Gotham Gazette Mon, 30 Nov 2020 23:59:50 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Jabari Brisport, Democratic Socialist on Verge of Upset Primary Win in Brooklyn, Eyes Journey to Albany 6 jabari brisport eyes

Jabari Brisport marching (photo: @JabariBrisport)

This year’s Democratic primary for Brooklyn’s 25th State Senate District mostly flew under the radar, but was one of the most interesting races in the city, with an energetic activist and teacher, Jabari Brisport, backed by the Working Families and Democratic Socialist of America-New York City, taking on Assemblymember Tremaine Wright, whose district overlaps with part of the Senate district and who had the backing of the retiring senator, Velmanette Montgomery, among many others in the political establishment. Also in the race was Jason Salmon, a progressive with some support trying to make headway against two better-known candidates.

As the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the city and drastically altered campaigning, as well as the elections themselves through the expansion of absentee voting and more, June arrived, and with it the early in-person voting and absentee voting periods, then primary day, June 23.

When the in-person votes were tallied, Brisport appeared on the verge of a major upset, potentially outpacing a sitting Assembly member who had a great deal of local establishment support. While he leads the vote going into the counting of absentee ballots by a 17,113 (52.25%) to 13,301 (40.61%) margin of 3,812 votes, there are still more than 26,000 absentee ballots to be evaluated and counted by the Board of Elections.

In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Brisport said that his campaign is “fairly confident” that he will emerge victorious once the election results are finalized.

Brisport, who unsuccessfully ran as the Green Party nominee in 2017 against City Council Member Laurie Cumbo and clashed with Cumbo during this year’s campaign, is optimistic that he will get to take just one of 63 Senate seats across the state, and join forces with neighboring Senator Julia Salazar, also a democratic socialist, who was elected in northern Brooklyn after beating an incumbent in the 2018 Democratic primary and endorsed Brisport this year. Brisport ran on a far-left platform including the New York Health Act for single-payer health care, a Green New Deal for New York State, and the decriminalization of fare evasion, sex work, and simple drug possession. Housing issues are also at the top of his list, he said.

As with almost every seat in New York City, in the 25th State Senate District winning the Democratic Party is nearly a guarantee of winning the general election, if there is one. The 25th District includes neighborhoods such as Bedford-Stuyvesant, Prospect Heights, Fort Green, Boerum Hill, Gowanus, Park Slope, and Red Hook.

It draws most of its constituents from parts of the 56th and 57th Assembly Districts. Brisport won the 57th handily, earning 59% of the in-person votes there, while Wright won her home 56th District with 53% there.

While not all for the 25th Senate District, 6,222 absentee ballots were returned in the 56th Assembly District and 14,238 absentee ballots returned in the 57th, again pointing to a significant Brisport advantage as the count continues.

Assembly District 56, which is mostly in Bedford-Stuyvesant, is 63% black and 12% white, with a median household income of $45,296. The 57th District, which is located around Clinton Hill and Prospect Heights, is 42% black and 33% white, with a median household income of $69,950.

Brisport attributes his solid showing in Wright’s home district to “a very present campaign” that “brought new people into the political process.” He told Gotham Gazette that left-wing candidates “win by speaking to people,” “not by relying on old political machines that slap a few endorsements together and put out a mailer and call it a day without engaging with constituents.”

Brisport called his dual endorsers of the Working Families Party and Democratic Socialist of America-New York City “a very dynamic duo” and hopes that the two groups continue working together. He was also endorsed by Salazar and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, two officials who won upset primaries in 2018 on similar platforms to Brisport's. He was one of a handful of candidates backed by both the WFP and DSA this primary season, and said he’s “excited” about the prospect of the membership of the two working together to achieve shared policy goals in Albany.

“One of my top priorities is passing ‘good cause eviction,’” Brisport said when asked about pressing issues before the State Legislature. He said there has been “a mass-bleeding of people and predominantly people of color” from areas like his district and “stemming that bleeding” will be among his top priorities as a legislator. The bill, which has been championed by Salazar, would ensure that landlords can only evict tenants for “good cause,” not at their whim.

Since primary day, Brisport has been participating in the “Occupy City Hall” protests demanding defunding of the New York City police department. While the most common call was for reducing the NYPD’s nearly $6 billion annual operating budget by $1 billion, Brisport has called for $3 billion in cuts.

“I believe the police are a fundamentally violent institution,” Brisport said, recounting his own negative interactions with officers, including one in which he had a gun drawn on him in a case of mistaken identity. Brisport believes that “stability is the answer to public safety,” and said “there shouldn’t be cuts to health care or education while the NYPD budget is at $6 billion.”

As a state senator, Brisport would pursue legislation that would “reduce the number of interactions” between New Yorkers and the police, mostly through decriminalization of nonviolent crimes, such as sex work and simple drug possession, which would “reduce the need for cops.” He has also proposed, along with the other DSA candidates running in this year’s primaries, a sentencing reform commission to bring the state incarceration rate to pre-War on Drugs levels.

In the lead-up to a city budget deal announced June 30, Brisport led protesters from the city DSA branch on a march and rally targeting Cumbo, who is the City Council majority leader, outside what they believed to be her Brooklyn home, leading to a heated war of words between the two over the course of weeks. Cumbo, who defeated Brisport by a fairly wide margin in the 2017 race (though he did better than most general election challengers to sitting Democrats), endorsed Wright in this year’s Senate primary. She organized a counter-demonstration at Brisport’s home last Monday, right before the primary.

Cumbo harshly criticized Brisport and accused him of breaking a code among Black people. Cumbo strongly condemned the tactics of Brisport and the DSA, labeling it as “an assault on my safety and that of my child” and a “lynch mob.” At the counter-demonstration, she addressed Brisport in his absence, saying “you have been used, my brother,” and portrayed him as the Black spokesperson for what she described as a mostly white group of DSA activists.

If the Senate results hold through absentee ballots, the two are likely to share a considerable number of constituents for at least a year (Cumbo is term-limited out of the Council at the end of 2021).

Brisport said Cumbo’s telling “was an unfortunate description of the event” and characterized the protest as “a very polite and peaceful demonstration.” He noted that he started the demonstration by thanking Cumbo for supporting defunding of the NYPD by $1 billion. He called the counter-demonstration “a tactic to get Tremaine [Wright] elected and the timing was pretty transparent.”

However, Brisport insisted that “really I just want to focus on defunding the NYPD” and that he doesn’t hold any grudge against Cumbo. “I really don’t worry because I don’t personally have any bad blood with the Majority Leader,” he said, adding he would “love to collaborate with her” in the future.

A gay Black man, Brisport is part of what he described as “a wonderful rainbow wave,” in which Ritchie Torres and Mondaire Jones also likely won their respective congressional primaries in the Bronx and Westchester. Torres and Jones appear likely to be the first openly gay Black men in Congress (Torres identifies as Afro-Latino). Similarly, Brisport will be the first openly gay Black state legislator in New York history.

“So many of these things are interconnected,” Brisport said when asked about the significance of these historic firsts. He pointed to how “queer people of color were severely impacted by Covid” and, as such, politicians like him “understand that intersectionality and can advocate on behalf of marginalized people.”

Brisport’s victory, along with Salazar’s reelection and Zohran Mamdani’s possible victory in Queens over Assemblymember Aravella Simotas, are significant boosts to the DSA, as are showings in other races where the DSA endorsed a candidate, but the outcomes are harder to predict: Marcela Mitaynes is a mere 419 votes behind Assemblymember Félix Ortiz in Brooklyn's 51st Assembly District and Phara Souffrant Forrest trails Brooklyn Assemblymember Walter Mosley by less than 600 votes in the 57th District. 

Meanwhile the Working Families Party, Sunrise Movement, and other groups among the ascendent left wing of the Democratic Party also saw a number of their backed candidates do quite well in the primaries, with some races overlapping and others also still to be decided via absentee ballots.

Chi Anunwa, co-chair of the NYC-DSA’s steering committee, told Gotham Gazette that “Jabari’s likely victory represents a big step forward for housing and racial justice politics in New York. With Jabari’s election, New York State will now have two socialists in the State Senate who are champions of the tenants’ rights movement and the movement for more radical police reform. As a longtime racial justice organizer, Jabari is committed to upending the symbiotic relationship between the police and the real estate industry in New York State, and by extension, the political status quo where protecting private property is more important than protecting New Yorkers from the violence of evictions and police brutality.”

When reached to discuss the race, Assemblymember Wright declined to comment, but this week her campaign sent out an email to supporters telling them “the election isn’t over yet” and asking for volunteers to help with the absentee ballot count.

