Gotham Gazette

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What's Next for the City's Massive 100 Million-Meal Emergency Food Program?

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Mayor de Blasio at a school food hub (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

The uncertainty around how New York City public schools will be reopened come September extends to the emergency food initiative greatly expanded by city government during the devastating coronavirus outbreak that led to mass unemployment and food insecurity, as a large portion of the program was using public schools to distribute millions of free meals.

A part of the massive program that has distributed over 100 million free meals since March will likely shift as students and staff return to schools that have served as central emergency food hubs during the pandemic shutdown. While New Yorkers of all stripes, including families, could pick up “grab-and-go” meals at more than 400 school sites across the five boroughs five days a week, many others received more than 1 million meals a day through home delivery and still others received emergency sustenance through food pantries and other means.

With the planned shift in how school buildings are used, it’s not yet clear how the city intends to distribute emergency food or even what the need will be come September, in part due to the unknowns around the city’s economic revival. Whereas schools have long been a source of two meals a day for many low-income students and became logical food pick-up hubs during the shutdown, a school reopening where students are only in school buildings two or three days a week creates a complicated picture on many fronts, including food.

A month out from the planned reopening of schools, those leading the city’s emergency food program acknowledge that plans are not yet set for how meal distribution will work after Labor Day. While some students will attend school up to three days a week, parents can completely opt their children out of in-person learning, and although there is a commitment by -- but not yet a plan from -- top officials to provide students with meals, it’s unclear how many food insecure adults without children have been utilizing the school food pick-up sites over the past months and whether or not they will be able to continue to do so.

Grab & Go Meals
The city’s emergency program, called GetFoodNYC, is led by the city’s “food czar,” a position Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on March 21, when he said Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia would take the new role. Soon after being appointed, Garcia helped stand up efforts to make 470 Department of Education sites, almost all of which were schools, available to provide three meals a day to children under 18 (and, later, to families and then also adults without children as of April 3), and develop and expand other emergency food programming.

It is the school pick-up piece of the program that Garcia and the city have yet to make concrete plans to continue once schools reopen.

“DOE [Department of Education] is planning carefully around reopening,” said Department of Sanitation Assistant Commissioner for Public Affairs Joshua Goodman, in an email to Gotham Gazette. “Until we know what school reopening will look like, we cannot know exactly what Grab & Go meal operations may look like – but our commitment will remain the same, that no New Yorker should go hungry due to the pandemic.”

It was only late last Thursday that de Blasio revealed the most detailed plan yet as to how schools will reopen, which includes measures to immediately close down classrooms where one or more students test positive for coronavirus, and to close down entire buildings if two or more students in different classrooms test positive. It also requires students or teachers who feel sick to stay home and allows for families to opt into an all-remote learning option. About 26% of families would prefer that option, no matter the safety precautions taken, according to a Department of Education survey reported on by the Wall Street Journal. For students returning to school buildings, it will only be for one to three days a week. Individual school plans are in the process of being designed, though they in part rely on what student enrollment will look like, forming something of a chicken-or-the-egg relationship.

Before they were closed, New York City public schools were serving more than 1 million meals a day, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office (IBO), with Garcia saying in an interview that New York City public schools are “maybe the largest feeding program in the country.”

“If schools are truly reopening, [the grab-and-go locations] are a lot less important,” said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, a non-profit dedicated to connecting those experiencing food insecurity to services and advocating for legislation to address hunger. “That would certainly be a good thing in reducing hunger. And, you know, there are 1,600 schools so even if  that closes down 400 alternative sites, some adults may be missing out but far more kids would be fed so that would be a worthwhile trade-off.”

But that progress will be significantly complicated by the part-time nature of schooling for many students in the fall and the fact that untold number of students will not be going to school buildings at all.

When assessing the grab-and-go program, the IBO found evidence supporting Berg’s point about the benefits of students accessing food in schools, as the pick-up program did not serve as a replacement for in-school meals.

“While quickly established, the Grab & Go sites have not fully met the problem of hunger and food insecurity across the city,” the report states. “In the last week of April, the sites provided an average of 305,000 meals a day, well below the number schools typically served.”

However, IBO did find that nearly 90% of students were within half a mile of the grab-and-go locations, and more than half "were located in census tracts where the average household income was below or near the poverty threshold,” with the majority of sites located in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

The report is based on data from March 30, though, and the program has expanded significantly since. It also does not include other emergency food efforts besides the grab-and-go program.

