Gotham Gazette Tue, 20 Apr 2021 07:03:58 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) The Next Essential Step in New York’s Climate Future protest climate act

Climate March (photo: Paige Polk/Mayoral Photography Office)

Over the last year, New York has moved heaven and earth to combat the pandemic ravaging our nation. Despite the heroic efforts of so many New Yorkers, years of apathy and systemic injustice left communities of color and low-income families vulnerable. But this experience is simply a preview of the wide-scale devastation that will be caused by our greatest challenge yet, climate change –– and the environmental injustice currently faced by those same communities across our state.

Fighting the climate crisis requires New Yorkers to mobilize on an even greater scale –– COVID-19 has been a disaster in our state, but climate change threatens the survival of humanity. To overcome these challenges, our society cannot continue to ignore the pleas and warnings from the communities on the front line of this struggle. Now that a new New York state budget has passed, we must turn our attention to urgent legislative priorities –– and climate justice must be at the top of the list.

The South Bronx, like many communities of color in the United States, has battled injustice after injustice for much of its existence, from decades of redlining to the incessant exercise of police brutality to chronically poor air quality. For years, the South Bronx has been sucked dry of its resources and has served as a dumping ground for New York City's waste. 

Hunts Point is home to the world's second largest food center yet the families who live on the surrounding blocks of this neighborhood face some of the worst food insecurity in the entire state of New York. Almost one third of New York City’s trash is processed in the South Bronx, while Manhattan processes virtually none. Industrial plants and corporations pour tons of air contaminants into our neighborhoods, leaving the Bronx with some of the highest asthma and covid death rates.

As Victor describes it, living in the South Bronx means that every time you step outside, you are reminded that New York government doesn't care about you. This abuse has left communities with generational scars and persistent economic inequality, environmental injustice, and crumbling infrastructure. Organizers in the Bronx have been fighting for justice for their communities for decades, but their proposals have long been ignored. Never has there been a more urgent time for the leaders in our state – both legislative and executive – to listen and decisively act.

We have an opportunity to do what is right for the future of these communities and all New Yorkers – and make amends for the damage that has been done. Now is our chance to transform our city and state and safeguard our environment, by passing the Climate and Community Investment Act (CCIA).

The CCIA would generate upwards of $15 billion in annual revenue by putting a fee on corporate polluters who emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Those funds would be invested into renewable energy production, manufacturing and energy efficiency, while prioritizing the communities most impacted by pollution and climate change. The legislation builds on the landmark Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) of 2019, which put New York on a path to reaching net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, while centering environmental justice. The CCIA will help New York meet the crucial goals laid out in the CLCPA and further ensure a just transition to sustainable energy sources. 

Through the CCIA, we will fund ethical development that creates green jobs for communities in urban and rural settings. We will have growth and development without the sacrifice of communities and ecosystems. We will fund mental health infrastructure, create community land trusts, and build better schools with more engaged students. This is a future that benefits all New Yorkers.

2021 is calling on us to act. Facing COVID-19 and climate change, our solutions must be equitable and empathetic. Enacting the CCIA is our opportunity to steer away from climate disaster while giving back the future that was stolen from so many. This is the State Legislature’s chance to make sure that no New Yorker wakes up feeling disregarded or dispensable; a feeling that residents of the South Bronx have lived with for so many years. That is why we support the passage of the CCIA in New York, and it is why we urge all New Yorkers to join us. We need only to act, and a bold future will follow.

State Senator Alessandra Biaggi represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester in District 34. Victor Davila is Action Program Manager/Community Organizer with The Point CDC. On Twitter @Biaggi4NY & @THEPOINTCDC.

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The Next Essential Step in New York’s Climate Future Mon, 12 Apr 2021 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Gustavo Rivera on the New State Budget state senator gustavo rivera

State Senator Gustavo Rivera (photo: New York Senate)

April 7, 2021 - Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Gustavo Rivera on the New State Budget

State Senator Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx Democrat, joined the show to discuss the new state budget, key highlights from the massive spending plan, and what's next.

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

Max & Murphy · Episode 288

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Gustavo Rivera on the New State Budget Wed, 07 Apr 2021 04:00:00 +0000
What the New State Budget Means for New York City maj leader andrea

Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins & Mayor de Blasio (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature approved a $212 billion state budget this week, an immense spending plan bolstered by new state tax increases on the wealthy and massive federal aid, with major investments in education, infrastructure, the green economy, rent relief, benefits for undocumented immigrants, child care, and more. The budget includes direct and indirect support for New York City, aimed at reviving its economy and aiding its residents as the city begins to claw its way out of the throes of the coronavirus pandemic.

From rent relief to support for small businesses and tax credits for property owners and tourism, the state budget contains a great deal of aid for New York City and its residents, as well as a number of policy initiatives that impact the city. The state budget adoption now sets the stage for the city to move ahead with its annual budget process, with an updated spending plan for next fiscal year due from Mayor Bill de Blasio later this month, and a new city budget due by the July 1 start to the new fiscal year.

The highlights of the state deal -- reached among the two Democratic legislative majorities and the third-term Democratic governor embroiled in several major scandals -- include:

Education Aid
Education activists cheered the state budget deal for including increased funding for schools. The budget directs $29.5 billion to schools statewide, including a $1.4 billion increase in Foundation Aid to the neediest schools. Though the aid will be phased in over three years, New York City alone stands to receive as much as $1 billion more annually.

“Generations of parents, community leaders and students across New York State, year after year, have led the advocacy to hold New York to the promise of a sound, basic education for every child,” said Jasmine Gripper, executive director of Alliance for Quality Education, an education advocacy group. “Parents, educators and students put their bodies and hearts into this difficult, but necessary fight. This victory shows the power of the people, the power of never giving up, the power of ‘we,’ and it belongs to all of us.”

The budget also adds other streams of funding, largely from the federal government, that should benefit the city including $13 billion in federal funds to help schools across the state reopen and $500 million for emergency assistance to nonpublic schools and reimbursements to school districts for transportation costs.

Colleges and universities also saw an increase in the budget with $7.7 billion in funding, up by $283 million compared with last year, and a tuition freeze imposed on CUNY and SUNY over three years. There are also increases in state tuition assistance for low-income students, and other programs to bolster New York’s public universities and their students. This is on top of billions headed to New York higher education institutions from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan.

Still, the state budget is short of the “New Deal for CUNY” that some advocates and legislators had been pushing, funded by major tax increases that did not occur.

“But in a year that cried out for bold investment in public higher education and an end to racist austerity for the Black and brown communities CUNY serves, Albany missed the opportunity to pass a transformative budget for CUNY,” said Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY. “Rejecting a tuition increase without adding the funds to replace the lost revenue will ultimately undermine the quality of education CUNY can offer. CUNY needs investment on a larger scale if it is to recover from decades of underfunding and realize its potential for the people of New York. A fully funded CUNY would be a linchpin of a recovery that not only rebuilds New York, but reimagines it.”

Tax Increases and Cuts
Though Governor Cuomo has long opposed increasing taxes on the wealthy, his politically tenuous position this year made it possible for the Legislature to override his wishes, though not nearly to the extent that the Invest in Our New York coalition had been pushing for, with a series of tax increases on individuals, corporations, and transactions that it said would raise tens of billions of dollars in new revenue.

The budget includes a personal income tax surcharge on the state’s highest earners to raise $2.7 billion and a corporate franchise tax to raise $750 million in the first year, according to the governor. The corporate franchise tax will be in place for three years and the surcharge for six years. Wealthy New York City residents will effectively pay the highest marginal tax rate in the country because of the additional local income tax, sparking warnings of flight (or lack of return) by some number of top earners.

The budget also includes the next step in a multi-year middle-class tax cut that the governor estimated will save more than $2.2 billion for 4.8 million New Yorkers. And it provides pass-through of $2.3 billion in federal funds to expand the child care tax credit. It also includes $440 million in tax credits for homeowners with incomes up to $250,000 if their total property tax exceeds a fixed percentage of their income.

