Gotham Gazette Wed, 08 Jul 2020 12:10:56 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) What's The [DATA] Point? 70 million, with Kathryn Garcia and Cas Holloway whats the data point

What's The [Data] Point? Episode 92 -- 70  million, with Kathryn Garcia and Cas Holloway [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

ep92 wtdp

70 million is the number of free meals distributed by New York City government since mid-March, when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. We spoke to key individuals in the public and private sector teams that made this success happen: New York City Sanitation Commissioner and "Food Czar" Kathryn Garcia, and former NYC Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway, now of Unqork, the enterprise software company that developed an app virtually overnight.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis of CBC (@MariaDoulis). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

What's The [DATA] Point? · Episode 92: 70 million, with Kathryn Garcia and Cas Holloway

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

What's The [DATA] Point? 70 million, with Kathryn Garcia and Cas Holloway Fri, 19 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
City Moves to Meet Need for Culturally Diverse Emergency Food emergency food site nyc

The City continues to try to meet food needs amid the coronavirus crisis (photo: @NYCHRA)

The coronavirus pandemic has put a strain on food access, with unemployment skyrocketing and increasingly more people relying on food assistance, food pantries, and meals provided by the city. Additionally, as New York City is home to many different races, ethnicities, and cultural traditions, concerns have arisen about whether the city’s massive emergency food program, including food delivery, is reflecting that diversity, causing further food stress on communities.

New York City established the GetFoodNYC hub, where New Yorkers can access various resources and information, including access to SNAP (food stamp) benefits from the Human Resources Association (HRA), a map of food pantries and Grab & Go meal sites in the city, and food delivery assistance. 

Even before the pandemic and its fallout, the city was home to more than 1 million food insecure individuals, while hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers have lost their jobs since mid-March, drastically increasing the need for emergency food. New York City is home to over 1.1 million seniors, according to a 2017 report by the City Comptroller, many more of whom are homebound due to social distancing restrictions and senior center closures, increasing the need for meal delivery.

While the city has put an immense new food access program into effect, led by “food czar” Kathryn Garcia, the city’s sanitation commissioner and one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s most-trusted aides, to serve more than 10 million free meals in April alone, challenges have emerged. One, particularly with home delivered meals, is access to culturally appropriate food such as Halal, Kosher, or Pan American meals. After some outcry, the city has taken several steps toward meeting more of these diverse food needs.

“We've been making sure there's food for every New Yorker and we've tried to also make sure that for those with a special food need that we could be responsive,” de Blasio said during an April 23 press briefing. “So, we've been creating Kosher food programs and Halal food programs to recognize that we're all in this together, we want to respect all the people, all the faiths of New York City. This is part of what makes New York City so great, that we have that mutual respect and we understand that we all come together to create something greater than the sum of the parts.”

De Blasio reiterated his promise that “no New Yorker will go hungry, any New Yorker who needs food, it will always be there for you during this crisis, your city will provide, there's no question.” He announced “there will be 400,000 Halal meals available at 32 specific Department of Education sites, remember overall we have 435 sites and I'll keep reminding people, anyone that needs food, whether it's to go to one of those DOE sites or home deliveries, whatever you need, call 3-1-1 or go to”

The 32 sites would be “where there are large Muslim communities” while “another hundred thousand [Halal meals] will be distributed through partnerships with community-based organizations, food pantries, soup kitchens. So, over half-a-million meals will be distributed during Ramadan and it's a reminder, this is a place that truly believes in equality and it's something that is a profound New York City value.”

New York City is of course well-known as home to an extremely wide variety of cultures, religions, languages, immigrant populations, and cuisines, making food choice an ongoing concern when it comes to government programs, including school meals, even during non-pandemic times. Those concerns now overlap with emergency measures, and additionally so for those who require meal delivery.

“There are a number of meal types available through both the Emergency Home Food Delivery program and the Grab & Go meals at DOE sites, including Kosher, Halal, and vegetarian,” said Joshua Goodman, a spokesperson for the city’s emergency food operations, in an email to Gotham Gazette. “As we continue to grow and expand these emergency food efforts, we hope to continue to offer more. It's important to remember that this is an enormous operation, involving hundreds of staff across City agencies, dozens of contractors, hundreds of sites - we're proud to have gotten it up and running quickly, and are now seeing what we can do to continue to expand and meet the needs of more food-insecure New Yorkers.”

Kosher meals are available at 18 schools, according to the Department of Education website.

The complex needs are staggering, according to city officials. “The amount of food that’s needed to be home delivered so we can be observant of, certainty the nutrition standards, but also the cultural and ethnic needs that we have is very overwhelming,” Kate MacKenzie, director of the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, said during a recent digital discussion hosted by Hunter College Food Policy Center.

In terms of delivery of specialty meals, new protocols have been put into place, according to City Hall, but they require in-person sign-up.

“This is self-identified at sign up, in the case of Emergency Home Food Delivery, and it is based on request at the DOE sites,” Goodman said. “We do not ask people to prove they keep Kosher or Halal, for example - people request what they need and the City provides it at no cost. Halal meals are available at every site, and the list of Kosher sites was developed in consultation with community advocates.”

During the initial rollout of the DOE program, Kosher meals were particularly hard to come by, prompting criticism from representatives of communities that need them.

“Thursday was a disaster. Friday was a disaster,” State Assemblymember Simcha Eichenstein told The Forward. “It is not acceptable to have 100 people in line, and just turn them away without food — that cannot happen in 2020 in the city of New York.”

The Middle East Eye reported that some of the initial Halal meals delivered and provided as part of Ramadan were described as “mush” and a “pile of goop,” prompting concerns about the quality of the culturally-appropriate food.

This is particularly a problem for seniors, who are receiving the bulk of home delivered meals. Seniors are likely to be homebound and under stay-at-home orders for a long time, making food access hard, given that deaths due to COVID-19 have predominantly occurred for people over 65 years of age.

“In the prepared meals for seniors, we are trying to make it so we have identified who needs Kosher, Halal, who needs Pan-Asian,” Garcia said May 7 on WNYC radio’s The Brian Lehrer Show. “In the senior center, particularly if they go through their senior center, they are able to designate more types. If you go through 311 the two options are Kosher and Halal, and then regular.”

Some seniors have struggled to attain their culturally-appropriate meals, while others have said that delivered food is a collection of snacks, rather than a meal.

“The most frequent complaints we have about the ‘meals’ are from seniors who receive a package of shelf-stable products like applesauce and granola bars, instead of an actual meal,” said Ben Thomases, the executive director of Queens’ Community House, which offers a broad network of services at 32 sites in 14 Queens neighborhoods, including meal delivery, which has increased in response to COVID-19. 

“The things that are in the food boxes, they are emergency food boxes,” MacKenzie said during the Hunter event. “The contents of those boxes still adhere to the city’s nutrition standards, but they might be cans of tuna, yes there are granola bars, yes there are raisins and mixed nuts, these are intended to be emergency meal kits.” She added there would be a conversation about “the future” of the meal program, “But currently we are still feeding people emergency provisions.”

That conversation has moved ahead to some degree as the city has expanded its culturally-appropriate meal offerings.

The city is also training staff of the dozens of shuttered senior centers to enroll their members in home meal delivery. Tara Klein, a policy analyst for United Neighborhood Houses (UNH), said this could improve service, and “things are moving in a more positive direction.”

“It allows senior center staff to go in and enroll somebody directly,” she said. “It makes it a little easier for older adults to get registered and get their food. They’re also making it a little easier just to check on individuals, and see when meals are scheduled and all that.”

