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Opinion

Seizing the Moment for Bold Climate, Green Job & Environmental Justice Legislation in New York


aerial solar panels

(photo: mayor's office on flickr)


On Friday, March 15, over 1 million students from 125 countries walked out of school to demand that we act on climate change.  As New Yorkers, we’re already seeing the devastating impacts of climate change in our communities. We all remember the damage to homes, lives, and communities caused by Superstorm Sandy, and we know we’ll face more intense storms in the future. As summers get longer and hotter, more of our elderly neighbors will be at risk for heat stroke or even death.

We also know that the impacts of climate change do not  affect everyone the same way. From heat waves to hurricanes to sea-level rise, low-income communities, communities of color, and communities historically burdened by polluting and extractive industries are often more vulnerable to climate risks.

But discussion of climate change does not have to be all doom and gloom. In New York State, we have an opportunity to move to a fossil-fuel-free economy while also investing in good, high-wage jobs and creating real investment in communities most impacted by the climate change.

If we want a carbon-free future, or some would say, any future, we need to reduce our emissions from all sources and we need to set an enforceable timeline to do it.

This crisis gives us an opportunity to re-imagine our priorities as a state. It will take planning and investments to move to a fossil-free future. We need to direct some of those investments to marginalized communities and people already hurt by the climate crisis. We need to make sure green jobs pay livable wages, and create opportunities among low- and middle-income communities across the state. We need to end our dependence on fossil fuels while building a better economy that does its best not to leave anyone  behind.

This is part of the reason why I sponsor the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA), which has passed in the State Assembly three years in a row.  This year has brought with it more opportunities, and the time is right to create a green and equitable future.

The CCPA has the support of over 160 grassroots community, labor, and environmental organizations. It creates an enforceable timeline to move our entire economy to 100% renewable energy by no later than 2050. It is based on the timeline scientists recommend to avoid catastrophe. It also includes the strongest equity provisions in the nation to invest in communities hit hardest by the climate crisis.

The CCPA is about more than just the environment. Under the bill, 40 percent of state funds directed towards greening our economy would go to environmental justice communities. That includes low-income communities, communities of color, and folks at high risk of being adversely impacted by major storms or sea-level rise, and communities already experiencing polluted air and water from carbon-burning facilities.

The CCPA also sets wage and apprenticeship standards so that new green jobs are well-paying, livable jobs. It is estimated that the CCPA will generate the creation of 150,000 jobs related to the green energy transition, revitalizing communities and providing opportunities for New Yorkers across the state.

We can and should get this done this year.

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Assemblymember Steven Englebright represents parts of Long Island. On Twitter @SteveEngles.

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Getting to Truth, and Solidarity, on Loft Law Reform


nyc loft tenants rally

Rally for the Loft Law bill (photo via @NYCLT)


Recently, there has been considerable attention paid to a Loft Law “clean-up” bill that is on the table in the New York State Legislature. Advocates have worked tirelessly for over three years to make it law; an effort stymied by a Republican-controlled Senate in 2017 and 2018, resulting in eviction of many loft tenants.

In November 2018, Democrats won enough seats to take control of the Senate this year and thus all of state government. Many Democrats won hard-fought elections, including Julia Salazar, running on a platform of strengthening rent laws to protect tenants. This blue wave raised hopes that, along with other legislative actions to strengthen New York’s rent laws, the Loft Law clean-up bill would finally pass.

Early this year, the bill was introduced, sponsored in the Assembly by Deborah Glick – a longtime champion for loft tenants – and in the Senate by Salazar. The bill offers a platform around which housing rights advocates should rally – it protects tenants across the city, creates additional affordable housing units, keeps working-class labor markets intact, and regulates rent in communities threatened by gentrification.

Yet, opposing forces have once more succeeded in stalling its enactment, by disseminating misinformation about its contents, impacts, and the Loft Law in general. This has poisoned solidarity of communities who share the same interests, struggling to fight real estate development.

We believe that the strife must end. As diverse groups fighting to protect and strengthen tenants’ rights, we are on the same side and must stand united in solidarity. Universally strengthened rent laws cannot be accomplished if loft tenants are left out in the cold.

With that in mind, it is critical to dispel the misinformation and misconceptions around the Loft Law and the clean-up bill. Three central claims have been advanced by critics.

The first is that it will negatively impact jobs in the North Brooklyn Industrial Business Zone (IBZ), threatening approximately 20,000 industrial and manufacturing jobs in the IBZ. This is false. In fact, the bill does exactly the opposite.

The bill and Loft Law in general contain structural limitations on which residential units can be protected. Tenants must show that their apartments were residentially occupied during two narrow windows of time in order to be protected (2008 – 2009 and 2015 – 2016). Only units that were and are already occupied residentially will qualify. Thus, future illegal “M-R” conversions (from manufacturing to residential) will not be protected under the Loft Law and are precluded by the IBZ’s zoning restrictions.

The current Loft Law provides that the entire IBZ is subject to potential claims for coverage. This has been the state of the law since 2010. There is no evidence, nor has any been presented, that during those nine years there was any job loss in the IBZ caused by the Loft Law or loft tenants. The Loft Law has been amended multiple times since 2010 without any objection regarding the IBZ. Additionally, and missed in this argument, is that the Loft Law does not displace existing manufacturing or commercial use – it protects units and buildings that are and have long been residential. The argument is thus the very definition of a red herring.

Nevertheless, to address recently-expressed concerns about the potential impact on the IBZ, the bill removes approximately 90 percent of the IBZ from Loft Law coverage by excluding areas that are zoned for heavy manufacturing (M3) uses, thereby preserving the vast majority of the area for manufacturers and related jobs. Failure to pass it would therefore have precisely the opposite effect of what critics want: the entire IBZ would continue to be subject to the Loft Law.

The second criticism is that it will catalyze community displacement.

