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It’s Time to Bring Joy Back to New York


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Stand Up NY


Laughter brings people joy, something that we’ve been missing for so long in New York thanks to the shutdowns by Governor Andrew Cuomo. We need New York to heal. That’s why I convinced my friend Dani Zoldan, the owner of Stand Up NY, to sue the governor. 

Prior to this lawsuit, Dani was putting on shows in parks and subway cars. He was working around the mandates imposed on small businesses by the governor and other elected representatives. Dani skirted the law and put on comedy shows without a license, because the law was unjust. It was this injustice that left no choice but to take legal action. Dani said, “The comedy scene in New York City is the best in the world. The overall consensus is that comics want to perform again, New Yorkers want to laugh and venues want to receive guidelines so they can safely reopen.”

He’s right.

Getting this right required conversations with numerous lawyers, including Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians, among others, and they had different approaches to this case. Some were too expensive. Others didn’t have the right experience. Some had positive results in bringing suit, but didn’t come across as compelling litigators. After numerous consultations, we felt good about hiring James Mermigis, the “Anti-Shutdown Lawyer.” But, there was a problem.

Imagine being a comedy club owner on the Upper West Side like Dani—who considers himself an independent with progressive values, teaming up with Mermigis, who voted for Trump. Dani depends on the local community to put food on the table, and this might feel like doom for a small business. But that’s not the case.

Part of the healing process is bringing people together. After four years of heated debates and a year of social isolation forced upon us by the governor, it’s time to bridge the divide. Dani and James were a great match because they think differently, yet want the same outcomes.

Dani and James may not agree on everything, but they agree on enough. This team championed the arts, culture, and small businesses that are dear to our hearts. We announced the lawsuit on The Sharpe Way, and raised awareness with LegalizeComedy.NYC. The lawsuit was filed on March 1, and Dani went on a media blitz the next day. By March 3, Governor Cuomo announced that he would permit entertainment venues to open on April 2. Pushing him into a corner to make the right decision was a huge win for our wonderful city. With comedy and other entertainment come laughter and joy.

Dani was not just representing his club. He was representing the community of local comics and other artists in New York who could not work, because of these suffocating mandates. We went to battle with the governor, head on. We won. We’re bringing back comedy clubs, laughter, and joy. We have a chance to heal.

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Larry Sharpe is host of The Sharpe Way and was the Libertarian Party nominee for governor of New York in 2018. On Twitter @LarrySharpe.

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Missing Pieces of the Pot Discourse


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The State Capitol in Albany (photo: CC-BY-SA-3.0/Matt H. Wade at Wikimedia Commons)


In a recent column published by Gotham Gazette, Manhattan District Attorney candidate Diana Florence extolled the push to commercialize marijuana in New York as a means to shore up our budget issues and solve social justice inequities. In short, the former Assistant District Attorney’s piece, like many other arguments about moving full-steam ahead with legalization, is quite far off the mark — here’s why:

Our state took an enormous blow from COVID-19. As a result, Governor Cuomo and others in Albany are scrambling to find ways to fix our shortfall, but we must not fall for the canard that allowing Big Pot in is the fix.

Governor Cuomo and others who are pushing for commercialization have claimed that legalizing marijuana would bring in $350 million a year in revenue. What’s missing from this is the fact that New York wouldn’t see pot revenues for quite some time. Ironically, both the main sponsor of the Senate’s legalization bill, Senator Liz Krueger, and State Budget Director Robert Mujica have been urging caution on claims that pot taxes will cure our budget woes.

As it stands, even if marijuana revenues appeared overnight, $350 million is akin to a speck of sand on the $15 billion beach that is our budget shortfall. In all, it’s just 0.2% of the overall $170 billion state budget.

And we haven’t even begun to discuss the costs associated with legalization: a study out of Colorado found that for every dollar in pot tax revenue, $4.50 must be spent to mitigate the increases in mental health and substance abuse issues, marijuana-related hospitalizations, drugged driving deaths and car crashes, and losses to workplace positivity.

Today’s marijuana is nothing like the weed of days gone by. Marijuana use has shown some significant links to serious mental health conditions — including schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, and suicide. Prolonged use has also been shown to lower IQ and motor function and can cause particular damage to the developing brains of young people. And we know this from low-potency pot; the science is still out when it comes to the super-potent marijuana readily available in “legal” states, but new evidence is beginning to paint a concerning picture.

A 2019 study found that users of higher-potency marijuana were more than five times as likely to develop a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia or psychosis. And other evidence tells us that the higher the THC potency, the higher the risk for dependence and problematic use.

Florence is right that more must be done to address racial inequities faced by communities of color, but marijuana commercialization if far from the right answer. All told, only 4% of the industry nationwide features Black ownership while pot shops are disproportionately located in communities of color, which historically lack the resources to combat predatory marketing and would be deeply harmed by increased substance abuse issues. Illinois serves as a perfect example of this.

Lawmakers there promised to “set the standard” when it came to social equity in the marijuana industry. In reality, now a year later, there is not a single minority-owned marijuana retailer in the state. Instead, licenses have gone to existing multi-state operators and connected political insiders. Social justice? Not so much.

