Gotham Gazette

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New Facility Classification Allows Better Options for City Seniors, If Built

Hebrew Home Bronx property

Along the property of the Hebrew Home in the Bronx (Sofie Hecht)

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Council recently passed a series of amendments to the city's zoning regulations aimed, in part, at encouraging the construction and expansion of senior housing and elder care facilities. With the package, known as Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA), one goal was to address the issue of inadequate options for seniors who want to age in place. An outdated land use code has made it nearly impossible to build flexible senior care facilities, they said.

For older New Yorkers and those heading toward senior citizenship, city government’s first priority with ZQA was creating additional opportunity for building affordable housing. This was accomplished, they exclaimed, through a variety of tweaks to land use rules, including reducing requirements for parking spaces to accompany senior housing. Senior advocates in the City Council and groups like AARP-NY and LiveOn NY pushed hard for and celebrated passage of ZQA for this reason.

Less publicized was the creation, through ZQA, of a new building category called “long term care facility,” which could have significant implications for the city’s aging population and senior care.

The new category allows developers to build nursing homes and residential units on the same property, making it easier to build facilities called Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs) in New York City. CCRCs provide seniors with increasing levels of care as they age without requiring they move. While there are currently 12 CCRCs across New York state, none exist in New York City. Though city planners and senior advocates look forward to the proliferation of CCRCs, the potential first such facility is mired in controversy.

“It is especially jarring to uproot elderly residents from homes and communities that are familiar to them and from their loved ones in order to accommodate their changing needs,” said Rachaele Raynoff, a spokesperson from the Department of City Planning. “That's why a model with a continuum of care was developed. Under ZQA, NYC zoning now recognizes this model, allowing for the development of new options for aging for our growing elderly population.”

Prior to the creation of the new zoning category, it was effectively impossible to build a CCRC in the city, according to Dan Reingold, CEO of RiverSpring Health. RiverSpring, which owns a nursing home called Hebrew Home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, plans to build the city’s first CCRC by adding a residential campus on a piece of land contiguous to the nursing home.

CCRCs are typically made up of independent living, assisted living, and health care units, which make it possible for residents to move into a CCRC and then age in place with more care and little housing change (other than on-site room shifts). These facilities allow seniors to stay in the same community as they age and make it possible for couples who need different levels of care to stay together.

While the development of CCRCs is exactly what the City Council and the de Blasio administration’s Department of City Planning hoped to encourage by adding the “long term care facility” category to the city’s building code, RiverSpring’s plan has revealed a contentious aspect of the new zoning code. CCRCs may erode zoning protections enjoyed by residents of neighborhoods zoned for low-rise residential housing (“R-1” and “R-2” in zoning parlance).

RiverSpring’s plan involves the construction of four- to six-story apartment buildings for its CCRC on land in Riverdale that is zoned for single-family housing. This is allowed under the new zoning regulations, so long as RiverSpring is able to secure special permission from the Department of City Planning. Community leaders in Riverdale, as well as City Council Member Andrew Cohen, who represents the district including Riverdale, have opposed RiverSpring’s proposal on the grounds that the apartment-style residential units of the CCRC will alter the character of the neighborhood.

“CCRCs are typically designed as apartment buildings, the form and scale of which are not compatible with the single-family homes in this neighborhood,” said Sherida Paulsen, chair of the Riverdale Nature Preservancy. The Riverdale community went through a process in 2006 to down-zone the land now owned by RiverSpring in order to protect the residential nature of the area along the river, according to Paulsen. “This change to the zoning code has opened the door to development that would be non-contextual to the property around it, and it could easily go out of business, leaving the neighborhood changed forever,” she said.

City Council Member Paul Vallone of Queens, who chairs the Council’s senior center subcommittee, opposed ZQA prior to its approval for the same reason. “These sweeping changes to zoning regulations would effectively erase many of the protections that our civic organizations and community boards have fought for years to obtain,” he said in a press release ahead of the Council’s approval of ZQA. He continues to advocate for zoning that he believes will protect the integrity of neighborhoods like Riverdale. "A balance must exist between addressing senior housing in our city and proper community engagement,” he said in a statement for this story.

