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Schneiderman's Voice Needed in Foreclosure Talks


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Photo by the Office of the Attorney General
After he pressed for allowing prosecution of banks, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was booted from a committee of his fellow state attorneys generals considering enforcement actions against unscrupulous lenders.

(Note: Gotham Gazette reached out to a number of people hoping they would present an opposing points of view on the aspects of foreclosure discussed below. We could not find anyone who would do that but would still welcome comments from other sides on this issue.)

It was not all that long ago when the conventional wisdom among America’s working families was that owning a home provided the key to economic security and a life of prosperity. But now, too many families across New York and America live in fear of foreclosure. Since 2007, nearly 8 million homes have entered a foreclosure process.

We can't forget that this situation was not a sudden, unexpected disaster. It was not inevitable. Instead America's mortgage crisis was the direct result of the greedy, immoral and possibly illegal actions by the largest mortgage banks. These companies intentionally pillaged the assets of working families to enhance their own profits, with no regard for the broader good of our communities or our economy.

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In order for the American economy to recover and for working families to get back on their feet, two things must happen. First, real relief must be provided to those who predatory mortgage banks preyed upon. Second, those responsible for the mortgage crisis must be held accountable.

As has been widely reported in the press, New York's attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, has been removed from a committee of state attorneys general that the Obama administration convened to take enforcement action against mortgage servicers. The settlement that this committee is close to reaching with the banks -- a settlement supported by many powerful Washington politicians, including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner -- would require the banks to pay up to $20 billion. In return, though, the banks would be immune from further prosecution.

Schneiderman's Stand

By standing against this settlement and ensuring that he can complete his own comprehensive investigation into the fraud and abuse that these banks perpetrated against the public, Schneiderman is doing exactly what we elected him to do: fighting for justice.

This settlement is a bad deal for New Yorkers. Amnesty for those banks that acted with the most egregious depravity will do absolutely nothing to prevent them from acting the same way again. America can no longer trust massive corporations to police their own practices, especially when they have made skyrocketing profits just two years after enjoying billions in taxpayer bailouts. There is no doubt -- no question -- that these very same banks are responsible for the recession that still grips many of New York's working families. The CEOs of these banks have not even gotten a taste of the economic calamity that they have caused.

Having a Say

New York deserves a seat at the table when it comes to ensuring that a fair settlement is reached. In fact, according to the FBI, New York was among the top 10 states for known or suspected mortgage fraud. Since this story broke, over 1,600 New Yorkers have signed Citizen Action's petition in support of Schneiderman’s pursuit of justice.

Some (ahem -- the New York Post) have argued that if the banks had not proceeded with so many foreclosures, thereby reducing their risk of financial losses, then those banks would have been hesitant to issue more mortgages. While it may be true that banks are not usually willing to take risks unless they have a scheme to ensure their financial success, I think that we can all reach for a higher standard for our corporations.

Schneiderman is seeking a full investigation, a reasonable (i.e., more than $20 billion) settlement and the ability to continue to prosecute illegal activity as it is discovered. Without that kind of approach we will no doubt be in the same situation once again. With it, we can have a society where lenders act responsibly and working families can get the loans they need to build their futures.

For far too long, those who have been elected to represent us in government have coddled the super-wealthy while leaving working families to foot the tab. It’s time for our government to protect those who elect them -- not just those who finance their elections. We believe that if justice is achieved, then everyone will be better off. America needs more elected officials like Schneiderman - willing to stand up to the most powerful special interests in the pursuit of justice.

Karen Scharff is executive director of Citizen Action of New York.

City Needs to Step Up Foreclosure Programs


Photo (cc) dominic bartolini

Everywhere we turn, there is evidence of how Wall Street and financial institutions have failed to step up and take responsibility for the foreclosure crisis they caused.

A few weeks ago, Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film, exposing how the explosion of predatory lending, combined with all the wrong incentives in the financial sector, stripped countless families of their life savings and cost millions of jobs around the world.

Then last week, Neil Barofsky, the federal inspector who oversaw the TARP program that bailed out the banks, resigned in protest over how much it had become a giveaway to the big banks. In explaining his decision, Barofsky writes of how banks have refused to modify mortgages or extend credit, how the home mortgage modification program has been a “colossal failure,” and how little real regulatory reform has taken place. The largest banks are actually 20% bigger than they were before the crisis, and the cost of their being “too big to fail” is now built right into the banking system.

 

Meanwhile, though banks can’t even find the paperwork to prove that they’ve got a right to foreclose on many mortgages, they have scoffed at the idea of reaching an agreement with the 50 states’ attorneys general to help homeowners in trouble.

Really, who could blame them? Time and again, we’ve shown that we’ll let them get away with it.

Much stronger federal and state action is needed. I remain hopeful that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, led by the indomitable Elizabeth Warren, will make a real difference here. And I have been encouraged by the work of new NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

But we can’t wait. We need stronger action at the local level as well. While NYC hasn’t been hit as hard as some places, communities throughout the city still have many vacant, blighted, and abandoned homes and construction projects.

A City Approach

In 2007, the Bloomberg Administration and the City Council helped launch the Center for New York City Neighborhoods to provide foreclosure counseling and address the crisis. Unfortunately, Mayor Bloomberg’s FY2012 preliminary budget eliminated all city funding for the Center (if only the foreclosure crisis had been eliminated).

And I am very pleased that the Housing Asset Renewal Program (HARP) created by the Administration and the Council has at last announced its first deals to convert failed development projects into housing for middle-income families.

But we haven’t seen anything from Mayor Bloomberg that holds banks responsible, or even asks them nicely. Instead, the mayor has often been Wall Street’s chief defender, traveling to Washington, speaking against additional regulation, and arguing against the renewal of New York State’s existing millionaire’s tax.

Despite these failures, the City Council is in a good position to do more.

Too often, lenders fail to take responsibility for repairs and upkeep of foreclosed or abandoned properties – and the city is left on the hook to keep those properties safe. Inspired by the advocacy of New York Communities for Change, I introduced a bill (Intro 494) that would require lenders to post a bond for each property they are foreclosing on – to ensure the city gets paid promptly for fees, fines, and emergency repairs during the foreclosure and post-foreclosure period. It builds on two other bills (Intro 500 and 501) sponsored by Councilmember Eric Dilan) that would require lenders to register when they bring a foreclosure proceeding and would transfer responsibility for those fines and repairs to the foreclosing bank. These bills will be heard in the Council on April 14th in the Housing & Buildings Committee.

A requirement to post a bond would force banks to step up and make sure the property they are seeking to take ownership of remains compliant with building and housing codes. This bill would apply to abandoned construction sites as well, giving us a new tool to address these blights in our neighborhoods.

And I hope we’ll go beyond holding banks responsible for individual properties. We also need them to take responsibility for meeting the credit needs of our communities. Even with the bailout money they received, and despite the fact that 2009 and 2010 were banner years, many banks are failing to lend, invest, modify mortgages, or locate branches in our communities. And yet some of these banks hold billions in government funds from the City of New York’s deposits.

