Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

 

CITY

City

Top Charter School Advocate on the Controversial Sector’s Strengths and Weaknesses


gov attends charter

(photo: the governor's office)


James Merriman has been involved in the charter school movement in New York since its inception 20 years ago, first as the general counsel for the Charter Schools Institute and now, for the last 12 years, as CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, a leading charter school advocacy and resource group.

“My parents were both professors. I thought I was going to be a professor. It’s all anybody did in my house,” Merriman said in a recent interview. “And the notion of being involved in education and giving all children the ability to participate fully in our civic, political, and economic life is very important to me. It was then, and it’s what still motivates me today.”

As such, Merriman has been in the middle of many policy and political fights over the years as the controversial charter school sector — public schools that are privately run — of the city’s education system has grown significantly. There were roughly 119,000 students enrolled in 235 charter schools for the 2018-2019 school year, good for 66% growth in student enrollment since 2014, while enrollment in the city’s traditional public schools has declined.

But while he has a prominent role in often-tense education debates, Merriman strikes a calm, stoic demeanor, tries to be a consensus builder, and is one of few top charter sector figures readily willing to acknowledge charters’ shortcomings.

Reflecting on the two-decade charter school movement in New York, Merriman said that originally the schools were to be “labs of innovations,” but have expanded beyond that as they succeeded, and now form a “parallel alternative” to the traditional public school system in the city. Merriman discussed the sector’s trajectory, reasons he believes New York City charter schools have been successful, and how the schools can and should improve during an appearance on the latest episode of the What’s the [Data] Point? podcast from Gotham Gazette and Citizens Budget Commission.

Merriman said at first the charter school movement was so “upstart” and “revolutionary” that at the time he did not think they would grow beyond that.

“I think, though, as time went on, as they succeeded, as parents demanded more of them, as educators wanted to start more charters, they’ve become a significant part,” Merriman said. “Obviously [WTDP’s] number of the day represents about 10% of students in New York City. We are larger than Syracuse, Buffalo, Rochester combined by a significant amount. We’re bigger than Denver in total students.”

As the future of charter schools in the city is somewhat more uncertain than in past years, Merriman weighed in on several key ongoing debates, including about student enrollment and discipline, teacher turnover, the appropriate size of the sector, why charter school students perform so well on state tests, and more.

“There are some people who would say we should not even be the size we are,” Merriman said. “And then there are people who say the natural growth is until parents stop wanting more charter schools.”

The goal of the charter school sector is not to become a replacement to the traditional public school system or even to make up half of the city’s public schools, Merriman said, but to provide parents good choices for their children.

The intent is to grow until there are no longer wait lists, he said, welcoming the idea that traditional district schools improve to the point that there is no longer such demand for charters.

“I wouldn’t say the goal is any specific number,” Merriman said. “The goal is to reach a point where we no longer have parents who aren’t getting a seat if they want one. I don’t know what that number is. I’m going to tell you, though, it’s well, well short of 50%. I just don’t see that at all in any realistic thing. Lots and lots of parents are happy with their district school they’re sending their child to.”

Applications for charter school seats have far surpassed the number of those available, with tens of thousands on wait lists. However, no more charters can be issued as New York City hit the state-imposed cap this past March and legislators declined to work with Governor Andrew Cuomo, a long-time charter school supporter, to lift the cap before the end of the legislative session in June. Charter schools are still growing, however, given that many continue to add new grades — the charter sector is predominantly elementary schools, and schools often build out over years.

Merriman said the charter school center and its allies will continue to try to convince the state Legislature to raise the cap. One of the biggest opponents of charter school growth is Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has been sharply critical of the sector, especially Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, who is often the face and voice of charter schools in New York given that her network makes up 14% of charter students in the city. De Blasio has said he is opposed to raising the charter cap.

Charter schools are concentrated in Central Brooklyn, Upper Manhattan, and the South Bronx, Merriman said, generally where there are many students of color and low-income students, and struggling traditional district schools. Merriman said about 82% of charter school students are low-income. Around 90% of charter school students enrolled in 2017-2018 were black or Hispanic, according to the Charter School Center.

“The ethos was that we would help those students who are in need and who are at risk of academic failure and who, historically, have not been well-served,” Merriman said. “And so that’s why you see those concentrations there.”

Charter school students have far outperformed district students on statewide assessments, according to an analysis of State Education Department data by the Charter School Center. In 2018, around 60% of charter school students scored proficiently in math assessments compared to 43% of district students.

Black and Hispanic students in charter schools also outperform those in public school as 30% of black charter school students scored at Level 4 proficiency (the highest level) in math compared to only 8% of those in traditional public schools.

Merriman said the test score success in charter schools comes from “what is being taught in the classroom” and that principals are more focused on academics than paperwork, often hiring a top aide to handle compliance and operations, and give robust teacher feedback, which then benefits students.

“While test scores aren’t everything, and state tests aren’t everything, they’re not nothing, either,” Merriman said. “We need to make sure that our kids have basic skills in the early grades or there is no way that we are going to be able to do complex math and English language, arts and history down the road.”

Merriman acknowledged that there are still ways the charter school system can improve. As the conversation turned to teacher turnover, which the Manhattan Institute noted in a 2018 report is higher in charter schools than traditional public schools, Merriman said teachers leave charter schools because of the difficulty of the work and how much is expected of them.

Merriman said some schools are trying to figure out how to keep a sense of urgency and focus while working with teachers (though he didn’t specify how) who may leave after 3 to 5 years due to the difficulty of the work. He said, though, that the larger networks may see the turnover rate as more of a model than an issue. Most charter schools do not have unionized teaching staff.