If we truly want to help fix the damages of prohibition, we must double down on the current policy of decriminalization, expunge prior convictions, end the stigma that follows those with a drug conviction, and work to expand efforts on substance abuse prevention and treatment. Allowing a for-profit industry to come in and further harm vulnerable communities is not the answer, and it most certainly won’t fix our budget woes.

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Dr. Kevin Sabet, PhD, is a former senior drug policy advisor to the Obama Administration. He currently serves as president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). His new book, “Smokescreen, What The Marijuana Industry Doesn’t Want You To Know,” will be released April 20.

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Voting Rights Restoration A Good Step But New York Must End Blanket Disenfranchisement


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Voting rights (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Voting rights and social justice advocates are counting on legislative supermajorities in Albany to begin tackling a long ignored civil rights imperative, reform of New York’s racist Civil War-era blanket voter disenfranchisement law, which strips citizens of their right to vote while in prison or on parole for a felony conviction, regardless of the nature or circumstances of the offense. 

For the first time since the early 1970s, the New York State Legislature has begun to grapple with that legacy. The State Senate recently passed incremental legislation to restore voting rights to citizens on parole, and the state Assembly is poised to do the same soon. 

The policy shift is a decades-long priority of voting rights groups who penned a letter to state leaders about rights restoration ahead of the 2021 legislative session. At the federal level, New York Rep. Jerry Nadler’s Democracy Restoration Act would set this standard nationally for federal elections.

Around 36,000 people are on parole in New York, nearly three-quarters of whom are non-white. A 2020 Columbia University Justice Labs Report concluded that “the impact of current parole practices in New York falls disproportionately on Black and brown communities.”

Governor Cuomo mitigated this in 2018 by signing an Executive Order, a mechanical but meandering stopgap of rolling voting-rights-only pardons. With notable exceptions, rights are restored. However, the process takes several weeks and is disconnected from voter registration (New York’s deadline is still 25 days before an election). It is no substitute for updating the law.

The legislative fix creates a bright-line policy that is easier for election officials to administer, cuts government red tape, and harmonizes the rules so citizens serving out parole in their communities can register to vote, just as New Yorkers on probation presently can.

Voting rights restoration is an impactful step in the right direction. But in light of the historical record and contemporary racial and political impact, New York must be the place where lawmakers feel compelled to drag the United States into modernity. 

While a national reckoning with the ongoing legitimacy and wisdom of disenfranchisement policy has been slowly brewing, the racially-motivated proliferation of these laws—intertwined as they are with the systemic marginalization of minorities—has yet to generate the cultural outrage needed to render their perpetuation intolerable and spur real action. 

New York is one of 48 states that impose a disenfranchisement policy as a collateral consequence of all or almost all felony convictions, regardless of the nature of the offense and without consideration or review by a judge. Meanwhile, Americans convicted of felonies in Maine, Vermont, or Washington DC retain the right to vote during incarceration. 

From a national perspective, this makes the right to vote in the United States startlingly elastic. Internationally, U.S. policies violate norms of proportionality set decades ago by the European Court of Human Rights and are a clear outlier in scale and scope compared to the practice in other modern democracies like Canada, Israel, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

In 2020, the combination of mass incarceration and disenfranchisement policy excluded an estimated 5.2 million Americans from voting, three-quarters of whom have already completed their prison term and are living in our communities. The blunt application to all felonies makes the penalty indiscriminate and yet the impact is unjustly disproportionate—nationally, one in 16 voting age African-Americans were reportedly disenfranchised, a rate 3.7 times greater than that of other Americans. In Florida and six other states, more than one-in-seven African-Americans remain disenfranchised. Over 20% of Americans disenfranchised are women. When combined with other barriers to voter access (and gerrymandering), how dramaticall y does this contort political power?

Disenfranchisement isn’t merely a vestige of Jim Crow in New York, but actually more of an enduring centerpiece of the backlash that also occurred in northern states with larger Black populations after the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited racial discrimination in voting. Sadly, much as delegates intended when they entrenched mandatory disenfranchisement for infamous crimes in the New York Constitution 150 years ago, its legacy operates with disparate racial impact to this day, stigmatizing individuals and perpetuating a ripple effect that marginalizes communities.

The policy is part of a national stain. Course-correcting it requires more than incremental fixes. A rising generation of New York lawmakers are increasingly likely to agree but that’s yet to meaningfully shift the debate. Politicians called to public service to right historical wrongs and pursue social justice must reevaluate this serious punishment through a modern lens focused on fundamental rights and familiar rule-of-law principles like proportionality and judicial oversight. 

One option is not to disenfranchise Americans at all, as State Senator Kevin Parker has proposed. But if our criminal justice system will continue disenfranchising citizens convicted of crimes, today’s blanket penalty should be reformed to bear some relationship with the nature of the offense, rather than the length of sentence (it often lasts longer in many states).

Lawmakers can draw inspiration from the civil rights norms arising out of Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the U.S. ratified decades ago. A pro-voter framework in a modern democracy ensures voting rights remains the rule rather than the exception. That needs rebalancing. Yet disenfranchisement can be reasonable where it is imposed by law or at the discretion of a judge for a limited time, to redress serious offenses against our democracy, like crimes with a nexus to elections, public corruption, abuses of power, treason or terrorism.

