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The Upstate Economy and The Election for Governor


Cuomo upstate jobs

Gov. Cuomo touting Upstate jobs (photo: The Governor's Office)


The health of the Upstate New York economy is a major issue in this year’s election for Governor. Two candidates in the general election, Republican Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County Executive, and Stephanie Miner, the former mayor of Syracuse, a Democrat planning to run on an independent line, hail from Upstate, and are already in part centering their campaigns on criticisms of state government’s efforts to help the Upstate economy. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s rival in the Democratic primary, Cynthia Nixon, is also making it a point of attack.

Ironically, a federal corruption trial is underway against former SUNY Polytechnic President Alain Kaloyeros, who had been given a mission and vast resources by Cuomo to stimulate growth in the Upstate economy.

The Upstate region is very politically significant in statewide elections. Although the region is 36% of the state population, it has been between 46 and 49% of the statewide vote in the last three gubernatorial elections, 2006, 2010, and 2014. By contrast, New York City has been 27-29% of the vote in these elections despite being 43% of the population. Upstate New York is considered to encompass all of New York except New York City, Long Island, and the City’s northern suburbs, including Westchester, Rockland, and Orange Counties.

The region is also economically significant. Upstate New York’s population is 7 million, larger than 33 states, and is one-third of total employment in the state. My two previous columns on the Upstate New York economy focused on growth during the first six years of Governor Cuomo’s tenure, through 2016, and then a longer view.

The first review last fall showed that Upstate New York employment only grew 3.3% in total overall jobs between 2010 and 2016, compared to 10% growth for New York State as a whole. The comparable numbers for private sector employment growth were 5.8% for Upstate, compared to 13% growth for New York as a whole. The disparity between private sector and total growth relates to cutbacks in state spending when Governor Cuomo first took office in 2011 (the state had a $10 billion budget deficit that year), which resulted in job reductions in both state and local governments. Government reductions stabilized around 2013, but had been substantial by that time.

The New York City economy dominates employment growth in the state, with more than 70% of the total growth in employment statewide, at a pace of 16% overall and 19% private sector employment growth between 2010 and 2016.

The second column assessed the context and accuracy of a statement from Governor Cuomo addressing the difficulties posed by helping the Upstate Economy, when he described the Upstate economy as having a “bad 50 years.” My analysis showed that in fact Upstate employment growth outpaced Downstate in the 1980s, despite large manufacturing job losses that captured the public eye. The Upstate region also continued moderate growth in the 1990s after the recession early in that decade. It was really the two national recessions in the 21st century that battered the Upstate New York economy with new rounds of job losses and limited the capacity of the region to recover compared to those earlier decades. Upstate New York actually lost jobs between 2000 and 2010, compared to the recoveries that took place after recessions in the 1980s and 1990s.

As Governor Cuomo’s second term concludes, the Upstate economy is showing moderate improvement in several of its major metropolitan regions, which comprise a majority of the employment base. However, a number of metro regions that encompass the smaller cities continue to struggle. Below are tables breaking down growth in the 12 Upstate metropolitan areas, which comprise five-sixths of the employment base. Non-metro areas make up the rest.

The first table shows six moderately growing metro areas (data from the New York State Labor Department):

upstate new york growth moderate

Upstate’s three largest metropolitan regions, the Buffalo-Niagara area, the Rochester area, and the Albany metro area, achieved 9-13% private sector employment growth in the eight years from May 2010 to May 2018. Dutchess-Putnam and Kingston had similar 9% private sector growth over the period, and Ithaca is the fastest-growing metro area Upstate. The six metro areas are nearly 60% of the 3 million job employment base and in these areas private sector jobs have been growing at more than 1% a year -- not as good as Downstate New York or the nation, but sustained improvement.

The next two tables show data for two slow-growth regions, four static/no-growth metro areas, and the third sums up the data for the 12 Upstate metro areas.

upstate new york growth regions 3 tables

The Syracuse and Glens Falls metro areas were placed in a slow-growth category -- they achieved 4-5% private sector growth over eight years (even slower once the public sector jobs are included). There are four Upstate metro areas -- Binghamton, Elmira, Utica-Rome, and Watertown-Fort Drum -- where no private sector growth is occurring. These four areas are about 10% of the employment base of Upstate New York.

The number of jobs in non-metro areas of Upstate New York is about 500,000, about 16% of the employment base. Consistent data over the eight-year period for non-metro areas is difficult to elicit. Labor Department press releases that include non-metro growth don’t go back past 2015, so the best numbers from that source, from December 2013 to December 2017, showed growth of 4,000 jobs. My best estimation is that non-metro areas are in the slow growth category.

This portrait does not attempt to correlate direct state government investments, frequently in partnership with private companies, to create or preserve jobs, or the general allocation of state government resources, with these trends. The employment numbers are just the general trends -- and Upstate New York’s problems include population loss in some areas, like Central New York and the Southern Tier, where five of the six metro areas with slow or static growth are located. State government can also be making investments in jobs that are worthwhile individually in areas of population loss, but which do not show up in the aggregate data. Over the past seven years state government also embarked upon a broad general policy of making the state economy more competitive by cutting personal income, corporate income, and property taxes.

Empire State Development, state government’s economic development arm, finally produced a comprehensive report on its activities this year (mandated by law), and it does contain much information. Watchdogs criticized it for lacking metrics, meaning measurements of the effectiveness of the state’s investments against some set of standards. The accountability and effectiveness of the state’s resource-allocation remain the subject of another future column.

Governor Cuomo was right to say that helping an economy battered repeatedly by job losses before his tenure began is a major challenge, even if it wasn’t accurate to suggest that there was a 50-year downward path. Efforts to grow the Upstate economy seem to be modestly, but not highly, successful, although state government alone cannot determine economic destiny. How to frame this modest success in an election won’t be easy.

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

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Making the Libertarian Party Viable in New York City


rockway ferry

(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)


New Yorkers are constantly complaining about the two-party political system. Democratic domination of New York City politics means Democratic primary elections are more impactful than general elections. Republican domination of the national political system means New Yorkers’ progressive cultural values are rarely reflected in national politics. At the state level, Democrats and Republicans seem to have a stable alliance built on maintaining one of the most corrupt state governments in the country.

Clearly the two largest political parties aren’t working for us, so what about the third: the Libertarian Party, which is has over 500,000 members nationwide? The Libertarian Party is more than twice the size of the fourth largest party, the Green Party, and more than 10 times the size the Democratic Socialists of America. Around 20% of Americans self-identify as “libertarian.”

The strength of the National Libertarian Party and the popularity of libertarian sentiment is not reflected in New York politics, where the Libertarian Party has failed to achieve official party status, which requires getting 50,000 votes for its gubernatorial candidate. While it’s likely that Larry Sharpe’s gubernatorial campaign will earn the New York Libertarian Party official status this election cycle, the size of party in New York City will still be miniscule, at around 100 dues-paying members (which is approximately .01 percent of self-identified libertarians).