“By raising essential revenue from the wealthiest New Yorkers to support low-income, immigrant and Black and brown communities, we are starting to build a state where all of us can afford to live,” said Invest in Our New York Coalition campaign manager Rebecca Bailin. “This revenue will make possible historic investments to fund our public schools, create a first-in-the-nation fund for excluded workers, and stop many of the dangerous cuts that Governor Cuomo imposed on our communities.”

“However, our state leaders failed to raise anywhere near the full extent of revenue within reach. Many of the investments necessary to build a New York that lets us all thrive were left unfunded,” Bailin continued, going on to specifically cite a lack of attention on reducing and preventing homelessness. She also said that by not going further on tax increases, the state is not on sound long-term fiscal footing given much of this budget relies on federal stimulus.

That structural medium- to long-term state budget question is shared across the political spectrum, even as the proposed solutions differ greatly, as did the responses to the tax increases that are in the new budget.

In its reaction to the budget, Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit think tank and watchdog, praised many of the state actions to help suffering New Yorkers, but questioned the tax increases.

“Unfortunately, the State’s leaders did not appropriately leverage the opportunity provided by the infusion of funds to stabilize New York’s fiscal picture and maintain its economic competitiveness, which would best sustain the State’s ability to help all New Yorkers over time,” said CBC President Andrew Rein. “Despite having $22 billion more in funds available over the next two years than when the Governor proposed the budget in January, leaders agreed to raise personal income and business taxes and to use some portion of federal funds to inflate spending that likely cannot be supported in the out-years.”

“The tax increases simply are unnecessary and economically risky,” Rein continued. “Sufficient resources already are available to New York’s governments, people, businesses, and institutions to address the continued substantial needs. Additionally, the tax increases both provide incentive for highly taxed New Yorkers to leave or not return to the State, and increase the cost of doing business here. Furthermore, using temporary federal funds to support recurring spending sets the stage for future budget cuts or tax increases when the federal aid is exhausted.”

Transit Funding
The state budget restored hundreds of millions of dollars to the MTA that Cuomo had planned to redirect to the state’s general fund even as the transit authority was facing fiscal ruin and proposing a fare hike.

“By restoring transit funding, the budget saves riders from service cuts and fare hikes,” said Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director for Riders Alliance, a transit advocacy group, in a statement. "Now that legislators have stopped governor's raids, and with $15 billion in federal aid, there is no excuse for hiking transit fares or cutting service. The governor must work with legislative leaders to protect fares and service while ridership recovers,” he added.

The MTA is also getting about $6 billion from the federal government in order to retain staff and keep service levels up despite massive reductions in subway, bus, and commuter rail ridership and thus revenue.

Renter and Homeowner Relief
The budget creates a $2.4 billion program using state and federal funding to help New Yorkers pay back-rent and utility bills for the last 12 months. The program will be invaluable for city residents who owe as much as $1 billion in rent in sum, according to a survey by Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP), an organization that represents more than 4,000 landlords in the city.

Additionally, the budget includes $600 million in homeowner assistance and $25 million for blighted home rejuvenation.

“This program will deliver more than $2 billion to renters in need, while also helping housing providers who have been struggling to make ends meet,” said Jay Martin, Executive Director of CHIP, in a statement. “It is a product of thoughtful work by State Legislators, under difficult conditions, to deliver for New Yorkers. This program is also a thorough rejection of the #CancelRent movement and rightly seeks to help property owners continue to provide safe affordable housing. We encourage the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) to quickly implement this program so renters get help in weeks, not months.”

Housing and Homelessness
The budget invests $100 million for converting distressed and unused hotels and office buildings into affordable housing, which could make an impact in New York City where those buildings have emptied as people transitioned to working from home and tourism came to a standstill.

The budget also includes $200 million for the New York City Housing Authority, a sum advocates and some legislators called far too paltry for the housing authority home to about half-a-million people and in need of roughly $40 billion in capital upgrades.

There was also significant disappointment among advocates and some legislators that the new state budget does not include new funding for housing vouchers to help people leave homelessness.

“This budget provides no meaningful relief to the over 92,000 New Yorkers sleeping in shelters and streets across the state, nor did it make critical investments to reverse historically high overdose deaths that continue to grow,” said Bailin of Invest in Our New York. “The budget does not guarantee the state can continue to fund schools, healthcare and housing for the long-term.”

Small Business Relief
The state budget contains $1 billion in relief for small businesses, arts, entertainment, and restaurants, all industries that have been decimated by the pandemic, and on top of the billions in federal aid headed to New York for such businesses and programs. About $800 million of that funding will be awarded in grants to small businesses, including arts and cultural institutions. Another $25 million will be granted to restaurants that provide food to “distressed and under-represented communities,” according to the governor’s office.

The budget also includes $35 million to provide tax credits to restaurants and $40 million in grants for nonprofit arts and cultural organizations.

Relief for Undocumented Immigrants
Progressive lawmakers scored a massive victory with the approval of a $2.1 billion “excluded workers” fund to provide direct cash payments to some number of the estimated 500,000 undocumented immigrants who are ineligible for unemployment insurance or federal stimulus relief.

“New York’s Fund for Excluded Workers will be the first entirely State run and State funded program in the nation to bring relief to individuals excluded from government-issued economic relief,” said a press release from Queens State Senator Jessica Ramos, who pushed for the fund and also credited Assembly sponsor Carmen De La Rosa of Manhattan, and the many groups who advocated for it, an effort that included a hunger strike over the past few weeks.

According to Ramos’ office, eligible New Yorkers can receive a $15,600 payment or a $3,200 payment, depending on what they can prove about residency and income loss.

“From Brooklyn to Buffalo, hundreds of thousands of immigrant New York families will now have access to unemployment assistance  through the first-of-its-kind program in the nation,” said Murad Awawdeh, interim co-executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, in a statement. “Because of the Excluded Worker Fund, immigrant New York families will be able to to pay their rent, feed their families and buy diapers, formula and other essentials to help their families get through this challenging time. Additionally, the 2022 budget ensures that countless low-income New Yorkers will have access to a lawyer when they face the country’s immigration courts.”

The budget also includes a $10 million Liberty Defense Fund for free legal assistance for undocumented immigrants.

The budget funds a $311 billion infrastructure program, according to Cuomo, which includes funding toward a massive redevelopment proposal for Midtown West in Manhattan. It includes a $16 billion proposal to renovate Penn Station, eight new tracks to expand its capacity, and an extension of the High Line to the recently opened Moynihan Train Hall. 

Among the major investments is $29 billion for public and private green energy projects.

Low-Cost Broadband
As part of the budget, the Legislature approved the Comprehensive Broadband Connectivity Act, which directs the Public Service Commission to study broadband access across the state. The budget also mandates that low-income households should receive broadband plans for as low as $15 a month. Those low-cost plans will be particularly helpful in New York City where almost 20% of residents don’t have access to high-speed internet at home or on a mobile device.

A crucial industry for New York City, tourism all but disappeared during the pandemic. In 2019, the city saw tourism peak with 66.6 million visitors, according to the city-run NYC & Company. Last year, the number of tourists decreased to just 22.3 million. The state budget aims to boost those numbers with $100 million set aside over two years for the New York City Musical and Theatrical Production Tax Credit.

Public Safety
As part of the budget, the Legislature approved the Community Violence Intervention Act, which declares gun violence a public health crisis and provides funds for violence intervention programs.

“In an historic statement, New York became the first state to officially declare gun violence a public health crisis, and is responding accordingly by establishing a fund for violence intervention and interruption programs that serve our communities,” said a press release from State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat.

“Today, we are sending an unmistakable message: gun violence is an epidemic in communities across New York State, and we must take a proactive approach to address it,” said Myrie. “Violence intervention and interruption programs have a research-based, proven model for breaking the cycle of handgun violence that plagues our streets and takes the life of an estimated one in forty Black boys in America.”