“As long as they think kids are doing well, if that means that most people can’t hack it in their view, well, that’s the way it’ll be,” Merriman said. “I think others think probably they’re not going to have people who work 20 or 30 years with them, that they’re trying to make sure they move from an average of say three-and-a-half years, ideally, to six or seven years.”

Some have also criticized charter schools for harsh “no excuses” discipline practices, which means harsh discipline and high suspension rates for their mostly black and Hispanic students, leading networks like KIPP to announce policy changes. Merriman said among charter schools there has already been a “reckoning” that discipline policies need to be changed, but that not all of the work has been done yet.

“People have revamped not just discipline codes, because I don’t think that’s really the issue,” Merriman said, “They’ve revamped how they think about kids. The shift, if you will, is I think in the past the notion was the children will fit the program. I think there’s a reckoning and an understanding we need to make sure the program fits the kids where they are.”

LISTEN to the full interview with James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center

***
by Samantha Handler, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

As New NYCHA Chair Takes Over, the Future of Public Housing Hangs in the Balance


new nycha chair

Chair Gregory Russ visiting a NYCHA complex (photo: @NYCHA)


“These first few months of our work have revealed NYCHA as an organization fraught with serious problems in structure, culture, and direction, and perhaps even worse,” wrote Bart Schwartz, the new federal monitor of the city’s public housing authority, in his first progress report, released July 22.

Three weeks later, this past Monday, Gregory Russ arrived in Manhattan for his first day of work as NYCHA’s new Chair and CEO, with an enormous task in front of him.

NYCHA’s short- and long-term futures have been complicated for some time. It’s the largest public housing authority in the country, with more than 400,000 residents, struggles to break even with annual operating expenses, is tens of billions of dollars behind in infrastructure spending for a state of good repair, and plagued by lead paint, mold, broken heating systems and elevators, and other calamities.

Until Russ, NYCHA hadn’t had a permanent leader in 16 months, during which time Schwartz was named federal monitor through a January 31 agreement among Mayor Bill de Blasio, federal housing Secretary Ben Carson, federal prosecutors, and a judge.

While de Blasio has taken more ownership of and put more resources into NYCHA than his recent predecessors, crises at the sprawling, 316-development, 176,000-unit public housing authority have spiraled. Federal and state help has been limited, and, in combination with what the city is doing, is nowhere near meeting the need.

Recognition has set in more recently that drastic measures are needed, though it is unclear where all of the more than $30 billion estimated need to get NYCHA apartments and complexes into a state of good repair will come from.

Russ takes over as the latest in several major changes and announcements toward a better future for NYCHA and its residents, but also amid a great deal of uncertainty and a constant drumbeat of headlines about waste, mismanagement, inefficiency, and need. His hiring comes after a lead paint scandal broke and multiple announcements by the de Blasio administration and NYCHA about plans to deal with it; the release of the “NYCHA 2.0” plan by de Blasio that calls for fairly aggressive steps like “infill” private housing development to raise needed capital revenue for the crumbling housing authority; the near-receivership deal with the Department of Housing and Urban Developmentin New York; and Schwartz’s appointment.

Russ, formerly head of the public housing authorities in several cities, including most recently Minneapolis, is now undertaking what is likely his biggest professional challenge.

“It’s probably one of the most difficult jobs in public administration in New York City and maybe even the country,” said Nicholas Dagen Bloom, professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College and a NYCHA scholar.

The goals, mandates, and timelines already in place as Russ begins his work form a somewhat confusing mix, all layered on top of the desperate need, with many thousands of tenants living in squalor and far too many units on the verge of being uninhabitable.

The combination of reforms the city has made with NYCHA over the last several years; NYCHA 2.0; other promises by the mayor and his appointees; federal requirements; and Schwartz’s recently-begun work form the basis of what Russ has to work with.

In an online message posted on NYCHA’s website, Russ promised “real and substantial changes” in order to turn the page at the housing authority.

“My mission is simple: fix residents’ homes today and make NYCHA stronger for the coming generations,” Russ wrote. “One of my top priorities is to meet with NYCHA residents and staff across the city to hear about how we can best work together to make progress,” he wrote.

As Russ starts his tenure, he and Schwartz appear to be conducting similar fact-finding and get-to-know-you endeavors, with questions looming about how well they will work together, along with HUD officials and others, to bring relief to NYCHA tenants and repair the nation’s largest public housing stock for adequate and comfortable future use by hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.

The HUD Agreement
Federal Monitor Bart Schwartz, a former federal prosecutor and currently chair of investigations firm Guidepost Solutions, was named monitor on March 1. He will be overseeing NYCHA’s progress towards deadlines laid out in an agreement with HUD, federal prosecutors for the Southern District of New York, NYCHA, and the de Blasio administration announced January 31.

Schwartz, whose still-unknown budget (reportedly he submitted an initial $20 million bill) will be paid by the city, is required to release essentially a public progress report on NYCHA’s compliance with the agreement each quarter, the first of which was released July 22. That report, which laid out the extent to which NYCHA is following the agreement particularly with regard to lead, mold, and elevator inspections, is highly critical of NYCHA, pointing to limits of its progress, describing “cascading putrid liquid” in one development, insufficient plans, and “daunting” deadlines.

“He is there to hold us to account,” then-NYCHA Interim Chair Kathryn Garcia said in a May 7 City Council hearing. The implementation of a federal monitor was widely welcomed by critics of NYCHA. Russ will have to establish a positive working relationship with the the monitor, a position which will be filled for at least five years and currently held by Schwartz.