We, as a part of the housing rights community, share the concern over policymakers designing laws that intentionally or inadvertently advantage certain groups at the expense of others. However, an amended Loft Law will contribute to community preservation, not undermine it.

The Loft Law protects low-income people and families by preventing landlords from charging higher, market-rate rents for protected loft units. Preserving these units as additional affordable housing units increases market supply, causing downward, not inflationary, pressures on rents.

The third criticism is that it will invite residential use in heavy manufacturing buildings, opening the door to unsafe living conditions. As stated above, the bill does not do this – by excluding M3 zones, the bill prevents this outcome. Not passing the bill perpetuates the very problem identified in this critique.

The Loft Law has always considered uses such as those in the light or medium manufacturing (M1/2) districts in the IBZ, when conducted as part of a live-work space, to be permissible; and historically there have been many buildings and units containing such mixed uses. But, again, the argument is a red herring, for landlords who illegally rent out spaces for residential use will continue to do so if the clean-up bill does not pass; meaning that any “hazard” posed for tenants will continue to exist, unabated.

One fundamental purpose of the Loft Law is to ensure legalization of covered buildings and units already converted into residential use. Part of that process includes measures to ensure that buildings meet the city’s safety and health codes. The bill will therefore increase the safety and well-being of residential tenants.

It is dismaying that long-standing allies in the fight for strengthening tenant rights have assumed opposing positions. We believe that has been the result of misunderstandings of the issues addressed here. But the time for disagreements is over. We, as a community of people who share common interests and goals, cannot afford any further division to be sown. People have been, and are on the precipice of, losing their homes, and without passage of the clean-up bill, many more will join them. This is unacceptable, unjust, and inconsistent with the larger movement to strengthen New York’s rent laws, protect tenants, and slow gentrification and displacement. Accordingly, we call on the community to support the passage of the Loft Law clean-up bill.

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Alison Dell, Ximena Garnica, McDavid Moore & Zefrey Throwell are New York City Loft Tenants (NYCLT) members and live-work spaces advocates. Michael Kozek is an NYCLT member and Loft Law lawyer. Michael McKee is treasure of Tenants PAC. On Twitter @NYCLT.

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Charter Revision Commission Needs a Hippocratic Oath


citycouncil vdrr cm

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The entire New York City Charter, the city's foundational governing document, is on the operating table, and it is essential that the surgeons act with extreme caution.

On March 7 I testified before the Charter Revision Commission created at the initiative of City Council Speaker Johnson, former Public Advocate James, and Manhattan Borough President Brewer. Charter revision can be a very wonky, technical topic, but the Charter is our city’s constitution and any changes made to it can have a significant, lasting impact. The last comprehensive charter revision was in 1989 and it has served us well.

I urged the members to follow two guiding principles in their deliberations:

First, do no harm. The current structure of city government has for the most part served the city quite well for the last 30 years. With respect to finance and budgeting in particular, as a result of the fiscal crisis in the ‘70s and the enactment of the Financial Emergency Act in state law, New York City has the most transparent, professional, and sound fiscal management and budgeting process of any state or city in the country. Let’s not fix what isn’t broken.

Second, limit charter revision to structural changes that can only be made through the charter. It is meant to define core powers, structures, and processes. Most changes to current rules and procedures can and should be made through City Council law-making.

Every complaint about the way city government functions (and there are surely many valid complaints) cannot and should not be addressed through the charter. It is already cluttered with hundreds of outdated provisions and others that belong in local law. Do not add to that clutter.

Here are the most worrisome proposals that should be rejected by the Commission:

Independent Budgeting. This would enable the Public Advocate, Comptroller, Borough Presidents, and several other offices to self-determine their budgets, in some cases according to a formula that is based on a percentage of another agency’s budget or the entirety of the city budget.

While it is arguable that a few totally independent entities should have set budgets so they can do their work without concern about retaliation by an unhappy Mayor or Council (as is now the case for the Independent Budget Office, and only the IBO) it should not be extended to so many agencies, and especially not to the offices of elected officials. Their independence derives from and is protected by their direct election, not the size of their budgets. Spending priorities are to be determined in the budget negotiation process between the Mayor and the Council and removing budgeting for so many entities from this process would, in effect, take a range of positions and functions of city government as well as a significant amount of resources out of the control of those democratically-elected to oversee them.

Revenue Estimating. A proposal by the City Council would create a process whereby the Mayor would submit an estimate of the amount of revenue expected in the following fiscal year, the Council would accept or reject this estimate and if rejected, a revenue estimate would be set by the IBO. This would be a similar process to the one followed by New York State in which the Comptroller sets the revenue estimate if the Legislature and the Governor cannot agree upon one. The revenue estimate is important because it sets a limit on the amount that can be spent in the annual budget. But this new ‘consensus estimate’ is unnecessary in New York City.

The City Office of Management and Budget is generally cautious in its revenue estimates, as it should be in order to mitigate downside risk. This has not unduly constrained spending; the city budget has grown an average of more than 5% a year over the last 18 years. Moreover, there are several other revenue forecasts published during budget season including that of the IBO, the Office of the State Special Deputy Comptroller, and the City Comptroller. All of these estimates are already compared and contrasted as part of the Mayor’s negotiation of the city budget with the Council.

A more formal procedure for the Council to adopt or reject the OMB revenue estimate would only further politicize the process with each entity compelled to manipulate its forecast to anticipate the reaction of the others. Indeed, you can see how political the revenue estimating process can become by looking at what has just happened in the state process: the Governor announced a very dramatic revenue decline, requiring significant budget discipline; the Assembly and Senate each projected almost $1 billion more in revenue than the Governor, and the Comptroller eventually resolved the conflict with an estimate very close to the Governor’s. There is no reason for New York City to create a similar drawn out form of budget dance.

