Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/111 Mon, 18 Jan 2021 20:47:28 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Why Didn't New York's Hardest Hit Communities Receive Covid Vaccine Priority? https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/10075-why-didnt-new-york-hardest-hit-communities-of-color-covid-vaccine-priority https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/10075-why-didnt-new-york-hardest-hit-communities-of-color-covid-vaccine-priority police academy a

The covid vaccine (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


Given the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic devastated Black, Latino, and immigrant communities across New York City at disproportionate levels last spring and since, some lawmakers are asking why the same populations were not included in vaccine priority plans crafted by the state and city.

At a January 12 City Council oversight hearing on the de Blasio administration's roll-out of the first batches of the covid vaccine, members of the Council’s committees on hospitals and health asked the city's top health department officials why the city wasn't doing more to inoculate underserved and hardest hit Black, Latino and Asian communities.

"We know that communities of color experienced the highest death rate during the onset of COVID-19," said Council Member Adrienne Adams, a Queens Democrat, in her questioning of administration officials. "Why are they not prioritized? Why are we doomed to repeat the same number of deaths in communities of color with no access to the vaccine that may save their lives?"

Adams' district includes Richmond Hill, which contains zip codes with the highest test covid positivity rates in the city. In that section of Queens, a predominantly Latino and South Asian neighborhood, the seven-day average positivity rate was 16.3% as of Wednesday, nearly double the citywide rate of 8.4%. Adams was talking about the availability of the vaccine to her constituents -- a question of state-designated eligibility as much as it is city-designed access -- and the dearth of data collected on inoculating members of communities of color, a fatal repetition of the carnage wrought in the spring and throughout the pandemic.

The groups most deeply impacted by the outbreak -- in terms of loss of life, infection, and the loss of livelihood due to the accompanying economic crisis -- live in the city's predominantly Black, Latino, and immigrant neighborhoods. Neighborhoods like Elmhurst, in Queens, and Mott Haven, in the Bronx, saw their hospitals reach capacity and on the verge of collapse last spring. Even before the first wave broke over New York City, epidemiologists worldwide were discussing the heightened risk to seniors and people with comorbidities, the latter group also disproportionately represented in the city's historically neglected neighborhoods.

Rather than slicing the population by the categories most likely to contract, spread, or die from the disease, the New York State Department of Health has followed a different arithmetic, one that factors in the preservation of what have come to be defined as essential workers and the services they provide.

The state's vaccine distribution plan -- created under the close control of Governor Andrew Cuomo based on federal guidance and in consultation with local health departments, including New York City's -- has been to prioritize potential recipients by their occupation in the health-care sector (with the exception of nursing home residents, who’ve also been prioritized by federal decree), beginning with hospital employees and paramedics with patient contact, and expanding to other types of doctors and medical staff. On Monday, after the urging of Mayor Bill de Blasio and other local leaders, Cuomo opened vaccination to people over 75 and other types of essential employees, like police, firefighters, transit workers and teachers.

"Here's where we are," said Dr. Torian Easterling, first deputy commissioner and chief equity officer at the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, at the City Council hearing Tuesday. "We do have to keep in mind that we're following the federal and state guidelines as it relates to eligibility criteria. And certainly equity and ethical principles being taken into consideration, thinking about the categories that have borne the brunt and we want to save lives, but also those categories where we want to continue to preserve functions." When asked for clarity or elaboration on this point by Gotham Gazette, a department spokesperson only reiterated that the state set the eligibility criteria, not the city.

With a trickling supply of the vaccine scheduled by the federal government, Cuomo has repeatedly expressed concern over hospital staffing levels as the number of cases and hospitalizations have risen in recent months, echoing some of the most dire alarms raised during the state's first brush with inundated ERs and ICUs last spring.

Even after bowing to pressure from de Blasio and others to widen vaccine eligibility last week, those alarms have only heightened with the presence of a new more contagious covid strain connected to the United Kingdom, and more strains likely to be detected before enough of the population is vaccinated.

"The biggest capacity element in the hospital system is we're losing staff," the governor said on a call with members of the press Tuesday, after opening vaccinations up to people 65 and older in accordance with new CDC guidance. "We're losing staff because the staff is getting sick from covid. That's why continued prioritization of the hospital staff is key and in the webinar we said hospitals must continue to prioritize hospital staff."

Physicians and nurses in New York are less racially diverse than the population of the state, according to research released in 2017 by the Center for Health Workforce Studies. A report published by City Comptroller Scott Stringer last March showed that 54% of frontline workers in the city's health-care sector were Black or Latino, compared with 62% working in public transit. (Across industries, white employees made up roughly between a fifth and a quarter of the frontline personnel, according to the report.) The emphasis on preserving doctors over bus drivers further exposes the gruesome calculus of expendability in a pandemic crisis, with the training of health-care workers equating them to least expendable, while the transit workers getting some of them to their shifts, typically equipped with less PPE, are more expendable.

“New York State has followed the priority categories as outlined by ACIP & CDC,” wrote a state Department of Health spokesperson in an email to Gotham Gazette, referring to the federal Centers for Disease Control's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

That guidance, which is national and not specifically tailored to New York, suggests that the right distribution of the vaccine within the broad category of health-care personnel (HPC) would mitigate inequities. "Vaccination of HCP across all occupations and work settings addresses the disproportionate representation of racial and ethnic minority groups in low-wage HCP," reads a supplement to the federal recommendations.

"Effort will need to be applied throughout the vaccination program to ensure equitable access," the document states.

It notes that health-care personnel in long-term care facilities, like nursing homes, are at risk of transmitting the virus to medically vulnerable patients, but does not cite any study or evidence related to hospital facilities or staff.

Fewer than 1 in every 300 confirmed COVID-19 deaths nationwide has been of a health-care professional, according to CDC data

 

 

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The vaccine roll-out has been plagued by infighting between Cuomo and de Blasio, often leaving the public in the dark about what may come next. Both have been reluctant to share data at various points since the state of emergency began last March, which now extends to vaccination rates by race and ethnicity.

City Council Member I. Daneek Miller and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who is running for mayor this year, plan to introduce a resolution to the City Council calling on the city and state to improve "coordination in distributing and administering COVID-19 vaccines, prioritizing vaccinations for essential workers - especially home health care, food delivery, supermarket, and transit workers – immigrants, and other high-risk populations in our hardest-hit communities of color," according to a statement from the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus, of which Miller and Adrienne Adams are co-chairs.

The resolution, which has not yet been introduced, will also call for a real-time vaccine tracking system with demographic data, according to the statement, which Council Member Adams presented at Tuesday's oversight hearing.

The statement reads: "One of the most painful lessons drawn from this crisis was that a failure to provide timely reporting of racial demographic data at the onset of the pandemic resulted in a disproportionate number of dead Black and Brown New Yorkers that otherwise could have resulted in more aggressive mitigation measures employed in these communities."

The mayor has been criticized for not having taken better advantage of the months before the vaccine arrived to prepare vaccination sites in lower income communities and communities of color. "Let me be clear, we have been building out sites constantly and we're building out the hours of sites," de Blasio told reporters Wednesday when asked why there were no city-run vaccination hubs in Inwood and Washington Heights, neighborhoods with some of the highest positivity rates in Manhattan. Figures like City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who represents the area, have called for more.

On Friday, Cuomo announced the state would be setting up five vaccination sites on NYCHA campuses for public housing residents, predominantly people of color. An official press release does not say when they will become operational.

The city, through de Blasio’s Racial Equity and Inclusion Task Force, has made efforts to "tailor our resources" using data to target testing and outreach, said Dr. Easterling, of the city Health Department, at the City Council oversight hearing, "and certainly we're thinking about this as the vaccine distribution plan rolls out."

"We know that Black and Latino communities bore the brunt of this COVID-19 pandemic and the data was very clear during wave one," Easterling said in response to the BLA Caucus statement and Adams' question. "And, as you laid out, we continue to see cases go up and we continue to see disproportionate impact even today."

"Now that we have more data, [we are] looking at not only COVID-19 data but also being able to really understand some of the inequity that really contributed to high exposure, thinking about overcrowding, overcrowding in housing, multi-generational homes. Also thinking about being a frontline worker, and really being able to map those neighborhoods," he said.

The city was limited by the plan outlined by Cuomo and state health officials, which takes into consideration the city's essential operations, highest among them the hospital and health-care systems. But the mayor made no public push for any changes to vaccine categorization and availability based on the most medically-vulnerable communities other than his call for the state to allow those over 75 to become eligible sooner.

A spokesperson for DOHMH said the health department doesn't track positivity or mortality rates by occupation or eligibility criteria, indicating it is not collected by the state nor a significant factor in the vaccine distribution scheme. A spokesperson for the state Department of Health did not say whether the officials are tracking infection and mortality rates within eligibility groups and did not provide data to justify the breakdown of eligibility categories, though it is consistent with CDC guidance.

On January 12, the state opened vaccination to people living and working in shelters and to grocery store employees. De Blasio has since called for eligibility to include delivery workers, and bodega and deli staff.

In an initial roll-out plan released in October, before the first vaccines received federal approval, the state was concerned with addressing the highest risk groups and most essential workforce, with an eye toward geographically targeting eligible recipients in the hardest hit areas.

"In anticipation of limited numbers of vaccine initially available coupled with current knowledge of COVID-19 morbidity and mortality, public health concerns, and the need to maintain essential services, one of New York’s prioritization strategies for vaccine distribution is designed to ensure early vaccination of the most vulnerable New Yorkers as well as essential frontline workers, with distribution potentially directed to these populations who reside or work within communities with highest prevalence of COVID-19," reads the report, prepared by the New York State Department of Health.

Much of that seems to have been shelved as the state has adhered closely to CDC guidance.

As the vaccine roll-out has come closer to utilizing the supply -- and, as de Blasio and Cuomo warn, will soon exhaust it -- the number of new daily covid cases and hospitalizations have continued to rise. For the last few days new hospital admissions in New York City have come close to 300 per day, and new reported daily cases have topped 5,000. In the second week of January, close to 60 people in New York City have died from covid per day.

At the January 12 oversight hearing, city Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi said the city was working to reach lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color through "trusted messengers," such as faith leaders and local representatives. As for the grief of loss, especially in New York's Black and Latino communities, "we have to ensure that we turn that into our motivation to better serve people today as well as going forward," he said.