“More than 400 meal hubs at DOE sites across the city are distributing around 500,000 meals per day to people in need,” Goodman said in a statement when asked about the IBO report, published at the end of July. “This is an incredible achievement, part of a broader operation that has now served more than 100 million meals since the pandemic began to ensure no New Yorker goes hungry. We appreciate the IBO’s role but are deeply proud of the work of DOE staff and the NYC Food Czar team.”

Moving forward, the city hopes the grab-and-go program will be used in conjunction with school meals. As although students will not be attending school every day, some not at all, the city is committed to maintaining a grab-and-go program that operates every day for students, according to Garcia’s office. How it will do so, and whether it will extend to families or adults without children, is still unclear.

That population of adults without children, as Berg alluded to, is one with few resources dedicated directly to them. Besides the grab-and-go program that is first and foremost for students and their families, GetFoodNYC’s food delivery service is meant for seniors or those who cannot risk going outside due to medical conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19.

It is unclear how large the population is of those who have been accessing grab-and-go meals at school sites but are not members of families with schoolchildren, and how many may lose out on free meals if the grab-and-go program reverts to being only for children or families with children, as the program does not collect demographic data, in order to avoid discouraging use.

Deepening Struggles for New Yorkers
There are more than 800,000 people in New York City who were unemployed as of June 2020, according to the New York State Department of Labor, maing for a roughly 20% unemployment rate, a massive increase from the roughly 4% at the start of March. This is just one measure of many indicating the extent of economic devastation due to the pandemic, and the growing food insecurity because of it.

Berg described the substantial spike in need caused by the pandemic as “better than the Great Depression but worse than it’s been in modern times.” He said that, although New York has made substantial and important progress addressing the problem, there are still hungry New Yorkers in need of further assistance.

“It’s certainly better than starving and New York City’s actually doing better than the rest of New York State, and really doing less bad than the rest of the country,” Berg said. “But when the Mayor says, ‘we’re going to make sure no one’s going hungry,’ that’s not true, either, because people were going hungry before this and they’re certainly going hungry now.”

From March 21 to June 6 there were over 1 million more unemployment claims compared to the same time period in 2019, according to a recent report by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The number of SNAP (food stamps) recipients increased by 8% from March to May, according to statistics from the New York City Human Resources Administration. Prior to the pandemic, SNAP enrollment had been decreasing, with about a 5% decrease from February 2019 to February 2020. The city’s massive emergency food program may have actually led to fewer SNAP sign-ups than may have otherwise occurred amid the economic shock.

According to the results of a poll by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), 35% of New York City households said in April that they had received food from an emergency food source in the past month, and 21% of New Yorkers said they were unable to buy groceries because of lack of money following the COVID-19 outbreak and its fallout.

Those facing financial and food insecurity who are neither seniors nor adults with children may turn to other resources meant to help anyone going hungry, according to Garcia.

“I do think that there will be a set of people that, due to the economic downturn, will need support through food pantries and soup kitchens and the grab-and-go program,” Garcia said.

Food Pantries
But many food pantries are struggling, too, due to the pandemic, with 75% of food pantries and soup kitchens serving more New Yorkers in April 2020 than in the months leading up to COVID-19, according to a survey by Food Bank for New York City. That report also found that 

“At the outbreak’s peak, roughly 40% of the city’s soup kitchens and food pantries were closed, largely because they are run by seniors who are at high risk during the health crisis.”

Food pantries do provide substantially less support to food insecure New Yorkers compared to government programs like SNAP, though, with Berg saying government programs support nearly 20 times more food than food pantries. Still, food pantries can be a vital source of food for those in need.

Ceasar Tobar-Acosta, who heads the food pantry at the Bronx’s Kingsbridge Heights Community Center, described the pre-COVID pantry as relying on small donors and serving 10-20 people a day.

“Our numbers shot up from us doing weeks of serving 20 in a day to us, as of last Friday, 150 people showing up a day,” Tobar-Acosta said of how things changed once the pandemic worsened, in a July 21 interview.

Tobar-Acosta said, besides the increase in demand and addition of precautions to prevent spreading the disease, COVID-19 resulted in the pantry relying on a new type of donors, namely large non-profits. It also received food from the GetFoodNYC program.

At one point, though, the food pantry almost had to close due to the increase in demand but limited supply. Of food pantries that did close, a disproportionate number were in the Bronx, where 50% closed, 90% of which were in high-need communities, according to the Food Bank for New York City report.

