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Seize the Albany Opportunity to Do More for NYCHA


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Danny Barber, left, is the author; with Gov. Cuomo & others (photo: the Governor's office)


I stood with Governor Cuomo last year when he showed how bad conditions in public housing have gotten after decades of federal neglect. With the governor’s leadership, NYCHA was allocated $250 million in last year’s state budget. While that money was held up due to the appointment of a federal monitor, the need for additional funds remains again this year.

Major capital repairs are needed to keep residents safe and healthy in all five boroughs. Leaks, mold, pests, broken elevators, and lead are a constant worry for us 400,0000 public housing residents as we try to get to work or school or care for our families at home.

The Assembly called for $300 million and the Senate asked for $250 million in the annual state budget process earlier this year. So far, NYCHA has gotten zero. This surprises me given the governor’s commitment and the tumultuous year NYCHA has had, leaving residents with great uncertainty about the future status of our homes.

State lawmakers have a chance to redeem themselves and commit to fighting to preserve NYCHA by appropriating capital funds before the end of this year’s legislative session, which is scheduled to finish this week and is expected to include decisions on capital allocations.

Albany also has an opportunity to create a more just and equitable tax policy while funding public housing, and it won’t cost a dime in state budget money.

This year, New York City will give away about $600 million to homeowners through the Cooperative and Condominium Property Tax Abatement, which reduces real property taxes for owner-occupiers by 17.5% to 28.1%, depending on assessed value. With the abatement scheduled to sunset this week, Albany lawmakers have an opportunity to provide a long-term funding solution for public housing.

Reform legislation has been introduced in the Assembly by Robert Rodriguez with a companion bill in the Senate sponsored by the housing committee chair Senator Brian Kavanagh. This bill preserves the tax abatement for 90% of homeowners, while eliminating tax breaks for the top 10% of luxury coops and condos.

By ending this tax break for the top 10% of luxury owners now, $170 million in tax revenue will be collected each year. The reform legislation earmarks this revenue for capital repairs in public housing, which can help bring NYCHA into compliance with federal regulations protecting tenants from health hazards such as mold, lead, and vermin.

More than 320,000 cooperative and condominium homeowners received an average tax break of $1,890 in fiscal year 2019 but benefits to luxury homeowners far exceed this average. President Trump, for example, was eligible for $48,000 in tax relief when he resided in Trump Tower. This reform bill will end tax breaks for luxury owners who don’t need them. New York City’s Housing and Vacancy Survey indicates that 10% of all coop and condo owners citywide earn more than $350,000 per year. That number contrasts sharply with $24,000, the average income for residents in public housing.

Albany lawmakers will have to decide if they want to renew the current abatement and perpetuate housing inequality or if they want to reform it by ending tax breaks to luxury properties and fund repairs that will benefit many thousands of public housing residents. The choice seems simple.

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Danny Barber is Chair of the Citywide Council of Presidents of NYCHA residents, representing 400,000 public housing residents. He is also President of Jackson Houses Resident Inc., Chairman of the South Bronx District Council of Presidents Inc., and a member of Community Board 1.

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For the Earth's Sake, Enforce Bus Lanes with Cameras


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(photo: MTA/Patrick Cashin)


Transit policy is climate policy. In New York, transportation emits 30% of the city’s carbon pollution and 34% of the state’s. Since it’s easier to drive less in a city than in suburban and rural areas, much of that is carbon we can easily spare. When shrinking New York’s carbon footprint, transportation emissions are low-hanging fruit.

Granted, the challenge is stiff. Car registrations in the city are rising, up 9% in the past four years. The city’s own government vehicle fleet has grown 19% in size and 25% in miles traveled in the past five years. City agencies hand out an estimated 150,000 placards that privilege public employees to park their personal cars on our streets, encouraging them to drive rather than ride transit.

Car culture is resilient throughout the city. In many communities, a car is a status symbol. Many immigrants, low-income New Yorkers, and New Yorkers of color drive for a living. Taxi drivers protested the recent enactment of congestion pricing. Even progressives in Greenwich Village and Chelsea objected to shuttle bus service for L train riders displaced by construction.

To their credit, our leaders have made major commitments to transit. Governor Cuomo and the Legislature passed congestion pricing to fund major subway upgrades. Both Mayor de Blasio and the MTA made historic promises and have begun to improve bus service. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson successfully championed reduced transit fares for low-income riders in the city budget and made a public pledge to “break the car culture.” Comptroller Scott Stringer has produced game-changing reports on bus service and commuter rail.

But there’s a lot more to do. Shifting decisively away from cars and toward transit will require major policy change. If done right, it will make the city more equitable, enhance the quality of life for millions of New Yorkers, and help save everyone on the planet from out-of-control climate change.

First, it’s crucial that the governor fully implement congestion pricing. Congestion pricing has the potential to directly cut citywide carbon emissions by nearly one million tons annually. By cutting congestion, congestion pricing will also indirectly cut emissions even further by making it easier for families and businesses to locate or stay in the city rather than leave for more carbon-intensive lifestyles in the suburbs or beyond.

Second, congestion pricing revenue must be dedicated to fixing the subway. Despite recent improvements in performance, our subway system remains in crisis. While jobs, population, and tourism numbers hit record highs, our subways have been losing riders for three years running, a longer decline than any since the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. The system desperately needs modern signals, new subway cars, and elevators that will provide access to New Yorkers with disabilities.

Third, the city and the MTA must deliver on the promise of better bus service in every neighborhood. Today, our buses are the slowest in the nation, mired in traffic, and bogged down with countless stops along convoluted routes. Bus ridership has been falling for over a decade, along with average speeds.

The mayor needs to build out a robust bus lane network in tandem with the MTA’s redesign of each borough’s bus map. Truly turning bus service and ridership around will require prioritizing buses and riders along crowded commercial streets. It will also mean changing the spacing of bus stops so that buses can get up to speed and keep moving, delivering faster and more reliable service. Properly spaced bus stops should be upgraded with amenities like shelters, benches, legible maps, and countdown clocks.