Myrie reported that the budget includes “$10 million to hospital-based violence intervention programs and community-based violence interruption programs, and dedicates ten percent of New York’s federally-funded Victims of Crime Act funding to these groups in future years. These programs provide a credible, non-police response to gun violence, and have a remarkable track record of success in the communities most vulnerable to gun violence.”

The budget also provides an additional $25 million for the Securing Communities Against Hate Crime Program and $15 million for health and safety outreach to communities disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Amid spikes in hate crimes against Asian-Americans, Myrie reported that the new state budget includes “a $19.5 million investment in additional support for the Asian-American community,” including “$10 million to Asian-American community-based organizations to support short- and long- term programming to address inequalities, support racial healing and promote relief and recovery from the pandemic. The Budget further provides $2.5 million for enhanced data disaggregation at the State Health Department, to better assess the needs facing New Yorkers of Asian descent.”

Elections, Voting and Democracy
The budget includes $25 million in capital funding to modernize state and local voting infrastructure. It also gives $2 million to local boards of elections and $1 million to the state BOE to enact voting reforms.

It also allocates $4 million to the Independent Redistricting Commission, which will begin the process of redrawing legislative and congressional districts this year based on data from the 2020 Census.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

What the New State Budget Means for New York City Wed, 07 Apr 2021 04:00:00 +0000
State Legislature on Verge of Passing Bill to Restore Voting Rights to People on Parole Legislature on Verge of Passing Legislation to Restore Voting Rights for Parolees

Voters (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

A bill to restore the voting rights of people on parole is moving through the New York State Legislature and could land on Governor Andrew Cuomo's desk this spring, according to the bill's Assembly sponsor. Assemblymember Daniel O'Donnell told Gotham Gazette the legislation, which was passed in the State Senate in February, is likely to pass the Assembly "soon" after the state budget is finalized. 

"I expect our house to take up the bill shortly. What does shortly mean or what does soon mean depends on when the budget is moved," said O'Donnell, a Democrat representing parts of the Upper West Side and Harlem, in a phone interview Monday. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Legislature appeared on track to pass all the necessary state budget bills by the following day.

The bill would codify a two-year-old policy, enacted through executive order by Governor Andrew Cuomo, to restore voting rights for New Yorkers on parole, reversing a longtime contributor to the mass disenfranchisement of Black and Latino people across the state. It would also require people leaving correctional custody be given notice of their rights and a voter registration form, and includes a public outreach program to educate criminal justice professionals.

"There is no justification for denying someone who is living a law-abiding life the opportunity to vote," O'Donnell said. Because of the strictures of parole supervision, "the reality is that if you are on parole successfully you are living a law-abiding life."

There were roughly 31,000 people on parole in New York last November, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which analyzed state correctional data obtained under the Freedom of Information Law. Forty-seven percent of them were Black.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Cuomo announced his office had reached an agreement on the budget with Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, less than a week after the April 1 start of the new fiscal year. The last day lawmakers will be in session this year is June 10, according to the current legislative calendar, though that is subject to change.

Representatives for Cuomo and Heastie did not return requests for comment for this story. The Senate version of the bill, introduced by Sen. Leroy Comrie, a Queens Democrat, passed on February 24.

A version of the franchise restoration bill was first introduced in the State Legislature in the 2009-2010 legislative session, according to the Senate website, when Democrats briefly controlled the chamber. While a raft of long-stagnant voting reforms has moved forward under the new Democratic control, which since 2019 has extended to both houses of the Legislature and the governor's office, rights restoration has stayed on the back-burner.

In April 2019, Cuomo signed an executive order to do much the same thing. It restored voting rights to people on parole, but through a conditional pardon system entailing a review and approval of each case by the Cuomo administration. By December, over 49,000 New Yorkers were re-enfranchised, though for roughly 8,000 of them in that initial eight-month span it was only to have those rights revoked either for a parole violation or a new conviction. At the time, officials wouldn't say how many eligible individuals still were not re-enfranchised after the administration's review. Black people in New York City are 12 times more likely to be locked up for parole violations than white people, according to the Center for Employment Opportunity, a reentry service provider.

From 2010 to 2020, the average length of parole was 2.5 years, not including individuals sentenced to parole for life, according to the Brennan Center.

"Part of restoration and second chances should also include your opportunity to participate in the complete civic process," said Victor Pate, an organizer with HALT Solitary, a successful statewide campaign to reform New York's use of solitary confinement. "Once you have been incarcerated and you have been released then it is considered your debt has been paid to society."

Voting rights are also "a core piece of a person's constitutional right to be able to participate wholly and completely in the process," said Pate, who since his release from prison over two decades ago has been an advocate for criminal justice reform including rights restoration legislation. He is part of a coalition of formerly-incarcerated New Yorkers and grassroots organizations pushing for other prison reforms as well, including a bill known as the "fair and timely parole" act to change parole standards and another called the "elder parole bill" to give people over 55 who have served more than 15 years of their sentence the opportunity for parole. "For me, I think there could be no better way to show that we are a system of forgiveness and redemption and second chances," he said.

Advocates like Pate say the re-enfranchisement legislation will improve upon the current executive order by making rights restoration permanent, seamless, and less discretionary, guaranteeing re-enfranchisement immediately upon release from custody. Currently, conditional pardons come with a lag time after release and the entire system could be dismantled by a future governor.

"It's not that this bill will give voting rights to a large class of people that are currently disenfranchised but it makes that policy more permanent...and it also makes the process for restoration more automatic, more transparent, and easier for folks to understand," said Sean Morales-Doyle, a voting rights expert at the Brennan Center, in an interview. The legislation is a top priority for voting reform groups and has for years been on the agenda for the Let NY Vote coalition, a group of organizations pushing statewide election changes.

There is some urgency to enact the legislation now, he said, noting the upcoming June primaries in New York City, when the next mayor of the heavily-Democratic city will likely be chosen. The last day to register to vote before the primaries is May 28. "One of the main benefits of this bill passing is to give clarity and to give people an opportunity to participate. It's important that we not let elections continue to pass by without that clarity," he said -- especially when there seems to be a philosophical agreement across the branches of state government.

The bill requires the state to provide notice to individuals about when their voting rights are revoked and reinstated following involvement in the criminal legal system.

O'Donnell told Gotham Gazette he does not believe the bill will come at a cost to taxpayers; though he did suggest the public education component could be conducted through advertisements on television or at government agencies.

Felony disenfranchisement has been a part of the New York State Consitution since the 19th Century when it was added to circumvent the 15th Amendment, which prohibited racial disenfranchisement following the de jure end of American Slavery. Before that, New York was the only state in the country that required Black men to own land in order to vote, according to a 2009 Brennan Center report entitled "Jim Crow in New York."

Another bill, introduced in 2019 by Senator Kevin Parker and Assemblymember Nily Rozic, both New York City Democrats, is intended to restore voting rights for people who are incarcerated. The legislation does not include a constitutional amendment, which means it could pave the way for the issue to be decided in the courts, if it is ever passed.

Morales-Doyle sees a symbolic element in passing re-enfranchisement legislation, on top of the practical one. "The effects that we are seeing now of a disproportionate disenfranchisement of Black and Latinx voters is exactly what was intended right from the start and it is a shameful relic of Jim Crow still on the books in New York," he said.

Many Black and Latino New Yorkers most directly harmed by racial disparities in policing and the courts "are legally locked out of participating through democracy. They are disenfranchised as a matter of law," he pointed out.

For some New Yorkers, having voting rights restored means having the chance to vote for the first time. Billy Davis, a Rochester resident who has been on parole for the past decade, was arrested when he was 17 -- before he reached voting age -- and spent the next roughly 20 years in prison.

"It feels like you're being left out," he said over the phone Monday. "It feels like you have no choice other than to do something negative as opposed to trying to do something the right way."