“As someone born and raised in the Bronx my entire life, it is very easy to see how…the Bronx very much captures why New York City is a tale of two cities. When you see all these resources, a lot of money, but then you see, hey, there’s a lot of communities that don’t get this funding,” Tobar-Acosta said. “When you’re already living in a food insecure place, the second a pandemic hits you are significantly worse-off because your community already does not have those supplies for a number of reasons. And the Bronx is one of those places where there are a lot of food insecure areas of the Bronx already.”

With job loss exacerbating an already-pressing crisis, Tobar-Acosta mentioned one customer of the food pantry who is an essential worker and works a 12-hour shift, but still needs assistance. Many community members are also said to be faced with the tough decision of leaving their jobs and collecting unemployment, or receiving zero-hour work-weeks for some period of time as local employers needed to cut back on costs during the pandemic. 

“Most definitely there’s a visible impact of job loss. We see newer and newer faces as the days pass,” Tobar-Acosta. “They can’t go back to their old jobs, because on paper they voluntarily left even though the other option was you don’t get paid.”

Those facing job loss will likely continue to need assistance, even as, hopefully, the public health crisis continues to improve and the city economy continues to reopen. Garcia said she hopes GetFoodNYC will be able to continue to “fill in the gaps” by providing increased assistance to food pantries. She also said it is likely that many of the food pantries that closed were smaller and may have opened back up since the height of the pandemic.

Support for food pantries and other emergency food efforts received huge boosts of funding from all levels of government during the pandemic.

Garcia said most of the funding for GetFoodNYC, specifically, comes from the federal government.

“We anticipate that the covid emergency is going to get extended nationally, just based on where we are,” Garcia said in an interview. “We have to re-up the program every 30 days under FEMA but it has been accepted under FEMA funding, so that has been what has underwritten emergency feeding during this time.”

The city also dedicated a significant amount of funding, such as a $170 million initiative, “Feeding New York,” announced by de Blasio on April 15, which Garcia was charged with executing. The plan dedicated funding to the Food Reserve (an existing emergency reserve of nonperishable goods that the city has in case of a crisis, like the pandemic), suggested that grocery stores require workers and customers to wear face masks, and initiated the scaling up of the food delivery system through the Department of Education and Department for the Aging (DFTA), an area where GetFoodNYC has contributed greatly.

City funds for emergency food efforts and GetFoodNYC have also come from through New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA), which had a total budget for food (including funds for Emergency Food Assistance, the GetFoodNYC program, and the Food Reserve) of $73.4 million in fiscal year 2020, which ended June 30, according to the IBO. That number is expected to drop slightly for fiscal year 2021, to $71 million, per the recently-adopted fiscal year 2021 budget.

In both years, city funding for food pantries and soup kitchens was about $21 million, according to IBO. For 2021, the other $50 million goes toward the Food Reserve, suggesting that the GetFoodNYC program will continue to be almost entirely reliant on federal funds moving forward. (This is not a complete picture of emergency food funding, as other agencies, such as the Department of Education and the Sanitation Department, are somewhat involved with such efforts.)

The city took other measures, too, to address growing needs including matching a state government $25 million allocation toward food banks for food and personnel, which was estimated to provide 2.1 million food packages each consisting of nine meals for a total of 19 million meals, according to a City Council press release. The city also deployed city staff to 14 food pantries short on volunteers.

And in addition to emergency funds via FEMA, the federal government passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provided the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program with $500 million on March 18. There was also the CARES Act, which provided $15.5 billion to support SNAP, $35 million for WIC, $38 million for Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) Commodities, $16 million for TEFAP Administration, and $450 million for food banks on March 27.

On top of that, Congress passed a pandemic-EBT program that gives families with children who would have received public school meals with electronic debit cards, something Berg said would result in around $400 million worth of food going to roughly 1 million New York City kids.

Home Delivery for the Most Vulnerable
One of the major areas the de Blasio administration put funds into through the GetFoodNYC program was home-delivered meals for seniors and those with pre-existing medical conditions, two populations especially vulnerable to COVID-19 that had unique challenges, besides financial stress, in accessing food — namely, the risk of contracting the disease while grocery shopping or picking up food.

Even before Garcia was even named food czar, though, the New York City Department for the Aging knew this would be a problem when the city closed hundreds of senior centers in mid-March to prevent the spread of COVID-19. DFTA immediately converted the centers to sites for preparing and sending out delivered meals to seniors’ homes, expanding on an existing meal-delivery program for those who are mostly or completely homebound. The week senior centers were closed, 96,000 meals were distributed to senior centers to then be delivered, Deputy Director of Public Affairs for DFTA Suzanne Myklebust told Gotham Gazette at the time.

