CITY https://www.gothamgazette.com/city Thu, 24 Sep 2020 09:12:57 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) City's Supervised Release Program Has Positive Impacts Without Increases in Missed Court Appearances or Rearrest Rates, Report Finds https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9776-new-york-city-supervised-release-program-jail-bail https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9776-new-york-city-supervised-release-program-jail-bail 3 report positive impacts

Mayor de Blasio makes an announcement (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Defendants in New York City's pretrial supervised release program are no more likely to miss court than people who have bail set and are not rearrested at a higher rate, according to a city-commissioned study by MDRC's Center for Criminal Justice Research being released Thursday.

The research, contracted by the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) and the Mayor's Office of Economic Opportunity with funding from the Manhattan District Attorney, comes at a time when some city officials, including Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, have blamed a months-long spike in gun violence in large part on recent changes to the state bail law that increased reliance on alternatives to incarceration, like supervised release.

“You hear terms such as supervised release right now, that is a fallacy. There is no supervision. There is just release, and you are seeing the repercussions of that across the city,” Shea said in June.

MOCJ officials say the new findings vindicate the program. "I think being able to show that the program is just as effective as bail in ensuring return to court and also ensuring that folks are not being rearrested at a higher rate is really exciting," said Miriam Popper, the executive director of MOCJ's Office of Pretrial Justice Initiatives, by phone.

According to Popper, before supervised release, judges for the most part had two options at arraignment: they could set bail, a monetary condition for returning to court, or they could release the defendant on their own recognizance. "This evaluation has showed that adding a third option of support and supervision in the community was able to meet the goals of the New York State bail statute...just as effectively as a monetary condition," she said, "which as we know can often lead to an unequal system for those without financial resources and those with."

But while supervised release successfully diverted some candidates from having bail set without meaningfully impacting court appearances, the data shows it also led judges to assign supervision to defendants who would otherwise have been released on their own recognizance, a trend known as "net-widening" and viewed unfavorably by criminal justice reformers. The city and the nonprofit providers of supervised release programming say they are working to prevent net-widening from further ensnaring people in the criminal legal system, but defense attorneys are concerned by the findings.

Supervised release, a program first piloted in New York City in Queens in 2009 and expanded citywide in 2016, allows a defendant to remain in the community while they await trial under the condition that they follow a personalized plan of check-ins with a case manager and other service providers. Participants are often connected with services like employment training and housing support. The program has been lauded by community-based organizations as an effective and more just approach to treating those presumed innocent and ensuring defendants return to court, while also strengthening community ties.

Enrollment in supervised release increased the percentage of cases that were dismissed by roughly 10 points, while reducing the percentage of guilty rulings by 11 points, the study found. The analysis lends credence to the theory that the threat of being incarcerated with or without bail incentivizes defendants to plead guilty in order to be released.

The study also found that the program's impact did not vary across different racial, ethnic, or age groups, but "had stronger effects" on bail rulings and pretrial detention for felonies than misdemeanors, and for cases in Manhattan versus the Bronx, Brooklyn, or Queens.

Over the course of the study period from May 2017 to January 2019, defense attorneys sought supervised release for only a small portion of the roughly 287,000 defendants who were arraigned after a custodial arrest (this does not include people who received desk appearance tickets to be arraigned at a later date).

Seventy-two percent of arraignments (over 200,000) included charges that would've made the defendant eligible for supervised release, but only about one in ten of the eligible defendants were screened during the 20-month period, the study shows.

"The main explanation for this pattern is that defense attorneys opted to have their clients screened for SR only when they believed them to be at risk of having bail set, otherwise preferring to preserve their chances for being released on their own recognizance (ROR)," the report states.

When defense attorneys did offer the option of supervised release at trial, judges in 58 percent of cases assigned it. Those that weren't assigned to supervised release were just as likely to have bail set as be ROR'd -- roughly 20% each.

Despite what the report identifies as the "gatekeeper" role of defenders to prevent net-widening, MDRC's modeling found that about 44 percent of people on supervised release would have otherwise been ROR'd. About the same percentage, 45 percent, would have received bail.

Reforms passed in 2019 and 2020 eliminating bail for most non-violent felonies moved that gatekeeper role from defense attorneys to judges, who now exercise greater discretion in setting pretrial conditions, according to Popper.

"What that means now is that it requires more training on our part, a really close eye on what the outcomes are and what is happening," she told Gotham Gazette.

Aubrey Fox is the executive director of Criminal Justice Agency (CJA), the nonprofit that first piloted the supervised release program in Queens and interviews every defendant as part of an assessment to determine the likelihood they will return to court. He said CJA's recommendation following the assessment, while non-binding on judges, can help ensure the program captures the right participants because guidelines call for individuals who are not eligible for bail and get recommended for ROR to receive it.

The MDRC report's authors point out that with the relatively small number of participants during the study period, few defendants were caught in this process.

But defense attorneys say it's more serious. "Our perspective on that and what we've seen is that judges and prosecutors don't in any way recognize that there is a harm to unnecessarily placing our clients on supervised release," said Libby Fischer, the managing attorney of the criminal defense practice at the Harlem-based Neighborhood Defender Service, in an interview.

"There are entire categories of cases where the DA's office asks for supervised release even though the cases are misdemeanors, even though the clients have no record," Fischer said. "And since the judges can't see or don't see the negative consequences of putting large swaths of communities of color under court surveillance, they set supervised release when it's asked for."

"If the request had been for bail, in old times, they would've understood the negative consequences and ROR'd the client," Fischer added.

The study also found that supervised release increased the average total time before trial by about two months (from 86 to 143 days) and doubled the amount of time spent in the community from 64 to 128 days. The percent of defendants who received desk warrants (which the report considers a good proxy for missed court appearances) increased from 24 to 34 percent, a finding the study called statistically insignificant because of other factors that created uncertainty that these outcomes "aren't just the result of chance," explained Melanie Skemer, the study's lead author.

"In a lot of alternative-to-detention programs, what ends up happening is they have the so-called 'supervision effect,' which means that people fail at a higher rate because they are being watched more closely," Fox said.

"The really remarkable thing about supervised release is that -- I think mostly because of the skill of the social workers who work on the projects and the kind of ethos of the program -- the program managed to avoid that pitfall of well-intended but creating unintended consequences of penalizing people more," he said.

Popper said supervised release employs a "graduated response" model that aims to provide a "light touch" whenever possible. "If someone comes into the program who is lower risk and might have otherwise been released on their own recognizance, unless otherwise assigned by the judge, they would be put on a low level of supervision," Popper said.

"While the type of people who are put into the program is really up to the judges at this point, there is a lot we can do within the program, such as these policies, to ensure that being in supervised release does not lead to deeper entrenchment in the system," she said.

"Proportionally, the estimated increase in time at risk is far greater than the estimated increase in bench warrants,” the report states. “Hence, when accounting for the time at risk of pretrial failure and the increased number of opportunities to miss court appearances, enrollment in SR does not appear to have increased failures to appear to court appreciably, if at all."

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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ethangs@gothamgazette.com (Ethan Geringer-Sameth) City Thu, 24 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: New York City's Choppy School Reopening https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9773-max-murphy-podcast-new-york-city-s-choppy-school-reopening-2020-coronavirus-blended-learning https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9773-max-murphy-podcast-new-york-city-s-choppy-school-reopening-2020-coronavirus-blended-learning 1 max murphy podcast tour chancellor

Mayor de Blasio & Chancellor Carranza visit a school (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


September 23, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: New York City's Choppy School Reopening

Reema Amin, reporter for from education-focused publication Chalkbeat New York, joined the show to discuss New York City's choppy and limited reopening of in-person school, questions around all-remote and blended learning, and much more.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org.

Max & Murphy · Episode 249: New York City's Choppy School Reopening

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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bmax@gothamgazette.com (Ben Max) City Thu, 24 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
'The City Needs a Crisis Manager': Kathryn Garcia Plots a Run for Mayor https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9765-new-york-city-needs-crisis-manager-kathryn-garcia-run-for-mayor-2021 https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9765-new-york-city-needs-crisis-manager-kathryn-garcia-run-for-mayor-2021 nycemer ma c

Kathryn Garcia (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


Earlier this month, Kathryn Garcia, a top official in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, resigned after more than six years as commissioner of the Department of Sanitation. In her time serving under the mayor, Garcia has worn many hats beyond that of keeping the city clear of trash and snow. De Blasio entrusted her with leading the city’s effort to abate lead exposure among young children, named her the interim chair and CEO of the struggling New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) for part of 2019, and then appointed her the city’s emergency “food czar” this year to ensure that hungry New Yorkers were fed during the coronavirus pandemic, all while she continued to lead the sanitation department.

In her at times terse resignation letter to the mayor, Garcia cited recent budget cuts to her department and the threat of major layoffs as the main reasons she could not continue to serve the administration. “This budget crisis is incredibly severe, but I am disappointed to see so much of the work we have done over the last six years being walked back,” she wrote. “If, as is often said, budgets are a statement of values, my values require me to resign in the face of these cuts, which will harm New Yorkers.”

But Garcia’s decision was also spurred by the fact that she is considering a run for mayor in the election set to take place next year, potentially joining a crowded field of Democrats who have declared or are exploring a bid to replace de Blasio when he is term-limited out of office. In a recent interview on the Max & Murphy podcast from Gotham Gazette and City Limits, Garcia explained her decision to step down, why she is considering a run for mayor and how she would approach the mayoralty, as well as her work covering the various responsibilities she was given by de Blasio.

If she declares, Garcia could be one of three women, all first-time candidates for elected office, who were formerly part of the de Blasio administration – Retired Army Brigadier General Loree Sutton, who was commissioner of the Department of Veteran Services, has already jumped into the race, while Maya Wiley, former Counsel to the Mayor who later headed the Civilian Complaint Review Board, is considering doing so. Besides them, Comptroller Scott Stringer and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams have already declared their campaigns, while City Council Speaker Corey Johnson continues to explore a run. Former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales left her job to run for mayor and has been actively campaigning for some time. Former top Bloomberg and Obama administration official Shaun Donovan is strongly considering jumping into the race and has been raising significant sums of money to do so. And other Democrats, like finance executive Ray McGuire are reportedly considering bids.

Garcia said her decision to explore a mayoral campaign was driven by the pandemic. “I am not sure that I would have gotten in if I didn't think the city needed a crisis manager at this point who would be really focused on core services for city residents,” she said, citing her own managerial experience in government.

Though she did not criticize the mayor by name, she drew a clear contrast in how she would handle the job of running the city. “I am incredibly good at creating very effective teams that really maximize a lot of people's talents,” she said. “There is not infighting on things that I work on. And the second thing is, I'm extremely clear about my expectations and I'm extremely clear about the fact that I expect accountability. You need to produce.”

De Blasio is known for being a micromanager and for overriding the advice of his own commissioners while relying on his own, often flawed, instincts. “I'm open to hearing other ideas. I'm not dictatorial. I do want to hear from people,” Garcia said. “I don't assume I'm necessarily the smartest person in the room on every topic. But after we have the airing of what you think might be a good way to go, we make a decision, we move on and we execute.”

As sanitation commissioner, Garcia has already led a uniformed agency and she said she’d bring the same perspective to bear over the NYPD, should she become mayor. De Blasio has, more often than not, had a soft touch with the department, often defending it against instances of egregious behavior while insisting that he is working to reform its practices. “I'm a tough but fair manager,” Garcia said, when asked how she would handle the police department. “You'll know what I expect of you and we will be ruthlessly transparent about that. I will stand up for you when I need to, but I won't if something really depraved happens.”

Since she’s an unknown political entity, the hosts -- Ben Max and Jarrett Murphy -- asked Garcia if there is a Democrat she most closely identifies with or would model. She would be an Ed Koch-like mayor, she said, describing her politics as “progressive and practical.” She would be a tough manager, she said, who constantly wants to know how she’s doing. She said it is essential that the mayor knows how city agencies are performing every day, in a data-driven way.

What all the candidates in the mayoral race have to contend with is the fallout of the pandemic. The economy has been devastated and the city faces a massive budget crunch, exacerbating the pressure to provide basic city services. Unemployment is at a high, though jobs have begun to slowly return as the city and state have reopened.

“We need to get people back employed across the city and then start to really think about building economic mobility,” Garcia said, acknowledging the challenges ahead. “And there are things that I think we can do more effectively but also in partnership with our broader commercial and business community.”

Garcia blamed the mayor for some of the many woes currently facing the city, particularly on quality of life issues. “I know that the city is confronted with a very severe fiscal crisis and I'm sure difficult choices had to be made,” she said of major budget cuts to the sanitation and parks departments. “I would just have made different choices. You cannot have the city come back to where it needs to come back to if you can't go to a park because it's dirty and...you're seeing litter baskets overflowing on street corners.”

In her responsibilities as sanitation commissioner, Garcia came face to face with the many issues that she said plague the city’s bureaucracy, whether it’s the lengthy procurement procedure (“the bane of my existence”) or the slow-moving land use process. “It just takes us too long. It takes us too long to buy anything. It takes us too long to build anything or even get approval for doing that,” she said.

“We aren't as transparent as we should be about our key performance metrics. The mayor should know at the end of the day, did we have a good day? Did we have a bad day? And that shouldn't be driven by what's in the news, necessarily. That should be driven by what are the numbers.” She also said she would “restructure, and consolidate and streamline” certain bureaucracies but would not name any particular agencies or offices.

Even tackling issues like redesigning commercial and residential waste disposal helped expose flaws in how the city handles problems. “What do we want from the public realm and how can we achieve that?” she said. “There's an enormous amount of competition for street space, parking spaces, restaurant space now, bike lanes, bus lanes, but I think if we start to reimagine it, we can achieve a lot of these varying goals. And we should also just be experimenting like crazy, rather than lots of studies. Let’s do something, try it, if it doesn't work, let's move on.”

Having served as interim chair and CEO of NYCHA, and then as vice chair of the NYCHA Board of Directors, Garcia offered specific criticisms of the city’s management of public housing. Though under de Blasio NYCHA’s operating expenses have been brought under control, the agency needs as much as $40 billion to bring all its developments to a state of good repair. The city, under current NYCHA Chair and CEO Greg Russ (and a federal monitor), has begun to implement a plan to raise those funds through a combination of programs including transferring several developments to private management under the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program and through an infill development program which would build mixed-income housing on unused NYCHA land.

Garcia said Russ’ plan has been “actually very creative” but said she wouldn’t have necessarily taken the same approach. “My feeling when I was at NYCHA was, there had been so much under-investment. So it didn't necessarily have to go in this way but there’s so much underinvestment, there's so much need, that whatever is the quickest way to get dollars that fix bathrooms and fix kitchens and make sure the heat’s working, I am supportive of.”

She said the infill program “would not be my first priority. My first priority would be to do the traditional RAD program as well as the plan that Greg Russ has come up with to use these vouchers and finance off of them. But I certainly would not turn away an opportunity that would generate money for NYCHA residents. Anything we can do to be creative, to generate money for them I think is very important.”

[Listen to the full conversation: Max & Murphy Podcast: Kathryn Garcia on Trash, Food & Possibly Running for Mayor]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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samarkhurshid@gmail.com (Samar Khurshid) City Wed, 23 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Census Response Rates Vary Widely Among City's Latino Communities https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9770-2020-census-response-rates-new-york-city-latino-communities https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9770-2020-census-response-rates-new-york-city-latino-communities Census rally Brooklyn

Census march in Sunset Park, Brooklyn (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The once-a-decade Census count, nearing its scheduled conclusion at the end of this month, has had to contend with quite a lot in New York City. A once-in-a-century pandemic torched the carefully laid out outreach plans and unleashed cascading social and economic effects, threatening the accuracy of numbers that are used at every level of government and the private sector for planning, allocation of funds, and both state and federal government representation. The Trump administration has gone to great lengths to muddy the waters and depress participation in low-income and immigrant strongholds, having tried and failed to both add a citizenship question to the form and exclude undocumented immigrants from the Congressional apportionment count.

Throughout New York City, which as of September 21 had a 2020 Census self-response rate of 60.2 percent (four points under its ultimate 2010 self-response rate), these challenging conditions have been varyingly deterministic in areas with major Latino populations, which by-and-large were hit the hardest by the coronavirus and have deep-seated fear of a clearly hostile federal bureaucracy. According to the Census Bureau’s own data, derived from its American Community Survey and other sources, the city’s population of 8.34 million was, as of last year, 29 percent Hispanic or Latino, about 2.4 million individuals described as “a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin.”

