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Rebuilding NYCHA: A Fresh Look


Rebuilding-NYCHA-A-Fresh-Look

David Schalliol, from Affordable Housing in New York


Over the past two decades the pages of New York City's dailies have been filled with a growing chorus of complaints about declining conditions in the New York City Housing Authority's vast system (178,000 apartments). Multiple reports by city officials, activists, and NYCHA's own metrics, have highlighted problems such as slow elevators, leaks, broken windows, delayed repairs, and unlocked lobby doors. Two decades of cutbacks have indeed reduced quality of life for residents when compared to the robust federal capital and operating funds of the 1990s. Fewer skilled staff, old buildings, higher energy costs, and late rents are just a few of the challenges faced by today's NYCHA administrators. 

It is easy to lose sight, in the face of so much bad news, of the reason why New York has these maintenance problems while so many cities do not: NYCHA and city leaders are preserving large scale high-rise public housing against the national tide. Federal capital and operating subsidies, which continue to provide the bulk of NYCHA's revenues after rents, have been slashed. Most American big cities took the comparatively easier road of knocking down aging towers, even if it meant losing thousands of permanent, low-cost, subsidized apartments.

A new series of Geographic Information System (GIS) maps created by NYCHA document capital projects across the city and provide a revealing portrait of what is working today, and what still needs to be done, to upgrade "First Generation" NYCHA for the half a million New Yorkers who still live within its walls.

Rebuilding-NYCHA-A-Fresh-Look-map

The maps, only a few of which are shown here, vividly illustrate that NYCHA is slowly rebuilding the thousands of aging towers in the system. The maps, and accompanying spreadsheets, indicate that many developments during the past decade or so have benefitted from new elevators, roofs, brickwork, parapets, electrical upgrades, security cameras, and updated mechanical systems.

NYCHA's Capital Projects Division oversees and designs the various projects, but private contracting firms, selected through a competitive bidding process, do the construction on a for-profit basis. Rebuilding NYCHA - where 400,000 New Yorkers live - is not just about housing, then, but it is also a public/private partnership that has pumped billions into the local economy. Hundreds of NYCHA residents have also gained work experience through these renovation projects.

The individual capital items are necessarily rendered as small icons on these maps but on the ground each icon represents a big and expensive undertaking because each individual NYCHA housing project is so large. A single icon on the map, for instance, usually involves multiple roofs, elevators, and brick repointing efforts at one project. These capital projects, moreover, are distinct from the millions of smaller repairs every year undertaken by NYCHA maintenance employees as part of everyday maintenance.

These large capital projects are not just being started, as the maps indicated, but also completed in a timelier manner than in the past. NYCHA has picked up the pace on its design, procurement, and contracting process. The NYC Stimulus Tracker, new staff and procedures, a recession (making NYCHA contracts more desirable for private construction firms that once dragged out the process), and public scrutiny are some of the factors in this speed up.

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The maps also speak to baseline, long-term priorities: keeping out rain; delivering heat, electrical and water service; and installing safer elevators. The maps are thus full of roof, brickwork, parapets, and mechanical projects (plumbing, electric, and elevators) rather than apartment rehabilitation. Many residents, as reported in the newspapers, would likely prefer that NYCHA place an immediate emphasis on total apartment rehabs so that their lives improve now; the hundreds of thousands of monthly maintenance calls indicate a large, and possibly growing, number of defects per apartment.

From a long-term perspective, however, and in the current pinched budget situation, the strategy of securing building envelopes first makes sense. Expensive apartment rehabs, and even smaller patch jobs, often make good press, but they can be quickly undone, and often are, by a faulty heating pipe or leaky wall. Most NYCHA residents are therefore likely to remain dissatisfied with the state and number of defects in their aging apartments in the short term even with new roofs or brickwork protecting them in the years to come. Doing the right thing—using funds in a strategic way—thus remains politically risky when so much attention is focused on apartment repairs today.

This basic strategy of maintaining buildings envelopes is sound, but it is fair to say that even this prioritization of scarce resources is not guaranteed to secure NYCHA's future as a housing provider. NYCHA estimates that it needs an additional $17 billion in capital funds just for the next five years. A longer horizon on capital needs reveals an even larger capital need. Parsons Brinckerhoff, the global engineering and design firm, in 2011 estimated that NYCHA would face $30 billion in basic capital costs from 2011 to 2026—a figure far in excess of what was then or is currently available from city, state, or federal sources combined. When a roof project at Pink Houses costs over $37 million, an elevator project Roosevelt Houses demands $4 million, and brickwork at Glenwood Houses comes in at over $42 million—just a couple examples from hundreds—it is easy to see how NYCHA could still have billions in needed capital repairs over the coming decades. The cost of construction of all kind is expensive in New York and NYCHA is subject to both market pressure and federal labor regulations.

Were NYCHA to generate similar style maps using icons to show the additional major capital projects needed, these maps of needed work would be far more crowded than the maps of ongoing capital projects today. The required work for one housing project, Marble Hill Houses (1682 apartments) is provided as an example below of the amount of money that would be needed to upgrade just one project from top to bottom. The figures from the 2011 Physical Needs Assessment indicate that renovating Marble Hill to a good state would absorb a significant share of an entire year's worth of NYCHA's federal capital budget (to be spent system-wide) despite counting only about 1% of NYCHA's total apartments. Marble Hill's needs, moreover, are fairly typical for large NYCHA developments.

