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The Week That Was in New York Politics, Feb. 15-19


week in review bus readers

photo: Stanley Kubrick via Museum of the City of New York


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday February 19

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: Mayor de Blasio celebrates the launch of the LinkNYC wifi hubs, via The Mayor's Office; Governor Cuomo rallies to promote paid family leave, via The Governor's Office.

de blasio LINKNYC

cuomo paid family leave motion

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. Closing Rikers: City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito called for a commission to study the potential of closing Rikers Island jails during her State of the City address last week, sparking discussions on what to do about the city’s notorious complex. Mayor de Blasio said closing Rikers is a “noble concept,” but unrealistic, while his wife, First Lady Chirlane McCray, called closing Rikers a “great idea.” Mark-Viverito has continued the discussion this week, explaining that the criminal justice reforms aim to reduce the number of New Yorkers who end up in Rikers, diminishing the population in the jail. [Read: Mark-Viverito 'Doubles Down' on Criminal Justice Reform in State of the City]

2. Mayor Signs Raises, Reforms: Mayor de Blasio signed a package of legislation into law today that raises the salaries of the city’s elected officials by at least 12 percent and reforms the job descriptions of City Council members, even though the raises for Council members were $10,185 higher than what he initially approved. While the Council has been praised for several good government reforms included in the bills, the lack of public input, rushed timeline, and size of the pay increase has sparked criticism. [Read: De Blasio to Sign Higher Raises for Council Than He Previously Approved]

3. Stop-and-Frisk: A report released Tuesday by a court-appointed federal monitor found that NYPD officers are still unclear about changes to stop-and-frisk rules, leading many to continue to stopping New Yorkers on the streets without providing a just cause. Stop-and-frisks have decreased from 685,000 in 2011 to 24,000 in 2015, yet according to the report, officers failed to explain the grounds on which they stopped someone to question them in more than a fourth of all stops.

4. Vacant Lots: An audit released by city Comptroller Scott Stringer criticized the city for not using vacant lots to create more affordable housing after finding that more than 1,000 city-owned lots have been sitting vacant for over 30 years. The audit faults the Department of Housing Preservation and Development for routinely failing to properly turn over land to developers. City officials have called Stringer’s report “false and misleading,” saying many of the properties lack basic infrastructure and that many others are in line for development.

5. Shelter Squalor: An audit released by state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli slammed the Cuomo administration for a severe lack of oversight of homeless shelters, saying the state’s failure led to squalid living conditions, including rodent infestations, fire hazards, and mold. Auditors noted that 22 of the 47 most serious issues had previously been pointed out in annual inspections, but had never been corrected. Governor Cuomo has since conceded “the state was not aggressive enough for a period of time.”

THIS WEEK’S NUMBERS:

  • 10,000 people are currently locked up at Rikers Island, NY1’s Errol Louis writes for the Daily News.
  • 24,000 stop-and-frisk stops in 2015 - a 661,000 decrease in the number of stop-and-frisks since 2011, the Times reports.
  • 75 schools across New York City will overhaul math teaching, Chalkbeat reports.
  • 1,000 city-owned lots or more have been sitting vacant for over 30 years, according to an audit from city Comptroller Scott Stringer.
  • $47 million from the state will be spent on the development of the Empire Outlets on Staten Island as part of a “multi-pronged subsidy that increased after the developers contributed $85,000 to the governor’s campaign,” Politico reports.
  • 16 shelters with rodent and vermin infestations statewide, 18 with fire safety issues, and 8 with mold growing in residents’ rooms, an audit by state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli criticizing the Cuomo administration for failing to provide adequate oversight of homeless shelters revealed.
  • 200 recommendations for improving East Harlem and informing Mayor de Blasio’s rezoning plan from a coalition of East Harlem stakeholders, Gotham Gazette reports.
  • 490,000 New Yorkers on the welfare roles over the course of 2015, with the average family of three receiving $826 per month under the system, and an individual receiving about $485, Gotham Gazette reports.

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

  • It was a good week for First Lady of New York City Chirlane McCray, who made several media appearances this week to discuss the city’s mental health roadmap, which McCray spearheads, and was extensively and favorably profiled in The New York Times Magazine and in Jezebel.
  • And, it was a good week for the city’s 64 elected officials, all of whom received at least a 12 percent increase to their salaries today.
  • It was a bad week for Governor Cuomo after state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli released an audit that criticized the Cuomo administration for failing to provide enough oversight of homeless shelters.

THE FLASH:

  • Around this time 65 years ago, on February 16, 1951, the City Council passed a bill barring racial discrimination in housing projects, according to NY1.
  • Around this time 63 years ago, on February 17, 1953, a New York federal court delayed the executions of Cold War spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to allow time for a final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Their appeal failed, and the two were executed in New York months later, according to NY1.

