Gotham Gazette

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Life-Saving Legislation That Must Not Wait

Marti Speranza City Council

Marti Speranza, the author, center (photo: @MartiSperanzaNY)

The passage of the East Midtown Rezoning will lead to the construction of an estimated 16 buildings, six Subway projects, and many public spaces over the next 20 years. The plan utilizes density bonuses to incentivize developers to pay for transportation and public realm upgrades, while also empowering cash-strapped landmarks to capitalize on their air rights. All the stakeholders made compromises to reach the final deal, which will begin an era of restoring East Midtown to a globally competitive business district.

One thing that can’t be compromised is the safety of the workers, neighbors, and future occupants of East Midtown––or any neighborhood in our city.

In order to address the increase in construction deaths during the construction boom across our city, the City Council has introduced life-saving legislation to make work safer for the 180,000 construction workers who build and live here. Intro. 1447, which would mandate additional safety training, has the support of 46 Council sponsors. These legislators recognize that more safety training is needed to prevent avoidable accidents. As major projects like the Hudson Yards and the East Midtown Rezoning progress, this legislation becomes even more important.

The Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) is one of the biggest opponents of the bill. It claims it will shut smaller, non-union M/WBE contractors out of lucrative construction deals while rewarding union shops, whose record of worksite safety has been better due to the hours of union-provided safety training and other precautions. Masquerading as a nonprofit called “Putting New Yorkers to Work,” REBNY has run ads against the bill, featuring construction workers of color making appeals to the City Council to not “take their jobs away.”

The reality is that workers of color, specifically Latino workers, could have the most to gain from this legislation. They have been disproportionately killed in construction accidents, the overwhelming majority of which have occurred on non-union worksites, according to a New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health report released earlier this year.

The possibility of decreasing opportunities for M/WBEs is a serious concern that needs to be addressed. But to frame this bill as a choice between opportunities for M/WBE contractors and safety of workers is disingenuous. It’s cynical to imply this legislation is designed to penalize open-shop contractors. There’s no room for error on worksites; safety trainings -- union-sponsored or otherwise -- prepare workers to handle the inherent dangers of construction work and mitigate risks. The aim of Intro. 1447 has always been to increase safety on worksites -- that should be a top priority for all.

The final version of the legislation should not yield to demands for fewer hours of safety training. If opponents’ chief concern is the potential to undermine opportunities for M/WBEs in construction, legislators should move quickly to study the impact it could have on M/WBEs and ensure those firms have a voice in the conversation.

The battle over Intro. 1447 is an example of politics getting in the way of policy. That’s something we can’t allow to happen when lives are in the balance.

Marti Speranza is a Democratic candidate for City Council in District 4. On Twitter @MartiSperanzaNY.

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‘Fair Share’ Reform – An Essential Step to Solving the City’s Homelessness Crisis

Carlina Rivera

Carlina Rivera, the author (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)

Repairing the subways, closing Rikers, rescuing failing schools – it can seem like New York’s most insurmountable crises are always being dealt with by cutting corners and taking the path of least resistance. This isn’t how it’s always been in our city. When the city passed the historic Fair Share Criteria in 1989, officials finally said enough to the inequitable distribution of city facilities and called for investment in a long-term plan for facility siting in the future.

These rules were supposed to require the city to place facilities in a thought-out, deliberative process that factored in their potential effectiveness as well as the input of the community. Unfortunately that hasn’t been the case.

Over the years, the original Fair Share Criteria have been found to be non-transparent and filled with loopholes that city officials and agencies continue to exploit to this day, particularly when it comes to homeless shelter siting.

The city’s new homelessness plan shows this disregard for Fair Share, with officials looking to place shelters in the easiest-to-build locations in order to satisfy the plan's goal of building 90 new shelters. Sadly, this means that overburdened communities are once again seeing shelters open just blocks away from existing shelters, while nearby neighborhoods continue with few or no shelters at all. This is a clear misallocation of resources that will only help to exacerbate difficulties around existing shelters.

