Gotham Gazette Sun, 09 Aug 2020 15:12:40 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Have Drug Overdoses Spiked During the Coronavirus Crisis? It Depends Who You Ask 2 drug overdose

Mayor de Blasio makes an announcement (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

As the coronavirus ravaged New York, hospitals were flooded with patients and city services ground to a halt. Activists and elected officials worried that in the fray of the pandemic, with New Yorkers ordered to mostly stay inside and millions losing work, the already prevalent opioid epidemic in the state could be further exacerbated. But city and state health officials don’t have full grasp on the scope of the problem, and may not know for months, because of a lag in how drug overdose data is tracked and classified.

The NYPD, on the other hand, reports that while overdoses have fallen overall in the first half of 2020, overdose deaths appear to have significantly increased during that period, according to preliminary reports.

Reports from across the country indicate that overdose deaths have likely increased as a result of COVID-19. In a brief report, updated June 18, the American Medical Association’s Advocacy Resource Center noted, “More than 30 states have reported increases in opioid-related mortality as well as ongoing concerns for those with a mental illness or substance use disorder in counties and other areas within the state.” Among the examples the report cited were reports from New York.

But city and state officials say it’s too soon to tell if there has been a spike in overdose deaths or hospitalizations. “Fatalities may still be pending classification and more data is needed for a reliable comparison to previous years,” said Michael Lanza, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, in an email earlier this month. According to Lanza, since March, just before the coronavirus outbreak in New York, there has not been a larger increase in overdose-related hospital intensive care unit (ICU) visits than what was expected based on historical data. At the state level, a Department of Health spokesperson said the most recent confirmed data is from 2019, even as the calendar shows 2020 nearly halfway over.

Asked about overdose data from this year so far, Edison Albany, a spokesperson for the state Office of Addiction Services and Supports, said in an email, “Official data regarding relapses and/or overdoses for this period is not available at this time. OASAS recognizes the potential consequences of isolation during the pandemic, and how it relates to the possibility of increased alcohol and substance use. To combat this and other risk factors, all OASAS providers remain open during the pandemic, and we are committed to ensuring that all of our services remain available.”

A New York City health department spokesperson said it’s hard to definitively say whether overdose deaths have gone up since classifying them takes time because of the need for additional investigations and to conduct toxicology reports. The department monitors several metrics, including ICU visits, for this data.

The lag in data production is evident from past reports. It was only in August 2019 that the city health department released a full picture of overdoses in 2018 and the first three months of 2019. The report found that drug overdose deaths fell for the first time eight years, to 1,444 from 1,482 in 2017. In the first three months of 2019, there were 45 fewer overdose deaths than in the same period in 2018.

The NYPD’s overdose squads, created in 2016, investigate all overdose deaths in the city and also respond to hospitals to interview people who have survived overdoses. The department also holds quarterly RxStat meetings, which involve about 35 different law enforcement and public health agencies, to discuss data on overdoses.

According to an NYPD spokesperson, preliminary data shows that overdoses overall are slightly lower, even during the months of the pandemic peak, but overdose deaths have increased over last year. The numbers will likely change after further investigation but there does seem to be an indication of a spike.

The Queens and Staten Island District Attorney offices have also noticed local spikes in overdoses. Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz’s office, in a June 1 press release, pointed to 86 suspected overdoses in the first five months of 2020, a 56% increase compared to the same time in 2019, it said. The data is sourced from the NYPD and the city Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

“We are living through an extraordinary time. We are fighting battles no one would have expected, but still we push forward with hope and unrelenting resolve to succeed,” Katz said in a statement at the time. “Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has made the opioid epidemic even worse for those fighting for their sobriety.”

Ryan Lavis, a spokesperson for Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon, said that through June 18 there has been an apparent year-over-year increase in overdoses in the borough, from 35 to 47, based on data collected by the office’s Overdose Response Initiative which collaborates with the NYPD. Lavis emphasized that data for 2019 and 2020 is “preliminary, incomplete, and subject to change as additional information is collected, including completed toxicology reports from the Medical Examiner, which have been delayed due to the effects of COVID-19.”

The confusion in the data is part of a persistent problem, said Jasmine Budnella, drug police coordinator at Vocal-NY, an advocacy group. Budnella said that activists like herself have seen anecdotal evidence that suggests an increase in overdoses across the state. “What that looks like in actual numbers, I don't think we'll know for a long time,” she said.

The pandemic, she said, has illustrated the need to track overdoses in real-time, just as the city is tracking covid infection rates on a daily basis. “I think if we can get covid numbers out that fast, then we should be able to get overdose numbers out that fast,” she said.

Budnella noted that the pandemic has posed particular challenges for those struggling with addiction. The state and city lacked a clear plan for dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, let alone specifically for those with a substance use problem. “Covid kind of goes against everything that we tell people, like don't use alone…don't isolate,” she said. If the city had a better system to track overdoses, they could have “responded in real time to a public health crisis on top of a public health crisis,” she said.

The city did eventually respond in May, just over two months after the lockdown, rolling out a program to deliver methadone to people sick with COVID-19 or a similar illness and those at high risk of contracting the virus. The program was first piloted at certain city-run isolation hotels. Additional measures were also taken to expand eligibility for the home delivery program, which was possible after the federal government eased certain regulations for the medication.

A separate issue that Budnella raised concerns about, particularly at a time when protests to defund the police have taken place across the country, is the NYPD’s involvement in overdose investigations. Treating overdoses as a police issue, she said, could discourage people from calling 911. Budnella’s group, Vocal-NY, is among those leading the advocacy for establishing safe injection sites for people suffering from addiction. Though Mayor de Blasio has outlined a plan to create four such “Overdose Prevention Centers,” with a strong police presence around them, the city has yet to receive permission from the state to follow through.

City Council Member Mark Levine, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Council’s health committee, noted that the city has seen a staggering 5,000 more deaths above normal that haven’t been attributed directly to COVID-19 but have been caused by the conditions created by the pandemic.

“We were losing a New Yorker approximately every six hours prior to the pandemic,” he said of the overdose crisis, while noting that since then, people have lost access to primary care and addiction treatment services. “We have every reason to fear that the number of overdose deaths has only increased over the last three months.”

Levine said he is considering holding an oversight hearing to press the administration on its response to the overdose crisis, though the Council and his committee have a full docket because of the outbreak and its many impacts. Levine said he has also submitted a request to draft legislation that would require monthly reporting by the health department on the number of overdose deaths in the city.

As the Council negotiates the budget for the next fiscal year with the de Blasio administration, Levine said the city will need to invest more funds in services for people struggling with addiction. “We have to respond now by ramping up our efforts,” he said.

For those who need help, the state’s “HOPEline” is at 1-877-8-HOPENY or text 467369.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Have Drug Overdoses Spiked During the Coronavirus Crisis? It Depends Who You Ask Wed, 24 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Staving Off an Eviction Nightmare by Expanding New Yorkers' Right to Counsel eviction nightmare expanding

An eviction nightmare looms as housing court reopens (Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

A new threat is looming for the very Black and brown communities in New York City that have been hit the hardest by the dual pandemics of coronavirus and racism in policy: a massive wave of evictions. 

That’s because phase 1 of New York “reopening” didn’t just apply to construction and curbside retail. It also applied to housing courts. This could have disastrous consequences for tenants. Housing court personnel have already started reporting back to their workplaces. This Monday the courts are scheduled to begin hearing eviction proceedings again. We join tenants rights activists in urgently calling for this date to be pushed back. 

