Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics




Paid Family Leave in NYC: Progressive Policy, Regressive Plan

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The mayor (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

Paid parental leave is a hallmark of civilized societies that financially support family values. It is laudable that the City of New York wishes to be included in those ranks, starting by mandating paid parental leave for city managerial employees. But the de Blasio administration does so by having those employees pay for it themselves with a reduction in their next scheduled pay increase and the loss of two vacation days for some. That's hardly an act of a progressive employer.

Many of the managerial employees being covered by the mayor's executive order are not high-salaried executives. Some are managers whose pay starts at $57,210 annually, which translates to $27.50 per hour. City managers with 20, even 30 years of service have passed a series of civil service tests that they must pay to take. Still, some are barely making a living wage.

Most are not policy makers, this work is done by elected officials and agency commissioners. Instead, the managers make sure that the service goals set by the policy makers are met. They are the policy implementers who keep our city running 24/7 no matter who the elected officials and their top-level appointees, who largely most over $200,000 per year.

An adult with one child making $27.40 per hour barely qualifies as making living wage according to the Living Wage Calculator for New York County designed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The MIT calculator was used in determining that the minimum wage should be a living wage of $15 per hour. A $15 hourly minimum wage is strongly supported by the de Blasio administration, as evidenced by the mayor's recently announced plan to move all city employees to that minimum over the next couple of years.

De Blasio believes that all those in the private sector, like entry-level fast food workers, should soon make a minimum of $15 per hour too.

Shouldn't the minimum be something more for managers who oversee the spending of millions of tax dollars for vital city services? After years of service, shouldn't those managers be well above $27.40 per hour? And, when we rightfully seek to expand family leave benefits to those managers, shouldn't they not have to sacrifice pay increases?

Cheating city managers out of a full pay increase to pay for a progressive policy like paid family leave challenges the credibility of the city's true commitment to the new parental leave policy. Back in Jamaica, Queens where I grew up it is called "putting your money where your mouth is," which is what I want to see the City do on paid family leave.

The current scheme forces managers to buy their own paid family leave and therefore reduces its impact. Paid family leave is a progressive policy - making employees pay for it is not.

Arthur Cheliotes is President of CWA Local 1180, a municipal union representing more than 8,500 workers and 6,200 retirees. Most work in one of dozens of New York City mayoral agencies; others at the Department of Education, Health and Hospitals Corporation, NYCHA, the Transit Authority, the School Construction Authority, and the state's Unified Court System.

More Evidence Punitive NYPD Youth Programs Fail

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(photo via @NYPDnews)



This week the New York Times revealed the content of an internal NYPD report showing that a much lauded juvenile crime program doesn’t work. It’s yet another example of misguided punitive policing, offering little by way of actual progress.

Originally developed under the title “Juvenile Robbery Intervention Program” (J-RIP), it targets past juvenile offenders in hopes of preventing future crime. The original J-RIP program, which began in Brownsville in 2007 and expanded to East Harlem in 2009, targeted juvenile robbery offenders who were back in the community. These youths were given a clear message that they were under enhanced police supervision and would face significant consequences if rearrested. They were also offered mentoring and a few support services by police in hopes of steering them in the right direction.

In practice, the program offered little in the way of services. Young people were given a chance to participate in existing programs like the Police Athletic League (PAL) and were regularly visited by uniformed officers in their homes and on the streets. While these officers were supposed to be acting as mentors and monitors, defense lawyers reported that officers sometimes used these visits as a pretext to conduct searches and that they sometimes called attention to program relationships in front of other youth, potentially marking them as informants—a dangerous label in these neighborhoods.

No real services, such as job placement or family counseling were provided, and the officers involved had no special social services training, playing a primarily surveillance and enforcement role.

In April of 2014, NYPD Chief Joanne Jaffe, who developed the program, spoke at the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School, where she lauded J-RIP as being highly effective. She provided data that showed that over the course of the program robberies in the targeted areas had fallen significantly. What she did not discuss, but the November 2014 NYPD evaluation report makes clear, is that the decline mirrored city-wide trends and that J-RIP participants were rearrested at the same or higher rates than youth with similar records in the same and nearby neighborhoods without J-RIP.

Even though the 2014 report showed there were no crime reductions under J-RIP, the NYPD has moved forward with an expansion of the program in a different guise.

In early 2015, the NYPD rolled out NYC Ceasefire, under the leadership of Susan Herman, Deputy Commissioner for Collaborative Policing. The new version focuses more on gun crimes and adds group “call-in” meetings in which the targeted youth are brought in and lectured by police and community members about the harmful effects of their violent actions and the potential enhanced consequences of additional violent offenses. They are then placed under extensive surveillance regimes and targeted for enhanced punishments if caught re-offending. They are also offered some minimal services, primarily in the form of a centralized referral phone number run by a local non-profit that is there to link young people to already existing programs.

J-RIP and NYC Ceasefire are both examples of “Focused Deterrence” programs. Developed by criminologist David Kennedy, and first implemented in Boston in 1996, they attempt to stop gun violence or other serious crime through intensive and targeted enforcement combined with support services.

Ideally this model begins with a community mobilization effort in partnership with local police. The goal is to send a unified message to young people that serious crime will no longer be tolerated. If it occurs, they will use every resource at their disposal (“pulling levers”) to not only apprehend the assailant but to disrupt the street life of young people involved in crime across the board. The hope is that young people will choose to avoid violence so that they can concentrate on socializing and low level criminality free of constant police harassment. This is based on research that showed that a great deal of shooting was not drug or robbery related but involved a constant tit for tat of revenge gunfire by rival factions of young people engaged primarily in turf battles.

