Gotham Gazette

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Chinatown Advocates Call on Council Member Chin to Make Her Position Clear Ahead of Jails Vote

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(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

“To be clear is to be kind, to be unclear is to be unkind.” – Brené Brown

On August 2, 2018, I attended a meeting at Chung Pak, the affordable senior housing complex on Baxter Street, where the city presented its plans to build a huge new jail in Chinatown. I and other highly-vetted attendees watched a slideshow of what 80 Centre Street would become after it is converted from the county courthouse and district attorney’s office to a 50-story jail with coffee shops and retail trinket stores on the ground floor. Discussions of adding a Chinese cultural center within the jail were laced throughout all discussions to sweeten an obviously bitter pill, as jails often are.

The city’s plan changed course after vehement community protest. The city eventually stated that it was too expensive to relocate the offices at 80 Centre Street, as if the idea had belonged to them in the first place. They switched sites to 124-125 White Street.

City officials argue a jail is good for communities. Matthew Washington from Borough President Gale Brewer’s office has said in response to concerns, ‘but you already have a jail there.’ This platitude attempts to explain why some believe expanding a jail within the city’s largest carceral footprint outside Rikers Island is not worthy of protest from residents and businesses.

Fourteen months later, after six mayor-controlled “community” meetings, two town halls, one scoping hearing, a site change, and a mayoral visit to Chinatown with a highly-vetted group devoid of true community and media presence, our community still knows virtually nothing about the proposed jail.

When leaders are unclear, uncertainty abounds. That uncertainty leads communities to anger, fear, and anxiety. It’s no wonder why anti-jail posters in Chinatown are appearing in storefronts and family association buildings with City Council Member Margaret Chin’s face splashed across them. When the mayor’s office defends the “ongoing” and “robust” dialogue between the mayor’s office and Chin, it only serves to stoke the flames of discontent because the talks are done in secret. To be unclear with the public is to be unkind.

Chin is capable of making her points clear when she wishes. At a press conference in Brooklyn on January of this year, at the site where three Chinese men were murdered by Arthur Martunovich in his vicious attack with a hammer, Chin exclaimed “Let’s be clear, this was a racial hate crime – plain and simple.”

It’s that clarity that we seek today for our beloved community, yet we remain unfulfilled due to uncertainty. Palpable concern festers in coffee shops and dim sum parlors, in barber shops and hair salons, where the often-asked questions “What has Margaret Chin said? How is she going to vote?” can be heard.

As author Brené Brown points out, a lack of clarity may happen when one does not know how to be truthful. If the truth is deemed too painful to reveal, humans sometimes obscure or mask the truth. Or it’s not shared at all.

A lack of clarity may also be a form of deceit. Why reveal one’s true intentions outright, when obfuscation hides the backroom deals? A lack of clarity may be a result of paralyzing fear. ‘What if they don’t like what I have to say? What if it causes more anger?’

So long as Chinatown is left unclear about Council Member Chin’s upcoming vote on October 17, the community will continue to languish in hellish anxiety. One must ask why a successfully elected representative with such strong Asian-American support could be so unkind to her constituents.

Perhaps a unified reminder from us can encourage her to be clear now. I urge all of Council Member Chin's constituents to reach out to her to raise your concerns and her awareness.

To be clear is to be kind, to be unclear is simply unkind.

Jan Lee, co-founder of Neighbors United Below Canal (N.U.B.C.). On Twitter @NUBCanal.

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Trump Tells the Truth, Sort of - Poverty & Unemployment Rates Down for People of Color, But Full Story is Complicated

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(photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

President Trump’s nonstop record of false claims (12,000-plus labeled false or misleading as of an August count in the Washington Post) received a brief respite recently when he tweeted that poverty and unemployment rates for black and Hispanic residents of the United States had reached record lows, which PolitiFact and other media outlets acknowledged as accurate.

While it’s true poverty rates for black and Hispanic Americans are down, as you’d expect, Trump still failed to talk about the whole truth.

Here it is: the causes of these improvements have included nine-and-a-half straight years of economic expansion, demographic changes that have brought people of color to 50% or more of the entering-prime-age workforce, and record levels of educational attainment. (Of course, the president did not comment on the continued severe racial and ethnic disparities in American society faced by people and communities of color.)

A closer look at some United States and New York City economic, poverty, and educational attainment data over time helps put the president’s point in the context of the profound racial injustices and disparities that are part of our society.

Snapshot - Recent History of Poverty and Unemployment
The U.S. Census reported recently that the poverty rate for black Americans was 20.8% in 2018, while the poverty rate for Hispanics was 17.6%. Poverty rates for non-Hispanic whites and for Asian-Americans were far lower, and the overall poverty rate for Americans was 11.8%.

Monthly unemployment rates are more fickle than annual averages, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics August 2019 unemployment rates were 5.5% for blacks and 4.2% for Hispanics (yes, they were both record lows, although Hispanics had reached the same point earlier in the year). The unemployment rate was 3.7% overall.

Employment hit bottom in the Great Recession in February 2010 at about 130 million jobs after the U.S. lost 8.7 million jobs over a two-year period; in the next seven years under President Obama the economy gained 16 million jobs, and has gained 5.8 million jobs in two-and-a-half years under President Trump. The U.S. economy gained nearly 22 million jobs over nine-and-a-half years of uninterrupted economic expansion to reach the current unemployment numbers, including the record lows for black and Hispanic Americans.

Most Prime Workers are People of Color
The Washington Post presented the table below in a September article entitled, “For the 1st time, most new working-age hires in the US are people of color.“

1 first prime

In other words, one major reason black and Hispanic Americans are doing better is pure demographics -- they are half the new people getting jobs because they are half the people (along with other people of color) entering the labor force!

U.S. Recessions and Expansions Seriously Impact Poverty
The economic history of recessions and expansions, with increases and decreases in poverty rates, is not new. Below is a look at poverty in the United States from 1959 to 2010. In 1959, 55% of black Americans lived in poverty. The graph does not show it, but poverty for whites in 1959 was 18%.

