Gotham Gazette

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Democratic Mayoral Candidates Offer Ideas on Housing, Homelessness and NYCHA

demo may cand

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Eight mayoral candidates participated in a recent forum focused on public and private housing, and homelessness. The December 5 event, which was part of the 15th annual West Side Tenants' Conference, featured Brooklyn City Council Member Carlos Menchaca, former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, entrepreneur Joycelyn Taylor, former city Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, civil rights attorney and former counsel to Mayor de Blasio Maya Wiley, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, and former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan. Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max moderated the discussion.

The discussion was one of an initial series of candidate forums this year as the mayoral field continues to expand ahead of the June primaries and fall 2021 general election.

The next mayor of New York City — whether it’s a candidate who appeared at this forum or one of the several who didn’t — will inherit many long-standing housing challenges, some of which have been exacerbated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the next inauguration on January 1, 2022, the city will, hopefully, also be recovering from a recession that saw employment and tax revenue take historic plunges while many small businesses collapsed.

Though at times details were lacking, the candidates at the forum did have a number of ideas for how to fund NYCHA and tackle crumbling public housing, incentivize private building upkeep and development, reduce homlessness, leverage community partnerships, and more. And key differences among the candidates emerged on several programs and potential solutions to some of the city’s most intractable problems.

Funding and Saving NYCHA
Mayoral candidates at the forum had some overlapping but several different thoughts about how to infuse the city’s public housing authority with the tens of billions of dollars it needs to get buildings to a state of good repair. One clear dividing line is the federal RAD (rental assistance demonstration) program that incentivizes the use of housing vouchers by having public housing authorities hire private management companies to run properties. Those companies get to collect rent but also must invest in the properties.

“The system today is just in total disrepair, and we need to be able to move back to what it used to be,” Morales said, reflecting on her parents’ experience with public housing. “NYCHA is the home to more than 400,000 New Yorkers, and they have every bit of right as everyone else to live comfortably and safely.”

Everyone agreed that the federal government, which they hope will be more sympathetic to New Yorkers once President-elect Joe Biden enters office, should contribute much more toward public housing. But most seemed to also agree that the city needed to find other ways to fill NYCHA’s immense needs.

“We can decrease the budget expenses by defunding the NYPD dramatically,” said Menchaca, who also called for expanding the city’s capital budget commitments to NYCHA and other top priorities.

“I’m going to look at selling the air rights of NYCHA to local community developers,” said Adams.

“One idea that I think we should put forth immediately is to take $40 million a year over 10 years from the Battery Park City Authority,” said Stringer of his long-standing proposal to infuse those funds to NYCHA from the state authority. The plan needs support from both Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio but only the former has agreed to it.

“One of the things that we can do for the tenants is we can give them ownership opportunities, which would allow them to have the ability to not just have stable housing, but it will also generate revenue for the city,” said Taylor, who said she grew up in public housing. Selling apartments to a portion of public housing tenants would raise tens of millions of dollars, she said.

Morales suggested charging taxes and fees to private property owners and landlords in order to generate revenue while also discouraging certain behavior. “I think we should be looking at land-value taxation,” she said. “We should be disincentivizing landowners from being able to sit on privately-owned vacated or blighted land while they wait for it to rise in value. Finally, I’d say we need to take a really hard look at expanding fees for luxury developments and for vacancies, and assessing fees for displacement as well.”

Candidates offered differing opinions on RAD as part of a NYCHA rescue plan. The de Blasio administration has expanded its use after some initial hesitation, while also proposing several other large-scale efforts to bring in tens of billions of dollars for NYCHA, like selling air rights and leasing underused space for private housing development, including both market-rate housing and rent-regulated apartments.

Adams, Garcia, and Donovan expressed support for RAD while acknowledging room for improvement. “When I went and saw developments that had gone through the RAD process at Ocean Bay or at Campos II, the tenants were extremely happy,” said Garcia, who served as interim chair of NYCHA for less than a year when de Blasio asked her to step in amid controversy, which eventually led to the appointment of a federal monitor and the hiring of current chair and CEO Gregory Russ. “They were very enthusiastic about what their new home looked like,” Garcia continued.

“As this forum shows, there is deep misunderstanding about RAD,” Donovan said. “RAD does not require privatization; it is a way to get Section 8 resources into public housing just like the preservation trust idea, so we need a reset on RAD.”

The candidates who expressed support for RAD said that communication with tenants needs to improve but that the program is worth expanding.

But other candidates said that tenants did not like RAD and warned of it as a step toward privatizing public housing. “Beyond the incredible removal of agency from NYCHA residents that transforms their relationship with housing, I think that this continues to push conversations around privatization of our public housing, which would be a big mistake for the City of New York,” Menchaca said.

Wiley and Stringer expressed concern about what RAD means for tenants’ rights and a move toward privatization of public housing. “They’re not given that transparency, they’re not given that voice, and therefore they don’t have the options to say what it is they want,” Wiley said. “The principles have to be about keeping public housing public.” 

Some candidates also spoke briefly about improving health conditions and making NYCHA part of efforts to fight climate change and to create jobs. “We know that housing equals healing, and that health and housing are linked,” Garcia said, citing rat-infested buildings and broken elevators.

“We should invest in a Green New Deal for NYCHA,” Morales said. “We’ve got to focus on retrofitting our buildings” to make them more energy efficient “and investing in capital repair,” she explained.

“Why shouldn’t we have solar panels on every roof in NYCHA?” asked Donovan. “That could not only lower utility bills, but put capital back into public housing.”

