Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



In Need of Partners: Affordability Gap Too Large for New York City to Cover Alone

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(photo: @NYCHousing)

New York City is a city of renters, and affordable housing is a perennial concern of New Yorkers. Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city has committed an unprecedented level of resources to create and preserve affordable housing units and make critical repairs at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). But is it realistic to think the city can address affordability for all rent-burdened New Yorkers?

A new report from Citizens Budget Commission (CBC) indicates rental burdens have not improved since 2014, and are most severe for low-income single households, particularly single seniors. The most effective programs for providing low-income, affordable housing have been federally funded; the city cannot handle the affordability problem on its own.

CBC analysis of data from the 2017 Housing Vacancy Survey (HVS) shows more than 921,000 renter households in New York City, or 44 percent of all renters, pay at least 30 percent of their income in rent, even after accounting for the value of federal rental housing vouchers and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (food stamps). Twenty-two percent of households – more than 462,000 families and single adults – are severely rent burdened, which means they pay 50 percent or more of their income in rent.

Severe rent burdens disproportionately affect single households: 35 percent of single seniors, 27 percent of single households, and 26 percent of single-parent households were low-income and severely burdened. In contrast, about 15 percent of households with multiple adults were low-income and severely burdened.

These findings are largely unchanged from the last time the HVS was conducted in 2014. The share of rent-burdened households increased to 44 percent from 42 percent, while the share of severely burdened remained unchanged. Severe burdens increased slightly among low-income single households and seniors.

The primary challenge in tackling the “affordability gap” is that the lowest income households require subsidies to supplement what they can afford to pay in rent. Historically, federal housing programs have been most effective at addressing these needs. According to the 2017 HVS, two-thirds of the lowest income households that are not rent burdened either reside in federally-subsidized public housing or receive Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers. Most of the remaining third benefit from some other form of subsidy from the city, state or federal governments.

While city government has a role to play in addressing rental burdens, it is unrealistic to expect the city to close the gap on its own. The number of extremely and very low income New York City households that pay half their income in rent exceeds the mayor’s entire 300,000-unit housing plan. Meanwhile, NYCHA faces a $32 billion capital need, and its public housing units are in the worst condition of all rental housing in the city. The cost of addressing these challenges vastly exceeds the city’s financial resources. Any meaningful response to preserve public housing and address the housing needs of severely rent burdened New Yorkers will require willing partners in Albany and Washington.

Sean Campion is a senior research associate for Citizens Budget Commission. On Twitter @cbcny.

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Unlocking the Key to Real Affordable Housing in New York City

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(photo: @NYCHousing)

Let’s say you’re a single mother of one child with an annual income of $45,000 looking for a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. Off to a seemingly good start, you found a wonderful “affordable housing” unit, but the monthly rent is $2,700 with an annual salary requirement of $95,000. This is definitely out of reach, so you try to find a studio apartment and hope for the best. You find an “affordable” studio apartment, this time in Queens -- but you need at least a $75,000 salary for a monthly rent of $2,200. This isn’t affordable either. What gives?

One of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s main priorities, since taking office in 2014, is to build more affordable housing at a rate never seen before in New York City. Last year, the mayor announced his plan to boost production of affordable housing to 25,000 apartments annually by 2021, and set a new goal of 300,000 apartments by 2026. These terms and numbers, along with the language the mayor uses in celebrating his affordable housing achievements, give the perception that people will be able to stay in the neighborhoods they grew up in and halt displacement. But how “affordable” are these homes?

A simple look at New York City Housing Connect, the online portal to access applications for affordable housing, proves these homes are not as affordable and attainable as one may think.

Who’s to blame? Congress, in part.

Why are many of these apartments considered “affordable” if you need to make almost six figures to even apply? An especially vexing question given that the median income in New York City is roughly $33,000.

The short answer is “area median income,” also known as AMI, a statistic officially calculated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). AMIs for New York City are calculated too high to begin with, and then the city sets “affordable rates” for many apartments well above AMI.

Some of New York City’s affordable housing in new constructions is targeted at income levels as high as 165% of the AMI, making it unattainable for low- or middle-income households. And AMI for the city is high on its own because it actually includes incomes from other counties outside of the city, those from individuals in Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam counties, all of which are home to higher average incomes. Thus, New York City’s AMI for 2018 is $93,900 for a family of three.

Why are these suburban counties included in an AMI for the region, rather than the five boroughs alone? HUD uses Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs), which are based on commuting patterns determined by the federal government and often include counties far beyond an area’s urban core. Further, HUD has no formal mechanism for cities to challenge their AMI. New York’s AMI is 20 percent higher than actual median incomes in the city. This is flat out wrong and leads to New Yorkers being priced out of their homes and neighborhoods.

The very same apartments intended for low-income New Yorkers are being handed over to upper middle-class individuals and families. The city allocates millions of dollars for affordable housing projects, yet these projects are directed at the wrong people!

Some of this is by the mayor’s choice; de Blasio has decided to target more units at a broad range of affordability requirements than fewer units at lower rents.

