Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics




State Health Department Must Reject Unneeded, Burdensome Luxury Hospital Expansion

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rendering of proposed Leonx Hill Hospital expansion

Northwell Health is proposing an unprecedented, $2.5 billion expansion of Lenox Hill Hospital that includes construction and sale of a 490-foot condo tower to help finance a new 520-foot hospital tower and other massive new structures. This pitch has already generated much controversy, as residents of the Lenox Hill neighborhood and surrounding communities are speaking out forcefully against Northwell’s plan.

While it is widely understood that this development plan must go through the city’s land use approval process (known as ULURP) because of zoning changes Northwell is seeking, many New Yorkers are unaware that Northwell also needs approval from the State Department of Health before it can proceed with any expansion of Lenox Hill Hospital.

The crucial point here is that Northwell must apply to the State DOH to receive a “certificate of need” for its expansion plan. But the facts show that there truly is no need for this proposed expansion on the Upper East Side – and that is why the State DOH must reject the plan and send Northwell back to the drawing board.

This is a matter of common sense. In order to be granted a certificate of need, an institution should be able to demonstrate that its proposal promises to deliver something that is actually needed by the community. When it comes to Northwell’s plan for Lenox Hill Hospital, that is not the case.

We can all agree that Lenox Hill Hospital must offer high-quality, state-of-the-art medical care in a well-maintained facility. And if a straightforward modernization plan were all that Northwell were proposing, it would be worthy of support. In fact, it appears that Northwell has already begun financing its own upgrades at Lenox Hill Hospital, with a recent news story noting that officials have “hired a Michelin Star Chef” and made numerous other cosmetic improvements to provide a “luxury hotel experience.”

But the idea of building a monstrous luxury condo tower in the midst of a historic residential district to finance single-occupancy hospital rooms and destination medical facilities in one of the city’s most affluent and well-served areas is grandiose and insulting to community residents. Simply put, we do not need more hospital beds and significantly larger hospital facilities on the Upper East Side – and our community is not asking for them.

Let’s be clear: there are already more than 10,000 hospital beds in Manhattan, at least 3,000 of which are located throughout the Upper East Side. Our communities have access to healthcare facilities and specialty medical care that are the envy of our other-borough neighbors, many of whom have demanded better access to quality medical care.

Want to talk about healthcare needs? Look at the South Bronx, where low-income residents suffer from the state’s highest asthma rates. Look at Central Brooklyn, where national experts have called that community’s hospitals some of the worst in the entire nation.

If Northwell were truly interested in developing an expansion plan worthy of a “certificate of need,” it would seek out ways to bring more of its high-quality healthcare resources to communities like these. Instead, it is advancing a lucrative real estate development pitch that will create the tallest hospital in New York City and serve primarily to reap profits for its grandiose vision and satisfy the egos of its senior executives. All of this will take place at the expense of the local neighborhood, which will be forced to endure 10 years of hazardous construction and a massive condo tower that will destroy the fabric of a historic community.

The bottom line here is that if the State Department of Health follows its mandate to serve the healthcare needs of all New Yorkers and takes a thoughtful approach to evaluating these types of proposals, it has no choice but to reject Northwell’s plan and compel the institution to rethink its approach.

Andy Soussloff is a Lenox Hill resident and a member of the non-profit Committee to Protect Our Lenox Hill Neighborhood, Inc.

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PBMs Advocate for New York Consumers to Reduce Prescription Drug Costs

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(photo: @albertarpap)

As the debate over prescription drug costs continues, it’s important to understand the role pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) play in our health care system. Simply put, PBMs are the companies that are driving down prescription drug costs for New Yorkers and consumers nationwide. 

PBMs are widely recognized for reducing prescription drug costs, but PBMs should also be recognized for improving clinical outcomes for patients. For example, PBMs perform a sophisticated evaluation of clinical evidence to construct prescription drug formularies that best fit the needs of patients. These prescription drug formularies lead to improved adherence for consumers and better health outcomes overall.

From a pure cost perspective, without PBMs consumers would pay on average $941 more per year per person, according to a 2016 Visante report. In addition, the report showed that over a 10-year period, PBMs will save New York’s consumers and health care programs nearly $40 billion.

PBMs achieve these savings by negotiating directly with drug manufacturers, who alone set and raise prices. The savings achieved by PBMs are used to lower premiums for all consumers in a health plan, or to reduce costs that consumers pay at the pharmacy counter.

Furthermore, any charge that PBMs are opposed to transparency is inaccurate. The fact is PBMs support transparency that leads to better health care outcomes. PBMs provide real-time benefit tools, so patients and their doctors understand which drugs are available and most affordable. In addition, PBMs provide information to clients on contracting terms, including how PBMs are paid for their services.

While it’s clear PBMs are reducing prescription drug costs, we understand that for too many people the costs are simply too high. For that reason, we encourage Governor Cuomo to look closely at whether recently passed legislation (S.6531) will lower health care costs for New Yorkers. In its current form, the bill eliminates many of the cost-saving tools PBMs employ to help keep consumer costs down and improve care.