 

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

In Departure from Predecessors, De Blasio Administration Overhauls City Welfare System, by Samar Khurshid

De Blasio to Sign Higher Raises for Council Than He Previously Approved, by Meg O’Connor

To Influence Rezoning, East Harlem Stakeholders Preempt City Plan With Own, by Maggie Calmes

Eyeing 100 Schools, Will Success Academy Expand to Staten Island? by Samar Khurshid

'New York Values' in Historical Perspective, by Bruce W. Dearstyne (opinion)

'Making A Murderer' Flaws All Around Us, by Christopher Beall (opinion)

Rebuilding NYCHA: A Fresh Look, by Nicholas D. Bloom (opinion)

Goodbye to ‘First Generation’ NYCHA, by Nicholas D. Bloom and Matthew G. Lasner (opinion)

Looks Matter, Especially in Public Housing, by Nicholas D. Bloom and Matthias Altwicker (opinion)

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max and DNAinfo reporter Danielle Tcholakian discussed Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing plan on BRIC TV.

Council members Donovan Richards and David Greenfield spoke with NY1’s Grace Rauh about Mayor de Blasio’s city-wide rezoning plan.

Daily News reporter Greg Smith joined NY Slant’s Alexis Grenell and Nick Powell to discuss all sides of the affordable housing debate, and whether the de Blasio administration has assuaged concerns about gentrification.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito appeared on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show to discuss the criminal justice reforms proposed in her State of the City address and potentially closing Rikers Island.

Mayor de Blasio spoke with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer about the proposed federal cuts to counter-terrorism funding for New York City, the pay hikes for elected officials, the debate between Apple and the FBI, and more.

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NOTE TO READERS: we hope you enjoy this new Gotham Gazette weekly feature - please share it if you do; on Twitter, use our handle @GothamGazette.

If you have feedback on this feature for us, you can email editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Watch Sunday evening for our latest Week Ahead in New York Politics, which gives you a preview of key issues and events to be aware of for the week about to start. In the meantime, catch up on the latest original reporting from Gotham Gazette here. And have a great weekend!

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by Meg O'Connor and Ben Max

De Blasio to Sign Higher Raises for Council Than He Previously Approved


mark-viverito de blasio background

Mayor de Blasio & Speaker Mark-Viverito (photo: William Alatriste)


On Friday morning, Mayor Bill de Blasio will sign a package of legislation into law that will raise the salaries of all of the city’s elected officials, and reform the job descriptions of City Council members.

The City Council held only one public hearing on the bills and approved them without change two days later, just one week after first announcing the proposed legislation. While the Council is being praised for several good government reforms included, the lack of public input, rushed timeline, and size of the pay increase sparked criticism.

The salary increase for Council members goes beyond what an advisory commission recommended and what the mayor initially approved, yet de Blasio will still sign the bills. In the two weeks since the City Council’s vote, de Blasio has repeatedly side-stepped questions of the raises or process by pointing to the reforms included in the bills.

“As I’ve said, what the quadrennial commission proposed was some of the most profound reforms in terms of the City Council that we’ve seen in decades,” de Blasio said during an unrelated press conference Thursday. “This is the first time these reforms are actually going to be achieved,” he said. “I look forward to signing the bill.”

The reforms, which include making the position of Council member full-time and banning stipends for chairing committees, have earned the praise of good government advocates and elected officials, and even go a step further than what was recommended by the advisory commission that de Blasio empaneled last year as required by law.

However, both the legislative process and the higher-than-recommended salary bump for Council members have raised eyebrows.

When asked about the increase at a Thursday event held by the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at the CUNY School of Journalism, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said, “The commission did not take into account the value to the outside income [which the Council is virtually banning]. And that is why we went above the $138,000 recommendation to $148,000. We gave it a modest 10,000 value.” (Technically, the recommendation was $138,315, which the Council increased to $148,500.)

Yet, only three Council members currently earn significant outside income, and they will be grandfathered in until the end of their current term, while all Council members will get retroactive raises.

During the Feb. 3 City Council hearing on the raises and reforms, Fritz Schwarz, Jr., chief counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice and chair of the advisory commission, testified that the commission “did not recommend any additional bump in pay [for significantly limiting outside income]…considering the fact that only very few of the members here have an income that would be banned under the new law, and the grandfathering…no present City Council person is adversely affected by the change until the end of this term.”

The three-member advisory commission applauded the Council for choosing to enact reforms long sought by good government advocates, but said in their written testimony that at the time of the hearing, “the Council has not yet made its case for the proposed additional raise.”