Thomases said differently. “The city has chosen to create a brand new food program for seniors, rather than working through its existing network of providers,” he said. “We have the capacity to further expand our meal production and delivery, but instead the city has instructed us to enroll people in the new centralized system. This system has been plagued with problems including difficulty enrolling new people, inaccurate addresses, missed deliveries, and inconsistent food quality. These types of problems are to be expected for a massive new system, which is why the city should have used its network of existing providers.”

“On [May 1] we issued an RFI, request for information, from nonprofits who might be interested in and capable of supplying that system, that GetFood system, so we can be even more responsive, particularly to different cultures and ethnic needs that we’re always striving to do better at,” MacKenzie said. She added that if a nonprofit is able to supply at least 1,000 meals per day, the city will consider doing business with it to help ease supply.

“There have been gaps in getting cultural meals, I think Kosher meals in particular were very slow to roll out, and at first some of the meals were not good quality,” Klein said. “But I think now as the city is focusing more on using nonprofits and they are attuned to the fact that there are culturally specific meals needed, things are getting a little better.”

Thomases’ organization will be answering the RFI, he said, arguing that using nonprofits will help improve outcomes. “New York City has an outstanding nonprofit sector with talented and committed leaders and staff. During ordinary times, the city relies on nonprofits to serve our communities and meet the needs of the most vulnerable New Yorkers,” he said. “All the more so, during this crisis, the city should be including non-profits in planning the rollout of new services, and relying on non-profit expertise in service delivery.”

“The city‘s response has been really impressive,” Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, said during the Hunter event of the overall emergency food response. “They have done in a few weeks what normally government would take a few years to do. There have been bumps. I’m an advocate and it's my job is always to say thank you, next, what more do we need to do.”

by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Moves to Meet Need for Culturally Diverse Emergency Food Sun, 17 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
'No New Yorker Goes Hungry': De Blasio Announces Next Steps to Combat Food Emergency hunger food pantry

De Blasio visits a food pantry in Brooklyn (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

As the coronavirus crisis was unfolding in New York City last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio named his sanitation commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, as the new “food czar” to lead the implementation of a massive effort to ensure New Yorkers don’t go hungry. With the city already home to over a million “food insecure” people, the scale of the need accelerated quickly as hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers lost their jobs, school buildings closed, and food pantries struggled to stay open.

The city announced over 400 sites where families with children could pick up food each weekday, then expanded that offering to adults without children, allocated millions of dollars in emergency food bank funding, began coordinating delivery of meals to seniors, and took other initial steps.

According to experts on hunger and food insecurity, one of the major challenges New York City faces amid the current crisis is identifying the population that needs assistance because of the rapidly evolving situation in the city. The city appears to be taking sweeping measures to try to ensure everyone who needs food gets it.

On Tuesday, de Blasio visited the Campaign Against Hunger food pantry in Bedford-Stuyvesant to thank workers there and highlight the importance of emergency food, then dedicated the bulk of his Wednesday coronavirus briefing to the city’s new anti-hunger plans.

“Today I am announcing a $170 million initative to make sure every New Yorker gets what they need and no New Yorker goes hungry,” de Blasio said from City Hall on Wednesday morning, announcing that over the last month the city had provided over 4.5 million free meals. “Thank god we have a strong foundation to build on. All those food pantries and soup kitchens, all the amazing organizations out there that have been doing work all over the city for years and years.”

Called Feeding New York, the plan includes four main planks: First, scaling up and adjusting existing food delivery systems through the Department of Education and Department for the Aging, working with the Office of Emergency Management and under Garcia’s leadership, along with other partners. Second, hiring drivers licensed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission to deliver meals, yielding 11,000 individuals already to both bring needy people meals and provide earnings to drivers who are hurting.

Third, securing the supply by using $50 million to invest in a food reserve that will hold 18 million meals in case of a disruption in the food supply chain. And fourth, protect grocery store workers by telling stores they should “require customers to wear face mask coverings to protect employees and customers” and ask any non-compliant customers to leave. The city is also coordinating with vendors to ensure non-medical personal protective equipment can be accessed by grocery stores, and that the stores can directly place orders for equipment.

“Now, I was in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, but this challenge is literally in every neighborhood, because if you have no money, how do you get food?,” de Blasio said on Wednesday. “And we know that the massive unemployment that we're experiencing is literally every zip code, every part of the city. So, whoever you are, wherever you are, if you need food, we're here for you, and there should be no shame. I want to emphasize this. It’s no one's fault that we're dealing with this horrible crisis. Anyone needs food - we're here for you. You don't have to think twice. Of course, it's for free. Just pick up the phone or go online. And if you need information, you can go to You can call 311. You can find all the places, all the ways we'll get you food. Please do not hesitate and spread the word to everyone you know.”

The mayor estimated that the city will have served about 10 million free meals in the month when April ends, and that May could rise to 15 million meals.

De Blasio’s announcement also comes on the heels of dire warnings from food banks in New York City and across the nation, and announcements from both the state and city governments of $25 million each to help food banks acquire food and pay personnel as the largerly volunteer-run nonprofits struggle to staff their operations. In her role as food czar Garcia is also working with those nonprofits, as well as entities at all levels of government, private companies, and various city agencies.

“The real focus is on both the supply side and also on operations to make sure we are getting food to our most vulnerable,” Garcia said on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show last week. “Some who were vulnerable before and some who have become vulnerable because of the epidemic.” The city is striving to make sure the pandemic “doesn't become a tragedy about hunger,” she said.

"Despite this crisis, we will not let any New Yorker go hungry, " de Blasio said last week after visiting a school meal hub at P.S. 1 in Manhattan. "With more New Yorkers asking where their next meal will come from, our 435 Meal Hubs are here to serve them. And none of this would be possible without the hard work of the meal service workers on the front lines. We cannot thank them enough for their service.”

While this is not the first time that New Yorkers have experienced times of crisis leading to food insecurities across the city, it may be the worst or among the worst in modern times given the massive job loss and lag in income so many are facing, even as the federal government has passed a stimulus to send people checks and the state is working through a backlog of unemployment insurance claims. There’s a tremendous amount for Garcia and others to figure out, though the city’s approach appears to be to cast as wide a net as possible and not require anyone to justify a need for food.

“Our biggest challenge, which is very different from what we saw, for example, in [Hurricane] Sandy, is that we don't have a population that's already identified that needs assistance, right? The population keeps growing,” said Grace Bonilla, administrator of the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA), during an online panel discussion convened at the end of March by The Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center. “The rate of growth from neighborhood to neighborhood is different. And I'm speaking for an agency that has to operationalize food, making sure that we're meeting the needs of so many people as they're losing their jobs. Then that also is a moving target.”

Kate MacKenzie, the director for the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, agreed, explaining that delivering services to New Yorkers becomes hard when you have to continuously reevaluate the same problems when populations grow or change.

“The fluid state of everything, right? Of the number of people that we need to feed, of the trucks on the road. Everything changes by the hour. So trying to solve for something that the next day needs to be solved for again,” MacKenzie said.

With school buildings closed to teachers and students, and many children relying on schools for multiple meals a day, it was a natural move for the city to turn schools into the 435 meal hubs across the five boroughs, which are open on weekdays. A spokesperson for the mayor said that individuals and families can collect enough food for the weekends on Fridays.

As city government takes a more active approach to managing the exacerbated hunger crisis -- a crisis that was immense even before coronavirus decimated the local economy -- the city’s food pantries, soup kitchens, and other such places where food insecure people can get food have also kicked into another gear, but they are struggling to stay open and secure and provide enough food.

