Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



Commentary: I Lost the SNAP Challenge


It's old news that food stamps, technically SNAP benefits, were cut on Nov. 1 by $5 billion, including cuts for about 1.9 million New York City residents. If you were single and on food stamps you might have gone from the maximum $200 benefit to $189 just in time for Thanksgiving. That's an $11 loss a month. For a family of four, it typically meant a $36 cut or about 24 meals a month.

The average SNAP cost per meal went from about $1.50 to $1.40 a meal. That doesn't sound like so much, does it? It's just 10 cents a meal.

It sounds like a lot to me.

By November 1, the day the cuts kicked in, I had just completed a "SNAP Challenge." Well, sort of.

A SNAP Challenge is one of those things where people who aren't in need of food stamps agree to live on approximately a food stamp budget for five days — just five days. The challenge I participated in was actually a little too easy because I was allotted $5 a day, for a five-day total of $25. That was an extra $2.50 over what a "real" SNAP beneficiary would have had to live on before the cuts took place.

So, I need to make a confession. First, I realize five days on a SNAP challenge is to living on food stamps as camping is to being homeless. Second, I failed. I failed the SNAP challenge.

I started out well enough. I stuck to the $5 a day budget for the first day. But I went over the $25 total on day four. It was only a five-day challenge and I couldn't make it.

While I'm being candid, I might as well go all the way. I cheated and still failed.

I ate a few morsels and drank copious volumes of coffee at work and didn't count it.

Cutting food stamp benefits, most of which go to kids, the elderly and disabled people, is no joking matter. The only real point of participating in the challenge was to realize how hard it was to possibly eat on that budget.

I stuck with mostly Raman noodles, and macaroni for variety. To put it another way, pasta, high carb and starchy foods was all I could afford. SNAP is theoretically designed to allow a nutritious diet, but I sure don't know how. Things like fresh fruits and vegetables just cost too much.

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I didn't get the full SNAP experience even for five days. I wasn't restricted, as beneficiaries are, from purchasing hot or prepared foods. I wasn't subject to the stigma and judgment of others. I didn't have to go through the embarrassment of trying to purchase an item from a store that should have accepted it just to be turned down, knowing I didn't have money to make the purchase.

There's no geographic differential in the SNAP program. A person in the same income category, the same number of mouths to feed and other similar circumstances gets the same benefit in rural Louisiana, the Midwest bread basket or in costly New York City.

SNAP really is a safety net. It's a critical last-line-of-defense but increasingly porous safety net.

In America, studies say there'd be another 4.7 million people (again, mostly kids and seniors) below the federal poverty threshold without SNAP benefits. If that ratio is true for New Yorkers, SNAP saves over 160,000 of our city neighbors from falling below the poverty line.

These are real cuts taking food out of the mouths of hungry people. The Food Bank For New York City figures the cuts amount to the equivalent of 62 million meals annually in the Big Apple. Of course the meals probably couldn't actually include an apple. That's too expensive.

As we were approaching November, I was concerned because so many SNAP recipients didn't know the cuts were coming. The week before Nov. 1, though, letters went out to New Yorkers on SNAP. I guess it was sort of a directive to tighten belts and not be quite so hungry from here on out.

Suddenly, I became concerned that most beneficiaries would assume this was the big SNAP cut back we've been reading about for the past several months as the farm bill, larded with industry tax breaks, agri-business subsidies, farmer price supports.

If that was the big cut, I assumed many recipients might think, it's bad, but maybe not as bad as I was worried it would be. It's not easy, they might reason, but if I have to I can live with that.

Well, this isn't that cut. This one was just the expiration of a small increase in nutrition payments from the 2009 Recovery Act. The big one is still on the menu.

We don't know how big yet. The version passed by the Republican-controlled House has a $40 billion SNAP cut over 10 years — $4 billion annually. The cut comes mostly from throwing a good 3.8 million mouths off the program altogether.

But even the Senate Democratic version calls for a $4 billion cut over a decade.

We'll be celebrating Thanksgiving this month, most of us with opulent meals served on overflowing plates piled high with the traditional foods and dripping with gravy. But that's not for all of us.

The weekend before Nov. 1, I got a phone call about a homeless friend, dependent on SNAP, who ran out of "food stamps" before he ran out of October. Just like I ran out of my $25 before I hit the end of the five-day challenge. This guy, though, was sitting in a police station.

He was arrested for stealing a pack of hot dogs from a bodega. He was just so hungry, he said. And I got that.

Of course, that was before the SNAP benefit cut.

Jeff Foreman is Policy Director at Care for the Homeless. Follow him on twitter at JeffForeman2

Opinion: For De Blasio’s Universal Pre-K Plan, the Devil is in the Details


Now comes the really hard part. Having handily defeated Republican Joe Lhota to become the first Democrat elected mayor of New York City is nearly a quarter century, Bill de Blasio must now make good on the plethora of promises that paved his way to City Hall.

And none is likely to be more politically challenging than his signature commitment to establish “truly universal pre-Kindergarten for all 4-year-olds” by imposing an extra tax on the wealthiest New Yorkers.

A central plank in his campaign platform, the de Blasio pre-K plan calls for a five-year tax hike – from 3.86 percent to 4.41 percent – on those New Yorkers making more than half a million dollars a year. The surcharge is expected to raise some $530 million in dedicated funding for universal pre-K and after-school programs for middle-school students.