2 poverty rates

Following a recession in the early 1990s, President Clinton oversaw an eight-year economic expansion that brought job gains of more than 22 million from 1993 to 2001, about the same as the current national expansion. The poverty rate in the United States in the year before Clinton became president was 14.5%, but much higher for blacks, 33.3%, and for Hispanics, 29.3%, according to U.S Census data.

By 2000, following those eight years of job expansion, the U.S. poverty rate had declined to 11.3%. The black poverty rate declined from 33.3% in 1992 to 22.1% in 2000, only slightly higher than the level just reached in 2018. The poverty rate for Hispanics in 2000 was 21.2%. It took an expansion with 22 million jobs gained to reach the record low black and Hispanic poverty rates under President Clinton, same as it took the 22 million job expansion from 2010 to mid-2019 to reach the recent record low.

A smaller recession occurred in the United States in 2001, followed by lower economic growth. By 2007, the year before the Great Recession, the poverty rate rose to 12.5% overall, and was 24.5% for black Americans and 21.5% for Hispanic Americans. Following the Great Recession of 2008-2009, and an initially limited recovery in 2010, the poverty rate in 2011 reached 15% overall, and the rates were 27.6% for blacks and 25.3% for Hispanics.

As the health of the American economy improved, poverty rates declined again. By the end of President Obama’s second term, in 2016, the overall rate was 12.7%, and poverty rates had declined for blacks to 22.0% and for Hispanics to 19.4%. It took gains of 16 million jobs from 2010 to the beginning of 2017 to bring these poverty reductions.

What About New York City’s Poverty Rate?
New York City’s poverty rate has hovered around 20% of its population for decades, according to a 2011 New York Times article based on census data.

In 1990, the poverty rate was 19.3 %, in 2000 it was 20.1%, it had dropped to 18% by 2007 before the Recession, and it swung back up to 21.2% by 2012. In 2017, the New York City poverty rate was 19.6%, according to the American Community Survey. In 2017, 22.3% of black New Yorkers and 27.3% of Hispanic New Yorkers were living in poverty.

People of Color, Despite Discrimination, Have Achieved Record Educational Attainment
It’s hardly a secret that the American economy has transformed itself into a service and information economy with higher demand for educated workers. People of color in the United States (and New York) have persevered in the challenge to gain skills, despite significant barriers. Black, Hispanic, and Asian populations have achieved record educational attainment, a success correlated with hard work in the face of discrimination that is a record in each and every year, very different than the up and down swings of the economy.

Why focus heavily on educational attainment? Because the correlation between educational attainment and poverty is very strong. Below are the U.S. Census Income and Poverty data on this correlation for 2017 for persons age 25+, with poverty rate by educational attainment levels.

3 hs bachelor

For persons 25+ without high school diplomas, nearly 25% lived in poverty in 2017. For persons 25+ with high school diplomas but no college, 12.9% lived in poverty. For those 25+ with some college, 9%, and for those 25+ with bachelor’s or higher, 4.3%. (In 2018, 16.2% of persons under the age of 18 lived in poverty.)

Across the United States, younger black people, ages 25-29, have achieved near parity with whites in the percentage who have completed high school, according to the Current Population Survey. Younger Hispanics are also achieving much improved high school completion rates, and young Asians have higher high school completion rates than whites. 


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Although younger black and Hispanic Americans are closing the gap with whites in high school completions, for the full population over the age of 25 they still suffer from disadvantages compared to the rest of the nation in the attainment of bachelor’s degrees and higher.

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The following table on the history of educational attainment shows the long struggle to move forward for American communities of color, along with the extraordinary disadvantages they suffered compared with whites during U.S. history.*,**

educational attainment 3

*The Census in 1990 and earlier reports whites, not non-Hispanic whites. The zeros reflect that the Census did not report these numbers in those years.
**1974 is the first year Hispanics are reported separately.

In NYC, High School Graduation Rates for Communities of Color Have Improved Dramatically
In New York City, high school graduation rates for black and Hispanic students have improved dramatically over time, like in the rest of the nation. The table below is from the New York City Department of Education for 2018 and provides the graduation rate for an entering 9th grade group, called a cohort, for August of their fourth year of high school. The cohort is the group of students who entered 9th grade in 2014. 

7 grad rates dropout rates

What the table above does not show is how many students were still enrolled in school after that summer of their fourth year, but have not yet graduated. It’s important to include the number of students still enrolled because large numbers of students do complete high school after their fourth year.

The 2014 9th grade cohort of black students shows 72.1% graduated by August 2018, but DOE statistics also show that 18.6% of the black students in the 2014 cohort were still enrolled but had not graduated.

Looking at the six-year graduation rate for black students, for the 2012 9th grade cohort, 77.5% had graduated and 5.5% were still in school.

For Hispanic students, 70% of the 2014 9th grade cohort had graduated and 17.9% were still in school. For the 2012 cohort, 74% had graduated and 5.2% were still in school. 

Similarly, graduation rates for the New York City school system over the past few decades show enormous improvements. Going back to 1992, only 51% of New York City high school students graduated overall, and those numbers excluded full-time special education students. In 2005 the state government required the city to include special education students in the graduation rates, so the overall rate restarted in 2005 at 46.5% and for general education students was 58.2%.

8 grad rate

 The chart above does not have racial/ethnic breakdowns, but the DOE does have published racial/ethnic data for the 9th grade cohort entering in 2001, including graduation rates for 2005, as well as their six-year graduation rates.

The table below shows the six-year graduation rates, with those still enrolled, for the New York City school system for all students, and black and Hispanic students for the 9th grade cohort that entered in 2001.

9 grad rate enrolled

For the entering 9th grade cohort that year, about 53% of black students had graduated by their sixth year, and 7% were still in school. For the 2012 cohort, 77.5% of black students had graduated by their sixth year, and 5.5% were still enrolled. For the 2014 cohort, 72.1% of black students had graduated by summer of their fourth year, and 18.6% were still in school.

For the entering 9th grade cohort of 2001, of Hispanic students, 50.6% had graduated by their sixth year, about 6% were still enrolled. For the 2012 9th grade cohort, 74% had graduated and about 5% were still in school. For Hispanic students in the 2014 9th grade cohort, 70% had graduated and 17.9% were still in school.