These commitments will take years to be achieved. Meanwhile, there’s one transit policy item on this session’s Albany legislative agenda that can make a real difference, really soon. Assemblymember Nily Rozic and Senator Liz Krueger are sponsoring legislation (A6777/S1925) that would reauthorize and expand the bus lane camera program citywide.

Dedicated lanes are essential to quality bus service but are only as good as they are enforced.

To effectively prioritize bus riders on busy city streets, bus lanes must be kept clear of obstructions. The NYPD has only so many officers and myriad other responsibilities. Enforcement cameras nudge drivers to steer clear and leave bus lanes to bus riders.

Curbing climate change requires a broad range of policy tools. Many of them involve better transit. Before the end of the session this month, the state Legislature and governor have an important opportunity to put bus riders and the climate first. They should take it.

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Danny Pearlstein is Policy and Communications Director of the Riders Alliance. On Twitter @RidersNY.

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The MTA is Fiscally Exhausted


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(photo: MTA/Patrick Cashin)


We call it the distraction circus. Donald Trump’s advisor, Steve Bannon, called it “flooding the zone with sh*t” to befuddle the news media and critics. Whatever you call it, the endless kerfuffle Governor Cuomo is stirring around the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is obscuring what we think are the MTA’s potentially catastrophic money problems.

Yes, even after new revenue from congestion pricing is factored in, the MTA is still in big financial trouble.

Five very big things jump out in terms of the MTA’s fiscal health. First, Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders are sending strong signals they are going to renege on the remaining $7.3 billion they promised the MTA in direct state aid in the 2016 state budget for the 2015-2019 MTA capital plan. Second, the governor says state monies will generate only about $30 billion of the $40 billion to $60 billion his own workgroup estimated the MTA needs for its 2020-2024 capital plan.

Third, the governor is strongly suggesting the MTA will have to borrow roughly $10 billion to $30 billion on top of its already soaring debt load. Fourth, even with massive cost cutting, the MTA’s debt payments are rising to alarming levels, with 19% of operating income possibly going to debt by 2022, raising the harbinger of a “death spiral.”

Fifth, these are not the MTA issues the Board, Legislature, or transit reporters are talking about nearly enough.

Importantly, the MTA is facing these dire fiscal pressures while New York City’s economy is in the midst of a decade-long boom and state and city tax revenues are at record levels. What happens when there is the inevitable downturn?

The MTA is Fiscally Exhausted, so Where is the $7.3B?
With much fanfare, the Governor and State Legislature included in the 2016 state budget a “historic” commitment of $8.3 billion in direct state aid to the MTA’s 2015-2019 capital plan. More than three years later, the state still owes the MTA $7.3 billion.

The devil is truly in the details for state budget promises. The much touted 2016 state bailout of the MTA allowed $1 billion to be given to the MTA without condition, but an additional $7.3 billion will only be available after the MTA borrows until it can borrow no more -- in other words, when the MTA is fiscally “exhausted.” (See Part NN of the 2016 budget.)

As of May 2019, the MTA has gotten only $1 billion of the state bailout money promised in 2016, and $11 billion from all sources for the $33 billion it planned to spend on the 2015-2019 capital plan.mta1

The Subway Action Plan: A Distraction from the $7.3B owed by the State?
As of December 2017, the MTA had received only $65 million of the state capital dollars promised in the April 2016 state budget for its 2015-2019 capital plan. In July 2017, the governor announced the Subway Action Plan, which included $328 million for capital projects (which is less than 5% of the $7.3 billion of the promised state capital funds). Yet, the Subway Action Plan has become a proxy for effort by the state. The governor’s office has repeatedly emphasized the millions the state was contributing to the Subway Action Plan while glossing over the $7.3 billion it owes the MTA.

[READ: There's Plenty of Money in the MTA Capital Plan, It's Just Not Being Spent]

MTA Tens of Billions Short of Funding Needed for Capital Plan Starting in 2020
To recap, the state still owes the MTA $7.3 billion for the current, 2015-2019 capital plan. Now, the governor says the MTA won’t get new state funding for the next capital plan.

Last week, Governor Cuomo doubled down on his rhetoric that the MTA must “reform” or it won’t get more funding from the state for the MTA’s 2020-2024 capital plan. Speaking on The Brian Lehrer Show, the governor said that the MTA will get only $30 billion from the state for the MTA 2020-2024 capital plan, including congestion pricing and state dedicated taxes, saying it needs to do better with the billions it has. This is much less than the $40 billion to $60 billion Cuomo’s own MTA Sustainability Workgroup concluded in December 2018 would be needed for the 2020-2024 plan.

The biggest problem with this statement is that the MTA is already fiscally exhausted, and “reform” -- including possible consolidations from a forthcoming reorganization plan (more on that here) -- will not possibly make up the additional $10 to $30 billion that the MTA is missing to meet its needs for the next capital plan. 

Skyrocketing Debt Payments: 19 Cents of Every Fare Dollar
While the MTA has been borrowing itself into a state of “fiscal exhaustion” to meet the terms of the 2016 state budget for its promised $7.3B, debt service payments have soared to record levels.

In 2017, debt payments cost 17% of the MTA’s operating budget. By 2o22, debt payments will consume 19% of the operating budget, as projected in its February 2019 financial plan. (All charts in this piece are sourced from data in this plan.)

In total, debt payments will be $3.22 billion in 2022 -- an increase of 27% since 2017.

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And with a threat from the governor of no more state funding, the MTA seems to be on the path toward even more borrowing if it is to even attempt to meet its capital needs for 2020-2024.

Blunt Cuts Won’t Save the MTA
With debt service on the rise and ridership declining, the MTA is facing a large operating deficit. The operating budget pays for everyday subway, bus, and rail service, and money borrowed to pay for capital expenses. Every dollar paying back borrowed money is a dollar that cannot be spent on subway or bus service.

As debt costs soar, so does the ongoing gap between the MTA’s income and expenses. The MTA’s deficit for 2020 has now reached $467 million, with even larger gaps in the years to come. (To be sure, the MTA is also struggling with costs including health care for current and retired workers -- a problem for many big employers in the U.S.)

