Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



Mental Health Care is Key to Ending AIDS

ghmc aids walk

Kelsey Louie (left), the author, at the AIDS Walk (photo: Matthew McDermott)

From the days when HIV/AIDS first emerged, people living with HIV/AIDS faced horrible stigma, discrimination, hatred and rejection. Those touched by the epidemic also experienced trauma and depression. The emotional pain was searing; with little warning, AIDS robbed thousands of their family members, lovers, neighbors, and colleagues. People dealt with the shattering pieces of their lives as best as they could, often alone, and often with no professional help of any kind.

When Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), the first HIV/AIDS service organization in the world, was founded in 1981, services were developed based on the immediate needs of people coming through the doors, people with symptoms of AIDS, those who cared about people infected and affected, and the general public. Some came in need of care and support, others came for information or for assistance with grief due to the death of a loved one. In response, services were developed including a hotline to provide information, support groups for people with AIDS, buddy programs to provide care partners to the ill, and support groups for the families of people with AIDS or for those who were left behind after the AIDS death of a loved one.

Trained mental health professionals volunteered to facilitate many different types of support groups under the direction of a salaried clinical supervisor. People with AIDS were struggling with the psychological stress of an AIDS diagnosis, fueled by stigma, discrimination, anxiety, despair, and confusion. Short-term individual counseling was set up for people living with HIV to respond to those with urgent mental health needs, especially for those with AIDS Dementia Complex. At that time, GMHC’s primary jobs were to assist people to die with as much dignity as possible, to help those grieving the loss of a loved one to AIDS, and to provide all, including the broader public, with information about HIV/AIDS.

As new HIV medications were becoming available in the mid-1990s, GMHC’s group and individual counseling services continued to evolve. While HIV’s threat to a person’s physical health was well known, its impact on mental health was less clear, under-publicized, and not adequately researched. GMHC’s mission quickly changed; now it was our job to assist people to live with dignity—it is a mission that continues today.

Research shows a strong correlation between mental health disorders and people living with HIV and AIDS, a correlation that is often overlooked. According to the National Institute of Health, people with HIV have an increased risk for developing mood, anxiety and cognitive disorders, and are twice as likely to live with depression compared to those who do not have HIV. A 2010 United Kingdom study showed that one third of HIV-positive men who participated in the survey met the criteria for a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis.

For those living with HIV/AIDS, depression is more than just mental hell: it can be a silent killer. Studies show that if people living with HIV feel stigmatized or suffer from mental illness, they are less likely to take their medication properly, which not only puts their own health at risk by not suppressing the individuals’ viral load, but also raises the likelihood that they pass HIV on to others. Individuals living with HIV and depression are also more likely to think about suicide or even attempt to take their own lives.

Despite what we know about the connection between mental health and HIV/AIDS, too few people living with HIV/AIDS, and those invested in their health and happiness, are getting the mental health support they need. That is why we are proud to announce the opening of the state-of-the-art GMHC Carl Jacobs Mental Health Clinic, which will allow us to incorporate innovative treatment and counseling into our service model. Services will be available to adult New Yorkers of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and income levels, regardless of HIV status.

Past traumas, stress, depression, reduced self-esteem, and other challenges can be grueling to deal with. We aim to offer holistic services that address not only our clients’ mental health issues, but their social, spiritual, and health concerns as well. Meanwhile, the ability to reach more HIV-negative people with HIV preventative interventions and mental health services will allow us to help decrease new HIV infections.

It is now more than 35 years since the emergence of HIV/AIDS in the United States. New tools like PEP and PrEP mean we are closer than ever to ending the epidemic. But that dream will not become a reality until all people living with HIV/AIDS have access to the mental health care and services they need and deserve.

Kelsey Louie is the CEO of GMHC. On Twitter @KelseyLouieGMHC and @GMHC.

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New York Must Take Action Against Corporate Backers of Hate

moya profits pain

Assemblymember Moya, the author, speaks at a rally (photo: Make The Road New York)

Make the Road New York and the Center for Popular Democracy recently exposed President Trump’s corporate “backers of hate,” companies that stand to profit off an agenda so steeped in hate, prejudice, and greed, you would have to be willfully blind not to see it.

Nothing is more dangerous than business as usual when it is conducted in a moral vacuum, and these companies have been more than happy to go along for the ride: Goldman Sachs, Blackstone, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Blackrock, Boeing, IBM, Uber, and Disney all seem eager to cash in on the Trump agenda.

Whether it's financing or investing in the detention centers necessary for Trump’s immigration crackdown, bidding on contracts with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement or Customs and Border Protection, supporting Trump’s campaign and inauguration, or spearheading an anti-worker agenda, the corporations share one commonality: they enable the most destructive and hateful policies of this White House.