Garcia and Schwartz butted heads over the progress of arguably the biggest focus of NYCHA, SDNY, and HUD’s agreement: the testing for and abatement of lead in NYCHA’s public housing stock.

In a pointed memo, Schwartz criticized Garcia’s testimony to the City Council’s Committee on Public Housing in the May 7 hearing, saying it “omitted material details about lead paint issues that are required to be addressed now and in the future by the NYCHA, and thereby may have resulted in a misleading impression being given to City Council members and the public about how these issues are being addressed.”

Per the agreement, NYCHA is required to test for lead paint in all NYCHA units built before 1978 (the year lead paint was made illegal) and all units NYCHA believes are occupied or routinely visited by children under six years old, who are the most vulnerable to lead paint poisoning and its effects on development. NYCHA plans to test 135,000 units with x-ray technology called XRF testing by the end of 2020.

During a press conference announcing the testing on the day it began, April 15, de Blasio said, “for the first time ever, we’re going into 135,000 NYCHA apartments to eradicate lead exposure. This aggressive new testing plan will help make New York the healthiest and fairest big city in America.”

It appears the authority is already behind.

The $88 million initiative is supposed to inspect 5,000 to 7,000 units a month. In total in the first three months of the initiative -- per data released August 8th -- only 9,475 units were tested, which is 7% of the total goal. At that rate, at the end of 2020 NYCHA will have tested roughly 47,000 apartments, 35% of the goal.

Of the 4,645 test results received from those inspections, 3,494 came back positive.

According to Schwartz’s report, “we note that our interviews have indicated that NYCHA lacks a comprehensive strategic policy to address the many issues surrounding lead-based paint.”

Longer-term, NYCHA is required to abate all lead-based paint in 50% of apartment units that contain it and remove all lead paint in 20 years.

NYCHA is required per the agreement to release action plans for how to deal with lead, mold, heat and hot water, elevators, and pests and waste. The action plan for lead didn’t cut it, according to Schwartz: “NYCHA’s Certification and Corrective Action Plan is a frank admission of an unacceptable level of deficiencies, from the quality of the interim controls to the number of units that have not been cleared.”

Garcia, in a return memo to Monitor Schwartz, acknowledged the ambition of the deadlines and said full compliance should not be expected immediately.

The agreement also lays out ambitious deadlines for addressing heating improvements, mold removal, elevator outages, and rat and roach reduction.

Compliance with elevator deadlines -- by January 2022, 70% of buildings with more than one elevator can have at most one instance per year where both elevators are out of service -- doesn’t seem likely. “Even with a sufficient increase in funding,” according to Schwartz, “NYCHA cannot simply engage in a capital program of installing a large number of elevators in a short amount of time because there is currently no plan in place to address the global challenges of the elevator portfolio.”

By January 2021, 95% of the times residents submit a verified mold complaint, NYCHA must remove all visible mold in the unit within five business days.

By October 2024, no more than 15% of occupied units can have internal temperatures that fall below the legal limit-- during the day between October 1st and May 31st if outside temperature drops below 55 degrees, internal temperature must be at least 68 degrees Fahrenheit and at least 62 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the night. NYCHA per the agreement will replace or address 500 boilers by 2026.

The rat and roach deadlines, like lead testing, have already proven controversial. The New York Daily News spoke with experts who said the pest control requirements -- NYCHA has three years to reduce the rat population by 50%, mouse population by 40%, and roach population by 40% -- are “nearly impossible to meet without an unlimited budget given the size of NYCHA…and the scope of New York City’s entrenched pest problems.”

During a March 11 oversight hearing, Garcia acknowledged pests are one area where the authority might need more time to develop a plan to meet the deadlines.

Possibly sensing the difficulties of the ambitious deadline, NYCHA announced in July a doubling the number of developments under de Blasio’s 2017 “Neighborhood Rat Reduction” initiative to decrease the rat population in the city. However, Schwartz doesn’t see this as the best tact, calling it “too narrowly implemented.”

“Certain NYCHA developments visited by the Monitor Team that are not located within one of the Mayor’s rat reduction zones have horrific pest infestation conditions (including rats). It is inadequate for NYCHA to largely bootstrap its rat reduction efforts to the Mayor’s rat reduction program. NYCHA’s rat reduction efforts must be more expansive across its entire portfolio in order to eradicate this problem.”

At this point in the Agreement, NYCHA is required to inspect the grounds and common areas every day for each of its buildings for trash and pests.

“Culture of Disengagement and Dysfunction”
Scrutiny of Russ has already begun, especially after the city missed two deadlines before naming him leader of the entity tasked with providing good housing and other services to an estimated 500,000 people in NYCHA public housing. Russ will reportedly earn a salary of just over $400,000, making him the highest paid city official in New York, and plans to regularly return to Minneapolis, where his family is remaining full-time, at least initially.

Along with the salary and travel, the choice of Russ was questioned given that in Minneapolis he managed a little more than 6,000 public housing units, compared to NYCHA’s roughly 175,000 units. However, the list of people with experience managing even close to the size of NYCHA’s portfolio is quite small.

As he attempts to save public housing in New York City, in part by meeting federal deadlines, Russ will have to significantly change NYCHA’s leadership and overall management culture, which have been heavily criticized for some time, especially over the last few years.

