees and our own New York City-based team have shown great care for what is best for New Yorkers.

Instead of providing answers, the city has unfortunately moved the goal posts and built an opaque procurement process that leaves New Yorkers scratching their heads. We pioneered this program and remain a committed partner to the city with a proven record of solving a citywide problem, generating revenue, and reducing administrative costs.

The people of New York deserve better. Companies like PayLock, which deliver innovative solutions to large- and small-scale problems, deserve better. New York City and the Department of Finance have a lot of work to do to ensure companies competing for work in the greatest city in the world have the greatest procurement process in the world.

Justin Kennedy is the Chief Executive Officer of PayLock.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

A New Way to Tackle the City’s Homelessness Crisis

mayor bdb dev

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)

It’s well-known that homelessness in New York City continues at crisis levels. Roughly 60,000 men, women, and children -- near record-highs, down just slightly from recent years -- are sleeping in the city's homeless shelter system every night. Another estimated 3,500 poor souls are living on the streets and subways mostly because they fear the crime that occurs in the city shelters.

It has gotten so bad in the subway system, which according to the MTA has seen a 23% increase in homeless people present, that Governor Cuomo has declared the MTA must do something about it, insisting on additional MTA police officers and sending the State Police underground.

However, the MTA is a transportation organization and not a social service organization like the city's Department of Homeless Services, which runs the shelters and where I was at one time a deputy commissioner, and the city’s Human Resources Administration, which runs efforts to keep people out of shelter or move them from shelter to housing.

The plan Mayor de Blasio unveiled two years ago was designed poorly and has been a failure; even the very low goal of reducing the population by only 1% a year has not been reached. The plan also promised reduced dependence on costly hotel rooms, however it has been reported that hotel use is actually up by 36% in the past two years. The number of single adults in shelter is up by 60% over the last five years and many of them are being housed in hotels.

In addition, the budget to fight homelessness has skyrocketed to $3 billion a year, according to Comptroller Scott Stringer, and is going higher as a recent contract for two family homeless shelters in Park Slope has revealed that the city is going to pay $10,000 a month per unit for 253 units for a total cost of $30 million a year.

The city's efforts to stem the tide of incoming families by providing free legal counsel and one-shot payments for rent-arrears is not working well enough. For example, on July 30, 161 families arrived at the city's intake centers for families, on August 1 it was 164 families, and 146 families on September 6.

It is apparent that the system is broken and in need of a true makeover. That is why I am suggesting the creation of a Homelessness Review Board to oversee the system.

This board would be made up of 11 members, with five appointed by the Borough Presidents (one each), one by the City Council Speaker, one by the Public Advocate, one by the Comptroller, and three by the Mayor. This board would have oversight of the Department of Homeless Services budget, power to appoint the DHS Commissioner, and approve contracts of over $1 million.

It would be required to hold at least four public hearings a year and issue two reports a year on the status of the homeless system.

This new structure would provide the accountability that is now missing over homelessness policy.

Robert Mascali is a former Deputy Commissioner at Homeless Services and former VP for Supportive Housing at Win.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Letter to the Editor: Nuclear Is Not The Answer


from Chernobyl (photo: Where Can I Fly?)

To the Editor:

I respectfully but fundamentally disagree with the op-ed column by Leonard Rodberg and Herschel Specter, “Keeping the Lights On, and Saving Billions, While Addressing Climate Change” (Oct. 24, 2019), about keeping open the nuclear reactors in New York state.

The column does not mention the greatest dangers nuclear reactors present: those from nuclear waste. This waste has been accumulating around all the 415 nuclear energy plants of the world for nearly 70 years, and no satisfactory solution has been found to deal with it. It has to be constantly watched; if it gets released in the environment it starts its destructive work.

In Chernobyl it caused large numbers of cancers that manifested themselves many years after the 1989 accident. Recently some waste got away at Fukushima in Japan as a result of a tornado. The amount of radiation in these places was small compared to what is present in the waste stored all over the world. Large amounts (even if released in only one place) would have world-wide catastrophic consequences. And the way things are going, with natural catastrophes increasing in number and power, with genocides, armed struggles, millions of would-be refugees, sudden political changes, and more, the loss of control over nuclear waste at one place or another is almost certain to happen.