The NYC Responsible Lending Act (Intro 485-2011) is sponsored by Councilmember Al Vann and was developed with the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development and the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project (I’m pleased to be one of the four primary co-sponsors). This bill would require banks who want to make money on the business of holding the city’s cash to put forward a strategic plan for how they plan to meet community credit needs … and then provide a detailed annual report on their record of community investment and service. There would be a public hearing on their plan and track record.

Poor results would be grounds for the city to stop doing business with those banks. Philadelphia and Cleveland already have laws like this, and legislators are considering it in Los Angeles and other cities around the country.

The City Council can't reform derivatives trading, executive compensation, or predatory lending. But these local laws could build pressure on banks to get a few new bank branches open in low-income neighborhoods, help homeowners keep their homes, promote responsible lending to affordable housing, and help start small businesses.

And perhaps these steps will help promote the idea that taking responsibility is something that is expected of all of us … even financial institutions.

Brad Lander is a New York City Councilmember from Brooklyn.

Oscar Chorus Shows What Schools -- and Kids -- Can Do


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Photo (cc) NYC Department of Education
The P.S. 22 chorus has been at the Oscars, but the kids spend most of their time at an elementary school on Staten Island that puts a high priority on the arts.

New York magazine called it "the best-known elementary-school chorus on the planet." The fifth grade chorus' videos have been watched more than 28,000,000 times -- and for good reason. It's exhilarating to see kids having that much fun while learning at school. If you haven't seen them on YouTube yet, maybe you caught them perform at the Academy Awards this past Sunday.

What’s so amazing about these students is that they are not from LaGuardia High School for Music and Arts, or Julliard, or even Glee's fictional William McKinley. They hail from Staten Island's Graniteville Public Elementary School, or P.S. 22.

And though the chorus members are clearly talented, when you strip away the Oscar performance and the visits with Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, what you see is a group of students having a great time, expressing themselves and making the most of the educational opportunity they have.

Part of the appeal is that these kids are not from privileged backgrounds with years of private voice lessons or musical training -- in fact 75 percent of the students at P.S. 22 qualify for free lunch, and English is a second language for many of them. What they do have though is a fantastic music teacher in Gregg Breinberg and a principal, Melissa Donath, who understands the value of arts instruction for her students.

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Beyond the chorus, P.S. 22 offers a rich arts curriculum. Students from pre-k all the way through to fifth grade participate in music, dance, theater and visual arts as required by state law. And they have the space to excel -- classrooms are equipped for both vocal and instrumental music, as well as visual arts and photography. "The arts are woven into all content areas," said Donath, and play a part in increasing student achievement and engagement.

My organization, the Center for Arts Education, can attest to that. We are partnering with P.S. 22 this year on an arts-based family engagement program called Parents As Arts Partners. Not in music, but in the visual arts -- the students and their parents will create a three-dimensional peace sculpture that ties in with anti-bullying efforts. And not because we hand-picked the school, but because P.S. 22 also has a dedicated visual arts teacher, Lois Byrnes, who applied.

Not all students in New York City, though, have the same opportunities as the kids from P.S. 22. According to the most recent data from the 2008-09 school year, only 39 percent of the city's public elementary schools were providing the arts instruction that the state education department has determined is the minimum that elementary school children should receive. In other words, 6 out of every 10 city elementary schools fall short of state standards.

Why are so many kids not getting the well-rounded education to which they are entitled? In a nutshell, principals at schools across the city are under extreme pressure to improve student test scores in just two subject areas -- English language arts and math. Education policymakers from the federal level all the way to the New York City Department of Education, believe that the true measure of a school's success can be gleaned only through testing and more testing in these subject areas. That's why they want to expand standardizing testing to the kindergarten level. And we at the Center for Arts Education believe that is a significant reason why city graduation rates fall far below the state and national average.

Are the ingredients that exist at P.S. 22 that hard to replicate? Absolutely not. Dedicated arts spaces, energetic teachers, arts classes, and a school environment that encourages students to excel, shouldn’t be the exception -- they should be the norm. And while budgets are tight, schools that understand the importance of the arts fight to protect them. Kudos to P.S. 22 for seeing the big picture. Let’s hope that schools leaders and education officials tuned into the Academy Awards show and got a glimpse of what our students can do when given the opportunity.

Doug Israel is the author of Staying in School: Arts Education and New York City Graduation Rates, and the director of research and policy at The Center for Arts Education.

Building a Better Buildings Department


Photo by Jason Kuffer
The Department of Buildings had issued 13 violations for this Manhattan site where a 2008 crane collapse killed seven people.

The tragic deaths this month of two veteran ironworkers at a West 83rd Street construction site were a shocking reminder of how perilous construction work can be in our city. What was not so shocking, unfortunately, was the trail of workplace violations that were issued by the city Department of Buildings at the site after the fatalities -- 11 in all, including eight, Class 1 violations, which are defined by the city as posing a "threat that severely affects life, health, [and] safety." In this case, that included failures to install vertical netting, guard rails and toe boards, all safety features intended to prevent serious falls.

No system of inspections is ever going to prevent every accident. But for too long the city's Department of Buildings has been plagued by bureaucratic inefficiency, allegations of corruption and missed warning signs at fatal construction sites. A big part of this problem, I believe, can be traced to the department's conflicting mission to both promote and police development. On the one hand, its agents are charged with issuing permits to allow new developments; on the other, its inspectors are called upon to issue violations at those same developments when problems arise.

 

There is a better way. The city should create an independent office of inspections, one that streamlines the inspection process but also removes any tension within the buildings department over its dual role.

This is an idea with broad and deep support. Both the city's business and labor communities have endorsed the concept of an independent inspection office, as did a task force set up by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as far back as 2000. And yet the issue remains unresolved, despite a well-documented history of lax -- and sometimes dangerous -- oversight problems.

City Hall's announcement this week that building permits would now include bar codes -- allowing residents to use smart phones to access information already available online-- is a welcome advance. But it falls well short of the major reform that is needed at the buildings department.

A History of Deadly Problems

The untimely deaths of veteran steelworkers Brett McEnroe, 49, and Roy Powell, 51, at the West 83rd Street site last week are only the latest examples. On March 15, 2008, a crane collapsed at a construction site in East Midtown, killing seven people; the Department of Buildings had issued 13 violations for this site. Two months later, a crane toppled over on the Upper East Side, killing two people at a site with 14 violations.

The common denominator in all these accidents was a lengthy backlog of open buildings department and Environmental Control Board violations, as well as a flurry of new ones issued in the wake of disaster.

A later report by my office found tens of thousands of Manhattan buildings to have serious safety or structural violations, including many schools and hospitals. The report also examined long-standing complaints about the erratic training of building department inspectors, as well as the antiquated system of hand-written violation records the agency still uses.

Taking Advantage of the Slump

It is time to reform the buildings department, and the time to do it is now, while the issuance of new building permits is down some 80 percent since 2006 as a result of the still-stalled economy. We must act now so that when good times do return -- as they always do in New York -- we will be ready with a modernized, streamlined Department of Buildings.

We need to establish an independent inspection office. We need to properly train our inspectors. And we need to arm them with handheld computers -- already used by other agencies -- so that information about violations can be swiftly relayed to other inspectors and property owners.