The blanket policies in place now are both overinclusive and underinclusive, sweeping in almost all citizens convicted of felonies unrelated to these interests while sparing those convicted of lesser crimes that may directly implicate them, or better-resourced persons who do less time. 

The modern disproportionate racial impact requires us to address these policies’ racist origins. To better serve the interests of justice and protect civil rights, Americans should demand uniform rules of specific and proportional application and automatic rights restoration upon release. New York can and must take a significant step forward this month.

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Jarret Berg is a New York attorney and the Co-Founder of VoteEarlyNY. On Twitter @JarretBerg.

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‘Cuomo’s Coronavirus Coup’ Revisited – One Year Later


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Gov. Cuomo (photo: Darren McGee/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


It can be painful to look back, but perhaps never more than as we approach the one-year anniversary of the pandemic. COVID-19 started long before March 13 2020, but that was the day everything changed in New York City. That was the day leaders declared a state of emergency and began the most dramatic shutdown in the city’s history. And that was also the same day I decried what I called “Cuomo’s Coronavirus Coup.”

I’m hesitant to revisit last year’s column, but I think it’s important to look back at these moments, both at the things we got right and the ways we were horribly wrong. Rereading my own words, it’s jarring how wrong I was at times. I truly could not imagine the scale of what we were about to endure, or just how incompetently we would respond.

I wrote about emergency funding requests in the “millions,” when our state would soon spend many billions. I talked about the need to hold legislative hearings without realizing that in-person gatherings would soon be impossible. And I also naively assumed that our nation would come together in this crisis. It’s excruciating to read myself say that there “should be few things less divisive than how we respond to a public health crisis.” 

And there’s the title itself, flippantly using the word “coup.” Back then it seemed like harmless hyperbole, but that was before armed right-wing extremists stormed our Capitol and made “coup” a lethally serious word in the present.

But there were parts that stood the test of time, most presciently the warnings that Cuomo’s powers pose a threat to democracy itself.

The change that originally prompted my column was a (at the time) little noted amendment to state law that fundamentally rewrote our constitution. A last-minute item, passed without debate or hearing, let the Governor “issue any directive during a state disaster emergency…necessary to cope with the disaster...”

In other words, for over a year, we haven’t had three branches of government in New York State, we’ve just had Andrew Cuomo. Certainly, the Legislature could have tried to reassert power, especially after those first frenzied months, but its majorities largely gave deference and control to Cuomo. And power predictably did what it does so often, it corrupts…it corrupted absolutely.

Prior to the pandemic, the New York governor already had the power to suspend any law he wanted. If there was red tape that was getting in the way, he could have cut it. But this emergency bill was something new, something unlike what exists in any other state. Here, Cuomo was given the power to make new laws, any law, so long as he said it was necessary for the pandemic.

Some of those emergency measures were helpful, but some were misguided, or even deadly. When the governor ordered hospitals to discharge patients more quickly. It became the law. When he told nursing homes that they couldn’t turn away COVID-19 positive residents, they had no choice but to comply. And when a once-co-equal branch of government started asking questions, he lied, he stalled, and he threatened.

Bullying tactics were nothing new to Cuomo, but the power of being a COVID Caesar left him untouchable as long as lawmakers refused to act, especially when bathed in the light of the national media. But as I write this column, it’s unclear if Cuomo’s governorship will outlast the Ides of March, or if his rule will come to a swift end.

Whether or not Cuomo resigns, whether or not he is impeached, the Governor’s powers will remain. In recent weeks, Cuomo signed a “repeal” of the emergency rules, but that measure is a repeal in name only. Under the new standard, the Governor can extend his prior decrees indefinitely so long as he gives advance notice to the Legislature. The 96 executive orders already on the books remain the law of the land. And the Governor also retains pre-pandemic powers to suspend any law at any time.

This is simply too much power for any one person, but especially for Andrew Cuomo. What I knew a year ago was that Governor Cuomo was a bully, eager to strike out against anyone who spoke against him. In the days following my first column, more than one person told me that my “career was cooked.” But what I didn’t know then, and nearly every New Yorker knows now, is that he’s also a serial harasser, accused by a growing list of former staff members.

Any one of these abuses: the sexual harassment, the nursing home deaths, the cover-ups, and the subjugation of democracy, would be enough to call for an end to this troubled term. But taken together, they are far more, not just an indictment of one man, but of all those who let him amass and abuse so much power. Removing Cuomo from office is important, but that is just the beginning of restoring democracy to New York.

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Albert Fox Cahn (@FoxCahn) is the founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) at the Urban Justice Center and a fellow at the Engelberg Center for Innovation Law & Policy at N.Y.U. School of Law.

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Envisioning a Community Farm for Our Neighborhood, and Yours


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The Brooklyn lot in question


Our needs for housing, food security, health, and green open spaces are all critical. Therefore, city policies and planning must not pit these needs against each other. 