There has been huge demand on the food pantry system with this coronavirus pandemic. According to a City Council press release from the end of March, 32% of food pantries and soup kitchens had quickly shut down, with more expected to follow, thus leading to the push for the $25 million in emergency aid that was announced soon after.

Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, said on the Max & Murphy podcast that “they are having trouble operating. It is important to note how ill-equipped they were to deal with the hunger problem even when times were good. As wonderful as these agencies are -- they’re run by the best people I’ve ever met in my life, most of them are volunteers -- even in good times, less than one-tenth of the dollar amount of food that the federal nutrition assistance programs provide, and if you include all the federal programs, probably less than one-twentieth of the food that SNAP, what used to be called the food stamp program, the school meals, or the women, infants, and children’s program provides.”

Meanwhile, the recent federal stimulus package will provide New York with $38 million for Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) Commodities, nearly $16 million for TEFAP Administration, and a little under $35 million for The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), according to Derek Thomas of FPWA.

Before the emergency city and state funding was announced, the City Council called for the $50 million, $25 million from the state and $25 million from the city, to help food pantry and food assistance programs remain open through the crisis.

“According to Met Council, the combined $50 million will provide funding for over 19 million meals, which will allow for 2.1 million balanced and healthy food packages each consisting of nine meals per USDA guidelines,” a press release said, also noting that more money would be needed after the $50 million.

The money was approved soon after. De Blasio was then asked about it at an April 11 briefing, and said that while it will help, he believes the food situation will get worse before it gets better, and that improving access to food for New Yorkers will be increasingly important.

“I'm not confident yet that everything that is going to be needed is in place. That's why I named a food czar, Kathryn Garcia, and that's why I've said to her, whatever it's going to take, we're going to put forward the resources to make sure that everyone has food. We literally have to have a simple standard,” de Blasio said. “No New Yorker goes without food and what the folks in the Department Education are doing, which is amazing, 435 sites that have now been up over the last week or more where anybody, any adult can come in and get breakfast, lunch and dinner, grab and go as for as many family members as possible. That to me is the kind of thing we're going to have to do on a really big scale going forward to make sure that everyone has food.”

That line of thinking led to Wednesday’s announcement of the additional efforts in the new Feeding New York plan.

On WNYC, Garcia stressed the challenges with the volunteer base at typical nonprofit emergency food providers, in response to a caller question. “We think it’s absolutely critical to support this particular network,” she said. “This is where we are seeing the most challenges with being able to staff things, with many people being ill or sheltering.” Seniors often volunteer at soup kitchens and food pantries, and also happen to be the most vulnerable population to the novel coronavirus.

“We do have standardized guidance for people, our volunteers, who are wanting to do some home deliveries, who are working in kitchens or pantries or any volunteer capacity for that matter,” MacKenzie said during the Hunter discussion. “Volunteerism is an essential function, but it’s also trying to reconcile that with social isolation. Practices and protocols. So that is something to be mindful of. I think particularly, this is the marathon, this isn’t a sprint here. And whether it’s this week or in June, there’s going to be opportunities for people to plug into a way that makes sense for them.”

City Hall is now making an effort, as part of the Feeding New York plan, to deploy city staff to 14 food pantries across the city that are short on volunteers and are recruiting more through NYC Service, Garcia said at Wednesday’s briefing with the mayor.

Berg mentioned remote opportunities for people to get involved. At his own organization, there are opportunities to work the phones, calling grocery stores and other important entities, and working on the national hunger hotline.

Still, Berg stressed the importance of the larger, government-backed programs that help people secure food, with the nonprofit network playing a key supporting role.

“There are 800 to 1,000 of these agencies and while that sounds like a lot, there are 8,000 retail establishments that accept SNAP,” Berg said on Max & Murphy. “Most of these agencies, in good times, were only open maybe once or twice a month or sometimes once a week or a few hours a day. It’s no shock that a volunteer-run system with many of these people running these programs who are senior citizens, that a fair amount of them have been forced to close down.”

Other organizations are also trying to fill the gap and feed more New Yorkers. On April 8, de Blasio announced that New York Road Runners will donate $100,000 to the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City to provide 10,000 meals to frontline healthcare workers.

Bloomberg Philanthropies, established by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has donated $6 million to World Central Kitchen specifically for meals for health care workers in public hospitals. De Blasio praised his predecessor for that gift during Wednesday’s briefing.

The benefits programs run by HRA that help New Yorkers access food are becoming increasingly important as people lose their jobs amidst this crisis. Bonilla said that HRA has worked hard to move its services online while retaining the ability to process applications.

“Normally, on any given day we would get 6,000 applications [for assistance],” Bonilla said. “We’ve got about 16,000 in one day. That was at the beginning of the crisis, and we are trying to make sure our folks are working from home so that we can keep them safe, but that they are also able to process the unprecedented number of applications we are getting.”

Garcia explained that New York State has put in an application for Pandemic Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (PSNAP), which is pending with USDA. Another program the New York congressional delegation has been advocating for is Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (DSNAP), which relies on a federal disaster declaration.

As the city moves into a second month of extreme social distancing and stay-at-home orders, vulnerable populations, especially seniors, must be at the forefront of the operations, officials and advocates alike have said.

But with the closure of senior centers and the move to expanded food delivery, some seniors have not been getting the food they rely on.

“Now there's a different initiative for those, for the senior citizens who need help for folks who are homebound, for folks who are vulnerable and that the only solution for them is a delivery. There's also a growing delivery system,” de Blasio said at his briefing on April 7.  “This is something Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez [the Department for the Aging Commissioner] has been working on from the beginning and it's building all the time. So, anybody who truly needs a home delivery can call 3-1-1 and we'll get them that delivery. Or they can go to to sign up.”

As part of the new $170 million plan, Garcia explained that the city is going to register entire buildings of seniors run by NYCHA, city agencies, and nonprofits. In addition, case workers can directly enroll New Yorkers into the free meal delivery system.

[New Yorkers can find the nearest meal hub or food pantry here, find more information on food access here; or text NYC FOOD or NYC COMIDA to 877-877]

by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

'No New Yorker Goes Hungry': De Blasio Announces Next Steps to Combat Food Emergency Wed, 15 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: City's Hunger Crisis Exacerbated by Coronavirus Fallout 1 mxm doe600

Meal handouts from school during coronavirus (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

April 1, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Hunger and the Coronavirus Crisis

joel berg 150Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, joined the show to discuss the city's hunger and food insecurity crisis, which is becoming exponentially worse due to the coronavirus outbreak and its fallout. Berg discussed the problems and solutions.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: City's Hunger Crisis Exacerbated by Coronavirus Fallout Wed, 01 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Names 'Food Czar' to Combat Impending Hunger Crisis with 'Mobilization We've Never Seen Before' action network mayor

Mayor de Blasio serves food (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

As the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has spread in New York, people have begun buying food off the shelves of local supermarkets to prepare for prolonged periods of isolation in the face of the virus. Public schools and senior centers are closing, many of which provide vulnerable New York City residents with food and meals, and tens of thousands of people appear to have already been laid off from their jobs, all leaving New Yorkers increasingly worried about food access.

While food is still coming into stores, some nonprofit emergency food providers report added premiums as demand has risen and struggles to afford the quantity of food they need during this crisis, leaving many poor New Yorkers increasingly vulnerable to food shortages. A huge surge in unemployment and lost work-hours could quickly push many New Yorkers to the brink of not knowing where their next meals will come from or how they’ll feed their children.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is taking a number of steps to ensure access to food for the city’s most vulnerable -- roughly 20% of New York City residents live in poverty, and just over 14% of New York City residents are food insecure, and rely on services such as food pantries and soup kitchens for meals, according to Food Bank For New York City, -- including meal handouts at shuttered schools and new measures announced this weekend.