Mark-Viverito also reiterated that she is proud of the reforms the City Council has chosen to implement, adding that the salary increases are naturally “going to jar people because...it’s been over eleven years” since a commission to review the salaries of elected officials has been convened. New York City law requires a commission be appointed every four years, yet until now, the salaries went unchanged since 2006. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg refused to call a commission after 2006, citing the Great Recession.

When asked by WNYC’s Brian Lehrer on Jan. 29 whether he would sign a bill “with this little opportunity for public debate,” Mayor de Blasio did not give a direct answer, but instead said the bills are the result of a “very extensive process” with the advisory commission, and said he was “waiting to see all the details” of the Council’s proposal.

Though at that point, information regarding the package of legislation had already been sent out and the Mayor went on to describe the reforms, calling it “one of the biggest reform packages in terms of the City Council that we’ve ever seen.”

Lehrer then asked the Mayor if he would urge the City Council to make the raises take effect next term, something which good government advocates have called for in order to eliminate Council members’ ability to vote on their own raises.

“The commission did think it was appropriate for the pay raise to take effect this year - because it’s been almost ten years since this was dealt with,” Mayor de Blasio responded.

The raises - all at least 12 percent - for the city’s elected officials apply to the mayor, comptroller, public advocate, borough presidents, district attorneys, and City Council members. They will be retroactive effective Jan. 1 of this year. Yet, part of the reforms being passed include changing the process so that in the future, raises will go into effect the following term. Mayor de Blasio has promised not to accept a raise this term.

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by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Richards Puts Communities of Color at Forefront of Housing Debate


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City Council Member Donovan Richards (photo: William Alatriste)


"Why am I here?" City Council Member Donovan Richards asked rhetorically, speaking with energy beyond what you would expect from someone in the midst of chairing 20 hours of land use policy hearings over two days. The question wasn't Richards rethinking his career path or delusion brought on by testimony after testimony about zoning code, it was a way of punctuating his explanation that of course he had to put communities of color at the forefront of discussions about affordable housing in New York City.

"This is the culmination," Richards told Gotham Gazette about the Council's consideration of de Blasio administration proposals to change citywide zoning rules aimed at increasing affordable housing throughout the city. "This is a build up. People are seeing what's happening in Bed-Stuy, we've seen what's happened in Harlem, this is people's lives, people have to move out of New York City because they can't afford to live here," he said.

Richards' role is especially prominent in the process as chair of the Council's zoning subcommittee and he is clear about his support for the underlying concept of the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing plan, which will require real estate developers to build affordable housing units if they receive an upzoning of a plot of land in order to build market-rate apartments. But, Richards plans to spearhead changes to the proposal - changes he sees as necessary so that low-income people of color across New York City, including in his Queens district, know that their government is working for them and can access affordable housing.

At the start of the two days of hearings, held Feb. 9 and 10, Richards set this tone, saying to top de Blasio administration officials: "There's not been any real push in this plan that we've seen so far that reaches the very incomes that reflect our communities."

Without setting exact numbers, it is clear Richards and many of his colleagues want New Yorkers making around $25,000-40,000 per year to be able to afford new housing built under updated zoning requirements. The current MIH plan is likely to lead to few apartments affordable to the lowest income-earners.

Listing examples such as East New York, Williamsburg, Jamaica, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, Richards said, "Residents are being priced out, and yet we have a program that does not reach these very populations. So can you explain to the public today and explain to this Council why there is no option that is reaching our communities?"

De Blasio's top housing officials said that they believe the plan strikes the right balance of income levels and affordability rates, and that there are other city programs to subsidize housing for the lowest-income earners. But, Richards and his colleagues are not convinced. They've repeatedly stated that they'll exercise their prerogative in the land use review process to alter the MIH plan to ensure apartments at deeper levels of affordability.

Under MIH, when a real estate developer receives an upzoning to build housing, they will be required (thus "mandatory") to make 25-30% of the units built affordable under certain income and rent guidelines. It is those income and rent numbers that the Council plans to lower before passing the zoning amendments.

"The Council spoke very clearly," Richards told Gotham Gazette of the MIH hearing, "we have to get to a place where we're reaching the very communities that we represent. It's very hard for members - we want to see a mandatory program, we need a mandatory program - but for members who represent communities like the Rockaways and Harlem and East New York, we can't go back to our communities and look them in the eye and say, 'well, we're bringing back these particular proposals for you to be in favor of where you can't live.' That's very complicated for us."

"As the chair," Richards continued, "it is my responsibility to make sure that we communicate very strongly to the administration that we understand the legality issues but that there is a way for us to get [to deeper affordability]. I just want to be clear, the Council is the driving force here...this ball is in our court, members feel very strongly about it."