But unlike other populist promises like stop-and-frisk reform, which arguably can be accomplished by mere executive fiat, the universal pre-K commitment will require a virtual army of other prominent elected officials willing to risk their own political fortunes. And therein lies the rub. As The Wall Street Journal correctly noted, de Blasio’s proposal faces “significant headwinds” in Albany, including “a skittish Legislature heading into an election year and a governor who is reluctant to raise taxes.”

Even state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver — himself a fellow Democrat — has been hedging his bets on this one, telling the Journal that the plan might have to be put on ice for at least a year until after the 2014 state legislative election.

Then there’s the always intricate intersection of semantics and arithmetic. What exactly does “universal” mean and how do we measure the reach and effectiveness of the de Blasio plan? In first unveiling his initiative before the Association for a Better New York just over a year ago, de Blasio said his proposal would add 10,000 new pre-K seats to the existing system and expand all part-time pre-K classes to fulltime sessions for 38,000 four-year-olds.

But would the creation of 48,000 new publicly funded full-time pre-kindergarten slots come even close to meeting any reasonable definition of “universal”? That depends on how you do the math and what you mean by pre-K.

New York City already operates the largest publicly funded early care and education system in the nation, serving some 100,000 pre-school children in a mix of center-based and home-based settings. Recently renamed EarlyLearn NYC, the program is run by the Administration for Children’s Services, which also oversees one of the largest Head Start grant programs in the country, serving some 19,000 children. In addition, the city’s Department of Education manages the state’s universal pre-K program, which is provided through public schools and contracted EarlyLearn providers.

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But a study released by city Comptroller John Liu earlier this year found that the combined early education system does not even come close to meeting universal need: as many as 200,000 children in the city, including many from low-income families, are currently excluded from early-learn programs, including pre-kindergarten classes. Titled "The $4 billion Deficit: Ratcheting Up Investment in Early Childhood Education," the comptroller’s report estimates that the total cost of providing universal, comprehensive, early care and education (including pre-K programs) for all of New York City’s children, would amount to more than $6 billion a year.

But combined city, state and federal spending on these programs currently totals a mere $1.5 billion, leaving an “education deficit” of $4.6 billion.

Though not as widely covered as de Blasio’s pre-K initiative, Liu — himself a former candidate in this year’s Democratic mayoral primary — had also proposed an additional investment of some $433 million to make pre-Kindergarten truly universal for all 4- and 5-year olds in the city. But he has gone even further in calling for the creation of a universal pre-school program for all 3-year olds, at an estimated cost of nearly $1 billion. 

{pullquote}Would the creation of 48,000 new publicly funded full-time pre-kindergarten slots come even close to meeting any reasonable definition of “universal”?{/pullquote}

De Blasio’s populist embrace of universal pre-K programs as a signature component of his mayoralty places him squarely not only on the rightside of history, but of science as well. It also dovetails neatly with his “tale of two cities” narrative: one recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that the best thing we can do about inequality is to provide universal pre-school.

“A policy of free preschool would yield a raft of cost-effective benefits for society and the economy,” according to the report. “It would increase social mobility, reduce income inequality, raise college graduation rates, improve criminal behavior and yield higher tax revenue thanks to an increase in lifetime wages.”

These benefits are especially critical for children of low-income families, who suffer at an early age from poverty-related developmental deficits that are only compounded the longer they remain unaddressed. In fact, researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine now report in a study published by the JAMA Journal Pediatrics that poverty appears even to inhibit the physical development of the brain. Those children exposed to poverty at an early age had smaller volumes of white and cortical gray matter, the study found, as well as hippocampal and amygdala volumes.

All of that is aside from the environmental impact of poverty on a student's behavior and school performance.

Noting that fewer than three in 10 4-year olds in the United States are currently enrolled in high quality pre-K programs, President Barack Obama has also publicly embraced the cause of universal access to early education in his State of the Union address earlier this year. And that’s good news for mayor-elect de Blasio who, come January, may need an infusion of political capital from the nation’s top Democrat if his signature initiative is to make any headway in Albany.

Hugh Hamilton is an independent journalist and editorial consultant in New York City. For 12 years until this summer, he was the host and executive producer of WBAI-FM's drive-time news-talk analysis program, Talkback. He previously worked as a legislative director for two different members of the City Council. 

Letter to the Editor: De Blasio And Affordable Housing

Dear Editor,
The article “De Blasio Pins Affordable Housing Hopes on Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning” correctly highlights the challenge of requiring affordable housing in any new developments that depend on zoning changes.
One alternative de Blasio should consider is to mandate the construction of middle-income housing only in the development of city-owned land.  The city successfully took this tact with Seward Park, a strip of city-owned land on the Lower East Side, by obligating RFP respondents to make at least half of the housing units there affordable. Refining the requirements to be more capital market friendly may have enabled an even greater amount of middle-income units.
Requiring affordable housing to be built as part of city RFPs – as opposed to all development projects – will send a signal that he wants to work with the real estate industry to create badly needed affordable housing and strengthen New York’s middle class.
Leonard Grunstein

Leonard Grunstein is an expert in real-estate finance who worked on the original ground-lease deal for Battery Park City as well as on other public-private projects in the city.