We know the next building boom is coming -- the New York Building Congress counted 692 "stalled" building sites in the five boroughs last October, many of them just waiting for the economy to turn the corner. Together, these projects represent hundreds of millions of dollars of unrealized investment -- and thousands of good paying construction jobs.

New York's building stock is the backbone of our urban infrastructure and is no less important than the roads and railways that keep us all connected. Failing to properly regulate its growth and safety is a risk we can no longer afford.

Scott Stringer is Manhattan borough president.

Experience Shows Living Wage Policies Work


After recently scuttling a bill that would require paid sick days, the Bloomberg administration and the business community now are training their sights on two more City Council proposals intended to help workers. The bills ask developers who receive major taxpayer subsidies to guarantee that the jobs their big projects create will pay decent wages.

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In its efforts to combat this initiative, the administration and its allies have raised a number of arguments. But examination of the facts shows that the objections have no basis in reality. Instead, New York's own experiences and those of other cities demonstrate that living-wage policies are important tools for ensuring that development delivers the middle-class jobs that communities -- and our economy -- need in order to recover and thrive.

The City Council Proposals

The City Council proposals would build on the city's current living-wage law, which was enacted in 1995 and broadened in 2002. It guarantees a $10 minimum wage plus benefits or the prevailing industry wage (whichever is higher) for certain types of service workers at companies that operate under contracts with city agencies. The new proposals (Intro 0018 and Intro 0251) would expand these successful local wage standards to workers employed on taxpayer-subsidized economic development projects.

Every year, the city awards many millions of dollars in tax breaks to promote growth across the five boroughs -- everything from the Hudson Yards project on the West Side, to the new Coney Island in Brooklyn. While these projects are touted for the jobs they will create, security guards and cashiers at subsidized projects often are paid just $8 or $9 per hour with no benefits.

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Under the City Council proposals, when developers seek such taxpayer subsidies, they would need to recruit tenants and building service contractors that will provide decently paying jobs. Specifically, on projects where developers receive subsidies, all workers would be required to be paid at least $10 per hour -- a very modest wage floor. And for building service workers -- for whom the standard wage in most large buildings in New York is more than $20 per hour -- developers would be required to match that prevailing industry wage.

Big Real Estate, Not Small Businesses

For starters, the administration says the bills would hurt small business. But the developers that receive these subsidies are about as far from small businesses as one can get. And the businesses they bring in as partners are typically major retail and hotel chains, not mom-and-pop shops.

In fact, small businesses generally oppose the city's policy of subsidizing big development projects, because it gives the chain stores an unfair advantage over local mom-and-pops that don't get tax breaks. That is why small-business groups like the Neighborhood Retail Alliance support the City Council's living-wage and prevailing-wage bills. They argue that if these big projects are going to be supported with taxpayer funds, they should at least pay their workers decently.

Developers Will Still Develop

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's other main argument is that it is unrealistic to ask developers to guarantee decent wages and that doing so will kill projects and jobs. That's a serious charge. But the experiences of New York and other major cities present compelling evidence to the contrary.

Although you would never know it from the mayor's rhetoric, Bloomberg has required wage standards on most major development projects across the city in order to win City Council support. This started in 2005 with the redevelopment of the Brooklyn waterfront in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Bloomberg, then–City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and developers signed an agreement to pay decent wages to the janitors and security guards who would eventually be employed in the buildings there. Far from killing any projects or jobs, the developers eagerly moved forward with new luxury high-rises up and down the waterfront. Today, buildings like the Toll Brothers' Northside Piers complex in Williamsburg operate profitably, while paying their janitors solid, middle-class wages.

Since 2005, the city has gone on to use similar standards on other major projects, such as the Willets Point, Coney Island and Domino Sugar factory redevelopments. There is no evidence that the wage guarantees have hurt the city's ability to recruit developers, or developers' ability to get financing or attract tenants for their projects.

But while New York has begun to make progress, it still must play catch-up to other cities in what it expects from businesses that benefit from taxpayers' largesse. Los Angeles, under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, has been the national leader in making the creation of living-wage jobs a top priority. No major subsidized development project there goes forward without a living-wage standard -- not just for building service workers, but employees in all low-wage jobs that may be generated. Projects ranging from the Staples Center/L.A. Live sports-and-entertainment district and the Kodak Theater (host to the Academy Awards), to hotel and retail development projects have been built using living-wage standards.

Los Angeles' economic development agency has found that these standards have not prevented developers from balancing project budgets, getting financing, and finding anchor tenants. The employers that the city has partnered with on these projects include major hotel chains like Marriott, Ritz and the W; food-service contractors like HMS Host and Aramark; and retailers like Trader Joe's and Costco.

San Francisco, under Mayor Gavin Newsom, has used the same strategy with equal success. For example, the massive redevelopment of the city's Hunters Point Shipyard and Candlestick Point section announced this summer (which will include 635,000 square feet of retail, 2.6 million square feet of office and research space, 10,000 residential units, and a football stadium) will require living wages for all jobs in the project area. The Lennar Corp., the nation's second-largest homebuilder, eagerly sought city approval for the project. The city's living wage was so uncontroversial that there was virtually no mention of it during the public debate over the project.

Stalling With a Study

In an effort to delay action on the proposed bills, the Bloomberg administration has commissioned a million-dollar study of the impact that living-wage laws have had across the nation. The administration hired the nation's leading anti-minimum wage economist, David Neumark from the University of California at Irvine, to conduct the analysis. Neumark, who is affiliated with the Employment Policies Institute -- a lobbying group for low-wage employers seeking to keep wages low -- has staked out an extreme and controversial position on wage standards. He opposed even the modest increase in the federal minimum wage to $7.25.

Worse still, his research on living-wage policies has been exposed as fatally flawed. Rather than gather actual data on workers and businesses covered by living-wage policies, Neumark attempts to tease out the impact of such measures from general citywide employment data. However, as more careful economists have pointed out, in most of the cities that have adopted living-wage laws, the policy affects only a very small number of workers. And it simply is not possible to discern the impact -- whether positive or negative -- on such a tiny sliver of the labor market from general data.

Benefits of Living Wages

Last month, the Center for American Progress released an important new national study of living-wage laws that definitively debunked Neumark's findings. It puts to rest the real estate lobby's claims that living-wage policies have impeded job growth by creating an "anti-development" business climate. And it lends support to the large body of careful research over the past decade that has examined actual living-wage policies on the ground -- and documented substantial benefits, not just for workers but also for employers.

For example, in a case study of San Francisco International Airport, University of California economists found the living-wage policy there raised pay by an average of 22 percent for workers such as security screeners, cashiers and restaurant servers. At the same time, airport employers saw annual turnover for security screeners plummet from 94.7 percent to 18.7 percent, resulting in annual savings of $4,275 per employee in recruitment costs. Employers also reported improvements in employee performance, employee morale, and customer service.

Rebuilding the City’s Middle Class and Economy

Bloomberg has begun promoting New York's record of job growth as a model for the nation. But that job growth has produced an hourglass economy, with high-paying finance jobs at the top, low-wage service jobs at the bottom, and less and less for the city's eroding middle class.

