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Opinion

Closed Primaries are Less Inclusive than Soviet Era Politics


 

kaminsky voting april 2016

State Senator Kaminsky voting


I grew up in a country where most elections were fixed, voting made no difference, and the political process was a dull affair run by a party whose politics were as odious as its leaders. In that country I was able to live and vote without joining the aforementioned party, although I had to withstand poll workers knocking on my door until I exercised my civic right and duty.

This past March, living in a country that prides itself on its democracy, I had to join a party in order to exercise my right to vote. What communists never forced me to do, the world’s oldest democracy did. In fact, I was lucky that I could vote at all. The 27% of registered New York voters not aligned with the Democrats or the Republicans who wished to vote but did not meet the change-of-party deadline six months ahead of the state’s closed primaries had no such luck.

It may go without saying that no one knocked on my door to remind me to exercise my civic duty.

Closed primaries are one of the most damaging aspects of a regulatory scheme that breeds civic apathy. “For members only” is the principle on which these taxpayer-funded primaries operate -- as if they were club elections whose outcomes mattered to members only, and not to all American citizens. But even if you are willing to become a member, obscure deadlines and procedures, which neither party nor the government makes any meaningful effort to explain to the public, will likely put that option out of reach.

And what if one wishes to vote Democratic in the presidential primary, Republican in the congressional primary, and for some other party in the state primary? Not such an unlikely scenario, considering, for instance, the 2095 Bernie Sanders write-ins in the New Hampshire Republican primary and the fact that 7% of voters in the Ohio Republican primary were Democrats. But even short of this type of movement, why should an “unaffiliated” voter not be able to choose a party primary to vote in? Why not allow someone registered with one party to decide that there’s a candidate of another party who really speaks to them?

What if your favorite candidate utters an insult that makes you doubt his or her fitness for public service a week before the primary (not unheard of), and your second choice belongs to a different party? The list of “what ifs” could go on, though all have the same answer: party affiliation in closed primary states can easily become a forced marriage the main benefit of which is best described with the term coined by the disgruntled 2008 Hillary Clinton supporters: PUMA -- Party Unity, My...you get it.

The cost is shutting millions out of elections, perpetuating the political establishment’s grip on our civic life, and voting for our affiliations at the expense of our best interests and convictions. If that is the price we pay for party unity, should we be surprised that party politics is becoming the butt of the joke and an object of scorn to an increasing number of Americans, much as it was to my countrypeople in the last days of the Soviet Union? We would be well-advised to learn from the past mistakes of parties, where civic life was replaced with a party line, lest we suffer similar consequences. As for closed primaries, I say, open them up!

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Gennady Yusim grew up in the Ukraine. He is currently a Programming & Outreach Librarian at Queens Library.

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Does the State have the Conviction and Commitment to End Homelessness?


homelessness
Affordable Housing in East Harlem (Sophie Hecht)


The week of June 26, over 70 San Francisco media outlets came together to report on homelessness in the Bay Area. The collaboration, the San Francisco Homeless Project, produced over 300 local articles, videos, and radio and television segments, as well as similar collaborations in cities across the U.S. and internationally.

Within this much deserved media coverage is the sentiment of a former San Francisco mayor, which may describe what ails our approach to the homelessness crisis here in New York State.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s SF Homeless Problem Looks the Same as It Did 20 Years Ago explains how despite the efforts of the last six San Francisco mayors, homelessness looks similar today to the problem of two decades ago. One of the six mayors, Art Agnos (1988-1992), worked to move San Francisco’s approach to homelessness from overnight shelters to shelters with supportive services. He told the Chronicle:

“We do know what to do, but we haven’t had the conviction or the commitment to make it happen...We could end homelessness as a commonplace occurrence in American cities if we adopted the same kind of commitment we did in addressing World War II: if we treat it like we want to win. But until the public and the politicians who serve them say we are going to win this, we won’t.”

Does New York State lack the conviction and commitment to end homelessness? Are we content to merely manage it, disconnected from its immediacy? While we know what to do - truly affordable permanent housing, including supportive housing, and long-term rental subsidies - are we acting to the extent and at the pace we should so homeless services providers can do their jobs and provide homeless individuals a way home?

Based on recent events in Albany, it is reasonable to conclude that we lack the conviction and commitment to end homelessness in New York.

One piece of evidence is the failure of Albany to adopt a new 421-a tax credit for developers who build truly affordable housing. Yes, the old 421-a program was flawed. Updating it while resolving the issue of prevailing wages for construction jobs is difficult. However, a state committed to ending homelessness would not have passed responsibility from lawmakers to real estate and construction unions to make a deal. A truly committed state government would do all it can to secure a new tax credit so developers don’t scale back new affordable housing projects like Hallet’s Point in Queens.

A second telling event is the delay in new supportive housing, a proven cost-effective tool for ending homelessness. A state government with conviction and commitment would have actualized, with lightning speed, Governor Cuomo’s January 2016 State of the State commitment of 6,000 supportive housing units over the next five years. It would have finalized the details of the 6,000 units before the state budget was finished April 1 instead of resorting to another to-be-determined “memorandum of understanding” (MOU), and then not securing a MOU months later.

