Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics




Time for City to Overhaul Drug Strategy

johnson flyer

Council Member Corey Johnson (photo: William Alatriste)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex S. Vitale is Associate Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics.

Matt Curtis is Policy Director at VOCAL New York.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

New York City's Recovery Finally Starts Generating Wage Gains

stringer 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have an op-ed for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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

fight for 15

The author amid a sea of fellow ralliers



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

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Brooklyn Box Browns

civil war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Higher Marks for Scandal-ridden Legislature Decoded

NYS Senate

The New York State Senate (photo via

Here's a fact for Ripley's Believe It Or Not: we New Yorkers seem to be feeling a lot better about our state legislature lately. Responding to a Mid-march Sienna survey, 41% of those polled expressed a "favorable opinion" of the Assembly, while 46% were unfavorable. A slightly larger proportion, 44%, expressed a favorable view the Senate, with 46% unfavorable. The gap between those favorable and those not (with those undecided excluded) was within the +/- 3.5% range of error for the poll. Startlingly, this means that a plurality of the state's registered voters may actually hold a positive view of our legislature.

One comparison brings the point home. Public approval of the way the U.S. Congress is doing its job over the past five years as measured by the Gallup poll has ranged between a low of 9% (March, 2013) and a high of 24% (May, 2011). Though the recent trend has been generally upward from the 2013 low point, the March, 2015 level of public approval of Congress's performance was 18%, less than half that for either of New York's legislative houses in the same month.

The highest recent levels of public approval of Congress, which of course has had its own massive troubles with non-performance and corruption, are below the lowest for the New York State Assembly (25%, recorded in August of 2010). The lowest recent approval for the New York Senate (20%) was recorded in August of 2009. Remember 2009? It was the chaotic year in which the Democrats, newly elected to the Senate majority, failed miserably when offered an opportunity to govern. The party's organization of the Senate was blocked by the notorious "Gang of Four" dissident Democrat members, three of whom later went to jail.

It is a massive understatement to note that corruption and ethical lapses in the legislature have not ceased being problems in New York over the past half-decade, the time during which approval of the state legislature has increased. According to Citizens Union's "Corruption Tracker," four legislators left office for criminal or ethical reasons in the 2009-2010 legislative session, three during 2011–2012, and eight during 2013-2014. Currently, four more are facing criminal charges: Republican Senate Deputy Majority Leader Tom Libous, former Democratic Senate Leader John Sampson, Democratic Assemblymember William Scarborough and, most recently and dramatically, former Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Increased approval for the legislature side-by-side with persistent corruption: What's going on here? One possible (sad) answer is that corruption is accepted by most New Yorkers as part of our state's political DNA. Preeminent federalism scholar Dan Elazar argued that the Empire State is among those with an "individualistic political culture." Like our neighbors in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, he thought that we in New York routinely expect our elected officials and others with a foothold in the system to advance their own interests, not some broader public interest. With politics already seen to be about personal gain, it is only a short step to tolerating corruption as a routine part of the game.

New York's feared ungovernability was a framing theme of the 2010 race for governor. Years of failing to meet the April 1 adoption deadline made late budgets a metaphor for state government dysfunction. Governor Andrew Cuomo highlighted the passage of on-time budgets in every year of his first term as evidence of bi-partisan executive-legislative collaboration that had, he said, moved the state from "dysfunction and chaos" to "government that is working."

Because the Assembly missed the mark by about three hours, there has been some caviling about whether the state budget was passed timely again this year. The man in the street would certainly say 'yes, it was.' A second explanation of the legislature's recently healthier poll scores may therefore be that they reflect New Yorkers' reasonable view that the institution lately has actually been performing better. The governor takes the credit but, as John Kennedy once said, "A rising tide lifts all boats."

Earlier this year, stung by the Silver indictment just a day after he had barely mentioned political reform in his State of the State address, Governor Cuomo built an ethics package into his budget, and pledged to give its adoption priority even over achieving timely passage for a fifth year in a row. In reaction, when surveyed by Sienna in February of 2015, New Yorkers said that corruption remained a serious problem, but gave priority to passing an on-time budget over ethics reforms. This highlights a third point. Citizens are making a distinction between good institutional performance and bad individual behavior, and saying that, on balance, achieving the former trumps punishing the later.