Davis' voting rights were restored two years ago under Cuomo's conditional pardon. He says he was told he had the right to vote "one day and I just went down and registered and I've been voting ever since. It gave me the opportunity. You can make a complaint about it or try to do something about it, you know?"

"It gives you a choice because it's always choices at the end of the day," he said. "That's how I think about life anyway -- making decisions, right or wrong."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

State Legislature on Verge of Passing Bill to Restore Voting Rights to People on Parole Tue, 06 Apr 2021 04:00:00 +0000
With Significant Federal Aid on the Way, CUNY Awaits Key State Budget Decisions cuny fvm cha

CUNY amid COVID (photo: Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez)

On the second Thursday of March in 2020, all City University of New York campuses closed their doors to students indefinitely, following an announcement the previous day from CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodriguez that the university would transition to a remote format due to the coronavirus pandemic.

This Thursday — April 1, 2021 — is the first day of New York State’s 2021-2022 fiscal year, when a new state budget is due, though it may be slightly late as in several other recent years. The new state budget will answer some key questions about the future of CUNY and the hundreds of thousands of students, professors, staff, and others who are part of the massive university system or rely on it in some way. The budget comes amid great uncertainty due to the ongoing pandemic and its extensive damages, but also as massive federal aid is flowing to New York, including hundreds of millions of dollars directly to CUNY, vaccinations are moving ahead, and the economy is reopening.

Schools across New York are eyeing a full return to in-person classes for the fall. As the state budget is being negotiated among Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislators from the State Senate and Assembly, there is a push being made by some lawmakers, advocates, and others -- including PSC-CUNY --, for the deal to include passage of large tax increases on the wealthy and corporations in order to fund, among other priorities, the “New Deal for CUNY,” which would eliminate undergraduate tuition for New Yorkers and raise adjunct salaries to match those of full-time professors, among other things.

State funding covers about 60% of CUNY’s operating budget for its senior colleges and their entire capital budgets, while student tuition provides about 40%, according to the Professional Staff Congress — CUNY’s faculty and staff union. The New York City government contributes more toward the community colleges, though the state provides about a third of their operating budgets. And the state also “helps students through the Tuition Assistance Program, subsidized loans, and specialized scholarship and grant programs,” as well as “the Education Opportunity, SEEK and College Discovery programs which benefit many low-income minority students at CUNY,” according to the PSC analysis. Several of those programs have faced recent funding cuts.

Amid the pandemic and its ensuing economic crisis, CUNY had already been under a hiring freeze due to state-imposed budget cuts while it was also being pushed to increase pay for adjunct professors, who work part-time and on contract. 

In December 2019, the CUNY Board of Trustees voted to raise tuition and fees by $320 per student per year during a monthly meeting at Baruch College, as student- and professor-led protests erupted in the meeting room and, after the meeting was closed to only board members and press, in the halls and lobby of the college. On February 3, 2020, shortly before the pandemic hit New York and forced the state into a near-shutdown, the central CUNY administration and the PSC ratified a new salary contract, which included pay increases for adjuncts and back pay to 2017.

COVID-19 pushed the university to transition fully online on March 11, 2020, spelling unforeseen and immense change for CUNY and its many stakeholders, including to the university’s financial situation.

In March 2020, the federal government passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, which included a Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. As part of this fund, money was allocated to universities to provide grants to students in financial need due to losing their jobs because of the pandemic and for institutional costs, such as paying professors and making up for lost tuition revenue. CUNY received just under $237 million from the CARES Act, which was then reallocated among the individual campuses. 

In June 2020, CUNY laid off over 400 adjunct professors by either cutting their classes or not sending them reappointment notices. Not only did the fired faculty members lose their salaries, but many also lost health insurance, during a pandemic, as a portion of adjunct professors receive insurance from the university. 

Additionally, CUNY failed to begin implementing a 2% salary increase for staff and an equity pay increase for assistants to higher education officers, full-time but low-level positions, by its February 1 deadline. After protests were planned to take place outside of Matos Rodriguez’s home, CUNY decided to reverse its decision to postpone these pay increases.

Now, as the state budget is about to be passed — with the city budget due July 1 — it remains to be seen whether state funding for CUNY will be cut, especially as more federal funds come in. Governor Cuomo has in the recent past used federal funds as rationale for pulling back state funds.

On March 18, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate majority leader, announced that more than $2.6 billion will be allocated to New York colleges and universities as part of the recently passed American Rescue Plan. Of this amount, approximately $836 million will go toward CUNY colleges. For public colleges and universities, half of their allotted American Rescue Plan funding has to go to emergency financial aid grants to help students with housing, food, and healthcare. The other half will go to institutional costs and additional student support services.

“As New York’s colleges, universities, and students face over a year of unprecedented hurdles, they do so at a steep cost that it is our responsibility to address and overcome,” Schumer said. “In prioritizing the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff, New York’s higher education institutions have ripped massive holes in their budgets and are now facing down financial devastation – and we simply can’t let that happen. As Majority Leader, I was proud to make funding for New York’s higher education institutions and students a top priority, and the American Rescue Plan will deliver this much needed $2.6 billion in assistance to help our world-class institutions through the crisis, get students safely back to classes, and get campuses across the state back to ‘normal.’”

“Increased CUNY funding and the New Deal for CUNY legislation are critical to building an inclusive economy and a stronger university,” Bowen told Gotham Gazette in a new statement. “New York is on the cusp of reversing the pattern of planned poverty for CUNY that has systematically denied students the resources and support they need. To reverse that pattern — and to address the structural underfunding of New York State — the final budget must include at least the $7 billion in increased revenue supported by both the Senate and the Assembly. Revenue is the key; the pandemic revealed the damage that has been done by decades of racialized austerity. History will judge us on whether we had the political will to undo that damage.”

Schumer’s announcement of additional federal funding for CUNY came after a February 4 state legislative budget hearing on higher education that included testimony from Matos Rodriguez, Senior Vice Chancellor and Chief Financial Officer Matthew Sapienza, and PSC President Barbara Bowen, and questions from members of the State Senate and Assembly.

At the hearing, Matos Rodriguez asked for additional state funding for construction projects and information technology systems, as well as the money to continue offering the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or CUNY ASAP, which help students adapt to  and succeed in college.

On March 15, the State Senate passed a one-house budget resolution, which included emergency aid for schools and colleges. The resolution provides an additional $174 million for the Tuition Assistance Program to raise the maximum award to $6,165 from $5,165; $4 million to CUNY for mental health supports; an additional $13.6 million for CUNY community college base aid; $148 million to close the TAP gap at public city and state universities; and a 20% increase to opportunity programs and for establishing a new Diversity in Medicine program at CUNY and the State University of New York. The Assembly also had significant CUNY investments in its one-house budget.

“CUNY applauds the State Senate and Assembly budget proposals that strongly support public higher education and most importantly would help us continue to provide much-needed opportunity to our students, particularly in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Matos Rodriguez said in a statement. “We are grateful for the proposed increase in capital investments to support facilities improvements and critical maintenance and for additional operating supports. We welcome aid for childcare services, students with disabilities, mental health initiatives, and the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. We are pleased to see additional supports for community colleges that would enable CUNY to expand workforce training in response to the pandemic, train workers for green energy jobs and continue our acclaimed Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP).”

Throughout the state’s 2021-2022 budget process, however, the CUNY Rising Alliance advocacy coalition has been calling for funding for its proposed “New Deal for CUNY” legislation, which has been sponsored by Brooklyn State Senator Andrew Gounardes and Bronx Assemblymember Karines Reyes. 

“I’ve fought hard to include funding to jump start the CUNY New Deal,” Gounardes told Gotham Gazette in a statement just ahead of the budget deadline. “The CUNY New Deal has always been a multi year plan, but it’s crucial we get the initial investment this year to not set us back any further.”