Op-Ed: A Road Map to Wipe Out Homelessness


There's reason for optimism about ending homelessness as we know it in New York City.

Sure, the problem has never been worse. There are 57,000 homeless people daily in city homeless shelters or living on the streets, probably more. At least 22,000 of them are kids and, for them, brushes with homelessness may lead to a lifetime of consequences.

But now a loosely knit network of community-based groups, calling themselves United to End Homelessness, have joined to author and promote a detailed plan. They fittingly called it "A Roadmap to Ending Homelessness."

The ad-hoc group (which many members hope will become permanent) started with 13 desperate groups. It has now grown to be a union, this one with more than 130 organizations endorsing the platform.

The groups don't share just a single mission or business interest. Some operate shelters; success could put them out of business. Others develop or advocate for specific types of housing but have readily endorsed other approaches, too.

It's also not just groups that work on homelessness. The coalition includes faith groups, neighborhood organizations and a range of broad-based human service and social justice entities. It includes big names and small ones from every section of the city.

Their common commitment to ending homelessness is the unusual example of wide-ranging grassroots groups, sometimes separated by competing convictions or economic interests, working for a public goal they can agree on — ending homelessness.

Their 39-page plan sometimes reads like it was written by housing and homeless experts; other times like an emotional plea to do what's right. That's probably because — can you imagine this — it was written, reviewed and finally accepted by all 130 organizations.

The old saying is it was a big committee that came up with the camel. This one, though, wrote a real plan.

The timing isn't random. It comes just weeks before an election sure to shake up city policies for decades with a new mayor, all new citywide officials and several new City Council members, too.

Nicole Branca, deputy executive director of the Supportive Housing Network of New York, is a steering committee member. She says the group’s "is that this briefing book provides the next administration with the research, ideas and motivation to develop and start implementing a plan to end homelessness on day one."

This is no pie-in-the-sky plan from do-gooders. It's a war plan against homelessness that actually saves taxpayer dollars. Their research says it costs $36,000 a year to keep a family in shelter, but just $6,000 to prevent homelessness in the first place.

They say the city and state pay $78 a day for a person in shelter, $165 if they're in prison and $802 a day for a psychiatric hospital. The cost of subsidizing a homeless person in housing, including the supportive services they need, is $68.

The UEH platform proposes robust programs to build affordable housing for very-low income people, supportive housing for those who need it and an effective rent subsidy to move families from more expensive city shelters to less expensive permanent housing. They want a return to the city's historically successful targeting of a small portion of public housing for moving people out of shelters, too.

These ideas have worked elsewhere. Some were successful here in the past, but eliminated in budget cuts or policy changes. The UEH platform is not just a reprise of past programs, though; they detail specific strategies and evidence-based practices designed to make each program work.

Some ideas are brand new, at least here. One example, and a no-cost one at that, is creating an "Interagency Council on Homelessness," like the one the federal government uses effectively. "It calls out the key players that must participate cooperatively" to create the city's first-ever coordinated Interagency effort to end homelessness, according to Christy Parque, executive director of Homeless Services United and the generally recognized organizer of UEH.

The interagency council idea is designed to address what Parque calls "a decades-old problem that has plagued the city" where one agency or another serves as a feeder of newly minted homeless people without coordinated plans to fix the problem.

The city's Department of Homeless Services spends nearly $1 billion yearly on homeless shelters. That's not including the expenses of multiple shelter programs under other agencies. Prevention programs for those at-risk of homelessness, moving families very quickly to permanent housing and providing the numerous other pathways to stable housing the platform advocates is the right thing to do, but it isn't cheap. Reducing DHS's shelter costs could pay for most of it.

There are other cost efficiencies in ending homelessness, too. It's proven to cut health care and emergency room use at dramatic cost savings. It's proven to reduce public safety and jail costs, as well as reduce mental health system and other public service requirements.

There's also the promise of incalculable savings in human suffering, broken families, developmental and emotional delays for children and the second-chance opportunities it could bring to tens of thousands of New Yorkers.

"When homelessness absolutely cannot be prevented," the group says, "safe, decent appropriate shelter should be provided for those who need it," but as a temporary step on the pathway to permanent housing.

The only way to truly know the group’s roadmap would work in the real world is, of course, to try it. The plan offers diverse routes to housing for a diverse set of circumstances, is well researched and documented and promises far better outcomes at cost-effective and cost-savings prices.

I'm hardly an unbiased observer, but I'm all-in betting the roadmap can get us where we need to go.

Jeff Foreman is policy director at Care for the Homeless. Follow him on twitter at @JeffForeman2.

De Blasio Should Mandate Affordable Housing In City RFPs


Bill de Blasio¹s goal of building or preserving 200,000 affordable housing units during his all-but-certain mayoral administration is laudable, but it is also causing unnecessary angst in the real estate industry.

Instead of forcing developers to include affordable housing in every single rezoning application, as de Blasio proposed this month, he should mandate the construction of middle-income housing only in requests for proposals for the development of city-owned land.

Tempering his position in this way will demonstrate he is willing to work with the real estate industry on an important issue and, more importantly, go a long way toward solving our affordable housing problem.

The need for middle-income housing in New York City is vital. It helps support our burgeoning economy by providing affordable places for employees of city businesses to live. When these employees are priced out and forced to move, fewer dollars will be spent here in the city.