Los Angeles has provided a road map for a pro-growth development strategy that expands the tax base and brings in new employers, while improving wages for hotel, retail, and service workers. New York needs to learn from this approach.

Producing more middle-class jobs is vital, not only for New York’s working families, but also for its economy. Because consumer demand powers our economy, a thriving middle class that can afford to spend money at local businesses is essential for sustaining growth. New York's recovery strategy must therefore include initiatives for rebuilding a base of good jobs at good wages for the workers who make the city run. The City Council’s living-wage and prevailing-wage proposals are a good place to start.

Paul K. Sonn is legal co-director of theNational Employment Law Project

The Charter Commission's Unfinished Business


The city has gone through many charters -- and revisions of charters -- since Peter Stuyvesant and his counsel prepared one in 1652. And, writes Scott Stringer, a lot more work needs to be done.

New York City voters will be deciding several proposals for City Charter reform on the November ballot -- and I urge all readers of the Gotham Gazette to participate in this year's election. It's crucial that the people's voice be heard on such issues, and we're fortunate that Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed a city Charter Revision Commission with intelligent, hard-working members who take their job seriously.

 

But I'm disappointed that voters will not be able to review a more comprehensive list of reforms this year -- changes that could have had a dramatic impact on everything from overcrowded schools and inefficient land use planning to innovative food use policies and the empowerment of our community boards. Indeed, I see this year's charter election as a missed opportunity. We have a mere handful of proposals before us this November, and no indication that a more thorough consideration of local government is in the offing.

With a 21-year-break since the last comprehensive charter revision, there was no need to rush the deliberate process of charter reform. And yet that's essentially what the commission did. It had a rare opportunity to engage New Yorkers in a careful re-thinking of our municipal constitution, but instead focused on getting a package before voters in this election.

Earlier this year my office released a 76-page report to the New York City Charter Revision Commission, outlining a series of comprehensive proposals for reform. The city could deal with these and other proposed changes and put them on the ballot next year -- but only if the mayor appoints and convenes a new commission. I strongly recommend that he do just that. With proper public hearings and input, we could finally have a long overdue discussion about the future of our city.

There are a number of instances where the current Charter Commission could have proposed action to remedy a problem facing New York but failed to do so. Here are just a few examples:

  • The issue of overcrowded schools, for example, shows no signs of abating. Every year we hear new horror stories of children unable to enroll in neighborhood schools because of a lack of space. The problem, as my office has shown in several reports, stems from a lack of planning. We revealed that, in one year, New York issued permits for residential construction that would bring 2,300 new students into Manhattan schools, but added only 143 new school seats.

The Department of Education may simply not be well equipped to do this critical planning, but other city agencies already have the expertise and data to plan. Therefore, my office proposed a charter revision requiring that an agency other than the Department of Education focus on this problem: The Department of City Planning would provide student enrollment projections; the Office of the Comptroller would conduct regular needs analyses on school capacity.

  • Our local Community Boardsare thriving in Manhattan, and they play an increasingly visible role in land use decisions. But they need better tools to represent our citizens. I proposed a charter amendment restoring the role of Community Boards as Community Planning Boards. Among a variety of recommendations, I suggested that each board should have the ability to hire a full-time urban planner. This would enable more robust community-based planning and give all of our neighborhoods a greater voice in decisions about New York’s future.
  • As borough president, I have spearheaded Go Green projects in East Harlem and the Lower East Side that promote more environmentally responsible policies and healthier and more sustainable food policy. Indeed, food is at the intersection of health, hunger and the local economy. Rates of diabetes and obesity rosean alarming 17 percent between 2002 and 2004. Today 1.6 million New Yorkers are on food stamps and 3.3 million have trouble affording food. That’s why I sponsored a proposal calling for a Department of Food and Markets to promote food access and economy, and make New Yorkers healthier.
  • For decades, the city's Department of Buildings has been plagued by corruption and dysfunction. Many buildings are notoriously unsafe, with only rare or sporadic inspections. In fall 2009, my office conducted a thorough review of open Department of Buildings and Environmental Control Board violations and foundthat there were nearly a quarter of a million open violations in Manhattan alone. A full third of those were considered "Class 1" or "hazardous." Violations in New York buildings remain open -- or unresolved -- for nearly five years on average. We can't keep waiting for tragedies to happen. I proposed a charter amendment transferring building inspection and remediation duties from the buildings department to a new and independent Office of Investigation.
  • The responsibilities of a borough president have evolved since the position was created in 1897. Today the charter mandates a key role in land use and capital budget decisions, contract oversight, strategic planning, oversight of community boards and appointments to key boards and commissions. The job is largely what you make it: In Manhattan I’ve launched Bank On, a program aimed at persuading thousands of unbanked New Yorkers to open accounts; we created a new 600-seat school as part of negotiations over NYU expansion; we opened a community asthma center in East Harlem that is one of the first of its kind.

    Although borough presidents are meant to be an independent check and balance to the mayor and City Council, their budgets are set and approved by those branches of government. I've proposed a charter amendment granting borough presidents independent budgetary authority, so these elected officials would have a freer hand. Another proposal would allow borough presidents to hire land use counsel to help them beef up planning reviews as they help shape the growth of our city.

    These are the kind of proposals that could and should be on the ballot next year, but only if Mayor Bloomberg appoints a new Charter Revision Commission. As borough president, I will continue to fight for meaningful charter reform, so we finally have a chance to tackle long overdue changes in the nation’s largest city. No one knows what needs to be improved in New York City’s government better than the 8 million people we’re supposed to serve. It's time to begin the conversation.

    Scott M. Stringer is Manhattan borough president.

Once Again, Term Limits Goes to the Voters


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Eric Gioia, John Liu, David Weprin and Charles Barron -- then all members of the City Council --held a press conference to oppose extension of term limits in October 2008.

(This is the second article in a series of commentaries Gotham Gazette will run between now and Election Day on the charter proposals appearing on the November ballot.)

The issue of term limits has been a political hot potato in this city for the past 20 years. It has pitted the public against their elected officials and done significant damage to our democracy in the process. The latest chapter in this story will take place on Nov. 2 when voters will yet again get an opportunity to decide whether they want their city elected officials to have two or three terms.

That question and a number of others were put on the ballot by a Charter Revision Commission appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg this past March. The Charter Commission was created in the aftermath of the controversial decision by city elected officials to extend term limits to three terms in 2008. This action overturned the will of the people as expressed in two public referendums on the subject. In the first referendum, in 1993, the voters overwhelming expressed their support for a two term limit for all city elected officials. Not satisfied with that answer, the City Council in 1996 put another referendum on the ballot that would extend term limits to three terms. The voters soundly rejected that suggestion.

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This tumultuous history formed the backdrop for the work of the 2010 Charter Commission. Although the Charter Commission was charged with performing a top-to-bottom review of the New York charter, its first obligation was to address the term-limits question. I was one of the 15 members of the Charter Commission, and ironically, one of the few members who supports the general idea of term limits. However, regardless of their own personal beliefs, most members of the Charter Commission believed that, given the prior referendums and the public outrage over the way things were reversed in 2008, it was vitally important to our democracy for the voters to have an opportunity to settle this issue once and for all.