The lack of Libertarians in New York City presents New Yorkers with a massive opportunity: to build a new local political party that can have instant national reach, national operational infrastructure, and a rapidly growing base of support in increasingly relevant western battleground states. This party wouldn’t and shouldn’t look like Libertarian parties in suburban and rural communities but something new: culturally progressive with a can-do, data-driven, startup-style, open-source attitude towards solving our city’s biggest problems. If the rural Libertarians think we’re not “real” Libertarians, then they can move to New York City and defeat us in county elections.

I don’t say this as an outsider, but as the chair of the Brooklyn Libertarian Party and the 2017 Libertarian candidate for New York City Public Advocate who earned more votes than any other Libertarian candidate in that city election cycle.

My plan for a relevant Libertarian Party in New York City rests on three concepts: social tolerance, open and participatory governance, and municipalism.

Each of these concepts is consistent with National Libertarian Party ideology and with the interests of urban voters. If we can fuse the two together, we can create a new political coalition to challenge the authoritarianism coming out of Washington, D.C. and the corruption pervading our two party system.

Social Tolerance
Many people think that libertarian culture and big city culture are at odds because libertarianism is so often framed as a philosophy rooted in rugged self-reliance and individual autonomy, but that’s mostly myth. In reality, libertarians are much more interested in well-functioning markets and how complex, interdependent systems produce so much abundance. If you don’t believe me, read “I, Pencil.”

New Yorkers know better than anyone that people can successfully organize themselves through market activity because that’s how our lives are possible. We rely on complex systems for everything: food, water, transit, employment. Yes, that means we also rely on government-produced systems, and that’s fine because the “big city libertarianism” I’m arguing for respects regional autonomy. More on that later.

The single, unifying, core principle of libertarianism is that individuals should be free to do as they please as long as they don’t harm others. Sometimes this is called the non-aggression principle. Other times it’s referred to as just plain old “tolerance and acceptance.” New Yorkers embody this spirit more than any other place I’ve been in America. We love diversity and it’s myriad of benefits. We also can tolerate crowded, sweaty trains filled with strangers from all over world, and we’re constantly teaching visitors and new residents to do the same. That’s what becoming a New Yorker is all about: learning tolerance for (and even love of) diverse lifestyles, races, genders, ethnicities, cultures, philosophies, religions, et al, -- because if we don’t have it our cities simply couldn’t function.

Everyone is tolerant when it’s popular, but people are surprised to learn that, at a national level, the Libertarian Party has walked the walk: nominating the first female presidential candidate in the 1970s, supporting gay rights in the 1980s, leading the fight against the drug war and mass incarceration in the 1990s, and opposing the war in Iraq in the 2000s, Obama’s drone wars in the 2010s, and Trump immigration policies today. The New York City Libertarians can and should lead on issues of mass incarceration and police militarization, and offer something no political party has yet -- a powerful solution: ending the drug war.

Open and Participatory Governance
Our political and governmental operating systems are outdated, and need to be redeveloped for the era of the internet. Both the Democrats and the Republicans are too invested in the old system to be able to produce any substantial reforms. If we look around globally, we’ll find that some of the most aggressive and successful reforms came from the Occupy-style movements that spread throughout the world around 2010-2014. While Occupy was framed as a leftist movement in the United States, in other places it was much more obviously an anti-corruption movement that used anarchist organizing principles. In many places alumni of these movements have taken power.

Examples include Madrid, where movement activists won elections and embedded themselves in the city government and implemented an ambitious e-governance system that enables the public to control the legislature through a direct-democracy style app. Another example is in Taiwan, where activists took over the national parliament for a month during the “Sunflower” movement, won concessions from the government, and have implemented a nationwide participatory democracy program that is the envy of the world.

What these movements have shown is that there are solutions to the question of democracy: but those solutions will destroy the politics of patronage, where politicians acquire resources from taxpayers and distribute them to their constituents, and instead require a politics of participation, where politicians use technology to convene stakeholders, determine public sentiment and then perform the will of the people, even if that means suppressing their own opinions and interests. That’s a different job description for which many existing politicians would not apply.

The other major trend in internet-enabled government is the spread of “digital services organizations” and their uniquely effective method of bureaucracy reform. By using open source technologies, lean development principles, service design methodologies and other “startup-style” tools, DSOs are implementing technical systems that will, ultimately, radically transform how government is administered: reduce the need for certain types of skill sets, automating processes and making services faster, better, and cheaper.

The political establishment and agency bureaucracies have been extremely hesitant to resource these DSOs because their work is shifting power from closed bureaucracies to open systems. As such, neither establishment party can give DSOs the support they deserve. But Libertarians can! We want government to operate faster, better and cheaper -- and if that means government workers lose their jobs in the process, that’s fine. Give them a universal basic income and let's move on.

balkin libertarianMunicipalism
With Trump as president, many city residents have awoken to the fact that there are many layers of government -- and these various layers don’t always agree or collaborate with each other. They’re realizing that they’d much prefer a structure where the federal government has less power and municipal governments have a lot more. This “municipalism” is entirely consistent with libertarianism for two reasons. First, it localizes power and decreases the number of people each politician represents, making politicians and government more accountable. Second, it reduces the size and scope of the federal government, which is something every Libertarian supports.

By advocating at the national level for more local control, we align ourselves with a political program that spans the nation: urban and rural, progressive and conservative. Local control shouldn’t simply mean more policies are determined at local levels (although this is obviously a part of it), but should result in restructuring the tax system to shift the destination of tax revenue from the federal government to state and local governments.

I call this “flipping the pyramid.”

Currently, the federal government gets most of the tax money, then states, and lastly municipalities. This status quo should be flipped on its head so that the federal government receives the least amount of tax revenue, allowing states and local governments to gain significantly more.

In circumstances where rural and suburban communities don’t want or need big local governments, they will pay significantly lower taxes. Meanwhile, people in cities who do want lots of government services can increase their local taxes to pay for those services, without increasing the total amount of taxes they pay. Don’t want to pay taxes? Leave the city! This act of voting with one's feet is the oldest type of democracy, and the idea that people should actually get up and move from places that don’t share their values to places that do should be embraced (and maybe even subsidized).

We’ve seen what happens when we try a “one-size-fits all” model of federal policy: Washington, D.C. has been gridlocked for over a decade, the culture war is nastier than ever, Donald Trump is president, and it seems only the mega-rich are getting what they want from the political process. Instead, let’s allow for the “regional differentiation” that will naturally arise when localities have more power to determine their overall tax rate.

Maybe some cities will become hotbeds of socialist policy, and some rural communities will devolve into total anarchy. While that might sound drastic or raise the spectre of places becoming truly inhospitable to certain types of people in ways that they currently are not, we should recognize that (a) this process is already well underway for middle and upper class people who can afford to move, (b) our nation’s structural resistance to regional differentiation has led to our current political climate and (c) this approach will encourage and incentivize politically-minded people to shift their attention from the national political circus and get involved in local and state politics.

I am not advocating for the federal government to stop performing any of its constitutionally mandated or critical functions such as upholding the civil and human rights of U.S. citizens, investigating corruption of state and local officials, regulating interstate commerce, helping with disaster relief, and organizing national defense.

Rather, I’m advocating for a visioning process where we redraw the appropriate scope of local, city, regional, state, and federal powers.

