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At Rivington Hearing, Discussion of Extent of City Hall Mismanagement

Shorris Rivington

First Deputy Mayor Shorris testifies (photo: William Alatriste)

Over the course of a Thursday oversight hearing lasting more than six hours, top officials from the de Blasio administration attempted to explain to the City Council all the missteps that led to a Lower East Side AIDS hospice being sold to a luxury condominium developer with virtually no public benefit.

Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the governmental operations committee, said early in the hearing, “Something went very wrong here and we must address issues of mismanagement, indecision, communication failures, the role of outside influence, and what we can salvage from this mess to improve things moving forward.”

The sale of the facility, known as Rivington House, has dogged the administration for months after news broke that the property owner was able to make a massive profit from the deal, facilitated by a deed change approved by the city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services. Two city entities have investigated the deal and troubling released reports, while the offices of both Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara have ongoing investigations.

Before DCAS removed two deed restrictions on the property, the home was limited to use as a nonprofit health care facility. The city Department of Investigation and City Comptroller Scott Stringer separately investigated the transaction and found multiple systemic failures and miscommunication involving top agency officials and deputy mayors. Neither report found any malfeasance, however, and did not fault Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has maintained throughout that he was unaware of the deal until afterward. The DOI and comptroller reports did, however, paint a picture of dysfunction and mismanagement at City Hall that First Deputy Mayor Tony Shorris was tasked with explaining in front of the City Council on Thursday.

At a joint hearing of the City Council’s Committees on Governmental Operations and Oversight and Investigations, Council members finally had a chance to ask the administration about its glaring mistakes, problems with deed restriction removal procedures, and proposals to reform the process by which the city allows deed changes.

Largely setting aside the deceptive conduct of one key player in the transaction, Joel Landau of the Allure Group, the hearing went into the minutiae of the city’s process in the Rivington deal and also looked at the broader picture of management in the administration, coming away with little new information, but extended discussion about who was to blame and how to fix the system. There was also discussion of, but little closure on, whose head would be on the chopping block.

Council Member Vincent Gentile, chair of oversight and investigations, in his opening statement said assigning responsibility for the Rivington deal “is a little like playing the game of ‘whack-a-mole.’ Just when you think you’ve hit that line of responsibility, it shifts and seems to move someplace else.” He faulted all the city agencies and officials involved in the lifting of the deed restriction -- DCAS, the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services, the Law Department, Shorris, and other deputy mayors. “It is almost as if each of these entities were all passengers on the same bus that was headed straight for lifting the deed restrictions but ignoring the stop signs,” he said, adding that he still wants to know who was “driving the bus.”

First to testify, and perhaps most importantly, was Shorris, de blasio’s second-in-command who featured prominently in the comptroller’s report on Rivington House. Shorris was composed and apologetic, and took sole responsibility for the snafu, refusing to scapegoat anyone within his staff or at agencies under his purview for the widespread miscommunication in the process and disastrous outcome. Throughout his testimony, he drove home the point that Rivington was simply an isolated case that didn’t reflect the overall administration which has been a successful and efficiently run operation.

“I want to state from the outset,” Shorris said, “that I recognize that what happened here was not the right outcome for the community and taxpayers, nor was it consistent with the policy goals and values of the de Blasio administration.”

“We execute on our policy goals in the administration extremely effectively,” Shorris said later in his testimony. “The record I think demonstrates that in agency after agency. Doesn’t mean there are not cases where we have made a mistake. This was a case where we made a mistake.”

Shorris admitted that the administration, and he himself, had made multiple errors on Rivington. He was sent weekly reports from agency heads and he only reviewed a sampling, missing the references to Rivington House. He conceded that he believed the property was going to continue to be a nursing home and had communicated that preference to his staff, which failed to effectively relay that message to DCAS. He also said that no one, within his staff or at DCAS, flagged for him that the property may be converted to luxury housing. But, he emphasized that all those slip ups were limited to Rivington. It's an assertion that Mayor de Blasio has also made, crediting Shorris with excellent management overall.

Shorris said he had two goals following the Rivington failure -- to attempt to rectify the issue and to prevent such issues in the future -- and laid out the city’s progress since the deal happened.

