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A Closer Look at De Blasio's Neighborhood Rezoning Plans

worker background de blasio

(photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)

See interactive map below

Mayor de Blasio's housing plan is moving forward on a few levels. There are the citywide zoning proposals (Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability) being considered by the City Council in February and March. If passed, these will change the zoning rules for the entire city, including a first-time requirement that whenever a developer receives an upzoning for a plot of land to build housing, a set percentage of affordable units will be required as part of the project. The Council is considering its tweaks to the plan before its late-March vote.

Then, there are the individual site projects that the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) always has underway. These projects are the often-overlooked smaller efforts to build and preserve afforable housing, often through significant subsidies to landlords and nonprofit builders.

In between are the neighborhood level plans, which the mayor has pitched as a way to comprehensively improve 15 areas of the city through rezoning for more density and new infrastructure and amenities. These neighborhood rezoning plans are detailed, often block-by-block programs to create housing and improve communities. They include plans for new housing development, but also schools, parks, and other community features. With these and the citywide changes, some fear gentrification and a lack of affordability, though the administration says that is not what will occur.

Only eight of the 15 neighborhood areas are currently known, and in only one of those eight (East New York) has the city actually put forward a formal rezoning plan. But interesting ideas and conflicting proposals are emerging every week from the administration, community boards, local organizations, borough presidents and others. The City Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, helped spearhead a planning process in East Harlem where an extensive community prorgram yielded a detailed plan that is the blueprint community stakeholders want the city to follow when it develops the East Harlem rezoning plan.

Other communities to be rezoned include part of Flushing, Queens, the Bay Street Corridor on Staten Island, part of Jerome Ave. in the Bronx, and others.

Below, we show the neighborhoods targeted for rezoning, with links to information from the city and any relevant coverage from Gotham Gazette and City Limits.

Click on the purple pins to learn more about each plan. If you feel we're missing anything, please let us know: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Private Sector Retirement Security Plans Become Next Progressive Cause

de blasio state of the city

De Blasio delivers his State of the City (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office) 

Experts warn that the entire country could be headed for a financial crisis caused by the fact that an aging workforce has not been saving for retirement.

Whether due to cutbacks of public pensions, the lack of retirement plans offered by private employers, or workers forced to raid their savings, it appears to a growing number of advocates and politicians that many Americans will be forced to keep working far into old age or attempt to survive on below-poverty-level support from Social Security and local welfare programs.

"If we don't make sure something is in place to prevent this, the city and state will have a catastrophe on their hands," Beth Finkel, director of AARP's New York office, told Gotham Gazette. "Ultimately these people are going to turn to the state and city to survive."

City officials cite stark statistics - only 43 percent of working New Yorkers have access to a retirement plan and 40 percent of New Yorkers between the ages of 50 and 64 have less than $10,000 saved for retirement.

It appears to be an issue that is keeping New York's political leaders up at night. It also presents an opportunity for elected officials to lead on another progressive policy matter.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio both announced plans to confront the issue in their recent annual addresses - Cuomo's State of the State, de Blasio's State of the City. Cuomo appointed SUNY Chairman Carl McCall to head a commission to study the issue, while de Blasio said he plans to work on legislation with the City Council that would allow the city to offer retirement plans to private sector workers who are not offered plans by their employer. He outlined the framework in his Feb. 4 speech.

De Blasio's plan would make the city the first in the country to offer such a retirement program, although a few states have adopted legislation to create something similar.

Many see the issue of government-backed retirement for private sector workers as the next progressive push, after minimum wage and paid family leave. De Blasio said as much during a recent appearance on Bill Samuel's Effective Radio program. "So this is our contribution to New York City towards what I hope will be a much bigger forward march of history and it certainly aligns with what we've done on the other issues you've talked about like paid sick leave and affordable housing, pre-K, et cetera," said de Blasio. "This is a package of things that have to change urgently, not just at the local level, but up to the federal level."