Salmon, who attained about 7% of the in-person vote, conceded the race to Brisport on June 30, saying in a statement “I would also like to congratulate and commend Jabari Brisport who has been a powerful voice for the progressive movement” and endorsing him.

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Jabari Brisport, Democratic Socialist on Verge of Upset Primary Win in Brooklyn, Eyes Journey to Albany Tue, 07 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Deconstructing the #DefundNYPD Clash with City Council Members of Color Cumbo NYPD city budget

Council Member Cumbo (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

Defending her vote in support of a new city budget that did not cut NYPD funding by at least $1 billion (as New York City faces a $10 billion COVID-19-related revenue shortfall) Brooklyn City Council Member Laurie Cumbo told protesters criticizing the plan: "Work under the existing leadership of the communities that are already there."

Cumbo compared the development of the #DefundNYPD movement to "colonization" and said, "this movement is not being led by the Black community."

She and several other Council members of color made it sound like protests against state violence and inequality in city resource allocation had come out of nowhere from parts unknown. Did the few Black and Latino Council members who voted against the budget over lack of NYPD cuts blindly follow a movement of outsiders? Cumbo’s former chief of operations quickly rejected Cumbo’s narrative.

In a late-night tweetstorm Crystal Hudson listed 10 leading Black organizers, whose groups are among the over 170 organizations pushing to #DefundNYPD that Cumbo and other members have no doubt encountered during their time in the Council. The movement against state violence has been and is today led by marginalized peoples, Black women, Latino, Asian, immigrant, and LGBTQ.

Yes, there are many new people engaging in local politics, some are new residents in communities facing gentrification, and some of them eyeing elected seats in districts they recently moved to (an article for another day). But the vast majority of #DefundNYPD activists are simply people fighting to divest from policing and incarceration and to reinvest that money in those who most need it. And though Council members resent being the subjects of criticism and desperate pleas to do more, as the old saying goes, “It’s not about you.”

Many New York City Council members of color say that in their communities people aren't screaming for police defunding or abolition. One wonders, did they just close their windows each time a #BlackLivesMatter protest marched by their house? It is true that this year’s #BlackLivesMatter protests have engaged far more white people than they did when Eric Garner was killed, but in response to those protests the Council voted through a budget that added 1,300 new police officers. What Black or Latino Council member can honestly say their communities were screaming “Build new jails!“ when they approved billions to do just that in 2019? (None.)

Though to Cumbo’s point, when Council members of color and NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea claim the community is asking for more police, there is truth there. The question is, which community are they referring to? Common community venues politicians and police leaders tell protesters to get involved in include local meetings of Community Boards and Precinct Community Councils. While community boards are not uniform -- multiple CBs passed resolutions in support of #DefundNYPD, including East Harlem's CB11 calling to #DefundNYPD by at least $1B in FY21 -- they’re generally more police-friendly organizations than the broader neighborhoods they are part of.

Community Boards are appointed by the local Borough President and City Council member. Local electeds don't often choose a bunch of people who think far differently than they do. There’s no public reason given as to why one is or is not chosen to a community board and many appointees have existing relationships with local electeds. Members are often removed from community board committees or not reappointed to CBs for rocking the political boat. As all-volunteer entities chosen by politicos where dissenting voices are not always welcome, community boards are not often viewed as a functional space where meaningful change can happen or be pursued. Because New York City has a dearth of local civics education, most don’t even know that it is the first rung of city government, a feeder for elected office (several sitting Council members, including the Speaker, are former community board chairs and more are former CB members).  

If you’ve ever gone to a community board meeting in a Black or Latino neighborhood you might feel like you stepped into a world where #BlackLivesMatter never happened. There isn’t a lot of reimagining public safety outside of police. Fear of returning to the "bad old days" of the 1970s and ‘80s reigns.

A return to the “bad old days” is the ultimate political boogeyman in New York City politics. It can quickly undermine substantive policy arguments in almost any public safety conversation. Of course, crime and cops not responding, were just part of planned disinvestment of the past. Many community board members in communities of color are old enough to have lived the last crisis even close to the one New York City now faces. They are reminded of the crime and divestment as they walk by firehouses and schools that have remained closed since their childhood or those recently converted to luxury developments.

Community boards trend older and more conservative. Property owners are overly represented, renters and the homeless under-represented. Black and Latino CB members often live in neighborhoods that face more police violence and gun violence than their white counterparts. Local police are accessible to and regularly engage with many community boards. When calls to reform or cut police come, community board members often think of the last shooting or the working relationships they have with officers who report to the community board and work community events.

At Precinct Community Council meetings in Black and Latino neighborhoods, you won't find many people who have been abused by or lost family members to police, virtually no one actively calling for reinvestment of NYPD funds into social services, and few immigrants. Why? Precinct Community Council meetings are held with many cops and most often in police precincts. Most of the agenda is dominated by Black and brown people literally begging the police to “deal with” homelessness, “deal with” substance abuse, “deal with” guys hanging out on the corner, and “deal with” the seven major crimes (murder, burglary, assault, car theft, and so on).

One can be from and "do the work" in Black and Latino neighborhoods in New York City and not spend a minute in politician- or cop-dominated/funded spaces (some would call this self-care).

Tons of longtime residents who do mutual aid, community, and anti-violence work -- who fight health disparities, hunger, gentrification, racism, homelessness, and deportations -- avoid Community Board and Precinct Community Council meetings like the plague.

#DefundNYPD was coming from all over Black and Latino neighborhoods in New York City. From non-profits getting their budgets cut, individuals losing their jobs, people facing eviction when the moratorium ends, the hungry, the homeless, families of those killed by police violence, and others.

This new city budget was always going to be lose-lose chaos. City Council members got the ball after Trump and the Feds refused to reimburse cities and states for COVID-19-caused revenue deficits. Cuomo cut Medicaid and wouldn't allow New York City to borrow money to fill the tax revenue gaps. Trump, Cuomo, and de Blasio all refused to raise taxes on the wealthy. De Blasio offered a tale of two cities budget that slashed education and hospitals while protecting police and the wealthiest.

Disparaging #DefundNYPD and using budgetary tricks to act like the city got far closer to (or over) $1 billion in NYPD cuts didn't fool a single person paying attention. People can read budgets (though no public copy of the full Fiscal Year 2021 budget was available before the Council vote) and see through the funny math the mayor and Council presented. To pretend NYPD cuts are more than reality just handed talking points to the right wing, who will now claim, as Trump and Staten Island Council Member Joseph Borelli already have, that crime is rising because of $1 billion or more in NYPD ‘cuts.’

Expecting that the NYPD face a substantial budget cut like virtually every other city agency during a depression is not "abolition." A substantial cut to the NYPD’s almost $6 billion budget was not radical. It should have been inevitable. It's what happens when tax revenue dips $10 billion, and no one can say how much deeper it will drop, or when or what recovery looks like.

The difficulty in making NYPD cuts comes not only from strong police unions, their military and surveillance capabilities, but the deep faith in policing that is still shared across the political aisle. For all of the social services the NYPD is involved in; there are people in and out of city government who for many years have called for cops to get more involved with them. People still call cops to "deal with" fireworks, kids smoking weed, and loud music. On an individual and structural level, we call cops like genies in a bottle then wonder why we can't hold police accountable or their budget in check, why police “reform” never gets at the root.

Investing in jails and police while cutting education and public health has never made our communities safer. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore explained when talking with the New York Times last year, abolition of police is not the absence of "safety.” Abolition is not just closing prisons and dismantling the police; it is creating and maintaining vital systems of support many of our communities lack.

At a local level, New Yorkers have stepped up for each other through the most heartbreaking of challenges. But at federal, state, and municipal levels we have not addressed the root causes of any of our compounding pandemics or their impact on mental health (see New Orleans after Katrina [1] [2]). Crime will almost certainly continue to rise in the coming months, and that is because of the existing racial and socioeconomic inequality COVID-19 has only exacerbated -- pre-existing conditions many elected officials still see as “fake” or too "unrealistic" to prioritize.

If those calling for defunding and abolition cannot effectively address the reasons people feel the need to call the police and cannot offer alternatives to calling police viewed as viable by those most impacted by non-police violence, then people will keep calling the cops, long past the next election.

If politicos in New York City’s Black and Latino neighborhoods don't open themselves to conversations on "public safety" not dominated by them or police and continue to dismiss calls to divest and abolish as stuff only people on Twitter and new residents to their districts who don't "do the work” care about, then they are making the political miscalculation of their lives.