A committed state government would not have settled on a short-term measure of 1,200 units over the next year to reactivate the stalled supportive housing pipeline. Short term measures do not address a crisis. They merely manage one.

A desperate need for truly affordable housing, including supportive housing, exists now. According to the Campaign for NY/NY Housing, there’s only one supportive housing unit available for every six eligible applicants. This leaves thousands of applicants languishing in a more costly shelter or on the streets, waiting for a way home. While 1,200 supportive housing units financed for the next year are appreciated, we need funding certainty and programmatic direction from the state for the full 6,000 units. A one year commitment does not allow developers to sufficiently plan, exposing them to financial risk as they take on acquisition and pre-development costs without clear state funding details.

A truly committed state government would expedite the building of truly affordable housing - we can do this now. If we have the conviction to end the homelessness crisis, we won’t wait for another budget. If Albany continues to delay, we should hold lawmakers accountable. Homelessness is worthy of our full effort. We cannot be content to merely manage a crisis that leaves thousands of New Yorkers to suffer.

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Nicole Bramstedt is the Director of Policy at Urban Pathways, a nonprofit social services and supportive housing organization. On Twitter at @UrbanPathwaysNY.

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Remembering, and Protecting, Our Essential Rights


Remember, and Protecting, Our Essential Rights

 Edward H. Gersowitz, the author


For most of us, the month of July means fireworks, barbeques, and a long weekend to kick off the summer. But we should also spend time this month reflecting on the fact that we live in a country founded on the fabric of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The freedoms we have, and the individual rights we exercise, are a direct result of these key documents.

Several states, including New York, were reluctant to approve the Constitution unless it was amended to protect basic civil rights. The adoption of the Bill of Rights answered those concerns. One of these crucial rights, laid out in the Seventh Amendment, ensures accountability and justice by guaranteeing the right to a jury of one’s peers in civil cases:

“In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.”

Clearly, the founders of our country knew the importance of the right to bring a claim for civil justice.

Whether it is removing lead from children’s toys and candy; forcing Detroit to finally build safer cars; keeping our air and water clean; protecting against discrimination based on age, sex, race, and sexual orientation; or making sure potentially harmful medicines are properly labeled, the right of victims to a court of law has led to safety improvements that have saved tens of thousands of lives.

But there are those who want to take these rights away.

Corporations and large institutions -- and their lobbyists -- often attempt to bar the courtroom door to those they harm. Forcing consumers into private arbitration proceedings rather than the publicly-owned court system or denying them the right to bring a claim simply because they did not find out about their own injury in time to meet a deadline are tactics they use to deny people justice.

While corporations and institutions claim that lawsuits hurt their bottom line, the reality is that limiting the right to a jury trial can take away a powerful incentive for safety. It allows those who produce dangerous products, provide negligent healthcare, or otherwise harm people through carelessness to escape responsibility for the consequences."

The New York State Trial Lawyers Association works to strengthen America’s civil justice system to ensure that it provides an even playing field for all.

Our role as lawyers is embedded into the foundation of the Constitution. We are honored with the duty and immense responsibility of representing men, women, children, and families who have been wronged. And we have the privilege of bringing about major change and help to individuals when they have nowhere else to turn.

The rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are central to our country’s success. And those rights would mean nothing if our right to the courtroom and the ability to exercise our rights without fear and intimidation didn’t exist. The courts protect our independence. And when changes and transformations are introduced to society, the courts are there to ensure balance and equality.

As the fireworks fade after this July 4th, we should all remain thankful for our rights, including the Seventh Amendment, and remember that when it comes to the distribution of those rights and civil liberties, there should be no advantages or disadvantages. The right to a jury trial in civil cases is one of the most important legacies to which we, as Americans, are entitled. We should not squander it.

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Edward H. Gersowitz took over as President of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association on July 1. He is the first openly LGBT president of a state trial lawyers association in the U.S. and a staunch fighter for civil rights. On Twitter at @NYSTLA.

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City’s Menstrual Equity Laws Will Help Reduce Period Stigma


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A City Hall rally in support of menstrual equity


My period got me suspended from school. That should not happen to anyone. Yet in New York City and elsewhere, people who have periods—including transgender and gender-nonconforming people—still struggle to access menstrual products and the resources they need. This can hurt their ability to succeed academically, personally, and professionally.

New York just made history when the City Council approved the nation’s first bills of their kind to provide free tampons and pads in all public schools, homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, and correctional facilities throughout the city. Making menstrual products accessible is a simple matter of dignity and respect.

No one should have to go through what I went through. I started my period on graduation day from 5th grade when I was only 11. There was no way I could tell any of my classmates; the culture of female shame at my school was overwhelming. In middle school, I had very painful menstruation and ended up fainting in class in 7th grade. Of course my best friend told the whole class why, and my school made me leave to go see my pediatrician immediately - not fun. During 9th and 10th grades I missed exams a few times because of my period. My mom wouldn't allow me to see a gynecologist because she was against birth control, and sexuality overall was a problematic subject in our household.