The legislation, if adopted, would increase the amount of full-time professors to meet the national average ratio of 1-to-14 full-time faculty to full-time students, raise adjunct salaries to equal full-time professor salaries, and significantly increase the number of mental health counselors and academic advisors at the university. Possibly the most notable aspect of the plan, however, is that the New Deal for CUNY would make CUNY tuition and fees free for all in-state undergraduate students. Advocates stress that this would be a return to a tuition-free CUNY given that the university was free for city residents for much of its existence until the late 1970s.

“I’m proud the Senate’s budget plan restores the Governor’s cuts to @CUNY, closes the TAP Gap, freezes tuition & increases funding. But students need more profs & counselors, adjuncts need pay parity & it’s time for free higher ed. Let’s #InvestInOurNY & pass the #NewDeal4CUNY,” Gounardes tweeted on March 22.

So far, it doesn’t look like all the parts of the New Deal for CUNY that Gounardes and others have been pushing for will be included in the adopted state budget, but nothing in Albany is really known until a deal is reached and bills are printed.

In terms of city funding to CUNY, there is more time before the City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio must finalize the budget, but the Council’s Committee on Higher Education held a hearing on CUNY funding on March 3 as part of its series on de Blasio’s preliminary spending plan. It included testimony from Sapienza, CUNY Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer Hector Bautista, and University Director of Capital Budget and Finance Gwen Perlman. The hearing was led by Committee Chair Inez Barron of Brooklyn.

Barron explained early in the hearing that the City Council is waiting to see what money is coming down from the state before making decisions on its own funding for CUNY.

“It has been my honor to sit as chair of this committee since fiscal 2015, and in those 11 — and now 12 — separate budget hearings, I have made clear just how important faculty and upper management diversity is, tuition increases and those impasses on affordability and accessibility for students are and childcare supports and increases in the base aid for the state are,” Barron said. “Today, I am re-emphasizing my position in these areas.”

During their testimonies, Sapienza and Bautista said that the CUNY budget asks of the city are to fund the university’s construction projects on its campuses, IT support and solutions for distance learning, technology for students, mental health counselors, a diverse faculty and a nursing pipeline program. 

Not included in the preliminary CUNY budget, as pointed out by Barron during questioning, were the Peter F. Valone Merit Scholarship, the remediation program, and the ASAP program, which has faced cuts in the past year. Sapienza explained that the university wants funding restored for these programs, but just chose not to include them in the budget out of respect to the fiscal constraints of the pandemic that the Council has to contend with when making allocations.

With Significant Federal Aid on the Way, CUNY Awaits Key State Budget Decisions Wed, 31 Mar 2021 04:00:00 +0000
Workers Were Left Vulnerable to Covid; We Must Better Protect Them In Its Aftermath isit highbridge rec

Covid care training (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Just over 110 years ago, on March 25,1911, workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan’s Garment District began their day just like any other.

For 146 of them, it ended in tragedy when a fire engulfed the factory, leading to their deaths. When the fire started many of them were unable to leave the factory because there were no fire escapes and the building exits were locked. Some died jumping from the building in an attempt to escape. The youngest victims were only 14 years old.

Out of the wreckage of this horrific tragedy a new wave of labor organizations emerged and, thanks to their advocacy, safety rules and regulations were created, paving the way for the modern system of worker protection.

Though we have obviously made tremendous progress over the past century, there is more work to be done — something that was made abundantly clear by the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past year we saw that many corporations simply did not care about the health and safety of their workers. Powerful corporations kept their doors open without the proper health and safety protocols, despite a clear danger to employees. Many did everything possible to avoid accountability. In New York City, Amazon allegedly put its workers in harm's way and attempted to squash complaints about safety procedures.

One key lesson from the pandemic and four years of the Trump administration is that states like New York must have their own robust system of worker protections.

As complaints flooded in from workers, OSHA completely fell down on the job. The fines that the world’s largest companies received were a pittance, and the agency had the fewest number of inspectors in decades. When that happens, the fallback is state and local agencies.

It was a relief to see President Joe Biden’s executive order on worker safety earlier this year, which requires OSHA to review its standards and update safety recommendations for businesses, among other steps. Just last week, OSHA announced further steps to protect workers at a high risk of infection.

But there is an important role for New York State to play. It doesn’t matter to workers whether it’s state or federal inspectors who are protecting them. Furthermore, strong state laws go hand in hand with federal enforcement, as evidenced by Biden’s executive order, which includes provisions that focus on partnering and consulting with state and local governments.

New York took an important step forward after the State Senate recently passed legislation allowing the Department of Labor to mandate safety protocols in workplaces, such as requiring PPE and social distancing measures. This bill should be enacted into law, and we must ensure the labor commissioner issues timely, stringent, clear, and enforceable rules that will protect all workers across the state.

We need to empower our regulatory agencies to do what they’re designed to do and keep workers here in New York and across the country safe. We have a legal and moral responsibility to protect American families both at home and on the job. 

New York has suffered once unimaginable tragedies over the past year, like it did 110 years ago. We must do everything we can to turn this moment of pain and loss into progress for working men and women, just like workers and others did when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned. We cannot wait for the next deadly moment to act.

Jessica Ramos represents New York’s 13th District in the New York State Senate and is Chair of the Committee on Labor. Edward Steinberg is President of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association. On Twitter @JessicaRamos & @EdwardSteinber1 of @NYSTLA.

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Workers Were Left Vulnerable to Covid; We Must Better Protect Them In Its Aftermath Tue, 30 Mar 2021 04:00:00 +0000
First New York Election with Absentee Ballot 'Curing' Shows Progress and Mysteries 2 votes president

Examining ballots (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)

Over 8,000 New Yorkers across the state who voted by mail in last fall’s election were able to save their ballots from being thrown out, according to the New York State Board of Elections, thanks to a new ‘ballot curing’ law that gave them a chance to fix certain technical defects on their ballot envelope.

While curable rejects accounted for only a fraction of the total number of invalidated absentee ballots, overall far fewer mail-in votes were thrown out in the 2020 general election compared to the June primaries and to previous general elections. According to a Gotham Gazette analysis of state election data, the rate of absentee ballot rejections in New York fell by roughly two-thirds from 23% to the 2020 general election. 

In total, 20,000 general election voters statewide were given the opportunity to correct disqualifying mistakes after receiving notices from election administrators that the errors fell under a limited set of "curable" absentee ballot envelope errors, though more than half failed to take it.

Still, most rejected ballots did not come with a second chance under the law, and curable envelopes made up only a quarter of the nearly 78,000 total absentee ballots invalidated statewide. Voting reform advocates say the list of curable errors should be expanded to avoid disenfranchising New Yorkers, especially while pandemic rules allowing universal absentee voting remain in effect and nearly 2 million New Yorkers are voting by mail.

The information comes from State Board of Elections officials and a statewide survey of county-level absentee data provided after a Gotham Gazette inquiry. Last fall, local elections boards mailed 2.35 million absentee ballots to voters, including about 1 million in New York City, nine in ten of which were to first-time absentee voters. In total, over 1.8 million mailed ballots were counted statewide, with roughly 700,000 coming from the five boroughs. Over 48,000 absentee ballots were rejected in New York City alone.

The data also contains some vaguaries that raise questions about how both voters and elections administrators dealt with mishaps that arose in the mass mail-in voting.

After New York State's first experiment with wide scale mail-in voting during the June primaries last year, state lawmakers passed a number of reforms to address snafus that had arisen, including the cure provision. It allows voters to correct some mistakes on an absentee ballot's outer envelope, known as the oath envelope, where registered voters must swear to the validity of their ballot. Advocates said the law injected a measure of due process for some voters but did nothing to address other disqualifying errors, like having stray marks on the ballot itself, or returning an envelope un- or partially sealed. Measures to address both of those were introduced in the State Legislature but never advanced out of committee to the floor.

Lawmakers also sought unsuccessfully to have the state cover the cost of postage for mail-in ballots, as it had in the primaries under executive order, which could help explain why more than 500,000 New York voters, including roughly 300,000 in New York City, requested an absentee ballot but never returned it.

