Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



A Family-Centered Approach to Homelessness Policy

ralph homes for the homeless

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

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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

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(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

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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.

Public Money Is For Public Schools

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Council Member David Greenfield, colleagues, & others rally for Intro 65

Earlier this week the City Council, with the blessing of the mayor, passed Intro 65, a bill that will give $19.8 million of public money to Yeshivas, Catholic, and private schools to pay for security guards. In defending the legislation and public money for private school security as an appropriate use of city funds, Council Member David Greenfield explained that the city is "flush with cash."

His statement about the city being flush with cash is insulting; especially when you look at the district he represents. Mr. Greenfield's district includes part of Borough Park, where the poverty rate is about 32 percent, the same as East New York. Does he think that his constituents feel "flush with cash"?

The City Council, including Mr. Greenfield, are ignoring the realities of the communities they serve and the City as a whole when they pour cash into private institutions and ignore the dire needs of public schools that depend on public funds. Schools throughout the city go without vital resources every day. Yet over and over again, they are told to do more and more with less.

What could nearly $20 million from the City Council do for our public schools? It could be used to add instructional time and expand the school day for dozens of schools struggling to raise student achievement. It could be used to provide social and emotional support services for students and families through community schools, of which there is only one in Greenfield's district, or to provide college counselors in high school, helping to ensure that students apply to and are accepted to schools that best fit them.

Those funds could also be used to spread research-based models of parent engagement throughout the city, to grow the skills and capacity of families to assist in the academic improvement of their children. The funds could be used for translation services for schools like IS 96 in Mr. Greenfield's district, where families speak dozens of languages and struggle to engage in their children's education.

How many students sit in front of outdated computers or go without a library in their schools? If the city is "flush with cash," why are students across New York sitting in schools that are under-resourced and understaffed? The $20 million in public money that will now go to private schools would have been much better spent on schools that are open to all children: public schools.

Ayishah Irvin is Coalition for Educational Justice parent leader from Community School District 5.

In Zoning Amendment, One Size Does Not Fit All

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Council Member Richards, the author (photo: William Alatriste)

As the de Blasio administration pushes forward its Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) and Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) plans coupled together, the City Council plans to take the time to look at these two proposals separately. As chair of the Land Use Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, my committee has significant responsibility in this process. One thing is clear: a one-size-fits-all approach will not work.

Community Boards across the city have voiced their concerns about these two plans and we must let them know that we are listening. There are a variety of valid concerns.

As the proposals make their way to the City Council in early 2016, the administration needs to factor in community feedback and make appropriate changes to ensure that the voices of residents are not ignored. We must make sure we are not weakening existing zoning laws or the very process that allows residents to fight to protect the character of their neighborhoods.

After speaking with my colleagues, and as Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has said, the Zoning for Quality and Affordability plan will not pass muster in the City Council without changes.

One glaring issue of concern to me that should be removed is the as-of-right policy. We should not be eliminating the need for special permits to build nursing homes and healthcare facilities - doing so would push the city in the wrong direction. The construction of these buildings should have more oversight, not less, and the reason for the current process is to prevent the oversaturation of particular areas that are doing more than their fair share.

Currently, the permit process goes through the Department of City Planning. Developers should have to go through a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). Oversight is essential and communities need to be involved in any planning process that will affect their neighborhood.

While we share the goal of providing housing faster, we must not sacrifice the oversight process in doing so.

As-of-right would also give landowners the ability to remove already existing parking spaces without any due process, which is simply unacceptable to seniors who may come home to find out they are losing the parking spot they rely on.

The goal of reducing parking mandates in areas that the administration has deemed transit hubs is a serious concern, especially in my home borough of Queens, where transit options are limited. Many Queens residents are reliant on their cars and the ability to find parking.

These zones where people have somewhat better access to public transit and there is a focus on decreasing parking need a closer look - it is imperative that city agencies explain how they are going to invest in the infrastructure to account for denser populations. With the city's recent $2.5 billion investment in the MTA capital budget, plans to improve access in these areas need to be included. Simply living near mass transportation does not mean that the infrastructure is at the level it should be to make it a viable option.

We also need assurances that the allowance of a height increase on ground floors will be used for commercial purposes and developers will not be able to turn it into residential space. I would also like to see strategies from the city Economic Development Corporation and the Department of Small Business Services that will ensure the commercial space is used to stimulate economic development in our communities.