The legislation puts consumer safety at risk by removing specialty pharmacy accreditation standards, and limits access to cost-effective drugs in favor of more expensive prescriptions. An analysis by Visante shows the bill would lead to $28 billion in additional prescription drug spending in New York over the next 10 years.

PBMs’ core mission is to advocate for consumers in the fight to reduce prescription drug costs. Increasing competition in the market and expanding PBMs’ cost-reducing tools is the best way to address the problem of high drug costs. Where there is sufficient competition, PBMs have a proven track record of success of lowering drug prices.

We’re committed to working with Governor Cuomo and members of the Legislature to address the prescription drug affordability problem where it exists and bring down drug costs and increase access for all New Yorkers.

JC Scott is President and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association. On Twitter @pcmanet.

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Making the Democratic State Committee More Democratic and New York's DNC Delegation More Representative

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(photo: New York Democratic Party)

With 2020 approaching and a contentious Democratic presidential primary underway, all eyes are the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and its shepherding of the Demcoratic Party apparatus. Far fewer eyes are the Democratic State Committees, constituted in each state, which select the rarefied membership of the National Committee every four years.

In many states, State Committees are a big deal. They are the primary strategic planner for their party’s political efforts, and a key conduit for funding to candidates and local organizations. In New York, not so much. This is largely a function of the State Party’s leadership, and that attitude is well reflected in the State Committee’s picks for New York State’s DNC representatives.

In the DNC, each state is awarded representation through the state party’s Chair and Vice Chair, as well as members apportioned by a formula that accounts for population, Democratic Party enrollment, and votes cast for the Demcoratic candidate in the most recent presidential election. As a large, Democratic state, New York has a large voice on the DNC. The state’s influence is also felt in the fact that two of the DNC’s Vice Chairs, elected by the DNC members, are New Yorkers, further boosting its vote total.

As an influential, ethnically diverse state with a population almost evenly split between urban and non-urban residents, New York is uniquely positioned to champion a Democratic message that appeals to a broad swath of Americans. It’s hard to believe it does this, though, given the chosen composition of the state’s DNC delegation.

Of New York’s 11 elected members of the Democratic National Committee: zero are under 50 years old, though such New Yorkers are about 60% the state population; zero are from upstate, home to about 40% of New York’s population; zero are Hispanic, though about 20% of New York’s population is Hispanic; and zero are Asian, about 10% of New York’s population.

New York’s dismal failure in representation is meaningful, but it would be hard to know it. The DNC makes it extremely difficult for people to acquire the voting records of DNC decisions. An attempt to uncover how New York’s delegation voted on holding a climate debate and issue-based forums in the current presidential primary ran into an initial dead end with the New York State Committee, which says it doesn’t ask members how they vote, and the DNC, which says it only tells DNC members the voting results. This all seems odd for a body whose members are theoretically elected by, and responsible to, State Committees.

Ultimately, I obtained the rolls and they reveal that of New York’s 15 members (including those not elected by the State Committee), only two voted in favor of the holding a climate debate. Perhaps more shockingly, only eight of those who cast votes were there in person (it cannot be determined if the six New Yorkers who didn’t cast votes were present, though it seems likely they were both absent and without a proxy since they were not counted as abstentions). Regardless of how one feels about the climate debate, it seems likely that a different composition of the DNC delegation -- one more diverse, younger and engaged -- could have changed the vote total as well as the number of delegates that attended the meeting.

Last year, one of New York’s DNC seats was left vacant by the passing of Assemblymember Denny Farrell. On October 15, at their fall meeting, the State Committee selected his replacement. In the end, three candidates from Upstate New York ran: Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, State Committeewoman Kelleigh McKenzie, and State Committeewoman Elisa Sumner. Brown, who also served as Governor Cuomo’s heavy-handed Chair of the State Committee until he was ousted after the 2018 scandal involving a mailer falsely smearing Cuomo’s primary opponent, won with over 60% of the vote.

While the election of an African-American man from Upstate is a step in the right direction, it remains palpably insufficient. African-Americans are the only minority group adequately represented in the DNC delegation while a single upstate member shortchanges nearly half the state’s population -- particularly the part most experienced in winning elections against Republicans.

Brown’s election also represents a continuation of the political status quo. As a long-term ally of Governor Cuomo and a State Chair who often ignored the democratic process, Brown’s ascension to the DNC is likely to maintain New York’s support for business as usual.

If people feel detached from the mechanics of the Democratic Party, they needn’t. In 2020 voters will have a chance to elect their State Committee members -- one male and one female per Assembly District. Those members will then immediately meet to select New York’s DNC members. In the past, the State Committee has rubber-stamped a slate chosen by the Democratic Party elite composed mainly of elected officials and power-brokers. Next time, it looks like there could be a contest for DNC membership and a push for a Democratic Party that represents New York’s Democrats.

Ben Yee is a civic educator and organizer in New York City. He is a Democratic State Committeeman for New York’s 66th Assembly District. On Twitter at @yben.