An analysis prepared by SUNY’s Rockefeller Institute of Government looking at areas with undercounts unsurprisingly found that being Hispanic, of limited English proficiency, a renter, foreign born, and with no internet, among other characteristics, were risk factors for being undercounted in the Census. The particularities of the Trump administration’s unique focus on immigration only added to the likelihood that communities with a high number of foreign-born residents, as is the case with many of New York City’s Latino populations, would not feel comfortable participating in the count.

As shown in mapping done by the CUNY Graduate Center's Urban Research Center, some areas, such the large Dominican and Puerto Rican communities in the upper Manhattan neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Inwood, have had strong response rates, with almost every single census tract in those neighborhoods outperforming the city average, and several see self-response rates above 70%. Others, like the Mexican and Ecuadorian enclaves in Sunset Park, Brooklyn have lagged, with only a couple tracts even reaching the city average, and most falling to percentages in the mid-to-low fifties or even forties. Overall, the lowest-participating predominantly Latino neighborhoods also include Corona and North Corona, Queens, and Cypress Hills and East New York, Brooklyn, while the highest-participation rates also include Jackson Heights, Queens, the Lower East Side and Alphabet City, Manhattan, and Morris Heights, in the Bronx.

As census enumerators fan out across the city in the final stage of the count to knock on doors and encourage participation, it’s essential to examine what has gone right and wrong in these areas, how efforts by city government and local organizations to drive participation have fared, and what could shift in the final days. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who put significant city resources into the Census this year, has been stressing participation at his near-daily briefings and knocking on a few doors himself, while his team has targeted many communities with lackluster participation, including Corona, Jamaica, East New York, and Canarsie. The city’s key goals, de Blasio has said, are to lift self-response percentages as high as possible, while matching the national response rate, which was 66.2 percent as of September 21.

According to data provided by the city’s census office, of 398 neighborhoods estimated to be primarily (over 50 percent) Latino, the Census response rates as of September 15 were on average 58 percent, just under the city’s total self-response rate of about 60 percent. Broken down by census tract, the numbers vary wildly, though, with notable differences even among tracts that, on the surface level, seem somewhat similar. In one stark example, there are census tracts with completion percentages in the low forties in parts of Corona, Queens, among the lowest in Latino-heavy areas. The adjacent neighborhood of Jackson Heights, however, has some tracts that are among the highest-performing, with rates in the mid-seventies.

Julie Menin, the director of the city’s census office, said that the city was on a good track, particularly in light of its unfortunate place as the epicenter of a global pandemic. “In 2010, the city was 14 points behind the national self-response rate. Right now, we’re six points behind the national response rate. And we keep closing the gap more and more every week,” she said. Menin acknowledged that it had been difficult to reach some Latino communities, faulting the Trump administration for the various obstacles it has thrown in the way, but said that the city had been working creatively to address the issues by, for example, using absentee ballot data to hyper-target efforts at under-performing areas and hiring a dedicated outreach staff.

Conversations with community groups and officials around the city point to a few key factors that have played a role in self-response rates in the city’s Latino communities, including the robustness and organization of local groups, socio-economic and cultural differences among neighborhoods, the prevalence of irregular housing situations, access to technology, and the effectiveness of the city’s interventions.

For example, while the sort of complicated and informal living arrangements characteristic to dense urban areas and New York City in particular have often been discussed as a point of difficulty for Census Bureau officials planning their enumeration strategies, it can often also be an impediment to people responding once they’ve been reached.

“There were a lot of and still are a lot of questions about who fills it out, who do they include on the Census, will it flag something for the landlord or the management?” said Anna Dioguardi Mayano, director of community building at Queens Community House, which was a recipient of city funding through the Complete Count Fund. “Yes, there's a lot of fear about revealing immigration status. But sometimes even more so, there’s fear about revealing these housing situations, that they fear could cause problems for them, or just confusion.” If, for example, two families and a single person all share an apartment, are they all supposed to respond, or just one family in the household? How many people are in their “household”? (Every person in a household must be counted, one person can fill out the Census for the household.)

Others have remained uncertain about their eligibility and how the count intersects with their immigration status -- there are an estimated 520,000 undocumented immigrants residing in New York City, all of whom should be counted in the Census. Federal policy can often be filtered down to the city’s Latino populations in an extensive game of telephone, with details getting lost or warped along the way. The specter of the citizenship question has been misshapen into the frustratingly persistent myth that only U.S. citizens are expected to participate in the count at all, in addition to the related concerns that the information given can be used for immigration enforcement purposes.

“I was just in a development right now, where I was speaking to mostly Latinos, a large Dominican community there, and a large Chinese speaking community, and many of them had not filled out the Census. We asked them why, and they said because they’re not citizens,” said City Council Member Carlina Rivera, who represents a section of Manhattan including the Lower East Side and the East Village and is co-chair of the Council’s census task force.

Menin said that the city had responded to these issues with “super targeted ads. The great thing about a lot of our ads, particularly the digital ads, is we can switch them out really quickly. So we can see which ads are resonating.” For example, an ad campaign dubbed “Doubled Up” attempted to assuage doubts about irregular housing situations by running messages like “Live in the basement? Yes, the census is for you,” in languages including Spanish, Bangla, Nepali, Russian, and Urdu. These types of messages are optimally conveyed by trusted local messengers, requiring a confluence of city and community efforts for best outcomes.

Aside from the concern that individual information will be passed on to immigration enforcement, some are worried that the general neighborhood data could still be used for that purpose, particularly by an administration that hasn’t been shy about threatening raids. Lorena Kourousias, the executive director of the Sunset Park-based Mixteca Organization, said she had spoken to several local residents who had said some version of “If I answer, if we all answer, then they are going to know that all the Mexicans live on this block.” (The information by law cannot be shared with ICE, and the public data is not granular enough to be used for enforcement.)

Then there is the problem of isolation. The COVID-19 pandemic shut the city down in almost every respect, and while a lot of Latino communities were hit especially hard by the virus partly as a result of not being able to isolate and having to continue going to work in person, the more social type of community activity died down. All of the forums and door-knocking and days of action that had been planned were rendered impossible almost overnight. The organizing moved online, but this approach has had varying degrees of effectiveness, though it eventually resumed to a limited extent in person.

“We went really hard on social media. But we are aware that many of the community members that didn't respond [to the Census] are not even on social media, and those communities were left out,” said Kourousias. It takes trusted community voices for people to accept that it is safe to fill out the Census, and people are more used to having those interactions in person.

Antonio Alarcón, census coordinator at the large immigration and social services organization Make the Road (another CCF recipient), recounted talking to a group of people waiting in line for food distribution. For some of those who said they hadn’t filled out the Census, “it was because they had lost access to the internet during [the pandemic]. Others were like ‘well, I don't have access to a computer at home,’ or ‘I don't know how to use a computer.” The Census doesn’t require the internet to complete (paper surveys and talking to enumerators are other options), but for someone who is not going anywhere but work (or anywhere at all) and who isn’t using the web, the avenues for outreach are limited.

New York City government responded to the challenges of covid by modifying the structure of its grants program to allow for contracts to be extended and incorporate other ways to reach the isolated. “The grantees were not supposed to use money on advertisements. And one of the things that they did right after covid hit and we went to quarantine was allow the partners to switch dollars over to advertisements,” said Juan Rosa, Northeast Director of Civic Engagement for the NALEO Education Fund. He pointed to the Casita María Center For Arts & Education in the Bronx, which was running some Census-related commercials on Univisión.

Yet not everyone feels that the city’s census officials have responded creatively enough to changing data and circumstances on the ground. Haydée Zambrana, founder of the Corona-based Latin Women in Action, said her organization had sought but not received CCF funding in the initial application period, but officials should have reevaluated as it became clear that some areas, like Corona, were both hard hit by the pandemic and lagging in response rates.

“I'm still helping, I'm still working, I'm still talking to whoever I can. I'm calling out to my people, sending texts and whatnot, and I'm not getting paid,” Zambrana said, and suggested that allocations directly targeting small outlets instead of flashy ad spends would have been more effective. “We have so many channels, so many little newspapers, and if they would have paid them four hundred bucks each... they would have gotten somewhere. The message would have gone home.”

Menin said it was the right call to establish the grantees early on. “We had our contracts in December, so many of our organizations did work on the ground in January and February, and that work is now really paying off. Because if we would have waited to do the grants until the Census starts, then you're always behind the eight ball,” she said, and pointed out that the city wasn’t only working with CCF grantees. “We partner with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of other groups that are not our grantees. We're partnering with thousands of houses of worship, we partner with labor unions, we partner with community boards, civic organizations, elected officials.”

To an extent, every Latino community around the city deals with issues around irregular housing, immigration, lack of internet access, and the ravages of the pandemic. The level of coordination and reach by the existing ecosystem of community organizations, as well as differences among these communities, is key to how Census participation plays out.

In Washington Heights and Inwood, areas that also saw a robust response rate in the 2010 Census, community organizations of different stripes made sure to establish complementary processes, and integrate Census messaging into both their regular operations and programs specifically responsive to the health crisis. “It's just been a big partnership in the community, which helps us obviously reach more people, because if it's someone that we don't personally know as a client, then one of those [other] organizations might know them and we can tap them that way,” said María Guzmán-Colón, special projects manager at the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation.

Rosa, of NALEO, took on the role of coordinating among the various groups in those neighborhoods. “We brought people together. We had joint email threads keeping each other abreast,” he said. “Various parts and various constituencies in the community were being covered.”

Existing community groups’ strengths with particular constituencies were sometimes enough to overcome steep obstacles. On the Lower East Side, tracts along the East River with large NYCHA developments housing many older, lower-income Latino residents—exactly the sort of demographic the research shows is harder to reach and less likely to respond to the Census in large numbers—have been performing quite well, with some tracts reaching response rates in the mid-to-high 70s. The secret to success was that, according to Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) senior manager Marielle Villar Martiney, the organization called every senior in its database, which it had spent years building.

“We will start with, ‘are you facing eviction? Are you sick? Do you need help with food? Have you filled out your Census?’ That has been really successful because, while the Census is incredibly important, when you're struggling to put food on your table, the Census can seem far away,” she said. It was the same in northern Manhattan, where Guzmán-Colón said NMIC would assist community members with various pressing issues and then separately follow up about the Census, with trust already built.

The notion of an all-hands approach has worked on the Lower East Side, too. “The Lower East Side has always been like a really organized community and we have two district leaders that are super active,” said Andrea Gordillo, the director of development for the Clemente Soto Vélez Center. The center did not receive any Census funding and wasn’t running specific Census programs per se, but still got involved with the broader community push. “We all sort of work together in informal ways. We have different informal networks,” Gordillo said.

It’s a simple enough methodology, but it works. “We have really tried to figure out how to replicate that in some of the areas that don't have those natural tenants associations or civic associations that have been doing work to bring those numbers up,” said Melva Miller, the chief executive of the business group Association for a Better New York, where she has run its 2020 Census efforts.

That’s easier said than done, though, and the going was much easier for areas where a well-developed network already existed. Take the Jackson Heights/Corona dichotomy; whereas the discrepancy could seem puzzling on paper, most people Gotham Gazette spoke with seemed unsurprised. “Jackson Heights as a neighborhood is just organized, period, and organized in a different way than some of the surrounding neighborhoods that were also really hard hit [by covid],” said Queens Community House’s Mayano. “There's always been kind of a coordinated network of organizations that have their niche, to reach the most marginalized in the community without overlapping.”

While there’s often a tendency to reduce Latino communities to a monolith, they clearly are not, and both socio-economic and cultural distinctions play a role. “The community in Corona or in Sunset Park, are more people that rent a room, they live in crowded apartments, and they don't want others to know that,” said Kourousias. “If you want to live in Williamsburg or Park Slope, the rents are higher than in Sunset Park. So the community may also be Latino, but the access to their economic resources are lower.”

Things may be shifting as the city continues its gradual process of opening back up and the sort of in-person organizing originally planned has resumed in some form. In early September, GOLES and other groups marched around the Lower East Side and the East Village with a drum line, handing out Census awareness flyers to passersby. Mixteca will be setting up tables outside of reopened Mexican and Latin food restaurants, and has hired some indigenous language speakers to walk people through filling out the Census survey. The Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation held a day of action.

“I think there's really been an uptick in numbers in some of those lagging neighborhoods once we were able to start to do in-person events, mixing Census outreach with PPE distribution and food distribution, being able to bring activities outdoors, to provide information about school reopening, and other essential services,” said ABNY’s Miller.

After some delays, the state government also this year distributed millions of dollars in dedicated census funding, which can be used to drive a big last-mile in-person outreach operation. At the Lower East Side Census march, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said, “only recently, we took our money from the governor and we gave it out quickly to thirty groups in Manhattan,” including some of those represented at the march.

Currently, the count is slated to end at the end of September, though there is litigation seeking it to be extended through the end of October (as had already been announced earlier this year), which would give the city and the community organizations further runway to drive responses with an in-person strategy.

Menin said that New York, in the context of other large urban areas, has in recent weeks seen the greatest jumpthe greatest jump in self-response rates as a result of resuming in-person outreach. “That's what we needed, that we weren't able to do when the census began. And that's why we wish we had October, because we need it. You know, to cut the census sort by one month, it's unconscionable,” she said. Somewhat ironically, large chunks of wealthier Manhattan neighborhoods along Central Park and downtown have had very poor response rates, presumably in part due to well-off inhabitants skipping town during the pandemic.

People like Zambrana, of the Corona group Latin Women in Action, have their work cut out. She’s delivering a consistent message: “If you don't want your voice to be taken away, you have to fill out the Census. And it is not for me, it's for you and your family and the future of your children.”

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by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

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fdlhoz@gg.com (Felipe De La Hoz) City Wed, 23 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Scott Stringer is Putting Affordable Housing at the Center of His Mayoral Pitch — What's His Vision? https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9760-scott-stringer-affordable-housing-mayor-campaign-2021 https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9760-scott-stringer-affordable-housing-mayor-campaign-2021 ss yr sl

Comptroller and mayoral candidate Scott Stringer (photo: @scottmstringer)


When he officially launched his campaign for mayor earlier this month, Comptroller Scott Stringer took square aim at what he called “the gentrification industrial complex” that he says has flourished in New York City despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s years-long effort to stem the tide of housing unaffordability. Stringer, a two-term Democrat, has for years examined, audited, and criticized various aspects of the mayor’s housing program, arguing it is not aptly designed to help those most in need of affordable housing, and is promising that if he’s elected mayor he will pursue a swift policy change to help house the poorest New Yorkers, finally make the city more affordable, and significantly reduce homelessness.

In January, Stringer released a housing plan that set him in contrast with de Blasio, earned him high praise from progressive leaders and organizations, and is now a lynchpin of his mayoral platform. The plan would be “a fundamental shift in the city’s approach to our housing crisis,” Stringer said at the announcement. “A plan that refocuses our resources where the crisis is most acute.” But there remain major open questions about the plan. Funding it would require action from the state Legislature, and at a time when both city and state tax revenues are down drastically. His push for both new mandates on affordable housing in new building projects and greater use of discretionary subsidies by the city could give pause to real estate developers and slow the pace of construction.

And Stringer has yet to answer key questions about what his approach to development as mayor would really be, including whether he would pursue large city-backed rezonings to encourage housing development in wealthier neighborhoods or how he would otherwise advance the housing desegregation that he has declared a goal.

While a representative of Stringer’s campaign told Gotham Gazette that Stringer wants to increase density across the city and that he supports upzonings in wealthier communities to do so, Stringer has not made either point central to his housing pitch. Nor has he pointed to any specific city neighborhoods he thinks are ripe for zoning changes to allow for larger buildings. He has so far only talked about mandating more affordable housing where building is set to occur within current zoning restrictions, thereby increasing costs for developers without increasing their potential earnings from more market-rate units that can subsidize the affordable ones, the key equation in de Blasio's plan.

