Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/494 Fri, 18 Oct 2019 04:06:54 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) As City Council Vote Nears, Leading Mayoral Contenders Clarify Positions on Jails Plan They May Have to Implement https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8839-city-council-vote-positions-rikers-jails-plan-stringer-johnson-adams-diaz https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8839-city-council-vote-positions-rikers-jails-plan-stringer-johnson-adams-diaz De Blasio close Rikers

De Blasio, Johnson, Ayala & others at Rikers announcement (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The plan to close the Rikers Island jails and replace them with four borough-based facilities has sped through the city’s land use process and is awaiting approval from the New York City Council, prompting both support and rebukes from criminal justice reform activists and those who prefer to keep most city detainees on the island. If it passes at the scheduled October 17 vote, full implementation of the plan will fall in the hands of a future mayor, perhaps two, and the four high-profile elected officials expected to be running for the position in 2021, when Mayor Bill de Blasio is term-limited, aren’t all on the same page.

The city’s Rikers closure plan was set in motion in 2017 and aims to create smaller and safer jail facilities closer to courthouses in every borough except Staten Island. It includes three larger jails where existing facilities exist, plus a new jail in the Bronx. It’s dependent on reducing the city jail population below 5,000 detainees by 2026, a target the city is on track to exceed, the de Blasio administration has said given criminal justice reforms passed in Albany last year and city arrest trends.

As of July, there were about 7,400 detainees across the city jail system, many of them pre-trial and held in the problem-ridden Rikers jail complex, down 2,000 from when the closure plan was announced. Last month, the City Planning Commission approved the combined land use application for the four facilities, which are expected to cost about $9 billion together. The application was then sent to the City Council, which held a public hearing on the plan and is expected to hold the vote next week.

So far, four leading Democratic candidates have either declared or are expected to run for mayor in 2021 – City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Comptroller Scott Stringer, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. All four are facing term limits and cannot run for reelection. While Stringer was the first of the four to call for closure of the Rikers jails, Johnson has the most on the line as City Council Speaker – where he continued the legacy of his predecessor, Melissa Mark-Viverito, helped craft the current plan and move it to the verge of passage – and all four have supported the general concept of closing the island jails.

Whomever becomes the next mayor, implementation of the jails plan is likely to become a defining first-term issue.

Most of the four leading likely candidates for mayor insist that a borough-based jails plan must be accompanied by broader criminal justice reforms and community investments that would continue to reduce the number of people incarcerated in city facilities. The size of the four jails is also at the top of the list as negotiations continue between the de Blasio administration and City Council members, particularly Johnson and the four members who represent the districts that will be home to the facilities.

“We have an opportunity to close Rikers Island, which will help change our city for the better,” Johnson said, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “This whole process started with activists who were directly harmed by Rikers raising this as a necessary step to transform our criminal justice system. This isn’t about just closing jails. I want investments in our City that will help end the pipeline to prison that’s done so much damage to our communities.” Johnson and former New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who led a commission empaneled by Mark-Viverito that pushed de Blasio into support for closing Rikers, co-authored an op-ed earlier this year explaining why the city must seize this moment for closing the island jails.

Adams made a series of recommendations to the proposal when it was going through the land-use process, and while he is supportive of the general plan, he continues to hope the Council will heed some of his words.

“Beyond siting the [Brooklyn] facility and determining height and capacity, we also need to focus on how we disrupt the pipeline to our criminal justice system, and reduce recidivism rates,” he said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, echoing Johnson. “For example, a significant percentage of Riker’s inmates are dyslexic. That’s why my recommendation outlines steps we can take to improve educational opportunities and provide wraparound services that must be part of a long-term approach to improving our criminal justice system.”

Stringer continues to support closing the Rikers jails, but is also calling for additional community investments in the final deal. “Rikers Island is a symbol of injustice, and we can’t just close it, we have to shut it down forever by ensuring we never repeat the mistakes of the past,” he said in a statement. “Before moving forward with any vote to close Rikers Island, the City must commit to developing and funding a plan to bolster the supports that will actually enable communities to thrive. This is what communities have been calling for and the administration has so far failed to deliver. Without that commitment, thousands of New Yorkers will continue to rotate through the revolving doors of incarceration, homelessness, and hospitalization — regardless of where jails are sited. This is a generational opportunity, and we must seize it together.”

Asked to clarify if that meant Stringer actually supports building borough-based jails, spokesperson Tyrone Stevens said, “We think there is a need for new, modern borough-based facilities that come with an airtight commitment to invest more in communities. We also think the proposed facilities can be smaller in scale and hope the final plan reflects these important priorities.”

Diaz Jr. is the only candidate that is outright opposed to the current plan, but his objection is based on the choice of site in Mott Haven in the Bronx. That is also the only entirely new facility while the others are being built to replace existing ones.

Diaz Jr. proposed an alternate site next to the Bronx Hall of Justice, which the city rejected based on its size and other logistics. In his testimony before the New York City Council at a hearing on September 5, he called the proposal “wrongheaded” and pushed the Council to correct what he sees as the administration’s mistake. “Instead of reaching out to the community and engaging on this site selection, the administration has decided to impose a monolithic, oppressive structure adjacent to a community of reclaimed apartments, homes and schools, in the name of political expediency,” he said.

He added, “It is now up to the City Council and its members to listen to the people of this borough and adjust this proposal accordingly. Any failure to do otherwise will deleteriously alter the face of this borough for decades to come.” John DeSio, a spokesperson for the borough president, said in an email on Wednesday that Diaz Jr.’s position has not changed. Asked if Diaz Jr. believes the plan shouldn’t go forward if the Bronx site is not changed, DeSio did not provide a response, and it’s unclear if Diaz Jr. would support the current plan or a no vote on the entire proposal. (He told the Queens Daily Eagle in June that if he is elected mayor, he would reexamine the chosen sites.)

City Council Member Diana Ayala, who represents East Harlem and the part of the Bronx where the new jail is sited, had agreed to the location when de Blasio and the Council announced the locations last year. When asked about her support, Diaz Jr. has said he believes she’s mistaken and noted that she’s not from the Bronx.

Johnson, Adams, Stringer, and Diaz Jr. find themselves in somewhat tricky positions. The borough-based jails plan has proven more politically complicated than de Blasio and others may have expected. While the city’s efforts have been broadly praised by activists from the #CLOSErikers campaign who have long criticized the inhumane conditions at Rikers and helped push the issue to the forefront, there has been strident local criticism of some of the new facilities that the city proposed and a larger contingent of activists who are opposed entirely to any new jails being built.

The aptly named No New Jails NYC campaign had the support of Tiffany Caban, the upstart public defender who nearly claimed the Democratic nomination for Queens District Attorney earlier this year but lost to Queens Borough President Melinda Katz in a recount. Just last week, Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive heavyweight, also weighed in, saying the city should not construct any new jails, particularly if there are no legal assurances that Rikers will in fact be shut down. The latter point appears to have resonated, with the mayor saying on Monday he thinks such language makes sense and NY1 reporting on Wednesday that the Council and administration are crafting an agreement to ensure no jails can be active on Rikers by 2026. The city map change application will be voted through the Council on Thursday of this week and head for approval to the City Planning Commission. Jennifer Fermino, a spokesperson for the City Council speaker, noted that the proposal had been in the works for a long time and was not prompted by Ocasio-Cortez's comments. 

“Rikers Island is synonymous with mass incarceration, pain and suffering," Johnson said in a statement on Wednesday. "This land use action shows our commitment to closing all of the jails associated with Rikers. The jails will be required to close by 2026. Advocates raised the need for a guarantee, and we agreed with them completely. I am proud of the Council for this historic step, and our commitment to improving the lives of all New Yorkers.”

The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice & Incarceration, former by Mark-Viverito and led by Lippman, was the architect of the Rikers closure plan and has sought to push back against No New Jails, which offered its own alternative proposal last week that would house 3,000 detainees in existing borough facilities. The Lippman Commission called the proposal “morally indefensible” and illegal, releasing a point-by-point rebuttal to the idea.

It’s unlikely at this point that the Council will reject the plan outright but there are possible tweaks that could be made to the final proposal. The three main sticking points, as the various stakeholders have indicated and as the mayoral candidates themselves seem to point out, are the size and number of beds at some of the facilities, the legal promise that Rikers will close, and whether the city will make broader community investments in criminal justice reform and social services.

A package of investments and other reforms would drive down the city’s incarcerated population further than current projections, which could require fewer beds and lead to lower building heights for some of the facilities.

The mayor said in his weekly appearance on NY1’s Inside City Hall on Monday that the Council and administration would work to add the guarantee to the proposal. “I think I have to make clear, once we build these borough-based jails and they’re going to be able to handle all of the inmates in New York City, there’s no reason to have Rikers and there’s much better ways to use that land,” de Blasio said. “Everything there should be taken down and utilized in a whole different fashion. So we’re working on a way to make that real, real clear, but I also think that the facts will speak for themselves. The new jails will be enough to take care of everyone.”

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

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated.

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As City Council Vote Nears, Leading Mayoral Contenders Clarify Positions on Jails Plan They May Have to Implement Wed, 09 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Corey Johnson's Big Small-Dollar Bet https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8685-corey-johnson-s-big-small-dollar-bet https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8685-corey-johnson-s-big-small-dollar-bet Corey Johnson

Council Speaker Corey Johnson (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s expected mayoral campaign is based in part on a big small-dollar gamble.

When Johnson announced in January that he was exploring a bid for mayor – he hasn’t made it official yet – he set a $250 limit on all campaign contributions, far below the maximum possible limit of $5,100. And though the latest campaign finance disclosures show him outpacing his three likely Democratic primary opponents in the number of donations he received, he is well behind the pack in total funds and will have to work overtime to fill the gap.

Along with the low self-imposed donation limit ($250 is also the ceiling for how much of each donation can be matched eight-to-one in the city’s public campaign finance system), Johnson has also pledged not to take any campaign money from real estate developers, lobbyists, or corporate political action committees.

By constraining himself in these ways, he’s making a calculated bet: that New Yorkers will be impressed enough by his voluntary limitations that so many will donate, albeit in small amounts, to still get him the war chest he needs to spend as much as his competitors given the cap on expenditures that comes with the city’s matching system. And, that he’ll hit those maximums while earning a larger, more enthusiastic grassroots base of supporters than his opponents.

He’ll be living out the values that many Democrats espouse, and he’ll have a very effective talking point as he seeks to separate himself from the pack, expected to also include City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

“I’m focused on these small-dollar contributions because there’s a double benefit,” Johnson said in a Wednesday interview. “Of course there’s the money you raise, but also you get to meet a lot more people around the city and spread your message to New Yorkers.”

“I’m doing this in a way that no one’s ever done before,” he added, “and I was a little concerned when I made the pledge, wondering if I’d be able to raise the amount of money to be able to compete. But after these last five months, I feel good about where I am and I feel like it’s totally doable.”

The latest filings with the New York City Campaign Finance Board show that Johnson has raised a total of $379,728 from 3,029 contributions. The money came from 2,612 individual donors, with many of them giving more than once. He also transferred $88,780 from his City Council campaign account, spent only about $32,800 and has just under $432,000 in cash on hand.

“I think it shows the grassroots nature of the campaign and I did it all without raising money from real estate developers or people who work at lobbying firms and with a self-imposed cap of $250,” Johnson said Wednesday. “So I feel excited. I worked really hard. I went around the city and met with voters in their neighborhoods, in their living rooms and talked about the issues that matter to New Yorkers.”

