Gotham Gazette

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Next Steps for The Mayor's Controversial Zoning Proposals

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Mayor de Blasio (photo: @BilldeBlasio)

An overwhelming majority of the city’s community boards and four borough presidents have recently voted in opposition to the zoning proposals central to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan, as least as they are currently written. The two plans - which would change the city’s zoning rules and hold a great deal at stake in terms of housing, retail space, parking, and the future of the city’s neighborhoods - continue to move through the public review process, with key hearings to be held in the coming months.

Mayor de Blasio has acknowledged that tweaks will be made before the zoning text amendments reach the City Council for a decisive vote early in 2016. De Blasio has repeatedly stressed that community board votes are advisory, though he has said that his administration is taking feedback into account. In a Wednesday interview with NY1, de Blasio said, “We’ve said all along we’re open to revisions. We’re obviously listening to the feedback from communities. And we’re open to making changes if we think it will help the plan.”

The final of the five borough boards, Staten Island’s, will vote on the plans Thursday, Dec. 10, and de Blasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability will quickly move toward a public hearing held by the City Planning Commission on Dec. 16—less than three months after the public review process started in September.

The Dec. 16 hearing is expected to be long and contentious. The commission, which is made up of appointees by the mayor, the borough presidents, and the comptroller, will make changes it sees fit and send the plans to the City Council for its own public hearings.

Though some, including Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, have criticized the “speed of the process,” timelines are dictated by the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, which applies to everything from block-level land use changes to broad zoning law edits like MIH and ZQA. Future, neighborhood-specific development plans, like the already controversial East New York Community Plan, will be reviewed individually, though only by relevant community and borough boards, as well as the local City Council member.

The de Blasio administration argues that its MIH and ZQA plans are essential to lay new citywide groundwork on which the more localized community plans can be laid. The plans will set requirements for affordable housing in new real estate development; alter height limits for buildings; and make other changes to how land is used around the city.

ULURP allots 60 days to community board review and 30 days to borough president and borough board review. Neither groups hold decisionmaking authority, but comments are considered in the following City Planning Commission and City Council review stages.

Those two groups are the ones who decide on changes and ultimately vote to approve the zoning changes. De Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito have acknowledged the significant opposition, and said last month that the plans will change before the council votes on them.

De Blasio, during a recent appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, summarized the advisory role community and borough boards play in the process and his continued push for the plan.

“We try and learn from it, we try and make adjustments as we see fit. But it’s also a back-and-forth between our other partners in the process, notably the City Council,” he said. “A lot of what I’ve heard from this public discussion is the desire to maximize the number of affordable units and to have them at the lowest possible income levels. And those are goals we share. Trying to figure out how to construct it is the work we do together.”

Next Stop: City Planning Commission
The first opportunity for changes to be made comes during the City Planning Commission’s review process. After hosting its own public hearing on Dec. 16 and public deliberations in January, it is expected to tweak the plans as it sees fit and vote on MIH and ZQA in early February—in line with ULURP’s 60-day timeline for the commission’s stage.

Though CPC is inextricably tied to the Department of City Planning—the chair of the 13-person commission, Carl Weisbrod, is also the director of City Planning—it remains relatively independent of mayoral control. Six of the other 12 members are mayoral appointees, and because they serve staggered five-year terms, three joined during the Bloomberg administration (one has stepped down and the commission currently has 12 members). The borough presidents and the public advocate each appoint one of the other six commission members. Given these dynamics and the community response to MIH and ZQA, it is likely that changes to the plans will be recommended by the City Planning Commission.

Over the 60 days, CPC has the option of approving, modifying, or disapproving the proposals, taking into account recommendations from community boards, borough boards and borough presidents. MIH and ZQA will then move to the City Council.

The City Council
City Council members have had mixed reactions to the zoning proposals. Most say first and foremost that they agree with the broader goals of the mayor’s plans - creating affordable housing through new tools, including mandatory affordable units with any new development allowed through a rezoning.

As the proposals have come through the borough boards, on which the borough president, community board chairs, and City Council members sit, Council members have expressed themselves differently. On one hand, nearly all of the Council members from the Bronx opposed the plans as part of their borough board vote in November. On the other, most Manhattan and all Queens Council members abstained from their borough board votes, saying they will comment and vote with the Council next year.