Asked for examples of neighborhoods Stringer believes should be upzoned for more housing density, his campaign did not provide a response. Stringer was not made available for an interview for this story. But after this article originally published and discussion about Stringer's housing vision took off on social media, Stringer tweeted that "Upzonings are an important tool to create housing; we also need an as-of-right requirement," and, in response to housing advocates pointing to a proposal to upzone Soho for more housing, "I agree. Upzoning makes sense in Soho."

“When I'm mayor, we're going to end the crushing cycle of speculation, eviction and displacement,” Stringer said at his campaign launch. “No more giving away the store to developers. No more unaffordable affordable housing. We will put an end to the gentrification industrial complex, and end policies that perpetuate a cycle of segregation in our neighborhoods and in our schools...Together we will put the city's approach on a fundamentally new trajectory to build the housing we need in a city for everyone.”

[Read: Promising 'Leadership at City Hall,' Scott Stringer Officially Launches 2021 Mayoral Campaign]

At the campaign launch in Inwood, Stringer pointed to his housing plan and referenced its centerpiece, “universal affordable housing,” which would mandate aggressive affordability caps for 25% of the housing in any new development with ten or more units -- including those built as-of-right, meaning no new zoning changes in need of city approval. Universal affordable housing would replace the current Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) program, a product of the de Blasio administration that has its fair share of critics, including Stringer, who don’t believe it goes far enough in mandating affordability and point out that it only applies to development in rezoned areas.

Universal affordable housing would require that all affordable housing created under it would cap rents so that those making an average of 60% of Area Median Income (about $58,000 a year for a family of three), or two parents making minimum wage and raising a child, would not pay more than 30% of their income in rent. Though some have raised questions about its constitutionality, as a potential government “taking” of private property, similar citywide policies have been implemented in San Jose, California in 2010 and Portland, Oregon in 2017. San Jose’s inclusionary housing policy was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court, which refused to take the case in 2016, letting the law stand (though leaving open the possibility of another challenge).

According to Stringer’s office, if universal affordable housing had been applied at the start of 2014, when de Blasio became mayor, it would have led to the construction of 25,000 additional affordable units by the end of 2019 over what de Blasio’s plan has produced.

Besides universal affordable housing, Stringer’s housing plan would also deepen the city’s investment in housing for extremely and very low-income households, shifting funds from supplementing rents for moderate- and middle-income households; create a New York City Land Bank to fund 100% permanently affordable housing on about 1,000 vacant city-owned properties (though that number of potentially-useful lots has long been disputed by city housing officials); end the 421-a affordable housing tax subsidy that is supposed to incentivize affordable units in wealthier areas and replace it with discretionary subsidies; and expand homeownership through various initiatives.

Stringer regularly talks about the need for a real focus on comprehensive “community-based planning,” arguing that the de Blasio administration has been too top-down and promising that if he’s elected mayor communities will have more input. He has not explained what that will look like or how it will be anything but a barrier to more housing being built, whether in wealthier neighborhoods or elsewhere.

According to an assistant comptroller in Stringer’s office, which produced the housing plan in January, the main flaw in de Blasio’s housing approach has been the targeting of low-income communities of color for major upzonings that allow more density. Instead of encouraging development in those areas and spurring or accelerating gentrification, the mayor should target parts of the city where construction is already occurring, the official said. De Blasio has argued that he has pursued neighborhood plans where there is ample room to build, where force of gentrification could be harnessed or stemmed, and where local elected officials are interested in working on rezonings.

And rather than focus on a quantitative target of 300,000 rent-restricted units over 12 years, the mayor should be looking at the outcomes for affordability, according to Stringer. His plan does not contain a goal of total units or a timeline.

In response to Gotham Gazette inquiries about various aspects of the housing plan, Cameron Hellerman, a spokesperson for Stringer’s campaign, provided a statement about universal affordable housing and how it would work. It said, in part: “This means real affordable housing in every neighborhood with new construction, no exceptions. The problem with Mayor de Blasio's approach is that the ‘affordable’ housing in his rezonings is not affordable and completely out of reach for the people who built up the low income neighborhoods he targeted. Universal Affordable Housing would bring an affordable housing revolution that delivers housing to the New Yorkers who need it most. With a mounting homelessness crisis made worse by the devastation of the pandemic, we simply can't afford not to implement this plan."

De Blasio’s 300,000-unit housing program, which mostly focuses on preservation rather than new construction, has shifted several times as the mayor has responded to constant and ongoing criticism about being too focused on the middle class as opposed to those who are working class, poor, and homeless. As of June 30, his administration has preserved 114,934 units and funded the construction of 50,656 units of rent-restricted housing. Of those, a total of 72,396 are targeted at extremely low- and very low-income families, which fall below the 50% Area Median Income threshold. More than 60,000 New Yorkers are in Department of Homeless Services shelters, while tens of thousands more live in other shelters, on the streets, or doubled up with friends or relatives.

The city’s fortunes have changed since the release of both de Blasio’s most recent version of his plan and Stringer’s plan. Just before the coronavirus outbreak hit, de Blasio was promising another iteration of his housing plan, with more focus on those with limited means.

While Stringer talked about the impacts of the pandemic at his campaign launch, he did not say anything about them altering his housing plan. The pandemic has pushed the economy into a recession and city revenues have plummeted, forcing de Blasio to pare back his own affordable housing program.

Stringer’s plan, which envisions a net increase of $600 million in city investment for affordable housing, in part through phasing out the 421-a affordable housing tax credit, eliminating the Mortgage Recording Tax, and reforming the Real Property Transfer Tax, may no longer be feasible.

Stringer’s proposal is a rebuke of Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, a broadly popular policy proven controversial based on the particulars of how it was designed by the de Blasio administration and City Council before its passage in 2016. As part of the mayor’s 300,000-unit affordable housing program, MIH requires developers to build permanent rent-restricted housing in new developments at various income bands when they receive rezoning permission to build bigger. MIH is, however, a small part of the overall housing plan and, by the end of 2019, about 2,100 affordable units had been created through the program, according to a City Limits report.

Under the current approach, the de Blasio administration has pursued neighborhood rezonings in select areas across the city to encourage more density, build new market-rate and affordable units, and modernize and invest in communities. While several neighborhood rezoning plans have moved through the process and been approved, others that de Blasio had targeted have not moved or been stalled, and the mayor has not made neighborhood rezonings a priority for years now.

When Stringer released his plan, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development publicly criticised it, saying, in part, "Comptroller Stringer's proposals would actually worsen New York City's housing crisis. They'd make it next to impossible to build new buildings and lock countless hard-working families out of homes they could actually afford.”

Housing advocates, however, have broadly critiqued the city’s existing program and how MIH has been implemented. They note that the administration has mostly targeted low-income communities of color like East New York and East Harlem for rezonings, therefore encouraging real estate speculation and expediting the currents of gentrification that can price current residents out of their neighborhoods. De Blasio argues that his plan leverages forces of gentrification that would only worsen without city intervention and that it helps build desperately needed new housing for a variety of income levels. But advocates and some elected officials, including Stringer, say too much new housing that is being created continues to be unaffordable to those who need it most.

Stringer’s plan, on the other hand, has support from some of the most prominent housing advocacy groups in the city, including Community Voices Heard, Community Service Society, New York Communities for Change, The Legal Aid Society, and Churches United for Fair Housing.

“It's a million times better than de Blasio’s plan, which prioritized affordable housing that was unaffordable to communities,” said Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change, in a phone interview.

“What the next administration really needs to work on is, it's not just about building quote-unquote affordable housing,” he added. “It's about really housing the New Yorkers who need it the most, which are homeless people and people on the verge of homelessness.”

Part of Stringer’s proposal involves increasing operating housing subsidies awarded by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development by about $125 million each year and increasing capital investment by $375 million each year. But with the phasing out of the 421-a subsidy, which costs about $1.6 billion in property tax revenue annually according to estimates from Stringer’s office, under Stringer’s plan the city will have sufficient funds for the added investments. 

Westin said the city already has enough resources, but they’re not applied where they’re needed. “There's billions and billions in resources right now that is at HPD, that is at [Economic Development Corporation], that is just being misappropriated to build the gentrification plan that de Blasio is putting forward right now,” he said. “It could just be repurposed...into funding the lowest income housing.” If the city houses homeless people, it’ll also spend less on the shelter system, he pointed out.

Sean Campion, senior research associate at nonprofit watchdog Citizens Budget Commission, recently authored a report that found that New York’s housing stock growth has not kept pace with job creation, exacerbating the housing crisis. Policy decisions over the years have created uneven levels of allowable density, massive areas with low-density zoning, hard-to-develop vacant lots, and a scarcity of as-of-right development sites. Stringer’s plan seeks to correct some of those issues, but could run up against hurdles, Campion said in an interview.

“[Stringer] called for both more capital and targeting capital better at deep levels of affordability. There's obviously less of that to go around,” he said, pointing to the city’s budget crunch. Even if a Stringer administration kept funding flat, it would mean fewer units get built at deeper affordability. “That trade off is still there. But obviously in a more constrained environment, that's more difficult to do.”

Operational funding will be the bigger challenge, Campion noted, as the city’s revenues have nosedived with big budget gaps expected next year. Stringer has proposed raising those funds by replacing the “regressive and inequitable” mortgage recording tax with a “more progressive” Real Property Transfer Tax, changes that would together raise about $400 million in revenue each year. Those tax amendments, along with 421-a’s expiration, would require approval from the state Legislature.

“Given the budget shortfall plus the declines in just the number of real estate transfers in general, particularly on the commercial side, that could put a dent in that in the short-term,” Campion said.

Though CBC has not taken a position on Stringer’s universal affordable housing proposal, Campion did address the idea to do away with 421-a and provide subsidies on a discretionary basis. “Making it discretionary would probably depress housing production,” he said. “There are a lot of faults [with 421-a]. It can be better targeted, it’s expensive. But because it’s as-of-right, developers know what the program is, and they know what they're getting into when they're buying land, running projects.”

“One of the benefits of development in New York City in general is that you can build things as-of-right without discretionary approvals, but we still need 421-a to make the economics work because the tax on multi-family development is so high...Making the tax incentives discretionary effectively makes all development discretionary,” he added.

[Read: Experts Examine Challenges and Solutions to Building Affordable Housing in New York]

One area of general agreement among advocates and fiscal watchdogs is that additional capital investment will both help create more housing and spur job growth by encouraging construction.

“I don't see the pandemic at all at odds with an ambitious housing preservation and production program the way that Stringer lays out,” said Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator for the Housing Justice For All coalition. Weaver too noted flaws in how the city has used Mandatory Inclusionary Housing. “Mandatory Inclusionary Housing is really a public policy that's designed for a hot market,” she said, noting that de Blasio’s years in office have been accompanied by robust real estate growth (until covid). MIH, she said, is designed to work best in neighborhoods with higher land values, where developers would be able to recoup their investments without needing public subsidies while still building affordable units. “De Blasio, that's not how he used it. The way that he decided to do it was to use it in low land value areas of the city,” she said.

Weaver said the time is ripe for the city to take a greater role in regulating housing by bringing unregulated housing stock, particularly in boroughs other than Manhattan, under rent-regulation as the pandemic suppresses the real estate market. “This downturn means that there are lots of things that you can do to increase the value of the city's capital,” she said, calling on the city to issue bonds for building housing and to bail out struggling landlords and buildings while bringing them under city regulation.

She did note one point of minor disagreement with Stringer’s plan. The comptroller has proposed increasing homeownership partly through creating community land banks and land trusts that can fund the construction of affordable co-ops and condos. “Stringer says that these are mechanisms to create homeownership. They're not. They're mechanisms to create collectively run housing. So I think that's a misnomer and he shouldn't be describing it that way,” Weaver said.

Stringer is among a field of declared and likely candidates for the Democratic mayoral primary set to take place in June of next year and likely to determine the next mayor, given the city's overwhelming voter registration imbalance toward Democrats. All those seeking the mayoralty will be expected to outline how they plan to make the city more affordable, produce more housing, reduce homelessness, and save public housing. Earlier this year, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who has said he intends to run for mayor but has not officially declared his candidacy, released an anti-homelessness plan and said an affordable housing plan was soon to come, but that was put on hold by the pandemic. Former federal housing secretary Shaun Donovan, also seriously exploring a mayoral run, is likely to make housing a centerpiece of his campaign. Former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales, who has launched her run for mayor, is talking about housing as "a human right" and hosting an upcoming campaign event focused on the issue. Other declared or exploring Democrats include Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, former New York City Veteran Affairs Commissioner Loree Sutton, and Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney and former counsel to Mayor de Blasio.

If victorious, Stringer would need political will and alliances to implement some of the necessary policies. Phasing out 421-a will require state action as will reforming the city’s inequitable property tax system, which de Blasio promised and failed to do for years. (Stringer released an analysis of the property tax system in 2018, criticizing the disparate impact it has on working families. “We need to give New Yorkers a break, and turn a regressive tax system into a fair and progressive one,” he said at the time. “We must explore common sense solutions and expand tax relief to level the playing field for working families.” He has not released his own property tax reform plan. Meanwhile, long-delayed efforts by de Blasio to reform the inequitable and antiquated property tax system were stalled before the pandemic and have not been discussed since.)

“While our world has changed radically since the start of the year, New York City still has an affordable housing crisis,” said James Whelan, president of the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), an organization of major developers and land-owners, in a statement. “Though it’s now more critical than ever to provide more units for low-income, hard-hit New Yorkers, there are dramatically fewer resources available to create such housing. Tackling our City’s affordable housing needs will require sensible, data-driven policies and creative partnerships with the private sector to produce new, below market-rate units.”

Eric Kober, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a think tank, said Stringer’s plan “was never workable. It’s certainly not workable in the current economic circumstances. It is even less workable than de Blasio’s MIH program.” He pointed out that it would require diverting already dwindling capital resources away from other needs and towards housing.

Besides discouraging private development, Kober said most developers will try to grandfather in to existing regulations before 421-a expires next in 2022. That rush may be accelerated if developers are wary of Stringer’s plan being implemented, he said. “Even in the wealthiest neighborhoods, where in theory you could cross-subsidize affordable housing with high rents, what’s more likely to happen is that people will rush to build before Stringer’s plan goes into effect,” he said. “So there will be an initial burst of housing and very little housing after that.”

“It would have very deleterious effects on the city and possibly on the economy,” he added.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated to reflect Stringer's responses to discussion of the piece on social media, including his call for upzonign Soho.

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samarkhurshid@gmail.com (Samar Khurshid) City Tue, 22 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Kathryn Garcia on Trash, Food, & Possibly Running for Mayor https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9756-max-murphy-podcast-sanitation-kathryn-garcia-considers-run-for-mayor https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9756-max-murphy-podcast-sanitation-kathryn-garcia-considers-run-for-mayor dos kg 600

Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, middle (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


September 16, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Kathryn Garcia on Trash, Food & Possibly Running for Mayor

Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, who has been tasked with several other key roles by Mayor Bill de Blasio, is stepping down from her post as she considers jumping into the 2021 Democratic primary for Mayor. She joined the show to discuss her tenure at the Department of Sanitation, her work as interim NYCHA CEO and the "COVID-19 food czar," her approach to management and politics, and what she's thinking about in ehr exploration of a mayoral run.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org.

Max & Murphy · Episode 248: Kathryn Garcia Considers A Run For Mayor

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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bmax@gothamgazette.com (Ben Max) City Thu, 17 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Despite Requests, No Sign of De Blasio Plan for Managing Billions in City Borrowing He's Seeking https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9757-despite-requests-no-de-blasio-plan-for-managing-billions-city-borrowing-seeing-state https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9757-despite-requests-no-de-blasio-plan-for-managing-billions-city-borrowing-seeing-state requests despite mayor

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio continues to insist that New York City needs authorization from the state to borrow billions of dollars in operating funds to balance its budget, at least in the absence of federal aid to cover some of the massive loss in revenue from the pandemic fallout. The drastically-slashed new city budget for this fiscal year passed July 1 included $1 billion in undefined labor savings, which de Blasio said could be covered by federal aid or borrowing, or, if neither of those come through, potentially 22,000 laid off municipal workers.

But as he’s beat the drum for authority to borrow $5 billion to be granted by skeptical state government leaders, the mayor has yet to present a detailed plan for how that money would be spent and repaid, creating concern among lawmakers and fiscal watchdogs that he wants a “blank check” for the city.