Contrary to his initial hard line, in the final budget negotiations Governor Cuomo accepted compromises on his ethics package while again achieving budget timeliness. In reaction, some argued critically that substance was more important than process. They said that the governor traded away too much this year on ethics and a number of other issues to achieve a budget by the April beginning of the fiscal year. This undervalues the long-term importance of demonstrating that government can work, and especially that legislatures can work, in a time of increased skepticism about the viability of representative democracy in New York and across the country.

Albert Einstein once famously defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." New York has been incrementally tightening regulations and increasing sanctions to reduce corruption in government for generations, to little apparent effect. Perhaps we should shift our focus to the front end of the process, to altering the expectations of the voters and reforming our deeply flawed electoral process (read: more competition, public financing of elections), and consequently the values and behavior of those we elect.

In our book Tales From the Sausage Factory, my co-author former Brooklyn Assemblymember Dan Feldman reports remembering thinking, when he first entered the historic chamber, "I knew that no one could take my job away from me for the next two years unless I committed a felony, and I knew I was not going to commit one." Electing 213 legislators to the Assembly and Senate with this predisposition would likely solve our corruption problem once and for all, while also assuring an even better functioning legislature.

Gerald Benjamin is Director, Center for Research Regional Education and Outreach (CRREO) - SUNY New Paltz

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Property Tax Reform Now!

quart met museum

Assemblymember Quart (left), the author (photo: @DanQuartNY)

New York City's property tax system has been broken for years. It's byzantine at best, full of incomprehensible classifications and a mess of exemptions and abatements intended to correct earlier mistakes. The entire system is long overdue for reform.

The last major change to New York City's property tax system was the introduction of the Cooperative and Condominium Tax Abatement in 1996. Apartment buildings are assessed differently than single-family homes, subjecting homeowners in co-op and condo buildings to much higher tax burdens than those in single family homes. This tax break was designed to compensate for that inequity.

The abatement was intended to be a stopgap measure until the city created a comprehensive plan to solve inequities in the property tax system. In the intervening 18 years, the State Legislature has extended this abatement five times, each time tasking the Mayor's Office with devising a permanent solution to this problem. So far, no Mayor has done so.

This abatement is critical for many co-op and condo owners. Without it, their property taxes would increase substantially and immediately, leaving them suddenly unable to afford the apartments they have called home for many years.

What's more, this tax abatement preserves basic principles of fairness in our property tax system. There is simply no reason to tax homeowners who live in denser, more efficient, more environmentally sustainable apartment buildings at a higher rate than homeowners who live in detached houses.

While the entire property tax system still needs reform, it's time to stop pretending that this crucial tax abatement is a stopgap. After five renewals, it's clear that taxpayers and legislators alike believe in its importance. However, as long as the abatement remains temporary, it's a potential pawn in the inescapable political horsetrading in Albany. As long as it is temporary, co-op and condo owners are in peril.

It is time to permanently enshrine this abatement in our laws. Now that the budget is settled, I will be leading the charge to do just that, making this tax relief permanent and doing the right thing for co-op and condo owners across the city.

East Side Assemblymember Dan Quart is the author of a white paper detailing inequities in the NYC property tax system.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Sunset Park Redevelopment Proposal Misses the Mark


On a recent Sunday afternoon, an impressive array of leaders from Sunset Park's tenant advocacy, environmental justice, small business, and community-based institutions, and their citywide allies gathered to announce their participation in a coalition to monitor and raise concerns about Jamestown Properties' $1 billion dollar redevelopment and rezoning proposal for Industry City.

Of key concern is the incongruity of the Industry City proposal for a hotel, university facility, and retail in one of the city's few remaining industrial, working waterfront neighborhoods. In addition to an extensive industrial building stock, Sunset Park has an inter-modal infrastructure and is anchored by two massive city-owned facilities - South Brooklyn Marine Terminal and Brooklyn Army Terminal. As one of the speakers noted, the last time a New York City waterfront neighborhood faced a similar scaled development proposal was in 2005, when Greenpoint-Williamsburg was rezoned with devastating consequences for the area's Latino community.