While these plans would have an effect on all New Yorkers, Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) will also have a major impact on seniors in neighborhoods across the city, whether in nursing homes or senior housing developments. The administration must show us that senior housing will contain quality apartments that are not unreasonably small. Seniors are the fabric of our communities and built the groundwork for everything we have today, so we should ensure that we are not limiting their ability to be active.

Due to the complexities of both MIH and ZQA, I am calling for two separate hearings since these plans each deserve their own time in front of the City Council before any final proposal is brought to chambers.

I commend the Department of City Planning for all its work to develop with these proposals and for traveling to communities across the city, and I give Mayor de Blasio and his administration credit for making the affordable housing crisis a priority. But, it is imperative that the final plan for zoning text amendments is the best it can be for all communities. In a city as large and diverse as New York, one size does not fit all.

[Related: Next Steps for The Mayor's Zoning Proposals]

City Council Member Donovan Richards, chair of the Land Use Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, represents District 31 in Queens, which includes Laurelton, Rosedale, Springfield Gardens and Far Rockaway. He is on Twitter @DRichards13.

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.

Give Police Tools to Reduce Arrest and Improve Community Health

NYPD training hall

(photo via @NYPDnews)

How do we respond to people in our society who might appear threatening, but who most urgently need medical help? Shortcomings in our community health and social services systems mean that many people who live in poverty, use drugs, and live with mental illness end up in our justice system.

In too many cases, a police officer’s response to someone experiencing a psychotic break or self-medicating with drugs involves an arrest, which can lead these medically-vulnerable people into a cycle of arrest and incarceration. Many of the issues that both public health and law enforcement agencies address in the communities they serve are rooted in health inequities, violence, trauma, racism, and poverty—problems that are often exacerbated by a stay in jail.

Of course, police officers should not be responsible for identifying social and medical needs in their communities, but they often serve as de facto street-corner psychiatrists and social workers for the people they encounter.

This is because they are called to respond to low level infractions that stem from people’s behavioral health needs. For instance, of all drug-related arrests in 2013, 83 percent were for possession of a controlled substance. Nearly 10 percent of all police interactions involve people with a mental health disorder—an interaction that too often leads to injuries and fatalities. In fact, it’s been estimated that more than 70 percent of people with mental health disorders in the justice system also have a substance use disorder. Currently, police lack alternatives to arrest for responding to these problems—officers report that they are more likely to arrest somebody displaying signs of a behavioral health disorder if they believe jail is the only option to provide basic medical services for that individual.

As gatekeepers between the community and the criminal justice system, police need to have the tools to appropriately respond to people who need treatment or services that do not require arrest, especially considering the long-term, steep collateral costs of justice involvement on individuals, communities, and taxpayers that include housing instability, underemployment, and reduced economic mobility.

Harm reduction and health promotion, two bedrock principles of the modern public health field, can serve as guiding approaches for police looking to minimize the negative impacts that too many low-level arrests have had on our communities—especially those of color. Though these burdens arise from the failures of current community health, justice, and social services, police officers can and should be an asset to public health work.

In contrast to abstinence-based interventions, harm reduction is a set of practical strategies that aim to minimize the negative impacts of drug use and other high-risk behaviors, even when people are not ready or able to give up these behaviors. And health promotion is designed to help people increase control over, and improve, their health.

Jurisdictions around the world have demonstrated that police who are able to incorporate a public health approach can not only reduce arrests of these medically-vulnerable groups, but also improve the health of communities.

Harm reduction-based interventions that deliver vital services to people engaged in drug use or sex work, such as condom distribution programs, overdose prevention training, or syringe exchange sites, can reduce the spread of infectious disease and prevent overdose deaths. And programs that incorporate health promotion principles, like Crisis Intervention Teams (CITs)—which consist of specially trained teams of officers who answer emergency calls where mental illness might be an issue—can leverage police training to equip officers to implement a safer response to people in psychiatric crises.

To ensure that vulnerable people are not driven underground and away from the services that benefit them and improve the health of communities, police should work with existing syringe exchange programs and local harm reduction advocates when possible to build trust and develop collaborative policies. Several harm reduction programs in New York City—like those of BOOM!Health, VOCAL-New York, and Washington Heights CORNER Project—have successfully worked with law enforcement agencies to develop policies and practices that don’t target people who utilize their services and that actively improve the safety of these clients as well as that of their communities.