But still, AMI is an essential component. Why can’t New York just change its AMI laws? Because AMI is determined through federal law and would require an act of Congress. Rep. Jose Serrano of the Bronx wrote a letter back in 2015 to then-HUD Secretary Julian Castro, expressing his support for a change in AMI calculation for New York City. However, Congress has not taken any action to actually mandate the reassessment of the city’s AMI.

Some have argued that changing AMI will make affordable housing development less financially viable and thus less appealing for developers to construct. The financing of affordable housing often depends on government subsidies to developers, though, so the equations are not simple ones. And, there are always questions about number of units versus depth of affordability. If AMIs were lowered to more accurately reflect need in New York City and make “affordable” apartments truly affordable to more tenants, some instances may call for a combination of developers accepting less profit and/or government offering more incentives.

There might be some hope for action in New York. Adjusting AMI may require congressional action, but that hasn’t stopped state elected officials from introducing legislation to address this issue. State Senator Michael Gianaris and Assembly Member Brian Barnwell, both Queens Democrats, have a bill pending in the state Legislature that would mandate developers calculate AMI based on ZIP code. It might not do much to reduce skyrocketing rents citywide, but this policy would definitely pave the way to a more affordable and transparent affordable housing system. The bill is still in committee, but considering the very real likelihood of a Democratic-controlled State Senate in January via the November elections, there might be a real chance for an overhaul of the current system and an outcome of meaningful change.

David Aronov is a graduate student at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and Director of Community Relations for New York City Council Member Karen Koslowitz (the views expressed here are the author’s alone).

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In Brooklyn Democratic Party, Democracy is Healthier Than Some Would Have You Think

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Frank Seddio & Senator Persaud (photo: Frank Seddio on Facebook)

Democracy in action can be messy, but the election law as well as state and local party rules are clear when it comes to how governments and political parties carry out their business. And despite the cathartic and frantic attempts by the New Kings Democrats to claim that party “bosses” thwarted their attempts to take over the Brooklyn Democratic County Committee, the fact is they did not have the votes.

They are focused on proxies, which allow elected committee members to have their voices heard if they cannot, for one reason or another, attend the semi-annual committee meeting. While the NKD complain that party leaders held the vast majority of proxies, their protestations fail to acknowledge that they worked very hard to collect proxies, mailing to everyone on the County Committee list seeking support for themselves. They failed.

Frank Seddio, the chair of the party’s Executive Committee, thanks to the hard work of many local clubs, received around 600 of those proxies from County Committee members who believed he would best represent their interests. The NKD, despite their best efforts, claimed they had 130.

I say “claimed” because those who complain the County Committee meeting started two-and-a-half hours late – implying there were some nefarious deeds going on behind the scenes to thwart democracy – know that the sole reason for the delay was because the NKD leaders failed to bring in their proxies at an appropriate time. They did not bring their proxies to the meeting hall until 90 minutes after the meeting was scheduled to start. Attorney volunteers had to sort them through a “bar-code system” that forced everyone in the hall to wait, but party leaders agreed to stipulate that they had 130 proxies so the meeting could start without waiting the additional two hours it might have taken to complete entry of the proxies into the system.

Even though many of the NKD proxies turned out to be invalid for a variety of required reasons, that did not change the fact that the party leadership stipulated and allowed the facially defective proxies to be counted. When combined with the votes of members in the room and the proxies each side held, the supporters of the current party leadership far outvoted those who wanted to seize control.

And since the County Committee is an entity whose activities in organizing the party’s structure and business is set out in state election law, failure to complete the committee’s business effectively would have put the party out of business, blocking it from nominating candidates to appear on the party’s line in elections.

The law is clear. A proxy is the voice of a “person,” someone who previously ran for a position on County Committee, but could not attend the meeting for reasons that could include health, work, family responsibilities, etc. I am amazed to hear that it is somehow undemocratic to allow their voices to be heard via his or her proxy, especially when the NKD worked so hard to gather proxies but apparently lack the support among party members to gather enough to alter the voting outcomes.

The NKD activists and leaders fail to mention that party leaders have acceded to virtually every one of their proposals for rules reform, and welcomed a proposal at the most recent County Committee meeting by Assemblymember Robert Carroll, a respected reformer, to change the proxy rules to require they be carried by another committee member from the same Assembly district. That will go to the rules committee for consideration, the same rules committee that approved every one of the reformers’ proposed changes last time they made them. Being open to ideas through robust discourse is not a novel idea. The district leaders have done just that for many years.

Nonetheless, for some it seems as it just feels better to simply not take yes for an answer, and instead to make up for their lack of broad support at the grassroots level by yelling, screaming, and disrupting the meeting.

We understand that Democratic politics has long been marked by factional family fights, a sign that, in the words of the chair, the party is “alive, exciting, and worth fighting over.” And we understand there is a generational challenge to party leadership, since many in the room started in politics as insurgents themselves challenging the party leadership at the time they entered the fight.