While working to implement this new vision, we should also be investing our time and resources into upgrading the capacities of local, state, and regional governments so they’ll be able to absorb new responsibilities. Anyone involved with local politics knows that it can be just as corrupt as national politics, if not more so. That’s why our strategy must also include a movement to transform local governments into open, transparent and participatory institutions that good people want to lead. We can have that battle on our home turf instead of D.C.

New Yorkers, and urban residents throughout the country, deserve a culturally progressive, entrepreneur-friendly, open-source political party, and the Libertarian Party can be just that. There are no Libertarians in New York City interested in stopping us. I’m the chair of the Brooklyn Party, we’re collaborating actively with the Manhattan Party, and this weekend we’ll be taking our plan to the Libertarian National Convention in New Orleans to find allies and develop a more nuanced understanding of potential opposition to our plans.

In politics, opportunities can come from where you least expect them: maybe that’s the Libertarian Party in America’s big cities. Come find out by attending our monthly meeting in Brooklyn and the meetings of other chapters around the city.

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Devin Balkind is the chair of the Brooklyn Libertarian Party. He was the 2017 Libertarian candidate for Public Advocate. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

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For Justice and Decarceration, Enact Second-Look Sentencing


gov cuomo tours greene correctional fac

(photo via the Governor's Office)


Regardless what one thinks of presidential pardons, we should reflect upon a simple truth – convictions and sentences meted out at one point might not be appropriate decades later. That is especially true for many people currently serving life or massive prison sentences.

Many have argued for sentence commutations for specific classifications of people. In recent years, the Supreme Court has recognized that judges sentencing young people, even for violent crimes, must consider lack of maturity, impulsivity, and the inherent potential for change, and so reformers are asking courts to resentence those serving long prison terms for crimes committed when they were young. Many people advocate for medical parole or compassionate release for the elderly and infirm. Others focus on people deemed to be low-level, non-violent drug offenders.

At the heart of the problem, however, are all the people serving draconian sentences for crimes committed when they were adults and who are not, at least not yet, suffering from any debilitating illness or in any other “special” category. In fact, it is the “normalcy” of so many cases that highlights the issue we must confront.  

Consider Jawad Musa. He is 53. He has been incarcerated for 27 years. A confidential informant and an undercover orchestrated what is known as a reverse sting. Mr. Musa and several others received a phone call saying there was heroin for sale if they could muster $20,000. They cobbled together the money, drove to New York, met the undercover, showed the cash, and were arrested – no drugs were ever exchanged.  

Mr. Musa was convicted at trial. The judge who sentenced him expressed frustration with the mandatory sentence he had to impose and wrote that “the length of [Mr. Musa’s] sentence and time served thereon makes him an appropriate applicant for executive clemency.” The trial prosecutor who went on to serve in high level positions in the Justice Department, as well as being named Assistant Attorney General for National Security, wrote that “justice has been done for Mr. Musa’s drug crime in 1991” and “mercy and fairness now dictate that he be given the opportunity to rejoin society and enjoy the balance of his life as a free man.” The Captain at his federal penitentiary wrote that Musa is a “positive force, mentoring younger prisoners” and “I am confident that if granted clemency Jawad would quickly become a productive member of society. He has served a sufficiently long sentence and deserves the chance to re-unite with his family.”

And yet Jawad Musa remains in prison – for life.  

Consider Roy Bolus. He is 48. He has been incarcerated 30 years. Unlike Musa, Roy participated in a violent and horrific crime. But unlike Jawad, Roy was only a teenager – he was 18 years old and had never been convicted of any crime. Roy and five other men, including two other teenagers, went to Albany, New York to steal a safe from a rival drug dealer. Once they got inside, one of Roy’s co-defendants shot and killed two people. Roy was in another room at the time of the shooting, did not have a weapon, never fired any shots, but was convicted of felony murder.  

Roy’s extraordinary achievements while incarcerated for the past three decades are matched only by the outpouring of support he has garnered for clemency. He has attained Associates, Bachelors, and Masters Degrees and is pursuing a Doctorate. He has taught more than 5,000 hours of classes on HIV prevention, self-improvement, and a variety of academic subjects. He has been the Chair or President of several organizations and helped build an educational program inside the prison. He has numerous letters from family and friends who offer housing, employment, love, and support. Several men write compellingly of the impact Roy had on their determination to persevere while in prison and to thrive if they ever made it to the outside.

And yet it really doesn’t matter. Roy was sentenced to 80 years to life in prison. He is scheduled to see the Parole Board in 2067. He would be 98 years old.  

There are countless other similar stories that are part and parcel of the epidemic of mass incarceration – people who have committed crimes, including brutally serious ones, but after decades in prison have grown into remarkably different people.  

Last year, the venerable American Law Institute, a non-governmental organization of judges, lawyers and academics, approved the first-ever revisions to the historic Model Penal Code. The MPC, taught in virtually every law school, was developed in 1962 to introduce uniformity and coherence to the myriad criminal codes in the 50 states, and serves as a model across the country. The update to the Code took more than 15 years to complete and yielded a comprehensive 700-page report.    

The ALI focused specifically on sentencing in order to address the decades of punitiveness that led to the current state of mass incarceration, made all the more shameful by the significant racial disparities in American jails and prisons.

One recommendation in particular addresses the epidemic of 2.2 million people behind bars.  The Code now calls for state legislatures to enact a “second look” provision; to create a mechanism to reexamine a person’s sentence after 15 years no matter the crime of conviction or how long the original sentence. If the original sentence remains unchanged, it would be revisited every ten years thereafter.

While many will sound the alarm for “truth-in-sentencing” or the need for finality, the second-look provision asks a very basic question -- are the purposes of sentencing better served by a sentence modification or by adhering to the original sentence imposed many years earlier?  

The commentary to the Code cites a host of utilitarian reasons why long sentences should not be frozen in time, suggesting that “governments should be especially cautious” and act with “a profound sense of humility” when depriving people of their freedom for most of their adult lives.  

The commentary notes further that new developments might show that old sentences are no longer empirically valid, as current risk assessment methods claim to be better at predicting risk of recidivism than those previously used. Similarly, new rehabilitative approaches might be discovered for people who at the time of their sentencing were thought resistant to change.  

The second-look provision is bold and unprecedented – to actually redress the past 50 years of mass incarceration requires nothing less, as most proposed criminal justice solutions and reforms are prospective and have no impact on those people currently in prison. Further, executive clemency in the form of sentence commutation has also proven to be of limited utility as Presidents and Governors are loath to exercise this power to any serious and meaningful degree.

Second-look allows for mid-course correction if warranted by some measure of changed circumstances -- major changes in the offender, his family situation, the crime victim, or the community -- that merit a different sentence. It is consistent with the growth of restorative justice that seeks to move away from the punishment paradigm of the last several decades. Second-look also allows the sentencing determination to be made in a calmer atmosphere than existed at the time of the original sentencing, so that any notoriety, outside pressure, or inflamed passions may have abated.