Although the term-limits issue will appear on the ballot as a single measure -- Question 1 -- actually is comprised of three separate questions, not one. The Charter Commission lumped them together as one question due to space limitations imposed on us by the Board of Elections. (The board has subsequently denied any such limitations, but that's the subject of another story.) The three parts of Question 1 attempt to address the public's request for a final, binding say on the issue of term limits for city officials. My belief is that we went a long way toward accomplishing that goal, but we failed to finish the job.

I believe that we did get it right on the first two parts of Question 1. Part one of the question gives voters the chance to decide whether we should return to a limit of two terms for all city elected officials. If the electorate rejects going back to two terms, then the current three-term limit will be retained. Part two of Question 1 would prohibit the City Council from altering the terms of elected officials currently holding office. This means that council members can only modify the term-limits law for future city officials, and not for themselves. In many respects, this closes the "loophole" that caused so much public outrage in 2008.

But it is part three of Question 1 that sparked the most debate and disagreement within the Charter Commission. That part provides that the proposed change back to two terms would apply only to city elected officials who were first elected at or after the 2010 general election. In other words, all incumbents who are not already in their third terms would be "grandfathered in" and will have the opportunity of serving three terms. Since the next City Council election will not take place until 2013, the two-term limit would not fully take effect until 2021.

It's my contention that this essentially creates a new "loophole" that will only perpetuate the public's lack of faith in government. It is also logically inconsistent with the other parts of Question 1. If we are providing the public with an option of two terms because of the outrage and loss of trust that was engendered by the 2008 change, then why would we extend this questionable windfall?

As stated in a Minority Report that I authored along with two fellow Charter Commissioners, "The 2008 change from two terms to three was made effective immediately. The change back from three to two -- if the voters approve it -- should be no different. Elected officials are not entitled to a certain number of terms. We see no justification for exempting any elected official from the two-term limit, should the voters reinstitute one."

I am not an advocate for government by referendum. We have all seen the chaos it has caused in California. We live in a representative democracy, and it works well for the most part. However, there are some areas of government that are so vulnerable to self-interest and self-dealing that the only way to bring about change is through a public referendum. For example, the City Council can currently raise its own pay. How many people believe it should have that right or that it will ever give up that power on its own accord? Similarly, incumbents will never willingly reduce their own terms, even if it means defying the will of the people who elected them.

That is why despite my own reservations about the effective date of the term limits provision, I strongly support it and urge voters to vote yes on ballot Question 1. It's an important first step toward reversing what happened in 2008 and restoring some of the trust that was lost along with it. Hopefully in the next year either a new charter commission or a public referendum will eliminate the exemption for incumbents and finish the job we started.

Anthony P. Cassino, a lawyer who lives in the Bronx, was a member of the 2010 Charter Revision Commission.

Full-Time Council Would Better Serve New Yorkers


New York City Council

We want and expect our City Council members to be the best and brightest our city has to offer, but it is becoming harder and harder to expect top-of-the-line professionals to choose public service. A recent Gotham Gazette article reported that many City Council members earn outside income, with some making substantial amounts. This suggests that New York City's council members should be full-time city employees. Such a change would go a long way to truly reforming our city government.

Currently, council members make $112,000 per year (I'm one of a handful of council members who doesn't receive a "lulu" for chairing a committee); our city's absurd tax burden just about cuts that in half. I own my home in my district, and that is an expensive undertaking even by New York City standards. By no means am I asking for sympathy, I feel that I’m a lucky one -- I live comfortably, and I'm very thankful for that.

 

Millions of New Yorkers no doubt pay their bills while earning less than their council member makes. Even though council members do have to disclose their incomes, the salary ranges they report have enormous variation -- sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars. You could throw a dart at a board with random salaries on it and make a better guess at what your council member earns moonlighting.

A Council Member's Job

Rather than have all this vague disclosure, the city should mandate that council members put in 40-hour weeks to enable them to provide true, full-time constituent services. Along with that, the city should increase the pay for the position. We should have to fill out time sheets just as our subordinates do and account for our time. Of course, some of the members already devote far in excess of a 40-hour week to their districts and the city, and for that, I am grateful.

We need to make an investment in our city's legislative body that will ultimately make the council stronger and more responsive to the people. I consider myself a full-time council member, working over 60 hours a week for District 19. I come to my council office every day and go to every council meeting and attend meetings for six different committees. I meet with community leaders and constituents throughout the morning, deal with office matters and travel around my district and the city to events in the late afternoons and evenings, including weekends. My district office is open on weekends and has a late night each week to better serve the varied schedules of my constituents, and we also are available on the web; I even update my major events and happenings on Facebook and Twitter to keep people informed.

In saying this, I'm not digging for compliments. As I see it, I'm just doing my job. But technically, the role of council member is only a part-time position. Many of my colleagues work full- or part-time elsewhere, and who can blame them? They are accustomed to earning more than their council salaries in the private sector, and it's perfectly legal (assuming they avoid conflicts of interest, of course). And for many, the extra work is necessary to make ends meet.

The Full-time Advantage

Making the job full-time would give New Yorkers the complete attention from their elected officials that they deserve, and constituents would notice the difference. Council members would be more active in the community and be more hands-on in addressing their constituents' concerns. Leaders in business, law and other fields would be more inclined to run for public office and the entire city would benefit from the dedication.

Dozens of city department heads make over $200,000 per year, as well they should. They are top-shelf leaders and professionals who run complex agencies, supervising hundreds or thousands of personnel. Executive-level talent will earn at least twice this much, if not far more, in the private sector. And running New York City's bureaucratic, heavily regulated and sometimes archaic government is as challenging as any job you’ll find in the courtroom or on Wall Street.

We've seen the conflicts of interest that occur when elected officials run businesses on the side. For example, former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno was taken down by the blurring of the lines between outside income and political influence. It is not even the actual scandal or wrongdoing that will happen no matter how careful we are; a move toward full-time legislators would provide an atmosphere where even the very appearance of impropriety could not survive because influence peddling would have been largely stamped out.

Our public servants would be fully invested in one thing: public service. The time has come to ask our elected officials to make a full time commitment to the city and in turn, have the city make a full time commitment to them. It's about good government, it's about focused leaders -- it's about time.

Daniel J. Halloran, a Republican, represents Queens 19th District in the New York City Council.

Republicans, A Call to Arms


Photo from James Oddo 09
Councilmember James Oddo with fellow Republican Councilmember Vincent Ignizio

Five for fighting?

Not so much.

Go along to get along?

Don’t expect that either.

 

With the growth of the Republican delegation to five members and a potential shift further to the left in the rest of the City Council, increasingly folks are realizing that the Republican delegation I proudly lead is positioned at the crossroads of city government and as such will play a larger role in the goings on at City Hall.

If you are a fan of democracy, you should welcome this turn of events, as it will result in greater and more substantive debate and a louder, stronger voice shared by hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers (dare I say even more than that?).

