Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics




A Holistic Approach to Reducing Gun Violence

Gibson WIlliams

CMs Gibson, center, & Williams, right, are two of the co-authors (photo: William Alatriste)

NYPD Detective Brian Moore is one of the latest victims of a gun violence pandemic that has deeply wounded our city. This tragic event illuminates a stark reality: with this many guns on the street, senseless and random violence can happen in the blink of an eye. Despite improved efforts to take guns off the streets, engage youth in positive outlets, and interrupt the interstate gun pipeline (through which the gun used to kill Det. Moore came), gun violence continues to plague us.

Read more: A Holistic Approach to Reducing Gun Violence

Real Estate’s Attempt to Co-opt the Affordable Housing Discussion

10 hudson yards

Construction at 10 Hudson Yards (photo: @ryanhutchins)

Think of the classic pieces of advice you’ve heard from parents, teachers or mentors along the way in life: Look before you leap. Think before you speak. Consider the source.

Sometimes we forget the obvious. This has been the case over the past two years, as an organization with a long track record of blocking all efforts to advance an affordable housing agenda has suddenly become a leading voice in the debate about how best to pursue this much-needed public policy goal.

Cleverly, the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) has seized on the de Blasio administration’s focus on affordable housing as the latest way to fight something they have opposed for five decades: the designation of city landmarks. Now REBNY declares that landmarking is bad for affordable housing. The contention is as baseless as it is self-serving.

Consider the source: REBNY’s mission is to maximize profits and eliminate regulatory hurdles for developers and property owners. It sees landmarks and historic districts as obstacles on that path, and historically has been no friend to affordable housing advocates. To further its mission, REBNY has been a longtime key funder of maintaining the Republican majority in the State Senate – which consistently opposes every affordable housing preservation initiative. Is this really a group that should have the ear of the city’s top housing policymakers on this subject?

A recent report issued  by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, “Check the Facts and Consider the Source: Campaign Cash and REBNY’s Real Record on Affordable Housing” reveals that although REBNY represents New York City owners and developers, the group furthers its policy agenda by investing heavily in elections upstate and on Long Island. In the month before last fall’s state elections, the group’s new “Jobs for New York” political action committee raised $2.5 million toward the goal of electing Republicans in Senate districts. The effort was successful: In the five races targeted - all outside of New York City - Republican candidates won, moving the Senate to complete GOP control.

A look back over the past 10 years further demonstrates a strong pattern:

  • Over the decade from October 2004 through October 2014, the Real Estate Board PAC was the #2 interest-group donor to the New York Republican State Committee, second only to the landlords’ Rent Stabilization Association PAC.

  • Over the decade from October 2004 through October 2014, the Real Estate Board PAC was consistently in the top ten largest interest-group donors to the NYS Senate Republican Campaign Committee, giving $454,000.

  • Over the decade from October 2004 through 2014, the Real Estate Board PAC gave more than four times as much to the Republican senate campaign committee as to the Democratic one.

  • From 2011 to 2013, despite being a New York City organization, nearly three-quarters of REBNY contributions went to candidates in districts outside the city.

  • When the contributions of REBNY officers are added to the mix – like those of Glenwood Management owner Leonard Litwin – the numbers become even more dramatic. From 2011 to 2013, the combined group gave 31 times as much to the Republican State Senate Committee as to the Democratic one.

In the words of veteran housing activist Michael McKee, “Real estate money has prevented action on any and all bills that would benefit tenants or stop the loss of affordable housing. Not a single pro-tenant bill has made it to the floor [of the state Senate] in the last four years.”

Yet city and state officials have been heard parroting REBNY’s self-serving “argument.” Why not learn, instead, from the people who work to build affordable housing day in and day out? We at GVSHP queried those professionals, and they found it laughable to connect landmarking to the challenges of building affordable housing. Rather, they said the top obstacles to such development include the rising costs of land and construction; scarce and declining subsidies; and an inability to reap the economies of scale that market-rate developers depend on.

Another reason to “consider the source” is REBNY’s record of crying wolf over the designation of historic districts that today’s New Yorkers consider essential. Just after the Landmarks Law was signed in 1965, a REBNY official was quoted in the New York Times warning that the new law would “seriously impede the modern expansion and progress of the city” – a prediction that clearly did not come true.

In 1986, REBNY opposed the designation of the Ladies’ Mile Historic District on lower Fifth Avenue, saying it would have “a chilling effect on the renovations and adaptations of long-vacant buildings” – clearly belied by today’s vibrant shopping district with robust rental rates. In 1988, REBNY opposed the creation of the Central Park West Historic District, explaining that it was opposing this one because it always opposes them. For decades, the group has been calling for our city’s landmarks law to be rolled back.