Bills have been introduced in the New York State Legislature regarding parole eligibility for people who are least 55 years old and have served at least 15 years of their sentence, and while the devil may be in the details, they are not insurmountable. There will be costs associated with establishing second-look processes but money will ultimately be saved as more people are sent home. Releasing people from prison is often controversial and even one crime committed by a releasee can threaten to shut down any second-look process, so there must be carefully constructed guidelines, created by myriad stakeholders, to ensure the independence of the decision-makers, and that all decisions are consistent, defensible, and transparent.

Mass incarceration is not just about unnecessarily incarcerating masses of people. It is about unnecessarily keeping masses of people in prison for decades. A sentence once imposed is not thereby automatically rendered, just, fair and appropriate in perpetuity. Ultimately, second-look mechanisms are meant to recognize and value the possibility of change and transformation, and to intervene when drastically long sentences are indefensible.

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Steven Zeidman is a professor of law at CUNY School of Law. He is on Twitter @SteveZeidman. (For related bills in the New York State Legislature see S.8581/A.6354A; S.8346/A.7546.)

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Revitalizing New York’s Aging Parks


parks department

(photo: Parks Department)


New Yorkers are all too familiar with the consequences of aging urban infrastructure. Years of underinvestment in New York City’s century-old subway system has led to a full-blown transit crisis, with rampant delays, consistently overcrowded trains, and frequent equipment breakdowns.

But the subways are just the most glaring problem in an aging city. Another vital piece of public infrastructure is also several decades old, years behind on basic maintenance, and nearing a breaking point: New York City’s parks system.

With more than 100 million parks visitors each year and the city’s population at a record high, New York’s 1,700 public parks have never been busier. These open spaces provide a communal backyard to millions, with major benefits for health and happiness in every corner of the city. But the combination of advanced age, record usage, and decades of underinvestment in maintenance and infrastructure means that serious cracks are showing.

The average city park is 73 years old, and parks in every borough are struggling with aging assets that are at or near the end of their useful lives—including drainage systems, retaining walls, and bridges. About 40 percent of pools and almost half of the 53 recreation centers in city parks were built before 1950. The waterfront facilities overseen by the Parks Department—148 miles of coastline, including beaches, marinas, piers, and docks—are on average 76 years old.

Yet one in five parks has not had a major infrastructure upgrade in 25 years, according to a new report from the Center for an Urban Future. At least 46 parks, triangles, and plazas have not received significant capital investment in nearly a century.

In many cases, the results are plain to see. Serious flooding, damaged pathways, missing stairs, out-of-order bathrooms, and neglected horticulture are common problems in parks across all five boroughs. Other times, the infrastructure issues are hidden from view. For example, numerous drainage systems in city parks still rely on clay pipes from the mid-20th century. Most of the city’s thousands of park retaining walls are cracking and in need of repair or replacement. And one in five park bridges was found to be seriously deteriorated during its most recent inspection.

As maintenance and infrastructure needs soar, the city has struggled to keep pace. The Parks Department’s state-of-good-repair needs jumped 45 percent over the past decade, from $405.9 million in 2007 to $589.1 million last year. Meanwhile, recommended maintenance needs more than doubled, from $14 million to $34 million. But fewer than 15 percent of these needs were funded in the city’s most recent budget—among the lowest levels of any agency.

Although age is the major culprit contributing to mounting infrastructure needs, decades of underinvestment in basic maintenance has taken a toll. The Parks Department has too few full-time staff—including plumbers, masons, and gardeners—to keep parks assets in good shape and mitigate problems before they grow. New York’s system has about 150 gardeners citywide for roughly 20,000 acres of parkland—a ratio of 1 gardener to every 133 acres. By comparison, San Francisco employs over 200 gardeners for 4,113 acres of parkland—a ratio of 1 to 20.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council deserve credit for taking important steps to address parks infrastructure needs. In recent years, the Community Parks Initiative and Anchor Parks Initiative have dedicated more than $300 million to improve chronically underfunded parks, with significant benefits in every borough. But there’s still much more work to do to shore up the city’s aging parks system and lay the foundation for the next century of public open space.

It starts with committing to strategic increases in the Parks Department’s expense budget, with the goal of permanently funding much-needed skilled maintenance staff such as gardeners and foresters, masons, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, and other skilled workers, while closing the maintenance gap. In addition, the mayor and the City Council should establish a dedicated pool of capital funds for the parks system’s unsexy infrastructure—such as drainage systems and retaining walls—which are often passed over in discretionary funding.

To pay for all this, New York City should explore new revenue streams dedicated to parks maintenance and unglamorous capital projects. For example, a small surcharge on tickets to sporting events and greens fees at city golf courses could fund routine maintenance at parks, playgrounds, and recreation centers. Likewise, a surcharge on dockage fees at city-owned marinas could be used to maintain waterfront facilities. There are also numerous parks where the city could add a reasonable number of concessions that enhance the experience of parkgoers while providing vital new sources of revenue.

Given the scale of the parks system’s needs, the city’s capital dollars need to stretch as far as possible. But today, that’s hardly the case. A single bathroom can cost upward of $3 million and ten-year renovations are not uncommon. The mayor should make reforming the broken capital construction process a top priority, and the Parks Department should work to significantly speed up each phase of the process under its control.

New York’s public parks have benefited countless New Yorkers for well over a century. By investing wisely in their revitalization, these essential open spaces can continue to thrive into the next century and beyond.

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Eli Dvorkin is managing editor of the Center for an Urban Future, a New York–based think tank focused on expanding economic opportunity. On Twitter @nycfuture & @wetwax.

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Without the Federal Government But With New York, Puerto Rico Endures


gov puertorican day

(photo via the Governor's office)


Loíza is a town on the northeastern coast of Puerto Rico, home to almost 30,000 American citizens. For 72 hours last September, as Hurricane Maria ravaged the island and other territories in the Caribbean, Loíza and all of its residents became isolated from the outside world when the three main roads that connect this medium-sized town to the rest of the island became impassable. 

The challenges that residents of Loíza faced and continue to deal with are not only emblematic of the lack of resources invested in rebuilding efforts and the crumbling economy hindering the island's recovery, but also of the resilience and resourcefulness of the Puerto Rican people. 

Last March, I returned to my native Puerto Rico to see the impact of the disaster firsthand. I visited six different towns across the island, including Loíza, and with a great deal of frustration and heartbreak, I confirmed what I had feared: the inadequate and anemic responses from the federal government and the island’s central administration have left almost 3 million Puerto Ricans on the island and their local governments to fend for themselves.  

Thousands, especially those in low-income communities, continue to suffer from unreliable electricity and water systems, food and resource shortages, and serious mental and physical health emergencies. Considering this, it should come as no surprise that the real number of storm-related fatalities is closer to 4,600 souls, according to a recent Harvard University report, as opposed to the 64 official deaths counted by the U.S. government.      

While the trip was disheartening in many ways, it was also inspiring and hopeful. I met several mayors, nonprofit organizations, scholars, labor leaders, and dedicated individuals whose steadfast leadership in helping Puerto Rico recover has been nothing short of heroic. Together, they have slowly built an important grassroots recovery movement that has made significant progress despite minimal resources. 

For instance, Taller Salud, a Loíza-based nonprofit organization seeking to ensure the physical and emotional well-being of low-income women and girls, saw its mission transform out of necessity, becoming a critical emergency response provider giving out life-saving assistance to thousands.  