We also need to act now to prevent an avalanche of evictions no matter when housing court cases resume. We can do that by smartly leveraging the landmark law that established right to counsel in New York City.

Eviction cases that were suspended before the pandemic will be resumed, and there likely will be an onslaught of new cases -- the gubernatorial order pushing back evictions to August 20 does little to stop landlords from filing for new evictions.

The reopening of housing courts will also create a massive public health problem. New York City’s housing courts on a normal day are incredibly overcrowded, with tenants, lawyers, and staff crammed into hallways, waiting areas, and small courtrooms. Pre-covid, there were 2,000 people in the Bronx housing court alone, every day. Anything like a normal docket of cases will make it impossible to keep safe social distancing -- and we know that coronavirus spreads most easily in crowded, indoor settings.

There is a simple way to prevent both the massive wave of evictions and unsafe conditions in housing courts: only allow eviction cases to proceed if tenants have access to a lawyer.

In 2017 New York City enacted a landmark, first-in-the-nation law establishing right to counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction. The law is being phased in zip code-by-zip code over five years, but has already dramatically increased the portion of tenants citywide with representation, from less than 5% to now approximately 30%. It’s proven to be spectacularly successful: 84% of tenants receiving legal representation have been able to remain in their homes. No surprise that cities around the nation are enacting policies based on New York City’s example.

Now we need to head off the looming eviction crisis by immediately taking right to counsel citywide -- to every zip code. We are drafting legislation now to put this into effect immediately.

Recognizing that we are in a financial crisis, this could be done in a revenue neutral way, by simply altering existing contracts with legal providers to spread their attorneys out over all zip codes. 

New York City’s housing courts have routinely adjourned cases so tenants can secure representation. In fact, after right to counsel was implemented, a Bronx judge even cancelled a judgment against a tenant because they weren’t provided a lawyer.  

So if tenants in all zip codes have a right to counsel, this will slow the daily volume of cases that can move forward in accordance with the number of right to counsel attorneys available -- in practice significantly slowing the pace of evictions.

The substantial reduction in the number of people in courts will also be a win for public health, since it will make room to implement social distancing policies that otherwise would be impossible.

Over the longer-term we need to expand the scope of New York City’s right to counsel law, including through legislation we have sponsored that would raise the income cutoff. This will be critical to achieving a fair recovery for our city in the years ahead.

But right now we need to take action fast to head off a crisis that would inflict additional pain on the low-income New Yorkers who have already suffered so much during the pandemic.

Right to counsel for tenants has already proven to bring more justice to housing court. Now it can be a powerful tool to ensure health, safety, and stability at this time of unprecedented crisis. 

City Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa L. Gibson represent parts of Manhattan and the Bronx, respectively, and co-sponsored the city’s landmark right to counsel law. On Twitter @MarkeLevineNYC and @Vanessalgibson.

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Staving Off an Eviction Nightmare by Expanding New Yorkers' Right to Counsel Sun, 21 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Could a Public Works Program Save New York City's Economy? maybdb arrival

Could the reinvigoration of the New York economy come from public works? (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Somewhere around a million New Yorkers are out of jobs and billions in tax revenue has evaporated as New York City bears the brunt of possibly the worst disaster in its history. The coronavirus has been devastating the city’s people, their way of life, and their livelihoods. As elected officials and experts look to the future, when the pandemic eventually subsides, they must plot a path out of the crises that will remain.

New Yorkers will need jobs, and once the city is running again in some form, it will need its infrastructure to bear pace. As a growing number of experts and elected officials has suggested, large-scale public works and jobs projects could be the solution, marrying twin needs by putting people back to work while rebuilding and reimagining the post-pandemic urban landscape.

Public works are a tried and true method to inject adrenaline into the economy after a period of significant disruption. In the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1933 created the Public Works Administration, or PWA, which pumped $4 billion over nearly 6 years – the equivalent of about $79 billion today when adjusted for inflation – into the construction of public buildings, dams, sewage plants, hospitals, roads, highways, and more. In 1935, it was followed by the Works Progress Administration, which provided employment to more than 8.5 million people over eight years to work on infrastructure construction projects while also funding arts and culture and more. The WPA received nearly $5 billion to accomplish its goal, nearly $99 billion in today’s dollars.

New York City, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, has taken stabs at large infrastructure projects and creating jobs, with a four-year, $67.2 billion capital program and the “New York Works” jobs and workforce development plan to create through city intervention 100,000 “good-paying jobs” (at least $50,000 annually, according to the mayor) by 2027. But those efforts have in some ways lacked ambition and have now been hobbled by the budget crunch currently facing the city because of the coronavirus. The city has postponed many planned infrastructure investments, and was already struggling to get momentum behind the jobs program.

Federal intervention -- desperately being sought to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars by de Blasio and other elected officials in New York and across the country -- could help not only in keeping infrastructure plans on track but could also fund broad educational training programs, including some with social services components.

“New York has significant infrastructure needs, so a public works program could be a real boon to the city, not only to get New Yorkers back to work but to take care of some of our enormous challenges like climate change,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, an urban policy think tank.

Those needs are indeed dire, and were well before the city’s economy came to a grinding halt. New York City sorely lacks affordable housing, an issue de Blasio has sought to tackle with a much-criticized 300,000-unit, 12-year plan. The building stock of the New York City Housing Authority, the public housing agency home to more than 400,000 New Yorkers, has been crumbling from disinvestment over decades and needs roughly $40 billion, with its maintenance and repair costs projected to rise to about $68 billion over the next eight years. The state authority that runs the city’s subways and buses was finally on a more focused path to address much-needed upgrades and repairs, but that $50-plus billion vision has been derailed after the pandemic plunged the MTA into fiscal chaos.

Many neighborhoods in the city desperately need more school seats, park space can be at a premium, and as Bowles’ organization showed in a 2014 report, “Caution Ahead,” many of the city’s public buildings, roads, bridges, water and sewer mains, and subway signals were more than 50 years old. The report said the city would require $47.3 billion over five years to bring infrastructure to a good state of repair. Last year, CUF published an update to the report that noted progress made on water and sewer infrastructure and road surfaces by the de Blasio administration, but also found that other areas had worsened, with state-of-good repair funding gaps increasing for the Department of Education, Department of Parks and Recreation, and the New York City Housing Authority, among other agencies.

Though the question of funding underpins everything, several local elected officials have been raising the idea of a massive program to build infrastructure and create jobs to ameliorate the city’s unemployment crisis, while injecting money into the local economy and building, repairing, and improving city infrastructure.

City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat running for city comptroller in 2021, is calling for a program modelled on the WPA. Council Member Mark Levine, a Manhattan Democrat whose leadership of the Council’s health committee has propelled him toward the front of the current crisis, has called for a $1 billion investment in the creation of a 15,000-strong “public health corps” to directly fight the coronavirus and provide a raft of related services to its victims.

“My goal is to spur big thinking on this and help the public see the opportunity here by going big to make it safe to reopen,” Levine, who is running for borough president, told the New York Daily News.

“We are going to need to make the most intelligent [budget] cuts possible and look at the macroeconomic solutions, which involve more government spending,” Rosenthal said in a recent interview on the Max & Murphy podcast from Gotham Gazette and City Limits. “We have to build back in such a way to begin to address the economic disparities that have already existed.”

At the federal level, Congressional Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Bronx and Queens has been a prominent voice for a Green New Deal, a major green infrastructure program that she championed well before the coronavirus made the idea all the more appealling to those looking to the federal government to boost the economy. Almost all of the city’s congressional delegation has signed on as co-sponsors. 