The initial ZQA proposal would have allowed CCRCs to be built in residential zones as-of-right, according to Council Member Cohen, but the Council interceded. They developed criteria, outlined in ZQA, that require the new facility or expansion be "compatible with the character of the surrounding area," that it's entrance, orientation, and landscaping "create an adequate buffer between the proposed facility and nearby residences," and that the streets leading to the facility are "adequate to handle the traffic generated thereby” (ZQA section 74-901).

Proposals to build CCRCs in residential zones must go through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Policy (ULURP) in order to ensure they comply with these criteria. If they are found to comply, the developer is given a special permit to build.

Prior to ZQA, RiverSpring made multiple attempts to get its proposal approved, according to Paulsen. In its first attempt, RiverSpring asked that the zoning of the land be changed so that RiverSpring would not need a special permit. When this failed, RiverSpring attempted to redefine its proposed development as a healthcare facility in its building application, but the city rejected that definition on the grounds that the facility would be primarily residential, according to Paulsen.

Bronx Community Board 8, which represents the area where the Hebrew Home campus is located, opposes the Hebrew Home expansion, as well. CB8 will get a chance to review RiverSpring’s plans as part of the ULURP process, but the City Council will have the final word on whether or not the expansion—and the construction of the city’s first continuing care retirement community—occurs.

On land use decisions, the Council defers to the local Council member, making Cohen’s opinion utmost important. “Hebrew Home, to their credit, has briefed me on their plans, and we've had frank conversations about the project, but we are in no way on the same page yet,” he said, citing RiverSpring’s disregard for the neighborhood’s residential zoning as his primary objection.

RiverSpring submitted its plan to the Department of City Planning on April 27 and it has yet to go to CB8 or Cohen for review. Ultimately, Council Member Cohen believes the ULURP process for obtaining a special permit will protect the community’s interests. “I'm satisfied that there are a significant number of safeguards that the development on that site will be thoroughly vetted by the community,” he said. “If Hebrew Home is able to muster significant community support, then we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Charles Moerdler, president of Bronx Community Board 8, says that the board has seen at least three proposals of the Hebrew Home expansion plan since the organization bought the property in 2011. According to Moerdler, RiverSpring took many of CB8’s recommendations, such as lowering the apartment tower heights from eight to six stories and building more of the residential units on the current Hebrew Home campus, which is zoned R-4, as opposed to the new land (R-1). But the latest plan presented to the board is still not satisfactory to the majority of its members, he said.

"The issue the Board has with ZQA is not the development of CCRCs but the process by which City Planning is going about doing it," Moerdler said, despite the fact that the City Council will get final say. "ZQA undermines the opinion of the community, which has done so much to preserve the residential zoning status of this land."

Before it passed, there was a great deal of debate over ZQA in relation to it being a “one-size-fits-all” change to zoning and land use rules. The final product includes a number of neighborhood-specific tweaks inserted by the City Council, but given its potpourri nature, ZQA still has something for almost every community to take issue with. As Mayor Bill de Blasio regularly pointed out when ZQA and its companion change to city land use rules, Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH), were being debated, community boards are well-known for opposing changes to the neighborhoods under their purview.

City Council Member Cohen says that while there is a significant need for senior housing in his district, options other than a new CCRC exist. “We have a full spectrum of options for seniors living in Riverdale. The ideal situation is for people to age in place, but there’s already a lot of infrastructure in Riverdale for people to do that,” he said.

One way seniors living in Riverdale and in other areas of New York City can age in place is through Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs), which include publicly funded programs that help seniors stay in their own apartments by providing services like shopping and transportation assistance, on-site nursing, and social activities. NORCs are not easily formed, requiring pre-conditions and lobbying. Currently, Riverdale has one NORC in the Amalgamated Housing Cooperative, which has 1,500 units. Cohen says he is currently advocating for the creation of another NORC at the Knolls Cooperative, which has 240 units.