By the end of the month, the mayor must present the state Financial Control Board, an oversight body, with a plan to find the $1 billion in savings needed to balance the $88.2 billion budget for the current fiscal year. But the city’s budget woes don’t stop there. The budget gap for the next fiscal year is expected to be $4.2 billion, though it could be higher pending revenue forecasts.

For months, the mayor has said that the state Legislature should allow the city to cover those costs through long-term borrowing, at times expressing frustration and exasperation about the unwillingness of his fellow Democrats to act. But they have raised questions and sought a specific plan that de Blasio has yet to provide. Asked repeatedly for any plan that de Blasio may have at this point, spokespeople for de Blasio did not respond to Gotham Gazette inquiries this week. Other relevant parties indicated that there is still no plan.

After initially proposing to borrow $7 billion, the mayor lowered the request to $5 billion, which would be repaid over 30 years. In June, de Blasio wrote a letter to legislators in the State Senate and Assembly pressing for his demand, but it offered few details.

As de Blasio continued to press his case leading up to the finalized city budget, city and state officials -- from Governor Andrew Cuomo to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and City Comptroller Scott Stringer, among others -- expressed skepticism about new borrowing.

On June 27, State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester Democrat, released a statement saying, “New York City is the economic engine for our nation and our state, and so it is a priority for the Senate that it remains economically strong and viable. Prudence requires the development of a plan not rushed through before action is actually necessary, especially when the possibility of additional federal aid remains unresolved. Mayor de Blasio has made it clear we have several months before drastic measures like layoffs would occur and other city leaders have sent mixed signals about the wisdom and efficacy of the current request. The Senate will work with our partners in Government including the Mayor, the City Comptroller, the City Council, the Assembly, and the Governor to help New York City. We are open to approving limited loan authorization but more work needs to be done to develop a consensus around a sound approach.”

A spokesperson for de Blasio expressed disappointment in the State Senate.

More recently, some officials including Stringer and Johnson have changed their stance, albeit while still saying they want to see a real plan from de Blasio. Cuomo has continued to argue against new borrowing by the city to pay for operating expenses, saying the state would ultimately be on the hook.

The mayor and labor union leaders have been lobbying the state Legislature to approve the borrowing authority, which would both remove the need to cut spending on labor and prevent layoffs. “I've been asking Albany for months for something very fair and simple – long-term borrowing, which the city has received in past crises,” de Blasio said on Tuesday. “Hasn't happened. We're running out of options. Now, I do believe labor's working real hard...to help us in Albany and to come up with alternatives. So, I'm going to hold out hope that that's how we can solve this.” 

In a statement after publication, Julia Arredondo, a mayor's office spokesperson, said, "Long term borrowing is the fiscally responsible pathway to the City’s financial recovery. Without it, we face layoffs and steep budget cuts. We have had many conversations with the Council about our plan, and look forward to working together to protect the jobs of hard-working City employees and the programs and services that New Yorkers need and deserve."

The State Assembly nearly voted on the borrowing proposal in June – Speaker Carl Heastie has said he supports it – while the Senate majority remains open to the idea as well. "As we have said from the beginning we are willing to work with New York City to identify the best course forward without hurting working men and women and at the same time pursuing a fiscally responsible course,” said Mike Murphy, communications director for the Senate majority, in a new statement to Gotham Gazette. He did not say whether the mayor had presented a plan to the Senate. An Assembly spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

While Cuomo has so far been cold to the idea of allowing the city to borrow billions of dollars, the state itself has engaged in new borrowing as it struggles with lost revenue and prepares for potential cuts to local aid. Asked whether the mayor had given the state a specific borrowing plan, Division of Budget spokesperson Freeman Klopott pointed to the governor’s comments at an unrelated news conference on Long Island on Wednesday.

“The mayor has said he would have to lay off people if he didn’t borrow. I’m saying layoffs are the last thing you would want to do,” Cuomo said. “They’re the last option, especially in New York City where you have so many problems, you have the homeless problem, you have the crime problem, the city is dirty. So layoffs are the last option. But the $90 billion budget the City has, I’m sure there’s a lot of waste you can find. And that’s what you need to do before you go to borrow or lay off anyone.”

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli had his own tough words for the de Blasio administration. “The city used non-recurring revenue and some questionable savings to close its 2021 budget gap, while revenue continues to lag. The fiscal problems are daunting now but the duration is uncertain, and borrowing cannot become a crutch,” DiNapoli said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “The city must provide a detailed, realistic plan for managing its finances for the next few years before turning to borrowing. It should be a last resort.”

Stringer and Johnson continue to call for a comprehensive plan, which has yet to be produced, for spending and repaying the borrowing. “We are in an unprecedented economic crisis, and so far the federal government has walked away from its responsibility to provide the relief we need,” Stringer said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “The Mayor needs to stop threatening to fire frontline workers and propose a transparent, comprehensive financial plan with borrowing as one component to balance our budget and protect workers while preventing irremediable damage to the economic and social fabric of our City. The Mayor doesn’t get a blank check.”

The City Council was preparing to hold a hearing on September 21 on a non-binding resolution sponsored by Council Member Helen Rosenthal urging the state Legislature to approve the borrowing proposal. Melanie Hartzog, director of the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget was scheduled to testify. But the hearing has been postponed for the second time now. A Council spokesperson said in an email on Friday that they had expected the state Legislature to return to session, which it did not, and will reschedule the hearing once that occurs.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Johnson reiterated his support but explained what he wants to hear from the administration. “I want to avoid layoffs. That is a major reason why I support the ability to borrow long-term,” he said. “The administration has to come and participate in a meaningful way and take questions and answer them and outline their plans, their sequencing, and speak in a very specific, detailed substantive way on what they would use that borrowing authority for.”

He also said that the resolution from the Council, while potentially helpful to signal its buy-in on borrowing, is not what will or should make or break the request.

Rosenthal said in a phone interview that she hasn’t received any indication from OMB that they will provide a detailed plan prior to the hearing, or if one even exists. She said the lack of candor has been “frustrating,” particularly as the hearing was rescheduled to allow OMB officials to testify. “My gut, and I've been saying this for half a year now, is to allow borrowing, but they need to put a little meat on the bones,” she said.

“Here's everything we don't know. The amounts, over how many years. Do they have a plan for timing of paying the money back? Do they have any of those types of specifics and where are they with the labor savings?,” she said. She also noted that the city’s charter-mandated update on revenues and expenditures is due in November, when mid-year budget and four-year financial plan modifications will occur. “Are they starting to have a sense of how revenues are coming in compared to what was budgeted at the end of June?” she said.

“I guess the mayor's folks have a strategy on it,” she said of the overall plan. “I'm not sure what that strategy is because I would imagine the state people who are the ones who have to give us the authority are asking the exact same questions...Common sense would be, I think, that one would want to be as transparent as possible in order to justify to those who are giving you the authority, why you need it, and what your plans are.”

Rosenthal also said she’d been informed the Municipal Labor Committee will meet at the same time as the hearing, which may preclude labor leaders from testifying. “It'd be helpful to know where they are in those negotiations,” she said.

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with a statement from the mayor's office.

Note - this article has been updated to reflect that the City Council hearing on the borrowing resolution has been indefinitely postponed. 

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samarkhurshid@gmail.com (Samar Khurshid) City Thu, 17 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
With 5 Candidates Declared, 2021 Manhattan Borough President Race Has Begun https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9753-candidates-declared-2021-manhattan-borough-president-race-democratic-primary https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9753-candidates-declared-2021-manhattan-borough-president-race-democratic-primary demo bp3

(L-R) Mark Levine, Elizabeth Caputo, Brad Hoylman, Kimberly Watkins, Ben Kallos


As 2021 creeps closer, so does the most consequential municipal election in possibly decades, one that will decide the entire political roster that represents the city with few incumbents eligible to run for their current seats due to term limits. In overwhelmingly Democratic New York, the Democratic Party primary in June is all but certain to determine the winner of almost every seat. In Manhattan, nearly half of the borough’s 1.6 million registered voters are Democrats, more than seven times the number of Republicans, and five Democratic candidates have already lined up to pursue the nomination to become the next Borough President.

Borough presidents don’t have nearly the same amount of power that they enjoyed decades ago but they play a crucial role in the city’s political pecking order. Their most prominent role is the voice they add to land use and development decisions, even if it is an advisory one. They can sponsor legislation in partnership with City Council members. They allocate millions in capital budget dollars for infrastructure. They appoint members to community boards, to the citywide Panel for Educational Policy, the City Planning Commission, and local Community Education Councils. They have a great deal of leeway to pursue pet projects and priority issues, and their impact is limited by how effectively they can use their bully pulpit.

The five Democrats running for Manhattan Borough President include City Council Members Mark Levine and Ben Kallos; State Senator Brad Hoylman; Kim Watkins, president of Community Education Council 3; and Elizabeth Caputo, former Manhattan Community Board 7 chair. Three of the five, save Kallos and Watkins, are based on the west side of the borough. Kallos is an Upper East Side resident and Watkins lives in Harlem. Notably, all five are white though the borough’s population is 47.2% white, 17.8% Black, 17.4% Hispanic, and 12.8% Asian, according to U.S. Census data as of July 1, 2019.

As of February 21, there were 832,312 registered Democrats in Manhattan and only 109,269 registered Republicans. There were also 227,729 party-unaffiliated registered voters, often called independents. Democrats have held the position of Manhattan Borough President for many decades. There are no Republican candidates as of now.

The next borough president will have big shoes to fill. Current Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who is term-limited, is a famously popular veteran of city government, known for her ubiquitous presence around the borough. During her tenure, she’s built a reputation for embracing community concerns and opposing real estate developers, a powerful political force that is increasingly falling out of favor among Democrats. Brewer has been focused on civic technology, internet access, and small businesses, among other issues.

Among the five candidates vying to replace her, Levine and Kallos have been out in front of the field, having spent much of the last year building their campaigns and raising funds. Watkins, Caputo, and Hoylman, who is the most recent entrant to the race, are still getting their campaigns off the ground, though the city’s public matching funds program will likely help all of them gain solid footing, particularly Watkins and Caputo, who are both first-time candidates (for paid, full-time government positions, that is). The 2021 city elections will also be the first with ranked-choice voting in place for special and party primary elections, and the Democratic candidates will have to garner support in the varying constituencies across the borough. As elected officials, Levine, Kallos, and Hoylman likely have name-recognition advantages, but they too will have to show they can appeal to voters outside their current districts. Caputo has been a civic leader in the vote-rich Upper West Side, while Watkins is a Harlem resident who has also been extremely active in her surrounding community.

The candidates all face one common challenge, the crises facing the city that will be front-and-center in all of the dozens of city government elections taking place next year. The city is still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic and its effects will be felt well into 2021, and beyond. Though it was not as decimated as other boroughs, Manhattan has experienced its share of death and illness. More than 1 million New Yorkers lost their jobs, many based in Manhattan. The borough’s office buildings emptied, wealthier residents left the city in droves, many businesses went under, especially those relying on commuters and tourists.

The next borough president will have to offer a unifying vision for the borough that speaks to its specific neighborhoods and can address the many current crises as well as long-standing issues, some of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

In interviews with Gotham Gazette just ahead of their first debate, scheduled for September 17, each of the five declared candidates offered their campaign pitch and the path forward that they envision for the borough. They addressed the major problems – struggling small businesses, a lack of affordable housing, school segregation, among others – and how they would approach issues around real estate development and local opposition to siting municipal facilities like homeless shelters. While some offered concrete ideas and potential solutions, others shared vague values statements.

Elizabeth Caputo: “I really look at what's happening now in our city and in our borough as a time for qualified new leadership.”
Caputo has not been in elected office in the 25 years that she’s called the Upper West Side her home. But she sees that as a strength, not a weakness as she seeks the borough president seat. 

Caputo does have experience with national politics, local governance, community leadership, and representing constituents: she previously served as chair of Manhattan Community Board 7, where she created a public housing task force to help NYCHA residents in the district, among other accomplishments she’s touting in her early borough president campaign.

She has worked for the last six years on U.S. government engagement for the World Economic Forum and also chaired Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century, a progressive political organization. Prior to that, she was vice president of infrastructure and municipal capital markets at the investment and financial firm Morgan Stanley. “The one continuous thread that I have had throughout all of my careers that have really bridged public and private and global and local has been an ability to bring Manhattan communities together,” she said. “And so I really look at what's happening now in our city and in our borough as a time for qualified new leadership.”

Her work with the WEF has put her in a position to work on the types of issues that a borough president would have to handle such as municipal finance and local infrastructure projects, she said. “I feel very strongly that this is an executive position, not a legislative one, and that it's very important to have people who understand how to run things and know how to get things done,” Caputo said.

She said voters are tired of career politicians who have overseen the very worsening issues like unaffordability that they say they want to tackle. And the next borough president, she insisted, needs to have a long-term vision. “The pandemic is not something that's going to be going away, and it's not going to be going away in June, and it's not gonna be going away whenever the new borough president, whenever she gets elected,” she said. “It's going to be a job that requires somebody who can have a roadmap and a plan for the next decade or two decades.”

Her top priorities are “responsible and equitable development, education, and mass transit,” and she promised that she would release detailed plans on each in the coming weeks as her campaign picks up. “I spent a lot of my time at the World Economic Forum thinking about new forms of mobility, new forms of the future of work, how people are working and living, and also how to minimize what is a very growing divide between the haves and the have nots,” she said.

Caputo repeatedly emphasized her collaborative approach, both on the community board and in her private sector experience, which she said would be necessary when confronting local issues like the Upper West Side homeless hotel controversy. “I think the key is to have a responsible, even-keeled leader who can go in and talk to all the parties at the table, treat them fairly,” she said. “Even if you personally don't agree with them, treat them fairly to try to come up with a solution.”

Unlike other candidates, she didn’t commit to any voluntary restrictions on her fundraising, though she insisted she will not be swayed by her donors. “I'm not prepared to answer that question right now,” she said, when asked if she would reject real estate donations in particular. “Nobody is going to be influencing my decisions...I will not be influenced by any group, whether it's a lobbying group or developer or quite frankly, a number of lobbying organizations that do give money and endorse candidates, I'm going to be my own person. And I'm going to vote my conscience on things,” she said. She insisted that she is “not a pro-development candidate by any means” but said the job of borough president would require working with every industry for the betterment of the borough.

Brad Hoylman: “A Marshall Plan for Manhattan.”
Senator Hoylman recently won the Democratic primary for reelection to the 27th State Senate District, which covers the West Village, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, Stuytown-Peter Cooper Village, and a big swathe of Midtown Manhattan.

In office since 2013, when he replaced State Senator Tom Duane, Hoylman has had a productive career in the state Legislature. He chairs the judiciary committee and has passed 79 bills including several significant pieces of legislation such as the Child Victims Act, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), a ban on conversion therapy for minors, the repeal of a religious exemption for vaccinations, the Police STAT Act, and the TRUST Act to allow Congressional committees to request President Donald Trump’s state tax returns. Before serving in the Senate, Hoylman was general counsel to the Partnership for New York City, a group that represents the interests of the city’s biggest businesses.

If elected, Hoylman would become the first openly gay borough president in the city, and is currently the only openly gay member of the state Senate. 

He painted a grim picture of what could happen to Manhattan in the coming months and years, even as he pushed back against the doomsayers who claim that New York is beyond saving. “Unless we act now, we could see our borough become, at one end of the spectrum, a hollowed-out shell reminiscent of the 1970s. At the other end, a playground for the rich,” he said as he pointed to local businesses shuttering, homelessness increasing, and residents increasingly worrying about being able to afford their rent. “It's hard to believe but the question is actually being asked, ‘Does the city have a future?’ And the answer has to be ‘yes,’” he said.

He wants to push for a solution that resembles “a Marshall Plan for Manhattan,” he said, referring to the post-World War II foreign aid that the U.S. provided to western Europe. “We need to rebuild our communities in a way that's fair and smart and recognizes the disparate needs and challenges of say Washington Heights versus Midtown Manhattan,” he said, calling the borough president’s office “fundamentally an office of planning.”