Seldom considered are the health benefits provided by greenery. Connection with nature has been shown to reduce heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormone levels, and positively impact the nervous system. Green vegetation in open social space is key for fortifying mental and physical health as we recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

One particular example where we live is emblematic of how city government must think differently about community space. This story has lessons for New York City. This site may not be in your community, but it is important for the city we all call home and other neighborhoods that may face similar choices.

Brooklyn’s “Block 5103, Lot 58” is a vacant lot at the heart of the historic Village of Flatbush. We believe that a community farm is the highest and best use of this 29,000-square-foot city-owned property at Church and Bedford Avenues. Such use would provide a more livable environment for current residents and would honor those who came before us: the Munsee Lenape and Canarsie peoples who walked this land, and the enslaved of African descent who are thought to  have been buried on this lot. 

Since 2015, when the dilapidated school building was demolished on the lot, nature has reclaimed this land. Previously, it was the site of the Flatbush District No. 1 School (1878), P.S. 90, and the Beth Rivkah Institute. Around 2006, it was discussed as the site for a Caribbean trade center and business incubator. In 2017, a Community Board 14 study identified this lot as potential green space in a district “ranked 58 out of 59 community districts in the rate of residential units that are within ¼ mile of a park.” 

Now is the time to partner with nature to return this lot to the ecological richness of Lenapehoking in support of modern life. Here, neighbors would congregate to chill out and converse among green plants or recall the love of farming in distant ancestral lands. Children would grow, directly connected with nature; both young and old would learn local solutions to food insecurity. Everyone would compost food scraps to nurture the soil and recycle to protect the earth.

A community farm at this location would be the critical center in a community-based plan for a truly livable and affordable neighborhood. We join with local grassroots voices and progressive planners calling for prioritizing renovation and the upgrading of existing housing stock as well as the development of additional deeply affordable housing, based on the area median income, within a two- or three-mile radius. 

In line with the real estate appraisal concept of highest and best use, this lot should be removed from the speculative real estate market and held by the Brooklyn-Queens Land Trust. A community farm would serve as a social hub and educational center for earth-serving careers of urban farming, composting, recycling and soil-rehabilitation. Regenerative farming practices that acknowledge the natural circularity of air, water, and soil would develop it at much lower financial and environmental costs. Organizationally, the community farm center could draw on the experience of such community-based organizations as CAMBA, Earth Matter, and East New York Farms, and would receive support from the city.

Currently, there is a consultation process with the expressed goal of developing 130 housing units on this lot. Conducted by the New York City Economic Development Corporation and Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and co-chaired by Borough President Eric Adams and City Council Member Mathieu Eugene, this consultation is politically timed to conclude around the time of the June primary elections.

A more people-centered and planet-friendly, more resilient and more equitable future is possible for this lot in this Brooklyn neighborhood—once multi-generational, multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-talented voices are truly heard and their desires acted on. Recognizing our neighbors’ rich diverse voices, we raise our own to demand open democratic deliberation without predetermined political commitment. 

We believe that when we give back to the earth, the land supports us. A community farm on this lot is a gift that will keep on giving to us all.  

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Marion Yuen, Natalia Sucre, Don Loggins, Tom Angotti, Iola Sims, Anne Schoeneborn, and Carmen Castillo-Barrett are activists, community gardeners, and composters.

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Want an Equitable Recovery? Take Big Steps Now to Close the Digital Divide


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Kids with computers (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


New York City’s public schools are welcoming back many middle and high school students this month, moving away from a turbulent era of distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. And while our young people are learning valuable lessons in school, we have all learned a lesson during social distancing: broadband internet is a basic necessity. 

What once seemed like a luxury for downloading music or shopping, broadband internet access is now absolutely critical for work and school. Students need high-speed internet for distance learning, allowing them to engage with teachers through teleconferencing as well as to conduct research. Adults need it for telecommuting during social distancing — and potentially in perpetuum if employers decide not to reopen or to only partially reopen physical offices — as well as performing essential tasks, such as scheduling COVID-19 vaccination appointments. 

As chair of the State Senate Committee on Energy and Telecommunications, I know that broadband internet is critical for our economic recovery. When it comes to finding a job, an unemployed person with internet access is five percentage points more likely to have a job in a month; after a year, the discrepancy widens to 12 percentage points. And when someone with broadband access is hired for a job, her starting salary is 3% to 4% higher than someone without. Employers also benefit from being able to better find people matching the skills needed for a job opening, and then save on high office rents through telecommuting. Besides the labor market, high speed internet allows people to start their own businesses from home. 

Not surprisingly, one study found that broadband internet increases a locality’s employment growth rate by 6.4 percentage points. Another found that broadband increased per capita GDP by 1.2%, and annual per capita growth by 0.9 to 1.5%. For someone living on the edge of poverty, these margins could be the difference between having food on the table and going hungry.

Fortunately, almost all of New York City is now wired for broadband. Unfortunately, not all New Yorkers are reaping the benefits. Almost 30% of households in our city do not have broadband internet, including 46% of households living below the poverty line. And unfortunately for children in distance learning, 23% of households with a child under 17 do not have broadband. This helps explain why the Department of Education identified over 2,000 public school students as “not engaged” since the start of distance learning.