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To End the Homelessness Crisis It’s Time to Refocus the City’s Housing Plan - Here’s How

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The authors and others at a rally (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

More than 61,000 men, women, and children will sleep in New York City shelters tonight, and this historic homelessness crisis will continue to devastate the lives of even more people unless Mayor de Blasio embraces the common sense plans that we have put forward from a City Council office and the Coalition for the Homeless, respectively.

The record number of homeless New Yorkers will continue to reach new highs every year, according to the latest report from the Coalition. In stark contrast to Mayor de Blasio’s predicted decrease in the shelter census of a mere 2,500 people by 2022, the Coalition’s analysis shows that the number of city residents living in shelters will increase by 5,000 people in that time period.

While the mayor often touts the work his administration has done to prevent homelessness and protect tenants, his failure to meaningfully reduce the shelter census is a direct result of the lack of truly affordable apartments created specifically to house homeless New Yorkers. This is why the House Our Future NY Campaign, with the support of the majority of the New York City Council, has spent more than a year and a half calling on Mayor de Blasio to make his Housing New York 2.0 plan -- badly in need of a third iteration -- address the true scale of the homelessness crisis.

Of the 300,000 apartments the Housing New York 2.0 plan will create or preserve by 2026, only 15,000 apartments will be set aside for homeless New Yorkers – and just 6,000 of those will be created through new construction. The remaining 9,000 of those apartments in the mayor’s plan will be set aside for homeless New Yorkers through the preservation of already-occupied units, which will remain unavailable to homeless New Yorkers for many years.

To address the housing needs of our homeless neighbors, the House Our Future NY Campaign, formed by the Coalition and 66 partner organizations, urges Mayor de Blasio to create 24,000 apartments through new construction (about 20 percent of all planned new construction in Housing New York 2.0) and preserve at least 6,000 more units for a total of 30,000 apartments for homeless New Yorkers.

In the Bronx, we have seen how the issue of homelessness impacts people firsthand. Many hurtful and false narratives have been spread about people in the shelter system, primarily that individuals are unemployed or are looking for handouts. To the contrary, many in the system have full-time jobs or are living on fixed-incomes and turn to the shelter system as a last resort because of rising rents in their communities. Once in the system, people face a lengthy wait to be placed in permanent housing due to a lack of truly affordable housing.

To address this issue and the staggering number of individuals and families in the shelter system, we introduced legislation, Intro. 1211, which requires all new housing developments that receive city financial assistance to set aside at least 15 percent of new apartments for homeless households.

Working together to raise awareness on this proposal, Intro. 1211 has secured a veto-proof majority of Council members signed on as co-sponsors, as well as the support of Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. While an overwhelming number of homeless advocates came out in support of the bill at a public hearing held in December 2018, the de Blasio administration declared its opposition to the bill, citing financial concerns. But we have demonstrated that more affordable housing can be built for homeless New Yorkers than is conceptualized in the mayor’s plan.

Starting in April 2018 while drafting the language for Intro. 1211, we began requiring developers who were looking to build housing in Council District 17 in the Bronx to set aside a minimum of 15 percent of developed units for homeless individuals and families. Despite the administration’s insistence that the financing would not work, we were able to secure a 15 percent homeless set-aside in every new construction project that required our Council approval.

In total, our Council office approved 121 new set-aside units over eight projects. While this number of units is a drop in the bucket of the overall need for our homeless population, it shows the impact this legislation could have in changing the tide on homelessness if implemented across New York City.

We are pleased that Intro. 1211 is already having a positive effect on the movement to build more housing for homeless people. Many Council colleagues have begun requiring a 15 percent set-aside minimum in projects in their own districts. With a citywide policy to substantially increase new housing built for homeless New Yorkers, we would be able to move more people out of city shelters and achieve the goal of reaching the 24,000 new units the House Our Future NY Campaign is advocating for.

We cannot continue to accept mass homelessness in our city as a fact of life. We have the means to alleviate the suffering of tens of thousands of homeless New Yorkers by building more deeply subsidized affordable housing to match the scale of the need. In addition to being the moral thing to do, the New York City Council has demonstrated through its support of the House Our Future NY Campaign and Intro. 1211 that it is entirely feasible. Now it is time for Mayor de Blasio to finally address the ongoing homelessness crisis with the best tool available: building new affordable apartments for homeless New Yorkers.

City Council Member Rafael Salamanca Jr. represents parts of the Bronx. Giselle Routhier is Policy Director at Coalition for the Homeless. On Twitter @Salamancajr80 & @Giselle_Ashley.

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The Right Side of Rikers History

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Melissa Mark-Viverito, the author (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

For decades, Rikers Island has served as a clear illustration of our nation’s willingness to turn a blind eye in the face of injustice. Home to decades of violence, corruption, and cruelty, the continued operation of Rikers Island jails has been a striking reminder that our justice system is anything but just. 

Activists, grassroots organizers, impacted individuals, elected officials, and many other New Yorkers have been demanding the closure of Rikers jails for decades, but their pleas have often fallen on deaf ears. Now, the New York City Council is on the verge of casting a vote that could get us one big step closer to ending the injustice of Rikers once and for all. 