Because Trump is great for business when that business is locking up people of color behind bars for petty crimes, and standing to gain from their imprisonment - as it is for JPMorgan Chase. A Trump White House is great for business when you stand to profit from breaking up unions, rolling back workers’ rights, and squeezing more from the middle-class. As for the overwhelming majority of Americans, those living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to afford their kid’s college education, or bracing for the sharp cuts to their health care, they are on the opposite side of that transaction; their pain is another’s profits.

The Backers of Hate campaign urges these corporations to reverse course, until they are no longer accessory to the crimes against the disappearing middle class, against the Muslims targeted by Trump’s travel ban, and to the immigrants living in constant anxiety that today will be the last day they’ll see their family.

And although these companies may not be swayed by the moral argument, they will listen when it comes to their almighty dollar. The Trump resistance must expand to include resisting his enablers. Consumers will need to apply the pressure where they can until condoning the Trump agenda is no longer a profitable business model.

But they don’t need to fight goliath alone.

As the finance capital of the world, New York not only has an obligation to pressure these companies, it has leverage. Our state pension fund is the third largest in the United States, with assets totaling $178.6 billion. In the weeks to come, I will introduce legislation in the state Assembly to divest that pension fund from companies guilty of the most egregious corporate complicity.

New York needs to lead the effort and draw a line in the sand. If you choose to benefit from the broad net Trump has given immigration enforcement agencies, from the deregulation and right-to-work campaigns that will bleed the middle class, or from the environmental degradation that endangers all of our futures, you’ve chosen to build upon a morally dubious house of cards. If New York is to truly stand in resistance to the Trump agenda, it’s time to put its money where its mouth is and disassociate itself from the backers of hate.

Francisco P. Moya is a New York State Assemblymember representing the 39th District in Queens and is the prime sponsor of the NYS Liberty Act and the NY DREAM Act. On Twitter @FranciscoPMoya.

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The Mayor's Moment to Show His Commitment to Seniors

de blasio seniors

Mayor de Blasio speaks with seniors (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

As we age, we build momentum that is powering the economy, communities, and politics. Older people across the five boroughs are supporting local businesses, caring for their grandchildren, and participating in local politics. And yet we still find that many people aging into their later years cannot access this energy due to poverty, disability, and the lack of access to vital community services. We know almost one in three older New Yorkers struggles to make ends meet – living with painful, daily choices among food, medicine, and rent.

Over 40% report levels of disability and many older people struggle with social isolation, which research now tells us is a greater predictor of early death than obesity. Further, thanks to stagnant and antiquated city funding levels, over 800 are waiting since August for home care, while upwards of 2,000 are waiting for case management services that help people remain in their homes with modest assistance.

At first glance the issues seem overwhelming and unsolvable. But in fact, we already know what works and thankfully have an infrastructure here in New York to build upon. LiveOn NY represents a network of 100 member non-profit organizations that run roughly 800 programs in the five boroughs, including senior centers, meals on wheels, caregiver support, and case management. These programs provide critical community-based supports that together represent the foundation of an age-friendly city.

And this network of services is as diverse as our great city – providing assistance, classes, and programming that reflect every language, culture, nationality, and identity. Furthermore, we know that these services are not only culturally relevant and locally based but also efficient and effective. A recent New York City Department for the Aging study reports that seven in ten seniors attend their local senior center to avoid social isolation and over 20% found improved mental health through attendance. One out of four reported their physical health improved. These are important results and have incredible potential as people age into their seventies, eighties, and nineties.

So given the importance of these services in helping us age well and in our beloved communities, why is this network completely left out of the mayor’s budget priorities? Once again, we have an executive budget proposal from the mayor that shows a refusal to add any new funds to solve wait-lists or add capacity for future demand.

If Mayor de Blasio supports social justice and believes in progressivism, why does he leave out the later years of life? Are older New Yorkers exempt from social justice across the lifespan? And what about the daughter caring for her aging mother and her own children? She can count on universal pre-kindergarten for her young children yet nothing but waiting lists for her aging mother.

Mayor de Blasio ran on ending the tale of two cities. He recognized that the conditions in our wealthiest zip codes were only half of the story and that a truly progressive New York must create equitable opportunity for all. The chapters in that tale cannot end at age 60. We must ensure social justice across the lifespan. In addition to funding for the youngest and healthiest among us, the city budget must also include a robust plan that will support all of us as we age.

LiveOn NY, together with other advocates, has presented a $60 million budget plan to appropriately fund the city’s Department for the Aging. This needed support would begin to make the kind of investment in aging services that are needed. And beyond the budget, all of us must get involved in advocating for this inclusion. The foundation of aging services exists but needs serious additional investment in order to remain in place today and into the future.