Andrew J. Padilla, an award-winning artist and educator born and raised in East Harlem, has lectured on urban politics across the country, from Hostos to Harvard, and is a proud member of Manhattan Community Board 11. On Twitter @apadillafilm6.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Deconstructing the #DefundNYPD Clash with City Council Members of Color Sun, 05 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Administration Opposes Council Bill to Create 'City Restart Officer' de Blasio city hall reopening govt

Mayor de Blasio at City Hall (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Brooklyn City Council Member Laurie Cumbo, a Democrat and the Council’s Majority Leader, wants to establish a new position in city government to oversee the reopening of city government after the coronavirus shutdown. Her bill (Intro. 1950) would create and require the position of “City Restart Officer” to coordinate safety measures taken by city agencies and require them to submit their policies and plans to the restart officer for review.

“Many New Yorkers are excited yet apprehensive about reopening and rightly so,” Cumbo said at a virtual hearing on the bill on Tuesday held by the Council Committee on Governmental Operations. “We want to make sure that we are putting forth the best practices to make sure that New York City opens safely.” Cumbo’s bill currently has 16 sponsors in the 51-seat City Council.

New York City is just over a week into phase 1 of its economic “reopening” that began when the COVID-19 public health crisis subsided to a significant degree, with the city hitting state-set metrics and some of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s own thresholds for allowing more travel and economic activity. The city could enter phase 2 of reopening on Monday, June 15, at the earliest, though de Blasio has said he believes it will be later than that.

The Tuesday hearing, led by Cuombo and Bronx Council Member Fernando Cabrera, who chairs the government operations committee, included an opportunity for the members to question de Blasio administration officials on the bill and the city’s reopening plans.

At the hearing, Lisette Camilo, the Commissioner of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS), said that city government -- which employs hundreds of thousands of workers -- has taken the appropriate precautions to protect its workforce while maintaining necessary functions.

She estimated that two-thirds of the city’s workforce was able to transition to work from home, with only a fraction of those workers now returning to in-person work since phase 1 started. Most of the returning workers thus far have corresponded with industries that were allowed to restart in phase 1, such as Department of Buildings inspectors going to job sites again now that private construction is no longer largely halted.

Camilo also mentioned the “Core Four” precautions that all city workers should abide by, including staying home when sick, wearing face coverings, practicing good hygiene, and maintaining a social distance of six feet. She said the city is working towards making daily screenings available for workers.

At a Tuesday press conference, de Blasio said that the city now sponsors about 20,000 tests daily, with another 30,000 coming from other providers. The city’s tracing program is currently tracking 4,300 cases and the mayor said the program will have the capacity to trace 250,000 sometime this summer.

“That is the level we're going to reach, a quarter million people who will need help and support to help them through this disease, to keep all the rest of us safe as well,” de Blasio said.

Camilo says the city has divided its preparations for more workers returning to in-person work into four categories: preparing buildings, workspaces, workforce, and communication. The city is modifying its buildings and workspaces to allow workers to maintain social distance, training its workers to follow new protocols, and communicating these changes and resources to the public, according to Camilo.

Camilo and other agency leaders at the Council hearing did not voice support for Cumbo’s bill. The administration prefers an inter-agency approach instead, Camilo said. “We have been working across the agencies that have the expertise to inform the guidance,” she said, adding that agencies “are the best experts” at addressing their internal needs and that “it can’t be a cookie-cutter approach.”

When asked about planning for phase 2 by Cabrera, Camilo said “we don’t have finalized plans,” despite phase 2 potentially being days away. De Blasio said similarly at his Tuesday morning briefing.

According to Camilo, the Mayor’s Office has not yet received plans from all city agencies about their individual reopenings, adding, “I’d rather be conservative in the approach,” given this process has never been done before.

Camilo said that the city “do[es] not have an enforcement part of our guidance,” but that “I don’t think anyone will want to take a gamble on the health and safety of their workforce.” Cabrera and Cumbo both voiced concerns about agencies having enough lead time to comply with city protocols ahead of the next phases of reopenings.

During the public comment portion of the hearing, an employee with the Parks & Recreation Department expressed his concern about the city’s plans for reopening. When asked by Cumbo, he said that he wasn’t aware of any channel for reporting coronavirus-related safety concerns.

During the hearing, Cabrera mentioned several times that New York City could potentially move to phase 2 of reopening on Monday, June 22, which would mark two weeks after the city entered phase 1. However, there have been no official announcements regarding that as of now.

At his Tuesday press conference, de Blasio talked about trying to “keep expectations low” and that the city and state “may want and need a few more days to get more data beyond June 21 before moving to the next phase of reopening. The mayor also promised more city guidance would be publicized “over the next few days” and the city “will be ready for next week, if the indicators and the discussions with the state tell us that we’re ready to go next week.”

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

De Blasio Administration Opposes Council Bill to Create 'City Restart Officer' Tue, 16 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
At the Bedford-Union Armory, a Community’s Vision is Realized cumbo b

Beford-Union Armory rendering

As one of Brooklyn’s most historic neighborhoods, Crown Heights is a cultural landmark and epicenter for creativity. For many that knew Brooklyn before the age of mega-development, Crown Heights was once home to many recreational spaces for youth and families. I remember growing up in the Crown Heights/East Flatbush section of Brooklyn with a variety of recreational outlets, from the Empire Roller Rink and Bedford Bowl to the Kenmore Movie Theatre to the Crown Heights Youth Collective and more. I always felt like I had somewhere to go.

From 2007 onward, the Crown Heights community has felt the impact of the absence of recreational spaces for young people, left without vital community resources to help navigate young adulthood. For over a decade, our youth have grown up without essential academic and recreational spaces to live, learn, and grow. Today we celebrate the symbolic resurgence of community in Crown Heights with the groundbreaking for the newly renovated Bedford-Union Armory.

Steeped in tradition and legacy, yet newly designed to meet the needs of all residents, this space will cultivate a new era for Crown Heights: restoring unity in the community.

For generations, activists and community organizers have argued that the community needs a vibrant recreational center to be utilized by all residents, and reflect the rich history of the neighborhood. As Central Brooklyn continues to change, it is becoming increasingly more difficult for cultural non-profits to find permanent, affordable spaces to flourish and grow within the community.

As of next year, the repurposed armory will serve as a multi-use facility with affordable housing, recreational space, arts, after-school programming, and more. This week’s groundbreaking is the first step toward realizing the vision that has united our community.

Currently under construction, the Bedford-Union Armory’s vast recreational space will include three hardwood basketball courts, a multi-sport field, and a six-lane swimming pool—all of which will be available to local families and students at nearby schools. When standing inside the armory, it does not take much imagination to envision a completed athletic facility bustling with the energy and excitement of students unwinding after a long day at school. Rooted in the Crown Heights community tradition, the armory builds on the forward-thinking vision of Congressional Rep. Major Owens and other community stakeholders envisioned by creating a neighborhood hub for activity.

Partnerships with groups like New Heights Youth will help empower local students to reach their full academic and personal potential. This organization, which will be housed in the classroom space of the new armory, works with young men and women with an interest in basketball. Their after-school program in Crown Heights will help students to complete their homework before hitting the courts. Since 2005, 100 percent of New Heights students have graduated high school, and 98 percent enroll in college.

With programming that bridges education, arts, athletics, and empowerment, we know that the armory will be a long-standing community center in our beloved neighborhood.

While the Armory’s recreation center will be a community gathering space, it is these non-profit tenants that prove most exciting. Many of those tenants, leasing space at $6 a square foot, are providing programming and services that will truly make a difference with Central Brooklyn’s youth.

Consider, for example, Ifetayo Cultural Arts Academy, the organization that provides African-centered rites of passage programming to over 2,000 students and their families, will take up a permanent space at the Bedford-Union Armory. It will expand to a seven-day-per-week program offering academic support and mentoring in addition to dance classes.

A similar story will unfold with Digital Girl Inc. The organization, which offers computer classes and other services for young women and men, now spends time in public schools, but also lacks a permanent home. When the armory opens its doors, it will have a complete computer lab that will operate seven days a week, making STEM programming the new norm, not an academic luxury for the elite.

There is so much more that could be said about the armory’s impact: over 29 nonprofits and athletic organizations will call it home when it is finished, plus the additional educational and enrichment programs that will utilize the common space and recreational activity. Each of these organizations are already impacting the community and now their efforts will be supported and amplified by the armory’s resources.

All in all, the redeveloped Bedford-Union Armory will offer services to the entire Crown Heights community with the recreation, performing arts, and after-school programming that it has deserved for generations. This week’s groundbreaking is merely the first step forward in this historic project of which all Central-Brooklynites can be proud.