The numbers for students who had graduated after six years or were still enrolled have improved dramatically between the 2001 entering cohort and the 2012 and 2014 entering cohorts.

Educational “Achievement Gap” for NYC Students is Narrowing
The New York City Department of Education also reports on the extent to which the “achievement gap” between black, Hispanic, and white students for high school completions is narrowing.

10 achievement gap

Educational attainment rates for New York City residents age 25 and over continue to show major disparities between whites and the city’s populations of color; 57% of whites have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to about 24% of blacks and 17% of Hispanics. About 93% of whites have completed high school or higher, versus 82% of blacks and 67% of Hispanics.

Across the nation, 39% of whites have college degrees or better, compared to 57% of whites in New York City. About 23.6% of blacks in New York City have college degrees, compared to about 25% nationally. In the city, 17.4% of Hispanics have college degrees or better, compared to 18.4% of Hispanics nationally.

11 educattainment

So, while President Trump’s tweet about black and Hispanic populations reaching historically low levels of poverty and unemployment was true, this achievement has nothing to do with advances brought forward by his administration. It’s been a slow and overall steady – but sometimes rocky – climb, which includes almost a decade of straight economic expansion, demographic changes that have brought people of color to 50% or more of the entering prime age workforce, and record educational attainment for black and Hispanic Americans.

Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

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Fighting and Dying for Dignity in Prison

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(photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, my friend and client Carlos passed away in the custody of the New York State Department of Corrections. His life had been filled with so much suffering and pain, and yet he showed me only friendship and kindness during the three years I was privileged to know him. Known to his friends and family as Carlos, Edgardo Gonzalez was a professional boxer before he was sent away to serve a sentence of 50 years to life after an attempt was made on his life in a South Williamsburg bar and he killed two people.

He had fought Olympic champion Howard Davis at Madison Square Garden in 1977, had a daughter he loved more than life, several brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, and a mom and dad whom he was so proud to be able to financially support during their lifetimes. He was one of the toughest guys I’d ever met, a Lower East Side legend, but he was warm and patient and always checked in on me during our weekly calls. 

Once inside the prison walls, Carlos earned his master’s degree and an impeccable institutional record. He received one disciplinary ticket in 36 years for having an “untidy cell” after he was found with a photograph of his mother on his cell wall. Carlos tried his best to maintain relationships with his family members despite the barriers placed between them, but he was mostly alone and left to grow old in prison.

I met Carlos while attending law school at City University of New York School of Law. Together with two classmates we filed a clemency application on his behalf in 2018, which was never even acknowledged by the Governor’s office or supported by the supposedly progressive elected officials we reached out to. Hundreds of pages and years of dedication to his personal growth were discarded. A cruel and false sense of hope taken from Carlos. 

A year later, after 36 years behind bars and a diagnosis of liver failure absolutely brought on by years of medical neglect and the toxic prison environment he’d endured, I requested and was finally granted a medical parole board hearing for Carlos where his release would be considered 15 years ahead of its scheduled date

At the beginning of August, I sat with Carlos, a 75-year-old man who lost his breath when he said more than a few words, to prepare for a hearing that would unearth decades-old traumas and memories from what seemed like another life to him now. He would be forced to claim full responsibility in a room of ex-cops and prosecutors, people who knew nothing about what incarceration does to a person, a family, a soul, and would diminish all the successes he had earned no thanks to the system that locked him in a cage, a system that tried and finally succeeded at killing him. 

After 36 years of solitude and hopelessness, and despite all his physical pain, he found the strength to do this. He opened himself up to an audience who had taken everything from him, the same kind of minds that believed in jail sentences that last entire lifetimes. He found the grace to thank them. 

About a week later, Carlos called me while opening the letter that would grant him his release. He said, “Does this mean I’ll be free?” I said yes, soon. He cried and said he wished he wasn’t so sick.

Carlos fought so hard, but before parole would approve his placement in his family’s home, a process that may have taken months or up to a year, he was rushed to a non-prison doctor and hospital where they found his body incurably riddled with cancer. It was too late for any treatment, a doctor said to me while asking that I make decisions about his end of life care. I was also too late and the system too slow, and his hope was once again lost. 

Carlos held my hand when I visited him last week and we looked out his hospital window at a view of trees and concrete, prison guards surrounding his bed. He said, “I was so close and now I’m so far.” At the hospital in Westchester, we were less than 30 miles from the neighborhood he grew up in New York City, closer than he’d been in nearly 40 years. He joked with me, at least I think he was joking, saying I should flush his ashes down the toilet when he passed. I said no way, Carlos, your soul will be reunited with your sweet mom and dad in Puerto Rico when you go.

I am heartbroken and angry, and I am in court each day trying to be there and be outraged for my clients who are also fighting for their hope and survival.

I have clients who tell me they’d rather kill themselves than go to jail. It is long past time to abolish jails and prisons, and, as implored by my former professor, urgent and immediate action must be taken to rectify the massive and inhumane sentences handed down to Carlos and thousands of others. Prosecutors and judges must support efforts at resentencing, the Legislature must reform a punitive parole system, and the Governor must grant clemency to countless people languishing in prison. 

Prison killed Carlos and despite my pleas the system refused to let him die a free man. He had more than earned that last dignity if you believe such a thing needs to be earned, but he did not get it. Prison guards surrounded him in his final moments, often watching his television at a volume that prevented him from resting and blocking his medical providers’ access to him.

Every day, jails and prisons take lives, and those losses are almost exclusively suffered by communities of color. Prison walls are not built just to keep incarcerated people locked inside, but to keep the rest of us from looking in. We must refuse to accept the lie that prison is about rehabilitation. The only thing these systems of incarceration believe in is taking every last thing, especially hope, from the humans they trap inside.

Prosecutors, judges, police, court officers, prison guards, caseworkers, parole officers, and defense attorneys all participate and are culpable in the process of dehumanizing those inside. Carlos worked for decades to show them who he really was, so much more than a “body” or the worst thing he’d ever done, and he never quit. He died fighting to be free. 