To put it plainly, Puerto Ricans do not need or want charity. What they need is our support to further invest in those leaders and communities working tirelessly to implement innovative visions and projects locally. They want to maintain full agency over how their hometowns and infrastructure are rebuilt. We do not need to tell them or show them how to survive or thrive -- what we need to do is augment their ability to do what they have already been doing.

Many states and cities across the mainland United States have stepped up to provide support in the face of the failed response by our federal government. I am proud to say that New York has done this and in spades.

Our State and City governments, along with elected officials across all levels of government, local nonprofit organizations, civic leaders, and many New Yorkers launched an extremely dynamic relief effort, which continues to this day. From millions of dollars in monetary donations, to collecting tons of essential items, to sending highly qualified emergency responders, medical staff, and expert personnel to help rebuild the island’s decayed infrastructure, New York has led by example as to how to coordinate a comprehensive relief response and empower the Puerto Rican people to take the lead in its recovery efforts.

During a recent meeting of Governor Cuomo’s New York Stands with Puerto Rico Rebuilding and Reconstructing Committee, I joined my fellow committee members and Governor Cuomo’s administration to identify a list of priorities and recommendations to help facilitate Puerto Rico’s rebuilding efforts.

01 29 14 rivera hs 009My list of recommendations focuses on counseling and mental health services, access to higher education, employment assistance, accessibility of clean water, and promotion of green energy infrastructure. 

As a result of the recent committee meeting, I penned a letter with members of the Senate Democratic Conference urging SUNY and CUNY to extend their in-state tuition credit program. This program aims to ensure that Puerto Rican and U.S. Virgin Islands students who relocated to New York are able to continue their higher education for the next academic year. Last week, SUNY extended the program and CUNY is expected to do the same imminently.

Puerto Ricans have not only seen their lives completely torn apart by a natural disaster, but also by the criminal inaction of our federal government. While the road to recovery will be long and filled with challenges, the spirit of my fellow Boricuas remains intact. At a time of such darkness, the clarity of their ideas and their commitment to rebuilding is worthy of support. The goal of the diaspora, and all who seek to help, must be to empower our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters to transform and improve their neighborhoods and towns as they see fit. The storm and this administration have dealt a painful blow to Puerto Rico, but the island and Puerto Ricans endure.

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Gustavo Rivera is a state senator representing part of the Bronx and a native of Puerto Rico. On Twitter @NYSenatorRivera.

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Missing Pieces of the Discussion Around Specialized High Schools and City Education


Mayor de Blasio education

Mayor de Blasio's announcement (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


On June 2, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in Chalkbeat that he was urging the State Legislature to change the admissions system at the city’s eight specialized high schools, which relies on a single high-stakes exam called the SHSAT. Only 10 percent of students admitted to these selective high schools are black and Hispanic, while these students make up 67 percent of the overall public school population. This year, only 10 black students were offered admission to the city’s most selective of these high schools, Stuyvesant, out of 902 students admitted.

The Mayor and the Chancellor have proposed that admissions instead depend on a combination of a student’s school ranking in terms of grades and state test scores. In the meantime, before the state law is changed, de Blasio plans to expand the “discovery program,” a special program for disadvantaged students near the cut-off score on the SHSAT, to admit them into these schools after extra academic preparation.

As City Council Education Chair Mark Treyger later pointed out on Twitter, the entire effort was announced with little preparation; and ”key stakeholders were also not consulted” on something “dropped 11 days before the end of the [Legislative] session.” The proposal has aroused much controversy, and will not come to a final vote this year, as neither the Assembly nor the Senate was prepared to pass it so late in the session that just ended. Yet the issue will be surely be reconsidered again when the Legislature reconvenes next year, and the debate continues, including over what the City can and should do on its own.

Despite the fact that much ink has been spilled and emotions aroused since de Blasio made his announcement, several aspects of this hot-button issue remain under-discussed:

1. This move is long overdue. New York City is the only school district in the entire nation where admissions to any high school depends solely on the results of a single high stakes test. This was confirmed by Chester Finn of the Hoover Institute, a conservative education advocate who co-authored a book,“Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools.” Advocates have made efforts for at least 50 years to open up the admission process to these schools and make it more fair.  The Hecht-Calandra Act of 1971 in New York, which specified that specialized high schools must rely solely on a single exam for entry, was passed in the first place in response to such a campaign. Bill de Blasio also promised to reform this admissions process  when he first ran for Mayor in 2013.

2. The reality is that relying solely on a single high-stakes test for admissions, grade retention, or any important decision in a student’s educational career is unfair, unreliable, and likely to have a racially disparate impact, as pointed out by the National Academy of Sciences nearly 20 years ago in its seminal report, High Stakes, Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation.

3. The SHSAT, produced by Pearson, is a highly peculiar exam that has never been independently assessed for racial bias. This was pointed out by Joshua Feinman in 2008, and confirmed more recently by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in its 2012 Civil Rights complaint about the use of this exam. The results of this test also appear to be gender biased, as girls tend to score significantly higher on state exams and receive better grades, but score lower than boys on the SHSAT. (Girls were only admitted to Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech in 1969-1970.) The test is quirky in other ways and is scored to give extra points to students who do exceptionally well on the ELA or the math section – rather than those students who score well on both subjects. It also has poorly worded questions – see, for example, the first question in this sample exam.

4. The mayor could alter the admissions tests at five of the eight specialized high schools immediately – without any act of the state Legislature. Only Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech are named in state law. The other five schools -- Staten Island Tech, the High School of American Studies, the High School for Math, Science, and Engineering at City College, Queens High School for the Sciences, and Brooklyn Latin School -- were designated as specialized high schools by Joel Klein when he was city schools chancellor, and could be undesignated as such by Chancellor Richard Carranza.  All it would take is a vote of the Panel on Educational Policy at one of its monthly meetings. It is a panel made up of a supermajority of mayoral appointees. (The best explanation of how only three schools are mandated to use this exam was published in Gotham Gazette. While many other news outlets have gotten this fact wrong in the past, they have recently improved their reporting on this issue.)

5. Despite the huge amount of time and money many students invest in test prep for the SHSAT exam,  there is research to show that attending a specialized high school has little or no impact on a students’ future SAT scores, chances of enrollment in selective colleges, or college graduation rates – which in turn casts real doubt about the value of attending one of these schools.

6. Whatever happens to the admissions system at the specialized high schools, there are myriad problems with how admissions to New York City schools have been designed. Many schools utilize a complex and competitive application system overly reliant on test scores. This makes the process of admissions stressful to kids and their parents, and leads to excessive test prep. In many cases, admissions to middle schools are based heavily upon students’ scores on the 4th grade state exams, and 7th grade exams for high school. The state tests and their scoring methods have their own problems in terms of accuracy and validity. In addition, some New York City middle and high schools have developed their own special tests that they rely upon for admissions.