Rebuilding-NYCHA-A-Fresh-Look-table

The maps and data sampled here answer many questions about what is being done to secure NYCHA's future, the locations of major projects, and what it costs to just partially rebuild America's largest public housing system. The maps do not, however, answer more worrisome questions about future funding and projects. This uncertainty is why NYCHA leaders continue to pursue new routes to renovation such as converting traditional public housing units to Section 8 and generating revenues from new market-rate housing on public housing grounds. Many solutions, and many big ones, are going to be needed to secure this housing for another generation.

*This is the first of a three-part series on NYCHA from Nicholas D. Bloom and partners*
Read part two: Goodbye to 'First Generation' NYCHA
Read part three: Looks Matter, Especially in Public Housing

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Nicholas Dagen Bloom is Co-Curator of the current exhibition at the Hunter College, East Harlem Gallery, Affordable Housing in New York and Co-Editor of the anthology by the same name, available here.

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'New York Values' in Historical Perspective


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Ted Cruz (photo: @SenTedCruz)


Stereotyping New York in political debate
In a Republican presidential debate in January, Senator Ted Cruz tried to score points, saying of Donald Trump, "Donald comes from New York and he represents New York values." Cruz went on to say that "everyone in the country knows exactly what New York values are and I've got to say they're not Iowa values or New Hampshire values." New Yorkers are "socially liberal and pro-abortion and pro-gay marriage and focus on money and the media," he said.

Cruz repeated the message, with variations, in his campaigns in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Senator Cruz was using an old political gambit, playing on stereotypes of New York (particularly New York City) as excessively liberal, corrupt, money-grubbing, and out of step with the rest of America.
New Yorkers get their backs up when their city or state is stigmatized or attacked.

After the January debate, Governor Andrew Cuomo retorted that Senator Cruz "doesn't know what New York values are because New York is in many ways the epitome of what formed this nation and what keeps it strong....We do believe in E Pluribus Unum, out of many come one, and his rhetoric is the exact opposite." Several other prominent New Yorkers weighed in, including Donald Trump, who suggested that New York's heroic response to 9/11 revealed its deepest values.

Cruz's comments provoked many other New Yorkers to express their opinions (mostly positive) about their city. The New York Times asked a cross-section of city residents their opinion on what constituted "New York values" a few days after Cruz's attack. Their responses: New Yorkers are diverse, friendly, ambitious, curious, tolerant, competitive, impatient, hustling and determined -- "we keep our heads high, no matter what."

A New York Daily News front page on January 15 put it more directly with a headline of "DROP DEAD, TED."

New Yorkers have seen it before
Cruz is certainly not the first politician to try to cast New York as a place of wanton ways with values at odds with those of the rest of the nation.

Republican attacks on New York Governor Al Smith when he ran unsuccessfully for president in 1928 focused on his Catholic religion, opposition to prohibition, and subservience to the New York City Democratic organization Tammany Hall, all allegedly emblematic of his hometown, New York City. Smith's campaign theme song, "The Sidewalks of New York," and his "New York accent" in campaign speeches confirmed how ingrained New York City's culture and folkways were.

In 1960, conservative Republican Senator Barry Goldwater expressed a wish that "we could tell New York to kiss our [expletive] and we could really start a conservative party." In 1963, he suggested the nation would be better off if the east coast could be sawed off and floated out to sea. But everyone understood that New York, with its liberal politics, cultural influence and economic power, was his main bugaboo.

The next year, Goldwater won the Republican presidential nomination over New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, whom Goldwater labeled a liberal New York spendthrift. His supporters sniped that Rockefeller was immoral for having divorced his first wife and remarried, something they vaguely insinuated had to do with loose New York morals.

Historical views of "New York values"
Fending off attacks is easier than defining precisely what New York's values are. That's no surprise, given New York's long history, complexity, and our proclivity for vigorous debate among ourselves.

In 1939, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia assailed critics who asserted that his city was "a money mart...a synonym for Wall Street...New Yorkers are impolite." New York is "a warm-hearted and generous community," he insisted. But with a touch of that New York pride bordering on arrogance that can irritate outsiders, the mayor added that his city was so far superior to others that "we could afford to stop for the next twenty years and we would still be slightly ahead of the procession."

Historian Milton Klein wrote in 1978 that New Yorkers could be thought of as "cosmopolitan Americans: energetic...materialistic and brash but also convivial, humane, tolerant and idealistic. That one state alone should be able to encompass in itself so many of the virtues and limitations of the American people is a measure of New York's unique role in the nation's history."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in a statement to the 9/11 Commission in 2003, eloquently described his city's cosmopolitan pre-eminence:

To people around the world, New York City embodies what makes this nation great. That's a function of our status as the world's financial capital, driven not only by Wall Street but [also] our international prominence in such fields as broadcasting, the arts, entertainment and medicine. Such is New York's importance that to a great extent, as goes its economy, so goes the country's. If Wall Street is destroyed, Main Street will suffer. Beyond that, New York embraces the intellectual and religious freedom and cultural diversity that makes us truly the world's second home. We are a magnet for the talented and ambitious from every corner of the globe. In short, we embody the strengths of America's freedom.

Governor Mario Cuomo (1983-1995) saw enlightened, progressive public policies as New York's defining trait. He defined "the New York Idea" as "government using its resources to help create private sector growth, then requiring those who benefit from that growth to share some part of it so that hope and opportunity are extended to those who have not been as fortunate."