Pre-Audit Contract Screening. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the city’s procurement process. It is opaque, takes too long, and leaves too much discretion to individual employees. The solution to these problems lies in much better management and oversight, not with adding another layer of review by the Comptroller. It is up to the executive branch to decide the terms and contents of contracts and there should be far more public reporting and disclosure about them, but it is only going to cause even more delay to give the Comptroller the right to review these decisions in advance.

A number of other proposals that would improve transparency and better link spending to performance goals, such as more specific Units of Appropriation in the Budget, use of Budget Function Analysis in more agencies, and better publicly-available tracking of capital projects, would be worthwhile but could be required through local law and do not belong in the City Charter.

Proposals that are appropriate for the charter and that should be adopted by the Commission are:

Better Capital Budgeting. The Charter should be amended to assure that the capital budgeting process is more transparent, comprehensive and effective. In particular, the AIMS report should be expanded to include all city and city-controlled public authority capital assets (i.e., those of the Health and Hospitals Corporation) with at least a five year life and a minimum replacement cost low enough to cover most assets, including computer equipment and moveable assets. This more comprehensive report should be cross-referenced to the Ten Year Capital Strategy and the Capital Commitment Plan so it is possible to assess whether enough is being invested to keep all city infrastructure in a state of good repair.

Rainy Day Fund. There should be a way for the city to set aside funds to be used in the event of an economic downturn or a crisis that reduces revenue so that spending would not have to be drastically cut or taxes increased to maintain a balanced budget. The Financial Emergency Control Act doesn’t allow for such a fund, so while it is appropriate to include one in the Charter, it would also require state law to implement it. Such a fund should, in my view, be in addition to the Retiree Health Benefit Trust, which already exists but is regarded by some as a de facto Rainy Day Fund. Both of these funds should have specific criteria for mandatory deposits and limitations on withdrawals so that money is steadily deposited in good times and can only be withdrawn under set conditions.

Revision of the City Charter should be done with care. It should not be used to settle scores or re-allocate authority in ways that could have unintended adverse consequences despite the best of intentions.

Here is an idea for the Commission: limit your proposed amendments to no more than one page for each of the four topic areas you have delineated. If you can keep it that short you have less chance of doing damage and are more likely to make only adjustments that will enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of our government.

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

 

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An Agenda to Protect New York Immigrants and Benefit the Entire State


gov cuomo immigrant

(photo: governor's office)


Immigrants in New York are under attack. In New York City for example, despite municipal policies to welcome and protect immigrants, ICE arrests of immigrant individuals with no criminal convictions have rapidly increased. From fiscal year 2016 to fiscal year 2018, ICE non-criminal arrests in the New York City area increased by 414%.

These increases reflect the president’s negative rhetoric and policies toward immigrants. Not only is new immigration being discouraged and made nearly impossible, individuals who have long-standing community ties, such as U.S. citizen family members or years-long work histories, are being torn apart from their children, families, and communities.

In this past November’s election, Democrats won the majority in both the New York State Assembly and Senate. Now, New York legislators not only have the opportunity but the obligation to stand up for immigrants.

Immigrants are integral parts of local communities, but they also contribute to local and statewide economies. In New York there are 4.49 million foreign-born immigrants.

This year, both houses of the state Legislature voted to pass The José Peralta New York State DREAM Act. This legislation will allow undocumented students to apply for state aid for higher education. This legislation also creates a Dream Fund for college scholarship opportunities and removes barriers that prevent undocumented families from college saving programs. The DREAM Act will allow talented students to access the financial help needed to earn degrees, access highly-skilled employment, and support their local economies across New York.

Nonetheless, the agenda for immigrants can and must go further and is a top priority for state legislators that represent large immigrant communities.

Our next priority, The Driver's License Access and Privacy Act would restore access to driver’s licenses for all, regardless of immigration status, in New York. Currently, 13 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico issue standard driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Accessibility to reliable public transportation is many times unavailable to those living and working throughout upstate New York, the downstate suburbs, and the outer boroughs of New York City.

Also, data indicates annual revenue of $57 million to state and local governments, with an additional one-time boost of $26 million. This legislation, supported by law enforcement policy analysts, will safeguard hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants from possible deportation if pulled over by law enforcement and also aims to ensure all drivers are insured and informed of traffic laws.

Our community also needs New York to further break the links between the criminal legal system and the deportation pipeline. First, ICE’s presence in our courts must end. New Yorkers must not fear that while they are seeking protection and justice, they could be detained and separated from their families.

Second, under federal immigration law, a one year sentence for a non-violent crime can trigger deportation proceedings and removal from the United States. The One Day to Protect New Yorkers Act modifies the maximum imprisonment sentence for a class A misdemeanor from 365 days to 364 days. This bill aims to protect families from personal and financial devastation if a family member is faced with a possible one year sentence.

In addition to refusing to participate in Trump’s anti-immigrant game, New York must also expand opportunity for immigrants. New York should take immediate steps to preserve Medicaid access for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients at risk because of the Trump administration’s reckless actions to end TPS. New York should also create a state-funded Essential Plan for all New Yorkers up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

In the state budget, New York should also fully invest in the civil legal services that are so critical to our community’s well-being. The State must also significantly expand resources for adult literacy classes, which are often the best pathway to a better job and an increased ability to participate in the life of the broader community.

Finally, as the 2020 Census approaches, New York must step into the void left by Trump’s negligence. As a Fiscal Policy Institute analysis has shown, the state should invest $40 million in outreach by community-based organizations, in addition to the funds it should allocate for state and government agencies’ work. These resources will more than pay for themselves, as they will help ensure all New Yorkers are counted and thus that all our communities get their fair share of federal resources.

In the face of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies raining down from Washington, D.C, New York must lead by standing up for immigrants throughout the state. By passing an ambitious agenda to keep immigrant families together and invest in the success of our communities, we can do just that.

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Assemblymember Victor M. Pichardo represents New York’s 86th Assembly District and is Chair of the Task Force on New Americans. Assemblymember Marcos A. Crespo represents the 85th Assembly District and is Chair of the Committee on Labor. On Twitter @MarcosCrespo85 & @VPichardo86.