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Why Didn't New York's Hardest Hit Communities Receive Covid Vaccine Priority? Sat, 16 Jan 2021 05:00:00 +0000
‘I'm On A Mission’: Ritchie Torres Goes to Washington to Save Public Housing https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10044-ritchie-torres-congress-washington-dc-save-public-housing-nycha https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10044-ritchie-torres-congress-washington-dc-save-public-housing-nycha 1cm ri nycha wagner

Rep. Ritchie Torres (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


Ritchie Torres, a Bronx Democrat, was sworn in early this month among the new class of the House of Representatives, becoming the first openly-gay Afro-Latino member of Congress. After seven years advocating for his district on the New York City Council, Torres now takes to the halls of Congress to exert whatever influence he can for his constituents, particularly through a plum committee assignment not often given to freshman lawmakers. One of his chief priorities remains the state of public housing in New York City and he is optimistic that with full Democratic control of the federal government, the New York City Housing Authority will finally get its due.

The future of NYCHA is a deeply personal issue for Torres, who grew up in public housing and went on to chair the City Council’s public housing committee. “My highest priority is affordable housing. I would not be where I am today but for affordable housing and the stability it gave me and my family,” Rep. Torres said in an interview.

NYCHA houses more than 400,000 New Yorkers, largely people of color, and is a crucial lifeline for families in a city with a housing affordability crisis. But, owing to decades of disinvestment by the federal government, the state, and the city, as well as mismanagement by city government and its chosen NYCHA leadership, public housing developments across the city have fallen into a state of deep disrepair. Tenants have been forced to live with problems that include rat infestations, mold, lead paint, broken elevators and other key infrastructure, and a lack of heat and hot water.

NYCHA Chair and CEO Gregory Russ estimated in January last year that repairing and maintaining the aging infrastructure will cost as much as $40 billion, and watchdogs have warned that many NYCHA towers could soon be so dilapidated that repairing them is more expensive than building anew. 

The housing authority is currently under federal monitorship over a lead paint crisis spanning many years, though that oversight and the threat of receivership did not come with additional federal dollars. Various partial NYCHA rescue plans from de Blasio, Russ, and Russ’ predecessors have shown limited results, in part because the mayor has not put his political capital behind them. But the federal government has also been largely missing in action.

Enter Torres. And his Democratic colleagues. 

On the City Council, Torres led the Committee on Oversight and Investigation and the Committee on Public Housing before that, and has spent years holding the de Blasio administration’s feet to the fire over its repeated failures at NYCHA, while consistently calling for more state and federal funding. As a member of the House, he is now among those who hold the authority’s purse strings after he was appointed to the House Committee on Financial Services, which includes public housing within its purview. 

In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Torres acknowledged that NYCHA has a tough path ahead. The authority is dealing with multiple crises and while de Blasio’s administration brought its operating finances into far better shape, much of its capital costs remain unresolved. The mayor and NYCHA leadership have sought other avenues for funding through the NYCHA 2.0 plan, which would implement about $24 billion worth of repairs over ten years. But in that slow-moving plan are measures that have proved controversial including the sale of air rights, allowing private development on NYCHA-owned land through the infill program, and converting properties to private management through the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration program (RAD).

Torres insists, however, that the best solution is more federal funding. Currently NYCHA only receives about $1.5 billion every year, a drop in the bucket compared to its needs. Just last week, according to a Brooklyn Paper report, Democratic U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez introduced the Public Housing Emergency Response Act to provide $70 billion for public housing nationwide, including $32 billion for NYCHA alone. But, while Torres also said that the federal government should not “micromanage” the agency, he believes any additional assistance should come with adequate oversight so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

GG: Congratulations on being sworn in. Glad to see you’re safe after the insurrection at the Capitol.

Rep. Torres: “It's been a much more eventful week that I had a plan for...I never thought that as a freshman member, my first order of business would be to defend democracy itself.”

GG: I saw your account in the Daily News. My only question was, did you get a safety briefing when you were sworn in? An evacuation plan for such a situation?

Torres: “No...We're living in a dangerously unprecedented time for which the normal rules no longer apply.”

GG: What do you think you can do for NYCHA now that you're in the lion's den so to speak?

Torres: “There are four exclusive committees in the United States Congress. Ways and Means, Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, and Financial Services, and for a freshman member to be appointed to an exclusive committee is a rare occurrence. I specifically sought to be a member of Financial Services so that I can continue the advocacy for public housing that I began in the City Council. For me, the New York City Housing Authority is a singular institution in the life of America. It is the largest provider of affordable housing in the country...If NYCHA were a city unto itself, it would be the largest city of low-income Black and brown Americans in the United States. But the federal government has so systematically starved public housing of funding in New York City, that it has $40 billion worth of capital needs. So for me the highest priority is to ensure that NYCHA gets its fair share of federal funding, that it gets enough federal funding to address the humanitarian crisis. I spent seven years in the Council shining a spotlight on the humanitarian crisis in public housing. I'm now, as a congressman, I'm on a mission to secure funding to address the crisis. But for me, my goal is not simply to rebuild public housing in the same form. There's a historic opportunity to reinvent public housing as the greenest city in America. Imagine public housing with rooftop gardens, energy efficient retrofits, electric heating systems, rooftop solar panels. Public housing can become the gold standard of sustainable affordable housing in the United States. NYCHA can become the gold standard of sustainable affordable housing in the United States.”

A spokesperson for Torres confirmed after this interview that he supports the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act, legislation that was introduced by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. The bill would invest about $172 billion over ten years to retrofit more than 1.2 million units of public housing to make them energy efficient. Torres spokesperson said in a statement, "The Congressman looks forward to signing on the legislation once it is reintroduced in this session of Congress."

GG: This will require billions and billions of dollars. Do you think the federal government will provide more than the $1.5 billion or so it does every year?

Torres: “I do because all the stars are aligned politically. We have the makings of an FDR moment: a Democratic presidency, a Democratic House, and a Democratic Senate. And there are going to be opportunities to make massive investments in public housing, in NYCHA, through both a future stimulus package and a future infrastructure package. There's a widespread recognition in Congress that housing is infrastructure and that housing is a human right. So that newfound appreciation for housing, I think works to the advantage of NYCHA, more funding for NYCHA.”

GG: If the federal government provides funding, is that going to obviate the need for NYCHA infill or the RAD program? Do you think all of that is still necessary? Is it going to work in concert?

Torres: “It's up to the city to decide here. I'm not here to micromanage what the city should do. There is a value in creating affordable housing apart from the revenue it generates. But there's no substitute for federal reinvestment in public housing. It is a moral imperative. It's an existential imperative for not only NYCHA, but the City of New York. NYCHA is the core safety net of deeply affordable housing in the city of New York.”

GG: Talking about RAD, do you agree with the de Blasio administration’s request to give over two-thirds of NYCHA stock to private management? [NYCHA Chair Greg Russ made that request to the state Legislature in December, estimating that it could help raise $25 billion for repairs]

Torres: “Historically, I've been supportive of RAD because I saw it as the best tool for securing billions of dollars in federal funding for NYCHA housing. But with a Democratic Senate and a Democratic House and a Democratic president, we're going to be in a position to directly fund public housing in the traditional form in which it exists. But I’m open to exploring reforms that can ensure public ownership in the context of RAD...It’s something I’m thinking through at the moment.”

GG: What about infill and the sale of air rights?

Torres: “I think the federal government has to be careful not to micromanage local and state governments. Our overriding role is to provide federal funding to state and local governments, which are on the front lines of administering public services.”

GG: Do you generally agree or disagree with the infill program? There’s some criticism that it’s going to privatize public property?

Torres: “It depends on the context. If you're creating 400 units of affordable housing on public housing land, am I going to oppose? No. If you're creating luxury towers on public housing land, I would have concerns. If you're creating affordable housing on public housing land, then that seems to advance the social good.”

GG: Considering the years of not just underfunding, but also rife mismanagement at NYCHA, do you think there need to be additional controls?

Torres: “Yes, of course. NYCHA needs more money and better management. But my singular focus is on more money.”

GG: Something like the federal monitor? Do you think there needs to be permanent oversight?

Torres: “Everything’s on the table. I'm a policymaker so I'm going to take a hard look at both, not only funding but the management of public housing, of course.

GG: Do you have any legislation in the works already?

Torres: “We do but I never share them in advance.”

GG: What’s your first priority?

Torres: “My highest priority is affordable housing. I would not be where I am today but for affordable housing and the stability it gave me and my family…For me, affordable housing is more than brick and mortar, it's the foundation on which you build a better life for yourself and your family. So I'm a huge proponent of the Section 8 program. Housing is a human right and Section 8 is the best tool for implementing housing as a human right...Every American in need should have access to a Section 8 voucher, which ensures that you pay no more than 30% of your income toward your rent.”

GG: President-elect Biden has promised to vastly expand Section 8.

Torres: “We're gonna be on the same page when it comes to Section 8 expansion...Section 8 is a uniquely powerful tool for bringing deeply affordable housing to families in need. In addition to housing, I'm on a mission to put more money in the pockets of families struggling during COVID-19: expanding the child tax credit, the earned income tax credit, providing hazard pay to essential workers, sending a stimulus check of $2,000 a month. I have a particular passion for the child tax credit. The structure of the child tax credit is so regressive that it leaves behind a third of American families, the poorest families in America. And in the South Bronx, two-thirds of American families are excluded from the full benefit of the child tax credit. So if we were to extend the child tax credit to the poorest families, then families in the South Bronx and elsewhere in the city would receive up to $300 per child every single month. Research has shown that extending the child tax credit would cut child poverty by 40% in the span of a single year...We should send a message that where you live, your zip code, should be no barrier to how far you can go in America.”

GG: Can New York City, can New York State, can America build more public housing? And will it? Shouldn't there be more NYCHA developments built in the city?

Torres: “We certainly should build more deeply affordable housing. We have to see to it that the housing we create is deeply affordable to the poorest Americans, the poorest New Yorkers. So that to me should be where the focus is, creating deeply affordable housing; deeply, permanently affordable housing. Should NYCHA run the housing? I think the priority should be to create deeply and permanently affordable housing regardless of whether it's publicly or privately operated.”

GG: We haven’t talked about lead.

Torres: “The consent decree by the settlement is an unfunded mandate. The federal government mandates $3 billion worth of lead abatement in public housing without fully funding it.”