Johnson will be bolstered by the city’s voluntary public matching funds program, which incentivizes small donations by matching them with public funds and has recently been enhanced by the City Council through legislation, a portion of which stirred controversy given its apparent benefit to Johnson and detriment to his rivals.

A ballot referendum approved last year gave candidates the ability to choose one of two versions of the city’s public funds program, run by the Campaign Finance Board. For candidates for citywide positions, they can now opt for a new $2,000 contribution limit and receive an 8-to-1 match for the first $250 of an eligible contribution, or they could stick with the older $5,100 limit and receive a 6-to-1 match for the first $175 of an eligible contribution.

The City Council then bolstered the new system further by enhancing the extent of the public match candidates can receive as it relates to the spending cap in their race, and made the new system retroactive to the beginning of the four-year cycle, meaning the start of 2018, which rankled Johnson’s rivals, especially Stringer, who would have to return a significant amount of money in order to opt into the new system.

Stringer accused Johnson of playing political games with his government position, while Johnson noted he was acting on a recommendation from the Campaign Finance Board, looking to help take big money out of politics, and that Stringer could stick with the higher donation limits if he’d like (though Stringer had already chosen the new system, not thinking he would have to make refunds from 2018 fundraising). The changes also impact Adams -- who also has criticized Johnson over the move -- and Diaz, Jr., though they have not made clear which system they plan to choose. After this election cycle, the new system will be the only choice.

Johnson chose the new system and of his total fundraising, $315,421 qualifies for public matching funds, meaning he could receive eight times that amount in public funds. When the Council increased the cap on the amount of public funds a candidate can receive – from 75% to 88.8% of the spending limit for a campaign – it meant Johnson will be able to stick to his self-imposed limit and spend as much as his three rivals, who are all expected to participate in the matching funds program and therefore abide by spending limits. It’s unclear if any other Democrats will jump into the race, or what the general election field may look like.

It's likely that Johnson, Adams, Diaz Jr., and Stringer are all able to raise as much as they need to, in combination with matching funds, and spend the allowable amount -- $7.3 million for the primary. But Johnson appears to think his pledge will significantly impact how voters and donors see him, and his competitors, which can potentially help him secure more support in the ascendent left wing of the Democratic Party.

Johnson sees significant momentum in his first filing period, noting that he currently has the largest amount of funds that can be matched, compared to the other candidates who had been raising funds for well over a year before he began.

There are also pitfalls to Johnson’s approach. He said he can’t afford full-time campaign staff and admits that it’s “been a challenge” to vet the thousands of contributions he’s receiving with a mostly volunteer crew. He’s had to return about $4,100 to people who have gone over his campaign limit. It also takes major time and effort to raise so many smaller contributions and not buttress them with larger ones.

“Oh my god, it’s very tough. It’s grueling. And sort of nonstop, and it’s house party by house party, 20-25, 30-35 people at a time,” said Johnson, who has been appearing at a variety of small campaign gatherings.

Compared to Adams, Diaz Jr., and Stringer, the Council speaker is currently far behind in money in the bank. Along with taking the larger donations, the other three have been raising funds far longer and have deeper coffers from their own earlier races. No one has received any public matching funds yet, and won’t anytime soon -- the Democratic mayoral primary will be in June, 2021. (If Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is running for president, doesn’t finish his term for one reason or another, things could speed up a bit.)

Stringer leads the pack with nearly $2.6 million in cash on hand. He raised $336,700 in the last six months from 1,447 individual contributors after having raised at a faster rate previously, when he was toying with a challenge to de Blasio head of the mayor’s 2017 reelection. Stringer was able to transfer $1.4 million to his campaign from a previous citywide campaign account and has been prolific in his fundraising. Of his total, he has about $254,554 in funds that qualify for a public match.

Opting in to the newer of the two campaign finance systems, Stringer now has to return many thousands of dollars that represent the retroactive lowering of the individual contribution limit. Stringer called the new regulations a “power grab” by Johnson, critiquing him for changing the rules midway through the race (a criticism that Adams echoed).

"Time and again, Scott Stringer has stood up for bold progressive solutions to our toughest challenges, and this latest filing shows the growing energy behind our people-powered campaign,” said Emily Bernstein, finance director for Stringer’s campaign, in a statement. “At grassroots events across the city, we’ve talked with New Yorkers about real ideas to make our city more affordable for working families, build a better future for our children, and deliver true progressive change. We’re incredibly humbled by the support we’ve received, and we’re excited to build on our momentum.”

After Stringer, Adams has the most funds, with nearly $2.3 million in cash on hand. He raised $583,627 in the last six months from 1,234 donors. He also made an earlier transfer of $332,594 from his borough president campaign account. A total of $273,385 from his fundraising would be matchable by the CFB, though Adams has not yet declared if he is participating in the public matching funds program, much less which of the two versions, and has been accepting donations of the maximum amount allowed, $5,100. “New Yorkers believe in Eric and trust that he shares their vision for our city--that's why so many of them from such diverse backgrounds are supporting his campaign to lead the five boroughs. And he's just getting started,” said Evan Thies, a campaign spokesperson, in an email.

In comparison, Diaz Jr. has about $931,228 in the bank. He raised $232,334 in this latest filing period, from 385 donors, and he transferred $219,395 to his campaign for this race. He also hasn’t declared whether he will participate in the public funds program but most of his money came from large donations. He has about $57,476 that would qualify for matching funds.

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

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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Corey Johnson's Big Small-Dollar Bet Thu, 18 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Scott Stringer Has a Plan for That https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8653-it-pays-to-be-comptroller-scott-stringer-s-mayoral-platform-takes-shape https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8653-it-pays-to-be-comptroller-scott-stringer-s-mayoral-platform-takes-shape scott stringer bill de blasio bernie sanders inaugural ceremonies

Comptroller Scott Stringer (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer has made no secret of his plans to run for mayor in 2021, when both he and Mayor Bill de Blasio will be term-limited out of their current positions. And the outline of his mayoral policy platform is already hiding in plain sight.

After briefly entering the 2013 mayoral campaign before shifting to a first successful run for comptroller, Stringer has spent a long time laying the groundwork for a full mayoral bid, so much so that many expected him to challenge de Blasio in the Democratic primary in 2017 had the mayor faced any consequences from dual ethics investigations into his fundraising activities. But the mayor faced no charges and both officials instead sailed to reelection.

One of three citywide elected officials, besides the mayor and public advocate, the comptroller is the city’s top fiscal officer, charged with overseeing the mayoral administration’s spending, auditing city agencies for waste, approving city contracts, and acting as the fiduciary to the city’s pension funds (with assets worth nearly $200 billion). Though they have next to no official policy-making power, those who’ve held the office also tend to issue policy reports and make recommendations for policies the city should implement.

In about five-and-a-half years as comptroller, Stringer has released numerous sweeping proposals to tackle everything from the cost of child care to building more affordable housing to abortion funding, improving city bus performance, and hurricane recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. Stringer fought against term limits for community board members, a ballot measure overwhelmingly passed by voters last year, and he’s pushed for this year’s city charter revision commission to propose creation of a citywide Chief Diversity Officer, building on his focus on city contracting for minority- and women-owned businesses. And, he’s helped lead the effort to divest city pension funds from fossil fuel companies.

As a citywide official, he’s weighed in with statements on many issues that don’t directly relate to functions of his job, and he’s taken on certain mantras, like the need for more “community-based planning,” that also indicate the initial building blocks for his all-but-official run for mayor.

Stringer’s work in the comptroller’s office has been a continuation of similar efforts he made as Manhattan borough president, unveiling various plans that would have a citywide effect.   

“Comptroller Stringer has spent his career in public service standing up for working families. From his time as a housing organizer, to his work as Manhattan Borough President, to his leadership as the City Comptroller, he’s proven progressive government isn’t just something he talks about – it’s what he delivers on each and every day,” said Hazel Crampton-Hays, Stringer’s press secretary, in a lengthy statement responding to Gotham Gazette’s inquiry about Stringer’s various policy proposals.

“He’s used his office to change the face of corporate America and open doors of opportunity to women and people of color; he’s changed the conversation and shined a light on the touchstone progressive issues of our time, including housing and child care; and in every challenge impacting working New Yorkers, Comptroller Stringer sees a progressive solution worth fighting for,” Crampton-Hays continued. “With two and half years left in his term, he will continue the fights that have been at the heart of his entire career -- for equity, affordability, and fairness for all New Yorkers.”

When Stringer declares his candidacy for mayor in earnest, he’ll have a lengthy, detailed campaign platform on day one, thanks to all of the reports and audits out of his office. It’s a smart and appropriate use of the comptroller’s office, said veteran political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “The New York City comptroller can do whatever the New York City comptroller wants. The office has broad authority under the city charter,” he said.

The issues Stringer has examined, Sheinkopf noted, cut across a swath of constituencies in a citywide electorate and have garnered significant attention. “He’s very able to get appropriate coverage for whatever he does. He also knows – because politics has been his life – how to take those issues and turn them into relationship-builders with particular interest groups,” Sheinkopf said. “He will be a highly competitive candidate for mayor, should he choose to run.”

Along with his policy proposals, Stringer’s near ubiquitous presence across the city should help him, Sheinkopf added. “No matter what choice New Yorkers will make, anyone who’s paid attention to the news will be able to say, for whatever reason, whether they can identify the issue or not, that somehow Stringer spoke to them about something,” he said. “And that’s a pretty good place to be and what he spoke to them about goes beyond color lines or race lines or ethnic lines or gender lines. He has made himself into the person whose words and even actions have become relevant to people beyond and outside of his social grouping, religion, race, class, and residence, which is not easy for someone who’s a west-sider from Manhattan.”

Stringer is expected to compete in a Democratic mayoral primary with City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., and anyone else who throws their hat in the ring ahead of the June 2021 vote. Each has also been in the process of staking out their policy positions and possible major mayoral platform areas, though none has led the size of operation or had the citywide vantage point, at least for as long, as Stringer in the comptroller’s office.

Political consultant George Arzt, who previously served as a campaign spokesperson for Stringer, echoed Sheinkopf. “The comptroller can put out anything on a platform just as the mayor or public advocate would put out anything on their platform,” Arzt said. “Perhaps increasingly so during an election year. But every elected official does it.”

Below are a sampling of the ideas that Stringer has proposed over the years, some of which are likely to form the basis for his mayoral campaign platform:

Child Care
In May, Stringer proposed a plan dubbed “NYC Under 3” aimed at drastically reducing child care expenses for 70,000 families. The plan, paid for with a payroll tax, would purportedly expand child care assistance to families with a combined income of up to $100,000 a year for a family of four, and triple the number of children enrolled in city-funded child care programs. The proposal was broadly praised by advocates, unions, and educators.

“New York City should drive a child care revolution, put working families first and establish a model for the nation to follow,” Stringer said in a statement at the release of the plan. “NYC Under 3 is a down payment on future generations and would benefit children, parents, and the local economy by increasing job stability and economic security.”

Since releasing it, Stringer has done a media and local event blitz to talk it up, including a “roundtable discussion” Monday evening with members of advocacy group Community Voices Heard in East Harlem.

Affordable Housing
Stringer has repeatedly criticized de Blasio’s affordable housing program, saying it has not created or preserved enough affordable units for low-income New Yorkers and that it has failed to stem the city’s homelessness crisis. In November, he released a proposal that would reimagine the city’s housing plan to target the 580,000 households that are in most need.

Stringer’s plan would put $375 million in the capital budget annually and repurpose the roughly 85,000 units left to be built under the mayor’s 300,000-unit plan towards extremely low-income households (which earn less than $28,170 annually) or very low-income households (which earn less than $46,950 annually). An additional $125 million would go to operating subsidies to ensure apartments remain affordable. He also proposed increasing the set aside for housing for the homeless by nearly three times to 15%.