But, there was still a need for seniors and others who could not risk going outside due to medical conditions that made them more susceptible to COVID-19, especially at the height of the pandemic.

“We do think that there is a group of seniors that one, shouldn’t be going out, and two, are very food insecure,” Garcia said. “And that their usual option of a senior center congregate food setting isn’t going to come into play for quite some time.”

Garcia and her team worked to quickly create the food-delivery system within GetFoodNYC, which uses drivers licensed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission to deliver meals from large distribution centers, helping to provide devastated drivers with income while also feeding needy New Yorkers. The program ramped up fast and began delivering 1 million meals a day as of the week of May 27, and from mid-March to mid-June the New York City government served 70 million free meals.

“I worked in government for eight years in the Clinton administration, a big bureaucracy, and the magnitude of what New York City did, it can’t be overstated,” said Berg. “They did in the course of a few weeks what typically would take government years to plan.”

The program was developed in part by enterprise software company Unqork, where former New York City Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway works as the head of its public enterprise initiative. Holloway worked in the Bloomberg administration during Superstorm Sandy, when he first saw the need to develop software quickly and at scale to address a crisis. The GetFoodNYC app developed for the current crisis over the course of a weekend, Halloway said on the What’s The [Data] Point? podcast, and made it possible for individuals to fill out a survey to see if they qualify for the program, and order if they do, and had another side for TLC drivers to sign up for delivery shifts, as well as an administrative back-end.

“It has been an enormous team effort across a lot of agencies to make this work, I would say an alphabet soup of agencies,” Garcia said in the interview. “And a real commitment by the city to make sure that no one went hungry. What you would traditionally do, like run a soup kitchen for food, clearly was not going to be our go-to in the middle of a pandemic, so I think there was a certain amount of commitment and creativity to getting this done that has to do with a real team of people that felt like this was incredibly important work.”

Although the program received some criticism for not initially providing kosher and halal meals, by mid-May it had 18 sites serving kosher meals and 32 sites providing halal meals, strategically placed in communities with large Jewish or Muslim populations. Another issue was questions of how nutritious the meals were, with some recipients describing accounts where they were given snacks rather than actual meals, as reported by Gothamist. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and New York City Council Member Ben Kallos of Manhattan introduced a bill on May 20 to develop nutrition standards for the meals in both the delivery and grab-and-go parts of the program. There have also been issues with delivery accuracy and waste of some meals that have sat in warehouses.

“We take food waste extremely seriously, and doing so is part of how we have been able to distribute over 100 million meals successfully,” Goodman said in a statement. “At this scale, we rely on all New Yorkers to let us know right away if there is ever a problem, at or by calling 311. We can often fix problems same day if they are brought to our attention.”

Garcia has also acknowledged hiccups in the program, saying “the challenge was also just dealing with the scale of the crisis at the moment of the crisis and the huge need that just went flying through the roof, and keeping up with that and trying to make sure we had enough food, food that was religiously appropriate and being able to make that sync together,” she said in a recent appearance on What’s The [DATA] Point?, which is produced by Gotham Gazetteand Citizens Budget Commission.

Goodman has also repeatedly responded to some of this criticism on Twitter, saying, for example: “To meet incredible scale (1M meals/day) we work with dozens of vendors - over 30 and growing. Some serve fresh food, some frozen, some shelf-stable, which is things like canned tuna, soups, packaged milk, maybe pita chips,” and “This is a huge operation of *emergency* food - but as Mayor and Commissioner Garcia stated, must be healthy and nutritious. If someone receives a meal that doesn't meet our standards, let us know at so we can fix and hold vendor accountable.”

Looking Ahead
Garcia said the need for home-delivered meals, especially among seniors, will likely remain for some time as COVID-19 makes it unsafe for senior centers to return even as the city moves through reopening phases.

For some of those seniors, they have relied on a similar to but more comprehensive program than the GetFoodNYC food delivery service run by DFTA, which has been serving elderly New Yorkers who need food delivered due to illness or disability for years, partially through a partnership with Citymeals on Wheels.

The budget for the Home Delivered Meals program (HDM), unlike HRA’s emergency food budget, did see a 25% decrease from $59.7 million in fiscal year 2020 to $44.6 million in fiscal year 2021, according to the IBO. However, some of that decrease is a result of a lack of discretionary funding DFTA received for HDM from the City Council in the 2021 city budget that it had received the year prior, according to DFTA.

