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Squadron Departure Spotlights Importance of County Committee


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Former state Sen. Daniel Squadron (photo: @DanielSquadron)


Since Daniel Squadron announced his resignation from the New York State Senate last week, there has been a lot of conversation about “County Committee.” The vacancy in Squadron’s seat will be filled in a special election in November, and state law requires that the Democratic nominee for the seat be selected by the Democratic Party, as opposed to being decided in a primary election.

This means that, in all likelihood, the next State Senator for the 26th District, which includes parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan, will be chosen by a group of fewer than 500 people, since the Democratic nominee is so heavily favored in a general election.

This situation has a lot of people asking, “wait, what is the county committee and why do they get to decide?”

Each Election District in Manhattan (about one city block) elects two to four county committee members. These members are unpaid, political party posts, and have no official government role. They are expected to attend one meeting every two years to elect the County Party Chair and other leadership positions. Beyond this one biennial meeting, county committee members are generally only called upon when there is a vacancy.

In 2011, Assembly Member Jonathan Bing resigned from the State Assembly to take a job within the Cuomo administration. A special election was called and the County Committee members from the 73rd Assembly District were convened to choose the Democratic nominee. Dan Quart was selected, and he went on to win the special election with 63 percent of the vote.

More recently, Bill Perkins' victory in a City Council special election created a vacancy in the State Senate, which was filled by Brian Benjamin, who won the Democratic nomination by virtue of a county committee vote.

Adding to the confusion over county committee is that each county committee seat does not hold equal weight. The value of a county committee seat is determined by a formula based on how well the Democratic candidate for Governor performed in that particular election district. You may want to read that bit of random-seeming trivia one more time -- and think about how that weighted system can then affect the election of new state senators and Assembly members.

If this whole process seems onerous and confusing, that's because it is. There is no question that it benefits insiders and folks who have learned how to work the system. But it is the process we currently have, and the one in which we need to work to ensure that we elect the best candidates (while we also work to change election laws to make them more small-d democratic).

This year, the Four Freedoms Democratic Club, of which I am a member, aggressively recruited local Democrats to run for New York (Manhattan) County Committee. We reached out to community activists, local Indivisible chapters, and longtime Democratic club members. Our pitch was simple: if you’re frustrated with politics, or with the Democratic Party, then the best way to create change is at the grassroots level.

Anyone who is a registered Democrat in Manhattan can run for New York County Committee. To get on the ballot you simply need to collect signatures: five percent of the active registered Democrats in that particular election district, or anywhere from 15 to 50 signatures. This year, in Manhattan alone, there are over 40 contested county committee races, which means voters will have the chance to decide who represents them to the New York County Party.

There are those who believe it’s time to do away county committee votes for party nominees for state level seats, perhaps by shifting to the New York City system, which requires non-partisan special elections to fill vacancies. While that type of system seems preferable in theory, these types of special elections have absurdly low turnout. In that Harlem special election in which Bill Perkins was elected, for example, less than 10 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. There is currently a bill in the New York State Senate that would implement such a system, sponsored somewhat ironically by now former Senator Squadron. In our current legislative culture, however, the chances of enacting any kind of meaningful election reform are slim to none.

In the meantime, we must continue to contend with the current system, and that means working to ensure that we are electing good people to county committee. I encourage anyone who is interested in this process to get involved in your local Democratic club. You can find more information about the Manhattan County Committee on the Manhattan Democrats’ website.

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Kim Moscaritolo is a District Leader in the 76th Assembly District on Manhattan’s East Side. On Twitter @kimmosc.

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Special Elections Deserve Democratic Deliberation, Not Backroom Deals


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former State Sen. Dan Squadron, right, with other officials (photo: @LtGovHochulNY)


When Daniel Squadron released his statement resigning as a New York State Senator, many of us were surprised and disappointed to see a legislator committed to progressive reforms go. In particular, Sen. Squadron fought the LLC loophole allowing corporations to exceed donation limits by contributing through multiple entities treated as individuals, and Squadron cited the dysfunction of Albany as one cause for his decision to step down.

With a district that spans the Brooklyn waterfront and lower Manhattan, the voters who elected a reformer deserve a fair, transparent process for selecting his successor. As Squadron himself has acknowledged, that may very well not transpire.

What happens now?
Because 2017 is not a state election year, a special election will have to be called. Squadron stated that he timed his announcement with the intention the seat being filled, and thereby ensuring district representation, as soon as possible. Governor Cuomo will need to set the date for the special election, which is anticipated to be the same as the general election on November 7.

State election law states that “[p]arty nominations for an office to be filled at a special election shall be made in the manner prescribed by the rules of the Party.”

The rules of the State Democratic Party provide for a system of filling vacancies in political subdivisions (such as Assembly or Senate districts) through election by members of the county committee representing that area. County committee members from that particular political subdivision (such as Senate or Assembly district) come together and vote, in accordance with the county party rules, on a replacement candidate for a special election. The candidate elected by the Democratic county committee then appears on the ballot as the Democratic nominee in the special election.

In Manhattan earlier this year, for instance, the party used the New York County Committee to select the nominee to fill the State Senate seat vacated by Bill Perkins, with a special election held in May that saw Sen. Brian Benjamin elected.

This is one of the few substantive powers that county committee members are empowered to exercise. County committee members, in Kings County (Brooklyn) especially, are afforded few other meaningful roles, and quite often act as a rubber stamp for the party leaders. It is the closest to democracy that we have for special elections, especially since county committee seats are open to any Party member who can collect the necessary petition signatures.

However, when a vacancy occurs in a political subdivision that spans more than one county, such as Squadron’s Senate District 26, the rules of the Democratic Party of New York State permit the chairs of the respective county committees to select the candidate who will appear on the special election ballot. Though Frank Seddio and Keith Wright are the party bosses for Brooklyn and Manhattan, respectively, the county committee chairs are actually Charles Ragusa for Kings County and Nico Minerva for New York County.

So what?
There are several problems with this system. Two Democratic Party insiders will alone choose who will be the Democratic nominee for this State Senate seat in the general election this year. There will be no primaries.