GG: So you’re saying the city’s hobbled by that?

Torres: “Yeah. What's the value of a mandate without funding? Especially in a time of fiscal crisis, when New York City is teetering on the brink. So we have to hold the federal government accountable for funding the mandates that it imposes on public housing authorities, especially on an issue as critical as lead abatement.”

GG: Do you think some of this lets the state off the hook? That they haven't done enough to fund NYCHA either?

Torres: “It's a federal mandate. The federal government should fund federal mandates, especially when the price tag is $3 billion. Only the federal government can run a deficit and only the federal government has the resources to fund $3 billion worth of lead abatement.”

GG: Do you think the state should be offering up more money either way?

Torres: “Of course. There should be more funding for NYCHA at every level of government, but at the moment, the only level of government that has money is the federal government.”

GG: Who do you think should be the next mayor of New York City?

Torres: “I will make a decision. So stay tuned.”

GG: I'm sure if you do, one of the things you'll be urging them to do is pay attention to public housing.

Torres: “No question about it. Yes...The next mayor has to center public housing. Much more so [than de Blasio].”

GG: If you had to give the mayor a grade on public housing?

Torres: “You know the answer to that question. You’ve seen my hearings. You know the answer to that question. It’s a mischievous question to ask.”

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

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with a reference to legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez.

Note - this article has been updated to clarify that Torres supports the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act. 

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‘I'm On A Mission’: Ritchie Torres Goes to Washington to Save Public Housing Mon, 11 Jan 2021 05:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Excuses for Slow Vaccine Rollout Contradict Prior City Statements of Readiness https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10047-de-blasio-excuses-slow-covid-vaccine-rollout-contradict-prior-statements https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10047-de-blasio-excuses-slow-covid-vaccine-rollout-contradict-prior-statements mayor slow vaccine

Mayor de Blasio vaccine promises (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


Three weeks after New York City received its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines, and more than five weeks after officials knew when they were coming, only a third of the half-million doses had been dolled out, raising questions about why the city wasn't more prepared to step into "the light at the end of the tunnel."

That has been a favorite phrase of Mayor Bill de Blasio since he signaled the city was on the verge of receiving the life-saving, pandemic-ending treatment over a month ago. But in the weeks since, the roll-out has been plagued by limited access to the vaccine and limited buy-in from the first groups eligible to take it. The situation has led to the latest round of blame and bickering between de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, fellow Democrats who are notorious for their public disagreements.

Since December 14, the city has received roughly 487,000 doses of covid vaccines developed by the pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Maderna, of which about 150,000 (31%) have been injected into willing participants as of the end of the day Wednesday, according to the city’s online dashboard. Included in the first phase of vaccinations are hospital and urgent care workers, EMTs, and nursing home residents and staff. The universe of eligibility was recently expanded beyond those groups by the governor, who is keeping tight control on distribution. In total the groups number an estimated 2 million statewide, with 917,000 in New York City.

The mayor has offered a wide range of excuses for the rocky start with a fair share of finger-pointing to higher powers at the state and federal levels, some of which appears legitimate but seems to have come too late to improve the first phase of vaccine distribution. His other explanations are vague and conflict with statements he and the city's top public health officials made weeks earlier about how well-prepared the city would be.

"We understand that in the first few weeks there was tremendous caution and care about making sure people understood how to use the vaccine, the refrigeration issues," de Blasio said on Monday, January 4, after a holiday weekend when fewer than 7,000 doses were administered across the five boroughs despite the hundreds of thousands of doses in stock. "There was a lot of care to make sure things were done right and safely to make sure that we saw good responses from the folks who were vaccinated," the mayor said, without providing specifics.

While the state dictates the parameters of eligibility and closely controls vaccine distribution, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is responsible for coordinating citywide vaccine delivery. It does it through the city's very loose network of public and private hospitals, which have facilities equipped to store the sensitive new treatment, and through over 100 hubs scattered throughout the five boroughs. Generally, hospital employees will receive vaccinations at their place of work, while unaffiliated healthcare workers -- roughly 50,000 of them -- may visit one of the hubs, as well as the public hospitals, run by New York City Health + Hospitals, according to a spokesperson for the mayor.

On Wednesday, following criticism that many providers were not offering the vaccine on nights, weekends, and holidays, de Blasio announced two 24/7 vaccination sites would be opened in the Bronx and Brooklyn by Sunday. The mayor said new online and phone sign-up systems were in development but not yet operational. The day before, his press secretary, Bill Neidhardt, said the administration was scouting city-owned property in all five boroughs to house "mass vaccination sites," as part of a new goal set by the mayor to administer 1 million doses by the end of January.

In a December 9 press release, the administration indicated some of that work was already underway: "The Health Department is prepared to stand up and operate temporary sites for additional capacity to supplement hospital vaccinations," the mayor’s office stated. "The City is additionally prepared to launch sites citywide in coordination with emergency response partner agencies to offer vaccinations, ensuring access and availability citywide."

Both the Pfizer and Moderna covid innoculations require two doses administered weeks apart and both must be kept refrigerated, though the Pfizer vaccine, which the city received about a week before Moderna's, requires "ultracold storage" at temperatures close to negative 80 degrees Celsius.

While after the first week New York City's vaccination rate was more than double the national rate, by week three, the city's public hospital network, Health + Hospitals, had only administered a third of its doses, falling into the bottom 10% of hospitals statewide, according to state data.

"There are no holidays. There are no nights. There are no weekends going forward. Everything has to be on a 24/7 basis," de Blasio told reporters on Tuesday when asked about the particularly low figures around New Year's Day, when just 147 doses were administered. "Going forward everyone's getting a clear message from me and I'm responsible."

De Blasio has largely attempted to focus press and public attention on his 1 million-dose January goal and calls for Governor Andrew Cuomo to loosen state rules around which categories of people are eligible to be vaccinated. He acknowledged the city’s rollout “should have been better on January 1,” but otherwise has taken limited responsibility for the slow pace.

Despite the mayor's recent claims about refrigeration concerns, in early December — before the first doses had arrived — his health commissioner and Health + Hospitals system leadership assured city lawmakers that all but one of New York City's 55 hospitals had access to ultracold storage.

"New York City Health + Hospitals has been preparing for quite some time over the past several months in anticipation of receipt of the vaccine of which we are incredibly excited," said Dr. Andrew Wallick, Health + Hospitals' ambulatory care chief medical officer, in testimony before the City Council’s committees on hospitals and health in a joint oversight hearing on December 4. "We have outfitted each of our 11 acute facilities with ultracold storage...We plan to follow our flu vaccine model where we will have a centralized hub, if you will, at each of our 11 acute facilities."

A few days later, New York City Health Commissioner Dave Choksi confirmed that 44 hospitals citywide had ultracold storage in-house and ten others had access to the vaccine through those storage facilities. As of December 9, five days before the first vaccine doses arrived in New York, only one hospital in New York City did not have access to an ultracold facility, Choksi indicated at a press briefing with the mayor.

The mayor’s repeated statements that the city's slow pace was in part based on the need to ensure the vaccine had no major negative side effects flies in the face of repeated city assurances, throughout December, that the vaccine was safe -- assertions made based on federal approval of the vaccines and the advice of top city health advisors. "Leading scientists have confirmed that it is a very good vaccine in terms of safety and ability to protect against COVID-19 illness," Choksi said on December 14, the day of the first inoculation in New York City and the United States, while with the mayor. "I, myself, have poured over the studies, including what was released last week."

Even as some have joined de Blasio’s calls for Cuomo to open up more eligibility for the vaccine, there has been widespread criticism of the de Blasio administration's vaccination efforts from Cuomo, members of the City Council, and others.

"Vaccination in New York City is basically only occurring during regular business hours,” City Council Member Mark Levine, chair of the Council health committee, tweeted on January 3. “Very little on weekends. Almost none on holidays. We are in a war-like situation. We need to be vaccinating TWENTY FOUR-SEVEN. We are losing precious time."

"Vaccinating as many New Yorkers as quickly as possible is job number one right now but the pace of vaccinations so far is unacceptable, despite what the administration told the Council in December about being prepared," said City Council Communications Director Jennifer Fermino, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "We are holding a hearing on this critical issue to determine if the city is doing everything in its power to vaccinate people efficiently and to find out what needs to be done to pick up the pace." The Council has scheduled its second joint oversight hearing focused on the vaccine rollout for January 12.

On Monday, de Blasio again said the city's slow start was the result of deliberate care and caution, which he said was necessary to build public trust in the new vaccine. "The issues were addressed, the refrigeration was handled properly. The vaccine was handled properly. Those who got the vaccine had a good experience. Almost no instance of a negative reaction. That has allowed trust to build," he told reporters during a press briefing.

"That's allowed people to see and feel comfortable in the vaccine. Getting it right in the first few weeks was the trendsetter," he added. The mayor says the city will now aim to provide 100,000 more doses by the end of the week, ramping up to 400,000 doses per week by the second half of January.

But rapid roll-out had been the name of the game for de Blasio, Choksi, and others in the days leading up to the first doses' arrival. "Remember the vaccine shipments are going to be coming in weekly. So, we're going to be quickly able to get more and more. But we have to get going right away," de Blasio said December 3. "The important thing is to work through each category of people, but move it fast and then go on to the next priority category," he said a week later.

Early on, health officials did warn the effort could take some time to ramp up. "The initial week to two weeks we will see [a] more limited number of doses and there will be a plan with respect to exactly how those will be allocated," Choksi said on December 3. "But as the supply increases we expect within a few short weeks that we would be able to cover everyone that is in that top priority group."

Vaccine eligibility is controlled by the state based on guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and consultation with New York City. Under the direction of Governor Cuomo, the first tranche of vaccines has been reserved for healthcare workers with direct patient contact. The doses have been shipped to hospitals where many of those people work. State officials estimate roughly 2 million people fall into the first phase of eligibility statewide, over 900,000 of whom are in the city, meaning there are more eligible recipients than doses in the initial shipments. Officials have recognized the possibility of roughly 20-30% of those eligible may initially decide not to take the vaccine.

Residents and staff in nursing homes are also part of the first phase and have been receiving vaccines through a federal public-private partnership program with pharmacies, which too has been saddled with delays.