Since I didn’t feel it was possible to talk to my mom and didn’t grow up living with my dad, I had to sneak off campus when I was 16 to speak to a Planned Parenthood provider about using birth control to alleviate the pain from my periods. Planned Parenthood was the only safe space I felt I could talk about my body. The fear I felt even going to a health clinic made me feel silent and alone, and too fearful to ask for a doctor’s note from the provider. I ended up getting suspended from school after the dean found out I left without parental consent.

This was an offense that would be reported and explained to every university I applied to—all because of period and reproductive health stigma!

Regardless of getting suspended and the aftermath, the experience was triumphant overall because it is why I am now interning for Planned Parenthood of New York City and passionate about menstrual equity. It's also why I supported Columbia's student council president on effective ways to push our administration to provide sanitary pads, rather than just tampons for students.

No one should get suspended or have to miss class because they don't have the resources to take care of their own health and body.

I'm thankful that City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and others are working tirelessly to ensure that individuals in city schools, homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, and jails can access tampons and pads when they need them. I am grateful that Mayor Bill de Blasio plans to soon sign this legislation into law. Periods—a natural bodily process we cannot control—should not be a financial impossibility or emotional burden for anyone!

Making menstrual products accessible will help normalize conversations about menstruation and sexual health. This will help reduce the shame and embarrassment all people who menstruate, especially youth, have felt about their periods.

Eliminating period stigma has the power to change people’s lives. Everyone who has a period deserves access to the resources to meet their essential needs so that they can stay focused on their futures.

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Elle Wisnicki is a Health Center Advocate intern in Public Affairs at Planned Parenthood of New York City and has been a campus representative for Planned Parenthood at Columbia University.

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When is a 'raise' not a raise? The CUNY Faculty Union Deal


murphyinstituteblog.org

photo: Murphy Institute


When is a “raise” not a raise? When the salary “increase,” adjusted for inflation, is below the base-year salary.

On June 17, after five years of working without a contract and six years without even a nominal raise, the Professional Staff Congress, the City University of New York’s faculty union, announced the main terms of a tentative contract with the CUNY Board of Trustees. Let’s examine how the salary increases in this agreement measure up against erosion from inflation.

In March I wrote a Gotham Gazette op-ed called “CUNY Faculty’s Lost Decade and the Risk Ahead,” pointing out that “In 2015, assistant and associate professors at the top salary step earned 92% in real terms of what they earned in 2006. Full professors at the top step did slightly better, taking home just under 96% of their 2006 salaries.”

These figures derived from my analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics cost-of-living data and from information on contractual salary increases that PSC-CUNY provided.

The “raises” in the proposed new contract don’t really constitute a raise, even for those of us at the top full professor salary step, who received a special increment in 2009 under the old contract. Most CUNY faculty will again earn in real terms what they took home in 2007. We full professors at the top step will receive slightly less inflation-adjusted salary than we did in 2010 (see table below).

So will I vote to ratify the proposed deal? Yes, but only while holding my nose. I won’t delude myself that I’m getting a real raise, but I would rather be earning almost what I earned in 2010 than 96% of my 2006 salary.

The agreement also contains other extremely important provisions. Adjuncts, for example, the most exploited sector of CUNY’s faculty, will now have the right to multi-year appointments. CUNY management has agreed to negotiate a plan to reduce the onerous teaching load (seven courses per year for full-time faculty at senior colleges) by one course per year. Graduate Assistants who become Adjuncts will receive health insurance. These are all important gains and, in the current context of permanent austerity and bloodletting in public higher education, it would be foolish to vote against them.

The proposed seven-year contract covers a period that has already mostly elapsed. It expires in little more than a year, on November 30, 2017. Wouldn’t it be great if next time CUNY management and the PSC-CUNY could negotiate an actual “new” contract before that date, one which provides raises instead of “raises”? Then, instead of having to spend years lobbying in Albany for a new contract, walking picket lines and testifying before the CUNY Board of Trustees, we could devote ourselves to advancing knowledge and serving the hundreds of thousands of students who attend the largest public urban university in the United States.

CUNY Faculty Salaries and Inflation under Proposed New Contract, 2006-2017

cuny faculty salaries inflation proposed contractjpg

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NOTES: Three factors understate the salary erosion estimates in the table: (1) Future inflation is unknowable; the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 2016 annual inflation at 0.9% for the period through May; I use this figure for 2016 and 2017 even though inflation for key areas (housing, healthcare, food) and overall inflation in 2016-2017 could be higher (because of pending interest rate hikes by the Fed, rising energy prices, financial instability in the European Union and other reasons); (2) The raises in the new contract kick in on April 20 of the respective years; for simplicity I have them covering the whole calendar year; and (3) the lump sum retroactive pay and signing bonus will be taxed in one calendar year.

One assumption in the table overstates the salary erosion estimates. The table does not include the $1000 per full-time employee “signing bonus,” since this will be a different proportion of salary for employees at different ranks and on different salary steps. Taken together, these negative and positive factors are unlikely to alter the salary erosion estimates significantly.

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Marc Edelman is professor of anthropology at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

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Another Legislative Session Ends with Thousands Still in Solitary


prison photo bob

photo: Bob Jagendorf


Earlier this month, I saw Mariposa & the Saint: From Solitary Confinement, A Play Through Letters. Actress and activist Julia Steele Allen plays Sara Foneseca, or Mariposa, as she is referred to in the play, and uses Mariposa’s own words to express her experiences in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at a women’s prison in California. For the past ten years the two women have been corresponding through letters; the play is a collaboration that grew from this communication.