Sunset Park is a vibrant, working class, immigrant Latino-Asian neighborhood with a much-lauded walk to work population. Recent media accounts, however, describe a derelict, moribund, and gritty industrial waterfront. This skewed representation is similar to the New York Times coverage of Queens's pan-Latino, immigrant Roosevelt Avenue as a "corridor of vice" in order to rationalize a controversial proposal for an expanded Business Improvement District. These characterizations help prime a neighborhood for transformative private sector interventions such as that proposed by Jamestown Properties and their partners.

There is no question that deindustrialization and private and public disinvestment have taken a heavy toll on Sunset Park, but some businesses – not just storage and warehousing – have long co-existed in a manufacturing-maritime ecosystem. These include garment cutters, sewing subcontractors, furniture makers, auto repair shops, construction material suppliers, moving companies, and food manufacturers, wholesalers, and distributers. They may not be part of Jamestown Properties' vision of an artisanal and hip innovation-maker economy but these small businesses are an important part of Sunset Park's local economy and immigrant employment base.

In 2010, I met with two Chinese garment contractors who relocated their factories from Manhattan Chinatown to 39th Street in Sunset Park due to rising rents and real estate instability. One produced evening gowns for a Midtown Garment Center manufacturer and he was optimistic about the future since he had secured an affordable space for his business. A short three years later, the building 353 Fashion Inc. occupied was sold to a real estate investment company that has recently obtained a Department of Buildings permit to demolish the 7 story building. According to my review of the NYS Department of Labor Apparel Industry Taskforce data, the number of garment contractors at Industry City was halved from 39 to 20 in the year, following Jamestown Properties' acquisition of a 49.9% ownership share.

This past August, I met with a few Bush Terminal tenants including the owner of a furniture and cabinet manufacturer, Dean & Silva, who were concerned about their tenancy amid a growing buzz about transformative waterfront redevelopment. Given the spectacular views of the Upper New York Bay and the drumbeat that NYC's manufacturing future is premised on an innovation economy, these businesses may not be deemed the "highest and best" uses for Sunset Park's waterfront.

The Industry City proposal claims to generate 20,000 jobs but there is little detail to substantiate this projection. So far, the proposal and design renderings focus on the proposed hotel, retail streetscape, and bicycle path. What we do know about job creation in the innovation economy is based on a 2013 Pratt study of the Brooklyn Navy Yard which found that 60% of Navy Yard tenants employ fewer than five employees. Given the realities of modern manufacturing that innovators typically require small spaces and hire few employees, this leads one to wonder whether most of the projected jobs for Sunset Park residents will be generated by the planned hotel and expanded retail.

On a recent tour of the Brooklyn Army Terminal, the guide lamented the threat posed by "residential creep" in industrial districts but the immediate concern for Sunset Park's waterfront may be more appropriately described as "retail creep." Several years ago, then Federal Building #2 designated developer, Times Equities Inc., was unabashed in naming their proposed project: Sunset Marketplace. While the 2008 financial crisis doomed this project, the current owner of Federal Building #2 (renamed Liberty View Industrial Plaza) just announced that a Bed Bath and Beyond will lease more than 100,000 square feet for four of its retail outlets.

The threat of displacement due to rising property values is real not only for industrial businesses but also for the sizable residential population in Sunset Park's manufacturing zoned area. Grandfathered by the 1961 Zoning Resolution, Sunset Park's waterfront bounded by 65th and 15th Streets, 3rd Avenue, and the Upper New York Bay represents four census tracts which according to the most recent 2013 American Community Survey includes about 10,000 residents. Living adjacent to the Gowanus Expressway and the industrial waterfront, this population has been on the frontline of neighborhood environmental justice struggles. Now, they face another type of threat. Among this population, 66% are Latino and a third have incomes below the poverty line. The educational attainment level for an overwhelming majority (63%) of the adults is completion of high school at most. These are families at imminent risk of displacement.

Community stakeholders are right to raise concerns about Williamsburg in part because the city largely dismissed the Greenpoint-Williamsburg 197a plan in its 2005 rezoning of the industrial waterfront. After a 13-year planning process, Sunset Park's 197a, which focuses on protecting the manufacturing and maritime waterfront, was adopted by the New York City Council in 2009. That same year, NYC EDC designated Sunset Park a "sustainable urban industrial district" in its Sunset Park Waterfront Vision Plan.