Andrew Cuomo, the current governor, emphasizes that New Yorkers are exceptionally energetic, innovative, determined, and resilient. "At every difficult moment in our nation's history, New York has emerged as...the progressive leader in the nation," he explained in his inaugural address in 2011. "In New York, we may have big problems, but we confront them with big solutions," he said in his State-of-the State message the next year. He often includes in his speeches a quotation from essayist E.B. White: "New York is to the nation what the white church spire is to the village, the visible symbol of aspiration and faith, the white plume saying the way is up."

Two sets of "New York values" seem to stand out
Of course, historians may differ on what New York's most important values are. But looking back over our history, two sets of values seem to stand out.

One is openness, inclusion, and tolerance. Since colonial times when the Dutch controlled the city, the emphasis has been on diversity, valuing individual differences, letting people alone, and providing opportunity for work, advancement, and getting ahead.

New York has been open, welcoming, accommodating, and supportive of newcomers. Over time, more immigrants have come in through New York than any other city. Our city and state have been at the forefront of social justice campaigns and civil rights reforms. For instance, the NAACP was founded in New York City in 1909 and New York passed the nation's first state civil rights law, in 1945. New York City probably has the most diverse population of any major city in the world.

A second is optimism and resilience. New Yorkers are undeterred by setbacks, springing back from adversity and continuing forward progress. It dates back at least to the origins of the state. The Revolutionary New York provincial congress were rebels-on the run, moving from New York City to White Plains to Fishkill to Kingston ahead of advancing British troops. They finished hastily drafting New York's first state constitution in April 1777.

When the British threatened Kingston, the new government became a government-on-the run, simply dispersing, reassembling later at Poughkeepsie, and keeping the fledgling state intact. The first governor, George Clinton, calmly took the oath of office in August 1777 and then hurried off to lead a battle against the enemy where he barely escaped capture.

New Yorkers keep going and are known for against-the-odds triumphs. For instance, mockery and stonewalling by the power structure inspired New York's great women's rights advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton on to more tenacious campaigning. Denied the right to vote, she defiantly ran for Congress from New York City in 1868, losing but making a point about women's political stature. Jackie Robinson was undeterred by racist taunts and threats and became the first black man to play professional baseball, with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, and later an inspirational civil rights leader.

The New York City Fire Department mourned its dead after 9/11 and then got right back to work, creatively revising its mission, policies, and training to meet the new threat of terrorism.

New York City not only survived the attacks but came back more resilient and stronger than ever.

The debate over "New York values" is likely to continue
New York mirrors the nation in its complexity and resists tidy categorization. Its values are hard to pin down but its history is rightly a source of inspiration and pride, with tolerance and resilience at the core.

Activist, writer, and New York City First Lady, Chirlane McCray, refuted Ted Cruz by citing the city's steadfastness in challenging times."That fighting spirit, that gut instinct to join together in times of hardship, that refusal to leave behind the most vulnerable among us -- these are the values that have defined New Yorkers from the very beginning."

As the presidential campaign moves along, we can expect to hear more about "New York values." When we do, we need to keep historical insights and perspectives in mind.

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Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne lives in Guilderland, New York. He is the author of The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History, published in 2015 by SUNY Press.

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'Making A Murderer' Flaws All Around Us


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photo via Making A Murderer on Twitter


The Netflix documentary "Making A Murderer" challenges the moral core of our criminal justice system: that the police and prosecutors are objective and unbiased. The film follows Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who spent 18 years in prison for rape before being exonerated, then arrested for murder two years later, found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison. The highly questionable police methods—a key piece of evidence miraculously appears; an improbable confession is coerced from a developmentally delayed adolescent—and the glaring conflicts of interest of many of the participants will infuriate any fair-minded viewer.

The criminal justice system's legitimacy is founded on our secular faith in unbiased police-work, forensic science, and truth-seeking prosecutors. However, many of these pillars are structurally unsound, as supported by reams of scientific studies and the wisdom of leading observers.

The problems with forensic science were first exposed systematically in a National Academy of Sciences report in 2009, but the legal system has been slow to incorporate its findings. Official misconduct of the type suggested in Making A Murderer is not isolated to small towns in Wisconsin. Alex Kozinski, one of America's foremost jurists and scholars, and a judge on the United States Court of Appeals, has recently written an opus which probes these problems in depth. And Kozinksi is no liberal; he was appointed by Ronald Reagan.

Take confessions. It is unfathomable to most of us, but it is not unusual for people under duress to confess to crimes they did not commit. And for minors sweating under the bright lights, their inherent anxiety and propensity for pleasing authorities, coupled with the various ruses, all legal, which the police can employ, render them easy prey. New Yorkers cannot forget that the Central Park Five (teenagers at the time) falsely confessed and spent several years in prison before being exonerated.

Eyewitness testimony is also subject to manipulations and the plasticity of human memory. In Steven Avery's first case the victim mistakenly identified him, after several inappropriate prompts from the police. And misidentification is even more likely when victims and perpetrators are of different races, an expected occurrence in multicultural communities like New York City. A New York State Bar Association study found misidentification to be the leading cause of wrongful convictions. Numerous expert panels have outlined model procedures for police to use when investigating eyewitness testimony and the NYPD should incorporate these findings.