From the current investigation of Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos to the recent indictment of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Speaker – who is accused, among other things, of using Litwin’s Glenwood Management to get kickbacks – the paths that real estate money takes in New York city and state government are often not pretty. And their attempts to influence the process extend far beyond the state Legislature; indeed, REBNY’s largesse has been lavished on both Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio.

But that’s not a good reason to let the Real Estate Board become the authors of, or authorities on, public policy about affordable housing or landmarking. We wouldn’t want the NRA to write legislation about gun safety, nor the oil and gas industry to dictate policy on renewable energy sources. Check the record, and consider the source.

Karen Loew is Director of East Village and Special Projects at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

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Community Leaders Do Work to Stop the Violence


CM Jumaane Williams and others decry gun violence in Flatbush, BK (Alex Vitale)

In the wake of the protests following the Eric Garner and Michael Brown grand jury decisions the conservative echo chamber was abuzz with talk of “black on black crime.” Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani led the charge by calling people protesting police killings hypocritical for not speaking out as forcefully against blacks who are killing other blacks. That discourse has continued as protests and rioting take place in Baltimore. As Gary Younge pointed out in the Nation, this is a racial canard designed to deflect attention from the very real problem of police killings of unarmed black men.

In fact, black people are deeply concerned about these issues and working hard to try to combat the problem, with very little support from conservatives like Giuliani. As Younge said, “Anyone who seriously thinks that black people are not talking about black people killing other black people just doesn’t know any black people.”

Monday night 6 people were shot, 2 fatally, outside a church in Flatbush, Brooklyn. The exact causes are not known, but it may have involved an escalation of a long-standing conflict between specific individuals, with others caught in the crossfire.

This tragic loss of black lives immediately provoked a significant response from community leaders and institutions working to stop the violence. City Council Member Jumaane Williams has been a tireless advocate for additional funding for community-based anti-violence initiatives. As co-chair of the City Council’s Gun Violence Task Force he has orchestrated money for a variety of violence interruption programs across the city. Based on the Cure Violence model, these programs take a public health-centered approach to interrupting the cycle of retributory violence and work with high-risk youth to get them off the street and into positive activities. This is a stark alternative to the mostly punitive methods of violence control that predominate in poor communities of color. Rather than rely on police and prisons that typically respond after the damage is done, these programs attempt to prevent the violence from occurring in the first place by reaching kids at an interpersonal level.

Immediately following Monday night’s shootings, members of Gangstas Making Astronomical Community Changes (GMACC) went out on the streets to try to find out exactly what had happened in an effort to engage in rumor control. Too often acts of violence are misinterpreted, leading people to make false accusations that can lead to further violence. Once the facts are known, those close to the event can be reached on a peer-to-peer level to try to stop acts of retaliation.

Tuesday morning, local political and community leaders such as Borough President Eric Adams, Council Members Jumaane Williams and Mathieu Eugene, local religious leaders, and anti-violence activists such as Tony Herbert held a press conference in which they worked to ensure that accurate information was presented about the event in hopes of avoiding an escalation of tensions. In particular, they were concerned about press reports that the incident had been “gang related.” Each speaker pointed out that there was no evidence for this and that to call it such would potentially provoke the involvement of those in gangs in the area.

In addition, speakers like Shanduke McPhatter of GMACC emphasized the need to develop a change in the mindset of people in the community who keep turning to guns. While Council Member Williams pointed a finger at the role of the NRA in gun violence, McPhatter noted that people will pick up a knife if a gun isn’t as handy and their state of mind is oriented toward violence.

GMACC is now working closely with the community-based organization East Flatbush Village, which received money from the City Council a year ago to provide wrap around services for “at risk youth.” Their new program is providing young people with after-school mentoring, athletics, and counseling in hopes of diverting these young people from a life on the streets. In many cases these young people have experienced violence and abuse and have had nowhere to turn in the past. As John Jay College criminologist David Kennedy points out in his review of Jill Leovy’s book Ghettocide, the police and criminal justice systems are not oriented toward helping the victims of inner-city violence, who then often go on to become perpetrators. The cycles of arrest and incarceration often serve to further traumatize these young people rather than healing them in a way that breaks the cycle of violence.

East Flatbush Village is working with several local schools in the 76th Precinct to identify young people in need and involve them in organized athletics, with coaches who also act as mentors and positive adult role models - something often lacking for these young people. They also participate in regular peer-to-peer and individualized counseling. They are asked to “check in” about what’s going on in their lives in hopes of identifying and interrupting violent and self-destructive patterns of behavior.

These community-based initiatives are not a panacea, they have to be part of larger structural changes that provide people with real avenues out of poverty and social isolation. To that end, Williams and the City Council are also calling for a huge increase in summer jobs for young people in low income communities across the city in this year’s budget. There is abundant evidence that large scale jobs programs can help reduce crime and set young people on a more positive course. In addition, they lack all the negative collateral effects that stem from relying on a criminal justice based approach.