In a recent op-ed in Gotham Gazette, former commissioner of the city Department of Investigation Mark Peters and former first deputy commissioner of DOI Lesley Brovner wrote that the investigations into NYCHA that they oversaw revealed a “systemic culture of failing to take responsibility.”

Schwartz, in his initial report, wrote in regard to regional asset managers that NYCHA employs a strategy of “[moving] people around so that no one knows the history of the development in which they land and no one takes responsibility as they are new to the site.”

NYCHA’s leadership structure might be changing: Schwartz was required by the agreement to hire an outside consulting firm (he hired KPMG) to construct an organizational plan to “examine NYCHA’s systems, policies, procedures, and management and personnel structures, and make recommendations to the City, NYCHA, and the Monitor to improve the areas examined.”

The agreement required NYCHA to establish a Compliance Department, an Environmental Health and Safety Department, and a Quality Assurance Unit by mid-February. All three departments were created on time, but there were issues, according to Schwartz. The monitor is “concerned…about the effectiveness of these departments,” and even rejected two proposed heads, as they lacked “requisite qualifications and experience.”

In his online opening message, Russ said, “I’d like to remind staff that they should cooperate with the monitor’s team as we work together to achieve our shared goals. Because the wellbeing of our residents and employees is our primary focus, I’d also like to make clear that improper practices or conduct will not be tolerated at the Authority.”

NYCHA 2.0
Few if any of the requirements in the HUD deal or any of the many essential renovations at NYCHA complexes and apartments will be completed without significant financial investment. As of 2017, NYCHA projected that $32 billion is needed to properly fund the capital needs of its housing stock. Incoming Chair Russ has said it’s probably up to $45 billion now, but in his initial open letter to NYCHA employees, Russ wrote $32 billion.

“Without dramatic action, up to 90 percent of NYCHA’s 176,000 units of public housing could deteriorate to the point at which they are no longer cost-effective to repair by 2027,” according to Sean Campion, a researcher at the nonprofit Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), in testimony to the City Council’s Committee on Public Housing on November 15 of last year.

According to a CBC report, the average cost to repair a single NYCHA apartment is $181,000. If NYCHA apartments were to deteriorate at the same rate they have been, by 2027 90% of the authority’s housing stock could be designated as “very high cost” to repair, around $250,000- $300,000 each; and 8,000 units could need repairs exceeding the cost to replace the unit outright with brand new construction.

Running simultaneously with the changes spelled out by HUD, NYCHA will continue the roll out and implementation of NYCHA 2.0, first released by de Blasio and NYCHA officials in December, and its aggressive plan to resolve $24 billion in capital needs over 10 years.

NYCHA 2.0 accelerates the goals and initiatives of de Blasio’s previous plan, Next Generation NYCHA, raising questions about why the mayor and NYCHA leaders did not pursue a more assertive plan from the get-go when de Blasio took over City Hall and NYCHA in 2014. Next Generation NYCHA was released in May 2015.

The new plan has three tranches: One, converting public housing (Section 9 housing) into public-private partnerships (Section 8 housing) using the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) process, which allows for private management of NYCHA complexes and an influx of revenue to the authority for leasing such rights; Two, a significant “infill” program to allow leasing of NYCHA space for private housing development, some of which will be market-rate and some “affordable” rentals; And three, selling NYCHA air rights.

Using the PACT program -- the city name for RAD conversions -- NYCHA will essentially lease buildings and developments to private companies who will manage public housing, investing in the housing projects, collecting rent, and running the facilities. NYCHA plans to use this process for 62,000 units which would address around $12.8 billion in capital needs over 10 years, according to the plan. The agreement with HUD states HUD’s support for continuing the RAD program but not necessarily expanding it (HUD must approve all RAD conversions).

When asked about the biggest unknown for NYCHA, Professor Bloom said it is continuing these conversions at an increasing scale. A major upside of the RAD conversions is it transfers the responsibility and cost of the upkeep of the units to private companies (which are often free of the cumbersome labor union work rules that NYCHA leadership and others have found frustrating). The money NYCHA receives from the conversions goes directly towards repairs and renovations in the converted developments.

Chair Russ is a big proponent of RAD. In Minneapolis, he put every single public housing unit through RAD conversions and would surely welcome an even more ambitious goal than 62,000 RAD units in the city.

There have been nine PACT/RAD conversions, two of them recently announced in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Plus, the largest single-site RAD conversion, totalling $560 million in renovations (partly paid by FEMA funds for Superstorm Sandy recovery), at Ocean Side Apartments in Rockaway, Queens was unveiled in June.

According to Bloom, PACT conversions can be lucrative for private companies as well as NYCHA: “There’s some real upside to taking on a NYCHA project that most people don’t realize,” Bloom said. “Many have significant capital investment over the years, more than people realize, they’re solid buildings…they’re fully-tenanted, they come with Section 8 investment, which is a federal guarantee, they’re not required to pay normal city property taxes, they can borrow or develop vehicles to renovate the projects, and they’re also in pretty good locations.”

The second piece of NYCHA 2.0 is even more controversial than PACT/RAD conversions, which are themselves criticized by some as “privatization” of public housing.

Using infill development, what is considered “underutilized” land, often parking lots, in the often sprawling public housing projects, is leased to private developers to build housing. The housing that will come to given NYCHA complexes will vary in terms of the balance of market-rate and “affordable” units (typically the more market-rate the more revenue for NYCHA), with proceeds of the lease agreements going to NYCHA and investments in the developments home to the new infill housing.