As part of larger efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus and its impacts, de Blasio on Saturday announced a restructuring of some of his senior leadership, including naming Kathryn Garcia, currently the city’s sanitation commissioner, as “COVID-19 Food Czar,” responsible for creating, operationalizing, and overseeing “a structure for working New Yorkers to get the food they need during this pandemic. Garcia will also work with City and State agencies, including the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, as well as food distributors to take any action necessary to ensure the city’s food supply continues without disruption.”

Meanwhile, Food Bank and other nonprofit emergency food providers and their allies are also attempting to combat the impacts of the pandemic’s reach throughout society.

“1.5 million New Yorkers rely on the Food Bank For New York City every year,” the Food Bank posted on Instagram March 16. “As the #COVID19 health crisis continues to unfold, that number will grow. Our warehouse remains open and our trucks are on the road to ensure food is delivered to our network of over 1,000 soup kitchens and food pantries across the city."

On March 17, Food Bank For New York City issued a call to New Yorkers for help.

“Amid mounting concerns around the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) public health crisis, Food Bank For New York City is calling on New Yorkers to support those struggling with food insecurity during this critical time. Food Bank anticipates an extreme rise in need for food and resources in the coming weeks, particularly among vulnerable New Yorkers such as seniors with chronic medical conditions, families with children who may lose up to two free school meals each day as NYC’s public schools remain closed for at least the next five weeks, and low-income and hourly workers,” it wrote in a press release.

“I'm desperately concerned that a lot of New Yorkers are running out of money and that's the money they use to buy food, among other crucial necessities,” de Blasio said at a Sunday press conference.”

Calling Garcia “one of our most extraordinary public servants,” de Blasio said that as Food Czar she will be working with many entities to “create a citywide network to ensure that food is available to those who cannot afford it.”

“It's going to take a mobilization such as we've never seen before,” de Blasio said, saying Garcia will “work with all of those agencies that currently do food relief, the Human Resources Administration, the Mayor's Office of Food Policy, obviously state agencies, Food Bank, soup kitchens, so many amazing nonprofit organizations. She'll work with all of them, but she's going to build something bigger and more comprehensive than we've ever seen in New York City.”

De Blasio said the work begins with “the assumption that food will become much more of an issue going forward and that many people will have a strain that they have not experienced previously because of huge disruptions in their own income.”

In a Sunday statement to Gotham Gazette, Garcia said:

“Ensuring that New Yorkers have a steady supply of food, whether that is a home-delivered meal or provisions from a grocery store, is a top priority. To ensure this, we have had to create brand new models to get food directly to those who need it. New York City is focused on ensuring that the COVID vulnerable population has food. That is the immediate need that we are solving for. We have the full food landscape on our radar, including the tremendous newly food insecure population as a result of job loss. Additionally, we have our eyes on the larger food supply so that we have constant awareness of any vulnerabilities and intervene. We are working with private food vendors, delivery services, and the robust emergency food feeding network to make all of this happen. We will have more to say about these efforts soon.”

The United Way of New York City has already developed a fund to help ensure all New Yorkers have access to food. “We have launched the UWNYC COVID-19 Community Fund to raise the critical funds needed for food and supplies,” Sheena Wright, president and CEO of United Way of New York City, said in an email to Gotham Gazette. “With support from New Yorkers across the City, this fund will allow us to assist in closing the gap. We want to help people who rely on pantries and kitchens to be well-resourced and prepared for this situation.”

David Greenfield, CEO of Met Council, said his organization has been preparing an emergency plan since the first case of coronavirus was identified in New York. Met Council provides food to 40 kosher food pantries in New York, serving, on average, 56,000 people per month, according to Greenfield.

“We’ve seen an explosion, really a shocking explosion and need and the people are coming to us from across the spectrum, from assessment, from anything, from housing, to social services, to seniors who are shuttered in their homes, to quite frankly, tens of thousands of people who have lost their jobs for the first time,” Greenfield said in an interview.

“I don’t think people appreciate the strain that not-for-profits are under,” Greenfield said. “Unlike government and private corporations that have deep benches of reserves, we don’t. We’re living generally month to month. And what's happened now is that because of this huge extra new need, we’re actually purchasing more food so that we can meet needs. For our organization alone, we have projected that this month, just in the next two weeks, we are spending an additional $1.1 million in our food department just on coronavirus response.”

Even before naming Garcia to the Food Czar role, Mayor de Blasio promised major pieces of a response to a potentially drastic deepening of the city’s food insecurity crisis.

New York City public schools were closed as of Monday, March 16. Given that many students rely on school for two free daily meals, officials are trying to ensure students still have access to food as the city shifts to remote learning for an indefinite period. During the first week of school closure, the city handed out meals outside of schools, from the morning through lunchtime, and, according to the mayor’s office, gave away roughly 560,000 meals.

Beginning Monday, March 23, de Blasio tweeted on Friday, “435 sites will be open for Grab-and-Go breakfast, lunch AND dinner for children. Any child under 18 is eligible. None will be turned away.”

The mayor followed that up by saying “We’re also partnering with @DoorDash to get food to the homes of medically fragile students. No child will go hungry. Not on our watch.”

According to a Friday evening press release from the mayor’s office, it’s actually going to be “439 hub sites citywide” where young people can get food, “100 of the sites were high participation sites in Summer, 2019, and the remaining sites are schools where more than 50 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced meals.”

The release also mentioned the developing partnership with Door Dash to deliver meals “to students whose medical needs are so significant that they should not be leaving the home even to get meals.”

It continues to say that “food delivery will also be made available to children who reside in City shelters.” Families can “search “Free Meals” on or call 311 to find a site near them. Starting Monday, families can also text FOOD or COMIDA to 877-877 to find a meal near them. A complete list of meal hubs is available here.”

The Food Education Fund, a nonprofit in the city, has created a webpage, the COVID-19 Food Hub NYC, to “share resources on available food sources for families and share general resources created by our partner organizations.” The website includes a map of food service providers donating to families of public school students in the city, how to volunteer, to donate, or to add resources to the website itself.

Senior centers in New York City were also closed as of March 16, suspending all activities but also still providing to-go meals to seniors who need access, and will make deliveries to those who cannot come to the centers themselves, according to de Blasio.  

As the city continues to see long lines at some grocers and runs on things like toilet paper, bread, and more, food continues to fly off the shelves and be replenished. De Blasio and others have stressed that the supply chains for food and basic household goods is sound. On March 16 he noted “a very intensive resupply in recent days,” but added that while this is good news, the bad news is everything is being snapped up quickly.

“But if there's someone in your life, someone older, someone with one of those preexisting conditions, someone who has a disability that keeps them from getting out and getting supplies they need, either help them by getting what they need for them or share your supply enough to help them out,” de Blasio said. But that was before much more restrictive orders were issued by Governor Andrew Cuomo, urged by de Blasio, to insist that people stay home as much as possible, forbid commuting for all those not deemed part of “essential services,” and stress the importance of not exposing the most vulnerable, especially older people, to infection with coronavirus.

These new restrictions, announced by Cuomo on Friday, make food access even more complicated for many. The governor did say that food delivery is an essential service.

And the supply chain remains a key aspect of the equation and nationally it is working well and increasing the amount of food distributed to meet demand, The New York Times reported on March 16. There will still be bare shelves at times as individuals nationwide continue to scoop up products and retailers figure out how to respond to demand quickly.