Cure violence programs received additional support from Mayor de Blasio in last year’s budget, marking a break from Mayor Bloomberg, who consistently blocked such funding. It is ironic that those who shift the blame for police violence and mistreatment onto communities of color provide so little support to those working to improve these communities. While mayor, Giuliani consistently reduced support for community-based programs designed to engage young people in the arts, sports and employment. To then accuse those communities of not caring about crime and violence is the height of politically-motivated hypocrisy. 

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 senior policy adviser to the Police Reform Organizing Project and serves on the New York State Advisory Committee to the US Civil Rights Commission. You can follow him on Twitter: @avitale

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Fix Water Mains, Improve Transit

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Water floods the subway (photo: @NYCityAlerts)

Mayor Bill de Blasio's executive budget is expected soon and one of the issues attracting attention is the size of the city's contribution to the MTA. While the mayor rightly urges Albany to come up with sustainable, long-term capital support for the regional transit network, the city's contribution to the MTA Capital Plan is today less than half of its peak in 1989, during the Koch Administration. Certainly, there should be a way for the mayor to find significantly more city money to support the bus and subway system that is the lifeblood of our city. But there's another way the mayor can support the MTA: increase funding to keep damaging water out of the subway.

Just in the past month, we had an illustration of how one system of crumbling infrastructure can contribute to the problems of another. When a water main broke in the West Village on April 7, water came cascading into the 14th Street Station on the 7th Avenue line, interrupting 1, 2, and 3 train service. The dramatic video of water showering a train in the station attracted a lot of attention on social media and elsewhere. But this incident is just one of several since Mayor de Blasio took office that highlight the importance of the city repairing its ancient water system. Others:

January 15, 2014 – a 137-year-old water main break near Union Square requires the diversion of multiple train lines during the morning rush hour

November 22, 2014 – a water main break in the Bronx floods the E 145th Station and requires suspension of 6 train service

April 1, 2015 – a water main break near Central Park West and 96th Street causes disruption in B and C train service

In each one of these incidents, the MTA mobilized people and equipment to restore service and make repairs as needed to subway equipment and infrastructure. While it may be difficult for the MTA to break down the costs for each incident like this, it's clear that expenditures for labor and materials are not insubstantial. In addition, there are costs to the MTA in lost ridership revenue when these events take place. When you factor in additional economic costs of delaying commutes for thousands of people and lost business income, the total economic costs of this problem mount up.

A review of the mayor's preliminary budget for fiscal year 2016 shows capital expenditures of $325 million over 10 years to replace aging underground water mains. That's just $32.5 million per year. For emergency repairs to broken water mains, there's an additional $116 million over that same period – less than $12 million per year. These numbers are woefully inadequate. According to a March 2014 report by the Center for an Urban Future, the city's water main replacement program has been replacing only about one-third of what's required to approach a state of good repair. The result: more than 400 water main breaks in New York City last year and every year since 1998 but one.

The risk of underinvestment in our water infrastructure is becoming more apparent each time a water main break disrupts our transit network. If the mayor wants to keep the heat on Albany to fund the MTA, so be it. But he can also help support better transit by pumping more resources into repairing the city's aging water infrastructure.

Peter Peyser is a public affairs consultant living in New York. He served in the Koch Administration in the mayor's Washington, DC office.

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Better Understanding Entry to the City's Specialized High Schools

bx sci hs

Bronx High School of Science

A recent report by the city's Independent Budget Office claimed that the city's eight test-in specialized high schools – including my alma mater Brooklyn Tech, where I head the alumni foundation – have higher percentages of students from higher-income census tracts than the average in all city high schools. Some politicians, activists and academics who are hostile to the use of a pure merit system for selecting students for these schools have attempted to argue that this report somehow shows that the test-in schools are for the wealthy among us. That is misleading to say the least.

The facts are that the specialized high schools are the most economically diverse of all high-performing public high schools in the city.

The IBO report did not point out that in the academic year ending last June, 52.4 percent of students in the eight specialized high schools (including two-thirds at Brooklyn Tech) qualified for free or reduced-cost lunch, the federally-established measure of poverty used by the school system. By comparison, just 37.6 percent of students at the eight highest-performing selective high schools (based on SAT scores) that use the more subjective multiple criteria wanted by critics of the test qualified for the lunch program.

It should come as no surprise that specialized high schools, which draw students from across the city, would have more students from higher-income brackets than neighborhood-based schools where the student bodies reflect the socioeconomic standing in those communities. The IBO report reflects that higher-income neighborhoods have better performing schools because they are given better resources. But an apples-to-apples comparison shows that the specialized high schools continue to draw far more economically-diverse student bodies than schools using subjective criteria to decide admissions. In other words, use of the test, the SHSAT, prevents parents of less academically-prepared children from wealthy families from using non-pedagogical influence to gain admittance.