In NYCHA 2.0, the city estimates $2 billion in revenue for NYCHA from infill development in around five initial developments. But, it is unclear if the city can meet the pace it expects given how controversial infill can be -- private developers were recently forced to restart the community engagement process of planned infill development at Holmes Towers on the Upper East Side. The proposal would have built a 50-story building on the site of a playground, with half the units market-rate rentals, more than some residents and local officials like Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council Member Ben Kallos would have preferred.

“To get the type of money to basically build a new development that includes an affordable component and has the market-rate to fully renovate the nearby development,” says Bloom, “it has to be more market-rate. The residents and advocates don’t want that. That’s the challenge.”

When asked about infill development on the Max & Murphy show on WBAI radio, outgoing Chair Garcia said in late May, “we want to maximize the money that we can get in order to do what is a pretty massive capital need. That being said, I can completely understand why residents might be anxious.”

“We really don’t have a lot of other options in terms of the incredible need,” she continued, “and I think this is a way to take funding or value from campuses and do two things: make sure residents do well, and increase the supply of housing and affordable housing in the city which of course is always in dire need.”

If residents decide to back an infill development in their own backyard, 100% of the revenue from the project goes directly to that development. However, the more money for repairs means more market-rate apartments, which can be unpopular with residents who fear broader gentrification of their neighborhoods.

According to an October 2018 CBC report, “developers would pay 50 percent less for a project with a 20 percent affordability set aside and 86 percent less for a project with a 50 percent affordable set aside.”

“Stricter requirements to produce greater amounts of affordable housing make the land less valuable to developers, and hence, generate less revenue for NYCHA,” the report states.

Infill development can lead to innovative architecture, as development plans must navigate what can be tricky underutilized lots of land. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and the American Institute of Architects New York launched an international competition to find architects to embrace the unique challenge of infill development. HPD may designate some or all of the five finalists, announced in May, to further develop their proposals into affordable housing projects.

The final part of the city’s 2.0 plan to fund NYCHA capital needs is selling air rights. NYCHA estimates it has 80 million square feet of unused air rights, some of which it will utilize to generate $1 billion in capital repair needs. During a December press conference announcing NYCHA 2.0, then-Deputy Mayor of Housing and Economic Development Alicia Glen said the city is “conducting a more thorough analysis as to where there are available air rights and sites that can receive them.”

Campion, of Citizens Budget Commission, also recommends that the city should integrate NYCHA into its affordable housing plans, which could shift more money to NYCHA units by making it a more central part of the city’s larger affordable housing landscape and planning.

In a recent statement to Gotham Gazette, a spokesperson for NYCHA said, “NYCHA will continue to utilize all NYCHA 2.0 tools in order to secure the funding it needs to improve the quality of residents’ homes and preserve public housing for generations.”

There are several reasons why it’s so important to address NYCHA’s many needs and improve the standard of living across NYCHA developments, while recognizing the important roles NYCHA and its residents play in larger city society, according to the Regional Plan Association. NYCHA residents are vital to the New York City workforce: there are 30,000 NYCHA residents who work in the healthcare industry alone, RPA recently noted. Also, NYCHA provides almost half of all New York City senior centers, over 100 childcare facilities, and many parks and open recreational areas.

Other Funding
While NYCHA 2.0 sets ambitious targets for revenue toward the more than $30 billion in need, more is clearly needed, and major questions remain with regard to executing that plan, as well as other operational goals, management changes, and compliance with federal mandates. NYCHA needs to embark on major elements of 2.0 like infill development while also making basic repairs to individual apartments, replacing boilers and roofs, and much more.

Other outstanding questions include the levels of state and federal funding that NYCHA will receive. The federal government funds two-thirds of NYCHA’s annual operating budget according to Garcia, but that funding is tenuous. Meanwhile, chronic underfunding by the federal government has led to the seemingly insurmountable capital need, according to Professor Bloom.

Controversially, HUD promised no new funds in the agreement, which de Blasio defended by indicating that he had saved the city from entering receivership and pointing to the hostile general outlook from the Trump administration toward public housing. Outgoing interim NYCHA Chair Stanley Brezenoff criticized the deal -- and refused to sign it -- because it included no new federal financial support for NYCHA.

“You can’t starve the system then complain about signs of malnutrition,” said City Council Member Mark Treyger of Brooklyn in the March 11 oversight hearing, in regard to HUD’s funding to NYCHA.

Amid a reelection campaign, Governor Andrew Cuomo last year made a strong show of support for NYCHA, after mostly ignoring it previously. He saw to $250 million additional funds allocated toward NYCHA in 2018, beyond an already committed $300 million to the housing authority. He’s been highly critical of the ongoing lead paint saga, calling NYCHA “fundamentally dysfunctional.”

“This is supposed to be the progressive capital of the nation, New York City. Everybody likes to talk about how progressive they are, how liberal they are, well we’re saying walk the walk don’t talk the talk,” said Cuomo, a former HUD secretary, in a July 2018 press conference. “If you actually care then you step up and you do the right thing by NYCHA after so many years of neglect.”

Cuomo has withheld $450 million of committed state investment, saying he does not trust the money would be spent properly, though it is set to be spent through the state Dormitory Authority working with NYCHA.

“Delivering money to NYCHA is like throwing it out the window,” Cuomo said in April 2018, when he threatened to appoint a state monitor for NYCHA, later opting not to based on federal involvement.

THE CITY reported in April that Cuomo was on the verge of releasing the money for elevator and boiler repairs, but he still does not appear to have done so. The de Blasio administration has agreed to put $2.2 billion in capital expenses towards NYCHA.