High tech forensic science, despite its aura of infallibility, is less than perfect and many familiar methods have been tossed on the junk pile. Bite mark analysis, arson science, fiber and hair analysis, are among those that are now discredited as completely lacking in scientific validity. The Justice Department and FBI have acknowledged that evidence presented by an elite forensic unit over a two-decade period was based on methods now recognized as invalid.

The Manhattan District Attorney's office is, however, disregarding the scientific consensus and fighting tooth and nail to continue using bite mark evidence. In contrast, the new Brooklyn District Attorney, Ken Thompson, recently moved to have an arson-murder conviction overturned, in part due to now discredited "arson science," and Mr. Thompson's office is garnering national attention for its commitment to review cases and rectify wrongful convictions.

To a prosecutor, the most important bit of data is his or her conviction rate, and the resultant zeal to convict at all costs detours our system away from objectivity towards something like a witch hunt. Prosecutors routinely withhold exculpatory evidence from the defense. As Justice Kozinski puts it, "there is an epidemic of Brady violations [duty to disclose any vital evidence] in the land."

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, official misconduct was a factor in 45% of false convictions. In Orange County (CA) the district attorney's office is rocked with scandal after revelations that the police and prosecutors colluded in a decades long campaign of frame-ups and perjury. And in Brooklyn, as noted above, the new district attorney has begun dealing with the fallout from years of dubious tactics used by his predecessor, Charles Hynes.

This short list of prosecutorial abuses and junk science is only a glimpse at the problem. To give some depth, consider that one study in a prestigious journal estimated that 4.1% of all persons on death row could be exonerated. With roughly 3,000 people on death row now, about 120 persons sentenced to die may be innocent. If this rate of wrongful convictions is extended to the 1.5 million persons in federal and state prisons, 61,500 persons could be declared innocent, set free, and have their criminal records erased.

Though Steven Avery was not rich he had a competent defense team, yet still could not prevail (I am not claiming he is innocent, but that his trial was a travesty and he should not have been found guilty based on its proceedings.) But for poor people who cannot afford a private attorney, woefully understaffed and underfunded public defenders are their only option. That is why innocent people take plea bargains; without an effective defense they have no chance of winning. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 10% of exonerees pleaded guilty, despite their innocence, to avoid a trial.

There is already a broad consensus that we send too many people to prison, for too long, and for behavior (e.g., drug use, sex work, nuisance offences) that should not be criminalized. Beyond that, we must ensure that police and prosecutors use valid methods to gather evidence and present that against the accused. The public election of prosecutors must be revisited to avoid the sort of uncontested transfer of power that occurred in the Bronx last year.

Finally, the New York State Court system recently issued rules enabling video recording of courtroom proceedings and these should be interpreted as liberally as possible to ensure that a Making A Murderer type of injustice can't happen here.

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Christopher Beall works at a criminal justice nonprofit in the Bronx and is on Twitter @JailedintheUSA.

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Get the Facts Straight on NYCHA Attacks


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photo via NYCHA


In a recent op-ed outlining opposition to organized labor and Project Labor Agreements, Associated Buildings & Contractors Empire State Chapter President Brian Sampson paints an outdated and inaccurate picture of NYCHA. Let’s be honest, yes—there had been a long history of mismanagement at NYCHA. But with the new administration and under new leadership, we are taking NYCHA in a different direction that makes old arguments about NYCHA more political than factual.

In the past two years, we’ve taken bold, but necessary steps to fundamentally transform how we do business. The Authority launched NextGeneration NYCHA, our ten-year strategic plan, to transform NYCHA into a modern, more efficient and effective landlord, while also getting our financial house in order. And while there is still work to be done, we are making solid progress through action.

Taxpayer waste was indicative of the old NYCHA. Today, we are committed to transparency as the best form of oversight and accountability of taxpayer dollars. NYCHA now posts work and performance metrics, contracts and awards on our website, and even launched an interactive Sandy Transparency map, where the public can access spending data and status updates on work related to the $3 billion in Federal Emergency Management Agency funding. This digital tool provides information on the scope of work, project phase (planning, design, and construction), estimated funding levels and timelines, renderings and contractor details.

Swipes at NYCHA’s response to Hurricane Sandy or inventory and procurement may score easy political points, but don’t reflect NYCHA’s reality today. NYCHA created the Office of Emergency Preparedness in response to issues raised by Hurricane Sandy, so we are better prepared than we have ever been before. To that end, we issued a report in 2015 outlining our progress.

Additionally, NYCHA has made great strides to overhaul our supply and inventory management process, with a working group composed of independent leadership, supply chain experts, and the city comptroller’s office. Today, inventory is only disposed of after a systematic and thorough analysis. In fact, our reassessment of inventory previously slated for disposal resulted in more than $1 million of materials put back into use.

The nonunion building trades’ real issue with NYCHA isn’t about money or management, it’s about NYCHA’s Project Labor Agreement (PLA.) NYCHA’s PLA, which applies to construction and rehabilitation work, isn’t unique and is widely employed by other city agencies. It allows for greater flexibility in work scheduling and shift hours, and NYCHA is already beginning to see the benefits of the PLA with faster, better, and cost-effective construction work.

This isn’t the first attack by the Associated Builders & Contractors Empire State Chapter and it won’t be the last, but the association should try to stick to the facts on NYCHA. No one is served by rhetoric, especially not NYCHA residents.

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Michael Kelly is the General Manager of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). On Twitter @NYCHA.