Want a real example of how Fair Share isn’t being factored into the city’s homelessness response? One of the newest facilities in the city, a 28-unit shelter that is set to open soon in on East 17th Street in Gramercy, perfectly illustrates the current situation. This shelter is exactly what the city needs – its small size will create a safer, more comfortable environment for its residents, and the facility will have access to the programs that can get New Yorkers back on their feet.

But this shelter’s innovations quickly end when it comes to its location. The site was quietly chosen largely because it was a former treatment center and easy to develop, even though the community already has nearly 1000 beds within walking distance at the 30th Street Men’s Shelter. With such a large population and a lack of individualized supportive services, this shelter has been a disappointment for many who reside in it and a continued complaint of local residents who see hundreds of men outside each day with seemingly no path to housing stability.

I want our district to be a role model for the rest of the city, where we each accept the same, equal responsibility to help. When I am elected to the City Council, passing the recently announced Fair Share reform package will be one of my first legislative goals.

I also understand that new shelters such as the one on 17th Street will be a real resource for our community’s most vulnerable residents. However, we also must be fair and recognize the terrible situation occurring at large, less-effective shelters such as 30th Street, and couple any new shelter openings with a reduction of beds at larger or failing shelters. This would bring shelters like 30th Street more in line with the smarter, smaller shelters we need in this city.

For years the city favored quick fixes over a long-term solution to homelessness. But homelessness has never been an issue that can just be swept under the rug and forgot about, or dealt with by warehousing people. It requires a forward-thinking strategy that looks at each level of the homelessness support structure and honestly asks if we can do better.

A better Fair Share is the first step in this process, and it won’t be easy. But our city’s biggest accomplishments have always emerged from the most visionary ideas. We know what needs to be done – now we just need the courage to follow through with it.

Carlina Rivera is a candidate for New York City Council’s District 2, which covers the East Village, Gramercy Park, Kips Bay, Flatiron, Lower East Side, Murray Hill, Rose Hill. On Twitter @CarlinaRivera.

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A Victory for School Based Health Centers, But More To Do

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Assemblymembers Carroll & Simon, the authors (photo via @Bobby4Brooklyn)

School based health centers (SBHCs) are a critical safety net for immigrants and the uninsured. There are 145 SBHCs serving students in more than 345 schools across the city, regardless of their ability to pay. SBHCs provide primary and preventive care, reproductive and mental health care, and first aid; manage chronic illnesses; and more. From asthma and diabetes to food allergies and anxiety, these clinics can make the difference between life and death for many of our schoolchildren.

The clinics yield positive health outcomes and are cost-effective through their provision of preventive health care. They are also wildly popular with parents, students, and school administrators. The city wholeheartedly supports the clinics, which have been shown to reduce absenteeism and enhance school performance. The clinics also fulfill the state’s goal of access to community-based care.

Therefore, it was alarming when four schools in District 15 received a letter in June from SUNY Downstate Medical Center, which operates five SBHCs, informing them that state funding had been dramatically reduced and that the SUNY Downstate SBHCs were in jeopardy. 

A combination of a 20% cut in non-Medicaid funding in the 2017-18 State Budget ($3.9M), a May 2017 change by the State Department of Health to the funding methodology for the distribution of non-Medicaid funds, and a July 1, 2018 deadline to be carved-in to Medicaid Managed Care has created underfunding and instability to the SBHCs. 

SUNY Downstate was a big loser in the state’s funding methodology changes that followed closely on the heels of the state’s budget cuts: SUNY Downstate’s budget for 2017-18 was slashed by 70%, from $669,322 to $198,187. While some sponsors received more money and are scheduled to open new centers this year, some of the larger sponsors took significant blows to their budget; NYU Lutheran Family Health Centers also took a cut of over $500,000, as did Mt. Sinai Hospital, which experienced a nearly $700,000 loss.

SUNY Downstate later announced that the cuts were unsustainable and that it could not operate four of its five centers. This included the centers at M.S. 51 William Alexander; Brooklyn New School (BNS) and Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies; P.S. 38 the Pacific School; and the School for International Studies and Digital Arts and Cinema Technology High School.