De Blasio has already announced several task forces and economic sector advisory councils to lead the city’s comeback from the coronavirus, including a “fair recovery” task force and one focused on racial inclusion and equity. Their suggestions are due to the mayor in a few weeks. Governor Andrew Cuomo has also convened his own reopening committees.

There are several underlying prerequisites to a massive public works program that experts say would be necessary for it to launch and succeed. Chiefly, they say any such program cannot begin without the federal government infusing billions of dollars into local projects. A successful strategy should also include job training and apprenticeship programs so that workers, particularly low-income workers who lack a college education, aren’t left in the cold once the infrastructure projects are completed, experts agreed.

Then there’s the question of which projects should be prioritized. Should the city build more mass transit infrastructure that can reduce people’s reliance on cars? Can New York City build new affordable housing while also bringing its public housing stock to a state of good repair? Resiliency projects to help withstand the ravages of climate change? Schools? Parks? Water infrastructure? Road and bridges? Community centers and libraries? And will public funding spur or in some cases even depend on private investment?

Will the federal government come through?
New York State and City both have massive capital infrastructure programs already underway. But the coronavirus has prompted recalculations. Mayor de Blasio’s latest budget proposal, created amid severe budget shortfalls, delays funding for several infrastructure projects, including his affordable housing program. The move will bring down immediate debt costs but could strain the city’s already overburdened and crumbling infrastructure, among other negative consequences. Without federal funding, the city will struggle to keep even current projects going, let alone launch new ones.

“It's in the interest of the federal government to see people back at work, but also to fortify the infrastructure, bridges, roads, school buildings and public housing,” said Bowles. “That's the job of the federal government. So it is their responsibility.”

Chris Jones, senior vice president and chief planner at the Regional Plan Association, noted in an interview that the New Deal programs were worth about 7% of the country’s GDP at the time, which would equal at least $1.5 trillion now. “They should be talking about something of that order of magnitude,” he said.

He pointed out that state and local governments are still in “survival mode” and that all efforts are focused on getting through the crisis as best as possible. “There’s certainly a lot the city and state can do but without a substantial amount of federal funding, it’s still going to be in the mode of trying to maintain a state of good repair, modernize where they can, and using every tool that’s available to do that,” he added.

But the wheels of government turn slowly and President Donald Trump has spent the last three years repeatedly expressing support for a major infrastructure plan, but never delivering one. In light of the pandemic, Democrats in Congress have been pushing for some infrastructure in the next round of federal stimulus funds, which has led to a degree of optimism that it could finally be achieved. But not everyone is convinced.

“Like in so many areas, Donald Trump has given lip service to ideas like infrastructure and never really shown the willingness to invest or to push the Republican Party to invest,” said Shaun Donovan, former Secretary for Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama, who worked on recovery efforts after the Great Recession prompted by the housing and banking crisis. “Unfortunately, I’m concerned that we may need to wait for Joe Biden to become president in order to get a significant investment in infrastructure,” said Donovan, who is considering a run for New York City mayor. 

“I don't trust Trump, or the Republican Party to craft a proper infrastructure plan,” said Vishaan Chakrabarti, an architect, former city planner, and associate professor of professional practice at Columbia GSAPP. 

The current crisis, however, may force the federal government’s hand. Trump has vacillated on statewide closures as he sees the economy hemorrhaging, and wants people back in the workforce as soon as possible. Infrastructure investment is also an issue of bipartisan consensus.

“The federal government will show up,” said Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild By Design, an organization in New York formed to propose solutions to recovery from Hurricane Sandy, “because they need to ensure that our entire economy is rolling again and a big piece of that is usually on the capital spending and construction side, because it employs a lot of people.”

Which projects should be prioritized?
Those who spoke with Gotham Gazette had largely similar ideas for where an infrastructure program should be focused, but one thing they all agreed on was that any and all projects should prepare for the impacts of climate change.

As Chester pointed out, there are steps the city and state could take in the coming months. The fall election ballot will give voters across the state the chance to approve a $3 billion ecological restoration and flood mitigation bond act championed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. And the city’s capital program is still in motion, and should actually increase spending, Chester said, particularly with interest rates remaining low.

Carlo Scissura, president of the New York Building Congress, said the federal funding could quickly jumpstart “shovel-ready projects” like the expansion of the Second Avenue Subway, the redesign of Penn Station, the renovation of LaGuardia, JFK, and Newark Airports, to name a few. “You have to really prioritize what is ready, what can happen in the next six months to a year, and those projects should be the ones that really continue to boom and move forward,” he said.

Others expressed a longer and more holistic view. 

“For me, an investment in infrastructure has to meet multiple tests,” said Donovan, who also worked on the federal response to Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, and the Ebola and Zika virus outbreaks. “While all of these disasters are different, they all share similarities in the sense that those who are most vulnerable before the crisis are hit hardest by the crisis. “We have to make sure that we're starting with infrastructure investments that are going to benefit the most disadvantaged, benefit people of color in New York City, and that has to be central to the way we're looking at the challenge because in many ways, the true measure of recovery will be how the most vulnerable are recovering.”

Donovan said the city needs to develop a “culture of resilience” so that every project, no matter how small, is planned with climate change in mind. And he spoke both of environmental and social resilience, noting that building infrastructure that promotes stronger social ties – parks, libraries, and the like – also helps bind communities during times of crisis like the present. Those communities can then respond faster and more cooperatively when the time calls for it.

“I don't think we should be prioritizing one over the other,” said Chakrabarti. “I look at these things like, ‘Where are places where we can simultaneously deliver great mass transit, housing that people can afford, schools that are great, and easily accessible health care.”

Chakrabarti noted that the 2009 federal stimulus after the Great Recession intended on a large infrastructure program but largely failed to realize long-term investments, instead choosing to favor shovel-ready projects. For instance, the push for a high-speed rail system was left by the wayside.

“High-speed rail didn't work out because it wasn't shovel ready,” he said, noting that the environmental review process and the strong lobby behind it meant that large projects like that could not be streamlined. “As a consequence, all of the stimulus money back in 2009-10 ended up being spent on things like filling potholes. We didn't get any lasting infrastructure out of it because of this shovel-ready problem triggered by this environmental review problem.”

An example of the kind of holistic projects that Chakrabarti envisions is the master plan for Sunnyside Yard, which he helped create for the city (his contract has ended). “That's a classic example where you're not prioritizing real infrastructure or housing. You're looking at it holistically, to do a bunch of things at once,” he said of the initial plan that would deck over a massive Queens railyard to build 12,000 permanently affordable homes, 60 acres of open space, a regional rail hub, new schools, libraries and other types of social infrastructure..

The priorities, according to Bowles, should be retrofitting city buildings to make them energy efficient and building more green infrastructure, fixing the “embarassing state” of New York City public housing developments, and building digital infrastructure for city schools.

New York State has already moved along this front. Last year, the Legislature and governor enacted the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which some called a version of a Green New Deal for New York. It mandates strict new limits to curb greenhouse gas emissions and requires a broad expansion of renewable energy sources to replace the state’s energy consumption, with the expectation that thousands of jobs will be created along the way.

What role will the private sector play?
Perhaps the one area where there seemed to be disagreement among the experts Gotham Gazette talked with was the degree of involvement for the private sector in the success of a public works program. 

Where government investment goes, private investment naturally follows. “Any dollar that the city spends is going to have a multiplier effect,” said Chester. “We just need our public investment to step up and do it in ways that are going to ensure that our communities are going to be enhanced for the future.”