Candidates were divided over the issue of “infill” housing development on underused NYCHA land, a proposal dating back many years that has stalled due to pushback. Such development could take many forms, including different combinations of market-rate and affordable housing, with the idea that certain property-leasing revenues are funneled into making repairs at NYCHA buildings.

“Universally, [tenants] are against this idea,” Morales said. Taylor and Menchaca agreed. Meanwhile, Adams, Garcia, and Donovan expressed support for new housing development on NYCHA land, with Garcia saying it would generate money and Donovan saying those new housing units could go to senior citizens.

“When we have a desperate affordable housing shortage in this city, we need to look at these types of options,” Donovan said.

Wiley and Stringer said that in-fill development is an option, but tenants must be involved in the decision-making process.

Protecting the Private Housing Stock and Preventing Evictions
Candidates suggested that in order to mitigate the pandemic’s adverse effects on private housing, the city should create more public and non-profit-run affordable housing.

“We have a homeless crisis that’s a historic one in size and it’s because we need to understand it as an eviction crisis,” Wiley said. “The eviction crisis is also an affordable housing crisis.” The city, she argued, should buy shuttered hotels and other commercial housing to create affordable housing and generate revenue through rent.

“We see a lot of vacant commercial space and a real estate market that is facing foreclosure,” Stringer said. “We should take advantage of this by using land banks and community trusts to purchase these buildings, turn them into affordable housing or limited equity co-ops.” He agreed with Wiley about purchasing vacant hotels, adding that not-for-profit organizations should be encouraged to buy buildings and create affordable housing.

To protect people against evictions, candidates suggested suspending rent, ceasing evictions, and making sure those facing eviction have access to lawyers so that units don’t end up vacant and New Yorkers don’t end up homeless. 

“Nothing is more important than giving those who have to go to the various housing courts the legal assistance that they deserve,” Adams said. “It’s intimidating to go into a courtroom and find yourself losing your home based on a decision that you don’t quite understand.” Wiley and Menchaca also emphasized the importance of legal services for tenants.

“We need to think about how we’re going to cancel rent for tenants,” Morales said, but adding that small landlords like herself must also be protected. She said that the eviction process should be ceased for the duration of the pandemic and the banking industry should be pushed to forgive mortgage payments. Donovan also expressed support for an eviction moratorium and rental assistance.

Candidates also spoke about preventing landlords from warehousing empty units or keeping them vacant through taxation and enforcement. Morales restated her support for changing tax incentives and said the city should exercise eminent domain to repurpose vacant commercial spaces.

Menchaca, Wiley, and Taylor also expressed support for a tax on vacant units. “If you want to keep it off the market, you’ll have to pay to do it, and that creates the incentive not to,” Wiley said.

Helping Homeless People and Creating More Affordable Housing
“I know what housing insecurity is about,” Adams said. “I remember as a child, going to school every day with a garbage bag full of clothing because we thought we were going to be thrown out of our home, and my mom did not want us to not have a change in clothing. So this is real.”

Candidates emphasized the importance of making sure homeless people are able to access permanent housing and not spending long periods in the shelter system. “Our system is fundamentally flawed,” Morales said. “It is focused solely on moving people out of the shelter system and not actually providing them with the support that they need in order to be able to attain and maintain stable housing over the long term."

One way to do that, candidates agreed, is by creating more affordable housing — both buying commercial units and making sure that the lowest-income residents are able to access them.

Several candidates agreed that current affordable housing isn’t really affordable. “No more building unaffordable affordable housing,” Stringer said.

“I too think that we need to be focused on the very-low income,” Garcia said, saying that those who make less than 30% of the area median income should be prioritized. Donovan said the city must make “truly affordable, permanently affordable housing.”

Two candidates spoke about rezoning neighborhoods and how those changes in land use rules could impact affordable housing. “We…have to stop rezoning only in communities of color,” Stringer said, “and recognize that if we’re gonna integrate our city and build out a new generation of affordable housing, we have to look at as-of-right development. And I’ve proposed that 25% of the units in as-of-right development be set aside for affordable housing.”

Menchaca called for “a moratorium on all rezonings until we have racial impact studies for all of them.” He also said 25% affordable housing isn’t nearly enough. “We need to get up to 50, to 100% affordable housing projects across the city.”

Menchaca also spoke about what appears to be a central proposal of his early campaign, a form of universal basic income, an idea popularized by former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who is rumored to be leaning toward joining the mayoral race himself in January. “The Universal Basic Income’s gonna help people get to those apartments,” Menchaca said of his plan to implement a pilot UBI. Asked what he’d do immediately as mayor to ease burdens on homeless people, Adams also said he would look into “some version” of UBI.

Asked the same question, Garcia said “for a homeless family, I’d immediately give them the money to go and rent an apartment.” She said the city should be converting office towers into housing units and making sure that vacant public housing units are fixed quickly so homeless families can move in.

Adams also called attention to technology challenges at homeless shelters. “It is embarrassing that we had almost 70,000 children who did not have iPads and a countless number who didn’t have Wi-Fi,” he said. “In the 21st century, the inability to put in high-speed broadband is a crime.” He said that as mayor, he’d get students in shelters the technology they need.

Wiley, Stringer, and Donovan all said that the homeless men of the Lucerne hotel on the Upper West Side should be able to stay there despite hostility from some members of the local community there.