“I do want to say the mayor’s proposal is very ambitious and...will probably be the most ambitious in the country,” said Queens Council Member Donovan Richards, chair of the subcommittee on zoning and franchises, during an October interview with Gotham Gazette. “But at the same time, we need to ensure that there’s real affordability in the plan and that things that communities have needed for a long time—whether it’s transportation, schools, jobs—all of the different components are also part of the conversation and part of the final deal as we move through the process.”

Under ULURP, the council has 50 days to hold hearings, review, and vote on the plans, passing through the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises and the Committee on Land Use before they go to the full Council. Any proposed changes return to the CPC for another 15 days of review.

Individual Neighborhood Plans
Since MIH and ZQA are citywide changes to zoning laws, they will not directly create any development. MIH, in particular, comes into effect when a developer requests to rezone a plot of land—only then will the development be required to include affordable housing (25-30% of the units, with rents based on certain income levels).

Such rezonings will also occur as part of neighborhood-specific “community plans,” which also include improvements to other local infrastructure. The first of these plans, in East New York, was released on Sept. 21 and is going through ULURP at the same time as MIH and ZQA. Six other neighborhoods across the other four boroughs are also being studied, part of a longer list of neighborhoods on the docket for overhaul.

by Christian Zhang, Gotham Gazette

Hearing to Examine ‘Efficacy’ of City Response to ‘Homelessness Crisis’

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City Council Member Levin (photo: William Alatriste) 

The City Council Committee on General Welfare will hold an oversight hearing on Wednesday Dec. 9 on the de Blasio administration’s efforts to address New York’s “homelessness crisis.”

Though a great deal of political controversy has surrounded the issue lately, City Council Member Stephen Levin, chair of the committee, is not interested in adding to it.

“Now is an appropriate time to do a clear-eyed assessment of what is happening on the ground and what the plans are moving forward to address all of those issues,” Levin told Gotham Gazette ahead of the hearing. “So,” he said, the hearing will be about “toning down the rhetoric and really examining what the reality is.”

That assessment will include, Levin added, examining the Department of Homeless Services’ Living in Communities (LINC) and Special Exit and Prevention Supplement (SEPS) programs, as well as recent increases in its legal services and the Homebase program, among other components of the city’s multi-pronged effort to address homelessness.

As of its December 3 census, the Department of Homeless Services counted 57,967 people sleeping in shelters. It is estimated that there are a few thousand more who live on the streets and in subway stations. The city’s efforts to move people living on the street - who often suffer from mental illness - into shelter and reduce the shelter census have come under increasing scrutiny over the past six months.

“Even though the city has spent hundreds of millions of dollars confronting homelessness, the problem has proven to be far more intractable than everyone originally thought, including the mayor,” City Council Member Ritchie Torres, a member of the general welfare committee, told Gotham Gazette. “And it’s not for a lack of effort at all.”

During a recent interview with PIX11, DHS Commissioner Gilbert Taylor agreed - when asked to grade the administration’s work, Taylor said, “I would definitely give us an A for effort.”

Perhaps “effort” is not one of them, but there are a variety of questions around the administration’s approach to homelessness, mostly about the effectiveness of programs and policies and if the right overall approach is in place.

The PIX11 Taylor interview grew tense when the commissioner was asked to explain the increase in average time that homeless families spend in shelters - seventeen months in fiscal year 2015 compared to eleven months in 2011. The commissioner questioned the source of the reporter’s data, but when he learned it was the Mayor’s Management Report, he shifted to deny “the notion of families languishing in shelter” but said that he did not “refute” MMR numbers.

When PIX11 interviewed New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer about two weeks later, on Dec. 3, he said that his office is currently auditing DHS. Stringer said that his “early call is we shouldn’t be about spinning and grading, we should be about getting the work done.” Previously, Stringer has criticized the administration for conditions at homeless shelters.

Taylor is expected to testify at the City Council’s hearing on Wednesday. DHS did not make Taylor available for an interview for this article.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has recently acknowledged how tough the fight to reduce homelessness has been and also said he hasn’t done a good enough job explaining all of the work his administration is doing to combat homelessness. The administration has a variety of programs in motion, and has moved tens of thousands out of shelter and into housing, while also providing subsidies to help people avoid losing their homes. But, de Blasio has said that as quickly as his administration is moving people out of shelter, others are becoming in need, largely due to the city’s affordable housing crisis.