The authors say if we don’t keep open the nuclear plants New York will not and cannot fulfill its clean energy plan. This may be true (even with the plants kept open). We have seen similar things before: in Kyoto, Canada undertook to cut its emissions by 6% over the period 1990-2012; instead, it increased them by 24%, then repudiated the Kyoto Protocol in 2011. In 2007 the CUNY college where I taught made a ten-year environmental plan: one item was to use the huge southward sloping roof of the sports building for solar heating panels. Well, 2017 came and went. Big repairs were made on the roof in question, but there are no solar panels on it.

It is hard to do things in a hostile environment. As long as United States national policy does not fundamentally change, most local environmental efforts are likely to fail. With a federal Green New Deal, a concentrated national effort with huge public investments and effective support for renewable energy, the New York plan will succeed.

Some might object that just as New York cannot do it without the national government, the country cannot do it without worldwide cooperation. Quite true. But the only way to get international cooperation is to start with the national Green New Deal. Then the competitors on the world scene, who are now in a mad rush not to stay behind in industrialization and development, can slow down and become open to agreements aimed at saving as much of the planet’s environment as possible.


Adam Koranyi, former professor (retired) at Lehman College, CUNY

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

How 2020 Can Be the Year of the Homeowner in New York

prop gov cuomo pro tax relief

(photo: the governor's office)

This year New York state government passed historic housing affordability reforms achieved by the pro-tenant Housing Stability and Tenant Protections Act of 2019, but a truly equitable approach to the state’s affordable housing landscape requires opportunities for working families to build equity. Now it is time for Albany to address the long-neglected affordable ownership sector of the housing continuum by passing a similar package of comprehensive legislation aimed at supporting existing affordable homes, as well as the creation of new low-to-moderate-income, first-time homebuyer opportunities.

Affordable rental housing often receives the lion’s share of attention within the framework of New York’s housing crisis, despite the fact that New York City has one of the lowest rates of homeownership in the country and that affordable homeownership creates unique benefits of community and family stability.

However, each segment of affordable housing – affordable ownership, rentals, public housing, etc. – is intertwined in a continuum. For example, a family given the opportunity of affordable homeownership is more likely to leave behind a rent-stabilized or otherwise affordable rental unit, freeing up that unit for another family.

We have seen this firsthand at Habitat for Humanity New York City, as a significant number of our first-time homebuyers have transitioned into homeownership directly from public housing units operated by NYCHA. This cascading effect frees up units along the housing continuum, so that by helping one family, we are actually providing opportunities for more rent-burdened families and by extension, providing a path forward for even those impacted by homelessness.

Conversely, when would-be-homebuyers are unable to find their affordable starter home to purchase, they stay in their rental unit, stagnating the opening up of affordable units to those who may be in more critical housing need. For example, the foreclosure crisis had a cascading effect beginning with fewer new homeowners, increasing rents and spikes in homelessness rates.

New York City’s already low homeownership rate also skews toward white families supporting a systemic racial imbalance in affordable housing availability that has gone from bad to worse, since the financial crisis of 2008. Decades of racist redlining have prevented countless families of color from ever entering the housing market throughout the 20th century and depressed generational wealth and homeownership rates for non-white families. Nationally, the number of black families who own their own homes has dropped to 1960 levels, or 40.6 percent, compared to a white homeownership rate of 73.1 percent – effectively setting the clock back to levels that pre-date the Fair Housing Act.

The reasons for a low homeownership rate in New York City are complicated, but what stands out are the significant barriers to becoming a first-time homebuyer. For most New Yorkers, homeownership is just too far out of reach: A report from StreetEasy earlier this year found that New Yorkers would need to accumulate savings over an average of 18 years – more than 10 times the national average – before they could even afford a median-priced home within the five boroughs. A 2016 study by NYU’s Furman Center further found that home prices rose by more than 200 percent over the last 25 years, meanwhile median household income, adjusted for inflation, fell by 11 percent.