Taylor said it’s important to make sure homeless people have resources besides housing. “Make sure that, when we’re talking about putting them in hotels, we’re not just dropping them in hotels and that’s it. That’s just not enough,” she said. Garcia suggested changing laws around hotels being used as shelters to make sure there are services for homeless people staying in them.

“The problem is we have a mayor who has a shelter-first strategy, who thinks we can solve homelessness with homeless programs,” Donovan said. “Instead, what we need is permanent supportive housing that brings the services we need, and we need to make sure that every time somebody leaves Rikers, every time someone leaves the mental health wing of a public hospital, the city has a plan to get them the housing and the resources that they need.”

[WATCH: Democratic Mayoral Candidates Talk NYCHA, Housing and Homelessness at Forum]

by Lauren Hakimi, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Democratic Mayoral Candidates Differ on NYPD Involvement in Mental Health Calls, Use of Solitary Confinement & More


Top (l-r): Loree Sutton, Shaun Donovan, Kathryn Garcia, Carlos Menchaca, Eric Adams
Bottom (l-r): Dianne Morales, Scott Stringer, Joycelyn Taylor, Maya Wiley, Zach Iscol

The NYPD’s involvement when responding to mental health crises took center stage at a forum featuring ten of the 2021 Democratic mayoral candidates Thursday night.

The event, which was hosted by Citizen Action of New York, a grassroots nonprofit advocacy group, and a consortium it is part of that seeks to reform mental health and other social services, especially for low-income New Yorkers, people of color, and other often marginalized communities, and to overhaul treatment of mental health emergencies.

The ten participating candidates -- Eric Adams, Carlos Menchaca, Dianne Morales, Loree Sutton, Karthryn Garcia, Maya Wiley, Shaun Donovan, Scott Stringer, Joycelyn Taylor, and Zach Iscol -- were asked a series of questions about what they would do as mayor to improve the quality of mental health services offered in New York, including related to how police are involved, criminal justice reform, and more.

The pandemic has been hard for all New Yorkers, but for those who suffer from mental illness, the isolation of quarantine has made it particularly difficult. Citizen Action and the Correct Crisis Intervention Today (CCIT-NYC) coalition put together the panel to hear what the candidates would do as mayor to help those who are suffering and where they stand on a number of issues, including the NYPD’s use of tasers and overall involvement in responding to mental health crises.

Due to the large number of panelists, the candidates were not given the opportunity to answer every question. Cindy Rodriguez of WNYC radio moderated the Zoom event, which was organized in large part by CCIT-NYC's Christina Sparrock and Carla Rabinowitz.

The discussion opened with a question about expanding supportive housing for people with mental illness, particularly those who are homeless. Of the over 90,000 people that are homeless in New York at least 40% live with a mental illness, it was said.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said he wants to modify the 15/15 Initiative, the city’s plan to create 15,000 units of supportive housing over 15 years, and cut the time it would take down to 10 years. He said that currently, there isn’t enough supportive housing in New York, citing that there’s only one unit available for every six eligible applicants.

“That's not sufficient. We are failing vulnerable families and individuals who need affordable housing that can offer substance abuse and mental health assistance,” he said.

Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney and former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, proposed turning vacant hotels into permanent affordable housing, saying the pandemic has presented the city with a unique opportunity to help thousands of people.

“We also have to look at properties that are in distress that we can actually use much more quickly and rapidly create supportive housing that's truly affordable,” she said.

The major topic of the night was the NYPD’s involvement when responding to mental health crises. Advocates say police don’t need to be involved when responding to these calls, and social workers and community activists should be deescalating the situations instead. There have been instances where police involvement in responding to mental health episodes has turned fatal, as was the case with Daniel Prude in March.

When asked if police should no longer be responsible for responding to these calls, four (Wiley, Morales, Stringer, and Taylor) out of five candidates asked said yes. Adams was the only candidate to disagree, saying that there are times where these calls can turn violent based on the actions of the person having an episode. Only when it is determined that the individual having the crisis is not a danger to themselves or others is it OK for the police to be removed and a response team to go in to provide assistance, he said.

“I will never put a city employee, psychiatrist, family members or anyone else in a situation that could endanger the lives of innocent people or the person who's going through a mental health crisis,” he said. “So no, I will not just openly state, ‘under no circumstances should a police officer respond.’”

Dianne Morales, the former CEO of Phipps neighborhoods, a nonprofit social service provider in the Bronx, disagreed, citing her first-hand experience with being around someone who was having a mental health crisis. Her daughter has struggled with suicidal ideation, depression, and anxiety and Morales has had to navigate the state’s mental health system in order to seek care for her, she explained.

Morales has called to ‘defund the police’ and remove them from responding to these calls. Instead she wants to connect vulnerable New Yorkers to the programs that would best suit their needs, something she says is entirely possible without the involvement of the NYPD.

“Mental health is criminalized in this city,” she said, adding that the city should “provide the appropriate interventions and services and supports at the time, in the moment, not sending an armed individual to respond to a mental health crisis.”

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer agreed, noting that Black and brown communities are disproportionately affected by NYPD involvement, and said that the police department hasn’t properly trained its officers to respond to a mental health crisis.

“We've approached public health and public safety too narrowly for too long and it's been an enormous cost to the Black and brown New Yorkers,” he said. “The NYPD’s responsibilities have ballooned and now include a host of social challenges, none of which our officers are properly trained to handle.”