Scissura said public projects should work in conjunction with private investment. “Even with the federal government, we should be doing public-private partnerships,” he said. “I don’t think it’s one or the other. You get federal investment. You do public-private partnerships. You get bonds. You do everything all at once.”

Chakrabarti scoffed at the idea. “The severity of the COVID crisis, especially in New York City, is 40 years of neoliberalism coming home to roost. It's 40 years of underinvestment or no investment in public goods,” he said. “For instance, why did it take so long to close our schools? Because our schools also act as homeless shelters.”

Public-private partnerships, he said, have failed to maintain the city’s infrastructure or meet the pressing needs of its population. “It’s not clear to me that the private sector actually delivers these things more efficiently.”

Will there be a pipeline for jobs and training?
Bowles argued that any infrastructure program should be supplemented with apprenticeships and job training, to create new skilled workers who can continue to be employed after projects are completed. But that’s something that New York City has struggled to do even in good times.

The city’s workforce development plan, produced in 2014, de Blasio’s first year as mayor, has mostly been shelved. It was meant to invest $60 million annually by 2020 to connect low-skill workers with entry-level jobs and workforce training, and $100 million annually by 2020 to help middle-skill workers. By November 2017, only $6.4 million had gone to the first program while the second had received only about half the announced funding.

De Blasio’s jobs plan, New York Works, was announced in 2017 and meant to create 100,000 “good-paying jobs” in ten years. By June 2019, it had only directly produced 3,725 new private sector jobs, raising questions about whether the city’s investment of hundreds of millions of dollars was an efficient use of its funds, though officials said they expected it to move slowly initially given its focus on developing useful space for jobs to flourish, like renovations at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the creation of a life sciences center.

The New York City Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit quasi-agency that leads the city’s main job creation programs, is focused, as is all of city government, on the response to the coronavirus. “Once we move past the worst of this public health crisis, job creation will be key to making up what we lost,” said Chris Singleton, an EDC spokesperson, in a statement. “Whether these jobs are in the public or private sector, we'll do everything we can to get New York back to work - and building a fairer and better city for every New Yorker.”

Experts who are already preparing for that fairer and better city agree that it can only be achieved if the economic recovery is focused in part on bolstering the workforce through training and investment in the city’s public university system, CUNY, by maintaining the city’s quality of life to prevent urban flight, by focusing on low-income communities of color that are hardest hit by the virus, and promoting small businesses, particularly those owned by women and people of color.

Council Member Rosenthal is optimistic that the federal government will provide the necessary infusion of funds that the city needs to leverage to bolster its economy. “I think we have to assume that the federal government is going to come through with aid to New York City and so we shouldn’t be holding back on spending money today...,” she said in the recent interview on the Max & Murphy podcast. “First, I’d ask the Economic Development Corporation to target the best industries, public-private partnerships, to invest in job training programs. Similarly, perhaps through the EDC public-private partnerships, to create a local WPA-style program to get people to work today and rebuild our infrastructure. We’ve got crumbling NYCHA buildings. We have to prepare our communities for the physical impact of climate change.”

Bowles said any program should include apprenticeships, training, and “ladders for people that get a chance to work on these projects to build skills for careers.”

Gary LaBarbera, the head of the Building & Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, said that “New York needs an economic stimulus – now more than ever – and large-scale public works projects are always a reliable economic driver for middle-class workers and for New York’s economy.” He said “large-scale infrastructure projects create thousands of good jobs and economic benefits” and that they will “no a major component” of New York’s recovery from the coronavirus crisis.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Could a Public Works Program Save New York City's Economy? Thu, 07 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: The City's Developing Public Health Response to Coronavirus mark levine district

Council Member Levine gets a flu shot (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)

March 25, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The City's Developing Public Health Response to Coronavirus

mark levinewbai150City Council Member Mark Levine, chair of the Council's health committee, joined the show to discuss the city's developing response to the coronavirus outbreak.

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

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Max & Murphy Podcast: The City's Developing Public Health Response to Coronavirus Wed, 25 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Coronavirus in New York - Assessing the Threat & Response wbai city express

Health officials must manage the coronavirus in New York (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)

March 4, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Coronavirus in New York - Threat, Preparation, & Response

levin gershonDr. Robyn Gershon of NYU School of Global Public Health and City Council Member Mark Levine, chair of the Council's health committee, joined the show to discuss the new coronavirus (COVID-19) and how New York is responding to the virus, including questions around whether schools should be closed and much 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: Coronavirus in New York - Assessing the Threat & Response Wed, 04 Mar 2020 05:00:00 +0000
City Officials Debate What To Do About Taxi Medallion Debt Crisis taxi medallion drivers rally city hall

Council Members Levine & Rivera & drivers rally at City Hall (photo: Jeff Reed)

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson asked what sounded like a simple question: should the Taxi & Limousine Commission apologize for its role in the taxi medallion debt crisis, in which thousands of taxi owner-drivers have been trapped in predatory loans unchecked by city and state watchdogs?

Jeffrey Roth, nominated by Mayor Bill de Blasio to lead the TLC, failed to give a direct “yes” or “no.” Johnson asked again, to which Roth said, “whether or not the TLC leadership there should apologize, I don’t know.” Visibly frustrated, Johnson moved on to a new question.

The exchange took place at a July 18 hearing to discuss Roth’s nomination for TLC Commissioner – a nomination that has since been temporarily withdrawn in part due to Roth’s performance at the hearing.

Roth’s evasiveness on the apology questions and others, and Johnson’s resulting exasperation highlighted a growing debate over the culpability of city government in facilitating the medallion crisis. As a New York Times two-part investigation published in May revealed, the TLC ignored warning signs of a highly inflated medallion market (the city sells taxi medallions and sets baseline prices for auction) and risky lending practices, leaving many medallion owner stranded in colossal debt when the market collapsed. A wave of suicides among driver-owners, along with the Times' series, has elevated the discussion to emergency status.

But, as policymakers, drivers, and others have been asking, should the city itself be responsible for forgiving the debt? What is the best path for helping driver-owners get out from under their loans?

For the Taxi Workers Alliance, the most prominent organization representing for-hire vehicle drivers, the answer is a resounding yes: New York City government should prepare a bailout. But Mayor de Blasio has repeatedly said a bailout would be both out of the city's purview and too costly to the city's budget. On the other hand, several City Council Members, including Speaker Johnson, have expressed some initial support for the idea of a partial bailout of driver-owners.

Bhairavi Desai, the head of the union since its inception in 1998, has called for a city-run program to determine the current market value of medallions, then buying out and forgiving loans down to that value. At the height of the market in 2014, medallions were going for more than $1 million, compared to a $200,000 price tag a decade earlier.

The TWA has calculated that, based on a current medallion market value of $150,000 and an average owner-driver debt of $600,000, the program would cost between $1.6 and $2.4 billion – an increase from the $1 billion the TWA estimates that the city made from inflated prices at medallion auctions.

City Council Member Mark Levine, who represents Upper Manhattan and has long been one of the TWA’s strongest allies in government, claimed at a July 11 rally outside City Hall that a clear precedent for a city-run bailout exists.

“During the housing mortgage bubble, an entity here called the Center for New York City Neighborhoods did exactly that for New Yorkers with underwater housing mortgages,” he said alongside Desai and dozens of assembled owner-drivers. “The fact is, there is a myriad of precedents for this here in New York City, and it’s simply inexcusable to say this isn’t possible when we have done projects like this in the past.”