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Pied-à-Terre Tax Should Be Just The Start


adaptny mayors

(image: mayor's office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo, Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie have all signaled their support for funding the long overdue MTA overhaul with a pied-à-terre tax. Cuomo has said it’s the “only agreed-to new money” for the upcoming state budget. But the challenges facing struggling families in New York demand more than just a pied-à-terre tax. We need an entire reimagining of New York’s upside-down tax system.

There are over 75,000 apartments in New York City owned by people who don’t live there year-round. Some of these are second, third, or fourth homes. Earlier this year billionaire hedge-funder Ken Griffin made headlines for purchasing the most expensive home in the country: a $238 million penthouse overlooking Central Park. Griffin already owns multi-million-dollar properties in Chicago, Miami, and London.

The pied-à-terre tax, sponsored by Senator Brad Hoylman, would institute a surcharge on non-primary residences worth $5 million or more. The surcharge would start at 0.5% and rise to 4% for homes worth more than $25 million. For people like Griffin, it’s pocket change. State Budget Director Robert Mujica estimates the new tax would generate $9 billion in new revenue over the next decade.

New York’s billionaire class has been let off the hook by a regressive tax structure that puts the burden on working families in the form of higher sales and property taxes. These times call for us to have the courage to demand that the wealthiest New Yorkers pay their fair share. New York is already the most unequal state in the country, with the top 1% taking home 45 times more than the bottom 99%. The Trump tax scam has only made the problem worse, as billionaires are now benefiting from some of the lowest tax rates in decades.

Austerity measures, fueled by the false narrative that there just isn’t enough money to go around, have wreaked havoc on our communities. In cities like Rochester and Schenectady, half of all children live in poverty. A state as affluent as ours should not have young children going to sleep hungry or elderly people unable to afford their rent.

The entire tax system in New York is rigged to benefit the super wealthy. Taxing the rich shouldn’t be a last resort for our Governor and Legislature. New York needs a pied-à-terre tax, an expanded millionaires’ tax, the elimination of the carried interest loophole, and an end to the billion-dollar giveaways to giant corporations.

This restructuring of our tax system would allow for investments in our struggling communities. It would mean we could fully fund our public schools, repair our crumbling infrastructure, and expand access to affordable health care and child care.

Corporate-backed think tanks like the Empire Center will wave their arms and cry “tax flight,” but this has proven to be a myth. The people who move the most frequently are young people and low-income families seeking good-paying jobs and a better quality of life. And what will improve quality of life in New York and make young families want to live here? Quality public schools, affordable housing, and reliable transportation.

The self-imposed shortfalls and spending cuts continue to hurt our communities. The Governor needs to stop kowtowing to CEOs and big developers and insist that the people with the most contribute the most.

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Jessica Wisneski is Co-Executive Director of Citizen Action of New York. Michael Kink is Executive Director of Strong Economy for All. On Twitter @jesswisneski & @citizenactionny.

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Proposal Would Subvert Efforts to Address Affordable Housing Crisis


mayorsoffice aff

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


One of the greatest and most immediate challenges facing New York is a statewide affordable housing crisis that continues to affect millions of families. Elected officials must support and promote new legislation and policies that will help our state produce more affordable homes and, correspondingly, do no harm to much-needed housing efforts.

The reality today is that more than 3 million households across the state still pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs, which means they are “rent-burdened” and often struggle to afford housing and other necessities like health care and child care.

This crisis is what led Governor Cuomo and the Legislature to dedicate $2.5 billion to support an ambitious five-year statewide housing plan and preserve crucial low-income housing tax credits that were under threat by the federal government.

But our state’s ability to address the affordable housing crisis is now at risk of being undermined by new legislation that proposes to expand the definition of public work and the application of the prevailing wage mandate to private construction projects – including low-income housing developments – based on the public subsidies they rely upon to be built.

As an organization whose members deeply believe in supporting the needs of low- and middle-income New Yorkers, we also believe in good, fair wages for all workers. But the wide application of prevailing wage, which is far in excess of the median wage and can raise construction costs by 25 percent or more, is not actually a path to higher pay for construction workers. In fact, it is certainly a way to ensure there are fewer jobs, fewer new developments, and fewer affordable homes for New Yorkers.

This would be a step backward for New York, where construction costs are already the most expensive in the world, averaging $362 per square foot in New York City, according to Turner & Townsend’s 2018 report on international construction. The report also notes that those costs will only continue to rise and are expected to jump by another 3.5 percent over the next year. Other costs and regulatory burdens remain major obstacles all across the state.

Whether they live in Brooklyn or Buffalo, New Yorkers simply cannot afford to lose opportunities for new housing construction and the many good jobs that come with them. It is worth noting that the creation and preservation of affordable housing supported more than 300,000 total jobs throughout the state between 2011 and 2015.

The state Legislature now has an important choice to make. Rather than advancing well-intentioned but misguided legislation that would diminish new affordable homes and good jobs across the state, we hope lawmakers will fully consider these negative impacts before they proceed with imposing prevailing wages on the construction of affordable housing in New York.

The further that lawmakers explore this issue, the clearer it will become that it is unwise to hastily advance these proposals and risk undercutting New York State’s much-needed housing plan. And if they make the right choice, all New Yorkers will benefit.

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Jolie Milstein is president and CEO of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing, a trade association that represents nearly 400 members responsible for the construction and preservation of affordable housing across the state.

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Tale of Two Transit Plans: Johnson’s Is Real, Cuomo’s Is Likely


 mta cuomo cojo

Gov. Cuomo (governor's office) & Speaker Johnson (William Alatriste/City Council)


On February 26, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio released a 10-point plan to “transform and fund” the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). The vague, crisp proposals are designed to centralize splintered MTA operations to further State control, formally unify support for revenue-generating policies like congestion pricing, and establish external monitoring of the struggling authority, which runs the New York City subways and buses, as well as regional rail networks.