Stringer also said he wanted to create a system similar to the one in place in Eugene, Oregon. The Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program was established over 30 years ago and has a trained crisis worker responding to calls with a medic and no police involvement. Of the 24,000 CAHOOT calls in 2019, only 150 required police backup, Stringer said, as part of a back-and-forth of sorts with Adams, who had called the system into question. 

Joycelyn Taylor, founder and CEO of TaylorMade Contracting LLC, echoed Stringer in her response, saying she wanted to expand a program proposed by Correct Crisis Intervention Today - NYC in which an EMT is paired with a peer de-escalator to respond to calls about mental health. The de Blasio administration recently proposed a pilot that is almost identical to the one advocated by CCIT-NYC. The city’s proposed program would be piloted in two police precincts. The city made this plan only after a number of people in mental health crises were killed by responding NYPD officers and years of criticism of Mayor de Blasio for not taking a different approach to emergency mental health calls.

“We cannot continue to be so risk averse that we come up with every reason why we can't create change,” Taylor said. “I think it was an excellent recommendation for a peer program to address the issue. So yes, we should take policing out of mental health issues.”

Candidates were also asked about allowing police to use tools such as tasers and hoods when subduing people suffering from a mental health crisis, a tactic that is considered to be inhumane by the mental health community.

Loree Sutton, a retired brigadier general and Army psychiatrist who most recently ran the city’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs, said that she believes that it’s important to try to defuse a situation and establish a relationship with the person who is having the crisis with as little force possible, but she said that there are some situations where that can’t be avoided.

“It's difficult if someone is throwing feces at you, if they are spitting at you, if they are resisting arrest. Our law enforcement officers do need tools and the non-lethal tools that have been mentioned tonight have their place, they should not be overused, but I would not remove them from the toolkit of the NYPD,” she said.

Kathryn Garcia, former city sanitation commissioner, agreed to an extent, saying that hoods should not be permitted but that tasers should be kept as long as they are not overused, and if there is a serious threat that people involved should be protected.

“I believe that we need to pair police with mental health professionals when they are dealing with someone where we don't have a predictability of what's going to happen and there could be violence involved,” she said.

Adams was asked directly about his proposal of implementing the use of a BolaWrap, a kevlar rope that is fired when subduing an individual and wraps around their body to restrain them. "I do not support the overuse of tasers, hoods, I do not support using those devices," he said, but that the BolaWrap is a better way to restrain someone who poses a danger to themselves or others.

“It is a proper tool that’s been used that's non-lethal, instead of using those methods that are lethal and causes serious bodily injury or death. But we have to be extremely careful when it's time to respond to someone who's going through a serious, dangerous emotional stress,” Adams said.

ThriveNYC is the de Blasio administration’s overarching mental health roadmap, spearheaded by First Lady Chirlane McCray, and aims to bring mental health services to all New Yorkers who need them. The roughly $225 million per year program, which both spends money itself and seeks to coordinate ongoing mental health services, and management of it by de Blasio and McCray have come under a great deal of scrutiny, especially as they have struggled to show its impact and have provided limited evidence for how it addresses people with the most severe mental illnesses.

When asked about bringing universal mental health care to all New Yorkers, Wiley directly referenced the program, calling it a “$1.25 billion mistake,” because the program was created without community input and because it was not implemented well.

“It wasn't a mistake because its effort was to address mental health issues. Its mistake was it was trying to do too much that was not central to what communities needed,” she said. 

Stringer also criticized the program and de Blasio’s approach to mental health care, saying that the program is all about the mayor, not the people who need help. Stringer said that in order to better serve New Yorkers, he will work with communities to create programs that are effective.

“It's not about real mental health services in the streets, it's ballooned to its own inadequacy. I'm going to take that program, and I'm going to redistribute those resources to the programs that work,” he said.

Adams was asked if he would change ThriveNYC but didn’t address it directly, instead saying that he would work towards providing better access to healthy food because of nutritional psychiatry, or the connection between what people eat and the impact it has on their mental health.

“The new science shows that a diet, changes in consumption of healthy food can really prevent and treat many of the issues we're dealing with,” he said. “We're not doing enough on a nutritional level to deal with the mental health crisis.”

The impact that the uncertainty of the pandemic has had on CUNY students was also discussed, with Rodriguez mentioning that students are experiencing mental illness at unprecedented levels with little support from their schools. Candidates were asked to talk about what kind of program they would have to bring mental health services to these students, who often can’t afford to go to therapy or seek other help.

Garcia suggested expanding telemedicine and having virtual therapists reach out to students, saying that one of the challenges during the pandemic was the students having “very little income and social safety net” on top of worrying about the virus. 

During a lighting round where candidates could only answer with yes or no, the majority of candidates seemed to be on the same page about a variety of topics ranging from ending solitary confinement in city jails to taxing the rich. Sutton was an outlier, disagreeing with the majority about those two issues and saying that neither should be implemented. Zach Iscol, a military veteran turned entrepreneur, was displeased with having to state a hard yes or no, but came around to say he was against raising taxes and that the city should “move toward” ending solitary confinement. Adams was the only other of the ten who wasn’t for a complete end to solitary confinement, saying it should be ended only for non-violent detainees.

Given the high percentage, about 40%, of people being held in city jails who suffer from a mental health issue, candidates were asked about what kinds of investments they would make in mental health care to prevent people from entering the criminal justice system in the first place. Shaun Donovan, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama, said he would reorient the parole system and create a pretrial system so people can get the help they need before appearing before a judge.