When announcing in early November that “52,277 individuals have exited shelter since July 1, 2014,” including 19,263 who “exited shelter using the administration’s newly created rental assistance programs and exit pathways,” the administration said that in the same time, “approximately 91,906 individuals have enrolled in HomeBase, a proven homelessness prevention program to help families and individuals stay in their homes.”

In a statement, de Blasio said that his “administration is making unprecedented investments in programs to prevent and reduce homelessness...But as rents are skyrocketing and wages remain stagnant, too many New Yorkers are struggling to make ends meet and still end up in shelter, and we are aggressively working to help these families and individuals exit shelter.”

Sixty-two percent of New Yorkers disapprove of how the mayor is handling homelessness, according to a Siena College/New York Times poll released Nov. 17.

The city’s efforts to reduce homelessness are being further enhanced, according to a recent announcement by de Blasio, sure to be part of the discussion at Wednesday’s Council hearing. On Nov. 18, de Blasio announced his administration’s new supportive housing plan, a $2.6 billion initiative to build permanent residential units for homeless individuals afflicted by complex challenges like domestic violence, substance addiction, and mental illness. The plan outlines the construction of 15,000 supportive housing units over a 15-year period. Roughly 7,500 of the units will be newly constructed and the other roughly 7,500 will be at scattered sites.

While many praised the mayor’s new supportive housing program, his administration has been highly criticized for a perceived lack of progress in its efforts to house New Yorkers.

The mayor’s supportive housing announcement came after months of negotiations between his administration and that of Governor Andrew Cuomo failed to produce an agreement for a fourth New York/New York agreement, a supportive housing program funded jointly by the city and state, which is now in its third iteration and has been the product of collaboration by prior mayors and governors. Many are still waiting for Cuomo to announce a plan to add to de Blasio’s, or a joint announcement that incorporates de Blasio’s plan into a new New York/New York agreement.

“By making this historic investment, we are confronting the moral crises of homelessness and mental illness our city faces today,” de Blasio said in a statement announcing the plan. “We are not waiting on Albany.”

Though Council Member Torres is confident that the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) will successfully execute the plan, he indicated that for future supportive housing development plans New York City would need more state funding.

“The city cannot carry the burden on its own in the long run, that’s just my assessment. It’s so expensive that it requires support from both the city and the state,” Torres said. “If you go beyond the 15,000 units, it becomes more of a challenge.”

Cuomo has been criticized by legislators and advocates for only proposing only 3,700 units for the city for the next seven years (8,300 less than what de Blasio requested and 26,300 less than what advocates have said is necessary) for a fourth New York/New York. Unlike previous New York/New York plans in which the state has covered 80 percent of the cost, the governor wants the fourth’s cost evenly shared, fifty-fifty. The most recent agreement expires next year.

“The sheer scale of the catastrophe playing out on our streets demands a sustained solution,” wrote Mary Brosnahan, president of Coalition for the Homeless, in The New York Times’ Room for Debate. “Governor Cuomo's offer is not going to cut it.” Brosnahan said similarly when she spoke at de Blasio’s celebratory supportive housing announcement, shifting the pressure to Cuomo to step up.

Homelessness is the latest policy issue to become a part of the Cuomo-de Blasio feud. As the de Blasio administration dedicates more and more funds to combat the crisis, calling on Cuomo to do so as well, the governor has questioned whether it’s a money issue or a management issue. “New York state is spending a billion dollars on homelessness in New York City,” the governor said in Brooklyn on Nov. 24. “So it’s not the money. . .I think it’s more of a question of the intelligence and the management.”

Last week, Cuomo met with nonprofit groups to discuss various aspects of homelessness policy and practice, and is expected reveal new related plans in his 2016 State of the State address on January 6.

Despite the drama surrounding the issue, Council Member Levin said he is focused on policy details. The $88 million added to the Department of Homeless Services budget in a November update to the fiscal year 2016 financial plan will be discussed at the hearing and though the supportive housing plan was prominent at a recent hearing, Levin said it would probably come up again.