As part of the solution, the de Blasio administration announced on Thursday that it is investing the $16 million it received for lifting the deed restrictions (and likely more) into building affordable senior housing to replace most of the beds lost at Rivington House. The second effort involves a larger evaluation of the process by which deed restrictions are lifted. The administration is currently soliciting public review on new rules proposals, which include increased community outreach.

He also promised that in the future, the city would most often consider amending deed restrictions instead of lifting them altogether and the people applying for deed changes would have to provide affirmation of the purported use for a site, which could be legally enforceable. The city has also established an internal review committee, which includes the Office of Management and Budget and the Law Department, to assess any application for a deed change. Once the Rivington scandal was brought to light, de Blasio quickly moved to freeze other deed restriction appeals and then ensure that City Hall would have final say on any moving forward.

As with most of the Council members at Thursday’s hearing, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito demanded more clarity on how the administration lost focus on an issue that has ramifications for affordable housing across the city, which is a top mayoral priority. “You say that you were very clear about your priority,” she said to Shorris, “yet it was not implemented…That sounds like some level of mismanagement.”

Shorris fell back on a similar refrain throughout. The city’s policy for deed restrictions, he stressed, was a narrow, financial-based, “mechanistic” policy and process that did not apply the administration’s values. “It was a failure on our part…to introduce our values into that process,” he said.

One Council member who seemed exasperated by Shorris’ testimony was David Greenfield, who wanted to know precisely who was to blame for Rivington. “There’s accountability and there’s blame, they’re two different things,” he said. “So you’re accountable, but I think it’s fair to say you’re not to blame. Is that correct?” Shorris yet again fell on his sword, and informed Greenfield that he was ultimately responsible and that no one on his staff had been disciplined in the aftermath of Rivington.

Things turned a bit more tense when controversy emerged over the length of Shorris’ testimony in front of the Council. From the start of the hearing, it was announced that it would be limited to two-and-a-half hours. Because of an apparent miscommunication between the City Council and the mayor's office, Kallos, who had agreed to the time restriction, thought Shorris was scheduled to leave town. As Shorris was wrapping up his testimony, it became clear to everyone in attendance that Shorris was not going to Oklahoma for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, but staying put as acting mayor with de Blasio on his way to the conference.

Shorris was confused about the confusion. Kallos briefly expressed outrage.

In a statement, City Council Communications Director Eric Koch said, “The administration misled the Council and the Speaker’s Office into believing that First Deputy Mayor Shorris’ availability for the hearing this morning would be limited because of events related to the U.S Conference of Mayors in Oklahoma City. This turned out to be false. At a hearing which focused on government honesty and transparency this is particularly shocking and unacceptable.”

Not long after, the mayor’s office put out its own statement, with de Blasio spokesperson Eric Phillips saying, “Ben Kallos said the administration said Tony Shorris would be going to Oklahoma. That’s false. The Administration has always been crystal clear that Tony Shorris’ time today was limited due to his role as acting Mayor in New York City during Mayor de Blasio’s short trip to Oklahoma. Mr. Shorris testified for two and one-half hours, answering dozens of questions on this matter. The Council owes Tony Shorris an apology.”

While that distraction from the essential matter at hand was brewing, the hearing resumed after a brief break.

Shorris was followed by Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter, who heads the city’s Law Department, and DCAS Commissioner Lisette Camilo, who took over two months before the Rivington deal became a public spectacle through a news report in the Wall Street Journal. Carter faced particularly tough questions about the Law Department’s apparent interference in the DOI’s probe into Rivington. DOI claimed in its report that the Law Department had failed to cooperate and had blocked access to necessary documents and electronic records of the administration.

Council Member Rory Lancman criticized Carter for trying to circumvent DOI’s legal authority as laid out by past mayoral executive orders that give it unrestricted access to documents as an investigative body. Carter repeatedly emphasized that the Law Department had been forthcoming and that any redaction of documents, as the DOI claimed, was standard practice for irrelevant information rather than a deliberate attempt to obstruct the investigation. Lancman was not pleased and released a statement to the press after his protracted exchange with Carter. “Instead of acknowledging the administration’s blatant overstepping of its boundaries by refusing to cooperate with the Department of Investigation, the administration doubled down on its wrongdoing,” Lancman said.