“For 30 years, DFTA’s Home Delivered Meals (HDM) program has provided nutritious meals to older New Yorkers who are homebound due to severe illness or disability. This program has been operating long before the COVID-19 crisis and will continue operating long after,” Myklebust said in a statement. “This year, we issued an RFP to increase meal options for this program, including the availability of culturally aligned meals that reflect our City’s diversity, all while ensuring that meals continue to be high quality, healthy and nutritious. A top priority for DFTA and the City is that no older New Yorker goes hungry during this pandemic and that all who need meals has access to them, either through the HDM program or GetFoodNYC.”

Garcia remains hopeful about the city’s ability to meet need even if there is a second covid wave in the fall, saying, “Our programs are pretty flexible in our ability to dial up if need be.”

Berg is not as hopeful. Although he said he gives the city “a lot of kudos” for taking the substantial steps it did, he maintains that higher wages for workers, more than food pantries or federal programs, are key to combating food insecurity. He said the large amount of food pantries within the city are relatively new, compared to in the 1970s when better conditions for workers meant they were relatively unneeded.

And despite the funding already dedicated to addressing hunger nationwide, statewide, and citywide, Berg said that without another substantial federal stimulus package, New Yorkers — especially those who are low-income — will be in a very tough spot.

“I’ve been in this job 19 years and there’ve been three truly catastrophic events: 9/11, the 2008 Wall Street collapse, and then Hurricane Sandy. In all of those, low-income people suffered the most and it took years and years and years to recover,” Berg said. “Hungry people are the first to get the problem and the last to recover, last to be rehired, last to get wage increases. And I’m worried the current political environment isn’t building the public safety net we need.”

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Crowded Field Forms for Special Election to Replace Ritchie Torres in the City Council

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Council Member Ritchie Torres (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

With City Council Member Ritchie Torres declaring victory in the Bronx’s 15th Congressional District Democratic primary and all but assured to advance to Congress at the start of next year, a special election to replace Torres in the City Council’s own District 15 looks likely for sometime in February or March of 2021. The race in the heavily-Democratic Council district is already shaping up to be hotly-contested, with community leaders, the son of a state senator, and at least one member of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA) all jumping into the race.

Since Torres, who declined an interview request for this story, was term-limited from seeking another Council term in the regularly-scheduled 2021 city elections, candidates had already started running to replace him. His presumed victory only moves up their election date by about four months, though even with a special election early in the year to see who finishes out the last year of the four-year term, there will be a primary in June 2021 and a general election that fall to see who will represent the district as of January 2022.

The special election will also likely mark the first use of ranked-choice voting in New York City, probably along with a special election in Queens’ District 31, where Council Member Donovan Richards is on his way to becoming Queens Borough President. The new voting system approved by voters in 2019 is mandated to go into effect at the beginning of 2021 for all special elections and party primary elections for city government positions.

Council District 15 straddles Fordham Road, which is frequently used to demarcate the northern boundary of the South Bronx, and encompasses the neighborhoods of Belmont, Fordham, Tremont, Norwood, Parkchester, West Farms, and Williamsbridge, as well as some of the largest greenspaces in the city (the New York Botanical Garden, the Bronx Zoo, and Crotona Park), Fordham University, and Arthur Avenue. It is also home to St. Barnabas Hospital, which was one of the most inundated medical facilities during the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City.

According to the 2010 Census, the district is 66% Hispanic, 25% Black, and 5% white, with 63% of adults under the age of 45. District 15 is also among the poorest in the city with a poverty rate of 38.5% in 2014, which was third-highest among City Council districts. Torres earned an upset win in a competitive 2013 Democratic primary then cruised to reelection in 2017. He made public housing and oversight of the de Blasio administration main priorities during his tenure.

Candidates & Possible Candidates
Four candidates are now running to succeed Torres: Ischia Bravo, district manager for the Bronx’s Community Board 7; Elisa Crespo, an education liaison for Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.; Oswald Feliz, a district leader and housing lawyer; and, Julian Sepúlveda, who works in intergovernmental affairs for the city’s Department of Education.

Bravo challenged longtime Bronx Assemblymember Jose Rivera in a 2016 Democratic primary, but prior to that spent seven years as executive director of the Bronx Democratic County Committee. Crespo, who is seeking to become the city’s first Council member of trans experience, is a member of the Bronx/Upper Manhattan branch of the NYC-DSA and a board member of the Stonewall Democrats. Feliz has worked in State Senator Gustavo Rivera’s office and for Congressional Rep. Adriano Espaillat’s campaign, with both of those districts partially overlapping with Council District 15. Sepúlveda, who is the son of Bronx State Senator Luis Sepúlveda, announced his candidacy within the last week.