Greenfield argues that even though food supply is strong, it still disadvantages nonprofits. As grocery stores need more product to sell to meet need, they are willing to pay a higher premium, which forces nonprofit organizations, like food banks, to dish out more money to meet the demand they feel.

“We can’t compete with what they’re paying. They’ll pay anything. If you’re a grocery store, they will pay anything because their customers will pay anything. We budgeted a certain amount that we’ve always budgeted for the last 20 years,” Greenfield said. “We can’t afford to pay three times as much. We are, because we have no choice. What am I going to say, you can’t have eggs? So I’m buying it, but at the end of the day that’s costing me hundreds of thousands of dollars more.”

National advocates are pushing for food assistance as well. Hunger Free America wanted to see the federal government pass the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act,” a relief bill that would provide funds to make it easier for schools, senior programs, and food charities to provide alternative meals, and also create a “federally funded program to give extra food purchasing dollars to all families with children in closed schools,” according to a press release from Hunger Free. The bill was signed by President Donald Trump on March 18.

“This massive increase in the pre-existing hunger crisis demands a massive, highly-coordinated response by federal, state, and city government agencies, as well as corporations, nonprofit groups, and philanthropies,” Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, said in a statement. Once the Families First Coronavirus Response Act becomes law, he said, “one top priority for such joint efforts should be helping eligible families enroll in the new government food benefits available. The other key priority should be dramatically ramping-up the home delivery of meals to older Americans, children, and families who lost income.”

On a hyperlocal level, groups are taking action. The Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce is helping to lead the launch of an emergency food distribution center in Flushing. “The Flushing community is proactively organizing volunteers to contact local residents, including homebound individuals, who may need emergency food assistance ahead of a possible City lockdown this week,” a press release from the group said before Cuomo gave his orders that are not a “lockdown” per se, but amount to significant limits on what New Yorkers should be doing outside their homes and who they should be interacting with.

And some individual New Yorkers appear to be quickly responding on their own. A GoFundMe fundraiser page appeared late last week to raise money for the Food Bank For New York City. The page is called “Helping New York City During COVID-19” and was started by Frederick Joseph. It quickly surpassed its $20,000 goal, with the post noting that every $1 to the Food Bank provides five meals for those in need.

“Cancellations of large events, fewer people at restaurants, and school closings means that wage workers who live on hourly pay + tips are going to be having a harder time than usual making ends meet,” Joseph’s explanation of the fundraiser reads. “It also means that some adults and children who rely on meals from these places may struggle with hunger. We need to make sure that the non-profits who serve our communities have the resources both to keep their volunteers and staff healthy and to provide food to meet rising demand.”

As the situation develops, it is unclear how demand for food will change, especially since some are predicting this will be a six-to-nine month crisis, if not longer. “With schools closed and the overall uncertainty, we need a comprehensive approach to replacing these missing meals,” said Wright of United Way. “We will have to consider new food distribution strategies, maybe even going door to door to make sure people have the food they need. This is an unprecedented event, and I am not surprised that our food pantry and soup kitchen operators, who can, continue to serve their communities. I am so inspired by their dedication. They have modified their operations to adapt to this crisis, and we are so thankful for their fast response and commitment to meeting on-the-ground need right now.”

by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

De Blasio Names 'Food Czar' to Combat Impending Hunger Crisis with 'Mobilization We've Never Seen Before' Sun, 22 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
The City’s Pouring Money Into Trash Basket Pickup, and Complaints of Overflowing Bins are Dropping single wire litter basket

(photos: Department of Sanitation)

In the public conversation surrounding quality of life in New York City, litter baskets -- the mostly green, metal-wire trash cans standing guard on street corners throughout the five boroughs -- have taken on a unique focus. They seem to exist at the nexus between public and private life, providing relief for the refuse-laden pedestrian, and serving as a symbol of the urban order embodied in mundane municipal service delivery.

Where baskets are placed, how often they are serviced, and how the city enforces the laws around their use all impact the cleanliness of streets and the perception that city government can, or can’t, handle the demands of the people it serves. In today's world, when litter baskets overflow and the dirty laundry is aired on social media, a sense of disorder and uncleanliness can spread, a feeling that local government is not effectively serving the density of residents, commuters, and tourists that fuel the city.

Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia famously said that trash collection is not a partisan issue; it’s a measure of basic government service that simply must be done, a reason to have city government and pay taxes. Like plowing snow, New Yorkers expect trash collection to be done effectively and failures have become the subject of renewed focus by the de Blasio administration and its critics.

In New York City, there are roughly 8.4 million residents, tens of thousands of street corners, and approximately 23,000 public litter baskets, according to DSNY. In 2018, 65 million tourists also visited the city.

“We take quality of life very seriously, particularly around cleaning issues, and we consistently put more resources into additional services, whether that is for highway sweeping or for additional litter basket collection,” the city’s Sanitation Commissioner, Katheryn Garcia, told Gotham Gazette in a recent interview.

“But it is always a partnership that we need to have with the public. We need to make sure people are following the rules. Otherwise, it becomes an insurmountable amount of trash and litter,” she added, referring to rules around corner litter baskets and issues with illegal dumping and other violations.

Street corner litter baskets are intended to be used by pedestrians for garbage on their person, like empty food wrappers or a crumpled newspaper, but they are frequently the sites of overflowing refuse that render them useless. In part, officials blame the improper dumping of bulk commercial or household waste, and say the persistent misuse puts a strain on the city’s sanitation infrastructure, leading bins to fill up and spill out into the streets.

In the last two years, the Department of Sanitation (DSNY), which oversees litter basket services, has undertaken a range of initiatives to help improve litter basket conditions in partnership with the City Council. The measures include increasing funding for basket services, enhanced enforcement tools, and establishing partnerships with other agencies and the private sector.

By at least one measure, these efforts appear to be working.

In 2015, complaints of overflowing litter baskets to the city’s non-emergency helpline, 311, reached their highest point in five years -- DSNY opened 1,563 such cases that year, according to data available on the city’s Open Data Portal.

Since then, litter basket complaints to 311 have declined each year, falling to 946 in 2018. In the first eight months of 2019, only 461 complaints have been made.

In Fiscal Year 2019, which ended June 30 of this year, the city allocated $3.5 million for supplemental basket services, according to DSNY, on top of its roughly $1.7 billion expense budget for the agency, which includes funding for a variety of services from trash to snow removal. The money was for additional pick-ups to try to combat the scourge of full and unusable street corner bins, according to City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management.

This year, the City Council secured an additional $5.1 million, bringing the total allocations for supplemental basket services in the new Fiscal 2020 budget that took effect July 1 to $8.6 million, according to DSNY. The department received the new allocations on August 12 and is currently devising a plan for how it will be spent -- whether it will fund more staffing or trucks, or better pick-up route design.

“We are currently evaluating our operation plan on supplemental litter basket service that will be provided by this new funding. We plan to unveil plan details soon,” DSNY spokesperson Dina Montes told Gotham Gazette in an email.

“By early fall,” she clarified in an interview, indicating that this is an estimate.

The extra pick-ups in 2018 and 2019 have been well-received by a number of Council members Gotham Gazette spoke to. “For the most part, I’ve seen an improvement with the extra pick-ups,” said Council Member Steve Matteo, who represents central Staten Island and has been a vocal advocate for better litter services to improve street cleanliness.

“There is nothing worse than seeing a garbage can that is overflowing, that has bags around it. It just brings more litter, so the extra pick-up has been great,” he added in an interview. Since the additional funding allocations in 2018, basket pick-ups increased from two to four times per week in Staten Island Community Board 1, and in Community Boards 2 and 3, weekly pick-ups increased to three, Matteo said.