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If the MTA can’t reduce its debt payments, how can it make up future operating losses? The biggest likelihood is through workforce reductions, which could increase the risk of entering a “death spiral” of less service, fewer riders, and less farebox revenue. Labor makes up 60% of operating costs and the MTA’s labor contracts are up for renewal this year. The MTA has 75,000 employees and is by far the largest unit of state government. 

There are rumors of big layoffs circulating within the MTA. The obvious concern for riders is how layoffs affect customer service. A smart reorganization of the MTA could make sensible consolidations, but there is tremendous pressure to close the MTA’s operating deficit and chop out dead wood. The risk is the reorganization could decimate the MTA’s workforce at a time when working for the MTA is not likely at the top of job seekers’ lists, all while the governor continues to harshly criticize the MTA professional staff for lack of innovation and execution.

Exhausted and in Danger
In the 2016 budget, the governor and Legislature committed $8.3 billion to the MTA. They have given it $1 billion. Will the MTA get the remaining $7.3 billion? Will the governor and Legislative Leaders finally level with the public? Where the heck is the MTA supposed to find the roughly $50 billion it needs for the 2020-2024 rebuilding plan? How much money does the MTA really need? What is the debt redline? Some states keep debt payments at 5% to 7% of their operating budgets, while the MTA is edging towards an astronomical 19%. The danger signs for the MTA are mounting, and we need an honest discussion of how to fix this problem before it’s too late.

[READ: There's Plenty of Money in the MTA Capital Plan, It's Just Not Being Spent]

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Rachael Fauss is Senior Research Analyst and John Kaehny is Executive Director at Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @ReinventAlbany.

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As HRA Announces Closure of Another Food Stamp Center, Research Finds Excessive Wait-Times


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(photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)


During a recent budget hearing at the City Council, Council Member Stephen Levin asked Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks about wait-times at Human Resources Administration centers. "Have we seen an increase in wait times?” asked Levin; “How are we monitoring wait-times in light of the Jazmine Headley incident and as we're talking about staffing levels at HRA Centers?”

Confident in tone and content, Commissioner Banks answered: "[I]n SNAP and food stamp centers the wait-time is about 20 minutes because 87% of the applications are done online and 93% of the interviews are done by phone, and there's a reduction of foot traffic by more than 40% in those locations.” He continued, “and in terms of the wait-times in the Job Centers...we're about twice as long in those offices as in the food stamp centers."

Our team has conducted a significant analysis of the underlying data the city uses to calculate and report its wait times. We believe that Commissioner Banks’ response is misleading.

The use of misleading data on this matter is a risk for all poor New York City residents, and takes particular importance given the closure of two SNAP (food stamp) centers last year, and the recently-announced closure of the St. Nicholas SNAP Center in Harlem, which is planned for the end of this month.

A Background to Waiting at HRA
Council Member Levin’s May 22 questions above were referring to an incident in December 2018, captured on a cell phone video that went viral, when police assaulted Jazmine Headley and her infant son at a Brooklyn Public Assistance center. Headley had already waited in the center (otherwise known as a Job Center) for four hours before the situation unnecessarily escalated to police violence.

While the media justifiably focused on the physical violence she experienced, Headley’s story also raised another, less-publicized issue that our clients at Urban Justice Center report to us daily: excessive wait-times at HRA that cause upset children, missed days of work or school, increased tension at centers, and unnecessary interruptions in their lives.  

New York City’s welfare and food stamp (SNAP) centers are notorious for using wait-times to prevent or delay benefits access. Under Mayor Koch in the 1980s, the city’s efforts to prevent benefits access were so significant that Community Action Legal Services issued a report entitled The In-Human Resources Administration’s Churning Campaign. Under Mayor Giuliani in the 1990s, those in need of food stamps could not even obtain an application until their second center visit. Under the Bloomberg administration, public assistance recipients continued to be systematically discouraged from accessing cash aid by HRA.

Mayor de Blasio’s administration is undoubtedly more receptive of benefits applicants than those that preceded it; however, our analysis of the city’s wait-time data shows that the client experience at HRA is still unreasonable and unacceptable.

In February of this year, in the wake of the violence experienced by Headley, the City Council held a hearing about the experiences of people at HRA centers. When Council members asked HRA officials why Headley’s attempt to complete a seemingly simple task had taken four hours at one of their centers, they explained that her situation that day was an exception. However, the findings we published in our recent Bureaucracy of Benefits report, based on surveys of over 130 HRA applicants and recipients, found that wait times averaged 3.13 hours at Public Assistance (Job) Centers and 2.78 hours at SNAP centers.

Under a local law passed at the end of 2017, HRA must post the “average” wait times at centers on its website. In January 2019, the reported citywide wait time averages were 50 minutes for Job Centers and 45 minutes for SNAP centers. These are the numbers HRA administrators seemingly refer to when publicly questioned about the centers’ wait times, and presumably provided the rationale for calling Headley’s four hour-long wait an “exception.”

In an effort to determine why the city’s publicized wait times are significantly less than what our surveys reflected and what we hear so often from people who go to the centers, we issued a Freedom of Information (FOIL) request for the breakdown of the center wait-times.

What We Found
Our review found that HRA manipulates the data to make it appear as though people are waiting significantly less time in centers and then putting forward numbers publicly that do not match the reality poor New Yorkers experience each day.

The picture painted by city officials in testimony and in the online data is that visits to HRA Centers are fairly simple and quick experiences. But they are not. Furthermore, there are patterns in the data that show disproportionately heavy delays in the Bronx – the poorest borough and where the city has the highest rates of complaints at Job and SNAP Centers (see Bureaucracy of Benefits report).

The data shows that HRA, which is the nation’s largest social service agency and which claims its role is the “effective and efficient administration of more than 12 major public benefits programs, which reflects this Administration's priority of addressing poverty and income inequality,” routinely makes New Yorkers wait several hours at its offices for any and all needs. Our analysis confirms that Headley’s experience with waiting was far more common than officials admitted and resonated closely with what our clients tell us everyday.

1. Ticket-stacking: HRA’s data is compiled by tracking the amount of time that it takes for an individual to be called for a “ticket,” which individuals are given when they go into a center (for the purpose of our analysis, “ticket” refers to the tracking system HRA uses to delineate the reasons for a person’s visit to the center). However, when an individual goes to the center, they frequently need more than one ticket to accomplish a particular task. Sometimes they get multiple tickets upon entering, and sometimes they will be given additional tickets successively, either because the first person they met with was not able to help them or because there are multiple steps to a particular task.