Historically, and still true today, the City Council has not had the level of partisan vitriol that has played out in Albany and our nation’s capital. Perhaps that's because it's a unicameral legislature. Or, more bluntly, maybe it's because in the modern council there have been so few Republicans there was a need for us to simply coexist to exist. Whether it was Tom Ognibene and Peter Vallone Sr., or Gifford Miller, current Speaker Christine Quinn and I, the leaders of the two major parties in the council more often than not have found a way to transcend ideological differences in order to strive for common ground, coalitions and consensus.

There is great value in bipartisanship but make no mistake, those of us on the other side of the aisle have never been shrinking violets. In Joseph Heller’s stirring 1979 political novel, "Good as Gold," Ralph, a presidential aide, tells a job applicant, “This president doesn’t want ‘yes’ men. What we want are independent men of integrity who will agree with all our decisions after we make them.”

That will not be the 2010 incarnation of the Council’s GOP delegation. (Not that anyone who has been following the council, even in a cursory way, needs to be convinced of our approach.)

A Middle Class Agenda

For years, we have talked about the need for genuine structural fiscal integrity, focusing tax dollars on essential services and not having a city government that attempts to be all things to all people from cradle to grave. We have voted against tax increases at every turn, rejected misguided legislation that hurt small business and tried to ensure our actions reflected a sensitivity to a precious, yet threatened resource in New York City -- the hard-working middle class, who find it tougher and tougher to pay their bills, provide for their families and have a decent quality of life.

Sometimes we did it with humor, and at times with anger, and there was even one occasion where we did not get past the first course at a dinner at Gracie Mansion because we thought a statement needed to be made. But perhaps now, as a five-man delegation that will speak in a respectful, informed voice, we can team with an emboldened cadre of like-minded Democratic allies, who also have grown weary of seeing their constituents pay too dear a price for a city government that seems to take them for granted and taxes them into the ground.

While I believe that our words and deeds in the past have impacted the direction of this council in a positive way, we genuinely hope that in the coming term the positions of this delegation will be viewed as more than just a token protest vote.

Rather, it is our goal to make the most of the burgeoning influence of a coalition of centrist council members who are willing to stand up on behalf of taxpayers and small business owners who are under siege. We will be needed to enact legislation. We will be needed to stop counterproductive legislation from being passed. We will be needed to override bills or to stop bills rightly vetoed from being overridden. In short, true progress won’t happen without us and we will not squander the opportunity we have to effect change.

A quick example to illustrate my point.

In March 2004, I took to the floor of the Council Chambers amazed that all of my colleagues were seemingly nonplussed that we were about to enact a budget modification that in part was being implemented to allocate an additional $250 million dollars to the city’s Medicaid responsibilities. There was nary a peep! This from the same group of learned colleagues who literally spend weeks and months in hearings questioning agency heads, in budget negotiating team meetings debating the efficacy of just about every individual program the city institutes, and dare I say arguing in borough delegations as to what should be reflected as their priorities in the budget process. All this time and energy dedicated to a process, at the end of which, the council shifts only slightly more money than the aforementioned Medicaid budget modification that, but for my rant, would have gone without comment.

For too many of my colleagues, feeding the Medicaid monster a quarter of a billion dollars midyear was so acceptable as to not even warrant a query. Perhaps, this is why Medicaid and its three ugly “uncontrollable” sisters (pension and health care costs for city employees and debt service) have grown some 77 percent in the last eight years and are in large measure what is driving the daunting budget gaps we face for the next several years. It seems too often, the council forgets that it is a zero sum game and that every dollar spent on “A” is one less dollar available for police officers, firefighters, sanitation workers, etc. More frustrating at times, is the simple truth that many members have very different priorities and their definition of “essential” services differs greatly from many New Yorkers.

Healthy Debate

It is the hope of this delegation that a healthier debate on this question will now ensue and decisions that are currently foregone conclusions and the result of what appears to us as reflexive, typical knee jerk reactions, will now have to be enacted after a fuller discussion in which Democrats and Republicans challenge the all-too-accustomed orthodoxy of the council.

We genuinely respect all of our colleagues regardless of political affiliation. Many of us in the council want to get to the same destination, but differ passionately on the route we take to get there. We appreciate that unlike the minority parties in other legislatures, we have been treated fairly and have been welcomed as vital members of this institution. We look at the happenings in Albany and thank the Lord we serve in an institution where getting the people’s business done is what matters, not the letter on our voter registration cards.

Speaker Quinn has continued and enhanced the standard set by Peter Vallone Sr. and Speaker Miller and has encouraged us to speak as forthrightly as we want. We have complex and difficult challenges ahead. We look forward to working with all 46 of our colleagues in fulfilling our duties and responsibilities.

James Oddo represents City Council district 50 on Staten Island and is the council's minority leader.

Re-enfranchising New Yorkers


The results from the primary elections on Sept. 15 were remarkable in two respects for those who worry about the health of democracy in New York.

GG Commenary

The electorate showed some spunk, or at least a measure of restiveness, rejecting five City Council incumbents in their bid for re-election. When you take a look at each race where the incumbent lost, it is easy enough to identify weaknesses. Each district has its own story, a blend of foible and miscalculation on the part of the incumbent, against the backdrop of the poor economy. It is also important to note that four of the ousted incumbents followed the lead of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Speaker Christine Quinn and voted to extend term limits last year (the fifth loser, Kenneth Mitchell from Staten Island, was not in office at the time of the vote). Many voters are still sour about the decision of the city's political establishment to change by local law what many voters viewed as an issue they had settled on in two referenda many years before.

Local politics is usually about getting a nice big slice of the pie for your neighborhood -- saving a fire house, some parking spots, or building a park or school -- but last month's election suggested that something quite different was in the air. The game is not just all about winning, but being fair. The decision to throw out term limits sticks in the collective throat of New Yorkers. That's the good news -- voters upset about process.

The second remarkable aspect of the election was the turnout. The final number is not in yet, but between 10 percent and 12 percent of registered Democrats came out on Sept. 15 to cast a vote. In last week's runoff primary for city comptroller and public advocate, the turnout was even lower, a little less than 8 percent. This is a startlingly low number. In the November 2008 general election (Barack Obama v. John McCain) 50 percent of all registered voters came out to vote; in the February Democratic primary for the presidential nomination (Obama v. Hillary Clinton) 33 percent of Democrats showed up.

The vitality of last year's political season has drained away. Recall that when the state legislature moved control of the city schools to the mayor in 2002, one of the most compelling arguments for changing the system was that local community school boards no longer worked, in part because no one was voting for members of the board. Voting percentages in school board contests in many neighborhoods often dipped into the same range as the turnout reported in the recent primary. Will the current system of closed primary elections in New York one day suffer from a crisis in legitimacy that we saw with school board elections? It certainly is tracking that way.