But there is an old lawyer expression that seems to apply here. When you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. When you have the law on your side, pound the law. When you have neither, pound the table.

Intra-party fights take place under the rules of the party, and that includes allowing proxies so Committee members who cannot attend have their voices represented. And make no mistake—it is a voice. That is why the NKD worked so hard to collect proxies, and why the party’s district leaders do so as well.

When they have enough votes to elect their chosen leaders, we will graciously respect the results and work with them to elect Democrats in order to push an agenda to benefit the people of Brooklyn, which is why we are all in this together in the first place.

From my perspective, we must continually work harder to reach everyone throughout every corner of the borough and in between, and remember we are all in this together.

Frank Carone, a partner in Brooklyn’s Abrams Fensterman law firm, is the law secretary of the Brooklyn Democratic Party.

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State of Latino Health: Dismal, and Invisible

Gotham Health Center

(photo via NYC Mayor's Office)

Latinos make up nearly a third of New York City’s eight million residents. But even though we are a large part of New York’s present and a rising population that’s crucial to the city’s future, we are completely invisible.

We are invisible in large part because we are different. And because of those joined factors, our health care is in a state of crisis. Compared to our fellow New York neighbors, we lack access to quality, culturally competent care, and we face a shortage of high-quality family care options. In fact, we sometimes encounter unique barriers that make us even more susceptible to illnesses than our neighbors and tend to experience worse health outcomes.

After decades of efforts to bring health care to underserved Latinos across the city, we set out to answer crucial questions: Why do great disparities in health care remain? And why do our families lack the health care services they need?

Why are Latinos far less healthy than our neighbors?

In a new report put out by my organization, a nonprofit network of over 2,000 providers who treat over 650,000 patients largely from lower income immigrant communities, we talked to hundreds of Latino doctors and patients across New York City to compile a first-ever poll.

We hope it spurs a movement.

We set out to bring to light health disparities and the cultural, economic, and institutional barriers that diminish access to even basic health care services -- leading to devastating health outcomes for many in our communities.

So what did we learn about the state of Latino health in New York City in 2018?

First, we learned that there is a wide gap between Latino patients and their physicians over what constitutes good health. While a majority of Latinos think they are healthy, their doctors disagree by vast margins. And only one-third of Latino patients think they are not receiving the care they need while two-thirds of doctors think Latinos experience persistent barriers to care.

Second, transportation and child care pose major barriers to health care access in Latino communities. Language is another major issue: in the Bronx, home to the city’s largest Latino population, only 10% of doctors speak Spanish, compared to 60% of residents. In fact, immigrants interviewed stated that language barriers kept them from telling their health care providers all of their symptoms – leading to unnecessary emergency room visits, avoidable crises, and uncontrolled chronic conditions.

Finally, too many health problems are going untreated in the Latino community. Smoking, asthma, obesity, diabetes, and hypertension are prevalent problems but health education has not kept up and health education materials are often not available in Spanish. In addition, mental health and substance abuse challenges are stigmatized and remain taboo to discuss, going undertreated or even untreated.

In short, our report showed us that we have much more work to do to lift up and improve health outcomes in the Latino community, but we can make progress if we are willing to put in the work.

Together, by prioritizing community engagement, we can build and scale a sustainable architecture of innovation to confront and solve these problems. We can and must develop and sustain strong community, public health, and health care strategies to improve access to quality, culturally competent, and much needed care.

Additionally, we also need a serious investment in health education on the part of policy-makers to address not only these conditions but also the lack of health education resources offered. And language matters. Understanding these nuanced, culture-specific disparities will help us build a system that combines high quality with more effective care that reduces costs for patients, institutions, cities, states, and the federal government.

The Latino community is growing faster in New York than in Nevada or California. Over the next few years, through intervention, innovation, and integration, we will use the findings of this report to partner with the state and city to better deliver culturally-competent care and build a stronger, healthier Latino community in New York.

The need is urgent, the path forward clear – now it’s time for action.

Dr. Ramon Tallaj is the founder and chairman of SOMOS Community Care.

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Governor Cuomo Must Fulfill His Own Expressed Commitment to Lifting Wages for Struggling Workers

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Gov. Cuomo pushes for a higher Port Authority minimum wage (photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)

Last week, Governor Cuomo publicly called on Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's Board of Commissioners to pass a higher minimum wage for airport workers. While I, other elected officials, and numerous nonprofit advocates were pleased to see this increase approved, Governor Cuomo has still not fulfilled his commitment to another vital workforce in our state, the human services sector.

Hundreds of thousands of human service employees – the vast majority of whom are contracted by the state – remain unbelievably underpaid, making approximately $23,000-$29,600 per year, with no wage increases since 2010. These rates fall well below the $19 hourly wage the governor called for at the Port Authority, and are also below the average income required to meet the basic living needs of a family. The human services sector is a group comprised of approximately 332,000 New Yorkers – 80% of whom are women, and 50% individuals of color – who provide life changing services to New Yorkers from all walks of life, and are essential to our communities.