Additionally, John Sanchez, district manager for Bronx Community Board 6, told Gotham Gazette that he is “seriously considering running for the seat” after “being approached by community members and community leaders” about a potential candidacy. He does not currently have a campaign committee open and would be a first-time candidate for elected office, but said he would be making a decision “shortly.” However, he has recently advertised for intern positions for a Council campaign, so an announcement appears imminent.

There has been speculation that Samelys López or another candidate from the left would enter the race. While there is already one DSA member in the race in Crespo, López received a great deal of support from progressive groups and elected officials in the congressional primary won by Torres, where she received a little over 13% of the vote in a crowded field (coming in 4th, after Torres, Michael Blake, and Ruben Diaz Sr.), leading several people Gotham Gazette spoke with to wonder if she’ll run for the Council. López, who was endorsed by NYC-DSA, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others in the congressional primary, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

There's also always the possibility of other candidates entering the race.

“I’m a true-blue Democrat, but I’m willing to work with any group that has the best intentions for the Bronx. If that means working with DSA or incumbents, then so be it,” Bravo told Gotham Gazette.

“Our campaign is trying to build the broadest coalition possible that is representative of our community and our borough,” said Crespo, who says she will pursue the endorsements of the DSA and Working Families Party, as well as the Bronx Democratic Party.

“The DSA has done some amazing work in the city, particularly with the election of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” said Julian Sepúlveda, “and I’m going to try to get support from as many advocacy groups as I can. What’s going to matter in this election is candidates’ ability to speak to voters and build grassroots support.”

Fundraising & Ranked-Choice Voting
As one of roughly 35 upcoming City Council races without an incumbent, the race for District 15 is likely to be very competitive. Two candidates, Bravo and Crespo, are neck-in-neck in terms of initial fundraising, with $17,546 and $16,707 raised, respectively, as of the July disclosure reports.Crespo has narrowly more total donors, with 296 to Bravo’s 283.

“Most of my money mostly came from hard-working people in the Bronx who are dedicated to seeing someone who is unbought and unbossed,” Bravo told Gotham Gazette.

Feliz has raised $4,747 so far, but he said he is confident that he can make up ground in campaign cash, noting that most of his fundraising was done within the last few weeks of the filing deadline. Three-quarters of his donations came in the month preceding the July 11 filing deadline, according to disclosures to the city’s Campaign Finance Board, while 76% of Bravo’s and 61% of Crespo’s donations came in that same timespan.

“I intend to fundraise as strongly as I can and I’m pretty confident in my ability to fundraise,” Sepúlveda told Gotham Gazette, noting that fundraising is not his focus at the moment as he had just officially announced his candidacy.

Candidates and organizers have expressed concern over the uncertainty regarding the implementation of ranked-choice voting, which is mandated to go in effect at the beginning of 2021 per the 2019 City Charter revision. The New York City Board of Elections has not returned Gotham Gazette’s request for comment about implementing ranked-choice voting early next year, and has already missed a deadline set by the City Council for a plan. Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, allows voters to rank up to five candidates in order of preference, and if no candidate wins a majority on the initial count of first-choice votes, there are ensuing rounds of eliminating the lowest-vote getter and reapportioning their voters based on those voters' next choices until a candidate hits 50%.

“You never saw elected officials come or show their faces,” Bravo recalled of her childhood living in public housing, “too often we don’t see ourselves reflected in our elected officials. We need to make sure that we have someone like myself who knows the district and doesn’t need to take a full term to get to know the local issues.”

“The lens of mothers on the City Council is something that’s been missing,” Bravo, who is the mother of two school-aged children, told Gotham Gazette. For example, she said, “I rely heavily on my in-laws and my grandmother to watch my kids” and that will be difficult during the school year with a return to in-person learning and concerns about spreading the virus from kids to more vulnerable older relatives. 

“Those who have struggled, and been marginalized, and been oppressed should be the ones who should be making the decisions,” said Crespo, who is 29 years old and would likely be one of the youngest, if not the youngest, Council members. “My generation, for the first time, is not going to be better off than the generation before us. We’ve lived through multiple economic disasters and I strongly believe that it’s going to take a new generation of bold progressive leaders to bring systemic change.

“I’ve spent my entire adult career working in municipal government,” Sepúlveda said in an interview. “I want to be able to make a difference with the knowledge I’ve acquired. I want to amplify the voices of those who I think have been underrepresented in New York City policy and government.”