New York City's slow roll-out mirrors the state and nationwide trends to varying degrees. Governor Cuomo has been criticized for taking the mass vaccination plan out of the hands of counties, which have been preparing for such an event for over a decade (at least since the H1N1 outbreak in 2009), and for keeping the initial group of eligible people too limited. In turn, Cuomo has blamed the management of local leaders, like de Blasio, and hospital administrators. This week he outlined penalties for hospitals that don't immediately use their allotted doses, including fines and blacklisting from future shipments, while also imposing even steeper fines and threatening criminal charges to those who knowingly break the priority distribution protocols.

De Blasio and public health officials say they are limited by the discretion of the priority populations, many of whom could take the vaccine but have not yet opted to. The mayor this week called on Cuomo to expand eligibility to other groups -- as demand in the broader population certainly outpaces the current supply of vaccines in a state of roughly 19.5 million -- particularly to all first-responders and people 75 years of age and older.

Yet in December, de Blasio appeared to brush off the possibility that the city's inoculation rate could be slowed or halted by low buy-in from the public. "I don't think we're going to have a leftover problem. I think we can say that. I think there's going to be honestly tremendous need, tremendous interest and speed of execution," he said on December 3.

This seemed to fly in the face of the city's own polling, which in October indicated that only 53% of New Yorkers would be willing to take the vaccine, according to Dr. Jane Zucker, who leads the city health department's Bureau of Immunization, in her testimony at the December 4 City Council oversight hearing. Twenty percent said they would be unwilling to take the vaccine and 27% said they were unsure, she said.

"There is such a contingency plan," Choksi said at the mayor’s press briefing the day before. Through the citywide immunization registry "we'll be monitoring in real time exactly how doses are being distributed as well as the actual uptake of the vaccine. So for finding that there are places that are not able to use their initial allotments, we can shift around demand and then also shift around subsequent supply of the vaccine for future weeks. So that is an integral part of our planning for both the initial phases, as well as beyond that."

On Wednesday of this week, de Blasio announced the city would open pre-registration for seniors who will be eligible in the next phase of vaccination.

"I am pleased that the Mayor has now announced they will begin pre-registering seniors shortly, but I remain troubled that the City did not plan for this earlier," said Comptroller Scott Stringer, who made a similar proposal Tuesday, in a statement on Wednesday. "We can't reopen our economy or get people back to work without widespread vaccination. Lives and livelihoods are at stake."

"We're all anxious to get the vaccination to 1B, 75 year old New Yorkers, and essential workers," wrote Cuomo's communications director, Peter Ajemian, in a statement Thursday referring to the next phase of distribution (1A is the first). "However, we must establish competent administration because if a government fails to administer 1A vaccines, what makes anyone think they can competently administer 1B?"

Neidhardt, the mayor's press secretary, defended the city's work. "We've vaccinated tens of thousands of people," he wrote in a statement posted to Twitter. "We've set up over 125 hubs. Are we perfections? No. Are we going to let that get in the way of saving the lives of first responders and the elderly? That seems like a horrible argument to make."

For the city to meet the mayor's new goal of 1 million doses by the end of January, it will also need a steady supply of the vaccine. On Tuesday, de Blasio sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence calling for a number of provisions, including increased production under the Defense Production Act and a fair share of doses coming to New York City, which is administering them to out-of-state residents who work in the five boroughs.

The letter also includes a request for technical assistance and financial support to providers and FDA approval to pre-fill syringes, indicating that the city's limited person-power is contributing to delays, despite assurances from Choksi a day earlier that the city had 13,000 untapped members of its Medical Reserve Corp ready to assist in vaccinations. Nevertheless, this week the city also put out inquiries for volunteers to help staff vaccination centers.

"If multiple doses could be drawn by the pharmacist and given to a nurse to administer ahead of time, the pace of vaccinations could increase, as would the savings of staff time," the letter reads.

"As we're announcing more and more sites, obviously we have to have a staffing plan to go with," de Blasio said Thursday.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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De Blasio Excuses for Slow Vaccine Rollout Contradict Prior City Statements of Readiness Thu, 07 Jan 2021 05:00:00 +0000
Newly-Seated Brooklyn City Council Member Quickly Faces Tough 2021 Primary https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10026-new-brooklyn-city-council-member-darma-diaz-sandy-nurse-2021-primary-election https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10026-new-brooklyn-city-council-member-darma-diaz-sandy-nurse-2021-primary-election East New York CCD37

Former City Council Member Rafael Espinal in the 37th District (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Darma Diaz is one of the newest members of the New York City Council, having recently won the election to represent Brooklyn’s District 37, filling an unexpected vacancy at the beginning of December. But her election did not take place under normal circumstances and now the Democrat must defend the seat that she won unopposed in both the June primary and the November general.

District 37, which covers Bushwick, East New York, Cypress Hills, Ocean Hill, and Brownsville, had been without a City Council member for more than ten months this year after former office-holder Rafael Espinal resigned for a private sector job in January. The vacancy initially prompted a nonpartisan special election, which would have been held in April, but the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the electoral calendar. Governor Andrew Cuomo used his executive power to first suspend the election, and then postponed it to June 23, the same day as the primary election to select a nominee for the same seat. Finally, he cancelled the special election altogether and held only the ‘regular’ primary in June and general in the fall.

Cuomo sowed additional chaos and confusion by amending ballot access requirements, reducing the required number of ballot petition signatures to 30% of the normal threshold, which is 450 for City Council seats. Candidates would only have to gather 135 valid signatures. But, the city Board of Elections subsequently ruled that the executive order did not apply to the District 37 race, which meant that Diaz was the only candidate to qualify for the ballot while four other candidates were invalidated. Legal challenges by the candidates also eventually failed, leaving Diaz a free and clear path to office.

Three of those candidates are now running again in the June 2021 Democratic primary against Diaz and though she now has some advantage of incumbency as well as the backing of some other powerful forces, Diaz’s hold on the seat could be in jeopardy.

A former district leader, Diaz was backed in her bid for office by the Brooklyn Democratic Party and its newly elected leader, Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte. The party also supported successful petition challenges against Diaz’s opponents, which prompted broad criticism that she had effectively been installed in the seat in undemocratic fashion. The party is again in her corner for the upcoming election. “Of course, they are backing Darma Diaz,” said Bob Liff, a spokesperson for Bichotte, in an email.

But Diaz faces tough competition, in a primary that will be decided by ranked-choice voting, among the first crop of city special and party primaries using the new system. She is being challenged by Sandy Nurse, a community organizer and carpenter; Rick Echevarria, a former official in the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD); Misba Abdin, a community activist; and Heriberto Mateo, former director of the city’s Commission on Human Rights.

In a phone interview, Diaz said she’s confident about her chances of reelection. “I have 30 years-plus of community service. My record stands for itself,” she said. “I was prepared for a primary, I was prepared for a special. I will continue to act accordingly.”

darma diaz via city councilDiaz (pictured) previously served as director of housing services at a homeless shelter run by Overcoming Love Ministries. Before that, she worked as director of community relations for the State Assembly and also worked as an aide to Assemblymember Daryl Towns.

Diaz pushed back against the criticism levelled at the Brooklyn Democrats and by extension her campaign for the procedural means through which they kicked other candidates off the ballot ahead of the primary earlier this year. “I did not cut any corners. I followed the process known to me, from A to Z,” she said. “I was last man standing because I did everything that I was supposed to do from day one. It's a shame that individuals running against me don't want to give me credit for my service.”

Diaz has about six months to make an impact on the main issues in the district, which she said are “the lack of food equity, housing, safety, education and employment.” And she intends to make her mark by holding Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration to its promises under the East New York rezoning of 2016, the first major neighborhood rezoning approved under the mayor’s overarching plan to build and preserve rent-restricted housing in the city while also encouraging economic development and community improvements. Four years on, many of the pledges for housing and job creation have yet to be fulfilled.

Diaz conceded that the rezoning deal was “a little faulty” but was nonetheless proud to support it. “What this opportunity gives me is to have the follow-up conversation with the mayor on the non-deliverables,” she said. “I think that within itself should show that I'm about the people, for the people, and just going from an advocate to being a decision-maker at the table and working towards securing deliverables that were committed to us.”

She’s also creating a housing task force to examine the district’s needs and said she’s reached out to state legislators about securing more money for affordable housing. “To bounce back, to make our community affordable, it's going to take creative thinking,” she said.

Diaz did raise concerns about ranked-choice voting, saying, “there's going to be an educational issue” around informing voters in the district about how it works. A group of Council members sued to delay the rollout of the system, which will happen for a Queens City Council special election in February then other special elections in Queens and the Bronx before the June primary, arguing on similar grounds that it could disenfranchise Black and Latino voters without a sufficient education campaign. A State Supreme Court judge struck down the legal request. Diaz said she would support a delay “simply because our system is not prepared for it. Had covid not hit us and life was normal, I would have been OK with it. But the way it stands now, to me it's a disservice to our voters.”

Of all the other candidates, Nurse appears poised to present the strongest challenge to Diaz, having been backed by a slew of prominent progressive elected officials including Congressional Rep. Nydia Velazquez, State Senators Julia Salazar and Jessica Ramos, Assemblymember Maritza Davila, and City Council Member Antonio Reynoso. Notably, parts of Salazar’s district overlap with the 37th Council District.

Nurse also has the endorsement of the Working Families Party, which can help bolster a candidate’s campaign operation and spend on the candidate’s behalf, and several progressive advocacy groups and political organizations, some of which are part of the WFP, such as Make the Road Action, New York Communities for Change, Citizen Action of New York, Vocal NY Action Fund, the New Kings Democrats, and others. Many of the groups offer volunteers to knock on doors, make phone calls, and hand out campaign literature.

Nurse is running to Diaz’s left on a host of issues including political reform.

“I'm running to really champion some issues that I think are possible to push forward with a brand new city government,” Nurse said in an interview, “really running to guarantee housing, to champion a Green New Deal in New York City, to divest from the prison system, invest in our communities and to ensure our youth are nurtured and engaged and protected.”

As with the other candidates, Nurse emphasized the need for housing and jobs in the district, connected issues that have been drastically affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Unemployment jumped to a record high of well over 20% across the city earlier this year before coming down to what is still-crisis level of roughly 13%. An eviction crisis is looming. And District 37, home to working class communities of color, has been hit hard. “Housing is the number one issue in this district. It's the thing that's impacting our young people, one in six of whom are very housing insecure,” Nurse said.