These are workers who care for our children, assist those with mental health issues, ensure survivors of domestic violence can rebuild their lives, and care for our aging relatives. Yet they are left with a wage that does not provide economic security of their own. For years, the work of employees in the nonprofit sector has been undervalued; the salaries in the sector are lower than comparable positions in other fields, many of the positions require a college degree but do not compensate accordingly, and stagnant wages result in high turnover.

Not only have state contracts failed to fully fund the wages of these employees, but Governor Cuomo refuses to include common-sense cost of living adjustments (COLA) that would allow these employees to earn a livable wage.

We have fought every single year since Governor Cuomo took office in 2011 for a statutory cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) for human services employees. To this end, our chief executive has consistently and uncompromisingly deferred from providing any support in this initiative. This inaction has cost the human services workforce almost $500 million in lost wages. We have seen a largely consistent public commitment from the governor in his support of raising wages across New York. This was demonstrated in his remarks last week, in his championing of the $15 minimum wage, and through his outspoken support of pay equity for women. In light of these strong positions, we expect Governor Cuomo to apply this effort to increase the very limited salaries of human service workers.

When this wage increase for Port Authority workers was enacted, the governor stated that “it is paramount that we have a well-trained, secure, stable workforce…Invest in your most important asset, which is your workforce. Fairness, diligence, good business practices all bring one to the same obvious conclusion. Invest in the workforce, raise the minimum wage to $19 over five years. It is the right thing to do. It is the smart thing to do."

We agree, Governor Cuomo. It is time for our state’s leader to make good on his own words, and fund the human services COLA in the next state budget to ensure living wages for this workforce which we our state depends on so heavily in order to build strong communities.

The governor said it best himself: “It is the right thing to do. It is the smart thing to do.”

Andrew Hevesi is a member of the New York State Assembly, representing parts of Queens in Assembly District 28. On Twitter @AndrewHevesi.

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In Keeping Stranglehold, Brooklyn Democratic Party Bosses Further Sow Seeds of Their Demise

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Kings County Democratic Committee meeting (photo: James Boo, New Kings Democrats)

This summer I collected signatures from neighbors to represent my election district, an area of a few blocks, as a member of the Kings County Democratic Committee (KCDC), the Brooklyn denomination of the New York State Democratic Party.

I had signed up with the #RepYourBlock campaign, convened by New Kings Democrats (NKD), one-and-a-half years earlier for this purpose. I handed in my petitions in June and a few months later I received a postcard informing me of KCDC’s bi-annual rules meeting, on September 27 at Kingsborough Community College. This postcard let me know that if I signed and returned it to Frank Seddio, the Democratic County Chair, there would be no need for me to attend. Despite this “helpful” suggestion that I turn over my vote through this proxy before ever even participating in a meeting, I made plans to be there.

The hundreds of people gathered in the Leon M. Goldstein Performing Arts Center on September 27 ranged from newly-minted members like myself to people who had been attending for decades. From the beginning, it was clear that the party leadership was overwhelmed by the turnout. It was less clear whether that was by design or by incompetence.

We waited two-and-a-half hours past the posted start time for the meeting to begin. It was standing room only, and the people around me were palpably excited to participate in this most local form of government. When the meeting finally began, it got off to a contentious start. KCDC members heckled from the back of the room. The person leading the meeting, former State Senator Martin Connor, never introduced himself and was immediately defensive. Many of us had trouble following what was happening in a poorly-mic'd room with a lot of background noise.

In the weeks leading up to the meeting there had been heightening tension around the efforts of NKD, a reform club trying to increase the participation of everyday Brooklynites through the #RepYourBlock campaign. NKD had reached out to Democratic County Committee members encouraging them to attend the meeting and if they couldn’t, asking that they give their proxy to someone they know or one of the #RepYourBlock partners, in an attempt to counter the juggernaut of the party leadership proxy-collection machine. Many committee members received multiple requests for their proxy (a way to allow someone else to vote in your absence), including a misleading one from party leadership that purported to be signed by one’s state Assembly member and district leaders (many of whom claimed this happened without their permission). Partially in response to this, there was a proposal to reform the proxy system introduced by my own Assembly member, Robert Carroll, which was overwhelmingly supported.

Then the time came for the vote that is one of the only real roles for members like me – voting for the officers of the executive committee. This year an actual competitive election was possible, because an alternate “reform” slate had been proposed by #RepYourBlock. The voting began, and an already tense meeting unmistakably changed.

Because we didn’t even get the chance to vote!

It was over before it started. Party leadership had waited to start the meeting until they were sure that Frank Seddio had enough proxy votes to overrule anything that happened. The voting began with a vote on the complete executive committee slate, and motions for a vote on each individual position were overruled or just flat out disregarded. When the vote was called for the establishment slate, about 50 people stood up. Martin Connor said those 50 votes, plus the more than 500 proxies held by Frank Seddio, meant the establishment slate won.

Even when those numbers were questioned, or when it was pointed out that the numbers didn’t seem to add up, or when it was clear that the numbers being reported were actively changing as more proxies appeared with every challenge, we were told “It’s done” and the meeting moved on.