Law enforcement agencies have also had success by reaching out to advocacy groups to increase their officers’ knowledge about harm reduction. The Harm Reduction Coalition has worked with police around New York State in a collaboration that resulted in the NYPD adopting their training manual. In the first year of this partnership, more than 5,000 officers were trained in using Naloxone, a life-saving antidote that prevents death when administered to somebody overdosing on opiates.

Many jurisdictions have also created collaborative diversion programs, where police departments partner with local health departments and behavioral health service providers to develop pre-arrest and pre-booking diversion programs. San Antonio’s Smart Justice programs provide CITs and two different kinds of drop-off centers—a short term crisis center and a longer term psychiatric center—where police can bring people instead of arresting them. It’s promising to see that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s task force on behavioral health and criminal justice is adopting some of these strategies—the NYPD is increasing training for CITs and creating a drop-off center.

However, long-term impacts won’t be fully realized without an alignment of not only practices, but also metrics and incentives. Any review of police officers’ performance should include the number of their referrals to locally available community health and social services, metrics that reflect community perception and satisfaction with police encounters, and the number of lives saved through overdose prevention.

Arrests averted, rather than arrests made, should be a core guiding principle for police.

Additionally, health agencies, interventions, and professionals need to consider arrest and incarceration metrics of success for their programs in addition to more straightforward health outcomes.

Accessing public health services for people with substance use and mental health disorders should not require an interaction with law enforcement or a jail stay. Until alternatives are provided, police can draw on harm reduction and health promotion principles to most effectively ensure public safety for everyone, especially those who are most vulnerable.

Chelsea Davis is a Research Analyst in the Substance Use and Mental Health Program at the Vera Institute of Justice, and is co-author of its recent report, First Do No Harm: Advancing Public Health in Policing Practices.

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.

Harmful Legal Reform Is Not an Ethics Solution


Here's the lead I wish I could write: "Corporate groups join government watchdogs to push for a New York State ethics overhaul." Fortunately, it's partly right - watchdog groups like NYPIRG and Citizens Union are certainly doing so. But some corporate groups are responding to the ethics mess in Albany, well, differently.

Consider the Dec. 2 op-ed "After Silver: Legal Reform is Ethics Reform" from the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York or "LRANY." This group has seized on the ethics crisis to promote an incongruous agenda. With 90 percent of New Yorkers rightly believing that state ethics laws are too weak, LRANY's response would be to weaken the legal rights of 99 percent of everyone who lives here.

A big LRANY priority, for example, is undermining New York's common-sense scaffolding safety law. Currently, New York's law ensures that owners and contractors are exclusively responsible for limiting hazards like unsound scaffolding, ladders, and other equipment, as well as flooring and elevators. LRANY's proposal would substantially weaken the obligations of owners and contractors to ensure a safe worksite. As someone who lives in New York City, with active renovation and high-rise construction everywhere, I think I can speak for most in saying: Albany, please do not weaken this safety law.

Another LRANY priority is a bill that would delay and deny justice to people suffering from lethal asbestos-related diseases. The asbestos industry covered up the dangers of asbestos for over 50 years, more than 3,000 Americans still die from asbestos diseases annually, and asbestos is still not banned in the United States. The Lawsuit Reform Alliance proposal would essentially allow the asbestos industry to delay and avoid cases until the victims are dead. As Elihu Inselbuch, from the corporate firm Caplin & Drysdale, testified in Congress, such legislation, "has nothing to do with reducing fraud; instead, it is a gift to the asbestos industry, which continues to try and avoid accountability and decrease compensation to the victims of its past wrongs." Nor is this a bill about "transparency." Nothing in this legislation would stop the asbestos industry's continuing practice of hiding where asbestos is present and was used, and demanding secrecy from victims when they settle cases, as they routinely do.

Speaking of sick and injured New Yorkers, LRANY is also focused on medical malpractice. Medical errors are now the third leading cause of death in the United States. In New York, we actually have some experience solving this problem. When the labor and delivery unit at NY Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center implemented a comprehensive obstetric patient safety program, not only were catastrophic errors dramatically reduced, but also compensation payments fell by 99.1 percent. I think most New Yorkers would agree that the best way to reduce claims and lawsuits is to reduce injuries and deaths.

Unfortunately, this message seems completely lost on the medical and insurance lobbies, including groups like LRANY. Their focus continues to be stripping away the legal rights of injured patients after they've been hurt. Indeed, New York State doctors and hospitals already benefit from more liability protections than virtually any other industry or profession in the state. More specifically, in the mid-1980s, New York enacted three out of four "medical liability reform" agenda items pushed by LRANY's corporate partner, the American Tort Reform Association, all of which harm patients.