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Some of New York City¹s most well established communities have been founded on this principle of affordability. From Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village in Manhattan, to Parkchester in the Bronx, middle-income housing developments have enabled working-class New Yorkers to thrive in the city for generations.

Unfortunately, while more than 140,000 affordable homes have reportedly been created or preserved since the start of the Bloomberg administration, this included few middle-income units. The number could have been significantly higher if the city required private developers to include affordable housing units in their proposals to city RFPs.

One recent example of a missed opportunity is the city¹s RFP for the redevelopment of the Brooklyn Heights Library. Issued in June, it allows for the redevelopment of an underutilized public library into a residential, commercial or community facility building.

But the RFP did not include any requirements for developers to build affordable housing at the site. While there is a small incentive to build affordable housing offered through the city¹s inclusionary housing program ­ which allows developers to construct a larger building if they agree to create or preserve affordable housing in the area ­ this program is voluntary. More can be done in terms of zoning bonuses or overrides for these sites to foster the creation of middle-income affordable housing.

The city should not leave the decision to include affordable housing up to the developer. Instead, it should have required the construction of affordable housing as part of the RFP and guaranteed the creation of a place where middle-income New Yorkers could live.

{pullquote}By requiring affordable housing to be built as part of all city RFPs, Bill de Blasio¹s administration will add to the long-term sustainability and vitality of our city.{/pullquote}

A perfect counterpoint is Seward Park, ­ a large swath of city-owned land on the Lower East Side that has been vacant for more than four decades. There, the city recently took the monumental step of requiring RFP respondents to make at least half of the housing units affordable. Fine-tuning the requirements could also make them more capital markets-friendly and yield even more middle-income affordable housing.

While some still debate whether the Seward Park RFP could have included even more affordable housing units, there is no reason the city should not continue and expand this practice when it comes to the library site and all future RFPs for the redevelopment of city-owned land.

If similar requirements had been in place for the massive Hudson Yards development, there would be an additional 5,000 units of affordable housing constructed. The thousands of people who will eventually work in that new neighborhood could have filled these apartments rather than having to commute from long distances.

That¹s an unnecessary burden for those workers as well as a loss for the city¹s economy.

By requiring affordable housing to be built as part of all city RFPs, Bill de Blasio¹s administration will add to the long-term sustainability and vitality of our city. People of all income levels will once again be able to call this city home, and the neighborhoods they live in will be better off for it.

Leonard Grunstein is an expert in real-estate finance who worked on the original ground-lease deal for Battery Park City as well as on other public-private projects in the city.

Commentary: One Year after Sandy, Community Groups Still Hard at Work in the Recovery


New York has made steady progress in recovering one year after Sandy, thanks in part to local non-profit organizations working tirelessly to rebuild homes and help the most vulnerable New Yorkers get their lives back on track.

Affordable housing organizations have been a lifeline for low-income individuals and families, those with the fewest resources to prepare for and recover from a disaster. Beyond the household level, these groups were pivotal in coordinating evacuations and recovery efforts in local communities after Sandy.

We must continue to provide these organizations, and the families they serve, with the support they still need to help our communities thrive.

Hurricane Sandy was a stark reminder of the importance of having a safe place to call home, with low-income families and the city’s affordable housing stock taking the hardest hit. According to the Furman Center for Real Estate & Public Policy, Sandy affected nearly 100,000 public, subsidized, or rent regulated units, and our analysis of Federal Emergency Management Agency data shows that 64 percent of people who rent their homes and registered for damages from Sandy had household incomes under $30,000.

Case in point is the story of Shyrell Wisdom, a published poet and resident of a supportive housing community for formerly homeless individuals with mental illness or addiction. Shyrell lived through hurricanes as a child in Jamaica, but she never expected one to ravage her home in Far Rockaway.

The day before Hurricane Sandy made landfall, the staff from Services for the Underserved, a group providing services and support for individuals with special needs, helped Shyrell pack her bags and evacuate to an emergency shelter. When she returned to her apartment a few days later, she found it filled with mold and insects. Shyrell and 70 other residents had to move to temporary apartments 20 miles away in the Bronx while SUS staff worked around the clock to repair their building.

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Last month, Shyrell and her neighbors moved back into the newly renovated building. “It feels great to be back,” she says. “The staff worked so hard and that’s why I’m able to be here today. Because they are that supportive."

Stable, permanent affordable housing like SUS’ development is the building block for stabilizing vulnerable individuals and maintaining healthy communities. As part of ongoing resiliency efforts, we must continue to invest in housing that is accessible to New Yorkers like Shyrell. In New York City, 47 percent of low-income renter households pay more than half of their income on rent, leaving little to save for emergencies like Sandy. Individuals and families are better positioned to withstand disasters when they are in quality homes they can afford.

Furthermore, to safeguard existing public investments like affordable housing against future storms, we must invest in fortifying developments located in neighborhoods vulnerable to flooding and other natural disasters. As funding for community organizations like SUS gets tighter, we must allocate flexible dollars to rebuilding developments that are resilient to the changing climate.  

There is hope that we can rebuild a stronger New York. Shyrell says, “The Rockaways have come back. It was neglected for a long time. Sandy helped us see the positivity and growth prospects of the Rockaways.” As New Yorkers, we must see the one-year anniversary of Sandy as a reminder of what we endured, and an opportunity to build back stronger together.