UPROSE also recently completed a NYS Brownfield Opportunity Areas planning process which engaged community residents, small business owners, and local non-profit organizations in developing a plan for the remediation and redevelopment of waterfront sites. All three plans emphasize shared goals to protect and grow industrial employment, promote green manufacturing and climate resiliency, and increase the efficient movement of goods.

Along with UPROSE, organizations represented at the recent press event include Neighbors Helping Neighbors, Trinity Lutheran Church, So.Biz, Working Families, Association of Neighborhood and Housing Developers, New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, SEIU 32BJ, Teamsters Local 812, Pratt Center for Community Development, and ALIGN. It is a broad coalition with important demands.

Recent news that Mayor de Blasio is considering a ban on hotels as an "as of right" development in light manufacturing zones is a small but positive step towards protecting Sunset Park's industrial waterfront. We need all our elected officials to affirm Sunset Park as a working waterfront, to honor the years of hard work and good faith in community planning, and to advance developments that truly support a sustainable industrial district that is job intensive for local residents.

Tarry Hum is a professor at The City University of New York (CUNY) and author of Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood. On Twitter @TarryHum.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

As Both Crime and Enforcement Decline, No Legitimate Policy Justification for More Cops

mmv nypd vest

Speaker Mark-Viverito with a new NYPD vest (photo: William Alatriste)

As bi-partisan groups came together in Washington, D.C. last week for a summit on mass incarceration with a focus, specifically, on shrinking the carceral enterprise, a similarly disparate bunch of political leaders here in New York City have coalesced around the opposite message: expanding the size, authority, and mission of the New York City Police Department. Outside of the vague concept of "community policing" no one is offering a cogent policy argument of why the NYPD needs to increase headcount, rather than realign its current resources.

At about this time last year, City Council progressives, led by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, lobbied for 1,000 more police officers and the funding for them, stating that an uptick in shootings in public housing developments warranted more boots on the ground. NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton swatted down the proposal, stating at the time that the new cops would not solve the problem the City Council was attempting to address and that the City didn't have the funds to support the plan anyway.

Fast-forward a year, and City Council progressives, led by Mark-Viverito, are once again pushing for 1,000 more officers – at a price tag of at least $94 million, before benefits and pensions are considered. They have pivoted on justification and gained furtther support from the political right, members of which approve for the council members' prior rationale. Mark-Viverito's plan for more cops has the supprt of Council Member Steven Matteo, one the Council's three Republicans; Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan; Patrolmen's Benevolent Association head Patrick Lynch; Bratton; and the New York Post.

The new cops are, according to Mark-Viverito, this time essential to the implementation of "community policing," an opaque term of art used by NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Collaborative Policing Susan Herman earlier this month to describe pilot projects in four of the city's 77 precincts (there are also 12 transit districts and nine housing departments). For a small cadre of officers, thirty percent of their days would be spent in social situations with community members, Herman said. On March 12, Assistant Chief Terrence Monahan told the City Council that "community policing" is what the NYPD has always done.

Mark-Viverito and Herman have suggested that increasing the headcount of the NYPD will free up officers from responding to 911 calls, allowing them time to interact with local communities. Herman said the agency is only waiting for smartphones, tablets, and other technology the officers will carry with them before rolling out the program. Why the NYPD needs these and other surveillance gadgets to chat with community members was never asked. But, more importantly, neither Bratton nor the Council has explained why the NYPD, under its current headcount, cannot implement Herman's initiative. Mark-Viverito has made it clear she wants the new cops, no matter what for, even as she has displayed an infirm grasp on what broken windows policing – the ideological underpinnings of the Bratton/de Blasio NYPD – is actually all about.

Critics of NYPD practices have been poking holes in the plan. "Too often, community policing means more intensive and invasive policing of minor disorderly behavior that serves to criminalize mostly people of color without dealing with the underlying causes of this behavior like poverty, homelessness, problematic drug use, mental health issues, and more," Alyssa Aguilera and Alex Vitale wrote recently in Gotham Gazette.

Marbre Stahly-Butts and Dante Berry have made the case for fewer police, not more. Josmar Trujillo has called the NYPD's promised policy change nothing more than a re-branding strategy.