City Council Member Margaret Chin, who chairs the Council’s aging committee, is an advocate of NORCs as an option for seniors who want to age in place, as well. NORCs have historically received money from the state, but the city has had to provide support for them lately, according to Chin. “The state was trying to cut some of that funding last year, and we have been trying to save it,” she said.  

Ultimately, Chin is supportive of the development of CCRCs in addition to NORCs, and was an advocate for passing ZQA. “There is just not enough senior housing to go around,” she said. “I'm looking forward to seeing some integrative long term care facilities go up in New York City.”

by Kate Groetzinger for Gotham Gazette

New Consumer Affairs Commissioner Inherits Robust Agency and Big Challenges


Salas accepting a pen from the mayor at a bill signing ceremony (photo via @NYCDCA)

When Lorelei Salas was appointed Commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs by Mayor Bill de Blasio in May, she inherited a dramatically better-funded and more heavily staffed agency than her predecessor, Julie Menin, did when she took office in 2014.

New York City’s DCA is the nation’s largest municipal consumer protection agency, tasked with licensing businesses, monitoring predatory business practices, redressing consumer grievances and enforcing various municipal benefits, among other functions that it performs. Its adopted budget has grown from $23.6 million to $40.6 million between fiscal years 2013 and 2017 and its staff has increased from 301 to 441 in the same period.

In recent months, new challenges have arisen for the agency, including a pattern of noncompliance in the retail and restaurant industries, the need to set up a new Council-mandated Office of Labor Policy and Standards, and the looming effort to educate businesses and workers about a rising minimum wage. In the face of these issues, Commissioner Salas has yet to decide whether she will use the large budget at her disposal to simply maintain Menin’s strategy or aggressively carve out a new path, like Menin did.

Menin’s time with DCA was markedly successful. Appointed commissioner in April 2014, she took the reigns of an agency that had been widely criticized under the previous administration by business owners and then-Public Advocate de Blasio himself for issuing excessive fines to businesses to generate revenue for the city.

In the two years that followed, Menin spearheaded what City Hall characterized as a “turnaround” of the department, lowering the number of violations issued from 19,888 in fiscal year 2014 to 11,923 in fiscal year 2015 while increasing consumer restitution from $3.6 million to $6.2 million in that time frame. She also oversaw the implementation of a swath of de Blasio’s signature policies, including the executive order on expanding the Living Wage Law, the Small Business Relief Package, the Paid Sick Leave Law, and the Commuter Benefits Law.

But Menin’s term was cut short in February when de Blasio appointed her Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. DCA went without a permanent commissioner until the end of May, when de Blasio appointed Lorelei Salas to head the agency. After a short training period during which Salas was debriefed by senior officials, she began acting as commissioner in late June.

Salas, an outside hire who most recently served as Director of Legal Services at Catholic Migration Services and has held senior management enforcement positions at the New York State Department of Labor, told Gotham Gazette she still needs time to learn from senior DCA officials before setting specific goals for the department. Those officials have outlined plans that largely emphasize outreach and education to adhere to de Blasio’s agenda of protection and financial equity for businesses, workers and consumers.

“I could come here with great ideas that I borrowed from someone else but the truth is that the people who are doing this work day to day understand what the challenges are,” Salas said in an interview at DCA’s office in Downtown Manhattan on June 29. “I'm hoping to learn from them first before I start saying I'd like to do this other great thing.”

For now, Salas said she is interested in expanding the agency’s financial empowerment programs for low-income New Yorkers. The first initiative of her term, known as the Collaborative for Neighborhood Financial Health, was announced Thursday and will aim to increase financial resources and education in Bedford-Stuyvesant and East Harlem.