Richards represents parts of Queens including Far Rockaway, Laurelton, and Rosedale. As he spoke with Gotham Gazette in a nearly-empty room adjacent to the City Council chambers, Richards repeatedly hit the table in front of him, adding emphasis to what he was saying about his role in crafting policy that will decide how land is used and who can afford to live in New York City for decades to come.

In the next room over, the second of the two hearings was entering its eighth hour, after ten hours of hearings the day before. Council Member David Greenfield, chair of the land use committee, was leading the proceedings. Throughout the two days, the Council was receiving testimony from and questioning de Blasio administration officials, affordable housing developers, advocates, businesspeople, and others. Some spoke in favor of the administration's plans, many spoke in opposition to their current structure. The Council must decide on its alterations to the plans by late March.

Richards is certain that the plans put forward by the de Blasio administration will change before the Council passes them. He again said as much during an interview last week on NY1, in which Richards cautioned against assuming that MIH will definitely pass the Council. "Most of us want to see it passed," he said, "but at the end of the day there has to be changes...this is about real everyday New Yorkers needing to be able to remain in their communities even as investments of infrastructure and other things come in."

The Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy is in need of deeper affordability requirements, among other tweaks, Richards and others Council members have said; while the Zoning for Quality and Affordability proposal will also be tinkered with by the Council over the next several weeks as it considers changes to parking requirements, building heights, and senior housing mandates that are included in ZQA.

"Is this about fear of gentrification?" Gotham Gazette asked Richards. "Absolutely," he said.

Defending his plans at a recent press conference, Mayor de Blasio acknowledged fear of displacement and concerns over levels of affordability. "We know that people want to stay in the communities that they have been a part of their whole lives in many cases or in many cases for generations," he said. "Communities they literally built; communities they stood by during some tough times back in the '70s, the '80s."

"We said from the beginning," de Blasio said at the Jan. 11 press conference touting gains in his larger affordable housing plan, "we're trying to reach New Yorkers who need affordable housing. Some of whom are very low income; some of whom are, you know, working folks struggling to make ends meet; some of whom are more moderate income."

De Blasio and his top housing officials have continued to stress that they need to create flexibility so that people of different income levels can find affordable apartments, with rents capped whereby they won't be considered "rent burdened," spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. The administration has also been clear that the zoning changes must work for a variety of neighborhoods and for the foreseeable future. They argue that MIH creates a new baseline, upon which they use other mechanisms for ensuring affordable housing for New Yorkers.

In response to Council pushback on affordability levels, Kathryn Wylde, CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a business group that supports MIH, told the New York Times that "All these Council members are thinking about the immediate impact on their neighborhoods and their constituency. But when it comes to zoning, you can't afford to think that way."

In her formal testimony submitted to the City Council, Wylde said that "a massive, collaborative approach is required to meet the demand for affordable housing that neither government nor the private sector can accomplish on its own...In order to launch a housing production program that matches the scale of need, the city has to rely on changing its zoning requirements, more flexible design and use of air rights, in order to accommodate greater density and to create value that can be leveraged for the public good."

This echoed what top de Blasio officials said at the Council, warning that adjustments to the city's zoning rules must be contextualized in decades ahead and a variety of possible housing markets, both in terms of overall strength and location across a vast, diverse city.

It is that diversity, though, that has Council members balking at the current plan and looking to add deeper levels of affordability. What they are likely to do is tweak the different options that developers will have under MIH, possibly allowing them to choose to build fewer affordable units at lower rents. And, they may attempt to further incentivize the building of affordable units at lower rents through offering additional building height.

At this crucial point in negotiations and decision-making, Donovan Richards is all of a sudden one of the most important voices in the room. Richards almost wasn't in such a pivotal position. In May of last year, he jumped at the chance to chair the zoning subcommittee when its former chair, Mark Weprin of Queens, resigned from the Council for a job in the Cuomo administration.

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito was happy to approve of Richards' shift from chairing the environment committee. Now, Mark-Viverito, who represents low-income communities of color in East Harlem and the South Bronx, is working with Richards, Greenfield, and others to decide how new affordable housing will be built in New York City.

Regarding his role as the Council reviews the zoning changes, Mark-Viverito praised Richards' leadership and pointed to its impact. "As our changing city grapples with issues of community planning and affordability, it is incredibly powerful to have individuals at the table who represent the diversity of New York City," Mark-Viverito said in a statement.

When Richards first took over as chair of the zoning subcommittee in June of 2015, he told Politico New York, "We have an affordable housing crisis. We are seeing communities of color in particular that are being gentrified and residents are being pushed out, so I want to make sure I do all I can so that as we develop communities the people who help build them can remain in them." 

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.



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