Shola Olatoye is the vice president and New York market leader for Enterprise Community Partners, Inc., a national nonprofit that has helped build or preserve more than 44,000 affordable homes for lower-income New Yorkers and invested more than $2.5 billion in and around the city.

Op-Ed: The Next Mayor Owns NYCHA


The New York City Housing Authority got more than just a new board of directors last month. The agency got a whole new management structure.

Not that the new board will necessarily be around long with a new mayor taking office in January. But it's a big change that's generated more controversy and criticism than any other.

The changes took state legislation. That happened earlier this year when Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill that changed the number of NYCHA board members, who can serve, their compensation and, to a tremendous degree, who has influence with the board.

The structural changes to the board are substantial. But how will it affect those living in public housing and all of us in New York City?

NYCHA used to have a five-member board with most members (but not the one tenant representative) getting full-time compensation. Two of the board members received annual salaries of $187,000 and an assigned NYCHA driver. Chairman John Rhea's compensation was over $200,000.

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Only one of the five members was required to be a public housing tenant. That director was paid only $150 a meeting.

The new board retains Rhea as Chair and CEO of NYCHA with a compensation of $197,300. But the other six board members will be volunteers paid only a stipend not to exceed $1,500 a month based on $250 for each four hours of time required. If the stipend exceeds $200 a month, the additional amount will be reported as income. And no assigned drivers.

The changes were obviously intended to cool steaming public outrage over excessive compensation — not to mention operating problems — and increase tenant representation on the board.  But the real impact is likely to be increased mayoral control of NYCHA.

In the old set up, NYCHA board members, appointed for five-year terms, could only be removed "for cause" and after a due process hearing.  That meant only one board seat came up for appointment each year. A mayor could be three years into his term before he appointed a majority of the NYCHA board.

Now the term will be will be three years, except for the chair, who serves entirely at the mayor's discretion. The mayor will have the authority to fire any member if he or she finds cause to do so. There's no more requirement for a hearing. That puts the mayor in complete control and makes the mayor completely accountable for NYCHA's performance going forward.

There were certainly disagreements in the recent mayoral primary campaigns about lots of issues, but everybody criticized NYCHA.

NYCHA has long run operating deficits of tens of millions of dollars. The 2014 projected deficit is $87 million. They have a repair backlog that often runs a year and more.  They were universally criticized for a poor response to Hurricane Sandy that left some disabled tenants stranded in buildings without heat or working elevators for weeks. Some for months.

In recent months, the NYCHA board has proposed highly unpopular layoffs and service cutbacks. They've also proposed an even more controversial plan to build luxury housing on the grounds of some housing projects while the public housing waiting list stretches out for years and years.

Meanwhile, the city’s public housing has a massive need for infrastructure improvements and building system repairs. NYCHA is constantly attacked for mismanagement, inefficiencies and a lack of advance planning. Even HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, the federal cheerleader for public housing, criticized NYCHA publicly for their huge repair backlog while failing to spend $1 billion of HUD funds given to them for that purpose. Donovan questioned NYCHA's competence at a senate public hearing.

Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio's website says that "New York City needs a mayor who takes ownership of our public housing crisis." He's called for a full overhaul of NYCHA management and specifically getting rid of NYCHA Chair John Rhea.

Republican mayoral nominee Joe Lhota criticizes NYCHA as a big, unwieldy bureaucracy.  He, too, has called for changing NYCHA's "entire management.”

In fairness, NYCHA has been on the receiving end of continuing cuts in federal appropriations. NYCHA reports they lost $205 million in federal funding in the current fiscal year from cuts including sequestration.  The chances for increased federal funding are bleak. More cuts are likely.

NYCHA manages 334 housing developments with over 400,000 tenants. They give Section 8 housing vouchers to families made up of another 235,000 people. That's 635,000 New Yorkers depending on them.

While naming the new board, Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the agency for facing up to challenges "even as some cities have walked away from their commitment to public housing."

It might be an example of being careful what you wish for. While the next mayor owns NYCHA, it’s broken — with no apparent sufficient funding in its future. The mayor will have control but there's one thing he won't have anymore: a convenient target if things don't get better.

Jeff Foreman is Policy Director at Care for the Homeless. Follow him on Twitter at JeffForeman2

Commentary: Council Candidates On The Upper East Side Marine Transfer Station


Each year, New York City produces approximately 14 million tons of waste, almost all of which ends up in out-of-state landfills. Before the waste can be exported, however, it has to be collected at one of 58 transfer station around the city. More than two-thirds of that waste is transported by truck to transfer stations in the south Bronx, northern Brooklyn and Jamaica, Queens.

In 2006, City Hall unveiled a 20-year plan to change how the city handles its waste management, and proposed building a marine waste transfer station on the Upper East Side.

The plan for the station at 91st street has not only become a heated political issue in the mayoral race, but also in the 5th City Council District race. District 5 candidates Ben Kallos, a Democrat, and Doug Garland, a Republican, have pledged their opposition to the plan. — Editors.

Ben Kallos, Democratic Nominee for CD5

The construction of the 91st St. Marine Transfer Station would not constitute, as proponents suggest, “environmental justice” or Manhattan doing its “fair share,” and this isn’t just an issue about our backyards. No residential neighborhood – not mixed-income Yorkville, or any other part of the city – should be the site of a trash facility like this one.