Closing this “digital divide,” then, will be an essential tool for the country to have a stronger, faster, and more equitable recovery from the pandemic. New York City has made a modicum of progress by compelling some of our Internet Service Providers to offer low-income households internet plans starting at $15 to $20 a month, but even this will be out of reach for many New Yorkers, if they even know such programs exist. Closing the divide is even more challenging for those not lucky enough to live in New York City, who might be in a rural area with no broadband access at all.

That is why I wrote a letter last month to one of my constituents, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, urging him to use his influence to pass Rep. James Clyburn’s Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act. The AAIA would allocate $80 billion to deploy broadband to underserved communities and $5 billion for Wi-Fi hotspots, with a requirement that any ISP on the new network offer an affordable option to everyone. The act would also provide a subsidy of up to $50 a month for low-income households’ internet bills. This would provide a much-needed kickstart to America’s economic recovery.

I hope that my fellow lifelong Brooklynite can pass the AAIA. But rather than wait on Washington, New York City can be a role model for the rest of the country by guaranteeing broadband internet to ever yone. When negotiating future franchise agreements, we must require ISPs to offer free or deeply-affordable internet services to low-income households, with publicity being effective enough that New Yorkers know such services exist. As the next New York City Comptroller, I will take an active role in these negotiations to make this a reality.

An economic recovery for the United States and New York City is inevitable. The question is whether we want a recovery with economic justice where we lift up everyone, or a recovery that leaves many behind like the one we saw after the Great Recession. If we have the will — and moral compass — to achieve the former, then closing the digital divide will be essential in our efforts to do so.

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State Senator Kevin Parker is a Democratic candidate for New York City Comptroller. On Twitter @SenatorParker.

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Letter from a Constituent: Speaker Heastie, Please Stand Up for the Bronx


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Speaker Carl Heastie (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


I’ve lived in The Bronx all my life — and all my life, our political leaders have hung our borough out to dry.

For as long as I can remember, being from The Bronx meant going to underfunded schools, surviving in food deserts, and living in overcrowded homes or crumbling NYCHA units. None of these conditions are inevitable; rather, they’re the outcome of negligence and disinvestment by lawmakers. The people of The Bronx deserve better. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie: to deliver justice for your neighbors in The Bronx, it’s time to end tax breaks for the rich and invest in our New York.

Over the last century, a procession of politicians have made policy decisions that actively hurt the Black and brown majority of our borough, from building the Cross Bronx Expressway straight through our communities to redlining our neighborhoods. These choices led to a generational poverty that requires intentional investment — in education, in jobs, in housing — to correct. And yet, it’s 2021, and this legacy of disinvestment is as strong as ever. Tens of thousands of Bronx residents live in failing public housing; countless others are chronically rent-burdened, on the brink of eviction, or already homeless. Our schools, which serve our majority Black and brown children, are deeply underfunded. And we suffer one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the entire country.

COVID-19 made it all worse. Over 17% of Bronx residents are currently unemployed — the highest rate in the state — even as employment rates rebound statewide. Such high joblessness is a dangerous spark, setting off disruption after disruption: hungry families, people kicked off their health insurance, families evicted from their homes, and troubling child poverty. This endless cycle is fundamentally a policy failure, not a matter of millions of low-income Bronxites failing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. And yet, in essence our leaders continue to throw up their hands as if there’s nothing they can do.

Speaker Heastie, as a longtime constituent in your district, I’m appealing to you directly: The Bronx needs tens of billions in dollars in new revenue to end this senseless suffering. That’s the kind of investment it will take to create hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs; to finally give our children the education they need to succeed; to stop the cycle of poverty that housing insecurity creates.

To raise the funds needed to finally invest in The Bronx, we must end tax breaks on the rich. Right now, New York’s wealthiest residents enjoy enormous, unearned tax breaks on their wealth and incomes, their luxury cars and properties, and even on the corporations they own. That’s the kind of backwards policy that lets the rich get richer while The Bronx stays poor. And this year, it’s the policy that has let billionaires accumulate over $80 billion during a global pandemic while your neighbors are still out of work.

The six bills in the Invest in Our New York Act are the clear solution. By reversing these unfair tax breaks on the richest among us, New York can finally stop balancing its state budget on the backs of Black, brown, immigrant, and working class people. By passing these bills, we can fully fund our schools, hospitals, and housing. And just as disinvestment has a negative ripple effect, investment will have a positive one. Fully funding our schools will mean more opportunities for young people in The Bronx. Accessible healthy food will mean fewer comorbidities. Functional public transport will mean Bronxites can afford to travel to good jobs anywhere in the city.

Speaker Heastie: you know as well as I do that if we fail to raise this revenue by ending tax breaks for the rich, it’ll be communities like ours in The Bronx that will suffer. Property taxes will go up for homeowners; the budgets of life-saving services — from food pantries to drug harm reduction services — will be cut; unemployment will stay high. And all the while, the systemic inequality that leads to all of this pain in the first place will go unsolved.

As a lifelong Bronxite and a dedicated community activist, I have seen a lot of injustice in my time. But over the past year, I have also been hopeful that a new day for the Bronx is around the corner. From Pelham to the South Bronx, residents from all walks of life are coming together to demand more from our elected officials. The Governor is exceptionally weak, and we have a unique moment now to deliver for The Bronx. Progressive rhetoric is not enough.