The key is to break that cycle of retribution and gun carrying. To achieve this, young people believed to be involved in violence are called into meetings with local police and community leaders and threatened with intensive surveillance and enforcement if the gun violence doesn’t stop. These “call ins” are made possible in part because many of these young people are on probation or parole for past offenses.

In addition to more intensive enforcement efforts, there is usually an effort to develop some targeted social services with the hope that this will help draw some of these young people away from violence and towards education and employment opportunities.

This approach relies primarily on intensive punitive enforcement efforts such as surveillance, investigations, arrests, and intensified prosecutions. Also, the social services offered tend to be very thin, involving some counseling and recreational opportunities but rarely access to actual jobs or advanced educational placements.

Some youth are able to get GEDs and access some social programs, but very few wind up with jobs, much less well-paying or stable ones. In some cases the focus is on a variety of life skills and socialization classes which do nothing to create real opportunities for people and reinforce the ethos of personal responsibility that often ends up blaming the victim for their unemployment and educational failure in a community that tends to be incredibly poor, underserved, segregated, and dangerous.

Evaluation research of these programs does show some meaningful declines in crime that can even last for years. Overall, though, the results are quite thin. Most reductions are small, occur in only a few crime categories, and don’t last very long. They also continue to reinforce a punitive mindset about how to deal with young people in high crime, high poverty communities, most of whom are not white.

It is certainly true that violent crime is heavily concentrated among a fairly small population of young people in specific neighborhoods. It makes more sense to target them than indiscriminately stopping and frisking or arresting and summonsing hundreds of thousands of young people who have either done nothing wrong or engaged in minor misbehavior. Despite the claims of the Broken Windows theory, there really isn’t a strong connection between the two groups.

The problem lies not in the targeting, but in the methods used. Most young people who engage in serious criminality are already living in harsh and dangerous circumstances. They are fearful of other youth, abusive family members, and the prospect of a future of joblessness and poverty. They don’t need more threats and punishment in their lives.

They need stability, positive guidance, and real pathways out of poverty. This requires a long-term commitment to their well-being, not a telephone referral and home visits by the same people who arrest and harass them and their friends on the streets. It was Bill Bratton, in his first stint as NYPD commissioner, who pointed out that police officers are not social workers, they’re not trained for it, nor prepared for it, and that’s not their role. Why would they be the best-suited for engaging these young people as mentors or life skills trainers? They aren’t.

It makes much more sense to do two types of things.

First, we have to have a real conversation about entrenched racialized poverty concentrated in highly-segregated neighborhoods. These are the neighborhoods that continue to be the main source of violent crime problems. It is true that crime has declined overall without major reductions in poverty or segregation, but it’s also true that the crime that remains is concentrated in these areas. And, unlike aggressive policing and mass incarceration, doing something about racialized poverty and exclusion would have general benefits for society in terms of reducing poverty, inequality, and racial injustice.

Second, we need to use peer-based mentoring systems and outreach workers, who can talk to people from a shared position of living in one of these neighborhoods. The power of that connection for building credibility cannot be overstated. Recently, Mayor de Blasio has expanded a number of City Council-developed initiatives to use violence interrupters and other community-based and public health-oriented interventions to reduce gun violence.

So-called “cure violence” programs like SOS Crown Heights, and GMACC in East Flatbush are training young adults to break the cycle of violence through rumor control, gang truces, and ongoing engagement with youth out on the streets. They provide safe spaces for young people to talk out their problems and when well-funded, provide real services to them and their families to deal with problems of housing, education, and unemployment, as well as mental illness and substance abuse.

It’s time for Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD to abandon NYC Ceasefire and other focused deterrence initiatives that primarily criminalize young people. We already know that jails and prisons produce much worse life outcomes for these youth. Let’s stop relying on coercion and control and try more compassion and concern.

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

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

Time for the Mayor and the Governor to Work Together

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De Blasio and Cuomo, via the Governor's Office

They are elected to lead millions of people, to handle billions of taxpayer dollars, and to develop effective public policy. To be as effective as possible, they must work together.

Yet, they barely speak to each other and won't even say each other's name in public.

There is simply no way that the ongoing feud between Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio isn't hurting New Yorkers. The behavior of the two men - New York City's top two elected leaders - is beneath the esteem of their offices.

A leading advocate, Mary Brosnahan of Coalition for the Homeless, put it perfectly in an interview with Politico New York: "They're both very smart people, let's just lower the testosterone and ramp up the cooperation. It just kills me to see homeless New Yorkers being played like pawns in the middle of it."

Lately, it has been homeless people as pawns, but it has been all New Yorkers at some point over the past two years.

Sure, the feud can be the source of fun for observers, even for the governor and his team, it seems. But, there are legitimate policy issues, livelihoods, and lives at stake. It's well past time for Cuomo and de Blasio to work together more closely. And there are steps, beyond the recent dinner they shared, that can easily be taken - if they care enough to try.

The already toxic relationship took a turn for the worse when, in a now-infamous airing of grievances, de Blasio criticized the governor to the press at length on June 30. Remarkable for several reasons, de Blasio's words seemed to indicate he was giving up on the prospects of a strong working relationship with his former boss and longtime friend.

Still, in November, Cuomo defied what observers were seeing when he said, "The relationship is good...This is a professional relationship."

The governor added what appears to be nothing short of a lie, saying: "We coordinate the best we can."

Perhaps Cuomo's statement was true if by "can" he was implying 'given the fact that we are both more concerned with our petty feud than with working for the people of New York.'

When it has come to a series of issues: Ebola, the MTA, Legionnaires' Disease, homelessness, and more, the city and state have clearly not been coordinating "the best" they could.