“We need to completely reorient our system to create a pretrial agency so that before anyone suffering with mental health challenges ends up in front of a judge, we are looking at alternatives,” he said. 

Donovan also proposed giving housing vouchers to people who were just released from jail, citing something he did (and was criticized for, he said) when he was housing commissioner under Mayor Bloomberg. He said that 95% of recipients had not reoffended a year after being given the voucher, and that most had jobs and were in a stable household.

“Think about what we could do if we reorient our system to not only provide housing vouchers, but the kind of job training and investments in mental health that we ought to have,” Donovan said.

City Council Member Carlos Menchaca wants to reallocate funding from agencies like the NYPD and also stop the construction of four new jails to replace Rikers Island facilities, something he said he’ll do in his first 100 days as mayor. He said the jails plan is not worth the $9.2 billion that it is budgeted for when that money could be used to keep people out of jail, invested in communities.

“Communities can make a decision through a participatory budgeting model where our boroughs can make decisions about how they want to bring the infrastructure and begin this municipal green new deal to bring jobs on board,” he said.

On a question about the impact the pandemic has had on Black and brown communities, Stringer talked about how communities of color have been hit hardest and that 75% of essential workers are people of color. He said it is essential to invest in these communities, saying that the economy we had before the pandemic cannot be the economy we return to, because it puts people of color at a disadvantage.

“They were the ones who went out without protective gear. The government failed them. But they saved our city and they saved our lives, and we owe them a better deal than what they're getting,” he said.

“This is 2020. We should not be having conversations about children not having access to technology, because we live in a technological world,” Taylor said, stressing that all students must have access to technology, and pledging to hand students a device when they enter first grade, another for middle school, and another for high school.

Donovan touted a career in public service, saying that he has the most experience dealing with crises, ranging from work he did under President Obama after the housing market crash that devastated communities of color in southeast Queens to efforts in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans.

“In every single crisis, the communities that are most vulnerable before that crisis hit, get hurt the worst by it. So I was shocked, but I wasn't surprised to see COVID take a disproportionate toll on our Black and brown communities,” he said.

If elected, Donovan said he will appoint a Chief Equity Officer on his first day as Mayor, something he says will help him begin to dismantle how “structural racism affects our work in the city." (After years of pressure from Stringer, Mayor de Blasio recently announced he was appointing a Chief Diversity Officer.) Donovan said once Rikers Island jails are closed the island should be used for environmental justice because communities of color are often disproportionately impacted by climate change.

“Equity is in every decision a mayor makes,” Donovan said, “and has to be at the forefront.”

by Caroline Leddy, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been updated with more clarity around the city's proposed pilot program to change how some mental health emergency calls are responded to.

How New York City's Public Libraries Adapted to COVID-19

1 city lib pandemic

Libraries have mostly been empty, but active (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

Last month, the New York City Council’s Committee on Cultural Affairs and Libraries held an oversight hearing on the city’s public libraries and COVID-19. The committee, chaired by Queens Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, heard testimony from Anthony Marx, the President, and CEO of New York Public Library, which is the system for Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island; President and CEO of Brooklyn Public Library Linda Johnson; and President and CEO of Queens Public Library Dennis Walcott. The discussion touched on library funding and finances, and how libraries have adjusted during the pandemic, which shut their buildings down for months earlier this year and continues to significantly impact their operations.

“Libraries are the most democratic and one of the most important institutions that we have in this world,” said Van Bramer in his opening remarks. “The onset of the covid pandemic has not only revealed the extent to which people rely on libraries, but in this moment where people are desperate for normalcy, stability, safety, and also craving information, while libraries are not as open physically to some, they continue to provide invaluable services in every way they possibly could.”

At a City Council budget hearing in March, just before the coronavirus outbreak took hold of the city, the heads of the three library systems presented their fiscal year 2021 funding needs to the Council, which negotiates the budget with the mayor. They requested fairly modest additional increases from the city for both operational and capital expenses, some of which would go to protecting extended library hours, staff, and collections, as well as $10 million in new funding “critical to enhancing equity, offering greater access to libraries for children and teens, and helping support the City’s educational priorities,” according to the New York Public Library website.

The additional funding would also cover a waiver of late fines for children and teenagers, as well as the costs of individual branch programs to support literacy in toddlers and pre-kindergarten students, the cost of repairs, and the costs of databases, ebooks, and other materials.

The city’s public library systems also rely on additional funding from patrons, such as monthly donations, memberships, and foundations. The New York Public Library, for example, received a “leadership gift” of $1 million from the New York Life Foundation and developed partnerships with entities such as HBO, Bank of America, and Bloomberg Philanthropies. The Brooklyn Public Library has corporate support from companies including Whole Foods Market, Goldman Sachs, and Con Edison, and Queens Public Library receives support from TD Bank, among others.

But city budget negotiations are always tense -- the public libraries, however important to the city’s civic fabric, are recipients of less than 1% of New York City’s fiscal year 2021 budget, according to a note on the budget from the Council’s Committee on Cultural Affairs and Libraries -- and discussions were ongoing.

Then the covid crisis hit, the city budget was decimated, and the libraries were deeply hurt like so many other institutions.

At the November hearing, Johnson said she is worried that Brooklyn Public Library won’t have the resources it needs and is very concerned about both this year and into 2021 and beyond. Brooklyn Public Library has reprioritized and shifted spending, “especially in respect to digital collections and virtual programming,” Johnson said.

At New York Public Library, Marx said he has had to cut 95 positions due to a “reduced budget,” but they haven’t had “the mass layoffs we all feared.”