De Blasio's retirement plan would require employers with 10 or more employees to offer voluntary access to a city-run retirement plan. The city would cover upfront costs of starting the plan and a board would be appointed to implement it. Employees would have their contributions automatically deducted from their paychecks. Neither the city nor the state would contribute to the plans.

Businesses would not be able to drop plans they currently offer. The bill will be crafted by the de Blasio administration in collaboration with the offices of City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, Public Advocate Tish James, and Comptroller Scott Stringer. Representatives of the de Blasio administration did not respond when asked about a timeline to introduce a bill.

"[I]t's something the city would manage and we would put some initial investment into," the mayor told Samuels during his Sunday radio appearance. "And it would give every worker the opportunity to join a retirement security plan that they could really depend on, would not evaporate because it would be supported and backed by the City of New York, and it would mean putting their own resources into it," de Blasio said.

The de Blasio administration has also asked the federal government to act to ease burdens and liabilities the city could face in managing retirement accounts. However, not many involved in the issue expect Washington to take action anytime soon. The Department of Labor has been giving guidance to states that have attempted to implement similar programs, but has yet to issue a full set of guidelines. It is likely that the state would have to approve any city-backed retirement program.

The mayor is set to hold a press conference on the plan Thursday afternoon at City Hall at which Stringer, James, and Mark-Viverito will each also speak.

Stringer was one of the first New York officials to take on the issue, constructing a working group of nationally recognized academics to study the retirement crisis in February of last year. The group, which features academics from across the political spectrum, is expected to issue recommendations this spring.

"There's no question we have a looming crisis on our hands when it comes to retirement security – in New York and the nation," Stringer said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "Today, 57 percent of New Yorkers lack access to a workplace retirement plan, which has huge implications both for city services and for the ability of our seniors to live out their lives in dignity."

Citing a "need to recognize that one size does not fit all when it comes to retirement security," Stringer said that his "office has been working over the past year with a diverse group of some of the nation's top academics to put together thoughtful, innovative proposals to increase retirement savings options and protect the City's budget."

Public Advocate James proposed a bill in February of last year that would have established a review commission to study the feasibility of a city-backed pension fund for private workers. The bill hasn't made it out of committee, but de Blasio's plan appears to be making it obsolete. James issued a study about the impending retirement crisis.

"There are so many major players who are committed to this that it is hard to imagine we won't get something done, but the devil is in the details," said Finkel of AARP. "I think the major players understand the urgency. Every year we put off is another year people aren't saving."

Samuels, head of public policy think tank Effective NY, said he has been lobbying top state and city leaders on the issue for a few years. Now, he said, even with interest from Cuomo, de Blasio, and a host of other city officials known to compete with each other, "There is a cooperative environment at this point." Samuels says that a number of the leaders involved in the issue have been meeting to hash out a sensible solution.

It is unclear how a state plan might interact with a city plan - whether one would override the other, or if it would make sense to have two if the state acts. Some insiders see de Blasio and Cuomo focused on an issue and wonder when the competition and skullduggery will start. Some hope that city officials will unite around one plan that will then be used by the Cuomo administration as a blueprint. De Blasio administration officials said they would welcome action by the state.

Samuels said he was first moved to address the issue during a trip to his hometown of Canandaigua, in Western New York, while talking to his old friends about their children. "Their kids, even if they had a 401K, they had to raid it for an emergency, so they have nothing for retirement. It was an eye-opener," explained Samuels.

"There is a real national problem and it's not going to get solved in Washington. We have a startling number of people heading into retirement in poverty," Samuels told Gotham Gazette. "I worked for a company that put 15 percent of my salary into retirement. Reagan convinced people they should manage their own money. So What happened was 401Ks were set up and almost all companies stopped putting any money in toward retirement."

There is debate among politicians, academics, advocates, and business leaders about how to offer a retirement plan that actually helps workers save without hurting small businesses. Issues in play include: what size of businesses to target, how to manage employee deductions, what kind of plans make sense for workers, and how to make sure plans are transferable should an employee find a new job or move. There will also be questions about management of the program, as there always are about public pension funds.