Of course members of the two administrations talk with each other all the time and coordinate on a variety of public policy matters - there are major day-to-day operations that necessitate this. But, it is abundantly clear that the collaboration is not as strong as it could or should be.

Beyond beginning to speak more regularly by phone and in person, de Blasio and Cuomo could start regularly appearing at events together. Giving the semblance of a working relationship would at least instill more confidence that the two leaders have one and are not being negligent. A little bit of casual conversation, as the two had while awaiting the Pope in September, can only help repair the relationship.

Cuomo and de Blasio don't have to immediately hold joint announcements, they could simply share space when they're due to speak at the same event, something it appears they've avoided with intent.

But, they could hold joint events immediately and start to move beyond The Feud. De Blasio is set to make a minimum wage announcement Wednesday - Cuomo should be there and have a speaking role. Then, de Blasio should be similarly welcomed to Cuomo's next minimum wage rally in the city (he's been conspicuously absent from several). Also Wednesday, Cuomo is expected to announce a renovation plan for Penn Station - de Blasio should be there, not absent like he was when Cuomo announced plans for a new LaGaurdia Airport.

The two Wednesday events are, of course, scheduled for the same time: 2 p.m.

On Thursday, de Blasio is set to sign an executive order mandating paid parental leave for some city employees. Cuomo should be there, too, and he should use the occasion to praise the mayor and explain his intention to push a statewide paid family leave policy.

Though they have very different styles and somewhat different political philosophies, Cuomo and de Blasio actually agree on quite a bit and could find many ways to truly work together. The two should soon hold a joint announcement after coming to a New York/New York IV supportive housing deal.

They missed a good opportunity to show a united front when they came to an agreement on MTA capital plan funding in October after a prolonged and too-public dispute.

But, as they go down a similar road on homelessness, wouldn't it be refreshing if early in the new year Cuomo and de Blasio could coordinate policy and hold a joint press conference to explain how they are going to work together to improve shelter conditions, get people off the streets and into housing, and keep people from becoming homeless in the first place?

Like you, I am not holding my breath for such an announcement or for any of the joint appearances outlined above.

As the New York Times editorial board wrote in late November, "In a better world, the mayor and governor would be mutually supportive allies working together to ease the suffering of tens of thousands of homeless residents of the state's most important city. But in reality, the two men are stuck in a malfunctioning relationship that has turned once-routine city-state partnerships and problem-solving exercises into an unusually fraught psychodrama."

On Monday, the mayor was faced with a barrage of questions from reporters about the homelessness-related executive order the governor had issued with little warning to the de Blasio administration. It has become something of a pattern, state action without coordinating with the city, the governor showing the mayor who is in charge.

"We are very willing to work with the state," de Blasio said in response to a question about why he and his old colleague couldn't simply get together and hash out joint homelessness policy.

Being willing to work together is very different, obviously, from proactively seeking opportunities to mend fences and move forward for the good of the people of the city and state.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Ending the Revolving Door of Homelessness

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Patricia Swann, the author

While Mayor Bill de Blasio works on the details of a 15-year, $2.6 billion supportive housing program to address homelessness, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is creating a statewide plan to reduce homelessness. New York should draw on approaches that have helped in the past as well as those that seem promising, especially supportive housing, which offers job training, debt counseling, mental health care, and other crucial services to residents in an effort to stop the revolving door of homelessness.

We all have to start by acknowledging reality: homelessness is a chronic New York problem, as we can tell from walking the streets or reviewing simple statistics. On any given night the number of people sleeping in shelters is close to 60,000 -- 25,000 are children.

New Yorkers fatigued by the crisis tend to identify it with street dwellers – often middle-aged men with substance-abuse or mental health issues. The truth is that homelessness is rising among families, younger men and women, and the working poor.

The one-two punch keeps getting worse: housing costs are exorbitant while wages are stagnant. Last year, 30.1 percent of the city’s renters paid more than half their incomes in rent. The result: New York City saw 26,857 evictions in 2014.

So much for de-stigmatizing homelessness — the reality is that these are our neighbors and coworkers.

The urgent question is, what works?

In the past 20 years, the New York Community Trust has given about $30 million to nonprofits addressing different aspects of the problem. One proven approach is not simply to increase shelters but to create permanent supportive housing for lower-income New Yorkers. That includes on-site services for medical and physical disabilities, HIV-related illnesses, and mental and substance-abuse disorders. This housing should coordinate with nearby groups that provide other basics, including childhood education centers, employment and financial training, health and substance-abuse clinics, open spaces, access to quality food, libraries and cultural venues.

Studies show such supportive housing cuts taxpayer costs while helping vulnerable people become productive citizens. In the past, the state and city split the cost of supportive housing as well as stronger protections for existing low-cost housing; we hope they will resume that agreement.

Still, it takes years for new units to come online, and meanwhile nearly 60,000 people subsist in shelters that the city’s Department of Investigation calls dilapidated. We need to test alternate strategies. That’s why the Trust is funding an initiative called Gateway Housing, a coalition of nonprofits that run city shelters. Under Gateway, the nonprofits are committed to working with the city and state to rebuild shelters.

More important, they’ll use proven practices and undergo regular evaluations of their social-services programs. Because a strong community is critical to addressing homelessness, Gateway seeks to make shelters integral to neighborhoods.

We have learned that well-directed money can deliver lasting results. For example, we’ve funded several groups that had success in assisting families deal with rising housing costs — by freezing rents for the elderly and disabled, or by providing emergency aid and financial counseling to low-wage New Yorkers. Many times, a head of family who loses a job or is dealing with a health crisis needs just a few weeks’ aid to avoid eviction.