The plan would be paid for by eliminating the Mortgage Recording Tax and implementing a Real Property Transfer Tax on all home purchases based on price. These measures would raise roughly $400 million each year, Stringer estimated. He also reiterated his call for a New York City Land Bank/Land Trust, which he first proposed in February 2016, to build housing on vacant lots.

Teacher Residency
In June this year, Stringer released a plan to reduce teacher turnover in city schools, after an analysis by his office showed that 41% of teachers hired in the 2012-13 school year had left their jobs within five years. 

Stringer proposed a paid, year-long residency program to train 1,000 new teachers annually, partnering them with mentors for classroom training and providing them with stipends for living costs.

On other education fronts, Stringer’s efforts more closely linked to his core job responsibilities have already shown results. After a May 2015 report on inadequate physical education at schools across the city, the de Blasio administration added $100 million to hire physical education teachers in the five boroughs. And following an April 2014 report on broad disparities in arts education, the city allocated $24 million in new city funding to hire more than 100 arts teachers in neighborhoods with the highest needs. 

Abortion Funding
Ahead of the passage of the city budget this year, Stringer rallied with reproductive health rights activists to push the city to allocate $250,000 to the New York Abortion Access Fund, a nonprofit service provider. The push was successful, with the City Council and de Blasio deciding to earmark funding, reportedly making New York the first city in the country to directly fund abortion services.

Insurance for Pregnancy
In March 2015, the comptroller released a report on pre-natal care coverage for pregnant women enrolled in insurance under the Affordable Care Act. The ACA did not recognize pregnancy as a “qualifying event” for immediate coverage. Following Stringer’s report, State Senator Liz Krueger and Assemblymember Aravella Simotas introduced and passed legislation to allow for that coverage in New York, making it the first state to do so.

Puerto Rico Recovery
In October 2017, after Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria, Stringer released a six-point plan based on an analysis of federal programs to help the island recover from the hurricane’s devastation. New York City is home to the largest community of Puerto Ricans outside of the island, many of whom continue to have ties to family living there, and the city was one of the main destinations for residents fleeing the island after the hurricane.

Stringer proposed federal loan guarantees for the construction of public infrastructure to help the debt-ridden island, called on Congress to authorize Disaster Recovery Private Activity Bonds (which were utilized after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks to rebuild Downtown Manhattan), and an expansion of federal safety net programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit for residents of Puerto Rico. He also pushed for measures to help displaced Puerto Ricans, including additional education funding for displaced and homeless students, and for higher education institutions where Puerto Ricans are enrolled.

Chief Diversity Officer
Stringer has used his position as the fiduciary to the city’s pension funds to push for greater board diversity at companies where the pension fund invests its money. At the same time, he has pushed for more diversity at city agencies, more city contract spending with MWBEs, and has called for the creation of a Chief Diversity Officer at City Hall (Stringer has appointed his own chief diversity officer). He pushed the 2019 Charter Revision Commission to include the idea among its ballot proposals but was unsuccessful, though the commission is moving ahead with a proposal to enshrine responsibility for the city’s MWBE program at City Hall.

Immigrant Services
In March 2015, Stringer released an “Immigrant Rights and Services Manual” – initially translated into Chinese, Korean, Russian and Spanish – to help immigrants navigate local, state and federal services.

In February 2016, he also released a report on citizenship application fees, with recommendations for federal and local action. He urged the city to provide more citizenship assistance programs, to add funding for English and civics classes, and to expand free legal services, among other proposals.

Commuter Rail & Bus Reliability
In October 2018, Stringer released a proposal to expand access to Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road, by reducing fares for in-city trips to the cost of a single MetroCard swipe. He called on the MTA to ensure commuter trains take more local stops, that buses provide enhanced service to commuter rail stations, and that those stations be made ADA accessible. His plan, which would entail providing commuter rail service at 38 stations in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, would cost about $50 million each year, he estimated.

In 2017, Stringer released a major report on the city's struggling buses, which have lost ridership at a dangerous clip, with an agenda for how to improve the system.

Security Deposits & Credit Score Benefits
In July 2018, Stringer released an analysis of security deposits in the New York City rental housing market, finding that renters paid about $507 million into security deposits in 2016. He called for legislation to cap security deposits as well as additional regulation regarding payments and refunds. The state Legislature this year put new rent regulations into effect that implement some of those reforms.

And in October 2017, Stringer launched pilot projects to help renters in roughly 3,000 apartment units to report their rent payment to increase their credit scores. The program was expanded a year later.

Playgrounds
In April, Stringer launched the “Pavement to Playgrounds” campaign, pointing to a dearth of playgrounds across the city and substandard conditions at hundreds of city playgrounds. Stringer pushed the city to build 200 new playgrounds over five years through partnership between the city’s Parks Department, the Department of Transportation, nonprofits and community boards.

BQE Reconstruction
In March, Stringer proposed his own vision for how the city should rehab the crumbling Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, including by converting the triple cantilever and Cobble Hill trench into a truck-only thruway and building a new two-mile park on the remaining space. A panel assembled by de Blasio is working on coming up with recommendations for a new plan after the city’s original idea received a great deal of pushback and appears to have been scrapped.

Marijuana Legalization
Before de Blasio released his administration’s plan embracing the legalization of recreational adult use of marijuana in December, Stringer had already explored the possible ramifications of creating a legal market in the city and proposed measures to ensure that the city creates an equitable industry.

Stringer pushed for investing tax revenue from sales into communities most adversely affected by marijuana enforcement, called for equity provisions in state legislation (particularly by making people with marijuana-related convictions eligible for licenses to sell legal marijuana) and proposed a citywide equity program to provide assistance to individuals and businesses seeking to enter the industry. 

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Scott Stringer Has a Plan for That Mon, 08 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Real Estate Invests in Ruben Diaz Jr. https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8573-real-estate-industry-invests-in-ruben-diaz-jr https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8573-real-estate-industry-invests-in-ruben-diaz-jr rubendiazjr comm

Ruben Diaz Jr., third from the right (photo: Office of Ruben Diaz Jr. )


Just as development has defined the Bronx borough presidency of Ruben Diaz Jr., money from the real estate industry has buttressed his political career. Though he has faced virtually no competition in three campaigns for borough president, the real estate donations have flowed in, helping Diaz Jr. prepare for an already-simmering run for mayor.

Over the course of his three campaigns for Bronx borough president, 37.7% of donations to Diaz Jr.’s campaign accounts at the $1,000-level or higher come from individuals or groups associated with the real estate industry, according to an analysis by Gotham Gazette using data from the New York City Campaign Finance Board.

Diaz Jr. has touted his record of what he's deemed progressive development, releasing celebratory reports of new development in the Bronx each year. Many of the developers listed on these reports have also donated to Diaz Jr.’s campaigns.

“Campaign finance considerations have no influence on the work of the borough president and his office,” said Diaz Jr.’s spokesperson, John DeSio.

During his three borough president campaigns, contributions for the office were limited to as much as $3,850. The average contribution for his first campaign in 2009 was $581; that number jumped in subsequent campaigns to $943 in 2013 and $934 in 2017, according to the city Campaign Finance Board. It’s worth noting that Diaz Jr. has faced little competition in his borough president campaigns, but also that real estate interests are well-known for contributing widely and generously to politicians. Diaz Jr. came to the borough presidency from the state Assembly in a 2009 special election. He is all-but-certain to run for mayor in the upcoming city election cycle, with the all-important Democratic primary in June 2021.

As borough president, Diaz Jr. has few formal responsibilities, but one is to weigh in on significant land use matters, which often include zoning changes related to real estate development, including major residential or commercial projects. Diaz Jr. has prided himself on development that he says he’s significantly helped bring the Bronx over the past decade, including projects of all types, from affordable to luxury housing, a FreshDirect distribution center, and more.

Many of Diaz Jr.’s highest-dollar donors have consistently been from the real estate industry. In more recent campaigns, the number of donations he received, across industries, jumped from 307 in 2009 to 1,758 in 2013 and 1,846 in 2017, according to the city campaign finance board.

Diaz Jr. touts his pro-development stance as key to jumpstarting the Bronx economy, which has taken off in the past ten years coming out of the Great Recession that rocked the nation. Under his borough presidency, there’s been 96.8 million square feet of development in the borough, 65% of which has been for residential use, 18% for commercial use, and 17% for institutional use, according to his office’s most recent annual development report.

Land use is at the crux of the job of a borough president. Input into planning and zoning issues are important, though not binding. “They are in contact with a lot of developers, and a lot of developers are in contact with them for their support,” said Bob Kappstatter, a political and media consultant, and longtime former Bronx bureau chief for the New York Daily News.

Maddd Equities and Joy Construction are a powerful alliance behind much of the city’s development and major financiers of Diaz Jr.’s campaigns. Of donations of $1,000 or more across his three borough president campaigns, individuals affiliated with Maddd Equities and Joy Construction have given Diaz Jr. a total of $1.86 million. The Hudson Yards builders have worked on at least three major projects in the Bronx.

Few other groups have contributed sums in that range to Diaz Jr., and many who have donated much less to the borough president have developed more projects. Donations at the $1,000 or more level from Touria Weissman from the Jackson Development Group, for example, totaled $11,700 over the course of Diaz Jr.’s three campaigns, while the group has developed seven major projects in the Bronx.

Executives from the Stagg Group’s donations to Diaz Jr. at the $1,000 or more level total $10,700. They’ve developed two major projects. Adolfo Carrión Jr., the former Bronx borough president, is a consultant for the group.

Keith and Inga Rubenstein, the controversial developers from Somerset Partners who recently sold a development on the Harlem River Waterfront in Mott Haven to Brookfield, have donated a total of $9,100 to Diaz Jr.

And high-dollar contributions from Sabino and Martha Fogliano of JF Everlasting Contracting, the Bronx-based construction contractors, total $13,300.

Other groups have given Diaz Jr. little to nothing despite developing several major projects, including L+M Development Partners, an associate of which gave Diaz Jr. $1,000 in 2017, and Signature Urban Properties, which has developed a dozen major projects in the Bronx but is not affiliated with any of his high-dollar contributors.

Meanwhile, Diaz Jr.’s top two high-dollar individual donors are not directly affiliated with the development industry. Andrea Squitieri’s donations at $1,000 or above total $21,980, and Stephen Jerome’s contributions at that level total $13,800.

Jerome is president emeritus and chairman of the board of Monroe College, a Bronx-based university. Squitieri is married to Stephen Squitieri, of Sanitation Salvage––the now defunct garbage disposal group with dismal business practices that have led to some workers deaths, as reported by ProPublica in 2018, and eventually shut down by the city.

Diaz Jr. also receives considerable money from the healthcare and hospital industry, which is the biggest job creator in the borough, according to an economic report from state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli. Many of Diaz Jr.’s high-dollar donors are physicians or hospital executives.

Other contributions to Diaz Jr. span other industries housed in the Bronx. Many high-dollar donors are local business owners, from Bronx-based jewelers to restaurant owners.

Diaz Jr. has made no secret of his plans to run for mayor in 2021, and already has $767,476.50 stored in his war chest from 649 contributions, according to the city campaign finance board. So far, all patterns appear to be carrying over.

[READ: For Diaz Jr., A Booming Bronx and Plan to Run on Development]

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Real Estate Invests in Ruben Diaz Jr. Thu, 06 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
For Ruben Diaz Jr., a Booming Bronx and Plan to Run on Development https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8565-for-ruben-diaz-jr-a-booming-bronx-and-plan-to-run-on-development https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8565-for-ruben-diaz-jr-a-booming-bronx-and-plan-to-run-on-development Ruben Dia Jr.