Quickly, a coalition of parents, administrators, community leaders, labor unions, and elected officials came together to organize and fight back and everyone pitched in. An online petition in support of the centers was launched by the local elected officials. Jeremy Amar, a parent at MS 51, created posters of several student beneficiaries of the SBHCs with the slogan: “save your school based health center; community health starts here.” Amy Sumner, a parent coordinator from BNS 146, put out the call for personal stories about an SBHC and they poured in.

Thankfully, the coalition’s advocacy efforts were successful. SUNY Downstate decided that no matter the level of state funding that it received, it will continue to operate the four clinics for this year. We are very grateful that SUNY Downstate has stepped up for our children, but recognize the need to ensure the long-term viability of the SBHCs. It’s very likely that we will need to find a new sponsor for the four centers next year and we all need to make sure SBHCs across the city and state are properly funded going forward.

According to a study by the Children’s Defense Fund, next year’s Medicaid carve-in will reduce revenues to SBHCs by $16.3 million -- on top of this year’s cuts. Legislation was passed by the State Legislature to enact a permanent Medicaid Managed Carve-Out for SBHCs (A7866 /S6012). We are hopeful that Governor Cuomo will sign that bill into law by the end of the year.

SBHCs are only one piece in a very complex and large health care system, but this experience has demonstrated that these small pieces often have a significant impact on the daily lives of New Yorkers and their children. We are proud that our coalition came together to save these clinics because they are vital to the health of our students in District 15 and as elected members of the state Assembly we are committed to seeing to it that they are preserved for many school years to come. 

By Robert Carroll, Assemblymember, 44th District, & Jo Anne Simon, Assemblymember, 52nd District. On Twitter @Bobby4Brooklyn & @JoAnneSimonBK52.

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The Path Forward is Down The Center

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(photo: Michael Appleton/NYC Mayor's Office)

I’ve never voted for a winning president. In my life, I’m 0-3 in that particular office. From John McCain, to Mitt Romney, and finally Hillary Clinton; my chosen pick has never ended up in the White House. After this most recent, surprising defeat, I found myself feeling hopeless about the political direction in this country. I searched through the unending social media madness that inevitably leads to arguments, looking for someone willing to make needed change.

Desperate and ready to act, I started searching for a cause, a candidate, a movement – anything focused on advancing issues and not party. That search led me to the Centrist Project.

As I read through the website, I found myself aligned with the theory of fixing on the best ideas from both sides of the aisle and putting the country before any political party. I was excited to see that the Centrist Project concept allows those involved to focus on important issues, such as fiscal sense and environmental responsibility, without worrying what one party or its members will think. The more I researched, the more I liked the movement I was seeing. And when I was asked to be the Centrist Project’s New York State Leader, I happily accepted.

The Centrist Project’s mission is to reshape and reform our political system by supporting centrist policies and independent candidates for office that are willing to put the needs of the people in front of the needs of any political party.

To help accomplish this mission, the Centrist Project has adopted what’s called the “fulcrum strategy.” The fulcrum strategy aims to identify closely divided legislatures at the state and federal level and elect a small number of independents that would deny either major party an outright majority. This would force lawmakers to either reach across the aisle for bipartisan support to pass legislation, or gain the support of the independents – giving the independents a disproportionate influence over the legislative agenda. The Centrist Project has currently identified a number of legislatures to implement this strategy, including the U.S. Senate, where as few as three independent Senators could break up majority control.

A major initiative for the Centrist Project is the grassroots movement to establish chapters in states and cities across the country that focus on local and national issues and candidates to seek the reasoned center and make needed change. Armed with the fact that a plurality of Americans (45%) already self-identify as independents, compared to 28% Democrat and 25% Republican, local chapters are recruiting members to help spread the word and further the Centrist Project’s goals.

Here in New York, we have a rich history of independent and third party candidates. We’re the state that elected Teddy Roosevelt governor in 1898 after a campaign where he repeatedly disagreed with his own party. This is the place that re-elected Michael Bloomberg to a third term in 2009 after he shed party and ran as an independent. The people of New York consistently support candidates that are interested in solving problems, candidates who support social tolerance and economic opportunity.