Camilo’s testimony was less controversial since her involvement in the deal was relatively minor. She was director of MOCS when the Rivington deal was approved by former DCAS Commissioner Stacey Cumberbatch, who left her post in December to take a position with New York City Health + Hospitals. Cumberbatch has since retired, according to Shorris. (Ahead of Thursday’s hearing, the US Attorney’s Office and the Attorney General requested that the Council only call current city employees to testify, so Cumberbatch was not present.)

It became evident during Shorris’ testimony that he or someone close to him had encouraged Cumberbatch to leave DCAS, but all Shorris would say was that he approved of her transfer to H+H when she found that opportunity.

Council members peppered Camilo with questions about the deed restriction process as it stands now and how the city aims to improve it. She echoed much of Shorris’ testimony, pointing out that a “flawed process” focused on revenue led to the Rivington deal. She promised an updated and more rigorous review process for deed restrictions in the future, one that would take into account public comment, prioritize community benefit, and formally seek opinions from multiple city agencies and stakeholders.

Camilo also expressed the administration’s support for a bill, introduced by Council Member Margaret Chin and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, which would require the city to maintain an online searchable database of properties with deed restrictions imposed by the city. Many of these properties were once city-owned. The bill also requires the city to provide notice to the Borough President, the local Council member, and community board any time a proposal is made to remove or modify a deed restrictions.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Bill Would Prioritize Repairs at NYCHA Senior Developments

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Council Member Torres, right (photo via NYCHA on Flickr)

A new report by City Council Member Ritchie Torres’ office found a vast backlog in necessary repairs of sidewalks outside New York City public housing, particularly developments for senior citizens. Torres, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the Council’s Committee on Public Housing, believes this is a serious issue of public safety and will introduce a bill on Wednesday that would require the Department of Transportation to prioritize sidewalk reconstruction at senior-only developments within the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).

At the end of the fiscal year, NYCHA provides DOT with a list of sidewalks to be repaired outside housing developments. DOT has access to limited capital funds for these repairs, which leaves many sidewalks broken for years. Last year, in an effort to expand repairs, the DOT increased its annual commitment to NYCHA sidewalks from $1 million to $3 million. Torres’ report, which was previewed by Gotham Gazette, points out that senior-only developments tend to be low on the priority list provided by NYCHA.

“The city’s policy to senior citizens, concerning sidewalks, is essentially, ‘break a leg,’” Torres said in a phone interview. He stressed that seniors are particularly susceptible to trip-and-fall hazards, and at greater risk from the resulting injuries, and that NYCHA needs to give special consideration to senior housing developments when determining which sidewalks should be repaired.

Currently, there are more than 61,500 New Yorkers, age 65 and older, living in NYCHA developments. Of the city’s 328 total public housing properties, 41 are senior housing developments and 15 are senior-only buildings within mixed population developments. “Common sense would dictate you give special consideration to senior citizens who have special needs,” Torres said. “The city’s policy is basically a rejection of common sense.”

sidewalkThe report notes recent increases in DOT’s budget for NYCHA property reconstructions that should first go to senior developments. It is estimated that roughly $327.2 million of DOT’s $8.9 billion ten-year capital budget is meant to be allocated towards sidewalk and ramp repair for approximately 28.6 million square feet of citywide. The eight-page document from Torres’ office also includes pictures (left) of sidewalks from senior developments across the five boroughs and estimated costs for repair, with some of them relatively easy fixes. Only one senior development, Cassidy-Lafayette Houses on Staten Island, was ranked at the top of DOT’s priority list for repairs.

So far this year, the DOT has repaired sidewalks outside 11 NYCHA developments, nine of which have on-site senior centers, according to a NYCHA spokesperson. These nine include Melrose Houses in the Bronx, Reid Apartments in Brooklyn, Vladeck Houses in Manhattan and South Jamaica Houses in Queens. The spokesperson also said the DOT was aiming to complete repairs at three more sites with senior centers before the end of the construction season.