Budget Equity
The Bronx has historically been underfunded as a borough when it comes to the city and state budgets, particularly when it comes to education funding. Feliz said that the district needs “a strong negotiator,” not “an elected official who’s simply going to vote yes or no,” to bring much needed funding to the Bronx, pointing to his record advocating for tenants against landlords as evidence of his negotiating skills.

“The Bronx has been short-changed for far too long and covid exposed the ugly truth of what was happening in our borough,” Bravo said. She hopes that the Bronx’s relatively high rate of 2020 Census returns will help remedy this.

“There’s lots of development happening in the district but not enough schools that are being built to accommodate the new families coming in,” Crespo said. “We need to make sure each public school gets the same amount of funding, but schools in underserved areas probably need a little more.”

Covid-19 & Recovery
The coronavirus pandemic and its socioeconomic consequences are at the forefront of candidates’ and voters’ minds in Council District 15. Bronx residents have been twice as likely to die from coronavirus as other New York City residents, despite the borough having a number of infections proportional to its share of the city’s population. Public health experts say this elevated fatality rate is caused by the high rates of diabetes, asthma, and other chronic health conditions.

Bravo was critical of Mayor de Blasio’s school reopening plan, saying that “a staggered schedule is not something that’s feasible for working parents like myself. I don’t care how affordable the mayor thinks he can make child-care for us. My rent is too high.”

“The Bronx is going to be dealing with a different set of problems related to covid than the wealthy parts of Manhattan,” Sepúlveda said. “Health care is a right, not a privilege, and we’re going to have a mental health crisis so we need to be able to support our community emotionally.”

Feliz is proposing that the city should construct a deck and greenspace over the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the most congested roadway in the nation. That would absorb the air pollution that disperses into Bronx neighborhoods. A similar proposal has also been put forward for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway renovation.

Affordable housing was another issue raised by all the declared candidates, although there were some differences in how each would approach the issue. As Bravo pointed out, the 10453 zip code (Bedford Park) had an eviction rate of nearly 21% in 2019, the third-highest in the city. Several other zip codes that overlap with District 15 were also in the top twenty.

“This has been a burden for quite some time,” Bravo said, pointing to rising rents in the Bronx.

She said “we need affordable housing that’s also sustainable housing, not with the bare minimum materials, and that it’s part of a new green infrastructure.” She added that impact studies should be expanded earlier in the process “so we know what services will be needed to go along with housing growth.”

Crespo said that Community Land Trusts could potentially “remove some of the speculation from the housing market. That would do well to serve Bronxites to make sure that housing is affordable and reflect the actual median income of Bronxites.” She added that “we need to modernize our land use process and be thinking five to ten years in advance.”

Sepúlveda supports an increase to housing subsidies in the city’s budget to make affordable housing available to more New Yorkers. “I think Speaker Johnson had a solid plan on rental subsidies,” he said. “The City Council has a deep role in investing in affordable housing. The housing crisis entrenches poverty and worsens police problems. All of these problems are related.”

Feliz believes that the eviction moratorium should be extended “for the duration of the pandemic” and that “if the state doesn’t do that, the city should.” He said that “no one should be evicted due to the fact that we’re in the middle of a pandemic and our society is economically unstable.”

Public Safety
With the protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis, activists and protesters in New York City have called for funding to be reallocated away from the police budget towards other youth and social services, under the slogan “Defund the NYPD.” The candidates currently running in Council District 15 said they are largely supportive of those proposals.

“The NYPD has an inherent culture of feeling above the law and some of them have lost track of what they were assigned to do, which is to protect and serve,” Crespo said. “Many times in low-income communities, we feel unsafe around the police. I think police are too quick to resort to excessive force and they’re not well trained in how to de-escalate situations.”

“I think if we thoughtfully and purposefully looked at NYPD line-items, such as the public relations unit and the militarized equipment, we could reinvest that into critical social services programs,” said Crespo. She supports defunding the NYPD by at least $1 billion from its nearly $6 billion annual operating budget, and said the recent city budget did not accomplish that.

“We absolutely have to defund the NYPD, which means taking away some of that budget and putting it toward social programs, and we also have to promote police accountability,” said Feliz, who is supportive of a $1 billion cut to the NYPD budget, at least initially. He proposes mandating that police officers have an “affirmative duty” to stop misconduct they witness their coworkers committing.

“The word ‘defund’ means different things to different people,” Sepúlveda told Gotham Gazette. “I support efforts to divest from the NYPD and put that money back into measures that invest in this city. The police department isn’t the only thing we should think about when it comes to public safety,” he said, noting he’s had personal and familial experiences with police handling of mental health emergencies. “I think we should divest a true billion dollars, at least as a start.”