In that room there were hundreds of people like me who had petitioned to be on County Committee, some of whom had competed in primaries. Over 500 people had left work early, skipped dinner, planned for childcare, carpooled, rode a subway to a bus, or made countless other arrangements, all to come to Manhattan Beach on a weeknight and attend a five-hour meeting. And the overwhelming majority were not even able to stand up and be counted in favor of a candidate they supported. Their questions and requests for explanation or clarification were dismissed and they were scolded from the lectern for daring to even ask them.

When a motion was made to recount the vote, after a member pointed out that the numbers given did not add up to an establishment victory, the vote in favor of recount was overwhelming. That vote was also unsuccessful, as Seddio’s proxies still outnumbered those in attendance. But the room had shifted, and even people who had voted for the establishment slate saw what was happening as counter to a democratic process. NKD and #RepYourBlock had inspired us to show up and be a part of our local political process, and the Kings County Democratic Party saw us as an obstacle.

The Brooklyn Democratic Party leadership did more for reform with its actions in that auditorium than years of organizing could have.

It is a testament to the efforts of #RepYourBlock that so many people were there. And by being so entrenched, and so unwilling to allow for anything that might dilute their stranglehold on Brooklyn politics, party leadership ensured that the proxy abuse they are so reliant on is in its final days.

Nicole Hunt is a member of New Kings Democrats, on the Executive Committee of Brooklyn Voters Alliance, and a member of the Kings County Democratic Committee. On Twitter @msnicolemh.

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Discouraged But Determined; Queens County Committee Will Change

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Queens County Democratic leader Joe Crowley (photo: @repjoecrowley)

This summer, the New York Times reported that candidates to become Democratic committee members in Queens were unaware that they were running for office and would be on the September 13 ballot. Queens Democratic Party bosses were nominating candidates without their consent for County Committee membership. You read that right.

Those party bosses, long-term incumbent elected officials also known as establishment Democrats, tried to prevent new, more progressive Democratic candidates from entering these local races. Their preference is, of course, to to maintain the status quo.

As a young Democrat passionate about public service, hearing about this corrupt electoral process happening in my backyard left me feeling discouraged. To live in an equitable society, establishment Democrats need to know not to partake in antiquated, exclusionary practices. In order to have a united Democratic Party there has to be a process where everyone can participate; wherein elections are open, transparent, and inclusive. By nominating candidates without their consent, establishment Democrats not only lose credibility, but they jeopardize the very foundations of our democratic process, the bedrock of our nation. They keep my home borough of Queens from progressing and marginalize people that actually want to get involved.

Many Democratic voters are beginning to support progressive candidates that distance themselves from the current establishment. I think back to the congressional primary win of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in June as well as the recent primary wins of progressives at the state level and feel encouraged that new candidates challenging incumbents approach their campaigns through a more just lens. New progressive Democrats are taking a stance that fights for economic, social, and racial justice for all and reject corporate PAC and corporate lobbyist money. This is a message to Democratic Party bosses that Democratic constituents will not wait for establishment incumbents to change unjust systems and practices.

Democrats who are too content with the status quo and sitting down on progressive issues will run the risk of not being reelected. While many establishment Democrats point at Republicans as the ones to blame for failing systems, mismanagement of funds, and the reason for many of the faults in our society, it’s easy to see that establishment Democrats are not much better. It’s time to look inward first. In order for current establishment Democrats to avoid strong primary challengers and continue winning elections against Republicans, they have to make sure that members of their party are engaged, included, and not being shunned by dishonest electoral processes. We need Democrats who ensure elections are just and not being controlled by the party bosses at the top.    

Although some establishment Democrats can tout years of experience and successes, if they have not done anything to change the electoral system, or have been too complacent, then many of their efforts are in vain. Winning campaigns through systemic malpractices does not make you an exemplary candidate. As we can see from the recent loss of seven Democratic incumbents in state Senate primaries, establishment Democrats have to be true to their Democratic electorates, take more action to change electoral systems, be more inclusive, and give a voice to more people in their communities. If they fail to do so, constituents from their districts will make sure to elect new progressive Democrats to take their seats.

As an aspiring professional in the field of public service, a Democrat, and a young person wanting to see change, machine politics do not interest me. Though discouraged by the practices of establishment Democrats, I am motivated to get more involved and work to change the unjust systems that currently exist, calling them out, and taking action. I urge my fellow Queens constituents and those around the city to elect the Democratic leaders that are transparent, honest, and committed to electoral integrity, from the local County Committee all the way up.

Giovanni Barcenes is an MPA Candidate at the NYU Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and lifelong New Yorker born and raised in Queens. On Twitter @GioBarcenes.

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Immigrant-Service Organizations, Struggling with Immense Demand, Need Our Support

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(photo: John McCarten/New York City Council)

The news that immigrants who legally access public benefits, such as food, housing, and medical assistance, could be denied green cards will make it increasingly difficult for many immigrants across our city and nation to meet their basic needs, placing a sizeable burden on the nonprofit sector.