Because Senate District 26 is vastly Democratic, the nomination process will likely decide who the future State Senator will be. Once elected, on average across the state, two-thirds of incumbents don’t have challengers in their party primaries -- meaning that the nominee is likely to be State Senator for quite a while (there are no term limits in the state Legislature). In other words, two people have the power to pick a Democratic candidate who could stay in office the rest of their life.

The county chairs are under no obligation to state their criteria or rationale for selecting a candidate, nor are they required to consider the opinion of voters or even county committee members. Doing as little as is required would be not transparent to voters and not fair to candidates, and it would also further reduce the power of rank-and-file Democratic county committee members to influence who represents them and their neighbors. This would be disempowering to county committee members who would be stripped of the one important role they would otherwise have.

Whomever is chosen for the Senate position will essentially be handed a seat for as long as they would like to keep it, or, as Squadron decided, they are tired of dealing with the inaction and corruption of Albany and move on to greener pastures.

Citizens deserve to have a say in who represents them in government, lest we want to cast away our democratic principles.

What should the process be?
In his letter to the party leaders, Squadron called on Seddio and Wright to permit the county committee members from both New York (Manhattan) and Kings (Brooklyn) Counties to come together to pick the candidate, and we at New Kings Democrats echo this call. County party leaders have the ethical responsibility to conduct the process with a commitment to transparency and inclusion.

The county committee chairs should defer their votes to the county committee members in a meeting open to the general public to observe.

The parties involved should disclose the weighting of each county committee member’s vote in an accessible and timely manner to ensure that the vote is in compliance with State Election Law. The parties should be diligent and timely in all of their notifications regarding this meeting, including by taking steps to notify committee members by using multiple means of communication (snail mail and email, if not phone calls as well) and identifying the candidates under consideration.

The parties should also work to ensure that the people living in Senate District 26 are aware of the chance to vote in an even more important general election in November. Allowing the party leaders to handpick a candidate with no public participation or communication would be unacceptable.

This instance also impels us to consider whether the rules of the game need to be changed. Reformers from across the state are paying closer attention to Democratic Party rules -- and realizing they are not as democratic as they ought to be.

Just two weeks ago, New Kings Democrats and fellow Brooklyn reform clubs Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, Southern Brooklyn Democrats, and Prospect Heights Democrats for Reform were able to get the Democratic Party of Kings County to pass some key reforms. For instance, the Party may no longer endorse or support a candidate who has been convicted of a felony related to corruption or malfeasance in public office or their party position. Modest changes were also made to the notorious proxy system, which enables the party boss to hold undue power in the county committee, by making it easier for county committee members to designate their proxies to someone else by filling in a blank space following the executive committee chair’s name.

Reformers outside New York City are organizing as well. Ulster County Democratic State Committeewoman Kelleigh McKenzie introduced a set of reforms to the State Democratic Party. Two of those reforms were passed a few weeks ago, and make some much-needed steps toward improving communication with and cultivating participation from Democratic State Committee members.

While both sets of reformers have proposals that did not pass or have not passed yet, the openness of establishment Democrats to accept criticism and work together to form a more functional and democratic Democratic Party is critical at this moment in time.

At a minimum, we hope that the chairs of both relevant counties agree to convene their county committee members within Squadron’s district and fairly endorse a candidate. This is in the best interest of democracy, and of the Democratic Party. We can’t cry foul at the Republican Party’s attempt to forgo democratic processes across the country, and be caught doing the same here in New York.

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Brandon West and Anusha Venkataraman are on the executive committee of New Kings Democrats, a progressive Democratic club in Brooklyn. On Twitter at @NewKingsDems.

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Hiram Monserrate Has No Place in Elected Office


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Rep. Velázquez, the author, rallying for Moya for Council (photo: @ydanis)


Elections send messages.

You don't have to look any farther than the victory of Donald Trump to see that electing a racist, misogynistic demagogue helps to normalize abhorrent behaviors in the eyes of some Americans. That may be why, as the Southern Poverty Law Center reports, our country saw 1,094 bias incidents in the first 34 days after the November election.

If the president advocates for violence against opponents and unabashedly sexualizes and demeans women, then how can we effectively combat these dangerous practices?

The same can be said for our local elections. While there is far less media coverage of who runs for our local city and state offices, the implications are arguably just as great. Your local City Council member or state senator is often your most important local advocate. They work to bring resources to your district and manage problems that arise -- and they host park cleanups, sponsors holiday toy giveaways, and hand out merit certificates at your child's local school.

In fact, for many of our youngest New Yorkers, these most local elected officials are the first and most enduring images of a politician that they will have in their lives.

That's why I refuse to stand by and watch as corrupt former official Hiram Monserrate plots his reentry into New York politics with a run for the 21st City Council District in Queens.

For those who don't know, Hiram Monserrate is a former Council member and state senator who was ejected from the Legislature for slashing his fiancée in the face and, to cover his actions, drove her over an hour to the hospital avoiding Elmhurst Hospital only blocks away. Additionally, in 2012 Monserrate was sentenced in federal prison for stealing tens of thousands of dollars in public funds.

He has a history of violent outbursts and altercations that should immediately disqualify him from office. If that isn't enough, he also helped orchestrate the State Senate coup that handed power over to Republicans and doomed countless pieces of truly progressive legislation from becoming law, from the Dream Act to enshrining the protections of Roe v. Wade into New York law.

Thankfully, there is another choice in this election: State Assembly Member Francisco Moya.

I am proud to support Francisco for City Council. Not only have I known Francisco since he was a staffer in my Congressional office, but I have had the chance to watch him grow into a leader on countless issues in Albany.

Where Hiram Monserrate's collusion set our progressive goals back, Francisco Moya moved them all the more forward. Francisco sponsored and championed the Dream Act, so that all New York students, regardless of immigration status, could have access to affordable higher education. He stood up to the real estate industry to secure needed affordable housing for our city. Most of all, he fought time and again for policies like paid family leave and $15 minimum wage that strengthen families and ensure that they have the resources to lead healthier, more prosperous lives.