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Next Steps the State Must Make to Create and Maintain Affordable Housing


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photo: a groundbreaking, via the Governor's Office


As the Legislature moves ahead with its 2016 session in Albany, a top priority must be creating and maintaining affordable housing across the state. We cannot be content with fellow New Yorkers sleeping in three-quarter houses, with too many to a room, because it’s the only alternative. It is only so long until the next severely rent burdened tenant - spending more than 50 percent of their earnings on rent - ends up homeless because they cannot afford their apartment.

Governor Cuomo’s State of the State agenda – including 20,000 units of supportive housing over 15 years and 100,000 units of permanent affordable housing - is a welcome first step. Now, there are steps the Legislature should take to spur the development and protection of affordable housing. As President Obama’s call to end chronic homelessness among veterans displays, when government acts and we mobilize on that action, we can address long-term, entrenched issues and ensure individuals have a safe and affordable place to live.

A high priority for Albany should be a new 421-a property tax credit for real estate developers who build affordable housing.

After developers and labor were unable to come to an agreement on construction wages by January 15, the 421-a tax credit expired. Still, Albany can seize the opportunity and craft a new program that maximizes the cost-effective development of truly affordable housing. For example, a new 421-a credit should not include a tax break for condo development. Approximately two-thirds of New York City’s households are renters. Moreover, the median household income of renters in New York City - about $41,000 annually according to the Furman Center’s 2014 State of New York City’s Housing & Neighborhoods - is unlikely enough to afford a co-op or condo.

The Legislature must also adequately fund the 20,000 units of supportive housing announced by Cuomo. In particular, Albany must ensure state contracts with supportive housing providers promote the long-term viability of the units. A consistent challenge that we at Urban Pathways face in operating scattered-site supportive housing - apartments in various private buildings throughout communities - is that the service contracts lack rent escalations. As scattered-site units are in market-rate apartments, they are subject to rent increases, making rent escalation provisions critical to their preservation.

Lastly, after March of this year, the state will receive National Housing Trust Fund dollars. New York will be obligated to spend these funds - potentially $20 million - predominantly on rental housing for extremely low-income (ELI) households. ELI households are those with incomes at or below 30 percent of the area median income (ranging from about $18,150 for a one-person household to $29,500 for a four-person household in New York City). This is another opportunity for the state to invest in adequate exit options for homeless individuals throughout the state.

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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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Time for NYCHA to Stop Wasting Our Money


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photo via NYCHA


In following the news over the past years, it has become readily apparent that the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) must either be severely underfunded or grossly mismanaged. Unfortunately it's the latter.

There is no shortage of issues that have come up that demonstrate the ineptitude of NYCHA leadership. From failing to protect residents in advance of Hurricane Sandy to toxic molds to turning on the heat only if it gets to 25 degrees, NYCHA is failing its residents. To say that NYCHA is mismanaged and wasting our tax money is an understatement. Officials are throwing it away, literally - NYCHA actually recently threw away $550,000 of new supplies that were purchased but determined to not be useful.

But wasteful spending doesn't end there. NYCHA attaches Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) to all of their rehab and construction projects. These costly provisions mandate that a vast majority of workers come from the union halls, leading to fewer contractors bidding on the work and diminished competition.

Officials agree to these provisions even though studies show PLAs increase construction costs up to 30 percent. These additional costs come from reduced competition and antiquated jurisdictional work rules that prevent efficiencies. At a time when Mayor de Blasio has taken a stand for increased affordable housing in New York City by standing up to the powerful trades unions and telling them that they've out-priced themselves, NYCHA is acquiescing to their every demand, to the detriment of taxpayers and tenants alike.

An increasing amount of work is being done throughout New York City by merit shop contractors, and with good reason. These men and women have found innovative ways to build the best projects in efficient, cost-effective ways, while still taking great care of their employees. Go to any private job site today and you will more than likely see a diverse group of professionals working together as a team to get the job done. There is no bickering among differing trades as to whose responsibility it is to do key tasks like you see on public or taxpayer funded job sites.

Unfortunately, while these advancements have made construction better and cheaper, our union counterparts have been left behind, instead being forced to rely on their political influence to get publicly funded work such as at NYCHA. But as more and more of the general public is becoming aware of how this impacts their wallets and how much farther their dollar could go, this is changing too.

These changes have spurred the unfortunate rhetoric and baseless claims from union bosses who see their empires slipping away.

Imagine how much work could get done with 30 percent more capital to work with? Maybe those elevators could finally get fixed or the mold would finally be eradicated. Perhaps NYCHA could be more prepared for a disaster. And what if, not to be too bold, NYCHA could actually turn the heat on before it hits 25 degrees?

As a public authority, NYCHA has a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers of this city. This should encourage its leaders to stretch tax dollars as far as they can to get the most bang for the buck. They also have a moral obligation to the tenants of their housing. This means they should do everything they can to get the best housing available at the most competitive pricing - making more housing available to those who need it.

NYCHA needs to be cleaned up, and the corruption and mismanagement that have plagued the tenants and taxpayers of New York City needs to be addressed. The process by which NYCHA officials spend hundreds of millions of tax dollars is a start.

Our message to NYCHA is clear: while you've gotten used to throwing our money away, you owe it to taxpayers and tenants to open bids up, create competition, and get the most bang for our buck.