Already, the sector is faced with an unyielding demand for support by families and communities as immigrants turn to nonprofits for support in steeper numbers.

What has become abundantly clear from our work with more than 400 organizations each year that focus on immigration and other social service and advocacy groups is that the current challenges are formidable: nonprofits are doing the best they can despite a national climate of bias and discrimination against immigrants and the groups that serve them.

This increased workload is experienced not only by organizations with an immigrant-serving mission. It is seen by hundreds of the nonprofits we work with each year, from hunger organizations to affordable housing organizations, to those with an educational mission, and countless others.

Amid this climate, Community Resource Exchange recently convened six nonprofit leaders to illustrate the obstacles their staffs and constituents are facing. Speakers, whose work focuses on grassroots organizing, legal support, immigrant youth, economic justice, and LGBTQIA immigrant rights, pointed to issues that are creating a double-bind for nonprofits: increased demand coupled with changes to the system that make delivering services harder.

This the result of multiple factors, including that immigrants already have a heightened fear of being viewed as a public charge when accessing necessary services such as public assistance, Medicaid, and food stamps, for which they are eligible. The proposed change only exacerbates this fear.

This fear is the result of persistent myths that are being exaggerated in the current environment, for instance, that immigrants don’t pay taxes, come to the United States purely dreaming of opportunity (as opposed to fleeing life-threatening conditions in their homelands), and do not contribute to the economy, which have been proved untrue.

Complicating factors have been revisions to information required by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, amplifying fears of immediate deportation due to things like any accidental errors in completing applications.

Our panelists posed solutions to better serve immigrants: federal and international action to change the reality for immigrants in this country, including the need for a transnational conversation about the treatment of migrants and immigrants not just here in the U.S., but in Europe and other places. Local governments—city and state—and individuals must step in not only with financial help, but with common sense approaches.

Nonprofits need sufficient funding to support increased needs of immigrants coming through their doors, and elected officials who “get it” are those that are on the ground and in the neighborhoods, visibly witnessing the challenges being faced every day.

We must use our voices to seek change. This November 6, Election Day, is one opportunity, when people can support candidates who understand the needs and benefits of our multicultural society—and not just give lip service to secure votes.

Even simply starting a conversation with friends and family—albeit difficult ones—can springboard to broader awareness of the issues surrounding immigration, greater support for nonprofits on the frontlines of serving immigrants, and, most importantly, a better life for immigrants seeking a life in America free from discrimination and fear.

Katie Leonberger is the President and CEO of Community Resource Exchange. On Twitter @katieleonberger & @CREinNYC.

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Fear-mongering Versus Reality in New York Parole

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Senate Republicans oppose Herman Bell's parole (photo via Senator Patrick Gallivan's website)

Juxtaposed with the decision by New York State Senate Republicans to hold hearings to voice anger over decisions by the Parole Board was this past Friday’s annual Parole Summit of the Lifers and Longtermers Organization at Otisville Correctional Facility.

Summit attendees, including parole reform advocates, clergy, academics, and a judge from the New York Court of Appeals, heard person after person talk passionately about the Lifers’ commitment to their “Four Rs” of responsibility, remorse, reconciliation, and rehabilitation. By day’s end it was clear that for many people behind bars there is a fifth “R” – redemption.   

The transparent political motivation to hold hearings so close in time to elections is made all the more shameful by the appeal to fear-mongering, as comments already circulating by Senate Republicans raise the specter of droves of dangerous criminals randomly turned loose on the streets of Albany and Long Island, the chosen sites for the hearings, and elsewhere.  

Senator Patrick Gallivan, Chair of the Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee that co-sponsored the hearings, characterizes a select few Board decisions granting parole as “indefensible and an affront to law-abiding citizens.” To the contrary, the Board followed the laws and regulations that govern the Board’s decision-making. Far more troubling to law-abiding citizens is an elected official urging the Board to flout the law.    

The Legislature passes laws that set minimum and maximum sentences, and judges mete out sentences pursuant to those laws. A person becomes eligible for parole after they have served their minimum judicially-imposed sentence. The Legislature has enumerated a number of factors that the Parole Board must consider when weighing whether to grant parole. If you have done well while incarcerated -- completed all required programs, avoided serious disciplinary infractions, accepted responsibility for your actions, and made a thorough re-entry plan -- you should be released. That is the law. Indeed, that is what people are told when they are sentenced.  

Long-overdue changes to the laws and regulations that govern parole direct the Board to take a forward-looking approach; evaluate who the person is today instead of fixating on the crime of conviction from often decades earlier. Now, the Board is required to utilize an objective evidence-based risk-assessment tool to determine whether someone presents a risk of future violent behavior. Elected officials who suggest that the Parole Board is turning loose a slew of dangerous criminals conveniently ignore that each of these people were deemed to be at the lowest possible risk for re-offending. They also elide the fact that each of these people served decades in prison before they were released. Not only have they been significantly punished, but, according to every study of age and crime, they have long ago “aged out” of any real possibility of future criminal conduct. Put simply, they are profoundly different people at age 50, 60 or 70 than they were when they were in their teens or twenties.  