Thank you, Carlos, for sharing some of your precious time with me and for teaching me more than I could ever put into words. It was a privilege to sit by your side and bear witness to the end of your life. Your struggle will be remembered, and I will continue to fight, harder than ever, for you.

Claire Stottlemyer is a graduate of CUNY School of Law and a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Defense Practice in Manhattan.

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Surveillance and the City: IDNYC’s Not-So-Smart Future

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(photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)

It’s hard to think that winning your legislative campaign can cause a problem, but when you combine progressive victories with the territorialism of New York politics, you can get disturbing results.

Case in point, this past legislative session was a triumph for the immigrant rights movement across New York State. We enacted the Dream Act, securing in-state tuition for undocumented New Yorkers. We passed the Farmworkers Bill of Rights, closing the antiquated exemptions that left so many immigrant laborers vulnerable to exploitation. And we enacted the Green Light bill, finally securing immigrant New Yorkers the right to a driver’s license. This last bill might have been the biggest triumph for immigrant families, but it was a political setback to one of Mayor de Blasio’s flagship initiatives: IDNYC.

After collaboration by the mayor and the City Council, IDNYC was launched in 2015 as a form of identification for all New Yorkers, irrespective of immigration status. But with undocumented New Yorkers now able to get driver’s licenses and non-driver IDs, justification for the municipal ID program is fading. Rather than concede that IDNYC may have outlived its usefulness, City Hall is trying to add new features in the hope of clinging to relevance.

In what is only the latest IDNYC spectacle, the de Blasio administration wants to add a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip to store everything from financial data to potentially even health records. It’s a change that no one wants or needs, and would put 1.2 million IDNYC cardholders’ privacy at risk.

The proposed RFID chip is a threat to every cardholder, but it particularly endangers the very community IDNYC was supposed to protect: undocumented New Yorkers. It will if the change goes through, but City Council Member Carlos Manchaca -- a leading architect of and advocate for passage of the original IDNYC law -- has introduced a bill to stop the smart chip. His measure would block the payment chip and limit IDNYC cards to only include the information on their face: no health information, no financial information, nothing else.

As Council Member Menchaca and advocates noted, the Trump administration could use the new RFID chip to subpoena information on the 1.2 million New Yorkers using IDNYC. They wouldn’t need a warrant or probable cause, just a letter saying that the information would be helpful. 

This nightmare scenario is nothing new. Many of us raised these concerns when IDNYC was first launched. They were dismissed at first, as outlandish. Then, when Donald Trump won the 2016 election, the danger became all too real, and soon the mayor found himself in court, trying to block a GOP effort to turn the municipal ID program into a virtual immigrant registry.

Now we’re raising the alarm again, but the mayor seems dead set on repeating history, moving forward with this disastrous initiative even as immigrant advocates from across New York City say that this program is a mistake. Sadly, this fits the pattern for de Blasio, a mayor who is eager to speak on behalf of immigrant communities, but slow to act.

In 2017, when the city passed sanctuary city legislation, elected officials celebrated two bills to protect undocumented immigrants (Intros. 1557 and 1588), ratifying our opposition to President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. It was a feel-good moment, unless you looked at the fine print. The bills, which were motivated by fear that the NYPD would become the eyes and ears of the Trump deportation machine, had a glaring exception: they didn’t apply to the NYPD. As we speak, there is nothing in New York City law that blocks our police officers from collecting information to help ICE in deporting our undocumented neighbors.

And the pattern goes farther. More recently, my own organization, S.T.O.P., raised concerns about another program that de Blasio supports: OMNY, the proposed successor to the MetroCard. As we document in a just-published report, this new system collects huge amounts of data on every single transit rider, with no meaningful privacy protections.

As with any nearly any personally identifiable information, the more data we collect, the greater the risk. This is especially true for undocumented individuals, survivors of domestic violence trying to hide from their abusers, and countless other New Yorkers with unique security threats. This is why it’s not enough to simply pass Council Member Menchaca’s bill. It’s not enough to simply stop the IDNYC chip, we need to comprehensively review how our city collects, stores, and shares data.

Any time New York City rolls out a new government program we have to go beyond measuring the cost in dollars and cents. We need to understand the privacy price as well.

Albert Fox Cahn is the executive director of The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project at the Urban Justice Center, a New York-based civil rights and privacy organization. He writes the monthly "Surveillance and the City" column for Gotham Gazette. On Twitter @FoxCahn

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Helping Our Small Businesses, Saving Our Retail Corridors, Improving Our Neighborhoods

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(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Ask any New Yorker and they will tell you how neighborhood streets that once bustled with small, mom-and-pop businesses now have a Duane Reade on one corner and a large bank on the other, with a row of empty stores in between. When I was growing up in Washington Heights, like a lot of New Yorkers, I could walk down the street to the local corner store where they knew my name and could even guess what I wanted before I started talking. That’s what made growing up in the city so special – the local institutions embedded in the fabric of our neighborhoods. But nowadays, that reality is disappearing.

This is a moment of tremendous challenge for the thousands of local small businesses that have been a source of vibrancy, character, and diversity for our neighborhoods for generations. Tragically, these vital establishments are closing at an alarming rate from one end of the city to the other. Every New Yorker sees it — and feels it, too.

Last week, my office released the most comprehensive analysis to date in a first-of-its-kind report, reviewing data from the Department of Finance over a decade that puts numbers behind the phenomenon of retail vacancies playing out across the city.

What we found was that the amount of vacant storefront space across the city has doubled since 2007 — from around 6 million square feet to more than 11 million square feet. The city’s vacancy rate citywide rose by 45 percent from 2007 to 2017, to nearly 6 percent. The report offers a startling picture of new economic trends in communities across the five boroughs.

While Manhattan neighborhoods account for nearly half of the 20 neighborhoods with the most empty square footage -- including Chelsea, Canal Street, and even along 5th Avenue -- the neighborhoods with the highest rates of vacancy are in the other boroughs, in neighborhoods from Little Neck and Jackson Heights in Queens to Throggs Neck and Mott Haven in the Bronx and New Dorp and Rossville on Staten Island. 