Hoylman sees the recovery from the pandemic as an opportunity to fix the mistakes of the past. The post-9/11 boom in construction, he noted, did not address the need for affordability in the borough. “With this enormous challenge of the pandemic and the worldwide recession which we're undergoing, there's a new moment to meet the affordability question in the borough,” he said. “But it's going to require a borough president who stands up to a lot of powerful forces.”

He’s done just that “since day one in the Senate,” he said, citing his legislative battles against “the real estate lobby, big tobacco, the NRA, anti-vaxxers, and even Donald Trump over his taxes.” He said he intends to develop a formal “Manhattan Marshall Plan” that will center affordability while encouraging development.

Even as he pursues a large-scale vision, he won’t ignore the minutiae of the borough president’s office, Hoylman said. He plans to create a task force on city services and quality of life to address everything from trash pick-ups to snow removal. “In the midst of what I consider to be the verge of a humanitarian crisis and rising rates of crime, the borough president can use this office as a platform to call for action,” he said. He’s also pledging to establish an advocacy resource center to help parents navigate the public school enrollment process.

A major change Hoylman is proposing is to democratize the capital dollars available to the borough president by instituting “community board budgeting” somewhat akin to the City Council’s participatory budgeting program. He wants to delegate the funds to community boards and let them decide how to use them locally. “We have the perfect vehicle in our local community boards, who are the eyes and ears of our communities...and are experts on what we need to see as a city,” he said. 

As with Kallos, Hoylman is also seeking to emulate Brewer’s leadership of the office, and touted the many occasions when he’s worked with her on various planning efforts. Like Brewer, he is also opposed to “self-defeating” term limits for community board members (Hoylman opposes term limits for all elected offices, in fact, save for the president).

Hoylman echoed a similar sentiment about the homeless hotel controversy on the Upper West Side. “The lack of notice and specific project planning shared with the local community was unacceptable,” he said. The local backlash could have been avoided, he insisted, if the de Blasio administration had better communicated its plans. 

“If you have an idea, and can build a coalition of support, the sky's the limit,” he said.

Ben Kallos: “I’m a student of Gale Brewer and I want to continue her legacy.”
Council Member Kallos is a two-term Democrat representing a district on the east side of Manhattan including much of the Upper East Side, Roosevelt Island, Midtown East, Sutton Place, and part of East Harlem.

Kallos has been a reform-minded activist, aide, and now elected official with a focus on improving how government functions, including a heavy emphasis on campaign finance reform. Currently, he’s the chair of the Council’s Committee on Contracts and has used the position to call out waste in city procurement. From 2014 to 2017, he chaired the Committee on Governmental Operations and successfully championed improvements to the city’s campaign finance law and elections administration among a slew of transparency and accountability measures.

A lawyer by training, he previously served as statewide coordination committee chair for the New York Democratic Lawyers Council and was chief of staff to Assemblymember Jonathan Bing, before becoming executive director of the New Roosevelt Initiative, a government reform political committee.

Over his time in office, Kallos has built strong relationships with labor unions and nearly 50 unions or union chapters have endorsed his campaign for borough president, though the list does not include any of the biggest unions in the city. He also has the backing of U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a prominent Manhattan Democrat whose district overlaps with his, and former Public Advocate Mark Green.

Kallos prides himself on having won office in 2013 while refusing campaign contributions from real estate developers, lobbyists, and corporate donors, before such pledges became en vogue among Democrats. It’s also why he believes he’ll have a stronger voice in land use issues as borough president. “I've been dedicated to big structural change that would change the incentives for elected officials and how they governed,” he said. “And the biggest power that the borough president has by far is land use power.”

He worked closely with Brewer and activists to pass a community-led rezoning that prevented super-tall buildings from being constructed in Sutton Place, on the east side between 53rd and 59th Streets, in his district. He also touted his successful effort to lead a borough-wide coalition to limit the use of mechanical voids to increase building heights.

He touted various accomplishments as a Council member, many of them part of citywide or state initiatives, including securing nearly 2,000 pre-kindergarten seats for his district; bringing in Citi Bike, new ferry sites and select bus service lines; the launch of the Second Avenue subway; and $275 million for the crumbling East River esplanade. “I can do it because I've done it in my district,” he said of borough leadership.

“I think a lot of folks are talking about some of the problems our city is having but these aren't new problems. And these are all things I've been kind of single-mindedly focused on trying to fix,” he said, though he didn't offer any particular new goals.

Kallos believes he’s the candidate who is most closely aligned with how Brewer has run the office, and wants to be as omnipresent as she has been in her tenure. “I am a student of Gale Brewer and I want to continue her legacy, which is going to be very hard to do,” he said. “The biggest part of the job is going to be showing up. No one shows up more than Gale Brewer.”

He’s also shown a willingness to confront the types of issues that were raised on the Upper West Side around sheltering homeless people in hotels. In 2016, he created the Eastside Taskforce for Homeless Outreach and Services to help the chronically homeless. During the pandemic, at least 200 people experiencing homelessness were sheltered in a hotel in his district, Kallos said, explaining that he worked with local community leaders and service providers to proactively address the quality-of-life issues that arose and resolved them.

Kallos was one of the few City Council members who voted against the recently-approved $88.2 billion city budget, because it did not make more extensive funding cuts to the NYPD’s nearly $6 billion annual operating budget. The budget vote came in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests and police reform activists wanted to see as much as $1 billion cut from the police department. “I think this is going to be a key issue in this race and I think it will be disqualifying for candidates who haven’t been willing to say ‘Defund the NYPD’ and aren't willing to do it,” he said, in a thinly-veiled reference to Levine’s vote in favor of the budget, which included hundreds of millions of dollars in projected cuts and cost shifts from the NYPD. Kallos also returned campaign donations to police unions and vowed to never accept them again.

He did note that he had one area of disagreement with Brewer. When community board term limits were proposed as a ballot referendum last year, Brewer opposed them while Kallos was in support of the measure, which voters passed overwhelmingly. He has taken a particular interest in making sure that the community boards in his district are diverse and have the resources they need to perform their work, he said. “I give discretionary funds from my office to pay for urban planners for the community boards so that they can take on developers,” he said.

He also cited an oft-unused city charter-given power of the borough presidents to monitor how contracts for services are fulfilled. The borough president can call a hearing of a contract performance panel, if they choose. “The borough president has a unique role when it comes to delivery of services through contracts or through agencies to make sure they do better,” Kallos said. “And I think that's just the tip of the iceberg.”

Mark Levine: “My entire career has prepared me for this moment.”
City Council Member Levine is in his second and final term representing a district in northern Manhattan that stretches from the Upper West Side through West Harlem to Hamilton Heights. For the past three years, he has served as chair of the Council’s health committee, a role that thrust him into the spotlight amid the coronavirus outbreak, and as chair of the parks committee before that. After his first term, he launched a substantial campaign to become the City Council Speaker, ultimately finishing what was essentially second to the victor, Corey Johnson.

Prior to the Council, he was a bilingual math and science teacher in the South Bronx and founded a community development credit union. He was also a community board member.

“We are going to need to rally as a city. We're going to need to act boldly so that we can rebuild in a way which is smarter, healthier, and fairer than before. And my entire career has prepared me for this moment,” he said.

He touted many achievements as a Council member, including the approval of hundreds of units of deeply affordable housing in his district, creating a new historic district in Morningside Heights that preserved 115 buildings in perpetuity, and major capital improvements to parks, schools and libraries. His work has already earned him the endorsement of about a dozen district leaders, Assemblymember Al Taylor, and fellow Council Member Margaret Chin.

Levine’s most prominent and likely most impactful accomplishment has been passing legislation that created a right to counsel for most low-income tenants in housing court, which has led to a massive drop in evictions. More recently, serving as health committee chair during the pandemic has helped bolster Levine’s profile, at times to the national stage; it earned him a profile in the Washington Post that proclaimed him the “Anthony Fauci of the New York City Council’ despite his lack of a background in medicine and occasional public missteps. When the state went into lockdown, Levine became known for an active social media presence, sharing key information and pushing the de Blasio, Cuomo, and Trump administrations.

Building off that, Levine said he would place public health equity at the center of his borough president campaign, having seen the disparate impact that the pandemic has had across the city, particularly for communities of color. “The profound inequality of this borough has been exacerbated by this crisis, but this crisis also gives us an opportunity to fix some of the systems that have led to that inequality,” he said of health care, housing and more. He argued the city should double down on affordable housing development, particularly by acquiring new properties using a community land trust model as prices drop.

Levine’s priorities are each informed by the pandemic. He noted, for instance, how it has highlighted the need for expanding public space. “I think we need to bring about a golden age of public space, of open space,” he said. He said that the next borough president will have to make mass transit a top priority, as the MTA faces a deep budget hole and commuters turn to cars, which may inundate the city and worsen traffic and pollution. Levine said it is essential to “find a way to get people out of private cars and into mass transit and other alternative forms of transportation, whether it’s walking, bicycling, or other environmental transportation.”

“The job of the Manhattan borough president is to use every lever of the office to fight for the people who actually live in this borough,” he said. “To put their needs above those for whom Manhattan is just a place to work or play or visit. People who live here understand that this is actually a borough of neighborhoods. It's 100 small towns, and the job of this office is to ensure that every one of those towns, those neighborhoods, is healthy and equitable, vibrant and livable.”

Ultimately, he said, the borough president’s office provides a platform for organizing voices across the borough, whether its local nonprofits, community boards, or community education councils, “so that the agenda of the borough president simply can't be ignored.” He cited his successful advocacy for the tenants counsel legislation, which required a multi-year organizing campaign that he put forth with co-sponsor Vanessa Gibson of the Bronx, then-Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, other Council members, and advocates. “That's my model for using this office as an organizing vehicle,” he said.

It’s also what he said he would have done in the case of the Upper West Side hotel that has recently been at the center of a political furor over homeless individuals being housed there. “There's a right way and wrong way to set up new facilities and there has to be more consultation with local communities,” Levine said, insisting that the de Blasio administration’s approach was flawed. He cited his own fight for expanding a homeless shelter and building supportive housing on 108th Street, which he said required partnering with the neighborhoods around the project and convincing residents of the necessity of the facility. “In the end, even those who didn't support the project came to understand its importance,” he said.

One of the major issues that Levine said the borough faces is the decline of small businesses and the struggles imposed by the pandemic. He has proposed creating a municipal bank that can finance community economic development projects, small businesses, green technologies, community land trusts and worker-owned cooperatives. “I'm going to make Manhattan the world leader in community development finance in a way that will offer a lifeline to struggling small businesses,” he said. 

He’s also promised to use the office to promote viable alternatives to public safety that do not involve the police. “It's got to start with investments in social services and youth development and anti-poverty programs, but we also have an obligation to call out injustice in policing and ensure that policing does not disproportionately target Black and brown communities as it too often has,” he said.

Kimbrely Watkins: “I feel like we're running out of time to change direction in terms of how the government operates and does its business.”
Watkins said she was inspired to join Community Education Council 3 on the Upper West Side six years ago after seeing how badly segregated schools were in the district. As CEC president, she led the effort to remove school zoning lines to improve diversity across schools, which proved to be a controversial and hard-fought endeavor.

“I'm running because...as a school leader in District 3, I've had a front row seat to the dysfunction in our government,” she said, “and I feel like we're running out of time to change direction in terms of how the government operates and does its business.” 

That experience particularly disillusioned her about the city’s failures, as she saw elected officials rejecting an effort meant to desegregate schools. Even the mayor was poised to cave to the opposition. “We had to shame the politicians...The only way that we got it through was was to drag it into the public eye via the New York Times, essentially,” she said.

“COVID-19 has magnified that dysfunction,” she added.

Watkins emphasized the need for “governmental responsibility and fiscal responsibility” as she criticized decision making in the city from the mayor down to the local level, driven by political winds and special interests rather than based on logic or data. “What we need now is a changemaker,” she said. “We need to redefine what we get in a borough president and that is someone who's going to buck the mayor, someone who's going to push at the local level...smaller grassroots and ground activity.”

The city’s response to the pandemic, she said, “is a great example of how utterly in the toilet the current government is.” Despite early warnings about COVID-19, city officials continued to urge New Yorkers to go about their daily lives without taking special precautions until the middle of March, by which time the virus had spread well across the city.

She was particularly incensed about the wasteful and inefficient practices that she said end up costing taxpayer money and she would raise alarms about as borough president. She cited the shortage of school nurses, an issue that CEC 3 has raised in the past and which has now forced the city to rely on more costly, commercial firms to fill the gap as schools plan their reopenings. And she pointed to the Department of Education’s faulty screening processes for special education services. “We don't do a good job at the DOE in terms of screening students, particularly low-income Black and brown students, for the services that they need in special education. And therefore, families have to sue in order to get what they need, which again fleeces the taxpayer,” she said.

Referencing the recent city budget battle over NYPD funding, she again called for reining in excessive spending. “Taxpayers should call bullshit on that talking point because we did not defund the NYPD. We didn't do anything with the NYPD,” she said. Having previously been an auxiliary police officer, she said she personally understands the need for policing in communities. But, she said that the police department “should not be a military operation.” “We can provide, and we should provide a level of government service in communities of color that have traditionally been over-policed and have a functioning police department in those same communities,” she said.

One of the chief challenges the next borough president will have to manage is boosting the struggling small businesses in the borough. As someone who has run a small business herself, Watkins said she’s seen firsthand the types of bureaucratic hurdles that business owners need to jump through. “I'm a big believer in working with our entire city operation to figure out a way to create a catalyst for reigniting our main street New York,” she said.

In the ‘90s, Watkins was director at the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s New York Race for the Cure. In the 2000s, she taught at an upstart program called Manhattan GMAT, where she eventually became senior director of marketing and student services but was eventually pushed out in 2007 by the company president, future presidential candidate Andrew Yang, whom Watkins said was sexist and biased against her for having gotten married (allegations Yang denied on the campaign trail this year). Watkins currently runs inSHAPE Fitness, her own company, working as a part-time private trainer and as a marathon coach for New York Road Runners Club.

Watkins also wants to encourage policies that promote home-ownership rather than just creating affordable rental housing. “We don't create any intergenerational wealth within our housing structure,” she said. “The people that buy apartments in New York City are rich and white, and mostly male and that has to stop. We need more [Housing Development Fund Corporations], more Mitchell-Lamas. We need more opportunities for ownership.” Watkins herself is an owner in an HDFC, a type of co-operative housing that is meant to be permanently affordable. 

On the homeless hotel controversy, though she criticized the “secret process” used by the de Blasio administration, she did say there was “a legitimate concern” about increasing crime and quality of life issues. “Had a trustworthy mayor been in an office and had the borough president, City Council member, or the state elected officials been informed, I think they probably would have buffered the consequences on the ground in a way that allowed residents to feel more comfortable,” she said.

The five Democratic candidates for Manhattan Borough President will meet for a debate hosted by Arena and Empire State Indivisible on Thursday, September 17.

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to note that Watkins lives in Harlem, not the Upper West Side.

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samarkhurshid@gmail.com (Samar Khurshid) City Wed, 16 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
How New York City Might Begin to Revive Its Decimated Tourism Industry https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9742-how-to-revive-new-york-city-tourism https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9742-how-to-revive-new-york-city-tourism experts revive tourism

Visitors to the Statue of Liberty (photo: Spencer T Tucker/City Council)


New York City’s tourism industry has a long road to recovery and a lot to learn from other cities like London, which has kick-started its economy through hyperlocal tourism, to come out of the coronavirus pandemic recession. During a virtual policy forum this week hosted by the Center for an Urban Future, top tourism officials from other major cities and New York-based stakeholders discussed laying the groundwork for tourism recovery here and elsewhere.

The city’s tourism industry thrived in 2019 for the tenth consecutive year, with 66.6 million visitors whose spending generated about $70 billion in economic activity and supported almost 400,000 jobs, according to NYC & Company, the city’s official marketing organization. Domestic travel accounted for 53 million people whereas international visitors accounted for 13.5 million. The industry expected around 68 million visitors in 2020, a 2% increase from last year, but instead the effects of the pandemic have made it among the most decimated sectors of the economy, in company with other related and interdependent industries.

Industries and sectors reliant on tourism, such as restaurants, retail, arts and entertainment, and travel accommodation saw sizable declines, with over 200,000 jobs lost since February, according to CUF. “In New York City today, we’re experiencing an economy with 67 million fewer consumers,” said Fred Dixon, president and CEO of NYC & Company, a position he was appointed to by Mayor Bill de Blasio in early 2014. “The ripple effect it has on not just the hotels and attractions but the cultural fabric of our city, on the restaurant and the hospitality workers, on retail, it is profound.”