“Basically we’re at this, sort of serving the public as much as we can physically, being safe, massively increased virtual, increased costs,” Marx said. “Basically we’re able to hold that for now. But, if big cuts come, or further cuts come, we’re not going to be able to hold all of that. It’s a physics problem.”

“We got some cuts from the city, and we rely, more than our peers, on other private sources, that all gets hit at the same time,” Marx said.

He also cited increased “pandemic-related costs,” including on security and personal protective equipment (PPE). “We also have staff to accommodate because they simply can’t get to work,” Marx said, and some have “caretaker situations.”

Marx said he has been looking for ways to save money, such as investing in more digital resources and shifting education expenditures online.

Safety Measures
Since the shutdown of the city’s public libraries in March, branches have shifted their resources more fully online. Each of the three systems has increased the use of ebooks, audiobooks, and apps, as well as holding classes, town halls, and meetings virtually through Zoom.

Although no public libraries are fully operational, many do offer “grab and go” services, according to New York Public Library’s website. This entails socially-distanced checkouts and returns where patrons can pre-request items online or by phone, pick up their items at available locations with their library cards, and then return them to drop-off bins where the items are placed in quarantine for 96 hours before being made available to other patrons.

The rising number of COVID-19 cases has impacted Queens Public Libraries' attempt to reopen. “While we have been planning to begin offering public computer appointments...,” Walcott said, “in light of the rising number of COVID-19 cases in and around the city, we will delay the computer services until an appropriate time.”

In Queens, said Walcott, there was a security guard whose family member had tested positive for COVID-19. “We put our protocols in place and then moved folks out of that,” he said of the branch. Queens Public Library then “did a deep cleaning, but we haven’t had any positive cases of our staff directly.” The library also has “pods of staff,” said Walcott, in which they have “various teams of staff in place. (If) someone should test positive; then we’ll move that entire team out, shutdown the library, do the cleaning, then have a second-team come in place.” Although this provides a more “complex” system, said Walcott, it also provides a “more safe system.” 

At the time of the hearing, New York Public Library had recently moved its research libraries at 14 locations to “phase two” of reopening, which included “adding browsing and computer use,” both at very limited capacity, said Marx. “That was going smoothly, we had worked for months for that,” he said, but “it became obvious that the numbers in Staten Island were going very much in the wrong direction, we moved the three phase twos in Staten Island back to phase one.”

“Unfortunately, we concluded that the numbers were consistently going in the wrong direction,”  Marx continued, discussing the city’s covid situation and the library system more broadly. As cases began to rise throughout the city, New York Public Library “decided to move all of our phase two services, after only a week, back to phase one,” said Marx.

While the New York Public Library had no known transmission, said Marx, they did have seven staff members test positive for COVID-19. He said New York Public Library “used exactly the same protocols” that Queens Public Library took. And when asked what safety measures New York Public Library was taking to assess when it could begin to reopen again, Marx said New York Public Library is “using a variety of metrics, consulting experts.” While it relies on the advice of experts, Marx said, “we should always be a half a step more conservative than the expert advice.”

“If we make a mistake, on the side of erring on safety, I’ll live with that,” Marx said.

In Brooklyn, said Johnson, “we’ve had one maintainer who was diagnosed with COVID-19. He worked at the Central Library, and we immediately put the protocols in place,” as the two other library systems have.

Brooklyn Public Library
Since March, the staff at Brooklyn Public Libraries has been “running around with our hair on fire,” said Johnson. Although libraries were closed, said Johnson, “we found new ways to serve.” Brooklyn Public Library, which, before March, was the largest free Wi-Fi provider in the borough, according to Johnson, kept Wi-Fi on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, while the buildings were closed. People could then access the internet from just outside the buildings, so those who “do not have broadband internet access consistently available at home have relied on the libraries as a vital place to connect to the world,” according to Brooklyn Public Library’s website.

In addition to constantly keeping Wi-Fi on, Brooklyn Public Library launched “Bklyn Reach,” a Wi-Fi service at select branches located in Brownsville, Bushwick, Coney Island, Fort Greene, Red Hook, and Flatbush that extends Wi-Fi reach to up to 300 feet from the libraries. “Whether people are in the library or not,” the website explains, “Brooklynites can use these networks for free to get online for school, work, and more.”

The select branches are also equipped with furnished outdoor library spaces loaned from the Department of Transportation, Johnson said. “With more than 1,000 people gathering outside on a single day to try and catch the signal coming through our windows and doors,” said Johnson, who said Brooklyn Public Library has become a key source of Wi-Fi and an advocate for internet access in the borough.

The Brooklyn Public Library also expanded its digital collection, which now contains over 400,000 ebooks, audiobooks, videos, and subscriptions, she added.

From mid-March to September, Brooklyn Public Library hosted more than 4,000 programs online, Johnson said. The programs that the library held aimed to “foster literacy, civil engagement, and social justice” and included events such as “the 28th Amendment Initiative,” a 32-part Zoom town hall, where “hundreds of Brooklynites brainstormed the next amendment to the Constitution” and what it should include.

The Justice Initiatives at Brooklyn Public Library and community organizations and agencies worked together to produce a “series of Know Your Rights workshops,” Johnson said. The first workshop, which was held on October 22 focused on the right to vote, “with an emphasis on New York and particularly on the rights of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated to full participation in the democratic process,” according to Brooklyn Public Library’s website.