For example, in order to apply for a new Public Assistance case, an individual must fill out a lengthy application and then also complete an application interview. These are each individual tickets. HRA is averaging the data as if each of these is a singular experience for which an individual might visit a center, when in reality, applicants are doing both in one trip. The citywide average wait time in September 2018 for an application was 17 minutes, but the average wait time for an interview was 1 hour and 34 minutes. HRA is averaging these two numbers together in calculating overall wait-time averages, when in fact they should be combined to get a complete picture of the applicant’s wait time.

2. Unweighted data: HRA’s data seemingly does not account for ticket volume by center. For instance, in September 2018, HRA calculates the citywide average wait time for those presenting to resolve a Cash Assistance (CA) missed appointment at 45 minutes. When we calculated the data weighting the amount of time against the amount of tickets for missed CA appointments, we calculated an average wait time of 1 hour and 37 minutes, more than doubling the city’s reported figure.  

3. Averaging-in zeros: According to the data, not all centers give out every ticket type in any given month. It is unclear if this is because each center employs its own practices of assigning tickets, or if some centers simply do not see certain needs in a given month. Regardless, the fact that HRA includes the tickets without any data (and therefore zero-minute wait-times) in their overall averaging provides a highly skewed presentation of what is actually happening. For instance, HRA reported (in response to our FOIL request) that the citywide average wait time to see a supervisor was 30 minutes in September. However, five centers did not report any tickets given for waiting to see a supervisor. HRA is including zero-minute waits from these five centers, which skews the citywide average.

4. Exceptional waits for Bronx residents: Repeatedly, Bronx Centers had the highest wait times reported. In September 2018, the Citywide Average Wait time for a supervisor was 30 minutes. However, at Concourse Center in the Bronx, wait-time to speak with a supervisor was 1 hour and 16 minutes. Bronx Centers had the highest (or second highest) wait times for almost every issue area we reviewed, including childcare, cash assistance application interviews, cash assistance recertifications, cash assistance reopenings, cash assistance missed appointments, and cash assistance mandatory dispute resolutions, among other appointment types.

5. Excluding service times: The publicly posted wait-time data fails to capture the additional time that individuals spend in the Center actually completing the services they came for, or the “service-time data,” which can be hours.

For the application interview, the citywide service time average in September 2018 was 47 minutes. Combined with the average service time for the application itself (5 minutes) and the wait times for both the application and application interview, an individual who needed to apply for Public Assistance in September 2018 was spending, on average, over 2.5 hours at the center. If they requested to speak to a supervisor for any reason, the overall time would go up to over 3 hours and 20 minutes. In cases where someone is waiting for multiple appointments in one visit, it is likely they will spend the majority of their day at the Center.

The extensive wait-times for benefits is yet another example of how New York City punishes people for poverty. Available data shows that people of color are disproportionately forced to rely on benefits to survive, and that women are disproportionately the “heads of household” for a family’s benefits case. To make matters worse, almost none of the mandatory services for Public Assistance applicants or recipients can be done online or over the phone. That means that in order to receive Public Assistance benefits, one must be prepared to wait – for hours and repeatedly.

While Commissioner Banks says improvements are coming through technology – and we have already seen some of the city’s technological developments unfold for SNAP-only cases – we remain very concerned that there is a significant need for increasing staff at the centers rather than simply focusing on robotic solutions.

And we are very concerned about HRA’s closure of a third SNAP Center this coming month. Of note, that closure will push SNAP recipients assigned to the St. Nicholas Center in Central Harlem to the East End Center in East Harlem, which is already known by advocates to struggle with caseload requirements that lead to long waits and often very serious case errors.

The waiting imposed on poor New Yorkers is long-standing and punitive but is it not inevitable. Increasing staff at HRA centers, increasing the number of benefits centers in each borough, and making it easier for New Yorkers to resolve problems and complete needed actions over the phone and online would all help significantly. Halting the closure of SNAP centers is another immediate step that can be taken to prevent excessive waits and pervasive errors in people’s cases.

Different decisions about allocating resources can be made that would reduce the notoriously frustrating length of time poor people spend waiting for and interacting with the city’s benefits bureaucracy. The question is whether our city is willing to do so.  

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by Kiana Davis, Isabel Hellman, Craig Hughes, Khadija Hussain & Helen Strom of the Urban Justice Center – Safety Net Project. On Twitter @SafetyNetUJC.

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When Owners Neglect Buildings and Don’t Pay Taxes, Tenants Suffer – The City Can Help


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(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office)


As Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, "in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." This is true for property owners who maintain their buildings and pay their property taxes in full each year, but for the few who do not, there can be consequences, including foreclosure.

Often, the failure to pay taxes is indicative of a litany of issues, such as physical deterioration of the building. Imagine being a resident of a tax-delinquent building: you've worked hard to pay your rent, and you learn that your landlord hasn't paid their taxes, and now, on top of caring for your family, you’re terrified of losing your home, uprooting your kids' lives. Or you are a renter in a struggling co-op who sees your rent go up dramatically even while conditions in the building worsen. What if you can’t find another affordable place to live? Do you have to leave New York City? How is it fair that you've played by the rules and now have to bear the brunt of your building owner’s actions?

Decades ago, the City launched the Third Party Transfer (TPT) program, which is one of the ways that we hold building owners accountable while protecting residents by transferring tax-delinquent properties to an affordable housing developer to keep people in their homes with robust rent stabilization and other affordability protections. And it works: since 1996, we've provided stability and improved living conditions for nearly 15,000 New Yorkers.

The de Blasio Administration has spent five years marshaling resources to build and preserve affordable housing across the city, and increase enforcement and other protections to keep residents in their homes.  We believe that anyone who wants to raise a family and work in the city should be able to live here.  