The pain experienced by those in the tourism and related industries has also been part of the city's massive, sudden drop in expected tax revenue, leading to a significantly reduced city budget passed July 1.

During the first of two panel discussions at the event, tourism officials from Montreal, London, San Francisco, and New York City discussed marketing initiatives their cities have taken to revive affected industries. Because of quarantine protocols and travel restrictions, these cities have launched hyperlocal campaigns to target their own residents and support local businesses to boost their economies.

In London, the city shifted its focus from the international market to the domestic market with the “Because I am a Londoner” campaign, which encourages Londoners to support small businesses and safely rediscover their own city. They’ve also launched campaigns like “Eat Out to Help Out” offering 50% off at select restaurants throughout August, where the government picked up the other half of the tab, and the “Pay it Forward” campaign, which crowdfunded for small businesses.

Similarly, Montreal’s tourism officials have been targeting Montrealers to sightsee in their own city by providing real-time information about open businesses and attractions and offering deals and discounts on their upgraded website. The city also reinvented their downtown area with art, created large terraces, and hosted popup events to attract residents in outdoor spaces.

In the United States, California banded its popular cities to create the “Calling All Californians” campaign encouraging locals to explore destinations within the state. “For the first time ever we’re focusing on in-state visitation,” said Joe D’Alessandro, president and CEO of San Francisco Travel Association, the city’s travel and tourism organization.

In comparison to other top tourist spots, New York City is behind. This is in part due to having been hit so hard by the coronavirus, according to Dixon. “New York is a little bit further behind some of the other destinations because of the impact of the epicenter and our government leaders have been very slow to respond, I would say to make sure there is public health safety in mind first of all but as things start to reopen I am hopeful we will see more of these pieces,” Dixon said, referring to the city’s “reopening,” a process that has largely been dictated by state officials led by Governor Andrew Cuomo, with some input from Mayor de Blasio and others.

In July, New York City launched “All In NYC,” a campaign created to kick-start ‘tourism’ by targeting New Yorkers. The campaign was created by Arulidenen, a city marketing firm, in partnership with NYC & Company and is aimed at inspiring New Yorkers and those close by to explore within the five boroughs and support local businesses.

Dixon said the second phase of “All In NYC” would take off mid-September and it has since done so, including a new program, Neighborhood Getaways, which promotes offers on attractions, dining, hotels, shopping, and tours across the city. It will run until the end of the year and has potential to expand into next. “This recovery needs to be arts and culture led,” said Dixon. NYC & Company partnered with 50 emerging artists to create public art across the five boroughs. The next phase will also feature free programming at museums and art centers that have reopened.

The program will be promoted “through press outreach, digital media and out-of-home placements on LinkNYC screens and JCDecaux bus shelters throughout the five boroughs,” according to NYC & Company’s website. As tourists return, the campaign will gradually shift its focus toward the regional market and eventually the domestic and international markets. 

A vital step on the path to tourism recovery is increased public funding for NYC & Company, said President of Times Square Alliance Tim Tompkins. “The organization’s overall budget of $38.6 million has not stayed competitive with that of tourism promotion agencies in other global destinations,” CUF reported.

In contrast, Los Angeles spends almost $50 million, Barcelona spends $78 million, and Shanghai spends $210 million annually on marketing. The center also found the city spends less than $4.50 on tourism promotion per resident, a small amount compared to other cities like Denver, which spends $40 per resident. Although Mayor de Blasio nearly doubled funding during his tenure, an investment into the organization can help the tourism industry recover.

Broadway, one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, is decimated, Tompkins said. About 70% of jobs were lost in the performing arts industry due  to closures, according to CUF. In a survey by the National Independent Venue Association, 90% of independent venue owners said they will be forced to close forever without government aid.

The “Save Our Stages Act,” a bipartisan federal relief bill to help struggling independent venues, was proposed by U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and John Cornyn in July and later co-sponsored by Senator Chuck Shumer of New York. It would provide financial support to “keep venues afloat, pay employees and preserve a critical economic sector for communities across America” for six months, according to a press release. It has yet to pass Congress despite that bipartisan support, whereas overseas, the United Kingdom and France each announced $2 billion bailouts to protect their arts and cultural sectors and their workers.

Small museums are also facing similar challenges, said Olga Tirado, executive director of Bronx Tourism Council and host of the Go Bronx podcast. CUF reported almost 34% of jobs were lost in the museum industry due to closures, and with low capacity rules, small-scale museums need money to make changes and abide by the guidelines as they reopen.

During the second panel, New York City stakeholders also discussed the importance of small businesses and how to support them during this uncertain time. “We need to get the engine and the soul of the city back,” said Marcus Samuelsson, chef and owner of Harlem’s Red Rooster, referring to small businesses and retail. As a restaurant owner, Samuelsson said he is extremely disappointed by city government’s leadership with regard to supporting businesses. With no clear indication at the time of the forum as to when indoor dining would be allowed to resume, Samuelsson said a date and criteria were vital for restaurants in order to prepare and survive. Shortly after the forum, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced indoor dining is set to reopen in New York City on September 30, with restaurants limited to 25% capacity and several other required safety measures in place. It is a milestone for the city and a major stride toward tourism recovery, assuming it goes according to plan and the city is able to continue its reopening process, which would include 50% indoor restaurant capacity in the next phase.

Frustration with city and state government was shared by other panelists including City Council Member Keith Powers. “It is a massive failure that we don’t have a real plan to help out small businesses,” he said, referring largely to the de Blasio administration. “They need guidance, certainty. They need relief.” Powers released a report in August on further actions that can be taken for small business recovery including rent relief, waiving the commercial rent tax, eliminating fines, extending outdoor dining, and more. Some of the pieces can be passed by the City Council he is a member of, while other parts could be moved by the mayor.

Tourists are coming back, Alexandra Dagg, senior policy director for the Northeast and Canada at Airbnb said. There has been a rise in searches and bookings for U.S. cities, she said. In order to attract more tourists, Tompkins and Powers both agreed that the city has to tackle its issues and the perception that New York City is ‘dead’ or in steep decline. “This has got to be dealt with,” Tompkins said. Before tourists return, “efforts must be made towards safety and security.”

Reminding locals and visitors that the subway is safe is also crucial to reviving the economy, according to Powers. “Covid has not gone away, but we are doing much better than other places and it is safe to ride mass transit,” said the Manhattan Democrat. The virus is under control here and New York City is a good destination right now, said Powers, referring to the state’s low positivity rate of under 1% for well over a month. The mayor and governor should be riding mass transit, Powers said, to demonstrate it’s safe and combat the stigma behind it.

Full recovery from the virus could take until 2024, the experts said. “This is an opportunity to help us reset,” Dixon said regarding the tourism industry, “to not only recover but make sure it’s more equitable in it’s recovery.”

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By Afia Eama, Reporter, Gotham Gazette
@gothamgazette

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aeama@gg.com (Afia Eama) City Sun, 13 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Scott Stringer's Strengths and Weaknesses as He Runs for Mayor https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9744-scott-stringer-strengths-and-weaknesses-runs-new-york-city-mayor-2021 https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9744-scott-stringer-strengths-and-weaknesses-runs-new-york-city-mayor-2021 mbp comptroller stringer

Scott Stringer in 2009, with two other officials who ran for mayor (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


After years of working his way up through the hierarchy of elected office in New York, and one aborted run for mayor, Comptroller Scott Stringer this past week declared himself a candidate for the highest office in New York City in the 2021 election. It was an effective campaign launch featuring an impressive array of initial endorsers and the logical next step in a long and successful political career in which Stringer has made many allies along the way. The Democratic Manhattanite, currently serving as the city’s chief fiscal officer and one of just three citywide elected officials, will now have to convince New York City voters that his career has best prepared him to take over from Mayor Bill de Blasio as the city’s chief executive and save it from the dire circumstances brought on by a poorly-handled pandemic and its resulting recession.

While he’s not known for any particular accomplishment or focus area, Stringer has been a solid and steady liberal presence in New York politics and government for his entire adult life, unwaveringly supportive of key progressive causes like women’s reproductive and LGBTQ rights, gun control, and campaign finance reform. He’s been a political reformer working within the system, mostly friendly to clubhouse politicians while at times staking out his own ground but mostly not ruffling feathers, playing the long-game. He’s strategic and calculating, playing politics with the best of them while also recognizing that good policy can make good politics. He ran for comptroller with no particular qualifications for the highly-technical parts of the position, which offered a promotion from borough president, chance to improve the city he loves, and better perch to eventually run for mayor. Recently, he’s lurched further leftward amid shifting winds within the Democratic Party, masterfully backing insurgents and betting on underdogs, building a diverse set of allies as he seeks to become yet another white male mayor.

Though even many who know him may struggle to name a signature issue, as Stringer enters the fight of his life to become the city’s 110th mayor, he is perhaps most respected for winning tough elections.

Indeed, Stringer’s strengths and weaknesses as a mayoral candidate lie in the fact that he has been a career politician, someone with decades of public service who’s been angling to become mayor for much if not all of that time. He was a member of the state Assembly representing the famously liberal — and vote-rich — Upper West Side, from 1993 though 2005. From 2006 till 2013, he served as Manhattan borough president, before being elected to his current role as city comptroller.

After essentially being gifted the Assembly seat by his mentor, now-Rep. Jerry Nadler, Stringer won two hard-fought primary contests to initially take the offices of borough president and comptroller, the latter of which came after he briefly ran for mayor in 2012. Since he ascended to that citywide post by defeating former Governor Eliot Spitzer in the 2013 comptroller primary, Stringer has been preparing for a full mayoral campaign, almost launching one in 2017.

Now, term-limited out of his current role like de Blasio and most of city government, he believes it’s his time.

With just over nine months till the June 2021 primary election, in which he will face a crowded field of Democrats, Stringer is undoubtedly in for another highly-competitive campaign. But it will also be the first citywide election with ranked-choice voting in place, which will give voters a more expansive voice in who they select and may cause candidates to both attempt to appeal to more voters and play nice with more of their competitors. Stringer, some early thinking goes, could make for an attractive second choice to a large number of voters excited by someone else but also interested in a steady, experienced hand. If he can secure enough first-place votes, in a large field Stringer could ride those second-place votes to victory in what is also known as instant-runoff voting. To win, he’ll have to assemble a more diverse base of support than he’s had in his prior close elections, where he’s been powered to victory largely by white voters, starting with his Upper West Side base, and he clearly knows it.

Political observers and consultants say that, as with every mayoral election, the 2021 race will to some significant degree be a reaction to the current mayor. They believe voters will look for a decisive leader who can manage the day-to-day operations of city government while also offering a grand vision for the city’s recovery. And some say identity politics may not be an overriding factor if a candidate can show they are capable and credible. 

“The most important force in this race for the candidates who are running is the shadow of de Blasio,” said Ravi Gupta, co-founder and managing partner of Arena, a national progressive organization that trains left-leaning Democratic candidates and campaign operatives. “Voters are going to want an explicit contrast with the current mayor.”

[Read: Promising 'Leadership at City Hall,' Scott Stringer Officially Launches 2021 Mayoral Campaign]

For almost seven years now, Stringer has served as the city’s top fiscal officer, keeping a watchful eye on the mayoralty in more ways than one. Under his official duties, he has monitored the de Blasio administration’s fiscal practices, audited the performance of city agencies, and criticized wasteful spending, while also overseeing the city’s massive public pension funds, among other roles. His office has exposed major problems and spending inefficiences at the city's public housing, homeless shelter system, prisons, and more. Under his political hat, he has for decades meticulously crafted alliances with prominent labor unions like the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and, more recently, progressive left Democrats who are ascendant in his party to build an effective base that could help him win the mayoral race. 

“Scott Stringer’s record of fighting for progressive causes throughout his career is second to none,” said Charles Kretchmer Lutvak, a spokesperson for Stringer’s campaign, in a statement. “In the Assembly, he was one of the few Democratic voices opposing deals cut by their own Speaker to weaken the rent laws, he wrote the bill to repeal Governor Pataki’s tax cuts for the wealthy, and he led the fight to pass once-in-a-generation rules reforms in Albany — other legislators booed at him when he ended 'empty-seat voting.' Twenty-one years ago, he was arrested after the police murder of Amadou Diallo, and nearly a decade ago, he spoke out against stop-and-frisk. As comptroller, he’s taken on climate deniers and launched the first major public divestment from fossil fuels. The vision the Comptroller laid out this week as he announced his candidacy for mayor is a natural extension of his decades-long fight for the people over the powerful.”

As his campaign notes, Stringer has always been knee-deep in the nuts and bolts of government. In the Assembly, he had a reputation for pursuing reform, particularly changes to the chamber’s rules that he advanced in opposition to his colleagues. When he ran for borough president in 2005, it earned him the endorsement of the New York Times editorial board, which said he had “the credentials for the job and a sterling reputation as a catalyst for reform” and that he had “shown himself to be committed to the principles of good government.” As borough president, he sought to reform and improve the functioning of community boards, starting with the appointment process. 

As comptroller, Stringer has released a long list of plans to deal with everything from the unequal distribution of high-speed internet in the city to solving Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. He has put particularly notable proposals to expand affordable childcare, improve mass transit access, and to create a new “universal affordable housing” model. He’s also used his leverage over the nearly $200 billion public pension funds to push for divestment from the fossil fuel industry, which, along with other environmental stances he’s taken, has been lauded by environmental activists, and to encourage more diversity on corporate boards. He’s successfully urged the city to increase the number and value of contracts awarded to Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprises (MWBEs) and had also been pushing for years for there to be a chief diversity officer appointed at every city agency, a step the mayor took through executive order in July. These plans, stances, and accomplishments are already forming the basis of Stringer’s mayoral platform, as he indicated at his launch event from his childhood neighborhoods of Inwood/Washington Heights.

Stringer’s many plans have yet to receive the type of scrutiny that will come with running for mayor. In public appearances, he’s shown potential for future struggles by regularly relying on vague talking points and values statements and not providing specifics when asked about budget remedies, his own policy plans, or alternatives to de Blasio policies he's critiquing.  

[Read: Scott Stringer Has a Plan for That]

Stringer is widely considered to be an effective retail politician, comfortable in many settings -- skills honed by decades of political activity but also indicative of an affable personality, readiness to collaborate with local officials, and penchant for telling crowds what they want to hear. On many days, before the pandemic, he would make appearances across the city, glad-handing community activists, nonprofit leaders, business executives, and other elected officials. He’s held many town halls and roundtables, opportunities to both help him do his current job and build his 2021 operation. He has a reputation for showing up and listening. Those who have worked for him emphasize that point.

“I’ve campaigned with Scott in past elections. What makes him so formidable is not just that he has a preternatural ability to connect one-on-one with a voter on the street, or that he’s incredibly politically shrewd. It’s that he will outwork anyone, anywhere,” said Devon Puglia, a media consultant who previously worked as Stringer’s communications director in the comptroller’s office. Puglia pointed out how Stringer keeps a packed schedule.  “That is really an under-the-radar differentiator, and it may be his greatest strength as a candidate. No one will out-hustle Scott,” he said.

But Stringer has some spots on his record that may become flashpoints in the campaign, especially as candidates seek to draw out differences within the Democratic field. He embraced real estate developers before he rejected them. He endorsed de Blasio for reelection after critiquing the mayor’s fundraising activities that landed the mayor under multiple law enforcement investigations. He backed the lifting of term limits helping then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and many other officials seek and win a third term. He was a long-time establishment figure, part of a pay-your-dues political culture, before he began backing upstart progressives who managed to depose incumbent Democratic legislators.

He’s put down a marker on controversial issues where he’s deemed it appropriate or advantageous, but also avoided taking tough stances on a number of hot-button issues, like the specialized high school admissions test, while holding positions that often provide room to hide when desired. These are, in a sense, perks of the jobs of borough president and comptroller. For instance, while he was the first major elected official to call for the closure of the Rikers Island jail complex, he has been muted on the plan for four modernized borough-based jails that are meant to replace it. But his support of the Close Rikers movement and other criminal justice reforms and the effort to divest city pension funds from fossil fuel companies and other environmental causes sets him up to potentially win the support of some of the city's most ardent activists.