The Trust also funds a promising initiative called Joint-Ownership Entity. Under that model, nonprofit developers — the same organizations that saved the South Bronx, eastern and central Brooklyn, and northern Manhattan from disappearing into rubble in the late seventies — are combining developments into single-ownership entities. This should help them achieve economies of scale in running and maintaining their properties, keep rents down, and generate revenue for services. These nonprofit developers are important neighborhood anchors; if not for the housing they manage at affordable rents, many of the residents would become homeless.

We’re not naïve: No one can end homelessness in an expensive city with persistent pockets of poverty. But by finding ways to keep rents affordable in some neighborhoods, supporting those facing temporary financial setbacks, and offering job training, substance-abuse counseling, and other wraparound services, we can buttress thousands of New Yorkers who are trying to provide a stable home to their families.


Patricia A. Swann is a Senior Program Officer for Community Development at the New York Community Trust. On Twitter @NYCommTrust.

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

New York City Needs Supervised Injection Facilities

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First Lady McCray & Health Comm. Bassett (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

There is a hot topic trending in the debate over the war on drugs: should there be safe places for intravenous drug users to inject? A panel of experts from around the world convened a symposium in New York City to share their experiences and the panelists and their sponsor, VOCAL NY, called for such a facility in the city. They are completely correct.

There are an estimated 100 supervised injection facilities worldwide and advocates credit them with reducing both overdose deaths and the spread of infectious diseases (HIV and hepatitis C). These facilities offer clean needles, a sterile environment, and emergency services in the case of an overdose. They also provide education, counseling, access to treatment, and other services that might save users' lives.

Without such refuge, addicts resort to "whatever it takes" to get high and the resulting health problems resonate throughout society by way of the spread of infectious disease and the death of loved ones.

The rise in heroin, the primary drug used via injection, is well-documented and New York is no exception. Staten Island is the borough hardest hit by the heroin epidemic; 74 people there died of overdose in 2014. Many heroin users began by taking prescription painkillers that are chemically similar and after becoming addicted find that heroin is cheaper and easier to obtain.

Mayor de Blasio traveled to Staten Island in early December to announce measures addressing the heroin crisis there. He has made naloxone, an overdose antidote, available in pharmacies without a prescription and promised to increase the availability of substance abuse treatment by licensing more physicians to prescribe maintenance drugs that dull the cravings for heroin.

These are good steps. We still need supervised injection facilities.

Naloxone does not prevent overdoses which can occur from the improvised situations that users often find themselves in. Supervised facilities prevent overdoses by providing an environment that is cleaner and less chaotic than, say, a gas station restroom.

The spread of infectious disease through unsanitary conditions and instruments represents an even deadlier and widespread threat than overdose - infected users spread disease to unsuspecting loved ones, often through sexual intercourse.

One of the thorniest problems in combating illegal drugs is the fact that they are illegal and addicts, because they are punished, deplored, and shamed for their disease, live in the shadows, apart from mainstream society. Supervised facilities provide a place where they are not judged. Staff, often recovered addicts who understand their dire situation, can offer users a path out of their misery and provide education on infectious diseases and methods of prevention.

Supervised injection facilities are one example of the "harm reduction strategy" towards substance abuse. Needle exchanges are another example; they accept the fact that users will utilize infected needles if that is their only choice, but respect that users are intelligent and prefer clean needles if they are available. The immediate result of needle exchanges is fewer persons infected with HIV and Hepatitis C, thus the harm of addiction is reduced. New York City has 15 needle exchanges, but only one on Staten Island and, sad to say, no one is asking for more.

The harm reduction strategy is the polar opposite of the 50-year-long "war on drugs" which was lost long ago, though few will admit it. Throughout the world opinion is shifting towards decriminalizing all drugs. A recent draft United Nations report recommended decriminalizing drugs and Portugal did so about ten years ago with no discernible detriment to civil society.

A recent editorial in the Staten Island Advance excoriated the idea of safe places like supervised injection facilities, saying that they encourage more drug use - but they do not; they encourage safe drug use.

It is the plain fact that many thousands of people, without any encouragement, are seeking out heroin for any number of reasons. On Staten Island, and throughout New York City, it is time to tear down the walls that separate us, bring users in from the cold, and offer them whatever help we can.

Christopher Beall works at a criminal justice nonprofit in the Bronx and is on Twitter @JailedintheUSA.

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

A Family-Centered Approach to Homelessness Policy

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Ralph da Costa Nunez, the author

The first two years of the de Blasio administration have been marked by a continued rise in the number of homeless children and adults, along with the resignation of both the deputy mayor for health and human services and the commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services. The Mayor's announcement of a comprehensive operational review of the city's homeless programs may be labeled by some as a sign of a system in crisis. However, the administration may actually be poised to seize this opportunity and radically overhaul the ineffective policies and practices of the past. The key question is: to what end?

Homeless children and their parents make up 70 percent of all the homeless individuals in the system. Tonight over 17,000 homeless parents with almost 24,000 children will call a shelter or a welfare hotel home. The sensational aspects of their problems routinely make headlines and overwhelm politicians, civic leaders, and taxpayers alike. It is time for those responsible for delivering the city's homeless services to face the facts about families—the majority of the city's homeless—who presently spend an average of 15 months living in shelter.

After serving 140,000 individuals over the past 30 years, most of whom were children, we at Homes for the Homeless have faced the facts. We've learned a thing or two about who homeless families are and what it takes to move them permanently into stable housing. The central lesson, contrary to popular belief, is that simply doling out government rental assistance or housing vouchers will not solve homelessness for most families. Our policymakers have to stop pretending that putting a roof over a family's head for a few months or even a year 'ends homelessness.' It doesn't. Over 60 percent of the families rehoused by the city have returned to shelter.