State and local policies have also had a significant impact in shaping the city’s housing continuum. For decades, funding levels for rental housing programs have vastly outpaced homeownership programs, leaving limited resources for home-builders across the state. Municipal processes like the tax-lien sale have disproportionately impacted communities of color and homeownership opportunities keep getting converted to rental housing when sales do occur.

There are several policies state government in Albany could implement in the next session to turn the tide and provide more opportunities for working-class New Yorkers to become or remain homeowners.

1. Increase construction and rehabilitation funding for permanently affordable homeownership.
The Affordable Housing Corporation, the state’s primary source for new homeownership construction funding, has not received a significant increase over the last 30 years. Assembly Member Latrice Walker and Senator Jamaal Bailey have each introduced legislation that increases the per-unit allocation for home-ownership units while also requiring that projects accessing increased funds require permanent affordability restrictions, ensuring long-term public benefit for increased investment.

2. Create a Cooperative Ownership Opportunity Program (COOP).
With many affordable housing buildings entering their regulatory sunset years and at risk of going market-rate, the creation of a Cooperative Ownership Opportunity Program (COOP) could enable non-profit technical and legal service support for tenants interested in purchasing their expiring LIHTC buildings, Mitchell-Lama Article II buildings, mobile-home parks, and other rent-regulated buildings. And unlike previous cooperative conversion programs, these new cooperatives could be established with proper pre-purchase education, community land trusts, and monitoring stewardship, and updated regulatory agreements to ensure long-term success.

3. Establish a Community Land Trust (CLT) tax exemption for permanently affordable housing on CLT land.
CLTs limit the resale price of the homes, helping to maintain affordability for the next generation of land trust residents and protect against the loss of scarce affordable housing when the home is resold. The state should pass legislation that qualifies CLT-owned land as tax exempt under the not-for-profit 420-a tax law and either establish a new exemption for CLT homes and buildings or direct taxing authorities to appropriately assess the homes at a reduced rate in accordance with the resale restrictions.

4. Allocate $25M to the New York State Community Development Financial Institution Fund (CDFI Fund).
The NYS CDFI Fund was established in 2007 to provide competitively-awarded grants and investments to New York’s CDFIs, which in turn provide equitable financial services in neighborhoods not traditionally served by mainstream banks, helping low-income New Yorkers build wealth and establish credit. Some CDFIs also provide low-interest mortgages, cooperative share loans, preservation rehab financing, and energy efficiency lending to low-income cooperatives to help sustain long-term affordability. However, since its historic inception as the first state-based fund of its kind, New York has yet to allocate any funding to the NYS CDFI Fund.

5. Creation of an Affordable Cooperative/Condominium Ombudsman.
Affordable cooperative and condominium housing is an important portion of New York state's affordable residential housing stock. Inevitably, however, disputes that arise between developer sponsors, shareholders and owners, boards of directors and management companies often result in lengthy and costly litigation and divert resources that could be better utilized to maintain and sustain the buildings. By establishing an Affordable Cooperative/Condominium Ombudsman, all parties involved in residential cooperative and condominium ownership and governance would have access to a neutral and informative resource – something desperately needed to ensure the long-term success of this valuable housing stock.

6. Reform the Private Housing Finance Law (PHFL) and Martin Act in relation to HDFCs to strengthen the stewardship and preservation of affordable cooperative homeownership.
The Legislature should amend the PHFL to clarify the permanent affordability of HDFC cooperatives and empower the Attorney General and housing agencies with increased oversight and enforcement powers to root out abuses. This may also include the creation of an amnesty for non-compliant HDFC cooperatives to exit their regulatory status in exchange for financial restitution dedicated to the creation and preservation of affordable homeownership, as well as increased tax forgiveness for distressed HDFC cooperatives that agree to enhanced oversight.  

The Legislature should also fix the Martin Act to encourage rental-to-cooperative and -condominium conversions, while protecting all tenants during the process, as well as ensuring that rental conversions result in viable cooperatives and condominiums through the sale of units to bona fide purchasers.

These modest but needed investments in affordable homeownership at the state level will provide countless families the support they need to move from permanent renters to homeowners. It will give more families of color the opportunity to become homeowners and will strengthen historically nonwhite neighborhoods against the negative effects of gentrification.