Levine is not alone in his support for the TWA’s proposal. Council Member Carlina Rivera of Lower Manhattan appeared at the same rally to call for loan forgiveness; City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Council Member Ritchie Torres, among others, have also expressed some measure of support for city-financed debt relief. Because bailout legislation has yet to be introduced to the City Council, it is difficult to gauge how broad the proposal’s support is.

Desai and the TWA have also called for a cap on medallion mortgage payments at $900 per month (compared to an average of $3,000 a month currently) and the creation of a retirement fund for drivers, among other things. But with chants of “Loan forgiveness now!” and pre-printed signs calling for “Debt Forgiveness NOW!” at the July 11 rally, owner-drivers have made their first priority clear.

On the other hand, de Blasio, as well as officials in the TLC, have expressed skepticism about, even dismissal of such an idea. Their preferred plan of action is for the city to instead pressure the private banking lenders to downsize loans, without the city itself directly buying or bailing out anything.

De Blasio, in a June interview on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, said that he would “absolutely pressure banks and lenders to be fair to these drivers, we’ll do that.” But he rejected the possibility of a city bailout, saying the city “doesn’t directly fund the drivers…There’s some things the City of New York simply has limits on.” He has indicated on multiple occasions that the city simply doesn’t have the billions of dollars that would be needed for a bailout, that it would be too costly of a one-time expense.

Meera Joshi, formerly the commissioner of the TLC, listed in an email to Gotham Gazette several proposals to address the crisis, all of which involve the city leaning on banks to modify loans so that they match drivers’ income. “State and city officials should publicly name those that refuse to work with borrowers,” she suggested, “much like the 100 worst landlords list. Publicity about their inflexibility will go a long way in making a change, and will achieve change quickly.”

Two other possibilities Joshi mentioned involve conditioning medallion ownership on viable financing, thus causing “banks that do not modify loans within a prescribed period [to] lose the medallion as an asset,” and “chang[ing] state tax law to ensure that forgiven loans are not considered taxable income for individuals below a certain income level.”

When asked directly about the possibility of direct loan forgiveness by the city, Joshi stated that she supports “all real assistance, but prioritizes what can realistically happen, affects the largest group, and most of all happens quickly, which is pressuring banks to restructure loans.”

Current Acting TLC Commissioner Bill Heinzen, during a June 24 City Council oversight hearing on the crisis, expanded on this assessment, saying that “the people who have the power and money here are the banks and the credit unions that hold those loans, and they should be the ones who should be forced to write down those loans to something that is human and possible to pay.”

And Roth, responding to pointed questioning from Johnson, said that he thinks “there are measures short of financial bailout...that might be sufficient and not excessive.”

Writing in a City & State op-ed column the day after the July 11 rally, Nicole Gelinas argued that the roughly $2 billion required for a bailout of many owner-drivers would make a significant, arguably unfair dent in the city’s budget. “The city must follow only public need,” she wrote, “not the extraordinary circumstances of one industry.” Others, including Roth, have pointed out that a city-financed bailout might inadvertently reward lenders for their predatory behavior.

While she echoed some of the other ideas that have been offered for alleviating the crisis, another of Gelinas’ proposed fixes involves city- and state-level regulation, without either funding a bailout. “The city,” she wrote, “should make it much clearer whether it is giving up on the medallion system or not, guiding both lenders and borrowers on underlying value, and allowing lenders to keep an interest in the future, possibly higher value of a medallion in exchange for debt relief.”

For their part, the TWA and its Council allies have also called on the city to lean on lenders to forgive debt and ease burdens on owner-drivers. Levine noted that, if the city can successfully push lenders to downsize loans, then the pricetag the city pays for a bailout decreases and becomes more politically feasible.

But some who support a city forgiveness program worry that the focus on outside forces like credit unions makes concrete solutions harder. Council Member Brad Lander, at the June 24 oversight hearing, said he worries “that if we only focus on accountability, we will fail to come up with a real approach to relief...We must find a way to do both.”

A spokesperson for the City Council said in a brief Thursday statement to Gotham Gazette that “Speaker Johnson and the council are committed to helping drivers, and the newly appointed task force is exploring a variety of ways to help including various forms of a bailout.”

Appearing on Thursday evening’s Inside City Hall on NY1, Johnson was asked by host Errol Louis about what he thinks should be done for the medallion owners. “I think the mayor is right in one aspect,” Johnson said after disagreeing with the mayor’s claim that if a cap on new for-hire vehicle licenses had been instituted in 2015 much would have been different, while also reiterating his regret for not supporting the cap back then, “which is $17 billion for a full bailout is not realistic, and it would be inappropriate and disingenuous for me to say that’s what we can do. But there has been a proposal -- Council Members Levin and Levine and Lander have been talking about doing a partial bailout for some of the medallion owners who are under water, maybe at $100,000 or $200,000, to get them out of debt in a way where they’re not as under water. It’s something we need to look at.”

Underlying the debate over debt forgiveness is a deeper question over who, exactly, bears the blame for the crisis to begin with. Mayor de Blasio has called the crisis a “private market reality,” and the TLC released an investigation it conducted laying the responsibility on lenders and the National Credit Union Association while insisting that “TLC and the City have no regulatory oversight or control over lending practices.”

Additionally, Roth, Heinzen, and Joshi – the prospective, current, and former TLC commissioners, respectively – all pointed to the specific ways in which the TLC worked to mitigate the crisis, including loosening restrictions and reducing taxes on drivers. The cap on vehicle hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft has also been highlighted as a measure that the city took to help owner-drivers (de Blasio has repeatedly said he wishes the City Council had gone along with his 2015 push for a FHV cap, rather than stalling for several more years until its passage in 2018). 

For many, however, these measures were too little and too late. Though the city was not directly responsible for reckless lending practices that may have helped thrust owner-drivers into severe debt, Levine and others claim it still has a “moral debt” to pay for its lack of oversight. Levine charged that “the city itself was asleep as thousands of drivers entered into a world of financial hell.” 

Council Member Torres, who co-chaired the oversight hearing with Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, said that the TLC “is inclined to scapegoat everyone except itself.”

The TLC, as many debt-relief proponents have pointed out, was not just a regulator asleep at the wheel. Faced with a $3.8 billion budget deficit early in his administration, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his TLC commissioner, Matthew Daus, advertised the medallion market as a stable, “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity in order to increase city revenue. In 2011, Andrew Murstein, the former president of a prominent medallion lender, called the city his “partner,” because “they want to see prices go as high as possible.”

Debt relief, either from the city or from lenders, is not the only measure being discussed to address the medallion crisis. At the June 24 oversight hearing, four bills were proposed that would increase accountability at the TLC, with the goal of preventing future crises.

Additionally, Council Member Rodriguez, who chairs the Transportation Committee, has proposed a bill that would exempt taxi drivers from congestion pricing. The TWA held a rally on July 18 demanding that the cap on for-hire vehicles be extended, which would continue to restrain competition to the taxi industry. And, as Roth mentioned in the July 18 committee hearing, the TLC plans to set up a driver assistance unit to provide drivers with financial and mental health services.

But, as these legislative proposals’ backers have attested to, such fixes are not enough to help those already in massive debt. Regardless of who bears the blame for the crisis and who needs to pay for it, thousands of drivers remain in dire straits. “This may have taken years in the making; it cannot take years more in the fixing,” said Desai at the July 11 rally.