Ruben Diaz Jr. (photo: Diaz Jr.'s office)


Development in the Bronx has defined Ruben Diaz Jr.’s borough presidency, now in its tenth year and coinciding with record economic expansion across the city and country coming out of the Great Recession. And Diaz Jr. has defined his borough presidency –– and plans to build his upcoming run for Mayor –– around economic and housing development.

The Bronx has seen $18.96 billion poured into development since 2009, the majority of which has gone to residential units, according to the borough president’s most recent development report. Diaz Jr. releases an annual report on commercial and housing development in the Bronx and holds a celebratory event to tout the investment.

During his 2019 state of the borough address, Diaz Jr. recalled his first address in 2010. “That day, I laid out the beginnings of a conceptual master plan for our borough,” which included “encouraging new developments of all types,” he said. “Our work over the past decade in the Bronx has had a powerful impact,” Diaz Jr. declared before praising low unemployment rates.

Since the start of his tenure as the Bronx’s top figurehead, Diaz Jr. has espoused a vision of growth in the borough driven by community-centric development, where housing and employment opportunities flourish for Bronxites across the economic spectrum, and displacement is avoided. In short, all the good of gentrification without the bad.

It’s a vision of relatively rapid improvement for the borough with the highest, but decreasing, poverty and crime rates that creates opportunity for struggling Bronxites and attracts new people to the Bronx to set up or work at new businesses and obtain reasonably-priced housing and reasonable commutes to Manhattan.

As Diaz Jr. begins his campaign for mayor ahead of the June 2021 Democratic primary that is likely to all-but-decide the city’s next chief executive, assessing how well he has executed his vision and his overall legacy is challenging, in part because the position of borough president is largely ceremonial and coordinative.

Helping to usher in development is one concrete way in which the job of borough president can be performed, though, and given how Diaz Jr. heralds his tenure on the subject and plans to center it in his mayoral run, it is an essential area to dissect.

The reality of Diaz Jr.’s tenure when it comes to development is of course complicated, and reality is a bit murkier than the borough president presents in his public comments.

While development has proliferated in the Bronx, with dozens of land use rule-changes approved since 2009 to help developers build more and bigger, unemployment is still higher than the rest of the city, homeownership rates are still low, and some Bronxites have been displaced. And the true impacts of some development and land use decisions won’t be felt for years more to come.

Diaz Jr., consistently burnishing a reputation as a pro-growth leader of the city’s poorest borough, has staunchly denied that significant displacement has occurred and has fired back at critics who say otherwise.

In 2015, a professed resident of the south Bronx called into WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show –– which was hosting Diaz Jr. and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer to discuss gentrification and de Blasio’s then-new Mandatory Inclusionary Housing plan –– to implore Diaz Jr. to “wake up” in the face of what the caller deemed “out of touch” leadership in which “people are being pushed out daily.”

The borough president shot back. “No one can prove to me that we forced one community out to bring another one in,” he said. “If you look at all of the 17,000 units of housing that I’ve been a part of in the last six years, the overwhelming majority of that have been for low-income. Unfortunately, there's folks like yourself and others who have your own agenda and you're not in reality. You're not really paying attention to all the good things that we're doing.”

Diaz Jr. told the caller about a land use hearing he held with the community that he “didn’t have to have,” a common refrain from the borough president when he exceeds the technical duties of his office (which has limited powers but does influence land use matters), during which he listened to “more than 50 testimonies” and voted with the community against the early iteration of the mayor’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program.

MIH requires certain amounts and levels of income-targeted “affordable housing” within larger projects when developers receive city permission to build bigger than previous land use rules would allow (otherwise known as an upzoning). Questions have long abound as to whether the city’s income targets for “affordable housing” are really appropriately low enough to match New Yorkers in most need.

The borough president went on to say that the unemployment rate was cut by half during his tenure, that his administration “has done three developments for military veterans” –– a specific concern from the caller, a veteran who said he’s not receiving proper help –– and that he created jobs.

Diaz Jr. was largely correct in his assessment of the Bronx’s economic growth -- housing and jobs have expanded greatly over the last ten years in a borough that had immense opportunity for investors, especially as crime has also dropped significantly in recent decades and the city’s population has steadily climbed. The Bronx also offers a great deal of parkland and key long-standing attractions like the Bronx Zoo and Yankee Stadium.

“The Bronx is booming, so Ruben can certainly beat his chest with that,” said Bob Kappstatter, a political and media consultant, and longtime former Bronx bureau chief for the New York Daily News.

But the question of whom deserves credit for these benchmarks is complicated.

Unemployment has fallen drastically and job creation has surged in the Bronx over Diaz Jr.’s borough presidency; but he assumed the position in 2009 just after the economic crash and carried out his limited duties during a time of historic national and citywide growth. Developers and investors clearly began to see the Bronx as a more desirable place to do business, and it likely helped to have a borough president who rolled out a welcome mat.

Diaz Jr. has helped build housing for veterans and other Bronxites with special needs, but he’s also backed luxury developments that have priced locals out, rent burden rates continue to soar, and the tenant eviction rate in the Bronx is dramatically higher than anywhere else in the city.

Overall, Diaz Jr. has supported diverse development projects, from high-end housing to NYCHA infill and 100% “affordable” buildings, using what he calls a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach to achieve his goal of a mixed-income borough. It’s an approach that has largely been in line with both mayors, Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio, who have held office during his tenure as borough president, and whom he hopes to succeed come January 1, 2022 on a campaign platform that will center on his record of bringing development to the Bronx.

An Especially Strong Borough President
The primary responsibilities of borough presidents are providing guidance on land-use matters, appointing community board members, and serving as an ambassador for the borough. While borough presidents have few binding powers, they can show significant strength with the right allies to push their agenda forward.

“Borough presidents are cheerleaders,” said Kappstatter, “and he’s done a pretty good job.”

Diaz Jr. has amassed significant power in the Bronx as part of a small group of officials leading the county’s Democratic Party apparatus, most notably state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who led the county party until his 2015 ascension to the powerful speakership, and current county party chair Marcos Crespo, who serves in the Assembly. The Bronx Democrats are intensely focused on electing Diaz Jr. mayor in the 2021 election. Crespo, Heastie, and Diaz Jr. closely run Democratic politics in the borough as tightly as possible.

The borough president also has an important close relationship with Governor Andrew Cuomo, now a third-term Democrat, and many members of the state Assembly (where he served from 1997 through 2009), state Senate, and City Council, where his controversial father, Ruben Diaz Sr. now serves. With Cuomo, Diaz Jr. appeared to be developing an especially close bond, with the governor regularly hosting events in the Bronx where he and the borough president would heap praise on each other. That pattern has slowed recently.

Meanwhile, Diaz Jr. often finds himself having to distance himself from his father’s remarks and positions, especially on LGBT and women’s rights issues.

Diaz Jr. worked well with former Mayor Bloomberg, with whom he shared a more aggressive vision of development, but has clashed with Mayor de Blasio on several fronts, including the specific terms of Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, wherein Diaz Jr. wanted more flexibility for borough presidents and local officials to negotiate with developers and foster mixed-income housing, and the fate of the Kingsbridge Armory.

The Bronx Democratic Party is an insular but powerful group that works to elect Democrats to every position possible, a highly-achievable goal in the Bronx where Democrats far outnumber Republicans, and supports candidates who will work to elevate each other’s political power. Crespo, who interned for Diaz Jr. in 2003, has led the party since 2015, when Heastie rose to the Assembly speakership and became one of the three most powerful people in state government, along with the leader of the state Senate and the Governor.

During his early political career and time in the Assembly, Diaz Jr. and Heastie became quite close. In 2008, Diaz Jr. was integral to elevating Heastie’s career; as part of the “rainbow rebels,” a small group of black and Hispanic lawmakers, he successfully pushed for Heastie to oust Jose Rivera, a formerly influential Assembly member, as head of the Bronx Democratic Party.

Heastie has been instrumental in constructing new schools and after-school centers in the Bronx, among other spoils that come with heights of political power. And since rising to the Assembly speakership, Heastie holds significant power in setting the state’s legislative and budgetary agenda.

With difficult, expensive projects in the works, like new MetroNorth stations and the planned Kingsbridge National Ice Center, which has stagnated over the years due to a lack of funding, Heastie is a vital ally for Diaz Jr. As is Cuomo, though Cuomo and Heastie have been on colder terms over the past year, which could impact Cuomo’s potential support for Diaz Jr.’s mayoral bid. The 2021 Democratic primary for mayor is expected to be a crowded and highly competitive affair; a race that is already in motion and is expected to kick into another gear in 2020.

Diaz Jr. also works closely with Rafael Salamanca, whom he appointed to a Bronx community board and went on to win a seat in the City Council in a 2016 special election. Salamanca now serves as the chair of the powerful City Council Land Use Committee, the result of a deal reached to help elevate Corey Johnson to the speakership of the City Council. Since that deal, Johnson has emerged as a more powerful political force than some imagined, and is now a likely mayoral candidate in 2021, competing against Diaz Jr. and other likely candidates such as Comptroller Scott Stringer and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and whomever else may throw their hats into the ring.

These relationships enable Diaz Jr. to advance his agenda (and build his brand) through New York’s complex governmental processes and bureaucracies, from the start of the city land use process at the community board level all the way through the City Council, with support at the highest levels of state governance. Diaz Jr. will have whatever weight the Bronx Democratic Party can bring to bear for his mayoral run, and the machine’s often close relationship to its Queens counterpart could also be helpful (Heastie and Diaz Jr. both recently endorsed Queens Borough President Melinda Katz in her Queens Democratic Party-backed run for District Attorney.)

Unsurprisingly, Diaz Jr. has another layer of support from the real estate industry, as evidenced by his approach to development and campaign donations he has received.

A Gotham Gazette analysis of Diaz Jr.’s filings with the city’s Campaign Finance Board shows that 38% of contributions of $1,000 or more to his three borough president campaigns came from individuals in the real estate industry, including developers, realtors, architects, and construction firms.

“Campaign finance considerations have no influence on the work of the borough president and his office,” Diaz Jr.’s office told Gotham Gazette in a statement.

In recent months, Diaz Jr. has spent substantial time courting developers and investors, in addition to meetings with close allies, according to considerably redacted copies of his daily schedule from February through April of this year, attained by Gotham Gazette through the Freedom of Information law. The schedules show the borough president’s appointments and their locations, but appear to repeatedly black out the topics of the specific meetings, whether with developers or former Bronx Borough President and mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer, or others.

Goals and Rhetoric Compared to Reality
Diaz Jr. has helped champion and spearhead development in the Bronx, with a stated goal of rendering the borough a destination that New Yorkers want to move to rather than leave. He has argued that doing so requires a diverse economy with residents of all income levels, while striking the right balance between development and community benefit.

In 2009, as Diaz Jr. delivered his inauguration speech to an adoring crowd in Lehman College in the aftermath of the economic crash, he told the people of the Bronx, “Perhaps the most important piece of our agenda is going to be economic development.”

Over the following 10 years, Diaz Jr. has sought to bear out his vision through mass development, creating job, housing, commercial, and recreational opportunities. But at the same time, he’s promised to keep the community at the core of his actions. In his view, he said in 2010, “When developers want to do business in our borough, they must do what is right for the entire Bronx and not just themselves.”