Mayor de Blasio and the City Council have a choice - harness the momentum of later life by ensuring an equitable city budget or contribute to the tale of two cities. As New Yorkers, we pride ourselves on our ingenuity to develop solutions to challenging problems. We’ve often thought that the hidden secret of this city is the heart and willingness to work hard on behalf of our vulnerable neighbors. As we live longer, New Yorkers are seeking solutions to the challenges of aging and to the strong desire to remain engaged, involved citizens. Let’s lean in and move the momentum of older New Yorkers forward. Opportunities abound. But not without budgetary commitments to aging services.

Allison Nickerson is executive director and Bobbie Sackman is associate executive director of public policy for LiveOn NY. On Twitter @LiveOnNY.

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The Future of Latino Politics in New York City

ruben diaz jr

Ruben Diaz Jr. (photo: @rubendiazjr)

Just last month the annual Somos El Futuro legislative conference took place in Albany. Over 30 years ago a group of Latino elected officials and community leaders initiated the conference as a means to highlight issues important to Latinos and to shine a light on the plight of Latinos in New York. The visionary leadership of these early pioneers was to capitalize on and give consciousness to the ever-growing presence of Latinos in the state. Perhaps the name itself, Somos El Futuro -- We are the Future -- was not only a testament of the current influence of the Latino presence in New York at the time but also an apt moniker of the eventual significance of this surging community.

In a recent column, I highlighted the growing Latino electoral presence in New York City. Latinos now make up almost a quarter of the entire city electorate. Based on sheer numbers Latinos can now claim that they are not just the future but that estamos aqui ahora -- we are here now.

With this increasing presence has come a steady growth in Latino political representation, even though gentrification poses a real threat to some Latino-majority districts. The rise of the Latino presence citywide produced some noteworthy political leaders that in fact became pioneers and leading figures in our community. Among them we can note the work of Tony Mendez, Oscar Garcia Rivera, Herman Badillo, Olga Mendez, Angelo Del Toro, and Jose Rivera (who continues to serve in office).

Without a doubt, these pioneers have paved the way for a newer crop of Latino political leaders, many of whom are doing excellent work in their respective communities. Many are not only providing pivotal leadership in their districts, some have the potential to be serious and credible candidates for citywide office in the near future. It’s important to also note that the extremely important work of providing leadership in Latino areas—communities often riddled with rampant poverty, decrepit housing, and overcrowded schools—is not only being provided by elected officials. In fact, there are a number of Latino community activists, many of them young, fighting ardently for the justice that Latinos demand and deserve.

The last time a Latino gained a top spot on a citywide ballot was Fernando Ferrer in 2005. Prior to that it was Badillo, whose 1977 mayoral candidacy gained the affection of Latinos in New York (he also ran two more times for mayor). It is my belief that for the 2021 elections, Latinos can once again have a Latino (possibly more than one) launching a credible campaign for citywide office. The question is, who might these candidates be that can gain the attention of not only Latinos but also a wider electorate and public? Who will be the next Ferrer or Badillo?

The first that has to be highlighted is Ruben Diaz, Jr., the current Bronx Borough President. Very recently, Diaz, Jr. was a constant name in the ever-present rumor mill regarding a potential challenge to Mayor de Blasio. Diaz, Jr. instead has decided to seek re-election. Over the years, he has taken credit for a boon in Bronx development projects (something which in fact began occurring during Ferrer’s tenure in the borough presidency) and has been a fierce advocate for the people in his borough. While lacking the intellectual heft of a Badillo and Ferrer, Diaz, Jr. has a magnetic personality that is sure to attract many as his final term as borough president nears an end.

There is also Melissa Mark-Viverito, the current speaker of the City Council. Her position has given her the most Latino clout in recent years to influence citywide policy, some of which she has used. This platform has provided Mark-Viverito an ample opportunity to garner broad attention and to push for policy issues pertinent to a wider public and also to Latinos in particular. However, since she is term-limited and likely will be out of the public eye on a consistent basis, her chances for a successful citywide race in four years will be virtually impossible.

One person to keep an eye on is Ritchie Torres, a Bronx City Council member. Elected in 2013, at the youthful age of 25, Torres has proven to be a solid legislator, championing important causes, and also fighting ardently for better housing conditions for public housing residents. Torres is charismatic, well liked by his peers, and whip-smart. He has the uncanny ability to probe and articulate complex policy matters. At 29 years of age, Torres will surely be one to watch for years to come and could be a formidable candidate for either Bronx borough president or the city’s public advocate if he chooses to aspire to either position.

When looking at the horizon of Latino political leaders, the future seems bright -- the three aforementioned names are not the only ones on the list. With the continuing rise of Latinos in the overall population and increased voting participation, it may be quite possible that New York City will soon have its first Latino mayor.

[Also by Eli Valentin: Latino Voters and the 2017 New York City Elections]

Eli Valentin is a Democratic consultant and pastor of the Iglesia Evangelica Bautista in New York City. He is a frequent political analyst on Univision, and has appeared on NY1’s “Inside City Hall.” On Twitter @EliValentinNY.