As activists and advocates, it has been a long, treacherous process getting to this point. But we have now reluctantly handed over the torch to our elected officials and urge them to understand that they too have a moral obligation to do everything in their power to close down Rikers. Our hard work and our fight has gotten us this far, but we need our representatives to stand with us and get us one step closer to eliminating a system that has deprived people of their dignity, respect, and basic human rights. 

When I initiated the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform (The Lippman Commission), I tasked its members with determining if and how Rikers could be closed. The commission was made up of policymakers, researchers, system actors, and directly impacted individuals like Julio Medina, the Executive Director of Exodus Transitional Community, a preventative, reentry, and advocacy organization located in East Harlem. 

Like Julio, many survivors of Rikers and their loved ones exposed the jails’ horrendous conditions and inhumane treatment. Survivors recounted not just the horrors they lived while in Rikers, but the devastating life-long impact their experience had on them and their families.

Stories like that of Kalief Browder, an African-American man from the Bronx who was unjustly arrested and held at Rikers for three years – two of them spent in solitary confinement – have been told in many variations over and over again. By sharing narratives, those closest to the problem became instrumental in devising solutions to overhaul and reinvent a deeply broken system. 

The Commission’s report, alongside the momentum, leadership, and advocacy of those who have been directly impacted, forced Mayor de Blasio to put forth the current plan under consideration, calling for the closure of the Rikers jails and the reduction of jails in New York City from twelve to four.

The Lippman Commission has been committed to transparency in its process, allowing for planning and advocacy to happen in full view of an initially-skeptical public. In 2016, there were dozens of public meetings in all five boroughs, each inviting people from across the city to provide input. The #CLOSErikers campaign, led by directly impacted individuals, created a collaborative community process that produced a robust set of transformative demands, known as the #buildCOMMUNITIES platform. The public was also given the opportunity to critique and demand amendments to the borough-based jails plan through local Neighborhood Advisory Councils, town hall meetings, and the rigorous public review process of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.

To hear opposition forces now claiming that too few opportunities for public input have been offered is downright wrong, and an affront to the openness and outwardly engaging process that has taken place.

The reason for advocates’ high standard is obvious: they know that we only have one chance to get this right — not just because it has taken decades to get here, but also because failure is fatal. Faltering now in the face of the opposition's NIMBY-ism, racism, and false representations would mean that Rikers will probably remain open for generations to come, creating immeasurable cost.

Today, I proudly stand with Julio Medina and many, many others as we urge City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and all New York City Council members to approve this plan. We are closer to our goal than ever before. Let this be the Council that can say that they stood on the right side of history by voting to close down the Rikers Island jails and create a stronger, safer, and better New York City. 

Melissa Mark-Viverito is a former Speaker of the City Council and currently a candidate for Congress in New York’s 15th Congressional District. On Twitter @MMViverito.

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Counting Votes So They Really Count

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

I am usually in agreement with the analysis and opinions of Bruce Gyory, a prolific pundit and consultant who writes on New York City and State government and political affairs. 

But I must disagree with his op-ed in the Daily News last week, urging New York City voters to reject city charter revision proposal #1 on the fall ballot, which would create a ranked-choice voting process for party primary elections for City Council, borough president, and citywide positions.

The shortcomings of the current primary election system cry out for correction. Bruce doesn’t deny these inadequacies but he doesn’t present an alternative proposal. The unintended consequences that Bruce predicts are speculative. I believe ranked-choice voting will be an improvement, and it should be adopted by voters as they cast their ballots through the early voting period (October 26-November 3) or on Election Day, November 5.

According to our current city election law, we have two methods for choosing the winners of party primaries, one for citywide positions and one for borough-wide and City Council seats. For citywide positions, if no candidate wins more than 40% of the vote in a primary the two candidates with the most votes then participate in a separate run-off election. In other races, whomever gets the most votes wins, even if it is a crowded field, as Democratic primaries often are in New York City, and no one hits even 40%.  

With ranked-choice voting, there would be no separate run-off elections because voters would select not only who they want to win, but also their second, third, fourth, and fifth choices at the time of the initial primary. If no one wins 50% or more outright, the votes for the candidate with the lowest first-place vote total would be reallocated to those voters’ second choices, and so on until someone gathers enough votes to exceed 50% of the updated vote total.

Bruce states that RCV is untested. In fact, it has been in use in San Francisco and Minneapolis/St. Paul for years and was recently adopted in Maine, so the software needed to adopt it is readily available and we’ve seen some positive initial results. He worries that some voters’ voices will be stifled, particularly those of people of color. On the contrary, ranked-choice voting will empower more voters to express their preferences and ensure that the winner of a primary – which in New York City is often tantamount to the entire election – is preferred by a majority of those who come out to vote. 

Sadly most registered voters don’t vote in primaries and far fewer take the trouble to come out to vote in runoffs. In the runoff for public advocate in 2013 only 7% of eligible voters, or a little more than 200,000 people, voted and in effect chose the public advocate. In a city where 2.8 million Democrats were registered to vote, having 200,000 decide the outcome is not representative democracy. While not ideal, the original primary at least saw about 530,000 votes cast for public advocate candidates.