This state is more interested in listening to good ideas than blindly following a party agenda - and that is what the Centrist Project is all about. Our local chapter has grown and organized into a movement. We’re attending town halls and talking about the issues, with no allegiance to a party agenda or bureaucracy; we’re identifying candidates to support and endorse; and we’re becoming a vocal part of New York politics.

If this sounds remotely appealing to you, I hope you will join us at an event, attend a meeting, and get involved in this movement that will make real change here at home and across the country. And by change I mean neither left nor right, I’m not talking about change to benefit the Republican or Democratic Party. I’m talking about change that represents most Americans, people who want to be able to think for themselves and find sensible solutions.

For far too long, we have been forced to align ourselves with a party on the left or the right, to choose liberal or conservative. For far too long, we have watched as those parties ignored the majority of the public and catered to special interests that force them farther and farther from the reasoned center.

It’s time for something different. It’s time to work together and seek the center on the big challenges our country faces. It’s time to elect centrist, independent candidates who will endeavor to fix our broken system by working together on the issues here in New York and across the country.

Lance Neyland is New York State Leader for The Centrist Project. On Twitter @CentProj.

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Your Right to Vote in New York is as Vulnerable as Anywhere in the U.S.

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(photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)

We are in a perilous time for voting rights. Since even before President Trump’s inauguration, he has been pushing the myth of widespread voter fraud. With the creation of the Presidential Advisory Commission for Election Integrity in May, he put the power of the federal government behind perpetuating that claim. This commission is part of a larger and systematic assault on voting rights.

Our government, both on the federal and state level, has made increasingly aggressive moves to redefine voting as a privilege rather than a fundamental right. The ultimate goal of these efforts is to make the electorate older, whiter, and more conservative by disenfranchising millions of students, low-income women and men, and people of color. Voting rights do not have the emotional appeal of some of the other dangers presented by this administration. However, our right to vote is our ability to have a say in the makeup and functioning of our government and our judicial system.

The efforts to restrict that ability are a key component of a larger effort to perpetuate a status quo of white supremacy, of ableism, of patriarchy, of deciding whose lives matter. Even after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, African-Americans continued to be disenfranchised for close to 100 years by vigilantes and mobs through a campaign of intimidation, terror, and assassinations. The violence that recently occurred in Charlottesville must be understood in light of our past and present struggles to preserve and expand the right to vote.

In May, Indiana enacted a law requiring a single county to consolidate precincts with fewer than 600 active voters, which would potentially eliminate half of the county’s voting precincts. The county in question, Lake County, is home to the largest Hispanic and second largest African-American population in the state. The Indiana Conference of the NAACP, supported by Priorities USA Foundation, filed a complaint challenging the law this month, arguing that the law violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

We see no reason to believe that the DOJ will fight on the side of the citizens who will be disenfranchised by this law. More recently, the Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, reversed a position held under the Obama administration and filed a brief siding with the state of Ohio after it purged thousands of people from its voter rolls for being “inactive” after not voting in two elections. Rather than defending its citizens and working to guarantee our right to vote, the DOJ is using its significant influence to support the practice of denying eligible voters their rights. The actions join the propagation of voter ID laws and voter roll purges in states like Wisconsin, Georgia, and beyond. These attacks are as widespread as they are effective.

The threat of voter roll purges and voter suppression now looms over the Empire State.

Earlier this month, the New York State Board of Elections complied with a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request for New York voter roll information from the President’s Commission. The BOE turned over publicly available data (name, birthdate, home address, gender, political party affiliation, and voting history). The Co-Chairs of the BOE and Governor Cuomo released strikingly similar statements justifying this release, while explaining that they remain committed to protecting New Yorkers.

In Governor Cuomo’s statement, he referred to the commission as “a politically-motivated organization seeking to perpetuate the myth of voter fraud.” In response to questions by Brooklyn Voters Alliance members, BOE Co-Chair Douglas Kellner stated, “I have repeatedly indicated my concern that the leadership of the Presidential Commission has a track record that shows they are more interested in voter suppression rather than uncovering fraud. Nevertheless, New York law is unambiguous that any person can obtain a copy of the public voter list as long as they agree that the list will used be only for election purposes.”