“We cannot accept that the minimum wage is the best salary a developer can offer while they take so heavily from taxpayers’ wallets,” Diaz Jr. continued. “If you want charity, you must be charitable. If you want a public benefit, your project must benefit the public.”

As he pushed for balanced development, Diaz Jr. criticized Mayor de Blasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing plan, which mandates that developers allowed to build bigger than they otherwise would be able to set aside a certain portion of new housing at “affordable” rents.

Diaz Jr. pushed the City Council to vote against an early version of the plan in 2015, as did many other city officials and community board members. Though, he had a more complicated argument than most critics, who largely said that the MIH plan did not go far enough to mandate deeply affordable housing: Diaz Jr. wanted more options for local officials to use to negotiate with developers, both in terms of lower- and higher-income regulations. He issued a statement at the time that read, “the proposal as it stands would not fully realize the goal of truly mixed-income communities.”

After pushback from a broad cohort of city officials and others, de Blasio offered a new MIH plan in 2016 with a broader variety of thresholds for affordable housing “bands” that could be selected during a rezoning. “While the housing deal does not go as far to assist the low income community as many of us had hoped,” Diaz Jr. wrote in a statement at the time, “it is an encouraging step in the right direction.”

Two years later, Diaz Jr. praised the construction of Martin Luther King Plaza in Mott Haven, which contains 166 affordable units, 67 of which are permanently affordable. Forty-six of the permanently affordable units were “made possible through MIH,” a 2018 statement from Diaz Jr. reads. Many Bronx developments are taking place under new MIH terms, whether through a neighborhood rezoning or specific plot upzonings that trigger MIH.

Monxo López, adjunct professor of Latino studies and politics at Hunter College and co-founder of activist group South Bronx Unite, said that the borough has undergone a sudden change after the decades of systemic disinvestment, blazing fires, and the dereliction of housing.

Now, he said, “we see an over-interest in exploiting our land, the value of our land, a land that is valuable and has become valuable because of the real existing efforts to make this place––meaning Mott Haven and the South Bronx, and the Bronx in general––a livable place.”

Meanwhile, Diaz Jr. has remained rhetorically committed to community-centric development, which he championed in his 2014 state of the borough address. He pointed to the Kingsbridge Armory as the paragon of his vision for the Bronx: the former military structure is set to be developed into an ice rink, after long discussions with community members to ensure protections of local jobs and housing. The project has been severely stalled.

“We have set a new standard for responsible development. That, ladies and gentlemen, is planning with a purpose. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the Diaz doctrine.”

The reality in the Bronx has been complicated.

While development has superficially improved the Bronx, replacing burnt out or vacant lots with new buildings, the community of people who already lived in the borough, especially its most downtrodden and poor areas, is not always the recipient of growth.

“It’s like both things are going on at once,” said Elliott Liu, an activist in the Bronx and graduate student in anthropology. “You have all sorts of new buildings going up...but at least a handful of people get evicted.”

A 2019 report from the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD) showed rampant threats to affordable housing in the Bronx.

Mott Haven and Kingsbridge are home to some of the highest rates of housing price change in the city. And of the 10 neighborhoods with the highest number of evictions executed by court-ordered marshals in 2018, seven were in the Bronx. The report also ranks six Bronx neighborhoods in the top 11 neighborhoods citywide undergoing serious threats to affordable housing.

“Homelessness is still a big issue, and where is homelessness coming from? Gentrification and rising rents,” said Kappstatter. But, he added, “you can’t blame Ruben on this one, this is a citywide issue.”

Massive economic growth characterized the economy over the past ten years, especially in New York City, and the effects spread to the Bronx. According to a state comptroller report, since 2010, the number of businesses in the Bronx has grown by 17%, reaching nearly 18,000, and the population of the Bronx has been the fastest growing county in the state, largely driven by immigration.

In 2017, unemployment in the Bronx reached its lowest point since 1990 at 6.2%, according to the state comptroller report––but that still leaves Bronx County behind, with the seventh highest unemployment rate in the state and higher than the citywide rate of 4.5%.

After a difficult history of a decreasing population and divestment from housing, the Bronx had 498,500 occupied housing units in 2016, according to the state comptroller report. That number has remained fairly steady since Diaz Jr.’s earliest years in office; in 2010, the Bronx housed 472,464 occupied units, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Other housing metrics show a bleaker picture of the borough over the past ten years: 60% of Bronx households put at least 30% of their income toward rent, “higher than in any other borough and six percentage points higher than the citywide share,” according to the state comptroller report. The number of households who used half their income for rent grew by 19% between 2007 and 2016.

Bronx County has the second lowest rate of homeownership in the country, though Manhattan and Brooklyn follow closely behind, according to a 2016 study from New York University’s Furman Center and Citi. The most recent available federal data on homeownership shows a rebound in the Bronx’s homeownership rate starting in 2016 after a steady decline in 2009, following the recession that included the home foreclosure crisis.

Eviction numbers in the Bronx further challenge the notion that development will lead to affordable housing for all: 6,858 tenants were evicted in the Bronx in 2018––more than any other borough, while it has the fourth-highest population, according to City Council eviction data. The eviction rate in the Bronx is one eviction per 79 units. The next highest rate is one eviction per 180 units, in Brooklyn, and Manhattan has the lowest eviction rate at one per 345 units.

“For the past decade,” said Diaz Jr.’s spokesperson, John DeSio, in a brief written statement to Gotham Gazette, “the borough president has worked assiduously to build affordable housing and fight displacement, create new jobs, protect NYCHA residents, improve health and educational outcomes, and continue to make the Bronx an even greater place to live, work and raise a family.”

Though Diaz Jr. has promoted commercial development, job growth has not necessarily followed.

Many other commercial development projects that Diaz Jr. has favored have been concentrated in Mott Haven. But the unemployment rate in the neighborhood is at 16%, according to a 2015 study from the Health Department. And Co-Op City, the neighborhood home to the Mall at Bay Plaza––a development project Diaz Jr. praised as a major success––has seen some of the lowest job growth in the borough, according to the state comptroller report.

Diaz Jr. once fully welcomed the Trump Links project in the Bronx’s Throggs Neck neighborhood, but he has since walked his enthusiasm back. In his 2014 state of the borough speech, Diaz Jr. hailed the golf course as a harbinger of job creation and prosperity. “Donald Trump understands the power of his brand, and we are now partners. That is the ‘New Bronx.’”

The golf course opened in April 2015 and Diaz Jr. was one of the first golfers to play on the course, according to DNAInfo. But when Trump announced his presidential campaign that June using racist rhetoric, Diaz Jr. decided to boycott the course. He had already been vexed by Trump’s marketing of the golf course as located in “Ferry Point,” according to DNAInfo. He argued the advertising obscured the golf course’s connection to the borough as it is not the name of any of the Bronx’s neighborhoods. Business at the golf course slumped since Trump assumed the presidency, according to the Washington Post. Diaz Jr. has repeatedly condemned Trump on a slew of the president’s statements and policies.

“Our work over the past decade has borne real fruit,” Diaz Jr.’s spokesperson wrote. “We are shedding the stigma that has dogged this borough for so long, and we are building a brighter future for everyone.”

Several examples show Diaz Jr.’s approach to major projects that will in part determine his legacy as borough president and the future of affordability and opportunity in the Bronx.

La Central and Mixed-Rate Development
Mixed-income development is at the crux of Diaz Jr.’s plan for the Bronx, and perhaps, if he ascends to the mayor’s office as he hopes, for the city at large. Diaz Jr. has touted his case-by-case approach to development with resources allotted as necessary.

La Central, if all goes according to plan during its construction, will test this approach. The project embodies the tensions at the heart of the development debate in the Bronx: it will reserve housing for the borough’s most vulnerable citizens, coupled with glossy amenities like a recording studio.

Leaders across the state praised the five-building La Central development, designed to function as a community space as much as a housing complex. The buildings in the Melrose neighborhood are slotted to fill a formerly vacant lot with more than 800 units of sub-market rate (“affordable”) housing.

Land use documents show that La Central plans to bring 832 “affordable” housing units to the borough –– defined as scaled for Bronxites who earn 30-130% of the area median income –– including 160 units reserved specifically for homeless veterans and Bronxites with HIV/AIDS. The complex will also host community spaces including a YMCA, daycare services, a 25-story Astronomy Tower, farm space, a skate park, and a recording studio. Locals have sought to reserve half the units for residents of Melrose and the nearby Mott Haven and Port Morris neighborhoods, in addition to efforts to hire locally.

The buildings are also situated near the shared 2 and 5 train station, a Metro-North stop, and several bus stops, in the vein of increasingly popular Transit-Oriented Development, which seeks to create more housing near transit hubs and decrease reliance on cars globally.

“La Central is an exemplar proposal that will fill a gaping void that has plagued The Hub for decades,” Diaz Jr. said at the time. The project earned the unanimous approval of the City Council after it was pledged to reserve a number of apartments at rental rate of $640 per month and the use of union labor for construction.

Breaking Ground, Hudson Companies, BRP Companies and ELH-TKC are each developing parts of La Central, with $100 million of funding from Wells Fargo.

“I want to note the level of outreach the development team has given to my office,” Diaz Jr. wrote in his non-binding approval of the project in June of 2016, complimenting the regular conference calls that he said developers set up and their willingness to change the buildings’ design to better fit with the Bronx’s “warmer color” aesthetic. “I welcome this diverse, truly mixed-use, transit oriented development. I am proud to have contributed $1.5 million toward its development.”

The project has hit some logistical snags along the way.

The Department of Buildings recently placed a stop work order on one of La Central’s buildings after a loose piece of equipment injured a construction worker’s neck and landed him in the hospital. The building received a more minor stop work order late last year after contractors failed to properly update the Department of Buildings, though it was later rescinded.

The Westchester-based construction company, Mountco Construction & Development, has been charged with a host of violations since the project broke ground, resulting in a total of $28,145.95 in fines for the two buildings slated for full affordability, compared to the other three mixed-rate buildings. Mountco could not be reached for comment.

The architect, FX Collaborative, has designed buildings across the world, from Dubai to Hudson Yards. It holds social responsibility as one of its foremost principles and wrote that their design for La Central “will provide a diversity of environments connected to the larger context.”

Residents harbor mixed feelings toward the project. “La Central is continuously called a ‘transformative’ development for the Bronx, but what does that mean for the local residents?” Ed García Conde, founder of welcome2thebronx.com, wrote. “Gentrification and displacement.”

Construction on La Central started in June 2017 and the first building is slated to open this summer.

Compass Residences and Luxury Development
This 1,279-unit market-rate development under the Third Avenue Bridge lies at the epicenter of gentrification in the South Bronx, alongside a coffee shop with $4 lattes, several restaurants, boutiques, and gyms.

The original developers, Somerset Partners and Chetrit Group, laid out their vision for the South Bronx’s future as “Williamsburg meets DUMBO.” Diaz Jr. nodded to the project in a 2015 speech citing the “complete metamorphosis of the Harlem River waterfront.” Last year, however, after a tumultuous three years of development, Somerset and Chetrit sold to Brookfield Property Group after Diaz Jr. courted Ric Clark, the company’s chairman, with a tour of the Bronx.

“From just south of the Third Avenue Bridge all the way to 149th Street,” Diaz Jr. said in 2015, “We found the opportunity for thousands of housing units of all kinds, new waterfront access, and park space.”