Truly solving homelessness will require we move from an emergency response to a triage response.

There are essentially three types of homeless families: (1) those parents over 25 who have work, tenancy, and life experience; (2) those parents under 25 who want to complete their education, start a work life, and get help with parenting; and (3) those parents who are first and foremost confronting severe challenges such as domestic violence, child welfare and neglect, substance abuse, and mental health issues. For the past 30 years, every administration's policies to combat family homelessness have been based on a 'one size fits all' rehousing strategy. The untainted truth is that homeless families are not all alike, their challenges and opportunities are not the same.

Anyone who has worked on the front lines in family shelters will tell you that the current system does not work and never will.

Providing housing to families not prepared to obtain, maintain, and retain their housing or their job results in repeated returns to the shelter system, which is both disruptive to the family and costly to the taxpayer.

The entire shelter system must be triaged into a network of specialized facilities that meet the needs of the three types of homeless families: (1) short-stay shelters to rapidly rehouse families who have work and tenancy experience and the highest probability of a successful transition; (2) intermediate-stay sites would provide mandatory literacy and job training to improve job readiness and retention, as well as job placement; and (3) highly specialized facilities would be equipped to tackle the severe chronic social issues plaguing the most vulnerable homeless families who find themselves homeless over and over again.

The efficiencies to be gained by such a reorganization would be enormous: the demand for shelter, the length of stay in shelter, the rate of return to shelter, and the cost of shelter would all decline.

So while the truth about homeless families is a bit more complicated than one would like, reorganizing the existing system to meet their actual needs is ground in common sense. Redirecting a misguided system requires strong political will and bold leadership. The time for a new and sensible approach is here.

Ralph da Costa Nunez is president and CEO of Homes for the Homeless, a social services provider that serves about 430 homeless families each night in the Bronx and Queens. Ralph is also president and CEO of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, a nonprofit that studies the impact of public policies on homeless families, particularly children.

New York History: Legislative Scandals Often Lead to Meager Reform

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Silver, Skelos, Cuomo (l-r) (photo via The Governor's Office on flickr)

An outraged governor
The Governor expressed outrage at the corruption in Albany, calling it "disreputable and indecent," he said: "I am convinced that the time has come when this must stop. The people are aroused. They will stand for nothing less than honesty and fair dealing in the public service. Rip the cover off. Let in the light.... For years, votes have been bought and sold at the Capitol. Send one of the bribe takers properly branded through the State, so that he may be scorned by all honest men and it will have an inestimable effect for good and wholesome things in the service of the State and the people."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, reacting to the criminal convictions of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos? No. Actually, it was Gov. Charles Evans Hughes in April 1910. He was reacting to the forced resignation of Senate Majority Leader Jotham P. Allds after it was revealed Allds had taken a bribe years earlier to sidetrack a bill when he was a member of the Assembly.

Corruption in the New York legislature is not new. In our history, it has often existed side by side with legislative accomplishments. In the wake of major scandals, history suggests, legislative reform is often tepid.

Previous top leaders tainted
Assembly Speaker S. Frederick Nixon (1899-1905) regularly demanded bribes to advance or kill legislation, but evidence of his corruption did not emerge until years later (and after his death). Senate Majority Leader Arthur Wicks (1949-1953) resigned his leadership position after news reports revealed he had made frequent visits to a labor leader imprisoned in Sing Sing prison for extortion. Assembly Speakers Perry Duryea (1969-1974) and Stanley Steingut (1975-1978) were indicted for alleged criminal acts but their cases were dismissed before trial. Speaker Melvin Miller (1987-1991) was convicted of cheating legal clients. The charges were unrelated to his work in the Assembly but conviction meant expulsion. He was sentenced to community service. Two years later, the conviction was reversed on appeal. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (1994-2008) resigned from the Senate before being indicted on federal corruption charges in 2009. He was convicted on some of the charges, the conviction was overturned on appeal, prosecutors re-tried him, and he was acquitted after a second trial.

Major reform unlikely
The Silver and Skelos convictions and other recent convictions of a number of state legislators have brought a chorus of demands for tighter ethics rules, campaign finance reform, banning outside income, and other possibilities. Major reform may be unlikely. After high-visibility scandals and convictions for lawbreaking, there are often demands for reforms that will curb corruption.

Reform suggestions all merit consideration and discussion. Hopefully at least some will be enacted. But history suggests that decisive reforms may be unlikely, for several reasons:

*The legislature asserts that it has reformed and will police itself. Often after a scandal, there is a change at the top, a proclamation by new leaders that corruption will not be tolerated, some modifications of the rules, but no wholesale changes. The new leaders in the Assembly and the Senate already made some changes earlier this year. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, commenting on the Silver conviction, noted that "accountability and transparency are of the utmost importance...It is our hope that in time, the new measures we have recently put in place to strengthen ethics compliance will have a positive impact. This includes the creation of the Assembly Office of Ethics and Compliance, enactment of more stringent disclosure requirements, enhancements to the per diem reimbursement policy, new limitations on the use of campaign funds, and access to greater resources for the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE)."

*People tend to judge the legislature by its leadership and their own local legislators. Citizens tend to judge the legislature in part by what they read and hear about its leaders. The legal, ethical, and moral standards exhibited by legislative leaders often set the tone for how legislators approach their public responsibilities. For instance, under Oswald D. Heck, New York's longest-tenured Speaker (1937-1959), a modest man and a model of probity, scandals were rare and public confidence was high. So far, Speaker Heastie, and the new majority leader of the Senate, John Flanagan, who replaced Skelos when he relinquished his leadership position in May to face criminal charges, have been low-profile, un-confrontational, and seemingly worthy of respect and confidence.