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The ‘Worst State for Doctors’ Has a Dangerous Pre-existing Condition

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Another year, and another report naming New York the “Worst State for Doctors.” Time and time again, our state ranks dead last as a place for physicians to practice.

The primary reason for the Empire State’s strained relationship with the medical profession is the staggering cost of medical liability insurance. New York has the highest per capita medical liability payouts in the country. These payouts are 35 times higher, per capita, than they are in the lowest state. Nearly 20 percent of all the medical liability payouts in the U.S. are paid in New York, more than all of the medical liability payouts for the entire Midwest.

These costs drive doctors out of our state and weaken New Yorkers’ access to care. Since 2003, 16 hospitals in New York City have closed. To keep their doors open, some of the state’s remaining hospitals have opted to “go naked,” and not carry any medical liability insurance at all.

While it is tempting to blame the insurers for this cost crisis, many medical liability insurers are operating at a loss. The real culprit for New York’s runaway medical insurance costs is New York’s broken liability laws – laws that are bought and paid for by the state’s powerful trial lawyer special interest lobby.

The trial lawyer’s dominance over state government has created a disturbingly one-sided legal environment. For example, New York has no standards for expert witnesses, leading to “junk science” in the courtroom. Worse, there is no timeline for disclosure of experts, which allows personal injury lawyers to mask the merits of their case prior to trial. If doctors and their counsel do not know if the expert testifying in court is a world-class surgeon or a disbarred hack, they cannot adequately assess the evidence against them. This often leads to quick settlements, and an easy payday for plaintiffs’ lawyers.

Another boon for New York’s trial lawyers at the expense of our medical professionals is the state’s interest on judgments: the rate is currently fixed at an astonishing 9 percent. For doctors and their lawyers, running up 9 percent in interest is a major deterrent to filing an appeal. Whether cases are appealed or settled, resulting costs get passed on to patients.

New York’s spiraling medical insurance costs are not only endured by doctors and patients, they are put on the back of the taxpayer. Each year the state subsidizes the medical liability system with hundreds of millions of dollars in a desperate attempt to keep our doctors practicing here.

Many of the costs incurred by New York’s broken liability system are indirect. With the looming threat of lawsuits, many doctors practice “defensive medicine,” ordering more tests than needed. While these costs are not direct, each unnecessary procedure significantly raises the price of medical care.

But the crisis in our state’s medical liability system is not just an issue of cost and access, it is also an issue that impacts the doctor-patient relationship. New York’s current liability climate is so adversarial that physicians are dissuaded from making any statements of sympathy or apology for fear it will be used against them in court. Such statements are not only humane, but they have shown to reduce the time it takes to resolve medical liability cases. Thirty-six states have passed laws exempting statements of apology as an admission of guilt and liability. Not surprisingly, New York is not one of those states.  

If the plaintiffs’ lawyers continue to get their way, lawmakers in Albany may actually make the situation worse, instead of addressing the issues discussed above. At the behest of the trial lawyers lobby, legislators are considering extending the statute of limitations on filing a medical liability claim. Enacting this proposal would undoubtedly lead to more lawsuits and even higher medical liability insurance costs. New York cannot continue to reign in last place; the Legislature needs to reject proposals that force talented medical professionals out of our state and focus on fixing the crisis at hand.

Thomas Stebbins is executive director of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York. On Twitter @ThomasStebbins and @LawsuitReformNY.

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Our Plan To Save NYCHA Is Working, But Under Attack

NYCHA board meeting

A NYCHA board meeting

Residents understand better than anyone what it means to live in public housing. On the second anniversary of the NextGeneration NYCHA long-term strategic plan, we find our homes under attack from the federal government.

As both residents and board members of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), we have unique insight into the challenges facing the housing authority, but also the successes of NextGen NYCHA. Two years ago, when Mayor de Blasio and NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye stood in front of residents, they announced a bold plan to put us on stable financial footing. They set out a path to better fund, operate, rebuild and engage developments. And despite numerous obstacles, as residents, we can say firmly, we have made progress.

NYCHA has increased revenue by almost $33 million, saved millions and become more efficient by implementing new technology, protected buildings by building new roofs, built almost 1,500 new affordable apartments, started 10 youth councils and placed almost 6,000 residents in new jobs. NYCHA and the brave officers of the NYPD have worked together to come up with new ways to secure developments and keep our families safer. When you mention funding as well as advances in technology and job placements there is still the human element to be considered. The list could go on.

What’s important though, is that residents are starting to feel these changes and feel their voices are being heard. Their vision is being broadened, resulting in a greater sense of responsibility for their environment, and ultimately residents feeling empowered to bring about change. NYCHA is listening to residents and is genuine in their mission to change the way they do business. Everyday they’re becoming better landlords. That doesn’t mean there isn’t work left to be done - there is. But we know that with Chair Olatoye and the team she and the mayor have put in place, they are moving in the right direction and lives are improving as a result.