The reasons for this are complex but nonetheless crucial for us to consider and comprehend if we’re going to give mom-and-pop businesses a fighting chance – not just to stay afloat, but to thrive.

Yes, there are landlords who are pushing for the highest rents they can set and are willing to let storefronts sit empty for months to do so. But it’s not just that – it’s also the changing nature of how people shop today. Call it the “Amazon Effect,” where we increasingly buy everything from mattresses to groceries online. As a result, we’re seeing an exodus of traditional merchandise stores, replaced with new businesses that are service-oriented.

The result is a wave of closures of flower shops, independent pharmacies, bookstores, and more. Independent bookstores and pharmacies are being replaced by chain coffee shops, cycling studios, and doggie daycare. Between 2007 and 2017, the number of service businesses rose by nearly 50 percent, and bars and restaurants soared by 65 percent – while traditional retail storefronts grew by just 19 percent.

Meanwhile, rents are rising on ground-floor retail — by 22 percent citywide from 2007 to 2017, and by much more in neighborhoods from Greenwich Village to Douglaston, Annandale to Central Harlem — hurting our smaller, independent stores the most. They are being hit twice, by changing shopping habits and rising rents, and it’s making it almost impossible to compete with online retailers.

If we’re going to offer relief, we should be taking a hard look at the regulatory hurdles that stall turnover of retail space. There’s a lot that needs to happen for a bookstore to become a coffee shop: licenses have to be approved by a community board and agencies need to approve alterations and conduct inspections for health and safety. The process is confusing and convoluted — and it’s making vacancies more common, and more prolonged, while hurting the chances that new businesses are run by New Yorkers invested in their local communities instead of big corporations.

We must streamline the process. We can create a one-stop shop for our small businesses, and break down the silos in city government that are hurting, not helping. The bureaucracy has to act faster and in a much more coordinated fashion. Our city agencies must get on a track to streamline those conversions and make it easier to open up shop.

Let’s also help new retail businesses get a foothold by offering a tax break to independent local businesses — not national chains — in high-vacancy retail corridors. And let’s use this data to plan our city with retail space in mind. Too often developers build out retail space that ends up sitting vacant. We need to plan smarter, more comprehensively, and embrace an approach to planning for new residential and commercial buildings that allows neighborhoods to capture diverse retail opportunities.

If we don’t adapt, our local businesses that define our neighborhoods, bring life to our city, and provide goods and services to residents they’ve built relationships with, will disappear.

It’s time we rethink our approach to support our local neighborhood anchors, the mom-and-pop stores that line our streetscapes and serve as some of our most vivid markers in communities across the city. Understanding the changing reality is the place to start. We have the power to shape our commercial corridors and therefore our neighborhoods — let’s take the right steps to move them forward.

Scott Stringer is the New York City Comptroller. On Twitter @NYCComptroller.

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Ranked-Choice Voting is the Next Step in New York Voter Empowerment

 rcv ricky

At Empire State Indivisible, lowering the barriers to engage in our representative democracy has always been the guiding light for our organizing efforts. It is why, in coalition with grassroots organizers across the state, we fought so hard to engage voters to defeat the former members of the Independent Democratic Conference and then to elect a true Democratic state Senate majority in Albany. And it is why we continue to work so closely with allies to deliver critical voting and campaign finance reforms at the state level. Simply put: we need to expand the electorate and strengthen our representation in the face of increasingly hostile and emboldened attacks on our democracy.

This fall, New York City has the opportunity to go one step further. Voters across the five boroughs have the opportunity to once again lead the state forward by embracing a ranked-choice voting system through a “yes” vote on ballot proposal 1.

Ranked-choice voting will uplift and strengthen the voices of everyday New Yorkers while encouraging a diverse set of candidates who seek to represent their full constituencies. And it’s critical we recognize the additive power of those two outcomes.

The status quo of our electoral politics in this country has left a massive void between the organizing required to win an election and the organizing required to properly represent your constituents. And this has led to an increasingly disconnected electorate and plenty of examples of ineffective governance. But we have started to see a shift. 

The last two years have shown the promise of progress that is enabled by candidates who get elected based on grassroots organizing and an engaged constituency. Much attention has been focused on the election results themselves. But it was also the commitment to organizing post-election and the prioritization of constituent advocacy from those electeds that led to a string of massive results this past legislative session in Albany. In other words, an engaged constituency is the single most powerful enabler of progressive democracy. 

Ranked-choice voting rewards those who recognize the power of this virtuous engagement cycle. 

Ranked-choice voting also has the power to excite those who may have previously sat on the sidelines. Elections are about choice. But far too often, elections become about divisiveness. We have heard time and time again during our canvassing of the city and state that our elections have become too divisive. The negativity is driving away otherwise active community members and we can’t afford to keep up that trajectory.

By enabling New Yorkers to choose multiple candidates by ranking their preferences in a crowded field, we can envision a more productive and more positive approach to our elections; candidates will seek to appeal to more voters and run more positive campaigns about vision and progress. One in which candidates recognize the power of their shared views and embrace the power of organizing around ideas instead of power.

We believe New York City is best when it leads. And we believe ranked-choice voting leads to the right incentives for a healthy and engaged democracy. One of the victories achieved through the new state Senate majority is the early voting system that will be launched starting this October, providing voters the chance to cast their ballots more conveniently.

Ranked-choice voting, placed on the ballot by a New York City charter revision commission, can be another step in voter empowerment.Vote “yes” on ballot proposal one this fall and help approve ranked-choice voting for New York City.

Ricky Silver is co-lead organizer of Empire State Indivisible. On Twitter at @es_indivisible.

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Manhattan Democrats Just Elected New County Party Reps, But Their Voices May Not Be Heard Until 2021

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(photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)

This past Thursday, the Manhattan Democratic Party announced its bi-annual “Organization Meeting” for this coming Thursday, October 3. This gathering of the party’s over 2,000 County Committee members is a critical moment when those newly elected representatives of Democratic voters set the course for the Democratic Party going into 2020.

Or so everyone thought.