New York's test-in high schools like Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant and Bronx Science provide an incredibly challenging college-level curriculum to the children of New York City's working class, immigrant and poor families. For 90 years their students have received an unmatched public school education enabling them to go to the nation's best colleges and have a real opportunity to escape the poverty they were born into.

In many instances these graduates have gone on to do great things benefiting our society. Diseases have been cured, wars won, and marvelous inventions have been created which improved the lives of millions. Fourteen graduates have received the Nobel Prize, more than most nations can claim.

The State Senate Education Committee will vote Tuesday on a bill to end the reliance on the Specialized High School Admissions Test without having heard five minutes of testimony from either side of the issue. Senators could have listened to representatives from the NYU Research Alliance for New York City Schools, which recently released a report showing many of the proposed changes – such as using state assessment test scores, grades and attendance – either would result in little change in specialized school admission rates for underrepresented minorities or could actually result in fewer black and more white students being offered admission.

There are over 1,900 African-American and Latino students currently attending the specialized high schools. There should be more. What is missing from the bill and from the IBO report is a true understanding of what must be done to improve the racial and ethnic diversity of students attending these schools.

Instead of eliminating the test-in system which guarantees all applicants a fair and objective standard for admission, the city should work far harder to give students from underrepresented communities the same educational opportunities in elementary and middle school grades currently being afforded students in higher-income neighborhoods. It is discouraging to see recent reports that the city is not offering Gifted and Talented Programs in so many communities that are later underrepresented in the specialized high schools.

Similarly, too few students from underrepresented communities sign up to take the SHSAT, perpetuating a cycle of disenfranchisement that requires a commitment and investment of resources to change. The school system should identify high-performing students, nurture them through enhanced academic programming and test preparation to ready them for the rigors of the exam and the schools' curriculum.

It can be done. The Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, working with the school and a grant from National Grid (which is led by a Tech graduate), just saw the fruits of a pilot "pipeline" program it established to focus on students from underrepresented middle schools across Brooklyn. Of 30 students who went through the program – which included tutoring, enhanced academics and test preparation – 26 received an offer of admission to either Brooklyn Tech or Stuyvesant. Half of the students offered admission to Tech were African-American or Latino. More importantly, because of an even broader effort by the school to reach out to underrepresented middle schools, over 300 African-American and Latino students were offered admission this year to Brooklyn Tech, reversing a downward trend of many years.

I am a labor lawyer and have spent my entire 30-year career fighting for the rights of poor and working people. I believe in diversity, fairness, merit and providing excellent educational opportunities for the children of working families. If we are to reduce the huge income inequality in our city we must reduce the huge educational inequality of our elementary and middle schools. And, we must preserve the specialized high schools which truly have been – and remain – the engines of social advancement for the children of New York's poor, immigrant and working class families.

Larry Cary is the President of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation.

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Keeping the Water On: New York Must Address Infrastructure, Costs


A water main break (photo: Ben Max)

In the coming weeks, the New York City Water board will consider a 3.2 percent increase in the city's water rates. Understandably, many New Yorkers are opposed. Water bills rose by a whopping 166 percent during the Bloomberg administration; an increase that was painfully felt by so many low- and middle-income families. Yet Mayor de Blasio deserves credit for addressing affordability concerns while still ensuring a steady revenue source for the city's aging water infrastructure.

Water bills finance the city's most fundamental services: the delivery of clean water and the safe disposal of sewage and rainwater. Managing and maintaining this infrastructure is not cheap. Recent work on the Croton Filtration Plant, Catskill Disinfection Plant, and the Newton Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant Upgrade cost nearly $10 billion. As a result, the city's water and sewage debt rose from $11 billion in 2002 to $29 billion in 2013.

With the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) devoting billions of dollars to filtering the city's water and cleaning its harbor, insufficient funding was left for maintaining and modernizing the city's water and sewage pipes. From 2001 to 2007, nearly 300 miles of sewers were constructed or reconstructed. From 2008 to 2014, a paltry 118 miles saw work. In his 2007 PlaNYC report, Mayor Bloomberg pledged to build or replace 80 miles of water mains annually. Since then, the DEP has installed only 28 miles per year.

The consequences of this neglect are troubling. In 2014, there were 513 water main breaks across the five boroughs, a 39 percent increase from 2012. The city has suffered at least 400 water main breaks in all but one year since 1998. As a result of these breaks and leaks, a staggering 21 percent of water that enters distribution mains never reaches customers in the city, double the 10-to-15 percent industry standard. To manage these leaks and breaks, repair the city's aging infrastructure and finance its ballooning debt, the DEP must increase its revenue. Mayor de Blasio's 3.2% water rate increase—which is far lower than the 8 percent average increase during the Bloomberg years—is a necessary, if perhaps insufficient, part of that equation.