While residents hold varied feelings about gentrification, with some concerned about displacement and others who welcome new amenities, a near consensus emerged against the project’s original developers. The developers threw an infamous warehouse party with a “Bronx is Burning” theme that saw glamorous celebrities posing against fake bullet-ridden cars, harkening back to the Bronx’s difficult past, epitomized in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Somerset Partners notoriously sought to rebrand the South Bronx as the “Piano District” and plastered billboards in the area that promised “luxury waterfront living.” The billboard enraged locals and sparked the hashtag #WhatPianoDistrict among Bronxites who viewed the moniker as an erasure of the thriving community already in place. The group did not return repeated requests for comment.

Though Diaz Jr. himself disapproved of the “Bronx is Burning” theme and the “Piano District” moniker, they are emblematic of the types of mindsets that he has welcomed to the Bronx through his approach to pursuing development and a sense of the Bronx as a destination with at least some luxury experiences available.

Somerset and Chetrit sold the development to Brookfield Properties in 2018 for $165 million, the New York Post reported at the time. “Brookfield’s interest in the Bronx accelerated when Borough President Diaz invited Brookfield Properties’ Ric Clark on a tour of the borough,” said a spokesperson for the company. Brookfield Properties expects to reserve 30 percent of the units for sub-market rate housing, which would allow the company to claim a tax break.

The architecture firm, Hill West, partners with luxury developers, like the Trump Organization. Their history of community involvement includes contributions to major nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity, the SkyScraper Museum, and the Queens Library Foundation. The two buildings are currently under redesign to “optimize the functionality of the site,” according to a spokesperson from Brookfield Properties.

The Department of Buildings issued a stop work order to the Lincoln Avenue property last August for permit issues after two similar complaints. The violations have not yet been resolved and may result in a fine of just over $2,000.

FreshDirect and Community, Labor Tensions
In February 2012, Diaz Jr. took on the relocation of FreshDirect, the online service that delivers groceries directly to customers’ doors, to the South Bronx from Long Island City in Queens as a major project of his first term as borough president. In the time between then and the opening of FreshDirect’s new Port Morris warehouse in July 2018, the project was marked with bitter controversy.

A bidding war between the Bronx and New Jersey broke out to lure FreshDirect in 2012. A site in Port Morris along the Harlem River waterfront ultimately won out with over $100 million in state and city tax incentives.

When Diaz Jr., alongside Governor Cuomo and then-Mayor Bloomberg, announced the project, it was slated to bring $112.6 million in investment to the Bronx in addition to at least 2,000 construction and 1,000 permanent jobs, including holdovers from the Queens facility, according to the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

Once FreshDirect decided on the Port Morris site, activists sprung into action, denouncing the introduction of an extensive fleet of trucks into a neighborhood already suffering from poor air quality and the highest childhood asthma rate in New York City.

The conflict rose to the courts as activist group South Bronx Unite sued FreshDirect for violating environmental review laws. The state appellate court sided with FreshDirect. Diaz Jr. called the result a “victory not only for FreshDirect, but for the Bronx as a whole.”

FreshDirect exceeded its promise to bring 1,000 jobs, according to the company, which says it has hired 1,500 workers. The jobs now pay at least $15 per hour, in compliance with the state minimum wage.

But FreshDirect has a fraught history with employee unionization through the United Food and Commercial Workers, the group under which the company’s truck drivers are unionized and that has also sought to unionize the warehouse workers (in addition to other union groups). In 2014, 16 city and state officials signed a letter addressed to FreshDirect’s CEO, Jason Ackerman, encouraging the company to work with the union. Diaz Jr. did not sign the letter. In his office’s written statement to Gotham Gazette, his spokesperson neglected to address questions about this issue.

After difficult bargaining between FreshDirect and UFCW in 2014 to raise wages by roughly 20% over three years, from just over $10 per hour, Diaz Jr. said he was “very pleased” they could reach an agreement. Warehouse workers are still not unionized.

Though he shows no clear record of having gone to bat for FreshDirect workers in any meaningful way, the borough president has positioned himself as a champion of labor rights. In January 2018, following the Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME decision, which ruled that public employees could opt out of paying dues, he said, “Our city and state must enact policies that prevent the erosion of rights that have been gained through union organizing and collective bargaining.”

NYCHA Infill
The Bronx is home to 44,292 NYCHA apartment units, according to the authority––the third-highest of the boroughs, after Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Diaz Jr. has frequently spoken out against poor conditions and mistreatment of NYCHA tenants, especially over heat and hot water outages during the winter of 2017 and into 2018.

The borough president has generally been in favor of NYCHA infill plans, or developing new privately-run buildings on NYCHA land to generate revenue for the cash strapped public housing authority through lease agreements. Though there are many forms it can take, infill is often opposed as a form of privatizing public assets and welcoming gentrification to low-income areas. Many infill proposals include a mix of affordable and market-rate housing given that market-rate units can raise more money for both developers and NYCHA.

In 2012, Diaz Jr. approved the construction of three buildings on NYCHA land: two affordable buildings with one reserved for seniors, and a third for more lavish townhouses. Diaz Jr. wrote in the ULURP application, “It is the eventual inclusion of this third phase [of townhouses] that makes this project all the more critical and reflective of my mixed-income community development policy.”

In 2018, Diaz Jr. resoundingly approved the ULURP application for a mixed-use building called Betances VI on NYCHA land with affordable housing, including 30 units for homeless and mentally-disabled Bronxites, and retail space.

“Betances VI represents a unique collaboration that will bring to the Mott Haven community of the Bronx affordable housing, new retail development, and perhaps most importantly of all, accommodations for some of our city’s most needy citizens,” he wrote.

Lemle and Wolff Companies developed both projects. The firm specializes in “construction and management of high-quality affordable housing,” according to its website. Five of the seven company’s principals have donated small amounts of money to one of Diaz Jr.’s borough presidency campaigns for a sum totaling $1,610, according to his campaign finances. That number jumps to $4,730 if including donations from the first principal Joseph Zitolo’s wife, Susan Zitolo. In 2015, The Daily News reported that the company owed $500,000 in backwages.

Community Board 1 disapproved the application, out of concern that Lemle and Wolff Companies would not be held accountable to providing adequate housing for the homeless, or play space for tenants’ children.

In response, Diaz Jr. said he understood the concerns, but that “affordable housing is vital, as too is giving people with a troubled past a chance to achieve success.”

At the same time, he’s spoken out strongly against developing over green space on NYCHA land. “That’s where children go out and play, that’s where seniors go out to sit and get fresh air,” he told The Observer in 2015.

Kingsbridge National Ice Center and Execution Difficulties
After years of contention between city and state officials over the decades-long vacancy of the Kingsbridge Armory, in 2012, a coalition including former Deutsche Bank executive Kevin Parker and a former New York Rangers star Mark Messier, proposed reconfiguring the empty former military structure into the world’s largest indoor ice rink: the Kingsbridge National Ice Center.

The Kingsbridge Armory has sat vacant since 1996 when it became city government property. The Related Companies won a bid to renovate the armory into a shopping mall with the support of then-Mayor Bloomberg. The 2009 proposal, however, resoundingly failed in the City Council with a vote of 45-1 (with some abstentions); the Council then overrode Bloomberg’s veto 48-1, over concerns surrounding traffic and wages for the potential mall workers. Diaz Jr. slammed the proposal, instead pushing for development legislation that mandated living wages for the future ice center’s employees.

A 2012 proposal revived renovation plans for the armory, leading to the Kingsbridge National Ice Center, envisioned by Diaz Jr. as launching the borough to further global prominence. During a 2014 speech, Diaz Jr. honored “the amazing new venture that will bring the world’s greatest ice sports complex ot our borough.”

Though the imposing structure has sat vacant for decades, neighboring residents did fear eventual displacement when the project neared approval. An agreement between the community and developer Kevin Parker, in part brokered by Diaz Jr and Council Member Fernando Cabrera, set in motion the final approval from the City Council in 2013.

According to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, the ice center will generate 890 construction jobs and 267 permanent jobs. Kingsbridge and the surrounding area has the highest unemployment rate in New York City. The Community Benefits Agreement stipulates living wages for all workers involved with the ice center, jobs for Bronxites, women and people of color, free access for local schools, a green action plan, and other clauses envisioned around the local community.

Despite the potential for community benefits, funding the ice center has posed a significant challenge. Issues related to funding also caused significant tension between Diaz Jr. and de Blasio, which came to a boil in 2016.

Previously slated to open in 2018, Parker and his partners are only now in final financing stages and, according to Crain’s New York Business, is projecting an opening in early 2022.

Diaz Jr. Eyes the Mayoralty
“If you’re a good politician,” Kappstatter, the political consultant, said on Diaz Jr.’s mayoral plans, “you’re running right now, not two years from now.”

As Diaz Jr. prepares to launch his mayoral run, the question becomes how his development legacy will translate citywide. He pitched himself as mayor on WBAI’s Max & Murphy radio show in March on his ability to create jobs and build housing, citing the borough’s unemployment and development statistics under his tenure. “We’ve been doing that, not just having businesses do business in the Bronx, but doing business with the Bronx,” he said when asked to give a preview of what his mayoral campaign message will be.

He concluded: “As we speak of equity, that’s going to be the message here. That this is a city here, where we can provide a better future, not just for some for but all. And we can do this together. Wee can do this in a practical, pragmatic, progressive way.”

Diaz Jr. has staked his legacy on his approach to development and pursuing a mixed-income borough, a “New Bronx” with more amenities and opportunities, and the larger picture of increased development in the Bronx over the last decade. He’s clearly preparing to argue that he’s helped lift up the Bronx at minimal cost to its residents in terms of displacement or lack of affordability moving forward.

The Bronx certainly remains a mixed-income borough, both in terms of residents’ earnings and the housing available. The questions for Diaz Jr. include whether he is seen as too close to real estate interests and whether the development he has touted has indeed been good for Bronxites, and how it is perceived.

According to data from the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, the borough is home to residents and housing across the economic spectrum in neighborhoods like Mott Haven and Hunts Point, where around 75% of the residential units are rented at market rate. In historically wealthier neighborhoods like Riverdale and Throggs Neck, those numbers jump to 88% and 97.6% respectively. But in lower income neighborhoods like Highbridge, market rate units account for 60.8% of housing.

Diaz Jr. has undoubtedly drawn close ties to the real estate industry, members of which are likely to continue to support him as his political profile grows. He has proven himself business-friendly, but sought the approval of unions, and he’s certainly had an eye on community development, job opportunity, and improving education.

Now with decades as an elected official and political player in the Bronx, he has close ties with many elected officials, club leaders, and others who may be ready to help him get elected citywide. Bringing home the Bronx in a mayoral run will be essential, and the borough is not known for its high voter turnout to begin with.

“Ruben’s eye is totally on the mayoral prize,” said Kappstatter.

“We hope that he goes back to those roots of listening to the community, trying to use his skills and intelligence to fight...for what is right for this borough,” said López, the professor and activist, as he said Diaz Jr. did with the Kingsbridge Armory.

“Will that happen? It’s totally up to him.”

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For Ruben Diaz Jr., a Booming Bronx and Plan to Run on Development Sun, 02 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Diaz Jr. Submits Charter Revision Testimony Focused on Land Use and Police Accountability https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8530-diaz-jr-submits-charter-revision-testimony-focused-on-land-use-and-police-accountability https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8530-diaz-jr-submits-charter-revision-testimony-focused-on-land-use-and-police-accountability ruben bx brf

(photo: office of Ruben Diaz Jr.)


One week after the 2019 Charter Revision Commission held its final hearing in the Bronx and one day after its last borough hearing, but before the commission decides what proposals it will put before voters this fall, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. released his testimony to the commission on Wednesday.