In one of the most disturbing parts of the play, Mariposa shares in a letter to Allen that a woman in the prison has committed suicide. Mariposa seems frantic and in shock at the calm response from the prison personnel. She exclaims there was no sense of urgency. It seems, she says, as if they were saying, “nothing to see here folks, just your average, run of the mill, scheduled suicide.” Mariposa tries to keep her spirits up although it is evident that she is slowly fading. At one point in the play she explains she refused to leave her cell -- even to shower -- for eight months.

The performance was followed by a workshop discussion on the issue of solitary confinement during which Regina, who was incarcerated in Albion Correctional Facility near Buffalo, New York, shared horror stories of her own experiences in “the box.” She noted that many of her peers were not even allowed to send or receive letters, practices considered privilege and meted out by the guards, despite being one of the only forms of human communication they had left.

There are 2.5 million people incarcerated today in the United States, and while it’s rare for the experiences of these people to be given a public viewing such as Mariposa provides, public demands to reform prison conditions and to end mass incarceration are growing. As are calls to end the torturous practice of solitary confinement.

Allen has brought “Mariposa & the Saint” on a national tour of eight states, including New York, which all have active campaigns and pending legislation to end or reform the conditions of solitary confinement. Humane Alternatives to Long Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act (A. 4401/S. 2659) is a piece of legislation that has yet to pass through the New York State Legislature, despite being introduced for years. This bill would create substantive alternatives to solitary confinement, place strict limitations on the use and permitted durations of confinement, and improve due process protections for people facing disciplinary infractions.

The Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement in New York (CAIC), a community group consisting of advocates, legal service providers, formerly incarcerated community members, and family members, has supported the HALT Solitary Confinement Act since 2014.

Last month, “Mariposa & the Saint” was performed for members of the state Legislature, hosted by the Women of Color Sub-Committee of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, & Asian Legislative caucus including Assemblymembers Maritza Davila and Latoya Joyner, along with Assemblymember Jeffrion L. Aubry, and state Senator Bill Perkins. Additionally, in early May, CAIC organized a lobby day which resulted in HALT now boasting more than 60 sponsors in the Assembly. Despite this support, the bill did not pass this year and remained in the Assembly’s Crime Victims, Crime and Correction committee until the end of the session. What was left out of the final Albany deals earlier this month was prison reform for thousands in solitary confinement, which has been denounced by Pope Francis, the United Nations Special Rapporteur, and President Obama.

The play was performed on Friday, June 10 at The New Settlement Community Campus in the Bronx, located in Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s home district in hopes of adding pressure to the Speaker so that he would use his authority to bring HALT to a vote before the session ended.

Solitary confinement is torture and can lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences such as depression, alienation, suicide, and withdrawal. Solitary Watch estimates 80,000 to 100,000 incarcerated people are held in some form of isolated confinement at any time in the United States, most spending 23 or more hours a day in their cells. Dr. Terry Kupers told The New York Times, “many [formerly incarcerated individuals] still carried the psychological legacy of their confinement.”

New York State legislators did not act to reform the torture happening in their state prisons. Governor Cuomo, state legislators, and all New Yorkers must see and say that solitary is torture. It is time that we all demand reforms to end, or at least significantly limit, the use of solitary here in New York.

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Jennie Encalada is a Brooklyn-based social worker and activist. On Twitter: @jenjeno07. Mariposa & the Saint completed it's 2015-2016 national tour this June, but has further plans. Learn more about the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC).

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Protecting the Soul of Flushing, and Beyond


soul flushing 

132-40 Sanford Ave in Flushing, a Treetop Development-owned rent-stabilized building


After more than a year of intensive community engagement, Flushing’s "under the radar" rezoning study of an 11-block waterfront area dubbed Flushing West was suddenly withdrawn by the Department of City Planning (DCP). The decision was prompted by a letter from City Council Member Peter Koo, who outlined a comprehensive list of outstanding concerns including “that the numbers don’t add up” for developers who perceive that the rezoning amounts to a “downzoning.”

DCP’s decision to pause the study elicited mixed reactions, in part because the rezoning study did spotlight the heavy infrastructural strain of Flushing’s white hot real estate market and unified multiple community stakeholders to protect the neighborhood’s rapidly diminishing affordable housing and advocate for equitable community development.

Mayor Bill de Blasio recently penned a Huffington Post column proposing that in the current market climate of hyper-gentrification, the city’s existential identity is defined by residents of public housing and rent-stabilized apartments. As the mayor opines, “It’s in protecting these people that we protect the soul of our neighborhoods.” I dare say the soul of Flushing has been under attack and protecting its diverse, working-class residents is long overdue.

Like many neighborhoods of color, affordable housing in Flushing is threatened by predatory equity investment. Investors target “underperforming” and “undervalued” multi-family residential buildings in strategic markets (i.e., “up and coming” and gentrifying areas). They count on capturing unrealized market value through replacing current tenants with those that can afford to pay higher rents or reselling properties at huge profits after making nominal capital improvements. Treetop Development LLC, one of the largest real estate companies in the New York City area, has a business model based on these “multi-faceted” strategies, to the detriment of communities.