DSNY says it has adopted similar increases throughout the city, especially in high traffic areas.

According to a May press release from the City Council citing DSNY budget testimony, street cleanliness increased from 95 to 96 percent in Fiscal Year 2019 based on measurements of street trash by field agents of the mayor’s office. Other studies are less favorable, like the Citizens Budget Commission's Resident Feedback Survey, which showed only 47.3 percent of respondents rated their neighborhood cleanliness as either “excellent” or “good.”

“You don’t need a litter basket collection multiple times a day if you’re out on Staten Island. Are you going to need it in the middle of Midtown? Yeah,” Garcia said.

“I’m very glad that the Department of Sanitation was able to receive additional funding from this year’s budget,” said Council Member Margaret Chin, who represents parts of Lower Manhattan, in a statement. “I hope to see more of these services targeted to underserved, high-need neighborhoods like SoHo, Chinatown and the Lower East Side, where illegal dumping and commercial trash -- especially with the unprecedented rise of Amazon deliveries -- continue to be issues that small businesses and residents struggle with."

Despite the positive reception, many feel there is still work to be done.

“I am glad the Department of Sanitation is exploring new tactics to make our streets cleaner – residents have even noticed a difference on 86th Street. Despite these efforts, however, I continue to hear from constituents across my district, particularly on the Upper East Side, regarding issues with trash,” said Council Member Keith Powers, representing a large swath of the east side of Manhattan, in a statement.

The drop in 311 complaints has also accompanied an effort by DSNY and the City Council to crack down on illegal dumping and drop-offs. Illegal dumping is when commercial or household waste is left by a vehicle, and drop-offs refer to bulk debris disposal that exceed the basket’s capacity for personal trash.

In 2018, Matteo was the main sponsor of a number of bills in a package that became law and allowed DSNY enforcement officials to use identifying information found in unlawfully dumped piles, such as an envelope or magazine with a name or address, to pursue offenders. Previously, DSNY agents had to witness an illegal dumping take place in order to issue a violation.

“We could tell that, obviously, a vehicle was used because there was a huge amount of garbage and there was no way somebody could carry it. We are talking about construction debris, sometimes it’s appliances, and then there is also bags of trash,” said Montes of DSNY.

Prior to the new legislation, which went into effect in the fall of 2018, “we couldn’t actually use any material that was found in the trash to actually investigate,” she said.

The city has also begun using surveillance cameras to monitor sites with frequent dumping and clamp down on the illegal activity. Earlier this year, DSNY partnered with Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon, the Parks Department, and a local business improvement district (BID) to investigate chronic illegal dumpers. (Business improvement districts are areas where local industry contribute to the management and funding of public space maintenance.)

“Our collective efforts to combat illegal dumping continue to yield positive results in holding bad actors accountable and improving quality of life on Staten Island,” McMahon said in a July press release. According to Montes, DSNY has issued five summonses to illegal dumpers that were caught on camera since 2018.

In 2018, the City Council also increased the penalties for dumping and littering in an effort to discourage the behavior, which are relatively lax compared to nearby jurisdictions, officials say. “You live in Suffolk County, the fines are like 10 times what the fines are in New York City,” Garcia told Gotham Gazette.

Last summer, new legislation imposed higher fines for littering small amounts of trash from vehicles -- going from $100 to $200 -- and for illegal dumping of garbage and debris from $1,500 to $4,000 (a 167 percent increase), according to Montes.

Since the new penalties went into effect last November, DSNY has issued 111 summonses for littering from a motor vehicle.

Despite the increased penalties and enforcement tools, DSNY still faces an uphill battle, especially in transportation hubs, locations with high food tourism and nightlife, and areas surrounding construction sites.

“In terms of general trash and litter problems, the downtown area is always one of the worst and requires the most oversight,” said Scott Sieber, a spokesperson for Queens Council Member Peter Koo, referring to the high-activity area of Downtown Flushing.

Because litter baskets are for pedestrian use in high-traffic, often commercial, corridors, DSNY usually does not place them in areas that are primarily residential, Montes told Gotham Gazette. This has placed a strain on gentrifying neighborhoods that have seen a shift from residential to multi-purpose use.

“In my district in Bushwick, we were having severe litter problems, mostly because nightlife was picking-up in and around the neighborhood, and we haven’t necessarily built out the infrastructure for trash collection that was matching that,” Reynoso said.

One of the obstacles to litter basket collection is knowing where the litter baskets are. Litter baskets can be placed by the city, by BIDs, and by nonprofit and private entities after receiving permission from DSNY. Baskets are frequently moved due to damage or vandalism, nearby construction, or regular illegal use. DSNY uses field staff to track basket placement and gauge their effectiveness. “Our cleaning office will also add baskets to areas that have become more commercial,” said Montes.

DSNY has also identified the design of litter baskets, which haven’t changed since the 1930s, as a contributor to trash spilling into the streets. In August 2018, the de Blasio administration launched a competition to redesign street corner bins, soliciting participants from the private sector, with the goal of creating bins that are more accessible, easy-to-service, and better equipped to handle spillage. The city is testing prototypes from two finalists with plans to announce a winner in the fall.

trash baskets

As city neighborhoods continue to shift, packaging from online commerce proliferates, and concern for the environment becomes more urgent, elected officials are looking for ways to reduce -- not just collect -- the amount of trash the city produces.

“Although we have seen improvements in [litter basket pick-up], my ultimate goal is to continue to work on legislation that will ultimately reduce the city’s waste as a whole,” wrote Manhattan Council Member Carlina Rivera, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

“What we’re hoping is to start lowering the amount of trash the city of New York is sending to landfills and we need to start moving away from needing litter baskets at every single corner,” Reynoso told Gotham Gazette. (Reynoso was a vocal proponent of the increased funding for litter baskets this year, and helped put pressure on de Blasio to include it in the enacted budget.)

“While we were putting out the litter baskets because we want to keep the streets clean, we as a city do need to start working on reduction and reuse,” he said. “More litter baskets reinforces the idea that you can continue to have contents on your person and get rid of them, eventually, in a corner.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

The City’s Pouring Money Into Trash Basket Pickup, and Complaints of Overflowing Bins are Dropping Tue, 27 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City's Promised Plan for Quality-of-Life Issues Yet to Materialize 30209332638 b998c55e75 z

Mayor Bill de Blasio (photo:Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

As stories of overflowing trash and endless street noise pile up on social media and in the news, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has repeatedly said it is working on comprehensive approaches to some of the most challenging so-called quality-of-life issues affecting New Yorkers, but has yet to reveal an overarching vision for what the city plans to do.

Last October, Deputy Mayor of Operations Laura Anglin, who was appointed to the newly created role in January 2018, said her office was doing “a big study,” ordered by the mayor, to determine where the city needs to focus its attention to reduce complaints about quality-of-life problems. She said she wanted to identify the most critical needs utilizing a variety of indicators that go beyond some of the city’s typical metrics to see if they can shed new light on residents’ experiences.

Under de Blasio the city has undertaken piece-meal initiatives to address quality of life, an enormous category that can include anything from neighborhood cleanliness to noise pollution to traffic congestion. Yet administration officials say they are still not ready to talk about the study ten months after Anglin mentioned it and few, if any, details have been released.

“Our goal is to use this study to determine the specific needs of neighborhoods – and citywide – to give us a blueprint for the different solutions we can continue to implement to have a positive impact for all New Yorkers,” Anglin wrote in an email to Gotham Gazette Tuesday, without providing details on when the study might be released or its scope. She did tout the administration’s rat reduction program, which the mayor put $32 million towards in 2017 and expanded to 10 NYCHA facilities with serious rodent problems in 2018.