This is why countless unions, advocacy groups, and elected officials at all levels of government have joined me in supporting Francisco's candidacy. I know that they share my belief in Francisco's ability to bring his unparalleled leadership to City Hall, just as I know that they are deeply afraid of what Hiram Monserrate would do in that same Council seat.

Let's be clear: Monserrate comes nowhere near Moya in terms of community supporters, positive accomplishments, or campaign funds raised. His electoral track record is even worse. Since 2010, Monserrate lost three straight elections and hasn't won a Democratic primary since 2005. In this sense, Moya has the clear advantage going into the September 12 vote, but nothing can be taken for granted.

We shouldn't forget that many people wrote off Donald Trump. It was assumed that a thrice-married, fraud-tainted reality star with a trail of sexual assault accusations would never be president, and yet here we are. We must not be this complacent again in the face of a corrupt abuser like Hiram Monserrate with a criminal record looking to secure a prestigious job in city government.

Electing Hiram Monserrate would send the message that it’s OK to steal taxpayer money. Electing Hiram Monserrate would send the message that abusing your partner is OK and can be explained away by a momentary lapse in judgement. This is deeply troubling, especially as so many struggle with the wounds of domestic abuse and sexual assault.

After all, this is New York and the world is watching. Our city overwhelming rejected Trump and his politics of hate and abuse at the ballot box. Even today, we continue to send the message that our city is place of diversity, tolerance and equality. Will the voters of the 21st City Council District send the message that Hiram Monserrate doesn't reflect our values, as they did with Trump? I certainly hope so.

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Rep. Nydia Velázquez represents New York’s 7th Congressional District, which includes parts of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. On Twitter @ReElectNydia.

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Engaging the Private Rental Sector to Address Homelessness


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Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Steve Banks participate in homeless outreach (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


The recent 40 percent increase in New York City street homelessness per the 2017 HOPE Count has brought much deserved attention to bringing those street homeless inside. It’s also important to assess efforts to permanently house those street homeless once they come inside.

According to data from the Mayor’s Management Report, single homeless adults are increasingly bottlenecking in city shelters, and when they are housed, they too often return to shelter within a year. Since fiscal year 1999 (FY99), a single homeless adult’s shelter stay has more than tripled from 108 days to 355 days in fiscal year 2016. Also, since fiscal year 2001, nearly one in five adults -- 17.2 percent in FY01 to 18.9 percent in FY16 - return to shelter within a year of permanent housing placement.

This indicates a lack of permanent housing exit options as well as homeless adults struggling to maintain tenancy once housed. To some extent, better exit options and sustained tenancies are on the horizon. Over the next 15 years, New York State and City will create 35,000 units of much needed supportive housing. This alone will not address these persistent issues though. Not all homeless adults will need supportive housing or be eligible.

Given these figures, would it not be better to engage an existing housing supply -- the private rental sector -- so it better fits the purpose of housing the homeless? While the private rental sector often causes homelessness, it may be part of the solution, particularly in the low-vacancy, high cost market of New York City.

One place to look for guidance is the United Kingdom. They share similarities regarding causes of homelessness including inadequate welfare housing benefits, rent increases outpacing wage growth, and a diminishing supply of public or social housing. Individuals in both countries also encounter similar barriers to renting. These include unstable rental histories, unaffordable rent and a lack of affordable housing as well as landlord imposed barriers -- refusal to rent to those enrolled in a government program, charging increased access costs to rent, and biases about renting to the homeless.

Organizations in the UK, however, use these barriers as opportunities to engage the private rental sector so it better fits the purpose of housing the homeless. One example is Crisis, a 50-year old homeless charity operating in England, Wales and Scotland. It has worked since 1997 to make the private rental sector a viable housing option. In April, through the Transatlantic Practice Exchange, I spent three weeks at Crisis with its Edinburgh and London housing teams, learning about its private rental sector work.

Based on my learning, I have four recommendations for City homelessness regarding exit options and tenancy sustainment.

1) Offer Tenancy Support to Those in Shelters, Alternatives to Shelters and Supportive Housing
Crisis addresses landlord barriers to renting by working directly with the homeless on landlord concerns before and during tenancy. This helps prepare individuals to live on their own and maintain a tenancy. As Crisis’ Private Renting Program Manager Bridget Young stated, “What’s good for the tenant is good for the landlord.”

At Crisis, potential members attend a housing induction to acquaint them with housing services. This two-hour group session covers topics such as an individual’s housing priorities and compromises. For example, one man came into the group set on living in a certain London borough but left understanding he would need to be flexible in his housing search. I was impressed with the early candid conversations such as these to acquaint individuals with the realities of the tight London rental market and the need to adjust housing expectations. After induction, members attend a Mini Renting Ready workshop. This addresses how to search for housing, the type of housing to search for and the rent one can afford. After that, members work with a housing coach and attend a property searching club. Crisis staff also support tenants during tenancy. This can include offering an accredited “Renting Ready” course with topics such as housing rights, money management and communicating with roommates and landlords, or it may involve aftercare from housing coaches for up to 12 months after moving in.

Tenancy training enhances exit options and tenancy sustainment. It facilitates an individual’s transition to housing, helping address barriers that prevent them from moving into a home and maintaining it. According to staff at Crisis and other UK housing and support agencies, landlords appreciate tenancy training and are more inclined to offer tenancies to someone who has engaged in it. Tenancy training also addresses the informational inequities among those unstably housed, equipping them with information they lack such as their housing rights. A more informed tenant would know about grounds for eviction and about their right to counsel in housing court, and thus contest an eviction instead of entering shelter.

New York City should offer tenancy training to those in the homeless services system and supportive housing. Similar to Crisis’ work, it could include early conversations with those individuals about housing as well as housing education. It may be particularly useful for those most estranged from housing - chronically homeless adults and those exiting the criminal justice system - as well as those lacking housing experience such as homeless youth and those exiting foster care. The city could pilot a program involving these groups, assessing its impact by tracking tenancy length and return to permanent housing.