Critically, a family that is given the opportunity to purchase an affordable home now shares in the benefits uniquely associated with ownership. Homeownership is a tool that helps families build strength, stability, and self-determination and is a foundation for economic mobility. It is time for Albany to work on pro-equitable homeowner legislation and make 2020 the Year of the Homeowner.

Matthew Dunbar is Vice President of External Affairs at Habitat for Humanity New York City. On Twitter @misterdunbar & @HabitatNYC

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

A Historic Day for Animals in New York City

animal rights histor

(photo: @theanimalvoters)

A landmark package of nearly a dozen animal protection measures is set to pass the New York City Council this week, championed by Speaker Corey Johnson, along with several other members. The strength of our city’s progressive roots grows deeper with the passage of this animal protection package, and it will be a defining moment in our city’s history.

What does it say about a society that allows horses to pull carriages in rush-hour traffic in the blistering summer heat or restaurant menus to offer for sale a product that comes from the diseased liver of a tortured duck force-fed with a foot-long pipe?

On the other hand, what does it say about a City Council speaker and Council members who stand against these blatant cruelties to animals? We believe it says everything about them because, in the end, our true moral test consists of our actions or inaction toward those who are at our mercy.

Among the nearly dozen measures set to pass, four stand out most notably.

A bill sponsored by Council Member Justin Brannan, Intro 1478A, will make New York the first city in the nation to establish an Office of Animal Welfare within the Mayor’s office. A bill sponsored by Council Member Keith Powers, Intro 1425A, will prohibit the abusive horse-carriage industry from working horses on extremely hot and/or humid days.

A bill sponsored by Council Member Carlina Rivera, Intro 1202A, seeks to deter and punish individuals who steal wild birds from our city’s parks. And another bill sponsored by Council Member Rivera, Intro 1378A, would prohibit the sale of force-fed foie gras in New York—the largest foie gras market in the country. The foie gras sales ban bill has more support than any other bill in the package, including a coalition of over 50 not-for-profit organizations led by Voters For Animal Rights, 50 New York-based veterinarians, 30 Council co-sponsors, over 90 New York City-based restaurants, and 81% of New York City voters, according to a Mason Dixon poll.

Foie Gras—French for fatty liver—is a gruesome luxury food product made from the diseased and enlarged liver of a duck produced through force-feeding. Ducks abused by the foie gras industry suffer immensely from ruptured organs, esophagus trauma, broken bones, illnesses, and diseases as a result of having a foot-long metal or plastic pipe shoved down their throats and a large mass of food injected into their delicate digestive system several times a day for weeks. The sole purpose of this barbaric force-feeding is to swell and disease the bird’s liver to ten times its normal size so it can be sold as foie gras.

The force-fed foie gras sales ban legislation exemplifies the historic nature of this animal package moving through the City Council. First, it is one of the most important animal protection bills passed by any city in the country on account of the vast number of animals it will save per year. Second, rarely in politics do you see unpaid grassroots volunteer-run organizations — like those at Voters for Animal Rights — take on and win against multimillion-dollar companies with high-paid lobbyists. Lastly, the sheer brutality behind the production of foie gras provides important context to the plight of farmed animals on industrial farms, such as the ducks on Hudson Valley Foie Gras and La Belle Farms.

These measures send a strong and clear statement to the world that New Yorkers reject the notion that animals are mere property, but rather sentient beings whose capacity for suffering affords them the right to legal protection from cruelty.

This package represents far more than just a few laws that protect horses, ducks, and pigeons from abuse. It is irrefutable evidence of our moral progress as New Yorkers.

Gandhi famously asserted that “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” While we certainly have a long way to go when it comes to protecting animals from abuse, this is a landmark of progress and surely a moment worth celebrating. Speaker Johnson, Council members, your leadership on this issue is commendable and well-deserving of praise.

by Allie Feldman Taylor & Matthew Dominguez, Voters for Animal Rights. On Twitter @AllieFeldman212 & @Matt_Dominguez & @theanimalvoters. And co-signed by coalition partners:
Humane Society Veterinarian Medical Association
Animal Legal Defense Fund
World Animal Protection
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
Compassion in World Farming
Farm Sanctuary
Barn Sanctuary
Woodstock Sanctuary
Four Paws
Animal Protection Rescue League
Animal Defenders International
In Defense of Animals
Last Chance for Animals
Compassion Over Killing
Lady FreethinkerTheir Turn

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Getting in the Holiday Spirit of Improved Public Space


(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

‘Tis the season for improving public spaces.