Our citywide trash plan was obsolete the day it was passed in 2006 because it causes child asthma, smog in our streets and waterways, and overflowing landfills. To be an environmental leader, we need to re-imagine how we handle our city’s trash. The debate should not be over which community has to shoulder a miserable load, but how we can improve our systems to avoid misery.

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Garbage dumps don’t belong in the heart of bustling, vibrant neighborhoods. On 91st St., the proposed waste-to-landfill station bisects a park where kids play sports and Olympians such as Medalist Lia Neal train at the swimming pool. People are often surprised to hear that the Upper East Side has one of the lowest amounts of open space anywhere in New York City, an urgent health concern in a crowded city like ours, and we can’t afford to allow trucks packed with garbage to idle where runners jog and families enjoy the outdoors.

Every neighborhood has its own treasures, and no borough should bear the burden of a bad plan. New York City, a leader in so many spheres, can’t continue to lag far behind when it comes to trash. We must initiate programs to dramatically reduce waste, support Mayor Bloomberg’s intelligent composting plan, and transition from 15% to 75% recycling to match other major cities like San Francisco – taking advantage of recycling plants that already exist.

Instead of distorting admirable principles to justify bad policy, the city must apply our considerable organizing power and ingenuity to work together to build a greener, smarter city.

David Garland, Republican nominee for CD5

The proposed waste transfer station is the most urgent issue facing the northern portion of the 5th District, but it will also profoundly affect the entire East Side of Manhattan. For this reason, I established the “Dump the Dump” party. I am more than just opposed to placing the dump in District 5.

If elected, I will propose legislation banning dumps from all residential communities throughout New York City. I signed the Candidate Pledge 2 Protect and I also signed the Resident pledge, vowing to support only anti-Dump politicians such as Joe Lhota, and to oppose pro-dump candidates like Bill de Blasio.

The argument made for locating the dump in the Upper East Side for reasons of “environmental equity” is based upon false assumptions. The proposed location near the Stanley Isaacs housing project disproportionately affects the very constituents left unprotected from Transfer Stations in other sections of the city.

The Upper East Side, particularly District 5, is comprised of a wide range of economic groups, ethnicities and other demographics. And the effort to build a Dump in the densest residential area of the United States, when other Transfer Stations are located in commercial zones, makes a mockery of the concept of borough equity.

I founded the “Dump the Dump” Party to advocate for the rights of all New York City residents to neighborhoods that are free of environmental hazards.

Op-ed: If Lhota and de Blasio can agree on affordable housing, why can’t Congress?


New York’s recent primary elections made one thing clear: our next mayor will make a significant investment in affordable housing.

The Democratic candidate, Bill de Blasio, promises an ambitious plan to build or preserve 200,000 affordable units over the next eight years. Saying that “it's not right for the Democrats to own affordable housing,” Joe Lhota, the Republican candidate, supports a 150,000-unit housing plan created by a broad-based coalition we lead called Housing First!

Washington lawmakers might scratch their heads at this bipartisan consensus. But the proven benefits of affordable housing – safe, vibrant neighborhoods, lower healthcare costs and increased economic activity, not to mention jobs – are difficult for any mayor to ignore. In New York City, where a third of renters spend over half their incomes on rent and 50,000 people sleep in homeless shelters, investing in affordable housing is a no-brainer.

If only Republicans in Congress got the message. While the mayoral candidates promised to invest in housing, they can’t do it without federal dollars. Yet just about all federal housing programs are currently at risk. The current budget showdown, comprehensive tax reform proposals, and changes to the way Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac operate, together threaten the ability of Americans at all income levels to be safely and affordably housed.

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The attack on federal housing programs is as mindless as it is mystifying. Housing remains one of the primary drivers of the national economy — and, like it or not, housing has rarely been built in the past 80 years without some sort of federal subsidy or tax expenditure.

And it’s not like affordability isn’t a national problem: according to a recent National Low Income Housing Coalition report, there are no longer any states where a full-time minimum wage worker can afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rents.

The federal programs created to help low-income renters are an especially effective answer to these challenges. The Low Income Housing Tax Credit, sometimes used with federally-authorized tax-exempt bonds, is structured so that government only pays for success: private developers and investors take on the risk and receive tax breaks only after well-constructed buildings are maintained in top condition for years. Federal homeless programs save taxpayers enormous sums by funding supportive housing for individuals who would otherwise shuttle between expensive shelters, jails, emergency rooms and psychiatric hospitals.

{pullquote}The attack on federal housing programs is as mindless as it is mystifying.{/pullquote}

Despite tangible success, federal housing programs have been slashed by 30 percent since 2010, a loss of about $400 million for low-income New Yorkers. The most recent “sequestration” cuts have been particularly damaging to Section 8 rental vouchers, nearly half of which help the elderly and disabled remain housed.

Even LIHTC, the bipartisan bedrock of affordable housing finance created under President Reagan, is now under attack by many of his admirers. This tax expenditure accounts for about 50 percent of multifamily construction starts nationwide. If tax reform eliminates the housing credit, affordable housing will, quite simply, cease to be built.