While increased water rates are certainly a burden—particularly for low- and middle-income New Yorkers—these charges are still below the national average and only half that of residents in Seattle or Atlanta. The water bill for a typical single-family homeowner in New York comes to $88/month, a considerable amount but significantly less than most New Yorkers pay each month for their smart phones.

Fortunately, increased water rates are not the only method for financing and restoring the DEP's essential infrastructure. In 1985, the NYC Water Authority and Water Board were created so that utility payments would go directly and exclusively to the water and sewer system. As part of this agreement, the city charged the Water Board a "rental payment" to cover pre-1985 debt associated with the system. In 2005, as this old debt began to expire, the arrangement was altered. For the first time, the city charged rental payments that exceeded debt service. As a result, Water Board payments have climbed—from $117 million to $204 million over the last decade.

Though the administration insists that these payments are critical to funding the city's operating budget, this misses the point. Dedicated revenue should remain dedicated; not diverted to other programs.

Finally, in addition to a rate increase and the phasing out of rental payments, DEP must get more creative. While past commissioners have grumbled about the heavy burden of federal and state mandates, these are rarely as rigid as portrayed. In 2012, the city amended an agreement with New York State, allowing the DEP to reduce the city's 27 billion gallons of rain and sewage overflow with "green" infrastructure (such as green roofs and porous pavements) rather than exclusively with gray infrastructure (such as retention tanks and upgraded waste water treatment plants). Philadelphia avoided a similar Clean Water Act mandate by introducing a stormwater management fee in lieu of expanded treatment capacity. What would have been a multi-billion dollar expense was converted into a new revenue source.

New York City should follow Philadelphia, and 500 other cities, by replacing its sewer charges, currently assessed at 159 percent of the water rate, with a more nuanced stormwater management fee. Property owners would be charged based according to the percentage of rainwater captured on their lot (before it enters the city's overburdened sewer system). This would incentivize increased water retention on private property, with customers paying a lower fee as they introduce new green elements —trees, swales, porous pavement, and green roofs. This could be coupled with a credit program, repaid via the utility or property bill, to help customers finance the installation of green elements.

Repairing the city's water infrastructure and improving its stormwater management is critical to New York's economic competitiveness and environmental resiliency. Mayor de Blasio should hold firm on increasing water rates this year, eliminate rental payments, and introduce a stormwater management fee. 

Adam Forman is research and communications associate at the Center for an Urban Future, a New York City based think tank. He is the author of "Caution Ahead," a report published by the Center documenting New York's infrastructure vulnerabilities.

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Access to Condoms: Partial Win in 2015 Budget


A rally to promote access to condoms

At the conclusion of a highly-contested budget season few advocates are claiming victories. Fair wage activists, ethics watchdogs and DREAMers, among others, are gearing up for a fight to have their issues addressed during the post-budget legislative session. But, on at least one issue, there is reason for progressives to be hopeful: expanding access to condoms.

As part of this year's budget deal, Albany lawmakers and Governor Cuomo passed a limited ban on the use of condoms as evidence. This is important because all too often when transgender New Yorkers, sex workers, trafficking victims, and others are profiled by police, officers use the fact that some have condoms in their possession as evidence of crimes. This undermines our state's commitment to providing access to contraception and preventing the spread of sexually-transmitted infections.

The limited ban on condoms as evidence originally proposed in the governor's budget and eventually adopted in the final budget deal is important recognition from policy-makers of what many of us have known for years: we need comprehensive legislation to ensure that condoms are not criminalized for sex workers, trafficking victims, youth in the sex trade, and anyone profiled as such by law enforcement.

While there is seldom disagreement on the importance of condom access, many are simply unaware of the current practice where law enforcement confiscates condoms as evidence of prostitution-related offenses. A recent PROS Network report found nearly 50% of respondents involved in the sex trade were victims of police confiscating, damaging, or destroying their condoms, and nearly 46% did not carry condoms at some point out of fear of the police.Condoms are taken out of the hands of those for whom they serve as a vital personal and public health tool and left to rot in evidence lockers, since they are rarely actually introduced at trial.

Still, the evidence ban is limited, and there remains much work to be done to ensure access to condoms for all.

With Governor Cuomo's monumental commitment to end AIDS in New York State by 2020, we expected decisive action to address HIV prevalence in communities impacted by the epidemic. What we saw instead was rhetoric without substance. The provision put forth by the governor is a partial ban that covers only two of almost twenty prostitution- and trafficking-related offenses. There is thus only a slim chance that this will have a significant impact on how the practice is executed on the ground. Law enforcement will continue to confiscate condoms, claiming them as evidence of one or more of the many offenses that are left out of the ban. Fear and confusion about whether and how condoms can be used against those carrying them will continue.

Possibly the most concerning aspect of this limited ban is that victims of sex trafficking remain excluded.