The 14th Street busway has been live for just over three weeks and the accolades are already enough to deem its opening as historic. New Yorkers are now seeking more innovative ideas to improve the pedestrian and commuter experience throughout the city. 

With the holiday season approaching, we are hopeful that this embrace of open space can be adopted in Midtown. 

Rockefeller Center is one of the centerpieces of Manhattan. Every year, the area sees close to 1 million pedestrians during the holidays. It’s the must-see destination for both New Yorkers and tourists, and one of the places where the city absolutely shines. 

But if you are looking anywhere other than the top of the tree, it’s a sea of people and cars competing to get a glimpse of the scene.

If we think of Rockefeller Center with a people-first mentality, we can make streets safer and enrich public space. That’s why we have called for the City to pedestrianize the historic plaza by closing 49th and 50th Streets from 5th Avenue to 6th Avenue for the holiday season. 

The current set up relies on blockades that take up large amounts of space and cause groups of pedestrians to crowd crosswalks and spill over into the street: a recipe for injuries. And each day, the parameters change. With a defined set-up, rules of the area would be more easily communicated and expectations clear. 

Ten years ago, Times Square took the jump to clear out cars. Five streets transformed into 110,000 square feet of pedestrian space. The successes of the Department of Transportation's endeavor are indisputable. Pedestrian injuries have decreased by 40% and vehicular crashes have decreased by 15% after the streets became a plaza. The number of individuals passing through increased, too: a boon to area businesses. 

Rockefeller Center is a 12-acre landmark in the middle of Manhattan, open to New Yorkers and visitors -- it is time we protect the space and everyone who visits, and encourage even more people to take part safely.

There is nothing like New York during the holidays. Let’s prepare for the celebration and those to come. The countdown is on.

Gale A. Brewer is the Borough President of Manhattan. Keith Powers is a City Council Member for Manhattan’s East Side, including the Rockefeller Center area. On Twitter @galeabrewer & @KeithPowersNYC.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Keeping the Lights On, and Saving Billions, While Addressing Climate Change

indian point gov600

Indian Point (photo: the governor's office)

New York’s recently-passed Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act has been described as the boldest climate legislation in the nation. It sets demanding milestones for reducing carbon emissions, starting with the 2030 goal that New York state should, by then, derive 70% of its electricity from renewable sources (solar, wind, and waterpower). By 2040, it should derive all of its electricity from “clean” sources, and it should be carbon-neutral in all its uses of energy by 2050. 

These goals pose daunting challenges, but within two years the challenge will become even greater when the Indian Point nuclear plant, 36 miles up the Hudson River from New York City, is scheduled to shut down. Governor Cuomo agreed to its closure, even though it is functioning safely and economically, because of fears of a nuclear accident raised by the community around the site. When he agreed to the closure, he made a commitment it would not result in any new carbon emissions. Nevertheless, the operator of New York’s electric grid has made clear that three natural gas-powered generating plants will be fired up to replace the carbon-free electricity flowing from Indian Point. These replacement plants will release 7 million metric tons of greenhouse gases for each year thereafter. The increased greenhouse gas emissions will undermine the new climate law before it even gets started, and the smaller capacity of the gas plants may well lead to shortages of electric power in the coming years. 

We have shown elsewhere that attempting to meet the new law’s 2030 goal with only renewable sources would cost more than $100 billion and is completely impractical. However, the language of the new climate law ignores the contribution that nuclear power, which emits no carbon dioxide, can make toward a carbon-free future. Indeed, if Indian Point and other nuclear plants, which already provide nearly a third of New York’s electricity, are kept running, and the governor’s planned expansion of offshore wind takes place, a 2030 goal of 70% carbon-free electricity will be met without any further expenditure. 