Despite this remarkable progress, our buildings are in poor condition because of years of neglect by the federal government. Our roofs sag, the facades are crumbling and the pipes leak. Now, the president has proposed cutting over two-thirds of the budget dedicated to keeping our buildings standing, the capital budget. This is not about politics or parties, it’s about dismantling the future of public housing and jeopardizing the progress we’ve made on our long-term plan NextGen NYCHA. It is a horrific message to send to those who are the backbone of our society. In its simplest terms, these proposed cuts would lead to higher numbers of homelessness.

We are calling firmly on our partners to stand proudly with NYCHA and demand the federal government fully fund public housing. Obstruction and budget cuts are not the road ahead for solving the housing crisis in the city. For many, NYCHA is what stands between them and homelessness. With over half a million residents, NYCHA housing is the size of Miami, and will always have room for improvement, but it is essential that we consider humanity first, before economics. If public housing isn't adequately funded, we will devastate working families, counter to the roots of public housing in our city and country. During this crisis, when the very existence of public housing is threatened, it’s time to come together to protect the lowest income New Yorkers and save NYCHA.

The authors are Resident Board Members of the New York City Housing Authority.

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Making Mother’s Day Better for Every Mother

strive new york

(photo: STRIVE New York)

Every Mother’s Day, across America we celebrate the women who have raised us. Cards and flowers are a fine way to mark the day. But at a time when many women face a substantial wage gap with men, struggle economically, face increasing instances of violence and, due to new government restrictions, now face the potential loss of their health care, reproductive rights, and other protections, it’s time to look at how we can make motherhood better for all mothers.

The New York Women’s Foundation has focused on the lives of women in New York City across their lifespans for the last 30 years. From this, we know that the challenges are significant, particularly for women with children. Low-income mothers often have very limited access to the basic guidance, reassurance, and resources that all mothers need to be effective nurturers and first teachers. Low-income women of color are overwhelmingly both the primary wage-earners and the primary caregivers for their families.

But the service and retail jobs overwhelmingly held by women are typically characterized by minimal pay scales, erratic hours, and total lack of any flexibility. Childcare initiatives are few, leaving it unaffordable for many, while those who work as caregivers often earn salaries that put them barely over the poverty line and sometimes they must choose between their jobs as caregivers and caring for members of their own families.

We also know that such a lack of support is consequential for children. Our most recent report focused on the youngest of girls, age 0-8. This time of life, so highly formative, sets girls on their path to womanhood and is when adult role models can have the greatest impact. Their progress is inextricably intertwined with that of the women around them and is affected by how women are treated economically and socially.

For low-income girls, however, there is an appalling lack of consistent nurturance from well-supported and well-prepared adults. Promoting little girls’ healthy development depends absolutely upon making sure that their main caregivers can give them what they need.   Perhaps it should have been obvious, but we found that the best way to help girls is by helping their mothers.

Despite the historic lack of investment and resources, solutions do exist and are being pushed to the forefront. New York City has just introduced a new pilot program that will expand universal full-day pre-kindergarten to children who are three years old. “3K for All” is an ambitious idea from Mayor Bill de Blasio that could have major potential benefits, and not just for children. This program can reduce early education and childcare costs for the neediest and create new opportunities for caregivers to work. For the many women who work as early education providers, there is potential for better salaries and better access to training.

In the coming months, it behooves us to attend to the new challenges and demands facing communities as the federal funds supporting many social safety net programs and policies -- the very ones that poor women rely on the most -- are threatened with extinction.

Several things we must do:

--Support advocacy efforts promoting better workplace protections for working mothers and increased access to high-quality subsidized childcare.

--Seek out, convene, and generously fund organizations pioneering Head Start-caliber early education/parenting programs for all low-income families, regardless of whether mothers are in the workforce.

--Fund providers interested in launching/deepening services supporting mother-child healing and bonding for families living under acutely stressful circumstances.

--Strongly support nonprofit organizations working to build strong community-school-parent collaborations and supporting parents’ ability to be full educational partners.

--Seek out, convene, and fund nonprofits serving immigrant and other low-income communities, local schools, and childcare centers to create programs that support parents as first teachers and that train and place parents in volunteer positions within schools.

--Support youth development-school partnerships seeking to provide pre-K to second grade after-school services in low-income neighborhoods.

--Seek out and support community efforts improving basic overall neighborhood resources, including libraries, community gardens, farmers’ markets, and playgrounds.

Providing low-income mothers and all mother figures with a solid foundation is the most efficient way to make sure that their daughters will not face the same tough odds and the cycle of poverty that is devastating our communities. This critical support will ensure that there are more happy Mother’s Days for all women, for generations to come.

Ana Oliveira is president & CEO of The New York Women’s Foundation. On Twitter @NYWomensFdn.