These laws added to legal obstacles that New Yorkers already faced, which residents in most other states do not. They include an archaic "wrongful death" law dating from the 1800s that does not allow compensation for emotional hardship in loss of a child killed by medical malpractice; and a restrictive statute of limitations law that prevents claims involving latent injuries, like a cancer misdiagnosis. In June, a bill to change that discriminatory law passed the Assembly and would have been signed by the Governor had it not been blocked by Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, in cahoots with New York's powerful hospital lobby.

And that's not the only damage the hospital lobby has done recently. In 2011, New York became the only state in the nation to enact a law providing that, if a baby suffers a catastrophic brain-injury at birth due to a doctor's negligence, the at-fault hospital is largely off the hook. Even if a jury finds the medical team at fault and awards the family compensation, the child's family cannot receive most of these funds. Instead, they are forced to go to a state program to pay for the child's care. Moreover, by law these children are condemned to a lifetime of suboptimal Medicaid care for any necessary therapies, no matter what a jury says they need.

Meanwhile, New York State law does not force insurance companies to disclose even basic information to lawmakers or the public about what they actually pay in claims, allowing them to price-gouge policyholders with virtually no oversight or regulation. In fact, New York State is one of the least transparent states in the nation when it comes to the insurance industry and claims data. Even Texas has better disclosure laws than New York. The impact of this goes far beyond simply harming public confidence in city and state government and major institutions. This secrecy also has serious public safety implications, allowing groups like Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York to engage in fear-mongering, not facts.

What we do know is that New York is among the top states in the nation for physicians practicing in the "high-risk" specialties of OB/GYN and surgery. Last time NYPIRG examined this, New York State had the fourth highest number of OB/GYNs per capita in the country, second highest number of general surgeons, and the highest per capita number of surgical specialists.

Physician shortages that exist in New York's rural areas are longstanding and correlate to stagnating local economies and decreasing populations in those regions, not to insurance rates (which, in any event, are relatively low in those areas). LRANY claims in its article that "at least eight New York counties have no OBGYN services at all," suggesting that women and injured babies should give up even more of their legal rights as a result. When a lobby group made spurious allegations like this a few years ago, we decided to check the counties about which these claims were made. By making a few simple phone calls, we found that those counties indeed either had obstetricians practicing within the county or had obstetrical services available from doctors very nearby. The entire argument was bogus, not to mention unethical.

History is clear on one thing: taking away the rights of the most seriously injured New Yorkers has been and continues to be failed public policy. Our laws should hold accountable those who commit harm. And if insurance companies are engaged in price-gouging, the solution to that problem lies with the insurance industry and stricter insurance regulation and disclosure laws. Transparency and oversight are the only way to stop corporate lobbies from abusing their economic influence here, and promoting a legislative agenda that severely harms New Yorkers.

Joanne Doroshow, Executive Director, Center for Justice & Democracy at New York Law School; on Twitter @centerjd.

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City's Rezoning Plans Won't Improve Affordability or Quality

Berman protest flickr

Andrew Berman, the author, at a rally 

The Mayor's 'Zoning for Quality and Affordability' (ZQA) and 'Mandatory Inclusionary Housing' citywide rezoning initiatives, released jointly this fall, are finishing the first stage of public review at the city's 59 community boards. They're receiving a resounding thumbs down, by a 7-to-1 and 3-to-1 margin respectively. Why are measures aimed at increasing affordability and quality in new construction getting such a cold shoulder?

Perhaps because they would do little or none of either, and possibly more harm than good. The central tenet of ZQA is that if you increase the allowable height of new buildings, quality and affordability will improve.

For purely market-rate buildings, to which many of the proposed height limit increases would apply, this premise is almost laughable. The City's main contention is too many new buildings have 10- or 11-foot-tall ground floors instead of a more generous 13.5 feet, and new buildings should set back from the street to make room for planters in front. Neither is a concern I have heard a single New Yorker raise about new construction, but to achieve this, the City is willing to give developers an additional 5-20 feet in height for new buildings.

Never mind that many new buildings already have 13-foot-high ground floors, and sometimes more modestly-scaled ground floors are actually preferable. Or that setback buildings with planters make no sense on the large commercial streets where the new rules would often apply, and developers would get the extra height ZQA offers whether or not they set their building back and provide the planters anyway.