Bruce worries that polls will become too important because people will make choices based on which candidates seem most viable. Even if that turns out to be true (do most voters really pay attention to polls?) it would still be better than having only a tiny number of the most organized and motivated voters select elected leaders for the rest of us. There are also typically no or next to no polls for every office other than mayor. With ranked-choice voting everyone who votes in the primary can be assured that their vote will help determine the winner and I predict that it will lead to higher turnouts: people now unmotivated to vote because they prefer a candidate they think is unlikely to win can make their stand by voting for their candidate as a first choice, and then selecting others as alternatives. Ranked-choice voting is also likely to push candidates to campaign in front of more voters in hopes of appealing to as many as possible to be their first or second choice.

Of course, given my background as a fiscal watchdog, it is no surprise that part of my discontent with the current system is that it is expensive and wasteful. The 2013 public advocate runoff cost taxpayers $10.4 million to deploy voting machines and poll workers that were used by only 200,000 voters citywide. This means taxpayers spent $51.00 per vote, and that doesn’t include campaign expenditures by the candidates, partially covered by our public campaign finance dollars. Not to mention that the cost far surpasses the annual budget for the office of public advocate. I am sure each of the readers of this column can think of a more useful and cost effective way to spend $10 million in city revenue.

Ranked-choice voting is not the solution to all the problems with administration of our elections and we need further reforms at the state level, e.g. same-day and/or automatic registration and combined federal and state primaries. But city-level ranked-choice voting is a common sense, cost-saving reform that will make candidate selection in primaries more participatory and democratic, and I urge all registered voters to come out on November 5 (or sooner, via early voting that starts October 26) and vote yes for ballot proposal #1.

Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018.

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Why I’m Voting Yes to Close Rikers and Build Humane New Jails

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Council Member Costa Constantinides, the author (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

Nothing in New York City’s or our country’s history says we’re good at running jails. 

For hundreds of years, we have cast detainees away to far-flung islands. Out of sight, out of mind. Mostly black and brown men. Overwhelmingly, without having even been convicted of a crime. 

So, the recent skepticism to build a jail in the heart of my beloved Queens is justifiable. After countless meetings with criminal justice advocates, many among them previously jailed in Rikers Island’s houses of horrors, it’s clear the borough-based plan now before the City Council is the best option New York has.

A decision like this isn’t arrived at easily. I am ultimately voting “yes” this week because the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good while thousands of people are stripped of their human rights, confined in decrepit, asbestos-riddled jails far from their attorneys, families, and communities. 

The alternative would be to walk away now with no plan to close the Rikers Island jails. 

A once-in-a-generation opportunity to shut down the jails for good, in as little as five years, would vanish. The rare consensus among academics, the legal community, and victims of this broken system, which ensures people paying their debt to society are rehabilitated and prepared to re-enter civil society, will have been in vain. As a legislator, as a New Yorker, and as a human being, I cannot let this happen. The Lippman Commission rightly called the 80-plus years of jailing people on Rikers a stain on our city’s history. 

The stories from Rikers remind us why the jails there must close and why we must do better in the future. Sadly, it took Kalief Browder’s suicide after three maddening years in solitary confinement, a punishment that was hideously disproportional to the crime for which he was accused, for many of us to listen. 

Now, we’ve heard from Vidal Guzman, who recently pointed out that “Just because someone has left Rikers, doesn’t mean that Rikers has left them.” Kandra Clark, who spent four months in the infamous women’s facility, has spoken about the emotional torture of “the male correctional officers who would watch me go to the bathroom through the window in my cell door each night.” Dr. Homer Venters, the former chief medical officer for Correctional Health Services, recently went public about the toxic culture within the jails as well as what this physical and mental abuse looked like up close.

A “no” vote punts this to the next City Council, guaranteeing this inhumane status quo lives on for the time being. Instead, the City Council vote on Thursday can pave the way for more humane facilities. Is incarcerating any person the ideal? No. But, as former detainee Marco Barrios said earlier this year, the borough-based facilities “will not fix all the problems by themselves, but they can provide important progress.” 

This week, the Council will vote to build smaller, safer detention centers for violent-crime suspects and anyone else who spends any time in jail in New York City; to make it easier for the loved ones and attorneys of all those detained to visit them; and to create a system focused on rehabilitation of those swept up in the system.

New York City will invest in programs within the detention centers to break people free from this vicious cycle. And, our state government in Albany has been chipping away at the system that essentially makes being too poor to afford bail a crime. Previous reforms have already put us on a strong pace to shrink the city’s jail population from the current 7,000 to the necessary 4,000 that guarantees the permanent closure of the Rikers jails. 

Life is full of grey areas. The harsh reality is that some people commit heinous crimes and must be kept from the public. We, as a society, owe that to every child who’s had to hide under a bed, taking low, quiet breaths while an abusive parent bangs on the locked apartment door. Rape victims deserve to walk the streets without fear their attacker is out in public. 

But no longer will New York City’s jails function like a factory that takes in teenagers on a marijuana possession charge and pumps out hardened repeat offenders.