7. The competitive nature of this process worsened under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein. The number of high schools that admitted students through academic screening increased from 29 in 1997 to 112 in 2017, while the proportion of “ed-opt” high schools, designed to accept students at all different levels of achievement, dropped sharply. Even so-called unscreened programs actually do screen students, in covert ways. Moreover, the Gates-funded small schools that proliferated after 2002 initially barred students with disabilities or English language learners from their schools, prompting a civil rights complaint in 2006.

Most of these small schools also required prospective students and their families to attend special “open houses” in the evening, which also tends to box out families with the fewest resources. While  Bloomberg and Klein often bragged about expanding school “choice,” too often this has meant that schools make the choice, not students or families. There is something to be said for comprehensive high schools as exist in most of the country, where students automatically have a right to attend when they enter 9th grade and don’t have to compete to get into.

8. The method de Blasio now proposes to use for admissions at the specialized high schools would be to give preference to students at the top of their class in terms of grades wherever they attend middle school, as long as their state test scores are also good enough. Yet this method, based upon the admissions process at the University of Texas system, will likely only work to effectively integrate the specialized high schools if city middle schools remain largely segregated.  

9. Even if all New York City high schools became less stratified according to race and class, one would still be left with the biggest problem of all: too many elementary and middle schools are simply not providing the quality of education necessary – especially for students of color. This was revealed by city students’ recent results on the NAEP exams, which showed scores have stagnated – with the only significant change since 2013 being a seven-point decrease in the proportion of fourth-graders proficient in math. The achievement gap among racial and ethnic groups is also larger than ever, in 4th and 8th grade reading.

10. Class size reduction is one of very few reforms proven to work to narrow the achievement gap, and yet New York City class sizes remain excessive. In fact, class sizes have increased substantially since 2007, and are up to 50 percent larger than class sizes in the rest of the state. More than 290,000 New York City students were crammed into classes of 30 or more this fall. In the early grades, the number of first-through-third-graders in classes of 30 or more has ballooned by an amazing 3800 percent. Yet despite promises to reduce class size when he first ran for office, de Blasio has done nothing to accomplish this.

In January, Class Size Matters, along with nine New York City parents and the Alliance for Quality Education, brought a lawsuit versus the City and the State to require the Department of Education to lower class sizes in our public schools, as the state’s highest court deemed was necessary for students to obtain their constitutional right to a sound basic education. Our lawsuit will be heard in State Supreme Court in July. Whether the city’s public school students will receive an equitable chance to learn may depend on the outcome of this lawsuit, as well as the education policies pursued by Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza going forward.

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Leonie Haimson is the Executive Director of Class Size Matters. On twitter @leoniehaimson.

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Note: this column has been corrected to accurately reflect when the schools admitted girls.

NYCHA Decree an Opportunity to Awaken Potent Political Force


red hook design update nycha

(photo via NYCHA)


In 2014, in an interview about living conditions in public housing since Superstorm Sandy devastated the Rockaways, a tenant leader lamented, “...we were on the steps of City Hall today. I’m tired. I’m sick and tired having to come in the same spot to fight the same fight. It’s crazy that as public housing residents, we have to go through what we have to go through just for a decent place to live.” Another tenant leader later mused, “Where are the people that used to be here who had our best interests at heart?”  

Fast-forward to 2018, and the Citywide Council of Presidents, an elected body representing over 400,000 tenants of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), took the unprecedented step of suing the agency. Residents pointed to high-profile health and safety failures including a lapse in lead paint inspections with fraudulent reports to the contrary from former Chair Shola Olatoye and sporadic heat and hot water during a frigid winter.

Their claims have been robustly confirmed by a multi-year federal investigation into NYCHA’s operations, with the city and federal government entering a consent decree last week that commits $2.2 billion over 10 years, overseen by a court-appointed monitor. Tenant plaintiffs also allege that NYCHA has failed to include residents in policymaking, as U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) guidelines mandate. 

It is this sense of powerlessness and lack of political incorporation of tenants in NYCHA’s oft-described “city within a city” that I investigate in Rockaway, where almost 10,000 public housing residents live. New York City built extensive public housing along its waterfront throughout the twentieth century. Rockaway’s marginal location created an affordable landscape for building public housing, with beach bungalows torn down as slum clearance to make way for the developments between 1951 and 1973.

Today, 23 percent of Queens’ public housing is in Rockaway, versus only five percent of the population of this “borough of homeowners.” Rockaway has some of the highest percentages of income-restricted properties in New York City, incorporating almost one in three rental units.

Homeowners in Rockaway look askance at the concentration of public housing there, accusing the city of “dumping” unwanted poverty at their doorstep since at least the 1950s. Local homeowners told me, “All the housing projects...Rockaway has its burden and we have its share and it also kind of diminishes our ability to be politically active. It’s putting more people on us, diluting our ability to be strong,” and “If it’s bad, it’s NYCHA. If it’s the fix, it’s NYCHA. And if it’s the repair, it’s NYCHA.”

Faced with this antipathy, living with mold, mildew, leaks, and heat and hot water outages in crumbling, aging properties, tenants over the years developed pronounced political apathy, manifest in very low turnout in tenant council elections, absence at community recovery meetings, and lack of participation in advocates’ surveys of post-Sandy living conditions. “We could have gotten more than 600 people surveyed if people had faith or had hope or believed that something’s going to come of it,” one tenant council officer said.

My research shows that the disaster recovery experiences of NYCHA residents have been materially different than those of their neighbors who own homes or rent in the private-housing market. These disparities are the direct result of several detrimental factors and policies, including (1) the racialized, gendered, and classist stigma of living in public housing; (2) HUD regulations that stipulate tenants’ political power and channel it narrowly towards working with local public housing authorities; (3) an opaque status that allows NYCHA to operate without clear, accountable managerial and budgetary oversight at the state and local levels; and (4) the spatial isolation of NYCHA developments, which cuts public housing residents off from their neighbors and creates different environmental impacts from Sandy. Taken together, these constraints have isolated NYCHA residents from the political activism of their neighbors and limited their political power at every level of government.

After Sandy, for example, Rockaway public housing tenants lost easy access to polling places, suffered closure of community spaces and resident council offices, and felt NYCHA’s workforce development was insufficient to connect residents to post-Sandy reconstruction. They felt unwelcome at local community meetings, and recovery policy priorities – Build it Back, the reconstruction of the Rockaway Boardwalk – were mostly irrelevant to them. Residents thus experienced stigma from their political and social isolation, and a reduced capacity to vote, gather and share information, and pursue meaningful, accessible work.

While city, state, and federal officials fight over whether decades of budget cuts or chronic mismanagement is to blame for the decrepit living conditions at NYCHA, tenants have turned to the court system to claim their right to “decent, safe, and sanitary housing.” The New York Times reports mixed tenant views on whether federal oversight and substantial investment will make much difference. Yet, the consent decree affirms that NYCHA communities are worth fighting for. It also presents a critical opportunity to expand tenant organizing and empowerment within the developments and in their surrounding neighborhoods, using a combination of public-private funding and building on the work of advocacy organizations like Community Voices Heard that have long represented the low-income women, elderly, disabled, and families of color that disproportionately reside in public housing.