Disregarding the exceedingly short notice, which is sent by mail and won’t reach most County Committee members until mere days before the meeting, nobody even knows who will be allowed to vote.

The 2018 elections were a watershed moment in United States politics, shifting the House of Representatives to Democratic control, but also many state legislatures; New York was a prime example. Here, activists worked tirelessly to unseat the former members of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) -- a group of State Senators who worked with Republicans to hold up a backlog of nearly 40 years worth of progressive legislation --and to flip several GOP seats to Democrats.

In that backlog were staples of the progressive agenda such as codifying Roe v. Wade and securing a better rent-stabilization program for New York City. Included in the changes that swept through Albany was a bill to merge the multiple primary election dates. The goal was to increase voter turnout by putting all our primary elections on the same day (except the presidential primary, which is in April). Because federal primaries couldn’t be made later due to federal law, state primaries were moved to June.

In the minutiae of election law is a simple provision - political parties must convene their county committees, which are elected in the primary, within 30 days of said primary. With the change to a June primary, however, that would put the organizational meetings in July. Manhattan and Staten Island, whose voters elected county committee membership this year, worried that nobody would be around. In response, the state legislature quietly changed the law to set the date of the organizational meetings between September 16 and October 6. It furthermore prescribed that the previous county committee holds power “until” the meeting while the newly elected committee assumes power “after” the meeting.

While Staten Island Democratic County Committee members met and their 2019 members elected new county party leadership without controversy, Manhattan faces a different situation. Contested elections for leadership, new ideas for organizing, and a controversial proposal to ban registered lobbyists from top party positions have led to arguments as to which cohort of the Manhattan Democratic County Committee will be allowed to vote - delegates elected by voters in 2017, or those elected this year.

With the Manhattan county committee organizational meeting and its elections just days away, the debate continues.

Since 2017, the number of people who did the work of gathering signatures to run for county committee has grown by around 600. Many got involved because of Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and wanted to do more for 2020. It’s unlikely they’ll appreciate being cut out of Democratic Party decision making, but it’s not up to them. Though the bill authors in the state legislature and officials at the State Board of Elections have said the intent is for members elected in 2019 to vote in 2019, those local party representatives may have to wait until 2021 to impact how the Democratic Party does business.

Ben Yee is a civic educator and organizer in New York City. He currently serves as Secretary of the Manhattan Demcoratic Party and Democratic State Committeeman for New York’s 66th Assembly District. Chair. He is currently a candidate for Manhattan County Committee leadership. On Twitter at @yben.

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Reining in the Maleficent Middlemen: Governor Cuomo Should Sign America’s Toughest Prescription Drug Legislation

gov cuomo legislation 200 million

(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)

Like the rest of America, New York State is ensnared in the stranglehold of our byzantine healthcare system, which today is best known for skyrocketing pharmaceutical drug prices and a rapid decline in quality of care. One of the most vicious, insidious, and disingenuous tentacles of that system choking the life out of us is the group of corporations known as Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs). 

While just three Fortune 25 companies – CVS, Express Scripts, and OptumRx – control nearly 80% of the pharmacy benefits market, most Americans are unaware of the outsized role PBMs play in their healthcare. And PBMs want to keep it that way.

Hired by insurance companies as their prescription drug middlemen, PBMs claim they play an important role in making prescription drugs accessible and affordable for consumers – including in New York’s Medicaid program – by negotiating prices with manufacturers.  

In reality, however, PBMs control which medications are covered by insurance, what patients pay out-of-pocket and the amount pharmacies get reimbursed for dispensing them. PBMs are unregulated thieves who are not required to — and therefore don’t — disclose how much money they take in, how much they pay out, or the savings they achieve through this process. 

When challenged to provide more transparency about their business practices, PBMs flat-out refuse. Why? Because a lack of oversight is their key source of power. And it’s the consumers, and the pharmacies that dispense medications, who pay the price.

According to a study by the Pharmacists Society of the State of New York (PSSNY), PBMs last year pocketed 24% of New York State Medicaid managed care spending. That adds up to more than $300 million in taxpayer money in the hands of giant corporate middlemen that do not actually provide any healthcare service. 

How did they do that? Through a nasty practice called “spread pricing,” in which a PBM bills an insurer for prescription drug claims at one rate and then reimburses the pharmacies that filled those prescriptions at a substantially lower rate. The difference, which PBMs pocket, is called the “spread.”

Thanks to Governor Cuomo and the state Legislature, New York in April became among the first states in the country to eliminate spread pricing in Medicaid managed care. This was a tremendous step in the right direction. But PBMs continue to hurt patients, taxpayers, and independent pharmacies.

The good news for New Yorkers — potentially excellent, game-changing news — is that the New York Senate and Assembly recently passed legislation that at last would impose common-sense requirements on PBMs aimed at fostering greater transparency. 

These new regulations, which await Governor Cuomo’s signature to become law, have been described as the toughest PBM legislation in America, offering significant, critical protections to patients, taxpayers, and neighborhood pharmacy owners — and a roadmap for the rest of America to follow.

In short, the regulations would further curtail spread pricing beyond Medicaid managed care, require PBMs to disclose previously confidential information, and give pharmacies the mechanisms they need to seek recourse for abusive PBM practices.

We know that deep-pocketed PBMs — which only care about their profits — have an array of lobbyists trying to water down, if not outright kill these regulations. We cannot afford to be bullied and manipulated by PBMs any longer. It is time to end this abusive system that preys on citizens. 

Other states are taking action, too. Ohio recently dumped PBMs for billing Medicaid $244 million more than they paid pharmacies, awarded $100 million to independent pharmacies for their losses, and introduced a new state program, transparent in nature and defined as a pass-through PBM. We applaud that action, too. But New York has an opportunity to take a major step forward here. 

That is why we stand behind Governor Cuomo, who time and again has proven that he fights for New Yorkers and is one of America’s most progressive leaders.

PBMs are destroying our healthcare system. We need to reign in their ability to control the medications physicians prescribe. Let me ask: Who do you think should be dictating healthcare strategies? Soulless PBMs, who are not in the healthcare business, but the money-making business, or our doctors and pharmacists, trained and licensed professionals dedicated to keeping us healthy?