We know you, as our legislative leadership, have more power than ever. As you are about to propose the Assembly’s budget for the next fiscal year, we turn to you: pass the Invest in Our New York Act and delive r the future that the Bronx deserves.

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Curtis Robinson is an activist and life-long resident of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s district in the Bronx.

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New York City Public Housing: Grey Gardens Revisited


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NYCHA (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography)


We all know the story of deplorable living conditions and general dysfunction. Many of us were captivated by details of the wreckage and the shocking level of disrepair. We sympathized with the residents, but scratched our heads wondering what level of madness allowed such unnecessary suffering when there were ample means to alleviate it.

Although this describes the Grey Gardens of East Hampton, which became infamous in the 1970s and was depicted in films and a Broadway musical, it also describes something seemingly quite different. That is the approximately 170,000 public housing residences in New York City owned and operated by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the official home to approximately 381,000 New Yorkers — what I call the urban Grey Gardens.

Both involve a need for massive repairs, but also the possession of sufficient resources to pay for them. While the owners of the Hamptons’ Grey Gardens, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter (the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), may have had family wealth in the form of stocks, bonds, and other assets, NYCHA has significant wealth in the form of land in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world.

How much land? 2,473 acres (almost four square miles). How is it using that land? Less intensively and effectively than much privately-owned land that houses wealthier New Yorkers. The Skyscraper Museum has calculated the density of various housing developments. London Terrace in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea houses 931 people per acre. Manhattan House on the Upper East Side houses 478 people per acre. NYCHA houses 154 people per acre. Clearly many New Yorkers can and do live perfectly well with much greater density than currently exists in NYCHA housing.

Increasing the density of NYCHA’s developments to the average density of London Terrace and Manhattan House would add housing for over 1.3 million people. With an average household size in New York City of 2.42 people, that would translate into approximately 537,000 new apartments. It would not take much imagination to achieve this increased density by more efficiently using NYCHA properties which often include dead zones, unused open space, and surface parking lots.

How much money could the new apartments bring in? Various configurations would raise $32 billion – roughly the full estimated amount NYCHA needs to address all of its unmet capital repair and upgrade needs. For example, making half of the new apartments affordable yielding zero profit and the other half market rate yielding a profit of $120,000 each, a modest profit for a builder in New York that incurs no cost for land, would raise the full $32 billion. NYCHA, like the owners of Grey Gardens, has the assets to address all of its needs without any contribution from taxpayers or stressed government budgets.

The new housing could also be used to provide another benefit: greater diversity. NYCHA housing is by definition reserved for people with low incomes. Government officials who regularly and enthusiastically talk about diversity seem to miss the irony that the one area of housing they completely control is among the least diverse in the city. Building new residences on NYCHA owned land could bring more economic and racial diversity to neighborhoods and provide the additional benefit of helping to reduce segregation in New York City’s public schools.

The government could even go so far as to diversify individual buildings. It could provide NYCHA tenants the option, if they wanted, to move to apartments in the new buildings at their existing rents or to receive vouchers for housing of their choice elsewhere in the city paid for by the free market rents earned on their newly renovated units. Either way, no affordable units would be lost (in fact, many could be gained), buildings would be diversified and new life brought to these communities.

The problem facing NYCHA is the problem the Beales faced at Grey Gardens. It has nothing to do with a lack of resources and everything to do with shaking off years of dysfunction and complacency to take advantage of resources they already have.

***
Howard Yaruss teaches at NYU's Shack Institute of Real Estate and was formerly the General Counsel and Executive Vice President of Radian Group Inc.

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Saving Small Businesses in the Wake of COVID-19


city expanding relief

Mayor with a small business plan (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


Ryan’s Daughter has been a staple of Yorkville since the 1970s. It’s the local neighborhood pub. There’s a pool table in the back, and the same three old regulars are always sitting at one corner of the bar. On March 15 last year, the owner of the bar made the decision to close. “When covid hit, we were really thinking first about our people,” Jim Gerding told me. “When those first reports came out, I didn’t care about the business restrictions, I cared that people were getting sick.”

In the past year, COVID-19 has had a disastrous effect on this city’s local small businesses. Businesses that were already operating on extremely thin margins have now lost most, or in some cases all, of their revenue, and have had to lay off thousands of workers. According to TrackTheRecovery.org, a research project funded by Harvard University and the Gates Foundation, there are over 40% fewer small businesses open in New York City now than there were in January 2020.

Small businesses are the lifeblood of this city — not only do they employ thousands of workers, but they provide spaces for communities to come together. We need short-term solutions for businesses dealing with the devastating effects of the COVID-19 shutdowns, but we also need longer-term solutions. Far too many small businesses were struggling long before the pandemic, and if we don’t address the root causes of their struggles, we’ll continue to see our beloved local businesses shutter.

First and foremost, we have to get direct financial relief to small businesses. Small business owners I’ve spoken to have depleted their savings and have taken out loans to keep their businesses afloat. The city should utilize federal funds to create its own grant program for small businesses, including a microbusiness assistance fund focused on minority-owned businesses. 