2) Match Individuals in Transitional Housing as Roommates Prior to Moving into Shared Permanent Housing, and Provide Shared Housing Support
Another type of tenancy support is roommate matching. This consists of matching individuals in transitional housing with their shared permanent housing roommate prior to moving, and supporting sharers before and during shared housing. An example is Scottish provider Trust in Fife’s Tenancy Share, a transitional housing program helping those under the age of 35 to move into shared housing. Before sharers move, they’re matched with their roommates via a matching assessment, discussions and meetings. Fife transitional housing staff also support sharers before, during and after they move.

Matching attempts to improve shared rental housing, which is a byproduct of the unaffordable housing market for homeless single adults. It prepares individuals so they are not blindly moving into living with strangers. It also gives tenants a support system during and after their transition. This enhances tenancy sustainment. From 2013-16, Tenancy Share created 45 shared tenancies with a six-month tenancy sustainment rate of 90 percent.

New York City should implement a pilot akin to Tenancy Share in which drop-in centers, Safe Haven or shelter providers would match shared housing roommates as well as provide support during the transition to and tenancy in shared housing. Those ripe for a pilot are youth aging out of foster care and homeless youth in drop-in centers or shelters. Matching would provide these individuals with support, particularly valuable given their diminished support systems. The housing itself would equip them with independent living skills and build rental histories.

3) Develop a Housing Pilot Program for Single Adults Exiting Transitional Housing in Need of Tenancy Support
Crisis also works to strengthen the private rental sector as a viable housing option for the homeless by funding and advising Help-to-Rent projects. Help-to-Rents support tenants and landlords during tenancy. An example is Trust in Fife’s Fife Keyfund. Fife negotiates a one-month written guarantee, instead of a cash deposit, with the landlord, who may claim it in case of property damage. Their staff maintain regular contact with tenants, visiting them and working with them to save towards the deposit. They also serve as a point of contact for landlords to resolve tenancy issues.

Tenants in Help-to-Rents sustain their tenancies. From 2014-15, Fife Keyfund created 318 tenancies with an 85 percent tenancy sustainment rate. Help-to-Rents also entice landlords to rent to those homeless, even at lower rents. Fife staff stated that landlords buy into their housing program because they know Fife provides support. According to Stephen Green, the Board Chair of the UK housing and support provider Nomad Opening Doors , even when landlords leave for the commercial market, they return as they find it easier to rent to Help-to-Rents.

New York City should develop a housing pilot for single adults in transitional housing exiting to permanent housing in need of tenancy support. It could be modeled after Fife Keyfund and the city’s scattered-site housing program. The pilot for adults with more stable rental histories would mirror Fife Keyfund where the temporary housing provider negotiates a lease for the client. The pilot for those with unstable rental histories would mirror the city’s scattered-site housing with the transitional housing provider renting units from private rental sector landlords and subletting them to clients. Ideally, after the first year, the individual would enter into a lease with the landlord instead of subletting. For each pilot, the transitional housing provider would be the named contact for the landlord to address tenancy issues. Keeping the housing provider as the service contact provides continuity for the tenant and ensures the landlord has contact with staff most familiar with the individual’s housing.

4) Advocates and Electeds Should Engage Landlords in Homeless Advocacy
Crisis recognizes its common interest with landlords in resolving homelessness issues and engages them in policy recommendations and campaigns to address issues. An example is its work to improve homelessness prevention for single adults. Prior to the UK Parliament’s passage of the Homeless Reduction Act earlier this year, local authorities often reneged on their duty to advise and assist adults coming to them with an eviction notice. Crisis recommended statutorily obligating authorities to assist individuals earlier in the process. This would prevent evictions and address landlord concerns about authorities returning tenants to their property without assistance until bailiffs evict them. Crisis then engaged landlords in advocacy to adopt the recommendations. It reached out to landlord associations and membership groups. It also invited landlords to lobby Parliament by signing an online petition and directly speaking with Members of Parliament.

New York homeless advocates and elected officials should recognize their common interests with landlords and engage them in advocacy. An issue ripe for this is the inadequate state shelter allowance. Just like English landlords benefit from obligating authorities to assist tenants earlier in eviction, New York landlords benefit from a higher shelter allowance. It addresses their reservations about renting to those homeless due to a shelter allowance inadequate to pay rent.

Encouragingly, New York City’s largest landlord group, the Rent Stabilization Association, has endorsed the Home Stability Support bill proposed by Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi to create a state subsidy to supplement the shelter allowance. Advocates and elected officials should capitalize on this and use the opportunity to bring other landlords and State legislators on board. Ending homelessness requires various sectors working together.

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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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Don’t Make It Harder for Minority-Owned Businesses in the Construction Industry


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Street redesign project in Brooklyn (photo:Ed Reed/Mayor's Office Flickr)


After decades of work overcoming discrimination in the construction industry, minority- and women-owned businesses (M/WBEs) know that it is still very difficult for them to get a fair shake of opportunities. There is plenty of progress left to be made for black and brown contractors in a field historically dominated by white males. But the City Council is moving ahead with legislation that would turn back the clock on New York’s construction industry and send us back to a time when M/WBEs had virtually no shot at winning contracts. The bill, known as Intro. 1447, pushes a false argument about safety while creating impediments and threatening to undermine hardworking black and brown contractors across our city.

As someone who has spent most of his career working with small, emerging M/WBE contractors to help them access new opportunities, I am shocked and disappointed that our City Council members are not even addressing this issue. They need to hold off on Intro. 1447 and rewrite the bill to ensure it does not have an adverse effect on M/WBEs.

My experience in this field comes from developing programs that bring locally based, minority-owned contractors on to major construction projects – and many of these projects are hoping to meet or exceed specific M/WBE contracting goals. It is clear that the vast majority of M/WBE contractors find it so difficult to enter the industry because they are much smaller than their competitors and do not have the financial resources to cover the required up-front insurance and bonding costs.

One of the main strategies we have employed to help small businesses is to match them with larger contractors so they can at least do a portion of the work. For example, if an M/WBE does not have the financial resources to cover the costs of working on a 20-story residential tower, we can help them get a contract to do work for several floors of the project.

I have seen firsthand that when we afford M/WBE contractors opportunities, they have a very high rate of success and growth. These small business owners take safety and quality seriously, and they show us that they deserve a fair and level playing field.