The omission of any critical, number-crunching analysis by lawmakers around adding $100 million to the already stacked $4.7 billion NYPD budget shows the lack of legitimacy the proposal has from a policy standpoint.

The call for more cops is incongruous with the routine trumpeting by the mayor and police commissioner of low crime rates in the city. After all, since 1980 violent crime has fallen precipitously, from 6,500 events per 100,000 residents that year to fewer than 1,000 events per 100,000 residents in 2013. Similarly, nonviolent crime is four times lower today than it was in the 1980s.

Along with falling crime, there has been a decline in enforcement actions. In 2011 the NYPD made 685,724 stop-and-frisks; de Blasio proudly boasts that this number has dropped to under 40,000 in 2014 – although people in highly-policed neighborhoods dispute the characterization of a drastic improvement.

In 2005 the NYPD issued 650,000 criminal summonses, in 2013 that number was just over 450,000; in 2014 it was lower still. In 2010 there were 249,641 misdemeanor arrests (up from 65,041 in 1980); in 2013 there were 225,684 similar arrests. Recent changes in marijuana enforcement should push these numbers lower.

All told these enforcement declines add up to more than 850,000 fewer interactions between the police and public – most gained in just the past five years. Bratton has pegged the number closer to 1 million. With the police doing less work, has this not freed up any time for community interaction?

An officer can get through a stop-and-frisk report or a summons in as little as ten minutes, retired NYPD Detective Carlton Berkley told me recently. But a typical arrest, depending on the seriousness of the charge and the backlog of cases at the precincts and central bookings, can take anywhere from two to ten hours. A homicide, much longer, Berkley said. Even for a misdemeanor arrest the officer has to take the person into custody, bring them to the precinct, take them to the desk officer, place them in the cage, research the penal law, start doing the paperwork, type out the report, fingerprint the arrested person, photograph them, have the case reviewed by a sergeant, transport the prisoner to central bookings, bring them through emergency medical services, and present the charges to the district attorney, Berkley said. All of these steps are delayed if there is anyone else being processed simultaneously, which is usually the case. Most of the time up to the custody transfer at central bookings, officers remain with their partner, so the time is actually doubled.

"Usually cops arrest people not only because they did something wrong, but they do it for overtime purposes. As a second grade detective, my overtime rate was something like $85 dollars an hour, one arrest could mean and extra $850 dollars. A couple extra arrests every month, that's like a second job," Berkley said.

Bratton says that police are simply responding to 911 and 311 calls from communities, but this assertion has been mostly debunked. For example, during the second week of January, one Brooklyn precinct issued 3,300 quality-of-life summonses, which corresponded to just 12 quality-of-life 311 calls during the same period.

It's hard to believe that anyone phones 911 to report a person taking up two seats on the subway, theft of services, possession of drug residue, or standing outside the lobby of the building that they live in, common arrests documented by the Police Reform Organizing Project.

Of course, there are quotas as well. Although NYPD brass have long denied these, Bratton showed his hand following the slowdown last winter, referencing the need to get back to the "normal" numbers. A group of officers is currently suing the City over the practice. PBA President Patrick Lynch, who regularly derides the quota practices, has even made a distinction between necessary and unnecessary arrests, though he too wants more officers.

The bread and butter of the NYPD remains issuing vehicle tickets and arresting and summonsing people for minor crimes, violations and infractions. Excluding traffic tickets there are still nearly 1 million punitive interactions a year despite the reductions. It has gotten so bad that the City is looking to rework low-level offenses because the courts can't manage the workloads. Even Bratton admits that the public wants less enforcement.

District Attorney Donovan should know as well as anybody the extent to which the NYPD could be arresting fewer people. Campaigning to replace disgraced U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm, who resigned in December after pleading guilty to felony tax fraud, Donovan got behind the Mark-Viverito/Bratton plan at an endorsement rally with the court officers' union. "If [Bratton] says we need 1,000 new police officers, we need 1,000 new police officers," he said.

Donovan's office tosses out on their face roughly 10 percent of all cases brought by Staten Island precincts. Over the past five years, Staten Island judges dismissed about 30 percent of all felony cases they saw and 35 percent of all misdemeanors, suggesting a low-level of merit to nearly half the arrests in that borough.