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Brian Sampson is the President of the Associated Builders and Contractors, Empire State Chapter. The Association was founded on the shared belief that construction projects should be awarded on merit to the most qualified and responsible low bidders. The Chapter represents nearly 400 members in the construction industry throughout NYS.

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Real Affordable Housing for Our Communities


de blasio housing constituent

photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office


When I think about my family's future in New York City, I wonder: will there be an affordable, safe, and healthy apartment where I can raise my children and still be able to provide them with everything else that they need?

This is the question that our city government has to address if it wants to protect low-income and working class New Yorkers.

My husband and I live in Bushwick in a one-bedroom apartment with our three children—one of whom has special needs—and my sister. We pay more than $1,200 per month—more than half of our income, which comes from my husband's job in a fruit and vegetable store. For the last two years, we've been looking to find somewhere better—somewhere more affordable, with more space for our children. Our landlord wants us out, too, because he wants to renovate and charge new tenants more as Bushwick gentrifies.

But there's nowhere for us to go. Even studios near where we live are now renting for $1,400-$1,500—too much money, and too little space, for our family of six.

In recent weeks, the city has heard much debate on how to create and preserve affordable housing. The most talked-about item has been the Mayor's Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) plan, which would exchange zoning changes to allow more housing construction for, in most neighborhoods, the requirement that 25–30 percent of apartments be affordable to people earning 60 to 80 percent of Area Median Income (AMI).

The problem with the plan is that it won't solve the problem for working class New Yorkers like me.

Sixty percent of Area Median Income is almost $47,000 for a family of three, and many New Yorkers are far from earning that. My family of six earns about half that much.

As a recent Real Affordability for All (RAFA) report found, in many of the neighborhoods that are being rezoned—like East New York, the South Bronx, and East Harlem—the average income is far below 60 percent of Area Median Income. So, when I look at the MIH plan, I wonder: "affordable" housing for whom? Certainly not for local residents like me.

Mayor de Blasio stood on the right side with our communities in the Fight for $15, to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour for the 3.2 million low-wage workers in our state who currently earn less. But the reality is that, even once our families win the $15 per hour that we so desperately need, the vast majority of the housing being proposed in the MIH plan will not be affordable to us.

We ask the Mayor to reconsider his plan and expand affordability to preserve and build genuinely affordable housing.

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Susana Salas is a member of Make the Road New York, the largest grassroots community organization in New York offering services and organizing the immigrant community. On Twitter: @maketheroadny.

Is Mayor De Blasio Putting Students First?


de blasio education

Mayor de Blasio (photo via The Mayor's Office)


Mayor de Blasio's annual State of the City address is a natural time to take a step back and review his performance running the largest school system in the United States. For StudentsFirstNY, our most basic litmus test for policymakers is a simple question – are they putting the interests of students first? After two full years with Mayor de Blasio, we can definitively say that the answer is "no."

In analyzing Mayor de Blasio's stewardship of city schools, there are several themes that emerge. First, there is a distinct lack of urgency in delivering results for students. Second, his policies are not based on research. He has ignored evidence that programs like small schools and expanded choice work. Third, he has not shown results on failing schools. And finally, the mayor has ignored teacher quality.

Throughout the course of his time in office, this mayor has not shown much fondness for the details of his job. He seems more comfortable pondering the course of progressive philosophy or knocking on doors in Iowa, for example, than he does in setting specific timelines and metrics for results. Take his much-hyped program to have every child read by third grade. The goal is noble, but he doesn't promise results that can be measured until 2026 – long after he is gone from office. What good does that do for kids who will be trying to learn to read this year, or next year, or for years after that?

A strong education leader understands that setting realistic short-term targets is essential to tracking results and ensuring progress towards a greater goal. Without real, deliverable metrics, these programs are little more than press releases with empty promises that may never come to fruition.

Another hallmark of Mayor de Blasio's time in office has been a fundamental rejection of data and research-based decision-making. Under Mayor Bloomberg, the school system was improving – but Mayor de Blasio has rejected the use of evidence as a personal rebuke of his predecessor. In its place is a menu of nice sounding initiatives that have never been shown to actually improve educational outcomes for kids.

Time and time again, Mayor de Blasio has opted to make education decisions based on politics, even when it means rejecting policies that have a proven track record of success. Take small schools as an example. Countless studies have shown that small schools work, but the de Blasio administration has rejected them for political reasons.

The same is true with charter schools. Even though New York City has the longest waiting list in the country, with tens of thousands of parents hoping to get spots for their kids in charter schools, the mayor has fought tooth-and-nail against them. Why? It's not about serving kids; the mayor's political allies in the teachers union want to stifle their competition.

These politically-motivated decisions threaten to trap another generation of students in failing schools, with no hope of a turnaround. The "Renewal" model was supposed to be Mayor de Blasio's signature program, but so far it has accomplished little for kids in the city's lowest performing schools. Some Renewal schools hit their target goals before the program had even started – a sure sign of artificially low expectations. And despite the claims of progress, objective student achievement measures show that these schools continue to perform poorly.

Finally, Mayor de Blasio has not lifted a finger to improve teacher quality. He missed a golden opportunity to improve teacher quality with fundamental reforms during the 2014 teacher contract negotiations. Instead of reform, de Blasio caved to the UFT on every key issue – everything from merit pay for great teachers to eliminating the unwanted teachers from the ATR pool. The mayor likes to call this "collaboration," but in reality, the UFT gets what it wants at the expense of kids. So students are stuck with ineffective teachers and the teachers that no principal wants are forced back into the classroom.