However, Intro. 1447 would permanently damage M/WBE participation in the construction industry by fundamentally and unfairly changing the rules of the game. The bill would raise the barrier to entry with an arbitrary 59-hour training requirement – nearly six times the current standard – even though much of that proposed training would have nothing to do with safety.

Given what we already know, the results of passing a bill like this are easy to predict. Costs will skyrocket and small M/WBE contractors will no longer be able to afford to work on small parts of a project, let alone the whole thing. When they run out of work opportunities, these M/WBE contractors might just go out of business. Once again, virtually every single construction project in New York City will be overseen entirely by white men.

It does not have to be like this. If the City Council is willing to address the mistakes in this bill and do the right thing, there is no reason why they cannot put together legislation that increases safety while also protecting black and brown business owners. That must happen now.

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Rohan DeFreitas is president of Crescent Consulting, a firm that connects M/WBEs with contracting opportunities in the construction industry.

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The Mayor’s Best Argument on Transit System Funding


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Mayor de Blasio (photo: Edwin J. Torres/ Mayor's Office)


Governor Cuomo’s declaration of a state emergency after the Harlem subway derailment in June offered hope to suffering transit riders because it was an acknowledgement there was a crisis and the Governor was taking responsibility for addressing it.

An emergency declaration in New York law requires an affected agency to develop plans to deal with whatever disaster the Governor has declared. After a review, new MTA Chair Joseph Lhota  proposed to spend an additional $450 million in maintenance programming and $380 million in capital investments to reduce delays and breakdowns. The Governor and Lhota also are seeking half the new money from New York City, reigniting public rancor between the Governor and Mayor de Blasio and raising anew the question of responsibility for the transit system between the State and the City.

Both the State and the City have billions of dollars in reserve funds available now and can afford to make the contributions. Whether de Blasio makes a decision to contribute to the plan or not, an understanding of who is paying for the transit system at this time is essential.

The basic facts are that the City and its suburbs already pay virtually all of the MTA’s costs, either directly or indirectly.

The budget adopted by the MTA for 2017 reports that 57%, more than $4.5 billion, of New York City Transit’s costs are paid by the fares from riders of the subway and bus systems. The next largest amount, about $3.5 billion, came from a group of dedicated taxes which, although imposed by the State, are levied within the 12-county MTA region, and not in the rest of the State.

These dedicated taxes include a payroll tax, a corporate profits tax, a sliver of the sales tax, the New York City real estate transfer tax, and others. The New York City government directly contributes $362 million to New York City Transit, including a required match of a corresponding State subsidy, as well as reimbursements for paratransit, students, and the elderly. New York City Transit also receives a cross-subsidy from excess cash available from the tolls of the Bridge and Tunnel system of $287 million.

The State’s General Fund provides about $356 million, including a contribution to compensate for a cut in 2011 of an unpopular payroll tax enacted within the region during the recession. While these funds derive from the general taxes of the State, a Rockefeller Institute study in 2011 reported that New York City and its suburbs were paying 72% of the State’s tax revenue in 2009, and that study did not reflect the fact that most economic growth in the State has occurred downstate since then.

The bottom line is that this all means that only about 1% of New York City Transit’s operating funds come from outside the MTA region.

All these resources together don’t just fund the operating budget, they also pay for the debt service on the tens of billions of dollars the MTA borrowed to pay for the capital programs of prior years as well as the ongoing borrowing  for the new one. About $1.3 billion a year goes to pay interest on debt associated with New York City Transit from these flows of funds, with another $250 million a year covering New York City Transit-related debt from Bridge and Tunnel toll surpluses.

The New York City government also pays substantial subsidies to other parts of the MTA system.

It provides $460 million a year to MTA Bus, the express bus system taken over by the MTA during the Bloomberg Administration; $58 million for the Staten Island Railway; and $98 million for station maintenance for Long Island Railroad and Metro North facilities that are within the City.

New York City also pays the cost of the New York Transit Police, more than 3,000 police officers who patrol the subways and other mass transit facilities. The Police Department budget is $10 billion a year, meaning the 10% of the police force committed to safety in mass transit costs the City roughly $1 billion a year. This large level of support is barely reflected at all in the MTA or New York City Transit budgets. Embedded within the State and City budgets are payments for interest on bonds issued by State and City government for the benefit of mass transit, with $301 million paid by the City and $180 million by the State, according to a 2015 report by the New York City Comptroller.

Commuter rail system support is comparable to New York City Transit. Fares, excess cash from Bridge and Tunnel tolls, and dedicated tax revenues collected from the suburban counties around the City pay the costs of Metro-North and the Long Island Railroad. The commuter rail systems receive more generous subsidies from Bridge and Tunnel tolls than New York City Transit, about $400 million a year compared to $287 million a year. Long Island Railroad fares contribute only 47% of the costs of that system, compared to 57% for New York City Transit and 59% for Metro-North. Money from the General Fund of the State contributes just a very small portion of the commuter rail budget, just like New York City Transit. The MTA Police patrol the commuter rail system, and the costs are included within the commuter rail system budgets.

Governor Cuomo has said that the State was adding a historic level of funding to the current MTA capital budget, the 2015-19 capital plan. There is but a scintilla of truth to that pronouncement. That is because, of the $8.3 billion claimed to be committed, sources for $7 billion of the contribution have yet to be identified, and the State law providing the support says the State does not have to come up with the $7 billion until the MTA exhausts all its own resources first, with a deadline of 2025 for the State’s $7 billion to be found.

Even when the State finally comes up with the money, it will likely come from the MTA region, either through some form of congestion pricing or a diversion of some current tax receipts from the region. The City’s $2.5 billion promised contribution to the plan, part of a deal with the State, is to be paid on a schedule concurrent with the State’s schedule, and the City’s own budget does not forecast its contribution being paid until after 2019.

If the Mayor wants the public to understand why the City won’t contribute further funds to the MTA, he needs to clearly explain that the City’s residents and businesses already cover the costs.

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

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BQX: An Innovative Solution to a Growing Problem


bqx corridor rendering

(image: BQX rendering via NYC EDC)


Near daily failures in New York City’s transit system this summer have accomplished the seemingly impossible: they’ve sparked a wide-ranging conversation among New Yorkers of all stripes about overdue investments in our existing transit infrastructure, while also highlighting the limited alternatives to our century old subway system.