The Partnership for New York City, a leading city business group, is supportive of the idea behind de Blasio's plan. The group's president, Kathryn Wylde, said in an interview that the issue is extremely complicated and that she has concerns. "Frankly, I'd rather have the federal government or the state do something broader," Wylde told Gotham Gazette, whiling stressing that she supports de Blasio's action.

Wylde said businesses in different locales would have more of an equal footing if a retirement plan was offered by the federal or state government. She also pointed to underlying economic issues. "I'm not sure that simply providing a plan is a magic bullet," Wylde said. "People living on subsistence wages aren't suddenly going to have enough money to save. So I'm not sure there is a way to make this work without some sort of subsidy."

Mike Durant, state director for the National Federation for Independent Business, said that his members are concerned about having the state get involved in the issue, given their current fight against New York Democrats' push for a higher minimum wage and paid family leave.

"From the small employer perspective, we balloted our members on this topic last Fall with 85 percent of respondents opposed, with wide-ranging fears," Durant told Gotham Gazette.

Durant said members are concerned about liability issues, and "yet another mandate handed down by government that could potentially fail to recognize the significant differences between Main Street and big business." Costs for managing contributions could be prohibitive to small "mom and pop" businesses that operate without a formal human resources office, Durant said.

"Simply, these proposals are concerning and have many moving parts and there is definitely not a simple solution across the spectrum of business," said Durant. "Albany has definitely not proven it is capable of acknowledging the complex differences between big and small business through legislation, which adds to our concerns."

A number of states have passed legislation to implement state-backed private sector retirement plans in a variety of ways.

California adopted such a plan in 2012. There, the bill requires employers of five or more that don't offer a retirement plan to offer a savings plan similar to an IRA that is backed by the California Public Employees' Retirement System.

Illinois adopted a plan in 2014 that requires employers that do not offer a retirement plan, have been in business for more than two years, and employ 25 or more to automatically enroll employees in a state-managed plan that offers a variety of investment plans and payroll deduction levels.

Connecticut has dedicated $400,000 to the creation of a board to study and create a state-based retirement security plan. The plan must be submitted to the state by April of this year.

None of these states have begun accepting contributions to their plans and many are waiting for more guidance from the federal government.

Samuels, of EffectiveNY, said that the wide variety of opinions on how to implement a plan, the number of principles involved, and the scope of the debate are encouraging to him. "Everyone is on the same page that this is an important issue," he said. "There is lots of overlap but we are headed toward a solution. The reason I pushed the city first is I felt it would be tough to get through in the state, but the politics have changed and now Cuomo has named a commission."

Finkel of AARP said that she expects New York City will lead on the issue and that cities and other states across the country will follow.

"Studies tell us that people are 15 times more likely to save if they have something automatically deducted from their paycheck. It's low-hanging fruit and I would hope that New York City will be the first city in the country to implement this kind of plan."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Application Season Underscores Community Board Reform Efforts



thompson community board chairs

Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson meets with Brooklyn community board chairs



Some say you haven’t lived until you’ve been to a community board meeting in New York City. There’s no better place to find passionate hyperlocal debates over liquor licenses, sidewalk cafes, dog parks, and other matters of importance to neighborhood life.

Community boards, of which there are 59 across the five boroughs consisting of 50 volunteer members each, have some say in land use processes, but are also important training grounds for future City Council members and other full-time civic leadership positions. They are often stacked with longtime community residents who care deeply about their neighborhoods.

As another season for applying to community boards winds down, the need for continuing to reform the application and membership processes is part of the public discussion. There are bills in the City Council to install term limits for community board members, require each board to have a paid city planner for expert advice, and to pursue more information about member demographics to aid in making community boards more representative of their communities.

Borough presidents, who control the application processes and decide on board membership, each do things differently. While they’ve been modernizing the process, there is still more work to be done - good government groups and other reformers have a series of changes they would like to see implemented.