We are pleased to see our elected officials and state agencies acknowledging the real threat posed by this federal administration. However, merely acknowledging the problem is not an adequate response to the grave threat New Yorkers face.

Despite living in a state that is known for championing progressive values, the voting rights of New Yorkers are vulnerable. And despite prior assurances by Governor Cuomo, New York is not leading in the area of voting rights.

As the Governor has acknowledged, we have some of the most outdated election laws in the country. Yet, the state Legislature passed none of the voting reforms introduced this legislative session. It is time for actions to match the rhetoric. It is time for New York’s elected officials to counter the efforts of the Trump administration to disenfranchise Americans by providing automatic voter registration, early voting, same day voter registration, and other measures that will expand access to the ballot and make it easier for all New Yorkers to vote.

Our rights will not be preserved by eloquent statements and voter registration drives. New York voters need full protection of our registration and voting rights. We need a government that demonstrates it will protect the voice of all of its citizens. That is why we demand meaningful voting reform.

Executive Committee, Brooklyn Voters Alliance: Amanda Blair, Jess Byrne, Erica Cohen, Jacques David, Nicole Hunt, Julie Kerr, Amanda Ritchie, Beth Slade, Amy Stuart
Brooklyn Voters Alliance is a Brooklyn-based group of concerned citizens who want to encourage civic engagement and ensure open and fair elections for all New Yorkers. On Twitter: @BKVoters.

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Open Data Promises New Era of Transparent Government, When Will It Arrive?

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Vision Zero data (photo: @NYCMayor)

New York has had some issues when it comes to ethics and transparency in government, to say the least.

Whether it is the more than 30 politicians that have been convicted of corruption-related offenses, or countless challenges with getting public records from government at every level, it’s not hard to see that New York has a long way to go in becoming ethical, transparent, and accessible.

It will be a long road to repairing this mess. One concept that has the potential to be a huge help is Open Data.

Open data policies come in different shapes and sizes, but they all aim to take advantage of the digital age by posting data collected and maintained by government agencies to a public online portal. This provides citizens and watchdogs with easier access to information, and helps government agencies gain valuable insight into how they are performing.

It also reduces how often formal records requests must be filed under the Freedom of Information Law. For citizens, filing these requests can be difficult to manage, and potentially require costly lawsuits to see through. That’s not an option for many New Yorkers. Just think of the parents who recently protested the city Department of Education’s awful response time when they asked for records.

On the bright side, New York City’s Open Data plan is setting an example worth following for governments across the state.  

The city’s policy has been in effect since March 2012, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed Local Law 11 of 2012 “to make City data available online using open standards.” City agencies’ public data sets must be posted on a single web portal by the end of 2018, with many sets already up and certain benchmarks along the way.

This legislation made New York City a leader in the open data movement, but the city has hit bumps in the road in implementing it.

Agencies were first required to self-submit plans showing when they would publicly release data. This was thankfully bolstered by packages of amendments added in 2015 and 2016. These amendments required more timely responses to public requests for new data sets.

More significantly, they demanded that agencies review FOIL requests asking for data to see if they involved new public data sets that could be published. This may sound complicated, but it’s a very commonsense ‘if one person is asking a question, somebody else is thinking it too’ type of policy. It is a built-in way to constantly expand the data available to the public.

The Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA) examines three agencies each year to verify that all public data sets have been disclosed. This is nice, but operates at a snail’s pace.

Many agencies are still delinquent in their reporting. With 92 participating agencies, it’s clear that MODA’s examination of just three per year will not guarantee all 92 comply by the December 2018 deadline. It’s one thing to promise, but New Yorkers need to see government deliver.

The bottom-line is positive, though. The City’s Open Data Portal received an average of 140,000 monthly hits from 2016 to 2017. There is a clear demand for transparency, and people using the system can hold lagging agencies accountable.  

The City’s leadership on this issue has also gained a few followers.

Recently, the City of Syracuse launched its open data portal. Currently, the portal houses data about neighborhoods, housing, infrastructure, and lead risks. The city is requesting public input on what data should be added.