City Council Member Laurie Cumbo represents parts of Brooklyn and is the majority leader of the Council. On Twitter @CMLaurieCumbo.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

At the Bedford-Union Armory, a Community’s Vision is Realized Tue, 10 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
24 City Council Members Call on MTA to Address 'Over-Policing,' End Fare Evasion Crackdown fulton wt

(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

Last month, two videos of incidents in Brooklyn emerged on social media that led to a public furor over policing in the city’s subway system. In one, several police officers aimed their guns at an unarmed young black man (and many fellow passengers nearby) and then aggressively arrested him despite him having shown no indication of resistance. In the second, an officer could be seen punching black teenagers in the face as other officers attempted to bring a stop to a brawl in a subway station.

Those incidents were widely seen as a result of increased police presence in the subways owing to an MTA and NYPD crackdown on fare evasion, homelessness, and other so-called quality-of-life issues that has prompted criticism from many quarters, amplified when two churro vendors were handcuffed by officers in separate recent incidents caught on camera.

These events and others have occurred during the already-announced crackdown and as the MTA, at the direction of Governor Andrew Cuomo and with support from Mayor Bill de Blasio, moves to hire 500 additional transit system police officers, a plan that has also been panned by many advocates and elected officials as misguided on fiscal and social counts.

On Monday, 24 New York City Council members cited the two Brooklyn incidents in a letter to MTA Chair and CEO Pat Foye, calling for an alternative approach that would address the root causes of fare evasion rather than its symptoms. The current approach, they wrote, “create(s) yet another platform for criminalization and over-policing in de facto poorer communities, often escalating into unnecessarily violent situations.”

In an agreement between Cuomo and de Blasio, the MTA and NYPD have together diverted 500 officers to curb fare evasion, which the MTA has said cost it $215 million in lost revenue last year, though the authority’s inspector general has called the numbers into question. The governor also insisted that the MTA add the 500 additional police officers to its payroll – estimated to cost nearly $260 million over four years and $663 million over ten years for the deficit-running authority – to address fare evasion, homelessness, and attacks on transit workers. The governor has cited an uptick in crime that is not shown in the data for the most serious crimes, though misdemeanor reports are up, in some ways the apparent result in increased reporting by straphangers physically assaulted or violated in some way. 

In the letter led by Council Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo, a Brooklyn Democrat, the Council members said the MTA should reduce transit fares statewide and also institute community-based de-escalation and anti-bias training for its officers. They cited the city’s Fair Fares initiative, which provides discounted MetroCards to low-income New Yorkers and has been rolled out to over 80,000 city residents already, and pointed to other reduced-fare initiatives of the MTA, the Atlantic Ticket and Freedom Ticket programs.

“Civilians’ lives are in unnecessary danger and the racially-charged tensions of youth and police officers continue to grow. We believe these changes will result in fewer arrests, as over-policing Black and Brown neighborhoods is simply not the answer,” the Council members wrote.

While he is not a signatory on the latter, in a statement to Gotham Gazette Council Speaker Corey Johnson said, “I know how important it is for New Yorkers to feel safe on the subways, but I have consistently voiced concerns about the additional 500 officers on the subway having the effects of criminalizing poverty and over-policing our mass transit system. I believe the funding for the additional police presence would be better spent on improving service for straphangers and that we should focus on programs like Fair Fares which try to get at the root of these issues.”

Asked about the hiring plan several times in recent months, Mayor de Blasio has said he welcomes the additional MTA officers patrolling the subways and believes a vast majority New Yorkers do too.

MTA spokesperson Shams Tarek gave a similar rationale. “The safety of our customers and employees is our top priority and we’ve responded to calls from many of them to have more police to help provide a safe and secure transit environment,” Tarek said in a statement to Gotham Gazette when asked about the Council members’ letter. “Our multipronged approach to public safety and combating fare evasion is just one part of those efforts, with de-escalation and implicit bias training, programs to educate the public about how fare evasion hurts all riders, and our strong support for progressive programs such as Fair Fares and Atlantic Ticket, which are both underway and helping thousands of New Yorkers gain affordable access to the subway and buses.”

While the letter is addressed to Foye and the MTA, the sentiment has also been shared by many Council members with respect to the ongoing crackdown on fare evasion and other subway-related issues that the NYPD and MTA have already been implementing.

A separate incident in East Harlem last week, where four police officers arrested and tackled a young black man accused of selling candy on the subway platform, prompted a rebuke from Manhattan’s Community Board 11. The board adopted a resolution by an overwhelming majority vote on Tuesday night that called on Cuomo to scrap the plan to hire 500 new MTA police officers and spend that money on improving mass transit instead. It also urged Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, who is providing $40 million for the initial deployment of the 500 officers, to reinvest his funding in reentry programs for people leaving prison.

According to Jason Wu, a CB11 member who drafted the resolution, several elected officials or their representatives spoke at the Tuesday meeting and generally condemned the MTA’s fare evasion enforcement, Wu told Gotham Gazette in an email.

The MTA Board will vote on the authority’s new operating budget in December, at which time the initial investments in the new officers would be officially committed.

Along with Cumbo, the other 23 signatories of the letter to the MTA are City Council Members Farah Louis, I. Daneek Miller, Rafael Espinal, Margaret Chin, Helen Rosenthal, Alicka Ampry-Samuel, Stephen Levin, Carlos Menchaca, Jimmy Van Bramer, Diana Ayala, Vanessa Gibson, Donovan Richards, Adrienne Adams, Karen Koslowitz, Costa Constantinides, Ben Kallos, Mark Levine, Brad Lander, Carlina Rivera, Inez Barron, Keith Powers, Chaim Deutsch and Mark Treyger. They are all Democrats, half of the 48 in the 51-seat chamber.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

24 City Council Members Call on MTA to Address 'Over-Policing,' End Fare Evasion Crackdown Wed, 20 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Providing Stronger Support for Breastfeeding Mothers in New York City dc8tpaouwaal45h

Council Member Laurie Cumbo, the author (right), with her son, Prince (photo:@cmlauriecumbo)

If we are truly committed to the health, well-being, and economic advancement of mothers and babies, we must examine our public spaces, work places, and cultural biases when it comes to supporting and accommodating a mother’s choice to breastfeed. As of only a few weeks ago, mothers can now breastfeed legally in all 50 states without fear of violating laws pertaining to indecent exposure or public obscenity. This is a low bar for celebration, and cause for a critical examination of our own local laws and societal norms.

The benefits of breastfeeding are long-known and widely accepted in the medical community – the World Health Organization recommends that babies are breastfed for at least the first six months of their lives. The health benefits for babies include lower rates of obesity, SIDS, asthma, and other conditions, and can even be traced to higher IQs. For mothers, breastfeeding lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes, and certain types of ovarian and breast cancers. It is for these reasons, and for the purpose of defending a mother’s right to choose what they do with their bodies and how they take care of their children, that we must remain diligent in our efforts to identify and break down any barriers for mothers who choose to breastfeed.

Those of us holding elected office must all leverage our positions and platforms to advance breastfeeding rights and awareness. We must make sure that mothers know all the facts about breastfeeding, what they are entitled to and what resources are available to them, should they choose to breastfeed.

Here, in New York, we have strong laws and we are increasing our investment at the state and local level in support of breastfeeding mothers. I am proud to have made breastfeeding rights a focal point of my time in office, with legislation advancing greater education and access for those who need to breastfeed or express milk in public or in the workplace. Right now, the Mother’s Day Legislative Package, which I was proud to spearhead on my very own first Mother’s Day, has pending legislation that will expand accommodations for breastfeeding mothers in certain city spaces and in workplaces, as well as establish a standard lactation accommodation policy. I thank my colleagues, Council Members Robert Cornegy and Carlina Rivera, for their leadership and partnership on these breastfeeding bills. I am committed to seeing through these efforts and ensuring that our physical structures reflect our values of equity and inclusion.

As a mother of a now one-year-old myself, I have a new appreciation for and understanding of the literal and figurative structures that play a role in the lives of New York mothers. From pre-natal care to childbirth and child rearing, there is a culture of expectation that women are just supposed to know how to take care of themselves and their children based on instinct alone. Far too many women are not getting the resources they need. Further, as recent research has shown, health concerns expressed during childbirth are often not taken seriously, resulting in a much higher mortality rates for black and Latina women. The truth is, we all need guidance and support throughout the pregnancy, birthing and nurturing process, which is why we must continue to expand and center the needs of mothers in public and working spaces. Every mother is different, as is every child, and our ultimate goal should be to support and uplift all mothers, regardless of whether they choose to breastfeed.