Treetop’s online profile notes, “We actively acquire and transform existing rental properties in the region by modernizing living spaces, common areas and building systems before returning them to market. We are well-known for creating cutting-edge projects in neighborhoods coming up as desirable new addresses.” Since its establishment in 2005, Treetop Development LLC has been one of the region’s most active investors in multi-family properties including federally subsidized, project-based Section 8 developments and rent-regulated buildings.

In the past few years, Treetop has acquired and flipped numerous rent-stabilized buildings, generating huge profits. In July 2013, Treetop purchased 17-27 West 125th Street, a 50-unit rent-stabilized building in Harlem for $13.6 million. According to Treetop’s website, “17-27 West 125th Street boasts large apartments, which will be renovated upon vacancy to include new wide plank hardwood flooring, modern and chic kitchens and bathrooms, and stainless steel appliances.” After spending only $1.5 million on “signature” capital improvements, Treetop sold the building to Thor Equities for a whopping $30.6 million in August 2015 (a $17 million gross profit after 25 months of ownership).

Similarly in 2014, Treetop acquired a portfolio of six rent-stabilized buildings with a total of 139 rental and seven retail units in Washington Heights for $23 million. These properties, referred to as the "Columbia Audubon" portfolio due to their proximity to Columbia University Hospital and Audubon Avenue, were sold a little over a year later, in December 2015, for $36 million to a group of private investors.

In describing Treetop’s strategy to purchase and flip a multi-family portfolio in Central Harlem, co-principal Adam Mermelstein explained, “This portfolio is the perfect example of how picking the neighborhoods, identifying underutilized properties, effective management and recognizing the right time to buy and sell can pay tremendous dividends.” The portfolio purchased by Treetop for $22 million in 2013 was comprised of 12 five-story walk-up apartments and included rent-stabilized buildings on St. Nicholas Ave and Frederick Douglass Blvd. Two years later, Treetop sold the portfolio to a newly formed investment firm for $35 million, generating a profit equal to 59% of Treetop’s original purchase price.

Treetop Development LLC was featured in Crain’s New York Business for its enormous $138.8 million acquisition of eight rent-stabilized buildings in Queens representing the county’s largest multi-family transaction in 2015. Seven of the rent-stabilized buildings (totaling 489 apartments) are clustered in a three-block area near downtown Flushing and one building is in Elmhurst. Treetop wasted no time in making cosmetic upgrades to common areas such as lobbies and hallways, and renovating vacated apartments. A recent visit and conversation with a long-time, rent-stabilized tenant in one of Treetop’s Flushing buildings indicated that the common areas had already undergone capital improvements which permitted the prior landlord to increase rents.

Since Treetop’s acquisition, tenants have reported construction-related disruption and dust, spotty heat and hot water, and a sudden increase in vacant apartments. City Council Member Koo’s office has submitted a list of complaints pertaining to these buildings to 311.

This past year has been very busy for Treetop as it expands its extensive portfolio of rent-stabilized buildings in Harlem and Flushing, sold “select holdings at high profit margins,” and refinanced some properties through mortgage consolidation, as in the case of four Brooklyn properties including 188 South 3rd St., a rent-stabilized building in Southside Williamsburg. Among its early acquisitions in New York City’s multi-family market, Treetop paid a little over $5 million in August 2006 for the 41-unit building, intending to convert the apartments into upscale rentals. A few months later, various publications including the Metropolitan Council for Housing’s newsletter detailed the reasons why Treetop’s Mermelstein was named the city’s “most abusive landlord” by a group of tenant advocacy organizations.

Treetop’s 188 South 3rd St. was in the news again in July 2013 when a three-alarm fire erupted between the ceiling of the top floor and the roof. Over one hundred firefighters responded to the early morning blaze that took approximately two hours to extinguish. Several tenants were interviewed noting long-standing electrical problems and non-professional repairs. Charlin Ramos said to Brooklyn News 12, “I knew this was going to happen, I predicted it was going to happen.” Jacqueline Jimenez claimed Treetop ignored numerous calls from tenants. Extensive damage required many tenants to vacate and according to the Department of Buildings, the current status of 188 South 3rd St. is that a partial vacate order remains in effect as well as civil penalties and an outstanding Class 1 violation defined as “immediately hazardous.”

The same weekend that Mayor de Blasio’s column was published by Huffington Post, the New York Times published an opinion piece titled, How to Force Out Rent-Controlled Tenants. The timing and message of these articles underscore the precarity of rent-regulated housing that has been affordable to working-class New Yorkers. Key forces destabilizing the city’s neighborhoods, especially its communities of color, are the tactics deployed by predatory equity investors such as Treetop Development LLC. While the Flushing West rezoning study provided an opportunity to highlight the outstanding need for affordable housing, the current state of the neighborhood’s rent-stabilized housing requires immediate action to protect long-time tenants, or as the mayor would describe them, the soul of Flushing.