“NYCHA and DOT maintain a strong partnership – and we are committed to working together with the Council Member to address these issues, ensuring improved quality of life and safe sidewalks for all of our residents,” read a joint statement emailed to Gotham Gazette. “We look forward to reviewing the legislation.”

Torres will introduce his bill at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, it may then be heard in committee.

The de Blasio administration has not weighed in on the proposal yet. “We’ll review the bill upon introduction,” said Aja Worthy-Davis, deputy press secretary in the mayor’s press office.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Note: this article has been updated. 

Funding Issues, Waitlists Plague City’s Services for Seniors

seniors city hall

Seniors at City Hall (photo: @nonprofittalk)

A June City Council report on the budget for the city Department for the Aging (DFTA) detailed that there are approximately 1,400 seniors on waiting lists for case management services. The average age of these seniors is “85+,” with an average income of “$12,000-$20,000,” according to LiveOn, a senior advocacy organization. The City Council report examined the adopted budget for the new fiscal year, which began July 1, and makes clear that DFTA is not being funded with a sense of urgency to quickly reduce waitlists and serve the city’s oldest, often neediest residents.

The Department for the Aging uses federal, state, and city funds to provide advocacy, education, and services that range from hot meals at senior centers to transportation and legal aid. DFTA provides case management services for those not covered by Medicaid; those waitlisted are without access to trained employees of city-contracted nonprofits that evaluate seniors’ needs and coordinate appropriate care.

Seniors are one of the city’s fastest growing demographics: in a July press release announcing an “‘Aging in Place’ guide to help older New Yorkers,” Department for the Aging Commissioner Donna Corrado reported that there were 1.4 million adults over the age of 60 living in New York City, with an expected 2 million by 2040. Ninety-six percent of this group chooses to stay in their apartments over relocation as they age and need more attention. "So many seniors are held captive in their homes because of a lack of accessibility," Corrado said. Often, this accessibility takes the form of physical frailty, disability, chronic illness and disease.

DFTA reaches homebound seniors through case management services. Part of the state-funded Expanded In-Home Services for the Elderly, case management provides seniors ineligible for Medicaid, with counseling, advocacy, referrals, and information. The service is made possible through referrals to local senior centers and community-based social service and healthcare agencies.

Case management is also an entry point to homecare services, which include medical assessments and referrals and information to ensure appropriate care. Seniors are unable to receive homecare services without access to a case manager. In its May report, the City Council reported a homecare waitlist of 500-550.

The case management problem stems in part from high turnover among case managers, fueled by low salaries. The same LiveOn report claims an average annual turnover rate of 32%, with seven nonprofit agencies reporting over 40%, and each with 100 to 300-plus waitlisted seniors, as of February.

While, this year, the City Council called for $12 million to raise case manager salaries to $55,000 and supervisor salaries to $65,000, $4.8 million was allocated in the fiscal year 2017 budget and $7.3 million in 2018 to raise salaries to $50,000 and $60,000, respectively. Currently, each case manager is responsible for up to 65 clients at a time. Although this number may seem high, as of a few years ago it was in the neighborhood of 90, according to experts.

The administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio has also declined to provide funding to address other causes of the waitlist, independent of salary woes. The June City Council report showed that $1.8 million was baselined to strengthen existing services, short of the $3 million allocated in fiscal year 2016. The $3 million would have, at a very minimum, allowed DFTA to maintain its then-level of service. Bobbie Sackman, director of public policy at LiveOn, told Gotham Gazette that the city’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) told LiveOn that the $1.2 million difference has been added since. Sackman could not confirm this information and an inquiry from Gotham Gazette to a budget spokesperson in the mayor’s press office was not returned by publication.

"We still have a way to go to restore aging funding to pre-recessionary levels," City Council Member Margaret Chin, chair of the Council's Committee On Aging, said in the Council report.

Chin refers to the heavy budget cuts that took place under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's tenure. Taking action to address the fallout of the Great Recession, Bloomberg oversaw a $30 million reduction in the DFTA budget, according to a 2010 WNYC report. DFTA was left with a $264 million budget, far short of the current $330 million adopted agency budget for the new fiscal year, and a sliver of the city's $82 billion in expenses.