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Proposed East Midtown Transit Measure is ‘Zoning for Dollars’

City Planning Vision

East Midtown (image: City Planning)

As city officials contemplate new zoning regulations for East Midtown, it's important that they avoid “zoning for dollars,” whereby zoning variances are granted to build larger buildings in exchange for cash payments to the city’s coffers.

But that seems to be precisely what is happening with the transit improvements under the East Midtown proposal.

“Incentive zoning,” the term of art city planners use to describe ceding zoning variances in exchange for public amenities, was once aptly described as “sanctioned bribery, abiding a private sector that can ‘buy’ its way out of legal restrictions.”

At first impression, all incentive zoning might seem to be “sanctioned bribery.” But honest governments work to avoid even the appearance of such avarice. In New York, incentive zoning is codified in the city’s current zoning regulations so that buildings are permitted to be built larger than they would otherwise be, provided the developer creates public amenities like public plazas, atriums, or adjacent transit improvements that mollify the larger building that is imposed on the immediate vicinity. This has resulted in some remarkably inviting urban oases, like Greenacre Park in East Midtown, or the atrium at the former IBM building.

The proposed greater East Midtown rezoning, though, is considerably different.  That’s because it allows developers to make a “one-shot” payment for transit improvements that have only a tangential nexus to any specific Midtown development site.  

A history of up-zoning tied to transit public realm improvements shows that similar arrangements in the last 30 years were all directly tied to the immediate vicinity of the up-zoned property. In the past, developments could only be up-zoned with transit improvements if they were built atop or immediately adjoining a transit station, as they were for the Citicorp Building and Zeckendorf Towers.  

But in the East Midtown proposal, city planners offer a menu of transit improvements, unrelated to any particular development site, that developers can fund in order to build a larger building anywhere in the boundaries of East Midtown. There’s virtually no difference between building a transit amenity and making a cash sale of zoning rights, aside from the developer funding the MTA budget instead of the city’s. Developers could simply cut a check to the city coffers and eliminate the middleman.

Exacerbating the tenuous nexus of the up-zoned property and the transit improvement, though, is the very troubling aspect of the proposed zoning regulation that would allow developers to make a “one and done” payment for the transit improvement. Unlike developers who create above-ground amenities like public plazas and atriums, developers who build transit improvements do not have to pay any future costs to maintain, repair, or replace the improvement.

There’s a clear disconnect: on the one hand, city planners assert that transit improvements are necessary to accommodate additional hordes of transit passengers who will occupy new, larger, buildings that will last 50 years or more. But the developers, who created and who will benefit from the additional burden that the transit improvements are needed to ameliorate, pay only at the beginning. The costs to maintain, repair, and replace shorter-lived transit improvements, like escalators and elevators, that were necessitated by the developers’ bigger buildings, will fall upon New York taxpayers and straphangers.  

Payment now; corporate welfare later?

A better solution is to put the future costs of maintenance, repair, and replacement of the new transit improvements on the developers and to enforce collection of those costs for the life of the associated development. Enforcement could take the form of a lien against the up-zoned property or by linking the certificate of occupancy for the up-zoned property to the timely payment of maintenance, repair, and replacement costs of the associated transit improvement. (One official told me that developers do not pay for the maintenance, repair, or replacement of existing adjacent transit improvements because “they just don’t do it.” But in the past, the zoning regulation didn’t require them to and there was no means of enforcement even if it did.)

If transit improvements are required because East Midtown will become more densely occupied with office workers in larger developments, then all the costs of the transit improvements - including maintenance, repair, and replacement - should be coterminous with the life of the development that necessitated them, not just the first few years of the development’s existence. And those costs should be borne by the developer, not taxpayers and straphangers.

Any other arrangement is simply “zoning for dollars.”

J.G. Collins runs The Stuyvesant Square Consultancy, a management advisory and consulting firm, and occasionally comments on national and local policy matters. He has also contributed opinion to the NY Post, Forbes, The Hill, and other publications. On Twitter @StuySquare.

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Building Political Power for Animals in New York

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(image via ESHV)

In one of the most politically divisive times this country has ever seen, there is still one unifying, bipartisan issue that now – more than ever – needs your support: protecting animals from abuse and neglect.

Over 90% of Americans believe that animals deserve protection from abuse and exploitation. Yet today, in contrast to overwhelming public sentiment, basic protections for animals are under attack in this radically altered political landscape. Recent reports are chilling: Congress obliterated restrictions protecting wildlife from cruel and unethical hunting practices in national parks (including shooting wolves from planes and killing hibernating animals in their dens) and the USDA has stripped public access to Animal Welfare Act inspection reports which document cruelty in puppy mills, labs, and circuses.

It is time to push for meaningful change for animals starting with our own communities.

This week’s launch of Empire State Humane Voters (ESHV) is a long-awaited beacon for New York’s animal advocates. As a grassroots advocacy organization, we aim to build political power for animals in New York State — from Buffalo to Long Island. Our mission is to support city and state candidates who will champion protections for animals, lobby for stronger laws to stop animal cruelty, and hold elected officials accountable to humane voters.