One week later, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced a transit plan of his own, several months in the making. The speaker’s 104-page white paper has a slew of ideas to reform governance, financing, accessibility, and surface-level transit.

The boldest proposal in Johnson’s very bold plan is the City take over subway and bus mass transit -- which it hasn’t managed since 1968 -- plus local bridges and tunnels, while leaving control of commuter rail, suburban buses, and capital projects to the MTA.

This would streamline transit accountability by making the mayor directly responsible for the subway and buses (like in London). Johnson also wants congestion pricing, whether the State passes it or the City enacts its own measure, and several tax hikes.

To be clear: neither plan has all the details. That’s the nature of politicians creating policy, and needing subject-specific experts to chime in. The difference is the Cuomo-de Blasio 10-point proposal lacks the basic necessities of a policy plan, whereas Johnson’s is a well-thought out series of policies, just without some next-level details.

It’s unclear the joint Cuomo-de Blasio plan, which needs approval from the state Legislature, will actually help alleviate deeper MTA problems with performance, operations funding, capital expansion, labor costs, or debt service. In his Signal Problems newsletter, journalist Aaron Gordon noted there’s a “fundamental misunderstanding” of different technological options for upgrading the signal system.

Johnson’s white paper glazes over politically-challenging aspects like labor costs that the Cuomo-de Blasio plan ignores entirely, and takes a radical stance on taxes generating permanent operations revenue. In response, Cuomo outright mocked Johnson’s proposal, while de Blasio dismissed it as an impossibility before the April 1 state budget deadline.

Plenty in the transit world is already being debated, and that fast-approaching state budget deadline brings a Legislature more focused on fiscal policy than urban planning into the conversation. Especially since all three leaders -- Cuomo, de Blasio, and Johnson -- agree congestion pricing needs to happen, the actual proposals are less significant than the policymaking tenor with which they’ve been proposed and discussed, and what the differences mean for governance of the city’s mass transit system.

Johnson’s plan is a substantive, comprehensive proposal, while Cuomo’s plan (I’ll call it Cuomo’s, because his stamp is on practically the entire thing) is dangerously short on details relative to what one should expect from a government leader impacting millions of people. Details are a precursor to meaningful dialogue about transit reform, and the rigor simply isn’t there in 10 bullet points. (Clearly, that’s not just a local problem.)

Cuomo’s team insists they’ll throw together enough details in the state budget. The governor often waits until the last hour to force budget changes, like when his team ushered in a congestion surcharge of $2.75 for rideshare vehicles and $2.50 for taxis last year.

Cuomo’s transit input isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a troubling indicator of dictatorial, politically-driven decision-making in transit, an excessively technical endeavor at its core.

It’s hard to trust the New York details will be as substantive as plans in Berlin, London, Paris, or Singapore, considering the simplicity of the toll shoved through last year’s state budget. A $2.75 surcharge on ride-share vehicles is the price of a city transit fare, while the $2.50 surcharge for taxis was simply less than the $2.75.

What accounts for the differences in rigor? Cuomo “expects” his plan to be approved behind closed doors in Albany, whereas Johnson is promoting transparency and accountability. Cuomo’s already in charge, Johnson wants the City to be.

The governor acts as if he can change practically anything atop the MTA without pushback. Maybe he’s onto something. Neither advocates and journalists outside government, nor MTA leadership and legislators within government, have consistently scaled back Cuomo’s transit proposals, even those that overstep his bounds or are not economically sensible.

Consider the new L train tunnel repair plan: despite wild uncertainty in changing plans three years in the making at the last second, the MTA Board acted handcuffed in even exercising due diligence. Criticism simply didn’t manifest into meaningful resistance.

It’s less about dialogue, since the governor’s tactics don’t really invite public discourse or any semblance of democratic norms. Cuomo’s threatening a 30 percent fare hike should he not get his way with congestion pricing, and the governor’s response to Johnson’s plan was to withdraw the State’s $10 billion in funding should the City control the subway.

Effectively, it’s Cuomo’s way, or the highway. A plan this vague and politically-driven, yet still likely to pass given the governor’s power in changing the MTA and influencing the state budget process, can only exist in an accountability vacuum (a phrase I wrote in an earlier version of this article that Johnson used in his State of the City speech).  

It’s clear the speaker’s 104-page plan takes governing, accountability, and rigor seriously. Johnson’s plan sets clear, quantifiable expectations for improvements, makes the mayor the subway’s political figurehead, reforms transit government boards, and specifically references a multitude of programs to expand. The spirit of Johnson’s white paper mirrors that of Berlin’s comprehensive proposal in late February to inject billions of euros into its already-heralded system.

However, it doesn’t mean Johnson’s proposal is the right one for New York. Former head of the MTA Richard Ravitch, who is credited for resurrecting the authority and its subways in the early 1980s, said of Johnson’s plan, “It’s a very thoughtful proposal, I just don’t agree with it.” Having the City take over mass transit is a massive undertaking, and the taxes he proposes may drive business out of the City, a delicate subject any time, especially post-Amazon.

That’s why the devil is in the details. Without knowing what Cuomo’s plan really entails, how can the MTA Board, State Legislature, City Council, journalists, and the commuting public decide what to make of the two plans side by side?

The tale of two plans is a stark reminder New York’s political landscape needs reforming, just as much as its transit system needs an overhaul. In essence, there’s only one real plan on the table: Johnson’s. Yet, the plan without plans—Cuomo’s—is what New Yorkers should expect to happen.

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Tim Lazaroff is a freelance journalist specializing in transit.

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One Way to Keep Good, Middle-Class Jobs in New York


wikimedia call center

(photo: Wikimedia Commons)


Long gone are the days when a family could live comfortably with a minimum wage job. In 1968, a worker making the federal minimum wage could support a partner and a child above the poverty line. Today, you can’t even support yourself and a child on it. Even with the recent increase to the minimum wage, hitting $15 an hour in New York City, it’s impossible for families in many parts of the state to live on minimum wage.