I want to be very clear because there has been rampant speculation and misinformation about the Third Party Transfer program. Ownership creates stability for families and neighborhoods, and the opportunity to build equity that can be passed along to future generations. Our primary goal is to assist struggling owners with repairs and unpaid taxes and violations, which is why we do significant outreach over several years and offer numerous resources to help. More than 80% of the 420 properties included in the last round of Third Party Transfer successfully addressed their municipal arrears and were removed from the foreclosure action.

As an administration, we can look the other way and allow buildings to fall further into debt and eventually disrepair or we can proactively work with owners to keep their hard-earned slice of the city. So we’re going to do more to find new ways to address how the city's housing landscape has changed over the past 20 years. Working with City Council Member Robert Cornegy, the chair of the Council's Housing and Buildings Committee, and other stakeholders, we are launching a new working group to recommend changes to address concerns and make the program better.

The City is committed to making the process as transparent and effective as possible and helping homeowners avoid the spiral of financial and physical deterioration that puts properties at risk in the first place. But as New Yorkers face ever-rising rents and become more vulnerable to displacement, ending the program outright would be a disservice to tenants left to suffer the consequences when building owners can't or won’t address their financial issues.

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Louise Carroll is the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. On Twitter @NYCHousing.

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For Bail Reform to Work Invest in Communities, Not Prosecutors


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(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


We are in a unique moment in history. New York City is embroiled in a process to build new jails -- the aftershock of a grassroots campaign to shut down the human rights catastrophe at Rikers Island. New York State recently passed bail reform, which must be implemented in every county on or before January 1, 2020, and across the country “criminal justice reform” and “ending mass incarceration” have become mainstream conversations -- an unthinkable reality just ten years ago. It’s a moment that carries monumental opportunities and tremendous risks.

For New York City to make the most of this movement, we must reconsider how we think about criminal justice reform and reset the dial towards progress and equity outside the system.

Actions and planning cannot be narrowly focused; instead our elected officials must be prepared to fight for the fundamental needs of the communities from which city jails draw their populations. This must include massive investments -- billions of dollars -- to fund what communities have long been starved for: healthcare, housing, education, and other fundamental resources.

Recently in Manhattan, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice presented at the last of four community board hearings on the city’s new jails plan. Just after, the City Council held its first hearing on the implementation of statewide reforms to bail and discovery rules. Just before, Council Speaker Corey Johnson unveiled his own plans for criminal justice reform in New York City.

Each of these presentations were standard: they focused on prosecutors, public defenders, courts, police, infrastructure, land use, and “off-ramps” for people already caught up in the system. This is typical criminal justice reform rhetoric. But they also mirror “reforms” across the country which have (unwittingly or not) ended up expanding the reach of the carceral system rather than shrinking it.

New York State has reached a tipping point, and could serve as a model for the rest of the country by calling for a dramatic expansion in the scope of what would be required to truly take on “mass incarceration.” We must get away from the old-fashioned notion that crime is a result of moral or personal failures that can be cured one case at at time, instead of a socio-political problem dictated by structural inequality, poverty, race and politics. We must acknowledge and act on the reality that criminal justice reform will never be successful or sustainable when it is siloed off from other crucial social issues that impact our society’s most marginalized.

Jails have long served as the catchall way to manage New York City’s most pressing crises: record homelessness, unmet mental and behavioral health needs, substance use disorders (SUD), joblessness, and poverty. (The same is true across the country.)

In general jail populations are symptoms of failed social policies and the politics of mass incarceration. According to reports, 16% of the daily jail population in New York is people who have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, and 75% have a substance use disorder. These numbers are similar to incarcerated populations across the country.

New jails cannot address record high homelessness, record high overdose deaths (which remains the leading cause of death in New York City shelters), joblessness, and poverty. Nor can they address the shameful history of racial discrimination and divestment from our communities. Bail reform—which should reduce the jail population—can’t address these issues either if implementation focuses solely on city government’s new legal responsibilities under the law.

At the most recent hearing on the city’s response to statewide reforms, City Council members and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOC-J) both listed as their partners in implementation the local district attorneys, the office of court administration, public defenders, and the police department. Implementation would only be successful, testimony suggested, if millions of dollars were poured into prosecutor offices. But there was no mention of Health + Hospitals, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, or the Department of Social Services in this conversation. No one raised the fact that jails operate as one of the city’s largest homeless shelters, and neither the Department of Homeless Services or the Department of Housing Preservation and Development were invited.

The city risks missing the point here. Omitting the fundamental needs of the community means more overdose deaths, homelessness, joblessness, and poverty. It ultimately means, more incarceration and criminalization. As the jail population drops, what resources are we giving directly to communities in order to keep them safe, thriving, and able to manage inevitable conflicts and tensions without relying on a criminal punishment system that has historically failed to resolve any social problem? Why isn’t Steve Banks -- the Department of Social Services commissioner -- leading this work, instead of a thin MOCJ task force?

The city is preparing to spend $8.7 billion to construct four new jails over the next several years as part of a plan to close the Rikers Island complex. That plan does not include ANY investment into marginalized communities impacted by incarceration -- despite research that these investments can credibly decrease incarceration, which is, after all, the city’s stated goal. The City Council’s first stab at bail reform implementation also appears headed towards massive investments into the system, while ignoring community investments.

New York City has a tremendous opportunity to reinvest in communities to help them thrive and to make them safer. To get there, we must expand the scope of this discussion and address the root causes of the social problems that we have tried and failed to address through mass incarceration, policing, and criminalization while stigmatizing generations of our fellow New Yorkers.

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Nick Encalada-Malinowski is the Civil Rights Campaign Director at VOCAL-NY. On Twitter @nwmalinowski.

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The Fading Promise of Property Tax Reform


may bdb cc speaker corey jo

(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)


Despite promising that in his second term he would take on the challenge of property tax reform, Mayor de Blasio appears to be shying away as many leaders have done many times before.

New York City government is extremely dependent upon its property tax, which will generate roughly $30 billion this coming fiscal year, more than any other single revenue source. Not surprisingly, New Yorkers gripe about their property taxes almost as much as about the subways.

The laws and methods used to determine and assess the tax on individual properties are extremely complex and inequitable, but reforming them is a daunting task that will inevitably make some property owners unhappy. For that reason, elected officials have long avoided tackling the problem.