When asked about the administration’s vision for DCA’s immediate future under Salas, a mayoral spokesperson indicated that the agency would maintain its mission established during Menin’s term — emphasizing a focus on economic empowerment.

“Under Mayor de Blasio, our consumer affairs department is working to give everyone in the marketplace the means they need to thrive - consumers, employers and employees alike,” said the spokesperson, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “The Administration has sharpened the department's focus on promoting economic empowerment for everyone.”

To execute the “economic empowerment” that DCA has come to prioritize in recent years, Menin, aided by annual budgetary increases throughout her term, raised funding for aggressive outreach campaigns to educate both workers and business owners. DCA’s Office of Financial Empowerment, a DCA division that offers financial services to low-income New Yorkers, also saw increased success during Menin’s term.

“As a result of a $3 million investment that the city made, we returned over $250 million back to low-income New Yorkers,” Menin said in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette. “That truly worked and fit within the administration's goal of increasing access and increasing equity as well.”

The Office of Financial Empowerment first received baseline budgetary funding for its Financial Empowerment Centers in 2012, following which the number of tax returns filed through centers increased from 90,000 to 150,000 within a year. Under Mayor de Blasio, OFE’s budget has grown every year, and even allowed them to hire three new employees in Fiscal 2015.

“This was a really amazing initiative that started with the need that people are not getting their earned income tax credit, which is obviously the anti-poverty initiative of our time,” OFE Executive Director Debra-Ellen Glickstein said in an interview. “This was the first time that the city put real money against this.”

In addition to an increase in outreach, the drop in fines assessed by DCA during Menin’s term was facilitated by administrative policy. Under the Small Business Relief Package, put into effect by de Blasio in 2014, DCA began issuing warnings for violations that did not pose immediate consumer harm and issuing “curable violations” for first-time offenders. The total number of violations issued by DCA dipped from 24,835 in fiscal year 2012 to 11,923 in fiscal year 2015.

This effort to decrease violations, coupled with DCA’s responsibility to implement new regulations, has made for a tension within DCA’s mission that Salas has acknowledged will require nuance to maintain. On one hand, the agency attempts to protect businesses by scaling back unnecessary investigations and forgiving violations when possible. On the other, DCA must protect workers from businesses by enforcing regulations like Paid Sick Leave and Commuter Benefits. These newer missions, heavily funded for the first time in the past two years, are in addition to the department’s longest-standing obligation: to protect consumers.

“We are in the process of figuring out how to balance the different varying needs and demands in our agency,” Salas said. “We have to assume that people will comply if they have the right tools and the right information.”

Despite an overall trend of compliance following a concerted effort by the agency to increase education in recent years, DCA officials have identified specific challenges that Salas will need to address. For example, although DCA directly educated over 400,000 businesses at more than 800 events about the Paid Sick Leave law — which requires employers to provide paid sick leave if they have five or more employees who work at least 80 hours per year — and has gathered $3.4 million in fines and restitution, officials said specific businesses still regularly fail to comply.

“We have and continue to have experience with certain industries where there's a high level of noncompliance and that includes retail, home health aides, security, restaurants,” said Nick Smithberg, executive director of Paid Sick Leave and Commuter Benefits, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “Those are kind of hot buttons. We see them again and again and again.”

Jessica Shpall Rosen, an attorney specializing in employment and labor law, told Gotham Gazette that although DCA’s education measures have been helpful, compliance with the paid sick leave law — which includes a requirement that businesses write and distribute their own paid sick leave policies to employees — is more likely to be an issue for small businesses without access to legal advice.

"It requires a deep level of technical knowledge and a direct reading of the law, and it's not easy to figure out how to deal with some of these technical requirements,” Rosen said. “But I believe the DCA could do a better job by perhaps providing various versions of samples that could be adopted by small businesses. Right now it ends up being a little bit difficult for some companies to figure out how to comply."