At the end of the day, we need to know that students are learning and have access to the highest quality schools possible. Halfway through Mayor de Blasio's term, it's not enough to talk a good game. It's time to deliver results.

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Jenny Sedlis is the Executive Director of StudentsFirstNY. On Twitter @JennySedlis & @StudentsFirstNY.

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A Good Deal for Horses


NYCLASS horses central park

photo via NYCLASS


***Editor's note: this op-ed column was published in anticipation of a vote on legislation that did not occur when a deal fell apart at the last minute on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2015 ***

The The New York City Council has the opportunity this week to take carriage horses out of dangerous city traffic and create new protections that will help these horses lead happier, safer lives.

They should jump at the opportunity.

For all of the political back and forth, this is a smart, sensible plan – especially if your goal is to protect horses. Consider the details of the plan:

First, it reduces the number of carriage horses by nearly half and protects them from being sold into slaughter when they are done working. NYCLASS has publicly stated that we are willing to pay – without the use of a single dime of taxpayer funds – for these retired horses to be sent to a sanctuary. So ignore any false rhetoric about these retired horses being sold to slaughter - it's just not true.

Second, the plan requires that the remaining carriage horses live and work in Central Park, not in dangerous city traffic. New York City streets are loud and congested with honking taxis, ambulance sirens, and double-decker buses. That's a reality that horses should not be forced to manage. Under this plan, they won't have to.

Third, it nearly doubles the stall size for each horse to 100 square feet and provides daily time and space for horses to roam – essential elements for protecting the horses' mental and physical well-being.

Some have falsely claimed that having half the number of horses will mean that the remaining horses will be worked twice as much. This is simply not true. The legislation limits the horses to working only one shift per day and there are clear penalties for overworking any horse.

None of these protections exist today and everyone who loves horses should support them.

Of course, there are some opponents now pushing the City Council to follow the "delay to death" strategy – dragging this process out even further. Enough is enough. We have debated and discussed this for years. Heck, the City Council passed – and the editorial boards of both the New York Times and the New York Daily News supported – legislation to move the horses into the Park in 1988! The time for debate is over. The Council needs to do what is right and pass this legislation.

What's more, delaying the process isn't a solution; it only allows opponents to continue to spread misinformation, particularly regarding bizarre real estate conspiracy theories. Let's set the record straight – again – on this: the stables are privately-owned property; the owners can do whatever they want with them. No one at NYCLASS, including our founder Steve Nislick, has or will have anything to do with the West Side stables. Period.

Strangely enough, some are surprised that NYCLASS and other animal rights organizations have so strongly supported the new compromise. They shouldn't be. Our number one priority is and always has been to protect the horses in the best and most practical way we know how. This plan does that.

The same can't be said for those supporting the status quo. These individuals claim that the horses are well cared for. This couldn't be further from the truth. Carriage horses are forced to live their entire non-working lives in small, confined stalls without access to open pastures. They travel to work through dangerous city traffic, forced to dodge enormous trucks, speeding cars, and bicycles, often spooking, and in too many cases, they are struck and injured. Are these proper conditions for beloved animals? We certainly don't think so. That's why numerous animal protection organizations such as the ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States support this plan too.

Other opponents claim that the compromise doesn't go far enough. They want a complete ban on horse carriages. While we are sympathetic to these passionate voices, we believe that New Yorkers should support the proposed legislation because it helps achieve our number one priority: protecting and improving the lives of carriage horses. This compromise is a real-world solution to a problem that should have been eradicated decades ago.

It is time for us all to come together on the most important point: horses – as all animals – should be treated humanely and with care.

This new compromise is our opportunity to do just that. Because protecting our city's precious animals is not a choice, it's an imperative.

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Allie Feldman is the Executive Director of NYCLASS. On Twitter @NYCLASS.

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Reducing Organic Waste Without Increasing Costs


composting sanitation

photo via NYC Sanitation


Today, the New York City Council will hold an oversight hearing on the Department of Sanitation's organic waste program started in 2013. The focus on organic waste is merited by the size of the waste stream (more than 1 million tons annually) and environmental benefits of reducing greenhouse gases through use of alternative disposal strategies, such as composting, rather than transport to distant landfills. The City plans to expand the pilot program citywide; however, a report published this week by the Citizens Budget Commission indicates the cost of doing so would be prohibitively expensive. Instead, City leaders should pursue a different strategy.

The Department of Sanitation (DSNY) currently collects organic waste from more than 186,600 households in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, as well as 200 large apartment buildings and 750 schools. The share of organic waste diverted ranges from 12 to 26 percent – lower than the citywide recycling rate (43 percent) – at a cost of $19 million over two years.

If the curbside program were expanded citywide, costs would balloon.

Most districts do not have sufficient unused truck capacity to substitute an organic waste collection for one weekly refuse collection or to use dual-bin trucks. CBC estimates at least 88,000 new truck-shifts would be needed for collections each year, resulting in citywide costs in the range of $177 million to $250 million per year – an increase of 10 to 15 percent on the $1.7 billion cost of residential waste collection and disposal.