The current New York City property tax system was created in 1981. A lawsuit brought by law professor William Hellerstein in 1975 challenged the legality of the property tax system state-wide as violating the constitutional requirement that all similar properties be taxed equally.

After several missed deadlines, rejected proposals, and a last-minute override of Governor Carey’s veto, a new law was passed that divided properties in New York City into four “classes,” set different percentages of the value of each class of property to be assessed (assessment ratios), limited the amount of total property tax levy to be derived from each class (class shares), and provided for phase-ins and limitations on the growth of tax revenue from different classes so that no one property or type of property would experience a dramatic increase in value and taxation as the new system was phased in.

Thirty-eight years later, New York City looks quite different, property values have soared, and there have been many unintended consequences of the design of the property tax system.

Limitations on phasing in growth in value mean that properties within the same class are often taxed at very different effective rates and the limitations on class shares of the tax levy mean that different classes are shouldering disproportionate amounts of the burden of the growth in overall property value.

One of the most egregious outcomes is that co-ops and condos -- for which the market was very different in 1981-- are in the same class as rental properties and are assessed, not on their market value, but as if they were only generating rental income. The result is many high-end apartments assessed at far lower amounts than their real value; whole residential co-op and condo buildings in some parts of Manhattan are taxed at less than the actual sales prices of individual apartments in the building.

What is to be done? In April 2017 a group of frustrated real estate developers and landlords joined with individual property owners and supportive civic and civil rights groups (including Citizens Budget Commission, which I led at the time and filed an amicus brief) to file a new lawsuit, Tax Equity Now NY LLC vs. City of New York, et al. alleging the current property tax system discriminates against primarily people of color who are low-income renters and homeowners. The lawsuit was filed in the hope that, as had happened in response to the Hellerstein case, city and state leaders would respond with urgency and determination to develop a reformed taxation system.

Instead, both city and state defendants have strenuously resisted the suit, moving to dismiss it on the grounds that the plaintiffs aren’t directly impacted and/or that the state defendants aren’t responsible. The City also infuriated City Council members who wanted to intervene on behalf of the plaintiffs by opposing their application to file a separate brief.

The motion to dismiss was filed in June but it took until September 2017 for the judge to rule that the case could proceed and until February 2018 to rule that the Council members could not intervene in the case. The City filed an appeal and all further action in the case is on hold until that appeal is decided.  

At a breakfast hosted by the Association for a Better New York the day before he was re-elected in November 2017, I asked Mayor de Blasio whether he was going to take on property tax reform. He answered directly and forthrightly that the system needs to be more fair and transparent but that we cannot afford to reduce substantially the revenue it generates and that relying on the judicial system to resolve the problem would be a mistake.

He estimated that it would “take a year or two” to bring all the stakeholders together and come up with the needed reforms and that it would require being “blunt” about the challenges. He said: “I am ready to do it….When I say something that definitively, I mean it…We will create tax reform.”

It took until May 31, 2018, more than a year after the Tax Equity Now case was filed and now a year ago, for the Mayor and the City Council Speaker Corey Johnson to announce the formation of an Advisory Commission on Property Tax Reform. Co-chaired by former city Housing Commissioner Vicki Been, then faculty director of the NYU Furman Center, and former First Deputy Mayor and then Interim COO of CUNY Marc Shaw, the commission was charged to “develop recommendations to reform New York City’s property tax system to make it simpler, clearer, and fairer, while ensuring that there is no reduction in revenue used to fund essential City services.”

No deadlines were specified, but the commission was instructed to conduct at least 10 public hearings.

All the public hearings and meetings were recorded and are available online. The last one was held this past February 28. Yet there is still no word on what the commission will recommend or when it will publish its report. The state legislative session is almost over so it is too late to achieve any changes this year and Been has become a deputy mayor with a lot more on her plate.

So the mayor’s promises notwithstanding, an opportunity to rationalize our property tax system and make it more fair has been missed and the commission looks more like a stalling device than a sincere effort to make tough decisions. Who wants to make New York property owners unhappy during a presidential campaign? As was the case four decades ago, it appears that we will need a lawsuit to compel elected officials to make tough decisions.

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

 

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The Rainy Day Fund New York Needs


mayor bdb fiscal year budget

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


With so much attention focused on the mayor’s presidential campaign, rent regulation renewal, and the state of the transit system, most New Yorkers are unaware they will have the opportunity this fall to vote to dramatically change their city government.

The 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission is considering what amendments to the City Charter, which defines the structure and powers of city government, it will recommend to voters for a yes or no vote on the November ballot. Notable proposals include ranked-choice voting for local elections, enhancing community board review of land use proposals, and multiple changes to the city’s budget process.

One budget proposal the commission should approve and advance to voters in November is the creation of a Rainy Day Fund (RDF). An RDF is essentially a savings account that would allow city government to put away revenues received when the economy is growing and use them to stave off the most crushing service cuts and tax increases during an economic downturn or catastrophic emergency—the rainy days.

To weather the last two recessions, the city reduced police and ambulance staffing, cut library hours, suspended recycling, and increased personal income, sales, and property taxes. A well-structured RDF can ameliorate the need for this level of municipal pain, helping everyone from those who depend on city and social services to individuals and businesses feeling the strain of high taxes.

By and large, charter provisions and state laws enacted in response to the 1970s New York City fiscal crisis provide a strong budgeting and financial management framework that has served New York well—producing balanced budgets and prudent revenue estimates, while allowing the city to fund services New Yorkers desire.

Ironically, the city charter’s balanced budget requirement, among the most stringent in the nation, is what makes using an RDF impossible. Balancing the annual budget requires city services delivered in one year to be funded only with revenues generated that same year. Saving money in a strong economy to use later in a recession misaligns that timing, and violates the accounting rules relied on by the charter.

The solution is for the charter commission to leave the charter’s budgeting and financial management framework intact except to seize the opportunity to improve the charter by allowing an RDF, well structured to preserve both long- and short-term stability.

Absent an RDF, the city has devised legal work-arounds to provide some fiscal cushion. The city pre-pays expenses, freeing up money in the next year. The city has also used its Retiree Health Benefits Trust—money put aside to pay for municipal employees’ retirement health benefits—as a de facto RDF by paying for current bills with the trust’s assets rather than budget revenues.