Though Anglin’s portfolio includes a wide range of departments, both internal- and external-facing, addressing New Yorkers’ “quality of life” has been one of her primary tasks. She is responsible for overseeing the Department of Administrative Citywide Services, the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services, the Department of Finance, and the city’s information technology. The Department of Transportation, Taxi & Limousine Commission, Fire Department, emergency management, and the Department of Sanitation fall under her purview as well.

“One of the things the mayor has asked me to do is to really...look at quality-of-life issues from the resident perspective...using the survey data that [Citizens Budget Commission] has pulled together, as well as data from 311, Twitter, other social media,” Anglin said last year on the What’s the Data Point? podcast from Gotham Gazette and Citizens Budget Commission.

Anglin was referring to a survey of city residents conducted by CBC in 2017 to gauge public perception on the quality of city life and government services. Among other things, the survey generally expresses what the proliferation of sanitation-related images on social media reflect: New Yorkers, in many cases, are not satisfied with conditions on the street.

According to CBC’s data, residents have pointed to noise and sanitation as among the greatest areas of dissatisfaction in the city and de Blasio seems to have taken heed of those complaints.

When Anglin was named deputy mayor in January 2018, one of her main tasks was street cleanliness, she said in the October interview. “That’s a big thing we’re focused on here in the city and one of the things that I will be focusing on even more,” she said.

Another was addressing noise pollution.

Faced with a growing number of noise complaints in recent years, de Blasio has directed Anglin to prioritize ways to reduce decibel levels from countless sources in America’s largest city. Noisy neighbors, street traffic, construction, and helicopters all contribute to the loud sounds of the city. “I directed my Deputy Mayor for Operations to look at how we can reduce noise pollution across the board. I think it’s one of the biggest concerns New Yorkers have,” the mayor said on WNYC radio’s The Brian Lehrer Show last year.

A New York Times analysis found that in 2016 over half of noise complaints made to 311, the city’s helpline, were due to loud music or parties. In December, responding to callers on The Brian Lehrer Show, de Blasio suggested expanding the enforcement power of police officers responding to noise complaints. Overall, last year, the number of 311 noise complaints rose to nearly 437,000, up from roughly 260,000 in 2013.

The CBC data shows 40.4% of residents surveyed rate the city’s control of street noise as “excellent or good,” with the worst ratings in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. The CBC received over 9,800 responses to its questionnaire, representing every borough, community board, and almost every neighborhood. The survey also looked at racial differences in quality-of-life satisfaction: the group least distressed by city noise are white residents – roughly 44% rated conditions favorable -- while only 35% of Hispanic respondents, the lowest rating, felt the city was doing a good job keeping noise down.

Both before and after Anglin was promoted to deputy mayor, de Blasio has discussed measures to deal with other kinds of noise, like reducing helicopter traffic, limiting construction noise, and changing the sound of emergency sirens. Speaking with Gotham Gazette and CBC in October, Anglin also spoke about noise from roadwork and afterhours construction as something the city can manage.

“Our Deputy Mayor for Operations, Laura Anglin, is putting together a new plan to address a variety of elements of noise pollution. And it needs a little more work, but we’ll have something to say on that soon,” de Blasio said more than a year ago, last August 9, in response to a press question on the subject of noise pollution, after a rally on another topic.

In June of this year, the mayor and City Council announced an agreement on the city’s $92.8 billion fiscal year 2020 budget, which included $1.5 million to equip Fire Department vehicles with quieter sirens.

The budget also included additional funding for litter basket collection – $8.6 million, up $3.5 million from the previous year according to a Department of Sanitation spokesperson. “Our committee is constantly fielding complaints from New Yorkers that there is too much trash on the streets. The solution is simple: More litter basket collection,” said Council Member Antonio Reynoso, chair of the sanitation and solid waste committee, in a statement in May calling for the mayor to restore funding for the service before the budget was finalized.

In 2018, the Department of Sanitation received nearly 41,000 complaints through 311 related to missed refuse collections, nearly 2.5 times the number of 2013 complaints. Another 39,000 complaints fell under “dirty conditions,” up from the roughly 33,000 similar complaints filed in 2010.

The CBC survey, which captures New Yorker satisfaction, helps put this data into perspective. Less than half of respondents -- 47.7% -- put the cleanliness of their neighborhoods in the “excellent or good” range. The results show great variability by borough and ethnicity: the Bronx and Brooklyn scored significantly lower than Staten Island; and, the survey notes, Asian and Pacific Islander and white residents were satisfied with sanitation conditions close to 10 percentage points more than other respondents.

But the CBC survey is notably different from the types of metrics the city is currently using to evaluate issues like neighborhood cleanliness -- both in terms of methodology and results.

Garcia told Gotham Gazette the main metric the Department of Sanitation uses to measure cleanliness is the “scorecard” produced by the Mayor’s Office of Operations and published in the annual Mayor’s Management Report, which details data on agency performance and city services. The scorecard calculates cleanliness based on data collected by field inspectors looking at things like the amount of trash in the street, which do not capture resident satisfaction. “The basic metric on cleanliness has been the scorecard, and it’s been the scorecard for years and years and years,” she said.

Far from the CBC survey results, the scorecard rated 95% of city streets “acceptably clean” and as “filthy” just 0.2% of the time in fiscal year 2016. Questions about the scorecards have been raised in the past.

“We always strive to make sure residents are happy, but I think the methodology probably is very, very different...How you feel about something can vary based on your experience. We certainly want the public to feel like everything is cleaner,” Garcia said.

“If you’re sitting in Laura Anglin’s seat, you’re wondering, what is the disconnect here?” said Maria Doulis, Vice President of CBC, in an interview, referring to the discrepancy between the city’s metrics and the CBC survey.

“What are folks seeing and experiencing that is different than what our inspectors are seeing? Are inspectors looking for things that don’t really matter to people?,” Doulis added. “I think those are all appropriate questions to be asking, if you’re thinking about tackling this kind of problem.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City's Promised Plan for Quality-of-Life Issues Yet to Materialize Wed, 21 Aug 2019 02:35:06 +0000
As New NYCHA Chair Takes Over, the Future of Public Housing Hangs in the Balance new nycha chair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It appears the authority is already behind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Truman Stephens, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

As New NYCHA Chair Takes Over, the Future of Public Housing Hangs in the Balance Thu, 15 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Interim NYCHA CEO Kathryn Garcia on the Federal Monitor and Future of Public Housing in New York de Blasio NYCHA lead

Mayor de Blasio & Kathryn Garcia, right (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Four months on the job, NYCHA Interim Chair and CEO Kathryn Garcia remains optimistic and determined about the future of the New York City public housing authority, home to more than 400,000 New Yorkers and several major crises. Garcia, who was the city’s sanitation commissioner for about five years until taking leave to fill in as the head of NYCHA, appeared on WBAI’s Max & Murphy show, where she discussed the de Blasio administration’s plans and programs to address problems at the housing authority, which is now under federal monitorship.

“NYCHA is huge organization and in many ways you can think of it as a small city, the size of Miami,” Garcia said. “One of the things I wanted to put in place while I was here is the on-boarding of the federal monitor, which started a few weeks after the agreement was signed to make sure we were setting up systems to come into compliance and have a successful monitorship.”

Garcia discussed working with the monitor, Bart Schwartz, and said she does not believe she is in the running to be named as the permanent NYCHA chair and CEO -- Mayor de Blasio and federal authorities have extended their own deadline to name a new NYCHA leader until the end of June. She also detailed some of what NYCHA is doing to address its long-term financial troubles, including the controversial plan to allow developers to build new private apartment buildings, with a mix of “affordable” and market-rate housing, on under-utilized NYCHA land.