PBMs are not going away. But we are on the verge of a historic moment, not just for New Yorkers, but for all Americans. And when Governor Cuomo signs these regulations into law, we will be there to celebrate.

Yuriy Davydov, Pharm D., is the Founder & CEO of Zero Copay Program (ZCP), a pass-through PBM. On Twitter @ZCP_Inc.

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Racing to the Scene of the Wrong Emergency

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(photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)

The New York Times recently published a two-column editorial advocating that the city’s emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics be paid close to or as much as its firefighters. Far easier for the Times to virtue-posture by supporting more pay for hard-working, largely of color EMTs than to address how the increased expense should be funded or how to remedy the astonishing imbalance in resources devoted to firefighting versus to emergency medical response.

The editorial speaks movingly about the importance and stresses of emergency medical service work, but simply notes blithely two remarkable problems. First, the salary increases would mean dramatically raising base pay after five years on the job, from about $50,000 for EMTs and $65,000 for paramedics to the $85,000 base pay of firefighters, at a cost of half-a-billion dollars a year. Second, the reason the job of EMTs and paramedics has become so important and challenging is that the vast majority of emergency calls in New York City are now not about fires, but medical needs.

More than 80% of emergency incident calls to 911 in New York City – almost 1.5 million out of a total of 1.9 million calls a year – are medical, not fire-related. Yet there are only 4,300 EMTs and paramedics employed by the FDNY. In contrast, there are 11,000 firefighters to respond to 40,000 fires a year, only about 2,000 of which are deemed serious structural fires. A relatively small percentage of medical emergency calls are handled by private ambulances, but the contrast between medical and fire calls handled by FDNY is still dramatic.

Medical emergencies have far outnumbered fires since the Emergency Medical Service merged into the FDNY in 1996. New and renovated buildings are now generally well-fireproofed due to strong building codes and improved technology has cut down on the number of false alarms. Meanwhile the aging and growth of the city’s population, the drug addiction crisis, and other factors have led to a dramatic rise in the need for emergency medical response.

The number of medical incidents to which the FDNY responds is 25 times that of fire-related incidents and more than 38 times that of structural fires, yet more than 70% of the FDNY budget and two-thirds of its personnel are devoted to staffing fire units.

Firefighters assigned to engine (as opposed to ladder) companies must receive training as Certified First Responders with Defibrillation (CFR-D) and these companies are dispatched to respond to some medical emergencies. They can often arrive more quickly than an ambulance staffed by EMTs and/or paramedics, but CFR-D firefighters are not able to transport patients to a hospital, or administer intravenous or medication or other types of medical intervention, so in most cases (70% require transport), an ambulance must also respond and take over. The deployment of engine companies, each staffed by four or five firefighters and an officer, thus gives the firefighters more “runs” but they are mostly redundant and extremely expensive. 

There is a great deal of emphasis in public discussion of emergency medical services on response time, i.e. how long it takes for a fire truck or ambulance to arrive on the scene of a call. While the average response time for both ambulances and fire engines has risen a few seconds over recent years, the vast majority of calls are for situations that are not life-threatening and for which response time is not a critical issue.

Deployment of more staff and ambulances that can respond more promptly to the most serious incidents would be more efficient and effective. The increased costs could be offset by reducing the number of fire engines and ladders, which are no longer necessary given the reduced level of firefighting—but an effort to right size firefighting resources is regarded as politically untenable because no one ever wants to lose a firehouse nearby, regardless of how busy it is.

Another approach, adopted successfully in Houston, would be to require firefighters to receive EMS and/or paramedical training so that fire engines can provide the full range of services needed for medical calls, including transport.

But again, the obstacles are primarily political – firefighters would resist the additional training requirements and the unions representing EMTs and paramedics would howl at further erosion in their numbers (many already leave to take advantage of the priority they are given to become firefighters). 

Although FDNY recognizes the need to reconfigure the department, it has not made significant efforts to do so. In 2016 it instituted a pilot program in the Bronx of using “fly cars,” SUVs staffed by EMT supervisors and paramedics, to respond to life-threatening incidents along with an ambulance and instead of fire engines. It reduced response times by more than one minute. It has been announced that this program will be expanded in October but no details have been provided. 

Instead of talking about the difficult but necessary steps to provide more and better ambulance service to New York City residents, the Times and elected officials – many of whom just rallied with EMTs on the steps of City Hall – are choosing the easy message that makes no one unhappy but solves very little: pay more to the stressed and stretched EMTs and paramedics but ignore the serious underlying structural problems that will continue to plague the city’s emergency response system in the absence of an honest discussion and real leadership.

Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018.

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Recognizing and Responding to Addiction: What to Know for National Recovery Month and Beyond

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Ann-Marie K. Foster, the author, addresses program participants (photo: Phoenix Houses)

It’s often said, but worth repeating during National Recovery Month: addiction does not discriminate. Drugs can hook anyone, anytime, anywhere—and it’s more of a problem now than it’s ever been. In New York, for instance, there were more opioid-related overdose deaths in 2017 than there were in the first six years of the 2000s combined.

Today, the types of drugs available are also terrifyingly effective at creating addicts. Fentanyl and other synthetic drugs are perhaps the worst among them. They are 50-times stronger than heroin and 100-times stronger than morphine. They are also cheap and fairly easy to find in New York. And, they flooded in so fast that we are only now fully realizing the seriousness of this public health issue.

There are some obvious actions government can take to turn this crisis around. Continuing to fund state treatment programs and ensuring life-saving medicines are available statewide should be essential parts of any plan. Reducing access to dangerous illegal drugs and engaging in serious education campaigns to prevent use in the first place is also necessary.

But even all of that will never fully free us from the eternal epidemic of addiction. Addiction is wickedly persistent. It has followed us through the centuries and always finds a way to come back in one form or another. But recovery is possible.

National Recovery Month is an effort to increase awareness and understanding of substance use disorders. Everyone should be armed with the knowledge necessary to identify the warning signs of addiction in a loved one because anyone could be an addict. And it could save their life.