These workarounds are problematic. Not enough money can be put aside; there are limits to what and how many expenses can be prepaid. In addition, there is no requirement to put money aside even in the best of times. Finally, using the RHBT as de facto RDF makes future taxpayers pay for current bills, which is hardly fair to the next generation.  

True, the city has set aside some funds. The current financial plan includes $1.25 billion annually for reserves, but this pales in comparison to the need. Citizens Budget Commission estimates the projected three-year revenue shortfall from a recession comparable to the past two would be $15 billion to $20 billion.

How would a well-designed RDF be structured? The first step is to determine the right size of the fund. Based on past revenue trends, CBC estimates that 17 percent of tax revenues would be a good target size to mitigate a recession or emergency’s most damaging impacts.

Second, regular deposits should be required during economic expansions. CBC recommends annual deposits of 75 percent of all tax revenues in excess of 3 percent growth; this would allow spending on services to grow in excess of long-term inflation and still generate substantial RDF resources. Had this been in place during the current record-long recovery, the city would now have nearly $9 billion in its RDF.

Finally, withdrawals should be limited to periods of recession or emergency. Economic triggers should be defined in law and RDF funds should not all be used in one year.  

By putting a Rainy Day Fund on the ballot, the charter commission would provide New Yorkers with an important opportunity to strengthen one of the few flaws in the city’s budgeting processes and would create significant momentum for the changes needed in state law.

Yes, some more political and proximate issues may be more galvanizing, and sadly, elected leaders and the public too often accept as inevitable the pain of hard choices during a recession. However, the annual impact of modest deposits in the good times will be significantly outweighed by preserving the services New Yorkers need during times of economic hardship.

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Andrew Rein is president of Citizens Budget Commission. On Twitter @cbcny.

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For Racial Justice, Cuomo and Legislative Leaders Must Pass Marijuana Legalization


gov amc rockland

(photo: Governor's Office)


We are days away from the end of the legislative session and among the many important issues Governor Cuomo and New York legislators have left to accomplish is addressing the racially-biased and unjust enforcement of marijuana prohibition in our state.

The Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act (MRTA), currently being considered by New York lawmakers, is one of the clearest pathways toward reducing racism in New York. In the last 20 years our beloved state has earned the dubious distinction of becoming the marijuana arrest capital of the country, with more than 800,000 arrests made just for possession of small amounts.

Nearly 80% of those arrested have been people of color, even though drug use occurs at similar rates across racial and ethnic groups.

These arrests are not a trivial matter. They involve being handcuffed, placed in a police car, taken to a police station, fingerprinted, photographed, possibly being held in jail for up to 24 hours while awaiting arraignment before a judge, appearing in court several times over the course of months, and potentially concluding with the imposition of a permanent criminal record that can easily be found online by employers, landlords, schools, credit agencies, and banks.

New Yorkers who are arrested often face consequences that can make it difficult to get and keep a job, maintain a professional license, obtain educational loans, secure housing, or even keep custody of a child. This is all for something that is now legal in 10 states and the District of Columbia, and that white people do for the most part without consequences nationwide.

If you are among the many who believe legalization isn’t necessary, believing New York’s decriminalization law protects people of color from law enforcement harassment, let me share the reality of what happens in our communities.

While it is currently illegal to sell marijuana, you are not technically supposed to get arrested for possession of small amounts. But New York’s decriminalization law, which we’ve had for 40 years, is failing. More than 60 people on average are still arrested every day for marijuana possession in the state. These arrests have been largely justified by a loophole allowing police officers to distinguish between public and private personal possession. Because possession in “public view” remains a crime—and the fact that there is pervasive and racially-biased over-policing of communities of color—mass arrests continue.

The MRTA will not only put an end to these racist police practices, but will create a responsible and well-regulated industry that will better restrict minors’ access to marijuana. It will also generate millions in tax revenue to bolster the state economy and support the communities that have been most harmed by marijuana prohibition.

The bill additionally works to address some of the unjust consequences of marijuana prohibition by creating a process for both the reclassification of past convictions related to marijuana and for the resentencing of currently incarcerated individuals who are serving time due to a marijuana-related offense. This provision of the legislation will remove significant barriers that New Yorkers face in the wake of a marijuana conviction and allow them to fully participate in society without the devastating toll of collateral consequences.

New Yorkers can feel assured knowing that the sky did not fall in states like Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and Alaska that have legalized the adult use of marijuana. Use by minors has not gone up, and there has been no increase in driving under the influence. We have the major benefit of learning from hurdles these pioneering states had to overcome, and incorporating lessons learned.

The drug war has left a lasting impact on generations of New Yorkers, particularly harmful for people of color. State resources that could benefit our communities are instead being used to perpetuate wasteful and damaging prohibitionist policies that have not been successful in curbing use, increasing public health, or benefitting communities.

The MRTA will not only earn the state billions in revenue, but will reinvest some of this money back into the communities that have been most harmed with adult education services, job training, the expansion of afterschool programs, re-entry services, and other community-centered projects. Money will also be directed toward public schools as well as drug treatment programs and public education campaigns geared toward reducing opioid overdoses and saving lives. It is a win all around.

It is time to stop the ineffective, racially-biased, and unjust enforcement of marijuana prohibition and to create a new, well-regulated, and inclusive marijuana industry that is rooted in racial and economic justice. If Governor Cuomo and New York legislators are really interested in curbing racism in our state, they will pass the Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act this legislative session.

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L. Joy Williams is the President of the Brooklyn NAACP. On Twitter @LJoyWilliams.

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Automatic Voter Registration is Good for Service Members, Veterans, and All New Yorkers


vet day parade

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


When I reported to my first duty as a Junior Officer of the United States Navy, my senior officer told me: “Your job is to take care of your people. Your people will take care of the ship.” This advice holds true outside the service: take care of your people, and they will take care of their  family, their community, and their country.