It is not just the fact that roughly 2.5 million Democrats stayed home. Another 711,000 independents (17 percent of all voters) are ineligible to vote to any closed party primary. About 482,000 Republicans and 130,000 third party registrants cannot participate in the all-important Democratic primary too. So, we are left with about 8 percent of the total registered electorate picking the local legislature in the closed Democratic primary election on September 15, since the winners are virtually a lock to win the general election races in all but three of the 51 districts in the November general election

The Case for Nonpartisan Elections

Francis Barry makes the case in The Scandal of the Reform that nonpartisan elections can bring the franchise back to voters who are not registered Democrats. "Why," he asks, "exclude independent voters from the first round of voting [the closed primary] if that is the decisive election?" Messy empirical and practical arguments aside, this is a compelling argument on its face. As new generations of voters entering the polity valuing their independence and refusing to commit to one political party or the other, the numbers of the effectively disenfranchised will only climb.

Most cities have nonpartisan elections; Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami are among the larger ones on the list. Municipal elected officials in nonpartisan cities still participate in partisan politics; Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is a stalwart Democrat who is plotting a run for governor in his party's primary. In another nonpartisan city, Jersey City, Mayor Jerramiah Healy ran with the backing of the Hudson County Democratic machine. A point that is often lost is that nonpartisan election schemes can vary greatly; some cities allow candidates to identify themselves as partisans, others do not.

Bloomberg likes nonpartisan elections too, but he focuses more on the managerial quality of local government, along the lines of Fiorello LaGuardia's old chestnut that there is no partisan way to pick up the garbage. In 2003, Bloomberg established a charter commission under the chairmanship of Frank Macchiarola, the president of St. Francis College, to investigate and make recommendations for a nonpartisan election plan for the city. The commissioners worked hard, but faced overwhelming opposition from "reform" groups in New York. (I use the quotations here because Barry is not buying into the conventional nomenclature.)

Bloomberg's charter commission recommended giving candidates the option of indentifying their party affiliation if they chose, but opening the election to all registered voters, thus eliminating the closed party primary. If you are concerned about a crowded election contest that will produce a winner with 10 percent to 15 percent of the vote, no worries -- we can employ instant runoff techniques where voters can select their second and third choices. The top finishers can be paired off with the additional preferences supplied by voters and a winner with a legitimate majority can be crowned. (For more on instant runoff voting, see The Wonkster.)

Voters overwhelmingly rejected Macchiarola's plan for nonpartisan elections, 70 percent to 30 percent. But only 13 percent of registered voters bothered to show up for the off-year election of 2003, and many had ties to the unions, interest groups and political clubs that benefit from the status quo and know how to pull the levers of the current system to their advantage. They were loathe to expand the electorate and risk the surrender of power.

The Limits of 'Reform'

In a style reminiscent of the restaurant scene in Goodfellas in which we are introduced to Henry Hill's partners in crime in an extended panning shot, Barry describes a fundraiser in South Street Seaport for NYPIRG where he indentifies the good government players who came to pay their respects. The crowd at the fundraiser included the leadership of NYU's Brennan Center, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and the Citizens Union -- almost all of them liberal Democrats. (Citizens Union's sister organization, Citizens Union Foundation, publishes Gotham Gazette.) Barry argues that the city's reform community is more interested in advancing a liberal Democratic policy agenda than in process questions -- putting the living wage before ballot access, so to speak -- and the reform groups are more than willing to accommodate the city's incumbents and political insiders to get the job done.

"Good government leaders preach the virtues of process purity until that process works against them," writes Barry. "Then they break their own rules and hope no one notices." The city's public interest groups may cloak themselves in the language of the common good, but by Barry's lights they are just pigs at the city's trough, slopping up power and influence.

It was not always this way. In the age of Tammany, good government groups advocated the nonpartisan ballot as a method of combating the corruption of the political machines, even as they often surrendered to their nativist impulses and sought to restrict citizenship and ballot access. But Barry is no fan of the old-fashioned progressives, and he appreciates the way the county organizations brought immigrants into the political system.

Barry argues that things took a really bad turn when the mass politics base of the county organizations and political clubs began hollowing out after World War II -- the rank and file stopped going to meetings and making decisions. Political consultants become the new party bosses, and today elected officials try to build small machines devoted to their reelection and advancement. These new, candidate-centered machines are devoted to keeping people off the ballot with arcane petitioning procedures, rather than expanding the choices for voters and the electorate itself. And the good government groups are largely quiet about it.

Barry works for Bloomberg and served on the staff of the several charter commissions that considered the proposals for nonpartisan elections. Much of this hard work is evidenced in the book, as he demolishes conventional arguments in political science that claim that partisan elections mobilize voters and encourage minority voting. This political science folklore is based on a few dusty studies that are decades-old. Political scientists have been trained to love the theory of strong party government -- it is a tough habit to break.

Barry's work is full of wisdom about local politics. His well-written history of the machine/reform dynamic over the last 150 years is balanced and fair. He casts a critical eye on the city's campaign finance system, arguing that it has not increased political competition. One campaign operative told me, cracking wise, that the program should be renamed the printers and consultants relief act. The generous public matching system has lined the pockets of the political professionals, but has not increased political competition in any structural way. Anyone who got a stack full of useless campaign junk mail this fall sees their tax dollars at work.

Barry says that nonpartisan elections very well might create a more cooperative spirit in City Hall, and embolden rank and file legislators to break with orthodoxy. I am not so sure -- many cities, after all, have nonpartisan municipal elections and are just slogging it out like we do in the Big Apple. The best case for the adoption of nonpartisan elections is the principled one, removed from any impact it may have: Nonpartisan elections give more people the opportunity to exercise, in a meaningful way, the most fundamental right and obligation in a democracy, the vote.

Richard Flanagan is associate professor of political science at the College of Staten Island and co-directs the Center for the Study of Staten Island there. He is co-author of Staten Island Politics: Conservative Bastion in a Liberal City (forthcoming).

Zoning without Planning


Photo (cc) mikebot
Luxury condos like Schaefer Landing block easy public access to the waterfront and once unfettered views of the skyline.

Amanda Burden, chairperson of the New York City Planning Commission, boasts that since 2002, the city has completed a record 94 rezonings, creating the most sweeping revision of land use regulations throughout the city's five boroughs since the Zoning Resolution was rewritten in 1961. This massive rezoning effort supports the development priorities of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who in 2007 introduced PlaNYC2030, a long-term plan to incorporate almost 1 million more residents by the year 2030.

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The city's rezoning frenzy, though, highlights two fundamental problems with its approach to our neighborhoods. One is that the zoning is not based on any comprehensive review of community needs and priorities or any long-range planning. In other words, it's zoning without a plan.

The second and related problem is that, while the rezonings mainly create short-term opportunities for real estate development in neighborhoods where there is intense speculation, the city's planners falsely promote them as being aimed at preservation. In the endless succession of community meetings that go into the rezonings, the city's experts offer colorful slide presentations and discourses on technical details in an effort -- often successful -- to obscure matters. In fact, though, these rezonings are scams.

The principle culprit in this professional land use swindle is the Department of City Planning, the agency that Burden directs and that provides the staff for the 13-person City Planning Commission that she chairs. The Planning Commission officially sets the policy but it relies heavily on recommendations by the planning department staff and is dominated by mayoral appointees (7 out of 13).