Moreover, people often feel that the legislature as a whole is not trustworthy but they think positively about their own senator or Assembly member, whom they may know personally or at least have met. That also dilutes public pressure for drastic reform.

*Governors have limited power to clean up the legislature. There are lots of calls for Gov. Cuomo to step in and bring about legislative reform. Governors have great power to propose reforms, frame legislative proposals, and force action through insertion of initiatives in their budget proposals. But they have had limited success in combating legislative corruption. The framers of the New York's first constitution in 1777 included provisions on the document to keep the governor from interfering in legislative affairs. In his initial address to the legislature in 1777, New York's first governor, George Clinton, promised "carefully to avoid the invasion of those rights which the constitution has placed in other persons," meaning the legislature. The Assembly sent him an official response that "we are determined neither to encroach upon the privileges of others, nor suffer our own to be invaded."

That dividing wall still exists. Governor Cuomo tried to breach it in a sense with the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption, which he disbanded in April 2014 amid rumors his office was meddling in its work. The commission accomplished little and left the suspicion in its wake that the governor killed it because he himself may have something to hide.

Cuomo acknowledges the need for more reform. At a news conference on December 13, he revealed he will propose closing the "LLC Loophole" as part of his 2016 reform package. The loophole allows multiple limited liability corporations owned by the same person to donate to candidates, thereby skirting regulations that cap donations from individuals at certain amounts each election cycle. He may propose other reforms as well.

Will the governor succeed? He may. But history suggests most of his predecessors did not.

Governor's reform proposal scuttled
Charles Evans Hughes, a Republican, energetically fought corruption during his years as governor, 1907-1910, including pressuring the legislature to enact the Moreland Act, which he and several governors since then, including Andrew Cuomo, have used to investigate and confront corruption in government. Republicans controlled both houses of the legislature, shady leaders like Allds were influential, so many of Hughes' struggles were with leaders of his own party.

In May 1910, with public anger still smoldering over the Allds scandal, Hughes proposed a dramatic reform -- creation of a direct primary system which would undercut the power of political bosses and special interests by allowing voters to directly select candidates. The legislature had killed the proposal in 1909. Propelled by public anger over the Allds scandal, Hughes demanded passage.

The legislature stonewalled. They passed a weak reform bill which mostly left the status quo in tact. Hughes, enraged, vetoed the bill, called the legislature into special session and demanded passage of his primary bill. He enlisted the support of good-government advocates and former president (and governor) Theodore Roosevelt in the cause.

But the legislature dug in. George Cobb, who had replaced Allds as Senate majority leader, denounced the bill. Assembly Speaker James W. Wadsworth declared the legislature would not "swallow its convictions" by passing it. Legislators complained of "coercion" and "dictation" by the governor. The bill was defeated.

Chastened and weary of fighting corruption, Hughes left the governorship in the fall of 1910 to accept an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The people themselves may intervene
The story does not end there. Fed up with corruption, voters elected a Democratic governor and Democratic majorities to both houses of the legislature in the fall 1910 elections. The direct primary law was enacted in 1911. But two years later, a maverick, crusading Democratic governor, William Sulzer, accused the Democrat-controlled legislature of rampant corruption. The legislature turned the tables on him, impeached him for misuse of campaign funds, and removed him from office. Voters, again disillusioned by the spectacle of corruption in Albany, ousted the Democrats and elected a Republican governor and legislative majority in 1914.

New York resumed its usual history of mostly progressive government alongside shady politics.

Voters do not have an easy "throw the crooks out" option at the polls this time. But in the fall of 2017, they will vote on whether to hold a state constitutional convention. That could lead to fundamental reform.

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne is the author of The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History, published in 2015 by SUNY Press.

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

Fed Mistake Will Hurt New York Working Families

fed interest rates

The Federal Reserve (Fed) just made a huge mistake. Because the Fed raised interest rates lat week, Americans will see higher mortgages, more expensive loans, fewer jobs, and lower wages for working people like me. The Fed’s leaders say they want to “cool down” the economy because they think that we’ve recovered from the financial crash, but for New Yorkers like me, there just hasn’t been a recovery that justifies this rate change.

I immigrated to the United States from Ecuador four years ago to build a better life. But instead of finding economic opportunity, I have had to work two jobs, 60 hours a week, just to afford a room in an apartment with three other roommates. My jobs as an administrative assistant and in customer service each pay only $8.75 an hour.


The idea that the economy is doing well enough right now is a lie. I don’t have time for my family, I don’t have time for my relationships, and I still barely survive. And I know there are millions more like me--in New York and beyond--suffering the same fate. Those at the Fed who say the economy is fine are treating us as invisible. They are choosing to not see our struggles.


I can only imagine what it would be like to work 40 hours at a livable wage. I wouldn’t have to worry about the bills I can’t afford. I would have time for my mother and for my partner. I could even study for another career.


Because the Fed is raising interest rates, the economy will slow down, and employment and wages will likely freeze or start to fall again. When Fed leaders decided to raise interest rates, they told us to get used to the economy as it is: twice as many people as before the recession working part-time because they can’t find full-time work, double-digit unemployment in communities of color, and decades of flat wages. The Fed is undercutting an economic trend that would help us before giving us a chance to get back on our feet.