“Otherwise," she said, "thousands of families are going to simply break.”

by Joey Fox, Gotham Gazette

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City Officials Debate What To Do About Taxi Medallion Debt Crisis Thu, 25 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Paying New York City’s Debt to Taxi Drivers car service taxi

(photo: @NYTWA)

When financial bubbles burst, it’s almost always regular people whose lives are ruined. The fraudsters and scammers often avoid serious consequences. So it was with America’s mortgage crisis in 2008. And so it has been with New York City’s own home-grown mortgage meltdown: the collapse of yellow taxi medallion values since 2014, which has had a devastating impact on the lives of thousands of yellow taxi drivers.

New York City only allows a fixed number of the iconic yellow taxis on its streets--creating over the decades a consistent, recession-proof source of income for drivers. The medallion that taxis are required to affix to their hoods was an asset that commanded a steady, solid price. For countless immigrants, owning a medallion meant that the grueling work of a taxi driver could offer a path to the middle class.

Then in the early 2000s medallion prices began rising from their historically stable value of about $200,000, to a dizzying peak of over $1 million by 2014.

The medallion bubble was pumped up in part by the same forces that caused the housing mortgage crisis. Industry lenders and brokers exploited vulnerable borrowers. And thousands of owner-drivers ended up with monthly mortgage payments of as much as $4,500, an oppressive sum for workers whose earnings from fares and tips, after expenses, may only amount to $5,000 per month.

Then, in 2014, the bottom fell out. The value of medallions plummeted in the past five years, losing 80 percent off their peak. Drivers and their families who invested their life savings to purchase this asset now face financial ruin. For some the pressure has been unbearable. At least three yellow taxi drivers burdened by debt have taken their own lives.

There is no shortage of parties to blame for this debacle: overly aggressive lenders, lax financial regulators, shady loan brokers.

And then there’s New York City government -- which directly contributed to this crisis.

In 2004 the City began auctioning off new medallions to plug budget gaps. This gave the very people overseeing the industry an interest in pumping up valuations. And that’s exactly what they did.

Ads run by the City called the investments “better than the stock market,” implying medallion values would continue to rise. The City agency that regulates the taxi industry failed to act in the midst of glaring signs of financially questionable transactions and price collusion among major players. 

And the City didn’t just pump up the bubble, it also inadvertently expedited its bursting, by failing to manage the explosive growth of Uber and Lyft, which flooded the streets with upwards of 80,000 new vehicles, and used their rich valuations to undercut the regulated taxi fares.

Along the way, the City made hundreds of millions of dollars in sales at medallion auctions, including a round as late as 2014 when it set the minimum medallion bid price at a staggering $850,000, despite the fact that it was already clear by then that these assets were poised to decline.

The City profited handsomely from the medallion bubble. Now we owe a moral debt to the thousands of New Yorkers whose lives have been ruined.

The City needs to consider dramatic plans for securing loan forgiveness for owner-drivers, so that medallion mortgage payments are capped at reasonable levels -- and no driver is ever again forced to live on $500 per month after expenses.

We need to create a retirement fund for drivers as well, so those struggling with medallion payments no longer need to keep driving into their 60s, 70s, and even 80s just to make payments. The hard-working drivers who have kept our city moving for decades deserve to be able to retire with dignity.

And we should do something impactful now that would help bring immediate relief: hire an attorney for each and every one of the driver-owners with underwater mortgages.

At present the vast majority of drivers going through foreclosure proceedings are doing so without representation by an attorney, putting them at a severe disadvantage. Likewise, most have no attorney to support them in the complicated process of mortgage renegotiation. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance has provided legal support to hundreds -- but there are thousands more still in need of help. We need a robust investment by the City to close this gap. Any cost for a legal assistance program will be miniscule relative to the $850 million windfall the City reaped from the sale of medallions during the bubble years.

Lenders will have to be pressured to sit down in good faith with drivers and their representatives. The City should not be afraid to publicly call out any banks, credit unions, and hedge funds that refuse to adjust loan terms. As was the case in the housing mortgage scandal, lenders are not immune to public shaming. Statements from federal and state regulators voicing support for renegotiation of the loans would also be extremely helpful.

One thing is clear: the City helped create the medallion crisis, and we have an obligation to help fix it.

We cannot undo the damage done to thousands of lives -- some of which have already been lost -- by this scandal. But we as a city can at least do everything in our power to ensure that, for once, regular people are not abandoned while the wealthy and powerful skate away unscathed.

City Council Member Mark Levine represents parts of Manhattan and Bhairavi Desai is the President of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. On Twitter @MarkLevineNYC & @NYTWA.

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Paying New York City’s Debt to Taxi Drivers Mon, 01 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
NAACP, Anti-Smoking Groups Press City Council Speaker on Bills Banning Flavored Cigarettes press conf flavored

Council Members Levine, center, & Cabrera, behind him (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

The New York chapter of the NAACP and four of the nation’s largest anti-smoking groups are urging City Council Speaker Corey Johnson to support two bills that would effectively ban the sale of flavored tobacco products in New York City. The groups recently sent a letter urging Speaker Johnson to bring the two proposals up for a vote in the City Council.

The first bill, Intro. 1345, sponsored by Bronx Council Member Fernando Cabrera, would end an exemption in a previous city law that banned the sale of flavored cigarettes to allow for the continued sale of menthol, mint, and wintergreen flavors.

The second bill, Intro. 1362, sponsored by Manhattan Council Member Mark Levine, who chairs the Council’s Health Committee, would ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes.

The American Heart Association, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, American Lung Association, and American Cancer Society joined the NAACP’s New York State Conference in calling for flavored tobacco products to be banned in New York City. They say the tobacco industry uses flavored products to specifically target young people and communities of color.

“We strongly urge you to enact two proposals pending before the Council – both cracking down on flavored tobacco products that lure and addict our children,” reads the letter.

The letter states that 85% of African-American smokers use flavored productions (compared to 29% of white smokers). These organizations believe this is a leading reason why “African Americans suffer the greatest burden of tobacco-related mortality of any racial or ethnic group in the United States.”

Last year, youth e-cigarette use, which increased 80% in 2018, was declared an “epidemic” by the U.S. Surgeon General. The advocacy groups’ letter points to a survey that found that “81.5% of youth e-cigarette users and 73.8 percent of youth cigar users saying they used the product ‘because they come in flavors I like.’”

The letter calls these trends “simply unacceptable” and implores Speaker Johnson to act on the issue. Both bills were first introduced in January and hearings were held in that same month, but there has been no change in the legislation’s status for five months, save additional sponsors signing on.

In May, all five borough presidents signed on to a letter drafted by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams supporting the two bills. Both Adams, who has made public health a signature issue, and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. are considering runs for mayor, as is Johnson, who has also had a focus on health and chaired the Council’s health committee last term.

Johnson has been waging a public battle to quit smoking cigarettes, recently tweeting that he had hit 40 days without one (he told Gothamist he bought a juul, but did not indicate if it is flavored).

“The Council is always working to improve the public health outcomes of all New Yorkers, and we are continuing to review these proposals as they go through the legislative process,” according to a spokesperson for Johnson, who did not indicate where the speaker himself falls on the bills.

Neither bill has a majority of sponsors in the Council.

Eighteen of 51 Council members have sponsored Cabrera’s bill. “Flavored tobacco leads to the preventable deaths of thousands of New Yorkers each year and it is people of color and our children who are most at risk of getting hooked,” Cabrera said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “We must move quickly to significantly restrict menthol cigarettes and flavored cigarettes in our city.”