So how can we improve both with a limited budget? The proposed Brooklyn Queens Connector (BQX) provides a good example of how we can fix today’s transportation problems while planning for the future. A vibrant, sustainable and equitable city must do both.

The Manhattan-centric pattern of our subways was laid over 100 years ago when economic development was largely concentrated in the city’s core. This hub and spoke system is no longer reflective of how New Yorkers live, work, and play in 2017. The Brooklyn-Queens waterfront is one of the fastest growing corridors in New York City, yet there has been no significant investment in its transportation infrastructure, leaving some neighborhoods behind and limiting access to jobs and opportunity.

The proposed BQX is an emissions-free light rail system that will unify the currently fragmented transportation corridor along 14 miles between Astoria and Sunset Park, connecting to various subway lines, bus routes, ferry landings, and Citi Bike stations. It will be able to serve at least 50,000 riders a day, greatly easing the burden on existing transportation infrastructure in the area. The demand for more transportation options along the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront is clear, evidenced by the large crowds lining up to take the newly launched ferry system.

People living on the waterfront who have long faced limited transportation – including over 40,000 residents of the New York City Housing Authority – will have more employment opportunities and easier access to schools and healthcare facilities with the BQX. Local small businesses in these neighborhoods that are currently isolated from the rest of the city will be more accessible, and a new transit line will help attract even more businesses and employers to the waterfront.

But the direct benefits of the BQX to New Yorkers is just one aspect of this smart infrastructure investment. It also provides a model for how we can both fix today’s problems and plan for the future.  

First, because of an innovative financing tool known as “value capture,” the BQX isn’t in competition with laudable transit initiatives like Fair Fares or Bus Rapid Transit. Value capture works like this: based on the fact that access to transportation typically increases property value, funding for the BQX would be derived from the additional value it generates in properties surrounding the transit line over 30 or 40 years. While details of how this value capture mechanism would work are still being studied by city government, the concept is that the largest commercial and residential landlords who will see the greatest increase in their property value as a result of increased access to mass transit would pay additional property taxes on new value that is attributable to the BQX —  a more progressive form of taxation than a sales tax, which many other cities have used to finance public transit. This expectation of new value could be bonded and sold to investors, similar to how the city funded the extension of the 7 train to Hudson Yards.

This is why calls for BQX funding to be used elsewhere are misguided – money used for this project are not being drawn from already existing dollars in the city’s general fund or its critical annual contribution to the MTA because the money does not yet exist and will never exist unless the BQX is built and operates effectively.

Second, much like recent ferry and bikeshare expansion efforts, the BQX is a city-led, owned and controlled transportation project, providing an alternative to the confounding structure of the MTA that has led to quarrels over who is legally responsible for paying for upgrades and repairs of our transit system. And if the BQX is successful, the model could be expanded to other parts of the city.    

The positive impact this project will have on transportation in New York City – as well as its creative funding mechanism – is why the BQX has received strong support from some of our city’s most experienced transit leaders, along with local business leaders and community groups. MTA Chair Joe Lhota sits on the board of directors of the group that I run, Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, as does Jay Walder, who has held roles as CEO of the MTA and Managing Director of Finance and Planning at Transport for London.

Leaders of the Resident Associations from five different NYCHA developments that will benefit from the BQX also sit on our board, and our coalition includes the Regional Plan Association, tech advocacy group Tech:NYC, the Transport Workers Union, and a long list of local small businesses and community groups.

When it comes to transit investment in New York City we need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. We can and should find ways to fix our current system while also expanding transit options where they are needed most. The BQX and its proposed funding model does just that.  

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Ya-Ting Liu is the Executive Director of the advocacy group Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector. On Twitter @yating_liu and @BQXNYC.

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Simple, Big Solutions for Penn’s Problems


ReThinkNYC Penn Station

The original Penn Station was an architectural masterpiece. The most ironic part about removing it in a “monumental act of vandalism,” though, is that as a transit facility the original Penn Station had serious flaws. In fact, the platforms and tracks haven’t been significantly altered in more than a century.

Unfortunately, those flaws are growing more obvious by the day. Narrow, crowded platforms and grossly inadequate stairs and escalators are a constant source of delays, dangerous overcrowding and frustration for commuters. But most importantly, Penn Station is not actually a station for most passengers – it’s a terminal. The difference is not merely semantic; in a terminal, trains must cross each other as they enter and leave, making it far less efficient than a through-running station. Even when this doesn’t cause delays, it severely limits capacity and ensures every train has to travel more slowly in Penn.

Twenty-five years ago, we could tolerate these inefficiencies, but passenger counts from Long Island and New Jersey have skyrocketed. Any major investment plan for Penn Station must be focused on solving the cause of commuters’ misery. Amtrak’s Gateway Program and the new Moynihan Station, if optimized, could do so.

Phase 1 of Gateway would add two new critically-needed tracks between Newark and Penn Station. Phase 2 of Gateway, though, includes a new terminal station—Penn Station South. This would require the demolition of an entire city block at a price tag of $8 billion to build another inefficient terminal, and do nothing to alleviate conditions in the existing station. Those funds are better spent on improving Penn and regional connectivity.

This alternate plan would remove the need for Penn Station South, provide additional economic opportunity for the entire region and the opportunity to invest in projects that create smoother and smarter commutes. Through-running is the key to unlocking the ReThinkNYC vision.   Highlights of that vision include: 

  • First, build new facilities in the Bronx and New Jersey so it is possible to operate Penn Station as a through station. NJ Transit trains could be extended to Queens, the Bronx, and then along existing Long Island Railroad and Metro-North Lines; similarly, Metro-North and LIRR could be extended to New Jersey.
  • Next, widen and lengthen Penn’s existing platforms – and use the 31st Street side of the station for eastbound trains and the 33rd Street side for westbound ones, regardless of final destination. Universal “smart” ticketing between the systems can help erase arbitrary distinctions.
  • This would allow nearly 50% more trains to use the station.        
  • NJ Transit would no longer need to use Sunnyside Yards, making it possible to instead build a major station across the East River that would have access to all of the region’s 26 commuter rail lines, Amtrak, both Penn Station and Grand Central, and seven subway lines. Sunnyside could be the new East Midtown.
  • In Port Morris, the light industrial neighborhood east of the Bruckner Expressway and south of Hunts Point, commuters could catch NJ Transit and Metro-North – and an extended Second Avenue Subway serving the Bronx.
  • An AirTrain under the East River to an expanded LaGuardia Airport would provide a quick, convenient single seat ride for millions.  