Given these costs, DSNY should alter its strategy in three ways:

1. Expand curbside collections only where and when additional collection routes are not required. This could be achieved by either replacing a weekly refuse pickup with an organics pickup or collecting refuse and organics simultaneously with special trucks with two separate compartments. Achieving such efficiencies would require City Council approval and a significant boost to participation rates. Currently only one of the 59 sanitation districts would qualify, but at higher diversion rates as many as ten could.

2. Collaborate with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to expand the use of in-sink disposers. DEP and DSNY should identify neighborhoods where in-sink disposers could be used without burdening wastewater treatment infrastructure. This strategy eliminates the need for curbside collections, bringing food waste from people's homes to digestion plants via water pipes and sewers, not trucks on roads.

3. Bring down the cost of all collections in the long-term. If wider diversion of organic waste is a high priority, collection costs must be reduced. Ideas for changes to collection routes and practices range from negotiating changes to the contract for sanitation workers to opening all or some residential waste collection to a competition among private carters.

As New York City seeks to achieve environmental benefits through wider diversion of organic waste, municipal leaders should understand that unless residential trash collection costs are reduced, new program costs will greatly overwhelm any potential savings from landfill reduction. A targeted strategy could be a way to preserve municipal resources and ensure organics programs are sustainable for the long term.

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Carol Kellermann is President of the Citizens Budget Commission. On Twitter @cbcny.

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The City's Next Steps to Ensure Vibrant, Creative Communities


nyc culture

photo via @NYCulture


Earlier this month, the city's Department of Cultural Affairs announced a promising new program aimed at strengthening cultural organizations in targeted neighborhoods. The initiative, known as Building Community Capacity, was introduced in conjunction with Mayor de Blasio's rezoning proposal in East New York, where the program will be launched.

The new initiative is consistent with several of the recommendations from Creative New York, the Center for an Urban Future's recent report on the city's arts economy. The report found that a number of small and mid-size arts organizations in low- and middle-income neighborhoods are financially strained. To address this issue, it encouraged the de Blasio administration to integrate the arts into its rezoning proposals, ensuring that existing artists and arts organizations are supported, preserved, and fortified.

In recent years, government support for New York City cultural organizations has declined significantly. Adjusted for inflation, programmatic and operating grants from the National Endowment for the Arts fell by 15 percent, from the New York State Council on the Arts by 37 percent, and from the city's Department of Cultural Affairs by 16 percent. As a result, cultural organizations have become increasingly dependent on private philanthropy. Many mid-size and small organizations have struggled with this adjustment. In 2012, for instance, we identified 14 "mid-sized" performing arts venues whose revenue did not cover expenses.

Small organizations are also under pressure, particularly those located outside of Manhattan and those serving communities of color. Among New York organizations that explicitly listed their constituents as non-white, earned revenue—primarily attendance fees—covered 32 percent of their expenses, compared to 55 percent for those with a general audience. Likewise, individual and board donations covered only 11 percent of expenses for these organizations, but a much higher 21 percent for those serving a general audience.

Given the extensive challenges facing small and midsized art organizations—particularly those in communities outside of Manhattan—it's encouraging to see the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) focus on fortifying these groups.

While the specifics of the DCLA program will be developed in partnership with local community members and organizations, Building Community Capacity has several worthwhile objectives. They include: helping organizations with board development and fundraising capacity, equipping arts leaders with essential management skills, activating underused spaces for cultural activities, and streamlining the permitting process.

To address these challenges and achieve these goals, DCLA and community-based cultural organizations should look to nonprofits and other city agencies for inspiration. To assist with board development and fundraising capacity, for instance, DCLA could replicate the Robin Hood Foundation's Board Placement Program. Robin Hood helps connect talented, committed and wealthy individuals with social service nonprofits throughout the city. The DCLA could provide a similar matchmaker role for small cultural nonprofits.

Likewise, to help arts administrators develop their management skills, DCLA should look to the New York City Economic Development Corporation's Fashion Fellows, a yearlong training and networking program for rising stars in fashion management. The DCLA could introduce a similar platform for administrators at cultural nonprofits in low-income neighborhoods.

As East New York artists and arts organizations search for affordable and underutilized performance and rehearsal facilities, they should partner with the Department of Education. Schools in East New York (District 19) contain 46 "primary" and "non-primary" dance rooms, 64 music rooms, 50 theater classrooms, and 61 auditoriums. After school hours, most are left unoccupied. Opening these facilities in the evenings and on weekends could provide stable, affordable space to hundreds of local artists, helping them remain in the neighborhoods where they live and work.

Finally, to streamline the permitting process and enliven vacant retail spaces in the target neighborhoods, DCLA should look to the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting (MOFTB) or the Street Activity Permit Office (SAPO) for assistance. The current permitting process is extremely cumbersome and expensive, requiring individual approval from several agencies, including the police and fire departments.

For film and street fairs, on the other hand, the MOFTB and SAPO have established a one-stop-shop, helping to simplify this bureaucratic tangle. Given their resources and expertise, the MOFTB or SAPO could assume permitting duties for all East New York performances and exhibitions, on a pilot-basis. If it runs smoothly, the city should consider delegating all performing and visual arts related permitting to one of these two agencies.

With the Building Community Capacity program, the de Blasio administration is redoubling its efforts to strengthen local organizations and improve access to the arts in all of the city's neighborhoods. From permitting to management training, board development to activating underused spaces, the Mayor's initiative can help build more vibrant, resilient and creative neighborhoods.

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Adam Forman is a Senior Researcher at the Center for an Urban Future.

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