Stringer is one of three elected officials either running or likely to run, along with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. He lays claim to a far longer career in elected office than either and is the only one with a citywide win under his belt.

Winning the hard-fought 2013 primary with 52.1% of the vote against the former governor, who got 47.8%, Stringer showed political chops, including sharp debate performances, that no one who watched would underestimate now. He won the 2013 general election with 75% of the vote. He was reelected in 2017 with 72% of the vote. He has already raised $2.7 million in campaign cash – and has $2.3 million remaining as of July 11 – which places him first in the early field, and more than $470,000 in small-dollar contributions that could qualify for an 8-to-1 match under the city’s public funds program, according to his campaign. Several other declared or exploring candidates -- Dianne Morales, Loree Sutton, Maya Wiley, Kathryn Garcia, Shaun Donovan -- are first-time candidates for office, which brings its own advantages and disadvantages.

“He is well known by the New York electorate. People have seen him in many offices,” said George Arzt, a Democratic political consultant who has worked for Stringer’s campaign in the past. “He knows his politics. He’s born and bred in politics.”

While Democratic primary voters, who tend to be the most dedicated and consistent base of the party, may readily know of Stringer, the most recent poll that included him from Quinnipiac University, in April 2019, found that 31% of city voters didn’t know enough to approve or disapprove of the job he’s done as comptroller. He received approval from 48% and disapproval from 21% of voters in that poll, including 54% approval from Democratic voters, 17% of whom disapproved.  

Stringer has a long list of allies, including Democratic stalwarts like Nadler and Upper West Side Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal. The Assembly member was among those who endorsed Stringer at his campaign launch announcement, where he was also backed by several other state legislators, including young, first-term members like State Senators Alessandra Biaggi, Jessica Ramos, and Julie Salazar, each of whom Stringer endorsed over long-time incumbents. Those Senators were part of a wave of progressives who helped shift the balance of the Senate to Democrats, giving the party control of both houses of the Legislature and paving the way for 2019 passage of a sweeping agenda of progressive legislation that stalled for years.  

“I don't think it was a cynical political ploy. I think he took a real gamble in supporting these first-time candidates,” said Arzt, countering some of the criticism that Stringer skeptics have levelled. Stringer was also endorsed by Assemblymembers Yuh-Line Niou and Catalina Cruz, both of whom he previously endorsed over establishment figures, as well as Assemblymember Bobby Carroll of Park Slope, State Senator Robert Jackson and Assemblymember Al Taylor of Upper Manhattan, and State Senator Brian Kavanagh of Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn.

The opening coalition of diverse supporters quickly helped to some degree counteract questions about Stringer’s potential viability with voters of color as a white man in an increasingly non-white city, though those questions are certain to persist.

Stringer is jumping into a race that could eventually include several candidates of color, including Adams, who is Black, and at least two women of color, Morales and Wiley. In some quarters of the Democratic Party, there are calls for the next mayor to be a person of color who can better grasp and tackle structural racism that has served to entrench everything from housing inequity to school segregation. But it’s impossible to say whether race, ethnicity, gender, or other demographic information, like LGBTQ status, will be a central or deciding factor for voters. In the last wide open mayoral primary, in 2013, de Blasio, whose wife and children are Black, brought together a coalition of white progressives and voters of color, winning more Black support than Bill Thompson, the Black former city comptroller.

Stringer’s presence around the five boroughs, including in many communities of color, serves not only to boost his name recognition but also signals his interest in the job of mayor, said Gupta. “Scott is a New Yorker through and through and somebody who loves the city and has wanted to be mayor for pretty much his entire adult life probably,” he said. “And normally that kind of ambition is off-putting to voters but I actually think in this case, voters may like to see somebody who has wanted the job because they have somebody right now who seems almost disinterested in...probably the best political job in the world.”

As Gupta noted, part of the challenge may be the evolving definition of who and what is considered progressive in the age of Trump. Longstanding Democrats have recently been brought down by challengers who profess ideologies that hew further to the left and more radical than what has been generally accepted in past elections. It’s not just enough to support the building of affordable housing or reforms to the criminal justice system, candidates must now also eschew campaign donations from the real estate industry or from law enforcement unions. In his campaigns for Manhattan borough president and comptroller, Stringer readily accepted maximum campaign contributions from real estate developers, and he continued to do so for his mayoral run. He had already built a formidable war chest for his latest campaign before joining other Democratic candidates in saying that he would not accept any further real estate developer contributions – a pledge Johnson made from the start of his fundraising. Stringer hasn’t returned previous donations but also hasn’t raised any real estate donations in the latest fundraising cycle from January to July of this year, according to his campaign.   

But Gupta said that might not be a make-or-break for Stringer. “I think it's going to be meat and potatoes issues that determine this race, not professed ideology,” he said. “New Yorkers are a little bit skeptical of rhetoric. They want to see results.”

Voters may not be ideological about their choices in June 2021, said Dr. Christina Greer, political science professor at Fordham University. “I think ranked-choice voting could work in [Stringer’s] favor because he is a known quantity to social service organizations and social justice organizations and he has a built-in base already,” she said. “It depends, I think, on the borough, it depends on how people think about their own personal finances, how they feel about public safety, the welfare of the city, the coronavirus. All those factors will dictate who they choose as their number one and who they choose their number two.”

Though in his kickoff event he attempted to offer key principles of ethics, management, and leadership, and highlighted his policy focus on affordable housing and child care, Stringer has yet to offer a bold vision for the city’s future. The next mayor of New York City could very well inherit multiple crises – a huge budget hole, widespread unemployment, continued unaffordability, a longstanding homelessness crisis, crumbling public housing, mistrust between police and communities, to name just a few.

“I think there's a real appetite right now for a big thinker and he will have to prove that he's that person despite what is a very conventional political background,” said Eric Phillips, senior vice president at Edelman, a consultancy, and former press secretary to de Blasio. 

Phillips said Stringer has an advantage of having shown that he’s good at management as well as politics, particularly with his risky endorsements of progressive Democratic challengers. “Being the mayor of New York City is a political job and it’s usually done well by people who are good at politics…To do something of substance from a policy perspective in New York City requires you to coalition-build, it requires you to understand what the public thinks of you, it requires political skill. So I don't view that as cynicism. I view that as a requirement of the job,” Phillips said. 

But Phillips, echoing Gupta’s point, said voters will chiefly back the candidate who they think can make the city run effectively and efficiently. “The largest bloc of primary voters in this city are people who are really focused on trash and snow and roads and schools and public safety,” Phillips said. “They don't want fewer cops, they want better cops, and ultimately I think people like Scott Stringer will factor well into that equation.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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samarkhurshid@gmail.com (Samar Khurshid & Ben Max) City Sun, 13 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
As City Reopens, De Blasio’s ‘Better Buses’ Plan Stuck in Traffic https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9749-new-york-city-reopening-de-blasio-buses-plan-stuck-traffic https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9749-new-york-city-reopening-de-blasio-buses-plan-stuck-traffic 1 as grows

Mayor de Blasio on the bus (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Early in June, when New York City was just entering phase one of its economic “reopening” and the city still had daily triple-digit coronavirus death counts, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an ambitious plan, the Better Bus Restart Initiative, to add 20 more miles of bus lanes and five new busways by October, in addition to making the 14th Street busway permanent. While this plan, offered during a unique opportunity to rethink city street use, did not go as far as many public officials and advocates would have liked, it was a significant move by a mayor who has paid limited attention to the city’s buses, ridden by about 388,000 people, mostly low-income people of color, each weekday before the pandemic hit.

Now, just over three months later, only four of the nine announced bus projects -- five busways and four extended bus lanes -- have been completed. The Jay Street busway opened behind schedule earlier this week in Downtown Brooklyn, and several others delayed, most notably the Main Street Flushing busway that de Blasio said launch in June. Busways offer city buses near-exclusive use of their routes, with limited additional vehicular traffic allowed, and thus faster mass transit speed for riders.

The Department of Transportation estimates that “more than 45,000 daily bus riders on seven routes” are benefiting from faster service as a result of the completed projects, and described the previous situation on Jay Street as “a bottleneck for buses.”

A DOT spokesperson says it is “still planning to complete implementation this summer and fall” on the Better Buses program. The Jay Street busway was originally planned to start in August. We are working closely with community advisory boards on the remaining bus projects,” said a DOT spokesperson.

The three other completed bus projects in the Better Buses program are bus lanes on East 14th Street, 149th Street, and Malcolm X Boulevard. DOT says that they've completed 4.4 miles of the planned 20 miles of new bus lanes under this initiative so far. On the horizon, a bus lane on the E.L. Grant Highway is currently under construction in the Bronx.

Along with Main Street Flushing, two of the other announced busways are also already behind schedule. Busways on Jamaica Avenue in Queens and 5th Avenue in Manhattan were expected to be operational by July, per de Blasio’s initial announcement, which he said on June 8 was not getting sufficient press attention. The final remaining busway, on 181st Street in Manhattan, was announced to start in October.

On the Main Street busway specificially, DOT is taking more time to continue community outreach, according to a spokesperson, who noted the department recently gave a presentation to the project’s Community Advisory Board. It has also scheduled two information sessions, via Zoom, for local residents, on September 10 in English and Chinese and September 14 in English, Korean, and Spanish.

The DOT spokesperson also noted the other infrastructural improvements the department has made in recent months, including activating Transit Signal Priority at 285 intersections, installing Real Time Passenger Information at Bus Time Signs at 40 stops, adding bus lane cameras to several new routes, and constructing bike lanes to accompany the Jay Street busway.

This hasn’t satisfied many transportation advocates.

“It’s become clear that we’re headed towards a crisis,” according to a spokesperson for Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit advocacy group. The group has begun calling the looming crisis “Carmageddon.” According to Transportation Alternative’s recent report by that name, in August, bridge and tunnel car crossings were less than 20% off pre-pandemic levels, while bus ridership was still down 35% and subway and rail ridership down nearly 75% from pre-pandemic levels. Road traffic overall was only off 9% from 2019 levels, despite many New Yorkers continuing to work from home.

The report surmises, “As more commuters opt to drive, and little accommodation is made for the safety and efficiency of those who do not, New York could soon see a gridlocked, exhaust-choked, and crash-laden ‘Carmageddon.’”

“The City must act quickly to avoid this impending catastrophe,” a Transportation Alternatives spokesperson said. “The only way to stem car traffic and its repercussions is to invest in a citywide network of bus and bike lanes, and more forward quickly with congestion pricing. The future of our streets is at stake.”

Earlier this month, Transportation Alternatives’ executive director, Danny Harris, was one of 12 members of Mayor de Blasio’s Surface Transportation Advisory Council, convened in June to advise the mayor on the city’s transportation needs during its recovery from the pandemic shutdown, who criticized the mayor’s handling of transit amid the city’s reopening process and his failure to more fully consider and move on the advisory council’s recommendations. They cited problems including rising traffic fatalities and rising car ownership rates that the mayor is not, in their opinion, properly addressing.

The open letter was signed by leaders from Transportation Alternatives, NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign, AAA of New York State, the Community Service Society of New York, Via, Riders Alliance, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, the NYC BID Association, the Brown Bike Girl, and the Regional Plan Association, as well as Sam Schwartz, a former city traffic commissioner, and Quemel Arroyo, a disability transit advocate.

These members of the mayor’s Surface Transportation Advisory Council simultaneously released its numerous suggestions, highlighting several in the 12 members’ letter, with public transportation as top priority. The council members called for at least 40 miles of emergency bus lanes to be implemented this summer. They also want to see a connected bike network, expanded sidewalks, and repurposed street and parking spaces for restaurants, retails, cultural institutions, and open space.

Additionally, they declared these “improvements must prioritize communities of color, neighborhoods without adequate transportation and public space infrastructure, and streets most impacted by traffic crashes and pollution.”

“It is not enough to tell New Yorkers not to buy a car. We need the City to actively promote and restore public confidence in alternative modes of transportation, including taxis, for-hire vehicles, and pooled rides,” the letter reads.

If traffic congestion surges further, the group advocates a “contingency plan for vehicular restriction into the Manhattan Central Business District,” including HOV2+ restriction during peak periods and continued work towards congestion pricing

According to the letter, “Recovering from COVID-19 requires us to reimagine our city, especially our streets, for the better. Without your decisive and immediate action, we may lose New York City’s future to growing congestion, pollution, inequality, and traffic violence.”

On September 2, when the open letter was publicized, de Blasio was asked if he had done enough on transportation and to respond to the critiques from his own appointees. He responded, “If folks are disgruntled and they don’t want to acknowledge what’s really happening, well, I can't do much about that. I can only tell you what’s happening.” He then cited the Open Streets initiative, the 14th Street busway, expanded bike lanes, the Citi Bike program, the NYC Ferry, and expanded Select Bus Service, saying “that sounds like a lot to me.” He did not answer whether or not he would implement the group’s call for 40 miles of emergency bus lanes or other suggestions.

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette
   

Read more by this writer.

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amillman@gg.com (Andrew Millman) City Fri, 11 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Promising 'Leadership at City Hall,' Scott Stringer Officially Launches 2021 Mayoral Campaign https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9739-leadership-at-city-hall-scott-stringer-officially-launches-2021-run-mayor https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9739-leadership-at-city-hall-scott-stringer-officially-launches-2021-run-mayor scott stringer camp600

Scott Stringer launches his 2021 mayoral campaign


Comptroller Scott Stringer, a term-limited Democrat, officially launched his campaign to run for mayor on Tuesday, seeking to replace outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio in what is expected to be a hard-fought contest that has drawn more than a dozen exploring or declared candidates so far.  

Stringer, a Manhattanite serving his second term as the city’s top fiscal officer, pledged to “bring leadership back to City Hall” and centered his campaign pitch on fighting inequality, much like de Blasio had done when he won his first term in 2013. But Stringer presented himself as a contrast to the two-term mayor, taking direct aim at de Blasio’s failings and what Stringer depicted as his inability to make good on his promise to create a more equitable city.  

“We never closed the book on the tale of two cities,” Stringer said, evoking the message that got de Blasio elected. “If anything over the last eight years, we've written more chapters.”

Speaking near Inwood Hill Park in Upper Manhattan, close to his childhood home, Stringer addressed long-standing and new crises assailing the city and its most vulnerable communities, borne of the decisions of successive administrations and dramatically worsened by the coronavirus pandemic. He noted that that the neighborhood he stood in and grew up in was among the hardest hit by COVID-19 and is also home to many of the New Yorkers of color who have been considered essential workers throughout the pandemic.

Accompanied by his wife, Elyse Buxbaum, and two young children, and surrounded by a diverse group of state legislators from four boroughs announcing their endorsements of his mayoral bid, Stringer went through a variety of key issues during his remarks, centering affordability, especially affordable housing, child care, racial justice, climate resiliency, and more.

At the same time, he spoke in deeply personal terms of how it has affected him and his family, including the death of his mother from the virus. “It's because we love the city, that we must acknowledge that we have a public health crisis, an economic crisis, and a social justice crisis raging all at once,” he said, “and I believe we can overcome them all.”

The Democratic mayoral primary, which will be held in June 2021, will likely decide who becomes the next mayor because of the party’s overwhelming seven-to-one voter enrollment advantage over Republicans (there are more party-unaffiliated registered voters than Republicans in the city). It will also be the first citywide primary that employs ranked-choice voting, requiring candidates to appeal to a broader swathe of voters than they may otherwise.

Besides Stringer, several candidates have declared or are exploring a mayoral bid including Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, former Counsel to the Mayor Maya Wiley, former Obama and Bloomberg commissioner Shaun Donovan, former Commissioner of the City Department of Veterans Services Loree Sutton, former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales, and others. 

Stringer made a long list of promises to tackle the many problems that de Blasio too had sought to fix but on which the mayor has shown insufficient progress, sure to make him a punching bag throughout the race. Repeatedly contrasting himself with a mayor seen as aloof and ineffective, Stringer vowed to "manage the hell out of this city."