In terms of getting Schwartz integrated and beginning their working relationship, Garcia said they were doing “big-picture planning on issues of compliance” and “setting up the three departments -- compliance, safety, and quality assurance,” and addressing lead paint, “hopefully eventually coming off having a monitor.”

“But there’s also a longer-term goal,” Garica said, of “how do we drive investment into these buildings. Because they are assets of the city and critical homes for all of the residents.” It’s important, she said, to consider a variety of newer options, including the “Obama-era RAD program, or what we call the Build to Preserve program to ensure residents are seeing impact as quickly as possible,” referring to the Rental Administration Demonstration program that allows for private management of NYCHA buildings and added federal dollars, as well as the “infill” private development on NYCHA land.

For Garcia, and whomever replaces her, the challenges are immense -- not only has the public housing authority had a lead paint scandal that it is now aggressively attempting to mitigate, but overall NYCHA has a $30-plus billion needs assessment for the housing stock to be brought to a state of good repair over the next five or so years. That need includes things like roofs, boilers, elevators, and more.

On the show, Garcia noted that “one role NYCHA is serving is it’s the only bastion of affordable housing left in some of these neighborhoods, so it’s doubly important for us to make a commitment to it.”

“[W]e don’t have a lot of options at this point in terms of the incredible need,” she said at one point, pointing to the administration’s plan to lease NYCHA land to developers who will fund millions of dollars in repairs at the NYCHA properties where they build.

NYCHA is operating under Schwartz’s eye after the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) threatened receivership and federal prosecutors turned up major safety issues. At the end of January, Mayor de Blasio and HUD Secretary Ben Carson came to a deal, approved by a judge and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, that included the monitor.

The month before, in December 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled “NYCHA 2.0,” a ten-year plan to repair public housing in the city by bringing in $24 billion. The plan includes funding for capital repairs across the NYCHA system and tackling problems such as lead paint, mold, elevator malfunctions, heat outages, and vermin infestations, which have increasingly plagued the city’s public housing in recent years. The plan represents three-quarters of NYCHA’s $31.8 billion overall capital needs.

Garcia acknowledged that it has been “somewhat more complicated” to run an agency under federal monitorship, but also said that “outside eyes” can often be helpful in tackling a complex issue such as NYCHA.

[LISTEN: Max & Murphy Podcast: NYCHA Interim CEO Kathryn Garcia]

Garcia remains “hopeful” that the state and federal governments will increase their funding for NYCHA, but she, like de Blasio, appears realistic that major help is unlikely any time soon. She did note, though, that an allocated $450 million in state money is on the verge of finally being spent on NYCHA repairs, and she explained that “one of the reasons we’re looking to these programs that convert from traditional public housing funding to section 8 is it’s been historically more fully funded than traditional public housing.”

On the RAD program and whether it should raise concerns of NYCHA “privatization” as some have claimed, Garcia said, “we are leveraging the private market to bring additional funding into NYCHA.” She emphasized that NYCHA will still own the land and will ensure that residents are protected in development.

Despite some initial pushback to the “NYCHA 2.0” plan, Garcia called the Build to Preserve program, which would see private development on NYCHA-owned land, “another tool in our toolbox to drive funding into NYCHA’s buildings” and “one of three legs” along with RAD and selling air rights. She also said the program would not work or be appropriate everywhere.

“I completely understand why NYCHA residents would be anxious about it because historically people got moved out of their homes and they never came back,” Garcia said, but then also promised, “we are taking a completely different approach to this,” pledging a lot of communication, no residential displacement, and investment of revenue directly into the home campus.

Saying there aren’t other options to address NYCHA’s needs, Garcia added, “This is a way to take...value from the campuses and do two things really: make sure residents do well and also increase the supply of housing and affordable housing in the City of New York, which is of course always in dire need.”

On the lead crisis at NYCHA, Garcia said, “We stabilized thousands of apartments that had presumed or lead-based paint with children under six. We still have a lot more to do...We don’t know where all the lead paint is, and that is why we kicked off what is called the XRF initiative, which is X-raying the paint and being able to tell whether it has any lead. We started that on April 15...It will take us till end of 2020 to get that done because we are planning to test 134,000 apartments.”

Some issues present “relatively straightforward fixes, like baseboards were painted lead, but nothing else in the apartment, while there will probably also be apartments where lead paint was used on every wall and those will obviously be much more significant jobs,” she said. X-raying all the paint is the “critical first step,” she said.

Asked her assessment as to what really went wrong around lead paint inspections, Garcia said, “I obviously wasn’t here to assess exactly what all the steps were...One of the things that I think is true is a basic failure to understand what the requirements were and how much work it was going to take under HUD regulations and getting systems in place to really ensure that that happened,” later adding that it was also about complying with “local law.”

“This an easy place to get trapped in putting out the fire of the day,” she continued, “and not stepping back and saying are we hitting all the milestones we need to hit to ensure that we are coming into compliance and to ensure that we are building a future here.”

She also said “lead-based paint is...inherently a maintenance issue,” because “it’s not dangerous if it’s not peeling and chipping off the walls,” but when leaks are allowed to fester and apartments are not regularly painted, problems arise.

Another big part of NYCHA 2.0 is the plan to convert 62,000 of its 176,000 public housing units to Section 8, through programs such as RAD. Sarah Watson, the deputy director of the Citizen Housing and Planning Council, appearing on Max & Murphy just after Garcia, compared this to a similar strategy that was used to fix London’s public housing in the 1980s.

“The UK did hit a similar sort of crisis around public housing around 40 years ago, so has spent 40 years trying to deal with a very similar issue, which is it’s somewhat easy for government to build housing but it’s difficult for them to figure out how to keep that going” without dramatically increasing subsidies, she said.

About a third of London residents were living in 770,000 public housing units in 1980. This is compared to the 400,000-plus New Yorkers living in 176,000 units today. The UK’s solution had two parts. First was allowing public housing residents to buy their homes and second was repairing the remaining public housing stock. “One of the most radical acts of housing policy ever seen was giving families the right overnight to buy their house or apartment,” according to Watson.

She also said that the first phase then saw “a downside effect of being left with the worst quality housing stock with the most troubled and low-income residents.”

While she acknowledges that replicating London’s plan may not be a complete fix, Watson said that fixing NYCHA “will take some radical new approaches and certainly some bold leadership,” like what happened in the United Kingdom. London’s public housing included a substantial number of homes in addition to apartments and “it was a little harder to get apartments to sell.”

[LISTEN: Max & Murphy Podcast: NYCHA Interim CEO Kathryn Garcia]

[LISTEN: Max & Murphy Podcast: Lessons from London for How to Fix NYCHA]

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

Interim NYCHA CEO Kathryn Garcia on the Federal Monitor and Future of Public Housing in New York Mon, 03 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: NYCHA Interim CEO Kathryn Garcia kathryn garcia wbai 600

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

May 29, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: NYCHA's Future, with Interim CEO Kathryn Garcia

kathryn garcia wbaiKathryn Garcia, the city's sanitation commissioner for most of Mayor Bill de Blasio's tenure, was recently named interim chair and CEO of NYCHA, tasked with steering the public housing authority through tumultuous times, including the beginning of a federal monitorship. Garcia joined the show to give her perspective on NYCHA, how the monitor is working so far, how she's appoached the job, lead paint remediation, the "NYCHA 2.0" plan that the mayor announced in December, and more.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: NYCHA Interim CEO Kathryn Garcia Wed, 29 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000