“There’s a lot of noise out there, obviously, and we are eager to try to cut through that noise,” Levin told Gotham Gazette. Adding that the hearing will “look at what’s happening now, how that relates to what’s been happening over the last few years, what efforts are in place right now, examining the efficacy of those efforts - new funding, significant efforts that this administration has put into place.”

“The public deserves a clear picture of what’s really going on,” Levin said. “We are going to examine that as thoroughly and methodically as possible.”

by Ryan Brady, Gotham Gazette

In Testimony to Pay Commission, City Council Asks for Salary Increase

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Council Speaker Mark-Viverito (photo: William Alatriste)

As a committee called by Mayor de Blasio, as required by law, considers recommendations for raising the pay of New York City elected officials, the City Council has made its public testimony. A document was submitted by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to the Quadrennial Advisory Commission for the Review of Compensation Levels of Elected Officials, which is chaired by Frederick Schwarz, and posted online at the commission's website earlier this evening.

In it, Mark-Viverito writes "on behalf of the Council," and does not suggest a specific salary for City Council members - they currently make $112,500 each per year, plus bonuses for filling leadership positions and chairing committees - but does include a more general pitch for a raise. "As you are aware, the compensation level for Council Members has not changed in close to a decade," Mark-Viverito writes, "[D]uring the past ten years the Council has become more productive and its work and processes far more complex. At the same time the cost of living in the City has risen significantly and Member salaries are not on par with other private and public sector jobs with comparable duties and obligations."

Mark-Viverito goes on to say that compensation for Council members must take into account "the nature of their service" and "the economic realities" of living in New York, in part so that the Council can attract top-level individuals. "I therefore believe it is clear that Council Member salaries should be increased," she writes, referring the commission to further information enclosed detailing the Council's efforts in drafting legislation, holding oversight hearings, crafting the city budget, working in their individual districts, and more. At one point, Mark-Viverito writes that "The time commitment for Council Members is considerable and most describe their jobs as '24/7.'"

Mark-Viverito also provides data showing that the Council has been especially productive under her leadership, writing that "the current Council has been even more active than in prior sessions. Council Members have already made 105% more bill and resolution drafting requests, introduced 41% more bills and enacted 32% more Local Laws than through the same time period in the immediately preceding session." This Council is indeed a far different one than its immediate predecessor, with more than 20 new members (of 51 seats) through the 2013 election cycle, and a new speaker. It has also had an often like-minded mayor to work with in de Blasio.

In her letter to the commission, Mark-Viverito also highlights Council rules reform of the past decades, including those made under her leadership in 2014, which have made the Council more transparent and democratic - "more vibrant, effective, efficient and ethically sound," she writes. There is no mention of reforming committee chair compensation, known as "lulus," which often net Council members $10-15,000 in addition to their salaries and have been the source of scorn from good government watchdogs. Citizens Union, for example, told the commission that it should recommend doing away with lulus while raising base salaries to account for cost-of-living increases and to attract strong candidates for office.

Mark-Viverito concludes her letter saying that the Council's role in city governance "is a vital one and if it is to live up to the promise of the 1989 Charter, its Members must be compensated fairly and for the responsibilities they bear and the sevice they perform." Along with not specifying a new salary, the speaker also did not write whether the Council believes that the desired pay increase should be made immediate or for the next class of elected officials - the latter would mean raises would go into effect in January of 2018. Mayor de Blasio has already said that he will not accept a pay increase during this term, meaning that if the commission were to recommend immediate increases, de Blasio would likely alter that provision before sending the recommendations to the Council.

Public comment - from elected officials, good government advocates, and others - is open until 5 p.m. Friday. The commission also held two sparsely-attended public hearings. Along with Schwarz, the other two commissioners named to the panel by de Blasio are Jill Bright and Paul Quintero. The commission is considering the compensation of the mayor, public advocate, comptroller, 51 City Council members, five borough presidents, and five district attorneys. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer has submitted testimony, as have a group of district attorneys.

The commission is due to submit its recommendations to the mayor, who will then submit the report with his changes to the City Council for "approval, disapproval, or modifications," according to the commission website.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Note: this article has been updated

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