Federal, state, and city officials and activists have criticized de Blasio for the multitude of problems that have occurred under his administration, despite the attention and funding he’s provided NYCHA. Some say he waited too long to begin utilizing RAD conversions, and others have questioned his oversight duties in regards to the lead paint scandal, among other problems like heat and hot water outages.

Both de Blasio and Cuomo agree that more federal money is needed, yet the recent HUD agreement provides no new federal financial commitment.

“We need to make sure we are advocating for additional state funds and additional federal funds,” Garcia said in the Council hearing, a sentiment de Blasio has echoed many times.

“The last 10 years have definitely been much more volatile” for NYCHA, Bloom said. “What’s the difference? The difference is money. When, after 2000, when NYCHA’s financial situation vis-à-vis the federal funds declined, and the city cut its funding, NYCHA became more volatile. The other fact is, they’ve also entered into a cycle where some of their buildings are old…[R]ight when you need the money most is when you’re not getting it because of cuts in federal support.”

***
by Truman Stephens, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Assessing Alicia Glen's Impact on the City's Physical Landscape - Part II: 'Chunky and Funky'


mbdb ferry

Alicia Glen cristens a ferry (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


This is part two of a two-part series on former Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development Alicia Glen's impact on the "built environment" of New York City. Jump to part one here.

Part one of this series focused on Glen's style and leadership broadly, as well as her legacy on housing, including the de Blasio administration's massive affordable housing plan, neighborhood rezonings, public housing, and more. This part deals with economic development, transit, and more.

‘Chunky and Funky,’ Utilizing City Space and Expanding the Transit Network
In spearheading economic development, the other half of her former title, Glen put her preference for “mixed-use” into practice, creating what she calls “chunky and funky” buildings.

“Maybe because I’m a little chunky and funky, I like to sort of think about the built environment in my own physique,” she joked. Unlike the traditional supertalls that have sprouted in Hudson Yards, for example, her approach involves different types of architecture to create new developments that can house offices, light manufacturing, retail and commercial space. In a very de Blasio lens, she’s also focused on utilizing publicly-owned land.

A prime example is Dock 72 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a 675,000-square-foot building being developed by Boston Properties and Rudin Development. 

“I think that as we started to get much more serious about growing the five-borough economy, I really wanted to think about what that would look like being respectful of and being able to experiment with different kinds of building typologies and the way in which neighborhoods work,” she added.

The city had made mistakes with rezonings in the past and lacked any real sense of mixed-use zoning, she said, necessitating new thinking about density and design. “I think there was real openness and excitement at [the Department of] City Planning and at [the Economic Development Corporation] and other places to do that, particularly because there had been 12 years of a very particular kind of planning director and design, not saying good or bad but it was a good opportunity to step back and say, huh?”

And she employed her approach in areas around the Queens waterfront, at places like the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Brooklyn Army Terminal, and the Bush Terminal (now known as Industry City) in Sunset Park. These projects have aimed to revive old and out-of-use public assets -- particularly three massive geographic areas in Brooklyn -- and work with private companies to create thousands of jobs by encouraging new manufacturing and commercial uses in hubs of economic activity. Then, look at building housing around the edges of those areas.

Kathy Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a leading business group, had particular praise for the city’s investment in Brooklyn Navy Yard, which she called “arguably the best economic development project in the country.”

“At the Brooklyn Navy Yard, you've got a whole advanced manufacturing industry cluster that didn't exist before that has an impact throughout the city, where companies from throughout the city are partnering with them, whether it's the forefront of 3D robotics, AI, the Internet of Things. That's all happening at the Brooklyn Navy Yard,” Wylde said.

“That’s been our five-borough economy plan. You want to preserve these really great and unique spaces like the Brooklyn Navy Yard, like Brooklyn Army Terminal, like the Bush Terminal, like some of the other industrial parks but make sure that what’s going on there isn’t too limited so you can really ensure job intensification,” Glen said, also referencing projects in the Bronx and Queens. “So then again you don’t have a hub-and-spoke economy anymore. You want people to work and live in multiple mixed-use communities.”

Vishaan Chakrabarti, an architect and former city planner under Mayor Bloomberg, said Glen’s “chunky and funky” building approach moved towards the diversification of office space and encouraged, especially in many of those projects in Brooklyn, the creation of what he calls “com-dustrial space that basically is a kind of a bridge-building between what's traditionally understood to be commercial space, and industrial or light manufacturing space.”

“And I think Alicia was very focused on that, because that's about diversification of the economy, it's about creating a broader range of jobs for the city of New York,” he said.

Other projects with similar goals include the Early-Stage Life Sciences funding initiative, a $150-million public-private partnership meant to launch a number of ventures by next year to spur growth of the life sciences industry in the city, and the 21-story Union Square Tech Training Center, where construction began earlier this month.

Dulchin of ANHD has a different take. “The problem with the Bloomberg administration’s approach to economic development was that it almost exclusively privileged creating high-paying professional level jobs and exacerbated the economic divide in the city. And the de Blasio approach has not been different enough,” he said. Advocates like Dulchin want more investment in promised but stalled job training programs that will benefit people from New York City who went through the city’s schools and perhaps public higher education, but need skills for middle-income jobs.

A crucial project, perhaps the most complicated that Glen negotiated, was the East Midtown rezoning, aimed at upgrading office stock in a crumbling 78-block section of Manhattan with ample opportunity and need for growth, particularly in terms of modern office space. It had failed under the Bloomberg administration but Glen got it over the finish line by finagling a deal that allows landmarked buildings to sell air rights, and mandates that developers make improvements to public transit and outdoor space.