One personal breastfeeding experience of note was when I was able to use one of the Department of Health’s “lactation pods” at Brooklyn Children’s Museum. What struck me about my experience was how welcoming the environment was. Breastfeeding is often framed as an inconvenience, but in this instance, I felt proud and encouraged. The unfortunate reality is that this is an uncommon experience for breastfeeding mothers. More often than not, new mothers in the workplace have to seek out any space they can find — some report even having to pump in a closet. This is inexcusable and detrimental to the dignity and well-being of working mothers everywhere.

It is going to take a dedicated, comprehensive approach and a fundamental reimagining of working motherhood, but I know that we can achieve it. Moms continue to show up for each other, time and time again, but it is time we show up for them. We must stand with them and do everything in our power as individuals and as a collective society to better support their needs. Breastfeeding takes a village. It is a mental, physical, emotional, and logistical act. August is National Breastfeeding Awareness month, and so there is no better time than now to commit to a better tomorrow for mothers and children in New York City.

Laurie Cumbo is the majority leader of the New York City Council. She represents Brooklyn communities of Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights and parts of Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant. On Twitter @cmlauriecumbo.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Providing Stronger Support for Breastfeeding Mothers in New York City Sun, 19 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Brooklyn Armory Deal, and Larger De Blasio Development Debate, Move Toward Term Two bedford union armory rendering via bfc

(Armory rendering via BFC) (photos within piece by Rachel Holliday Smith)

Following years of ferocious debate, negotiation, protests and anguish, City Council Member Laurie Cumbo was finally ready to vote “yes” on the redevelopment of the publicly-owned, vacant Bedford-Union Armory.

At very nearly the last minute, she and the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio worked out a deal for the Crown Heights building with the city’s chosen developer, BFC Partners, the night before a crucial City Council land use committee vote on the controversial redevelopment. A week later, Cumbo stood amid the full Council, ready to approve the project.

But before that could happen, chanting interrupted the meeting.

“The city is not for sale! Kill the deal!”

In the balcony of the Council chambers, a small crowd of activists, housing advocates, and Crown Heights residents shouted as security escorted them out.

“Laurie lies!”

City Council Bedford Armory protest voteAmong the protesters were the fiercest and most frequent critics of the armory project: members of New York Communities for Change (NYCC), the Crown Heights Tenant Union and their allies, who have pushed the city to scrap the plan for nearly two years, leading dozens of protests and supporting anti-armory plan challengers to Cumbo during her successful yet contentious reelection campaign this summer and fall.

From the beginning, the coalition of activists saw the vacant armory and the publicly-owned land beneath it as an incredibly valuable resource that should be used to improve a rapidly gentrifying community, with deeply affordable housing to help stem the tide of displacement.

By all accounts, the pressure moved the needle significantly. When it was announced in late 2015, the redevelopment included plans for 330 market-rate and affordable rentals, two dozen luxury condominiums, and a 45,000-square-foot recreation center. Following months of protests by NYCC, CHTU and others against any and all market-rate housing on the site, with particular ire directed at the condominiums, a new deal took shape.

In the last-minute agreement, BFC cut out the condos as the city promised $50 million to subsidize more affordable — and more deeply affordable — rental housing on the site. In addition, the planned state-of-the-art recreation center would remain, with its own affordability requirements, supported financially by 150 market-rate apartments, officials said.

To the casual observer, the armory agreement may appear to be a major feat for all sides. But as the project cleared the last hurdle in its public approval process, its detractors see it as a failure, emblematic of problems with the de Blasio administration’s approach to affordable housing citywide: doing too little for those who need it most, failing to slow gentrification, and relying too heavily on for-profit development. In particular, critics found fault with income restrictions at the project, which originally set aside a majority of affordable apartments at the site for households making above the area median income.

To the mayor and his team, the armory is a solid compromise and exactly what the administration is aiming for with much of its ambitious housing plan — leveraging public resources to spur the construction of mixed-income housing by private developers.

As Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer put it to Gotham Gazette, the city worked hard to meet the needs of the community while “ensuring we have a financially feasible project.”

“That’s always a complicated balancing act,” she said.

The project passed the Council on November 30 with 43 in favor, two against, and one abstention. As she cast her vote, Cumbo said the concerns of the project’s critics “have been taken into account” while underscoring all the good the project will bring: affordable housing, recreation space, jobs.

“This is progress. This is an opportunity. This is getting something done in our term,” she said.

The mayor echoed that sentiment when speaking about the project this summer, saying that “ultimately, it’s something that could do a lot of good for the community.”

“Right now that armory is doing no good for the community,” he said at an unrelated press conference.

But “getting something done” isn’t good enough for some in the neighborhood, including Crown Heights resident Esteban Giron, a local tenant organizer and member of the neighborhood community board’s land use committee, who was one of those escorted out of City Hall when the Council approved the deal.

A day after the vote, Giron said he’d rather see the armory remain vacant than be rebuilt under the new terms.

“What did we do, from the very beginning, except say we want 100 percent affordable housing?” he asked.


For critics of the project, the sticking point on the redevelopment has always been this: the sprawling former military complex on Bedford Avenue sits on an extremely precious commodity — public land — and that limited resource, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods like Crown Heights, must be used to most effectively combat the city’s housing affordability crisis.

Bedford Union Armory December 2017 The 1904 building was used by the state as a training facility (complete with horse stables, a drill hall and rifle range) until its decommissioning in 2011, when then-Borough President Marty Markowitz, upon the urging of Crown Heights locals, began an effort to study what could be done with the hulking, 122,000-square-foot structure and its large lot.

Markowitz’s chief of staff at the time, Carlo Scissura, now the president of the New York Building Congress, said the idea “was going to be similar to the Park Slope Armory,” the large YMCA-run recreational facility on 15th Street.

“The plan here was recreation space, community space, maybe education, maybe seniors,” he said of the Bedford-Union Armory. “But housing was never part of it.”

In 2013, at the end of the Bloomberg administration, the city’s Economic Development Corporation put out a request for proposals (RFP) for the site. Housing officially became part of the armory plan when, in late 2015, the EDC under de Blasio chose BFC and Slate Properties to redevelop the vacant building.

When the city announced the chosen plan for the site, officials from EDC and HPD as well as the developer stressed the proposal was a jumping-off point, subject to negotiation and local input. At the announcement, BFC Partners principal Don Capoccia promised to “continue to engage the community” to ensure that “at the end of the day, this project is responsive to the needs of this community.”

Within months, protests began, led by nearby tenants and residents with a big assist by NYCC, a group with a long history of activism — and ties to de Blasio. Formerly, NYCC was known as Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, before a national controversy surrounding the group in 2009 prompted a rebranding. The group has backed progressive causes for decades and, in 2013, put their weight behind a longshot progressive candidate for mayor: Bill de Blasio.

But that close relationship with the then-candidate has cooled through his years at City Hall, largely based on de Blasio’s approach to development and housing, and NYCC pulled no punches as it revved up to fight the armory plan.

The group went after Slate Property for their dealings in the controversial 2015 sale of a Lower East Side home for seniors. They called out then-Knicks player Carmelo Anthony — whose foundation had signed on to help with the recreation center — for getting involved with a project that would “further exacerbate the gentrification of Crown Heights,” according to a published letter written to the basketball star by activist Bertha Lewis, former leader of NYCC when it was known as ACORN.

Soon afterward, both Slate and Anthony dropped out of the project.

In rallies, open letters and editorials, the groups fought against the armory plan with a consistent message: Scrap the deal completely, start from scratch, and build only affordable housing on the site, with no market-rate units. They called for the property to be moved to a community land trust.

As the months dragged on, the project became a central issue in Cumbo’s re-election campaign, with two challengers — Democrat Ede Fox and Green Party candidate Jabari Brisport — promising to start from square one on the armory if elected. In May, facing Fox’s primary challenge, Cumbo backed away from the armory plan, announcing she would not support it if it included luxury condominiums.

As Fox, Brisport, and other critics of the project continued to hammer her, Cumbo’s campaign touted her opposition to the plan, at times using misleading language. An independent expenditure by the hotel workers’ union paid for pro-Cumbo flyers and robo-calls indicating she would support the armory plan only if it included 100 percent affordable housing, a claim Cumbo said she never made, was aware of, or approved.