New Yorkers once dreamed of, and then built, big projects. Now, in this post-Robert Moses, post-urban renewal era, planners are taught to think “politically” smaller. This approach has prevented us from addressing transportation systemically and holistically. It’s time to think big…again.  

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Jim Venturi is Principal and Founder of ReThink Studio. On Twitter @jimventuri and @RethinkNYCplan.

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Eva Moskowitz’s Privileged ‘Bipartisanship’


Gotham Gazette: Eva Moskowitz

(via @MoskowitzEva)


There's a reason why New Yorkers reject Eva Moskowitz's "bipartisan" defense for her photo ops and meetings with the governing Republican Party in Washington, D.C.. While Ms. Moskowitz touts her registration as a Democrat, her actions are inconsistent with the Democratic Party's position on civil rights and political reform. And, as Democrats across the country resist the Trump administration's disconcerting policies damaging to working and middle class families, Ms. Moskowitz participates in friendly meetings with her allies across the aisle.

It takes a lot of privilege for Ms. Moskowitz to somehow believe that the policies that Democrats and the Resistance across the country represent somehow do not apply to her students. Individuals across the country, including some of the families of Success Academy students, are at marches, town halls, and community rallies challenging Republicans' refusal to support transgender children in court, a deadly American Health Care Act, reduced funding for the U.S. Education Department, including cuts to student loan programs that are undoubtedly resources used by the families of children at Ms. Moskowitz's charter schools.

Ms. Moskowitz fails to disclose that the reason families chide her outreach with Republicans across the aisle is because she and other charter school leaders have a record of working behind the scenes with wealthy donors to directly and continually mislead the public. It was only a couple of years ago that billionaire donor Eli Broad, who just awarded Ms. Moskowitz’s network a $250,000 prize, was exposed as the money behind a secret campaign to charterize half of Los Angeles Unified School District's schools. Meanwhile charter leaders, like Ms. Moskowitz's colleagues in Los Angeles, repeatedly publicly denied those accusations. Similarly, a short distance away from New York City, in Newark, N.J., the public's pessimistic relationship with charter school leaders was justified after they had witnessed state officials and charter school operators move forward with plans to expand the presence of charter schools, despite public opposition.

Ms. Moskowitz has a habit of attacking New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in her demand for more funding and autonomy for her charter schools. However, it seems strange that Ms. Moskowitz repeatedly attacks the mayor, a fellow Democrat, for budgetary reasons yet she doesn't criticize the federal secretary of education, a Republican, who is proposing cuts worth more than $9 billion to national education programs and resources.

While congressional Republicans consider slashing funds to community meal programs and even debate changing how kids get free or reduced lunch, Ms. Moskowitz remains silent. Yet, the charter school CEO has no problem inviting them to her schools for photo ops while bashing Mayor de Blasio, who has challenged charter schools in court for greater transparency and public accountability.

Black organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the N.A.A.C.P.), afters years of internal debate, in October called for a moratorium on charter schools, like the charter network Ms. Moskowitz runs in New York City. In response to the N.A.A.C.P. moratorium and report, Ms. Moskowitz attacked the N.A.A.C.P.’s credibility and authority to speak on education for black children. Despite the fact that Ms. Moskowitz's schools have come under scrutiny for controversial admissions policies and disciplinary practices, which Ms. Moskowitz usually leaves to be resolved by her private consultants and lobbyists.

While Ms. Moskowitz hides behind the cloak of "bipartisanship" to advance her own personal agenda, millions of Democrats across across the country are fighting for our middle class and our children's welfare. And, while Ms. Moskowitz's Success Academy schools serve less than 2% of New York City's 1.1 million students, New York's families would expect her to stand up and speak out for the students she represents. Her students and their families depend on it.

We need bipartisanship in our city halls, state capitals, and in Washington, D.C. now more than ever. Bipartisanship doesn't mean sitting silently and idly as our national leaders fuel bigotry in classrooms, take children’s access to free or reduced school lunch, and strip health care benefits away from kids and their families. It means speaking out and participating in a respectful civil debate that empowers us to resolve the issues. It also means listening when some of our nation’s oldest civil rights organizations call for a public dialogue and a national pause on schools that present a threat to communities’ civil rights.

Ms. Moskowitz can’t hide behind a self-serving and privileged version of bipartisanship.

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Kenneth Campbell is a public affairs consultant and a former Hope Fellow at the Democratic National Committee. On Twitter @KennCampbell.

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Note: this article has been corrected after misidentifying Eli Broad as a Republican. Mr. Broad is a Democrat, according to his office.

Protecting Tenants from Construction Harassment


sts op ed

photo, including three of the authors, via the Progressive Caucus


We’ve seen it in our districts. A new landlord takes ownership of a building and starts a construction project that never finishes in order to evict long-term residents. They may turn off the cooking gas indefinitely; they may even knock out the boiler with no explanation.

For too many New Yorkers, this nightmare is their reality. The stories are plentiful: heat and gas shutoffs in the middle of winter, jackhammering causing cracks in apartment walls, loss of power, and lead dust in the air lasting for months on end. For years, city and borough officials and community advocates have encountered a critical mass of stories like these, detailing the unscrupulous conduct of landlords as well as the insufficient response from the City of New York.

We, as members of the City Council members and its Progressive Caucus, see the writing on the walls: our city needs more protections in place for tenants facing construction harassment.

Understanding the need to strengthen the ability of the Department of Buildings (DOB) to protect tenants from construction as harassment, the grassroots Stand for Tenant Safety Coalition (STS) has partnered with the Progressive Caucus to put forth a package of legislation aimed at achieving just that.