Expanding tenants’ rights and political power is as essential as managerial reforms and financial investments. As one Rockaway tenant council president put it, “Rockaway was built into six communities with presidents. If we all come together and say, ‘We got all these registered voters here. What are you going to do for us?’”

Another leader echoed this sentiment, “There’s enough people in NYCHA alone, in Rockaway, to overturn an election. I tell them...‘We all stand together. You can do anything you want.’”

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Leigh Graham is an assistant professor of urban policy and planning at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and The Graduate Center, CUNY. 

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The City Council's Dangerous Affront to Privacy


City Council Airbnb

(photo: John McCarten)


For more than 30 years, a variety of federal laws have protected the personal data of Americans online at a time of unprecedented technological development. These laws have helped foster the growth of many iconic American companies -- Amazon, Ebay, Google, Twitter, and Airbnb, just to name a few -- and create a thriving tech economy that employs hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, and many more from coast to coast.

And yet, despite this extraordinary success, a bill pushed in the New York City Council by the hotel industry threatens to undermine these core privacy protections, setting a dangerous precedent that undermines the trust and security that formed the basis for the Internet’s explosive growth.

That bill-- Intro 981-- would blow a hole the size of a MAC truck through federal protections, forcing individuals who use platforms like Airbnb to disclose their private information to the government, all to protect the hotel industry’s record profits.

This type of bill should send chills down the spine of any New Yorker who values his or her privacy online and believes that a free and open Internet requires a commitment to protecting sensitive, personal information.

To start, if the government can force Airbnb to disclose the most precious information of their users without reproach, what’s to prevent it from forcing Google, Amazon, Ebay, a news publication, or any other website from doing the same?

That may read as deeply Orwellian cynicism, but such a slippery slope is not entirely unprecedented. In fact, the City itself has just recently felt the threat of lost privacy, on the behalf of undocumented residents who fear the consequences of their personal information falling into the hands of immigration officials. Those very concerns led the City to destroy potentially sensitive records gathered as part of its IDNYC program to ensure that they could not fall into other hands.

The impact of lost privacy is also far from hypothetical for Airbnb hosts across the five boroughs, some of whom have already had their privacy violated at the hands of special investigators working for the hotel industry and New York City’s Office of Special Enforcement.

That includes middle class home sharers like Skip in Sunset Park, who began sharing a portion of his family home when he developed medical issues that made it difficult to make ends meet. The extra income from opening his doors ensured he wouldn’t have to sell the home in which he was raised.

And yet, Skip is one of countless Airbnb hosts who has been targeted by the Office of Special Enforcement for sharing his own space, with investigators appearing at his door and asking one his guests to enter without a warrant. In Skip’s words, as a result of the investigators’ action: “I felt like I’m not safe in my own home.”

In seeking to empower the very agency --  an agency that has worked hand in glove with a hotel industry set on destroying home sharing in New York, no matter what the cost for everyday New Yorkers -- that threatened Skip’s privacy with all hosts’ personal information, the City Council is making a clear statement on how it values the online security (not to mention, the economic stability) of regular New Yorkers.

If Council members were concerned about more than protecting the record profits of an industry that donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to their campaigns, it wouldn’t be difficult to work together to find a way to share data to target truly bad actors, while cementing privacy protections that ensure the security of personal data online.

Airbnb knows this better than anyone. After all, we’ve worked with cities across the country and around the world to achieve responsible regulation that provides government with the tools to enforce the law against bad actors while safeguarding the identities of regular, responsible hosts and the economic lifeline that home sharing represents for their families.

We stand ready to do the same here in New York City.

In the meantime, the need to protect and defend our privacy is as urgent and necessary as ever. As the battleground turns to the New York City Council, each of us must raise our voices and reject industry-backed efforts to sacrifice our privacy at the altar of profit.

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Andrew Kalloch is the Americas Policy Manager for Airbnb. On Twitter @AndrewKalloch and @Airbnb.

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A Supportive Housing Victory, and Much More To Do


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Council Members Levin & Salamanca, the authors, foreground (photo: Jeff Reed)


New York City is facing a crisis. There are more than 60,000 homeless individuals living in the city shelter system daily, and thousands more in shelters for survivors of domestic violence, youth, and those living with HIV/AIDS. An additional estimated 4,000 New Yorkers sleep on the streets each night. And according to the Coalition for the Homeless, the number of homeless New Yorkers sleeping each night in municipal shelters is 83 percent higher than it was a decade ago.

These numbers are staggering. We, as elected leaders have a responsibility to do better and fully invest in solutions that work.

That is why, as moderators at this year’s New York State Supportive Housing Conference, we are proud to champion the city’s efforts to build more supportive housing -- a critical component of the City’s efforts to combat the homelessness crisis. We’re proud that the new city budget recently agreed upon by the Mayor and City Council, which we are members of, increased from 500 to 700 the supportive housing units that will become available in the next fiscal year. There is still much more to do.

Supportive housing is permanent affordable housing paired with wrap-around services designed to help people maintain their homes for the long-term. All tenants have a lease, and are provided with individualized on-site care, including case management, job training, and mental health and substance abuse counseling. Supportive housing developments are run by non-profit organizations that typically provide both support services and management.

Last year, the City Council General Welfare Committee held a hearing in The Schermerhorn, a supportive housing building that also contains affordable housing units for community members and artists, along with a theater for the public. It is a good example of how these developments create jobs and contribute to the growth and well-being of a neighborhood.

Supportive housing’s track record has shown its effectiveness in ending homelessness, and  improving neighborhoods, creating much-needed affordable housing and saving taxpayer dollars. Simply put, it is housing for those most in need. Residents have a place to call home in an environment that provides direct case management and access to mental health providers. We know all too well how vital mental health care is to a person’s wellbeing, and is that much more critical for individuals who are unstably housed and have often faced significant trauma. The integrated service model enables people to connect to the programs that are right for them, helping them to lead their best lives.

Organizations like the Supportive Housing Network of New York, comprised of more than 200 nonprofit organizations, link the 50,000 units of supportive housing they’ve created with critical services and programs that give New Yorkers a jumpstart on advancing the lives they want to lead through a more holistic approach.

Supportive housing has made a world of difference to New Yorkers:

Like Robert, who struggled with mental illness and addiction most of his life, living in Madison Square Park for ten years. After a health emergency, Urban Pathways’ outreach team helped him move into a beautiful new apartment in his native Bronx. He’s an active participant in his building and in client advocacy groups, regularly visits with his mother and grandchildren, and is beloved by residents and staff alike.

And like Shannon, who has dealt with undiagnosed bipolar disorder and PTSD from a lifetime of sexual assault and domestic abuse. When she became a tenant at Community Access’ Gouverneur Court, things started to change: she fell in love with her current life partner, fellow resident Kenny, and overcame addiction with the support of the staff at Community Access. She now has full time work at the Social Security Administration and recently graduated with a master’s degree.

These stories show firsthand that supportive housing works. It’s why the Mayor proposed a plan in 2015 to build an additional 15,000 supportive housing apartments over 15 years through the city’s new NYC 15/15 program. We applaud the administration for this plan, yet we also know the need is immediate. We need to do more to bring units online today.