There is no need to shut down Indian Point. This facility, which produces a quarter of the New York City Metro region’s electricity, is safe and reliable and can keep going for decades more. The current closure agreement does allow the plant, if necessary, to continue operating through 2024 and 2025. While the current operator, the Entergy Corp., is giving up control of the plant, the New York Power Authority could take it over and continue operating it, as it did safely and efficiently for many years before Entergy came into the picture. In fact, Indian Point should remain operational until such time as new, carbon-free resources can replace it. That way, it can continue to help meet the state’s emission reduction goals. 

We recognize that including nuclear energy, along with carbon-free renewable energy sources, in meeting our climate goals will require a major re-evaluation of risk by groups deeply invested in opposing nuclear power. These groups, some of which campaigned for the closure of Indian Point, are concerned that nuclear reactors will suffer accidents that could have catastrophic consequences. In fact, as one of us has explained in a brief guide, this is not possible. Nuclear reactor accidents have led to very few deaths – 28 plant workers and firefighters perished at Chernobyl, along with an estimated 60 deaths from thyroid cancer worldwide -- and there were zero fatalities from the Three Mile Island and Fukushima events. Hundreds of thousands have already suffered from the effects of climate change, and millions more are likely to suffer if climate change proceeds as it is on course now. 

Keeping Indian Point and other nuclear plants operating while the state builds new, even safer nuclear facilities and installs modest amounts of renewable resources offers the most practical, achievable path for New York to meet its emission goals and offer our children and grandchildren a realistic chance for a carbon-free, stable future.

Leonard Rodberg is a physicist who taught climate change and public policy at Queens College/CUNY until his retirement in 2017. Herschel Specter is an engineer who focused on nuclear safety issues in many positions, including at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Letter to the Editor: Toy Companies in New York and Across America Put Child Safety First

fair toy lte

(photo: @TheToyAssociation)

To the Editor,

As the not-for-profit association representing businesses that create and deliver toys to kids, The Toy Association counts 126 companies in New York State among its membership of more than 1,100 toymakers and retailers. Every single one of these companies prioritizes keeping children safe at play, above all else.

I’d like to set the record straight regarding the mistruths and inaccuracies in Christine Appah’s opinion piece, “The Governor’s Signature is Next Step in Protecting New York Children from Toxic Toys” (Oct. 11).

Appah states that “there are many toys and products on the market today that do indeed contain chemicals that are hazardous to children’s health,” and that the Child Safe Products Act, if signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo, could “prevent further unnecessary harm to children on his watch.”

In fact, U.S. toy safety requirements are among the strictest in the world. By law, all toys sold in the United States must comply with more than 100 rigorous safety tests and standards, including the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, the Consumer Product Safety Act, and the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. Among other protections, these regulations make it illegal to sell toys or children’s products containing substances harmful to children and to which they might be exposed.

There is a narrative circulating regarding the Child Safe Products Act that’s not based on any scientific studies related to children’s products and oversimplifies a complex issue by saying it will protect kids. In actuality, this bill in no way assesses the safety of the products concerned, and therefore any claims that this would make products safer is simply inaccurate. Disclosure of substances under this legislation is triggered based on their presence and not on any health or safety-based values, and completely ignores whether exposure to the substances is likely or even possible.

What we do know is that the bill will limit consumer choices, as beloved, safe toys that are available elsewhere in the country and internationally will be taken off local store shelves; drive up costs; and threaten 21,000 jobs in New York State.

This legislation fails to consider the numerous federal safety and environmental regulations that all toys sold in the U.S. must comply with. These statutes and ensuing regulations administered by the CPSC already ensure that any children's products that present any hazardous exposure to a child cannot be legally sold in the United States.

Toys are consistently ranked among the safest consumer product categories found in the home.  This legislation is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t actually exist.

Rest assured that America’s and New York’s toymakers are committed to keeping children safe.

Matthew Lenz, Director of State Government Affairs, The Toy Association

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The Candidate That Wins Should Get At Least Half The Votes

attends cojo patbudexpoatguild

(photo: City Council)

Suppose eight candidates are running for Mayor or a City Council seat or another New York City office. On election night, the results are extremely close: The top candidate gets 29% of the vote, and the second 28%. Even though 70% of voters picked someone else, a candidate with less than one-third of the votes will become the elected representative of 100% of the office’s jurisdiction. 