Community boards, which have existed in their present form since the New York City Charter was revised in 1975, are often considered the most local body of city government. To become a member of one of the 59 boards, a person must live, work or have another stake in the area represented.

For residents eligible to apply, this means an opportunity for civic participation and influencing some parts of the political process in a direct way. Community boards review land-use proposals in their jurisdiction, make recommendations for the city budget, and can enhance the delivery of city services.

“Community boards are the voice for the people of the city of New York in between elections,” City Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the Council’s governmental operations committee, which has oversight of community boards, told Gotham Gazette. “It is our grassroots democracy and the closest thing we have to a monthly town hall.”

Along with 50 volunteer members, each community board has a small paid staff, led by a district manager. Members can apply for reappointment every two years - there are no term limits, something good government groups and Kallos have said needs to be changed. All members are appointed by borough presidents, though half are nominated by City Council members that represent the boards’ districts.

With the exception of Staten Island (all of the community board seats appointed by its borough president are full), each borough president has been reaching out over recent months to push constituents to apply.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams has launched online applications for 2015-2016, and next year aims to make the process totally digital. “We’re going online to allow those who are tech-savvy - we want to focus on young people - to allow young people to become community board members,” Adams said on NY1’s Inside City Hall.

“In addition to reducing administrative costs, [Borough President Adams] believes that the move [online] will result in a larger pool of community board applicants, including from teenagers,” Stefan Ringel, Adams’ communication director, emailed Gotham Gazette. “Offering this opportunity in an easy-to-use way creates a bridge into community life for our neighbors to connect with one another for the local good.”

The increased attention toward teen-aged community board applicants and members comes after state law was recently changed to allow people younger than 18 to serve on the local boards.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s office took the process online in 2015. In the application cycle that ended in January, Manhattan saw 527 new, non-incumbent applicants for its boards, a 9 percent increase from the previous year, according to a spokesperson for Brewer. And, 91 percent applied online.

To advertise the applications in Brooklyn, Ringel said Adams’ office plugged them at local meetings and that they sent email blasts to “thousands of Brooklynites, as well as engaging with our thousands of followers on social media.”

With a similar use of digital, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. has been reaching out to constituents via social media to engage them to apply.

“We have promoted the community board application several times on our Facebook pages, as well as through Twitter and Instagram,” said John DeSio, Diaz Jr.’s communications director, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

The Bronx borough president’s office, DeSio added, emailed the application to its contact lists and sent out a press release, both in Spanish and English.

Like Adams and Diaz Jr., Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer have also promoted community board applications on Twitter and Facebook. In addition to this being an especially quiet year for community board vacancies on Staten Island, the borough appears to be slower to modernize its processes.

Community boards can play a vital role in city politics. Their wide rejection of Mayor de Blasio’s plans to change zoning rules as part of his affordable housing plan was noticed by news outlets, City Council members and borough presidents, many of whom expressed similar concerns.

“Without the community boards, people wouldn’t have known and the City Council would not have known the impact [the plans] would have in the neighborhoods and how the people would feel,” Ebenezer Smith, district manager of Manhattan Community Board 12, told Gotham Gazette.

Smith’s board, which represents Washington Heights and Inwood, not only had problems with the administration’s citywide zoning proposals, but also voted down the proposed rezoning plan for the latter neighborhood. Still, community board votes on land use matters, while part of the mandated city process, are only advisory. Decisions still rest with the City Planning Commission and, ultimately, the City Council.

Though they can be effective at giving voice to local concerns, good government experts and some City Council members have advocated for reforming several aspects of community boards.

One bill, co-sponsored by Kallos, aims to institute a limit of six terms - twelve years - for new community board appointees (current members would be grandfathered into unlimited terms). The bill was laid over by the Council last year and does not appear to be nearing a vote.

Though it declined to endorse the term limits bill because of the grandfathering provision and disagreement with the proposed number of terms, the advocacy group Citizens Union supports the general idea of term limits for community board members and other reforms. Citizens Union also supports Kallos’ call for urban planning professionals at each community board.