As Chairs of the City Council’s Land Use and General Welfare Committees, we’re working collaboratively with our fellow Council Members to help speed the creation of the Mayor’s promised 15,000 supportive apartments over the next several years so that all New Yorkers will have a place to call home.

We need a bold vision to end homelessness. Supportive housing is the key.

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Stephen Levin represents the 33rd City Council District, including parts of Brooklyn, and Rafael Salamanca, Jr. represents the 17th District, including parts of the South Bronx. On Twitter @StephenLevin33 and @Salamancajr80.

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For-Hire Companies Must Make Rides Accessible to All


uberwav uber

(photo via Uber)


They may claim to be “doing the right thing” in their splashy campaigns, but for-hire-vehicle companies like Uber and Lyft are in New York courts right now fighting fairness -- when it comes to serving the city’s 99,000 wheelchair users.

Whether you need to get to a job interview, a doctor’s appointment, or a dinner with friends, finding reliable and affordable transportation is a daily struggle if you use a wheelchair in New York City. The subway system -- with its tiny number of functioning elevators -- remains almost wholly inaccessible. Buses creep along, and the MTA’s paratransit system, Access-A-Ride, runs notoriously late and slow. The taxi industry offers a limited number of wheelchair-accessible vans with ramps (after years of litigation), and the number does not match the need. And in any case, cabs remain heavily concentrated in Manhattan and are extremely difficult to find in the outer-borough neighborhoods where many people with disabilities live.

One might think that the giant for-hire-vehicle (FHV) industry would look to fill this urgent transportation need, but only two of the major companies -- Uber and Lyft -- even claim to offer wheelchair-accessible vehicle (WAV) service, while Via, Juno, and Gett offer none at all.

But, 70 percent of the time the WAV services offered by Uber and Lyft failed even to locate a WAV during our testing last month for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest’s report “Left Behind,” in which we requested identical WAV and “regular,” non-WAV rides for the same time periods, at common locations such as JFK and LaGuardia airports, major medical centers, and Grand Central Station. To make matters worse, in the few instances when the smartphone platform apps did locate a WAV, the estimated wait time averaged four times as long as the wait time for inaccessible vehicles.

In response to this blatant equal rights violation perpetrated throughout the city’s massive fleet of 100,000 for-hire vehicles, the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) prepared a new rule requiring FHV operators, including “e-hail” operators such as Uber and Lyft, to incorporate a minimum number of WAVs into their fleets, starting with a minimal five percent this year, and increasing to a not-that-much-larger 25% percent by 2023.

But instead of taking this opportunity to serve the public fairly, as required by law, Uber, Lyft, and Via are fighting the new provision in court, claiming that it will inflict “economic damage” on the massive industry. Even worse, the large for-hire-vehicle companies are doubling down on their discriminatory practices – they are now pushing a bill in the state Legislature that would entirely override the TLC’s authority to mandate more accessible vehicles and effectively create a separate and unequal FHV service for people with disabilities.

Accompanying the mega-companies’ profit-driven objection is the unsubstantiated argument that individual drivers will not want to operate ramp-equipped wheelchair accessible vehicles, because they are more expensive to purchase and slower to operate. These arguments ring hollow. Uber, Lyft, and other FHV dispatch corporations are expert at offering an extensive menu of bonuses and incentives to drivers to ensure that there are ample drivers and vehicles available when and where the company wants them.

For example, Uber’s website touts perks like $800 in guaranteed income for new drivers, immediate same-day sessions for new drivers to help “fast track” the TLC licensing process, and a range of vehicle rental, lease, and financing options for drivers who don’t own vehicles. Plenty of FHV drivers choose to drive large, inefficient SUVs and luxury vehicles (to the detriment of our local air quality and traffic congestion) because the company offers them incentives to do so -- and plenty would opt to drive accessible vehicles equipped with wheelchair ramps, if offered the right incentives.

If these FHV e-hail corporations want to continue operating in our city (and clogging our streets with thousands of inaccessible vehicles), they should be required to harness their enormous resources to provide equal access to the thousands of New Yorkers with disabilities who most need their services.

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Justin Wood is Director of Organizing and Strategic Research at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (@NYLPI) and author of the “Left Behind” report.

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To Help New Yorkers Quit Opioids, Expand Access to Medical Marijuana Now


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Gov. Cuomo at a med mar announcement (photo via the Governor's Office)


As a 67-year-old cancer survivor who suffers from chronic pain as a result of cancer treatments, medical marijuana has allowed me to resume a more normal life free of addictive opioid medications. I hope that lawmakers will now consider expanding the state’s medical marijuana program so that more New Yorkers will have the same access to these important treatments as an alternative to the powerful prescription painkillers that sparked the opioid crisis in our state.

My experience is all too typical of how so many people can easily find themselves reliant on prescription painkillers. Following my retirement from the U.S. Navy and a career in retail management, I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in December 2015 and underwent chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and abdominal perineal resection surgery the following year. As a result of these treatments, I developed debilitating peripheral neuropathy and chronic lower spine pain and was unable to function normally.

The pain was constant and excruciating. My doctors prescribed oxycodone to manage my pain, and with no other options seemingly available, I was eventually taking Percocet pills every four hours or less.

But after researching New York State’s medical marijuana program, I finally had hope that an alternative to opiates was available to help treat my pain. I contacted my doctor and obtained my medical marijuana card in December 2017. Working closely with my doctor and the pharmacist at the dispensary in my community, we found the medical marijuana products that work best for me.

In just a few months, I was able to quit my oxycodone prescription and now live a more normal life — once again able to enjoy my retirement, children, and grandchildren. While my pain will never completely vanish, medical marijuana helps me manage the symptoms without fear of an opioid addiction that has claimed thousands of lives in New York in recent years. It has also been critical in helping to manage my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which I developed following service in the Vietnam War.

But while I had a condition that made me eligible for the state’s medical marijuana program — and am fortunate to have a dispensary in my community that could help me quit oxycodone — thousands of New Yorkers still lack adequate access to medical marijuana and remain at the mercy of opioid-based prescriptions to manage their conditions.

Fortunately, there is hope for these patients in need of care. Recently proposed bills in the state Senate and Assembly would greatly expand access to medical marijuana for New Yorkers.  

Senator George Amedore and Assembly Member Richard Gottfried have each introduced bills in their respective chambers that would allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to treat opioid addiction or as an alternative for those currently using prescription opiates — which could help prevent an addiction before it starts.

Separately, Assembly Member Gottfried and Senator Diane Savino have both proposed bills that would increase the number of potential dispensaries in New York from 40 to 250 by allowing medical marijuana companies to open up to 25 dispensaries each, bringing access to care for the many communities still in need throughout the state.

While these bills would undoubtedly help thousands of New Yorkers, they remain stuck in their respective committees with just days remaining in the current legislative session. Without action by lawmakers now, patients in need of medical marijuana care will be forced to wait even longer.

My experience is proof that medical marijuana is an important and meaningful alternative to prescription drugs for those suffering from chronic and painful conditions. I hope state lawmakers will support patients like myself by taking immediate action to pass these bills and give more New Yorkers hope for a life free of powerful and addictive opioid-based drugs.

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Garry Croney is a resident of Newburgh.

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