New York State enacted a similar open data policy in 2013, when Governor Cuomo signed Executive Order No. 95 establishing “an online Open Data Website for the collection and public dissemination of Publishable State data.”

However, the state’s plan is well behind New York City’s. Even the state’s trademark bragging tone cannot hide that its report shows incredibly important departments barely post anything. The state’s economic development arm, its Department of Education, and Government & Finance are all below 40 percent of records posted.

A look at specific departments finds a number that haven’t posted items recently. For example, the Dormitory Authority, which oversees Albany’s most notorious slush fund, the “State and Municipal Facilities Program” has not posted new data in over a year.

New Yorkers should be excited about Open Data’s potential to provide a window into what their governments are doing. They must get more involved as these policies evolve, and demand that deadlines and requirements are met – and that the state get caught up to speed.

Candice DiLavore is Reclaim New York Transparency Project Manager. On Twitter @cdilavorecdilavore & @ReclaimNewYork.

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We Need to Do More - Not Less - to Elect Women to Office

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Sonia Ossorio, the author, is president of National Organization of Women – New York

Across the country, women are working to reclaim their power on the front lines of the resistance against the misogyny and xenophobia of the Trump administration. Yet when women decide to run for office themselves, they continue to face significant barriers — and in one local City Council race — those barriers have become starkly clear.

In the Bronx, Amanda Farias is running to represent District 18, which includes the neighborhoods of Soundview, Castle Hill, Parkchester, Clason Point and Harding Park. Born and raised in the Bronx, Amanda has made a career of serving her community. She brings extensive political experience running the City Council’s Women’s Caucus, working for Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, and leading participatory budgeting efforts for Council District 30. Amanda is exactly the kind of qualified, experienced and committed candidate we should be working to elevate and support.

But the Bronx County Democrats decided instead to back a candidate—Ruben Diaz Sr.— who fails to support the basic tenets of the Democratic Party and human rights, who seeks to put a woman’s decisions about her body into the hands of government, and who has demonstrated contempt for the LGBTQ community.  

To add insult to injury, the Bronx County Democrats are trying to build roadblocks to prevent Amanda Farias from even getting on the ballot, leaving Bronx voters with fewer options. There’s nothing democratic about that.

Amanda gathered over six times the number of signatures required to be placed on the ballot, a testament to the desire of residents of the Bronx to see more qualified candidates run for office. Instead of embracing the opportunity for new voices, the Bronx County Democrats challenged the validity of her petitions. This cynical move makes their intentions all too clear: the Bronx County Democrats don’t just want their candidate to win. They want to prevent Amanda from even running. They don’t care if you have choices.

As the nation faces an onslaught of hate and bigotry across the country, the Bronx County Democrats’ petition challenge is especially chilling. In a time when the leader of our country dismissed bragging about sexual assault as “locker room talk,” when leaders of the current administration have threatened to defund the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and access to women’s healthcare is diminished, it is more important than ever to support strong, progressive leaders like Amanda Farias at the local level. And before we can even elect women, we need to make sure they get on the ballot.

There are currently only 13 women serving in the 51-seat City Council. Five are set to leave at the end of the year (four due to term limits)—all of whom are women of color. Unless we empower and support women to run and fill these seats, women’s representation in the Council will drop to an abysmal 16 percent.

No matter who is elected this fall to replace the departing Council members, one thing is clear. If we want to elect women, then we must be more proactive about giving women a platform. This isn’t just a Bronx problem—it’s a systemic issue for women who aspire to leadership positions from the corporate boardroom to national political office. But to change this culture and give women a path to the top, we must start locally.

This means cultivating women leaders from the start, organizing activist nights and holding events to create a network that amplifies women’s voices, similar to the work we do at the National Organization for Women – New York. This means being deliberate in recruiting women and diverse voices on community boards, by investing in campaigns early on, by not making women the last token choice when an opening comes up, and at the very least by not purposefully blocking the democratic process when women do pursue opportunities.

At the end of the day, voters should have more choices, not fewer, if we are going to move this country and this city forward. And it can and should start here in the Bronx.

Sonia Ossorio is President of the National Organization for Women – New York. On Twitter @NOW_NYC.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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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