Economic anxiety has unfortunately become the new norm. Traditionally, most families’ golden ticket out of poverty was a solidly middle-class job, like at a call center. Those jobs, however, are increasingly being lost to corporate greed.

Since 2006, over 40,000 call center jobs were lost in New York. Forty thousand.

That means 40,000 families have had to face the emotional and financial stress of losing a job. It’s not as though the need for call center jobs has decreased; the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 5% growth rate for customer service representative jobs between 2016 and 2026.

Unfortunately, there has been an upward trend of massive corporations looking to ship these jobs elsewhere so they can pay workers less and often find better tax incentives. Outsourcing work to other parts of the country or abroad has become a common corporate tactic to reduce costs. Middle class jobs are replaced with cheaper labor (often with subpar working conditions).

With the Trump administration’s tax cuts last year, outsourcing has become even more attractive to corporations, accelerating the process. The law rewards corporations with tax cuts and incentives for profits made overseas, with corporations paying as little as half or less of the corporate tax rate on profits earned abroad as they would here at home.

This is why I support the New York State Call Center Jobs Act, a bill that would finally prevent companies from being rewarded for outsourcing these good jobs elsewhere.

In January, AT&T announced it was closing a call center in Syracuse, eliminating 150 jobs. The workers in the call center had just two weeks to decide whether to accept a severance package or relocate.

Call center jobs are critical lifelines to sustain a robust middle class and it’s important we recognize that moving these jobs out of state has devastated families and communities across New York. We can no longer allow corporations to line their own pockets at the expense of hard-working New Yorkers.

This bill would help New York protect call center jobs at employers with 50 or more full-time or full-time equivalent employees. Employers would be required to notify the Public Service Commission if they intend to relocate at least 30% of call volume in a year. Those companies would lose all grants, loans, tax benefits, and state contracts, since our government should not be giving tax dollars to companies that are leaving the state. It would also ensure that all call center work related to state business is performed by New York companies.

This legislation passed last year in the Assembly and had considerable support in the Senate. Now that the Senate leadership has changed, we can and should get this done this year. I urge my fellow legislators to do what is right and protect New York’s middle class.

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Senator Jessica Ramos represents State District 13, which includes the Queens neighborhoods of Corona, East Elmhurst, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and parts of Astoria and Woodside. On Twitter @JessicaRamos.

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Heading to Retrial, High-Profile Case Prompts Important Question for Queens DA Candidates


queens crim court gmap

(photo: map data ©2019 Google)


As the Queens District Attorney race begins to take shape, the most controversial case the borough has seen in recent years will return to the headlines. Jury selection is slated to begin Tuesday in the retrial of Chanel Lewis for the 2016 murder of Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano.

A new set of jurors will thus consider the same evidence presented by prosecutors in the first trial. At least one crucial component of the prosecution’s case raises an important question for the seven candidates vying to replace outgoing Queens DA Richard Brown.

This past November, jurors deliberated for only 13 hours before a mistrial for Lewis was declared by Judge Michael Aloise, who was perceived to be sympathetic to the prosecution and Vetrano’s family. Foremost among the evidence from the trial that the jurors asked to review was the videotape of the confession that Lewis gave at the 107th Precinct in Flushing.  

Lewis, then 20, was held overnight at the police station before giving his confession. According to his lead attorney, Robert Moeller of the Legal Aid Society, this was the first time that Lewis—who had attended a high school for students with learning disabilities—had ever spent the night away from home.

Around 6 a.m. on February 5, 2017, Lewis told a pair of detectives that he had committed the murder (although he adamantly denied sexually assaulting Vetrano). After speaking with detectives, a few hours later Lewis met with a pair of prosecutors from the Queens DA’s office. Lewis apparently thought that one of the ADA’s questioning him was his own defense lawyer.

Prior to giving the two statements, Lewis indeed had not yet met with counsel. And while the DA’s office under Brown readily accepted his confession prior to such a conference, it’s a matter of prosecutorial discretion whether to do so.

I thus posed the following question to Brown’s prospective successors: As DA, would you accept a videotaped confession in a serious felony case in which the defendant had not yet met with a defense attorney?

The only one of the seven candidates who did not respond was Greg Lasak, a former Queens Supreme Court judge and former prosecutor under Brown. Before retiring last summer to run for DA, Judge Lasak made initial evidentiary rulings in the case, including allowing Lewis’ confession.

Mina Malik, a prosecutor in Brown’s office from 1999-2014, did not commit to creating a new rule regarding which confessions she would accept. But she did say that “evidence deemed legally permissible may still undermine the public’s trust in the process, and it is important that a DA deeply understands all aspects of a case.”

Jose Nieves, a former Brooklyn prosecutor, views the issue as a matter of oversight. “As a general rule,” he says, “I’m going to make sure that when the NYPD takes statements, they should be overseen by ADAs trained to protect the rights of the accused.”

A public defender in Manhattan for the last seven years, Tiffany Cabán would treat the issue on a case-by-case basis. As DA, Cabán vows that she “will not accept videotaped confession where no lawyer was present under traumatizing circumstances.”

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, meanwhile, holds a similar position. Katz says that “All confessions must be evaluated for the circumstances under which they were given, especially when defense counsel is not present."

The only one of the candidates to promise to create a blanket rule is Betty Lugo, a veteran civil lawyer. “I would not accept a videotaped confession in a serious felony case in which the defendant had not yet met with a defense attorney.” In Lugo’s view, the police “should have advised Lewis of his Miranda rights and waited for an attorney to be present before questioning him.”

Queens City Council Member Rory Lancman opted not to comment.

Steve Zeidman, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the CUNY School of Law, sees the issue as a matter of balancing the scales of justice. In Zeidman’s view, “a progressive DA would agree with Justices Marshall and Brennan (in Moran v. Burbine) who said there should be no effort to interrogate unless an attorney has first been provided.”