"Seniors should not be on any waiting list,” Chin said in an interview. “Our senior population is growing tremendously, so as the numbers grow, the needs grow also…by 2030, one in five is going to be a senior, so we have to make sure the budget reflects that."

Chin was critical of the lack of salary parity between case managers and comparable government positions. "If other agencies are paying a higher salary for the same type of job, it's very hard for the agency that has these case managers to compete, so there's a lot of turnover, and we don't want that to happen," Chin said. "We have to make sure there are enough case managers.”

Sackman of LiveOn lamented that "There is no plan.” “The fastest-growing segment of the city's population, and there is no plan," she said. Sackman offered a potential explanation: "I think some of it is because you can't get any more invisible than being a homebound 85-year-old person."

"There's not enough money,” Sackman concluded after discussing the problems facing the city’s older population and the city government response. No one from DFTA was made available for comment for this story.

One key issue, Sackman noted, is that case management services are for seniors above the Medicaid level. "So, no one's running to the bank," she said. "If you're eligible for Medicaid, it's an entitlement, and you get a pretty broad array of services…if you're not eligible you're really out in the cold a lot."

The same is true for homecare services. "If you are on Medicaid, you can get 10 hours a day of homecare, and while it's more difficult, you could still get 24 hours care. On the EISEP (Expanded In-Home Services for the Elderly), it's not an entitlement, you might get one to 12 hours a week," said Sackman. "Remember, to get homecare you've got to be assessed by a case manager. They are the gatekeepers. So if you're sitting on a waiting list, you can't get home services. It's a vicious cycle."

Both and Sackman and Chin were quick to highlight that the waitlist issue also impacts family members and loved ones already acting as unpaid adult caregivers. "They are struggling day-to-day, figuring out how to juggle work and other responsibilities in life while taking care of their elderly parents," Sackman said. "They just don't have a system in place to help them."

Chin offered an example of what this looks like: "Imagine someone in their sixties taking care of someone in their eighties and nineties."

Sandy Myers, director of government and external relations at Selfhelp community services, a city contracted nonprofit, knows case management waitlists firsthand. Selfhelp’s two DFTA funded case management programs have a combined 170 waitlisted seniors.

"All seniors are needy, regardless of their needs," Myers said in an interview. She emphasized the relevance of senior issues. "We want to have good people in the field who will be caring for all of us when we age."

Selfhelp was founded in 1936 to serve those fleeing Nazi persecution. After World War II, the organization began serving survivors as well, providing them with job training, resettlement, and case management, among other services. As the refugees and survivors continued to age, Selfhelp evolved into a senior-focused organization to help vulnerable populations "age with independence and dignity."

Today, Selfhelp serves 20,000 seniors at 27 across four boroughs and Nassau County. This includes five senior centers and four Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCS). A number of sites are located in Queens, many of which serve the Chinese community, as well as Korean, Latino, and other immigrant populations. Selfhelp emphasizes hiring culturally sensitive staff, including employees fluent in Russian for the 25% of clients who are WWII survivors. These professionals are well-versed in relevant topics of interest, like Soviet Union reparations, for one.

Myers views the case management dilemma through a humanitarian lens. "For some of our clients, their interaction with the case manager is really one of their only interactions, if not the only interaction,” she said. "When you have people who are constantly leaving, the quality of service suffers, as well as the client-worker relationship…there is obviously a lag between the time that someone leaves and when we are able to bring in someone new to train them." Myers noted that this turnover time is often two to four months, or more.

Above all, Myers classified case managers as an invaluable safety net. She told a story of a 102-year-old client who one day didn't answer the door for her meal delivery. The service provider contacted Selfhelp, who proceeded to call her house, to no avail. Selfhelp alerted case management staff, who went to her apartment, opened up her door with another key, and found the woman lying on the floor, unable to move. "It's probably not an exaggeration to say that we saved her life," Myers remarked.

Mayor de Blasio often talks about budgets as indicators of values and about the need for government to treat its most vulnerable citizens well. It is especially difficult to advocate for senior services funding and reform, Sackman said, because "it's not the sexiest issue." Told she was the second person to use those exact words, Sackman laughed and said, "Well, it's true. Except, if you're in my world, it's very sexy."

by Benjamin Jurney for Gotham Gazette

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