Several Senators also refer disingenuously to the Board’s “seeming automatic releases.” That is patently untrue. The most controversial cases of the past year all involve people who had been denied parole eight, nine, ten, or more times spanning decades. However, consider the recent case of Richard DiGuglielmo. Mr. DiGuglielmo was convicted of murder and sentenced to 20 years to life in a high-profile case involving the killing of a black man by a white off-duty police officer in a dispute over a parking space. Mr. DiGuglielmo served his 20-year minimum and was released at his very first appearance before the Board, a very rare outcome for someone convicted of murder, especially considering the objections from the victim’s family. Notably, there was no outcry from the Republicans members of the Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee.

The Board is subjected to relatively little public opprobrium when it chooses to deny parole.  Contrary to the claims of Senate Republicans, the far larger problem with the Board, as made abundantly clear at the Otisville Parole Summit, is its habit of routinely denying parole to the many people who have so fully transformed, decisions based solely on the serious nature of the crime of conviction, something the person can never change. These punitive, backward-looking decisions ignore the innate human capacity to change and are ultimately cold and merciless.  

The epidemic of mass incarceration is now readily acknowledged. The 130 Lifers and Longtermers at the Otisville Summit have collectively served more than 2,400 years in prison.  Many of them have been denied parole repeatedly based exclusively on the crime of conviction from decades before. Contrary to the views of Republican members of the Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee, decisions grounded in the extant laws and regulations to grant parole should be praised, not pilloried, and must not be influenced, let alone determined, by who yells the loudest.

Steven Zeidman is a professor of law at CUNY School of Law. On Twitter @SteveZeidman.

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Closing the Door on Foreign Money in New York City Elections

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How far and how deep did the Russian government and Russian nationals go to influence United States elections? While hacking and manipulation of social media have garnered significant attention from both the media and the Mueller investigation, it’s also clear that Russian money was being funneled through some surprising channels, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA).

When Citizens United opened the floodgates for corporations to spend unlimited amounts in our elections, it also blasted open a loophole for foreign money to be used to influence U.S. elections. Earlier this month, we collaborated to introduce a bill to close that loophole and keep foreign money out of New York City elections.

While current federal law—affirmed by the Supreme Court in 2012—prohibits foreign governments, foreign-based companies, and people who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents from contributing or spending money in connection with any federal, state, or local elections, after Citizens United, foreign entities can still invest money through U.S.-based corporations that can then spend as much money as they want on American elections. That’s a direct threat to democracy, and one that our federal government has yet to remedy.

This is not a hypothetical. Companies that we consider to be “American” often have significant foreign investment, and at times that investment comes from some questionable sources. DST Global, for example, has gained notoriety for its Russian connections and has significant investment in many U.S. tech companies, including several iconic companies like Airbnb, Facebook, and Twitter. Saudi Arabia has also been “using its wealth for global influence” with over $2 trillion to invest via its sovereign wealth fund, and it has already taken large stakes in U.S. based companies like Uber, Tesla, and Sprint through its joint tech fund with SoftBank Group, a Japanese company. To be clear, we do not mean to say that these companies are controlled by Russia or Saudi Arabia, but they do serve as examples of how little we know about the foreign ownership of American companies, some of which spend significant amounts trying to influence American politics.

As the U.S. midterm elections approach, foreign actors are testing out new ways to hide their trails. They’ve stopped paying in rubles, and that means that the corporate loophole created by Citizens United will be ever more attractive. The evidence is also mounting that Russia was not alone. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and others reportedly sought to put their thumbs on the scale. Though Ellen Weintraub, the vice chair of the Federal Election Commission, has been sounding the alarm about this for years, partisan politics has stopped attempts in Congress and at the Commission to prevent foreign money from being funneled through corporations.

That’s why it is critical to move now to protect our local elections from corrupt foreign influence and to help create a national model for campaign finance reform. In order to protect the integrity of New York City elections, our bill -- Intro. 7087 -- would strengthen the existing federal prohibition on direct foreign and corporate campaign contributions by extending the ban to American corporations under substantial foreign ownership or control.

The bill would prohibit contributions and spending in local elections by “foreign-influenced entities,” which is defined as an entity that is either (1) more than 5 percent owned by a single foreign national, (2) more than 20 percent owned by more than one foreign national, or (3) a corporation in which foreign-national owners call the shots on its political activities. A similar proposal enacted in St. Petersburg, Florida received the backing of constitutional luminaries like Laurence Tribe and Charles Fried, and stands on firm legal ground.

New York has long been a leader in taking action to protect the integrity of its elections and ensure that the voices of New Yorkers are not drowned out by corporate money. New Yorkers deserve to know that foreign money is not flowing into local elections through hard-to-trace corporate channels. This bill upholds the basic principles of American self-government, free from foreign influence. Foreign interference is a clear and present danger, but by closing this gaping loophole New Yorkers can stem the flow of foreign money in their own elections and lead the way for the rest of the nation.