While unemployment throughout Brooklyn reached as high as 20.5%in June, according to the Department of Labor, Brooklyn Public Library made its Business and Career Center available remotely. Their center includes virtual resume and career help to help aid New Yorkers in finding employment. As well as a guide of “economic resources to help navigate the COVID-19 crisis,” according to the library’s website. The guide includes “free legal advice from the New York State Bar Association for workers whose unemployment insurance claim has been denied,” contact information for the Worker Rights Hotline, and resources for undocumented immigrants.

The library also added new initiatives that “prioritized programs that foster dialogue about race and social equity and that center Black and Indigenous writers and thinkers,” said Johnson. “We also pledged to ensure that our collection as a whole reflects more Black and Indigenious viewpoints.”

While schools across the city held remote classes, the library has held virtual sessions for children, such as “multi-Lingual Storytimes,” “homework help” sessions, a program where children in grades 1 through 8 can be paired with a trained volunteer to receive help with “assignments in math, science, social studies, and other topics,” according to Brooklyn Public Library’s website.

As COVID-19 resulted in the death of more than 20,000 New Yorkers, Brooklyn Public Library provided grief support groups to those who have lost loved ones throughout the pandemic. The library also hosted mental health-related programs, including support groups.

Brooklyn Public Library has partnered with the New York City Health + Hospital Test and Trace Corp. “A Test and Trace grant has allowed library staff to distribute 270,000 masks,” and provide information to over 19,000 Brooklyn residents about “essential resources, such as free testing sites and emergency food relief,” said Johnson.

Brooklyn Public Library also holds weekly Virtual Health Fairs, which provide information about COVID-19, testing sites, and free face-covering distribution sites, as well as information on the flu, “in order to help our patrons navigate the constantly evolving information regarding testing sites, insurance coverage, and more,” said Johnson.

The Test and Trace Corp partnership also includes the use of BPL’s Williamsburg and Borough Park locations to distribute PPE, and outdoor pop-up covid testing sites at Paerdegat and Brighton Beach libraries, said Johnson.

“Early in the pandemic, when PPE was scarce, we worked in partnership with Columbia University to print face shields for health care workers using 3D printers from our branches,” she explained.

In addition to providing support to health-care workers, during the summer, Brooklyn Public Library used five branches to act as cooling centers for New Yorkers, and 18 branches were used as polling sites during New York’s primary and general elections, said Johnson. 

The library partnered with the Department of Correction to “provide incarcerated New Yorkers with a virtual library via tablets,” and with the City’s Department of Youth and Community Development to “host learning labs” at six library branches where K-8 students will “be able to access remote learning and be able to enjoy an enriching environment when they cannot be in school,” said Johnson.

“Public libraries, trusted by every generation, in every neighborhood, are uniquely suited to help rebuild our social and civic infrastructure and ensure that infrastructure serves all of us,” said Johnson.

Still, BPL still “sorely needs capital improvement,” said Johnson. “We have managed to forge ahead with a few self-managed projects,” which include the new Greenpoint Library and Environmental Education Center and The Center For Brooklyn History “which will allow all New Yorkers free and open access to the most expansive collection of Brooklyn history in the world,” she said of the acquisition of Brooklyn Historical Society.

New York Public Library (Manhattan, Staten Island, the Bronx)
In the wake of the closure of public library buildings, New York Public Library has “continued to provide equitable and accessible services, many of which are virtual,” said Marx. According to Marx, New York Public Library has seen 45,000 new library card sign-ups since March and 2.1 million digital checkouts. The library system for Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx has also seen 65,000 new users on its app, SimplyE, which provides readers with access to free books and audiobooks, and close to 1 million database item requests and 25,000 item holds.

New York Public Library also provided online access to their research library. “You can request any document, we’ll send it to you,” said Marx. The library has begun to negotiate a “research ebook collection available to anyone in the world,” which would contain between 3 and 4 million volumes of books. It also “massively increased” its database, according to Marx.

And New York Public Library is using its research library to “pump out what people are so eager for,” such as their launch of the Schomburg Center Black Liberation Reading List, which includes 95 books by Black authors.

“It’s just been extraordinary to see my colleagues remove all the constraints and offer everything that we can digitally,” said Marx.

The digital opportunities include a myriad of different events and information for New York City residents. Such as information on wellness, housing, and food security, and career services, like Spotlight On: LinkedIn, an event held on December 1 where “participants share their screen to show off their resume or LinkedIn profile and practice interviewing to get feedback from the NYPL career coaches and the whole group,” according to the New York Public Library website. The library also holds financial counseling sessions virtually and by appointment and speaks to individuals about their “current financial situation, including general money management, budgeting, saving, banking, retirement planning, and more,” the library’s website says.

The library has also moved its educational programs entirely virtual. Through events like Children’s Book Discussion, held by librarians at Columbus library, where children ages 3 through 12 are invited to talk about the books they are currently reading and, “accompanied by a caregiver will be able to share their thoughts about the characters they meet and exciting plots they’ve explored,” according to the website. During the summer, in support of distance learning, New York Public Library also distributed 40,000 reading kits to students throughout the city.

New York Public Library knows “that too many New Yorkers are on the wrong side of the digital divide,” said Marx. 

When NYPL “can help some people get connected, when we can do hotspots, that’s great. But I’m sorry,” Marx continued. “This is 2020. The fact that we live in the information capital of the world and millions of New Yorkers simply can’t go to school now, do their schoolwork, do their jobs, apply to jobs because we don’t believe that’s a minimum, basic utility we owe the citizens, we can have this testimony, we can do whatever we want. But we have to solve this problem. This is a fundamental failing of this city at this point — to provide the basic services that we need the city to provide for us to be able to do the work that we need to do. That could not be more clear now.”