The rest is on us as policy-makers. I believe the city should invest in elements of the #CloseRikers coalition’s #BuildCommunities platform. This money must go into black and brown neighborhoods that traditionally have seen few city investments beyond more police cruisers.

The coalition has common sense asks: supportive housing, job training, access to physical and mental healthcare, educational investment, partnerships with community groups, as well as neighborhood conflict de-escalation and alternatives to incarceration. These investments should not be a one-shot either, and I will continue to fight for these things well beyond my tenure in the City Council.  

Community leaders, criminal justice advocates, and former Rikers detainees believe the plan the Council votes on this week will work. I trust them. And I trust my colleagues in the City Council and elsewhere in city government to follow through on the promises we’re making. I will be among those making sure that we do.

Tomorrow, the next day, and every day after this vote we have to break the stigmas around the formerly incarcerated. Remember the Bryan Stevenson mantra: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” The City of New York must apply this same logic to itself. The mistakes of our predecessors shouldn’t prevent us from making the right decision for the future. 

Rikers Island can be part of that future if the city uses the vacated land to get dirty infrastructure out of the same communities broken apart by the criminal justice system. These are the power plants, sewage facilities, and garbage stations that give people asthma, make them miss school, and saw their opportunity ladder in half. Voting to close Rikers today means we can give our kids a healthier tomorrow. 

City Council Member Costa Constantinides represents District 22, which includes parts of Queens and the Bronx, including Rikers Island. He is the chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection. On Twitter @Costa4NY.

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I’ve Seen It First-Hand Over Decades and Know: Rikers Cannot Be Redeemed

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On Rikers Island (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

The narrow bridge to Rikers Island still puts a knot in my stomach. In the late 1980s, I spent two years behind bars in one of the eight active jails on Rikers. Back then, crossing that bridge meant disappearing from society and entering a world defined by violence and inhumanity.

Little has changed. These days, I visit Rikers regularly as vice chair of the Board of Correction, the independent oversight body for New York City jails, and as executive vice president of the Fortune Society, an organization that helps people succeed when they come home from jail and prison.

Rikers still sends one message to everyone who crosses that bridge, no matter if you’re a correction officer, incarcerated person, or visitor: you are worthless. People feel like animals, caged and mistreated. They react accordingly.

During my first year at Rikers, this combustible mix exploded into a riot led by people brought down from upstate prisons for legal proceedings in the city. In theory, these men should have been happy to be closer to their families. But to visit Rikers, their loved ones still had to spend all day traveling to the island for just an hour together—as my father once did when I was jailed on Rikers. I hated to see the effect on him so much that I asked him not to come back.

The men from the state prisons experienced the same pain. The anger they felt from mistreatment by correction officers and the brutal physical conditions of Rikers drove them to barricade themselves in their housing unit and erupt in the mess hall.

Thirty years later, violence still permeates Rikers, where hints of disrespect are met with force. The jails remain inaccessible to families, lawyers, and other much-needed connections to the outside world. The conditions are still dehumanizing. During the July heatwave, I toured the jail where I was held so many years ago. The cinder blocks and metal worked like an oven. Officers patrolled in shirts drenched with sweat. A few cheap fans pushed around hot air, never reaching the people sweltering in their cells or stationed at their posts.

The vast majority of people at Rikers are awaiting trial, as I was. Almost all of them are people of color. Every day, nearly 800 people must be bussed to and from courts in the boroughs at cost of $41 million a year.

Moving around inside the poorly-designed jails is also difficult, requiring an officer escort down hallways that can stretch hundreds of yards. Too often, incarcerated people do not make it to medical appointments, family visits, recreation, commissary, and court. Cases are delayed, anger rises, and health suffers.

We can change this. In April 2017, after years of pressure, Mayor Bill de Blasio committed to shutting down the Rikers jails, reducing the number of people locked up by half or more, and holding this smaller jail population in facilities near the borough courthouses.

Since then, the number of people in jail has dropped by thousands. Our city remains as safe as ever, demonstrating we do not need mass incarceration to achieve safety.

This week, the City Council will vote whether to authorize four redesigned borough jails that will enable the permanent closure of the eight jails on Rikers and the jail barge moored to Hunts Point.

This plan is a once-in-a-generation chance to close Rikers and replace it with something far better, and far smaller. But no one should underestimate how hard it is to close an institution like Rikers.

It will require more changes to police and district attorney practices. It will take continued reforms in Albany, like passing the Less Is More Act to fix New York State’s broken parole system.

It will also require approval of the smaller borough system under consideration by the City Council. The initial designs for these facilities would promote safety and facilitate re-entry. Located much closer to courthouses and public transit, they would speed up cases and increase access for attorneys, family members, and others. They would be more accountable to oversight, leading to better conditions.

In final negotiations, the Council can improve the current plan by securing major community investments, so people never end up in jail in the first place. But this plan has to pass or we will be stuck with the horrors of Rikers for decades to come. We cannot allow the quest for the perfect to stop us from doing what is right.

Since I came home to the Bronx, I have dedicated myself to helping others succeed. The sprawling, unmanageable, and violent jails on Rikers undermine that goal and our communities. Let’s end this disgraceful chapter in our history.