Department of Real Estate

The Department of City Planning is the custodian of the city's zoning but for most of its recent history has rarely done any comprehensive planning for and with the city's neighborhoods. It might more appropriately be called the Department of Zoning or, better yet, the Department of Real Estate.

Zoning is a regulatory scheme for controlling the built environment, the physical shell that contains our vibrant human communities. Zoning is not the same as planning but should be based on planning. The city planning department, though, treats the Zoning Resolution itself as the plan for the city.

That view focuses only on the physical dimensions of buildings and plots of land. It doesn't start with the needs of the people who live, work and pass through our neighborhoods. It doesn't address public places, how people relate to the land and one another, and the needs and problems that arise from these relations. There is no place in zoning for the flora and fauna, the natural environment within which we live. While these may be mentioned in the cumbersome environmental impact statements that accompany rezonings, those documents also have little to do with real long-term environmental and health issues.

Community planning, as distinct from zoning, looks at all of these things and lays out visions for the long-term future. There are well over 70 community plans in New York City, many more plans than city planning has done, and while 10 of them have been officially approved, the city has done little to promote and implement them. (I discuss this further in my book, New York For Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate.) In several instances, such as Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, the department has undermined the community's plans with its rezoning scams.

These scams come in four major varieties: affordable housing, building height, mixed use and waterfront access. In many instances, all are used at once.

The Affordable Housing Scam

In lower-income neighborhoods facing gentrification, city planning has upzoned -- increased opportunities for development -- to encourage the influx of new residents with higher incomes. This creates a ripple effect that jacks up land values and rents, forcing out people living in public and private affordable housing. Activists working to stabilize the neighborhood so that the people can afford to stay would probably oppose that scenario. So to sell the rezoning, the city latched on to and co-opted an idea that first came from the neighborhoods - inclusionary zoning -- and twisted it to serve the interests of the developers.

Under inclusionary zoning, the city would require that a certain percentage of new homes in an area be affordable. Here, though, is how New York's inclusionary zoning scam works. In designated areas ripe for development, the city changes the zoning to allow more development but offers potential developers the option of getting a bonus of 20 percent more floor area if they agree to make 20 percent of the homes affordable to people with low- and moderate-incomes.

The Department of City Planning's public relations campaigns give the impression that if their rezoning passes, affordable housing will get developed. The problem, though is in the details:

-- The inclusionary zoning is strictly voluntary, at the discretion of the developer. Housing advocates have pointed out that, when inclusionary zoning has been successful, it has applied to all developers everywhere in the municipality. That way it can't favor one neighborhood over another. It also has been mandatory for the simple reason that if it's voluntary, the affordable housing may not get built, particularly in today's real estate market. Many developers won't even be bothered with affordable housing even when the market is up.

-- Affordable housing is normally built with public subsidies -- that's right, it doesn't cost the developers and, in fact, they can make money on it. These subsidies are limited, especially in hard times when the demand for affordable housing goes up and available subsidies go down.

-- The affordable housing often is not affordable. The zoning requires that 20 percent of the units be affordable to households making up to 80 percent of the Area Median Income, a federal index for the region. Invariably, the median income for the entire metropolitan area is much higher than the median income for city neighborhoods facing gentrification pressures. For example, the median income in Harlem is half the Area Median Income. As a result, the recently approved 125th Street rezoning would produce units affordable to only 5 percent of Harlem households -- if they ever get built.

The Building Height Scam

In neighborhoods dominated by low- to mid-rise buildings, city planning's upzonings encounter legitimate concerns from residents who fear that the new construction will be out of scale and tower over existing buildings. The planning department thus invented the myth that a rezoning, even when it increases the amount of building space, puts a cap on building heights and replaces zoning that has no height cap.

In such cases the new zoning -- called contextual zoning -- does indeed have an explicit height cap and other provisions that consider existing buildings in the surrounding area. But the older non-contextual zoning also had an implicit height cap that in practice kept tall buildings from being built. Whether it's the old or new zoning, developers can only build so high because the amount of floor area they can build is limited.

If the new zoning permits more floor area it may encourage property owners to demolish smaller buildings and build taller ones -- even with the new height limit.

This is exactly what happened with the 125th Street. Portions of this major thoroughfare had one to three-story commercial buildings before the rezoning even though, in theory, only the sky was the limit. Now they can be replaced with 20-story buildings.

The Mixed-Use Scam

In neighborhoods like Greenpoint and Williamsburg that have had rich mixtures of industry, commerce and housing, rezoning schemes face opposition from people who believe that mixed use should be preserved and industry should not be forced out to build bedroom communities. Greenpoint and Williamsburg spent over 12 years preparing their neighborhood plans that proposed to preserve mixed use.

Not long after the City Planning Commission and City Council approved these plans, the Department of City Planning came out with a proposal to rezone large swaths of industrially zoned land for residential and mixed use. The problem is the new mixed-use zones allow for both residential and industrial uses to compete with one another. But in a hot market, like the one in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, no developers in their right mind would build for industrial tenants when they can sell or rent residential property for 10 times the price. In effect, the mixed-use zoning was a back-door residential rezoning.

The Waterfront Access Scam

In waterfront areas, residents worry that new development will block public access to the waterfront. According to waterfront zoning, all residential and commercial developers on the waterfront must provide a public promenade and preserve access corridors to the waterfront. The Department of City Planning uses these provisions to promote upzoning for new development on the waterfront, claiming that new residential or commercial development will provide public access

In reality, the city does not seriously consider creating public parks or placing waterfront land in some sort of trust. Even worse, city planning claims that the new development must be high-rise and sufficiently upscale so that developers can afford to build the public access. But the more high-rise and luxury the new development is, the more likely it is that the public promenade will become an exclusive backyard for the residents in the luxury towers.

The Department of City Planning used the waterfront access scam in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, where new buildings going up are indeed becoming exclusive enclaves. A new public waterfront park proposed by residents and reluctantly promised when the neighborhood was rezoned has not been built.

The residents of Greenpoint and Wiliamsburg had a vision of a mixed-use low to mid-rise waterfront with public access -- not rows of luxury housing. Instead, it has seen its neighborhood, hit by the inclusionary zoning, building height, mixed use and waterfront access scams and its hard-fought community plans undermined.

A Future for Planning

History will determine whether the optimistic growth scenario behind the department's rezonings and the mayor's 2030 plan survive the current burst in the real estate bubble. But neighborhoods throughout the city will nonetheless have to live for some time with the zoning in place.

This is a good time for the city to rethink its approach to both community planning and citywide planning, starting with the real needs and priorities of its residents and workers instead of the amount of floor area that can be built. It is also a good time to shift the main focus of development from lower-income neighborhoods that have experienced intense displacement pressures to the many low-density outlying neighborhoods that were down-zoned by the department.

This would require a complete turnaround in the way the Department of City Planning deals with community boards and community organizations. Instead of wearing out people with endless informational meetings and public hearings -- sessions that result in few, if any, actual changes to the city's plans -- how about a real dialogue between residents and government about the needs and priorities of communities? How about planning for long-term sustainability, from the top-down and from the bottom-up?

Tom Angotti teaches urban affairs and planning, is director of the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development and co-editor of Progressive Planning Magazine.