While the 15-member charter commission, on which Diaz Jr. has one appointee, is considering a wide range of possible changes to city governance and elections, Diaz Jr. focused his written testimony on two crucial measures: land use and planning, and the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), which performs police oversight. He also touched on budgeting for the borough president offices. His testimony is in large part a reaction to the charter commission’s preliminary staff report, which helped narrow the commission’s likely focus areas as it headed into the now-completed final round of borough hearings and more deliberations.

Diaz Jr. is calling for more community input in land use matters, but not sweeping reforms to the process, and for more power for the CCRB, though he did not come out in favor of a popularly-elected CCRB (its members are currently appointed by several public officials). The CCRB was the focus of significant attention during the Bronx hearing of the charter commission held May 7, at which Diaz Jr. did not appear. And Diaz Jr. wants the charter to codify protections for budget allocations to the borough president offices.

While Diaz Jr. agrees with parts of the commission’s preliminary report on land use, he called the city’s current Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) process “insufficient.” He called for more comprehensive reviews of potential displacement from a proposed change in land use rules or a development project. Currently, the CEQR rules do not trigger a socioeconomic impact review until 500 residents or 100 jobs are at likely risk of displacement. Diaz Jr. called for a “lower threshold of estimated residential or commercial displacements,” but did not specify a number.

Diaz Jr. also recommended that the Charter Revision Commission “explore” a requirement for the chair of the City Planning Commission to need a two-thirds approval from the rest of the planning commission in order to be elected -- the chair is currently appointed by the mayor, while members of the commission are appointed by the mayor, public advocate, and borough presidents, and approved by the City Council. “This would give the borough presidents and public advocate a greater voice in the ULURP process, and give the chair greater accountability to all members of the City Planning Commission,” Diaz Jr.’s testimony reads.

He also suggested that the City Planning Commission either vote on certifying ULURP applications “out of the commission,” or that the relevant City Planning Commission Borough Commissioner should reserve the right to place a 30-day hold on certification in cases where they feel “additional consultation” with borough-level officials are needed.

Harkening to the contention over the proposal for a new jail in each of the four boroughs other than Staten Island that will in part make shuttering the Rikers Island jails possible, Diaz Jr. further suggested that when there’s a multi-site proposal like the jail plan, the charter “dictate unequivocally that each borough’s site must undergo a separate ULURP process, to avoid issues such as minimization of community input that is occurring in the jail siting process currently underway.”

Diaz Jr. has repeatedly slammed the process for grouping all four jail openings together, rather than allowing each borough separate input through the ULURP process, where the borough presidents and community boards have advisory input. Diaz Jr.’s charter commission appointee, former City Council Member Jimmy Vacca, advocated for the same idea in last week’s Bronx charter hearing.

Notably, Diaz Jr. did not call for major changes to the land use process, such as giving the borough president the power to effectively veto or restart negotiations on a development proposal. Though there appears to be a lot of discontent across the city about how land use decisions are made and a top-down approach from mayoral administrations, there has not been an apparent appetite among elected officials for sweeping alterations to ULURP.

Like land use, police accountability is a perpetually controversial topic in New York City, brought into particularly sharp relief this month given the NYPD administrative trial of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose chokehold led to Eric Garner’s 2014 death.

In his charter testimony, Diaz Jr. also wrote in support of the CCRB provisions included in the commission’s preliminary staff report, which advocate for increased transparency in the process, particularly in terms of the NYPD commissioner being required to explain when he or she differs with a CCRB recommendation in holding an officer accountable.

Diaz Jr.’s testimony expresses his support for guaranteed funding for the CCRB, at 1% of the annual NYPD budget, and creating a “non-binding disciplinary matrix to make discipline for violations clearer and more consistent.”

“This transparency will help restore faith in the good women and men of the NYPD who work so hard to keep us safe,” he wrote. Diaz Jr., who is overtly readying his run for mayor in the 2021 election, is among those attempting to toe the line between community activists and police reformers on one hand and a working relationship with the NYPD and its members’ labor unions on the other. It’s a balancing act that has at times confounded Mayor Bill de Blasio, among others.

Calling borough presidents' offices "conveners, constituent services providers, policy hubs, planning departments, and watchdog agencies" Diaz Jr. also called on the charter commission to protect the budgets of those offices. "Borough presidents’ budgets ought to be set with the current total allocation as a floor that shall not be decreased either in total for all borough presidents’ offices or for any individual borough president’s office. Increases should factor in any increases to the Department of City Planning’s Budget," he wrote in his testimony. Diaz Jr. said the "only exception" to that requirement would be in years when the city's financial picture includes a reduction in the expense budget.

This testimony is the first that Diaz Jr. has submitted to the charter revision commission. When asked on the Max & Murphy podcast in late March if he would submit testimony, he said, “Absolutely. I’m not here for window dressing.”

According to a Gotham Gazette review of Diaz Jr.'s recent schedules, he held an April 1 meeting with Vacca, his commission appointee.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Staten Island Borough President James Oddo both released testimony during early stages of the charter revision commission process, in September of 2018. Brewer also testified at the Manhattan borough hearing last week. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz have not submitted testimony to the commission.

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Diaz Jr. Submits Charter Revision Testimony Focused on Land Use and Police Accountability Wed, 15 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Ruben Diaz Jr. on the Bronx Jail Plan, Specialized High Schools and His Initial 2021 Pitch https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8405-ruben-diaz-jr-on-the-bronx-jail-plan-specialized-high-schools-and-his-initial-2021-pitch https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8405-ruben-diaz-jr-on-the-bronx-jail-plan-specialized-high-schools-and-his-initial-2021-pitch rdjr sotb

Ruben Diaz Jr. (photo: Victor Chu/Bronx BP)


Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. is in favor of closing the jails on Rikers Island but vehemently opposed to the joint de Blasio administration-City Council plan for a new jail site in the Bronx. Diaz Jr. isn’t against a new jail in his borough. Instead, he wants the city to use a different location, closer to the courthouse where defendants must appear, but that city officials say is less workable than their chosen site.

Diaz Jr. made his case during a recent appearance on the Max & Murphy show on WBAI radio just after the jail plan begin to move through the city’s official land use review process, known as ULURP, in which the borough president will have a formal but not binding say. In a unique twist, the city is also moving four jail projects -- one for each borough other than Staten Island -- through ULURP at the same time, which Diaz Jr. says “sets a bad precedent.”

[LISTEN: Max & Murphy Podcast: Ruben Diaz Jr.]

During the interview, Diaz Jr. also addressed admissions to the city’s specialized high schools and several other topics, while also giving, when asked, an early version of his 2021 mayoral pitch to voters. Diaz Jr. has said he plans to run for mayor in the next election, when Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration ends due to term-limits––part of what is likely to be a fairly crowded field of Democrats.

The city’s current plan to shutter Rikers Island jails includes building a new jail on an empty NYPD tow pound in Port Morris, a neighborhood in the South Bronx, but Diaz Jr. protests the lack of input from Bronx residents when the city decided on the plan. He said residents of Kew Gardens in Queens and Chinatown in Manhattan, where other jails are planned, have also protested the lack of community input. In both Brooklyn and Manhattan currently used jails will expand under the city’s plan.

As an alternative to the tow pound, Diaz Jr. pointed to lots on 161st Street in the Bronx, where the Bronx Supreme Court and family court are located. Criminal justice reformers advocate for close proximity between jails and courthouses and public transportation, which can alleviate detention time and ease access for families and defense attorneys. This level of access has posed a challenge on Rikers Island, which is considerably difficult to reach.

In response to Diaz Jr.’s plan, a de Blasio spokesperson said that a jail demands more space than is available on 161st Street, including some owned by the state. “What data do they have? They haven’t even examined the site,” Diaz Jr. countered. “Some of that space belongs to the state––and maybe they don’t want to get into it with the governor, because the mayor and the governor don’t get along,” he said, referring to the notoriously contentious relationship between Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio. But, Diaz Jr. said he already secured a commitment from the state -- he’s close with Governor Andrew Cuomo -- to relinquish the state property at his preferred site.

Asked about the disconnect between his rhetoric and the views of City Council Member Diana Ayala––who represents parts of northern Manhattan and the South Bronx, including the neighborhood with the tow pound in question, and has voiced her support for the new plan––Diaz Jr. said, “Respectfully, she doesn’t live in the Bronx part of the district.”

As conversation switched gears to the broader role of a borough president, Diaz Jr. said his team was putting forth recommendations to bolster the office’s legislative, voting, and budgetary power to the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, particularly concerning land use. His comments came two days after the charter revision commission’s final “expert” hearing, which focused on the role of borough presidents, during which several experts agreed that a revised charter should strengthen borough presidents’ legislative authority (some of the panel’s experts were former borough presidents themselves) but not make drastic changes to the limited powers of the position.

Diaz Jr. said he and his appointee to the commission, James Vacca, a former City Council Member from the Bronx, are still brainstorming proposals, but promised to publicize suggested reforms once they have formalized them. During the commission hearing on borough president powers, Vacca did not pose any questions to the expert panels about the position. Time is running thin for Diaz Jr. to make his recommendations and preferences for charter reform known.

The hosts also asked Diaz Jr. about one of the other hot recent political issues, that of standardized testing for the city’s highly-segregated specialized public schools, two of which are located in the Bronx. Currently, admission to eight of the nine specialized schools is based on a single test: the SHSAT (Laguardia High School is a specialized performing arts school). Mayor de Blasio is seeking to scrap the test and move to multi-measures and a system whereby the top 7% of each middle school graduating class has a seat at a specialized school, but received significant blowback from the city’s Asian-American community, which is significantly overrepresented in the schools relative to broader city population, while black and Hispanic communities are severely underrepresented.

“I agree that the status quo is not working. When you have slightly less than 11 percent of all seats at the eight specialized high schools offered to black and Latino students this year, there’s something fundamentally wrong with what we’re doing,” said Diaz Jr.

He suggested a more holistic admissions process, akin to Ivy League universities, that considers students’ GPA and extracurricular activities. “We should not be putting one community against the other. And this is where I disagree with the mayor and his rollout,” Diaz Jr. said. Last summer, when de Blasio announced his plan, Diaz Jr. released a statement calling it a “welcome step forward for fairness and equity in the public education system.” He has since changed his tune.

“What we need is to increase the amount of seats,” he said on Max & Murphy. “Only three of the high schools are codified by state law. The other five were created and we need to just create more if we have to.” He also called for more access to gifted and talented programs for students in every community.

Diaz Jr. also discussed the Jerome Avenue rezoning in the Bronx. The project, launched last March, promised to create new retail opportunities and thousands of new affordable housing units while protecting the tenants who were already there along the way, and making investments in the surrounding community as new population density was welcomed in.

Asked for his assessment of the initial year after the rezoning passed, Diaz Jr. said he was working with tenants rights organizations like CASA to prevent displacement (CASA leader Carmen Vega-Rivera recently told the charter revision commission she felt that the city’s outreach has been insufficient), but on the project’s overall effectiveness and the city’s ability to keep its promises, Diaz Jr. said, “The jury’s still out.”

Lastly, in light of Diaz Jr.’s less than covert plans to run for mayor, he spoke about his vision for New York City, when asked for his initial pitch to voters ahead of the 2021 election, which is expected to feature Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Comptroller Scott Stringer, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Diaz Jr., and perhaps others.

“We’re the best city on the planet. And yet, you have so many different communities in all the different boroughs who don’t feel they’re benefitting from the progress they see throughout the city,” Diaz Jr. said, in part, highlighting his efforts to bring jobs and housing to the Bronx, which he called “one of, if not the most, challenged borough in the city.”

Earlier this month, Diaz Jr. released his 2018 Bronx Annual Development Report, boasting high levels of investment and development in the borough, which he highlighted during his ninth State of the Borough address.