Public Advocate Letitia James
John Bonifaz, President, Free Speech For People
Shanna Cleveland, Senior Counsel, Free Speech For People

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Politics Created NYCHA; Only Politics Will Save It

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(photo via the Governor's office)

The New York City Housing Authority’s first developments in the 1930s rose from the frustrations of a massive working class tired of sweating and suffering in crappy tenements. NYCHA grew in the decades that followed, to about 175,000 apartments, thanks to consistent support from politicians under tremendous pressure from everyday New Yorkers, housing advocates, and the media.

Politics saved NYCHA multiple times from the fate of public housing in other American cities. The civil rights movement forced NYCHA to desegregate its projects after the 1930s. Outrage over management in the late 1950s led to a sacking of callous leadership handpicked by Robert Moses. New York’s Congressional delegation convinced their colleagues in both the 1970s and 1990s to assume responsibility for tens of thousands of city and state public housing projects.

NYCHA residents, New York politicians, and many advocates, however, failed to adjust fast enough to a new national political reality. The rest of America, including most federal officials overseeing the program, viewed public housing as a dead program by the 1990s -- and treated it as such. Federal officials have since then intentionally refused to fund NYCHA’s capital or operating needs at a level sufficient to maintain the quality of life to which residents had become accustomed.

Frustrated residents for years disconnected from the political process despite the growing threat of aging apartments and buildings. Other affordable housing preservation and development programs took priority for many housing advocates and elected officials. City, federal, and state politicians pointed fingers at each other. The results of disinvestment are on display despite NYCHA apartments remaining full and much desired in New York.

In just a few years of crisis, however, it already seems the wheel is turning. Residents and housing advocates have kept the heat on politicians, feeding a steady stream of heartbreaking images and stories to the media and the courts. Elected officials can’t pick up the paper or turn on the TV without reading about a problem, often in their district. Crisis on an unprecedented scale has forced the issue to the front time and again: Sandy flooding, deep freeze, mold, lead.

Has the result of all this bad press been the abandonment of public housing as in other cities? No. Where bad press led to demolition in other cities, in New York negative attention seems to be leading to a steady and growing flow of money to renovate public housing. Demolition could still happen in New York but knocking down NYCHA is still a third rail of politics here -- and unimaginably complex to boot. We simply don’t have additional homes, short- or long-term, for more than 400,000 poor people.

Already, the totals won for NYCHA are mounting: $3 billion for Sandy reconstruction from FEMA; billions from the city so far and billions more promised (thanks to a consent decree) for roofs, boilers, lead tests, and more; hundreds of millions promised from the state. NYCHA has also quietly done what it can with remaining federal capital funds since the 1990s to stabilize conditions, working from the outside in on building envelope bricks and roofs. NYCHA successfully used the federal RAD program to upgrade housing for thousands of residents now living under private sector management—and plans for thousands of additional apartments in this program are underway.

Renovation of such a big system moves much more slowly than residents want and often fails to address immediate needs in their apartments -- but it is happening. That refitting of public housing is happening at all, rather than demolition, speaks to tenant activism of NYCHA residents and their advocates. When a crisis hit public housing elsewhere, politicians have used a crisis to demolish, not rebuild housing (New Orleans after Katrina, for instance, demolished vast projects).

New York’s public housing movement, however, needs to be creative and flexible in the next steps. Residents and their allies should use their political power to pressure politicians to reform labor unions at NYCHA so tenants get economical and high-quality service. Residents and advocates have given the unions a free pass, but this is a strategic mistake because, without a revolution in the hours, roles, and compensation of NYCHA maintenance and custodial staff (comprising 40 percent of NYCHA’s annual budget), NYCHA residents are not going to enjoy major improvements in their quality of life.

Residents and advocates also need to force the Mayor to come up with a reasonable long-term plan for investment. While an immediate commitment of the estimated $31 billion needed for top-to-bottom renovation is unrealistic, even a lot less can upgrade the quality of life. The city, for instance, needs to integrate NYCHA into its annual capital planning process. Given the growing importance of NYCHA to reducing homelessness, and of infill sites to the city’s affordable housing plans, it only makes sense that NYCHA gets a larger share of city support. Residents should also light a fire under Democratic majorities in Albany and the Governor to find money for additional renovation and public-private partnerships.

NYCHA remains a crucial service for many New Yorkers and one that helps preserve diverse neighborhoods in the face of gentrification. And just because a housing system delivers a product that many people wouldn’t choose for themselves doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable to lots of other people with fewer choices or different values. Mass services like public housing, public transit, and public education will always “lose” money because the people who need and use them generally lack the money to pay the real cost of running a complex urban service whether it be for a subsidized apartment, a subway ride, or a public classroom. It is, however, up to the recipients of these systems to use the political system to secure and protect these essential services.

Nicholas Dagen Bloom is a professor at New York Institute of Technology and author of many books.

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