The next Queens DA indeed has the opportunity to turn the talk of equality into action. “After all,” as Zeidman reminds us, “a rich person already has a lawyer and can more readily invoke the right to counsel.”

***
Theodore Hamm is chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn. On Twitter @HammerDaily.

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The Loft Law Bill: Inequity on Stilts


wbgp oft


We are individuals and organizations who collectively have been representing, serving, assisting, or employing thousands of low-income families of color and minority- and women-owned businesses residing in Greenpoint, Bushwick, and Williamsburg well before these places were hashtags and hotspots; some of us also are loft tenants. As such, we oppose the bill being proposed in the state Legislature to amend New York’s Loft Law.

We have met with proponents of the bill and recognize the good faith, and human need, that motivates them to push for a measure addressing loft tenants’ concerns. But we feel compelled to raise concerns that the bill, pending before the Assembly and Senate in Albany, and specifically the Senate’s Committee on Housing, Construction, and Community Development, fails North Brooklyn on all fronts of housing, construction, and community development.

Even more concerning, the proposed bill undermines the longstanding goal of safe, decent, and fair housing in communities long needing such.

The bill harms communities long under siege in three ways.

First, in doubling down on the late Vito Lopez’s unprincipled concession of North Brooklyn’s Industrial Business Zone (IBZ) by allowing even more lofts within the IBZ, it threatens nearly 20,000 industrial and manufacturing jobs that pay North Brooklyn’s working, immigrant families double what retail, service-industry jobs do. As Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign reminds us, good paying jobs in the community are not merely an abstract economic issue; they are at the core of what fair housing laws are meant to secure. Such laws exist to ensure that historically ignored and marginalized communities have access to opportunities and resources – jobs, schools, healthcare, and prospects for social mobility – too often tied to zip codes.

Allowing for lofts in North Brooklyn’s manufacturing areas where there are currently good-paying jobs for residents – existing jobs, not those brought in by outsiders like Amazon – threatens employment that pays the rent; by that, they threaten long-term residents’ place in the greatest city of opportunity this country knows.

Second and more directly, the bill is a harbinger of further direct displacement, both in wholesale and retail, for a community already decimated by such. On the wholesale level, lofts change the character of manufacturing areas to residential, leading to an explosion in variance applications. That explosion, in turn, comes to justify zoning conversions for market-rate luxury housing.

This is a key mechanism through which communities of color, which cannot afford the new housing or the increased rents near it, get wiped out in the tide of gentrification. This is the precise pattern that led to the unsuccessful rezonings of the Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront (2005), Rheingold (2013), and Pfizer (2018), all separate episodes that contributed to a 30% decrease in people of color within our communities.  

This wholesale pattern emerges out of the retail dynamic on the ground, where lofts, wholly unintended by their civic-minded occupants, become part of the market forces pushing low-income families of color out of communities. This is because lofts simply are not the same type of housing as the apartments in which North Brooklyn’s working families of color reside.

Constructed for transient populations, not long-term renter families, and characterized by very high turnover, loft tenancies often have higher rents at amounts unaffordable to North Brooklyn’s low-income families – whose median yearly income is approximately $55,000 for a household of four.

In the same way that unscrupulous landlords and developers prefer market-rate tenants to long-term rent-stabilized families of color, so too do they prefer higher paying loft tenants as a stepstone to the luxury market. This preference leads to all those deplorable tactics forcing out such families and small businesses, which we in North Brooklyn sadly experience every day. The recent New York City Council debates about tenant harassment have made the public aware of this dangerous dynamic.

Third, the proposed bill, in opening the door, for the first time ever, to residential lofts being built within the same structure as heavy manufacturing uses such as amusement facilities (think bowling alleys or batting cages), automobile service centers (think mechanics shops), and heavy industrial uses such as metal finishers and carpentry shops, seems to invite adverse effects and inequity.

The effects that lurk are in the obvious health and safety risks raised by having people live among such uses so incompatible with residential uses. Inequity is a threat because of the outcomes we have observed from these clashes in the past – it is the businesses employing local residents, many of color, who will be displaced to make way for folks who decided to insert themselves among factories with good jobs – are grossly unfair.

To be clear, we do not want loft occupants to be evicted and recognize that they too are opponents of developers, who force them out long-term. In fact, we along with the NYC Loft Tenants coalition stand together to highlight that any bill seeking reform of the city loft law needs to be comprehensive and address our mutual vision.

Such legislation must ensure that our community is protected from the forces of gentrification that lofts unleash and that our IBZ is treated like others, namely preserved to protect the manufacturing jobs that are so crucial to communities. If other IBZs are not part of the loft law, then ours shouldn’t be either, especially given that it is full of jobs that sustain low-income families in our neighborhoods.   

We call on elected officials – especially the Chair of the Housing Committee Senator Brian Kavanagh and Senator Julia Salazar, both of whom represent North Brooklyn, to consider these aspects of the loft law question. More importantly, we call on them to engage the North Brooklyn community with town halls and public hearings to get more input and perspective on the important questions raised by the bill before killing good jobs and destroying what remains of working-class communities in North Brooklyn with bad legislation.

Unlike many areas throughout the city, in North Brooklyn the Loft Law bill raises important social equity questions; so, there must be a process to ensure these issues are discussed in an open forum with residents and workers. In a democratic system, working class communities of color majority voices should not be sidelined in favor of the interests of a minority – our legislative process must live up to its promise and include all voices within our community.

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by Anne Guiney and Edwin Delgado on behalf of Bushwick Community Plan Steering Committee; Gregory Louis on behalf of Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A; Alexandra Fennell on behalf of Churches United For Fair Housing (CUFFH); Leah Archibald on behalf of Evergreen Exchange; Jose Lopez on behalf of Make the Road New York; and Rolando Guzman on behalf of St. Nicks Alliance.