Fourteen Council members have sponsored Levine’s bill. Twelve of the 14 also sponsor Cabrera’s bill. “To protect kids and our communities, we have to end the sale of flavored tobacco products in New York,” Levine said in a statement, adding that he is “working hard in the City Council to pass legislation to ban these products and ensure they can no longer be used to addict the most vulnerable New Yorkers.”

Some anti-tobacco advocates have posited that the bills haven’t moved because the National Action Network, a civil rights organization led by Rev. Al Sharpton, has come out against Cabrera’s proposal.

During the Council health committee hearing on the bills in January, Kyra Stephenson-Valley, NAN’s cessation coordinator, said “it is proven that increased regulation does not necessarily stop users, but rather criminalizes addicts without resource,” pointing out that there have been “disparate impacts.”

She went further, declaring that “bans and prohibitions can lead to an increase in negative interactions between law enforcement and African-Americans.” She also alluded to Eric Garner’s death, saying “history has shown us here in New York City that can take your life over a loose cigarette.”

In addition to City Council testimony, according to Politico, NAN “has held town halls at prominent black churches throughout the United States to talk about how menthol bans criminalize the black community.” According to a spokesperson for Council Speaker Johnson, Sharpton has mentioned the issue to him in passing, but has not directly lobbied Johnson or the Council.

City Council Member Keith Powers, a Manhattan Democrat who supports Levine’s bill but not Cabrera’s, said in a statement, “I have been an ardent supporter of stricter laws on smoking but want to ensure that no community feels targeted.” He did not respond when asked whether any individual or group personally lobbied him against Intro. 1345.

According to FairWarning, NAN receives funding from R.J. Reynolds, the second-largest tobacco company in America. The company produces Newports, which are the nation’s best-selling menthol cigarette brand. According to FairWarning, R.J. Reynolds’ donations to NAN are part of a broader corporate strategy of “seizing on the hot button issue of police harassment of blacks to counter efforts by public health advocates to restrict menthol sales,” with the help of prominent African-Americna leaders and advocacy groups.

The tobacco industry has a long history of employing similar tactics. According to the CDC, tobacco companies have historically attempted “to maintain a positive image among African Americans have included such efforts as supporting cultural events and making contributions to minority higher education institutions, elected officials, civic and community organizations, and scholarship programs.”

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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NAACP, Anti-Smoking Groups Press City Council Speaker on Bills Banning Flavored Cigarettes Tue, 18 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Proposed Changes to ‘Public Charge’ and Access to City Benefits: What To Know 24128710992 658f50cdcf z

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

New Yorkers know that it is the city government’s job to make sure that they’re taken care of. We fill potholes, pick up the trash, clean the streets, clear the drains, prune the trees - you name it.

But that’s not all we do. And while we faced many challenges as a city and as a nation in 2018, New Yorkers continue to step up and help their neighbors in need.

Through our public health facilities, tens of thousands of dedicated professionals help their fellow New Yorkers put food on the table, help expectant mothers get access to critical health care, help seniors make ends meet, and so much more. We even helped non-English speaking eligible voters participate in our democracy, by expanding our poll-site interpretation program. We work to serve New Yorkers every day because that’s our number one job. It’s why we’re here.

Back in October, the Trump administration announced a proposal concerning “public charge,” a complex aspect of immigration law. If implemented, the proposal would make it easier for immigration officials to prevent an otherwise eligible person from getting a green card or certain kinds of visas. They could make that life-changing decision just because one day, the applicant could find herself or himself down on their luck and in need of important public resources.

Over 200,000 public comments were submitted to the federal register – a truly remarkable display of civic participation and responsiveness from residents of all walks of life. We thank you, and every single New Yorker who took the time to make their voice heard on this issue.

We can all agree that in this country – in this city – of immigrants, no one should have to choose between relying on the help for which they’re legally eligible and pursuing the American Dream.

In the past few months, we’ve heard from folks across the five boroughs, some scared or confused, and even more who want to know how to help their fellow New Yorkers.

So let’s get some facts straight.

First: the public charge proposal is not in effect, and nothing about eligibility for benefits has changed. New York City’s doors remain open to those in need. The Department of Social Services is continuing to accept applications from all New Yorkers for benefits, and is continuing to deliver benefits and services to all who are eligible. The same is true for all of the public hospitals and community clinics operated by NYC Health + Hospitals. If you’re in need of health care, you’ll be able to find it there.

Second: many immigrants would not be impacted by this proposal. If you are a naturalized citizen, a refugee, an asylee, or a green card holder thinking about renewing or becoming a U.S. citizen, this proposal would not apply to you. This is also true for many other categories of immigrants.

That leads us to the next – and very important – point.

Third: If you are concerned about this proposal’s possible impacts on you or your family, don’t make any decisions without getting safe and trusted legal advice first.

You can get help in many languages by calling the Office of New Americans hotline, operated by Catholic Charities, at 1-800-566-7636. You can also call the city’s 311 and say “ActionNYC” to schedule a free consultation with a trusted immigration legal services provider, funded by the City of New York.

If New Yorkers begin to disenroll from health care, nutrition, or housing programs for which they’re eligible, the consequences could be dire. We could face a public health crisis and lose hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity annually.

As public servants, our job is to serve you. And in the fairest big city in America, no one should struggle alone. We’ve got your back.

Bitta Mostofi is the Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs; Steven Banks is the Commissioner of the Department of Social Services, City Council Member Carlos Menchaca is chair of the Immigration Committee, City Council Member Mark Levine is chair of the Health Committee, City Council Member Stephen Levin is chair of the General Welfare Committee.

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Proposed Changes to ‘Public Charge’ and Access to City Benefits: What To Know Wed, 09 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Johnson Makes Series of City Council Changes, But Sidelines Formal Rules Reforms cojo cm team

Speaker Johnson, middle, and Council members (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

In December, several City Council members jostling to become the powerful next speaker of the 51-member legislative body signed on to a broad platform of reforms to the Council’s rules and procedures, which can have a significant impact on city law-making and funding for communities. Both returning and newly-elected Council members, 33 of them in total, backed the proposals, which would make legislative drafting procedures more transparent, bolster staffing for prominent divisions such as land use, and tweak the Council’s internal culture in significant ways, among other more minor adjustments.

But a deadline set in that platform for convening a public hearing on the proposals came and went as new Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who was among the signatories, has chosen instead to implement administrative changes in lieu of more formal reforms through the Council’s Committee on Rules, Elections and Privileges. Several Council members who spoke with Gotham Gazette largely praised those measures but others expressed concern that important promises have been left unfulfilled.

In a process somewhat similar to four years prior when Council members proposed changes ahead of the election of a new speaker, the document signed by the Council members in December of last year laid out broad areas where the Council could improve its functions, including in bill drafting, the role and operations of the 40-plus issue committees, the body’s oversight and investigations capacity, its budget negotiation process, its land use powers, and the quality of working life for members and their staff.

“A hearing should be held in the Rules Committee on these reforms – as well as any others proposed by good government groups or members of the public – in the first quarter of 2018,” states the letter, signed by both Speaker Johnson and Council Member Karen Koslowitz, whom he appointed as chair of the rules committee. “The reforms should then be converted into a Rules Resolution, and adopted by the Council by March 2018, but no later than June 2018.”

By this time in 2014, then-Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito had ushered in transformative rules changes that made the body more democratic, diluting some of the traditional powers of the speaker and empowering individual members. The changes were spearheaded along with Council Member Brad Lander, who she appointed to chair the rules committee and was instrumental in drafting the reforms.