“It wouldn’t even make logical sense for me to do that because I know going into [negotiations] that you’re not going to get 100 percent,” she told Gotham Gazette. “So it wouldn’t be beneficial for me to promise something that I can’t deliver.” Cumbo did not, however, disavow the independent expenditure or ask the hotel workers’ union to stop its mailers.

Cumbo beat Fox by more than 16 percentage points in the September primary and won reelection with 67 percent of the vote in the general election (Brisport did exceptionally well for a Green Party candidate, seemingly buouyed by armory resentment). In an interview, Cumbo said after the election she stuck to her line in the sand about the condominiums until the end, even when “the administration continued to negotiate other aspects of the project without dealing with the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”

“I, the community, the local stakeholders, the elected officials, said that they did not want any sale of the armory to happen,” Cumbo said. “I knew I wasn’t going to support a project that had luxury condominiums.”

Even with a win on that aspect, the Council member acknowledges that, as with any great compromise, no party leaves the table with everything they want, herself included.

“I’m not walking away completely happy, but I am walking away satisfied,” she said. “I’m walking away with a project that I know is going to benefit this community for generations to come.”


To the de Blasio administration, the plan is a “win, win, win,” according to housing Commissioner Torres-Springer, who formerly led EDC.

“We’re generating the types of opportunities that really address many sides of the complex affordability question in this city — certainly affordable housing, but also access to services, recreation, community, and jobs,” she said.

The city is making that happen in partnership with BFC, a for-profit developer, which will pay $2 million per year in ground rent for the armory site, both in cash and in at least $1.25 million in “community benefits,” calculated as discounts on classes, memberships, space for nonprofits, and rentals to community groups within the newly built armory.

For the city’s part, the $50 million in public funds will pay for 250 units of subsidized housing, set aside for households making between about $25,000 and $51,000 per year for a family of three, HPD said. In the deal, BFC will use income from the 150 market-rate rentals on the site to operate and maintain the recreation center. The company is projected to make an annual profit. A spokesperson did not return multiple requests for that projected amount.

To Torres-Springer, the city’s job in a deal such as the armory is “making sure that we are stretching every public dollar as much as we can.”

The philosophy — of partnering with and relying on private, for-profit developers to build affordable housing — is foundational to the de Blasio administration’s overall housing goal of building and preserving 300,000 affordable units by 2026.

In an interview with The New York Times in October, Alicia Glen, de Blasio’s powerful deputy mayor for housing and economic development, said “there’s no such thing” as housing built by the city alone.

“It’s all about, to what extent can you use the resources of the private sector, and the resources the public sector has, to put together the best deals you can possibly do,” she said.

To advocates who fought the armory plan, some of whom fight de Blasio administration plans around the city, that idea is anathema to the goal of solving the housing crisis, particularly for low-income and homeless New Yorkers. To NYCC Executive Director Jonathan Westin, it’s a “failure of imagination” by the administration.

“They’ve shown that they very clearly do not prioritize public housing,” or housing built and operated by the city, he said. “They do not actually believe in it. And it’s hugely problematic.”

Particularly at the armory site, where 150 market-rate apartments will be built on the publicly-held property, the administration’s plan is “completely egregious,” according to Katie Goldstein, executive director of the statewide housing group Tenants and Neighbors, which has played an active role with NYCC to fight the armory plan.

“When the city owns the land, to give that away to a for-profit developer? It’s such punch in the face to the community who was organizing around this,” she said.

Lewis of the Black Institute said “not one iota” of the deal is satisfactory, and trying to deal with the de Blasio administration was worse than “all of the other fights that we’ve had,” including in the Bloomberg and Giuliani administrations.

“You meet the new mayor, he’s the same as the other old mayors,” she said. “It’s really disgraceful that they should even utter the word ‘progressive.’”

“To privatize something means that it has to make a profit,” said Giron, the Crown Heights resident and tenant advocate. “To me, that’s never going to be an appropriate approach for people of color, for low-income people, for New York, period.”


The mayor and his team don’t necessarily disagree much with their critics, at least in terms of describing the city’s approach to housing and development. To de Blasio, Glen, Torres-Springer, and others, the number one thing the city needs is more housing, at various levels of affordability. The mayor stressed that goal when speaking about the armory project in July.

“We need both – we need market and we need affordable housing. That’s our mission. Every time we do it, we’re looking to maximize the amount of affordability and to make the affordable housing as consistent with the community as possible,” he said, speaking to a caller on WNYC radio's The Brian Lehrer Show.

And de Blasio regularly argues that it is essential to create more affordable housing for middle-income families, while, after pushback, he has also repeatedly adjusted his larger housing plan and more localized projects, like the armory redevelopment, to create deeper affordability.

Pending a final approval from Brooklyn’s Borough Board — a last step in rezoning that will almost certainly pass, given the City Council’s overwhelming support — the armory deal is headed for a closing, a spokesperson for HPD said, and the city expects construction to begin in 2018.

At the same time, housing advocates are still planning to fight the project any way they can.

The day before the full City Council vote on the redevelopment, the Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s measurement of the project’s potential effect on displacement of rent-stabilized tenants. In arguing that the city is not taking into account displacement outside a 400-foot area surrounding the site, the plaintiffs hope to convince a judge to compel the city to adjust the project or, if nothing else, set a new standard for similar projects in the future.

Last week, a judge denied the group’s request for a temporary restraining order on the armory project. The next hearing date in the suit is set for February 8, according to an EDC representative.

For Giron, who lives two blocks from the armory, finding any way to stop the project — even “the hard way,” with a lawsuit, he said — is the only option. In the space of three or four years, he estimates about “half the people have been emptied out” of rent-regulated buildings between his home on Franklin Avenue and the armory on Bedford Avenue, he said, victims of an already super-heated housing market in Crown Heights.

“I walk over there and I feel that void,” he said.

For him, the armory was an opportunity to reverse, or at least slow, the displacement brought by gentrification, not accelerate it; the fact that any market-rate apartments will be built there, and without union labor, are unacceptable to him. So, he and the rest of the coalition will continue to fight, into the next four years — or longer, if necessary.

“I can see a path…where there’s not even a shovel put in the ground before Laurie’s out of office,” he said, referring to Council Member Cumbo, whose second and last term ends in 2021.

“We’re going to fight until we can’t anymore, until we’re gone or they’re gone,” he promised. “But we’re not going to stop.”

by Rachel Holliday Smith for Gotham Gazette

Brooklyn Armory Deal, and Larger De Blasio Development Debate, Move Toward Term Two Sun, 10 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Women's Caucus Secures Commitments from City Council Speaker Candidates Helen Rosenthal City Council Speaker

Helen Rosenthal among Speaker hopefuls Cornegy, Levine, Johnson (photo: William Alatriste)

The Women’s Caucus of the City Council recently interviewed the eight candidates -- all men -- seeking to become the next Speaker of the Council, arguably the second most powerful position in city government. While the Women’s Caucus will not be endorsing a speaker candidate ahead of the January vote, according to caucus co-chair Helen Rosenthal, it did secure important commitments from each candidate and the process, which also included a questionnaire, was informative in helping the female members of the next Council class decide who to support.

When inaugurated in January, next Council of 51 members will include only 11 women, a gender imbalance that has been the focus of a good deal of recent attention, in the media and from the Women’s Caucus itself, which issued a report detailing the declining number of women in the Council, causes of the trend, and ideas for what to do to reverse it.

According to Council Member Rosenthal, all eight speaker candidates committed to funding through the speaker’s office a staff person for the Women’s Caucus, something that is currently only afforded to the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus (BLAC). Rosenthal called it “an incredibly important achievement” since it will allow the caucus to be more active in terms of releasing press statements and substantive reports, and more.

The speaker candidates -- Council Members Robert Cornegy, Corey Johnson, Mark Levine, Donovan Richards, Ydanis Rodriguez, Ritchie Torres, Jimmy Van Bramer, and Jumaane Williams -- also committed to ensuring that about half of their leadership team would be women if they are elected speaker, Rosenthal said. In this context “leadership” was defined as the majority leader and deputy leaders that the next speaker names, but Rosenthal said the Women’s Caucus also pushed the candidates on committing to strong female representation as chairs of Council committees.

“The speaker candidate interviews went really well,” Rosenthal said in an interview. “All of the candidates were extremely engaged in the process.”

Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat who co-chairs the caucus with Brooklyn Democratic Council Member Laurie Cumbo, who is currently on maternity leave, explained that soon after Election Day, current and incoming members of the Women’s Caucus held interviews with each of the eight speaker candidates over the course of two days, with each interview lasting about 15 minutes. The interviews came after the candidates were asked to fill out a questionnaire (see below). Some of the in-person questions were follow-ups from questionnaire answers, while others were asked to all of the candidates.