The New York Times recently suggested that the City Council has lost its stomach for standing up to overreach by the police department, making the 1,000-officer gift seem even more like a peace-offering than a legitimate proposal from Mark-Viverito and others who just a few short months ago were walking out of City Council chanting "I can't breathe."

A $100 million political stunt (really $1 billion over the next decade) seems selfish and irresponsible. This time of year one can't escape coverage of the various budget holes that might be plugged with these resources. Just this week high school students marched on City Hall over cuts to their sports programs, and working people across the city reworked their budgets to deal with yet another MTA fare hike.

"To me, they don't really need those 1,000 new officers," Berkley, the retired NYPD detective said. "They'd be better off spending the money to open up some of these community centers."

Nick Malinowski is a social worker and independent journalist, living and working in Brooklyn; and is on Twitter @nwmalinowski.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

New York Needs Electronic Health Records

Hoylman flu shot

State Sen. Hoylman gets a flu shot (photo: @bradhoylman)

Teenagers aren't the only ones keeping up with the latest technology. Today, nearly three-quarters of Americans over the age of fifty are "plugged in" and regularly using the internet. As we get more connected, however, we're demanding the same of our medical care. Because many patients often have multiple doctors, it's important that all of their providers have access to their medical records.

This year, Governor Cuomo's budget again includes support for the continued development of New York's Statewide Health Information Network (SHIN-NY). This important state investment will enable patients and their doctors to seamlessly exchange electronic health records wherever they are in the state. The network is already gaining momentum: over 50,000 doctors and healthcare providers participate in SHIN-NY, and over 7 million New Yorkers have given consent to have their records shared.

SHIN-NY will be a game-changer for millions of people in New York State, especially those living with chronic conditions. Sixty percent of the American population over the age of fifty may have at least one chronic illness, whether it's heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or arthritis. In fact, many have more than one condition. For these New Yorkers, SHIN-NY will greatly simplify and improve the way medical care is delivered.

For example, it will no longer be necessary to hand-carry blood tests, x-rays, MRI scans or charts between doctors. If you're away from home and have an unexpected emergency, it means the doctor treating you will be able to access your health history, including drug allergies and pre-existing conditions, in order to provide the best possible care.

SHIN-NY will also help doctors share vital care information with other doctors, greatly improving the coordination of your care. This is critical, for example, if you see multiple doctors or have several medical conditions because doctors can make sure that the medication they prescribe doesn't conflict with your other medications or conditions.

Further, SHIN-NY will allow doctors and providers across healthcare settings to work together to address different parts of a person's illness. For example, a woman who recently had open-heart surgery and is a diabetic can be assured that her cardiologist, dietician, and primary care physician are coordinating effectively by accessing information through SHIN-NY to ensure she fully recovers from the surgery and receives proper, post-operative care, even after she's been discharged from the hospital.

Longer-term, increased care coordination will dramatically impact the cost and quality of healthcare in New York by reducing hospital re-admissions and avoiding unnecessary tests. And, this coordination will have the most profound impact on New Yorkers over the age of 50.

With budget negotiations ongoing, I urge the New York State Senate and Assembly to join Governor Cuomo in renewing their efforts to continue the development of the SHIN-NY.

by Carol Raphael, a board member of the New York eHealth Collaborative and former CEO, Visiting Nurse Service of New York.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The 'Either/Or' of an Assembly Member's Stand on Education

Rally outside AM Rodriguez's office (photo: Alliance for Quality Education)

Last Friday, and despite a snowstorm, dozens of parents, students, and education advocates picketed in front of Assembly Member Robert Rodriguez's East Harlem office demanding that he stand up for all public school children. Many in his district are frustrated by the fact that he has turned a deaf ear to their concerns, as reflected in his wrong stands on education.

While many of the public schools in his district can no longer support co-locations, Mr. Rodríguez has pledged his support for raising the charter school cap, which will lead to additional co-locations.

In a recent column printed in this publication, Assembly Member Rodriguez tried to paint himself as fair, but his arguments proved his charter bias. While he mentions the 143,000 students attending struggling district schools, he makes no reference to the troubling disparities in student population at charter schools and the suspension rates that are ten times those in public schools. Like the Assembly Member wrote, "education isn't either/or."