State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat and chair of the Senate elections committee, said the number of successfully cured ballots demonstrate the success of the legislation, which he sponsored. "My bill allowing voters to cure minor technical errors with their absentee ballots was the right way to ensure the law honored voters' intent; but last year it became even more important with record turnout and many times more absentee ballots than usual," he wrote in an email.

All together, significantly fewer absentee ballots were rejected in the general election than in the primaries a few months before, with the new law passed in between. In New York City, about 7% of absentee ballots were rejected, compared to between a fifth and a quarter seen in the primaries and recent previous elections, when far fewer mail-in ballots were cast. Statewide, just 4% of submitted absentee ballots went uncounted last fall.

"I think more voters were especially careful in filling out absentee ballots during this most unusual recent election," Myrie told Gotham Gazette. "Our law gave the Board a framework for assessing which ballots could be cured by the voter, requiring the BOE to be much more deliberate about deeming ballots invalid. It's not surprising that, with a formalized cure process in place, the Board found fewer reasons to disqualify otherwise-valid absentee ballots."

About 9,200 of the 20,000 notified voters took advantage of the option to cure their absentee ballot by returning a corrected ballot and affirming its validity and, of those, about 8,700 were found to be sufficiently corrected and counted, according to the New York State Board of Election.

In New York City alone, 6,950 cure notices were sent with 1,228 ultimately returned and counted, according to the New York City Board of Elections -- a much lower rate than the state overall, both in terms of notices per registered voter and in terms of returns per notice.

"More than half of these voters who could remedy the issue with their ballot envelope didn't manage to do so in time, perhaps because there was no statewide ballot tracking system in place,' wrote Jarret Berg, co-founder of the advocacy group Vote Early NY, in an email to Gotham Gazette, responding to the statewide data.

He said another reason could be the dissonance that voters who originally requested their ballots online through their local board's website were required to submit cured ballots physically by post -- the result of a broader settlement agreement between the State Board of Elections and the League of Women Voters last September over cumbersome absentee ballot verification procedures in place during the primaries last June.

Berg believes the cure process needs to be streamlined and expanded to include other ballot errors, including on provisional affidavit ballots "so that more legitimate lost votes are saved and counted each year."

Myrie said more voting reforms were on the agenda this legislative session. "Overly-complicated ballot instructions, insufficient language access and extremely long lines at polling sites are just some of the issues challenging voters' right to have their vote counted," he wrote. "We expect to address these concerns and more at an Elections Committee hearing next month."

New York City
The new data raises questions about the efficacy of absentee voting in New York City last year compared to the rest of the state. The city made up roughly 43% of the total absentee ballots cast statewide but 62% of the total rejected mail-in ballots.

About 15,000 absentee ballots were returned to the New York City Board of Elections by the post office without ever having reached the voter and were marked as undeliverable, according to county survey data provided by the State Board.

About 10,800 absentee ballots were rejected after a voter later cast an in-person vote at a poll site, which usurps previously mailed ballots and means the voter was not disenfranchised.

Bizarrely, the next most common error was from voters submitting multiple ballots in a single envelope, which disqualified over 7,600 New York City voters but only 16 voters outside the five boroughs. Conversely, outside of New York City 930 absentee ballots were thrown out because they were returned in an unofficial envelope, while no city voter had that problem.

Missing signature on the oath envelope, a curable defect, accounted for about 2,400 absentee rejections in New York City. Signatures that didn't match the ones in the voter roll, also curable, numbered about 1,500 citywide.

Over 1,600 ballots were thrown out because the envelope was unsealed or partially sealed. Roughly 1,000 attempted votes were invalidated because they lacked a postmark or were postmarked Election Day or later, according to the survey data. It is not clear why a ballot postmarked on Election Day would be disqualified.

Just over 6,000 absentee votes were disqualified for "other" reasons in New York City compared with roughly 1,200 in the rest of the state. The discrepancy comes almost entirely from 4,800 voters in Brooklyn -- a borough frequently beset with election snafus, including the mismailing of as many as 100,000 2020 general election absentee ballots to the wrong registered voter, an error the New York City Board of Elections chalked up to a printing malfunction.

It is unclear how many Brooklyn voters mistakenly submitted someone else's absentee ballot, which under the mismatched-signature provision should have been curable. The city board sent a total of 3,750 cure notices to Brooklyn voters but only about 240 of them corrected their ballot. Last summer, the board issued new absentee ballots to voters impacted by the printing error with the stipulation, under state law, that the ballot received last gets counted as long as it is cast by Election Day.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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First New York Election with Absentee Ballot 'Curing' Shows Progress and Mysteries Mon, 29 Mar 2021 04:00:00 +0000
New York’s Chance to Pass Essential Sex Education Mandates Sex Education Mandates

Students (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Like many states, New York’s sex education laws are dizzyingly complicated. Sex education itself is not mandated in New York public schools (though many school districts choose to teach it), but HIV/AIDs education is — though parents can opt their children out with the promise that they will teach the content at home. If sex education does take place, New York state law requires that it stresses abstinence, but makes no legal requirement concerning its medical accuracy. Some individual school districts, like New York City, do mandate a comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) curriculum, while others have no such requirement.

Democratic State Senator Samra Brouk’s bill (S2584) would simplify some of this tangled mess by making comprehensive sexuality education mandatory for all K-12 New York State public and charter school students, and it should be passed by both houses of the Legislature and signed by the Governor as soon as possible.

CSE is endorsed by the American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, the American Public Health Association, and others. And with its dedication to being “age-appropriate, medically accurate, and inclusive of all students,” CSE should be the bare minimum of what we ask of sex education in schools, and Brouk’s bill should be a no-brainer.

But if history is any guide, there is no guarantee that our young people will be given what they are owed. New York’s 2020 legislative year saw six very similar bills to Bourk’s, all of which failed. 

Despite widespread support from medical, public health, and education experts, opposition to CSE is fierce in New York and nationwide. The Catholic Church and other conservative Christian denominations came out against a bill nearly identical to Bourk’s in 2019, and will almost certainly line up to do so against this one, and right-wing media is already at work misrepresenting the project.

“Get ready for the latest woke wave in education,” The New York Post began in an article about the bill. The Christian Post proclaimed: “NY bill could force schools to teach sex ed to kindergarteners, gender identity to 2nd graders.”

Both of these stances misrepresent the project of CSE. First, the implication that comprehensive sex education is new is false. Sex education in some form, for students of all ages (including kindergarteners), has been in the United States since at least 1913, and “comprehensive sex education” is a term that has been in use since at least 1981, if not earlier. 

And while the term “sex ed” as levied in these articles tends to bring to mind a condom and a banana, in reality, CSE encompasses a whole range of things that most of us don’t think of as falling squarely into the category.

SIECUS, a comprehensive sexuality education advocacy group founded in 1964, publishes guidelines for CSE that would probably be used to develop New York curricula if Brouk’s bill passes. SIECUS outlines six “key concepts” involved in CSE: human development, relationships, personal skills, sexual behavior, sexual health, and society and culture

SIECUS’ recommendations for the youngest grades are relatively tame, and mostly have to do with families, friendship, body parts, and feelings. Most of its focus is on teaching children that their bodies belong to themselves, a measure that works to reduce instances of childhood sexual abuse. 

The frank discussion about masturbation, sexually transmitted infections, and HIV/AIDS for the younger grades, and the information about contraception, abortion, and gender identity for older ones may make some squeamish — but truthful answers, words, and names are better than the alternative. 

And the alternative to CSE rarely is no sex education at all. While some school districts may choose to forego the subject entirely, often schools choose instead to employ an abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) curricula, which has now been rebranded as “sexual risk avoidance education” (SRAE).

AOUM/SRAE curricula are marked by their refusal to instruct about (and sometimes even discuss) contraception, and have traditionally and consistently been homophobic, racist, tinged with a Christian bias, and can be medically inaccurate — all of which CSE classes correct for. 