“We asked questions like ‘What’s a women's issue?’” Rosenthal said. “It was telling. There were a few people who went right to domestic violence and child care, but the vast majority said ‘All issues are women’s issues,’ and that was revealing.”

Rosenthal said that caucus members agreed not to talk in specifics about individual speaker candidates and how they answered questions. (She is backing Levine, who represents a neighboring district, but in the interview she did not discuss that support relative to the Women’s Caucus process.)

“What has become clear in this whole exercise is that having a female speaker has somewhat masked over the importance in this loss of women in the Council,” Rosenthal said, referring to the fact that the Council has had a female speaker for the past 12 years, with Melissa Mark-Viverito for four and Christine Quinn for the eight before that. Mark-Viverito is term-limited out of office at the end of this year. The number of women in the Council has decreased from 18 elected in 2009 to 11 after this year’s elections.

“If you look at what Melissa’s done with the staff in the Council -- roughly half of the staff are women,” Rosenthal said. “And we wanted to know what [the speaker candidates] would do in terms of leadership positions, committee chair positions, and also staff in the Council.”

“We really wanted a clear answer. ‘You say you want women on your team, but what are your staffing levels in your own office?’ Again, there were actual differences,” Rosenthal added, noting that one speaker candidate was caught in an uncomfortable situation due to a lack of women on his current staff.

Returning female members of the Council include Rosenthal and Cumbo, as well as Margaret Chin, Vanessa Gibson, Deborah Rose, Inez Barron, and Karen Koslowitz.

“The new women coming in were in the room,” Rosenthal said of incoming Council members who were just elected. She said some of those women -- Council Members-Elect Carlina Rivera, Diana Ayala, Alick Ampry-Samuel, and Adrienne Adams -- were present over the two days of interviews. “The whole dynamic was great,” Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal said there were frank discussions about why it is important to have women in the room and asking candidates things like, “What’s your vision for amplifying women’s voices?”

Heading into the race to be the next speaker, a woman was thought to be the frontrunner, but Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland announced earlier this year that she would not seek reelection and would be moving to Maryland for family reasons.

Asked why there were no other women who sought the speakership, Rosenthal said she couldn’t speak for others. “I know why I didn’t,” she said. “Certainly Julissa did. You would have to ask each woman, and my guess is, it’s personal. If there were more women in the Council, you’d see a different outcome.”

As for her own decision, Rosenthal said, “It’s because to do the job well, I don’t think I could manage having a family life and being speaker. That’s personal to me. I’m at a stage in my life where any down-time I have, which is very little, I need to be with my family. The thought of having no down-time weighs on me personally. It doesn’t mean I’m not ambitious, I certainly am. It doesn’t mean I play the traditional woman’s role in my family -- my husband and I are equal partners, and he’s stepped up during this experience.”

Ferreras-Copeland is currently chair of the finance committee, one of the Council’s two most powerful committees along with land use. Rosenthal is currently chair of the contracts committee, while Cumbo chairs the women’s issues committee, Gibson chairs public safety, Chin chairs aging, Barron chairs the higher education committee, and Koslowitz chairs the state and federal legislative committee. Choices for committee chair positions, especially finance and land use, are often part of the process of selecting the speaker, which is greatly influenced by the Democratic county machines, especially those in Queens and the Bronx.

Asked if she hoped one of the big two committees would be chaired by a woman in the next Council, Rosenthal said, “Sure, I hope both are. Both and majority leader.” Does she want one of the two? “No, not necessarily,” she said. “I would like to be part of the leadership team.”

womens caucus sc questionaire 600b


by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Women's Caucus Secures Commitments from City Council Speaker Candidates Thu, 16 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Don’t Forget: Cumbo Won with Promise of 100% Affordability at Armory ahome3

Bedford Union Armory rendering

For months, thousands of Crown Heights residents have petitioned, testified, marched, and protested against a proposed redevelopment at the Bedford Union Armory, where the plan backed by the de Blasio administration would take a massive parcel of public land and give it to a private developer to build high-end housing and a recreation facility.

The local City Council member, Laurie Cumbo, recently won her Democratic primary for reelection after opposing the deal, promising that she would insist on no luxury condominiums, while her backers promised she’d push for 100% affordable housing at the site. But Cumbo is now moving the goalposts in a dangerous direction.

Crown Heights is one of New York City’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. In 2015, over 20,000 families faced eviction in the three zip codes surrounding the armory, many of whom lived in the community long before it became a “place to be” for those moving into the area.  Nearly 30% of shelter entrants in the city are from Brooklyn and if this project proceeds as currently designed, even more longtime community members (many whom are people of color and of West Indian descent), will be displaced from their homes and have to move to a shelter that probably won’t be across the street like the mayor’s plan suggests.

From the beginning, the community’s demand has been simple to understand. Kill this deal. Go back to the drawing board to create the truly affordable housing that’s desperately needed.

We need a community land trust with local control over the land, and real low-income housing. The only housing to be built should be to protect the victims of gentrification -- displaced homeless families and those at risk of displacement -- not to facilitate more of the same problem. It appeared that Council Member Cumbo had finally listened to her constituents when she opposed the plan currently on the table.

But in a recent New York Times article on the mayor’s housing plan, Cumbo declared that “the community put the line in the sand: no luxury condominiums.”

This “line in the sand” signifies a bait-and-switch. In fact, it’s simply where Cumbo has moved the goalposts after winning a competitive election, and the Council member should know that the community sees what’s happening.

Redevelopment of the Bedford Armory was the central issue in the recent primary. During the campaign, Cumbo supporters spent $135,846.64 on more than 10 mailers and robocalls in an effort to convince Crown Heights voters to support her. These mailers were clear on Cumbo’s position: shut the deal down without 100% affordability at the armory site.

Cumbo won promising a much better deal, and now she just wants to scrap the condos.

Let’s be crystal clear: a project that moves forward with any luxury housing – rentals or condos – is still not a project for us. A community land trust with real low-income housing would be a practical solution that could contribute to solving the homelessness crisis in Brooklyn and in New York City overall, especially since this is public land. But a housing plan that moves forward with only 18 units affordable to the average resident of Crown Heights is not just unacceptable, it’s an insult.

If Cumbo doesn’t kill the deal, she will have allowed her supporters to openly lie to the electorate during her primary campaign.

And to add injury to insult, Mayor de Blasio is busy explaining away his failing housing policies by blaming the constraints of the free market and capitalism. But those restraints don’t exist on public land like they do on private land. The Bedford Union Armory is a wholly socialist enterprise — like the mayor claims he would want.

What is the mayor doing with these “socialist” powers? Making a conscious decision to privatize land and “harness” gentrification, rather than fight it.

Public land is a vanishing resource in New York City. At a time when we continue to struggle with a record homelessness crisis and massive displacement of low- and moderate-income people, many people of color, it should also be priceless.

This is particularly egregious when more and more human beings are being warehoused in shelters, just like the one recently opened a few blocks from the armory, with a number of residents not being from the area, as the mayor claims is his goal. Despite what the mayor and Council Member Cumbo say in their press clippings and campaign advertisements, their policies show exactly where their priorities lie: luxury housing to make developers rich and house people who have no fear of being homeless, and shelters for far too many others.

It really is still a tale of two cities out here.

But Cumbo still has a chance to live up to the promises she made during her primary campaign, cutting out greedy developers and giving us a community land trust with 100% affordable housing on this precious public land.

Or she can get rid of a few luxury condos and tell us that this is some kind of victory, despite the fact that half the units would still be luxury rentals and a pitiful 5 percent would be affordable to the average Crown Heights resident, the same residents who have supported her.

We look forward to working with Council Member Cumbo on developing the community land trust this neighborhood needs, especially on public land, as we know she wants to do the right thing. There’s still a chance.

But make no mistake, we won’t let the wool be pulled over our eyes.

Monique “Mo” George is the Executive Director of Picture the Homeless. On Twitter @pthny.

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Don’t Forget: Cumbo Won with Promise of 100% Affordability at Armory Tue, 17 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Can Redevelopment of the Bedford Union Armory Be Saved? bedford armory rendering

Rendering of the Bedford Union Armory via BFC Partners

A land use proposal to redevelop the 138,000-square-foot, publicly-owned Bedford Union Armory in Crown Heights to create a mix of different types of housing and a state-of-the-art recreation center has seen successive setbacks in recent months. As proposed, the project has been rejected by community advocates, the local community board, the local City Council member, Laurie Cumbo, and the borough president, Eric Adams, all of whom believe the project should include more affordable housing.