These 12 STS bills, most of which are sponsored by members of the Progressive Caucus, with strong support in the Council, will put in place much tougher penalties against abusive landlords for illegal construction practices and enact preventative measures to help tenants protect their homes.  

The goal is to change the way DOB handles construction harassment so that the agency is empowered to become more proactive with regard to issuing construction permits and facilitating communication among tenants, landlords, and city agencies. Such renewed tenant protections are intended to quicken and fortify the City’s response to construction harassment so vulnerable residents in rapidly changing neighborhoods are able to stay in their homes and communities.

As policymakers, we know that construction harassment by unscrupulous landlords only exacerbates the affordable housing crisis already facing residents of New York City. In recent years, the average rents in some city neighborhoods have risen by 20%; in such neighborhoods especially, unethical landlords can use construction as a way of cashing in on rising rents instead of protecting the existing tenants. Calls the City has been receiving from New Yorkers reflect this; construction-related complaints number in the thousands each year.

Even as preserving and creating affordable housing has remained a focus of both the City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, the myriad loopholes landlords use in existing laws allow the number of rent-regulated apartments to dwindle. With both the cost of living in the city and rent continuing to rise, protecting the health and safety of tenants through legislation is the minimum of what can be done, the least of how this city can maintain a fair and just society. With the city losing affordable housing every year, we cannot afford to ignore any way in which tenants are threatened by eviction from their homes.

As the clock ticks toward the end of the current City Council session, we need the Council to pass this Stand for Tenant Safety package of legislation as soon as possible. The New York City Council just made history by passing the city’s first ever Right to Counsel legislation, which will provide legal assistance to tenants facing eviction in housing court. We urgently need to continue making progress on tenant rights in New York City by strengthening preventative measures that will help keep tenants from facing eviction in the first place.

It is time that the City renew its commitment, through strengthening the enforcement power of the Department of Buildings, to standing up for residents living under adverse conditions and protect our communities from abusive, unethical landlords. As long as economic inequality and hazardous building conditions threaten health and safety, the City must continue to strengthen every person’s opportunity for a livable and affordable place to call home. As progressive City Council members, we hope our colleagues and the de Blasio administration will work together with us to ensure that our city’s most vulnerable tenants are protected.

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Antonio Reynoso, Donovan Richards, Helen Rosenthal & Ben Kallos are all members of the City Council and leaders of its Progressive Caucus. On Twitter @CMReynoso34 & @DRichards13 & @HelenRosenthal & @BenKallos, & @NYCProgressives.

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For 2018, The Center Must Hold


Cuomo NY Dems

Gov. Cuomo rallying to flip NY House seats (photo: NY Democratic Party)


If the national Women’s March was any indication, we are in for a Democratic tidal wave come 2018. We’re only seven months into 2017, of course. But if such a wave does occur, then the Republican Party in Congress will only revert back to ideological extremes and obstructionism.

Why? Because the seats up for grabs are largely the 50 seats held by moderate Tuesday Group caucus members. As their influence wanes, the influence of the Freedom Caucus and other extreme conservatives will only grow.

While governing is about compromise, politics is about winning, and having worked on several campaigns in New York, I certainly cannot begrudge Democrats for trying to unseat some of our more moderate Congressional members, as they are the campaign equivalent of low-hanging fruit.

However, in order to govern, the center must hold.

America needs the Tuesday Group. America needs Democratic blue dogs. Congressional Republicans need moderate leaders like Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, Charlie Dent, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

Without them, the party in Congress will see a return to turmoil, the likes of which we only briefly glimpsed after John Boehner announced his resignation in September 2015.

Ward Baker, former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, wrote a lengthy memo last year to GOP Senate campaigns after it became clear Donald Trump was on track to win the Republican nomination for President. The message of the memo: run your own race.

Tuesday Group members, I cannot stress this enough.

Do not feel beholden to a toxic and unpopular and unpredictable White House. Support the Speaker, cast your vote, but vote your constituents, vote your conscience – not the Saturday morning Twitter spasms of an irrational and unstable Commander-in-Chief.

Reince Priebus and Howard Dean both proved that big tent strategy beats strict ideological adherence every time.

Dean built a 50-state infrastructure that helped Democrats navigate their way to the majority in 2006. Meanwhile, Priebus wrangled FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth, Ending Spending, and other conservative groups to do the same for Republicans in 2010 and 2014.

That’s the reason why my party is now gifted with talented pols like Joni Ernst, Rob Portman, Cory Gardner, Elise Stefanik, John Katko, and Marco Rubio.

In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has already declared “war” on Republican House members throughout the state, but based on his track record his bark is worse than his bite. Congressional Reps. John Faso and Claudia Tenney may face strong Democratic challenges, but Cuomo will be too busy padding his own reelection effort to take notice.

Democrats, if they’re interested in winning, need to ditch – and quit praying at the altar of – a Vermont demagogue and remnant of the Old World communist left, who still refuses to even identify as a Democrat, and instead embrace such 21st Century party pragmatists as Cory Booker, Patty Murray, Tom Perez, and John Hickenlooper.

If not, Democrats will only continue to flounder, and suffer more “close but no cigar” moments like Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania, Jason Kander in Missouri, Jon Ossoff in Georgia, and, quite obviously, that glass ceiling-shattering candidate who was supposed to win the White House in 2008 and 2016.

Democrats, I may not be your friend, but I’m certainly not your enemy – Putin and ISIS are the enemy. Your party is in turmoil, you need to figure out what you stand for, and then bring your A-game.

Show Americans you’ve got what it takes to provide jobs, provide roads and bridges, provide health care, education and equal justice, provide prosperity, liberty, safety, security, and the freedom of choice for all.

However, if you can’t do that, if you can’t organize for something other than marching, if you can’t resolve your own petty internecine warfare between intransigent Bernie believers and mainstream party practicables then you deserve to live in the minority until you do.

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John William Schiffbauer was the Deputy Communications Director for the New York Republican State Committee 2014-16. Last fall, he served as campaign manager for Republican Melinda Crump’s State Senate campaign in New York’s 31st District. On Twitter @jwschiffgop.

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