The reprehensible biases and misinformation in these curricula are enough to call for their immediate disuse, but the data also suggests that AOUM/SRAE classes just don’t work in any measurable way. CSE has a number of goals, some more quantifiable than others. But one of the markers of a successful sex education curriculum should certainly be its efficacy in preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections — and on that score, AOUM/SRAE are demonstrably less effective than CSE.

And preventing STIs and pregnancy should be a priority everywhere, including New York. As of 2018, New York had the 10th highest rate in the nation for both chlamydia and syphilis, and 54% of all STIs were diagnosed in people under the age of 26. And though New York does relatively well nationally in terms of teen pregnancy, the United States has one of the highest teen birth rates in the developed world. 

These are high-stakes issues: real-world problems screaming for real-world, data-driven solutions. CSE is one of those solutions, and we shouldn’t let willful misinformation about it cloud our perceptions or actions any longer.

Margaret Grace Myers is a Brooklyn-based writer. On Twitter @margaretgmyers.

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New York’s Chance to Pass Essential Sex Education Mandates Thu, 25 Mar 2021 04:00:00 +0000
Support Grows for State Bill to Convert Distressed Commercial Properties into Affordable Housing Gotham Gazette:

State Senator Michael Gianaris (photo: Senator Michael Gianaris/flickr)

A proposal to convert financially strapped hotels and other commercial properties into permanently affordable housing has been included in the State Senate's one-house budget proposal and is garnering support from a broad group of interested parties while new federal stimulus money is being eyed to fund the proposal.

The "Housing Our Neighbors with Dignity Act," or HONDA, would create a program for the state to acquire distressed commercial properties and transfer them to affordable housing developers to convert and operate. Supporters, which include housing advocates and developers alike, say the proposal would harness usable real estate left vacant or underutilized by the pandemic and economic crisis and put it toward housing tens of thousands of homeless New Yorkers and the exceedingly large number of housing-insecure residents.

"It's a win-win if we do it right," said Deputy Senate Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat and the bill's Senate sponsor, in an interview. "If we can identify the resources to purchase those properties and use them for the kind of housing we need it would be a very elegant solution."

The legislation, first introduced in the Senate on March 2, now has a companion in the Assembly and is being advanced in state budget negotiations. A large group of backers has come out in support of the proposal, including housing service and advocacy groups like VOCAL-NY, Community Service Society of New York, Housing Works, The Legal Aid Society, and the Strong Economy For All Coalition, and supportive housing developers like Gateway Housing, among others.

New estimates from Gianaris' office put the program's total cost at over $2.2 billion to get it to the needed scale to address the tens of thousands of homeless New Yorkers sleeping in shelters each night, though the Senate has not settled on estimated numbers of convertible properties or target units. The Senate's one-house budget bill -- which along with the Assembly’s create a framework for negotiations among legislative leaders and the governor -- includes $250 million in state funding for the program. Gianaris said he hopes the remainder of the funding will come from federal stimulus dollars in the recently-passed American Rescue Plan, either through the $12.6 billion in direct aid to state government or in a dedicated program.

What is now a joint legislative proposal is somewhat similar to one announced by Governor Andrew Cuomo, a third-term Democrat currently embroiled in multiple scandals and widespread calls for his resignation, in his State of the State agenda in January to convert ailing properties into housing, but adds requirements that the housing must be affordable and at least half of all units be reserved for homeless individuals.

"What we don't want to do is just take those properties and hand them over to wealthy developers that build even more luxury units because that would be a wasted opportunity to make progress on this issue," said Gianaris, adding that is what he believes Cuomo's proposal could do. (Gianaris and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins are among those who have called on Cuomo to resign amid a long list of sexual harassment allegations and other scandals, while the Assembly has begun an impeachment inquiry.)

On Friday, a companion bill was introduced in the State Assembly and the same day Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, signaled support for including it in the state budget: "In this year's budget, we support HAVP, a sustainable statewide MAT, removal of prior authorization for life saving medication, and we are exploring ways to expand access to housing for the homeless by using vacant and under utilized spaces to do so," he wrote in a tweet.

"Budget negotiations are ongoing," said Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the New York State Division of the Budget, which is part of the gubernatorial administration, in response to inquiries about the Senate's budget proposal. A spokesperson for New York State Homes and Community Renewal, the state housing agency, said the legislation was under review.

In a statement, the bill's Assembly sponsor, Assembly Member Karines Reyes, a Bronx Democrat, said the state's "weak rent moratoriums and insufficient rent relief programs" had not gone far enough to protect low-income residents from eviction, especially in communities of color. "The conversion of office units and distressed hotel properties into housing units would greatly bolster the number of beds available to New Yorkers in need, as well as assist businesses that are getting back on their feet," she wrote.

The program would entail the state buying property and selling or leasing it to developers and non-profits that would manage the buildings and in some cases provide supportive services. The legislation would require at least half of all converted units be reserved for people experiencing homelessness. Affordability would include people making 50% of the area median income or less, and rent would be capped at 30% of income, the threshold for being considered “rent-burdened.”

Pre-pandemic, the demand for supportive housing outpaced the number of available units. For every vacant supportive housing unit there were five approved applications, according to a Coalition for the Homeless report released in March of 2020. The number of single adults staying in shelters across the city nightly has grown 143% over the last decade, from 7,700 in 2009 to nearly 18,700 in December 2019, according to the report. The New York City Department of Homeless Services reported a nightly average of 17,741 single adults sleeping in city shelters in fiscal year 2021.

"I’ve been living in the shelter system for over 5 years. Like so many others, I'm stuck here without any real pathway to get out and find permanent housing. I’m tired of living there and I’m tired of being told my needs are not a priority. We need our leaders to support HONDA and put our state on track to end homelessness,” said Milton Perez, who is homeless and a leader at the housing advocacy organization VOCAL-NY, in a statement.

“Quickly converting distressed hotels into permanent housing that is affordable to New Yorkers experiencing homelessness is a once-in-a-generation opportunity we need to respond to now," said Ted Houghton, president of Gateway Housing, a nonprofit specializing in converting city shelters.

While the bill defines distressed properties broadly to include office buildings and others, its drafters are eying the hotel industry, which has been particularly hard hit by the drop in tourism and lends itself physically to conversion into housing.

In January, the Hotel Association of New York said roughly 200 of the city's 700 hotels had shuttered since the pandemic began, NY1 reported. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, the hospitality data firm Smith Travel Research found hotel occupancy in the city was 47% in mid-March, an encouraging rise from 38% in January, but far lower than pre-pandemic levels.

Only a quarter of members of the New York Hotel Trades Council, a union representing a majority of the city's hotel workers, are currently working, according to a source close to the union. The source, who was not at liberty to fully discuss the plans, said that the union is reviewing the various hotel conversion proposals and is comfortable with Gianaris'.

According to Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development Vicki Been, the de Blasio administration is currently looking at ways to convert failing hotels into single resident occupancy (SRO) housing, a type of affordable housing option that often comes with supportive services but lacks certain amenities like private kitchens. The mayor's office did not immediately return a request for comment on the HONDA proposal.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, and City Council Member Carlos Menchaca, three Democratic candidates for mayor, have each called for hotel conversions as part of their housing platforms. Other candidates, including entrepreneur Andrew Yang, have indicated support for the idea.

Last fall, the developer Fairstead closed a $60 million deal to acquire Park 79 Hotel on Manhattan's Upper West Side and convert it into 77 affordable apartments for seniors.

A similar hotel conversion took place in 2018 when Breaking Ground, a supportive housing nonprofit, purchased a hotel in downtown Brooklyn for $170 million using a $157 million loan from the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Under current economic conditions, Breaking Grounds estimates conversions to SROs would cost half what new construction would per unit, though groups like VOCAL-NY want to see more conversions into full-use permanent apartments like the 2018 project.