This situation may seem unlikely, but it’s precisely what happened in a 2013 special election for New York City Council, when Donovan Richards defeated special election opponent Pesach Osina by only 79 votes. The district is mostly African-American, and except for Osina, the candidates were African-American. However, because the vote was split among six African-American candidates, Osina almost became the district’s nominee with only 28% of the vote. This election was not that unusual: In 2013, 14 of the 21 New York City Council primaries for open seats were won with less than 50% of the vote.

Ideally, in a democracy, candidates supported by a majority of voters get elected. We can make that happen in New York City. Starting with early voting, October 26-November 3, and on Election Day, November 5, New Yorkers can ensure candidates supported by a true majority of voters are elected by voting “yes” on ballot question one, which would adopt ranked-choice voting for primary and special elections starting in 2021.

Under the ranked-choice voting method proposed by question one, rather than voting for a single candidate, voters rank candidates by order of preference from 1 to 5. If a candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate wins, election over. But if no one hits 50%, the winner is the candidate with a majority of 1st- and 2nd-choice votes (and 3rd-, 4th-, or 5th-choice, if necessary to hit 50%). If the candidate you ranked first receives the fewest first-choice votes, that candidate has lost, and your vote is transferred to the candidate you ranked second. That would be the case for all the voters who chose that last-place candidate. This process is then repeated until a candidate hits 50%.

Ranked-choice voting has already had a major impact in places like Oakland, California. In a ten-way race for the city’s mayor in 2010, candidate Don Perata was in the lead after the first round tally, with 34% of votes, compared to 24% for second-place Jean Quan. However, after the eight other candidates were eliminated and votes were transferred, Quan pulled ahead and won with 51% of the vote to Perata’s 49%. Quan was the preferred candidate of those who hadn’t put her or Perata as their first choice, and by voters overall.

If question one passes this fall and New York City is home to ranked-choice voting for primary and special elections, candidates will be forced to reach the largest possible number of voters while campaigning. Conceivably, the system could encourage more positive campaigns, as under ranked-choice voting, candidates sometimes cross-endorse in an effort to build support, and candidates generally want even people they may not be able to convince to put them first to choose them second.

It may increase voter turnout – it helps when people know their vote counts – and the initiative will save New York City millions of dollars by ending runoff elections (which occur for citywide races when no candidate receives 40% of the vote).

Ranked-choice voting will also arrive at a time when more Americans are running for office than ever. Now that candidates for office in New York City can have 89% of their campaign funds come from the city’s campaign finance system, the number of New Yorkers campaigning may hit all-time highs. With more than 30 City Council seats open, as well as two citywide seats and at least four borough presidencies, the New York City Campaign Finance Board projects that up to 500 New Yorkers will run for office in the 2021 elections alone. With so many options to choose from, it’s crucial that the results reflect the will of the majority. Ranked-choice voting ensures that the majority is heard.

At a time when many state and local governments are moving to take power from voters, we need initiatives like ranked-choice voting that give power to voters. This fall – starting with early voting October 26-November 3 and on Election Day, November 5 – New Yorkers can make their city a leader in electoral reform and help restore democracy’s greatest promise: People matter.

Tom Speaker is a policy analyst at Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @ReinventAlbany.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Mass Incarceration and Remorse

govandcouomo consumer awa

(photo: the governor's office)

Dallas Police Officer Amber Guyger faced up to 99 years for killing her neighbor, Botham Jean, in his own home. According to most observers, the forgiveness offered by Mr. Jean’s 18-year-old brother in his victim impact statement, capped by his request to hug Ms. Guyger, was the key reason why the jury settled on 10 years, a far lower number than even the 28 years urged by the prosecutor.

However important a role forgiveness played in the jury’s decision to spare Guyger decades behind bars, according to interviews with some of the jurors an even greater factor was Guyger’s expression of remorse during her trial testimony: “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I never wanted to take an innocent person’s life...I wish he was the one with the gun that killed me.”  

The role of remorse in sentencing and punishment was a central theme of the recent Parole Summit organized by the Lifers and Longtermers Organization at Otisville Correctional Facility in New York.