Stanley Richards is Executive Vice President at The Fortune Society, a member of the Independent Commission on Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, and a member of the Justice Implementation Task Force. On Twitter @Stan_Fortune of @thefortunesoc & @MoreJustNYC

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The Governor's Signature is Next Step in Protecting New York Children from Toxic Toys

children toys

(Dreamstime: Photo 3882847 © Jose Manuel Gelpi Diaz -

Perhaps few items in society hold the same universal delight as children’s products. They are an important part of children’s wellbeing and development and can remind all of us of simple joys of childhood. We expect products designed specifically for children to be safe and free from chemicals that could cause harm.

Nobody wants their child to play with a toy containing alarmingly high levels of lead, cadmium, or mercury. However, there are many toys and products on the market today that do indeed contain chemicals that are hazardous to children’s health. Media reports of product recalls of children’s jewelry tainted with lead and arsenic, colored chalk contaminated with mercury, and baby soaps containing a chemical called 1,4 dioxane raise serious questions as to how manufacturers have been able to get these products into the market in the first place.

These products have been able to enter our state because of gaps in our regulation. Our regulations in New York have struggled to keep pace with the thousands of new combinations of materials and manufacturing processes involved in making children’s toys and products.

The good news is that New York has taken significant steps to remedy the issue through the state Legislature, with the new Child Safe Products Act, which passed in April 2019. By signing it into law on or around National Children’s Environmental Health Day, Friday October 11, Governor Andrew Cuomo could prevent further unnecessary harm to children on his watch.

The Child Safe Products Act, once signed, is poised to provide protections to keep toxic products out of the marketplace for all children. It would prevent the sale or resale of items containing the most dangerous chemicals — particularly important where consumers have less money for costlier toxic-free alternatives.

Low price and discount retailers that are commonplace in New York’s less affluent communities have been found to sell items containing very high levels of so-called “chemicals of concern.”

For example, a 2015 study by the Campaign for Healthier Solutions and tested products commonly sold at dollar stores, like toys and jewelry for children, and found alarmingly high levels of lead, mercury, and cadmium. The new law would take a measured approach to regulating chemicals in products developed for children and includes a comprehensive list of chemicals that are currently known to have adverse effects on human health.

The Child Safe Products Act would also provide clear directives for each member of the supply chain – from the manufacturer to the seller. Manufacturers would be required to report to the state the chemicals included on the list that are found in their products. The state would in turn provide this information to an interstate chemical clearinghouse. Retailers would be notified which items they are forbidden to sell, due to their toxicity, and they would be held accountable for selling such items, prompting greater scrutiny in their buying processes and supply-chain management.

Intergenerational principles urge us to be mindful of our responsibility to ensure the health and safety of the next generation. This applies to all aspects of a child’s environment – where they live, learn and play. Governor Cuomo has lent his support to several environmental causes. Signing this act would demonstrate our joint commitment to future generations of New Yorkers and solidify our place as leaders in protecting children’s environmental health. Other states like Maine, California and Washington have similar policy mandates.

Let’s ensure that the next generation of New York’s children comes to associate products designed for them with happiness. Governor Cuomo, please sign the Child Safe Products Act into law and affirm New York’s commitment to a greener, more sustainable future for everyone.

Christine Appah, Senior Staff Attorney for Environmental Justice at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, a member of the JustGreen Partnership that supported passage of the Child Safe Products Act. On Twitter @NYLPI.

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Surveillance and the City: Facing Up to Facial Recognition

alb cah fox op ed

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

Sometimes City Hall politics can be surreal; too much spin can give you a case of political vertigo. But this week was remarkable even by the standards of the de Blasio administration, with talking points that felt like messages from a parallel universe. Time and again, we heard lofty statements about a city committed to protecting its residents’ privacy, a city sadly bearing no resemblance to our own.

It started when the national facial recognition debate came to the City Council chambers. Months after cities like San Francisco fully banned facial recognition, New York City lawmakers introduced a trio of modest proposals that just scratch the surface of our municipal black mirror, and held a hearing on them.

One bill requires notices in stores when they use biometric surveillance like facial recognition. A second bill would require all buildings to register any biometric surveillance with the city. And a third bill guarantees New Yorkers the right to a metal key, even when their building uses key fobs or biometrics. These bills are not perfect, and they’re certainly not the full facial recognition ban that more and more cities are passing, but they’re a start.

Predictably, the Mayor’s Office claimed to “support the bills’ intent,” before pivoting to the litany of reasons why as laws they would be too much of an “operational challenge” or better suited to another agency. The metal key requirement was the only item to receive support.

This back and forth would have been utterly unremarkable if not for the constant proclamations of how New York City protects privacy. Countless empty phrases like we “value the privacy and livelihood of all New Yorkers” or “protecting the privacy of New Yorkers is something both the Council and Administration care a lot about.” Sadly, these platitudes hide the reality of New York City today.

The New York I know deployed automated license plate readers, perpetually logging almost every car in the city. It worked with the MTA to deploy the OMNY fare payment system, even as organizations denounced it as a privacy threat to every passenger. And then there are the biometric programs.