The exclusion of trafficking-related offenses creates a perverse incentive for traffickers to withhold condoms from the people they exploit to avoid prosecution, compromising the safety and dignity of the people they victimize. As recently stated by Florrie Burke, recipient of the inaugural Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Sex Trafficking in Persons, "Policymakers shouldn't leave trafficking victims out of the solution. Their lives depend on it."

The good news is that there is widespread support for prioritizing the crisis of sex trafficking and the end of AIDS in New York State, both across party lines and at all levels of governance. Momentum is on our side and the solution is clear: the governor and the Legislature should get back to work on this issue and pass a bill (A.4463A/S.1018) to end the criminalization of condoms in New York State. The lives of some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers depend on it.

by Anna Saini and Bianey Garcia

Saini is the Statewide Community Organizer with Voices of Community Activists and Leaders – New York (VOCAL-NY).

García is an LGBTQ Justice Project Organizer at Make the Road New York. Both are members of the Access to Condoms Coalition, which is composed of over 100 organizations, including organizations that together serve the majority of New York's trafficking victims.

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Time for City to Overhaul Drug Strategy

johnson flyer

Council Member Corey Johnson (photo: William Alatriste)

On Thursday, April 16, City Council Member Corey Johnson introduced legislation to create an Office of Drug Strategy to oversee New York City's myriad and sometimes contradictory approaches to the problems associated with drug use. This new office could play an important role in coordinating dozens of agencies that deal with relevant issues. Moreover, it could move the city away from a primarily punitive approach to drugs and toward one based on research and best practices - increasing the health and safety of individuals and communities while saving the city money.

Despite decades of a relentless War on Drugs, drugs are cheaper, of higher quality, and more easily available than ever. While concerted police action has helped remove much of the most visible drug dealing, drugs are widely available to anyone who wants them. Surveys indicate that high school students have almost universal access to drugs – though most choose not to use them. And relying on police and prisons to try to stomp out drug use has been a failure for people who use drugs and their families.

In recent years deaths from heroin overdoses have increased by 100%, killing more people than homicides. Too often people experiencing drug use problems are given few options. Existing voluntary drug treatment programs are overwhelmed by demand. Even those with good insurance have difficulty accessing high quality care. And stigma is widespread, in part because we continue to criminalize people who use drugs

The criminalization of drug users and dealers has fallen primarily on communities of color. In New York State 90 percent of those incarcerated on drug charges are black and Latino; similarly, about 85 percent of those arrested or ticketed for marijuana in New York City are people of color—despite the fact the drug use rates are similar across racial groups. This suggests that drug enforcement looks different in white communities than it does in communities of color. Police claim that this is because it is low-income communities of color that request their help. But this ignores the fact that for decades these communities have also pleaded without success for the jobs and health care services that would be more effective in reducing the illegal drug trade in their neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, large-scale drug trafficking continues without interruption because almost all of the law enforcement focus is on low level street dealing. Even when a higher level dealer is arrested, it merely results in a shifting of the players with no measurable effect on the basic functioning of the illegal drug trade.

New York City has already taken important steps to change course. Stop-and-frisk policing has been curtailed. Radically fewer people are being arrested for low-level marijuana offenses after a new policy adopted by the de Blasio administration last fall (though, troublingly, people of color remain the overwhelming targets of the thousands of arrests that still happen). And the city is developing new behavioral and mental health initiatives that prioritize health and social assistance instead of incarceration for people struggling with substance use or mental illness.

Increasingly, police officials themselves are speaking out. Houston Police Chief Charles McLelland has called the War on Drugs a "miserable failure." Recent books by former Baltimore police officer turned John Jay College professor Peter Moskos and former Seattle Chief of Police Norm Stamper have outlined in detail the utter futility of controlling drugs through traditional policing.

The new New York City Office of Drug Strategy would be tasked with bringing together numerous local agencies – from the health department to the police, homeless services, welfare, and more – to assess existing approaches and develop new ones based on systematic evaluation of what works to make individuals and communities healthier and safer. The office would produce annual progress reports and work closely with an advisory board made up of public officials, academic experts, service providers, and people with personal experience of drug use.

Council Member Johnson's bill makes clear that this new office would adopt a harm reduction approach to protecting health and public safety with the goal of reducing the morbidity, mortality, and crime, as well as inequities, stemming from past or current policies. This means that part of the office's work will be to overcome the negative effects of criminalization in poor communities of color, which too often drive people away from education and opportunity and toward violence, criminality, and prison.

Individuals, families, and communities need help dealing with very real problems stemming from drug use. It's time that the city takes seriously the need for a broad range of strategies based on research and experience. We know that these harms can be addressed if we have the political will and resources. A new Office of Drug Strategy could go a long way toward generating both.

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.

Matt Curtis is Policy Director at VOCAL New York.