It holds especially true when it comes to New York’s more than one million eligible voters who are not registered to vote. As a member of the armed services and as a veteran I’ve faced the burden of having to register to vote in multiple states, particularly here in New York, where the registration process is cumbersome, time-consuming, and inefficient. Now imagine if our state government systems actually worked together to reduce the bureaucracy for New Yorkers trying to navigate them. One significant way the U.S., and New York in particular, can make sure all can take part in the democratic process is by passing Automatic Voter Registration (AVR).

The idea is simple: instead of placing the onus of registration on individuals, eligible voters are automatically registered to vote by the state when they interact with a government agency.

Under New York’s current system, when someone moves within the state, they’re required to take the proactive step of updating their registration information. With AVR, the process would be made seamless. For example, if applying for a driver’s license or registering for classes, your info would be transmitted to the Board of Elections without any further action required on your part.

Critics argue that voters should take some responsibility for their registration but making it easier to register and preventing people from having to chase bureaucracy is a small price to pay, particularly for those who have borne the burden of war. The fact is, registration rates among active service members are consistently lower than among Americans generally. This is especially true in New York, which has the fifth largest veteran population of any state and is saddled with chronically low rates of registration.

For mobile or hard-to-reach populations like service members, as well as low income communities and communities of color, AVR would prove particularly effective, allowing your registration to follow you instead of vice versa. That also goes for military veterans suffering from physical or mental illness.

Beyond making the experience easier, AVR would also bring our agencies into the digital age. Imagine if our state government systems actually worked together to reduce bureaucratic wrangling that has come to define New York’s electoral process.

My career after the military has involved working with clients on digital transformations. I have observed organizations that I work with benefit from taking down the walls that separate their information systems. AVR is no different in the level of efficiency it would generate.

By now many of us are familiar with the 2016 incident in which the New York City Board of Elections erased 200,000 voters from the rolls. The reason for incidents like this is that our agencies tend to be siloed. New York requires residents to go online and fill out a separate form to register to vote, despite the fact that numerous agencies already collect the necessary information required to fill out voting forms.

AVR would break down these walls. A visit to the DMV or a Medicaid office would enable those agencies to electronically transmit your registration information to the BOE in a form that can be read by a computerized registrant list – saving time and money.

One study found that online and automated voter registrations saved Maricopa County, Arizona over $450,000 in 2008. It cost 33 cents to manually process an electronic application and an average of 3 cents to use a partially automated review process, compared with 83 cents for processing a paper registration form.

We have the opportunity to facilitate voter registration and make the process simpler while ridding our voter rolls of duplicates and eliminating incorrect and out-of-date addresses.

That’s why I went to Albany during a recent legislative hearing to share my experience.

Maintaining and protecting democracy requires more than service-men and -women going in harm’s way. It also requires providing citizens with not only the liberty, but the realistic ability, to exercise the right to vote and participate in the democratic dialogue.

We need to take care of our people by making it easier for all eligible voters so they can take care of our ship - this country. To ensure the full enjoyment of the rights for which my fellow veterans and I fought, and our current service-members continue to fight, the New York State Legislature should pass automatic voter registration this session.

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Dolpha Freeman is a former U.S. Naval Officer and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. Dolpha currently works in a digital transformation consulting practice and resides in the Hudson Valley.

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Penn Station Needs a Complete Overhaul. We Must Start Now.


Cuomo Penn Station

(photo: Don Pollard/Governor's Office)


For decades, Penn Station has wreaked havoc on the lives of hardworking New Yorkers, and seriously stained our city’s reputation as a global cultural and economic hub. But all hope is not lost; the door is opening for significant improvements to finally be made.

We’re now just a few short years away from the opening of Moynihan Train Hall and East Side Access. These two important projects, which will temporarily reduce the number of passengers travelling through Penn, present a brief window for significant station improvements.

Transit experts have spoken extensively about the serious safety concerns within Penn Station—from overcrowded platforms, to a lack of accessible exits and signage on what to do in the event of an emergency. The recent announcement of an overhaul of the LIRR corridor and 7th Avenue entrance is a good first step, but there are a host of other improvements that should also be considered.

And beyond safety, it’s a matter of dignity, utility, and a vision for the future of the city we want to live in. Commuters shouldn’t have to settle with what we have.

They’ve seen a variety of great layouts and amenities – that work, by the way – at Washington D.C.’s Union Station, Boston’s South Station, and transit hubs overseas.

We need to look at Penn Station and the surrounding area in Midtown West comprehensively to solve this problem in a way that makes sense for commuters, residents, workers nearby, and New York as a whole.

Leading architects and designers have already created many informed and inspiring renderings and plans for what a new Penn Station could look like. While these designs are all different, they largely address the core issues of overcrowding, platform capacity, and accessibility.

Let’s be clear, Penn Station is not the way it is because of a lack of technical or planning knowhow.

It’s a political problem that can only be solved by bold, willing leadership that is committed to seeing this through from beginning to end.

It also means having a frank conversation about the future of Madison Square Garden, which sits atop the station—severely limiting natural light, air, and the ability to expand capacity.

For our leaders, fixing Penn Station must come down to our values as New Yorkers. We allowed our subways to enter a state of extreme disrepair that forces commuters onto already packed and delayed trains, or for some, abandoning the system all together. Deadlocked street traffic and slow bus speeds are the direct result of the failure to fix what’s going on underground. This is what happens when problems are left to fester.

If leaders don’t believe Penn Station is worth the investment of taxpayer dollars, they should be upfront about that and let voters know where they stand. If it’s a core issue they support, elected leaders should make it clear by calling for the creation of a Penn Station task force that would convene this year.

This task force should resemble the model used to evaluate congestion pricing and it should offer tangible next steps for a comprehensive fix—not a patchwork solution.

2019 has already been a unique year in Albany, with 39 new faces between the Assembly and Senate. Long Island was particularly active during the campaign season with several incumbents who were defeated—and is home to a major constituency that relies on Penn Station. As we rebuild our airports at JFK and LaGuardia and inaugurate new bridges like the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge spanning the Hudson, Penn Station must be our next big fix.

If we don’t get to work to fix Penn Station now, it won’t ever happen. It’s time to act.

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State Senator Brad Hoylman represents parts of Manhattan, including Penn Station. On Twitter @BradHoylman.

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