In early May, the Flushing West Community Alliance (FRCA) released a comprehensive research report that includes anti-harassment and anti-displacement measures. Based on numerous discussions with rent-stabilized tenants, FRCA recommends that landlords with a history of tenant harassment should not be able to receive permits necessary for renovations that will enable them to increase rents. At minimum, the four bills introduced to the New York City Council earlier this year, including Brad Lander’s “Certificate of No Harassment,” should be acted on immediately. Although the Flushing West rezoning process is temporarily on hold, speculative real estate market conditions have not abated which means rent stabilized tenants need strengthened protections now.

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Tarry Hum is a professor at the City University of New York and author of Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood: Brooklyn's Sunset Park.

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Demanding Justice is Not a 'War on Cops'


NYPD sidewalk park cars

photo: Sofie Hecht, Gotham Gazette


The Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald has a new book out Tuesday that claims that there is a “War on Cops,” led by the Black Lives Matter movement and anyone else who ever called for reductions in excessive, heavy-handed, or brutal policing.

Mac Donald’s basic point is that the police merely take action in response to actual levels of crime and disorder and that by doing so they save lives. Anyone who accuses them of racist motivations or outcomes misses the fact that the majority of the lives they save are those of young men of color, she says, since they are so frequently the victims of criminal violence. According to Mac Donald, “there is no New York City institution more dedicated to the proposition that ‘black lives matter’ than the New York Police Department.”

She also maintains that when people criticize the police, they undermine the ability of officers to take the kinds of proactive actions needed to do this work, making all of us less safe. This is a rehashing of the so called “Ferguson Effect,” which Mac Donald has espoused and I and others have painstakingly debunked. For instance, crime in New York City has continued to go down, even when police went on a two-week strike last year and even after a now years-long radical reduction in “stop and frisk” encounters, which Mac Donald so vehemently defended in the past.

The “Ferguson Effect” is based on a logic that when police are told to stop killing people and behaving in an unlawful manner, they become incapable of doing their jobs. This is both an insult to police officers and leaves no room for people to raise very real and valid concerns about heavy-handed, racially-biased, and at times corrupt and brutal policing. As I asked once before, if I call to complain about broken swings in the playground, does that make me anti-parks? Or, if I complain that my trash didn’t get picked up, does that make me anti-sanitation? There are hundreds of thousands of police who understand and sympathize with many of the criticisms being raised, and to accuse them of shirking their responsibilities as a result suggests that Mac Donald holds a very dim view of the professional ethics of American police while she attempts to be one of their biggest champions.

In an excerpt of the book published in the New York Post, she accuses me of being out of touch with the desire of poor and non-white New Yorkers to live in neighborhoods free of crime and disorder. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even a cursory reading of my book City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics, would reveal that I spent years doing fieldwork in just such neighborhoods. I found that people are indeed very concerned about disorder, and that politicians who ignore this do so at their own peril.

But I also went deeper than Mac Donald’s knee jerk neoconservatism. People in these neighborhoods only turned to police for help when all other avenues for assistance were closed off to them. From East New York, Brooklyn to the East Village in Manhattan, New Yorkers told me they wanted disorder dealt with through affordable housing, adequate mental health care services, drug treatment on demand, and after-school programs and stable employment for youth. It is only when austerity politics, supported by Mac Donald and the Manhattan Institute, made these things unattainable that people called for police-led responses.

Over the years I have attended many community meetings where people have demanded more aggressive police actions. I frequently bring my students with me to see the dilemmas facing communities, though many of them are well aware from first-hand experience. Most people in these meetings are deeply frustrated, and rightfully so. The decades of urban disinvestment and tax cutting mania have left them with declining living standards and in many cases a degraded quality of life—or displacement by the forces of gentrification. In my experience many of them are torn between having to rely on police to solve their community problems and knowing that this means putting more young people from the community in jail and prison. What people really want for their communities and their neighbors are resources and opportunities.

Mac Donald argues that there is nothing racist about the fact that the vast majority of people arrested and cited as part of “Broken Windows” policing are not white, because the police are only taking enforcement action where the crime is. She claims that Eric Garner, for instance, was targeted because it is only in communities of color that people sell illegal cigarettes. All I can say is that she’s never spent any time in the working class white neighborhoods of Brooklyn, where the illegal sale of untaxed cigarettes is rampant. She also clearly never hangs out in areas like Park Slope, Chelsea, and the Upper West Side where marijuana usage is widespread but enforcement near zero. Research conducted by Queens College’s Harry Levine shows that even when economic class is factored in, neighborhoods that have more non-whites experience dramatically higher enforcement rates than white ones.

If anything, it’s Mac Donald who is horribly out of touch. By supporting neverending budget cuts for every service but the police, she is oblivious to the dire consequences of grinding millions of young, poor, and disabled people through a criminal justice systems that mostly just makes their lives worse, and in cases like Kalief Browder and Eric Garner, results in their death. She should come and spend a day with my hard-working students at Brooklyn College and hear their stories of abuse, criminalization, and heartbreak that result from the NYPD’s war on disorder before she claims that the solution to every urban ill is more policing.

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Alex S. Vitale is associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics. He is on Twitter @avitale.

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New York’s Next Climate and Community Protections


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A major shift in the climate debate is taking place across New York and a new front in the discussion is emerging. No longer faraway images of drowning polar bears and epic glacial melt, climate change has moved into our own backyards, devastating our local neighborhoods. And no one knows this better than New York’s working families.