In years past, the Summit focused on the parole process itself -- the parole interview, the parole decision, and appeals from parole denials -- and yielded suggestions for reforming an unforgiving system. But this year, the lifers decided to look inward, and bring to the forefront conceptions of restorative justice, victim centered awareness, and individual transformation.

The overarching emphasis on healing led inexorably to exhortations for offenders to gain insight into what led them to their crimes; to reflect on the motivations for their behavior. Many of the day’s speakers stressed that the lifers had to accept responsibility for the harm they caused, and to develop and express authentic contrition in order to promote healing for themselves as well as for their victims.  

Criminal legal systems place a premium on remorse. Studies here and abroad have shown that remorse is the most commonly named mitigating factor for a reduced sentence, and perceived lack of remorse often leads to an enhanced sentence. Remorse is specifically and instrumentally relevant to the Parole Summit – most states allow parole boards to consider a person’s insight and remorse when deciding whether to grant parole, and parole boards typically probe those areas in depth at parole interviews. Many lifers have been denied parole based on a perceived lack of genuine or sufficient remorse.  

Many rationales explain the outsize role remorse plays in sentencing and punishment. Sincere remorse as a sign of moral improvement suggests that the person has been rehabilitated and no longer poses a danger. Expressions of remorse also have a confessional aspect and are preconditions to receiving understanding or forgiveness. Remorse also serves as an apology to the victims and restores a measure of dignity that the crime violated.  

But remorse is an emotion. Can anyone accurately evaluate whether a statement of remorse is genuine or self-serving? Typically, determinations of the authenticity of remorse are made by judges and members of parole boards who lack any training or special competence in assessing the complexities of human emotions. How do these evaluators distinguish remorse from guilt or from shame, or just generally decide whether a person is being sincere? Some people are better able to verbalize their feelings than are others, and cultural differences surely influence evaluations of remorse. How is remorse gauged when a person professes their innocence?  

Studies show judges disagree about indicators of remorse – behavior that indicated remorse to some suggested remorselessness to others. Research has debunked the notion that remorse can be evaluated by words used, non-verbal cues, attitudes, and demeanor.    

The many lifers denied parole for alleged inadequate contrition recognize that their words are necessary but not sufficient. It is too easy for words to be dismissed as uttered only in the hope of obtaining freedom. Instead, lifers want their remorse to be judged by their actions and deeds as well as by their words; by the affirmative steps they have taken while incarcerated to try to make amends for the harm they caused.  

The reality of the enduring impact of remorse revealed a fundamental irony as the lifers listened patiently and attentively to remarks from prosecutors, members of the parole board, elected officials and others. While all the speakers talked about their reforms and self-defined progressive policies, something was missing.

Seated silently next to me was a man serving 50 years to life as a high-ranking prosecutor from the office that prosecuted him talked about all his office is doing in progressive criminal justice. Another man at my table who has been denied parole six times listened stoically as a parole board member talked about the virtue of accepting responsibility and expressing concern for victims – something the man has done to no avail at every one of his six parole appearances

By now, most people agree that prosecutors and those connected with law enforcement were the primary architects of mass incarceration. Yet what was sorely lacking from the speakers extolling the righteousness of victim-centeredness and offender accountability was any acknowledgement and acceptance of their individual, or their office’s, responsibility for the blight of mass incarceration. There was nothing said that remotely resembled insight, remorse, or apology.  

And while words matter, in the end, just as lifers beg not to be judged solely by the words they utter in a brief and nerve-wracking parole interview but by their actions over the past many decades -- the things they have accomplished in prison and the men and women they have become -- law enforcement actors should be similarly judged.

Words matter, they are necessary if there is to be any reconciliation for past harms, but ultimately actions speak louder than words. If those who caused the crisis of mass incarceration and resultant decimation of families and communities cannot bring themselves to publicly accept responsibility and offer contrition to the tens of thousands of men and women serving life and massive long-term sentences, they can at the very least show their genuine and authentic remorse by taking every necessary step to secure their release.

Steven Zeidman is a professor of law at CUNY School of Law. On Twitter @SteveZeidman.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.