Discretionary funding -- also known as “member items” that are usually awarded by Council members to local nonprofits in their districts -- was equalized across Council districts, with additional resources allocated to poorer districts, and could no longer be a tool to punish members who might oppose the speaker, as Mark-Viverito’s predecessors had used it. A new bill drafting unit was created to aid Council members and speed up the legislative process, and other changes were made to how bills are introduced and heard in committees.

Johnson has taken a different tack, making significant administrative changes that cover large parts of the rules reform package and were key pledges he made as he ran for speaker.

The Council voted to significantly increase its own annual budget to $81.3 million, up from $64 million, with the new funds pegged for staffing increases in the land use, legislative, and finance divisions. A dedicated 15-member oversight and investigations unit was created to conduct systemic analyses of city agencies and their functioning. According to a Council spokesperson, the central staff has also internally overseen improvements in bill drafting, no longer allowing indefinite delays on bill introductions and impressing on members to move their bills or release them for others. Members can now also electronically access the status of their bills in real time and there is a timely process for staff to express legal concerns with bill language. Members are provided legal memos on their bills on request, which is apparently rare. All moves meant to address major areas of frustration for some members, though key pieces of proposed changes to bill-drafting have not been implemented.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the Council also moved rapidly to change its rules to mandate anti-sexual harassment trainings.

“I am proud to have taken important steps on necessary reforms in my first months as speaker, including the creation of the new Oversight and Investigations Unit that will strengthen our capacity for monitoring city agencies as mandated by the charter,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “I will continue to discuss with members what reforms should be made in the future to help better serve the people of New York.”

photobyemilyWhen asked for comment, a spokesperson for Council Member Koslowitz (pictured), chair of the rules committee, initially said the Council member was unfamiliar with the rules reform package that she had signed. When presented with the full list of proposals, the spokesperson declined to comment.

By and large, Council members are appreciative of the steps Johnson has taken. Several members said their bills are moving faster and, without making any comparisons with Mark-Viverito, that Johnson is openly seeking member input on the budget and larger strategy.  

“The rules reform this time around, there were a lot of legitimate questions about whether or not these reforms needed to be put into the Council’s rules or they could just be effected,” said Council Member Rory Lancman, a member of the rules committee. “A lot of them had to do with resource allocation. So I don’t know if once Corey’s done with putting his administrative imprint on the body, how much of the rules reforms still need to get done. Maybe that’ll be something to assess once we get through the city budget.”

At the same time, some members declined to comment, taking a wait-and-see approach before they evaluate Johnson’s commitment to rules reform. Others only agreed to speak anonymously, fearing what they say is increased scrutiny of public comments by the speaker’s office.

Those members pointed out, for instance, that though there have been changes to bill drafting, the process still falls largely to the discretion of the speaker’s central staff. Under a long-standing process, Council members who made “first-in-time” legislative services requests -- Council speak for when a member asks for a bill to be drafted -- were given priority even if other members may have similar bill requests. Having a “first-in-time” request meant that members could sit on bills indefinitely, which the rules reforms would have amended with an official time-bound process.

A Council spokesperson said that practice has ended and that members have offered positive feedback for the changes that have been made. Members are no longer allowed to sit on bills, and lose them to other members, the spokesperson said, without providing the details of how the new protocols work.

Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a government reform group, said that is perhaps the most significant item in the rules reform package. “There’s no known criteria by which they’re making that decision and that needs to change,” he said in a phone interview. “At the very least, the speaker’s office ought to declare the criteria by which they decide which bills are moved.”

Council members who spoke to Gotham Gazette seemed to be in the dark about whether rules reforms were even being discussed. The overarching platform hasn’t been discussed in hearings though some of the issues have been raised in the Democratic conference meetings, said one member who would only speak on the condition of anonymity.  

“The first-in-time issues have not been changed,” the member said. “They did update the database -- truthfully, this was mostly done last term -- you can find out more quickly whether you’re first-in-time or not, but the process itself is still exactly as it was. And the legal concerns issue,” about getting legal opinions on bills in a timely manner, “is still as it was...And some of the disability and accessibility investments [for Council hearings] still need to be advanced.”

Though the Council allocated more money for pay raises for staffers, it hasn’t implemented pay parity with other city agencies where benefits are better and salaries are higher, despite that being a priority outlined in the draft of reforms. “Yeah, I would add that to the list,” the Council member said. Nor is childcare provided to members or staffers, as called for in the reform proposal.

The Council spokesperson noted that audio induction loops for those with hearing impairments were added last year and that language accessibility can be requested. The spokesperson also said that pay parity has been discussed with members when the Council was deciding its own budget, and ultimately members get to decide how they will use the increased funds budgeted for their offices and staff. The spokesperson also acknowledged that the Council does not currently provide childcare options but insisted that the Council is always looking at ways to expand it for all New Yorkers.

Council Member Mark Levine, one of Johnson’s chief rivals for the speakership, said the Council has made major improvements. “[The Speaker] has made progress on a lot of fronts,” he said, pointing to the uptick in the budget, the staffing increases, and more transparency and faster timelines on bill introductions. “It helps tremendously in managing your LS [legislative service] requests to have real-time access to that information. They’ve also staffed up pretty dramatically in the bill-drafting unit,” he said. “And it’s more equitable now. Everybody gets to identify 10 priority LSs which we want staff to work on and that evens it out a little bit more.”

Echoing Lancman, Levine said a formal hearing wasn’t absolutely necessary. “These changes have been possible through a combination of changing internal procedure, through allocation of resources, and that really is a very big deal,” he said.  

Some members are waiting until after budget negotiations have concluded with the administration to see more changes go into effect, particularly with new funding at the Council’s disposal.

“To date, the specifics of the rules reform stuff that we signed on to hasn’t been evidenced,” said Council Member Robert Cornegy, another current rules committee member and speaker candidate of last year. “There has been some efforts, especially in bill drafting, to make sure that bills move faster. But we’re so deep in the budget and I’m on the budget negotiation team, I can’t really see anything. I almost don’t know what’s going on around me as it relates to the legislation or the rules reform because we’re so deep in the budget.”

Cornegy said he wants to see “a bit more latitude” for members in the drafting process so bills can move more quickly.

Council Member Adrienne Adams, also a rules committee member, said very briefly before a Council hearing, “We’re still waiting. It’s been a while. We’re still waiting. I really don’t have anything to add right now.”

Among other items that remain unfinished are changes to the functioning of the Council committees, which hear bills and hold oversight hearings.

Despite being included in the proposed agenda, there’s still no protocol for committee hearing scheduling; there isn’t a standard process for members who want to switch committees midway through the term; hearings are not automatically triggered for bills with popular support; and committee staff aren’t publishing recaps of hearings that summarize testimony, requests made by members and promises made by the administration (though the full testimony from hearings continues to be readily available online.)

It’s likely once the budget is decided, which could be as soon as the coming week, that the Council will ramp up some of the changes put in motion by Johnson and get to other delayed reforms. Yet, Council members and government reform groups say that needs to happen in a public, transparent way. “If the speaker and 32 members made a commitment to pass rules reforms,” said Camarda of Reinvent Albany, “they should honor that commitment and hold public hearings to solicit input and pass meaningful rules changes.”

Camarda also pointed to a New York Post report from May that highlighted Johnson’s partial reversal on a promise to regularly publish his full public schedule and details of his contact with lobbyists. “We hope this isn’t the beginning of a trend that the speaker’s promises on good government issues go unfulfilled,” Camarda said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Inset Koslowitz photo by Emil Cohen

Johnson Makes Series of City Council Changes, But Sidelines Formal Rules Reforms Fri, 08 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000