Nurse is among those who have been critical of the East New York rezoning and believes it has only exacerbated the dearth of affordable housing in the district without delivering on the jobs front. “It speaks to what I think is a failed system of incentivizing large private developers in the real estate industry to build affordable housing for us by giving them all sorts of subsidies and tax breaks or rezoning large swaths of land for upscale market rate housing,” she said, echoing a common refrain against the mayor’s rezoning approach.

Earlier this year, Nurse was an organizer in the “defund the NYPD” movement, pushing for a significant reduction in the city’s police department budget -- something she would have a more direct say in if elected to the Council. For the last six months, after being bounced from her prior campaign but launching anew with her eye on June 2021, Nurse has been involved in food aid operations and helping families in dire need of assistance. “The lines are just getting longer and it's really starting to impact people that haven't traditionally had to step into a pantry line or receive food assistance,” she said. It’s the kind of work she would have done as a Council member, she said, and it’s what was particularly necessary as the district lacked representation for months.

Nurse also has a background in local efforts to fight climate change, particularly composting food waste, and has been vocal with criticism of Mayor de Blasio’s decision to cut the organics pick-up program amid this year’s budget crunch.

She said she was “excited” about ranked-choice voting and how it can “allow a lot of different voices and visions to kind of come forward and be seen.” And she seemed to dismiss any concerns that the Brooklyn Democratic Party may again attempt to throw people off the ballot on technicalities. “Machines are gonna machine, right?...If they want to spend time and money and resources on kind of suppressing democracy or engaging in dirty tricks around it, that's what they're gonna do.”

Echevarria says his central concern is the district’s affordable housing crisis, and the first step to addressing it is reorganizing the city’s housing department. He saw first hand how the agency (HPD) functions when he spent a year working as director of the city’s Tenant Interim Lease program. After he was fired, he sued the city in 2017, claiming that he was wrongfully terminated from the agency for blowing the whistle about corruption. The case was settled, according to his campaign website.

In a phone interview, Echevarria said that HPD has failed in its duty of oversight over the preservation of affordable housing, which is “plagued by decades of mismanagement and neglect, and corruption.” He cited the “gross mismanagement” of various housing programs such as the Mitchell-Lama program, the Housing Development Fund Corporation cooperatives program and the Third Party Transfer program.

“I'm the only candidate that has run a housing organization in the district and worked in city government and the housing agency. So, resumé-wise, I don't think the other candidates quite compare to me in terms of my diverse experiences around housing issues,” he said, pointing to his background which includes founding the Bushwick Housing Independence Project and working as a senior manager at CHANGER, an advocacy group. He was also critical of the East New York rezoning. “I would have opposed it...I don't believe in targeting low-income communities like East New York as the introduction for [Mandatory Inclusionary Housing],” he said of the de Blasio change to the city’s land use rules that mandates a percentage of affordable housing in any new housing development when added density is allowed to the developer.

“I'm not a politician, I'm an activist, and I've been working in District 37 for over 20 years, maybe more,” said Abdin, who is cofounder and CEO of Bangladeshi American Community Development & Youth Services, a local nonprofit. He criticized Diaz as just another product of the “nepotism” of the Brooklyn Democratic establishment.

He said his top priorities are education, public safety, and affordable housing, but he had particular gripes about issues of quality of life and crime. He said the community’s needs have gone unfulfilled for decades, “and that's why crime is high, people are living in a very unsafe environment, the education system is failing.” He called for more cops patrolling the streets in the district.

As a resident of East New York for more than 40 years, Abdin said he was dismayed to see how the recent rezoning has made a once crime-ridden neighborhood into an exploitable business opportunity. “This is a business for the developing companies, because they have no more space in the city. So they come into East New York, develop and make money. They [aren’t] concerned about the community and neighborhood...After 20 years of people living and making this community safer, now developers come, they rezone, they want to kick everybody out, which is totally not fair.”

Mateo’s campaign is his second attempt at the District 37 seat, having unsuccessfully run in the 2013 primary, which Espinal won before winning the general election. At that time, Mateo served as director of the New York City Commission on Human Rights. He also previously served as president of Community School Board 19 and president of the Martin De Porres Day Care Center in Bushwick. “I'm running because I believe we need to have real leadership in this community,” he said in a phone interview. “I've been living in this community almost all my life. I know the issues and the concerns.”

Mateo said Diaz has been as “part of the machine all her life” and said she does not have a record of delivering for the district. “I've been fighting against the establishment for so many years, even though I was raised a Democrat,” he added.

He stressed the need to build more affordable housing in the district and to save small businesses that have suffered during the pandemic. “The rent here is going too high to the sky,” he said. If he wins, he said he would create an office dedicated to helping small businesses navigate covid relief assistance and city grant programs.

The Democratic primary is in June. The winner will be heavily favored to win the general election given the district’s overwhelming Democratic voter enrollment advantage, though if she’s unsuccessful in the primary, Nurse could potentially run in the general election only on the Working Families Party ballot line and, in a one-on-one contest versus the primary winner, have another formidable opportunity.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Inset Diaz photo via the City Council

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Newly-Seated Brooklyn City Council Member Quickly Faces Tough 2021 Primary Sun, 27 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Examines De Blasio Administration’s Efforts to Combat Unemployment https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10010-city-council-examines-de-blasio-administration-unemployment-small-businesses-covid https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10010-city-council-examines-de-blasio-administration-unemployment-small-businesses-covid 1 city council examines admin efforts

Council Member Paul Vallone (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The City Council’s committees on economic development and small business met last week for an oversight hearing to assess how the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC), the city Department of Small Business Services (SBS), and the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development have adjusted their programming because of COVID-19 and discuss what they’re doing to promote equity across the five boroughs.

According to the New York State Department of Labor, unemployment rates have been especially high in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. The Bronx had the highest unemployment rate of all boroughs as of October, the most recent month for which the data is available. At 17.5%, the Bronx unemployment rate was higher than the citywide rate of 13.1% and the statewide rate of 9.2%. Council Member Mark Gjonaj, who represents parts of the Bronx and chairs the Council’s small business committee, said the borough needs more career development resources. 

“We’ve been at the top of what’s bad and the bottom of what’s good,” Gjonaj said at the hearing. “I don’t know how much more evidence we need that the borough of the Bronx needs and deserves more resources.”

Gjonaj, as well as people who offered testimony in the latter part of the hearing, expressed concern about the digital divide, but Small Business Services Commissioner Jonnel Doris insisted that his agency is reaching everyone who needs help. “We did a survey,” he said. “96% [of respondents] have reliable internet access.” He also pointed out that one does not need internet access to reach the SBS; the agency is also accessible by phone. Even so, Gjonaj expressed concern that even if people without internet access could access SBS resources, they might not be aware that those resources exist.

Gjonaj also asked Doris how SBS would prevent unemployment rates from going back up now that cases of COVID-19 are rising. “We have the infrastructure,” Doris explained, “because we’ve been through it, and we have those systems in place.” Doris said in his opening statement that SBS was able to shift all 18 of its Workforce1 Career Centers to an online format by March 23, and that it’s assisted more than 63,000 people since then.

“To date [since March] we have connected more than 7,500 New Yorkers with jobs with an average wage of $17.36,” he said. In June, SBS also launched a free, virtual home health aide training program in response to an increased demand for these services during the pandemic, Doris said. 

City Council Member Paul Vallone of Queens, chair of the Council’s economic development committee, asked Justin Kreamer, Senior Vice President at EDC, how the agency is making sure opportunities reach people in outer boroughs who need them most.

“Broadly speaking, we do have a five-borough strategy, so we always have an eye out for equity,” he said. “All projects that come in, we evaluate those on a case-by-case basis to make sure that they align with our values. If a project is based in one borough, our hopes is that the project itself would be something that would be accessible to residents in other boroughs as well.” His answer was not detailed, but he offered to “follow up” with the chair with more information, an offer he made several times throughout the hearing.

Kreamer also said EDC, which is a nonprofit local development corporation essentially run by the mayoral administration, supports job creation in all five boroughs by investing in fast-growing industries, like technology, cybersecurity, and the life sciences. EDC runs the LifeSci NYC paid internship program, which began in 2016 and employs local college students from low-income backgrounds, he noted. “Roughly 41% of all participants in the program have been CUNY students, over two-thirds have been nonwhite, 54% have been TAP or Pell Grant-eligible students, and 33% of the participants have been first-generation college students,” said Kreamer. 

He also mentioned a cybersecurity bootcamp, run between the city and the private organization Fullstack Academy, that began about a year ago. He said that there have been about 105 students in that program so far and about 90% of them have gotten jobs. He did not mention that it costs between $15,980 and $17,910 to participate in the 17-to-26-week-long program unless a student receives scholarships, according to the program’s website.

Amy Peterson, the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development, expressed enthusiasm about state legislation, recently proposed by the de Blasio administration, to change the Citywide Renovation Project Labor Agreement so that city contractors are required to hire workers from zip codes where at least 15% of the population lives below the federal poverty level or in NYCHA housing, with the goal of making similar modifications to other PLAs in other industries. Under the proposal, 30% of hours worked under PLA projects must be logged by people from high-poverty communities, and city contractors must also hire apprentices and pre-apprentices, especially who live in disadvantaged communities and public housing.

“When you look at neighborhoods that have poverty over 15%, you look at the Bronx,” Peterson said. “We’re clearly focused on the communities with the highest level of poverty.” If the city gets federal stimulus money for infrastructure, she said, then new projects can occur under the new PLA.

While city officials who testified spoke to the desperate need for federal and state funding, the co-chairs of the hearing told them not to wait for it and to move ahead with projects even if the results are imperfect. “It’s not waiting, but it’s also being ready,” Peterson said. “The place we don’t want to be in is stimulus funding or state legislation and not being ready to use it immediately.”

But by launching a new, albeit incomplete, workforce data portal, Peterson’s agency and the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity have done what the co-chairs suggested and gone forward with the project. The goal of working.nyc.gov is to bring workforce development programs at different city agencies to one place. Currently, the website shows career development opportunities like skills training for NYCHA residents and high school equivalency exam preparation. Posting career development opportunities is just one function of the portal.