Lastly, some Congressional proposals threaten the critical, but behind-the-scenes, role played by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and FHA in supporting not just single-family homes, but almost all financing of affordable multifamily rentals. There may be viable alternatives that allow a greater private sector role, such as those recently proposed by the Bipartisan Policy Center Housing Commission. But experts agree that solutions must address not just homeownership, but also affordable rental needs that are critical to the long term health of our communities.

As Washington lawmakers address the budget this month and consider overdue reforms, they need to leave party politics aside and make affordable housing a bipartisan priority, as it is in New York.

Three actions can be taken before the new year: 1) Exempt HUD homeless and housing programs from the sequester and further cuts, 2) Protect LIHTC and tax-exempt bonds in tax reform, and legislate minimum and permanent fixed LIHTC rates, and 3) Provide government guarantees for low-income rental housing in GSE reform, including a dedicated revenue source for the National Housing Trust Fund.

While low-income housing programs represents chump change next to the rest of the federal budget and other tax expenditures, the housing and economic activity generated by these programs is substantial. The tax credit alone has leveraged nearly $100 billion in private investment and creates 100,000 affordable units and 95,000 jobs annually. Given our nation’s extraordinary housing and employment needs right now, one would think members of Congress would agree on the importance of expanding affordable housing investment. Just like Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota do.

Ted Houghton, executive director of the Supportive Housing Network of New York, and Todd A. Gomez, senior vice president, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, are co-chairs of the Housing First! affordable housing campaign.

Op-Ed: Rikers Island Prices


You’ll be surprised about one of the most expensive residential neighborhoods in New York. The average Manhattan studio apartment rents for about $1,953 a month according to a recent survey, but in this area it’s over $13,977.

Even in ultra-expensive New York City, you’d figure a building that costs an average $167,000 annually per person for a small “studio” and amenities has to be luxuriously swanky – but not so much. And it’s not on the Upper East Side, Midtown or even in Robert DeNiro’s trendy TriBeca. It’s more exclusive in some ways. It’s part of the Bronx but located on a 400-plus acre island on the East River.

That’d be Rikers Island, home to New York City’s biggest and most infamous jails complex.

Despite the island setting, it doesn’t offer much in the way of river views. The “studio” units are small, Spartan and offer little privacy. The building staff-to-tenant ratio, though, is amazing.

Last month, the city’s Independent Budget Office issued a brief report on the jail’s cost. On any given day it houses about 12,287 at an annual cost of $167,731 per inmate for a total of over $2 billion annually. About 93 percent of the guests are male; 57 percent black; 33 percent Hispanic, 7 percent white and 1 percent Asian.

“Budgets are moral documents” wrote Rev. Peg Chamberlin in the National Catholic Reporter recently. She was writing about a national budget gifting $10.17 billion in tax breaks and subsidies to highly profitable coal and gas companies while slashing billions to the country’s neediest by cutting safety net programs.

She could have been writing about spending $2 billion on jails while cutting food stamps and affordable housing programs, and condemning more than 50,000 people — four times more than are in Rikers — to homeless shelters daily.

The per inmate spending is extraordinary – far above any benchmark average for prisons or jails. Sometimes it’s difficult to translate a reduction in inmates to the per inmate cost, because the jail continues to operate with all the overhead costs involved. But Rikers is really a collection of jails in 10 buildings; eliminating whole sections or closing whole buildings would significantly reduce costs while still keeping a city jail system operating.

There are ways to reduce the jail population that would garner substantial public support. Like many jails, lots of the inmates are there awaiting trial. They haven’t been convicted of anything except being too poor to post bail. At Rikers, the “unconvicted” account for three-quarters of the population.

New York is one of only two states that automatically treat 16 and 17 year olds as adults in the criminal justice system. You really don’t want to know the other state (ok, it’s North Carolina). So 7 percent of Rikers inmates are 16 or 17 years old, in itself a questionable practice.

There’s also the issue of incarcerating nonviolent or first-time offenses. On any given day there might be 2,300 inmates at Rikers on drug charges; up to 100 on prostitution or loitering; and perhaps another 1,200 or more for other misdemeanors.

The operation of the jail isn’t without controversy. Rikers has a history of brutal violence and deaths. At least a dozen lawsuits have been filed arising from that history claiming guards used inmates as enforcers to maintain discipline or even for extortion. That's given rise to criminal charges and more than a few legal settlements. Some of the suits are still pending.

In terms of a standard metric for jails, Rikers has a high recidivism rate.

Let’s suppose the inmate population could be reduced by 1,000 and the cost by $167,000,000. What could that money do?

Many poor people in New York (last week the Census Bureau said NYC’s poverty rate jumped from 20.9 percent to 21.2 percent, translating to almost 1.8 million officially below the poverty threshold) still have little or no access to appropriate ongoing medical treatment and related services.

High-quality primary health care for people experiencing homelessness, who typically have multiple chronic health diagnosis, can be delivered for $190 a visit. A typical emergency room visit costs over $2,100. One hundred and sixty seven million dollars could provide 878,000 medical visits for poor people. That’s without adjusting for savings from unreimbursed emergency room visits and unnecessary hospitalizations avoided.

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New York City has over 3,800 homeless youth but provides only 250 beds for them. Even if beds were as expensive as adult beds we could provide the extra 3,550 beds with more than $150 million left.