“Since they are doing the work of looking at their neighborhoods to see what should be improved locally and what recommendations they want to make about land-use decisions, streetscapes, that kind of thing, we think that they should actually have professional advice,” Talia Werber, policy and research manager at Citizens Union, told Gotham Gazette.

In 2010, Citizens Union published a review of city government structures for the city’s Charter Revision Commission and made recommendations for community board reform.

“In New York City, where there is an ever-shifting demographic in every single neighborhood, we think it’s important that the community boards actually represent their neighborhoods and actually make sure to take into account the new perspectives,” Werber said.

The implementation of term limits could radically diffuse community boards, which often have members that have served on the same board for decades. As Werber explained, there are ways to avoid the negative effects of an influx of new members.

“There are ways to do succession planning, to have appropriate transitions of institutional knowledge,” Werber said. “So, whether that’s through training, certain trainings for new members or mentorship of existing members and new members, there are ways to sort of create a pipeline and make sure that institutional knowledge stays within the fabric of the community board, but also to make sure that no one gets too entrenched for that long.”

But the need for planning experts and term limits are just two of the ways that good government experts have recommended the boards be improved. Boards can also over-represent certain demographics in their districts at the expense of others, and they have been criticized for not publishing enough information about their members. This led to a recently introduced bill by Council Member Ritchie Torres calling for detailed surveys of community board members on everything from race to car ownership. The surveys would be voluntary and the results would be made public in the aggregate.

And, as borough presidents control the application process and training for their board members, New York City policy expert Stephen Miller* is among those who have recommended that both processes be standardized.

In addition to these reforms and others, such as the need for bigger community board budgets, Miller has also suggested that aspects of community boards - such as the appointment, rather than election, of board members and district remapping - be studied.

Like Werber and Miller, Council Member Kallos knows the workings of community boards well. Before becoming chair of the Council’s governmental operations committee, he was on Manhattan Community Board 8 for years and is now a non-voting ex-officio member, as all Council members are for boards in their districts. Two years ago, Kallos released a policy report about the bodies and identified some areas for reform.

Since then, according to the Council member, some positive changes have been made. “The borough presidents have adopted improved applications,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette, noting the switch to applying online. “We’ve seen applications go up on the community boards that I oversee and other members are overseeing.”

Aside from online applications, a possible reason for the enrollment increase is a state law passed in 2014 allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to serve on community boards. An increase in youth representation on the boards was recommended by Kallos in his report, and he co-sponsored a City Council resolution in support of the state legislation.

“We’ve appointed numerous 16-year-olds throughout the city,” Kallos said. “They’re bringing youth and energy to the boards, and they are our best and brightest.”

In April of last year, Kallos introduced a bill that would have required borough presidents to provide professional urban planning staff to community boards, a policy that advocacy groups have also endorsed.

“Since they are doing the work of looking at their neighborhoods to see what should be improved locally and what recommendations they want to make about land-use decisions, streetscapes, that kind of thing, we think that they should actually have professional advice,” said Werber of Citizens Union.

Like the term limits bill, this bill was laid over after a public hearing.

Torres’ community board reform bill is currently active on the Council floor and awaiting an initial hearing. Simply put, the bill would require community boards to publish information on board vacancies, attendance records, as well as demographic data in an effort to increase board diversity.

Kallos, a co-sponsor of the bill, has already seen its policies practiced by the community boards under his oversight. “It’s already being implemented by Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer and it’s really had a significant impact,” the governmental operations committee chair said.

Community board reform bills must go through Kallos’ committee, but in order to move they also must have the support of many Council members who may be worried about upsetting their local board members.

“I have great hopes for Council Member Torres’ legislation,” Kallos said. “I think transparency is good anywhere we can bring it.”

*Note: Stephen Miller is now an aide to City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer. Miller wrote about community board reform before his employment at the Council and his work does not necessarily reflect the views of Van Bramer or the City Council.

*Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization to Citizens Union.

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