Another purpose of the workforce data portal will be to offer data visualizations about outcomes of workforce development programs offered by different city agencies. This data will include, but not be limited to, where people who participated in workforce development programs live, how much money they make, and how many of them have been able to find full-time and part-time jobs. This information will make it easier for people to assess the success of the programs. 

Peterson said that the mayor’s office has about half of the data it needs for this portal, but is still uploading data from the city’s Human Resources Administration, as well as from some small agencies. “The idea is that this will be made available to the public in 2021,” Peterson said, adding that the project was delayed because of the pandemic. 

Vallone encouraged Peterson to make the data public as soon as possible even though it’s incomplete so that it can be used to help navigate the current crisis. “I don’t think anyone would be upset even if it’s not completely 100% of the data at this point,” he said. (He then moved on and she did not respond.)

Other than Vallone and Gjonaj several City Council members from the two committees were present on the digital hearing, but few spoke at all or asked any questions of those testifying.

In the latter part of the hearing, leaders from smaller career development agencies and nonprofits in the city each spoke briefly, explaining what their organizations, which often get city funding, do and their shifts to online programming during the pandemic. They also expressed their need for government funding and explained the challenges faced by the communities their agencies serve, especially people of color, immigrants, women, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities.

Jose Ortiz, Jr., CEO of NYC Employment and Training Coalition, was among leaders briefly offering recommendations at the hearing. “We need to provide more resources for workforce development programming” in order to retrain people in the retail, hospitality, building maintenance, and transportation industries whose jobs are threatened by automation, he said. Ortiz also recommended improving broadband access and more support for small businesses.

“The human resources sector is in danger of budget cuts at all government levels,” he stressed, “and they won’t be able to do the increased work of aiding the economic recovery without resources.”

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by Lauren Hakimi, Gotham Gazette
   

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City Council Examines De Blasio Administration’s Efforts to Combat Unemployment Fri, 18 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
'Shameful': No Sign of City's Long Overdue Plan for 250,000-Plus Disconnected Youth https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9995-new-york-city-overdue-plan-disconnected-youth https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9995-new-york-city-overdue-plan-disconnected-youth 2 still no sign

Organizers and activists (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


While unemployment booms and New York City faces its worst economy in decades, the fate of the city's disconnected youth -- people aged 16 to 24 who are both out of work and out of school -- is getting a shrug from city government.

The city's Disconnected Youth Task Force, created by the City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio to examine the factors that inhibit employment and school enrollment among this group numbering in the hundreds of thousands, is more than two years late to submit its first report, a requirement of the 2017 legislation that created it.

Now it appears as though the de Blasio administration is waylaying the report again after a draft circulated among members this summer. Practitioners in the field say the endless delays point to a lack of commitment from both sides of City Hall to address young people falling through the cracks, with one task force member calling the hold-up "shameful."

"It is shameful that it's not out yet, given the crisis, given that it's been almost two years," said Marjorie Parker, head of JobsFirstNYC and a member of the task force, in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette. "They shouldn't sit on this thing for two years. I know covid happened but other people have done reports in shorter periods of time than that."

The urgency has only increased during the pandemic, during which time youth unemployment increased sevenfold -- reaching 35% in June -- and gun violence has soared. (While the mayor regularly cites a confluence of factors, including rising unemployment, to explaining the uptick in shootings, there is no definitive causation.)

The task force, set up through legislation passed and signed in April 2017, has been plagued by delays from the start. The bill, sponsored by City Council Member Mathieu Eugene, then chair of the Council’s youth services committee, under former Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, required the Mayor and the Speaker to appoint its members within 30 days. Its mandate was to explore barriers and policy solutions to youth employment and education gaps and produce a report with recommendations by March 1, 2018.

Close to two years later, in February 2019, de Blasio only announced the launch of the task force under the leadership of Deputy Mayor J. Phillip Thompson, with 20 appointees, five fewer than the law established and mostly representing city agencies with a handful of nonprofit partners. The report is still lost in the offing.

“It is critical that we provide young people the tools they need to thrive in our city,” de Blasio said in a statement the day of the launch. “This taskforce will build our work already underway in this area and will help better identify and meet these needs. I look forward to seeing what recommendations they develop.”

Thompson said the administration was already taking steps to address the vulnerable population at hand but that he would work with the task force members "to develop a better coordinated strategy among programs servicing youth citywide."

At the time the task force bill was first heard in City Council committee, in November 2016, an estimated 172,000 New York City residents aged 18 to 24 were out of school and out of work, close to a fifth of that age group citywide, according to a report prepared by Council staff. Two-thirds of that population did not have a high school diploma. In 2019, pre-pandemic, there were 129,000 disconnected 16- to 24-year-olds, according to the Aspen Institute, a global nonprofit focused on equality. It is not clear what factors contributed to the drop in disconnected youth by 2019.

The latest estimates from Aspen Institute in July indicate the number of out-of-school-and-work young people more than doubled in the first months of the covid crisis in New York, falling anywhere between 259,000 and 324,000 16- to 24-year-olds, or 27% to 34% of that population in the city.

Figures available from November on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics website place the nationwide number of unemployed and not-enrolled 16- to 24-year-olds at roughly 5 million. That number is significantly lower than what was reported in a Pew Research Center study from June, citing Bureau of Labor Statistics data, which revealed that nationwide 28% of youth ages 16 to 24, 10.3 million people, were out of work and school. The rate more than doubled between February and June, from 12%, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and forced economic shutdowns across the country.

According to Richard Fry, a co-author the Pew study, "there is some seasonality to enrollment, both at high school and college." The fall months, when many students are back in school, account for the precipitous drop between June and November, he told Gotham Gazette.

In addition to representatives from agencies like the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development and the Department of Education, the mayor was given six appointees on the Disconnected Youth Task Force and the Council speaker was given five. The 2019 press release of the launch lists the members but not who appointed them and the speaker's office, now under Speaker Corey Johnson, did not clarify how many were selected by the Council.

In response to Gotham Gazette inquiries about the Council's role in the task force, a spokesperson said that when the body creates a task force through legislation, the Council makes appointments as required by the law, but the administration is "in charge."

"As you know covid changed many dynamics in the city," wrote Jose Bayona, a mayoral spokesperson, in October, who at the time said an update would be available at the end of November. On November 23, Bayona told Gotham Gazette, "it seems like we are releasing the report in the first week of December.”

The report has not materialized as of December 17 and representatives for the mayor, Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and Council Member Eugene have not been able to provide updates since.

"Our office will provide an update as soon as possible," said Adam Ullian, a spokesperson for  Eugene, a Brooklyn Democrat who is currently running for borough president.

Unlike past recessions, the coronavirus pandemic has had a unique impact on young people, spurring unemployment while also driving down community college enrollment, which has historically risen during economic downturns.

According to new figures released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center and reported by The 74, undergraduate college enrollment dropped 29% in fall 2020 among low-income high school graduates nationwide, close to double the rate among students from high-income schools. While enrollment fell among all students, the most acute decline was among Native American students, followed by Black students, both of which continued downward trends from last fall. The Clearinghouse figures show that undergraduate enrollment at Historically Black Colleges and Universities declined more sharply than the national average.

At the same time, in New York City, youth unemployment has skyrocketed during the pandemic. In June, City Comptroller Scott Stringer released a report showing the unemployment rate among 16- to 24-year olds had risen to a staggering 35%, from under 7% pre-pandemic.

Contributing to youth disconnection is the ongoing digital divide, the gap between populations that have the technological infrastructure to stay on the grid from home, and those who do not. The latter group is disproportionately composed of people living in poor communities, public housing, and homeless shelters, predominantly impacting Black and Latino New Yorkers. The divide makes remote education and finding a job increasingly difficult during the ongoing shutdown.

While de Blasio's office cited the pandemic as a reason for the report's further delay, the mayor regularly discusses the city's major increase in unemployment, and has connected it and other upheaval to the significant rise in gun violence this year. But he has not offered any city solutions to better engage disconnected youth and even cut long-established programs.

Youth aging out of foster care are particularly vulnerable to missing out on job and education opportunities, especially during the pandemic when many transition services were upended. "[Education and employment] is certainly an issue in that our membership, the foster care agencies, are considering it very heavily and adding it to decision-making about discharging youth at this point," said Lisa Gitelson, head of the downstate programs of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies.

Statewide, 205 young people were discharged to "another planned living arrangement," or self-responsibility, between January and October, according to data published by the state Office of Children and Family Services. More than half of them, 121, were in New York City.

Yet while there are risks involved in discharging youth from foster care, there are also risks in postponing it -- ones that play into other, more clinical, public health issues that have gotten greater attention from elected officials. "Many of our foster families, whether they are kinship or non-kinship, are older families and they're families with co-morbidities that put them at risk," Gitelson said.

"There's a slew of problems around young people right now that we're trying to figure out," Parker told Gotham Gazette, referring to the work of her organization, JobsFirstNYC, which focuses on workforce development.

"We've never had a crisis like this but whenever we've had crises, young people are at the back of the line," she said. "You always focus on the professionals, getting them back to work, and eventually work your way down to young people. But this time is very different and I think we need different strategies."

Even some of the city's existing programs to improve the experience of disconnected youth have suffered under the economic contraction, which has led to billions in lost revenue for the city and state. High on that list is the city's Summer Youth Employment Program, which pre-pandemic connected young people with roughly 75,000 paid job opportunities during the summer months. During budget negotiations this year, the program was scrapped and only reinstated after an outcry from advocates and elected leaders, and then only partially reinstated.

The Disconnected Youth Task Force report is supposed to include an assessment of the barriers to work and school employment and map the skills and education employers are seeking. The law also requires the task force to analyze the policies and programs that impact disconnected youth and provide recommendations to the city for improvements.

"There's not a reason for it to have taken this long," said Parker. "For something to take this long shows that it's not a priority."

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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'Shameful': No Sign of City's Long Overdue Plan for 250,000-Plus Disconnected Youth Thu, 17 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Speaker Unveils Comprehensive Planning Legislation https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10005-city-council-speaker-unveils-comprehensive-planning-legislation-development https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10005-city-council-speaker-unveils-comprehensive-planning-legislation-development m b skyline

New York City development (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


City Council Speaker Corey Johnson on Wednesday unveiled legislation that would overhaul New York City’s long-term planning processes, eliminating duplicative procedures, streamlining agency coordination, and establishing a more proactive, holistic approach to land use and budgeting that prioritizes racial and economic justice. 