DCA has already taken some steps to close this gap in compliance. According to First Deputy Commissioner Alba Pico, who acted as interim commissioner until Salas took office, DCA has targeted cultural and language barriers that prevent business owners, especially of small businesses, from avoiding violations. The department now publishes inspection checklists in eight languages so that business owners “are not surprised” by laws, Pico said, and allows business owners to select the language in which their inspection will be performed.

DCA will inevitably face another major challenge later this year. As the city’s minimum wage incrementally rises for approximately 18,000 workers in keeping with de Blasio’s Living Wage executive order, Salas said the agency would help educate workers and businesses about new wages. The specifics of this effort, however, have yet to be determined. According to an agency spokesperson, DCA “is currently strategizing” about the scale of its education efforts and whether it will, in fact, help with minimum wage outreach.

The most recent point of uncertainty for the agency is the creation of the Office of Labor Standards and Policy, a subdivision of DCA mandated by a law passed by the City Council and signed by de Blasio last November. The office, slated to take over labor-facing DCA roles like worker education and enforcement of the commuter benefits and paid sick leave laws, has yet to begin operating and still has no director. The exact timeline for the office’s setup and whether it will take a different approach than DCA has in the past remain unclear.

“I'm hoping that maybe within the next four weeks or so we'll be able to have more of a structure around the office,” Salas said at the June 29 interview. “We obviously are doing a lot of the work already that we have on our plate. I would love to see us up and running fully within the next couple of months.”

by Aaron Holmes, Gotham Gazette

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Mark-Viverito Identifies Successor for Council Seat

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Melissa Mark-Viverito (photo: William Alatriste)

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has endorsed her Deputy Chief of Staff Diana Ayala to replace her in 2017 as the councilmember from District 8, which covers East Harlem and the South Bronx.

Mark-Viverito, who will be term-limited out of office next year, announced her support for Ayala in a Facebook post on July 3. “Thinking ahead has never been a fault of mine,” she wrote in her announcement. "And now is no different.” She stressed the importance of promoting women’s representation in the City Council, which currently has 14 women out of 51 council members, a fact she called “outrageous.”

Taking note of strong women who have helped her through her life and political career -- including her mother Elizabeth Viverito and East Harlem activist Gloria Quinones, among others -- Mark-Viverito threw her support behind Ayala, invoking a sense of duty on her part. “There are many qualified, committed women who can represent their districts with great integrity,” she wrote, “[and] it is incumbent on us to force that conversation. To encourage women to run.”

Ayala, a Puerto Rican-born New Yorker, has worked with Mark-Viverito for nearly 11 years, serving as her deputy chief of staff since March 2014 overseeing constituent and senior services. Before that, she was the program director at the Casita Maria Carver Senior Center for six years. She is a graduate of Herbert H. Lehman College at the City University of New York, where she studied sociology.

“Diana is a woman of integrity,” said Mark-Viverito in her post. “She is intelligent. She is thoughtful. She is steadfast. She is committed. She is a hard worker. She is a daughter, a wife, a mother [and] grandmother. Diana is a reflection of who I fight for each [and] every day [and] what motivates me to do what I do. There is no better person to represent this district.” The speaker also posted an invitation to Ayala’s first campaign fundraiser which will be held Thursday evening. The campaign has yet to raise any money.

“A tireless champion for her community, Diana has dedicated her entire professional career to helping New Yorkers and is a staunch advocate for families, a leading voice against gun violence and a fierce champion for New York City's aging population,” said Ayala’s campaign in a statement to Gotham Gazette. The campaign also mentioned a few of her priorities if she is elected to the Council, including investing in public housing, ensuring safety and affordability in her district, strengthening public schools and ensuring access to green spaces for all school children.

Currently, only one other candidate, Edward Gibbs, has declared a run for the District 8 seat and has raised $2,795 for the race since 2015. He made headlines back in 2010 when he ran for State Assembly from Harlem. Gibbs is a community activist and a reformed convict who served five-and-a-half years in prison for manslaughter before being released in 1991.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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