Extreme weather destroys upstate farmers’ crops and keeps hourly employees from getting to work. Air pollution exacerbates chronic health conditions, triggering asthma attacks and other health problems, such as heat exhaustion and heatstroke. And when a major storm hits, working families, particularly those from communities of color, are the last to see relief.

What once was solely an environmental debate for some has been transformed into an economic and social justice one. The frontlines of the crisis have made this so.

It was especially apparent here in New York during Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy. Both storms caused massive flooding, knocked out power and water supplies, and displaced tens of thousands of families. Long-standing issues with toxic mold were revealed and compounded, and rodent infestations surged.

These problems were uncovered and exacerbated by storms like Irene and Sandy but they were not new. Policy choices and disinvestment in infrastructure over the last decade have caused working families across New York to live in an ongoing state of neglect, putting them at a disproportionate risk during major weather events.

But our future is not written in stone, and it’s time we bring justice and opportunity to the working people who are most impacted by climate change.

That’s why a coalition of more than 70 organizations including the most influential community leaders, grassroots activists, unions, and environmental justice advocates have banded together to stem the tide of climate change in New York. They are workers, immigrants, and people of color from both upstate and downstate New York. And they are throwing their support behind the strongest climate protection bill in the country – the NYS Climate & Community Protection Act (A.10342/S.8005).

This bill would make Governor Cuomo’s climate and clean energy commitments legally enforceable and set specific benchmarks and reporting requirements to ensure emissions reductions and rapid deployment of clean, renewable energy. And it would ensure the new clean energy economy creates good jobs by applying a prevailing wage to both construction and operations projects that include energy spending. In short, it would clean our air, improve our health, make our communities safer, and create new opportunities with a next-generation green economy.

The NYS Climate & Community Protection Act recently passed the state Assembly after a massive convergence of New Yorkers at the state Capitol demanded lawmakers support the bill. It is now being moved through the state Senate by Senator Diane Savino, who championed the 2014 Community Risk and Resiliency Act that was signed into law just after the People's Climate March, along with cosponsors Senators Tony Avella and Brad Hoylman.

We have an opportunity right now to set an example for the rest of the country to follow. The time is now for New York to rise to the occasion and make our state the gold standard for clean, renewable energy. That’s why we’re calling on Governor Cuomo and the rest of the state’s lawmakers to see this bill through, so New Yorkers get the climate change protections they need and New York gets the next-generation green economy it deserves.

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Elizabeth Yeampierre is executive director of UPROSE. On Twitter @yeampierre.
Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez is president of the New York State Nurses Association. On Twitter @NYSNA.

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As Albany Fiddles on 421-A, New York City Suffers


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


With officials in Albany about to pack up and head home, there is still some serious unfinished business.

Thanks to Albany’s failure to deliver a compromise between real estate and labor interests, it’s clear that we’ll see no movement on one of the most critical tools we have to build affordable housing: 421-A, the tax incentive program.

What a lot of us hoped was just a six-month pause in adding to the pipeline of new rental housing is at serious risk of becoming a long-term slump—and it could not come at a worse time for our city. New York City is growing fast, and grappling with the worst affordable housing crisis in generations. Half of all households are paying more rent than they can afford.

The old 421-A program that was up for renewal last year was hardly perfect - you’d be hard-pressed to find someone today who would say developers actually need a tax exemption to build and sell luxury condos.

But for all its flaws, the program did two very important things—the lack of which we’re feeling with every passing day.

One, it made it financially feasible to build rental housing, which is the housing New York actually needs right now.

And two, it was one of the only ways to secure affordable housing in some of the most expensive real estate markets in the city, places like Lower Manhattan, the Upper West Side, and Downtown Brooklyn. The reforms Mayor de Blasio pushed cut condos from the program, slashed subsidy per apartment, and strengthened affordable housing requirements citywide. But because of Albany’s inaction, we’ve never had the benefit of those improvements.

If this political impasse in Albany continues, we’ll see a city that’s less affordable, and more divided. The only kinds of buildings that will go up will be City-sponsored affordable housing and luxury condos—with none of the healthy rental housing in the middle that we need for the city’s growing workforce.

From Astoria to Upper Manhattan, construction sites are sitting vacant and projects are on hold. Building permits are down to levels we haven’t seen since the housing market crashed triggering the Great Recession. New rental housing has reached a standstill. And that means there is more and more pressure and demand on the housing we have today. If this keeps up much longer, rents are going to rise even faster than they already have—well outside the reach of working people.

Even though the City can continue building subsidy-driven affordable housing, we’ll lose the opportunity to build new affordable housing in exactly the parts of the city where it’s needed the most. 421-A was one of the few tools that could entice builders to construct affordable housing in hot markets, and the stringent affordability requirements the City Council and Mayor de Blasio secured would have only deepened that potential. What we’ll face if Albany doesn’t act is a more segregated, less diverse city. That’s not the New York we want.