For decades, the city’s zoning, land use, and development have been subject to disparate sets of mandates and guidelines, some overlapping and redundant, in the City Charter, the city’s foundational governing document. There are more than a dozen planning documents that determine how infrastructure is built and how communities and boroughs grow. 

Over the last two years, Johnson and his colleagues, particularly Council Members Brad Lander and Antonio Reynoso, have been attempting to reform those processes into one centralized comprehensive approach that would act as an overarching strategy for everything from housing creation to school construction, public spaces, transit access, and economic development. The approach would bring about more equitable and sustainable growth across the city, addressing long-standing disparities and needs, particularly in Black and brown communities, while also meeting citywide goals.

Council members along with the Thriving Communities coalition of advocates and experts unsuccessfully proposed such a comprehensive planning framework before a Charter Revision Commission last year. They sought to have the commission present the policy to voters in the form of a ballot question, but the commission decided against including it in its final list of ballot proposals. 

“We have a piecemeal and top-down approach to land use and planning and we can't afford to carry that ineffective approach into our future. The stakes are just too high,” Johnson said Wednesday, as he announced the new legislation and released an accompanying report, “Planning Together.” The report outlines the city’s broken planning procedures that have created inequities and critiques city government’s inability to realistically evaluate, budget, and build major infrastructure projects through the capital budget.

The report and the legislation, Johnson said, would “give us tangible and useful tools to plan for our future...We're going to have clearly-defined, measurable, citywide goals, and every neighborhood is going to develop their own land use plan. These are real concrete things that New Yorkers can actually wrap their heads around.” 

Johnson was joined at a virtual rally to announce the report and legislation by Reynoso and Lander, as well as Council Members Vanessa Gibson, who chairs the Council capital budget subcommittee, Carlina Rivera, and Ben Kallos, as well as planning experts and advocates from Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development, the Pratt Center for Community Development, the Municipal Art Society, and the Regional Plan Association. 

The new legislation, which includes City Charter amendments, would incorporate and re-jigger all the current elements of city planning into a comprehensive planning strategy over ten-year cycles, mandating a regular effort at thoughtful, coordinated growth and that decisions on land use and the city budget actively seek to rectify historic inequities across the city for low-income communities of color and to prevent the displacement that may be caused by forces of gentrification.

The plan will be a living document, changing every five years to keep up with the evolving needs of the city and based on regular engagement with communities. If the legislation is passed in 2021, the ten-year process would begin in 2022, with a Long Term Planning Steering Committee and an assessment of needs from community boards. The plan itself would first be published in 2025, and then amended in 2030 as citywide goals, needs and land use actions are reassessed.

It would require regular appraisals of infrastructure needs, short- and long-term risks and the impact of land use decisions. The proposed bill would require that the city prioritize community input and create new, local decision-making bodies to weigh in on land use and development processes. And it would set quantifiable targets for “housing, jobs, open space, resiliency infrastructure, schools, transportation, and other infrastructure.”  

The legislation was built off the Planning Together report, which includes, as Johnson called it, an indictment of “bureaucracy at its worst” under past mayoral administrations that created siloed processes, inefficient coordination across city agencies, and lacked proactive planning for community needs. Those problems, the report argues, have only worsened under Mayor Bill de Blasio and have served to effectively water down his attempt at holistic planning through OneNYC, his vision for equitable growth that retooled former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC framework. “The lack of proactive public engagement or buy-in from elected officials and communities has allowed the significance and utility of PlaNYC/OneNYC to fade over time,” the report says. 

It highlighted what has become a central issue for de Blasio’s affordable housing program: vociferous community opposition to individual neighborhood rezoning and land use proposals. The mayor’s administration has sought to upzone swathes of neighborhoods to allow for more density and to encourage developers to build a combination of market-rate and rent-restricted housing. But time and again, those rezonings have been met with widespread resistance and even legal challenges, some of which have successfully derailed the administration’s plans. The ones that have been passed, in coordination with the City Council, have all been in communities of color. In his final year in office, de Blasio is looking to advance rezoning plans in Soho and Gowanus.

“That contention is, in part, due to a growing distrust of the process and a sense among some community stakeholders that the City and private developers are often unfairly targeting neighborhoods—particularly low-income communities of color—to bear the burdens of growth in exchange for long-overdue investments like affordable housing, schools, child care centers, street safety improvements, parks, and playgrounds,” the Council’s report notes.

Johnson said he is hoping to soon hold a hearing on the legislation.

“It has long past time, long overdue that we implement these best practices that nearly every other city in the world uses to prioritize its spending,” said Council Member Gibson. 

“[A]dvocates are marching today as they have often in the past for an approach to land use that starts from listening to communities about their needs, rather than starts by responding to a proposal from a developer,” said Council Member Lander. “A comprehensive plan, developed in conversation with communities grounded in principles of fair housing, equity, livable neighborhoods, and sustainability will help give us the tools to do that.” 

An equity-focused comprehensive plan “will help move us away from this ad hoc approach to planning that only perpetuates the existing inequalities,” said Barika Williams, executive director of ANHD, which is a leader of the Thriving Communities Coalition.

Council Member Reynoso said comprehensive planning would ensure that “the burden of building ourselves out of any crisis doesn't fall on strictly poor Black and brown neighborhoods. We get to have a conversation about how all neighborhoods can contribute.” Reynoso recently killed a de Blasio administration attempt to rezone a portion of his district in Bushwick after the sides could not come to agreement on key pieces of the puzzle.

The comprehensive planning legislation is of a piece with Johnson’s policy agenda as speaker. He successfully created a “streets master plan” for traffic and pedestrian infrastructure, which was signed into law by the mayor at the end of last year (though it’s implementation has been delayed due to the pandemic). Johnson has pushed through legislation to codify the mayor’s Office of Food Policy into law and to mandate a ten-year plan to tackle hunger and food inequity. He called for municipal control of the city’s subways and buses in his first State of the City speech last year. In January this year, he proposed a homelessness reduction plan, though he has yet to produce a strategy for building affordable housing which he promised at the time as a companion plan. In March, Johnson also released an in-depth report and a series of proposals to mitigate climate change and build resiliency infrastructure. The plan was originally meant to be released in his State of the City speech, which was cancelled because of the pandemic.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Speaker Unveils Comprehensive Planning Legislation Wed, 16 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
CUNY Nursing Schools Continue Amid Pandemic, with Major Questions for One Program https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9993-cuny-nursing-schools-programs-amid-coronavirus-pandemic-major-questions https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9993-cuny-nursing-schools-programs-amid-coronavirus-pandemic-major-questions nurse gotham health hospital survive

Gotham Health (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


On Friday, the New York City Council’s Committee on Higher Education heard from administrators and students of CUNY’s nursing schools to understand how they have maintained student progression despite transitioning to online learning amid the coronavirus pandemic.

CUNY has 14 nursing schools that offer a variety of certificates and associates, bachelors, masters, and doctorate degree programs. An average of 1,800 students graduate every year from CUNY nursing programs, many of whom go off to work in New York City hospitals, nursing homes, and other local settings.

City Council Member Inez Barron, a Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the Council higher education committee, noted at the hearing that given the increasing demand for health-care workers, recent graduates from CUNY nursing programs will be needed as hospitals prepare for a challenging winter amid spiking covid infections and hospitalizations.

Also of particular concern during the hearing was the withdrawal of Lehman College’s accreditation, which has left the careers of 45 Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) students up in the air. In order to receive accreditation from The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), schools must have a minimum pass rate of 80% on the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). Lehman College students missed that pass rate by 2% in 2019.

Overall, administrators highlighted CUNY nursing programs’ ability to implement virtual learning methods without, they said, sacrificing the quality of student learning.

CUNY Dean of Health and Human Services Patricia Boyce discussed how students have been able to continue their degrees through online learning opportunities such as simulations, alternative training models, and Interprofessional Education (IPE), a learning method where students can collaborate across health fields.  

“We’ve met or exceeded the expectations in terms of student progression” said Boyce. “We have the highest number of graduations in spring 2020, at the height of the pandemic, which I think again demonstrates the perseverance of our students and our ability to maintain their progression in our programs.”

This past spring, 1,879 students graduated from CUNY’s nursing programs, a 60% increase from the number of graduates in 2019.

In place of in-person clinical training, CUNY has provided students with telepractice opportunities and simulations through NYSIM, which is NYU’s and CUNY’s collaborative simulation courses in healthcare. With the exception of some licensing requirements and accelerated programs which require in-person clinical training, most accreditors and all CUNY nursing programs permit students to fulfill their clinical requirements through alternatives to in-person clinical experience.

A major reason students may not have in-person opportunities for clinical training is because of the limited availability of spots at clinical sites. For health and safety reasons, hospitals may limit the capacity of students they accept. “But as soon as the sites let us in,” Boyce said, “we go immediately and fulfill those students' clinical hours.” 

Both the administration members and students who testified also discussed racial diversity in CUNY’s nursing programs. Boyce noted that “Approximately 70% of our nursing degree students are people of color,” which she said is a “stark contrast to national norms” where enrollment skews more white.

Chair of the CUNY Student Senate Juvanie Piquant said that despite the overall increase in STEM degrees, Black and Hispanic students remain underrepresented in STEM programs.

“CUNY’s Black and Hispanic students earned 31% of computer science degrees last year while representing 55% of the student body,” she said, citing research from the Center for an Urban Future. Piquant also emphasized that the lack of cultural affirmation, lack of mental health support, and financial and food insecurity amid tuition hikes has made it challenging for nursing students at Lehman college to continue their studies.

Students expressed special concern for the 45 Lehman College nursing students expecting to graduate in January 2021. Expectant graduates found out about the college’s loss of accreditation this past November.

Because Lehman students will be graduating from a non-accredited institution, they will be barred from taking the NCLEX exam for all testing dates in the future and consequently be unable to receive licensure. Although New York is one of three states in the U.S. that allows graduates from non-accredited programs to practice nursing, very few institutions will hire nurses from programs without CCNE approval.

“They're graduating during a pandemic and the city needs more health-care workers, but they can’t practice with their degrees as of now,” said Sumana Ali, Vice President for Academic and Legislative Affairs of the CUNY Student Senate.