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New York City's Recovery Finally Starts Generating Wage Gains

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Comptroller Scott Stringer pushes a $15 minimum wage (photo: @scottmstringer)

After years of wage and family income declines since the 2008-09 recession, several signs are emerging of real wage growth in New York City, according to a new report from the Fiscal Policy Institute. The three major government economic data sets all point to fairly widespread and firmly-established wage growth beginning in 2014.

-Average private hourly earnings increased 3.3% for the six months to February 2015 vs. the same period a year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is twice the annual average 1.6% gain from 2009 to 2013.

-Average private wages increased 3.4% in 2014, according to New York Labor Department wage data, compared to a 2.3% gain 2009-13. Average government wages rebounded even more, up 3.7% in 2014 compared a 1.5% annual gain 2009-13.

-While wage gains were greater for high-wage workers in 2014, low- and moderate-wage workers also saw improved wages in 2014 compared to the 2009-2013 period.

The wage trend is clearly up over the past year, but average wages for the typical New York City worker are still below where they were before the recession. Inflation-adjusted average annual wages were 2.1 percent lower in 2014 than in 2007 for private non-financial workers.

Still, the recent wage trend is decidedly moving upward. Why is this recovery finally starting to generate wage gains after so many years of stagnant or declining wages and incomes? Rising labor demand and falling unemployment are key factors.

-The city's job growth continued strong in 2014 for a fifth consecutive year with a greater share of job growth in middle- and high-wage jobs than earlier in the recovery; and

-Unemployment fell more sharply in 2014 than in prior years.

Employers responded by raising wages in many sectors of the local economy. In addition, policy choices played an important role.

-Two state minimum wage increases have lifted the wage floor by 20 percent since 2013;

-2014 saw a flurry of union contract settlements raising wages for over 300,000 workers who had labored for several years under expired contracts. Also, 70,000 1199 SEIU members working at private hospitals received 3 percent wage increases, as did 30,000 32BJ SEIU building service workers in residential buildings.

As long as the economy continues its moderate growth pace, average wages should continue to rise 2 to 4 percent a year over the next few years. Most of the settled City labor contracts will provide annual increases through 2017 or 2018.

It is very welcome that the recovery is finally generating real wage gains in New York City. Strong job growth and lower unemployment should create tight enough labor market conditions so that employers need to offer workers better pay. These long overdue wage gains will help hundreds of thousands of families cope with the city's high living costs and will contribute to the sustainability of the recovery by pumping additional consumer spending into neighborhoods across the city. This will help extend the current expansion which is the first one in New York City since the 1960s that has not relied heavily on Wall Street.

Yet, further changes are needed so that prosperity is more broadly shared. Wage gains have been greatest for those who are already better-compensated. Public and private policies need to ensure better results for those lower down the wage spectrum.

Forty-two percent of families, encompassing 2.7 million New Yorkers, have incomes below the level necessary to provide for basic family needs.* Eighty-three percent of the families below the self-sufficiency standard have one or more workers. Clearly, many workers just are not making wages adequate to sustain their families without having to turn to government for assistance. Government assistance is essential and should be available to aid families in need. But, wages for hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers continue to fall short in allowing them to provide for their families.

Additional policy actions will be needed to make sure that lower-wage workers see meaningful wage gains. For example, the sector that pays the lowest average wages is Social Assistance, largely comprised of nonprofit organizations providing social services under contract to government. City government has a responsibility to fund wage increases in the Social Assistance sector where half of the workforce that is predominantly women of color earn less than $15 an hour.

In addition, Albany should follow the lead of a growing number of other states that are raising minimum wages above $10 an hour. A target of $15 an hour may seem like a lot compared to current minimum wage levels ($7.25 federal, $8.75 New York State). On an annual basis $15 an hour comes to about $31,000—roughly the supplemental poverty measure for a 4-person family as estimated by the City's poverty research office, the Center for Economic Opportunity.

For wage gains to continue, it is important that the Federal Reserve keep interest rates low enough to not choke off economic growth, and with it, the long-delayed promise of rising living standards for millions of New Yorkers.

by James Parrott, Fiscal Policy Institute, Deputy Director and Chief Economist

*Diana M. Pearce, Overlooked and Undercounted, The Struggle to Make Ends Meet in New York City, Prepared for the Women's Center for Education and Career Advancement with support from The United Way of New York City, The New York Community Trust, and City Harvest, December 2014. Seventy-eight percent of households with inadequate incomes are headed by a person of color.

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Fight for 15: Raising the Minimum Wage Would Drastically Reduce Poverty

fight for 15

The author amid a sea of fellow ralliers



Michelle Jackson is the Associate Director & General Counsel for the Human Services Council

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Brooklyn Box Browns

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Civil War commemoration in Brooklyn (photo: The Fourteenth Brooklyn Society)

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Confederacy's final, April 9, 1865 surrender at Appomattox—an occasstion that will be celebrated widely. It also provides a reminder of some of the darkest days in New York City's history, where at the time of that surrenden, the scars had not yet healed from the bloodshed of two years prior.