Marx said “the crisis resulted in the halt on all capital projects in March, including 62 active capital projects.” Since then, said Marx, 16 of the projects have been restarted. “We continue to work with the City’s Office of Management and Budget as well as the CDC.”

“It’s been an amazingly difficult and challenging year,” he said. “Our colleagues have stepped up to the plate. We were the most used civic facilities in this city. We are now the front and center for what we can do physically and what is happening virtually in terms of helping with learning, information, access, in these times.” 

Queens Public Library
The Queens Public Library adapted their in-person programming to “fit the virtual world” said Walcott. “The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every citizen, business, and government in the world,” said Walcott, “and changed the way we interact with one another and has forced us to reconsider all the things we take for granted as normal.”

Closing Queens Public Library buildings on March 16 was a “difficult decision to make,” said Walcott. “It was a difficult decision because I know that hundreds of thousands of people rely on our collections and free programs and services on a daily basis...However, it was a decision that had to be made in order to save lives.”

As the city began to rapidly close, said Walcott, in the “first two weeks of the city-wide shutdown,” which began on March 22, Queens Public Library knew that it had to “rapidly alter our service delivery mechanisms in order to serve the public.” These mechanisms included setting up an online calendar that offered virtual activities, including “Children Story Time” and “Ask the Census Bureau,” a Facebook Live question-and-answer segment with Jeff T. Behler, the New York Regional Director for the U.S. Census Bureau, said Walcott.

Since then, Queens Public Library has hosted over 5,700 programs, Walcott touted, which have been attended by over 100,000 participants. One event, the Adult Learning Program, has hosted over 100 virtual courses and 700 individuals registered for the New Americans Program’s English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) 2020 virtual fall semester, Walcott said.

Queens Public Library has also created “QPL At Night,” a “virtual nightlife hotspot for virtual entertainment, civic engagement, and learning geared towards a millennial audience,” said Walcott. There was also a panel discussion led by Walcott called “To Be Black in America,” a conversation about racism in America with New York State Attorney General Letitia James and SUNY Downstate President Dr. Wayne Riley. The discussion focused on racial disparities during COVID-19 and the daily lives of minority groups in America.

The library also partnered with BrainFuse, “one of the nation’s leading online tutoring providers,” said Walcott, “to broaden access to free homework help.” This partnership includes free live online tutoring for children from grades K-12, as well as test preparation and homework help. The partnership also helps “adult learners,” he said, and includes resources such as professional resume and cover letter assistance as well as preparation for the U.S. citizenship test, and a “Microsoft Office Essential Skills Series,” according to Queens Public Library’s website.

In addition to programs, Queens Public Library also moved 25,000 ebooks, emagazines, audiobooks, and videos to their digital platform with a circulation increase during the first six weeks of over 104%, said Walcott.

“As we moved to a more virtual world, however, it laid bare the disparities in regards to the broadband connectivity in the local communities we serve,” said Walcott.

Similar to the other two public library systems, “Queens Public Library serves as a critical lifeline for individuals who do not have” access to Wi-Fi, said Walcott. In areas like Southeast Queens, said Walcott, “approximately 43% of the households are without broadband access.” Queens Public Library, he said, “serves as a critical lifeline for individuals who do not have these services.” During the first quarter of the fiscal year, the Queens Public Library recorded nearly 118,000 Wi-Fi sessions, said Walcott. “Our customers rely on our free Wi-Fi services for a plethora of reasons,” such as staying connected with friends and family. Customers also rely on the Queens Public Libraries’ Wi-Fi services to pay their bills and to attend school remotely.

“But that’s still not acceptable, as far as the need out there in the public,” said Walcott.

Queens Public Library has extended their Wi-Fi at 20 locations to allow anyone, whether they have a library card or not, to be able to access broadband services using their personal devices up to 150 yards from their buildings, said Walcott. Queens Public Library’s Wi-Fi is available 24/7 “and the public is taking full advantage of it,” he said.

Queens Public Library also launched its newly redesigned mobile app. Which includes an “improved user-friendly interface, allowing customers to navigate with ease,” as well as “includes the ability to search and scan books, find nearby locations, and read, watch, and listen to content directly from the app,” Walcott said.

“As all of us have confronted the COVID-19 pandemic and the manifestations of racial injustice across the country, and here at home, New York City endured unprecedented heartache, economic hardship, and turmoil. In developing our reopening plans, there was one thing we all knew: the world would now need and demand more from libraries than ever before,” said Walcott.

The measures that city’s public library systems have taken in order to provide crucial support to New Yorkers is “incredible,” said Council Member Van Bramer and “demonstrates to the world just how indispensable libraries are."

“If in the middle of this pandemic,” Van Bramer said, people are still visiting public libraries, “it just talks about how desperate people are for the information, for that connectivity to a place they trust so much.”

“I hope that everyone remembers what you have done, what you are doing, and what you will continue doing as we go through further phases of this pandemic and hopefully towards an end to it,” Van Bramer told the library system leaders. “When we do talk about the budget issues, the City of New York as it relates to public libraries, we need you now more than ever.”

“You have come through for the City of New York more than ever,” he said, “and are literally saving lives."

by Anna Conkling, Gotham Gazette

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