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Negotiation Lessons from the Amazon Deal Blow-Up


may bill gov cuomo hq

Announcing the Amazon deal (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


Amazon’s decision to abandon its planned construction of a major campus in Long Island City has revealed deep fissures among New Yorkers. Typical of news coverage and commentary in these highly-polarized times, discussion of the issue has been framed in largely win/lose terms, both from the perspective of politics (progressives versus pragmatics) and the impact on the New York economy and lifestyle (“more jobs is always better” versus “union-busting vulture capitalist billionaires don’t deserve tax breaks”). As with most stories framed in win/lose terms, the narrative unfolds with heroes, villains, victims, and victors.

Governor Cuomo has said he’s trying to revive the deal. In the context of future conversations between New York State and Amazon, as well as other companies, it is worth exploring some of the common and avoidable negotiation errors that were made the first time around.

First, don’t overestimate your leverage. Amazon’s process for selecting a city for its “second headquarters” seemed to be a picture of its leverage. It used something called a “modified auction,” whereby it set up an obnoxious beauty pageant where contestants could come forward with their goods and where the mega-company was at once judge, jury, and rule-maker.  

City and state governments were invited to make their best offer to the behemoth, complete with outrageous tax incentives, promises of infrastructure improvements for Amazon’s benefit, and even pledges to re-name their city. Amazon then sat back, politely said, “Thanks for your entry” and narrowed the playing field to invite a second round of final “bids.” Only then did Amazon actually sit down for a real negotiation with a few finalists urging them to “sweeten the deal” even further before announcing the pageant winners.

On the surface, the process for Amazon sounds great, if you’re Amazon. But Amazon miscalculated the ill-will that the process itself would engender. First, pitting cities against each other, and then, once in New York, bypassing the local City Council’s approval process, had consequences. This was not a one-off auction for the sale of a Picasso at Sotheby’s. Instead, it was a process about who was going to be Amazon’s next-door neighbor, essential to its business, for the next ten, twenty, fifty years. Amazon’s approach galvanized opposition that might not have existed if it had not used such a power/leverage-based approach to the negotiation.  

Second, don’t forget to manage your “behind-the-table” constituency. Many New Yorkers viewed it as nothing short of miraculous that Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, two deeply competitive leaders, came together, joining forces to win Amazon and crush the competing offers. It was equally surprising how these two New York powerbrokers, finally united, could possibly lose the deal. Confident of their ability to deliver and caught-up in the competition between themselves and other bidders, the governor and mayor failed to deliver the “behind-the-table” constituencies on their own side who might seek to block or tank the deal.

Great negotiators are simultaneously negotiating across the table while artfully working to build and maintain supporting coalitions behind the table. They are always seeking to build deals that meet their own interests very well, the interests of the other side at least reasonably well, and the interests of third parties who may not be at the negotiating table but who may have interests in the outcome and power to tank the deal at least well enough to ensure the deal would be durable.

Despite its flaws, the city’s formal and cumbersome land use procedure -- which Amazon sought to avoid -- tends to afford that level of engagement to various groups, and to give them a space to challenge and refine a project rather than to tank it. It’s unclear whether the governor and mayor underestimated the organizing power or will of those who might be upset with the deal, or simply forgot this basic negotiation principle. But in failing to work constructively with various stakeholders who might not have had a seat at the negotiation table but who, when organized, had considerable power to stop the deal’s implementation, the negotiating parties unwittingly turned skeptics into spoilers.

Finally, define “success” based on your away-from-the-table alternative. On the one hand, Amazon’s sudden decision to pull out of the New York deal could be seen as victory for local Queens leaders who opposed it. And certainly, they celebrated its defeat and cheered the power of the people to “take their city back.”

At least in the short term, the leaders may have protected themselves among the most reliable Democratic primary electorate. But in negotiation, it’s important to measure “success” not based on the ephemeral, emotional feel of a “win” in the heat-of-battle, but rather based on whether what you are getting is better than what you are leaving behind. If a deal on the table advances your interests (broadly construed) better than no deal at all, then walking away from the deal is not a good outcome, even if it makes you feel good in the moment or if you believe it may help you in the next election.

In this case, the deal was far from perfect for New York or its workers. The city and state had offered $3 billion in tax and other incentives, plus a helipad, to a huge company whose owner is one of the richest men in the world and bypassed the City Council’s entire land use process while doing so. The company refused to provide guarantees around not opposing union organizing, and would have created a significant burden on local transportation, schooling, and other infrastructure.

Could a better deal have possibly been negotiated? Yes. However, it is also the case that the deal that was negotiated would have likely brought in $27.5 billion in tax revenue to New York over 25 years and approximately 25,000 new jobs in the first ten years alone. Of course, these are estimates, but even if they are remotely accurate, the upsides of this deal seem to outweigh no deal by a wide margin, especially since there is no immediate back-up plan to generate revenue or jobs at anywhere near this scale.

While it is clear that individual elected officials believed there was significant political upside to derailing the deal, it’s hard to see how Amazon’s abrupt withdrawal is a win for the people of New York, at least vis-à-vis the no-deal alternative. And yet, parties often reject deals that are better than their no-deal alternative because they allow emotions to escalate, and do not measure success in relation to what no deal would get them.

Not all negotiation errors are avoidable. But these were. When leaders focus on leverage, ignore the creation of possible blocking coalitions, and let emotions get the best of them, even seasoned and sophisticated negotiators will end up with less-than-optimal outcomes. Because the entities in play are one of the world’s greatest cities and one of the most prosperous and growing companies in the world, all involved will survive, even thrive, over time. But from a negotiation perspective, it’s hard for us to look at the outcome as anything but a loss and a missed opportunity for all.

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Robert C. Bordone is the Thaddeus R. Beal Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, and Daniel R. Garodnick is a former New York City Council member, where he chaired the Economic Development Committee. On Twitter @bobbordone & @DanGarodnick.

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