We should implement a grant program, similar to what San Francisco’s mayor has proposed, that would provide immediate relief to help stabilize small business operations by offering grants of $5,000 to $25,000, based on the number of employees that each employer had prior to the pandemic.

Our city also needs to do more to connect small business owners with existing state and federal programs. As we saw in the first round of PPP loans, large companies were able to navigate the complex process more easily and quickly, while many smaller companies and businesses were unable to get the relief they needed. One local business owner expressed frustration that upon signing up through the city’s site, she received no help, but found herself inundated with loan offers from various institutions, which now had her contact information.

The city’s Department of Small Business Services should work directly with local community groups, such as Community Boards, BIDs, and neighborhood associations to do direct outreach to local businesses. We must also ensure that this assistance is provided in multiple languages.

Longer term, we need to address the rising costs of owning and operating a business in this city. We can begin by passing the bill (Intro. 2007-2020) sponsored by City Council Member Keith Power that would temporarily eliminate the Commercial Rent Tax for all businesses with an annual base rent of less than $1 million. According to Council Member Powers, “this bill would help approximately 5,500 Manhattan businesses...that are currently paying the tax.”

We should also work to pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which would establish conditions and requirements for commercial lease renewal negotiations, including requirements for lease renewal terms, arbitration-triggering conditions, limits on security deposits, and prohibitions on landlord retaliation. 

Delivery services have been critical during this pandemic, but we need to prioritize money going to small businesses and not to Silicon Valley. We need aggressive oversight of these delivery apps. Multiple lawsuits over the past several years have accused companies like GrubHub of charging hidden fees, refusing refunds, and including restaurants on their platforms without the restaurants’ permission. The state should pass the bill (S.8816), similar to a law that was recently passed in California, to require third-party delive ry services to have a valid agreement with a merchant before they advertise, promote, or sell the merchant's products on their platform.

Last year the New York City Council passed a bill that would limit delivery app fees to 15% during, and for 90 days after, a declared emergency that prohibits ordering food on premises. We should make this cap permanent. 

One of the biggest complaints I hear from small business owners is that the city does a poor job of communicating, especially when it comes to ever-changing rules and regulations surrounding COVID-19. Gerding of Ryan’s Daughter explained, “as the goalpost would move back further, or the regulations would change, there was never a feeling that this is being well thought-out, from the point of view of the business.”

Last year Mayor de Blasio convened a Small Business Advisory Council, but by October, members of the Council complained that there was not a steady flow of communication from City Hall. The city must convene regular meetings of the Small Business Advisory Council. The mayor should assign a City Hall point person to address concerns from the Council, and establish inter-agency coordination so that business owners are not forced to navigate multiple agencies for guidance and support.

As we slowly recover from this terrible pandemic, we must ensure that our local small businesses are not left behind. With ever-increasing vacancies, the city must act boldly, and do more to provide resources and create opportunities for local businesses to thrive.

***
Kim Moscaritolo is a Democratic candidate for City Council in Manhattan’s 5th District. On Twitter @KimMosc.

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How to Get the City’s 136,000 Homebound Seniors Vaccinated More Quickly


island vis lane

Mayor de Blasio at a senior center (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Vaccines are the lifeline that will get us out of this crisis. But since vaccine distribution haltingly began two months ago, New York City’s estimated 136,000 homebound seniors had been left isolated with the knowledge that while they are the most at-risk of dying from COVID-19 (eight out of 10 covid deaths nationwide have been over age 65), they have no way to obtain a lifesaving vaccine.

Their more mobile friends and neighbors — first those over age 75, then over 65, and now over 60 — can visit a vaccine site and get inoculated (assuming, of course, they are able to navigate a truly convoluted online appointment system), while many of the homebound can only watch vaccinations on TV, even as they worry that the health aides they rely on may bring covid into their homes.  

The city has now announced its program to vaccinate homebound seniors with the new Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine, launching in Co-op City and Brighton Beach. But there’s real concern that those good intentions haven’t resulted in a real plan beyond pop-ups, and could lead to a replay of the senior food distribution debacle during last spring’s shutdown. 

Back then, the city’s senior centers — themselves a lifeline serving daily meals to tens of thousands of seniors — were left in the dark as the city closed their doors and programs had to improvise to provide home-delivered meals to thousands of newly-isolated older New Yorkers. The city’s Department for the Aging didn’t have the capacity to handle the list-making, meal-sourcing, and delivery logistics for thousands of households, but that work is already done at the community level by senior centers, meal centers, and case management agencies. The mayor had to appoint a food czar to straighten out the problems in getting life-sustaining daily nutrition to those who needed it.

The city’s vaccine honchos should learn from that experience. They should recognize that the mayoral administration can’t go it alone — and doesn’t need to. 

The city can and should start with the 20,000 homebound seniors enrolled in the Department for the Aging’s Home Delivered Meals program executed by 23 community-based organizations, and leverage their logistics experience, infrastructure (refrigerated trucks!), and trusted relationships to make appointments for seniors and collect crucial advance information for the vaccinator — medical conditions (including possible dementia), language assistance, and the presence of a home health aide who might also want a vaccine. It’s one thing to have a city-paid stranger or an automated system call a 75-year-old homebound elder -- and quite another for a staffer from a senior center reaching out to her. Staff at these community-based organizations can do the hand-holding because they already know how. 