New Yorkers should get angry. The City is doing everything in its power to protect neighborhoods and build a record amount of affordable housing. The proof is in the numbers: more than 43,000 affordable homes were financed in just two years – delivering enough affordable housing for more than 100,000 New Yorkers. The total is the largest number of new affordable apartments produced in nearly four decades. But, there is more that must be done, and we need Albany lawmakers to act.

This isn’t a crisis we can take on with one hand tied behind our backs. It’s time for the state Legislature and Governor Cuomo to work together to fix 421-A, passing the City’s reformed plan before more damage is done.

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Council Member Donovan Richards represents District 31 in Queens, which encompasses Laurelton, Rosedale, Springfield Gardens and Far Rockaway. He is the chair of the Council’s Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises. On Twitter @DRichards13.

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Hoosick Falls Residents, and All New Yorkers, Deserve Water Contamination Hearings


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Hoosick Falls (photo via The Governor's Office on Flickr)


Just imagine knowing that the water you are drinking is quietly making you sick. That it gave you or someone you love kidney cancer. That it took years to get your government to listen, then when you got its attention, your concerns were downplayed.

The bond between clean water and our health has been broken as we’ve heard stories state- and nation-wide about contamination. And like Flint, Michigan, there is a great disconnect between the suffering of Hoosick Falls, New York residents and the actions (or in this case, inaction) of their own elected officials. Hoosick Falls residents are just 30 miles from the steps of the state Capitol in Albany, but that may as well be a million miles given the response from the people elected and hired to protect them.

State lawmakers should hold hearings on what has happened in Hoosick Falls and the flawed state reaction to the water crisis there. Governor Cuomo and his top officials should welcome hearings as a chance to show New Yorkers that they want to get to the bottom of the issue, protect constituents across the state, and that they will not make the same mistakes again. There are some who disagree, but they are wrong, and here’s why:

Hoosick Falls residents deserve to know what happened, and who knew what and when. Further, lawmakers cannot ignore that what has happened in Hoosick Falls is not limited to just that village. Grossly inadequate chemical regulations on the books in New York, coupled with an increased hunger by state Senators to “cut the red tape” (which translates into cutting resources and powers for enforcement of our laws) means that it is only a matter of time before another community is fighting another unregulated chemical which has fouled their water.

Hoosick Falls is like many New York communities, particularly upstate, with an extensive manufacturing history.

For decades, industries were allowed to operate virtually unchecked as their operations endangered residents. For many years, contaminations of this kind were seen as affecting other communities home to larger companies. General Electric, for instance, spent decades dumping PCBs into the Hudson River, up until the late 1970s. Meanwhile, outside Syracuse, Onondaga Lake became known as the most polluted lake in America after a century of pollution from predecessors of the very same company associated with Hoosick Falls contamination: Honeywell.

A lack of regulations and enforcement created a false sense of security for many communities – after all, if a chemical isn’t regulated, it’s not tested. And if it’s not tested, then how does anyone know if it’s in their water and affecting their health?

In May, when the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued new safety levels for PFOA and PFOS, many localities suddenly found themselves with unsafe drinking water. Of course, the water had been unsafe for many years – but if no one knew to test for it no one knew there was a problem.

Since the crisis in Hoosick Falls became public, PFOA has been found in the drinking water of nearby Petersburgh, a community also now home to a Superfund site. PFOS has also been found in the City of Newburgh’s water; water in Suffolk County also exceeds safety levels.

Which brings us to the realities of today, and the unique role that state legislators have in holding hearings - public reckonings that help clarify what can and should be done to help people. Currently, there are more than 80,000 untested and unregulated chemicals on the market. The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has introduced emergency rules regulating PFOA and PFOS, but there are still tens of thousands of chemicals unaccounted for.

Resistance to legislative hearings is a head-scratcher. We’re pleased to hear that the Assembly has reopened the door to hearings; they should have occurred as originally planned following passage of the 2016-17 budget, which occurred April 1. This summer is now the time to follow through - no further delay is acceptable. These hearings should not be scuttled, the issues facing the people of Hoosick Falls and other municipalities must be seen in the light of day. It is legislators’ responsibility.

Hearings are a part of governmental checks and balances. Witness how rapidly the Senate rushed to hold a hearing on how to keep communities from imposing a fee to curb costly plastic bag waste. A public health crisis certainly deserves more proactivity than we have seen. Instead, the Senate is advancing a package of bills toward a vote that would exacerbate the very problems resulting from poor oversight and enforcement. In fact, one proposal forces agencies to enact a “one-in, one-out” practice when imposing new rules. In other words, when the DEC finalizes its PFOA rule, they would have to cut a regulation for the benefit of Honeywell International and Saint-Gobain, the companies responsible for the Hoosick Falls contamination.

The action that legislators take now will have enormous consequences for years to come. They must use their expertise in local affairs toward addressing their constituent concerns and public health hazards. The goal should be to consider contamination issues from across the state to connect the dots and create a game plan that modernizes our regulations and enforces our laws. New Yorkers must have confidence in both their drinking water and their elected officials.

Residents of Hoosick Falls and many other locales would be glad to hear that their elected officials are working throughout the summer to protect our water and our health. It’s an opportunity lawmakers should not pass up.

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By Liz Moran, Water & Natural Resources Associate, Environmental Advocates of New York. On Twitter @greenwatchdogNY.

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