Such folly aside, the city's argument for raising height limits for 'affordable housing' is more insidious. In certain zoning districts, market-rate developments are now encouraged but not required to set aside 20 percent of units as affordable housing by offering additional market rate square footage if they do. There are height limits for these and all other new developments, to ensure that they fit in with their surroundings.

But the City claims the height limits prevent developers from including the affordable units, leaving no way to cram in all the extra space for the affordable and additional market-rate units, at least not without cramped, substandard spaces.

However, the facts don't bear this out.

About 50 percent of the new developments in such zoning districts in our area, Greenwich Village and the East Village, include the affordable units and the generous dimensions the City says we want in new developments. At the same time, we've seen many developers who had ample room to add the affordable units within the current height limits, but simply chose not to. The height limits were not an impediment; within this voluntary program, these developers simply decided it wasn't worth their while.

Nevertheless, the Mayor is proposing to lift the height limits for such developments by 25 feet or more, or up to 31 percent, though there is little or no evidence that it will result in a single additional unit of affordable housing being built. What it will do is increase out-of-scale construction in residential neighborhoods, and eliminate hard-fought-for height limits which were often delicate compromises that took years to craft and achieve.

While ZQA would do little or nothing to help affordability, making the current voluntary affordable housing program mandatory clearly would.

Many people think Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH), the companion to ZQA, will do that. But under the Mayor's plan, it won't.

MIH would require that new residential developments include 25-30% affordable units. But under the Mayor's plan, MIH would only be applied in areas where rezonings also allow a large increase in the allowable size of market-rate housing development.

But many areas of the city will probably never see MIH because such large increases in the allowable size of development, especially market-rate development, are just not tenable. This will likely include many of the more affluent parts of the city with the strongest real estate markets, which are most lacking in affordable housing, and where the city's own studies say new housing is most likely to be produced.

So why limit MIH only to areas where you're substantially increasing the size of development allowable?

The Mayor claims he's doing this because if the program is too onerous, developers just won't build at all.

But this argument does not seem credible. In strong real estate markets of the city, developers are opting into the affordable program about half the time, which shows they are willing to build under these conditions (and the other 50 percent probably would if required to). And clearly developers are making money when doing so, meeting the legal requirement for allowing a "reasonable return" which zoning must meet.

By contrast, linking MIH to large-scale increases in the allowable amount of market-rate development might undermine the supposed goal of increasing affordability, to say nothing of maintaining neighborhood character and livable communities.

Cases in point: the Williamsburg/Greenpoint waterfront and West Chelsea/Hudson Yards. These are the two areas of the city which have seen the largest production of affordable housing in recent years, through programs similar but not identical to MIH.

But the price for the affordable housing in those neighborhoods was the tsunami of large-scale, market-rate housing to which it was attached. This resulted from zoning changes significantly increasing the amount of market-rate housing which could be built, which the city says would also be a prerequisite for using MIH.

The result: two of the most rapidly gentrifying, unaffordable neighborhoods in New York, with a scale and sense of place more like Hong Kong or Miami than New York. While the percentage of affordable housing under MIH might be slightly different (in those cases 27-28 percent was promised, as compared to MIH's commitment of 25-30 percent), the net effect would be pretty similar.

So why would the Mayor so aggressively pursue ZQA, which has little or no likelihood of increasing affordability, and choose to significantly diminish the effectiveness of MIH, which would?

It seems the Mayor is intent upon staying on the good side of the real estate industry, and thus far he has succeeded. As has been widely reported, industry players have been his biggest financial backers, and generous to the "Campaign for One New York," the nonprofit fund which supports the Mayor's 'affordable housing' and other initiatives. The Mayor seems to be trying to make his plans as palatable to big real estate as possible, regardless of how it affects the outcomes.

A further example: right now we are pushing the Mayor to rezone a 12-block area of Greenwich Village that allows 300-foot-tall towers, and guarantees they will be 100 percent luxury housing, hotels, or dorms. We want reasonable height limits for new development while keeping the allowable square footage the same, elimination of incentives for dorms and hotels, and incentives (or requirements, if the City agreed) for including affordable housing.

The administration's response: an adamant no. De Blasio wants to keep the existing luxury tower-only zoning. ZQA and MIH as proposed may please the Mayor's real estate backers, but won't accomplish their purported goals of increasing affordability and quality. Community Boards and groups across the city appear to be getting that. It remains to be seen if the City Council and others that will decide these measures' fate will as well.

Andrew Berman is Executive Director of Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. On Twitter @GVSHP.

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.