And the city can enlist hundreds of staff at senior centers, naturally occurring retirement communities, settlement houses, and organizations like Citymeals on Wheels and DOROT (that sponsor programs to help reduce seniors’ isolation).

Yet so far, nothing seems to have been planned with any of the obvious and logical senior-facing service delivery operations. 

That’s got to change if we’re going to get every homebound senior vaccinated quickly and efficiently — and in a way that doesn't create new problems. We’re ready to help. 

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Gale A. Brewer is Manhattan Borough President and Beth Shapiro is Executive Director of Citymeals on Wheels.

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As New York Reforms Vendor Permits, Food Trucks Deserve A Seat at the Table


permits food reform

Food truck (photo: New York Food Truck Association)


We love to take a bite out of the Big Apple, literally speaking. New York City’s colorful culinary scene offers some of the best food from around the world, whether at a restaurant, food cart, or one of the many food trucks offering everything from scrumptious lobster rolls to Korean style BBQ. With newly-passed legislation -- the Street Vendor Bill, Intro. 1116 -- there will finally be more than 4,000 new food vendor licenses over 10 years across the boroughs, and the real work of reforming a broken system and curbing an underground market of food vendor licenses is beginning.

But the biggest question remaining is who exactly will deliver that reform. 

The legislation the City Council passed establishes the formation of a Street Vendor Advisory Board to help set up and deliver a framework of how the licenses will be allocated, with members of the board including representatives from city government, the business community, and the street vendor community. Four of the 15 spots are reserved for members of the street vendor community.  

As a former food truck operator, I know firsthand the challenges vendors face in trying to successfully run their businesses. My first job after graduating college was selling Belgian-style French Fries with gourmet dipping sauces from my truck, The Frying Dutchmen. The hours were long and the parking tickets added up, but the satisfied looks on New Yorkers’ faces was priceless. I quickly learned that food trucks themselves offered an amazing opportunity to bring this diverse and striving community together. It’s what inspired me to form the New York Food Truck Association (NYFTA), with the mission to promote and grow our food truck community through strategic partnerships and events. 

And this is one of several reasons why one of the four spots for vendors on the Street Vendor Advisory Board should be a representative of the food truck community. Our other reasons include:

We, too, are feeling the pain. Like our friends in the food cart and brick and mortar communities, food trucks are feeling the economic strains of the pandemic. A good number of food trucks typically set up shop in front of office buildings that have largely been empty for almost a year now and it’ll be some time before those buildings are back to pre-pandemic occupancy rates. Food trucks should also be part of the recovery conversation. 

Food trucks generate thousands of jobs and provide valuable tax revenue to the city. Our 75 members, which represent over 100 food trucks, generate about $15 to $20 million in taxable revenue for the city’s coffers. And a majority of food trucks, including all our members, play by the rules.

There is precedent for city support of food trucks. When Hurricane Sandy devastated our shores, the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City provided $1.8 million in contracts to provide much needed meals to hungry New Yorkers without power and those who lost their homes. 

It’s about equity. A majority of the chatter has been around food carts, but food trucks are also included in the cap increase and are embedded in the very fabric of what makes New York City great. A lot of focus has been on allocating space for restaurants and storefronts through Open Restaurants, Open Streets, and Open Storefronts. If we truly want equity, the food truck community should legally be afforded these same opportunities as well, both on the Advisory Board and through these programs.

We can mobilize quickly during emergencies. This includes at the height of the pandemic when we donated more than 275,000 meals through our Frontline Food Trucks initiative to feed essential workers. We also partnered with World Central Kitchen and Bloomberg Philanthropies to sponsor several food trucks, delivering free food to the frontlines.  

Eating safely during a pandemic. Our food trucks primarily cater to New Yorkers who are hungry for safe, social interactions including outdoor dining. Food trucks have the logistical capability to support socially-distanced outdoor events as more people get vaccinated.

Survey the needs. We are happy to hear that the New York City Department of Transportation is currently conducting a survey about food truck zones. It’s important to get this right and create a fair and equitable opportunity for food trucks to sell their food without having to arrive at 3 a.m. to secure a prime spot. We can also service neighborhoods with parking capacity and that are food deserts in their own right. 

New Yorkers are hungry for opportunity. It’s something many of us have been craving the last year. As the city begins to come back to life, food trucks offer tremendous value in opportunity, resiliency, and accessibility to gourmet food at reasonable prices. Members of this new board who will help dictate street vendor reform should hear the challenges our vendors and their staff face on a daily basis. This includes one driver, Dom Tesoriero, the owner of The Mac Truck and an NYFTA member. For him, “New York City is the best place in the world to be, but also one of the most challenging environments to operate. Something has to be done to help us recover after this pandemic or our industry will be in big trouble.”

To deliver true vendor reform, everyone must have a seat at the table, including food trucks.

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Ben Goldberg is President and Founder of the New York Food Truck Association. On twitter @NYFTA1.

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