The Fed has two mandates: to maximize employment and to maintain stable prices. The main reason to raise interest rates would be to stop inflation. But there is virtually no inflation in the economy – we are far below the Fed’s target rate. The Fed decided to sacrifice all the jobs that we could have gotten and all the wage gains we could have won with low interest rates, all for the sake of an inflation threat that didn’t even exist. Furthermore, most of those unnecessary sacrifices of jobs and wages will be losses borne by Latino and black communities.


Working New Yorkers need a recovery that works for everyone, including communities of color. We all have dreams. Dreams of a better job, more time to be with our families, and to have a better home. When the Fed raised rates, it said that my struggles and the dreams of my community do not matter.


Millions of Americans haven’t yet felt the recovery. Don’t try to tell us that the economy is working just fine.



Aracelly Cantos is a Queens resident and member of Make the Road New York, the largest grassroots community organization in New York offering services and organizing the immigrant community, and a member of the Fed Up campaign. On Twitter: @maketheroadny.

Observing Homeless Persons' Memorial Day


Bobby Watts, the author, right (photo via Care for the Homeless)

Many New Yorkers have become aware of the cost of homelessness on our social fabric and on municipal budgets. One of the greatest costs is often overlooked: homelessness is hazardous to one's health and leads to premature death. Tonight, December 21st, the winter solstice, is the longest night of the year, and the day Homeless Memorial Day is observed in over 175 communities in America including New York City. It's a day to remember our neighbors who died while experiencing homelessness and to recognize the extraordinary toll homelessness takes on the health and longevity of people and also on the public health of our community and nation.

The most basic measure of health is mortality – whether someone lives or dies. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average lifespan for a New Yorker is over 80 years. For those experiencing chronic homelessness, it is not surprising that their life expectancy is shorter – but the amount it is shortened is shocking.

Overall, the age-adjusted mortality rate of homeless people is three to four times higher than their peers living in homes, and much higher for some age groups. Studies consistently document the average age of those experiencing chronic homelessness who die while living on the streets to be in their forties or fifties, which represents an incredible loss of 30 to 40 years of life. Epidemiological studies have determined homelessness is in and of itself a cause of these premature deaths, even after controlling for factors such as mental illness, substance use, and chronic and acute illnesses. Simply put, homelessness kills.

Let me say it again: homelessness kills.

For the millions of Americans suffering homelessness and unstable housing, and the 58,000 people sleeping in homeless shelters in New York City this long night, the lack of housing may be a premature death sentence.

As a public health professional, and director of a health care program serving homeless people, I've often heard physicians and clinicians longing to be able to write the prescriptions that would most improve their patients' conditions - a script for housing. Unfortunately, health care practitioners don't have the ability to write that prescription. But society does.

Governor Cuomo and the New York State Department of Health have adopted a "Housing is Health Care" public policy by using state Medicaid funds to house chronically homeless or marginally-housed patients. These policies deliver better health outcomes for homeless people, improve communities and promise tax savings through fewer emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and re-admissions, and through shorter hospital stays.

We understand how to end modern-day homelessness because we've seen programs that work. We know providing adequate medical and mental health services as well as needed human services to people experiencing homelessness yields dramatic dividends in better health and housing outcomes and pays for itself. This year, New York City increased funding to prevent homelessness by 50 percent after having previously doubled it, and we've had some success – we just need more investment in these proven programs. For example, we join with advocates that call on the Cuomo administration to join Mayor de Blasio's and contribute to the construction of the 35,000 units of supportive housing needed to meet demand.

I hope everyone reading this column will take part in a Homeless Memorial Day observance too, or at least pause to think about the avoidable deaths, suffering, and despair that we could prevent through better public policies. My not-so-silent prayer today will be to end homelessness and negate the need for many more Homeless Persons' Memorial Days.

Bobby Watts is Executive Director of Care for the Homeless, one of New York City's oldest and largest providers of health care and other services to people experiencing homelessness, and past President of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. On Twitter @CFHNYC.

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

New York Leads on Climate Action

white house photo enviro

(photo via @WhiteHouse)

World leaders voted this past weekend on a final agreement to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, a benchmark scientists say is critical to avoid devastating impacts that could render the planet uninhabitable. Despite what the fossil fuel industry and their allies in Congress would have world leaders believe, New Yorkers and Americans across the country are excited about this bold agreement coming out of the U.N. conference on climate change.

For one thing, too many of us already know first-hand the damage done by extreme weather fueled by global warming. In fact, a recent map showed that 100 percent of the state's population lives in counties hit by at least one weather-related disaster in the last five years. Hurricane Sandy, which left two million people without access to power and a total of $19 billion in damage, is just one example.

No one wants to leave the next generation a world where devastating floods become the new normal. And that's helped prompt a diverse group of New York leaders to stand behind the largest step the United States has ever taken to slow global warming.

The Clean Power Plan sets the first-ever federal limits on carbon pollution from power plants, the single largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and incentivizes states to develop plans to replace dirty fossil fuels with clean renewable energy sources.

Local elected officials are charged with protecting us against the impacts of climate change and are already leading the way with their own clean energy solutions. That's why 600 of them across the country wrote to President Obama to act on climate and pledged their support, including New York City Public Advocate Letitia James and New York State Senator Brad Hoylman.

So, too, do nearly 1000 public health professionals from across the country and approximately 70 here in state, who agree with the leading medical journal, The Lancet, that climate change represents "the biggest global health threat of the 21st century" because it threatens more drought, heat waves, insect-borne disease, and dwindling drinking water supplies.

Clean energy businesses - including over 40 here in New York – stand ready to play a leading role in implementing the carbon pollution limits as we have vast untapped potential for both solar and wind power.