“I witnessed up close her navigating the Midtown East rezoning through the political and urban planning, and economic environments,” said Mary Ann Tighe, CEO of the New York Tri-State Region for CBRE, a commercial real estate services firm and chair emeritus of the Real Estate Board of New York. “It had to serve a lot of different purposes. And sometimes, when you try to make real estate serve too many purposes, you end up with something that's a watered down version of what it should be. And in fact, I think she not only got a great outcome for the community, but I think she ended up doing something that is really important for the business community, and the commercial real estate owners of Midtown. She managed to make all our constituents come out ahead. How often do you see that happen?”

There are, of course, a number of both flashy and more muted projects that were achieved under Glen’s tenure. A conspicuous example is One Vanderbilt, a gleaming 73-story glass tower being constructed on the corner of 42nd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue and set to be completed next year, right near where projects born of the East Midtown rezoning will soon proliferate.

There are the two apartment buildings in the Pier 6 development in Brooklyn, which include affordable housing and provide revenue for Brooklyn Bridge Park. “So not only do we have affordable housing in the fanciest, nicest part of New York City, Brooklyn Bridge Park is financially sustainable now in perpetuity. How about that for a victory?,” Glen said.

There’s the far-less remarked upon Landing Road Residence in the Bronx, which marries affordable housing with shelter for homeless people in the same building, using federal subsidies that would normally go to hotel rooms to place homeless people. “How about that as an unbelievable legacy?,” Glen asks. “And that building is up and gorgeous. That’s the only one in the country that’s ever been done and we’re going to do more of them. I’ve been working on that for 10 years. I’ve been trying to figure out how to leverage homeless housing subsidies to cross-subsidize affordable housing and we did it. So what are the critics gonna say about that?”

She rattles off a number of other initiatives. Funding the Delacorte Theater and the Lasker Rink in Central Park. The Universal Hip Hop Museum and the Hunts Point Food Market in the Bronx. The Garment District rezoning in Manhattan.

“The Lower Concourse deal in the Bronx, that’s gonna be a real game-changer because a lot of the other stuff that’s happening along the Bronx waterfront is a lot of market rate stuff, guys speculating,” she said. “But I said wow, the Lower Concourse project is really an opportunity for us to put our stamp on what we think mixed-income, mixed-use looks like.”

“Let’s just say that the hip hop museum’s going to be really great, but it’s not exactly the most profitable use on the planet, but we made those choices,” she said. “This is about community and what it looks like and what neighborhoods look like and celebrating the diversity of neighborhoods.”

Taking Transit Chances
It was Glen who thought of launching the city’s new ferry service, which now connects a variety of stops on several routes around the city’s waterfront, from Rockaway in Queens all the way to Soundview in the Bronx. It’s been popular, and is, as de Blasio likes to say, largely a whole new system of moving groups of people, but it has its fair share of criticism.

Though the mayor has pitched it as a “mass transit” alternative, it has relatively low ridership numbers and, according to estimates from the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission, the subsidy for each rider fare is currently $10.73, and could be as much as $24.75 for a new route between Downtown Manhattan and Coney Island. There are also concerns that the system is a vehicle for economic development along waterfront communities – notably, it is run by the Economic Development Corporation rather than the Department of Transportation – that will be a government-funded boon for real estate developers friendly with de Blasio and Glen.

While there are questions about the choice to focus on a ferry network, the subsidies, and the beneficiaries, there is no doubt that the system is also a key part of the Glen legacy on the physical landscape of the city.

“The ferries are going to be among the most visible things that you're going to see from her legacy,” said Chakrabarti. “And I know, they're controversial because of the subsidy levels, but you know, that's an age-old debate. All mass transit requires some form of subsidy...In order to expand the playing field, you've really got to change the way transit works. So by standing up a ferry system, expanding the Citi Bike network, that gives you far broader opportunities in terms of where new affordable housing can go, and where new jobs can go.”

Weisbrod said, “I think that was a very bold move. We are a waterfront city...and launching a citywide ferry system is no mean feat. I hope it becomes part of our transportation network for now permanently.”

Criticisms notwithstanding, within the next two years, there will be new ferry stops added to the system by expanding to Throggs Neck in the Bronx, connecting St. George on Staten Island with the west side of Manhattan, and linking Coney Island with Wall Street.

Glen also advanced the idea of a new streetcar running along waterfront communities between Brooklyn and Queens. Though the proposed $2.7 billion Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX), first announced by de Blasio in his 2016 State of the City speech, has only moved in fits and starts, she’s confident that the project will eventually be a reality, even if it is delayed past its original timeline and now requires federal funding under revamped city plans.

The streetcar is also under the auspices of EDC, which moved ahead with the environmental review process for the project in April. That review is a precursor to the longer land use review procedure, which will likely be a far more complicated battle. But if it moves ahead, the BQX will eventually be a major new feature in the city landscape, and, if successful, could lead to other streetcar routes around the city. If those are built based on Glen’s BQX plan, the city’s streetcar system would be traced to her legacy.

Along with worries about its cost, there are also questions that the streetcar is redundant, considering existing subway and bus lines that run along the proposed route, and that one method used to finance its construction – capturing a slice of increased property taxes in its immediate vicinity – is tied to speeding along gentrification and more of a boost to real estate owners and developers than the commuting public. Concerns have also been raised about the BQX being added in areas prone to flooding.