Students are also looking to delay graduating in the case that Lehman College will regain accreditation. However, Marina Aminova, who is one of the 45 Lehman College nursing students expected to graduate this month, explained that postponing graduation entails other complications.

“If we postpone in six months people have student loans that they need to begin to pay,” she said. “We spent this money on this degree and now we won't have the income to recoup what we invested.”

Lehman has reached out to CCNE requesting an extension for its accreditation to stand until February. It has also submitted a request to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) to see if accreditation by the New York State Education Department (NYSED) is enough to permit students to take the exam. Lehman is expected to receive responses from both institutions this week.

“We lost family members, we experienced dark moments all the while we were still attending school and still completing hundreds upon hundreds of clinical hours needed to graduate in the most impoverished county in this state during the worst pandemic in the century,” said Aminova. “These last years of hard work, sacrifice, time away from spouses, parents, and our children, time away from work, forgone income, paid tuition, tireless studying has all been for nothing.”

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by Victoria Choe for Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

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CUNY Nursing Schools Continue Amid Pandemic, with Major Questions for One Program Tue, 15 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
How New York City's Public Libraries Adapted to COVID-19 https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9974-new-york-public-libraries-adjust-pandemic-nyc https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9974-new-york-public-libraries-adjust-pandemic-nyc 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."

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by Anna Conkling, Gotham Gazette

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How New York City's Public Libraries Adapted to COVID-19 Thu, 10 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Imminent City Council Special Election in the Bronx is a Two-Candidate Race https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9968-december-2020-city-council-special-election-bronx-andy-king-district-12 https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9968-december-2020-city-council-special-election-bronx-andy-king-district-12 City Council Andy King special

Former Council Member Andy King (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The ouster of Andy King from the New York City Council in October over repeated ethics violations triggered a special election that moved up the timeline for the race to replace King, who was term-limited but then expelled by his colleagues, from the standard 2021 election dates to this month. The race will effectively be the first of the 2021 city election cycle, when all of city government will be on the ballot, and could provide interesting initial bread crumbs about where the especially consequential elections of next year are headed.

Early voting for the special election in City Council District 12, which covers parts of the northeastern Bronx, starts on December 12 and runs through December 20. Election day itself is December 22. The absentee balloting process is underway. As a special election it will be non-partisan, meaning there are no official party ballot lines and candidates create their own to run on. (This election will not feature ranked-choice voting, which kicks in next year for special and party primary elections for city government positions.)

The field of candidates significantly narrowed in October when the city’s Board of Elections booted several people, including Brian Melford, a staffer for the erstwhile Council member, off the ballot for the special election for various reasons related to their petitioning.

This left only three candidates in the race: Kevin Riley, a district leader and community relations director for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie; Pamela Hamilton-Johnson, the president of the 47th Precinct Council and a Community Board member; and, Neville Mitchell, a public defender with the Legal Aid Society. Gotham Gazette spoke with Riley and Hamilton-Johnson but was unable to reach Mitchell despite multiple attempts (he has raised only $100 for this campaign, according to the CFB, does not appear to have a website, and his Twitter account has been inactive since his 2012 run for this office).

“I was very surprised so many people got knocked off due to their own mistakes,” said Hamilton-Johnson.

“I don’t think it affected the race at all,” said Riley, who noted a few of the removed candidates are attempting write-in campaigns.

“We announced in February and I’ve been very active in the community as a candidate,” said Riley, who added that King’s expulsion “sped everything up, but we were already prepared.”

The 12th City Council District includes neighborhoods of Wakefield, Olinville, Edenwald, Eastchester, Williamsbridge, Baychester, and Co-op City. According to Census data, the district is 67% Black, 25% Hispanic, and 4% white. The district is also 56% women and 44% men.

Speaker Heastie’s 83rd Assembly District, which overlaps with much of the 12th District (minus Co-Op City), has a median household income of $51,532 and a poverty rate of 19.1%, while the median age of residents is 36.3. Co-Op City has a median household income of $50,832 and the median age of residents is 45.

King is the second consecutive Council member from the 12th District to be removed from office during his tenure, after predecessor Larry Seabrook was convicted of several corruption-related charges in 2012.

Fundraising & Endorsements
In terms of fundraising and endorsements, Riley has the clear advantage. He raised $44,581 from private donations and received $132,077 under the city’s matching program for $176,658 raised in total as of November 20th. He’s received endorsements from elected officials such as Speaker Heastie, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., Congressional Representative-elect Jamaal Bowman, State Senator and Bronx Democratic County Party Chair Jamaal Bailey, and Assemblymembers Nathalia Fernandez, Latoya Joyner, and Catalina Cruz; and labor unions such as the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), 32BJ SEIU, Communications Workers of America District 1, Transport Workers Union (TWU Local 100), Hotel Trades Council, retail workers (RWDSU), Uniformed Firefighters Association, United Food and Commercial Workers, and the state nurses association (NYSNA).

“I wouldn't say I’m the front-runner in this race,” Riley said. “This community saved my life. It’s the reason I am the man I am today. This is why I want to step up and represent my community.” He explained that following his father’s incarceration, many members of the community mentored him at crucial points in his life that enabled him to succeed later in life.

Meanwhile, Hamilton-Johnson has raised $6,781 from private donations and has received $45,836 in matching funds for a total of $52,617 as of November 20. She’s been endorsed by 21 in ‘21, the initiative to get more women elected to the City Council, and would be the first woman elected to represent the district, she noted. She previously ran in the 2012 special election and 2017 election for the seat against King. In 2017, she garnered 33% of the vote to King’s 57%, while only winning 4.4% in 2012.

Neville Mitchell also ran in 2012 and received 4.5% of the vote, narrowly edging out Hamilton-Johnson in that race that featured six candidates.

“I am the outsider in this race. I’m not the county choice,” Hamilton-Johnson said, noting that she has pledged not to take donations from corporations, labor unions, or PACs. Riley has raised at least $8,700 from these groups, accounting for nearly 20% of his private donations, according to a Gotham Gazette analysis. Nearly 90% of Hamilton-Johnson’s donations (120 in total) and 56.8% of Riley’s donations (274 in total) have come from Bronx residents.

“PACs are not going to give you money without having some kind of legislative favoritism and, in this district with the last two Councilmen being removed from office, voters are looking for someone who will put people over politics and people over profit,” said Hamilton-Johnson, who labeled Riley as “the county [party]’s puppet.” She believes this is the main contrast between her and her opponent.

“There are amazing people running and we’re going to let the community decide,” Riley said in his interview with Gotham Gazette.

Kevin Riley
“We need adequate testing sites and when the vaccine is available, we need to make sure people in this area are able to get the vaccine,” Riley said when asked about how the community can recover from the pandemic, noting that Co-Op City did not have a testing site until recently.

Riley lists education, housing, and mental health as the top priorities of his campaign. On housing, he said “we need to look at land use. There’s a lot of deserted land in our district and I believe we’re not utilizing the process properly.” He also wants more community input in the process, saying “a lot of times when housing comes to a community, it’s not for the people in the community.” Riley said he supports member deference in the city’s land use process (ULURP) by which controversial large projects and rezonings, as well as those of other sizes, are often decided.

“I definitely support reallocating funds from the police department to other agencies that will take care of issues better than the police,” said Riley, although he said doesn’t have a specific figure. “There’s a lot of programs out there that can address violence and mental health better than the police.”

“I’m very big on financial literacy and mentorship,” said Riley, who noted he is a mentor in the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, started by President Obama. He said he would like to incorporate both into the public school curriculum, as well as increasing trade school and entrepreneurship options.

Riley said the city should find “new ways of revenue that we weren’t thinking about years ago” to address municipal budget shortfalls, such as legalizing marijuana and gaming, in addition to increasing taxes on the rich.

Pamela Hamilton-Johnson
“The county [party] doesn’t push women candidates,” Hamilton-Johnson said, attributing it as a major reason she decided on a third run for the seat. “We don’t have a seat at the table. We’re good enough to lick envelopes for every other candidate, but we’re not good enough to be in office.”

Hamilton-Johnson currently runs the Eastchester Heights Community Center in the district, which she founded, in addition to serving as President of the 47th Precinct Council and as a member of Bronx Community Board 12. She formerly worked in the city’s Department of Education, in various roles.

Hamilton-Johnson listed refunding the Summer Youth Employment Program and supporting small businesses as top priorities, saying, “when small businesses go out of business, our seniors and residents have to go further to get the necessary items they need.”

“We have an issue in Co-op City with sanitation. The streets are filthy,” Hamilton-Johnson said, adding that the neighborhood lost service during King’s tenure. “We have to restore the cleanliness back to our neighborhood.”

She supports hazard pay for MTA employees and that the eviction moratorium be continued beyond January. “A lot of people in our community are out of work and most likely will lose their homes and there has to be a better plan,” she said. “We need to keep people in their housing.”

“I do not believe in ‘defunding the police,’ but if you’re going to use the money, I really believe it should be used for at-risk youth and mental health workers accompanying police officers when they respond to emotionally-disturbed persons,” said Hamilton-Johnson. She was also critical of the NYPD’s use of overtime.

“In the 47th Precinct, our residents don’t want less police offices, they actually want more in our community. However, we still want our offices to treat us with dignity,” said Hamilton-Johnson, voicing support for retraining and greater transparency in disciplinary records.

“I would hope that residents will not follow county’s bad choices of candidates and they will choose a fresh choice for this Council seat,” she said.

The Vote
The special election is for the remainder of King’s term, which expires at the end of 2021. Regardless of the outcome, there will be an election for the seat in 2021 for a term that will span 2022 and 2023, with another election for restricted seats slated for 2023, for a four-year term. The 2021 election will include June primaries and a fall general election, both at the same times as the rest of city government, from mayor through all 51 seats of the City Council.

Early voting for this election begins December 12 and ends December 20. Election day itself is December 22. (Voters' poll site can be different for early voting and election day.) The deadline for requesting an absentee ballot is December 15. Since it is a special election, the race is nonpartisan and each candidate is running on their own ballot line: Kevin Riley on the Justice & Unity line, Pamela Hamilton-Johnson on the Social Change line, and Neville Mitchell on the Bronx 12 Matters line.

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette
   

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been correctd to reflect that Riley said he "wouldn't say I'm the frontrunner."

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Imminent City Council Special Election in the Bronx is a Two-Candidate Race Sun, 06 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000