What makes ESHV stand out from the pack? Unlike most nonprofits, our 501(c)(4)* status allows us to engage with candidates for elected office. While other animal groups are legally barred from even talking about elections, ESHV can ask candidates tough questions about humane issues and is uniquely positioned to endorse candidates that prioritize animal protection — and vigorously oppose those who don't by mobilizing animal activists and New York’s 3 million pet guardians into a humane voting bloc. ESHV is empowered with the political savvy and animal law expertise to effectuate change for animals in New York.

The battle to achieve legal protections for animals must be fought on the state and local legislative fronts. Unlike a charity with very limited lobbying capabilities, ESHV is empowered to focus on lobbying and political activities in Albany, New York City, and locally throughout the state. From strengthening New York State animal cruelty laws, ending some of the cruelest factory farming practices, protecting pets from being trapped outside in extreme weather, to ending the use of wild animals in circuses, we will ensure that the voices of all animals are heard.

State and local elected officials understand that animal protection is an important issue to constituents and that ESHV is mobilizing public concern for animals through the political process.

“Effective advocacy requires not only educational outreach, but also political organizing,” said City Council Member Helen Rosenthal. “The animal protection movement has done great work educating the public on the plight of animals. Now ESHV is charged with converting that positive public sentiment into law.”

We have a busy year ahead. With seven open City Council seats and active District Attorney races, now is the time to elect candidates that prioritize animal protection. Recruiting, training and building an active volunteer presence in every local district is a top priority. We will focus on teaching animal lovers about grassroots organizing and how to work on electoral campaigns, embedding them into the political fabric of their communities.

“Local government has the power to create a more humane environment for our animals,” said City Council Member Mark Levine, “and we need advocates engaged in the political process to make that a reality.”

Thursday, May 11 marks the official launch of Empire State Humane Voters at the Upper West Side studio of world renowned artist Peter Max. This sold out event brings together a constituency of dedicated animal protection advocates that is more than ready to channel its passion and enthusiasm into an effective political movement.

Join our pack of political animals.

Allie Feldman Taylor is the Founder and Executive Director of ESHV. On Twitter @nyvoteshumane. She has three rescued cats: Willa, Waffles, and Feline Dion.
*Status pending May 2017

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Substandard Housing Is Not Affordable Housing, It's Dangerous Housing

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City Council Member Gentile, the author (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

Over two years ago I stood with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and City Council Member Jumaane Williams on Flatbush Avenue by the ravaged remains of a building consumed by a fatal two-alarm fire. A 23 year-old security guard was killed and 15 others were injured.The cause? Illegal residential conversions.

Partitioning one and two family homes with shoddy construction, faulty wiring, and compromised gas work has become a common practice by predatory landlords. Maximizing profit at the expense of the safety of inhabitants has led to today’s proliferation of illegal home conversions. Just last summer in the Dyker Heights portion of my Brooklyn district, 18 adults and 13 children were vacated from an illegally subdivided home riddled with hazardous conditions such as insufficient egress and extreme overcrowding.

The dominoes of peril continue to fall from there. Our city’s first responders encounter immediate danger and confusion when entering these premises during emergencies. Heightening the already threatening situation, firefighters must navigate their way through a disjointed maze of subdivided units losing people in need of rescue along the way.  

Considering the deterioration to a neighborhood’s quality of life is important to qualify in assessing the effects of illegal conversions. There is direct correlation between 311 complaints of illegal conversions to overcrowded elementary schools as evidence by this cross-section map from Brooklyn Daily. In addition to severely overcrowded schools, public transportation systems are overburdened, sewage systems overflow, and other essential city services are drained thin.  

Very few neighborhoods across the five boroughs are spared from the inhumane predatory scheme of illegally subdividing homes. In 2016, there were 18,049 complaints of illegal residential conversions, an average of almost 50 per day. To put this in perspective, there have been more complaints of illegal conversions than of graffiti, smoking, and illegal fireworks combined!

My “Aggravated Illegal Conversions” bill, Intro. 1218-A, introduced jointly with Borough President Adams, Council Member Williams, and Council Member Grodenchik, will make this unethical practice an unlawful one. We will codify a year’s long rallying cry, “substandard housing is not affordable housing.” Setting this precedent is vitally important as our city rids itself of modern day tenement housing for stable affordable housing.

Focusing on the most egregious purveyors of illegal conversions, my bill establishes a $15,000 penalty strictly on the unscrupulous owner for each illegally partitioned dwelling unit that is three or more units above the Certificate of Occupancy. So if a two family home is found to have been illegally converted to five illegal residences, a $45,000 fine will be imposed on the person or persons responsible for victimizing tenants and endangering human life. To ensure rectification and payment of the violation, the fine constitutes a lien on the property. If unpaid for one year, the lien can be sold by the city.