More than 300,000 comments from New Yorkers were among the eight million submitted across the country in favor of the carbon pollution limits, while polls show that 76 percent of New Yorkers -- spanning party lines -- supports the Clean Power Plan.

And it's not just the Clean Power Plan that the public and opinion leaders are rallying behind; it's a full suite of actions to stem the climate crisis.

A New York Times/CBS poll conducted in late November shows that two-thirds of Americans support the United States joining a binding international agreement to curb the growth of greenhouse gas emissions. More than 60 mayors back "the strongest possible agreement" in Paris to cut pollution, while more than 100 have committed to tracking and reducing their own contribution to the problem. Right here in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio is a founding member of a group of local leaders who have said they would work to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. And earlier this month, Governor Andrew Cuomo directed the State Department of Public Service to design and enact a new Clean Energy Standard mandating that 50 percent of all electricity consumed in New York by 2030 result from clean and renewable energy sources.

Congressional leaders adopted symbolic measures in recent weeks to dismantle the Clean Power Plan in order to give diplomats in Paris the impression that the U.S. isn't behind bold climate action. But the only message they sent was that they alone are determined to stand with polluters and on the wrong side of history.

Heather Leibowitz, Esq. is the director of Environment New York, a statewide environmental advocacy organization. On Twitter @EnvNY.

A Plan for More Senior Affordable Housing

bdb seniors

Mayor de Blasio visits Bronx seniors (photo: @BilldeBlasio)

If there was available land to build affordable senior housing across the city, would you use it? There is. And we must.

The key to using it is passing the de Blasio administration's Zoning for Quality and Affordability plan, which calls for independent senior buildings. There are several reasons this plan makes sense for New Yorkers, of all ages.

LiveOn NY, a leading advocacy organization for older New Yorkers, released Paving the Way for New Senior Housing in May, identifying feasible land that could house 2000 New Yorkers. The city needs to a plan to move forward now - at a certain age, you can't wait.

Why are seniors constantly calling their local City Council members and other elected officials, desperate for affordable housing? Older New Yorkers, the fastest growing demographic in New York City, will comprise an estimated 1.84 million city residents by 2030. Senior households are smaller and poorer on average than the general population. About one in five older New Yorkers live in poverty (below $11,170/year) with many surviving on Social Security alone.

How are seniors impacted by the housing affordability crisis? A shocking 65 percent of senior households living in rent regulated housing, including thousands on SCRIE, spend more than half their income on rent. For those in unregulated buildings the burden is greater. Insufficient affordable housing forces seniors to remain isolated in unsafe or inappropriate housing. This includes living on upper floors of walk-ups or in spaces unable to accommodate a wheelchair.

Tens of thousands of seniors languish on waiting lists in Section 202 buildings for 5-10 years. There are waiting lists to get on waiting lists as primary lists are closed. There are no waiting lists for parking. The choice seems obvious.

Why is utilizing 202-building parking lots one part of the solution to the affordable housing crisis? Land scarcity is the greatest challenge confronting senior housing providers. In the face of a dwindling stock of city-owned land and soaring acquisition costs, 202 parking lots are an untapped source of new land. The lots are owned by local non-profit housing providers mission-driven to provide appropriately sized apartments ensuring senior independence.

Zoning changes would not require eliminating parking, but it becomes a powerful option if in the best interest of the community's elders. Local non-profits have been an integral community partner for decades, providing senior housing and services, and relied upon by local residents and elected officials.

Through the Paving the Way study, LiveOn NY's coalition comprised of leading NYC non-profit senior housing providers, operating 20,000 apartments, found solutions. The knowledge coalition members have of the challenges in building affordable senior housing informed the study. It is critical to understand that the parking lots in question can be used only by residents of the corresponding buildings.

Based on carefully determined criteria, 39 lots in all five boroughs were identified as potentially feasible sites. These sites could be home to at least 2,000 new apartments. With tens of thousands on waiting lists, the potential to house 2,000 seniors cannot be ignored.

Utilizing parking lot land for housing will not take away needed parking spaces. A Department of City Planning analysis found extremely low car ownership rates among 202-building residents, at only five cars per 100 residents in areas near public transportation and 11 cars per 100 residents in areas further from transit.

Many residents have incomes below $15,000 and have aged in place and no longer drive. They are unable to maintain car ownership or have stopped driving. There are waiting lists for apartments; not for parking. Non-profit managers provide vans to assist residents with their daily needs.

Why is the city's Zoning for Quality and Affordability plan necessary to move senior housing forward? Without the enactment of ZQA, the parking lots will sit underutilized - outdated requirements no longer reflect the reality of demand. Nonprofits will be unable to build new housing, whereas ZQA provides options for nonprofits to build more units. It costs $20,000-$50,000 to develop each parking spot. That money could be used for additional apartments, allowing the provider to go deeper into affordability.

Allowing for increased height of one or two floors provides more apartments and ground-floor commercial space. It prevents apartments being on street level, a particularly unsafe practice learned again during Hurricane Sandy.

Accessory amenities are a key component in the neighborhood development approach to keep seniors housed with services. Seniors throughout the community could benefit from using smaller parking lots for medical facilities or senior centers. ZQA facilitates the co-location of services.

How can the city "pave the way" for more senior housing? By enacting ZQA, zoning regulations will be updated to meet the growing need in the coming years and underutilized land – a scarcity in this city – can be used to house 2000 or more seniors.

The need is there. The land is there. Waiting is not an option.

Bobbie Sackman is Director of Public Policy, LiveOn NY, a nonprofit organization that makes New York a better place to age. On Twitter: @LiveOnNY.