New York’s homeless shelter population has exploded since the elimination of rental subsidies to assist families move from shelter to permanent housing. Reinstituting the rental subsidy, a program that, despite all its faults, never cost more than about $1,000 a month per family, might move over 8,300 families into housing with $67 million left over. And that’s not considering either better outcomes and greater productivity of families that would be stably housed or the tax dollar savings from reducing the homeless shelter population where it costs $3,000 a month for shelter and services.

Imagine how far a share of that savings could go in needed expansion of our mental health services or drug and alcohol addiction treatment programs. Like the housing programs, it’s not inexpensive but the investment cost usually results in a major savings over time in avoided tragedies, greater productivity and less spending on emergency rooms, police and jail.

Care for the Homeless Executive Director Bobby Watts noted you could send three students to Harvard for what we’re spending on one inmate. The Blinker website claims we’ll pay more to house alleged drug offenders at Rikers a year than on all the New Yorkers in public housing. Food stamps cost around $1.50 per meal, so $167 million pays for 111,333,333 meals.

Good health policies, housing programs and the availability of treatment for those who need it don’t just produce better outcomes, they save money over time. It’s surely a more productive use of public resources than paying for jail, especially at a Rikers Island price.

Jeff Foreman is Director of Policy at Care for the Homeless. Follow him on twitter @JeffForeman2.

Op-Ed: Domestic Violence, Homelessness And The Next Mayor

Domestic violence is an issue that deserves the attention of New York City's mayoral candidates. It impacts every neighborhood in all five boroughs and is a leading cause of homelessness among New Yorkers; one-third of homeless families using the shelter system are survivors.

While shelters can provide an escape from abusers, they are only a temporary solution and do not afford survivors with the long-term security and supportive services they need. Today, most will end up still homeless, in risky situations or back in the homes of their abusers by the time their shelter stay expires.

Permanent and affordable housing for victims and their families is the only way to guarantee survivors’ continued security and place them on a path toward self-sufficiency. Yet, less than one percent of supportive housing in New York City is designated for domestic violence survivors and survivors are excluded from most other affordable and supportive housing referral systems.

It will be up to the next mayor of New York to address this crisis with the right kind of smart technical fixes to improve access to housing for survivors of domestic violence and implement modest investments to spur permanent affordable housing development.

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Most low cost technical fixes can be accomplished through changes in City housing policy that affect how survivors can access different housing resources.

The current application process to obtaining affordable housing is lengthy, cumbersome, and inefficient, creating an unnecessary barrier between survivors and lifesaving resources.

Even though they are homeless, residents of domestic violence shelters cannot access HPD Section 8, HPD homeless set-aside units, or many supportive and semi-permanent housing options. HPD’s homeless resources should be made available to survivors of domestic violence using the Human Resources Administration shelter system.

In addition, the eligibility criteria for NYCHA domestic violence priority status relies heavily on criminal justice based documentation, yet most applicants from domestic violence shelters do not meet these criteria. In fact, in 2011, only 28 percent of domestic violence emergency shelter residents are even eligible for domestic violence priority. The application requirements should be expanded so as to not rely exclusively on criminal documentation.

By streamlining and expediting the application process for Housing Preservation and Development and New York City Housing Authority housing, survivors will have better access to a safe place to stay before exiting the shelter system.

These low cost technical fixes would go a long way towards improving access for survivors of domestic violence, but investments in spurring new development of permanent affordable housing are also essential.

Modest investments in permanent affordable housing would wean the city off of its $1 billion homeless shelter system and provide long-term and less costly solutions for survivors of domestic violence. The actual cost to house a family in a shelter for one year is $36,000, compared to an average of $12,000 per year in rent for permanent affordable housing. Yet, according to a 2007 report by the Independent Budget Office, the City spent $140 million on shelter for domestic violence victims compared to only $400,000 for permanent housing.

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If the next mayor of New York designates a City agency to fund domestic violence support services in permanent housing, developers will be able to take advantage of capital funding and spur new construction of supportive housing for survivors.

The reality is that many survivors lack the work experience or education needed to support themselves and without some financial assistance, they are unable to afford an apartment on their own. According to New Destiny Housing’s 2012 report, Out in the Cold: Housing Cuts Leave Domestic Violence Survivors With No Place to Go, a household would have to make $24.68 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment in New York City, a significant amount of money for any single parent. The development of a rent subsidy program that included job training would ease this burden for survivors of domestic violence and place them on a pathway to self-sufficiency.

It will also be important for the next Mayor to explore bold new initiatives to tackle domestic violence. The introduction of a rapid re-housing program through New York City Family Justice Centers would reduce the use of costly shelters, provide services to domestic violence survivors who cannot access shelter, improve the long-term safety and stability of survivors, and save the City money.

Reducing domestic violence in New York City will require many solutions, from technical fixes to modest investments, and new initiatives. But a key factor to supporting low-income survivors and their children is providing them with permanent affordable housing. This will save the City millions of dollars that are currently spent on costly shelters and place the City on a path toward eradicating domestic violence while ensuring victims no longer have to choose between abuse and homelessness. This is a goal worthy of the next mayor of New York City.

Carol Corden is the executive director of New Destiny Housing, which seeks to end domestic violence by providing survivors and their families with permanent, affordable housing and supportive services that will guarantee their long-term safety and well-being.