Let me be clear, penalizing aggravated illegal conversions will not impede the efforts to legalize and standardize basement apartments, grandma’s basement, or granny flats. Instead Intro. 1218-A will root out those profiteering landlords who gut and partition entire buildings for maximum profit with no concern for health or safety.

The conditions inside these Aggravated Illegal Conversions may be life threatening and possibly immediately hazardous. If the circumstances force the Department of Buildings (DOB) to issue  a vacate order, residents can apply for transitional housing services that are facilitated by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and the American Red Cross. My office has been in discussion with the Mayor’s Office to establish a Memorandum of Understanding so these fines would be purposed towards assisting the residents’ relocation from a modern day tenement to safer living arrangements.   

Finally, in the Dyker Heights case, DOB was fortunately able to gain entry to the partitioned home and prevent a catastrophe. However, obtaining access is a tall hurdle to jump over and often an impediment for building inspectors. Intro. 1218-A will institutionalize the process of obtaining an access warrant to an alleged illegal subdivision. After two unsuccessful attempts to gain entry, DOB will request the Law Department apply for an access warrant. Once granted by a judge, inspectors will finally be equipped with the necessary tools to inspect a property and act accordingly based on the violations.    

All in all, this bill will serve as strong deterrents on the front end, and if needed, strong enforcement tools on the back end to combat aggravated illegal residential conversions. Almost half of my colleagues in the City Council have already attached their names to Intro. 1218-A and I look forward to guiding it into law.

Vincent Gentile is a New York City Council Member representing the neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights,  Bensonhurst, and Bath Beach in the 43rd District in Brooklyn.

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The City Ferry Revolution and Its Many Advantages

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

Already a holiday, May 1 will henceforth be remembered by hundreds of thousands of people for the launch NYC Ferry, a new, state-of-the-art waterway transit service. New Yorkers are grateful. “You kept your word!” overjoyed Queens residents exclaimed to Mayor de Blasio as he launched NYC Ferry with the inaugural run from the Rockaways to Wall Street.

But while we celebrate the ferry revolution of May 1, please do not forget October 30, December 30, August 14, and September 11: the anniversaries of Hurricane Sandy (2012), the transit strike (2005), the blackout (2003), and, of course, the tragic attacks of 2001. These dates remind us that we are surrounded by water, and more often than we care to think, the vulnerable, land-based transit systems we all depend on break down.

When that happens, our best bet can be a boat ride.

As we celebrate the birth of the city's first new transit system in decades, easing commuting burdens for Rockaway residents now and the residents of Soundview, Red Hook, Astoria, and many others to come, let’s acknowledge that NYC Ferry also delivers a huge bonus in transit resiliency. A new mode of transportation supplying relief to transit-starved neighborhoods is wonderful when times are good; a lifeline when times are bad. And times will be bad. Climate change is a reality; storms like Sandy pose an increasing threat sure to disrupt our rail and surface transit systems again. Our subways, bridges, and tunnels remain a target for those who intend to do us harm.

With a fare of $2.75 pegged to the cost of a subway ride, the new ferries are affordable. But the system is also a bargain for taxpayers. The projected operating subsidies pale in comparison to those that support express bus or commuter rail service. And the capital cost of creating the system is a rounding error compared to other transit–no tunnels to dig, roads to pave, nor tracks to lay. Beyond that, our government’s ability to finance and build major infrastructure is questionable. The fragile condition of our trans-Hudson rail tunnels and the equally fragile political consensus on how to fund Amtrak’s desperately needed improvements demonstrates that we are far from essential infrastructure solutions, despite talk in Washington.

Rediscovering the benefits of ferries is proof of the old song: everything old is new again. Before New York’s bridges and tunnels were built, the local waterways were thronged with ferries. As car ownership swelled, waterborne transit declined until only the Staten Island Ferry was left. Thirty years ago, NY Waterway launched routes connecting New Jersey shorefront communities to Manhattan, soon followed by New York Water Taxi and Seastreak, and the modern ferry renaissance began.

That renaissance is now a revolution, with NYC Ferry doubling the number of neighborhoods served by maritime transit, and other waterfront communities from Coney Island to Throgs Neck to Staten Island’s south shore demanding service.

Back to the calendar. There’s one more date to bear in mind: the day to be determined in 2018 when L train service shuts down for 18 months of repairs. Ferries will be part of a vital multi-modal solution. The city’s greatest resource, our waterways, are beautiful blue highways, blissfully devoid of gridlock, while offering express trips and boundless views. Whether you are a shore-dweller enjoying an easier commute or a landlubber on a weekend water excursion, we can all rest a little easier knowing that when the next transit crisis happens, we can turn to the blue highways and get on a boat.

Roland Lewis is president and CEO of Waterfront Alliance. On Twitter @OurWaterfront.

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