“As we speak of equity, that’s going to be the message here," Diaz Jr. said on Max & Murphy. "This is a city where we can provide a better future not just for some, but for all. And we can do this in a practical, pragmatic, progressive way.”

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Ruben Diaz Jr. on the Bronx Jail Plan, Specialized High Schools and His Initial 2021 Pitch Wed, 03 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Where Top Officials Stand on the SHSAT and Specialized High School Admissions https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8406-where-top-city-officials-stand-on-the-shsat-and-specialized-high-school-admissions https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8406-where-top-city-officials-stand-on-the-shsat-and-specialized-high-school-admissions de Blasio SHSAT

Mayor de Blasio announces specialized high schools plan (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


In June of 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio rolled out a plan to eliminate the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) for New York City’s specialized public high schools, in an effort to increase diversity, especially for black and Latino youth, at the city’s eight elite test-based institutions. Joined for a press conference in Brooklyn’s JHS 292 school by a Hunter College student, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, and a number of City Council members and State Assembly members, he hosted a rally-like announcement, where he initiated a call-and-response: “Time for change?” de Blasio asked three times. “Yes!” the audience yelled back.

“For thousands and thousands of students and neighborhoods all over New York City, the message has been these specialized schools aren’t for you,” de Blasio said in June. “So, the solution is simple: the test has to go.”

But it’s not simple. He received swift backlash from the city’s Asian-American community––especially those of low income, who comprise a significant portion of the specialized public high school student body. Though his plan was celebrated by some local politicians, as months passed, some began to shy away from their support for de Blasio’s plan and insisted on a more broadly palatable path.

De Blasio had not gotten much of the necessary buy-in to move his plan in the state Legislature -- state law dictates that the SHSAT is the sole criteria for entry into the three largest specialized high schools, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech -- the mayor did little else to push his plan, and the discussion fizzled.

Then came the news earlier this month that of the 895 students offered admission to Stuyvesant High School, the city’s most rigorous and exclusive public school, only seven of those students were black. The controversy reenergized the debate around school admissions, the SHSAT, the city’s larger school system, and other key issues, embroiling not only city politicians, but also those who work in Albany.

The latest data for admissions to Stuyvesant and the other specialized schools set off a new round of questioning the use of the SHSAT (few if any other learning institutions at any level across the country use a single test to determine admissions) and reinvigorated interest in plans put forth by de Blasio and others to ensure more racial and ethnic diversity at the schools. While those who prefer the current system dug in.

Governor Andrew Cuomo agreed the lack of diversity at the schools is a problem and said the city should change admissions at the five schools it controls and then put pressure on state legislators to follow suit for the other three. He did not offer any specifics on what he believes to be the right admissions criteria.

Neither Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie nor Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has taken a concrete position on the SHSAT and specialized high school admissions. Heastie did say on March 8 that he wants to see “more specialized slots” and the schools "more reflective of the city's population," but he did not go further. He said the Assembly majority would take the issue up at some point.

A group of state senators called for “open dialogue and consensus-building on school diversity and admissions.” Queens Senator John Liu, who chairs the Senate’s New York City schools subcommittee, said de Blasio’s plan exacerbates racial tension, but brought together colleagues to announce a plan to hold hearings later this year.

“What we need is open-mindedness and open dialogue in order to build a consensus for a plan going forward,” Liu said. Other senators echoed Liu, decrying the city’s diversity statistics and calling for a series of community forums, but neglecting to offer any other concrete solutions.

De Blasio said he looked forward to future dialogue. A couple of weeks later, on Thursday, he acknowledged that he did not roll out his plan well, and pledged more engagement with the city’s Asian communities.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson wrote an op-ed in Chalkbeat NY on Thursday in which he called for the eventual elimination of the use of the SHSAT for admissions to the city’s specialized high schools and for “additional City-designated elite high schools, separate from the eight test-based high schools governed by state law.” Johnson wrote that this process “would allow the [Department of Education] to pilot new admissions criteria that will promote diversity without needing state approval.”

Johnson also wrote that City Council will soon consider new legislation addressing diversity in specialized high schools and beyond, including a task force to determine new admissions criteria, codification of the School Diversity Advisory Group, establishing District Diversity Working Groups in each school district, and the creation of an oversight role housed in the city Human Rights Commission called a School Diversity Monitor.

"The problem with the specialized high schools’ admissions process runs much deeper than one test," said Council Member Mark Treyger, chair of the education committee, in a statement, noting that he will hold a hearing on school segregation next month. Treyger also cited an op-ed published in the New York Daily News on Wednesday by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who argued against eliminating the test and pushed for expanding gifted-and-talented programs citywide.

"I won’t support a plan that solely abolishes an exam, which was essentially the Mayor’s plan," Treyger said. "I’m open to a plan that includes revamping and expanding enrichment programs, adding more crucial seats, across all districts, particularly in communities of color. We must engage with all marginalized communities as we examine how to better integrate schools, from pre-k to high school. We need full integration, which means examining evidence-based multiple measures to enter specialized schools, and the pipeline of schools that populate them and the rest of our school system."

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams initially backed de Blasio’s plan to eliminate the use of the SHSAT and move to multiple measures for admissions to the specialized schools, even appearing at the announcement to lend his support, but he then backtracked.

Adams penned an op-ed in the Amsterdam News last July voicing his support for the SHSAT––with caveats. He called for “free preparatory services for every student who wants to take the SHSAT but faces economic hardship,” funded by the city, in addition to expanding middle school gifted and talented programs. Additionally, he advocated creating five new specialized high schools, one per borough, and incorporating other academic metrics like class performance into the admissions process. This week, Adams’ office told the Gotham Gazette that his position remains the same.

After de Blasio announced his plan, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. also voiced his support, calling it a “welcome step forward” and a “validation of the diligent work of so many elected officials, educators, activists and parents whose efforts have focused on this issue for years, if not decades.” Like Adams, he has since walked back his support, telling the Max & Murphy podcast this week that he favors a more holistic admissions approach that includes the SHSAT in addition to a number of other academic criteria.

Asked for her position by Gotham Gazette, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer advocated for methods of improving diversity beyond eliminating the entrance exam and also called for community forums. The city should engage in “a back and forth with students and parents about the many options to reform the admissions at these specific high schools,” she said.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer has not responded to a request for comment.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Note - This article has been updated with comment from Council Member Mark Treyger, who chairs the Committee on Education.

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Where Top Officials Stand on the SHSAT and Specialized High School Admissions Thu, 28 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8396-max-murphy-podcast-bronx-borough-president-ruben-diaz-jr https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8396-max-murphy-podcast-bronx-borough-president-ruben-diaz-jr 1rubendiazjr

Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits


March 27, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

ruben diaz jr 150Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. joined the show to discuss a variety of topics, including the fight over a jail site in the Bronx, reforming admissions to the city's specialized high schools, his initial 2021 mayoral pitch to voters, and more.

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. Wed, 27 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Rep. Serrano’s Retirement and a Looming Rumble in the Bronx https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8394-rep-serrano-s-retirement-and-a-looming-rumble-in-the-bronx https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8394-rep-serrano-s-retirement-and-a-looming-rumble-in-the-bronx rubendiazjr richie torres cm

Rep. Serrano, BP Diaz Jr., CM Torres (l-r) (photo: @rubendiazjr)


It’s time for a rumble in the Bronx. After 29 years in Congress and 44 years in elected office, Congressional Rep. José Serrano has decided to retire from office. Together with the likes of Herman Badillo, José Rivera, Robert Garcia, Gerena Valentin, and Ramon Velez in the Bronx, Serrano has been a pioneering figure within the Latino/Puerto Rican political landscape in New York City.

Serrano fought at the frontlines for Latino political representation at a time when Puerto Ricans were left out of the political equation despite their burgeoning numbers. Serrano, and the rest, fought arduously for this long-sought-after recognition. Their hard work paid off. Serrano won an Assembly seat in 1975.

While Serrano’s early work to gain Latino political representation is not debatable, the rest of his legacy is more dubious. Serrano has not been known for any sort of legislative prowess. The South Bronx, which he represents, has long been a poverty stricken area that has seen scant federal resources for decades, despite Serrano’s long tenure in Congress.

As a result of this record, observers like long-time political operative Mike Nieves had surmised that a formidable and credible candidate could defeat Serrano. No one ever did.

Serrano’s legacy notwithstanding, the eyes of our political world will now turn to the 15th Congressional district in the Bronx to see who will succeed him in Congress.

The timing of Serrano’s retirement announcement coincides with City Council Member Ritchie Torres’ own recent announcement that he would challenge the incumbent representative for the seat. In a previous column, I mentioned that Torres would be one to watch as we eye the future of Latino politics in the city. His intellectual abilities, grasp of public policy, and ability to articulate his view have deservedly caught people’s attention.

Torres is clearly a formidable candidate for the “open” congressional seat. Most of his Council district, which he first won in 2013, lies within Serrano’s Congressional district. After six years in the Council, Torres has been able to gain some recognition among voters for his work on behalf of his constituents, particularly in areas affecting NYCHA residents.

Various other names are being floated at this nascent stage. Among them are former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Mark-Viverito has just come off a dismal showing in her race for the citywide position of public advocate. Yet she still holds some name recognition, particularly among Latinos.

Her home congressional district is currently represented by Adriano Espaillat but since there are no in-district residency requirements for a congressional seat, she could still make a play for the Serrano seat.

Then there is Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, who is also the Bronx Democratic leader. Crespo’s Assembly district lies entirely within Serrano’s Congressional district and he would therefore potentially go into a race of this sort with a natural base of followers. Some will question his alliance with Council Member Ruben Diaz, Sr., who has been challenged for repeated homophobic statements and positions. But given Crespo’s potential to capitalize on some of the resources that would naturally come his way by virtue of his party position, he would quickly be considered a leading candidate for the position.

Yet another recent public advocate candidate might also throw his hat in the ring. Since Michael Blake’s election to the Assembly, and then his appointment to be a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, rumors have swirled that he would one day challenge José Serrano.

That day never came. But this opening can provide an opportunity for Blake. Despite losing the public advocate race, Blake won his home borough of the Bronx and did fairly well in the portion covering Serrano’s Congressional district.

And if he’s the only African-American in the race, that could also create a path to victory for Blake. With multiple formidable Latino candidates, a strong African-American candidate could win the seat.

Almost a third of the Democratic electorate in this Congressional district is African-American. Over 55 percent is Latino. If the race takes an ethnic path, that could lead to a split Latino vote and a more consolidated African American vote.

Then there’s state Senator Gustavo Rivera. Rivera, first elected in 2010, represents a swath of Serrano’s district in the state Senate. He has earned admiration from many progressives for standing up to the Bronx political machinery and for policies that progressives have long championed.

Lastly, if he were to step up, one elected official who could clear many if not all in the field would be Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. Diaz, Jr. is known throughout the borough and remains popular among many voters. Furthermore, this district has always been his home district -- he represented parts of it in the Assembly for 13 years.

Diaz Jr.’s capable communications guru, John DeSio, has tweeted that the borough president is not interested in the position. The borough president appears focused on launching a mayoral bid. But politics is practical and a congressional run could be an easier path to victory than a citywide mayoral race.

All this is conjecture, of course. What’s certain is that we can expect a free-for-all for the position ahead of the 2020 vote, and thus another rumble in the Bronx.

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Eli Valentin teaches political science at Monroe College and is a frequent guest political analyst on Univision NY. On Twitter @EliValentinNY.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Rep. Serrano’s Retirement and a Looming Rumble in the Bronx Wed, 27 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000