Another piece of the Glen-de Blasio approach to expanding the transit network, is more bike share. It was in her time at Goldman Sachs just prior to joining the de Blasio administration that Glen first put together the funding for the Citi Bike deal, which created the first bike-share program in the city. Citi Bike docking stations are already major new features of the city’s physical landscape in any neighborhoods, as are the blue bikes dotting city roadways and bridges on many days.

Glen saw it as more than just a transportation alternative; like the subsequent ferry and BQX plans, it was also meant to spur economic growth and create jobs. After its launch in 2013, the bike network has expanded to more than 12,000 bikes with 750 stations located across the city.

In July, the city announced a massive planned expansion of the system, making 40,000 bikes available by 2023. By next year, there will finally be stations installed in the Bronx, while an expansion is underway further into Brooklyn and Queens. This was just after the program faced intense criticism: a report commissioned by New York Communities for Change and conducted by McGill University’s School of Urban Planning found that it currently disproportionately serves richer, whiter neighborhoods while ignoring low-income communities of color and transit deserts.

Women and What’s Next
Another economic development initiative with a physical manifestation that Glen launched is women.nyc, a mostly online resource center aimed at empowering women. Under its banner, Glen created She Built NYC, the campaign to install statues dedicated to women, especially important historical figures, and address the vast imbalance of those physical memorials across the city (of the 150 statues in public spaces across the city, only five are of women).

The first of those statues, of Brooklyn’s Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress, will be erected in Prospect Park. Six others have also been announced – to be completed by 2022 – with the ultimate goal that 50% of all city statues represent women.

“The way you experience the world as a woman is very much informed by the built environment,” Glen said, recounting an anecdote about walking past a building with a construction sign that read, “Danger! Men Working Above.”

“And it took me a second to realize, why did I think that was so weird. I’ll tell you why that’s so weird. So what, women don’t know how to wash a f***ing window? Women can’t be dangerous and working above?” she said. “How do think that feels? How do you think that feels to be in the completely marginalized 51% of this city where almost every signal in the built environment is about men? So I’m having none of it.”

It’s why she believes the press has been tougher on her and other women. “I think you’re all incredibly biased about the way you cover women. I think women who are opinionated and powerful and trying to push something through are demonized,” she said. “And I think it’s a really holistic problem. That’s why I did women.nyc, it’s why we have to have women, women, women, women, women, women everywhere. Not one and done.”

She even left her stamp on Hudson Yards, a project that began under the Bloomberg administration and she has criticized (“It's not my personal favorite place. It's not a 'neighborhood' as they are characterizing it.”). Glen helped rename the public park at the development in honor of Bella Abzug, the former U.S. Representative and leader of the women’s rights movement.

In her new role at the Trust for Governors Island, Glen intends to continue that work. “I would certainly think that our public art and our statuary on Governor’s Island will certainly have a women’s bent,” she said. And that’s where she thinks a gondola from lower Manhattan could go.

Glen has also said she’ll continue working on She Built NYC and women.nyc in the months and years ahead, though some of that involvement may depend on what exactly she does next, after some time off (she hasn’t ruled out a run for mayor in the 2021 election, telling Gotham Gazette, "this town needs a woman mayor").

Glen said she wants to continue to be involved in the giant redevelopment envisioned at Sunnyside Yard in Queens, a project that she put into motion.

“People learned a lot of things from Battery Park City, learned something about the good and bad with the way that Roosevelt Island, Hudson Yards were done. To me, Sunnyside Yard is an opportunity to do large-scale planning with a mix of uses. It’s much more inclusive,” she said. In past interviews, she’s drawn a distinction with the more “male” architecture of Hudson Yards, something she’d avoid in Sunnyside. “Yeah, I’m not interested in having a lot of phallic symbols all around a statue that looks like a uterus,” she said, referring to the Vessel that sits at the center of the supertalls at Hudson Yards. “To me, that’s not really where I would go with this if I were running this town.”

Glen has few regrets about her time in the de Blasio administration. Though the vaunted Amazon deal fell through, and with it a massive Queens campus with 25,000 promised jobs and billions in expected revenue, she chalked it up to the tech firm’s mistakes rather than the administration’s. “I got it under my belt,” she said matter-of-factly of the deal.

The one failed land use deal that does continue to bother her is the site of the Long Island College Hospital, which is now on its way to becoming as-of-right market-rate luxury condos without affordable housing (at a site key to de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral campaign), which she blames on opposition from City Council Member Brad Lander, who represents the district. “I’m really mad about LICH, I think that was a huge lost opportunity. I’m really mad about some of the local politics,” she said, echoing a previous point she’s made that led to a testy exchange with Lander.

More broadly, Glen said she worries the city is headed in an anti-growth direction that could be harmful. “What’s keeping me up at night right now is this sort of swing to equating all development with this very negative connotation around gentrification,” she said. “What keeps me up at night is that a small majority of people could overly influence an agenda that starts to bake in anti-growth.”

This is part two of a two-part series on former Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen's impact on the "built environment" of New York City. Jump to part one here.

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.



Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice


Gotham Gazette: 3 Issues the Governor Says Will Form Basis of His 2020 Agenda3 Issues the Governor Says Will Form Basis of His 2020 Agenda Gotham Gazette: Charter Revision Commission Puts 20 Proposals Toward November Ballot Charter Revision Commission Puts 20 Proposals Toward November Ballot Gotham Gazette: How De Blasio Fared in Albany This Year How De Blasio Fared in Albany This Year Gotham Gazette: The Max & Murphy Podcast The Max & Murphy Podcast