The main signs of addiction are: change in baseline behavior from normal; spending more time alone; irritability; mood swings; change in sleeping habits; change in diet and weight gain or loss; eyes dilated or pin-pointed.

As the largest provider of addiction treatment services in New York, we also see other common trends amongst our patients. The majority of the patients we treat have experienced trauma or have other co-existing health or mental conditions. Many are also dealing with deep guilt, regret, and self-loathing about their behavior and the consequences of their actions, which can manifest itself in various, often destructive, ways.

We believe in treating the whole person to promote the message that recovery in all forms is possible. So we provide medical and dental care, wellness programs, community support, and even recreational activities as part of our continuum of care in addition to evidence-based treatment. 

But, ultimately, overcoming addiction is often about the people around the patient. That is why it is so essential that New Yorkers of all backgrounds have the knowledge to identify addiction, the strength to talk to their loved one about it, and the compassion to support them through recovery.

In this time of crisis, don’t be afraid to talk to a loved one about their possible addiction. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. Addiction is a scary place to be, but there are always paths out. With care and the right tools, addiction doesn’t have to win. First though we have to have the will to fight it.

Ann-Marie K. Foster is the CEO & President of Phoenix Houses of New York & Long Island. On Twitter @PhoenixHousesNY.

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Soil Scientists’ Advice to Urban Gardeners: Test for Lead

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(photo: @NYCzerowaste)

In the past few years, the issue of soil contamination has gained the attention of environmental groups in New York City. New Yorkers have ample reason to be concerned about their soil. While the city is cleaner than it used to be, decades of pollution left our local soil thick with toxic levels of heavy metals. For years, the presence and persistence of these toxicants were unknown, posing risks to all urban residents.

Fortunately, public support for environmental protection has rehabilitated much of our city soil. But, there is still more that New Yorkers can do, and Climate Change Week NYC is a good time for us to consider how activities like urban gardening and farming can be done in a way that is both healthy for humans and helps to improve the environment and potentially mitigate climate change.

Abating contaminated soil with organic matter helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions because compost sequesters carbon, diverting it from the atmosphere.

Soil testing labs, public initiatives, and grassroots efforts have done wonders to educate New Yorkers on soil quality and remediation techniques. Urban gardeners began transforming vacant lots in New York City in the 1970s, and such activities have grown in popularity in the past decade. As of 2019, New York City has the largest urban agricultural system in the country, with over 1,900 community gardens and thousands of home gardens growing food and providing other benefits for city residents.

But New Yorkers should be reminded that our soil is still far from pure, and it may likely contain contaminants, like lead and arsenic that we should detect and remediate to avoid exposing our families to harmful consequences. Like any hobby, urban gardening requires preparation, and we must remember to test our soil, change it when possible, and choose our crops carefully so we can reap the best from what we sow.

Testing your soil is your first line of defense against soil-based contaminants. Soil testing labs, like those at Brooklyn College and NYC Urban Soils Institute offer a variety of affordable tests to assess soil characteristics. Generally, you should take several samples from various locations in your garden, combine them, thoroughly mix, and take one cup of representative soil sample to be submitted to the lab. You can request any number of tests on texture, organic content, pH, nutrients, and so forth, although you’ll usually want to start with lead. These labs usually return results between 2-3 weeks.

Testing for the total concentration of lead will provide a broad sense of the soil’s need for remediation. Bear in mind that the total concentration doesn’t always indicate the soil is poor for gardening. Rather, it’s the bioavailability of lead -- how readily it’s absorbed by our gastric systems -- that determines risk. Nevertheless, understanding the total concentration of lead can inform your soil remediation or amendment strategy.

A Columbia University research team has developed a field testing kit that screens soil for hazardous lead, although it’s not yet on the market.

Once you understand your soil characteristics, you can make choices about removing your soil, adding amendments, or bringing in a new soil cover. Compost is the most common and useful amendment, as it contributes organic material for microorganisms to digest, balances the soil pH, and improves soil structure.

There are many organizations that give away free compost (including the Department of Sanitation, and community composters with the NYC Compost Project). You can also purchase compost, or make your own from common kitchen waste -- with the awareness that uncovered scraps can attract scavengers -- and alternate these ‘wet’ layers with dry forms of compost, such as wheat, sawdust pellets, or leaves.

For community-based organizations with reservations about the quality of local soil, there are other options. A helpful approach is to cover the contaminated soil with a layer of clean soil followed by layers of compost. Separating the old soil from the new with a layer of landscape fabric can prevent mixing and later contamination. The New York City Mayor’s Office of Environmental Remediation developed the Clean Soil Bank that takes clean native subsoil from construction sites and makes it available to local organizations or businesses that request it. The soil is available for free for sites that can receive a load of at least 20 cubic yards. There is a new stockpile in East New York Farms! where individuals can also pick up free bags of subsoil mixed with compost.

Lastly, if you’re an urban gardener on a small scale, you can protect yourself by being selective about which crops you plant. For example, we ingest more contaminants stuck to the plant than absorbed into the plant itself. Root vegetables like carrots and radishes can carry traces of lead and arsenic despite repeated washings. Lettuce can trap contaminated soil particles on its surface. However, fruit vegetables, like eggplants, squash, and tomatoes, are usually safe for consumption even from moderately contaminated soil. This is due to the physiological barrier between the soil and the edible crop -- from root to shoot, and from shoot to fruit.

Urban gardening is an excellent hobby that brings city dwellers closer to nature. It’s calming, nourishing, and easy on the budget. But before feeding your family with home-grown produce, be mindful to ensure that your local veggies are being grown in the right soil.

By Dr. Anna A. Paltseva, Dr. Zhongqi Cheng, Dr. Maha Deeb, Sara Perl Egendorf, Dr. Peter M. Groffman. (Paltseva and Cheng are with CUNY Brooklyn College, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Graduate Center, CUNY PhD Program in Earth and Environmental Sciences. Egendorf and Groffman also share those two affiliations and are with the Advanced Science Research Center at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Deeb is with the Advanced Science Research Center at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and the University of Lorraine is Nancy, France.)

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