The Draft Riots of July 1863 indeed remain one of the most frightening episodes in the city's history. The Brooklyn Daily Times called the first night a "demoniac Carnival of Riot, Murder and Conflagration." And three more days of terror were yet to come.

Those of us who teach and study the era typically see it as the low point in the city's Irish-black relations. Yet the narrative becomes slightly more upbeat when viewed from across the East River, in Brooklyn.

The basic storyline of the riots remains that struggling immigrants from the Emerald Isle had every right to be angry that rich New Yorkers, many of whom profited handsomely from the war, could buy their way out of the draft (for $300). But when the mobs burned down the Colored Orphanage Asylum in Midtown, the deranged contempt many Irish held toward black people was plainly evident.

Yet while madness prevailed in Manhattan, the city of Brooklyn was comparatively a citadel of order. A mix of federal troops, police (many of them Irish), and armed militias guarded armories in Fort Greene and Brooklyn Heights. And while Greenpoint police placed a cannon in front of the ferry terminal, German immigrants made Turner Hall in Williamsburg a safe haven for all blacks seeking refuge from violence.

Both of Brooklyn's daily papers, the Daily Eagle and the Daily Times, provided a steady stream of reports about how the conflict played out on both sides of the river. But as seen in the description quoted above, the Times was the far more passionate observer.

That difference stemmed from the allegiances of the two papers. The Eagle was an organ of the Copperhead (or Peace) Democrats, which supported the Confederacy; the Times was aligned with the War Democrats, who advocated defeat of the Confederate insurrection but did not oppose slavery.
Brooklyn, though a haven for abolitionists led by Henry Ward Beecher, was run by a War Democrat, Mayor Martin Kalbfleisch, a chemical magnate from Bushwick. As mayor during the Riots, Kalbfleisch sought to organize Brooklyn's defenses; as congressman representing the area two years later, he voted against the 13th Amendment. Just like Manhattan, Brooklyn's economic ties to the South shaped its politics.

As the Riots broke out, the Eagle squarely blamed Lincoln and the draft law, while the Times put the onus on the "rebel-sympathizing element" in the city, which whipped the city's working class into a frenzy of "domestic revolution." Copperhead politicians and newspapers, the Times insisted, were responsible for igniting the fire in Manhattan.

For good reason, Brooklyn's black population also felt threatened. There were accounts of three black men being thrown into the East River in Greenpoint, by culprits "wild with enthusiasm." It's not clear whether the assailants were Irish, but we can tell that some were working-class (wearing "red flannel shirts and overalls") while others a notch above ("dressed in full suits"). Wherever black people lived, whether on Warren Street in Gowanus or in Weeksville, rumors of potential mob violence abounded.
Amidst the hysteria, many took bold action—and the Times' accounts show that even during this most senseless outbreak of racial conflagration, some members of the city's Irish community stood tall.

In a short entry headlined as a "Praiseworthy Case," the paper reported that an "Irishman" in Greenpoint came upon a group of "wicked and malicious boys" beating and stoning a black teenager. The Irishman rescued the young man, carrying him away to safety "while the boys hooted at (the Irishman) and yelled after him that he would suffer" for his actions.

Even more dramatic is the entry dubbed "More Box Browns." In his new book, Gateway to Freedom: A Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, Eric Foner tells the story of Henry "Box" Brown, who traveled in a wooden crate from Virginia to Philadelphia in 1849.

On July 17, 1863, recapping the third day of the Draft Riots, the Daily Times reported a story about the original Brown's local successors:

We understand that two inoffensive colored men were yesterday enabled by the following stratagem to flee from the inhospitable streets of New York and arrive safely in Williamsburgh: One was stowed in a molasses hogshead and the other in a large box—both marked 'this side up with care'—in which manner they were carefully and promptly forwarded by express. We further learn that these two men are indebted to the connivance of two young Irish women, fellow servants, for originating and consummating this clever trick. This ruse has before this been successfully adopted by the victims of slavery, but who would have supposed that innocent and unoffending creatures would be forced to thus flee from a great metropolis, in which perhaps they were born, to avoid death at the hands of mob? After all, does the world move?

A pair of anecdotes about valor amidst savagery by no means rewrites the story of the Irish role in the Draft Riots, nor does it alter the fact that both Manhattan and Brooklyn were dangerous places for African Americans during the Civil War era. Indeed, as we commemorate the end of the Confederacy, Foner's book reminds us that there was plenty of pro-South sentiment here in the North's leading city.

But these tales of courage and sacrifice on the part of everyday Irish men and women nonetheless serve as a reminder that even during the worst moments of senseless racial antagonism, humanity does survive.

Theodore Hamm (@HammerDaily) is chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph's College in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.