The de Blasio administration, in response, has vowed to work with local elected officials and the city-selected developer behind the project to make it acceptable, especially to Cumbo, who will have the final say in a few short weeks.

But, with any land use redevelopment, the administration must balance the resources at its disposal to achieve maximum effect, and in this case, making the project more palatable to community members calling it a harbinger of gentrification would likely mean making it less profitable for the developer and more costly for the city. As the clock ticks on negotiations and a series of essential decisions dictated by the city’s land use review process, it is unclear what steps the de Blasio administration might take to make a deal happen, advance a key project, and avoid a potentially significant political defeat.

BFC Partners is the developer selected through a competitive bidding process run by the New York City Economic Development Corporation. The initial request for proposals (RFP) was put out in October 2013, prior to Mayor Bill de Blasio taking office, and the project was awarded to BFC in December 2015. Over the next year, the project became a source of significant controversy and become a burning issue in this year’s District 35 City Council race, where Cumbo was running for reelection. It has also become a symbol of the de Blasio administration’s strategy for creating affordable housing across the city and a sore spot and political vulnerability for the mayor, a fellow Democrat who did not endorse Cumbo but sent behind-the-scenes support for her campaign.

The redevelopment proposal envisions converting the armory -- which spans an entire city block and sits defunct -- into an affordable recreation center, 330 rental housing units at various levels of affordability, and 56 condominiums to be sold.

Of the 330 rental units, 164 would be market rate while the rest would be “affordable” for low-income and middle-income families, whereby rents are capped so that tenants pay no more than 30 percent of their income to the landlord. Affordability is calculated according to the 2016 Area Median Income (AMI) of $81,600 for a family of three. The rental units would include 18 units at 40 percent AMI; 49 units at 50 percent AMI; and 99 units at 110 percent AMI, providing rent regulated apartments to households of various income levels.

AMI apartments Bedford Union Armory

Of the condos, 44 would be sold at market rate and 12 at 120 percent AMI. BFC Partners would receive a 99-year ground lease on a majority of the site, recouping its costs through sales of the condos, rents on the apartments, fees from the recreation center, and a developer fee from the city.

De Blasio has pitched the project as a much-needed community facility, similar to the Park Slope Armory recreation center, which can be kept affordable in the long-term under the current structure of the plan, with the benefit of creating affordable housing. As it stands, the project does not include any housing subsidies that the administration has used in the past to create more affordability in land use redevelopments. At a September 14 news conference, de Blasio indicated openness to adding more subsidies, though he was noncommittal as to what the city might do to sweeten the deal.

“[W]e want that to be the best possible project for the community, we're going to look at every way to improve it,” he told reporters, noting that the current plan allows for the recreation center to be affordable on an ongoing basis. “That's what we need to come out of this in the end. But we’re going to work with the Council member to see if there is a way to improve the project that would win her support and be more comfortable for the community.”

Cumbo, the Council member de Blasio referred to, recently won the primary for her reelection effort against an opponent who put the Bedford Union Armory at the core of the campaign, accusing Cumbo of being too close to real estate developers and ineffective at stemming the gentrification and displacement sweeping the changing district. Cumbo faced criticism for dithering about the project for months only to oppose it earlier this year, but came to draw a line in the sand on the project. Without her approval, the project is dead on arrival at the City Council, which traditionally votes with the local member on land use applications and will have 50 days to evaluate the deal once it is referred by the City Planning Commission, perhaps with adjustments, unless it is taken completely off the table by then.

Cumbo was not made available to comment for this article. Her spokesperson, Kristia Beaubrun, referred Gotham Gazette to the Council member’s statement in May when she came out against the proposal.

"Since the very beginning our message has been clear: We will not allow public land to be used for the purpose of luxury condominiums,” she said, calling on the mayor to “go back to the drawing board and produce a plan that meets the needs of my Brooklyn neighbors.”

Last month, Borough President Adams, as part of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) required of all such proposals, rejected the project and recommended that the city increase the number of deeply affordable units and also provide more upper-tier affordable housing units to offset the costs of running the recreation center.

Adams also called for more permanent affordability -- currently, 30 percent of the units are permanently affordable -- and for 20 percent of the rental apartments to be allotted to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s “Our Space Initiative” for housing homeless families. “This is our opportunity to get this right,” he said. “This process has gone through years of debate, emotions, and public scrutiny, both for and against the development. We must ultimately come together and find the right balance that is the ideal solution for the future of Crown Heights, and for the optimal reuse of the Bedford Union Armory as a public resource.”

The proposal is currently before the City Planning Commission, which will hold a public review session on Wednesday before voting on the project later this month. The CPC can either approve the project, with or without changes, and send it to the City Council for further review, or it can reject it, although that would be shocking and especially rare.

“It’s hard for me to imagine tweaks at this stage that would address the concerns being raised,” said Emily Goldstein, senior campaign organizer at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. Goldstein, who is not involved in the community efforts around the armory, said the administration isn’t taking full advantage of the city’s ownership of the land, which allows it to demand more benefits than it could if the project were on a privately-owned site. “There are broader concerns about wanting lasting community control,” she said.

Goldstein hits at the heart of the opposition to the project by community activists. The Our Armory Coalition, a group that includes the Crown Heights Tenant Union, New York Communities for Change, Picture the Homeless, The Black Institute, The Legal Aid Society, and others, have called for a community land trust to develop the project, rather than a private firm. That would allow community voices to drive decisions on the property in the community interest, rather than effectively giving a for-profit developer a century-long hold over public property.

“The RFP process for the Bedford Armory has been flawed and corrupt from the very start,” said the coalition, in a statement last month, calling for the project to be scrapped entirely and for the city to issue a new request for proposals. “Elected officials including Cumbo are [sic] failed to address the fact that BFC is a for profit developer, making money off our public land while not providing real affordability to the community. And that’s unacceptable.”

“I don’t see any reason it shouldn’t be explored,” said ANHD’s Goldstein of a community land trust, also insisting that it isn’t the only option available. “There are other ways to build in the idea that public land is a public resource that should remain public. I think there’s a flaw in the calculus the city is using.”

She acknowledged that deeper affordability would require more city subsidies and that BFC’s application may have been the most attractive proposal. But, she said, “It’s shortsighted to do what’s cheaper in the short term. What you lose in the long term is permanent affordability. It’s hard to start from where they are and make it more affordable.”

One housing expert said the city is trying to save as much money as possible, and any subsidies applied to the Bedford Union Armory would mean not being able to use them in other neighborhoods. “The city likes to think of itself as a negotiator on the community side but they’re really not, they’re really just a broker,” said the expert said, who requested anonymity to speak more freely and pointed out that the hurdles to the Bedford Armory project stem from the city’s “deal-by-deal approach” to development, which allows community advocates to pressure the administration with an all-or-nothing opposition rather than pushing for compromise.

That’s the case with the Our Armory coalition. Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change and a strident critic of the administration on its housing policies, is adamant that the only way the project could be acceptable to his group is if there are no luxury condos or market-rate rental units. “They could force the developer off the project and make it 100 percent affordable since it’s on public land,” he said. “Using public land to build luxury housing is a travesty.”

Although issuing a new RFP for the project, and triggering another round of ULURP, could potentially take years, Westin said it would be worth it. “It’s better than a gentrification project that would displace the community.”

Westin also pushed back against the argument that the condos are being used to cross-subsidize the recreation center. A BFC spokesperson earlier told Gotham Gazette that the firm will make a net profit of less than $800,000 from the sale of the condos and that those funds would be put back into the recreation center. The spokesperson also said that the annual cash-flow from all the rental units, which are expensive to operate and maintain, would be around $800,000. Citing Borough President Adams’ recommendations, the spokesperson pointed out that removing the revenue-generating component of the project would require other funds to fill the gap, while noting that the original RFP for the project specified that the developer should not request any housing subsidies from the city.

“This cross-subsidization frame is what luxury developers use to justify luxury development,” Westin said. Instead, he said the city could designate the armory as a land bank and set restrictions on the land, which could then be developed by a nonprofit developer. “It’s completely feasible to do this project 100 percent affordable,” he said.

The project does have its supporters. Geoffrey Davis, a Democratic district leader from Crown Heights, emphasized that the recreation center was a necessity for the community. “Our seniors, our young people, our community will have a place to go to,” he said in a phone interview. “I say, continue to negotiate, work it out. Do not leave the table. If you say kill the deal and walk away, we’re talking about another 30 years.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Can Redevelopment of the Bedford Union Armory Be Saved? Tue, 03 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000