In his district, for example, public district schools serve 30 percent special education students compared to only 17 percent in charters. The disparity in the children taught in self-contained special education classes is not any better – 9 percent in district schools versus only 1 percent in charters, according to data from Alliance for Quality Education.

During the picket, parents delivered an over-sized copy of a letter that the assembly member refused to sign, which not only highlights all those staggering facts about charters but that also has been signed by two dozen Democrats in the Assembly. Parents are still waiting for an answer.

In his column, he does ask for an increase in funding for children with special needs who can be in mainstream classrooms, but rather than a call for inclusion, his argument sounds more like an excuse for why charters exclude high-need student populations.

More privately-run charter schools will divert funds from our local public schools desperately in need of those resources.

Raising the charter cap will only benefit the pockets of hedge fund billionaires who are now driving Governor Andrew Cuomo's education policy - and clearly now Assembly Member Rodriguez's too. He is responding to the $20,700 he has received in campaign donations from the same group of donors who have contributed so heavily to the governor's campaigns. That's why parents and advocates have urged him to return it.

We need our elected officials to stand up for a government that works for all of our children and not the interests of the wealthy. That's a position that Assembly Member Rodriguez has yet to prove.

by Carlos Ruiz, East Harlem resident, public school parent, and member of New York Communities for Change

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Sky’s the Limit for Solar in New York


The author, far left, & others at a solar panel event

Fifteen years ago, flat-screen televisions were a rare luxury item, a smart phone was one with an address book, we kept our music on plastic discs, and video chats were a feature in Star Trek episodes. Now there's widespread use of handheld devices that enable us to listen to music, watch videos, talk, text or video-chat with friends or colleagues, while also providing immediate access to a world of information.

Times have changed, and solar power is a case in point. Fifteen years ago, solar was used by a small number of true believers. Now, because of advances in technology and growing economies of scale, solar costs 25 percent of what it cost in 2000.

Solar panels are popping up all over: on homes, businesses, places of worship, and government buildings. Just over two months ago, in his State of the Union address, President Obama summed it up when he said, "Every three weeks, we bring as much solar online as we did in all of 2008."

Here in New York, solar energy grew 63 percent per year between 2010 and 2013. That's fast enough to reach a goal of 20 percent solar in New York by 2025– a goal once thought ambitious, if not impossible, but now readily achievable.

"Star Power: the Growing Role of Solar Energy in New York," a recent report by Environment New York Research & Policy Center, shows that growth could actually slow down to 47 percent and solar energy would still provide 20 percent of our power in the next decade.

This is a critical finding at a time when state regulators are trying to transform the New York's energy efficiency and renewable energy programs through Governor Cuomo's "Reforming the Energy Vision" (REV) initiative.

Boosting solar energy power production is more urgent than ever. Scientists have never been clearer that global warming is real, happening now, and will only get worse without meaningful action. In New York, we're already feeling consequences like Hurricane Sandy and other more extreme weather.

Achieving 20 percent solar energy would cut as much carbon pollution as 3 million cars emit in a year, and put New York more than halfway to the benchmark set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, which requires cuts in power plant carbon pollution of 44 percent.

More solar isn't just good for the environment. It's also good for our economy. Solar is currently the fastest-growing industry in the country, adding 143,000 jobs nationwide in 2013. According to the latest solar jobs census from the Solar Foundation, the solar industry employed more than 7,000 people in New York last year.

Of course, 20 percent solar is just a sliver of the possible. The state is home to more than 1.9 million residential and commercial rooftops that could host solar panels, and it has enough technical potential to meet the state's energy needs 11 times over.

We've made progress. But we can't take that progress for granted. Powerful interests, including the fossil fuel industry and electric utilities are working hard to slow gains. To take solar to the next level, we'll need a strong commitment from our local, state, and national leaders. By adopting a goal of getting 20 percent of our power from the sun by 2025 and working together, we can begin to move New York and the nation toward a future where we get all of our power from pollution-free energy sources. Our quality of life and our children's future depend on it.

Heather Leibowitz, Esq. is the Director of Environment New York, a statewide environmental advocacy organization.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.