He said he would fill the city’s expected $4.2 billion budget gap for the next fiscal year by cutting wasteful agency spending, curtailing outside contracts, and measuring spending by performance. He also said he would push for increasing taxes on the wealthy, a step that would require state legislative action and that stymied de Blasio for years. Stringer touted his plan for rebuilding the city’s economy, which has been decimated by the pandemic, and investing in small businesses, and businesses run by women, people of color, and immigrants. 

Taking aim at the mayor’s housing plan, which critics say has failed to build sufficient amounts of low-income housing while encouraging real estate speculation, Stringer referred to his own plan in promising a stronger approach. He reiterated his legally-dubious proposal for “universal affordable housing” that would mandate 25% of units in any new development be made permanently affordable. He also said he would triple new affordable housing for homeless families and create the city’s first land bank.

“When I'm mayor, we're going to end the crushing cycle of speculation, eviction, and displacement,” he said. “No more giving away the store to developers. No more unaffordable ‘affordable housing.’ We will put an end to the gentrification industrial complex, and end policies that perpetuate a cycle of segregation in our neighborhoods.”

How Stringer would ensure new housing is built or that neighborhoods become more integrated remain open questions. As he did again on Tuesday, he has repeatedly railed against the neighborhood rezonings de Blasio has ushered through, all in low-income communities of color, to add more housing density, including rent-capped units, but he did not offer a vision for areas of the city he believes should see significantly more housing development.

Referencing others among the many policy plans he’s offered as comptroller, Stringer vowed to triple the number of children receiving city-funded childcare and a “full-court press” on climate change, in part through resiliency projects and forbidding fossil fuel infrastructure. He also pledged to take on school segregation, but did not say how.

Some of Stringer’s harshest criticism for de Blasio came on the mayor’s approach to police brutality and accountability. De Blasio came into office promising to hold the NYPD to account but has since disappointed his supporters and others by regularly capitulating to the police department, taking a conservative approach to transparency, and making mostly modest reforms around accountability. Stringer pointed to the recent mass protests sparked by the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the NYPD’s often violent response against protesters. “The mayor and the police commissioner repeatedly excused the inexcusable, defended the indefensible, and failed to take responsibility for violence against New Yorkers. That ends the day I'm sworn in as mayor,” he said. “As mayor, I'm going to say to the NYPD what Bill de Blasio has not. ‘You work for the people of the city and you're not an independent agency. You work for us.’”

Stringer added that he would make sure the NYPD knows it is not an independent agency and that its officers, whom he offered some praise, work for the people. 

Stringer also made assurances that his administration would be more transparent, with a less-than-oblique reference to Mayor de Blasio’s ill-fated attempt to shield his communications with several outside advisers that his administration termed ‘agents of the city’ when blocking Freedom of Information requests  a move later overturned in court when NY1 and the New York Post sued for access.

“There will be no ‘agents of the city’ in a Stringer administration,” he said, in a jab that could also double as critique of Wiley, who came up with that tenuous legal formulation when she was the mayor’s counsel.

Stringer’s mayoral campaign is a culmination of years of preparation. A career elected offiicial, he first won office in 1992, securing a state Assembly seat. He became Manhattan Borough President from 2006 through 2013, and he briefly ran for mayor in 2012 before dropping down to the comptroller’s race, where he cleared the Democratic field until former Governor Eliot Spitzer decided to run. Stringer impressed many in the political world, as well as voters, in the campaign against the far-better known though scandal-plagued Spitzer, in part by calling on long-standing connections within the Democratic establishment and labor unions, especially his close ties with the teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers. He also had the support of the Working Families Party and major local newspaper editorial boards, among others, and exceeded expectations in their debates.

In 2017, Stringer again eyed a mayoral run as de Blasio faced the risk of legal entanglements or even prosecution from one state and one federal investigation into his fundraising activity. When prosecutors did not indict the mayor nor any of his close associates, Stringer demurred from challenging him.

In recent years Stringer has made a concerted effort to court the left, progressive wing of the party, building significant political capital with some while raising questions about where he stands ideologically and whether he’s playing cynical political games in the interest of his own ambitions. Similar questions have been raised as he’s shifted from a more developer-friendly borough president to a mayoral candidate disavowing campaign contributions from major real estate players.

Like Johnson and Donovan, Stringer is facing questions about being a white man running for mayor in an increasingly diverse city, and running against at least two, if not three candidates of color, two of whom are women. New York has never elected a woman as mayor and has not elected a person of color since David Dinkins became the city’s first Black mayor in 1990. Asked after the announcement about whether the city may want to see a person of color elected next year, Stringer insisted that he can build a broad base of support and will represent the interests of communities of color as he has throughout his career. “I've assembled what I think is the beginning of a multiracial, intergenerational group of supporters. And I'm going to go to every community...and I'm going to make my case,” Stringer said. “I believe people vote for the mayor who best represents the hopes and dreams of every diverse community...I ask people to vote on the basis of how we bring the city back economically for communities of color. Who's the best person who has the track record and experience and the social justice credibility from a government lens to get this done.”

In state elections over the last few cycles, Stringer endorsed a lengthy list of progressives, including a number of women of color, some of whom were challengers who successfully ousted Democratic incumbents and helped shift the balance of the state Legislature to give Democrats full control. Several of those he endorsed introduced him on Tuesday, reciprocating the support, including State Senators Allessandra Biaggi, Robert Jackson, Jessica Ramos, and Julia Salazar, and Assemblymembers Catalina Cruz and Yuh-Line Niou. Other elected officials also joined in support, including State Senator Brian Kavanagh, Assemblymembers Al Taylor, Linda Rosenthal, and Robert Carroll, and state Assembly candidate Amanda Septimo. The initial wave of endorsers represents parts of four boroughs other than Staten Island and a large group of the state’s younger, more diverse vanguard of progressive leadership.

Stringer has also in recent cycles endorsed the far-left candidacies of Jamaal Bowman, who successfully ousted Rep. Eliot Engel, and Tiffany Cabán, who narrowly lost in the 2019 Democratic Primary for Queens District Attorney. Both Bowman and Cabán, like Salazar, are members of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America.

Asked on Tuesday about seeking the DSA endorsement for mayor, Stringer demurred, saying he would be pursuing support from many groups and he did not want to get into a specific list at today’s announcement.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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samarkhurshid@gmail.com (Samar Khurshid & Ben Max) City Tue, 08 Sep 2020 13:00:00 +0000
Is It Really Layoffs or Loans? De Blasio's Other Options to Find $1 Billion https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9740-layoffs-or-loans-de-blasio-fiscal-options-city-budget-1-billion https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9740-layoffs-or-loans-de-blasio-fiscal-options-city-budget-1-billion presents fiscal yr

Mayor de Blasio at a budget presentation (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio finds himself in a tricky fiscal situation as the city needs to find $1 billion by the end of the month to balance its budget. Federal aid is nowhere in sight, Albany has so far refused to allow the city to borrow the funds, and state budget cuts are also on the horizon. At the end of his rope, the mayor says he may have to lay off 22,000 municipal workers. But that nuclear option may not be necessary, and there are ways de Blasio could achieve the $1 billion goal that was baked into the city’s new budget without firing thousands of employees during a pandemic-caused recession.

[Read: Where De Blasio's Push to Borrow Billions Stands]

The $88.2 billion fiscal year 2021 New York City budget, passed July 1, was meant to be balanced on a guarantee that the administration could negotiate with labor unions to find $1 billion in recurring savings or resort to layoffs. One-time cuts will not be sufficient as that budget hole is expected to carry forward into the next fiscal year, when the total budget gap will grow to about $4.2 billion. Without those savings, the city will have to implement layoffs, preparations for which have already been made.

The mayor announced on August 31 that layoff notices would be delayed, and that he and union leaders were working to convince the state Legislature and Governor Cuomo to approve legislation allowing the city the ability to borrow $5 billion to balance the current year’s and next year’s budgets. City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Council Speaker Corey Johnson have also come around to the idea of borrowing, but only with controls on spending, lending important voices to de Blasio’s push. Without that borrowing authority, the layoff process will resume, de Blasio said.

However, a variety of fiscal watchdogs say the mayor has alternative paths he could take to get to $1 billion, without risking people’s livelihoods or adding to the city’s already significant debt obligations by borrowing against the future.

Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit group, released a report on September 2 that identified more than a dozen viable measures that could substitute for layoffs and borrowing and altogether save more than $1 billion. “The Mayor presents New Yorkers with a false choice: either borrow to fund operations or lay off 22,000 municipal employees,” said CBC President Andrew Rein in a statement. “Neither currently is necessary and both have far reaching negative impacts.”

As CBC also noted, the adopted budget eliminates funds set aside in the city’s labor reserves for future wage increases. “Eliminating the funds essentially means the City’s starting position for negotiations will be a two-year wage freeze,” the CBC report reads, adding that a wage freeze is an “appropriate” step to take, though de Blasio has thus far downplayed the idea. 

Among CBC’s recommendations is a reduction of the city’s headcount – which stands at more than 325,000 full-time and full time-equivalent employees – through attrition. CBC estimated that about 23,000 employees, roughly 7.1%, retire or resign to take other jobs every year. Those employees are also paid more than the most junior workers who would be the first to be let go if layoffs are executed. However, attrition does give the administration less control over which workers leave city employment. CBC also notes that the city could provide early retirement incentives (ERI), though the savings from those are not as high as attrition or layoffs. In 2010, the report points out,14,371 state and local employees agreed to an ERI program, resulting in a net benefit of $681 million over two years.

The best method for finding new and recurring savings would be to make changes to health insurance costs, CBC recommends, particularly by requiring municipal workers to contribute to health care premiums, which could save between $531 million and $1.1 billion annually depending on the level of contribution required. Employees currently pay nothing into those premiums. “The generosity of this benefit also exceeds that of other state and local governments,” the report notes. It also calls for premium sharing for pre-Medicare retirees, and eliminating a reimbursement for certain Medicare benefits which could save $400 million each year, among other reforms.

CBC recommends several changes to union work rules to create more productivity savings, including extending a civilian overtime cap to skilled trades and uniformed workers and standardizing work hours.

The Independent Budget Office, a nonpartisan city agency, does not make judgements on the administration’s proposed plans but it has recently highlighted a series of its prior reports from December 2018 that cover a myriad of savings options the city could employ. Though, many of those numbers are estimates based on the costs of specific programs that are likely affected by the larger budget crisis.

IBO makes many of the same recommendations as CBC on cutting wage and benefits costs, particularly for health care. It estimated that the city could save $590 million from requiring health insurance contributions by current employees and retirees.

Among other steps, the city could cut down on subsidies, including by diverting paratransit trips to taxis, eliminating $70 million in annual city funding for nonpublic schools, and by ending the Department of Education’s role as a sponsor for the Fashion Institute of Technology, a SUNY community college, which costs $58 million each year.

Certain programs could be eliminated or amended, such as assessing only half of school buildings every year rather than all of them, which would save $7 million and still meet state requirements, saving $29 million each year by using open source software instead of licensed software, and raising $17 million annually by requiring landlords to get operating permits for rental buildings similar to restaurant permits.

IBO also offers that the city could also change staffing and work rules. Consolidating building, fire, environmental protection, and housing inspections would save $25 million each year. Eliminating paid union release time (where the city pays union workers for their time spent on union activity) would save $30 million in the first year. The administration could also increase the workweek for about 76,200 nonmanagerial, nonschool based, full-time civilian employees from 35 or 37.5 hours to 40 hours a week, and thereby reduce the city’s overall headcount since it would need 12.5% fewer workers to cover the same number of hours. That change could lead to $234 million in savings in the first year, growing to $767 million over three years, though it would require collective bargaining.

There are reimbursements the city could demand from the state for temporarily housing technical parole violators in city jails and for holding pretrial detainees in local jails for more than one year.

James Parrott, an economist at The New School's Center for New York City Affairs, said in a phone interview that an early retirement package may be the “single most essential thing” that the mayor could provide to avoid layoffs or loans, though it may not bring in the entire $1 billion. “The mayor and the unions really need to double down on that,” Parrott said.

Parrott did propose a few other ideas, though the mayor does not have unilateral power to implement them. Chiefly, he said the city and state should reconsider large property tax exemptions that have been provided to developments like Hudson Yards. The Hudson Yards exemptions, in particular, he said, are “really hard to defend” given the city’s fiscal crunch and the fact that it serves the types of industries that have been relatively unscathed during the pandemic compared to the larger economy.

“Those were not necessary when it was developed. They're certainly not necessary now,” he said of the tax exemptions. “There's nothing to prevent the city from trying to get the Hudson Yards developers to agree to that. They can't dictate it. They'd have to get their acceptance of that. But I think they need to start turning up the pressure on that.

Parrott questioned whether long-standing properties like Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium, and Citi Field should continue to get similar property tax breaks. “All of those entities are owned by billionaire owners who should be contributing to the city's plight at this time,” he  said.

He did defend the mayor when it came to the city’s massively increased budget and headcount, which he said have not grown beyond what should be expected or necessary when the economy grew at such a substantial pace at the same time. “More economic activity in New York City means greater need for public services,” he said.

Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the think tank the Manhattan Institute, has said the city needs to both institute a wage freeze as well as cancel $1.5 billion in back pay for teachers which it is expected to pay out in October.

“No public sector employee should expect a private sector tax base that has now lost more than 900,000 jobs in New York City to support wage increases for the public sector workforce,” she said at a virtual discussion hosted by the Manhattan Institute in May. At the time, she called on the administration to enact furloughs to preempt more harmful layoffs come Fall. She also called for a pay cap, including for nonunion workers, such as top city agency staff who make well into the six figures. “Forcing public servants to live temporarily within a salary that is comfortable even for New York City — especially since many households have more than one earner — isn’t just symbolic,” she wrote in the New York Post on July 5. “It would save $200 million a year, ­according to an analysis of raw data provided by SeeThroughNY. That’s a whole fifth of the $1 billion in draconian cuts the mayor warns he will have to make.”

Some elected officials have also floated ideas that could cut city spending without terminating workers or affecting services. For instance, City Council Member Ben Kallos, who chairs the contracts committee, proposed in June that the city could save $15 billion by eliminating tax exemptions for real estate developers and by eliminating waste in city contracts, according to a Daily News report.

Prior to the passage of the new city budget, the City Council had called on the mayor to institute between 5-7% in cuts at all city agencies. To balance the budget, the administration found only about $2.8 billion in cuts through a Program to Eliminate the Gap (PEG) and citywide savings, which the Council found insufficient.

At the time, Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Members Daniel Dromm and Vanessa Gibson, chairs of the Committee on Finance and Subcommittee on Capital Budget, respectively, warned the mayor in a May 30 letter that without savings, the city would have to rely on incurring costly debt. “[W]e must search agency budgets for more savings to ensure that we have done everything we can to balance the budget without resorting to borrowing that will have significant long-term implications for New York City’s future,” they wrote.

Comptroller Scott Stringer similarly noted that most of those savings were one-time reductions instead of recurring savings that could help offset budget gaps in the future. In his May 21 testimony to the City Council on the mayor’s executive budget, he had called for a 4% reduction in agency spending that would save almost $1 billion a year. “Not only do these one-time cuts leave our City’s youth high and dry this summer – they also don’t translate into longer-term savings,” he said at the time. “In fact, recurring savings are only a small fraction of agency budgets — because the Mayor simply didn’t ask most agencies for recurring savings at all.  Too much agency spending is simply on auto-pilot.  But it’s no longer possible to do business as usual.”

Stringer has also proposed cuts in other places, including spending on outside consultants, street homeless outreach, and the ThriveNYC mental health initiative, according to a City & State report.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, in June, proposed a recovery plan for the city that dealt with varying levels of budget deficits while also addressing a growing call for diverting funds from the NYPD’s $6 billion annual operating budget. Among the proposals he put forward included civilianizing over-staffed NYPD units, cuts to overtime, and forensic audits of the department’s notoriously opaque spending. Adams also recommended eliminating political appointees who serve in advisory or administrative roles, expanding the role of franchises that can build infrastructure and receive multi-year service contracts in exchange, among a series of other suggestions.

And in order to bring in new revenue, a discussion mostly happening at the state level around added taxes on the highest earners or certain financial transactions, Adams is working with State Senator Andrew Gounardes on a set of proposals for new data sales taxes on multi-billion-dollar tech companies that sell private data.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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samarkhurshid@gmail.com (Samar Khurshid) City Wed, 09 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000