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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De Blasio Critical of Controversial NYPD Arrest of Protestor; Shea's Stance Unclear

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Mayor de Blasio & Commissioner Shea (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio condemned the tactics and the timing of the police officers who dragged a protester alleged to have damaged several police cameras into an unmarked van on Tuesday. But the mayor did not say Thursday whether his police commissioner, Dermot Shea, felt the same way despite reporting having had two separate conversations on the subject.

In an incident that was caught on camera and quickly went viral Tuesday evening, plainclothes officers leapt out of a grey van before a crowd of peaceful demonstrators in the Kips Bay section of Manhattan, and arrested and drove off with Nikki Stone, a protester who police said they had been looking for in connection with multiple alleged incidents of vandalism. The arrest has drawn scrutiny for its apparent similarities to Portland, Oregon, where for several nights federal agents have detained protesters in unmarked vehicles as demonstrations continue in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in May.

De Blasio has said publicly that making the arrest at a peaceful demonstration was wrong and suggested similar strategies could have a chilling effect on free speech. The morning after the arrest, the mayor told reporters the place to make the arrest "was clearly not in the middle of an ongoing protest," and said the department would review the tactic.

"I'll talk to the Commissioner about this more today, but I think there is a better way to get that done," he said Wednesday morning, without indicating what Shea had said about the arrest other than why Stone was a suspect.

De Blasio said he didn't think it was "a matter of discipline" for the officers involved but that he wanted NYPD personnel to be more sensitive to the context of the arrest and make "better choices about how to deal with things in this moment of history."

At his Thursday morning press briefing, de Blasio was evasive when asked whether or not Shea agreed the arrest should have been handled differently.

"I spoke with Commissioner Shea about an hour after I think the video came out originally the other night, and then I spoke to him again yesterday," de Blasio said. "Look, I think it's clear, again, it was not the right time and place, and we have got to work to make sure people always know that the right to protest is protected in New York City."

"When they vandalize public property," the mayor continued, referring to the charges against Stone, "there will be a consequence, but it was not done the right way. I certainly expressed that to [Shea] and we're going to work on trying to find a better way going forward."

But the mayor didn't elaborate on what the "better way" could or should have been, what Shea actually said during their conversations, or whether there is an internal NYPD review of the incident underway.

Since June, de Blasio and Shea have repeatedly disagreed publicly over a host of recent policing and criminal justice reforms, including changes to controversial arrest tactics.

Stone received a desk appearance ticket for criminal mischief and graffiti charges stemming from five separate incidents in June and July, according to an NYPD spokesperson. In at least three of them, officials say a person identified as Stone obscured NYPD security cameras with paint in the area around the encampment of demonstrators at City Hall, which coalesced in late June after weeks of marches against police brutality.

In an interview Wednesday on WABC radio, Chief of Department Terence Monahan, the NYPD's highest-ranking uniformed officer, said the Warrant Squad officers assigned to make the arrest had acted above board and in line with departmental protocols. Monahan said the Warrant Squad arrived after being informed (it is unclear by whom) of Stone’s presence at the march, and the arrest was made after Stone identified the unmarked van as a police vehicle.

"At that point there was nothing else to be done, she approached them," he said.

Available footage of the incident is limited to what was captured by bystanders and posted to social media, making it difficult to confirm Monahan's account.

Asked if the officers should have acted differently, Monahan only said that he would like to see them maintain their cover for longer. "We would have liked her not to be able to identify them, she was able to pick them up as a cop car. It would have been better if they could have been a little less transparent while they were doing the observations on her."

During a Wednesday press conference call, Governor Andrew Cuomo weighed in on the incident unprompted by reporters, and called the Warrant Squad arrest "obnoxious." Like the mayor, Cuomo said its timing at a demonstration so close to the unrest in Portland sent the wrong message. “It was wholly insensitive to everything that’s going on. It was threatening,” he said.

That morning, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson also criticized the NYPD's handling of the arrest. "It is totally unacceptable that an arrest for minor property crimes was carried out in such an aggressive and disturbing manner," he wrote in a Twitter post.

Monahan wouldn't opine on critiques from New York's political class in the interview Wednesday. "I'm not going to get into the politics, I'm giving you the facts of what happened, you can judge by the facts," he said.

When asked Thursday if the NYPD could clarify Commissioner Shea's position on the incident, a department spokesperson referred Gotham Gazette to Monahan’s WABC interview.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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