Programs like the NYPD’s DNA dragnet, which captures thousands of New Yorkers’ genetic information, including young children. And, of course, the most controversial program of all: the NYPD facial recognition database. This error-prone digital dragnet is used to arrest thousands of New Yorkers, many of them wrongly.

Of course, the administration’s tone shifted as soon as these troubling biometric programs came into the discussion. How many city agencies use facial recognition? “We don’t know.” How long can biometric data be kept? “We don’t know.” When city officials were asked point-blank if the NYPD uses facial recognition, something already reported around the world, the representatives suddenly were at a loss for words.

One program that administration officials were surprisingly eager to talk about was LinkNYC, the Frankenstein creation that’s part billboard, part phone charger, part wi-fi hotspot, and part tracking device. One NYC DoITT official proudly claimed that the LinkNYC privacy policy wouldn’t let the system “collect or store any identifying information.”  She went on to assert that the city “specifically prohibited the use of facial recognition,” and included “some of the strongest safeguards in the country.” The privacy advocates in the room were bewildered.

In reality, LinkNYC kiosks—which combine the aesthetics of a 2001 monolith and the Las Vegas strip—have come under intense scrutiny in recent years, following investigations by the InterceptGothamist, and others. Despite the administration’s claims, LinkNYC does provide photos to the NYPD facial recognition program in some cases (Link claims to do so only when subpoenaed). Even worse, activists highlighted LinkNYC’s potential power to track New Yorkers by transforming our wi-fi and bluetooth-enabled devices into veritable homing beacons (Link says only when users have opt-ed in via an app). The revelations sparked guerrilla privacy campaigns and widespread calls for LinkNYC’s elimination

Sadly, the City Hall spin didn’t end with LinkNYC, or at the hearing. This week also saw a remarkable statement on NYPD facial recognition from Commissioner O’Neill himself. When asked about a facial recognition ban, he plunged us back into the mirror universe, claiming “No one is being arrested solely on a facial recognition hit” and calling it an essential tool.  

Thanks to researchers at Georgetown and the NYPD’s own data, we know just how misleading a claim that is. At least one NYPD employee openly boasted about facial recognition’s role in arresting more than 2,700 New Yorkers. The commissioner often responds that no one is arrested solely based on facial recognition, but let’s look a little closer.

NYPD officers have included suspects in lineups solely because of facial recognition. In one case, officers texted a witness asking, “Is this the guy…?” and attaching a single photo. In both cases, the NYPD claims that the eyewitness is the reason for the arrest, but decades of false convictions demonstrate that these sorts of suggestive practices can warp witnesses' memories and lead to wrongful convictions.

The reality is thousands of predominantly black and Latinx New Yorkers would never have been arrested without the unreliable and deeply-biased facial recognition system, and I’m terrified to think just how many are innocent.

Part of why New York lags so far behind the rest of the country in reforming biometric surveillance is that the de Blasio administration won’t face the facts. It insists on spinning platitudes about New York being a privacy leader. We’re not. It’s long past time we let this fantasy fade and wake up to the sobering reality of what these Orwellian technologies are already doing to our communities.

Albert Fox Cahn is the executive director of The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project at the Urban Justice Center, a New York-based civil rights and privacy organization. On Twitter @cahnlawny

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Letter to the Editor: Key Points from Our Report on City Storefront Vacancy

nyc planning vacancy study aug 2019 cover

(photo: NYC Planning)

To the Editor:

In response to the opinion piece “Our Small Business Crisis is Very Real, and Demands City Action,” (Sept. 25), we want to caution that the tens of thousands of retail businesses in New York City come in all shapes and sizes, and no one solution fits all.

Contrary to the author’s claim, the Department of City Planning’s (DCP’s) Assessing Storefront Vacancy report details and directly links neighborhood vitality and affordability to the challenges that local shop owners face – from ever-evolving consumer tastes, competition from e-commerce, significant regulatory hurdles, changing streetscapes and high rents, particularly on higher-end retail corridors.

From every angle, the DCP report’s findings are clear: first, vacancy rates differ dramatically from neighborhood to neighborhood, and even block to block, and for different reasons; and second, some retail corridors are thriving. 

The DCP report reinforces what we have suspected for years: traditionally strong dry-goods retail markets, such as department stores and hardware shops, are the most challenged, while restaurants, entertainment, and experiential retail – services sought after by residents and workers that cannot be replaced by e-commerce – are multiplying.  What may be surprising is that brick-and-mortar retail jobs grew by 33% between 2008-2017, with jobs in restaurants, bars, and food stores exploding, gaining 132,000 jobs.

While zoning restrictions may initially sound like good solutions, the DCP report shows that cumbersome regulations hurt small businesses the most. We also know that singling out chain retailers is not a sound solution for a variety of reasons, including because many New York chain stores started out as mom and pops.

What the DCP report highlighted is that there are no easy answers, and that there is not one set of solutions that works for all types of stores and all types of businesses, in every neighborhood.

Marisa Lago, Director of the Department of City Planning

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