Gianaris said his office and supporters of the bill are working with United States Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Brooklyn Democrat, and New York's congressional delegation to carve out funding from the American Rescue Plan -- the $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package that was enacted earlier this month, with up to $100 billion heading to New York State for a variety of uses and through many channels (individuals, businesses, governments, and more). Gianaris is hoping lawmakers in Washington establish a program explicitly for converting distressed properties but that there is some flexibility in other funding pots, especially the $12.6 billion in direct aid New York state government is receiving.

"We're working closely with our federal representatives to unlock some assistance for programs exactly like this," Gianaris told Gotham Gazette. "There is a certain amount of aid that is unrestricted, we can certainly use that."

A spokesperson for Schumer did not comment directly on the state's proposal but told Gotham Gazette the American Rescue Plan included relief funds that could go toward assistance to hard-hit industries like hospitality and tourism.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Support Grows for State Bill to Convert Distressed Commercial Properties into Affordable Housing Tue, 23 Mar 2021 04:00:00 +0000
Assembly Holds First Public Meeting in Cuomo Impeachment Investigation Gotham Gazette:

Speaker Heastie & Governor Cuomo (photo: the governor's office)

The New York State Assembly’s judiciary committee convened a virtual hearing Tuesday morning to outline the wide-ranging scope of its impeachment investigation into Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is embroiled in a series of compounding scandals related to allegations of sexual misconduct, abuse of executive authority, and orders related to COVID-19 and nursing homes, the death toll among nursing home residents, and handling of data around nursing home resident fatalities due to COVID-19.

The investigation, Assemblymember and committee chair Charles Lavine estimated, could take months to resolve. On Tuesday, Lavine, a Democrat from Nassau County, and other members of the Assembly judiciary committee asked questions of attorneys from Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, the law firm hired by the Assembly to conduct much of its inquiry. The hearing came as Cuomo is facing multiple investigations by federal prosecutors, the New York Attorney General’s office, and the Assembly.

Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, faces mounting legal challenges from the various scandals surrounding his administration and his behavior in office. After being praised by many as a competent steward during the early months of the pandemic last spring, questions lingered around some of his early decisions about closing down the state, New York’s large death toll both in and out of nursing homes, and the governor’s decision to write a book about his pandemic leadership.

That leadership came under significantly more scrutiny after a report from State Attorney General Letitia James’ office in January showed that his administration had undercounted covid deaths of nursing home residents, some of which may have been linked to a controversial directive from the governor’s administration last year that said nursing homes could not refuse to admit residents who had tested positive for the virus. 

In the following months, after the governor threatened the career of Assemblymember Ron Kim, a fellow Democrat who had been a consistent critic of the nursing home policies, a crescendo grew. Report after report emerged about the toxic workplace environment Cuomo fostered and the tactics of bullying that he and his top aides employed. More than half-a-dozen women, including current and former aides of Cuomo, came forward with allegations that he had sexually harassed them, touched them without their consent, or otherwise behaved in inappropriate ways.

The governor denied most of the claims while acknowledging and trying to excuse away some of the behavior and apologizing for making people uncomfortable. He has refused to step down from office despite sweeping calls for his resignation from a majority of state lawmakers, most of the state’s congressional delegation, and even New York’s United States Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.

The Davis Polk & Wardwell impeachment inquiry team includes top lawyers Greg Andres, Angela Burgess, and Martine Beamon. The firm is expected to launch a helpline for the investigation to hear from potential witnesses.

“We will carry on our responsibilities fairly and with due process for all involved,” Assemblymember Lavine said in his opening statement at Tuesday’s hearing. He pointed to the expansive purview of the probe “including, but not limited to” the allegations of harassment and abuse, whether the governor tried to cover up the number of deaths at nursing homes, and whether Cuomo knew or told executive branch employees to hide information about structural safety concerns at the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge. 

“[D]ue process is not just a precept. It's not just at the heart of what makes us New Yorkers tick. It's at the heart of our American democracy as well,” added Lavine, who is a criminal defense attorney by training and has previously worked for the Legal Aid Society and in private practice. 

He also presaged the timeline for the investigation. “At this early stage, it's not possible to say precisely how long the investigation will take...Given the breadth and seriousness of the issues under investigation, we expect that the timing will be in terms of months rather than weeks,” he said. 

“The allegations before this committee are as disturbing as they are serious,” said Assemblymember Michael Montesano, the ranking Republican on the committee. Montesano urged the committee and the law firm to take several measures to ensure the integrity and confidentiality of the investigation. He called for in-person committee meetings to avoid hacked Zoom calls, routine updates from the firm to ensure transparency, and transcripts and reports of interviews and depositions with witnesses. 

“As for the substance of the allegations before this committee, everything is on the table,” he said, calling on the firm to not only look into the nursing home data and sexual harassment accusations but also the contract for the book that Cuomo released in October celebrating his covid leadership even as the state was already seeing a second surge after the better summer months and on its way toward more than 40,000 covid deaths.

Several members of the Assembly judiciary committee expressed a key concern raised in recent news reports and from the lawyer for former Cuomo aide Charlotte Bennett, one of his accusers, about potential conflicts in the choice of firm. If Cuomo is impeached by the Assembly, one of the jurors in the Senate trial would be State Court of Appeals Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, a key ally who is also married to Dennis Glazer, a former partner at Davis Polk. 

Lavine, however, insisted that the Assembly had thoroughly vetted the firm. 

The firm also offered a defense. “We have a very robust process within Davis Polk for ensuring that for any assignment that you take on, that we do not begin that matter with any conflicts of interest,” said Burgess. “And so we do a search throughout the firm and through our management committee to ensure that there are no conflicts of interest that would either as a matter of ethics or appearance create an issue. And we embarked on that process here and concluded that there was no conflict.”

The rest of the members of the committee spent the next hour pressing the attorneys on the process and logistics of the investigation, on implicit bias, the pressures of a high-profile case, among other issues. 

Assemblymember Jenifer Rajkumar, a Democrat, asked the lawyers how they would avoid their own implicit biases from affecting the probe and avoid external pressures.  

“We have routinely worked on matters where there is substantial press attention and pressure and the like, and we're accustomed to working under those circumstances,” Andres responded, insisting that the firm would share information with the committee “in many respects in real time or certainly on a regular basis” which would also act as a check on any bias.

“The question of implicit bias is an excellent one. It's something that we pay close attention to, both in investigations and in our everyday practice, and one that we're very focused on at all times,” Beeman said. 

Assemblymember Phil Steck, a Democrat, asked whether the investigation would also cover discrimination in hiring in the governor’s office, the hostile work environment and acts of retaliation undertaken against on of Cuomo’s accusers, Lindsey Boylan. After Boylan alleged that the governor had harassed her, the executive chamber publicly released her personnel records and even planned an attempt to discredit her that was eventually abandoned, as reported by the New York Times. Boylan has said she will not participate in the probe because of the conflict, through she is cooperating with the AG’s investigation. Bennett’s attorney, Debra Katz, has also criticized the selection of the firm.  

“Of course, subject to the committee's view, we would expect that all three of those subject matters that you have referenced here would be part of this investigation, and all are important aspects of any investigation with respect to sexual harassment or any aspect of sexual misconduct,” Beeman said. 

Lavine also announced later that he had already warned the executive chamber, “putting the governor on notice that he and his employees and allies should take no steps towards intimidating any witness or any potential witness.”

Assemblymember Rebecca Seawright, a Democrat, questioned the attorneys on the methods they intended to use during the probe. 

“We'll use all methods available to us and all tools for gathering information,” Andres said. “So that will include interviews. It could involve interrogatories if we found that to be necessary. Certainly we’ll request documents and we'll consider the use of subpoenas to ensure that the documents are produced and that there isn't any obstruction or any destruction of documents in the course of providing and preserving documents.”

The witnesses, he said, would not be limited, “whether it's current staff or prior staff, or folks who have retired or not, whether they have an official position in the government or otherwise. We'll follow all the leads from our investigation and interview any necessary witnesses.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Assembly Holds First Public Meeting in Cuomo Impeachment Investigation Tue, 23 Mar 2021 04:00:00 +0000